I do not know what it’s like to be discriminated against because of my skin color or accent. I have never had that experience. Oh I have been razzed for being a geek and rather nerdy. But I have never had people decide I am of a lower species because of my skin color or racial background. So I cannot say I can identify with those who have. So for me to come out and attempt to have some sincerity concerning the issues that face those who have would be phony at best. That does not mean that I do not support them. On the contrary, it is because I cannot truly relate that I need to.
I came across this essay Ishmael Reed and though I do not agree with it completely, he does make a number of good points concerning the values of a number of white progressives. And these points quite often apply to their advocacy in general.
Moreover, the status of whites during the 1930s was different in Roosevelt’s time. Nichols ought to read the fiction of Jack Conroy, or Tillie Olson, proletariat writers who wrote about the millions of whites whose 1930s existence was one of desperation. Read William Kennedy’s Ironweed. Though white poverty still exists (check the Jerry Springer show any day or the films of Debra Granik) millions of whites, after entering the middle class, became Reagan Democrats. Where once there were Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, there are now “whites.” Some of those who had forged alliances with blacks went uptown on them. Started playing the Harpsichord. Started giving money to the Metropolitan Museum. Some Irish Americans began publishing a magazine called The National Review, which supported quack Kantian anthropology about African inferiority. Ironic because early Nativists didn’t want the Irish to come here because they said that the Irish had a “crime gene.”
Though his essay is concerned with how white progressives (and some minority ones as well) view racial problems, I think he misses a point. That progressives in this country are notorious for choosing causes and social and economic crusades that are convenient. Where there is little personal risk involved. Where they are not likely to be seen as biting the hand that feeds them. After all, like those they profess to eschew on the right, they identify with those in the same social and financial strata.
The Nation’s John Nichols suggested that President Obama make a Roosevelt-styled speech about Us, the masses of people, against Them, the moneyed interests. What Mr. Nichols doesn’t understand is that millions of whites identify with the Them.
There was an article that I wish I gad kept, a story about a fellow who had lost his job through no fault of his own. A corporate take over. Where he was not immediately able to secure employment again. Because of this he missed a credit card payment that impacted his credit rating. He was then told a number of times that this was the reason he would not be considered for employment on a number of interviews. As I recall, he would up loosing is house, his wife and reputation and would up having to take a position far below the one he originally had. He was no longer one of Them. And for blacks and other minorities it is even worse. There was a very good movie with Godfry Cambridge called Watermelon Man where a white insurance salesman wakes up black and finds himself having to live the live of a poor black man simply because of the color of his skin even though his employer, wife and family are supposed to be liberal.
I cannot help but wonder just how many self professed progressives would have sufficient personal integrity to be willing to put their current life styles in jeopardy for the causes they believe in. My father did. He had a very good job in the personnel dept. of a large Cleveland Corporation. One of his duties was to mark applications as to whether the applicant was black, of jewish or some other ethnicity. These of course would not be pulled. After all this was the 1950s. He could no longer handle this blatant racism so one day just before Christmas he came home and announced to my mother that he had just quit his job. He had not any other employment at the time. He did eventually get a job teaching at a local High School. It was in a Lilly white area that was also restricted. And it remains so to this day. I myself have been working at a state university for about two thirds of what I would get in the private sector. Feeling all self righteous because I was not working for the military industrial complex. But truth is that nearly all the research that is done there is military. But I have chosen to ignore this little fact.
The point to this is that it takes more than just a feel good initiative for enact real change. It requires taking the kind of risks that do show some integrity and passion and yes even biting the hand that feeds you. It means stand up for and raising ones voice for that which is not popular and de rigueur. Change is not safe and comfortable. It it was, we would have a good deal more of it.