The Next Civil Rights Battleground, by Steve Forbes

A New Visions Commentary paper published January 2000 by The National Center
for Public Policy Research, 501 Capitol Court, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002,
202/543-4110, Fax 202/543-5975, E-Mail [email protected], Web Reprints permitted provided source
is credited.

Americans recently paused to reflect on the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is fitting that we did so because he led a dramatic civil rights revolution by asking if America still abided by her founding creed that we are all created equal and have the right to live free and develop to the fullest our God-given talents.

King refused to believe that the vaults of opportunity and justice were empty. He was right. Thanks to his efforts, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other measures, those vaults were opened.

And yet so much remains to be done. While the black middle class has grown since the 1960s, blacks remain disproportionately plagued by unemployment, poverty, and limited family assets. So, we must remove the heavy hand of big government that impedes black progress today just as rampant racism restrained blacks in the past. I believe that expanding educational freedom and economic opportunity is the great civil rights battleground of the 21st century.

America cannot excel in this new economy if it traps millions of children in mismanaged, bureaucratic, educational wastelands.

A good education is a civil right and a passport to economic freedom. No mother should be forced to send her child to a bad school. I suggest immediately converting federal education funds into block grants for states and local communities with one proviso: Give parents the freedom to choose schools that work – public, private, or parochial – and give teachers the freedom to create such schools.

I would like to see a wide range of local and state-based reforms to improve public schools and give parents and teachers more control. Such reforms include opportunity scholarships, educational savings accounts, tuition tax credits, more charter schools, merit pay for teachers, fast-track teacher certification for retired business leaders and military officials, and the creation of a new frontier of faith-based schools.

Meanwhile, I will continue to fight for tax freedom. Last spring, I met with black ministers in Baltimore.

"The folks in my church are beginning to move ahead,” one pastor told me. "They’re beginning to create some wealth. They’re putting together a nest egg for the future. But now, they’re facing new threats – like capital gains taxes and inheritance taxes that threaten to take away huge portions of what they want to pass on to their children. What can we do about that?”

The Internal Revenue Service and 7.5 million-word federal tax code are real barriers to equal opportunity. So it is time to bury the tax code.

Taxpayers would be free to choose an honest, simple, flat tax that treats everyone fairly and equally. As I have said for years, there should be no tax on savings, pensions, or Social Security. No marriage penalty, no death tax. That’s real money for real people struggling to pay their mortgages, afford health insurance, and save for college. It could remove 20 million low-income Americans from the tax rolls.

Beyond education and taxes lies the issue of wealth creation. In 1998, the Urban League reported that white families enjoy nearly 12 times more financial assets than black families. How do we help close this "racial asset” gap?

The key is freeing workers to have the lion’s share of their Social Security taxes deposited in their own personal retirement accounts. Seniors should be fully protected – no benefit cuts, no increased retirement age, and no more raids on the Social Security trust fund.

In fact, we must remove current taxes on Social Security benefits and current beneficiaries. Promises made must be promises kept. Workers under 55, meanwhile, could use their new accounts to create real personal wealth. A single mother raising two children and earning $36,000 per year could retire with a nest egg exceeding a half-million dollars.

Done right, Social Security reform represents the greatest opportunity in American history to wipe out hard-core poverty in the next generation. African-American men would be this new system’s greatest beneficiaries. Sadly, they tend to have shorter life spans than others and often see little if any of their Social Security benefits. But under our plan, a black man who dies prematurely would leave his assets not to the Treasury but to his widow and children – tax free.

Can America fulfill Dr. King’s dream of freedom and opportunity? The answer depends on whether we choose politics-as-usual or a principled, substantive vision for genuine reform. Let us choose wisely.

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.