A Few Proposals: From Black Agenda To National Policy

By Monte Piliawsky

Vol. 4, No. 4, 1982, pp. 11-16

Upon initial consideration, the offering of policy proposals which grow out of a "black agenda" might appear to be a futile exercise. Given the prevailing conservative mood in the United States, black political leaders currently exert insignificant influence in the formulation of national public policy. Congress, for instance, totally ignored the 1983 counter-budget offered by the Black Congressional Caucus.

New Right ideologues recently have attempted to hold


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on to the white lower middle and working classes, whose support was decisive in the election of both Carter and Reagan, through the elaboration of a full-blown conspiracy theory. This thesis posits an alliance between the "new class" of what William Rusher calls a "liberal verbalist elite"--leaders in the educational establishment, media and governmental bureaucracies, and "a semi-permanent, welfare constituency, all coexisting happily in a state of mutually sustaining symbiosis." The argument is particularly persuasive, for, as David Edgar points out, it combines "in one acceptable construct the radical instincts of the vast middle layers of society (those instincts of hatred and resentment directed at the rich above them) with a rationale for retaining their superiority over the masses of the poor below them."

Black leaders are clearly on the defensive in combating this appeal from the right. The white lower middle class, concerned that real take-home income is eroding, is inclined to accept the underlying premise of Reaganomics: that the only way to rescue the national economy is to reduce the federal budget by sacrificing social programs. Given this context, black spokespersons appear to be representing only a narrow-interest group.

However, an opportunity exists for blacks to press their public policy demands, if they can persuade their potential white allies that these policies are in the latter's self-interest. Rightwing demagoguery can be countered with a populism of the left, in which blacks form coalitions with other minorities and with whites who are also feeling the pinch. As Vernon E. Jordan Jr. expresses it, "Reagan's programs won't work for us, but they also are not going to work for a lot of white people, and I think there will be a mutuality of interest, even absent brotherhood and love." This coalition-building strategy is supported by Barbara Williams-Skinner, executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus:

The Caucus has got to come across as representing the interests of black Americans by showing white Americans how their interests coincide with those of black Americans, instead of winning over white Americans based on the concerns of black Americans. You've got to win people based on their interests, based on a common struggle.

The current prospect for coalition building is promising, given the falling relative incomes for the lower middle class. In the decade of the 1970's, the share of total income going to the poorest twenty percent of American households remained essentially constant at 4.2 percent; however, the next lowest forty percent of households witnessed their share of total income decline from 28.5 to 27.2 percent. MIT economist Lester Thurow suggests that as the earnings of the lower middle class fall, relative to the groups above them, "what may also be canceled is the social tolerance of low- and middle-income groups for the large income gaps that have always marked the American distribution of income."

Without doubt, Reaganomics has jeopardized much of the President's initial support among the lower middle class. Duped in 1980 by candidate Reagan's slogan, "Get the government off our back," many working people have come to resent President Reagan's favoritism to the wealthy. Black leaders must graphically point out to those four whites for every black who feel the impact of Reaganomics, exactly how they are being victimized. As Williams-Skinner puts it, "We've got to develop better research on the impact of the Reagan budget on non-black, non-poor small business people, which is the majority of what Nixon used to term the 'silent majority' voter."

While the white lower middle class is the group most susceptible to the wooing calls for coalition, some support seems likely from disaffected portions of the middle class. A Newsweek poll in early 1982 revealed that by overwhelming three-to-one margins, Americans want federal spending to be increased in the following areas: aid to education/college loans, medical and health care, aid to states and cities, and job training. The same poll also showed that a fifty-two percent majority of Americans' express fear that their own financial situations will decline because of Reagan's supply-side economic policies.

In the following few pages I offer several policy positions primarily for consideration in a national agenda. This agenda and its particular suggestions must be seen as complementary to strategies aimed at other levels of power. At every level, coalition-building faces substantial obstacles: entrenched interests and enmities of class, race and sex.

