UNC-CH Summer Reading Program 1999

New Students' Convocation Keynote Address
Joel J. Schwartz
August 15, 1999

Good Evening and welcome to UNC. Before I give the convocation address I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate all of you, both freshmen and transfer students, on your admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Yours is the most promising and talented freshman class admitted to this institution in the thirty-four years that I have been a faculty member here. Your class is also the most diverse. I will not bore you with the data upon which this conclusion is based, but you can trust me that it is true. It is the goal of this university community to provide you with the opportunity to build upon and to develop the splendid intellectual, artistic, athletic, and leadership skills that you bring to this campus.

While the resources here for intellectual and personal growth are abundant and diverse, you must take the initiative to benefit from these opportunities. Of course, that is easier to say than to do. I am sure most, if not all of you, have had the experience of attending a social function where you did not, initially, know anyone. We feel uncomfortable and insecure in these situations. Suddenly we spot a familiar face and immediately gravitate toward that individual because it is natural for individuals to seek out those who are like themselves.

This is an institution with fifteen thousand undergraduates. It often seems impersonal. But if you are to benefit from the rich diversity that is this student body, you must be willing to leave your comfort zones. This requires courage. You need to cross an invisible, but very real psychological barrier to interact with and learn from individuals whose life experiences, cultural values, attitudes, and opinions differ from and challenge your own.

The diversity of your class is the result of a long and evolutionary process here at UNC and in our society at large. Let me share with you how your class differs from the freshman class of 1965, the year I came to UNC-CH. To begin with, there were about 1100 fewer students at that time. More significantly was the profile of that class. Ninety percent were men and 10 percent were women. Of the 2300 students who entered the university, 11 were African-American. Without exploring the reasons why this was so, the demographic profile of that class makes it quite clear that UNC, a public university, was not open to all of the citizens of the state. We have come a long way since that time.

This is not to suggest that race, gender, or ethnicity do not any longer limit the opportunity for young people to achieve their goals. However, in 1999 I believe that they are of decreasing importance in the determination of one's opportunities. What is of ascending importance is the social, economic, and educational status of one's family. In the late 1960's a commission was established to investigate the causes and reasons for the widespread rioting, death, and destruction of property which occurred after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The Report concluded that the US was moving toward becoming two nations, one white, one black, divided, unequal and hostile. Last year, on the 30th anniversary of that report, the question of whether we are still becoming two nations divided by race was once again addressed. I believe the wrong question was asked.

If the question in the 60's was whether we were a society fundamentally divided by race, then the question today and into the next century is whether we will be a society fundamentally divided by social class. Although our Pledge of Allegiance describes us as one nation, indivisible, under God, with liberty and justice for all, the reality is that we are two nations. One is a first world nation, economically prosperous, technologically at the forefront of the information age, and politically, militarily, and culturally dominant in the world. The second is what Michael Harrington described forty years ago as the "Other America," an America that has many attributes similar to those of a third world country.

This brings me to the book that you were assigned to read this summer, THERE ARE NO CHILDREN HERE. The book describes the lives of two young boys growing up in the high-rise public housing projects of Chicago. You can easily compare your childhood and adolescent experiences to those of Lafeyette and Pharaoh by simply answering (to yourselves) the following questions:

---To the best of your knowledge, did your parents take out burial insurance for you or your siblings?

---At some point, did a teacher, relative, or friend, ask you what it is you wanted to be when you grow up. How many of you responded as Lafeyette did--"If I grow up"

---How many times did you, a relative, or a friend have encounters with the criminal justice system?

---How many of you had to suddenly fall to the floor, crawl under a bed or lock yourself in a closet to avoid being killed by random gunshots

---How many of you grew up without a telephone in your house?

---Most of you graduated from high school just a few months ago. How many of the students who began high school with you dropped out before graduating? Was it 10, 20, or 30 percent or was it 66 percent as was the case with the class of 1998 at the high school that is attended by the children of the Henry Horner homes.

