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An opportunity to advance beyond the usual "racial dialogue"

by David Kirsh


When I heard the news that Dr. John Hope Franklin had been appointed by President Clinton to chair a national commission on race, my skepticism of such commissions was tempered by the realization that Clinton may not have reckoned with who John Hope is. The Prez may have been seeing "distinguished" and "respected" and "octogenarian" -and "African-American"-on the vetting lists. All true. But he might not have noticed that Dr. Franklin, who has waded through enough of polite society's organizational cesspools in his time, can be outspoken.

I hope that my hunch is right and that before it's over, there will be some new policy currents-not the least through the efforts of Dr. Franklin-but also through a groundswell of activists working to highlight an aspect that has not been sufficiently articulated in all the racial dialoguing I've seen lately. Namely, there needs to be attention to economic justice-for all. [Please see interview with Dr. Franklin, page 1]. That chiefly means jobs, but not just jobs, living wage jobs. And not just living wage jobs, but decent housing, decent schools, decent education,decent health care-for all.

I believe the personal psychology of racism can be boiled down to a desire not to be on society's lowest rung: "No matter how loathsome I am, I'm not as loathsome as those people." This is the psychology of "us vs.them," of dehumanizing others. In the elegant and restrained language written by Dr. Franklin 55 years ago, "These attitudes...sprang not so much from the belief that the smaller group was inherently incapable of accommodating itself to its environment as from a profound conviction that it was socially and economically undesirable" [The Free Negro in NorthCarolina-1790-1860, preface]. That's equally applicable to today.

But making counter-appeals to reason will only get so far. Broader changes must be made to alter the disparities in social and economic situations. Changes in attitudes and behavior will follow changes in social and economic facts.

No doubt we must continue to struggle against racial stereotyping, hate crimes, and defend hiring and educational opportunities for all those excluded from the 300-year affirmative action program for white males. But my point is that we've been discussing those things and they are still divisive topics setting one group against another in the scramble for relatively few educational opportunities and good job opportunities.

I want to raise the forbidden question: Why, in an economy in which corporations are making record profits, are the rest of us-black, white, Latino, aged, poor and middle class, etc.-being told that there are not enough funds for rebuilding the cities, sustaining public education, maintaining and staffing rural and inner-city hospitals, financing Social Security and other entitlements? Don't all of us (who don't own corporations or banks) have similar needs for a secure existence and face similar social and economic insecurities?

Otherwise tolerant, well-educated white folks I know feel severely antagonized by school busing and set-aside programs. My question to them is: "Why is there such a disparity in the quality of public schools? Why are we forced to choose between private (and expensive) schools for those who can afford them and deteriorating bussed-to public schools?" Don't we have a common interest in better public education?

Anyone can see the ravages of the crack/heroin economy on vast expanses of every large city (and many rural areas) in the nation. My question to those who are frightened and blinded by the stereotypes of inner city kids: Do you really know how you would choose if you could make minimum wage at a dead-end job flipping burgers or $200 a night as a dealer's lookout? Again, don't we have a common interest in providing decent-paying jobs for re-building infrastructure, furnishing day-care, and constructing mass transportation systems?

Jim Crow-the practice of legally sanctioned segregation of public places and employment-is over. That black-and-white enemy is gone. So what's the problem? The yawning gulf between the perspectives of different ethnic groups, particularly between blacks and whites, is largely, although certainly not reducible to, a chasm maintained by economic injustice. This gap, by the way, is constantly fostered by the forces who benefit from the division-the moneyed interests who much prefer to see people fighting over the crumbs of jobs and schools, rather than see a unified populace who expect and demand good wages, job security, health benefits, a sane mass transit system and see the need to curtail some of the obscene profiteering and speculative rackets by multinational corporations and banks. A populace who identifies a common interest with each other and against the tiny percentage who have been controlling the political and economic agenda for profits and power.

We need a national discussion on race that will break through the previous contentious-but-familiar territory. The dimension of economic justice for all is the key to greater harmony and to sweeping advances in economic and social well-being. John Hope Franklin has stated that he is concerned about economic justice.

We as citizens and activists need to have courage to raise the issue of economic justice even though it may require our discussing some ideas virtually banished from media forums. The timing may be right. One local indicator was the nature of the Martin Luther King Day commemorations in Chapel Hill this past January. Here, the largest crowds for such an occasion since the 60s listened to speeches which were distinctly labor-flavored and cognizant of King's emphasis on economic justice late in his life. The resurgent labor movement in North Carolina looks to be much more conscious of starting with an organized base inclusive of African Americans, Latinos, as well as white workers. There are other positive signs as well.

The work of building from the bottom up a momentum for social and economic change is essential for any qualitative national transformation for the better. It will not be simply handed down to us from above. But I expect our grassroots efforts will be strongly matched by the chair of the national commission, John Hope Franklin.


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