It was not what I expected to hear from a politician. I had invited myself to the Congressional Black Caucus party – sponsored by Duke Energy – at the Democratic National Convention. An African-American elected official and Obama delegate was venting about racism in Oklahoma, when he confided: “Listen, I probably should be saying this, but if Barack Obama wins a second term it will be bad for blacks in Oklahoma.” I looked at him quizzically. “The board room,” he explained. “There’ll be retaliation.”
He added that he encouraged young African-Americans to leave Oklahoma because there was little economic opportunity in a state dominated by “racist rednecks.” At the carefully scripted convention, his message was a screeching reminder that no amount of soaring oratory could mask the painful reality of economic decline and thriving racism.
Now, it was hard not to be moved by the beautiful African-American First Family on stage in Charlotte the final night. The symbolism of a nation progressing from slaves on plantations to the Obamas in the White House is powerful. It’s even more potent coming after years of “Obama is a Kenyan-born Nazi-Muslim-Socialist” oozing from every orifice of the right and the GOP’s presidential nominee slinging a birther joke.
That symbolism, which has lost its luster after four bleak years, had a bit part in Charlotte that went largely unnoticed. Around the DNC were scores, perhaps hundreds of vendors, peddling memorabilia of Obama and the First Family such as tee shirts, buttons, hats, posters, calendars, books, and programs.
The vendors were overwhelmingly African-American. I conversed with six of them. Most looked to be middle aged and worn out. Two were from Charlotte; others travelled from Florida, Atlanta and elsewhere in North Carolina. “Business is okay” was the standard response when I asked if they were making money.
John, a warehouse worker from Winston-Salem, hawked buttons and programs in downtown Charlotte. He said a friend who had a company making buttons hired him and 14 other vendors on commission. “They count out the buttons. We sell ’em for $5 each, and get $2 for each button. If you don’t sell anything, you don’t make any money.”
A block away, Cynthia, a slight woman from Jacksonville, Florida, struggled with a board of buttons. “Proceeds go to a local food pantry.” Upon further questioning she said she received $2 a button. She was hired after responding to a Craigslist ad, driven to the convention from Jacksonville and given a room in Charlotte. “I have to pay for my own food though,” she added, juggling a box of Bojangle’s “Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits” along with the buttons.
Cynthia looked like she was 60 and missing most of her teeth. I asked how she was doing. “My back hurts, but I’m used to it,” she shrugged. She took time off from her job in Jacksonville as a healthcare aide. “Most of my patients are 300 pounds and I have to move them. I’m 114 pounds. We have techniques to do it,” she added with a grin.
The dirty secret about the 21st-century economy you won’t hear from either party is that millions of jobs involve moving goods or tending to bodies. More than 3.3 million Americans currently earn an average of $10.85 an hour moving goods by hand. Another 1.9 million pocket $9.70 an hour as personal care and home health aides. With a hollowed-out manufacturing sector, Obama’s promises aside, and an aging population, employment is growing in these fields. When you add in related fields, such as truck drivers and construction helpers or child-care workers and medical assistants, the ranks of these low-wage workers swell to more than 13 million. It’s hard not to notice that the workers are disproportionately African-American (and Latino).
The painful irony of Obama is that even as he represents the potential of triumphing over racism, the reality for most of Black America is an apartheid-like economy. Every indicator screams depression. A real unemployment rate of23 percent for Blacks. A childhood poverty rate of 33 percent. A foreclosure rate 47 percent higher than white Americans. Since 2005, the wealth of Black families has been razed by more than 50 percent to $5,700 per average –one-twentieth the amount of white families. For Hispanics, the story if virtually the same.
Abandoned by a society in which no banker is left behind – by 2011 the feds instituted 76 separate programs and measures with potential support topping $15 trillion – those at the bottom are lectured by Obama that “we insist on personal responsibility,” “hard work will pay off,” and “not every problem can be remedied with another government program.”
Once the glittery words are dusted off, Obama and the Democrats are peddling trickle-down economics. They will “reward” companies that “create new jobs here.” They will sign new trade agreements. But remember, “We don’t want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves.” The talk about education and jobs has been the mantra for decades. The difference is now Democrats have jumped on the beat-up-public-education bandwagon even as we train workers for jobs that don’t exist.
When Obama spoke about personal responsibility and celebrating “individual initiative,” he was not talking about people like Cynthia and John. They work some of the hardest jobs in our society for the lowest pay, and still muster the energy to work some more. They practice raw capitalism, making their living one tee shirt and one button at a time with no safety net.
It’s not that there isn’t a difference between the two parties. To the Democrats’ warmed-over Reaganism, the Republicans propose bare-knuckled plutocracy. It’s a choice between more of the same and a descent into darkness. But for Cynthia and John and Black America, a new day is still far over the horizon no matter who wins.