Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This Ain’t No Spectator Sport: Black Scholars Fighting For Social and Racial Justice In The Age of Obama

When it comes to discussing my political views or advocating for what I care for, most people who know me know that I do not pull many punches. Over the years, as my understanding of and thinking about racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, materialism, economic exploitation, militarism, violence and various other systems of oppression deepens, I've intensified my activism and become more strident in my critiques.

Indeed, I believe that raising one's voice in opposition to injustices is a moral obligation that falls upon all of us, especially black scholars such as me.

Black scholars occupy a unique position in American society. Freed from the oppressive labor conditions most black people have experienced throughout our presence in America, whether it be the slave plantations and kitchens of white people or the steel factories and manufacturing plants of the North, for those of us privileged to work in the academy – an arena that allows us to teach, intellectualize, and write – we have a special obligation to not sit on the sidelines.

Of course, not everyone in the academy shares my belief about the black scholar's moral obligation or the necessity of struggling against injustices. Instead, most black scholars situated in the academy are spectators; they sit on the sidelines like fans at a football game, cheering for their favorite team and booing the other.

But, W.E.B. Dubois did not sit on the sidelines. Neither did Alain Locke or Mary McLeod Bethune. And neither did other scholar/educator/activists such as Benjamin Mays, Carter G. Woodson, Katherine Dunham, Vivian Harsh, Harold Cruise, and John Hope Franklin.

It is on their shoulders that WE all stand.

While I believe it is necessary, being an agent for social change is not easy. Struggling against a perceived injustice was much easier when we faced an enemy that we could easily identify. During the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Crow segregation was an easy target for black scholars and civil rights activists to organize and fight against.

Even then, there was never complete unanimity around the type of tactics and strategies to be used to topple America's apartheid system. Some preferred to fight oppression in the streets using direct action while others preferred to fight it out in the courts.

By the late 1960s, as the movement spread to the urban ghettos of the North, roused by revolutionary struggles in Africa and Asia, some preferred an armed struggle while others preferred to attack white supremacy and alleged black inferiority through the embrace of African culture, history, and philosophy.

Many black scholars were at the center of it all.

America has changed significantly over the past 40 years. Racism has become more subtle even as racial inequality deepens in many areas of American life. Many black scholars have retreated to the sidelines.

A particularly difficult question for black scholars today is, 'how do we fight for social and racial justice today when a man of color occupies the White House?"

As a black scholar, one of the most difficult conversations for me to have and not feel like I'm being viewed as a traitor to the race is about the policies of President Barack Obama.

Compared to other racial and ethnic groups in America, black people are pretty satisfied with the direction of the country under President Obama.

According to a Gallup poll survey conducted in October, nearly half (47 percent) of blacks say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, as does 51 percent of black Democrats.

By comparison, 10 percent of Republicans, 22 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 38 percent of white Democrats, and 41 percent of all Democrats are satisfied with the direction of the United States.

It is abundantly clear that black people love President Obama. Most black scholars refuse to criticize his policies, I believe, out of respect and love for the President and an earnest desire to protect him against white angst fueled by racism. I also believe that many of us fear being labeled traitors to our race for criticizing the President.

I believe that this is a foolish position to take for black scholars. We must not evade our responsibility to "speak truth to power" no matter what the hue of the president of the nation.

The war in Afghanistan is a perfect example of why loyalty to the President, no matter what he does, can be dangerous.

After nearly a year of escalating the war in Afghanistan and his words from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech explaining why he did it, it is clear that President Obama – picking up from his predecessors in the White House – has become the Chief Purveyor of American Violence in the world.

I was born in 1966. Every decade of my life, the United States has been at war with someone. No matter who occupies the White House (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama), their justification for war is always the same: like President Obama, they argue that the only way to protect America and spread democracy and freedom is through massive doses of violence.