One limitation to my agenda is that it does not touch


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specifically on roles which black Americans must play in enhancing their own lives. Even as they direct attention to broad advocacies, blacks need to plan actions which stress self-sufficiency and independence. Blacks should organize to take control of local resources. In the rural South the focus should be on securing control of county governments and their spending authorities, as well as local institutions such as rural electrical cooperatives. In urban areas, blacks should seek to control neighborhood institutions by having some of the powers exercised by the city, such as in the areas of education, housing, employment and health, transferred to a neighborhood corporation. Also promising are current economic campaigns, backed by the potential of boycotts, which negotiate jobs, training and re-investment from corporations doing business with blacks. As we have learned, exclusive reliance on national remedy leaves blacks vulnerable to the vicissitudes of shifting popular majorities in American politics.

Increase Political Participation

Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, blacks have dramatically demonstrated their voting strength. The number of black elected officials in the U.S. has increased in that time from fewer than five hundred to 5,038 by July of 1981. In addition, when there is a high black voter turnout, coalitions of blacks and whites have elected progressive candidates in the South even in constituencies where blacks are a numerical minority.

In August 1981, a huge black turnout provided the razor-thin margin of victory (50.6 percent) for Democratic candidate Wayne Dowdy in Mississippi's fourth congressional district, a seat held by Republicans since 1972. In March 1982, a black turnout of seventy-five percent--higher than the white turnout--re-elected New Orleans' black mayor Ernest Morial. Referring to Virginia's November 1981 gubernatorial election, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote: "That an upsurge of black voting has so materially aided the gubernatorial victory of Charles Robb in what has been the South's most solidly conservative state does argue that the elements of the old liberal coalition can be re-invigorated in the right circumstances."

However, many barriers impede the forging of populist voting coalitions. For one thing, extralegal obstacles to full black political participation still exist in the South. In 1974, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission reported: "Acts of violence against blacks involved in the political process still occur often enough in Mississippi that the atmosphere of intimidation and fear has not cleared." In the companion essay to this one, Alex Willingham has outlined the continuing practices of Southwide resistance at the local level through both direct and indirect intimidation. Although blacks comprise popular majorities in over one hundred counties in the South, they effectively control only ten, often because of ingenious gerrymandering. In addition, a factor such as low educational opportunity is generally associated with a high sense of political powerlessness.

Both the black and white poor have reacted to generations of politicians' unkept promises by developing considerable alienation. Nor does the election of black mayors in Southern cities, such as Tuskegee, Alabama, and New Orleans--to cite two particularly revealing instances--necessarily translate into an improved quality of life. As Julian Bond notes, "these mayors and aldermen and commissioners often remain accessories beside the fact of actual governance of their towns counties and states." Perhaps reflective of such cumulative reasons for disaffection, the percentage of eligible Southern blacks who were registered to vote declined from 63.1 percent in 1976 to 57.7 percent in 1980.

Although they do not directly address deeper patterns of disinterest, long habits of powerlessness and the corrupting influence of private money in campaigns, structural changes in voting laws coupled with intensive registration drives can increase voter turnout. Citizens are required to register before they can cast a vote. This aspect of the American electoral system is unusual, for in most democratic countries the government assumes responsibility for enrolling all citizens on the permanent nationwide electoral register. Indeed in this country, registration is often more difficult than voting, for as Steven Rosenstone and Raymond Wolfinger note, "it may require a longer journey, at a less convenient hour, to complete a more complicated procedure--and at a time when interest in the campaign is far from its peak."

The weightiest structural impediments to voter turnout are early deadlines for registration and limited registration office hours. Allowing citizens to register up until the election day itself and adopting the practice of having the registration office open in the evenings after normal working hours and on weekends would raise voter turnout among working people considerably. An even more helpful change would be to permit citizens to vote without registering in advance. In 1976, the four states


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which utilized election-day registration showed presidential turnouts of nearly seventy percent, well above the national average of only fifty-four percent.

Congress ought to pass legislation providing for nationwide election-day registration. Bills to this effect were introduced five times since 1971, culminating with President Carter's unsuccessful 1977 attempt. All of these bills foundered on opposition by Republicans and Southern Democrats, who argue that liberalizing the registration laws would increase proportionately the turnout of low-income and less educated citizens, resulting in a windfall of votes for the Democratic party.

