I went out to Gary, Ind., over the weekend to a long-awaited Black Economic Summit to see if I might find any answers for Washington's economy, beset with high unemployment, the poor getting poorer as they fall through Reagan's safety net, a jittery middle class and those ubiquitous high interest rates.
People from all walks gathered there were pessimistic about the short term, but guardedly optimstic about the future, as they discussed many plans and proposals, some more workable than others. But at least they defined the next step, reaching a consensus that blacks now need to focus beyond civil rights on economic development and parity, and to unleash their potential economic power.
Cities like Washington can't expect any quick relief from hard times, because of the deepening recession and because Reaganomics will continue to take from the poor and weak and give to the rich and powerful. Black joblessness is more than twice the rate for whites.
But although the near-term employment is bleak--including jobs for the growing black labor force--economist Andrew F. Brimmer told the Indiana gathering that with the recovery there will be more employment opportunities as the nation shifts to more sophisticated technology in the latter part of the decade. The phrase that resounded like a drumbeat in Gary was: Expand preparation for blacks for the high-technology future. And if that sounds like a Catch-22 in Washington, where many of the unemployed young don't have basic literacy skills or work habits that employers want, these problems were not thought to be beyond solution.
One proposal that got a lot of attention and could directly benefit Washington was a "Black Common Market."
It is based on the notion that blacks are in a better position than before to help themselves, with 6,000 elected officials and with more than 200 cities, ranging in size from New Orleans and Atlanta to Gary and Grand Rapids, Mich., that have black mayors. The Black Common Market is Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher's brainchild, and he told me that these mayors control and influence the way billions of dollars are spent. His idea, based on the European Common Market, is a complex and potentially controversial proposal that would involve black mayors entering cooperative agreements to purchase certain items collectively from black-owned companies and to "divide labor" between member cities so each city would focus on the production of a single item.
For example, the Common Market might decide that Washington would get the paper clip concession while Detroit might get say the police car concession or Gary the rock salt concession. Through collective purchase, the individual cities would save money for the taxpayer and create manufacturing jobs in the city where the concession was located.
Another part of the Common Market would be a Black Development Loan Fund. Here, a member city like Washington could borrow to create new industrial and commercial opportunity. Hatcher even envisions the Black Common Market entering into trade relations with foreign countries, particularly those in Africa and the Caribbean.
Mayor Marion Barry, according to Hatcher, had expressed "great interest" in the idea. "What if Gary, Washington and New Orleans hooked up in a test of this concept to see if it would work? The potential is mind-boggling," Hatcher said. Barry could not be reached for comment.
This idea will be discussed and dissected as the summit continues through Wednesday. The problems are vast but it seems only fair that since blacks invest in America, America should then invest in blacks, who have been systematically denied participation in the past.
In a typical Washington community, a dollar that comes in at breakfast time is gone by suppertime--it doesn't remain to benefit and empower the people. That's part of the illusion that blacks lack economic power. But they do have power, and the ability to build a sound economic base for themselves.
The challenge talked about in Gary was how to organize, spend and invest some of the black gross national product, estimated at $170 billion annually. What mechanism could be put into place to lay a foundation for future development?
Whatever the politics turn out to be in the next several years, it is commendable that black leaders have enough foresight to know that the name of the new game is money.