Racism, Separatism … And Economic Siege

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Hugh B. Price
Title: Racism, Separatism … and Economic Siege
VTR: 1/20/95

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And preparing the other evening for this program, I couldn’t help but think back on all our other broadcasts over the years focusing on America’s Civil Rights – and wrongs – and of “The Movement’s many leaders who joined me on the air: Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, John Jacob, Adam Clayton Powell, James Farmer, Wyatt Tee Walker, and many others. And I couldn’t help but ponder the role that separatism, both black and white in origin and anger, has played, still plays, in rendering race-related leadership in our nation less, rather than more, effective.

But now, with what Bob Herbert in The New York Times called “A welcome breeze in the overheated, oppressive, finger-pointing atmosphere in which much of our racial discourse is conducted,” a younger African-American leader has surfaced who understands fully what he calls “The instinct to separate when we are incessantly under economic siege, when we’re still discriminated against some 40 years after the Brown decision, and when, thanks to those recurring images on evening newscasts of Black youngsters being hauled off to jail, even our honor students are trailed like common thieves when they enter stores.” Indeed, Hugh Price, the new president of the National Urban League, perhaps can focus more forcefully than his “movement” predecessors on African-Americans’ economic circumstances and on the fact, as he says, that “This ruthlessly competitive world waits for no nation, no ethnic group, and no individual.”

Let me ask Mr. Price where he would lead the Movement.

PRICE: Oh, I think there are a number of issues that we have to focus on. I think that if you consider the fact that, in the social compact, there are individual responsibilities and societal responsibilities, and it’s my belief that the compact has broken down on both sides. In fact, the breakdown has fed the problems on both sides. I think, on the individual side, we have seen a retreat from individual responsibility, the obligation that parents have to bring children into this Earth and to be in a position to nurture and support their children economically, the increase in violence and loss of respect for human life, all of those kinds of issues on one side of the equation are quite, quite serious.

On the other side of the equation, we’ve seen the major economic changes in our society that have made it much more difficult for people to support their families, and that have fostered, in my judgment, much of the tension between races as people are scrambling for position in the economy. What’s happening on the economy is not unlike a basketball game where you’ve got people jostling under the backboards for the only rebound that’s coming off. And I think that if we’re going to pull our way out of this we’ve got to repair and redefine the social compact on both sides, which means that we’ve got to work, we, of The Urban League, for example, have to work in our own community and with our own folk to take individuals much more seriously, and I think that’s a broader societal issue, by the way, not just an African-American issue. And secondly, I think on the side of the social obligations, we’ve got to look at where is the work going to come from and where are the livelihoods going to come from that enable people to live with dignity. And if we don’t address both sides of the compact and concentrate only on the personal responsibility side and not on the opportunity side of the equation, we’re going to have an imbalance and a continuation of the problems that we have.

HEFFNER: Hugh, that’s such an interesting way to put it, talking about “two sides of the compact.” Obviously, what we live in now is a society in which there are those who may give lip service to the notion of compact between two sets, but who generally come back down and emphasize one. “It’s your responsibility to do this,” rather than, “It’s both of us.” How do we get out of that situation?

PRICE: Well, I think we’ve got to be clear about what’s happened on the society end of it. If you look at the Civil Rights Movement, the whole thrust was to knock down the Jim Crowe laws and to open up access to opportunity in the white-collar and blue-collar economies that were rather robust after World War II and going all the way into the ’50’s. If you were participating in the blue-collar economy, you could earn enough money as a factory worker to buy a home, a car, send your kids to college, and to take an occasional vacation. That’s not true any longer for millions of Americans. So, African-Americans fought the Civil Rights fight to knock down the laws and gain access to this economy, much of it was urban based, only to find it dissolve almost on the day that the victory was declared, even though very few people realized it was dissolving. And I don’t think, in fact, that either White or African-Americans realized that it was dissolving to the extent that it did, because it has taken time.

