By Mansfield Frazier
“White people got more in common with colored people then they do with rich people”
– Fictional character Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth
During the 50′s, 60′s and much of the 70′s Blacks literally owned the Civil Rights Movement in America. We went from the back of the bus, to a seat on the front of the bus, to, in some cases, even driving the bus. The next logical step was to occupy seats on the boards that ran the bus companies – and that too has haltingly occurred, albeit quite a bit more slowly.
One of the main reasons the movement slowed down (other than the fact the obvious “in-your-face” racism was replaced by a more subtle, more difficult form to combat) was that Black Civil Rights leaders didn’t expand the moral franchise they owned lock, stock and barrel. When the movements for Women, Native Americans, Gays and other disenfranchised peoples came along (all spurred in some part by the success Blacks had experienced), instead of reaching out, embracing, and providing strategies, support and succor, Black leaders – especially after the death of Dr. King – demonstrated a conservative bent that rivaled the reactionaries they had been fighting so hard against.
Based in part on custom, and in part on wacky readings and interpretations of religious tenets found in the Bible, the Black Civil Rights Movement (which was largely lead by clergy) turned its back on a grand opportunity to advance the cause by strengthening its numbers via inclusion. Indeed, the same racist, right-wing bigots we Blacks were fighting against, these other marginalized Americans were fighting against too. If we had only reached out, together we all truly could have “overcome.” Our Black leaders seemingly forgot the aphorism “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
History – which has an uncanny (and sometimes nasty) habit of repeating itself – appears as if it’s about to do so again. As the Labor Movement – along with other Progressives – attempts to fend off efforts by conservatives to turn back the clock on workers’ rights in state after state around the nation, they are by and large ignoring a demographic that could aid them in winning their battles at the ballot box: The formerly incarcerated.
It’s not surprising that folks with felony records – especially Black folks with felony records, which, here in Cleveland, OH constitutes half of the adult male population – are often overlooked as foot soldiers when forces are marshaled to protect the working class via the voting booth. Historically, those in charge of mounting such efforts have reached out to minority communities only as an afterthought, quite literally taking them for granted. Why not, what else were they going do to, vote for conservative positions or persons? No, they often just stay at home.
Retail, street-level politics has been operating in the same manner within most ethnic communities for years and years: Money trickles down from national or statewide campaign headquarters to locals who operate get-out-the-vote campaigns…with varying degrees of success. However, White voters (and to some extent Black voters too) today are more geographically dispersed, better educated, and less inclined to be controlled by an old-style ward boss.
Additionally, in the Black community shifting demographics complicate matters even more: The issues that are of most concern to the largest pool of potential Progressive voters yet unregistered – prisoner reentry and social justice – are all but foreign to the usual would-be powerbrokers that pretend they control and deliver the Black vote.
It’s somewhat complicated and goes back a long way. As educated Blacks strove to enter into the middleclass (which often meant to be in the good graces of Whites who controlled the economics) they were convinced to abandon their less educated and so-called “criminogenic” brethren. If they wanted to be accepted as “good Negroes” they had to disassociate themselves from the “bad Negroes”…to leave them behind. In addition to leading to a significant stratification of Blacks in America, it has caused a degree of distrust on the part of the Blacks who live on the margins of society: under-employed (more often unemployed) and saddled with felony convictions that effectively keep them locked out of the prosperity and progress that is supposed to be America.
This is the population unions and Progressives need to reach, but the folks in the Black community they usually reach out to…the ones they entrust to reach their people, don’t know how to reach this demographic…since these really are not “their” people. They possess no legitimate currency with this underclass population, which is not surprising.
Nonetheless, if this cohort of untapped voting power (which has grown exponentially nationwide in the last three or four decades) can be effectively organized and tapped into it can become a game-changer. Simply look at how Conservatives nationwide use every mean – fair or foul – to limit the franchise among formerly incarcerated persons and their potential strength becomes all too obvious. Those nefarious right-wing efforts have to be effectively countered, but they can only be countered by giving this population a reason to believe their votes can make a difference, and make a real difference in their personal and family circumstance.
In other words, they can’t just be promised – they’ve got to be delivered – a piece of the American prosperity pie if their participation is expected and truly desired. Fair is fair all over the world.
Unions cannot afford to turn their backs on this population – similar to how Blacks turned their backs on others seeking the same justice they were seeking in the 60s – not if they expect to win. Progressives have to embrace and advocate for everyone who would be on their side…and this means the formerly incarcerated also. They no longer can just talk the talk – now they’ve also got to walk the walk.
Mansfield S. Frazier is Executive Director of the community revitalization group Neighborhood Solutions Inc. For more information please see its home page, http://www.neighborhoodsolutionsinc.com.