Saturday, November 29, 2008

Urban Policy and Corporate Dominance

In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “Most people are totally unaware of the darkness of the cave in which the Negro is forced to live. A few individuals can break out, but the vast majority remains its prisoners. Our cities have constructed elaborate expressways and elevated skyways, and white Americans speed from suburb to inner city through vast pockets of black deprivation without ever getting a glimpse of the suffering and misery in their midst.”

American urban ghettos are even more devastated today than they were 40 years ago when Dr. King wrote those words. What is the reason for this?

By way of explanation, by the early 1970s, America’s central cities started to crumble under the weight of globalization and deindustrialization. Manufacturing jobs were being exported en masse. At the same time, there was no place for the masses of unskilled and semi-skilled laborers in the new technology sector that sprung up to replace the industries that once provided countless Americans, regardless of their race, with a chance for economic mobility. Unemployment, violence, and desolation are far too common features of America’s major cities today.

Given that urban issues were rarely talked about by President-elect Barack Obama or any of his rivals for the presidency, it was a pleasant surprise to me to hear that he plans to establish a White House Office of Urban Policy to better coordinate federal efforts to help cities nationwide.

"He's going to have a White House chief of urban policy," Valerie Jarrett, co-chairman of the Obama transition team, told the Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists.

The deeply embedded, systemic, and institutionalized problems that plague American cities will require thoughtful analysis and a genuine commitment to long-term solutions. Most importantly, to be challenged is the deeply entrenched neoconservative orthodoxy of free and unfettered capital and trickle-down economics, which has shaped American economic (and domestic) policy for the last several decades.

Corporate dominance and the neoconservative orthodoxy, which has provided the ideological cover for business decisions that undermined the economic vitality of America’s central cities (and the kind of rampant greed that helped produce the Wall Street meltdown that led to the current financial crisis the country faces) must be challenged at its core, requiring more than simply closing tax-loopholes and marginally raising the corporate tax rate.

Sacred cows must fall.

One sacrosanct issue is the tax rate corporations are supposed to pay. In reality, the corporate tax rate is really a joke. According to a July 2008 report by the non-partisan Government Accounting Office (GAO), between 1998 and 2005, about two thirds of all corporations that operated in the US paid no taxes.

The corporations that did pay taxes, after all the loopholes and exemptions, paid at a rate far below the 35 percent they are supposed to contribute to the nation’s coffers – averaging only about 24 percent.

Raising the corporate tax rate is essential. In other words, corporations (and the excessively salaried CEO’s that run them) must pay their fair share.

Putting an end to corporate welfare, however, will not be easy. Although he does not go far enough, President-elect Obama is on the right track, proposing, for example, to eliminate tax breaks for companies that move jobs and production abroad and providing incentives to companies that create jobs in America.

If President-elect Obama really intends to usher in a new era of change in Washington, then, challenging corporate dominance is a necessary and much needed step.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Few BIG IDEAS: How President Obama Can Promote Social and Racial Justice

My fraternity brother, friend, and colleague, Dr. Lester Kenyatta Spence, put together this excellent list of BIG IDEAS for President-elect Obama and anyone else interested in promoting an agenda aimed at social and racial justice.

40 Big Ideas for Obama (and everyone else)

October 17, 2008 By: The Good Doctor Category: afrofuturism

A while back I noted the powerful black party discipline that attended Obama. Rather than take the opportunity to talk about ideas, about what we would actually want from an Obama presidency, we talked more about getting him over that electoral hump. To the point of cutting off dissent in some limited cases.

What I’d like to do is begin a conversation about what comes next. And as a first step I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. Folks talk about the first 30 days of a presidency? I’m going to up the ante. My motto next year is “40 is the new 40.” So in that spirit I’m going to present 40 ideas for Obama. Some of these ideas are ones Obama is already promoting. Some of these ideas are technically not within the federal government’s purview. Some of them are unworkable.

So what.

We’ve got to stop believing that the one thing government does well is punish black and poor men and women.

In no particular order:

1. Free college tuition.

2. Low interest loans to businesses/homes for energy improvements.

3. Promote micro-loans.

4. Universal preschool.

5. Green public transit.

6. Fund vertical gardens.

7. Fund the Algebra Project.

8. Promote wellness.

9. Create green-collar jobs.

10. Explore Free Government.

11. Release non-violent offenders.

12. Rebuild New Orleans.

13. Rebuild New Orleans.

14. Support the Millenium Project.

15. Make Election Day a Federal Holiday.

16. Change how the census counts prisoners.

17. Restore their right to vote while you’re at it.

18. Bring back the Bicycle.

19. Build a bridge to somewhere.

20. Support parental leave.

21. End the War on Drugs.

22. End private financing of political campaigns. (pdf)

23. Increase funding for the arts.

24. Restore the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department.

25. Reduce government secrecy.

26. Put Greenhouses in every classroom.

27. Give working class families individual development accounts.

28. Expand Horizons.

29. Put first things first.

30. End the Media Monopoly.

31. Fix our bridges and roads.

32. Bring scientists back into government.

33. Promote a living wage.

34. Expand Americorps.

35. Stop trying youth as adults. (pdf)

36. Give 47 million Americans the ability to get sick.

37. Rebuild New Orleans.

38. Promote zero-pollution cars.

39. End corporate welfare.

40. Rebuild New Orleans.

What did I miss?

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Power and Potential of the Black Vote

The Barack Obama victory, without a doubt, is testimonial to the power of the black vote. According to exit polls, 95 percent of Blacks voted for the President-elect.

Now, of course, black people alone did not (and could not have) make Barack Obama the next president of the United States of America.

Nonetheless, the Black vote was a key in this election. A number of states saw record-breaking levels of registration and turn-out by Black people. In states such as Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, the Black vote gave the President-elect the votes he needed to secure his historic victory.

Yet, more than 40 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the expansion of the criminal justice system - particularly the War on Drugs – continues to marginalize the political voice and limit the potential clout of the black community.

Felon disenfranchisement laws have disproportionately impacted the ability of black people to fully realize the potential of the ballot box.

Nationally, about 5.3 million Americans have lost the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions.

Roughly 13 percent of Black men are unable to vote, a rate seven times the national average.

In states that strip citizens convicted of a felony of their right to vote, as many as 40% of black men may be permanently disenfranchised.

And, according to the Sentencing Project, a non-partisan research and advocacy organization, “Given current rates of incarceration, three in ten of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime.”

A new report by The 2009 Criminal Justice Transition Coalition, “Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress,” contains a comprehensive set of policy recommendations to reform the criminal justice system at every stage.

Among the group’s recommendations are:

* Extend federal voting rights to people released from prison;

* Eliminate the crack cocaine sentencing disparity;

* Expand alternatives to incarceration;

* Fund prisoner reentry trough the Second Chance Act;

* Analyze and reduce unwarranted racial and ethnic disparity in the federal judicial system.

The policy report will be delivered to President-elect Barack Obama and key legislative leaders on Capital Hill.

