Russell Simmons Letter to President Barrack Obama
Dear Mr. President,
I listened to your speech last week at Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network's 20th anniversary dinner, talking among friends and close supporters. This was an annual African American dinner, a very important one. While I know that any Democrat would have fulfilled their promise to come back if they had won the '08 election, I also know the significance, and the special burden it poses on you, as the first African American President, at the same time.
Still, I woke up the next day feeling uneasy, not because you didn't take issues of direct significance to the black community head-on -- like the fact that one in three black children go to jail once in their lifetime or that black people have an unemployment rate double the amount of white people -- but because nowhere in your deep and thoughtful remarks did you talk about the elephant in the room that affects ALL Americans, irrespective of color: the growing ranks of poor Americans, Americans struggling not just to meet their mortgage payments but to eat, sleep under a roof, educate their kids and pay their basic bills.
As a passionate advocate of yours since I joined your campaign in 2008, there is something you need to hear: in trying to soar above party politics, you risk forgetting your most important commitment to inclusion and empowerment. As you prepare for your speech to the nation tomorrow night, I write this letter to you as a friend and strong advocate.
The rich are already at the table, as are the Democrats, the Republicans, the Tea Party and the unions, the business interests and the moneyed interests. The poor can't afford for you to forget about them, and you cannot afford it either. Of all Americans, the poor are not just the real victims of this recession; they are the victims of a thirty year campaign of smear and neglect, to strengthen the rich on the backs of the rest of America in the dim and ultimately futile fantasy that the rich getting richer will somehow "trickle down."
Well, it hasn't trickled down. While middle class wages have declined in the face of unparalleled wealth and technology creation since the 1980's, the poverty rate in our country is the highest it has been in 51 years. That takes us to the early 1960's. Shame on all of us who otherwise take pride in the achievements of this rich and powerful nation.
If you don't put the poor at the heart of your policies for the next two years, with the interests aligned in favor of the rich, too many of the middle class will join them in their suffering. That is the "trickle up" of poverty that has impoverished nations with unfair concentrations of wealth at the top. That is what destroys great nations.
After the devastating financial meltdown of 2008 -- which came from the orgy of gambling by the richest among us -- and the generational recession that it wrought and now the agenda of cuts on the backs of the neediest in America, we are the precipice of losing the very fabric that makes us strong.
A few months ago, I was sitting in the church pew during the beautiful celebration of the life of one of my heroes, and one of yours, Kennedy's adviser and architect of so many policies of inclusion and empowerment, the great Sargent Shriver. It was Sargent Shriver who influenced and encouraged President Lyndon B. Johnson to declare a war on poverty in America in 1964.
The service for Mr. Shriver was deeply moving, yet there was a noticeable absence. The First Lady, President Clinton, Secretary Clinton, Oprah, Bono, Gov. Schwarzenegger and too many other celebrities, politicians and well-wishers to mention were all there, and you were around the corner at the White House. We needed you there to seize that moment to renew Mr. Shriver's dream and address our nation with a stirring speech reminding us of your campaign vows and life-long commitment to fight a war on the illness of poverty that afflicts our country, and that more and more Americans are falling into.
If we do not attack this problem with the same zeal with which we are talking about the national debt, the narrative in Washington will continue going in the direction of more misery and more poverty on the horizon, more needless suffering, young minds lost and greatness denied. Why? Because we've let the moneyed interests that gambled with the economy and came to you for bailouts paint the narrative that the poor, not they, are to blame.
By your own admission, you were too busy "getting stuff done" to paint the narrative of the transformative presidents of both parties you respect so much. Where is that narrative now? Why don't Independents and Democrats and even thoughtful Republicans buy into the amazing accomplishments of your term so far: saving the economy, managing two wars you didn't get us into, health care reform, financial reform? Because the heart of your story is missing the hard crushing reality facing everyday Americans who could not only NOT afford the $1,000 to come to the National Action Network dinner, but had to wonder about the $2.50 subway ride uptown. The heart of your story is "the other America," the one that either is or is just about to be, poor. It may not poll well today but that is only because there is more to leading than "getting stuff done." And you are the only one who can lead.
When we talk about cutting, if we don't talk about reversing the unfair Bush tax cuts on people like me who get richer, it seems, just by breathing, if YOU don't personally challenge America day in and day out for a more balanced economy between rich and poor, between fair and unfair educational outcomes, and in favor of basic services while reforming entitlements, you risk the very passion that you will need -- in your constituents and in your own deeply compassionate heart -- to win today, forget the future.
My businesses have always benefited from giving a voice to those outside the mainstream who, through their creativity could change and then transform America: rappers, comedians, poets, designers, people who need a bank account, bloggers who use this very website on which this letter is posted, GlobalGrind.com, to talk to a new America, one that is multi-racial, tech-smart, inclusive and deeply compassionate. I have benefited from never wavering from my mission of giving a voice to those communities. You can't afford not to.
We have tough times ahead. Perilous times. Treacherous times. But it has to start with the victims, the poor, paying the least and the rich, who did so incredibly well, paying the lion's share of the hard sacrifices ahead. And for that fight, I will be at your side morning, noon and night.