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'High hopes and deferred dreams' for black Americans

By Robert E. Pierre and Jon Jeter
The Washington Post
Monday, January 18, 2010; 7:00 AM

Adapted from A Day Late and A Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama's 'Post-racial' America, published this month by John Wiley and Sons.

What does Barack Obama mean to black America? This is the running debate taking place somewhere in the country every day, and the answer so far is this: everything and nothing; epic transformation and elegiac stasis; a stark symbol of how far black people have come and a painful marker of the great distance left to travel.

The transcendent, jarring truth for blacks is that they celebrated their most triumphant moment at the worst of times. The housing market triggered the greatest loss of wealth for African Americans in history. Nearly a fifth of all black workers are out of work, a figure that rivals the nation's unemployment at the peak of the Great Depression. In the country's largest cities, the high school dropout rate for blacks is nearly half.

"Instead of progressing, we're regressing," said Denise Roy, as she escorted a contingent of African American students, by bus, from Selma, Alabama to Obama's inauguration.

African Americans remain consistently in his corner -- for now -- but the paradox of the first black president is that it is not nearly enough for him to be merely the first black president. Black America is pregnant with expectation. They want better schools, better jobs, cheaper health care, lower taxes, smaller prison populations, fewer casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, stronger labor unions.

Over nine months of interviews beginning with Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, from the mountains of Appalachia to the Bay Area, blacks from all walks of life -- entrepreneur, ex-offender, soldier, union leader, single parent, South African émigré, retiree, hip-hop activist and more -- pondered the meaning of President Obama, and in doing so, laid bare the political identity of the nation's most liberal voting bloc. Their stories, some of which are excerpted here, provide some insight into what Obama's election meant to black Americans, and whether, one year later, it has brought the promised change to their lives.

Born on the Bayou

Daisy Mae Francis was born in 1929 and grew up on a sugarcane plantation on the banks of Bayou Teche, waking each morning in the same clapboard shacks where her enslaved ancestors had slept. She married when she was 15, gave birth to 14 children, plucked sugarcane from dawn to dusk, cleaned white people's homes and fed their children before going home to care for her own. The first time she voted, her boss told her who to support. Whites mistreated her because she was black, her husband because someone else had to take the weight when he'd been called "boy" or "Uncle Tom" one too many times.

And then one November night, when Daisy Mae was days shy of 79 and battling ovarian cancer, the United States elected a black president, and she went to bed giddy, redeemed, as though she had been reborn and was seeing the world for the first time.

The euphoria barely made it through the night.

When she excitedly retrieved her newspaper the afternoon following Barack Obama's election, the front page headline glared at her: "McCain favored by state voters." There was no picture of Obama, and only a veiled mention that he'd soon be the nation's 44th president. She canceled her subscription in protest.

'Nothing we can't do'

Just days after Obama's election, the workers at Republic Windows and doors held an emergency meeting inside the second-floor conference room of their Chicago Union Hall. It was clear to them that the plant's owners were preparing to close the shop; for weeks, the 250 employees -- virtually all Latino and black -- had noticed that machinery was turning up missing. Management assured them that they were just selling off equipment to tide them over during a rough spell, but the union, Local 1110 for the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, had assigned workers to tail machines that left the west side factory, and discovered that it was headed to another window manufacturer in Iowa, where all the workers were non-union.

"We had to go detective on them," said Ricky Macklin, Local 1110's vice president and the lone African American officer among the union's Latino leadership, "because you see everyone's job is tied to those machines. When the machines leave, sooner or later, we leave."

Local 1110 President Armando Robles suggested that if they were going to get the back pay and benefits that they were entitled to, they needed to do something radical: a sit-down strike, styled after the plant occupations at General Motors and other auto makers in the late 30s and 40s. Everyone liked the idea, but to make it work, they would need the participation of at least 40 or 50 workers. Could they muster that many? More than a few of the Latino workers were immigrants from Mexico who "might not have their papers in order" and wouldn't want to risk deportation, Robles warned. Several of the blacks were ex-offenders who might fear violating their parole if the police got involved. Robles and the other members of the executive committee asked Ricky if he thought he could round up enough support from the black workers.

Ricky smiled impishly and said: "Si. Si se puede."

The strike the following month shocked the world and was a resounding success for Local 1110. Not only did all of the plant's 250 workers participate in the strike, but some who had lost their job at the plant months earlier, returned in a show of solidarity. Chicagoans visited the plant to deliver blankets, food, and bottled water. Police officers in their patrol cars drove by picketers outside the factory and waved, supportively. And two days in, the then president-elect, in a televised interview, said that he supported the workers in their actions and demands. Ricky and the other Local 1110 officers met with Bank of America executives in Chicago to re-open a $1.7 million line of credit to the company to pay employees about $7,000 each in salary and benefits. And a California manufacturer, capitalizing on tax-incentives in Obama's stimulus bill, re-opened the plant in June and re-hired all of the laid-off workers.

There was no question that Obama's leadership made the difference for Local 1110, Ricky said. The then-president-elect's public statements even persuaded Ricky's wife, who worried that workers might be injured in a scuffle with police, or arrested, jeopardizing Ricky's chances to land another job.

But, Ricky would say months later, there's more to be done. During the campaign, Obama supported a proposal -- called the Employee Free Choice Act -- that would almost surely expand union ranks, but making it easier for employees to organize. "It's great that we have a black president of the United States, and black kids need to see that to know there's nothing we can't do," Ricky said, "But I can't lie: I know that a lot of us will be real disappointed if we don't get (the EFCA) passed.

