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Friday, January 30, 2009

Race, Class and Access to Jobs: WhatWill Obama Do?

I’ve often said that, as painful as it may seem, it’s often useful to listen to conservative talk radio and to watch Fox New (aka “Fixed News” thanks to Keith Olberman), because every now and then they help you find some good stuff that you may otherwise miss. Case in point—its seems that the conservative talkies are slightly perturbed at former Labor Secretary Robert Reich (who served under President Clinton) because of comments he made during hearings on the economic recovery plan. The following (found at Media Matters) is the part of his testimony that has the conservativos in an uproar:

Now let me say something about infrastructure. It seems to me that infrastructure spending is a very important and good way of stimulating the economy. The challenge will be to do it quickly, to find projects that can be done that have a high social return that also can be done with the greatest speed possible.

I am concerned, as I'm sure many of you are, that these jobs not simply go to high skilled people who are already professions or to white male construction workers. I have nothing against white male construction workers. I'm just saying that there are a lot of other people who have needs as well. And therefore, in my remarks I have suggested to you, and I'm certainly happy to talk about it more, ways in which the money can be -- criteria can be set so that the money does go to others: the long term unemployed, minorities, women, people who are not necessarily construction workers or high-skilled professionals.

You can read more of Robert Reich’s thoughts on this and other matters at his blog:. I highly recommend it.

Although Mr. Reich made the remarks on January 9, it took the conservies a couple of weeks to starting raking him across the coals. I’m not sure if it took that long because they were too busy dealing with their depression over President Obama’s inauguration, or if it simply took them that long to look up some of Reich’s words in the dictionary—like “simply”. In any event, beginning around January 22nd, conservative nuts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michelle Malkin have made a variety of remarks, not worthy of quotes here, which all basically amount to declarations that Reich does not want any white male construction workers to receive any parts of the stimulus money.

Could it be that they really just didn’t understand what Reich was saying? Could it be that they just didn’t understand that Reich was basically saying, “Look, we know that white male construction workers are going to get most of this infrastructure funding, but we need to make sure that at least some of it goes to some other folks”? Could it be that they really just didn’t understand that Reich wasn’t just calling for the inclusion of all races and genders, but for the inclusion of all lower-skilled workers, which would presumably include lower-skilled white workers as well?

If it were just Rush who had so poorly misinterpreted Reich’s statements, I may have been willing to assume that he had simply popped too many pills while listening to Reich’s testimony and that he was a little foggy headed. But since the conservative nuts have launched such a coordinated attack, I can only conclude that their misinterpretations are the result of a very intentional willingness to distort the truth. In other words, they’re lying and they know it, but it doesn’t really matter since most of their listeners and viewers seem more than happy to go along with the lie.

So I’ve chosen to write about this for two reasons. The first reason is because the issue opens the door for a lot of folks who love to misquote Dr. King. Appearing on Fox News and commenting on Reich’s remarks, conservie Michelle Malkin had this to say:

It's the same old Democrat mentality of treating people based on the color of their skin rather than the content of their character or the content of their resumes. You know, not exactly the kind of legacy we thought Martin Luther King was supposed to leave.
Okay. Let’s get this straight. DR. KING WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN AGAINST AFFIRMATIVE ACTION! If the school systems and media outlets in this country would pay attention to more than just the “I Have a Dream” speech, this point would be quite obvious. Yes, we all know that Dr. King said “not … by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”, but how many of us know that he also said:

Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up. (Why We Can’t Wait, 1963)

Far from dreaming, Dr. King was quite awake when he made these comments, and many others regarding what it would take to create true equality. But you won’t see any of these quotes in a McDonald’s commercial during February, you won’t learn about them in the public schools, and you won’t hear them on CNN, not even in a documentary that’s dedicated to Dr. King’s words.

I could go on and on, but then I wouldn’t be able to get to my second reason for addressing this topic, which may actually be more important than the first. Throughout the presidential campaign, some segments of the Black community wanted to know what Obama was willing to do on Black issues—issues related to the persistence of racism in this country. The most frequent answer, from both Obama and his supporters, was that if he was successful at making the kind of change he wanted—at dealing with jobs, and housing, and education, and health care, etc.—that Black people would ultimately benefit.

But history tells us that a rising tide does not always lift all boats, particularly when some of the boats are roped off in a separate (and unequal) part of the harbor. Experience has shown us that need-based programs that do not have a racial component often end up accidentally missing, or intentionally excluding, the neediest of the needy. If you don’t believe me, try asking a Black farmer. Black farmers faced so much discrimination while trying to receive need-based loans from the Department of Agriculture that it led to the largest class-action lawsuit against the federal government ever.

In fact, my own experience with disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina showed that no matter how well meaning the national donors may have been, when distribution of supplies and implementation of programs are left to the same local officials whose primary interest is to maintain their local status quo, it is almost impossible for race to NOT play a role.

So even if the targeting that Mr. Reich suggested gets included in the legislation, the other question is how do you make sure the states actually implements it. For if the history of race and politics in this country has taught us nothing else, it’s taught us that rights and programs without enforcement don’t amount to much.

After all, why exactly did we need a Voting Rights Act when the 15th Amendment guarantees the right to vote?

So the question is this: will President Obama take Robert Reich’s advice? Or will the conservative’s response to Mr. Reich create and/or strengthen the President’s concern about a white backlash?

Judging from the fact that nobody besides the conservatives has even commented on Reich’s remarks, I’m a bit concerned that there’s already an effort to downplay his viewpoints. This would be unfortunate, since the conversation that Mr. Reich started needs to be continued, just as the discussion that candidate Obama started during his now famous “race speech” needs to be continued.