Let’s all hope that an Obama administration will make reforming the criminal justice system a key component of its civil rights agenda.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Presidential Debate on Domestic Policy That Does Not Mention Issues Related to Race Or Class.

As I watched the second of the three scheduled presidential debates last night, I thought to myself, “what a charade.”

I’ll probably end up holding my nose and voting for the Obama-Biden ticket, but nothing the Senators from either Illinois or Arizona said last night made me feel confident that they really understand or care how race and class continue to shape life chances and opportunities in American society.

The lack of a substantive discussion of issues related to race or class was very unsettling and should disturb anyone seriously committed to racial and social justice in American society.

For example, consider that the subprime mortgage meltdown has a huge racial dimension. This fact has been ignored by both candidates.

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, for the last 40 years, homeownership has been the ticket to middle-class stability for many black and Latino families. Studies show that the subprime meltdown is disproportionately affecting people of color: their total loss of wealth could reach $200 billion.

Moreover, because the wealth of people of color is so heavily dependent on homeownership, the fallout from the possible loss of a home could affect several generations (remember, homes are often passed on to the next generation, which becomes instant wealth for the new homeowner).

There was no real discussion of the devastating impact of the home mortgage meltdown on cities with large non-white populations, such as Detroit and Cleveland. Entire neighborhoods in these cities look like wastelands, as people unable to keep up with their mortgage payments are either being forced out of or simply abandoning their homes.

Also, noticeably absent from this debate was a real discussion about the needs, preferences, and concerns of working-and lower-class Americans. Everything is about the middle-class (codeword, the white middle-class). What about the black, Latino, Asian, Native American, and, even, white working classes?

“The middle class need a rescue package, and that means tax cuts for the middle class,” declared Senator Obama.

Without a doubt, the centerpiece of Senator Obama’s tax policy is what he describes as “a middle-class tax cut to 95 percent of working Americans.” Given that 95 percent of Americans are not in the middle-class, this is a very bizarre statement. But it does explain where his priorities are, which is to appeal to the white middle-class, by placating to their sense of entitlement. Many middle-class whites subscribe to the view voiced by Senator Clinton: that they are “hard-working Americans” who deserve special treatment from their government.

Moreover, neither candidate truthfully addressed how the $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street, a projected $500 billion dollar federal budget deficit, a 10 trillion dollar debt, and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will affect their domestic policy priorities as President. Without new revenues, painful cuts to government programs – more than just ending earmarks or freezing spending for entitlement programs – may be required.

What will happen to funding for programs that aid children and the elderly? What will happen to funding for job training programs for economically devastated urban communities? What about funding for elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education? What about Social Security? What about Universal Healthcare?

Rather than tell the American people what they need to hear, both candidates have selected to tell us what they think we want to hear. That sounds to me like the POLITICS OF OLD rather than the politics of change.

As the debate entered its second hour and shifted to the foreign policy arena with so many domestic policy questions unanswered, I thought to myself, why we shouldn't be switching topics: “Who is speaking for the urban poor? Who is speaking for the rural poor? Who is raising their issues?”

Not Senator Obama!

Not Senator McCain!

Senators’ Obama and McCain, I thought to myself, “What about a rescue package for the poor and working-classes who are suffering in this economy?”

I finished this debate more depressed than ever about the major party candidates I have to choose between in November.

I thought to myself, “I’d rather vote for an Aunt Jemima-Uncle Ben ticket than either an Obama-Biden or McCain-Palin ticket.”

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Turn The Tables Of The American Racial Order By Properly Naming The Main Problem: Racism

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Oakland in the wee hours of the morning (coming from the east coast to the west coast has me wide awake at 4:00 am) as I write this post to my blog.

Riding to my hotel from the airport, I got an opportunity to get a small glimpse of the urban landscape of the city. I was struck by just how similar Oakland is to my hometown, Detroit, and any other post-industrial city I’ve visited across the country – a decayed (or decaying) infrastructure and a whole bunch of disadvantaged people.

Concerned as I am with promoting racial justice, I tend to be preoccupied with thoughts about how to lift up the mass of people of color I see in these once great American cities.

To turn the tables of the American racial order, it is important that we properly name the main problem: racism.

Although it is less malicious and intense than it was in the pre-civil rights era, racism – in all its variations, including silent racism, everyday racism, color-blind racism, and institutional racism – is alive and well in America.

In order to fully understand, for example, the condition of the black poor and working class, their plight must be situated in the context of the long history of racial oppression and contemporary patterns of silent, everyday, color-blind and institutional racism.

Unfortunately, a clear-headed discussion about the impact of racism is practically impossible to do because of the deeply-rooted contempt most Americans have for the black (and brown) lower classes and our persistent refusal to confront mythological thinking, such as, the notion of rugged individualism (and its modern enunciation, personal responsibility).

The popular, and virulently racist, images of the black (and brown) poor held by a majority of Americans, that they are lazy and shiftless, drug addicted, looking for a government handout, unwilling to work, and sexually irresponsible, are also major obstacles to clear-headed thinking about race.

Because of their racist assumptions, most whites reject programs and policies that they perceive will advantage blacks and other people of color – ranging from affirmative action to a national urban policy – and uncritically embrace outcomes that perpetuate their racial advantages, such as, the school to prison pipeline that I wrote about in a previous post for this blog.

In particular, crude and demeaning racial stereotypes about black people – such as, the depiction of black women as “crack hoes” and “welfare queens” and black men as “drug-peddling hoodlums” and “dead-beat dads” – saturate American media, undermining efforts by government to fashion social policies that would adequately address deeply-rooted social problems afflicting the black community.

“As a result,” writes Jerry G. Watts, Professor of English at the Graduate Center of CUNY, “the black poor continue to be excluded from the implicit American social contract. Their suffering tends to lie outside the realm of white American empathy and moral concern.”

It is equally troubling that many self-consciously elitist, establishment-status-seeking middle and upper-class blacks share a similar disdain for some of America’s most marginalized and vulnerable victims.

Those of us (people of color and whites) who have the courage and vision to struggle against the racial order must never cease to draw attention to the causes and realities of racial inequality in our nation – the continuing burden that people of color endure in the form of lower rates of life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, lower rates of high school completion, college enrollment and graduation, and higher rates of incarceration – no matter how unfashionable and unpalatable our arguments may be to most Americans.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reverend Jackson Was Right: Uhhhhhh, His Point That Senator Obama Talks Down To Black People

By now, everyone knows about Reverend Jesse Jackson’s hot mike comments about Senator Barack Obama. Of course the Reverend was wrong for joking about emasculating the brother. But, Reverend Jackson was right about one thing: Barack Obama has been “talking down to black people.”

Not everyone has taken Reverend Jackson’s critique of Senator Obama as seriously as they should. Instead, the Reverend has come under attack.

The critics of Reverend Jackson accuse him of being a “Playa Hater.” They contend that he and other civil rights leaders of his generation – those who risked life and limb to end de jure segregation – are jealous of Senator Obama, resenting his rapid rise to political prominence. Reverend Jackson, in particular, is thought to be envious of Senator Obama because he believes that he, not the Senator, should be the nation’s first black president.

