Listen to What Joan Walsh has to Say

Personal note: This is an especially long piece because my family has had a disastrous year with their health and I haven’t had time to write since spring. Most of us are on the mend.

questionI just finished reading Joan Walsh’s What’s the Matter with White People. Provocative title, but not quite descriptive of what’s in the book so don’t let that put you off if you are white like me. Especially if you are white like me.

What do I mean? If you are like me you are a liberal on social issues, slightly conservative on fiscal issues—and for my friends who always think of me as a romping, stomping lefty, let me remind you of my successful but rather conservative business background.

Mostly what I related to was her description of growing up in the working class and then later being a part of the upper middle class. My family always had money, but I grew up on the East Side of Oklahoma City. I lived on Sixteenth Street and Jim Crow lived on tenth. I like to say I grew up six blocks north of Ralph Ellison. (In the sixties I had the privilege of having dinner with this wonderful man and gifted writer.)

I grew up in a neighborhood where most of my school friend’s parents had either lost jobs or gone to California to look for work and returned to Oklahoma. This was the thirties and the depression in Oklahoma lasted until the beginning of the Second World War. When I was in the seventh grade, I went across town to the “better schools.” The rest of the time I lived in Oklahoma City this was my milieu and I never quite felt I fit in. In reading her book, I was reminded that those early days, plus Joe McCarthy in the fifties, made me the family liberal. I was aware of an entirely different America than my high school friends ever saw or recognized.

The thirty years I spent running political campaigns gave me a different view. In 1966, after Fred Harris’ squeaker of a re-election to the U. S. Senate, my political partner and I took a precinct map and colored in the precincts; red for Democratic ones, pink for leaning Democratic (so glad the Dems now have blue as their color), pale blue for leaning Republican and cobalt for the solidly Republican ones. We took the map to then Senator Mike Monroney and warned him that the union precincts on the south side of town were beginning to vote Republican. He couldn’t believe that the people to whom he gave the FAA Center for employment would ever vote against him. They did and Henry Bellmon, who had built the Republican Party in Oklahoma from the grass roots up, was elected to the Senate.

About the same time, since I was active in the Civil Rights Movement, I saw the school bussing plan for Oklahoma City, which was concocted by a good friend who taught at the University of Oklahoma and who was not an Oklahoma City native.

“Good God, Bill,” I said. “Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve violated all the taboos in town. Don’t you realize the people who live on the west side of town are terrified of those who live on the east side? They are scared of black people and look down on whites who live there. More than that, everyone who lives north of the river thinks everyone south of it is trailer trash.”

About this time South Boston erupted. I was to come to look at the whole pushing by Democrats to eliminate right away all de facto segregation as a tactical mistake. Doing away with de jure segregation, at least in Oklahoma City had more to do with integration than anything else. The city fathers were fast engaged on a money making scheme to do “urban renewal” which was actually a way to get at the federal money trough without really following its guidelines and totally ignoring I. M. Pei’s plans for the city. A lot of the renewal plans had to do with buying up the neighborhoods around the medical school. These were the black neighborhoods. First, it decimated them, but just as important, the city officials had no idea what the results would be. They completely lost sight of the fact that blacks couldn’t get bank loans, so every penny they paid families was cash in hand. They took that money and bought houses all over the city, wherever they pleased. That took care in integration! Or at least allowed the black population to live in better housing if they wanted to create their own neighborhood.

I have come to believe that we Democrats ran a big yellow school bus over our party. We were so intent on one view we couldn’t appreciate the threat we posed to our base by messing with their kids. We knew what was good for them—and they abandoned us. This is not to say vigorous measures didn’t need to be taken. In fact, education needed to be attended to for all children. These were the years things began to slide away from core learning. I could see it with my own children, born in the late fifties and early sixties. About that time we moved to Fairfax County Virginia, and I was happy with the excellent public schools, but they still didn’t teach civics the way I was taught.

This brings me to a comment on the present election. One of the things that happened when I was co-managing Congressman Joe Fisher’s campaigns was that I got to know Loudoun County. Back in the late seventies, it was a solidly Democratic county, but decidedly blue dog. As two women campaign managers, Lucy Denney and I got used to being called “honey” by everyone except Frank Raflo, who wasn’t a native Virginian. But there was a problem. There was a new area called Sterling, populated by young families, sixties folk, but working class, who had bought into the “don’t trust government and don’t trust older folks” mantra. Lucy said to me that Sterling really bothered her. We mailed and canvassed, but in the end, Carter lost the Tenth Congressional District by 30,000 votes. Joe lost by only 3,000—most of them in Sterling.

I now live in Loudoun County and have watched the change. It was solidly Republican when I moved here, and steadily, the constant far right drum beat on issues that are not economic has eroded their support here. The county still swings, and so does Virginia. I like that. I just want the Democrats to remember to be passionate about all their issues, but remember James Carville’s old dictum, “It’s the economy, stupid!” and it will always be. The other issues are important, but if you let that be the focus of your constellation of issues, you lose, like we did for most of the last forty years.

However, I’m just tacky enough to hope it takes the Repubs that long to learn their lesson!