I had dinner last Wednesday with five-term Congressman Kweisi Mfume, he was part of the Washington State University Annual Public Affairs Lecture Series. I work in the media. I get some perks. Mfume (pronounced Em-FU-Me) advised us not to merely rant among ourselves about what is wrong with our government, after all ours is a representative form of government, if we criticize aren’t we merely criticizing ourselves? He urged us to write our elected officials and state, ‘I will not vote for you again, unless you address and fix [insert your issue].’
I could have cheered. I am sick of everyone’s politics, the complaints, the jibes at the ‘haves’ vs. ‘the haves not,’ the waves of protest on waste, the gripes on misuse of power, the hoards of raised fists and angry red faces. I assume you vote, if not, why? If you haven’t communicated with your elected official, somebody who could actually do something, why are you tossing your gripes at me? Really, we’ve both got better things to do.
I seldom reveal my party of choice, and although I have friends who have run for political office, I have declined to fully participate in their campaigns. The only kick-off I will attend this year is for the mayor. Personal debt. When my nine-year-old daughter learned that by logistics of her birth, (she was born in Asia), she could never be president, she decided, quite rightly, that she should be mayor. Now, that is the kind of kid I want to raise, one who adjusts direction based on available options. No complaints. I’ve seen her face many anthills, sit down and cry, and thought I would go mad. This was progress. I called the mayor and asked if he’d offer her political advice. He did. Stopped the wheels of city government to encourage a child. My child. That earns special favors in my world.
I reflected on my daughter when Mfume challenged, “Whites and Caucasians, I hope you will understand the indignities when we, who are not, are treated with disrespect. And those of you who are of African-American descent, get beyond blame and get beyond excuses and once again start doing for ourselves.” Yes, daughter, I will help however I can to provide resources, but you must do for yourself. “The time is now for a diligent, united effort. We will do better to mark the change month by month, season by season, and be part of the change,” Mfume said, and challenged us for better understanding collectively, with expectations adjusted for that which we know will not change overnight.
“Obama’s America is really ours,” he stated. “The issue of race and skin color still exists in American and abroad. Less than 10% of legislators are of Latino, Hispanic, Black or Asian descent. Women less than 22%.” I’m slightly uncomfortable quoting stats without research to back it up and did a gander around the internet to see if I could confirm. According to redOrbit, “Latino political power hasn’t yet caught up to the population’s growing numbers.” How can Latinos, Hispanics Blacks and Asians say they have a representative form of government? It’s simple. They vote. And when all else fails, they run for office. I could spend hours searching further, but I did find this on women from the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Women hold 24.3 percent of legislative seats in the 50 states, a ratio that has increased by less than 4 percentage points over the past fifteen years.” That’s close enough for me to include his quote, and pinches familiarly close to the static state of my income, but like I said I work in the media, we are severely challenged at the moment.
Mfume’s lecture “Race, Class and Economic Recovery in Obama’s America,” brought him around to talking about money, “Economically, after years of congress acquiescence to ‘Robin Hood in reverse’ the have not’s have less. We fund schools where students are promoted based on age, size, and athletic ability, where drugs more available than textbooks.” I won’t accept that. I won’t. I witnessed a drug exchange right outside the school doors, a car swooping in, a hand through the window, a shuffle, and a quick escape. I pulled back into parking, marched into the school, tracked down the vice-principal and sent him off to review recorded tapes. We have got to stop, even when we’re busy, and do something, even if we think it won’t help. Guaranteed doing nothing changes nothing.
“The salient issue facing us is clear,” Mfume trumpeted, “We are America. We created our America. We get out of this hole the same way we got in, one shovel at a time.” Admittedly, Mfume was not the most charismatic speaker, he spent the first fifteen minutes warming the audience up with toastmaster jokes, then wandered around some very good points, and in retrospect, I think if I was in a hole I wouldn’t want a shovel to get out, I’d be looking for a ladder, a rope with a person strong enough to pull me out, or smart enough to get that ladder, whichever comes to mind first, I’m not picky.
“We’ve seen an economic collapse that we have never seen before. We are doing the right things by shoring up financial institutions. This support was done to prevent the total collapse of institutions with enormous economic exposure for everyone. This was the right thing to do, good first step to restore confidence in the global market.” Institutions run by white guys, in an America created by white guys, who have their lifestyles and retirements at risk–and by association all of ours–messed everything up. Hell, how did they pull me down into their hole? Right. Where was MY letter to my congressman, my representative, mayor, or editorial page of the local newspaper? All in my head.
