McCain Channels Booker T. Washington

Isaiah J. Poole

In a speech before the NAACP on Wednesday that displayed a remarkable but unsurprising detachment from the realities of the African-American community, it was nonetheless telling that Sen. John McCain, in reaching for a historical marker for his speech on equal opportunity, grabbed onto Booker T. Washington’s 1901 visit to President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.

It would not have been lost on the delegates at the NAACP convention that it was Washington who in 1895 gave the infamous “Atlanta Compromise” speech, the one in which he counseled black people to “cast your buckets where you are,” to focus less on agitating to change the racist structures that limited their opportunities and to instead emphasize putting “brains and skill into the common occupations of life.” He cautioned patience and gradualism in eradicating racism, for “the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly.”

Intentionally or not, McCain channeled Washington at the convention in Cincinnati, spending roughly half of his speech talking about public education and virtually none of it talking about the continuing inequities African Americans face, often regardless of education.

When he did talk about public education, it was the in disingenuous school-choice language of conservatives, in which private schools and charter schools are offered as antidotes to what he called the “public school establishment,” the “entrenched bureaucracy” and the “teachers’ union” that is filled with people “who seem more concerned about their own position than about our children.”

McCain’s embrace of the right-wing line on public education is fatally flawed, but what is more insulting is the implication that if only black people were better educated, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

No question, inferior schools have helped lock a significant segment of African Americans in a vicious, intergenerational cycle of poverty, ill-equipped to seize the opportunities opened up by the civil rights revolution.

But while McCain was urging “a willingness to break from conventional thinking” on education, he was criminally negligent in failing to break from conventional conservative thinking on the economic state of the African American community under eight years of President Bush.

The economic gap between African Americans and whites that had persisted for decades was beginning to narrow during the economic boom of the Clinton administration, but that progress came to a halt, and in come ways went backwards, once Bush took office. Since 2000, for example, while average household income for white people increased almost 14 percent between 1999 and 2006, it only increased 8.6 percent among black people. There was a less-than-two-percentage-point gap in the labor force participation rate in 1998 between white people (67.3 percent) and black people (65.6 percent). In 2007, as both black white people began to lose jobs as the economy slowed, the racial gap grew to nearly three percentage points. The unemployment rate among African Americans, 9.2 percent, is nearly twice that of whites (4.9 percent), a trend that stretches back decades.

The statistic that most starkly speaks to the continuing damage of discrimination to the economic fortunes of African Americans is the fact that while median net worth of non-Hispanic white households was $87,055 in 2002, it was only $5,446 among black households.

The audience at the NAACP did not need to hear those statistics from McCain, but they needed to hear a plan to address the racial inequality represented by those statistics. If nothing else, McCain could have spoken to the theme of the plenary session he attended, which was a discussion of home ownership on the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.

An hour before McCain spoke, Shanna L. Smith of the National Fair Housing Alliance discussed the findings of her organization’s work on housing discrimination in cities such as Detroit; Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.; Westchester County, N.Y. , and Marietta, Ga. In each of those areas, there were clear instances of redlining being practiced by real estate agents. The organization has evidence of agents being instructed by their supervisors not to show homes in white neighborhoods to black applicants, and vice versa. In some cases, notably in Detroit, the redlining meant that whites were marketed homes that were inferior to homes that were available in comparable predominately black communities. 

Forty years after the landmark housing bill was signed, forty years after the ubiquitous “equal opportunity housing” signs and logos on real estate ads, “past and ongoing discriminatory practices in the nation’s housing and lending markets have produced extreme levels of residential segregation that result in significant disparities in access to good jobs, quality education, homeownership attainment and asset accumulation between minority and nonminority households,” according to the alliance’s book, “Segregation: The Rising Costs for America.”

The book also notes that as a result of predatory loan practices that were especially prevalent in working-class African American communities that have now come home to roost during the subprime bust, “over the last three years, the decline in homeownership among African Americans has destroyed almost half the gains made in the decade from 1994 to 2004.”

There was nothing about the housing crisis in McCain’s speech, but there was a mention of making the Bush administration tax cuts for the wealthy permanent, as well as giving people tax credits for private health insurance—a plan that deserves a particularly critical look from groups such as the NAACP since roughly one in five African Americans are without health insurance.

The New York Times on Wednesday published a poll that showed a continuing wide gulf in the perceptions between white and black people of the realities of race in America. While some of that gulf is prejudice, much of it is ignorance, fostered in a country in which the races are still largely segregated behind translucent walls. McCain brought congeniality and kind words to the NAACP, but as for substance, he offered nothing to close the gulf. He might as well have told the audience, “Cast your buckets where you are, for the agitation of for real social and economic equality is the extremist folly.”

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