As We See Them
TheTrent Lott affair is a case of a politician who carefully prepares his head for political enemies still smarting after the mid-term election fiasco. He is gone. The segregationists have been held up as the backward, ugly people they were and are and everyone feels good about it. It's fun to see the Democrats try to rally around this episode and demonstrate that they, too, can play hardball. And the most absurd political condition arose since the Republicans wanted Lott to go away somewhere and the Democrats wanted him front and center, "Majority Leader of the Senate." Well, the man is gone and good-riddance. The lesson the political class has learned: Utter not one word about race. The discussion of race will now become a series of humorless platitudes.
The Republicans are in a tough spot here. The savvy ones realize that they will need to win over a larger percentage of black voters in the coming decades. In fact, were they to do so they would ensure power for themselves for quite awhile. But, then they have Trent Lott's in their midst. Of course, many Republicans would not only like to be segregated from African-Americans but from poor people, immigrants, urban intellectuals and a host of others. The truth of the matter is that we live in a hugely segregated society. The law doesn't permit artificial barriers to the basic freedoms of life. The segregation is purely income rather than race. The income-segregationists are the most powerful group in the land and always mix with their own kind, no matter what color they are.
Every powerful leader who took up the segregation cause was humbled and brought low by the grace of God. When nature contains so many contradictions this is often the case. And I suggest people read the inaugural addresses of every President from US Grant up through the Plessy v Ferguson decision. Every address implores, even begs, the American people to integrate the freed slave into the larger society. It takes up a huge portion of the remarks.
Many of the policies that were initiated in the 60's to end segregation have worked, worked well, and it's a pleasure to live in a culture where any man or woman can dream and struggle for that dream. No one wants it any different.
In my lifetime the civil rights struggle was as noble a fight as we have witnessed. It supplanted the worker struggle of the 20's and 30's as movements of necessity, albeit, with nearly impossible goals.
The problems now exist in a category that is as old as Ur; that is, poverty of men, women, and children. Why is there black poverty? Why is there white poverty? Why is there brown poverty? These are the questions that the political system needs continually to assess. It was disastrous for the civil rights movement to argue that black poverty was a special type of poverty because, in all likelihood, all poverty is a special type. In the rural valleys I'm familiar with the whites, offspring of settlers, were devastated by the loss of jobs in the railroad, timber, and mining industries. Old families rot slowly away. The poverty is similar to the poverty I witnessed when living in west Berkeley: men make money from dope or are addicted to it and commit crimes to get it, the women have babies at fourteen and get on welfare. There is domestic violence, low or no education, and continual health problems. This is a condition of poverty and not race perse. It is condition that requires a national program that isn't in place at the moment and won't be until the terrorist threat has abated.
How to alleviate poverty without reinstituting the welfare state? That is the creative question thrown out to those who are serious about making a difference.
A change has to take place because in the 40 years we've witnessed social events, we've seen a surge and counter-surge of politics and programs that have bitten their own tail and are back, again, at square one. Things are a bit better but only because the economy performed well for most of that time. And, in fact, if an argument can be made that bringing the poor into the working and middle-class helps the whole economy, it is easier to push the program to those who actually vote in elections. And that argument has been persuasively made by all types of people. It will just be tougher to argue the case based on race alone. Where is the leadership that connects all poverty and designs sound policy to try and alleviate it? It's not Jesse Jackson. It's not Ted Kennedy. It's not Bill Clinton.
It's very difficult to recommend to the Democratic party that is should end racial politics but if it's serious about the egregious poverty in the US, that cuts across all lines, it will certainly mute it. And it has a great problem on its hands if the more radical elements of the party are able to saddle it with the bogus "reparations" issue.
The issue of race is an impossible one. The fact that race is transformed into political myth by both the left and right should send a signal to all that it is an impossible issue to deal with. That it is an issue used by manipulators, hate-mongers, con men, and sick souls is a very telling thing. Every man and woman must dream and take up their self-interest and use the resources well and any artificial barrier dismantled. What political myth never articulates is the difficulty in attaining anything. That is part of the allure of the myth. And it creates mob rule or mass politics without fixing anything.
The best corollary for it is the union movement, another necessary movement. But, workers never make enough money and always have lousy bosses. It's at that point where the worker him or herself has to think about moving on and finding out the resources that permit it. No political myth will get them there. Likewise, there is no magical cure for the disadvantages African-Americans have in this society. The only solution is for African-Americans to start producing dynamic experiences, positive experiences, and offer a legacy to the young that is powerful. That is well under way and will continue through this century.
The political myth provided by a civil rights movement works only for a time. The unions, too, became very corrupt and lost their political credibility because of it and its influence dwindles to this day. The union movement was never going to take the average worker and make him an upper middle-class professional. And the civil rights movement can not take people beyond entrance into the middle-class. And since there will always be poor blacks there will always be the shout in the hallway that will continue until no one wants to listen anymore. The civil rights movement became an existential cry of despair that could not be transformed into practical policies most could agree with.
The Democrats argued that, well of course, you have racists over there in the other camp and until you do something about them there will be no real progress. That was the reason to politicize race and make it more than a redress of grievance; something intimately connected with the destiny of each American. But, the American is usually the first to throw off any such politicization and so the Democrats were pinned into a corner where they will, apparently, die on the vine, Trent Lott notwithstanding.
The great social movements always create permanent values. The civil rights movement is no different. The women's movement is no different. But then, it runs into the same problems as all other organizations. It must sustain itself, it must transmit itself, it must grow or perish so it finally disintegrates under the impossibility of going further or gets discredited through corruption, or the value it raised stares them in the face and says it's time to let go and move on.
It's amazing what freedom will do to people; how it will give them incentives they never thought possible. This is the genius of America and it worked in the race area. The only place it fails is poverty; that terrible demon that wracks the world from one end to the other. And as long as poverty is seen in terms of race it will not bring forth any bold proposals.
December 24, 2002