What happened to the war on poverty?

It’s been said the FBI used to do its recruiting at Holy Cross while the CIA did theirs at Yale.  Apocryphal as it may seem today, mistrust between Catholics and Protestants that came here from Europe continued openly through the election of John F. Kennedy as President in 1960.  Stranger still, in that time, were the founders of those agencies and what possibly motivated them to such practice.

J. Edgar Hoover was the first director of the FBI, a job he held for over 35 years until his death in 1972.  Hoover was both a Presbyterian and a Freemason yet made no secret of hiring Catholics who, presumably, as part of a unified and conservative faith, would do his bidding against so many godless, secular or nationalist political movements like that of Marcus Garvey’s in the 1920’s.

Donovan as a Major with the Fighting 69th in France in 1918.
Donovan as a Major with the Fighting 69th in France in 1918. (Wikipedia Commons)

Bill Donovan was the founder of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA.  Donovan, a Catholic raised in one of Buffalo’s tough Irish wards, gained entry to the Ivy League through Columbia University.  After earning his undergraduate and law degrees from Columbia, he married into the wealthiest family in Buffalo.  Though seen as an Irish (Catholic) interloper within the Protestant ruling class of Buffalo, Donovan made his way on Wall Street, as Colonel Donovan, head of the ‘Fighting 69th’ during World War I, as U.S. Attorney in Buffalo and as candidate for governor of New York.

By the time Donovan set up OSS in 1942 as a spy service to match the British MI-6, he was well known in both local and national circles.  His clout may have afforded him his pick of amiable and patriotic young men and women for his nascent endeavor.  And yet, with the exception of William Casey, a Catholic educated at Fordham, most of his protégés were Protestants who, like Casey, came to head CIA in later years.

The description and results of either agencies early hiring practice is a simplified yet durable history that survives to the present.  Films such as ‘The Good Shepherd’ in 2006 and ‘J.Edgar’ in 2011 have carried forward such suspicions of practice.  Whether the motivation came down to Donovan’s Anglophillic tendencies or Hoover’s need for pliant Catholic employees, the notion that certain schools and faiths are feeders to powerful federal agencies remains, even though facts prove the notion to be less than absolute.

There have been few occasions that I’ve disagreed with President Obama or his intellect. Some of his solemn words on the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin left me with questions.  The President’s remarks were heartfelt and meant to engage all Americans to an experience Black America continues to endure.  And yet, as much as I appreciate his candor, I am of two minds.

William Casey, the 13th director of the CIA. (Wikipedia Commons)
William Casey, the 13th director of the CIA. (Wikipedia Commons)

The first mind agrees that, without question, the line of experience from slavery to the present is a direct thread, where all ills that befall Black America can be attributable first to the forebears being brought to America in chains.  The second mind speaks to me differently.  The second mind tells me that, exponentially so since the middle of the 20th century, our oversimplified focus on righting so many wrongs that came with slavery and the founding of our nation has us stalled in places we needn’t be.

Recent studies focused on poor white Americans have found trends that should alarm both black and white in America.  Dr. S. Jay Olshansky’s 2012 study from the University of Illinois found that those in the U.S. without a high school degree had a shorter life expectancy than those who had completed high school.  In specific, the study showed a five year decrease in life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma between 1990 and 2008.  Overall, Dr. Olshansky’s study shows the life expectancy of the poorest whites now almost equal to that of the poorest blacks in the U.S.

Like Dr. Olshansky’s study, other studies have found similarly alarming rates against the perception that even the poorest of us were living longer and possibly healthier lives.  Some studies found a higher rate of smoking among the poorest white Americans.  Others made the connection between a greater abuse of prescription drugs, an increased lack of insurance or a lack of social mobility and good health.

What all the studies seem to show is that within the poorest black and white sectors of our nation, the differences between health for those without a high school diploma are largely nil.  In fact whites, who comprise the largest number of those in poverty (over 19 million) and are supposed to have advantage afforded their color, are going backwards at what many view as an ever increasing rate.

More than 8,000 students in the U.S. drop out daily, adding up to 3 million young people each year, according to Education Week.  The available jobs for those without a high school diploma is 10% while the percentage of crimes committed by those who dropped out is 75 percent.

High-School-DropoutsThe U.S. Department of Education states the drop out rate fell from over 12 percent to 7.4 percent between 1990 and 2010.  While the rate has dropped in all demographics, what the federal government has not accounted for is that the nation grew in population by one sixth, more than 50 million people between 1990 and 2010.  In reality, the number of high school dropouts in 2010 is only slightly lower than it was in 1990.

When President Obama remarked last month how Black America viewed the Zimmerman acquittal through ‘a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away’, I could not empathize or agree more.  Yet, his acknowledgement that a young male Obama would look like Trayvon Martin highlights how simplistically we have come to view the plight of the young and especially black in America.

To my mind, George Zimmerman is a killer who brazenly targeted a young black man while armed with a gun.  What’s more, Florida law and an overzealous yet inept prosecution led to Zimmerman’s acquittal.  Of course, a son of Barack Obama would share Trayvon Martin’s pallor.  Still, to simply connect a young man’s life and death to his skin color is to ignore a greater imprint Trayvon’s life should have on us all.

Trayvon Martin’s kinship with our nation is in the positives.  With family.  He came from a place where he was loved and tended to with parental guidance and expectations placed upon him.  Unlike too many young men of all colors in our nation today, Trayvon Martin was raised with hope.

A hundred years from now, we may lose another innocent like Trayvon Martin to a spineless, armed clown who fears black people.  We may also lose a young man like Ari Halberstam, a teenaged yeshiva student who was gunned down by a Muslim immigrant on a ramp to Brooklyn Bridge in 1994.  The numbers of white on black violence, just as the numbers of Muslim on Jew violence in the U.S. are so low that unless we confront our own daily inter-community violence here, in cities like Baltimore, we cannot bear witness to the horror of Trayvon Martin’s murder.

With equal breath and hope – and like Robert F. Kennedy once tried to do – we must attest to the staggering rates of addiction, incarceration, unemployment and single parent homes in the poorest of both white and black communities and the danger it poses us all.  Attaching ourselves to the simple notion that white privilege is afforded even the poorest of whites separates two groups who have more in common than their leaders wish to let on.  In doing so, we veil a truth more venal and becoming less ambiguous than many of us want to believe.

When it comes to poverty, facts belie the many notions.