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Published: Saturday, 12/7/2002

We can all lend a hand to the underclass

BY EILEEN FOLEY

Cornel West, a feisty academic and rapper, quit Harvard for Princeton this year after a set-to with the former's president, Lawrence Summers.

There was a purported chat about his academic writing, and his affinity for Al Sharpton, whose political star is rising, never mind his reckless Tawana Brawley past.

Professor West, despite his change of venue, remains on the talk circuit. His recent gig before black businessmen in Miami tells me he limits his effectiveness by shrinking his operating 'hood. Strange. He's hardly a violet.

The achievers, he said, can't sit on their laurels and enjoy their success. They have a duty to help lift the underclass who need help to make it. It's a common theme in minority communities - distributing responsibility, laying on guilt.

But why confine so compelling a message to one ethnic audience? All Americans who aren't poor need to hear it.

Why can't we all take up the burden, with humor and enthusiasm, trusting our ability to make a difference even as we know life is a crapshoot? All it takes is a little money, a little time, and a little perseverance.

For years ethnic speakers have etched this message on the souls of their own. I haven't heard white or cross-cultural speakers doing much of it.

“There is a war declared on the young working class and poor,” Professor West said. He notes they are “dispropor-tionately black and brown.”

But the Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract notes across all income levels under $25,000 that the majority of low-income earners are white. That tells me all poor Americans are in the same boat and, because of that, have common interests.

To me race is an artificial boundary. Why? Because racism, as people who run prisons know, is a swell way to keep order, getting people to focus on their individual and disparate situations, rather than resolving shared problems.

Imagine prisoners making common cause regardless of race. You think they run the joints now? Better yet, imagine a united organization of all men and women in business each taking on just one underclass individual or one underclass family in their community, seeing them through psychological counseling, psychiatric consultations, substance abuse programs if necessary, GED tests, community college starts, jobs that pay enough to live on.

Professor West also chastised black businessmen for a dearth or courage, for falling into “conformity, cowardice, and complacency.”

Is this confined to blacks? I don't think so. Look at how “follow the leader” the whole country has become behind a President whose rationale for war in Iraq is based - according to Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press special correspondent Charles J. Hanley, who has read all the documents first-hand - on conflicting and unsubstantiated assertions.

There's President Bush talking about satellite photos proving Iraq is redeveloping a nuclear arsenal - photos that are never again mentioned. There are administration hawks making much of aluminum tubes Iraq imported, about which the British intelligence says “there is no definitive intelligence” that they were intended for nuclear purposes.

And there are hordes of Americans swallowing a war propaganda line, risking their kids' lives on spin and speculation, that mask, among other things, a son seeking to avenge his pa.

They are doing it at a time when, in Mr. Hanley's words, “The nuclear fog over Iraq clouds public debate.” But not public opinion. We fear, and we are conforming, complacent, and, if you look at many Democrats lately, cowardly.

Dr. West also challenged the notion of a unity leader, someone all blacks - or everyone - could fall in behind? Common sense says there is no such animal. Whether black or white, those who like Colin Powell and those who prefer Harry Belafonte are not the same. Acknowledging those differences of opinion says yet more forcefully that the good professor should broaden his message and his base.

As a moralizing, intellectual conscience-pricker, who preaches with the might of the best of them, it shouldn't be hard for him to command a national audience to which he could provide moral, not political, leadership - if his own professional non-conformity and his ego don't get in his way.



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