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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…

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