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Live Short and Prosper

Well, I spoke too soon. When I wrote a column about a month ago decrying the devolution of Black History Month into so much conservative white-run propaganda and my unease with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice being its latest poster girl for progress, I figured the GOP had plenty to gloat about for a while. How naive of me. Turns out Bush and company were just getting warmed up; they turned February into a real jubilee, with Karl Rove rolling out new White House strategies for black outreach practically every week, each effort cruder and more cynical than the last. First there was the new secretary herself: On the day of her swearing-in, the assiduously un-racial Rice promised with a straight face that the Republican Party would revive its reputation among colored folks as “the party of Lincoln” (the party hasn’t stood for anything racially progressive for more than a hundred years, but who’s counting?). Then came the blitz on black churches, which had been brewing during the anti-gay hysteria of the presidential election and became official with campaigns and summits featuring crusading names like “Moral Values Contract With Black America.” Now this week comes the GOP’s unkindest cut so far: a pitch to African-Americans to embrace Social Security reforms and reject its long-term benefits because — get this — we don’t live that long anyway. That’s right, due to the life-expectancy gap that persists between blacks and everyone else, the White House is advising blacks that it’s better to privatize that money now and make it pay off quicker so that we can be around to enjoy it, or at least be around to watch it grow. It’s a slick, carpe diem kind of hustle bringing to mind any number of ghetto businesses, like payday loan offices and check-cashing outlets, that advertise themselves as community partners for a brighter future, but who are really there to charge outrageous fees and interest rates for their own profit. The Republican ploy is even more insidious because it actually tries to turn one of the most troubling measures of social inequality, the life-expectancy gap, into an advantage for black folk. Besides the pure political crassness and the fact that this is really all about an advantage for Republicans, this tack is appalling in spirit. It’s indecent. It regards a very real black problem as one more demographic factoid that can be packaged and used to sell a product to the population most afflicted by the problem. Most troubling, it loudly reinforces a long-subliminal message among all Americans that black life is not valuable on its face. The Bush administration claims it’s simply looking at the numbers and giving black consumers the facts, but it’s hard to imagine them using the unfortunate statistics of any other group — the rate of Tay-Sach’s disease among Jews, even the AIDS rate among gay men — so cavalierly. They would prefer to talk about how they’re finding cures for those conditions because if they don’t at least go through the motions, they risk going past some tipping point and looking like jerks to the people whose support they’re trying to cultivate. The GOP feels no such risk with black people, partly because blacks are not a politically important constituent to them and partly because, in terms of curing the black condition, they really don’t see anything at stake. None of this would be quite as offensive as it is if not for context. The right-wing Republicans running the country the last four years have not only done zero to improve black quality of life — to say nothing of longevity — they’ve actively tried to tear down the legislative and social firewalls built up over the last 40 years that have kept blacks from total disaster: affirmative action policies, youth intervention programs, Head Start, public-education funding. Certainly as a concession to black pastors willing to come into the GOP fold, Bush in his second inaugural address voiced concern about that most endangered of species, the black urban male, and how he must be saved; so far it’s only been talk, and it’s very likely that’s what it will remain (black males, thanks to the likelihood of encountering gun violence and other negative factors, have a life expectancy of barely 69, compared to 75 for their white counterparts). Underscoring all this posturing is something else, a bit of Karl Rove genius that even the most skeptical blacks find hard to resist all of the time: the notion of an ownership society. Ownership is a carrot for blacks, a magic word, the thing they’ve collectively longed for but never had, and conservatives are promising that Social Security privatization is the thing that will help them get there. The fact that ownership and wealth creation are two different things, and that Social Security by any definition won’t affect either thing in the least, privatized or not, are nitpicky details — the GOP is offering a fantasy where black people previously had none. Finally having a little piece of the pie and maybe something concrete to pass on from one generation to the next is a dream ripe for exploitation, nearly but not quite rotted off the vine; the Bush administration is busy harvesting what it can while it can, despite the fact it’s also furiously draining the economic landscape dry at the same time. How ironic that the privatization idea seems to be resonating most with young blacks between 18 and 25, the group least likely to be gainfully employed and plugged into Social Security in the first place. I only hope, as I’ve hoped every time Bush makes outrageous assertions, that we aren’t buying it. I only hope that black people realize that they benefit disproportionately from Social Security — that is, the whole range of Social Security benefits help us more than they help other groups, mostly because we comprise a big chunk of the poor and we end up needing the benefits more. I hope we realize that Social Security is an important part of that firewall that will burn through completely if we don’t occasionally look behind it to see where all the smoke is coming from. Mostly I hope that we think enough of our own lives, compromised though they might be, not to sell them so quickly, and so cheaply, to the first guy who happens to ask us what they’re worth. As Chris Rock advised over-eager filmmakers willing to settle for a second-rate star to move their project: Wait. Something better — someone better — will surely come along.


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