by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
It was an appropriate question, posed by an appropriate ‘dark horse’ candidate, in an appropriate venue.
“Why aren’t any of the major candidates dealing with the issues of Black joblessness?” The question was asked by Tim John, the under-funded, under-hyped and under-appreciated gubernatorial candidate who has attended more African American functions than seemingly all his opponents combined.
At each event I’ve observed him boldly declare that if elected he would utilize a ‘bottom up’ strategy to solve the state’s unemployment problem, starting with the most neglected segment of our society, Black people. As goes the Black community, he has said, so goes Milwaukee, and the state.
In many respects his question was part rhetorical, and part frustration with the political status quo. But before I could respond, he amended his query:
“Do any of the other candidates—Democrat and Republican– believe they can turn this state around without dealing with the massive Black unemployment rate?
“Also, why are Black people content to be second-class political hostages, never a priority of the candidates or party they are so loyal to?”
By the way, the venue was Carver Park, where each year hundreds of second generation Black Milwaukeeans converge for the annual Walnut Street Days picnic. There, they eat barbecue, greet old friends and reminisce about the ‘good ole days’ when the Black community was just that—a community.
For most of the Walnut Street Days’ celebrants, the ‘good ole days’ was an era when a segregated and separated Black community evolved around a strong commercial and cultural district.
An era when Black teachers took more than a passing interest in the educations provided to Black children, as most of them were our neighbors and Sunday school teachers. It was an era when Black people unapologetically spent their money with Black businesses, the Black church was truly the center of our universe, and the overwhelming majority of Black households, while economically impoverished, were headed by two parents, and thus were never culturally ‘poor.’
Yeah, those good ole days, when I was shorter than I grew to be, when neighbors not only disciplined you, but also received praise from your parents for interceding, and when you could walk into just about any home without having to first bang on the door or ring the doorbell. Back in the day, Walnut Street was a thriving Black business district, and represented the cultural core of our community.
Many conspiracy theorists believe there was a concerted effort to rip the heart out of the Black community by razing the entire strip. Whether you believe that theory or not, history shows that Mayor Henry Maier and the same common council that had turned a deaf ear to Black cries for equal opportunity (including an open housing ordinance), did in fact demolish the entire area to accommodate a new expressway, which, not by coincidence, was never constructed.
Assuming no politician was that misguided or myopic, you’re left with the conclusion that city hall and corporate America decided to divest our community upon realizing that we were growing too powerful, our families too independent, our vision too threatening to the status quo.
Some say our community never rebounded. While debatable, there is no doubt our once thriving commercial/cultural district was replaced with poverty, dysfunctionality and disorganization. Maybe that’s why the “second generationers” converge on the periphery of Walnut Street each year. They come to fellowship, for sure. But also to espouse what was, and could have been.
And, as is the custom, various political candidates canvass the park, for the most part dropping off literature without convincing arguments to warrant our support, other than the ability to articulate our plight.
All of them, no matter their level of government, are “concerned” about “Black unemployment, education, housing and crime”. Ask them to provide a single solution to those problems and most change the subject to the weather, racism or the upcoming Green Bay Packer season. Which takes me back to John, the “other” candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
It was not only unusual for a White candidate (and his family) to canvass the crowd at Walnut Street Days, but John went so far as to pose questions about Black issues, and to suggest they should be the priority of this gubernatorial campaign. That too was unprecedented.
As a crowd gathered around us, I told John what he probably already knew: “It’s a catch 22 of sorts.” To inject race and Black unemployment in the campaign is to risk losing outstate voters.
Sure, you might energize Black voters (if you have the resources to get your message out), but to be honest, how do we weigh against other special interests groups?
Is our vote more important than the unions, women, or Hispanics? As sure as fat meat is greasy, prioritizing Black concerns will alienate those aforementioned special interests groups. Moreover, focusing on the state of Black Milwaukee is to invite inquiries about the history of apathy towards us.
The truth of the matter is Black Milwaukee has not appreciably benefited from the political system in the last 50 years. Our community is just as segregated, our unemployment is just as high (if not higher), the poverty rate is still over 40%, and the Black high school drop out rate still hovers around 50%.
