02/05/2008 03:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Voting When You Have Neither Luxury nor Benefits

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Luxury for black people means being able to vote for whomever you want, like anyone else. But blacks are not there yet. I wrote recently about how I thought the Democratic Party was divided, a big tent party alternating between pandering to non-whites and insulting them. Part of the reason that the party is able to do so, so effectively, is because the minority alliances are fractured: There is no deep, enduring coalition between Latinos and blacks, for example. Even the black Democratic leadership is split -- between those who've endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton and those who've endorsed Sen. Barack Obama. What's interesting to me is that in a contest like this one -- on Super Tuesday -- whether blacks benefit from voting against Obama. I would argue that they do not. In fact, I'd even say that blacks don't have the luxury to be Hillary voters.

Back in early January the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was evenly split amongst those who chose to endorse a democratic candidate:

The majority of the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus who have chosen to endorse in the race is split 15-15 Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. (Jan 8, 2008, NNPA)

Today, if my count is right, it's 16 CBC members for Clinton and 18 for Obama. Overall, according to The Hill, the number of Congress people behind Clinton is 90 and Obama, 62. When I looked at The Hill list, I didn't see a CBC member from NY for Obama. Nor did I see a CBC member from Illinois for Clinton. It's hard not to see how these endorsements are motivated by self-interest. As a writer from Politico reported back in mid-January:

"They are all professional politicians, and the first thing professional politicians learn is to try to be where they think it is more politically advantageous to be," said Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), an Obama supporter. "Many people will go with that which is projected, as opposed to going where there is no path and helping to blaze a trail. ("Black Caucus divided over Obama" by Josephine Hearn, Jan 17, 2008)

So what's going on with the regular black person out there? Endorsements or not, no matter who endorses whom, it's the average person who will decide the future.

Blacks live lives without benefits. We are benefits-less. I'm not talking about healthcare; I'm talking about status and privilege, being on top. It doesn't take long to uncover the undercurrent of disdain for black people running through the culture, especially when you hear something like this:

Radio talk show host Don Imus calling the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos"

And Seinfeld star Michael Richard saying, "Fifty years ago we'd have held you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass,"; "throw his ass out, he's a nigger, he's a nigger."

You have got to wonder about the real status blacks have in this country. Let's take one factor that measures quality-of-life in America, wealth.

Most private wealth in the Unites States was inherited. And even for people who do not inherit money after their parents' deaths, their family's education and social contacts and financial help from living relatives make a big difference. The racial wealth gap has continued to grow. From 1995-2001, according to the Federal Reserve Bank, the average family of color saw their net worth fall 7 percent, to $17,100 in just six years, while the average white family's net worth grew 37 percent, to $120,900, in the same period. (The Color of Wealth: the story behind the US racial wealth divide, by Meizhu Lui et al.)

(I couldn't help but notice, even though it's off-topic here, that that 7 percent drop for the average family of color, if accurate, fell during the prosperous Bill Clinton years.)

So, blacks have no luxury, that's the reality. No matter our material wealth, our lives are not of luxury. Even a Condoleezza Rice or a Will Smith is saddled with the rest of us. So blacks are in a bind, aren't we?

And it's not like anyone else is going to change things for us. There's not a lot of incentive to change a system when you're the beneficiary of it.

So then, how do blacks escape a pain that only we feel? -- We stick together. We help each other. We do not divide. We should be asking ourselves, "Is this good for black people?" "Does this help only me or does this help us?" Our interests can't only be individual; they have to also be collective.

I think you can see from the passage above from The Color of Wealth, that part of getting ahead is having some solidarity within your family and group. White families pass along the benefits of everything they've accumulated, so must black families, so must blacks.

We have to support our own.

I came across the practical uses of this word "solidarity", or a common sense of sticking together, when I was working and studying in France, about 13 years ago. (France, like many countries in Europe, was finding then, and even more so now, that this notion of being "together" was a lot easier when everyone was white. They feel overrun by the people they formally colonized, so it's not so easy this notion of solidarity.) At the time, there was a massive strike amongst students and workers upset with the Alain Juppé government. The entire country was at the mercy of the people. The subways no longer ran and students and workers filled the streets marching. It was an amazing thing at the time: inconvenient personally, I was tutoring a family in English in one of the poorer suburbs and I couldn't take the train out to them, but I saw that the people were energized, even respected by their government.

