A humane and just society - for all Americans

WE have heard disappointingly little urgency voiced about the need for a more just and humane American society among the candidates running for president today. Yes, Robert Dole reminds us of his hard-times childhood in Kansas. Jesse Jackson makes the most consistent case for the traditionally disadvantaged and the new class of the beleaguered - the homeless, those with AIDS, the politically powerless. Richard Gephardt has picked up the cause of the dislocated factory workers. Jack Kemp talks about maintaining and expanding living standards for all Americans.

But chiefly the campaign has been addressed to satisfied Americans, those who have benefited from the economic expansion and just hope it continues.

Many women's groups and labor civil rights organizations are feeling passed by during this election year. Perhaps their hour will come in the writing of the party platforms; but already the parties are putting out the word that their platforms are likely to be short and sweetly uncontentious.

Real justice, real individual opportunity, cannot be achieved without equality, without extending individual opportunity to all.

Extensive civil rights laws are already on the books, but the foundations of the law must continually be built upon. The laws also need to be enforced. For the past seven years, the Reagan administration has sought to narrow, not broaden, the interpretation of equal opportunity.

Studies have shown the economic costs of failing to make health, educational, and employment opportunities available to all Americans. Clearly, the passive approach of the recent past does not ``save money'' in the long run; it ultimately increases the costs of government. It leads to lost revenues for society generally when those who might contribute become dependent.

The Constitution is committed not to justice for some, but to justice for all.

There must not be two standards - one for the rich and another for the poor, one for the majority and another for ethnic minorities, one for those with political influence and another for the powerless.

Despite administration backpedaling in recent years, there has been, since the heyday of the civil rights movement, broad progress toward erasing the discrepancies in the administration of law and bringing the have-nots of society into the mainstream. These include the homeless, the hungry, the jobless, and the politically disenfranchised.

A disproportionate number of three groups - women, children, and racial minorities - continue to fall into the above categories.

Despite some significant progress, women are still economically disadvantaged and socially discriminated against. They are not present in the halls of Congress and the legislatures in the numbers that their share of the electorate would suggest. Children are too often treated as chattel, abused, neglected, and lost in the system. Racial minorities, particularly blacks and Mexican-Americans, are poor, undereducated, and underemployed.

What need to be our priorities now - and into the 1990s - for addressing these inequalities?

Women. Affirmative-action programs have helped correct injustices for women in the workplace. Job promotion and maternity leave have been specifically proposed. But now more is needed to ensure that women have opportunities for career development, such as management training, and to ensure that women are accorded fair access to credit - for business as well as personal loans.

Anti-harassment laws must be strengthened - and better enforced.

Rape and physical attacks on women must be understood as crimes of violence and must be taken seriously by prosecutors.

Women must be given the chance to move more rapidly into positions of responsibility in the American workplace. And gender bias, whether subtle or otherwise, needs to be purged from the judicial system.

Children. The nation, with usually good intentions, has confronted children's issues, but in a piecemeal fashion. The need now is for a focused national commitment to help feed, clothe, and provide health care for underprivileged youth.

Adequate care for the children of working parents is essential. Industry as well as government must face this challenge.

A consensus must also be reached on what really constitutes child abuse and neglect. At the same time, courts and state legislatures must reestablish the premise that in a free society the family, and not the government, has prime responsibility for the welfare of children.

Racial minorities. Blacks continue to move into the middle class. But those at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale still need help with jobs and education. More community bootstraps must be found. Increased participation at every level of the political process - from parent-teacher associations to voting for president - should be encouraged. The case for just treatment of American Indians, and of immigrants - illegal as well as legal immigrants - from Latin nations, needs to be pressed. So much hinges on the schools: When minority youths drop out, it becomes all the harder later to pull them back into the employment picture.

Laws that even hint of racial bias must be set aside. Given the racial unevenness with which the death penalty is applied, for example, it would be well to eliminate capital punishment.

And finally, a clear consensus must be reached that the system of justice ought to be demonstrably gender-blind, age- blind, and color-blind.

The next editorial in this series will appear Feb. 16.

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