As I reflected on Obama's Nobel Prize speech, I thought about the words Dr. Martin Luther King spoke during his famous Riverside Church speech in opposition to the Vietnam War: "Somehow this madness must cease?"

Unfortunately, because of America's historical appetite for war and the nation's seemingly insatiable desire for revenge against those who attacked us on 9/11, peace may not be a match for the war madness. Perhaps Dr. King was right when he said at Riverside: "The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve."

Whether the issue is Afghanistan, shrinking health care reform, or the bailout of fat cats on Wall Street, as black scholars, we must not hide from our obligation to speak the truth to power out of racial loyalty or for fear of the potential stigma of being labeled race traitors because of our objections to the President's policies. Indeed, with a person of color in the White House, our voices are needed now, perhaps, more than ever.

Monday, November 30, 2009


On December 3, President Obama is scheduled to convene a jobs summit at the White House. It is music to my ears that the Administration is going to finally focus on job creation after arguing for over a month that the worst economic recession since the Great Depression (technically, back-to-back severe recessions) had ended and that America is in the midst of an economic recovery.

The problem with the Administration's once rosy assessment is that the nation has been experiencing a jobless economic recovery: profits are up on Wall Street, but, the nation's unemployment rate is also up (above 10 percent) and rising.

Political pundits (on the left and right) and the "Oppose Anything Obama Does" political party on the right jumped all over the Administration's utterly ridiculous claim that things are getting better, even though people continue to lose their jobs or are being forced to cut back hours to improve company profits.

Almost uniformly, they have asked one question: "Where is the jobs recovery for Main Street?"

The problem is that "Main Street America" is across the tracks on the white side of town. America needs a jobs recovery that stretches to the side streets and alleys that many people of color live on.

Since the recession began in 2007, the nation's unemployment rate has jumped from 4.9 percent to 10.2 percent. However, the official unemployment rate masks a devastating depression in black and Latino communities across the country.

According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), unemployment rates were high among blacks and Latinos even before the recent recession began. In 2007, at the start of the recession, the unemployment rate for blacks was 8.6 percent. It now stands at 15 percent. For Latinos, the rate was 5.9 percent in 2007. It is now above 12 percent.

These numbers reflect only part of the problem. There are millions more out there who are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work or have simply given up on looking for a job. They are not counted in the official unemployment data. Altogether, probably a quarter of people of color are unemployed, underemployed or have abandoned the job market.

Slicing the data by gender reflects some troubling patterns. According to an article published in the Washington Post, "Joblessness for 16-to-24-year-old black men has reached Great Depression proportions – 34.5 percent in October, more than three times the rate for the general U.S. population." By comparison, young black women have an unemployment rate of 26.5 percent.

Looking at the data by race and age also points to some troubling patterns: according to a July youth employment and unemployment report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "unemployment rates for young men (19.7 percent), women (17.3 percent), whites (16.4 percent), blacks (31.2 percent), Asians (16.3 percent), and Hispanics (21.7 percent) increased from a year earlier."

Given the severity of the situation, blacks and Latinos are unlikely to recover from this economic recession quickly. For example, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, in 2008, blacks accounted for 19.3 percent of the total unemployed, but represented 25.4 percent of the long-term unemployed (out of work for more than 6 months or longer).

What is needed in the "other America" are "good jobs" – ones that pay wages that allow workers to take care of their families and provide them with health and retirement security.

Though good jobs are needed everywhere, America has too few good jobs to go around, and the number of goods jobs that are out there have been shrinking over the last thirty years.

Using a minimal definition of a "good job" – one that pays a wage (60 percent of the median household income for a family of four with an annual income of $30.182, or $14.51 an hour) that can support a family and that provides health care and retirement benefits – according to a recently published briefing paper by the EPI ("Getting Good Jobs to America's People of Color" by Algernon Austin), between 1979 and 2008, the share of good jobs shrank by 6.9 percent (from 34.5 percent to 27.6 percent).

