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I want to talk today about how we, as a society, characterize the problems of some of our most disadvantaged citizens, and the implications that those characterizations have for public policy. I am going to do this by drawing on a highly publicized series of comments by Bill Cosby concerning teens, poverty, crime and education. I suggest that Cosby's analysis is emblematic of the dominant perspective in policy discourse today, particularly in the area of education. This perspective roots both the causes and the solutions to the problems of poor communities as being internal to those communities. This perspective does not draw connections to the larger society or the state. I will argue that this approach is not wrong, but instead is incomplete. I will then conclude by turning to the philosophy of Martin Luther King, whose teachings provide us a way to move toward a collective approach that gives each of us, and the state, a role and responsibility for addressing the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.
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