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The Coming Crunch, and What We Can Do

The Black Commentator does it again!
M.J. Parrish, from Lawrence, Kansas intended to write us a letter about our piece, but it turned into a wonderful mini-essay. We are proud to share it:

Thanks once again for a prescient article, far ahead of the mainstream media, which offers infotainment to anesthetize the masses. The coming retrenchment you speak of seems unavoidable with at least another year of Bush and neocons steering the ship of state toward the shoals. Current trade agreements plus those on the drawing board - FTAA and CAFTA, plus 30-32 bilateral trade agreements being pushed through almost faster than the trade ambassadors can sign them - will administer the coup de grace to the American economy, ably assisted by further planned tax cuts for the wealthy, further dismantling of the social safety nets, and massive wartime profiteering.

The result will most certainly be, as you predict, a time of retrenchment for Black Americans, but also for wedge politics against every possible group that can be singled out to blame for the dire financial straits so many will find themselves in. The truth is that working families have been on a long, slow slide since 1968, when income inequality, according to GINI measures, was the most equal it has been in modern history. The most recent figures rank the US at number 79 in the world in terms of relative income equality, between Moldova and Thailand - and the data in this 2002 report is based on records that are now 4 - 5 years old. It's evident that 2003 figures would find the US even further down, among Burkina Faso and Malaysia.


The propagandists of corporate America can't afford to have Americans wake up and realize the source of their misery, so the Republican party will play wedge politics for all it's worth. We see it in the Medicare pork-fest, where younger Americans are told that seniors are picking their pockets for their own selfish gain; that refrain will be repeated during the '04 campaign when Bush rolls out his plan for partial privatization of Social Security. We see union workers blamed for the offshoring of jobs, we see those opposed to tax cuts for the wealthy blamed for pushing corporations offshore, we see every single social program blamed for "raising my taxes higher than they've ever been," as goes the mantra from the Limbaugh flock - at a time when federal taxes are lower than they've been since pre-Kennedy days.

The plain truth is that even if the countries of the world hold off on extensive redlining, and even if they delay switching to the Euro - which has been under consideration by the EU, Russia, and the OPEC countries - the US economy simply isn't sustainable. We have an unsustainable debt, an unsustainable budget deficit, and an unsustainable trade deficit that's worsening every year. American workers are being required to compete for jobs with Chinese workers who are paid $1.00 a day, and they'll soon also be required to compete with an even greater influx of Mexican workers, imported by the Bush administration specifically for the purpose of forcing domestic labor costs still lower. Professionals whose jobs have gone to India or who have been replaced domestically by H1-B and L-1 workers will be competing for fast food jobs or work as a night janitor, forcing still more workers with high school diplomas, or less, out of the workforce.

Bush's "ownership society" plan will do away with employer-provided health care, pensions, and employer contributions to unemployment insurance (for the few in this country who qualify under the stringent rules). Instead, Americans will be expected to put aside money (in spite of real unemployment figures of upwards of 10%) in separate savings accounts for their health care and retirement, and the plan is for taxpayer dollars to provide a one-time pittance called a "personal re-employment account," with which those whose jobs have gone away will be expected to pay house payments, child care, retraining expenses and perhaps relocation expenses. Once that's gone, there'll be no more assistance.

Under the no-tax, cheap labor Republicans as represented by Grover Norquist and a host of Senators and House members, American workers will be treated as they're regarded: as lazy bums who must be forced to go to work and forced to take personal responsibility in order to prevent them from following their "normal inclinations" to sit around and demand a free ride. Bush calls this his "self-reliance, industriousness and responsibility" plan - a phrase which rings with contempt for the average American. Workers can take at least meager solace in knowing that American seniors are also going to be expected to "take personal responsibility" for much of their own health care. The "personal responsibility" crowd in Congress, who couldn't vote fast enough to overturn an amendment that would make them live by whatever "benefits" they offered seniors, have stated clearly that seniors as well as others aren't having to pay enough out of pocket for their health care, and so are frivolously consuming far more scarce health care dollars than necessary; this makes them responsible for much of the increased cost of medical care in the U.S., according to the corporate libertarians' version of the story.

It is indeed time for militancy in the U.S. as everyone who's not in the top 1% prepares to retrench. But we're all in this together, and I hope our militancy will include efforts to make common cause with all of the other disenfranchised groups as we redirect people's attention to the corporate oligarchs who have engineered misery never seen in the U.S. since the Great Depression.

Republicans and DLC Democrats to a certain extent will make every effort to divide us by color, gender, religion, age, and national origin so that we're too busy blaming one another to band together against the real authors of our misery. Let's reach out to each other in our militancy, and while we're at it reach out to citizens of other countries as well who have suffered from greedy, self-serving U.S. trade agreements. They're ahead of us in mobilization, having suffered longer, and in ways many of us in this country are only about to experience.

Thank you once again for seeing the big picture and sounding the warning.

another BC article 10.Jan.2004 14:41


Problem? Corporations. Solution? Community or region enterprises.
"...we still lack the business development that is so much more evident in other Manhattan neighborhoods. Outside of the showcase that 125th Street has become there are still too many empty store fronts and those that exist are the usual fast food outlets, hair dressers, small churches, and check cashing places."