Now, of course, the economic change is affecting more and more Americans, and it’s affecting the angry White male; it’s affecting white-collar workers who earn really good wages, say, out in Westchester County, where I live. And as a result, there’s a lot of anger and anxiety out there, and a lot of jostling under the boards for economic advantage. And that is what I think is fueling a good deal of the animosity in this country, and a good deal of the tightening of public policy.

HEFFNER: Where is it written, though, this notion that you recognize the compact, the obligations on both sides, and something can be done about it?

PRICE: I think it’s an understanding in the society. These are the key ingredients of social cohesion. It is entirely appropriate to say, “Thou shalt do this, thou shalt do that. You have certain responsibilities.” But there also is the Preamble to the Constitution which posits the notion that government and society have to look out after the social welfare, provide for the common good, and, in effect, manage an economy that makes it possible for people to prosper. I mean, after all, we left feudalism years ago, the days of a handful of well-endowed overlords and the rest of the vassals on the farm struggling away as best they can. The whole greatness of this country was the opening, the broad opening of economic opportunity to those who wanted to participate, and the prospect of upward mobility, the prospect that, no matter how humble your beginnings and how modest your skills, there was a blue-collar economy all the way up to a white-collar economy that provided a place for you and an opportunity to share in America’s bounty. That part of the social compact, the expectation that the economy will deliver for you if you play by the rules, has broken down for millions of Americans. It hit African-Americans earlier because of the urban base, but it is hitting everyone now as well.

HEFFNER: But you’re not willing to make any concession to the notion that just as the frontier lent itself to that fluidity, that flexibility, that upward mobility, that the frontier is gone, and so are those good things that historically always went with the American experience.

PRICE: Well, well, we’re in a period where upward mobility seems to be in a holding pattern for millions of Americans. If you talk to macroeconomists, they would suggest that, as in the past, with the Industrial Revolution, we will work our way out of this; there will be opportunity for decent incomes at the back end of the transformation that we’re going through.

Another view, if you talk to many business CEOs, is that we’ve only just begun to see the impact of technology and the globalization of labor on the American worker, and that the picture is not that pretty at the back end. And it’s fascinating that many economists say that the CEOs have a short time horizon, and the CEOs say that the economists have their heads in the sand. (Laughter) And it’s hard to reach any consensus about this.

What I think is also fascinating that’s going on is that, in this grand, global realignment of work and wealth, wealth is moving toward the Third World. And there are many who are saying that, in the grand scheme of things, that is appropriate. That if we’re going to have prosperity and comfort in parts of the world where there’s devastating poverty, if we’re going to staunch the flow of immigrants from very poor countries into First World countries, then we’ve got to grow the economies of those societies. But in the process there’s a wrenching price that we’re paying in this country.

HEFFNER: But if the African-American has to pay the price of a shift in the world economy …

PRICE: It’s not just African-Americans who are paying the price, though, Dick.

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I understand that.

PRICE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I hear you very well when you say, “Don’t turn your backs on us, because you and we are facing this together.” Where do you find the optimism to make the assumption that, in this grand transformation, in this grand movement, to balance things out between the First and the Third Worlds, that we’re going, within the foreseeable future, to come back to America, the land of opportunity?

PRICE: Well, I don’t think you have a choice but to be optimistic. And certainly when you work with real people in real communities, you have to do whatever you can to help them navigate the real world as they see it and as they encounter it. So, in our work, we know that children in inner-city schools are capable of higher levels of achievement and of performing more challenging material. We know that they’re capable of getting better jobs in the communities where they are. There is growth in some communities. There’s a great deal of economic churn and job churn in communities. There are opportunities to participate in those parts of the economy where there’s growth and where there’s wealth to be made. And we need to do a better job of positioning African-Americans to participate. What I’m suggesting is that the macro picture is the harder one to get one’s hands around, and, in fact, where there’s less of a knowledge base. There is a lot of knowledge about how to do a better job of educating inner-city children who don’t seem to be doing well in school. I’ve seen those instances. You’ve probably talked to people who can tell you for hours about the wondrous things that are done. So we know at a micro level how to do a much better job of preparing people. What we don’t know at a macro level yet, and aren’t even willing to discuss in this country, is: Where are we headed as an economy? What are the characteristics of the kind of market economy we have now that might not address all the problems that we have? Will the kind of economy, with its emphasis on highly competitive capitalism, deal with the pockets of high unemployment in this country, and are there compensating mechanisms that we need in public policy, such as public sector job creation, in order to make sure that people have a chance to work where the private market doesn’t work?

