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Civic Bulletin
No. 18 June 1999


Transforming America’s Cities

Clint Bolick

Clint Bolick is Vice President and Litigation Director of the Institute for Justice, based in Washington, D.C. These remarks were delivered at a Manhattan Institute luncheon in New York.  They are based on Mr. Bolick’s recent book, Transformation:  The Promise and Politics of Empowerment.

I hope that those of you who live here really appreciate the strides, the enormous strides, that this city has made. One of the exciting things about the changes taking place in New York City is that inherently, by occurring here, they become a model for the rest of the country.

I’ve devoted much of my career to challenging government’s power to classify people on the basis of race. Not only do I believe that racial classifications are wrong, but frankly,  they perpetrate a fraud, not only upon all Americans, but particularly upon those who are supposed to benefit from them. They do so by creating an illusion that we are solving serious problems of unequal opportunities, when in fact the underlying problems that contribute to racial disparities are in many instances growing worse.

The proof of that thesis is all too abundant. It is true that we have made enormous strides in race relations and equality since the 1950s and the 1960s.  My dear friends Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s magnificent book, America in Black and White, has told the story, the untold story, of the tremendous progress that we’ve made in education, suburbanization, social integration and income. But that progress has been painfully uneven.

William Julius Wilson points out that between 1975 and 1992 the real incomes for the wealthiest five percent of black Americans rose by 35 percent. For the wealthiest 20 percent it rose by 23 percent. But for the poorest one-fifth of black Americans, real incomes actually declined by 33 percent.

For black Americans as a whole, the overall story, considering how much time has passed since Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is remarkably dismal. The National Urban League projects that by the year 2000, 76 percent of black children will be born out of wedlock, and we do not know yet whether that trajectory has been arrested by welfare reform.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that 12 percent of black high school seniors are proficient in reading and arithmetic. Twelve percent. The Thernstroms found that the academic gap between white and black high school seniors is four years. And that has actually grown since 1988 from two and a half years.

Perhaps nowhere else are the statistics more sobering than in the area of crime. Now, you’ve probably all read about the report that found that one out of three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is either in jail or on probation. The Washington Post reported not very long ago that the figures in the nation’s capital are one in two. They are even more sobering on the victimization side. Black Americans are six times more likely to die by homicide than whites.  In fact, murder has become the leading cause of death among young black men.

That these conditions persist so long after Brown v. Board of Education is not only   shocking and appalling, it is a blight on America’s soul. But what is painfully apparent is that 35 years of liberal social engineering has really done nothing to deliver on our nation’s promise of equality of opportunity.

What is less clear is what I believe to be a growing consensus, a convergence between the interests of the most economically disadvantaged in our society and those of us who call ourselves libertarians or conservatives.

Perhaps the best-kept secret in America is that most mainstream black and Hispanic Americans hold views and values that are more conservative than those who tend to speak in their name on issues ranging from welfare to crime to education, and particularly on the pursuit of the American dream.

The fact is that, those of us who are conservatives and libertarians, have an unprecedented opportunity to expand our base and to join forces in common cause with economically disadvantaged people. The demise of welfare and race-based affirmative action is forcing us to look for new alternatives. Frankly, the left is fresh out of new ideas.

It seems to me that not only is there vast untapped potential for realignment, but more importantly, to make good on the promise of opportunity for all Americans. And that is the project that I have undertaken in my new book, Transformation.

In that book, I examine a number of areas in which we must act to remove barriers to   self-determination. Two of these I will touch on only briefly because, frankly, many of the examples that I use to encourage progress and ideas are going on right here in New York. These are community renewal and freedom from crime.

In the area of community renewal, we must continue to move forward with welfare reform.  It is not just a necessary policy but, ultimately, a beneficent one. It helps us to rebuild the structures that have eroded under the welfare state:  fatherhood, the family, churches, philanthropic institutions and the culture of work.

In the area of crime I think New York has made bigger strides than any other city in focusing communities on enforcing the rule of law. But in this area I believe we have not gotten nearly radical enough. Not only has law enforcement eroded in recent decades, but respect for the rule of law has diminished in many impoverished communities, to the point that we see widespread jury nullification and other instances of alienation from it. It seems to me that we must devolve not only resources but authority over law enforcement to the community level. I’m glad to see that process happening here.

The two areas I want to discuss in somewhat greater detail are the keys to progress and prosperity in America. Too many of us have forgotten them. They are education and enterprise. We must rediscover them if we are really to make equal opportunity a reality.

It was in the early 1990s that my colleagues and I met Leroy Jones in Denver, Colorado.  Leroy is a transplanted New Yorker. I think he is still a fellow Yankees fan. At least, I hope so. Leroy, along with several other people, was driving for a taxi cab company uniquely named Yellow Cab. Leroy noticed that there were certain neighborhoods that were not well served. It was tough to get cabs there, and not surprisingly, those were Denver’s low-income areas.

So Leroy and three of his colleagues, who were African immigrants, decided that instead of being employees for this cab company, they would open one called Quick Pick Cabs. They would not only provide cab service to the Five Points area of Denver, but they would also give others an opportunity to earn an honest living.

So they formed their company, Quick Pick Cabs. They had everything they needed. They had the skills, they had the amount of capital needed, they had the market. The only thing that they lacked was a piece of paper from the Public Utilities Commission called a “Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.”

Unfortunately, to obtain it, they not only had to prove that the existing cab service was inadequate, but that the cab companies could not meet the needs of the community—an impossible burden.

So when Leroy Jones applied for this taxi cab permit, he and his colleagues received the same response as every other applicant since World War II: application denied.

