Lets Get Real About Jobs

Terrance Heath

Demanding bold solutions to today’s jobs crisis.
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This Thursday, CAF will host The Summit on Jobs & America’s Future. We’ll talk about how to create the jobs America needs for a real recovery. Meanwhile, House Republicans will hold hearings on Islam. House Speaker John Boehner will launch an effort to Defend the Defense of Marriage Act. Apparently, that’s what passes as a jobs agenda on his planet.

At least someone in Washington will be talking about job creation.

At the same time, the Heritage Foundation just launched a website, FamilyFacts.Org, that touts marriage as an economic cure-all, while blaming single-parenting (single mothers in particular) and out-of-wedlock births for all manner of economic ills. I guess they live on the same planet as John Boehner.

I visited that planet last month, when I attended CPAC— a three-day conference that had nothing to say about job creation. It wasn’t on the agenda. I did sit through the "Traditional Marriage and Society" panel, which featured two African American speakers. I marveled that — given the unemployment crisis facing African American communitiesthis is what these two speakers came all the way to Washington to address. I wasn’t surprised, though. The right has been too successful at getting "Black People Who Should Know Better"™, to hop on that train to nowhere for too long.

Attacking my marriage won’t change the marriage rates or the employment rates — or lower poverty rates — in African American communities. None of that appears to be the point. I’d say the point is that they’re not interested in creating jobs in black communities. If they were, well… Here’s what I’d say.

A brother generally needs a paycheck before he can afford to "put a ring on it." A 2006 poll conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University found that "Black men report the same ambitions as most Americans — for career success, a loving marriage, children, respect." But in this recession black male unemployment has reached depression era levels. Some 8% of us lost our jobs between 2007 and 2009.

You want to promote marriage in African American communities? Start with job creation.

You want to create jobs in African American communities? Stop giving corporations tax breaks for off-shoring jobs, and bring back manufacturing jobs. The thirty-year slow bleed of manufacturing jobs out of this country hurt African Americans disproportionately. In 1979, almost one in four African American workers had manufacturing jobs. By 2008, fewer than one-in-ten were in manufacturing.

Black men were hit particularly hard, because they were over-represented in those jobs. In many cases, these were  the best jobs black men could get, and often the only "good jobs" that were open to them. I say this as a college educated African American man, and the son of a father who laced up his work boots, put on a hard hat, and carried an industrial strength lunchbox to work every day, because he didn’t work behind a desk.

My father started out working behind a mule and a plow. His parents were sharecroppers. He didn’t have a college degree, yet held down a "good job" with a salary that took our family from sharecropping to middle class, in one generation. That "good job" made it possible for my mother (who had her own business as a beautician before she married) not to work outside of the home, and for their children to have a better start in life then they did.

If you want more marriages like my parents’ 50-year, "til-death-do-us-part" marriage, and more men like my father, you’d better start with more jobs like his.

You want to create jobs in African American communities? Stop attacking unions that made those "good jobs" good through collective bargaining, and helped build the black middle class. Stop attacking unions that were in the forefront of the civil rights movement. It’s no coincidence that the decline in manufacturing jobs that impacted many African Americans was paralleled by a decline in African American representation in unions.

Remember Martin Luther King last speech, before his assassination? He was in Memphis, TN, to support a union, because he understood how importance of the  labor movement to the economic future of African Americans. Dr. King stood with public unions when they were under attack, and died supporting public employees’ right to organize themselves into unions.

You want to create jobs in African American communities? Stop attacking public employees, like teachers. I am a college-educated, gainfully employed black man in large part because of dedicated teachers — Mrs. Bell, Mrs. Isler, Ms. Williams, Mrs. Gooden, Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Harrison, to name a few — who pushed me to do my best. They understood that as a young black man, education  was the one thing that no one could take from me, and that could take me far. I wouldn’t be where I am now without their dedication and encouragement.

Many of those teachers were African American teacher, but I am also the father of an African American son whose white second grade teacher has helped him — and helped us help him — immensely this year, much as my teachers helped me. Because of his parents, his teacher, and dedicated school staff, I’ve seen his frustration turn into confidence and even ambition.

Attacks on public employees and their unions are attacks on black workers.

Anti-union initiatives like threats to collective bargaining in the workplace and “Right to Work” (for less pay and without protections) legislation make things very difficult for Black workers who are already less likely than whites to have employer-provided health insurance and pension plans. And, according to the Department of Labor, only 44 percent of African American male workers have any pension coverage at all.

But, unionized African American workers make 30 percent more, are 16 percent more likely to have employer-provided health coverage, and are 19 percent more likely to have pensions, according U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Instead of allowing politicians to attack the voices of all working families in our communities, we should be doing more to protect and defend America’s shrinking middle class. The African American community has a long and resilient history of doing just that—standing up for fair and equal treatment and confronting those who exploit basic human rights.

When you attack public workers and eliminate their jobs, you are killing jobs in African American communities; you are attacking the futures and dreams of children such I was, and as my son is.

You want to create jobs in African American communities? Stop attacking regulatory agencies that are mandated to protect our communities, which are overburdened with dangerous pollution. Stop attacking the regulations that keep our communities free of toxins that poison the body and cripple the mind, just so the facilities and corporations that dump their waste in our communities can save a few extra dollars. Stop endangering our health and our children’s future for the sake of your corporate backers’ bottom lines.

Let’s get real about jobs. Attacking my marriage isn’t going to create one single job in any African American community. It may benefit  African American ministers who have signed onto the agenda of overwhelmingly white, right-wing organizations, while their own communities continue to suffer employment and its attendant economic ailments. But keeping men Bishop Harry Jackson on the right’s payroll does not amount to a jobs agenda for African American communities.

And "Black People Who Do Know Better" understand this. In this case, opinions among African Americans parallels general public opinion. Recent polls show that support for marriage equality is increasing, but defending DOMA doesn’t top any list of American’s chief concerns. Jobs does.

Eric Cantor may have been "taken aback" by President Obama’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act but, as Jamelle Bouie wrote, the response of African Americans has largely been "Meh," because African Americans are concerned about something Cantor and Boehner apparently aren’t: jobs.

The broader question is this: Why aren’t black people energized about gay marriage, despite having high rates of religious attendance? Easy answer: It’s class, stupid. To channel Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels for a moment, the culture wars are mostly fought between Republican and Democratic elites; after all, it’s easy to obsess over gay people when you’re not worried about paying your bills.

For African Americans, who are disproportionately lower-income, gay marriage is far less important than jobs, health care, and economic growth (this is also true of working-class whites, though to a lesser extent). When you couple this with extremely high support for President Obama — and also, the fact that black people hold different opinions on different things — it’s no real surprise that African Americans, as a class, are less than interested in whether gay people can marry or serve openly in the military.

Attacking my marriage won’t put one more black man or woman to work, or help one more black father or mother support a family. (In fact, it will leave a number of black —and children — families worse off, as I wrote in the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 8 in California.) It won’t put one more black child in Head Start, keep one more black student in school, put one more diploma in the hand of one more black student, get one more young black man or woman.

Pontificating about cultural dysfunction in poor communities while doing nothing about the systemic and structural policy decisions that keep those communities poor, merely blames black men and women for not getting married when they don’t have the economic means support the commitment — shifting the narrative, and responsibility, away from conservative policies. It ensures that our communities will continue to suffer, the consequences of those policies.

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