HEFFNER: But you’re not the head of the AFL-CIO …

PRICE: No.

HEFFNER: … or of the National Association of Manufacturers, or of the Chamber of Commerce. What’s the added (inaudible) here for you as a head of an organization that is African-American?

PRICE: Well, on the ground …

HEFFNER: In other words, where does race come into this?

PRICE: Where does race? It was once said to me by somebody who I don’t remember, that when the tidal wave of major change hits the beach, African Americans are invariably engulfed first because they’re closest to the water, but if the change is big enough, it works its way up the beach. And I think that’s what’s going on now: It’s working its way up the beach. Race is clearly a factor in the exaggerated impact on us. Race is clearly still a barrier to participating in getting certain kinds of jobs, getting access to housing, getting access to lending, and the like. The Urban Institute has sent out testers in the last several years, White and Blacks, equally qualified, applying for jobs. The pattern, not surprisingly, is that White candidates get more favorable consideration. So we’ve got to continue to fight racism wherever it’s encountered; but in addition, we’ve got to focus on preparing all of our young people to participate in this economy that’s before them in their communities and in the country. So, on the ground, we have to do our level best to prepare our folks to navigate the real world as they see it. And in our policy and advocacy work, we’ve got to partner with others who are beginning to ask hard questions about how the economy is working, whether it’s creating enough opportunity, and what kinds of compensating mechanisms there must be in order to enable everyone to participate again. Because I think if we don’t get at that question, and if we have larger and larger pockets of African-Americans who really don’t have a place in the economy, don’t have a place with dignity in the economy and you engraft upon that other people of color and angry White males who don’t have a place in the economy, there’s the potential for the creation of a very large, disaffected class which, if it ever stopped warring against itself, and instead, coalesced, might provide a basis for some more compassionate policies. Which isn’t to say one’s looking at alternative economic systems, but just looking at compensatory mechanisms to take the hard edge off of capitalism.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s not leave that hard edge too quickly

PRICE: Right.

HEFFNER: What do you see as the potential for that at this point in our history?

PRICE: I think the seeds of something very dangerous politically are building. I’m reminded of a couple of conversations I had which show how these things can build almost without being detected. I was once told by people from Finnish television, while I was still in public broadcasting, that the Soviet Union – this is about 1986 or so – the Soviet Union was deeply disturbed by the penetration of the Finnish television signal into the Soviet Union, not because of the reruns of Dallas, but because of the commercials which showed folks over there what the possibilities were they that’d been denied.

Secondly, I had a fascinating conversation at the Council on Foreign Relations lunch once, where I sat next to the West German defense minister. This was about six months after the Berlin Wall fell. And I said, “Mr. Minister, I have to ask you an impertinent question. You have a vast intelligence operation inside East Berlin and throughout East Germany. Did your spies tell you that the wall would fall? Did they tell you that, even if the soldiers had defended it, the citizens would rise up and ignore the soldiers? In other words, did they tell you how discredited the government was in the eyes of the citizens? And he said they had detected none of that.

Now, there is discontent on the ground, which I think was elected in the fall election, that I think those who make the rules in this society better be very attentive to.

HEFFNER: You know, I remember the first time I moderated an Aspen Institute executive seminar. And as my good luck would have it, one of my resource participants was Thurgood Marshall. It was before he went on the bench. And Thurgood managed to stir up quite a lot of feeling there by putting on his best Black boy accent, and saying to these fat cats, very fine people, chairmen of boards, CEOs, et cetera, “You’re going to burn in your beds if you don’t understand what’s happening in this country.” But do you feel that there is a much greater feeling now, 31 years from, 32 years after Thurgood and I had that experience, realization that so much is going on underneath that a wall may fall?

