Don Gale: Will today’s protesters make lives better tomorrow?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marches take to the streets of Salt Lake during the Juneteenth march in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 19, 2020.

Black Lives Matter!

Of course they do. We thank the mostly young Americans who reminded us of that fact by organizing peaceful protests over the past few weeks. Their efforts will bring needed improvements in policing. No doubt, we’ll also see welcome changes in the justice system, in health care and, perhaps, in economic fairness.

But the real test will come five, 10, 20 years from now. By then, the young marchers and millions of young Americans who support them will have started families, will own businesses and will be the nation’s political leaders.

Over the past century, we have seen many demonstrations. Most brought about incremental progress toward resolving problems resulting from racism. But we have not accomplished much toward solving societal and attitudinal issues that sustain racism. In order to reduce and eventually eliminate racism, we must focus on two basic fronts — education and economics.

The question, then, is whether today’s young generation — protesters and their sympathizers — will do better than previous generations about improving education and correcting economic disparities. When today’s generation of Americans have families of their own and operate businesses of their own, will they be more willing than previous generations to fund education and pay higher wages?

Most of us understand that racism is a learned behavior. It follows, then, that eliminating racism is also a learned behavior. Learning takes place at home, at school and in neighborhoods.

My generation demanded an end to the racism of school segregation, resulting in a Supreme Court decision to accomplish that goal — Brown v. Board of Education. It worked, but only to a limited degree.

In too many locations, economic segregation replaced school segregation to accomplished the same goals. And in too many schools today, curriculum still focuses on the evils of yesterday rather than on the promises of tomorrow. We should not ignore the past, but we must not underestimate the future.

In that regard, toppling statues accomplishes nothing. It’s probably counterproductive, because it focuses on the past, not the future. Positive education is especially needed in poor neighborhoods, where pessimism often strangles optimism. We must invest considerably more in education, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Will today’s demonstrators be willing to fight for higher taxes and more investment in education, or will they echo the same anti-tax nonsense we hear from today’s legislators?

The generation before mine reduced income disparity by creating labor unions. Among other things, unions demanded eight-hour work days, created the five-day work week and forced businesses to pay higher wages to all workers, minority and majority. Over the years, a few union leaders became greedy and corrupt, but the nation’s economy leads the world partly because unions forced higher wages and better worker benefits.

For a variety of reasons, unions will not solve today’s income disparity problems. The current generation must find its own political solutions to reduce gaps between rich and poor. Consider housing, for example. Some call for more low-cost housing, but there is no shortage of low-cost housing. There’s a shortage of livable-income earners.

Will today’s demonstrators run the businesses they operate in such a way as to not take advantage of workers simply because their skin color is different?

The value of today’s demonstrations depends on what demonstrators do in years to come.

Don Gale.

Don Gale, a longtime Utah journalist, watched, reported on and commented about efforts to combat racism for more than 60 years. He believes we have made progress — but much more is needed.