This was before my time, but NBC produced and televised a widely-watched musical version of Peter Pan in the fifties and sixties. In a famous scene, Tinkerbell is ill and Peter pleads with the children in the audience to clap and make Tinkerbell better: "You could get well again if children believe in fairies." She looks at the audience and says, "Do you believe? Oh please, please believe. If you believe, wherever you are, clap your hands and she'll hear you. Clap, clap! Don't let Tink die! Clap, clap . . . She's getting better . . . she's getting BETTER!" Tinkerbell's light gets bigger and brighter, and she lives to see another day because of the powerful belief of children.
My mother tells me that when she was six, Peter Pan made this plea and her four-year old brother clapped frantically. My uncle was pleading with her to clap, and, in the way of big sisters, she wanted to torture her sibling. So she didn't clap. I should say that my mother is not a sadist. She was just being a big sister, and even at that time she recognized fiction when she saw it. Fairies don't exist. It was just a show.
And yet, when I watch Republican politicians nowadays, I look at these guys, many of my Mom's generation, and can't help but think that they were among the millions of people who watched that musical. But unlike my Mom, they internalized a Tinkerbell logic. Just BELIEVE. It will make everything BETTER!
This came to mind when I learned that Ohio Governor John Kasich recently told a group in Florida the following:
"We have to convince African Americans that they can start and own businesses. And I was just laughing the other day reading that great article about Jay-Z, who's got a tiny little ownership of the Newark Nets and he's running the whole gosh darn thing now. People like that, who have shown that they can come from the streets and have a tough beginning and then be able to become great entrepreneurs -- we've got to get it into our schools in the inner-cities, we've got to show kids that, boy, you can be what you want to be."
There are quite a few things that drive me crazy about his statements. We'll just set aside the Jay-Z trajectory, which is from drug dealing to hip-hop star to entrepreneur. I have news for you, Mr. Kasich. This is, in fact, a path that any number of inner-city kids hope they'll be able to take (although some substitute athlete for hip-hop star). And while we don't want to crush the dreams of the young, for any number of reasons this is not a useful model for disrupting the current path of children who imagine they'll just stay in the game for a little while, and then they'll blow up and become big like their idols.
Instead, I want to focus on the ridiculous idea that African Americans need to be convinced to have an entrepreneurial spirit. Historical fact: the realities of segregation forced African Americans to be entrepreneurial. There have always been black owned businesses. If you go into the inner city you can't walk more than a couple of blocks without encountering someone who has a business or wants to own one. But what has destroyed the inner city, and many black businesses along the way? The flight of both white people and, later, some middle-class people of color from the city, the fall of the manufacturing industry that has been important to black progress, and struggling inner-city schools. The problems in the black community are not rooted in belief. They are rooted in infrastructure.
Unlike the governor of Ohio, I was born and raised there, and I grew up learning about the spirit of Ohioans. I'm from Dayton, Ohio, the home of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and the Wright Brothers. It's the town that was damaged by the flood of 1913, but that rebuilt and prospered. I always laugh at people on the coasts who seem surprised that there are black people in Ohio. From the time that many black people passed through the Underground Railroad to the African American Great Migration, it was a land of promise and opportunity.
But that changed when I was growing up. The story of my hometown is the story of many mid-sized cities in the United States. NCR, which was founded in Dayton, declined and was acquired by AT&T. The Mead Paper Company merged with a competitor and moved its headquarters. Like so many cities, it was hard hit by the decline of the U.S. car industry and General Motors let many workers go. As the city declined, black people were hit particularly hard.
This is not to say that many people haven't been working incredibly hard to lift Dayton up since the 1980s decline. They have. But let me tell you the difference between the kind of belief John Kasich has and the kind of belief we need to help my hometown. Kasich believes in Tinkerbell politics, that if you just believe that you can make things better. He does not believe in SOLID things, like infrastructure. He believes it is ethical to demonize state employees who believed that when they put money into the State Retirement System they would receive the benefits the state promised. He believes the state won't have a problem recovering from natural disasters so he turns down federal funds when tornados hit the state. He believes that more Ohioans who are eligible for Medicaid should fend for themselves. In Kasich's tinkerbell logic, in order to deal with concrete, material challenges, people just need to BELIEVE. Ohio can just rise up, like Tinkerbell, surviving the calamities it has endured.
Belief is great, but infrastructure and safety nets are better. Belief can inspire and motivate, but it won't provide food, clothing, shelter, or medical care when you're sick. Belief doesn't DO anything. My six-year-old mother knew that, Governor Kasich. Why don't you?