Also, Presidential and Congressional election days should be declared national holidays. State and local elections should be moved from Tuesdays to weekends. Based upon available empirical evidence, these electoral reforms would result in a significantly enlarged electorate, more representative of the entire American population. For example, 85.9 percent of those registered cast ballots in the 1981 runoff French presidential election which was held on Sunday, an enormous turnout by American standards. Voter turnouts of over seventy percent are routine in those U.S. elections, such as the Democratic party primaries in Louisiana, which are conducted on Saturdays.

Combat the Assault on Public Education

The United States has always considered public education to be the primary means of achieving its commitment to equal opportunity. The critical function of education was forcefully articulated in the Brown v. Board of Education decision:

In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

Perhaps the greatest social calamity being perpetuated by the Reagan Administration on black and working class white youth is the federal government's abandonment of its commitment to adequate, free and equal public education. Simply put, school systems are going broke due to drastic reductions in federal aid. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell has openly declared that the federal government intends to totally withdraw support of public education, stating that "education should be to state governments what defense is to the national government."

The federal government's retrenchment from education is especially painful in light of the encouraging progress made by black public school children during the past decade. The gap between blacks and whites in educational achievement test scores narrowed from an eighteen percent differential in 1970 to only thirteen percent in 1980. Many experts credit the improvement to Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, designed to support compensatory education programs. Nevertheless, the Reagan Administration cut Title I's funds in 1982 by six hundred million dollars; his 1983 budget proposes an additional reduction of four hundred million dollars, or forty-five percent.

Equally devastating is the President's proposal to provide tuition tax credits to private schools, a scheme which would cost $1.5 billion by 1987. Senator Ernest Hollings's critique of the plan is on the mark:

The tuition tax cut proposal would turn our nation's educational policy on its head, benefit the few at the expense of the many, proliferate substandard segregationist academies, add a sea of red ink to the federal deficit, violate the clear meaning of the First Amendment of the Constitution, and destroy the genius and diversity of our system of public education.

The drastic reductions in federal financial aid for college students proposed in the Reagan Administration's 1983 budget, which include a forty percent cut in the Basic Equal Opportunity Grant, imperil the future of U.S. higher education. The students who stand to suffer the worst, of course, are low-income students, who are disproportionately black. It is estimated that enrollment in the traditionally black private colleges will be halved if the administration's plans are fully implemented.

Blacks and the poor must demand that education regain is rightful place on the national policy agenda. A critical legal struggle should be made to reverse the Supreme Court's five to four decision in 1973 (San Antanio School District v. Rodriguez) which permits school districts to spend widely discrepant sums for public education. Indeed, the inequitable system of financing public education makes a mockery of the intent of the Brown decision: to assure equal expenditures for educational purposes for all pupils regardless of race.

Implement Work Program

In mid-1982, eighteen percent of adult blacks and fifty-three percent of black teenagers are unemployed, more than double the percentage for their white counterparts. According to the National Urban League's total unemployment index, which includes the discouraged unemployed who have stopped their job seeking, black unemployment equals the highest national unemployment level during the Great Depression of the 1930's, when one-quarter of all Americans were out of work. To address this crisis, two government programs should be implemented immediately: a public works program and employment vouchers.

During the Depression, the national government put three million people to work building roads and public buildings that are still in use. The present depressed condition requires a comparable solution. Ideally, a public works program to provide jobs for the unemployed would be structured to rebuild the decaying sections of cities. Program costs could be offset by the savings of ten billion dollars in federal services now spent for every percentage point of unemployment. One component of the public works program should be a public service work corps offering a more socially constructive alternative to military service.

Public works should be supplemented with a long-term system of employment vouchers. As envisioned by Harvard economist Robert B. Reich, unemployed (and low-skilled) workers would receive federal vouchers that they could cash in for on-the-job training. The companies that accept the vouchers would have half their training costs paid by the government, for up to three years. Workers who develop skills as machinists, computer pro-


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grammers and operators would obtain permanent jobs, while industries would secure workers with needed skills. However, any system of providing industry with government subsidized workers would have to be accompanied by requirements that companies remain in present locations and maintain present work forces, rather than write off their old plant and equipment and move.