PRICE: I think there’s a growing realization that there’s a lot of discontent in the land and a lot of alienation that is spreading beyond people of color to the majority culture. Yeah. Will that crystallize in compassionate public policies that take the edge off of things? I don’t know. A couple of years ago there was an increase in the wage supplements provided under the tax system though what is called the “earned income tax credit,” which was an effort to do that. But I don’t see a lot of evidence otherwise. And, of course, there’s a lot of talk in Washington now about retreating from the public policies that help. And I think that, I just wonder, you know, do we want to toss mothers and children off of welfare and run the risk that, as is the case in some Third World countries and even on the Riviera, that we will encounter mothers and children out begging on the streets. Do we want that in this country? Do we want to run any risk of that? Are we prepared to toss people into a labor market that is very soft and has a lot of unemployed folks and for whom there may not be adequate jobs? What are we going to do if there’s no room in the local labor market, if, let’s say, the unemployment is seven or eight percent, if there’s no room, that people are tossed off of welfare? If we were to create public sector jobs or have publicly stimulated work to provide a compensating mechanism, it would be fine to have a hard edged welfare with a time limit which forces people to become self reliant. But if there is slack in the labor market and there aren’t enough jobs, what are we going to do? If every time the unemployment rate dips below six percent the Federal Reserve Board hyperventilates, raises the interest rates, puts more people out of work, and at the same time we’re saying to poor people, “You’ve got to be self reliant and work,” there’s a disconnect there between our policies and our realities. And we want to work with others to try to establish a connection between the two phenomena.

HEFFNER: Yet, with an unemployment rate that isn’t all that high, one could hardly say that we see signs of the compassionate society that you urge upon us.

PRICE: The unemployment rate isn’t all that high?

HEFFNER: Do you feel that it is in terms of …

PRICE: Well, the feds’ sort of definition of “full employment” is six percent unemployment. I mean, that’s what has triggered the increase.

HEFFNER: Okay.

PRICE: And our old definitions a number of years ago of what constituted full employment was a lot lower than that.

HEFFNER: But, you need the compassion that you’re talking about in the compassionate society. Do you see those signs or the sign of compassion?

PRICE: I see the precursors of it, which is the beginnings of an openness in communities about what’s really going on. And I think the elections were, in part, about that: “This isn’t working. I’m in pain. The people who are in office aren’t responding to my pain. So let’s get a new cast of characters.” But I don’t see the constructive impulse coming out of that yet. I think that’s got to grow from the ground. I don’t think that’s an op-ed debate that’s got to happen. I think that the impulse for compassion and inclusion has got to come back up from the ground. The American people have got to say, “We want to live in this society; not that kind of society.” And that means that groups like ours and others have got to work the turf out there on the ground so that people speak to their public officials about the kind of world they want to live in.

HEFFNER: How well are you going to be able to do the job of leading that kind of society – and that’s the only way to put it – when there still are extremists in the area of race, both Black and White? How well can you perform this thoughtful, moderate, there is a social compact with two sides to it?

PRICE: Right. Right. I think we’ll be able to do our work. And I’m not going to war with the extremists. We’ve got hard work to do. And I understand some of what the extremism is about. It’s about extreme exasperation with the way things work. I mean, there are other factors as well sometimes, and a lot of it sometimes is deeply rooted in racism. But a lot of it’s rooted in sheer exasperation and a sense that America is not willing to live up to the Constitution and not willing to live up to the obligation to provide for an inclusive society and for the wellbeing of all. I often say that there are people who operate solidly inside the mainstream – and that’s the Urban League – and we help build bridges and help people across. There are some groups that have a hard advocacy edge to them that believe that folks need to function inside the mainstream, and they’re forever pushing on the outside to get people into the mainstream and to make the institutions that set the rules to be more compassionate. And then there are people all the way on the outside who said, “I don’t believe it’s going to work. I don’t think they’re ever going to open up. And besides, there’s a whole history of racism and discrimination in this country to undergird our belief,” and also believe that if you get up on that bridge, somebody’s got a depth charge, you know, connected to them, they’re going to blow it up when you’re up there and vulnerable as you try to cross over. So we’re skeptical. We’re profoundly skeptical, bordering on cynical, that America’s ever going to be serious about this, so we’re going to do our own thing.” That is the extremism rooted in exasperation with the American system. I understand what that’s about. I think the game is inside the mainstream. That’s the only way you can go. But I understand – I’m not there, but I understand – what that is about. I’m not going to go to war with it. I don’t feel like getting into a big discussion about it, because our work is over here.

