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"Conversation is Far From theCentral Issue,"

by Howard Zinn November/December 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

As a prerequisite, the Advisory Board to President Clinton's Initiative on Race should move away from the emphasis on "conversation" among the races, of which we have heard too much from the White House. Of course conversation is useful, but that is far from the central issue and a huge diversion of energy and attention from what needs to be done.

It should be obvious that the central issue is the economic condition of black and Hispanic people in this country -- which is tied to the economic condition of whites, but is marked by a special desperation. The glowing overall reports on "the economy" and the overall statistics on unemployment ignore the specific situation within the black and Latino communities. Many studies on unemployment (Lester Thurow's is only one) point to the great underestimation of unemployment. In 1992 the National Urban League estimated that the real unemployment rate -- unlike the official statistics--was 13.3% for whites and 25.5% for African Americans.

True, racism is a complex phenomenon, which can exist independently of economic conditions. But the disease of racism historically came out of the swamp of the profit system. The luxuries of plantation owners required slavery, and then the profits of manufacturers required cheap labor, and today the greed of the stock market requires unemployed and underpaid labor.

The failure of the "free market" to bring real equality to black people has always been part of a larger problem, the failure to bring economic justice to the working-class majority of the population. When, in the post-Civil War years, the freed slaves insisted that their freedom was meaningless without land, they created alarms in the higher circles of the North that such demands might spread to the white underclass. The New York Times declared (July 9, 1867): "An attempt to justify the confiscation of Southern land under the pretense of doing justice to the freedmen strikes at the root of property rights in both sections. It concerns Massachusetts as much as Mississippi." The Nation said that the "division of rich man's lands among the landless . . . would give a shock to our whole social and political system..."

But only such a "shock," accompanying a more equal division of the nation's wealth, can begin to address the fundamentals of the "race problem." Black leaders historically have understood that. Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, in an official report on the Harlem riot of 1935 for New York City, insisted that the primary need of African-Americans was for jobs, and asked that job discrimination be outlawed for city employees and on city contracts. Mayor LaGuardia suppressed the report; undoubtedly he would have preferred the suggestion of "a conversation."

Jobs are crucial. That's why A. Philip Randolph threatened his March on Washington in 1941 to get F.D.R. to establish a Fair Employment Practices Commission. And why Martin Luther King turned his attention in his last years, not to feel-good talk on race relations, but to poverty. He planned to use the tools of the civil rights movement: civil disobedience (as in his Poor People's Campaign); the experience of the labor movement (as in his support of the Memphis strikers just before his death).

In short, the Conunission will be wasting its time if it does not address the economic issue. Recent bipartisan legislation diminishes benefits for the poor and foreign-born, builds prisons instead of schools and homes, and legalizes a Dickensian cruelty for huge numbers of children. The victims will be of all races, but the historical legacy of racism will ensure that the greatest pain will be felt by people of color, and that the ensuing racial competition for scarce resources will become more destructive.

The Advisory Board needs to recommend a bold program, costing hundreds of billions of dollars (the money to come out of a severely reduced military and out of a truly progressive tax structure): full employment, giving the market a chance, but with the government the employer of last resort, going even beyond the New Deal programs in its scope; a guaranteed annual income (even Nixon proposed this, but at a very low level) to it"; using the new labor to build housing, schools, day-care centers and to clean up the environment.

Surely, John Hope Franklin and some of his colleagues must understand that they will be wasting their time on anything else.

Howard Zinn taught at Spelman College in Atlanta and was an advisor to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He is author of A People's History of the United States.

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