Well, they did not give up and we at the Institute for Justice filed one of our first economic liberty lawsuits challenging the award of a taxi cab monopoly. We went to court and we lost that battle.

As it turned out, in the 1990s the right to receive a welfare check received greater legal protection in court than the right to earn an honest living. That is a sobering statement to make in the freest country on earth.

But we took this battle to another court, and perhaps ultimately a more important court, the court of public opinion. There, Leroy Jones stood as a beacon. Here was a black man who was not demanding a preference, a set-aside, a handout. This was a black man who was asking for something universal, and that was the right to earn an honest living.

By this time he had lost his job at Yellow Cab and was hawking Coca-Colas at Mile High Stadium in the hot sun. CBS Evening News’ “Eye on America” showed him pausing to remove his hat in the hot sun while “The Star Spangled Banner” came on. It was a powerful symbol of an American dream, an American dream that was lost and denied for this man.

Even though it had won the lawsuit in court, the State of Colorado capitulated and deregulated taxi cabs in the wake of this media attack. But something else happened along the way, and it is something that I am excited to tell you about. During this struggle, which lasted several years, Leroy Jones and his colleagues said, “You know, this is bigger than us. This is bigger than Denver, Colorado.” So, during the litigation they renamed their cab company. It started out as Quick Pick Cabs, and was renamed Freedom Cabs.

I am happy to tell you that in Denver, Colorado today, among the sea of yellow, there is a fleet of approximately 50 taxi cabs bearing the Freedom insignia.

Around the time that we were meeting Leroy Jones, I met someone else who changed my life in many ways, and who fortunately  has changed the lives of many others in  different ways. That person is Polly Williams, a person who’s probably known to many of you here.

Polly, a former welfare mother, a member of the state legislature, a Democrat, sparked a revolution in 1990. It seemed so inconsequential at the time. Polly said, “We have an appalling situation in the Milwaukee public schools, a majority of our kids never graduate. A majority never graduate, and those who do, graduate with a 1.8 grade point average. They are not going on to college and they are not going on to productive jobs. We need to change this. We are going to let a thousand kids use a share of their state education funds in private schools.”

As soon as I read about this little miracle, this tiny little program, I tried to reach Polly Williams. It took several days before she returned my phone calls. She could not understand why this white Washington lawyer was trying to reach her. When I finally did, I said, “Are you ready for the lawsuit?” And she uttered two words that have proven to be immortal. She said, “What lawsuit?”

Nine years later, after about eight lawsuits and thousands of pages of briefs, in June of 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court became the first in the country to rule on the First Amendment constitutionality of school choice and uphold it. The notion that a court, that in 1954 guaranteed equal educational opportunities to every child in America, would then turn around and deny that right, seemed profoundly illogical. So far, that has been the case.

In fact, I am thrilled beyond words, to announce that, in one of the other four  pending school cases that are in state Supreme Courts around the country, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a tax credit program for contributions to private scholarship  funds by a three to two vote, also under the First Amendment. So, knock on wood, we are two for two, and we do have a long way to go.

Now, the idea that Polly Williams was championing was that public education is not something that just takes place in a particular building. Public education is education supported by the public that can take place anywhere: in a person’s home, in a charter school, in a public school, or even in a private religious school. What she has done has shaken the world.

The program in Milwaukee, which initially included 1,000 kids, is now up to 15,000 eligible students. There’s a second program in Cleveland, Ohio, and the kids are doing very well. In fact, in the first four years of the Milwaukee program, the gap between minority and non-minority test scores closed by a third to a half. There is nothing that anyone can point to anywhere else that has accomplished so much.

But there has also been an important change in mindset. For the first time parents, low- income parents, are in charge of their children’s education. They can exercise the same kinds of opportunities that those of us who are more affluent can.  This is going to shake the system to its foundations. It is already having a positive impact in Milwaukee where the superintendent of  public schools now has the power to fire  incompetent teachers and to close failing schools. Market competition does, in fact, work.

On both of these issues, enterprise and education, New York has a long way to go. Nevertheless, the city is moving in the right direction.

A few years ago my colleague, Chip Mellor, authored a report on barriers to entrepreneurship in New York City. He found that there is a “bewildering array of laws and regulations that prevent or stifle honest enterprise,” to the point that about 20 percent of enterprise in New York City is conducted underground.

This city should celebrate enterprise, not hinder it. 

The passage of a charter school law and Mayor Giuliani’s announcement that he would fight for school vouchers here in New York City are also wonderful developments. I want you all to know that the Institute for Justice is stepping up its efforts, working with the Manhattan Institute, Governor Pataki, Mayor Giuliani, Reverend Flake and others on charter and school voucher school issues.

This is so important. When I was a little boy I met Frank Sinatra and I told him, “You know, Frank, if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.” That is what truly is so important about New York.

I want to close my formal remarks with this admonition. For any of this to happen, all of us have to become engaged in the struggle for opportunity. For those who believe in the freedom philosophy, what greater priority could we possibly have than to make common cause with the people in our society who are the least free?

It seems to me that in looking for guidance and conducting what really is a revolution, we should look to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who perhaps better than any other modern revolutionary, understood that revolution is about more than ideology. It requires perspicacity, passion and compassion, and an unyielding adherence to the values, principles and aspirations that unite us as Americans.

Here is how he put it. “One day,” he said, “we will win freedom. But not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience, that we shall win you in the process. And our victory will be a double victory.”

My friends, let these words be our credo. And if we do, we will create the most wonderful legacy that we possibly could have.

 


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