Now, there are other forms of extremism that, as we said, are deeply rooted in racism and xenophobia that really are much more dangerous.

HEFFNER: How do you avoid – you say you don’t want to go to war with that. I understand that. You have your business mapped out for you – how do you avoid it …

PRICE: Well, we …

HEFFNER: … when attacked?

PRICE: Well, I haven’t been attacked. And I think that we try to defend ourselves from attack by saying, “We’re trying to help our folks, and those especially who are mired in poverty, climb out. If you want to challenge that agenda, go ahead. If you believe that there is no hope, and we need to do this in a separatist fashion, we can have a discussion about that. But I understand where you’re coming from. Please respect and understand where I’m coming from, and maybe we can have an intellectual discussion about it. But it’s nothing to foam at the mouth about.” And meanwhile, we and our affiliates, who work with real folks on the ground in real communities, in real schools, are going to try to help real people get out of poverty. That’s what we’re about. And as long as we stay focused on our agenda, and it is rooted in the needs of real people who have real problems and real challenges, I think our movement is credible. And I think that others will say, “Well, we might want to do it a different way,” or, “We don’t think you guys will ever succeed. But at least, perhaps, you’re focusing on the right set of folks and the right set of problems.”

HEFFNER: And the separatists? Where are they today?

PRICE: I don’t know. I haven’t had discussions with them. And it’s not been an issue particularly in our work. And so …

HEFFNER: What do you think that indicates? Seriously.

PRICE: I will tell you the truth: I haven’t thought hard about it. I don’t spend time thinking about that. And it will sound like I’m evading the question, but it’s simply because I haven’t given that a moment’s thought. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: No, I don’t think it sounds like evading the question; I think it sounds like a pretty damned good defense mechanism.

PRICE: We’ve got work to do, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.

HEFFNER: The NAACP, the disputes there. You stayed aside from, out of, all of that.

PRICE: I think it’s tragic what is happening. I have every prayer and expectation that the NAA will work its way out of that. This country generally, and our people, need a strong NAACP. We need many voices on these issues and many strong voices on the issues that we care about, and not one, two, or three. I remember when I was writing editorials for The New York Times, Max Frankel once said to me that, “If you haven’t written an editorial five times, there’s no point in writing it once, because nobody will have heard you.” So, we and the NAA are very much of the same mind about what has to be done in this country. We’re sibling organizations, founded one year apart. They’re slightly senior, came out of the womb first. So the agenda is the same. The NAA, if you think about that kind of simplistic characterization of who’s solidly inside the mainstream, who straddles, and engages in strong advocacy to try to open up the mainstream, and who’s all the way out, the NAA, in my sort of calculus, is that group that straddles. It believes in access to an opportunity through the mainstream, and it leans very hard on all the institutions in order to open up. And we desperately need an organization organized the way they are, funded the way they are, with the latitude they have, to lean very hard on all sectors of society to be open. So I pray, and I expect that they will climb out of their problems. They’ve got a ways to go, but that’s why, I mean, I sent them a rather substantial contribution and have exhorted everybody else to do that as well so that they will have the wherewithal to work their way out of their problems. They’ve got some problems they’ve got to get out of, though.

HEFFNER: And, in the few seconds left, how will you do it?

PRICE: I’m having a terrific time. I’ve had eight careers in my life, all of them fun. And I’m using everything I ever learned from every one of those careers, and I’m now going back to what I didn’t learn (laughter) and try to pull that into play as well. I’m having a terrific time.

HEFFNER: If only we could all do that.

Hugh Price, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

PRICE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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