Reverend Jackson is also believed to be angry at Senator Obama because the Senator fails to give him and other civil rights leaders their “respect,” that is, the credit they deserve for creating the opportunities that Senator Obama and other black post-civil rights leaders are now benefiting from.

In my view, these veiled attacks on Reverend Jackson’s character miss the larger point of his critique of Senator Obama and the current generation of new black political leaders who are willing to make accommodations with white supremacy for political advancement.

Viewing it as the only legitimate way to contradict the view of black inferiority which hampers their ability to be upwardly mobile, the “accommodationist” black politicians of today repudiates black identity as a political organizing strategy, is willing to tolerate a certain level of white domination, and tries to distance themselves from the black lower classes.

If they are willing to play by the rules, the political currency of the accommodationists is boundless. Anointed as the best and brightest of the new generation of black political leaders by white media and political elites, the accommodationists advance politically by embracing the two doctrines favored by whites: colorblindness and the declining significance of race.

The career advancement of the accomodationists is made secure when they publicly point out, as Senator Obama has been doing, the so-called pathologies of blacks and other people of color in front of eagerly approving black and white middle and upper-class audiences.

The truth is that Reverend Jackson critique of Senator Obama was on the mark. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee “talks down to black people.” He eagerly demands that black people, particularly black men, take personal responsibility for their failures and short-comings, but he lets - though not completely - the system that helps to produce racial and economic inequalities off the hook.

No one serious about eradicating poverty discounts the importance of human agency. At the same time, reams of evidence produced by social scientist also demonstrate that racism is alive and well in American society. I believe that Senator Obama intentionally fails to place many of the problems afflicting black communities in their sociohistorical context simply because of personal ambition, that is, it may harm his political advancement.

It is imperative that we follow Reverend Jackson’s lead and criticize this generation of black leader’s assimilation and accommodation preoccupations. The stakes are too high to do anything less.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Looting of Black People’s Wealth: From Land Grabs to Subprime Loans

“For generations, black families passed down the tales in uneasy whispers: ‘They stole our land’” began an award winning 2001 Associated Press series titled “Torn From the Land.”

The culmination of an 18 month investigation, AP’s three-part series revealed a systematic pattern in which blacks were “cheated out of their land or driven from it through intimidation, violence and even murder.”

The looting of black wealth began shortly after the Civil War and continues to this very day.

Tracking more than a century of land cases by searching through deeds, mortgages, tax records, estate papers, court proceedings, oil leases and Freedmen’s Bureau archives, the AP reporters were able to show how everyone from US government officials to Southern segregationist got in on the act of stealing land owned by blacks.

Notably, the reporters make a compelling case that the government either approved of the theft of black land or took part in the thievery.

This first phase of the looting of black wealth helps to explain the near century decline of black landownership in the US.

In 1910, blacks owned roughly 15 million acres of farmland, most of which was in the South. Black ownership of farmland (outright or partial) had dropped to about 2.7 million acres of farmland by 2001.

While many blacks gave up their land to escape Jim Crow segregation and escalating racist terrorism in the South or to pursue greater economic opportunity in the North during the Great Black Migration, thievery, nonetheless, played a big role in the decline of black landownership.

My family had land stolen from them too. My mother, who is in her 70s, always talks about how her uncle, a hardworking, but illiterate black man, saw land inherited from his parents taken by whites.

“White people took advantage of black people like my uncle because they could not read or write,” she would often tell me. “After my uncle borrowed money from whites and could not pay them back quickly enough, one day they came for the plow. The next time they came for the mule that used to pull the plow. Then, one day, they came for the house.”

Of course, the current owners of stolen black land claim ignorance about this history.

In truth, until the AP series ran, much of this history had been either conveniently ignored or simply overlooked.

According to articles in the July 14 edition of The Nation, the looting of black wealth has not ended.

According to The Nation, the subprime meltdown is disproportionately affecting people of color: the total loss of wealth for people of color could reach $213 billion, including $92 billion for blacks and $98 billion for Latinos.

Because the wealth of people of color is so heavily dependent on homeownership, the fallout from the possible loss of a home impacts more than one generation (remember, homes are often passed on to the next generation, which becomes instant wealth for the new homeowner).

As things stand, the black-white wealth gap is huge. According to Dedrick Muhammad, black families have a median net worth of $20,600, only 14.6 percent of the $140,700 median white net worth (Latino families have a median net worth of $18,600, only 13.2 percent of median white net worth). If you take home equity out of the picture, black net worth is only about 1 percent of that for whites.

How did blacks (and other people of color) find themselves in this predicament? Kai Wright’s article in The Nation, “The Subprime Swindle,” provides an explanation.

For starters, lending institutions came up with scams to “swindle” people of color, especially older, “house rich but cash poor,” blacks and Latinos out of their wealth. According to Wright, “… banks and brokers targeted vulnerable longtime homeowners and lured them into needless and rapidly recurring mortgages they clearly couldn’t afford and from which they never stood to gain.”

As an example, according to ACORN, more than half of all refinance loans made to blacks in 2006 were subprime, nearly twice the rate among whites. Nearly 2/3 of refinance loans for low-income blacks were subprime.

Moreover, when the housing market exploded in the early 2000s, investment bankers started to bundled pools of mortgages and sell them in the highly profitable securities market. When the lenders ran out of reliable borrowers, “undocumented loan applications, interest-only payment plans and teaser interest rates,” became the tools of the trade to swindle blacks and Latinos out of their wealth.

For much of this country’s history, homeownership has been the ticket for whites to the middle-class. For the last 40 years, it has been the ticket to middle-class stability for many black people. The subprime mortgage meltdown is undermining that progress. When it comes to finding a solution to the housing crisis, for blacks (and Latinos), then, the stakes are very high.

Unfortunately, given the structural nature of the problem, fixing this disaster will not be easy. When there is a governmental bailout for homeowners (there has to be one), there must be recognition of the special needs of homeowners of color. This is not simply needed; rather, it is absolutely necessary.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Silky Smoothing it all the way to the White House

I never thought that I would see a politician slicker than ex-president, Bill “Slick-Willie” Clinton.

Well, you might ask, “How slick was Bill Clinton?”

“Slick-Willie” was so slick that he sweet-talked black folks into calling him the first black president.

Up until his white privilege meltdown during the South Carolina Democratic Party primary, it was not unusual for black people – from pulpits to barbershops – to refer to the ex-president as “Fam (short for family for some of my un-hip readers).”

Who is slicker than my “Fam?” The answer is Barack “Silky” Obama.




Like Clinton, “Silky” is one hell-of-an orator.

And, like “Slick Willie,” Senator Obama is as much a politician as the rest.

The warning signs are all over the place. Take, for instance, his steady march to the right. Uhhhhhhhh, I mean the middle.

There are, of course, the flip flops: he opposed NAFTA, now he is not against NAFTA; he would take public financing, now he won’t take public financing; he would end the embargo against Cuba, now he won’t end the embargo against Cuba; he opposed a crackdown on businesses that hire illegal immigrants, now he supports a crackdown; he supported eliminating penalties for marijuana, now he opposes decriminalization, and so on.

