Up and down Washington Avenue and in my own back yard, new apartment buildings are going up. As I write this blog post I can hear our glasses shaking in the cabinet in the kitchen while a pile driver pounds a huge iron girder into the ground. Across the street a large orange pipe is snaking up the side of a building, replacing each window as it moves across the expanse of brick and glass. A few blocks away a newly renovated apartment building seems ready for occupancy, with a gym, a party room and a guest apartment for residents only.
I have passed by all this work and more every day as I go for a morning walk, leaving the river road at 4th Avenue to return along Washington and to my home.
It has been over a year since the first construction project started. Now that I can watch men driving back hoes, working the pile driver, backing dump trucks and other machinery around in the lot behind us, I have a new appreciation for this work. It requires physics and strength, knowledge of ground composition and the ability to coordinate lifting, moving and placing boulders, planks and boards in the precise spot needed for a safe foundation.
But I have also noticed something else: there is not one African American on any of these projects. I have not seen one black worker on my walks, where new construction is in myriad stages of completion. I have not seen women doing this well paid work. I remember years back having a conversation with Shane Price who was working for the African American Men Project. He was trying to negotiate with the developers of the old Sears building for black men to be assured of a place at the table in the construction of a new Global Market complex on Lake Street. He said it was a struggle.
As I read and talk with more and more people about the state of unemployment in Minnesota, (black men have three times the unemployment rate as whites), and as I watch all around me an influx of decent jobs filled by white men, I am becoming aware of absence. When people of color or women are absent from our surroundings or our lives, it is easy not to see the absence. How do we learn to become aware of those who are missing? Once aware, how do we move from such awareness to some kind of action? In the case of the workers surrounding me these days, I would venture to say their union has not been pushing for the inclusion of black men into their ranks. Construction workers have not been on the front lines in integrating the heavy machinery and building jobs that pay well. And if it is partly the lack of union involvement hiring, how do we reconcile this with our support of such union laborers, including teachers, that have been a backbone of our political life?
If we encourage students in schools to work hard and go on to vocational , technical or liberal arts colleges, because the job market is so much better when you have further education, do we keep in mind that getting the education and being accepted into the training programs is only the first part of a long process for men of color in actually securing a job in the field they have been trained in? And how do they get accepted into the training program to begin with?
There is still a documented lack of hiring of men and women of color in this country. Numerous studies have been done that demonstrate that when some company personnel are given a choice between a black man with no criminal record and a white man with a criminal record they will still take the white man. Or if they get identical applications for jobs from white sounding names and black sounding names, all other things being equal, white named applicants will be called in for an interview. Black sounding applicants will not get that call.
It takes effort for whites to even notice the lack of people of color, on the street, in their executive offices, in law schools, or doing construction or road work. While each of us may have anecdotal knowledge of one black man or woman who got the job, the statistics show that the recession has hit people of color especially hard.
On the way to park for the state fair this past week, we passed Fraternity Row at the university. Many young men were in front of their frat houses, playing volleyball or lounging around on one of the last days before classes began. Again, I noticed that there were no men of color in this group. From connections in groups such as fraternities, clubs, alumnae associations, participants have access to information and support. Social entities provide entré into the world of banks, businesses, start-ups and more. It is no small feat that a prestigious golf club in Atlanta has finally accepted women. Networks are crucial to advancement.
My tendency when confronted with the magnitude of white dominance still at play in this country is to retreat into despair. I will just write my books and blogs or paint my paintings, or hold discussions and dialogues and hope something comes of these efforts. I will enjoy my “golden years” and retreat into my novel, occasionally venturing out to do a keynote or train some teachers. Yet this does not seem enough. It never has. Once I am in tune with what is not there, I can’t be satisfied with what is. It is like radar, a sensitivity that won’t let absence mean absence from my consciousness. As my friend Kate Towle pointed out about the Clint Eastwood performance in Tampa, the offensiveness of that act was that he had designated President Obama as invisible. (I am sure Ralph Ellison would have something to say about this Invisible Man routine.) In that moment Eastwood was relegating the President of the United States to a profound absence. In all my sixty-eight years, I have rarely witnessed such disrespect of a sitting president.
So it comes to national politics again. It comes to door knocking and phone calling and doing something beyond my comfort zone. It comes to finding the way to do social justice work that matches my talents and age. It also comes to noting absence, invisibility, when by their very definition they are not there. After all the hoopla and humor, I find Clint’s skit at the Republican Convention, frightening and unnerving because it calls on us to “not see”. It would be dangerous to live in a country governed by those who refuse to dig deep enough to see the truth.