Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

As someone who is often asked to speak my opinion on radio or television, I know that sound-bites can bring powerful results, either positive or negative. Take for example the words of Rev. Fred Lucas Jr., the chaplain for the New York City sanitation department, which he prayed at the recent inauguration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, “Let the plantation called New York City be the city of God, a city set upon the hill, a light shining in darkness.”

The imagery of New York as bastion of modern slavery shocked people from both sides of the political aisle. Democratic leader Betty Ann Canizio of Brooklyn tweeted: “I find these speakers offensive. Didn’t know we had a plantation.”

I am very familiar with the rhetoric that Rev. Lucas employed, and let me say first that I agree with what I believe to be the sentiment of his prayer. Of course we all want our cities to become beacons of light to others. Still, I think it does a disservice to our ancestors who lived through actual chattel slavery (and to those who are living through it now in various parts of the world) to compare life in modern America to what they suffered.

The Rev. Clinton M. Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn explained that Lucas’s plantation analogy was meant to “paint a picture that there’s still a lot of inequality in the city.” Miller told the New York Times, “Clearly, he didn’t mean that it was a literal plantation. There’s been a growing chasm, not only of rich and poor, but of the rich and the average working family.”

President Obama himself echoed these sentiments—if in a much less divisive way—during his most recent State of the Union Address when he claimed, Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.” And opinion polls would indicate that many Americans seem to agree. According to a recent Gallup poll, just 54% of Americans feel satisfied with “Americans’ opportunities to get ahead by working hard,” down from a 77% satisfaction rate in 2002 and a 70% satisfaction rate in 2007.

But a team of researchers led by Raj Chetty of Harvard University recently released a study demonstrating that “Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility [in the United States] has not changed significantly over time.” Ironically, their study also showed that densely populated cities—like New York—with wide access to mass transit had much higher levels of upward mobility than cities like Atlanta that lacked these.

Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.