On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall spoke to a crowd of 15,000 at Harvard University’s commencement. In a surprise announcement, he unveiled plans for the United States government to rebuild a Europe devastated by almost a decade of war. In simple straightforward language, he declared that this massive effort — which came to be known as the Marshall Plan — “is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos . . .” The Marshall Plan is largely credited with restoring confidence and hope along with local economies in Europe. It remains a testament to the power of American fortitude and ingenuity.
Sixty-eight years later, Marshall’s words carry a surprisingly potent punch — albeit in response to a very different kind of “war”; one that we have been waging for decades against our own communities of color. During the past year, the curtain has been pulled back, revealing the maze of punishment, fear, and surveillance that traps so many individuals, particularly young men, living in these communities. They attend underresourced schools that expect them to fail and drop out. Police function as a hostile, occupying force, frequently hunting them down, and subjecting them to humiliating arrests and stop-and-frisk practices. They even lack recreational outlets. Recently one former Baltimore resident wrote of returning to his childhood neighborhood to find his old playing fields “overgrown with weeds or barred with locked gates . . . . The city had closed the pools, removed the basketball goals, and . . . closed 20 recreation centers.”
Make no mistake about it. These communities did not simply “evolve.” They exist in their current state because of very deliberate educational, transportation, housing, and economic policy choices. These include investing in highways over subways, creating policies that transfer good jobs to areas beyond the reach of public transportation, redlining practices that keep families of color from moving into higher opportunity neighborhoods, and allocating scarce education dollars on surveillance and police rather than on libraries and laboratories. Each choice closes off one more exit out of the maze, and keeps residents stumbling into dead ends.
“The remedy lies in breaking the vicious circle,” stated George Marshall in the speech. Indeed. We propose to create a new Houston/Marshall Plan (named after civil rights giants Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall), focused on helping communities restore themselves after decades of intentional disinvestment. This new Houston/Marshall Plan will advance strategies, innovations, and solutions designed by those living and working in these neighborhoods. It is their voices that have been routinely ignored or silenced in public policy discussions. It will promote public health perspectives that favor recreational, day care and health centers, diversion programs that allow mothers to stay with their children, treatment for addictions, and job training instead of more police, more prosecutions, and more prisons. It will highlight promising models for building affordable housing units near these jobs, and for creating school cultures that expect students to succeed instead of treating them like criminals-in-waiting. For those who decry the costs of this rebuilding, we point to the economic and public safety benefits that all of us will reap from investments in communities and lives too long neglected.
In a recent editorial, Henry Kissinger noted that the Marshall Plan of 1947 created “a new design for American foreign policy.” Today, our nation’s young people are demanding that we create a new design for American domestic policy, one that listens and responds to what they are telling us about the conditions under which they live. The other Marshall — Thurgood —once noted: “Sometimes history takes things into its own hands.” By collectively summoning up the same qualities of generosity, pragmatism and strength that drove the original Marshall Plan, we can give history a little nudge to accomplish exactly that.
David Harris is managing director and Johanna Wald is director of strategic planning at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.