Expose the "New Federalism"

The program of "New Federalism" outlined by President Reagan in his 1982 State of the Union message is hoax. It is little more than an ideological veneer to package an assault on social programs, as well as a callous abandonment of the practice of the federal government, since the New Deal, of providing grants-in-aid to equalize resources among the states. These budget cuts hit the needy hardest; and the needy are disproportionately black.

Blacks and the poor are victimized by both the taxing and spending policies associated with New Federalism. The Administration's twenty-five percent cut in federal taxes for fiscal 1982 was exclusively a reduction in corporate and personal income taxes, the only progressive taxes in the entire governmental taxing schedule. These shower-the-rich tax cuts are projected at $442 billion over three years.

As state and local governments now decide whether they will assume some of the axed federal programs, they must also decide whether to increase their taxes to offset the loss in federal revenue. With property owners resisting increases in property taxes, any new local taxes will likely be higher sales taxes. For example, in May 1982, New Orleans' voters, with blacks providing the margin of victory, chose to raise the city sales tax to a whopping eight percent in order to keep the transit service in operation.

Whether by the curtailment of services or by the burden of replacing progressive federal taxes with regressive local ones, blacks and the poor suffer. In mobilizing public support against New Federalism, black leaders should expose the reality of this seemingly benign concept. As Nick Kotz puts it, "The new federalism represents an extension of the strategy of the budget cuts: shrink federal social welfare and then place responsibility with the states, where it is certain to shrink further."

Unionize the Unorganized

In the anti-union South where the majority of blacks live, union members make significantly higher wages than their nonunion counterparts. In New Orleans, for instance, black (union) bus drivers have higher incomes than white (nonunion) police officers. One of the most dramatic examples of the benefits of union representation is found among clerical workers in Atlanta. In 1981, Southern Bell Telephone's unionized clerical workers earned from $7.57 to $9.39 an hour after forty-eight months on the job; their counterparts in Atlanta's nonunionized firms brought home $4.18 to $6.67 per hour--forty-five percent less.

Significantly, black workers benefit from union representation even more than whites. In 1974, the last year for which such information is available, all groups of workers--black, white, male and female--gained financially as union members. In the South, black men profited the most, earning thirty to fifty percent more, while black women earned seventeen to twenty-four percent more than nonunion workers of the same race and sex; white men gained fifteen to nineteen percent, with white women slightly higher at sixteen to twenty percent.

Labor unions presently protect many middle class workers. In addition to higher wages, union members receive job security, a grievance procedure, seniority rights, health insurance, and generally improved respect and personal dignity. According to Leslie W. Dunbar:

The case for unions that could bring self-defense, and self-reliance, to the poor and powerless is overwhelming. . . There is simply no other expectable way in our economy for these bottom-rung workers to become self-sustaining except through collective bargaining.

Especially in the South where business and government conspire to oppose and obstruct organization, we need laws which encourage unionization. In addition, we must support Southern black and white workers' efforts to organize their own hospital, food service and clerical unions. Here again, endemic racism looms as one of the basic obstacles to organizing the un-organized. A recent study by Herbert Hill, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Education Fund, concludes that the AFLCIO leadership has "refused to accept the perspective of interracial unionism," a factor which has contributed significantly to the nationwide decline in workforce unionization from thirty-six percent in 1955 to only twenty-one percent today.

Question Pentagon Spending

While the Reagan Administration has drastically reduced the federal government's commitment to social services, it has concomitantly reversed a twenty-year trend of gradual decline in the military proportion of the budget. For fiscal 1982, military spending was increased by $28 billion, to $199 billion, the largest peacetime one-year increase in absolute dollars in U.S. history. Reagan's program for an accelerated military buildup calls for a total of $ 1.6 trillion over the next five years! Black leaders must question the dire economic consequences of military spending of this magnitude.

