Black 'haves' vs. black 'have-nots': a cautionary tale

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Frank Lipscomb

Clifford Kelley, dean of black radio talk show hosts, recently lambasted (rightfully so) President Bush for pushing democratic voting rights in Iraq, while African-American joblessness continues to soar here on the home front. The double-digit unemployment figure for blacks is appalling. Blacks now are more than twice as likely as whites and Latinos to be out of work. The unemployment rate for young black males in urban centers like Chicago is fast approaching the 1930's great Depression levels. More blacks than ever are in jail, attending miserably failing segregated inner-city schools, and living in gang- and crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Bush's skewed tax cuts for the rich, and domestic spending slashes (150 programs for the working poor)?"also his assault on affirmative action programs?"have aided and abetted the poverty crisis among many blacks. But Bush has also aided and abetted the continued expansion of the black middle class. There has been a big jump in homeownership and black businesses, nationwide?"except Chicago.

Some black church groups have grabbed millions in President Bush's faith-based initiative funds. There are also well-to-do blacks, such as black entertainment television founder Bob Johnson, who owns an NBA team, and Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler, who is waiting for the white NFL owners to approve his bid for ownership of the Minnesota Vikings. Other "fat cat" blacks at the top end of the "see-saw" are those like Oprah Winfrey, who continues to climb higher in the billionaires club.

Black executives hold the top spots at some of America's giant companies and there are legions of multi-millionaire black superstar athletes, celebrities, and professionals.

The class rift between the black "haves" and the "have-nots" is hardly new. I have written about it many times in this column. The only difference today is the part that Bush is playing. Dr. King was prophetic when he said to his aides after President Johnson signed the 1965 Civil Rights Act, "I think we are integrating into a burning house."

Yes, Bush and his "war hawks" have lit the fire under black Americans. We are falling apart. We are sinking like the Titanic, breaking into two parts, like a "rubber band" seesaw, held together by antagonistic actions. The rich and the expanding middle class on top (the few) of the seesaw and the poor (the many) on the bottom end. Is "integration" the main reason our race as a whole is falling apart today? Or is it "internal repairs" as Randall Robinson said in his book, The Debt: What Blacks Owe to Each Other? Briefly, for the students, a dose of black history on this subject.

In the 1950s, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier warned that many blacks were becoming what he scornfully branded a black "bourgeoisie" that controlled the wealth and power within the black community, and they had turned their backs on their own people. Many members of Frazier's black bourgeoisie had begun to ape the values, standards and ideals of the white middle class, and to distance themselves from the black poor. Black wealth, like white wealth, was now concentrated in fewer hands.

In the 1960s, federal entitlement programs, civil rights legislation, equal opportunity statutes and affirmative action programs initiated during Lyndon Johnson's administration broke the last barriers of legal segregation. The path to universities and corporations for some blacks was now wide open. More blacks than ever did what their parents only dreamed of: They fled big city, blighted, inner-city areas in Chicago, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and Atlanta in droves.

During the same time, civil rights organizations and black politicians pulled a "switcheroo." They defined the black agenda in narrower terms: economic parity, professional advancement and busing replaced battling poverty, reducing unemployment, securing quality education for all students in mostly black schools in the inner cities (eg. magnet programs in all of the schools), promoting self help and gaining greater political empowerment as the goals of all African Americans. This left the one out of four blacks who chronically wallow below the poverty line in even more dire straits. Lacking quality education, competitive skills and training, the black "have-nots," the "untouchables," were further hurtled to the outer fringes of society.

Even though the black rich and middle, at the top of the "seesaw" may be light years apart from poor blacks in their wealth and status, our skin color is hardly a relic of the past. The "well-to-do" fume in anger as taxicabs speed past and ignore them. They can be stopped, and shaken down and spread-eagled by police. The "moving-on-up" blacks file countless EEOC complaints and lawsuits against corporations for stacking them at the low end in management positions. A sharp economic downturn could dump more than a few back into the same crumbling neighborhoods they worked long and hard to get out of.

It's the worst of times for many in black America, and Bush's policies helped make it that way for us at the bottom of the "seesaw." But it's also the best of times for many in black America, the last 30 years of desegregation and policies helped make it that way for those at the top of the seesaw. The space age tale of two black Americas is a cautionary tale of race and class rising and sinking, pushing and pulling blacks together and apart. Bush and his "war hawks" are the iceberg our "Black Titanic" ran into.

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