Good jobs are hard to come by, especially on America's side streets and alleys. It should come as no surprise, then, that people of color have a lower rate of good jobs than do whites. In 2008, among white workers, the share of good jobs was 31.5 percent. The good jobs share for blacks was 21.8 percent (a little above two-thirds the white rate). For Latinos that share was 14.4 percent (half the white rate).

Fixing the problem will require a two-pronged approach. According to the EPI briefing paper, increasing the number of good jobs will require:

  • the Obama Administration and Congress make increasing the number of good jobs a national priority;
  • providing universal health insurance and universal retirement security; and
  • making it easier for workers to form and join labor unions

Given the advantages white workers have over workers of color in the labor market, increasing the number of good jobs will not guarantee that the racial gap in good jobs will close. The EPI brief suggests that policymakers also address:

  • the harmful effects of racism in the U.S. labor market;
  • the poor quality of public education in many central-city communities and the need for apprenticeships and other jobs training programs for people of color;
  • the refusal of the U.S. labor market to recognize the validity of non-European college degrees of immigrants; and
  • the collateral effects of mass incarceration

Black and Latino joblessness and underemployment foreshadow future problems for our country. In a recent joint statement by civil rights groups, NAACP President Ben Jealous makes this point clear: "Black people in the U.S. are the canaries in the coal mine… What we get tends to hit everybody later."

So, I ask, "Mr. Obama, where is the jobs recovery for the people who live on America's side streets and alleys?"

And, Mr. Obama, not just any job will do; a jobs recovery that only creates minimum wage, low-skilled jobs with little or no benefits is not a recovery at all.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Kind Of Health Care System We Need Is Not Likely To Be The One We Will Get

Our nation's health care system is broken. More than 45 million Americans are without health insurance. Many of the uninsured pay dearly for their lack of coverage. Experts estimate that roughly 22,000 people die annually because they are not covered by an insurance plan.

Like most Americans, I've had a very difficult time following the health care debate in Washington. The competing claims about what ails our health care system are nearly as difficult to follow as the competing policy prescriptions being offered to fix it.

What I am most certain of, however, is that repairing our nation's health care system is of critical importance to communities of color.

A report released earlier this year by the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG) as part of Heath Care for American Now (HCAN) – a coalition of over 1,000 organizations – makes a compelling case that communities of color would benefit most from comprehensive health reform.

"Throughout the nation's history, communities of color have been forced to accept health care that bears little resemblance to what is experienced by members of more advantaged groups," write the authors of the HCAN report, Unequal Lives: Health Care Discrimination Harms Communities of Color in Connecticut.

People of color in Connecticut suffer from the devastating effects of institutionalized racism embedded in our state's health care system: shorter life spans, and more chronic bouts of illness and disability.

  • About 22 percent of Latinos and 18 percent of blacks in Connecticut are uninsured, compared with 8 percent of whites.
  • In Connecticut, 25 percent of Latina and black women received no early prenatal-care, compared with 9 percent for whites.
  • The infant mortality rate for blacks in Connecticut is more than three times that of whites.
  • In Connecticut, 18 percent of black adults have been diagnosed with diabetes, more than twice the rate for whites.
  • In Connecticut, the rate of AIDS cases for whites is 7.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 62 for Latinos and 66 for blacks.

According to the HCAN report, persistent health disparities "are predictable side-effects of a health care system that provides these communities in Connecticut with narrower opportunities for regular health services, fewer treatment options and lower-quality care."

"Unequal Lives" offers a range of recommendations to erase the racial and ethnic health care disparities, along with, "addressing the social determinants [their emphasis] of health, including a clean environment, occupational safety, safe neighborhoods and access to nutritious food."

HCAN offers really good suggestions for fixing the nation's health care system, but, my gut tells me that nothing short of comprehensive health reform resulting in a single payer system – a system in which one entity, perhaps a government run organization, would collect all health care fees, and pay out all health care costs – will really make a difference.