Even the political aims of military policy require a sound and healthy domestic economy. A report released in 1982 by Employment Research Associates of Lansing, Michigan, shows the contrary to long-held and popular belief, military spending is not good for the economy, for it


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inhibits economic growth and actually generates unemployment. According to the study, defense spending--because it produces no socially useful goods or services, and because it is peculiarly capital intensive--leads to more loss of employment and more inflation than any other category of government spending. The net loss of jobs disproportionately affects black Americans, because they are overwhelmingly involved in the production of durable goods, services and state and local government--three of the hardest-hit categories of the economy when military spending is high. Specifically, the study finds that every one billion dollars spent in the Pentagon budget results in fourteen thousand fewer jobs than if the money had been spent in the private sector, and a net loss of thirty-thousand jobs as compared with spending the money in the state and local government sector. The report concludes:

The deep problems of the American economy cannot be ameliorated until the military budget is cut and the money either is left in the hands of citizens through tax cuts or spent on economically productive activities by the government--federal, state or local.

A significant and growing constituency does not believe that the rapidly escalating military budget buys extra security for the U.S. Already the grass-roots movement for arms control and nuclear disarmament has forced even the bellicose Reagan Administration to consider negotiations on strategic weapons. The political climate in now ripe for blacks and the poor to take the lead in integrating anti-nuclear sentiment into a unified opposition to the buildup of military weapons. In challenging the Pentagon's budget, we must deal with specific items by always raising the question: Does spending for this particular weapon advance a valid concept of national security, or does it represent, like the B-1 bomber, waste and "overkill"?

Extend Democracy

Present supply-side economic policies have enabled the wealthy to luxuriate in tax cuts or stash them in shelters, while corporations have used their windfalls to bid against and buy up one another. Instead, the national government should be encouraging private investment in new and modernized production capacity and placing public investment into the rebuilding of cities and the development of skills. Long-term gains can accrue through government investment in education and job training to both revitalize basic industries and pursue high technologies.

Finally, however, a fairer distribution of social wealth is essential. The major problem is that of controlling the arrogance and ruthlessness of trans-national corporations. Recent proposals for economic democracy and for greater worker control include the requiring of public shareholders in major corporations, encouraging employee-owned businesses, using union pension funds to achieve labor influence in corporate decisions and restricting corporate mergers.

To date, the most comprehensive working class alternative program to the current climate of accommodation and "givebacks" by labor unions in which workers sacrifice wages and benefits for so-called job protection, is the "Campaign for Corporate Concessions" spearheaded by former Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union vice president Tony Mazzocchi. The underlying assumption of the Mazzocchi plan is that workers must assume responsibility for the management of the national wealth themselves by having unions demand bargaining power over corporate investment, plant location, supervisory staffing, etc. Specifically, Mazzocchi's program calls for a three-year freeze on the following: overseas corporate investment; unilateral investment decisions by management; further reductions in workers" incomes; increases in management compensation; the hiring of more supervisors; and a freeze on unnecessary mergers and on speculations.

As Mark Green, former head of Ralph Nader's Congress-watch, states, the fundamental issue of the 1980's is "how to generate and distribute wealth in a new era." The other face of the continued growth of corporate wealth and power is the significant growth in poverty rates. A minimum of fourteen percent, or thirty-two million people, are now impoverished in the United States. More than sixty percent of the poor are black or Hispanic and more than half are children. There is no more compelling agenda for the politics of the coming years than to reduce the upward trend in misery.

Suggested Bibliography

Ackerman, Frank. Reaganomics: Rhetoric vs. Reality. Boston South End Press, 1982.

Auletta, Ken. The Underclass. New York: Random House, 1982.

Ferguson, Thomas, and Rogers, Joel (eds.). Hidden Election: Politics &Economics in the 1980 Presidential Election. New York: Pantheon, 1981.

Gill, Gerald R. Meanness Mania, The Changed Mood. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1980.

Green, Mark J. Winning Back America: Alternatives to Reaganomics. New York: Bantam, 1982.

Hayden, Tom. The American Future: New Visions Beyond the Reagan Administration. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1982.

Lekachman, Robert. Greed Is Not Enough: Reaganomics. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

Piven, Frances Fox, and Cloward, Richard A. The New Class War. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

Preston, Michael B., et al. (eds.). The New Black Politics, The Search for Political Power. New York: Longman, Inc., 1982.

Wolfe, Alan. America's Impasse. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

Monte Piliawsky is an associate professor of political science at Dillard University. He is author of Exit 13: Oppression and Racism in Academia.