There is no question that high-rise public housing complexes in Chicago and in other large cities are extreme examples of the other America. In reality, the children who grow up in these complexes share many of the physical and psychological traumas that we associate with children who grow up in war zones. We are not only talking about the three million children and adults who are living in war zones similar to the Henry Horner Homes, but we are also talking about the 37 million adults and children who make up the Other America. They struggle daily for survival. More than twenty percent of our nation's children are being raised in environments of severe economic deprivation. Twenty million households are headed by adults who work as hard and long as they can, but their wages are insufficient to lift their families out of poverty. There are 11 million single-parent families, 90 percent of them headed by a woman. Half of these households live below the poverty line and a significant number reside in shelters for the homeless. Ten percent of our elderly population, overwhelmingly female, receives a social security benefit that is so low that many must often decide between heating or eating.

I could cite even more of these grim statistics, but the point I want to make is clear. We face what I believe is a disturbing moral dilemma. How can the richest country in the world reconcile itself with the fact that among the developed and democratic societies on this planet we have the highest infant mortality rates, the highest percentage of children living in poverty, one of the largest homeless populations, the highest income and wealth inequality, and 44 million citizens without any health insurance. We surely cannot explain this as a consequence of economic necessity. It is, in my judgement, a consequence of willful malign neglect. Recently President Clinton, accompanied by a number of business leaders, toured what were described as "pockets of poverty" in the United States. I believe the term "pocket" is inadequate to describe the problem. Perhaps the term "canyon" is more appropriate. What is most disturbing to me is that this problem required the President to orchestrate a highly visible tour to those areas and populations of our country that have not benefited from the prosperity of this decade. Without this tour, they would still be part of the "invisible, other America." I can think of no clearer indictment of our indifference to the needs of our least advantaged citizens than the fact that to focus the public's attention on them required the bully pulpit of the presidency.

In our own state, 25 percent of those 18 years and under live in a condition of pervasive poverty. That number has increased each year, even during the past seven years of unprecedented economic growth. The percentage of Americans who work fulltime all year round, but cannot support their families also continues to increase despite our robust economy. Twenty percent of our labor force now works full or part-time, but remains at or slightly above the poverty level. The main reason for this is the increasing number of jobs paying low wages and offering few or no benefits.

The question each of us and especially you and your generation must ask is whether we will tolerate this situation, that is, essentially ignoring the third-world society which is embedded in the first-world nation from which most of us here have benefited. If we are not now willing to address these issues at a time of growing budget surpluses, I must ask, "When will we do so?" The elimination of this second nation will require a significant change in attitude of your age cohort towards civic engagement and the political process. Historically, young people age 18-24 have the lowest voting turnout of any age cohort. The national survey of freshmen students in 1998 indicated that the level of political apathy, indifference, and political disengagement that year reached its highest point in the 30 years of the survey.

You have the time and the energy to become engaged citizens and participants in the political process. I realize that this is a decision that each of you will need to make in terms of your own personal concerns and priorities. You, who are willing, can begin by becoming involved in the many opportunities, both on and off this campus, to engage in community service. The Center for Public Service, the Campus Y, the A.P.P.L.E.S. Program, the Alternative Spring Break and the Durham Scholars program are just a few of the possibilities for involvement. There is a desperate need for volunteers who have some Spanish language fluency to work with either children or adults. Exploring these opportunities can be your first step towards an understanding and commitment to the political process and, more importantly, to responsible citizenship.

You who are the best and the brightest of your generation must be willing to educate yourselves and to commit yourselves to do what you can to close the existing and growing gap between the two Americas. You must be willing to accept the responsibilities that come with the advantages and privileges you enjoy. This cannot be a one-time effort, but must be a life-long commitment. It must remain an important concern of yours when you become the community, educational, business, cultural, and political leaders of the United States in the next millennium. Only then will our Pledge of Allegiance be more than the expression of a noble ideal and goal. Only then will we truly and honestly be able to say that this is indeed one nation, indivisible, under God, with liberty and justice for all.

To contact Professor Joel Schwartz.