Then, off course, there are the conservative red meat issues: although he does not think that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime, he favors executing child rapists; he supports the right of individuals to own guns over efforts to protect the public from gun violence in big cities like Washington, DC; he blasted for labeling Gen. David Petraeus “General Betray Us;” tossed the Palestinian people under the bus by expressing strong support for a united Jerusalem under Israeli rule and; he capitulated on FISA, and so on.

The reason for his shift is obvious. “Silky,” and his inner-circle (the usual crew of political pollsters, Washington insiders, lobbyists, neoliberal economic advisors), believes very strongly that there is no reason to play the game if you don’t plan on winning – well, at any cost.

To win, the experts believe that the Senator needs to do what all presumptive Democratic presidential nominees seem to do after appealing to the Party’s liberal base (disproportionately people of color and whites with college degrees, and this year, idealistic youth) during the nomination process, which is, move rightward to the so-called middle (undecided swing voters made up of hard-working whites, white evangelical Christians, white suburban moms, white suburban dads, white seniors on a fixed income, whites who prefer to drive rather than fly, whites, whites, whites…).

Can he get any silkier?

The Latest: Senator Obama proposes a $500 million boost to George W. Bush failed Faith-Based Initiative Program.

“I’m not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits, and I’m not saying that they’re somehow better at lifting people up,” said Senator Obama after touring the Eastside Community Ministry. “What I’m saying is that we all have to work together – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Mulism believer and non-believer alike – to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”


Damn, was that “Silky Smooth” or what?

This is the same faith-based initiative program that has been controversial from day on. One director quit in disgust at the administration’s politicizing of the program. A second previous director wrote a tell-all book describing how the program was used to advance Republican political objectives. Some faith-based groups receiving money rejected federal anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation.

So, why does Senator Obama wants to support this failed program?

The answer is simple. He wants to win the support of some conservative white evangelical Christians and some “prosperity gospel” teaching black preachers already on the faith-based initiative gravy train. If you would like to learn more on this point, read Max Blumenthal’s excellent piece in The Nation about a secret meeting between Obama and some of the nation most well-known moral crusaders, “Preaching to the Choir.”

Bill Clinton campaigned from the left and governed to the right of center on a number of issues important to people of color during the 1990s (welfare reform, federal drug laws, NAFTA). Like Senator Obama today, the signs of Clinton’s shift occurred once he got the nomination.

All of this leaves me with one question: “Will a President Barack Obama also govern from the right of the Party’s base like his Democratic predecessor in the White House?”

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Part II: Black Males and The Prison-to-Schools Pipeline

I was born a black male, raised in a single parent household in an impoverished, crime-plagued, neighborhood on the lower-eastside of Detroit.

The odds were stacked against me.

I’ve been asked more times than I can remember: “How did you make it out?” I’ve asked myself that question more times than I have been asked it.

My ticket out of poverty and the door to a better future was getting an education. Amazingly, I was just shy of my 29 birthday when I received my Ph.D. in political science from Ohio State University.

Unfortunately, for black men born under similar conditions in America, I am the exception, rather than the rule.

In June 2006, the Washington Post produced an intriguing series on being a black man in America. In the first article, “At the Corner of Progress and Peril,” the Post laid out some mind-numbing data (a book that is worth buying was produced from the series as well as an interactive website that is worth visiting). According to the author of the article, “Being a black man in America can mean inhabiting a border area between possibility and peril”

On the one hand, there is flat-out peril:

  • Black men are six times more likely than white men to be murdered. The trend is most stark among black men 14 to 24 years old: They were implicated in a quarter of the nation's homicides and accounted for 15 percent of the homicide victims in 2002, although they were just 1.2 percent of the population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Black men die from AIDS at a rate that is six times that of white men, and life expectancy for black men is 69.2 years – more than six years shorter than that of white men.
  • The number of black men committing suicide has doubled since 1980.

On the other hand, there is possibility, but it is mixed with flat-out peril:

  • Black two-parented households have a median income nearly equivalent to that of white families, yet more than one-out-of-two black boys live in female headed, single-parent household, nearly half of which are impoverished.
  • The percentage of black men graduating from college has nearly quadrupled since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and yet more black men earn their high school equivalency diplomas in prison each year than graduate from college.
  • The number of professional black has grown dramatically over the last four decades – there were 78,000 black male engineers in 2004, a 33 percent increase in 10 years. At the same time, 840,000 black men are incarcerated, and a quarter of black men have not worked for at least a year.

As my personal journey demonstrates and these data make clear, there is a strong relationship between academic success (high school diploma, college, and graduate or professional degrees) and social and economic mobility.

By comparison, dropping out of high school increases the likelihood of being out of work or ending up in jail or prison. According to a March 2006 New York Times article, the absence of an education often relegates black men to the margins of society:

“The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.”

Astonishingly, in many urban areas, more than half of all black males are high school dropouts.

One reason why so many black men are slipping into social and economic obsolescence is the school-to-prison pipeline. At critical junctures throughout their educational experience, young black males are being lead away from education and graduation and toward prisons and jails.

According to the Times article, “incarceration rates climbed in the 1990s and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their twenties who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-thirties, six in ten black men who had dropped out of high school had spent time in prison.”

How does the pipeline work?

In a very insightful article in the Spring 2008, Child Welfare League of America, Juvenile Justice Division newsletter, Marsha Weissman, contends that the pipeline works in two ways, one directly and the other indirectly. “The direct link,” she writes, “is the increased presence of police in schools because student misconduct and noncompliance once previously addressed by teachers or school administrators are now the purview of juvenile and criminal justice system.” Fights are now labeled assaults, while pushes, shoves, slaps, punches, scratches and kicks in school yard fighting are now defined as personal weapons.

According to Weissman, “The indirect link appears to be school suspensions and expulsions have greatly increased over the past 25 years.” Many non-violent behaviors that once would have gotten you sent to the principle's office or detention – truancy, tardiness, forging out-school excuses, smoking, drinking, disruptive behavior, uncooperative behavior – now may result in school suspension.

Students who are suspended from school are much more likely to drop out of school. Overall, a disproportionate number of students arrested in school and a disproportionate number of students suspended from school are black males.

In my final post on this topic, I’ll talk about ways to save the brothas: I Am My Brotha’s Keeper.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Part I: Boys Crisis Disputed!: Says Who?

On Tuesday, May 20, 2008, the Hartford Courant printed an article that first appeared in the Washington Post with the following headline: “‘Boys Crisis’ Disputed. Report: Gender Differences In School Success Overstated.”

As a black male professor, the headline caught my attention because the title appeared to contradict what I have been observing (and what friends at other universities say they have been observing) and fretting over the last several years, the declining number of black men in my classes (although, at my university, a growing percentage of the student body is black).

