By Paris, Washington Post Op-Ed
A LOT of people are giving Bill Clinton advice these days. Here's mine.
Although many Americans are joyfully anticipating your inauguration, I see no reason to celebrate yet. In one sense, I'm glad you won. Unlike many of my generation, who bemoan the uselessness or corruption of the political process, I rejected the easy pessimism of not voting and cast a ballot for you.
Your campaign, however, placed me and most other blacks in a painful predicament. By claiming you were running against the "special interests" (blacks, labor and feminists) that have supposedly kept the Democrats out of the White House for the last 12 years, you skillfully undermined honest debate about racial justice. And by dissing Sista Souljah and distancing Jesse Jackson at a single stroke, you confirmed the bitter belief among many of us that even well-intentioned whites are unable to play the game of racial politics above board.
Here's our dilemma: If we speak up, we're special interest whiners, but if we keep quiet, we lose self-respect and reinforce our own invisibility. I, for one, cannot remain silent. Your actions were, in my view, calculating and unprincipled, and they angered me -- but not enough to make me believe that you could not redeem yourself.
Although I hold a degree in economics, I am a radical rapper by profession, an artist whose outrage pushed me to write and record "Bush Killa," which appears on my album, "Sleeping With the Enemy." The song has sparked controversy because it imagines the stalking and slaying of the president, that ready-made symbol of politics and policies that have assaulted black America for nearly half my life. I understood that the language in this violent fantasy would be disturbing to many, but what I hoped to call attention to -- the real-life economic violence visited upon millions of African-American people every day of their lives -- is more disturbing and more real.
I am, nonetheless, at least slightly hopeful about what you can achieve with your presidential power. I like your rhetoric about putting people first, and I can't see you being worse than your predecessor.
As the old saying goes, when America sneezes, black America catches cold. Judging by that standard, we have double pneumonia. The black infant mortality rate is double the figure for whites. The unemployment rate for young black men has reached 40 percent, triple that of whites. The number of black children living in poverty now exceeds 45 percent, while overall 10 million African Americans are officially poor. As you know, there are now more black men in prison (over 600,000) than in college (435,000). Though one out of our four Americans with AIDS is black, George Bush, as Magic Johnson pointed out, dropped the ball on this issue. It is a notorious fact that homicide is the No. 1 cause of death for young black men. It is less often noted that suicide has climbed to become the third leading cause of death for this group. Recognize that there is despair in America.So what is to be done? The first thing is not to fall for the easy right-wing argument that black America has only itself to blame for its problems. African Americans are well aware of the work we must do ourselves to improve our lot. We know from hard experience that we cannot rely on the government to improve our mindset or morale or to nurture the black family. We need to do these things ourselves.
And we are. In San Francisco, my hometown, the Omega Boys Club is taking hard-heads off the street, teaching them about themselves and their heritage and preparing them to go to black colleges. So far more than 200 young men -- former hustlers, dope dealers and stick-up kids -- have gone on to higher education, while maintaining contact with their roots. In your new home city, Washington, the Nation of Islam has nearly eliminated drug dealing at the Mayfair Mansion apartment complex. Too often though, these success stories are neglected by the pundits either out of ignorance or out of hostility to the message of black pride. Don't confuse black pride with black racism.
You need to know about these heroes of the black community because they are working daily to combat one of our most serious problems: a socialization process that teaches black youth a complete lack of regard for black life, a process that is reinforced by TV, movies, and music. In Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Total Recall" (a popular movie among young blacks), the only black character was a traitor with a Jheri curl and a gold tooth who lived on Mars. Even in outer space we are demonized.
And too many of my fellow rap artists only contribute to the problem. Their words are taken as gospel truth, more than those of parents and teachers, and yet those words reinforce the same stereotypes offered by Hollywood: Get it for yourself regardless of the consequences.
Ironically, that's the same message we get from black conservatives. Their arguments, although sometimes well-intentioned, don't make sense for most black people. They demand that black people be less dependent on welfare -- a proposition that no one would disagree with -- while carefully avoiding discussion of truths that might alienate their corporate patrons. I don't need to tell you that over the last 12 years, the Reagan-Bush administrations raised taxes on the poorest 20 percent of the American people -- a group that is disproportionately black -- while cutting taxes for the richest 1 percent, a group that is, safe to say, mostly white. If you think working white people are tired of paying for poor black people on welfare, understand how working black people feel about funding welfare for rich white folks.
In short, we don't need lectures on "values" and "responsibilities" from the conservative forces in Washington responsible for the Iran-contra, Iraq-gate, Department of Housing and Urban Development and S&L scandals (or from those media liberals who failed to expose them). Nor do we need or want handouts. We simply want a level playing field.
That's why I want to propose a few common sense solutions to the problems that haunt the majority of black Americans, poor whites and people of other colors.
First, socialize health care. Universal health care is the mark of a civilized society, one concerned about the total well-being of its citizenry. We currently spend more than 13 percent of GNP for health care while the number of people who are uninsured stands at 37 million. By comparison, no other industralized country spends even 10 percent of its GNP on health care while providing universal coverage for its citizens. Right now, influential health care lobbies have protected the profits of a bureaucracy composed of doctors, hospitals and other institutions that provide health care. This has driven costs totally out of control. Do you have the political will to oppose them, or will the "managed competition" you call for turn out to be yet another health care fiasco?
Universal health care for Americans might cost an extra $50 billion, but we are already spending $820 billion for those already insured. If we distributed a progressive tax burden over the wealthier half of the American population, we could easily finance universal health care.
Secondly, address the crisis of public education. The inequality of resources between schools in rich neighborhoods and schools in poor ones is a national disgrace. You must pay the highest salaries to the best teachers as an incentive to teach in the inner cities, while funding a national scholarship to recruit people of color to the profession of teaching. Promote a multicultural curriculum to reflect multicultural America and counteract the alienation felt by so many black youth with regard to the educational process. Letting kids stay home from school on Martin Luther King Day and talking of Harriet Tubman during Black History Month are the merest tokens of concern and scarcely begin to address the problem. As for older students, no one should be denied a higher education because of its cost. The ability to think critically shouldn't be the sole province of the privileged. Don't write us off.
Finally and most importantly, develop a comprehensive urban plan that addresses unemployment and job creation. Universal employment is a basic and non-negotiable human right. The shift from a manufacturing to a service economy has meant the evaporation of low-skilled, high-wage jobs for many workers, affecting blacks disproportionately and causing high rates of black unemployment. Revive programs such as the Neighborhood Youth Corps and CETA, programs that provide remedial education and job training whose benefits far outweigh their costs. And don't neglect tax incentives for would-be lenders to minority-owned businesses in the black community. A full employment policy that retrains workers would at last take advantage of the human capital of the inner cities now being tragically wasted.
All of this would be good business. If you could put back to work -- perhaps through a revamped Works Progress Administration -- the 8.8 million Americans who are unemployed, you would increase the GNP by 6.1 percent. And that doesn't even count the billions in savings on unemployment and welfare benefits.
The most radical aspect of my suggestions is that they are clearly achievable if you have the will to implement them. I hope you do. What many of us told ourselves during your campaign will now be tested: that you only ignored black people in order to get elected. Now that you're in there, it will take more than appointments of blacks to high places in your administration to do the right thing. Help those poor blacks, whites and people of color who live in our nation's inner cities and who for too long have been nobody's special interest. Otherwise, the next generation of black youth will be writing their own sequels to "Bush Killa" -- and that will be the least of your problems.
Paris is a rap artist and owner of Scarface Records, based in Oakland, Calif.