However, with Washington special interest and their allies on Capitol Hill fighting to protect the most harmful features of the current system, and President Obama abandoning his campaign promise to refuse to support a reform that does not include a public option, the kind of health care system we need is not likely to be the one we will get.

This is bad news for the nation's 103 million people of color, including the 896,000 who live in Connecticut.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Political Consequences of Growing Income Inequality in America

According to a new report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based on an analysis of IRS data by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the rich are getting richer while the poor... well, you know the rest.

Income inequality is not a new phenomenon in American society. But, as Piketty and Saez find, we have not seen such large shares of income go to the nation's top earners in a very long time.

"Two-thirds of the nation's total income gains from 2002 to 2007 flowed to the top 1 percent of U.S. households, and that top 1 percent held a larger share of income in 2007 than at any time since 1928," write the authors of the CBPP summary of the Piketty and Saez research.

To my astonishment, they add that during this period, "the inflation adjusted income of the top 1 percent of households grew more than ten times faster [my emphasis] than the income of the bottom 90 percent of households."

Income inequality has been growing since the mid-1970s.

During the three decades that followed World War II (1946-1976), however, the trend was toward greater income parity, "with the incomes of the bottom 90 percent actually increasing more rapidly in percentage terms, on average, than the incomes of the top 1 percent."

Due in large part to a radical re-organization of the nation's economy from a manufacturing based to a technological oriented and service based economy, since the mid-1970s, the incomes of the bottom 90 percent have grown only slightly, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have gone up dramatically.

It should come as no surprise, then, that such a growing concentration of income (and wealth) has serious consequences for the health of our political system.

Generally speaking, involvement in politics places demands on people's scarce resources. "Citizens with lots of income can simply afford to do more – of everything – than citizens with little money," write political scientists, Steven Rosenstone and John Hansen, in their book, Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America.

With all that extra money, the rich can amplify their voices in our political system by financing political parties, candidates, political action committees, and other causes they care about.

While money is not a prerequisite for political activism, it does make getting involved in politics a lot easier.

According to Rosenstone and Hansen, "A car is not a necessary condition for political action, for example. But having one makes it much easier to get to a school board meeting, a political rally, or a candidate's campaign headquarters. Money can be used to hire someone to do the daily chores – to clean the house, buy the groceries, cook dinner, baby-sit the kids – and free up time for politics. Thus, if people want to participate in politics, money makes it easier for them to do so."

The threat that growing income inequality poses to our political system is that it undermines the core expectation of political equality in a democracy.

Certainly, political equality does not guarantee substantive equality (e.g., food, housing, healthcare, education, work, and so on), but public officials are more likely to pay attention to and prioritize the policy expectations of people who make their needs, wants, and desires known through their activism.

People with money, especially the obscenely rich, are better able to have their voices heard.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Reclaiming Black Men’s Mental Health

The death of Michael Jackson has made me think a lot about the problem of mental illness in the black community.

On the one hand, Jackson's talents were indescribable. He mesmerized (including me) crowds across the globe with his singing and dancing for decades – I nearly broke my ankle trying to do that damn moonwalk back in the 80s.

Jackson made it all look so easy. Without a doubt, he is one of the greatest entertainers to have ever lived.

But, it has been nearly twenty years since Jackson had a bona fide hit record. His stardom and the public's obsession with his life, however, did not fade away.

Sadly though, Jackson stayed in the media for all the wrong reasons: the bizarre effects of numerous cosmetic surgeries, the child molestation charges, the designer surgical masks, the strange looking clothing, the brink of bankruptcy despite making hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, and dangling his infant son over a railing at an hotel, just to name a few.

Jackson was not simply a little odd; he was pretty damn strange, clearly someone who showed signs of a type of mental illness. Sadly, his talent was so prodigious many people downplayed the seriousness of his psychological problems. Anyone not a mega-superstar like Jackson would have been encouraged by family and friends to get help.

