Funny how the lack of money changes everything, especially the dynamics of an election. Weeks before America’s economic free-fall, Barack Obama is head-to-head (some even say trailing) with John McCain in the polls. The biggest factor: white working class voters unwilling to vote for an African-American. Now we’re headed into —gasp!— a depression and the polls start turning in Obama’s favor. Whether you believe in surveys or not, the shift in numbers, while possibly signaling a change in voter attitudes (don’t believe it), also point to America’s tradition of handing off power to black folks when the well has run dry. A possible Barack win during these uncertain times, with America’s economic and fiscal landscape pretty much in ruin (not to mention the War, inflation, growing unemployment and jobs moving overseas), eerily reminds me of the rise of African-American mayors starting in the early 1970’s.
A number of major American cites had become “Chocolate Cities” following the rebellions of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The population change—along with one major legislative one (the Voting Rights Act)—helped empower blacks to elect African-American mayors in record numbers. Kenneth Gibson in Newark, NJ. Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. Coleman Young in Detroit. Richard Hatcher was tagged as one of the “black power mayors” when he was elected in Gary, Indiana. Finally the dreams of the civil rights and black power movements seemed to be coming true now that folks with dark faces were in charge politically.
But what these mayors, and their constituency, had inherited were no longer power centers. They’d won power in cities beginning to suffer from abandonment, on the way to becoming, according to a 1971 report by the National Urban Coalition, “black, brown and totally bankrupt.”
Manufacturing jobs, once the economic rock of urban centers, were now moving to suburbs and rural areas. Services in these cities were cut. Buildings and streets suffered from neglect. And crime, along with all other social ills (take your pick) began to rise. So while these political wins were great for the history books, they were, in truth, hollowed victories. Why? Because, while black people may have gained political power, what we gained power over was dying when we took the reigns.
Thus lies the dilemma of Barack possibly winning the White House. Chris Rock recently joked that, if he wins, the next day, what ever services you need a black person to do for you won’t get done. Why? Because we’ll be celebrating in the street.
But judging from the economic and political shambles America is in right now, will we be, once again, celebrating that one of us has made history but has won power over a land whose expiration date has passed?