The movie “Lean on Me” has a powerful, yet underrated scene in which Principal Joe Clark is reprimanded by his superior to which he responds, “We are being crucified by a process that is turning black into a permanent underclass!” That’s heavy stuff. Joe Clark’s sobering prediction is not well remembered in the film and not considered seriously enough, especially when we discuss political priorities. That’s precisely what I thought about when someone complained to me that President Obama hadn’t nominated a black person for the Supreme Court. That same person advised me to write a piece about Obama’s failure to nominate a black person, a black woman in particular, to the vacant Supreme Court seat.
My short answer was, “I really don’t care that much.” Would it be nice? Yes. Does the Supreme Court ultimately hold a great deal of power over the lives of black people? Certainly. But to make that my issue would be following a long tradition of offering select black faces and gestures for serious policies that address this permanent status of underclass. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a prime example of this. His “Black Cabinet” was filled with prominent blacks, such as Mary McCloud Bethune, however, his Administration rejected anti-lynching legislation and left the door wide open for employment discrimination, as blacks sought to recover from the Great Depression. His appointment of black faces did not challenge the status of permanent underclass.
If I’m to levy a charge at President Obama for leaving something undone in two terms it would be the same charge laid to every other President: the failure to promote “asset-building” policies. In the 1800’s, the Homestead Act provided 160 acres to settlers at no charge, simply for settling on the land. Ironically, this was around the same time that blacks were released from chattel slavery in the south but were barred from participating. The legacy of the Homestead Act is substantial and critical to how America made a middle class out of European peasants. In 2000, Dr. Trina Williams of the University of Michigan estimated that well over 93 million Americans- a significant portion of the population- might be descendants of homesteaders. The FHA/VA mortgage guarantees are another example of an asset-building policy. Mortgages were scarce for all races until the government began backing loans and once it did, race was a determining factor for eligibility. As a result, blacks were locked out of homeownership for several more generations while whites once again built wealth through assets provided by the benevolence of Uncle Sam.
The daunting wealth gap between blacks and whites today was created,in large part, by massive asset-building policies directed toward whites and there has never been an effort to correct that. Instead, black voters are left with symbols. In 1992, it was Bill Clinton playing his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. Next it was George W. Bush appointing blacks to prominent positions in his Cabinet. Whether they extended a gesture or appointed a black face, they still didn’t address the core issue of asset building. President Obama’s failure to nominate a black person to the Supreme Court isn’t what should anger you. The real problem is his failure to promote broad-scale asset-building policies for blacks.
What do you think?