Monday, August 25, 2008

Savage Inequities

I am a 52 year-old black man who has voted in every election since I became eligible at age 18 in 1974. In the first election I was able to vote for President, in 1976, I voted for Jimmy Carter. I am prouder of my vote for Jimmy Carter than I am of any vote I have cast in my life. I admired him as a president and even more so as the greatest ex-President of my generation. I have voted Democratic in every election since. Often I have done this without great enthusiasm. I voted for Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry but had no love for any of them. I voted for Bill Clinton twice but by the end of his administration my ardor had eroded as Clinton fiddled away his historic opportunity to stock the federal judiciary with progressive judges (thereby allowing Bush to stack the courts with right wing activists). The successive Bush administrations have made me ashamed to be an American. I often quip that Americans get the government they deserve, but even the America I have grown up in did not deserve the disservice the Bush administration has heaped upon it.

I am heartened by the Obama campaign. I truly did not believe a black man could be nominated for President of the United States let alone run for the highest office in the land. In fact, I held out faint hope that my unborn grandson, the future junior Senator from the great state of Wisconsin, would one day become President of the United States.

Whether Obama wins the White House or not, I have been given hope by his historic campaign. His campaign suggests that America may be closer to achieving racial equality than I would have ever believed in my wildest dreams. This campaign gives me hope for my children and my grandchildren.

Regarding workplace inequities, they are widespread and savage. They are systemic and bred to the bone of American enterprise. My like-minded friends and I refer to this as the "white welfare system." People discuss black joblessness as a cultural dysfunction but when door after door is slammed in your face and opportunity is denied you time after time, opting out and copping out is not an unreasonable response. If doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is a cogent definition of psychosis, wouldn't it be crazy to continue to play the game when you know in your heart of hearts that the game is rigged?

Yet, I continue to play and I continue to fight.

One thing I have learned in my 24 years working in the division of the company I work for - when black men, regardless of their upbringing, are paid a living wage, they support their families. Married men do it. Single men do it. Divorced men do it.

Giving black men jobs with a living wage is the only sure fire way to end poverty and economic dysfunction in the black community.

Thank you, America!

The first scene of the first episode of the first season of HBO’s great urban drama, “The Wire”: Detective Jimmy McNulty is sitting on a stoop interviewing a witness. The victim, one Snot Boogie, was shot and killed while playing alley craps. McNulty, perplexed, says "let me get this straight: every week Snot waited until the pot got big, and then snatched it and took off. Y'all would catch him, beat him down, and take the money back." The witness nods sullen assent. "I gotta ask this," McNulty says. "If Snot stole the pot every time, why did ya'll let him play." "Got to," the witness said with resignation. "This is America, man."

I LOVE that line! "This is America, man." How we gone tell Snot he can't play? This is AMERICA, man! Land of the Free! Home of the Brave!

Problem is black Americans are the only Americans who believe the underlying ethos of America. All other Americans are part-time Americans, only true red, white and blue when they wave their flags or to pop their lapel pins. When it comes to extending full statehood rights to all Americans, most non-black Americans are absent and unaccounted for. For too many black Americans, life in America is like living on an Orwellian “Animal Farm” where all Americans are created equal – but some Americans are created more equal than others.

Pop Quiz! What is the only difference between poor, uneducated white people and poor, uneducated black people?

Answer: Poor, uneducated white people have JOBS!

In 1984, I became the third black person employed in the division of the company I currently work for. At the time, it was highly unusual for a black person to be hired by this division and even more unusual for a black person to complete the ninety day probation period. Nearly every white hire completed their ninety day probations – and those who didn’t were allowed to do it over.

Because the attrition rate for black hires was so high, the rare black applicant hired in 1984 was employed by the company but then assigned to a temporary service. To add insult in injury, one third of the black hires’ starting salary went to the temporary service. So, when I was hired in 1984, at age 29, with ten years of working experience behind me, I worked six weeks for a temporary service – while the company decided if I was a good fit - THEN began my ninety day probation period. White applicants ten years my junior, with no work experience began their probation periods immediately.

Today, with 24 years, I am the longest tenured black employee at our division. The next highest tenured black person has 19 years of seniority. And this is at “one of the best places in America to work.” I often wonder how awful it must be for black people who work at the “worst places in America to work.”

A Story! A Story! A black man, a 25 year veteran at his company, sat in a conference room filled with management and human resource personnel. At issue was his contention that his workplace injury hadn’t healed properly and that he needed more therapy. After an hour in which everything about him including his work ethic was impugned, the black man was asked if he had anything to say. The man, seething with rage and indignation, composed himself. Eyeballing all those in attendance he stood and proclaimed, “Thank you, America!”