It had to have been the early seventies. I accompanied my uncle to a used car lot to look around, and found myself entranced by this red, shiny Cadillac parked in front of the car lot’s office while a mechanic poked around under the hood.
Soon, a gentleman I took to be the owner walked up and asked the mechanic poking around under the hood what he thought. The mechanic told him that the engine would soon be going and would need to be replaced.
The owner stepped by for a second, took his hat off and scratched his, and finally arrived at a decision. He told the mechanic that he was not prepared to put that much into the car. Additionally, he told him to just shine it up really well and put some new tires and hubcaps on it. He smirked as he finished the last sentence of his command: “Some nigger will buy it.”
And sure enough, I went into town with my grandmother and my aunt and there in front of the Madison County courthouse was that same red, shiny Cadillac with the hood up, except this time a young black man was the one poking around under the hood as a black woman and three children waited in the car. Out of sheer curiosity, I went over to get a good look at the tires as my grandmother and aunt spoke to someone they knew.
Despite evidence to the contrary, little by little, more African Americans are entering the middle class. Perhaps, that pace has slowed to a trickle; it is certainly not at the same rate as in the early seventies. But as we become more prosperous, are we being any smarter with our money?
The ongoing recession has exposed a weakness in the African American middle class. Many of my friends, many people I know, have managed to acquire all the accoutrements of wealth, the outward evidence of wealth, without building wealth. And as the recession has ravaged the nation, it has devastated the African American middle class. As the old saying goes, when America catches a cold, African American develops pneumonia.
And as we continue our climb onward and upward, the answer to any question of how we are to overcome the many obstacles in our path is essentially economical.
Keep in mind that economics brought us here in the first place; greed predates racism. The falsehoods and pseudo sciences supporting the hierarchy of being and the notion of race were all products meant to convince the church and the public of the inhumanity of Africans and other colored people so that they might receive their blessing, or at the very least their apathy, in their dehumanization of colored people the world over.
And it was not a certain change of heart, a great moral awakening, that forced the release, the manumission, of those held in bondage. The decision to even consider freeing the enslaved came about because slavery went against the ideology of the Republican Party. In 1860, the Republican Illinois gubernatorial candidate declared, “The great idea and basis of the Republican party, as I understand it is free labor…To make labor honorable is the object and aim of the Republican party.”
In other words, the presence of slavery debased the notion of labor and laborers, and even more importantly, Northern industrialists were nervous that should the South follow their model of industrialization, they could not compete with the slave labor.
Also, keep in mind that economic considerations were largely behind the gains won by the Civil Rights Movement. Every act undertaken, every strategy and tactic deployed in the Civil Rights Movement had been undertaken and deployed in the previous decade. However, two develops facilitated its success: the ability to send images long distances at rapid speeds and America’s aspirations as a world economic power.
It proved a hard sale to convince foreign nations, especially foreign nations run by brown and yellow people, of the unlimited opportunity available in America when the salesman were preceded by images of Negroes being sprayed with fire hoses and bitten by police dogs in the street. So, something had to give.
With the release of African Americans into the mainstream and into the middle class, you see a proliferation of images of African Americans on the television and the big screen. You see a proliferation of African Americans in public life. But these proliferations of images were designed to take advantage of the new prosperity this so called equality allowed.
And one last closely related analogy. I keep hearing and reading that the increase in the number of portrayals and representations of gays and lesbians in the media is evidence that Americans have become more acceptable of the gay and lesbian lifestyle. But I don’t believe this to be so. The rejection of marriage equality in various states stands as evidence.
But the reason we see the number of portrayals and representations of gays and lesbians in the various media, and the reason gays and lesbians seem to be acquiring more and more power is because sometime in the early nineties research and marketing professionals realized that gays and lesbians perhaps had more disposal income than any other group in America.
And with that revelation came the realization that to gain access to that disposable income, the various media would have to find or make opportunities for these portrayals and representations for advertisers to wrap their product around.
Although we are loath to admit it, wealth and power are necessarily commensurable in this nation. And for you to gain access to the latter, you must have the former. So it goes without saying, if African Americans are to move forward, if African Americans are to gain real power and influence, we must work to build economic muscle. We must work to build real wealth and not just to attain the outward evidence of wealth. And we must eschew the bright, red, and shiny even with new tires and hubcaps.