Whenever I walk across my campus, but especially when I enter a classroom for the first time, one of the things that I notice is that women of color outnumber, sometimes 3 to 1, men of color. And though I realize that gender inequity is real in many facets of American life and that one of the only ways to close those gender gaps is to have more women of color successfully matriculate through colleges and universities across this country, my heart sinks a bit because of the noticeable absence of men of color.

I thought to myself as I prepared to read the article in the Courant, if a gender difference in academic success is being overstated, where the hell are the brothas on my campus?

So, what is the article about?

After reviewing more than 40 years of data on achievement from fourth grade to college, a new report by the nonprofit American Association of University Women (AAUW) contends that the “boys crisis” in U.S. schools is more myth than reality.

The AAUW report – “Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Gender Equity in Education,” – looks at a variety of indicators of educational achievement, including dropout and disciplinary rates. The authors claim that their study is the first to analyze gender differences within economic and ethnic categories. They conclude that academic success is more a function of class (that is, family income) than gender.

Well! Okay! But, what about race and ethnicity?

My question was partially answered in the fourth paragraph of the article. “A lot of people think it is the boys that need the help,” co-author Christianne Corbett said. “The point of the report is to highlight the fact that that is not exclusively true. There is no crisis with boys. If there is a crisis [my emphasis], it is with African American and Hispanic students and low income students, girls and boys.”

What does she mean, “If there is a crisis?” There is a crisis on my campus, I thought to myself.

To my dismay, the rest of the newspaper article was mostly silent on those differences she clearly sought to minimize.

(Sidebar: Damn, I hate this color-blindness stuff – that is, the intentional downplaying of racial and ethnic differences. I’ll save a discussion of the “whitewashing” of race and ethnicity in popular and academic writing for another post).

The finding (whitewashing) reported in the Courant article that really caught my attention was that: “There is virtually no gap between boys and girls entering college immediately after high school.”


I next imagined someone from the Courant asking me, who you gonna believe, me, or your “LYING” eyes?

What does a good academic do? I did some research.

But, before I present some of the data I found, there is an important point that readers of this blog should note: even though more black women are attending college and earning degrees, their gains have not come at the expense of black men.

Nonetheless, AAUW’s data and data I culled from other sources (the American Council on Education and the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education) clearly show that there is a growing black male crisis.

A few examples:

· Although black male and female undergraduate enrollment is growing, in 2003-04, black women comprised 64 percent of black undergraduates and the gap is widening

· On many college campus, black women make up two-thirds of black enrollment

· There are roughly 200 black females graduate for every 100 black males; the 2 to 1 ratio is higher than any other racial group

· At many historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), educators say that on average, the ratio of women to men is about 7 to 1, and the graduation rate is 10 females for every 1 male

· Black women, who are 6 percent of the nation’s population, earned 7 percent of all bachelor degrees conferred in 2005-2006; black men, who are 6 percent of the nation’s population, earned 3 percent of all bachelors degrees conferred in 2005-2006

· Black men earned approximately the same percentage of all degrees conferred (3 percent) in 2005–06 as they did in 1976–77

So, what is happening to the brothas?

I’ll try to answer that question in my next post: Black Males and the School to Prison Pipeline.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Reverend Jeremiah Wright Is Controversial; Says Who?

Many of Rev. Wright's so-called "controversial" statements are really not that controversial.

Does that mean that blacks who have pinned their hopes and dreams in the Obama campaign wish Rev. Wright had kept his mouth shut until after the election? Of course they do.

But, does that mean that black people think that what he said is wrong? Nope. There are many good reasons why Rev. Wright’s core message and hyperbolic style of delivering that message resonated for so many years with blacks in Chicago, including his former parishioner and protégée, Senator Obama.

Let’s take a look at one of his most controversial statements: “The government gives them drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing God Bless America? No, no, no. God damn America, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating us citizens as less than human.

The government gives them drugs…

What in the world did Rev. Wright mean by this statement?

To answer that question, we need to go back to the three part series, “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion,” published in August of 1996 by Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News, which began with the following words:

"For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency."

Webb’s story fueled much speculation across the country, and continues to fuel speculation in the black community, that the U.S.-backed Contra rebels, fighting a leftist Nicaraguan regime, were largely responsible for introducing crack-cocaine into the U.S.

While it has not been proven without a doubt that U.S.-backed Contra rebels targeted black communities with crack cocaine, there is little doubt that people affiliated with, or on the payroll of the CIA, were trafficking in drugs, and that some of those drugs made it into black communities across America helping to fuel the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. A 1989 U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report stated, "There are some serious questions as to whether or not U.S. officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war effort against Nicaragua."

… builds bigger prisons

America locks up more of its citizens than any other country in the world. According to a 2008 report by the Pew Center on the States, one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars. That amounts to roughly 2.2 million people, which represents 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

The prison population is disproportionately black and brown. According to the Pew Center report, based on Justice Department figures, one in 36 adult Latino men is behind bars and one in 15 adult black men is, too. A whopping one in nine black men ages 20 to 34 are behind bars.

Moreover, while only one in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39 are behind bars, one in 100 black women are.

Finally, according to a December 2007 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Race and Ethnicity in America: Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice,” in 2006, the U.S. prison population was 46 percent white, 41 percent black, and 19 percent Latino.

For black men, the ACLU reports, the experience of imprisonment is practically surreal. One out of every 6 black males has been either to jail or prison. Based on current trends, one out of every 3 black men can expect to be imprisoned at some point in their lives.

“…passes a three-strike law

There is strong evidence that the overrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in prisons and jails is the result of discrimination and bad public policy at every phase of the criminal justice system. According to the press release for the Pew Center’s report:

“The report points out the necessity of locking up violent and repeat offenders, but notes that prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect a parallel increase in crime, or a corresponding surge in the nation’s population at large. Instead, more people are behind bars principally because of a wave of policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison and, through popular “three-strikes [my emphasis]” measures and other sentencing laws, imposing longer prison stays on inmates.”

The most obscene aspect of the criminal (in)justice system is the so-called “war on drugs.” In the early 1980s, in response to the problem of drug abuse and an upsurge in violent crimes associated with the sale and distribution of crack cocaine, many states, along with the federal government, declared a “war on drugs,” adopting mandatory sentencing policies that included increased sentences for individuals convicted of drug offenses. Black and Latino people have bared the brunt of this war.

From the perspective of the black community, the war on drugs looks more like a “war on black people.”

… and then wants us to sing God Bless America? No, no, no. God damn America.

Is it really a surprise why he said this? I’ll leave that to you to answer.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Accommodating White People... Until It Hurts

I am a strong advocate of speaking the truth about race. But the reality is that most Black people - including me - don't really say what’s on their mind. This reality is the source of my own rage that Obama talked about in his speech on race at Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ellis Cose described what I feel and countless other middle class Black people in the introduction of his book, The Rage of a Privileged Class:

“Despite its very evident prosperity, much of America’s black middle class is in excruciating pain. And that distress – although most of the country does not see it – illuminates a serious American problem: the problem of the broken covenant, of the pact ensuring that if you work hard, get a good education, and play by the rules, you will be allowed to advance and achieve to the limits of your ability.”