But the Obama Administration is just getting started, and his stimulus plan has yet to pass Congress, so I’m willing to wait and see how this plays out. After all, I believe in the audacity of hope. After November 4th, how could you not…

MLK and Affirmative Action

Even before Barack Obama won the presidency in November, you could already hear the calls from those who say that his success in the primaries is evidence that affirmative action is no longer necessary. The debate is likely to increase as the federal government prepares to spend nearly a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy and tries to deal with the question of how those funds should be targeted.

Inevitably, whenever the topic of affirmative action, preferential treatment, or anything similar comes up, some genius argues that such policies go against Dr. King's dream. After all, didn't Dr. King say that people should be judged “not … by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”? Well, for those who aren't quite clear on where Dr. King stood, here are some of his lesser known statements on the matter.

"Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is
raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up."
(Why We Can’t Wait, 1963)

"A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis."
(Where Do We Go From Here?, 1967)

"Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white Americans at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most whites in America in 1967, including many persons of goodwill, proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is note even psychologically organized to close the gap—essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it."
(Where Do We Go From Here?, 1967)

The following quote is from an interview with Playboy magazine (1965). It is in response to the following question from the interviewer: Do you feel it’s fair to request a multibillion-dollar program of preferential treatment for the Negro, or for an other minority group?

"I do indeed. Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages — potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America's wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation."

What's My Purpose?

I originally started working on this back in July of 2008, so it's a little outdated (as you'll see from the first paragraph), but the main point still applies.


A couple of weeks ago, while driving to work and listening to the Tom Joyner Morning Show, i heard that they were looking for a new "commentator" to replace Tavis Smiley, who has obviously lost a lot of cool points in Black America due to his lack of support for Barack Obama.

After hearing the announcement, my first thought was that i should apply. But that thought was immediately replaced by doubt. Why would they consider me? Who am i? Surely they're looking for someone with some national credentials...

After praying over it, and getting words of encouragement from several friends (biased as they may have been), i decided to submit my name.

Well, i never received a phone call, and i soon learned that they had picked their finalist--or at least seven out of what was supposed to be eight finalist. This of course made me revisit all of the original doubts i had about applying. So it led me to do some reflecting. Why would they consider me? Who am i?

As a teen, i went to school at the Bronx High School of Science, at the time one of the top ten high schools in the country, and still pretty high on the list. After Bronx Science, i attended Cornell University, where, after becoming politically conscious, i played key roles in several student movements, including two that led to building takeovers and received national press coverage. One of the takeovers led to the formation of a Latino residential program which still exists today. Ironically, the issues involved in these student movements, financial aid, housing and racism, would become a part of my community organizing for the next twenty years.

At the local level, i participated in an election that defeated a mayor Selma, Alabama who had been in power for 36 years--the same mayor, by the way, who was in power when Bloody Sunday took place in 1965. That election produced Selma's first Black mayor, and now, eight years later, i am participating in a national election that could possibly produce this country's first Black president. And in between those two elections, i've learned more than most ever will about the reality of electoral politics in the South.

I've walked on dirts roads as far away as Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and other dirt roads throughout Dallas County, Alabama. And one day, once i get past the two books that i already have outlined in my mind, my third book will focus on the similarities between those two sets of roads and, more importantly, the similarities between the communities that those roads serve.

I've witnessed Hurricane Katrina, and i remember the feelings of anger and frustration as i watched hundreds of thousands of Black New Orleans residents simply being left for dead. I remember how challenging it was to turn those feelings into concrete action as i joined with some friends to open a temporary shelter in Selma and to drive a bus down to New Orleans to bring back as many folks as we could. We never made it to New Orleans, but we made it to the Mississippi Gulf Coast--to places like Gulfport and Biloxi--where folks were dealing with their own forms of hunger, sickness, and, perhaps most importantly, despair.

We brought many of the folks we found to the shelter, and months later we would use that same shelter during "Katrina on the Ground", a spring break project that saw almost 3,000 college students volunteer their time to help rebuild in New Orleans and Mississippi. i remember telling those students that Katrina represented the Emmett Till moment for THIS generation--a moment and event so traumatic that it could launch a new generation of activism. And so, i wasn't very surprised when a short time later, thousands of Black folks, largely youth, descended on a town called Jena.

I've had some great mentors, some who worked with Dr. King and others who worked with Brother Malcolm. i've learned from elders who so loved our cause that they were willing to risk their lives, and sit in prisons, and give up their livelihoods just to build a better world. Some have taught me how to be a better activist, and others have taught me how to be a better person, and every day i pray that i have been a worthy student.

And through it all i have tried to be the best husband and father that i can be. i have learned alot about how to balance commitment to family and commitment to community, and i've learned the heard way not to neglect commitment to self. And to my surprise, i've found that my most important relationship is my relationship with God, and i've come to believe that if that relationship is properly nurtured, the others will follow.

So at the end of the day, the bottom line is this: i've got a story to tell. It's a story about love and hope, freedom and faith, politics and pain. To some, including my younger self, it will appear a story of black and white, but that's just a mask for and a symptom of what's really a spiritual battle between right and wrong, light and darkness. And if there is a battle being fought, then we must also be clear that it is a story about power. Not the "reckless and abusive" power that King talked about, and not the absolute power that corrupts absolutely, but power nonetheless.

Yes, i've got a story to tell, and i'm going to tell it to whoever will listen.

Will YOU listen?