Dealing with Race and Dollars at Johnny Donuts

By Tammy Johnson Mar 30, 2009

photo credit: Nemo Johnny Donuts is my neighborhood sweets spot. It’s a corner café, where a tight-knit Chinese family kicks off the day for Black, Latino and white nurses, bus drivers and middle-schoolers with a breakfast roll, juice or coffee. “What happen to the postal box outside Jon?” I asked while pouring my morning coffee. “The post office is cutting back, so they took it away last week,” Jon replied. I shook my head and turned to pick up a newspaper. “Don’t waste your time with that rag,” said Abraham, another regular. “It’s got nothing but lies about us and crap that we don’t need to be buying.” “Obama’s on the radio right now anyway,” said Derrick, a young Black man from my neighborhood who’d just bounced in. “Turn it up.” “Ah, he’s too busy stimulating everybody else but us!” Derrick said, “Hey give the brother time. You know how the system works. The big corporations get their cut first, then us.” Abe stood his ground. “I’ll tell you about stimulus! Go down the street and look at the sidewalk. And look down at the concrete, where it says WPA. Now that was some stimulus.” Derrick gave a wide-eyed look. “You know they’re saying that this Green Jobs thing is today’s WPA work program.” I said, giving my two cents. “Oh yeah, there’s a training program in Richmond around that.” Derrick nodded. Abe held firm. “What they need are good union jobs," he continued. "But they’re trying to tear down unions right now. But a union job is the best job you can get.” "I know about unions," said Derrick. "I was in line for a union job, but a Mexican got it instead and he didn’t even speak English." Abe responded, "You better be happy that he had that union job, or he’d be working for less and we’d all be hurting. Don’t go slamming the unions. It’s those corporations that are getting all that money that we should be mad at." "Well we’ve got to give Brotha President some time to work it out." Derrick said. "Yeah, well I don’t have time," said Abe, who grabbed his coffee and turned to go back outside, where the shopping cart I see him push around town was parked. With that, Derrick jumped on the #18 bus. And I went to work with street economics on my mind. This sure wasn’t a panel of ivory-tower economists or talking heads on CNN. It was better. These were real people, dealing with real issues of race and the economy. Derrick’s concerns about access, and Abe’s sense of urgency aren’t one-line zingers on a talking points memo. They are rooted daily anxieties about paying the rent or spending a yet another night on the cold pavement. But in the mix was a sense of struggle, hope and reflection, and that’s powerful. Contrary to what the “experts” say, these are people who talk about race and (insert the issue of the day) all of the time. They say their piece, listen, respond and walk away thinking about what the other person had to say. It’s a conversation that issue advocates, policy analysts and media gurus devalue and often duck altogether. Turning a deaf ear on race means that they can’t hear the real debate on the issues. And that’s why they wrong more often than not.