“Again and again, as I spoke with people who have every accouterment of success, I heard the same plaintive declaration – always followed by various versions of an unchanging and urgently put question. “I have done everything I was supposed to do. I have stayed out of trouble with the law, gone to the right schools, and worked myself nearly to death. What more do they want? Why in God’s name won’t they accept me as a full human being? Why am I pigeonholed in a ‘black job’? Why am I constantly treated as if I were a drug addict, a thief, or a thug? Why am I still not allowed to aspire to the same things every white person in America takes as a birthright? Why, when I most want to be seen, am I suddenly rendered invisible?”

The Black church (and other indigenous Black institutions, such as fraternities and sororities, Masonic organizations, and so on) is the only place that Black people can talk about the sources of their rage, take some of the edge off of it, and find a reason to get up Monday morning and go back to work and play “the game.”

Understand this: the Black Church is led by Black people and is financed by Black people. As a result, it is the only institution where Black people, like Barak Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, can speak the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth.

So, what is the game that Black people must play? I say must, because it is a game that every Black person who works in a predominately White environment learns to play if he or she plans to survive. It’s the “Accommodation Game.”

It is not a new game. Black people have been accommodating White people since we were first brought to these shores as slaves. We’ve been arguing amongst ourselves about the game for years. W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington argued about the game. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X argued about the game.

The question that Black people face is not whether to accommodate White people. Most Black people accepted a long time ago that they will have to play by the rules of the game.

The question Black people ask themselves is not if, but how much, do I accommodate White people.

The game asks every black person to surrender a piece of his or her humanity to get along. We make the accommodations to keep our jobs. We make the accommodations so that we can hold on to our homes. We make the accommodations so that our kids will have access to quality schools. We hope and pray that they will not have to play the game.

My problem with Obama is that I believe that he is willing to accommodate white people far more than I am willing to. Moreover, I fear that the accommodations that he is wiling to make will do more harm to Blacks’ continuing struggle for social, political and economic justice than he is willing (or able) to acknowledge.

Nearly everyone who has heard me criticize Obama for not taking a stronger stand on racial and ethnic issues tell me that he can’t take those stands; if he does, they remind me, he will not win the White House.

I believe very strongly that some Black people can’t afford the accommodations that Obama is willing to make to win the Presidency.

According to a March 24, 2008 article in the Washington Post, “The average black person in America is 447 percent more likely to be imprisoned than the average white person, and 521 percent more likely to be murdered. Blacks earn 60 cents to the dollar compared with whites who have the same education levels and marital status. The black poverty rate is nearly twice the white poverty rate. Blacks tend to die five years earlier than whites; the infant mortality rate among black babies is nearly 1 ½ times the rate among white babies. And because of long-standing patterns of inheritance, blacks and whites begin life with substantial disparities in family wealth.”

Given that most White people do not believe that they have a racist bone in their body, that racism is a thing of the past, that the average Black person is doing just as well as the average White person, and that Black poverty is the result of Black irresponsibility, not endemic racism, anyone, such as Rev. Wright, who talks about the stark realities of racial inequality runs the risk of being condemned (as Obama said of his pastor) as someone who sees race through a pre-civil rights lens, or, at worst, portrayed as a racial huckster (as much of the media establishment said of the pastor).

Rather than condemn or caricaturize Rev. Wright, let’s do something about the endemic racism that fuels his and my rage.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Nothing Is Wrong With A Radical Critique of Racism and Racial Inequality in American Society; Well…, Unless You Are Running For President

I was down-right giddy as I sat in front of my television set waiting to hear Senator Obama give what was billed as “a MAJOR address on race in America.”

I was overwhelmed with joy by the idea that a black man would be talking about race (and though it was NOT billed that way, racism), that white Americans were eagerly waiting to hear what he had to say, and that it would be broadcasted, discussed and analyzed for days by all of the major (and world) television, radio and print media.

Yet, because I’ve been very skeptical of the Senator’s presidential campaign from the start, I was really worried. Would he do a good job? The truth of the matter, I thought to myself, is that he has been soft-shoeing it on race, avoiding the issue like the bubonic plague.

I dropped to my knees, betraying the fact that I am an agnostic secular humanist, and did what everyone does when faced with a crisis: I prayed.

I prayed that the Senator would not squander this opportunity.

I prayed that he would be willing to even risk his presidential aspirations to TELL AMERICA THE TRUTH about race (and racism) in America.

I also prayed that a generous friend was holding the winning ticket for the $275 million Powerball jackpot.

I then said, “Amen.”

The speech did nothing to change my suspicion that Senator Obama’s campaign is full of possibility but deeply flawed.

While the Senator told some truths, he did not SPEAK THE WHOLE TRUTH about race and racism in post-Civil Rights Movement America.

Let me be clear, Senator Obama’s speech was moving, full of hope and the possibility of change. Smart and articulate, without a doubt, he is one of the most gifted politicians of not just this, but any era.

I nonetheless found myself disagreeing with some of his key points.

The most disturbing part of Senator Obama’s speech for me was his contention that those who offer a radical critique of racism in America – what he described as “a view that sees white racism as endemic” – are relics, that they are stuck in a pre-Civil Rights Movement America.

Clearly, Senator Obama believes that historical racism (which I am happy that he recognizes) and what he described as current black "culpability" is much more important than contemporary racism (i.e., the ideology of white supremacy and systemic racism) in shaping the life chances and opportunities of black people.

I think that the Senator’s big-picture view, not the views of those who voice rage about the weight they carry because of centuries of continuous racial oppression, is just plain wrong.

While I think that Senator Obama’s address moves the conversation on race and racism in the right direction, instead of condemning those who argue, like Rev. Wright, that racism is endemic, I wish he had said the following:

"Let me be clear, as a nation we've come a long way, but in the post-civil rights era, racism has become much more covert and systemic but no less pernicious. Let me explain…”

Imagine the national (and international) conversation on race and racism a statement like that would have launched. Admittedly, however, it might have cost him the White House.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Win the Battle only to Lose the War

Senator Hillary Clinton has moved closer to winning the battle for the Democratic nomination - and perhaps forever etching her name in the history books as the first women and the first spouse to win the Presidency. But by fighting so aggressively against Senator Barack Obama, she is perhaps setting herself up to lose the “war” for the ultimate prize, the White House, to John McCain.

In spite of her stunning victories in the Presidential primaries in Texas and Ohio, there does not appear to be any way that Hillary Clinton can catch up to Barack Obama in the pledged delegate count.

Obama has 1340 pledged delegates to Clinton’s 1206. Thanks to the Democratic Party’s convoluted process for selecting delegates across the states, the most likely scenario is that neither candidate will make it to the Democratic convention with enough pledged delegates to win the nomination outright.

So, how can Hillary Clinton win the battle for the Party’s nomination? One way that she can do it is with the help of the Party’s superdelegates. Free to support any candidate they deem electable for the nomination - a majority of whom have vowed to support Obama - superdelegates are seated automatically, based exclusively on their standing as current or former elected and party officials. They will make up approximately one-fifth of the convention delegates.