~ Wal-Mart and the Economic Destruction of Black Communities ~

The retailing giant Wal-Mart must be nirvana for Black people. Its commercials, full of sentimental background music, soft focus photography, and earnest looking real people give the impression that it is just short of heaven on earth. I have seen commercials showing a Black mother exhorting her daughter to pursue a career at Wal-Mart. In another we are told that the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles was saved by Wal-Mart. By occupying an empty space Wal-Mart brought jobs, hope, love, respect, and good karma to this community. A discount store had accomplished what urban planners, academics, and politicians could not.

Wal-Mart is the nation's largest retailer and with 1.2 million workers the largest employer as well. It prevents union organizing on its sites, and before being sued forced employees to work overtime but did not pay them for doing so. The American desire for a good bargain has created a retailing behemoth with low prices and low wages to match. Wal-Mart had already cut a swath across mostly rural America by putting smaller retailers out of business. But the giant that began as a five and dime store in Bentonville, Arkansas is now conquering new territory.

Apparently some among Black leadership believe that businesses, no matter how exploitative, are always good for their needy communities. John Mack, President of the Los Angeles Urban League, said, "We need to have retail outlets that are convenient and offer quality goods and services at low prices. I really think that there are potential economic benefits for this community with the addition of a Wal-Mart."

It may be a difficult choice for distressed communities to reject potential employers, but the growth of Wal-Mart in California jeopardizes the jobs of 250,000 unionized grocery store workers who currently make $10 per hour more than their Wal-Mart counterparts. The need to compete with Wal-Mart has sparked a strike in Southern California that began in October. Grocery stores want to reduce union worker benefits out of fear that they will be unable to compete with Wal-Mart's low wages. Are Black communities so needy that they have to take jobs that won't pay a living wage? Others are less enamored of Wal-Mart's false image of love and happiness. The City of Oakland has passed legislation to prohibit so-called "big box" stores in an attempt to curb the threats that Wal-Martization presents to its residents.

The issue of Wal-Mart's supposed benefits to distressed neighborhoods raises the recurrent theme of economic activity, or lack of same, in Black communities. Communities with greater resources reject Wal-Mart and its ilk out of hand because of concerns about sprawl and destruction of neighboring businesses. It may be easier to say that Wal-Mart is better than nothing, but a corporation that has cheated employees out of wages and fires them because they are in interracial relationships makes the case that half a loaf is worse than none.

It is understandable that John Mack and others are looking to increase employment, but what happens when the employer pays such low wages that its employees are eligible for public assistance? Some Wal-Mart employees in California were given information on how to apply for food stamps and other welfare benefits. Do Black neighborhoods really need more public assistance? I was under the impression that employment was supposed to end the need for public assistance, not provide for it.

Unfortunately, even some of Wal-Mart's detractors miss the significance of its growth and paint it as some sort of aberration in the history of American capitalism. In fact Wal-Mart has perfected this system and the result is the logical conclusion of capitalism unrestrained. One can argue that it all works out. The Wal-Martization of America provides us with the lower cost goods we will all need when our wages are lowered by the Wal-Marts of the world.

Black leadership should not give into the argument that our communities are in such need that Wal-Mart and its acts of harassment can be considered an asset. Wal-Mart employees are punished for involvement in union activity and are encouraged to spy on one another. Is it asking too much for these leaders to think of other ways to bring new employment opportunities or respond to redlining and other factors that keep businesses out of our neighborhoods? Apparently it is, and not just in Crenshaw.

In my community, Harlem, the so-called capital of Black America, we hear much about redevelopment. Bill Clinton opening an office was supposed to bring a 180 degree change in the fortunes of our neighborhood. There are now large retailers such as Old Navy, Marshall's, and H&M on 125th Street. I don't argue against their presence, but we still lack the business development that is so much more evident in other Manhattan neighborhoods. Outside of the showcase that 125th Street has become there are still too many empty store fronts and those that exist are the usual fast food outlets, hair dressers, small churches, and check cashing places.

When we do have vital businesses they often disappear. My favorite restaurant, Wilson's, which had a bakery, waiter service and good, inexpensive food was open one week and closed the next without any explanation or warning. I went for an after church brunch to find a tiny note on the door that read "closed." The space is now occupied by a Dominican restaurant, which is not surprising given the demographic changes to that part of Harlem. But the fate of Wilson's and other Black owned businesses remains a mystery to once loyal customers and residents who desperately want to see a strong economic base in their neighborhoods.

My Walton relatives hail from the same region of Arkansas as the late Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart. My family would joke that perhaps we were related and were due some of the wealthy Walton cash. No one was able to substantiate any connection and our wishful thinking remained just that. Now I wish that the Black communities were not so downtrodden that an Old Navy opening was big news or that a bad employer might be welcomed with open arms.

Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in . Ms. Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City. She can be reached via e-Mail at  margaret.kimberley@blackcommentator.com. You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at  http://freedomrider.blogspot.com/