Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Jesse Jackson told us about James Robertson.

James Robertson's tale is heart-wrenching in so many ways. James Robertson, a man who has walked 21 miles every single day to work in the city of Detroit, also answers this question: What do the working poor look like?

Many years ago, a Washington Post columnist wrote about being admitted overnight to a hospital for surgery. Waking early the next morning, he looked out his hospital room window only to see the day shift arriving for work. The sight made him think of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Democratic Convention speech, with its line “They work every day!” ...

Most poor people are not lazy. They are not black. They are not brown. They are mostly White and female and young. But whether White, Black or Brown, a hungry baby's belly turned inside out is the same color -- color it pain; color it hurt; color it agony. Most poor people are not on welfare. Some of them are illiterate and can't read the want-ad sections. And when they can, they can't find a job that matches the address. They work hard everyday.

I know. I live amongst them. I'm one of them. I know they work. I'm a witness. They catch the early bus. They work every day.

They raise other people's children. They work everyday.

They clean the streets. They work everyday. They drive dangerous cabs. They work everyday. They change the beds you slept in in these hotels last night and can't get a union contract. They work everyday.

No, no, they are not lazy! Someone must defend them because it's right, and they cannot speak for themselves. They work in hospitals. I know they do. They wipe the bodies of those who are sick with fever and pain. They empty their bedpans. They clean out their commodes. No job is beneath them, and yet when they get sick they cannot lie in the bed they made up every day. America, that is not right. We are a better Nation than that. We are a better Nation than that.

The context of that Democratic convention was a decade of unrelenting Reagan demonization of the poor and their abandonment by the broad center of American politics. The self-justifying mantra of the value of markets had relegated the political left to wander on the outside looking in.

Fast forward to 2015, and we now finally meet the person that Jesse Jackson told us about. After almost three decades of our own greed, we at last can see his face. We can hear his story. We now know the sound of his voice. It’s the story of a decent, hard-working man who committed his life to his work. In exchange, he could sleep only two hours a night for fear of being late. He relied on a dilapidated bus system that wouldn't even get him all the way to the front door, in either direction. For all of this, he got paid under $11 an hour.

This is America in 2015 and this is crazy!

This is also the difference between those who rely on capital to live — and we have profited wildly over these past 30 years — and those who rely on labor — what they can do with their hands. It is also the clearest indication of who we want to reward and who we don’t.

As if to highlight this wealth gap, UBS Vice President Blake Pollock — a man of good heart and good intentions who can claim some just credit for changing James Robertson’s life dramatically for the better by bringing his story to the attention of the Detroit Free Press — helped a suburban car dealership gift Robertson a brand new Ford Taurus. It only goes to show that in this land of plenty it’s actually not that hard to get a man a free car. But you have to have wealth, access and power. For those who don't, a woeful third-rate system is the best you’re ever going to get.

The most painful truth however is painted in stark relief by Robertson’s sudden change of fortunes. He himself says it best, with his characteristic directness and sympathy, "Even if my situation changes, you never forget that there are so many other people that are in my situation.”

This is America in 2015. This is painful. This is crazy.