State of the Union: Chicago, Segregation and "The Dignity of Work"

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 07:  Steam rises from downtown buildings as temperature begin to climb above zero for the first time in
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 07: Steam rises from downtown buildings as temperature begin to climb above zero for the first time in more than 30 hours on January 7, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The cold weather has closed schools, wreaked havoc on public transportation and forced more than 1,500 flights to be cancelled at O'Hare Airport. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Race is America's pothole. The thing that's left behind in the wake of a larger more destructive thing. The thing we swerve but can't avoid. We fill it in with our grainiest, toughest stuff, but until the road's allowed to mend, it keeps coming back deeper, harder to fix.

During Tuesday's State of the Union Address, the president spoke about the "dignity of work."

The bottom line is, Michelle and I want every child to have the same chance this country gave us...Too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American dream as an empty promise. Unless we also do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American.

Those words seemed to echo the sometimes-dismissed Rev. Jesse Jackson, who's sung the dignity of work song for some time now.

This is, without question, a social catastrophe. Young people are graduating from high school or college into the worst jobs situation since the 1930s. Without jobs, they lose skills, discipline, dignity and hope. Economists tell us that those who lose months to unemployment often take years to catch up with their peers, if they ever do.

"Here again," Jackson says, "there is a racial divide. Over 40 percent of all African Americans between ages 16 and 19 are unemployed, compared with 21 percent of all whites of that age. This is, without question, a social catastrophe."

Chicago is pockmarked with almost as much racial segregation as there are potholes and still remains the most racially divided city in the U.S., according to a 2012 Census study.

But this didn't just come out of nowhere. We didn't suddenly become one of the most segregated places on earth. The city is following the deliberate path it was set on and has been on for some time.

Take this New York Times article with the almost absurdly recent date of September 24, 1980. The lede reads:

The Chicago school board today entered into a negotiated consent degree with the Justice Department that pledges the board to adopt a constitutionally acceptable school desegregation plan by March 1981.

Titled Chicago Schools and U.S. in Desegregation Accord, the article goes on to say that the agreement ended over 12 years of "bitter disagreement between the board and the Federal Government over the extent of an remedies for segregation in the nation's third-largest school system."

It continues:

According to the Justice Department, the board had for years violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and Federal regulations by segregating black and Hispanic students and assigning teachers to match the race of the pupils in city schools.

As Barack, quoting Faulkner, once said in his more perfect Union speech, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."

Hope, according to another long-ago poet, sings the tune without the words. And never stops at all.

As a city, we must find the language to once again address race as an issue connected to poverty and joblessness, not immune from it. The holes crippling Chicago and this country must be filled with love, shared humanity and a willingness to reach out of the homogenization and familiarity of our neighborhood pockets.

It is then that we will again travel together down life's common road.