Spotlight Exclusives

What RFK’s Coalition Teaches Us About Healing A Divided Nation

Steven H. Woolf, Virginia Commonwealth University Steven H. Woolf, Virginia Commonwealth University, posted on

On the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s death, it’s worth remembering the diverse coalition he led and its implications for today. His supporters included not only black families in Mississippi and Latino farmhands in California but also white coal miners and steel workers. Chris Mathews’ biography describes the crowds lining the train tracks as RFK’s casket traveled to Washington: “young, old, black, white, men and women, few well-off, all caught up in their shared devastation.”

Those who would have voted later for Barack Obama cried alongside others who might today support Donald Trump. What united them was a brotherhood of disadvantage. They sought a better life: a good education, jobs, housing, and economic opportunity. Some were from cities, others from small towns, but they had a common plea: they wanted a chance, a fair shot at the American dream.

Inequities persist today and are perhaps worse. The income gap has widened: US wealth is increasingly concentrated within the affluent elite, while economic progress for much of the middle class has stalled. Social mobility—children’s chances of earning more than their parents—is decreasing. Mounting frustration is palpable in cities and rural communities, among people of all racial backgrounds. However, this populace in pain—unlike RFK’s coalition—is sharply divided. We have broken off into tribes: conservatives and liberals, rural and urban Americans, red and blue states, whites and people of color. Differences overshadow any sense of shared struggles.

This win-or-lose mentality is unfortunate, because “win-win” solutions can benefit everyone, such as the GI Bill that helped veterans of all backgrounds get an education. Real progress has always required Americans to come together around shared interests, to overcome our differences to see the pains we experience together. Everyone with low incomes, Republican or Democrat, is threatened by policies that hurt the poor or middle class. Of course, there are demographic changes, economic forces, and historical traumas that divide our society. The ugliest forces, such as racism and xenophobia, are deeply rooted and difficult to heal. But progress demands that we work through these differences to find common ground.

A good start is to focus on what’s essential to all of us. And we might attract more listeners by changing the narrative from negative talk about inequities, which can trigger defensiveness, to positive messages about opportunity, which inspire optimism. Opportunity means something specific here: guaranteeing everyone, not success, but the chance for success. That chance doesn’t exist for many Americans. The doors to opportunity are closed, not only for many people of color but also disadvantaged whites.

Physicians like me know that these barriers to opportunity produce illness. They are why people of color face higher disease rates and perhaps why mortality among middle-aged whites is rising, especially in rural areas, due to drug overdoses, alcoholism, suicides, and other so-called “deaths of despair.” The opportunity gap is shortening all of our lives. Since 1998, US life expectancy has been lower than in other industrialized countries. It stopped increasing in 2012 and is now decreasing.

The solution is not healthcare spending—we already outspend any other country—but improving our living conditions. Promoting education, economically stable families, and strong communities is a smart investment that yields benefits beyond health: a stronger economy, more productive workers, reduced crime, and less demand for social services. These are aims that we can all get behind.

The first step is to measure gaps in opportunity and the distance to go to close them. One such effort is the HOPE (Health Opportunity and Equity) Initiative, on which I serve. HOPE is examining what it would take for all Americans to experience the conditions achieved by states with the best outcomes. We can learn much from these states. For example, college-educated women in Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming have the nation’s lowest infant mortality rates. If all US mothers experienced the same rates, 17,000 more babies each year would live to their first birthday.

Millions would benefit from a shift in state economies and policy priorities. For example, in five states, an average of 89 percent of college graduates earn a livable income (more than 250 percent of the poverty level). If the same were true nationwide, 55 million additional adults (including 28 million whites) would earn this much. States differ greatly in other factors affecting health, such as food security, housing, education, employment, pollution, and health insurance.

Closing these gaps will not be easy, nor is it a simple matter to remove barriers that limit opportunity for certain groups or heal past injustices. But much can be accomplished if we begin with the aspirations we agree upon. Much divided us in 1968, but the diversity of faces along those train tracks reminds us that it is possible to rise above those differences and find common ground.

Steven H. Woolf is a professor at the Center of Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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