June 05, 2014
By William Spriggs
Last week marked the loss of a powerful voice in Maya Angelou. Fortunately, many in the nation paused to notice her loss. Dancer, actress, poet and teacher, Angelou captured everyone’s attention because of her ability to talk honestly out of her own pain and to get people to empathize, to share in the human experience.
Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a telling piece for The Atlantic on reparations. As Coates notes, he leaned on the work of many people in writing the piece, including his experience studying history at his alma mater Howard University. What he did better than others, however, was weaving his argument through the personal experience of current residents of a Chicago neighborhood.
It was a great attempt to personalize a history of bad policies that others had previously described in abstract form. But perhaps his most telling passage was this: “In America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.” This is a concept rooted in memory and a sense of who can claim to be harmed, to have a sense of being wronged, to mourn, a sense of humanity. The passage is potent because it is a powerful way to explain the lack of empathy for the plight of African Americans.
That is one of the reasons Angelou was such an important voice, because not everyone could weave more than a century of biased policies through the lives of one family, as Coates did, and not everyone could be as poetic and powerful as Angelou in bringing empathy to African American lives. But there is a far deeper damage than the case Coates makes about reparations that flows from America's inability to empathize with the position that bad policies have left African Americans in.
At his commencement address to Howard University’s graduation in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “Negro poverty is not White poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences-deep, corrosive, obstinate differences-radiating painful roots into the community and into the family and the nature of the individual.
“These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice.” Johnson’s speech that June day was meant to elicit empathy for African- Americans, to connect them as worthy to claim the American Dream. And, to do this, he makes clear reference to a history of policies with malice; “not the result of racial differences”—differences in character, culture or morals.
Now, whenever America goes into recession, the fault lines of the policies of the past create crevices into which hundreds of thousands of African-Americans fall-compounding poverty through the loss of incomes and savings. But, rather than focus on bad policy, it quickly becomes a story about issues of character, as Congressman Paul Ryan did in explaining American poverty.
The inability to dissect bad policies and to then quickly divert attention to the victims of the policies does not just harm African-Americans. It hurts America. The lack of empathy, the sense that letting Wall Street run amok, removing the wage floor from beneath workers, denying workers their right to organize, lowering investments in our schools and colleges have no consequences, leaves Americans with blameless politicians and business elites.
Five years into a recovery that has only finally restored the number of jobs that were in place five years ago, but leaves millions unemployed and the incomes of the median family still lower and the poverty rate higher, and thousands still with homes lost to the financial “games” of Wall Street, is not really recovery. Lack of empathy is part of the ability of Republicans to vote against extending unemployment benefits or to cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits or fail to extend Medicaid coverage as more than half of America is still making up income losses. They feel no responsibility for those left struggling.
It isn’t enough for Americans that we have passed new regulations for Wall Street if we don’t have policies to undo the harm those policies caused. Americans deserve to be made whole. As long as we limit the narratives and stories we may tell, we will limit the policy options we can discuss. And our current “memory” defines who is suffering and who gets to make claims on policy-not the 99 percent.
William Spriggs serves as Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO and is a professor in, and former chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University. Bill is also former assistant secretary for the Office of Policy at the United States Department of Labor.