The Promised Land

A full 14 years before Obama made his historic appearance in Grant Park, a low-budget version of that election night euphoria played out in a hotel conference room in Greenbelt, Md. as Wayne K. Curry, 43, made his way to the podium as well-wishers danced and dabbed tears from their eyes. Just a few years earlier, a white woman county councilor with a blond beehive hairdo was railing against school busing, and blacks in the metro area warned their kids to steer clear of the county's police department. And now, people said in 1994, a black man was running the joint.

Curry felt that Maryland Democrats, mostly white, took black voters for granted, offering them little more than pats on the back and a few crumbs. Curry had grand plans of growing millionaires and attracting big business. The face of the county, he imagined, would be families like the one headed by Sam and Linda Botts, who own their consulting business, Ashlin Management.

Like Curry, the couple had high hopes that Prince George's would prosper and grow into a kind of African American Lake Wobegon, attracting retailers and raising property values. But by the spring of 2009, the Botts were still waiting on the black middle class to reap the benefits of having a political leadership that resembled them. As one stark example, a development on the site of a former basketball and hockey arena that Curry had promoted as as a magnet for upscale shopping had lost most of its major retailers and those remaining resembled those found in run-down retail strips in low-income neighborhoods. More disturbing, however, was the fact that five people had been killed there in four years.

An appointed official under Curry, Linda had hoped to play a role in building a black community that her two children and their children would be proud of. But after 14 years of black leadership, Prince George's by 2009 had the highest rate of foreclosures in Maryland; the Washington region's second-poorest population and not so much as a Macy's, Whole Foods or Saks Fifth Avenue.

There was hope that it was going in the right direction, hope that it would be a wonderful place for family and kids to come back to and a place of opportunity, a place you could look at with pride and a sense of belonging. But that's gone."

Obama is only the second Democrat Sam has supported for president and both he and Linda had proudly traipsed down to the Mall to join in the inauguration. But Sam never bought into the Obama's pledge to roll back the Bush-era income tax reductions on household with incomes exceeding $250,000 a year. Obama, Sam said, "has probably never had to cut a payroll check in his life. We work hard. If he were to tax me because I got up early, what is the point."

Obama's picture, however, hangs on the wall of Sam's office.

'The problem is the system'

Two months after Obama took the oath of office, an integrated group of about 70 people -- white, dreadlocked college students, blacks in suits, T-shirts and West African garb -- sit on folding chairs inside the basement of the First Unitarian Baptist Church, a regal, century old ivy-covered building in downtown Philadelphia. This is the Uhuru Solidarity Movement's Solidarity Conference, a day of workshops and panel discussions intended to foster interracial solidarity.

"We in the white community can't just continue to sit in our nice Victorians in University City and peek out the window when we see another police car buzzing by on its way to put another black man in jail," says Allison Hoehne, one of the organizers.

Penny Hess of the African People's Solidarity Committee put on a Power Point presentation illustrating efforts to grow community gardens in America's inner cities and West African villages.

"From Brazil to Brooklyn, Guinea to Ghana, Africans live the same everywhere," she says. The crowd nods in agreement. The next speaker addresses the public schools' use of mood-altering drugs to calm unruly students. A black woman in the crowd recounts her own struggle to fight her Philadelphia public school's effort to medicate her son.

"Who in the world ever came up with the idea of a nine-year-old child being hyperactive," she says. "You should be concerned if a nine-year-old boy ain't real active.

From the podium, Diop Olugbala, a clean-shaven thirty-one year old African American with a cruiserweight's physique and a resemblance to Marlon Wayans advises her to get in touch with some local affiliates of the Uhuru Movement. "You don't have to go through this alone, Sister" he says to her. "We're here for you."

So much of being black in America is seeing things that no one else sees, or wants to see. When Diop was thirteen, his father, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was arrested in a department store in a Dallas suburb where the family lived. The police were looking for a slender, short, fair-skinned black man who was wanted for the fraudulent use of a credit card. Diop's father was tall, broad-shouldered, and well over six feet tall. It took three months before he was released.

Diop graduated from the University of Texas, and considered going to graduate school for philosophy. But the people needed him more, he thought, and he took a job, first as a union organizer, before moving on to the Uhuru Movement.

Diop believes that American capitalism has produced a generation of black politicians -- Obama, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty -- who don't respond to the needs of poor and working class Americans, black, Latino, or white.

"The problem is the system," he says during an interview. "What is your relationship to the system? That determines how you move in the world. We in the Uhuru movement were always suspicious of this black man who just seemed to come out of nowhere right after Hurricane Katrina and leading up to this whole sub-prime (mortgage) crisis . . . Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in general have a program that represents the white ruling elite. He is not the answer to imperialism; he is the mother lode of imperialism."

Unlike Diop, the expectation of many other blacks around the country is that the first black president will finally make them full citizens of the country of their birth. If that doesn't happen, the experience of David Patterson, the first black governor of New York, may be instructive. Only a year after being warmly received by two-thirds of black voters, Paterson now receives the approval of less than half of the state's African Americans, who believe that he has failed to deliver on bread-and-butter issues.

"There is some letdown from people who were so proud of his ascension," Charles Barron, a New York City Councilman from Brooklyn told reporters last year. "People have to realize that when we invest our aspirations in you, we expect more, we expect better."

pierrer@washpost.com

jeter.jon@gmail.com

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