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"Getting Past "Face" Value"

March 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

by Gary Delgado

Just a reminder. Though Maya Angelou's presentation at the inauguration had the most heart, and Hillary was probably the best candidate, it would serve us well to remember that we didn't get to vote for either of them. We elected Mr. Bill.

A year ago, many of us hoped he wouldn't get nominated. Then it looked like he might actually win. Oh, to be on the winning side. As one 32-year-old acquaintance of mine exclaimed: "I've never been able to vote for a winner!" Being on the winning side. What a concept!

Then, Mr. Bill won. It was, to some, like a movement. Liberals and radicals alike were drawn to jobs with the new administration like flies to honey. We began to see people we knew-or at least knew of-mentioned as candidates high-level appointments. Phone calls re made, favors called in, deals struck. The press began keeping count of the African-American, Asian, Latino, Native American and women's faces. Some called cabinet nominees "the new rainbow."

By the time the inauguration began, people were celebrating like it was the second coming and everybody had a good seat. Music played, featuring everyone from Barbara Streisand and Barry Manilow to Chuck Berry, Little Richard and LL Cool J. Mr. Bill played the sax and talked with Mr. Rogers about his childhood. Poignant. Symbolically significant.

While I'll admit that I'd have been a lot more impressed with the symbolism if Mr. Bill had included rap stars Arrested Development or Luke (Banned in the USA) Skywalker, it does seem to me that before we all begin believing our own hype about the possibilities of the Clinton Administration and the new appointments, we'd do well to consider the difference between symbol and substance.

My own cynical view of this difference takes me back to another time and a different self, one who believed that if we were at the reins of power, we'd automatically remember our past and act accordingly ...

It was 1974, just after Nixon had been excommunicated. I was organizing workers forced to participate in New York City's first workfare program. We were forming a union, and were in the early stages of the work.

I was conducting some research down at city hall, when I ran into an old friend who had worked by my side at the Washington, DC office of the National Welfare Rights Organization. My friend had made it through Harvard Law School, and was one of three African-American attorneys who'd just joined the staff of the city's Office of Collective Bargaining (OCB).

I felt like I'd just hit the numbers! My old pal was working in the same office that we'd have to negotiate with for union recognition. I'd already discovered that the OCB was directed by an African American, and I couldn't believe my luck. With one of my old buddies on the staff, we had it made. Or so I thought.

I took my friend out for coffee and quickly laid out the problems: forced work, even for people with serious illnesses, the replacement of city workers with recipients of public aid at 1/4 the pay, no benefits and no ability to redress grievances.

My old buddy looked at me. He fiddled with his tie and swirled his coffee in its cup. Then he said the words I'll never forget: "Brother, you and I no longer have the same interest." That was it. He never returned my phone calls after that, and when our group did our fast action on the OCB, he was one of the "front men" sent to chill us out. I always seem to learn things the hard way. However, this lesson stayed learned. You can't take things at "face" value.

Getting back to the hype and the glitter of Clinton's "New Camelot," I'd like to point out that he has not said he'd raise corporate taxes. He waffles on free trade and backs Bush's moves in Iraq and Haiti. In electing Mr. Bill, many liberal and progressive voters thought they were opening the door to a reallocation of spending toward people in need.

Think again.

Mr. Bill is already backpedaling on the money. If we want him to deliver on his promises and certainly if we want this administration to do anything else, we can't depend on this diverse new team of "friends" in high places to do the right thing, because once they've got a job with this administration, the right thing may be more related to their own career aspirations than the needs of the group they supposedly represent.

As always, if we want accountability, we have to organize.

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