The surest way that she can position herself to win the support of superdelegates is to damage Obama so much that she will be viewed as the only electable candidate.

The Clinton machine has been in “attack mode” ever since the South Carolina primary. They have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Obama.

Here are a few examples:

  • Billy Shaheen, the co-chairman of Clinton's campaign in New Hampshire, in an interview with the Washington Post referred to Obama’s admitted dalliance with drugs and encouraged the media to ask the Illinois Senator if he had ever given drugs to anyone (i.e., been a drug dealer).
  • In an effort to plant anti-Obama thoughts in the minds of Hispanic voters, Clinton poll advisor, Sergio Bendixen replied when asked about the strength of Clinton in the Hispanic community: "The Hispanic voter – and I want to say this very carefully – has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates."
  • Former President Bill Clinton drew the ire of black leaders when he described Obama’s run for the Presidency as “the biggest fairy tale I have ever seen.”
  • Playing on the Obama is a scary black Muslim theme, someone working inside the Clinton campaign sent a picture of Obama in traditional African clothing to the conservative blogger Matt Drudge.
  • Senator Clinton claimed recently in a speech that McCain was more qualified to be President than Obama.
  • The Senator from New York also questioned Obama’s ethics, repeatedly raising questions about his relationship with a disgraced supporter who is the target of a federal corruption trial in Chicago.

The recent attacks paid off in Ohio and Texas, helping her to win back some of her old supporters. She won the support of women, white men and lower-income voters in Ohio, and she won women, whites and Latinos in Texas.

However, she did not win much support from black voters. In Texas, Obama won 83 percent of black votes; in Ohio, he won 87 percent.

If dirty politics (and even playing the race card) creates the context for a backroom deal with the superdelegates that hands Clinton the nomination, all hell will break out at the Democratic convention. If the Democrats want to win in November, a backroom deal is the last thing that Party Chairman Howard Dean and other Party bigwigs want to see.

Perhaps most significantly, for every wound Clinton inflicts on Obama, she damages her relationship with the black community. No candidate for the Democrat Party can win the Presidency without the enthusiastic support of Black voters.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bill Cosby Doesn’t Know My Mama, Just Racial Stereotypes of Low and Moderate Income Black People

Bill Cosby is at it again. He recently joined forces with professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint to author a new book, “Come on People!”

Thematically, the book is a literary extension of his “call-out sessions.” For the last 3 years or so, Cosby has traveled around the country calling black people (well, poor black people) out about their so-called pathological behaviors (having babies out of wed-lock, giving their children African names they can’t pronounce, calling each other Nigga, talking loud in public places, dropping out of school, being illiterate, buying rap music, wearing baggy pants, not speaking right, and so on).

The recent hoopla about Cosby’s book made me think about a piece I wrote that appeared in the Hartford Courant on July 15, 2004, shortly after Cosby had visited Springfield, Mass., near the beginning of his call-out tour. As you can tell from the piece, I think Cosby’s moral crusade is problematic for a number of reasons.

I reprint this piece without permission from the Courant. Hopefully they will not come and get me.

Bill Cosby Forgets the Obstacles

As a black man, I’m so angry at Bill Cosby that I could spit. Not because he has aired my people’s dirty laundry. Social scientists, beginning with W.E.B. Du Bois in his seminal work, “The Philadelphia Negro,” have been complaining about the so-called pathological behavior of black people for more than a century.

Cosby made me angry because he insulted my mama. You see, my mother was one of those welfare-dependent singly parents whom Cosby and others are so fond of kicking around.

After I read about his July 9 [2004] visit to Springfield, Mass., and the glowing response he received, I called my mama in Detroit and asked, “Why do people like Bill Cosby say such harsh things about poor black people?”

On the one hand, Cosby is right that too many black youths drop out of high school, that too many young girls get pregnant, that there is too much illiteracy and violence in black communities.

But he talks as if poor black people were simply immoral and irresponsible. What impact does the economic situation in cities have on these problems? What about the way young people are inundated daily with images of violence, sex, materialism and consumerism? Surely this matters.

My mama thinks so, too.

She got right to the point: “People who make it out like Cosby forget just how hard it is to live when you are poor.”

It was around 10:30 p.m., but I could tell that Mama was revved up. It was time to close my mouth, sit back, and listen.

Being poor is so hard, she point out. It is so easy to get frustrated, to want to give up. This is why so many people, she thinks, turn to drugs and alcohol. They are trying to escape. But it only makes things worse.

She believes that millionaires like Cosby forget how hard it is to work every day only to collect a paycheck that barely allows you to make ends meet.

She could not understand why he would complain about poor people who live above their means but not criticize middle-class people saddled with tons of credit-card debt.

She reminded me that even as we were talking, thousands of black kids were going to bed hungry, not because their parents are irresponsible, but because “people run out of money.”

Preach! Preach, Mama! I thought.

“It’s so hard to find decent housing,” she said. Moreover, the housing that is now being built in many cities, she complained, is not for poor black people, but is designed to lure rich white people back to the city. “I can’t afford any of that mess.”

She agreed with Cosby that there are lot of young men and women who do not work, but then asked, “What are they supposed to do?” There are no jobs in these cities, because they all followed the white folks to the suburbs.

“When I got to Detroit in the 1950s, even a high school dropout could get a job in construction or at an automobile plant and be able to afford a house and send their kids to college,” she said. “You can’t do that today.”

I could not keep silent any longer. “Tell it! Tell it like it is, Mama!”

Although she applauded Cosby’s philanthropy, she thinks that it is only a drop in the bucket. “What about the majority of kids who do not go to college or the ones who are not college material? Who will pay for their job training?”

She continued: “I do not understand why white folks are willing to spend billions of dollars building housing and schools in Iraq, but refuse to do the same thing in black communities across this country.”

She was particularly mad that so many young black men and women were in the military fighting Bush’s war. She believes that many of them enlist simply because there are so few economic opportunities in the communities that they come from.

I thought, Amen, Mama! Amen!

We continued to talk well past midnight, about the meaning of life, about the future of black people, about why she does not have a daughter-in-law yet.

When we finished, I told my mama I loved her. She said she loved me, too. After that, we said goodbye.

I was not as angry at Bill Cosby after I got off the phone. I realized that he doesn’t know my mama like I do.

