Standing on a hillside in Southeast Washington, you can see that federal expanse known as the Mall, with its monuments steam-cleaned to reflect justice and equality in the gleaming sun.
But all you have to do is make a 180-degree turn to bear witness to poverty, infant mortality and illiteracy that rival conditions in the Third World.
Something is very wrong. And it's going to take more than changing faces in Congress -- not to mention the politically crippled District government -- to right it.
Here, in the shadow of the nation's Capitol, there is blood in the street, as the Russians used to say.
If one human body holds eight to 12 pints of the stuff, then more than 2,000 gallons have been spilled with knives and guns during the last five years, enough to paint the ghettos red.
Inside the doorways of crowded housing projects, young men use drugs to obliterate the reality of being jobless high school dropouts. Sadder still are the younger boys who imitate the ways of the drug dealers and contemplate whether they too should skip school.
In Washington, as in other urban areas throughout the nation, the causes of the problems are obvious -- what a recently released policy paper by the Center for Public Policy calls "structural impediments to success."
They include a transformation from a manufacturing economy to a service-based economy that has caused the real median income of all young men to fall. As you might expect, when America catches an economic cold, African Americans get pneumonia.
From 1973 to 1984, the income of young black males -- ages 20 to 24 -- dropped 44 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 25 percent of young black men reported no earnings.
In just over a decade, the poverty rate for young families doubled, to 30 percent. For young black families, the increase was from 43 percent to 62 percent.
Consequently, marriage rates declined 62 percent for blacks as bleak economic prospects for black men reduced their motivation to marry and their status as eligible partners.
In the early '70s, 55 percent of young black men who did not have college degrees could still earn enough money to keep a family of three above the poverty level; by 1984, only 23 percent could.
Predictably, the number of single, female heads of household began to increase. In Washington, more than half of all households are headed by single women. Today, more than half of all black children live in poverty.
"As structural barriers to success, such as rising unemployment and poverty, have intensified in recent years," the study noted, "it is surprising to many scholars that only a minority of inner city youth are involved in gangs and the alternative drug economy."
Obviously, even the poorest African Americans still believe that one day America will make good on its pledge of justice for all and that they too will have dignity and economic security.
But make no mistake about it: Poverty is white America's problem too.
"While public attention is currently focused on inner city black young men," the study concludes, "all disadvantaged youth are facing structural barriers that are inhibiting their success. The risk of viewing these issues as primarily a black or minority concern is to exclude many who need assistance, to blame the victim, and to fail to realize that solutions must be principally structural in nature."
During this past political campaign, few if any candidates espoused a vision for long-range investment in the disadvantaged. Certainly no one indicated a need to restructure a society that is making victims of its most vunerable citizens: the children.
From the hillsides of Southeast, you can see toddlers walking barefoot through gravel-strewn parking lots, eating cupcakes and carbonated colas for breakfast. Older siblings idle away their days in doorways, some not going to school because they lack decent clothes.
When you turn back to those monuments on the Mall, somehow they don't shine so bright anymore.