Electing Obama has not changed our status, and the fact that only a few pennies of the $2 billion the state received in stimulus money filtered down to our community speaks volumes about the agenda of politicians who earmarked the appropriations in such a way as to benefit every special interest in town but us.
And therein lies the dichotomy of our political paradox.
The sad truth is that our interests are so far down on the totem pole that we can feel the fiery furnaces of hell beneath our feet.
To the Democratic Party, we are essentially looked upon as the second cousins…twice removed. They say we’re family, but we never get a Christmas card and we’re not in their last will and testament.
The Dems figure we have no where else to go politically, and thus they treat us like pawns, occasionally throwing us a crumb, but never counting us in when the whole pie is divided.
Rev. Al Sharpton summed it up best when he said the Democratic Party uses a form of addition by subtraction. They claim they are representing us, but we’re not allowed at the table when they carve the turkey.
It may be a hard pill for many of us to swallow, but that political dichotomy extends to the White House as well.
We love President Barack Obama to death and defend him at every turn against the conservative white diatribe that has defined his tenure. But we do so as we bite our lips because we voted for him assuming he would champion Black causes, address the historically high unemployment rate, and put teeth in the mouth of affirmative action and right past injustices.
Many of us thought his election would not be mere symbolism, but would be of substance.
But seconds after his swearing in ceremony, we were told we must wait until his second term to address our pressing issues. For him to champion Black causes now will cost him the 2012 election, they told us.
We’re also caught in a political catch 22 as it relates to criticizing him. To do so is to be labeled an Uncle Tom.
(Interestingly, Earl Ingram and his WMCS radio Friday crew dealt specifically with that topic last week. For two hours they debated whether or not Obama was beyond reproach. Oshi Adelabu summarized their consensus when he said we were caught in a political vise, afraid to criticize Obama, but expecting much, much more from him.
Oshi went on to say Black America is forced to pin our hopes on a second term, because for Obama to prioritize our interests is to invite a White backlash.)
Of course I agree wholeheartedly with Oshi, but I’m also a political pragmatist who recognizes that Black progress is measured in inches, not steps. The system is not set up for any group to get wholesale attention. Presidential, like gubernatorial administrations, are historically evaluated based on a few legislative and budgetary footnotes, not massive overhaul. Thus, anyone who believes politicians will provide significant solutions to our problems is foolish or naive.
Tim John is the John Edwards of Wisconsin politics. If you recall, before the sex scandal that brought his career to a halt, Edwards was the only candidate whose campaign platform specifically dealt with poverty, Black unemployment and education. As such, he never got much attention from the national media, and White America cast a discerning eye on him.
There’s a lesson in that scenario that John should accept, although I applaud him for being the only gubernatorial candidate to consistently discuss Black issues in this gubernatorial campaign.
If all things were equal, and truth and justice and the American way were truly America’s ethos, all the gubernatorial candidates (in fact all candidates) would have to lay out a legislative agenda that prioritizes Black concerns. They would have to explain specifically what they would do to earn our vote.
But that’s not the case. As a result, the under-funded and publicized John campaign will not get the media attention that he needs to move beyond dark horse status.
As a consequence, Democratic Party officials will put their resources beyond Tom Barrett, and tell us we have no choice but ignore our personal interests. Again.
Which is not to diminish Tom Barrett. He has always shown himself to be a friend of the Black community. He has championed several Black causes and as a congressional candidate received the endorsement of Black congressmen over Black candidates including the late Terrance Pitts. But that’s not the point.
I can guarantee that in the next few weeks, Black Democrats will again tell us to put our concerns on the back burner. There is a more important agenda at hand, they will say. In laymen’s terms, that means we’re in a Catch 22. Again.
I’m among that growing contingency who’s tired of waiting, of unfulfilled promises, and second-class citizenship. Being given house slave status by the political status quo is not good enough. But unless we form our own political party, it’s going to be more of the same old political status quo.
And we will attend next year’s Walnut Street Days festival talking about the ‘good ole days,’ and they will not include today. Hotep.