Thanks Mama. I still love you!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Black Church in Contemporary Politics

Churches (and other religious institutions) play a very special role in American life. Compared to people in other countries, Americans are more likely to be affiliated with a church, to attend services, and to participate in educational, charitable, or social activities organized by their churches.[1] By providing “an important incubator for civic skills, civic norms, community interests, and civic recruitment” churches also help to build up the civic skills and attitudes church members need to become active in politics.[2]

The Black church has a unique importance in the American political system. Any candidate – Democratic or Republican – running for local, state, or national office, who wants the support of the black community must don their “Sunday’s best,” and go to church.[3] The reason, as Political Scientist, Melissa V. Harris-Lacewell, so aptly puts it, “Black churches are a site of organized, committed, well-networked, partisan faithful who can be influenced and mobilized by adept candidates.”[4]

The Black church is one of the oldest and most resilient institutions in the Black community. And because the church is traditionally an institution owned and ran by Black people, it has had a measure of independence which has allowed it to be at the forefront of the Black community’s on-going struggle against white supremacy. Religious scholar, C. Eric Lincoln, puts it this way:

Beyond its purely religious function, as critical as that function has been, the Black church in its historical role as lyceum, conservatory, forum, social service center, political academy, and financial institution, has been and is for Black America the mother of our culture, the champion of our Freedom, and hallmark of our civilization.[5]

We are now in the thick of the 2008 presidential election. What role, if any, will Black churches play in this year’s presidential race? Many students of Black politics expect the church to play a major role. However, there are a number of recent organizational trends that may undermine the effectiveness of the Black church in 2008 and beyond.

The Centrality of the Black Church and Beyond

The historic centrality of the Black church is well documented. According to one of the leading scholars on the Black struggle for civil rights (I prefer to call it the Black Freedom Movement) during the 1950s and 1960s, Sociologist, Aldon Morris,

[T]he black church functioned as the institutional center of the modern civil movement. … Churches provided the movement with an organized mass bass; a leadership of clergymen largely economically independent of the larger white society and skilled in the art of managing people and resources; an institutionalized financial base through which protest was financed; and meeting places where the masses planned tactics and strategies and collectively committed themselves to the struggle.[6]

While the Black church was instrumental to the Black Freedom Movement, many churches, long before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, also mobilized the Black community for political activity. Generally speaking, when it comes to politics, there has never been a sharp delineation between the political and the sacred; “Black religious life and political life have historically commingled.”[7] At the local level, Black churches have been instrumental in the elections of Black mayors. In 1984 and 1988, Reverend Jesse Jackson run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination relied heavily on the organizational resources of the Black church. In addition to a rhetorical style honed during years of preaching in the pulpit of Black churches across America, Jackson relied on a vast network of Black ministers and churches, Black Christian volunteers, and Black church contact lists to raise money and mobilize voters. In addition to the popularity of his policies, a reason why former president, Bill Clinton, was able to capture black electoral support was the ease with which he was able to mimic the rhetorical style of Black preachers.

Looking to the 2008 presidential election and beyond, however, how effective the Black church will be is less clear. Some scholars question the capacity of Black churches to continue to motivate their congregation for participation in politics. A reason why some doubt the ability of the church to mobilize blacks for participation is that consistent with broader trends in American society, fewer Blacks are members or attend church on a regular basis. Unfortunately, for those who do not attend church, the costs of political participation may be too high, especially for the resource poor. “Those who do not attend politicized black churches must bear the cost of deciphering and navigating the political world without this subsidy,” observes one scholar, “which means that they must gather all the information and opportunities on their own without having it provided through the church.”[8]

A second reason why some scholars question the continued importance of the Black church to contemporary politics is that a growing proportion of Blacks are attending nondenominational megachurches rather than the mainline black denominations that once were the backbone of the Black Freedom Movement. They question “whether black megachurches have effectively maintained the African American church’s traditional commitment to an active engagement with broad black community issues.”[9] A particular worry being voiced more and more often is the so-called “gospel of bling” – as it is derisively called – being preached from the pulpit at some (not all) large and fast-growing megachurches by prominent, influential, attractive preachers.

“I AM CONVINCED THAT THE SINGLE [emphasis in the original] threat to the historical legacy and core values of the contemporary black church tradition,” writes Theologian, Robert M. Franklin, “is posed by what is known as the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement. That movement, however, is only symptomatic of a larger mission crisis or ‘mission drift’ that has placed the black church in the posture of assimilating into a culture that is hostile to people living on the margins of society, such as people living in poverty, people living with AIDS, homosexuals, and immigrants.” According to Franklin, prosperity preaching “provides sacred sanction for personal greed, obsessive materialism, and unchecked narcissism.”[10]

Finally, some scholars also question the continued ability of the church to influence debates and/or shape public policy directly affecting the Black community in the post-civil rights era. The writers of Long March Ahead: African American Churches and Public Policy in the Post-Civil Rights America – the second of a two-volume study conducted by the faculty of Morehouse College designed to “examine the relation of African American churches to American political life in the late twentieth century” – conclude that Black churches have played a spotty role, at best, in regards to those public policies in the post-civil rights era particularly relevant to the black community, such as affirmative action, anti-apartheid activism, crime, health care, reproductive rights, urban school reform, and welfare reform policy.[11]

In spite the many challenges that it faces for continued political relevance, the central role of the Black church in American politics is probably not in serious jeopardy. Its organizational resources are too vast to be ignored. Moreover, the eventual Democratic nominee – Senator Hillary Clinton or Senator Barack Obama – will try to capture for their campaign the organizational resources of the Black church. The real question is given the trends discussed above, will the Black church be able to deliver the goods once the candidates don their Sunday’s best and come-a-calling.

Stay tuned!

[1] Verba, S., Schlozman, K. L. & Brady, H. E. (1995). Voice and equality: Civic voluntarism in American politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, quotation at page 18.

[2] Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, quotation at page 66.

[3] Although I use the term “Black Church,” it is important to note that there has never been a monolithic Black Church, nor has there ever been a monolithic “Black Politics.”

[4] Harris-Lacewell, Melissa V. (Summer, 2007). Righteous politics: The role of the black church in contemporary politics. Cross Currents, 57(2), 180-196, quotation at page 180.

[5] Lincoln, C. Eric. (April, 1989). “The black church and black self-determination” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Black Foundation Executives, Kansas City, Missouri, as quoted in Putnam, Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community, page 68-69.

[6] Morris, Aldon D. (1984). The origin of the civil rights movement: Black communities organizing for change. New York: Free Press, quotation at page 4. See also Doug McAdam. (1982). Political process and the development of black insurgency, 1930-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[7] Tate, Katherine. (1994). From Protest to Politics: The New Black Voters in American Elections. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, quotation at page 77.

[8] Harris-Lacewell, Righteous politics: The role of the black church in contemporary politics. Cross Currents, 57(2), 180-196 quotation at page 182.

[9] Smith, R. Drew & Tucker-Wongs, Tamelyn. (2000). Megachurches: African-American churches in social and political context. In Daniels, Lee (Ed.), The State of Black America 2000, (page 187), as quoted in Harris-Lacewell, Righteous politics: The role of the black church in contemporary politics. Cross Currents, 57(2), 180-196.

[10] Franklin, Robert M. (January, 2007). The gospel bling: If preachers are preoccupied with pursing the life of conspicuous consumption and preaching a ‘prosperity gospel,’ then poor people are in big trouble. Sojourners Magazine, 36(1), 18-23, quotation at page 18.

[11] Smith, R. Drew (2004). Long march ahead: African-American churches and public policy in the post-civil rights America. Ed. by R. Drew Smith. Durham: Duke University Press, quotation at page ix.