“The best social program is a job, but a job is not enough.” Here, here! I have never wanted a job, always desired a career, something to build my reputation on, a role in business in our society to perform with pride. “Full employment was never the goal,” Mfume reminded. “After all, slavery was full employment. The goal is full development, not a trash heap of people inside a crumbling infra-structure where entrepreneurial pursuits stagnate. Generations before never accepted things the way they were. Why would we?”
“Racism and sexism is pronounced. It’s cost our society years and talent. Your assets put you in a different category, the right assets we think about you differently.” That theme is what one of the characters in my book is all about. Jae-Chun Lee is driven to succeed in America, not for the money, but for the respect. His wife Kerri Ann tells us:
I paused in the middle of the office and listened to Fats Waller shuffle through Your Feets too Big. Lee glanced at me on his way to the copy machine and caught me staring at my shoes: non-descript, cheap, college leftovers.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“This guy keeps singing, ‘I hate you ‘cause your feets too big.’ I can think of a lot of things you’d dislike somebody for, but not the size of their feet.” I thought that would make him chuckle, contagious jazz humor and all, but it didn’t. “Lee, do people treat you differently because you’re Asian?”
“Money helps.” (A Single Pearl, Chapter 7)
How long does it take an immigrant to figure out that money buys respect? Not long. How long does it take the poor? Even less. In this scene Kerri Ann’s father has died and she explains her reluctance to share her childhood with Lee.
“Why didn’t you want me to come?” he spoke into the night.
The child from nothing, tumbled through rocks not richness, blown to dust under the biggest sky on earth. No one’s vision of promise. “You’d want a tour,” I began slowly. “What would I show you?” A tear trickled down my cheek christening my disgrace. “We were so poor. I was the bottom of the social ladder. My circumstances made me very…unattractive.” I wiped the tear away, evidence of adolescent anguish. “I didn’t want you to see me—like that.” (A Single Pearl, Chapter 8).
Mfume is right, we waste a lot of talent and throw away productive years because of how we view the poor, view women, and view people of color, but I say worse than that, it is how we force them to see themselves.
“Classism, perpetuates the divisions we’ve been fighting against since this nation was created. It’s deep and prevailing, but benign acceptance of sexism may even be badder than that.” Yeah, he said badder. “Sexism, as a sublet of race and classism remains more dominant in almost every part of our country. Surveys showed Americans were more apt to vote for a black man than a white woman, even though both equally qualified. There are those of us who know better, and we’ve got to engage conversations. My brothers, we still have some issues when it comes to woman. Locker room talk. We’ve got to address it. We’ve got a responsibility now as men to address it.” For someone who’s felt the sting of that dehumanizing commarderie chatter I can only agree.
“The enemy of truth is the myth, because it is pervasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the conclusion of others, hold fast to the comfort and not the discomfort of truth. Slavery was allowed to exist for 200 years, legally. During Red Summer more lynchings occurred than any other year. Human cargo was denied safe harbor when America sent Jewish men and women back to Hitler. Japanese Americans were locked up behind bars by our Amercia, because we thought they’d forget their loyalty to their new homes. Islamics were deemed to be a threat to the nation that they loved after 911. We have spawned an ugly alien nation instead of producing harmony.
“Truth in its purest form is not a polite tap on the shoulder. True education is a debt you will never be able to repay. I refuse to stand mute when opportunities are denied. I urge you to not stand mute either. You’re afraid to try anymore? We still have a shining powerful dream of change, given by shining powerful God, don’t be told to wait for tomorrow, or the next generation, or the next election. Now is the time and today is the day.”
I’m never going to get real excited about politics, but you and I can do this — tell our elected officials why we will not vote for them again. We can Support full development of our talent pool. If you’re a man that means curb derogatory talk about women. Don’t underwrite something that will harm those who you love most, your wife, your daughter, your sister, your niece, because it will. If you allow it today, it will touch her tomorrow. Guaranteed. If you’re a woman, live in a manner that demonstrates possibilities. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and find resources for your children. Ask for what they need, ask for what you need.
Allow what is unique within all of us to emerge and excel, yup, make room for my daughter in city hall. Let’s not waste anymore years or deny ourselves the best America ever because we disqualify based on the outside without seeing the truth, that color, sex or money does not define the person, nor does it define my child.