So how can black people become energized and respected? I suspect blacks won't be able to see to how to do this until we recognize the mess we're in and how we're being coaxed deeper and deeper into it by politicians who know how to use this force -- our pain. They know how much we really, really want to climb up and out of the prison. So that's why, for example, you hear Hillary driving a wedge where there doesn't need to be one, in this case between blacks and latinos, as she did during the last Democratic debate on Jan 31st:

Jeanne Cummings: "How do you propose to address the high unemployment rates and the declining wages in the African-American community that are related to the flood of immigrant labor?"

Clinton: "... an African-American man said to me, 'I used to have a lot of construction jobs, and now it just seems like the only people who get them anymore are people who are here without documentation.' So, I know that what we have to do is to bring our country together to have a comprehensive immigration reform solution. That is the answer... "

But clearly black people have had economic hardships since slavery, long before this current wave of immigrants, and I think you can see here how Clinton is looking to aggravate tensions between both groups. Sen. Obama says as much, in answering the same question (which he answered before Clinton and was not rebutting her answer above):

Obama: "... I think to suggest somehow that the problem that we're seeing in inner-city unemployment, for example, is attributable to immigrants, I think, is a case of scapegoating that I do not believe in, I do not subscribe to. "

"There are a whole host of reasons why we have not been generating the kinds of jobs that we are generating. We should not use immigration as a tactic to divide. Instead, we should pull the country together to get this economy back on track."

I want make clear here that I'm not saying we should always vote for the black candidate. Certainly, many of America's black politicians, especially its mayors, have a history of not delivering, of being corrupt, sloppy losers: From Sharpe James of Newark to Marion Barry of DC, we've seen the worst. But as in the instance above, it seems to me that Obama here sees the "economy problem" for what it is. That the economics are far more complicated than just dealing with "the immigrants". It seems to me he has a better mind for thinking creatively about how to find a solution. And that he has the courage to not say the easy thing -- you're right black people, those immigrants are getting in your way. In this situation, it'd be stupid for blacks not to vote for Sen. Obama, not only because of his intellect, that he's qualified and smart, but also because the office of the presidency has heretofore been a position off-limits to black people. It's a psychological barrier for all of us, the value of which, once broken, is almost impossible to calculate. In short, blacks need to reward excellence when they see it.

What's gone largely unsaid is that the best black leaders have been executed, and blacks have been frightened into submission or apathy. We self-regulate, we calculate. We hedge. So then, it seems at the root of it, is a question of courage. We live circumscribed lives, up against fear, isolation and greed. And many in the black community are leaving Sen. Obama up to fate - a man who is trying to take one step closer to breaking us free of the prison America has made for us.

I wonder if this is enough; I don't mean to be drawing some false line between white people and black people. In fact, for all the times I've been "wronged," there were also people who helped; sometimes they were the same person. Maybe you've experienced that too. And of those who really helped me - most were white. There's my mother... and my favorite uncle... the parishioner who grabbed me and carried me out church (when my head caught fire carrying a candle)... my high school track coach who talked me up to colleges... the woman who hired me at my first job at ABCNEWS... the people who helped and coached me there... the friend who helped me get my next job... the colleague who said, hey, you should be making more money - they're paying me this and we do the same thing... the counselor who said stop being a lazy ass and write... the professor who told me not to coast by and take the entrance exams at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po... my grandfather, who used to be a raving racist, sending me money for school... I remember us hunting for films for a film series I was doing and when he found the last copy of Malcolm X, you'd think by his face that it was the Red Sox winning the World Series. Is this solidarity? I don't know. I think it's something between seeing things for what they are and choosing to do the right thing. Actually, it's a mystery to me. I like this about people that you just never know what they'll do.

Oddly, it's often been the black people in my life who've made it hard. It seems we do not like or really know how to help each other. But we can learn. If my grandfather, who looked just like Pat Buchanan, could learn to love me, we can learn to have solidarity amongst ourselves. Blacks need to reeducate themselves about solidarity and how to move themselves ahead collectively, instead of only looking out for themselves individually.

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