Looking back, it was really sad to watch his mental condition deteriorate over the years. One does not need a Ph.D. in psychology to see that Jackson was deeply traumatized as a child by years of emotional (and perhaps physical abuse) and the psychological effects of being conditioned to reject blackness in a racists, capitalists, society. His obsession with cosmetic surgery suggested a pathological hatred of blackness and a deep desire for recognition and acceptance by whites socially and professionally (he also married two white women and adopted three white children).

Michael Jackson's death should encourage us all to think more seriously about how mental illness affects the black community, especially black men.

Clare Xanthos of the Morehouse School of Medicine argues that black males from the time that they are young experience major challenges to their psychological well-being. "In addition to dealing with the physical, mental and emotional issues typically experienced during adolescence, adolescent African-American males are confronted with unique social and environmental stressors; they must frequently cope with racism and its associated stressors, including family stressors, educational stressors, and urban stressors," writes Xanthos.

In the black community, mental illness, especially depression, is rarely ever talked about; it is shrouded in secrecy. As a result, millions of black men either suffer in silence or end up getting help only in extreme circumstances – i.e., in emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and prisons.

John Head, in his landmark book, Standing In the Shadows: Understanding and Overcoming Depression in Black Men, argues that beginning at an early age, black males are expected to embrace an idea of masculinity – a cool pose – that requires that they be silent about their feelings, suppress their emotions, shoulder their burdens alone, and refuse to show weakness.

The mental health of black men is also being damaged by racial oppression. Institutionalized racism affects mental health in at least three significant ways. First, it leads to lower social standing, limits access to key societal resources, and worsens one's living conditions. Second, physiological and psychological responses to social and environmental stressors lead to adverse developments in psychological well-being. Finally, the embrace of negative stereotypes can cause negative self-evaluations that have harmful effects on mental health.

Unfortunately, few public commentators or friends and family members participating in the chat fest about Michael Jackson's life (and death) are talking candidly about his mental health.

I truly believe that had his psychological well-being been addressed a long time ago, the world might not have lost this incredibly talented man.

Further, I also think that black men who experience, for example, bouts of depression, would have benefited immensely from seeing someone like Jackson publically acknowledge that they too need help.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Apologies For Slavery: But, Where Are The Reparations?

Almost 150 years after the Civil War, and the day before Juneteenth – which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in Texas who did not know that the Civil War had ended two years earlier – the U.S. Senate finally approved a resolution apologizing for slavery.

The resolution passed in the Senate on a voice vote, said it was important for Americans to apologize for slavery “so they can move forward and seek reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all people of the United States.”

The Connecticut General Assembly recently adopted its own apology for slavery. The General Assembly’s resolution:

urges schools, colleges, universities, religious and civic institutions, businesses and professional associations to do all within their respective powers to acknowledge the transgressions of Connecticut's journey from a colony to a leading state in the abolition efforts and to learn the lessons of history in order to avoid repeating mistakes of the past and to promote racial equality and reconciliation; and

calls on all Connecticut residents to recommit their state, their communities and themselves to the proclamation of their nation's Declaration of Independence that "all persons are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights" and to work daily to treat all persons with abiding respect for their humanity and to eliminate racial prejudices, injustices and discrimination from our society.

While I think that both of these resolutions are important steps in acknowledging what the Connecticut resolution describes as “the history of wrongs inflicted upon blacks,” neither will do much to really repair harms caused by centuries of chattel slavery followed by decades of state sanctioned discrimination.

Reparations are the only way to repair the harms.

Unfortunately, neither resolution calls for reparations (indeed, a disclaimer tacked on at the end of the U.S. Senate’s measure said nothing in the resolution authorizes or supports reparations for slavery).

Back in 2000, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Hartford Courant about a growing call for reparations. Nearly 10 years later, the need for reparations are perhaps more urgent than ever.

Below is my letter to the editor, published June 17, 2000 in the Hartford Courant:

“With city councils across the country -- most recently, Chicago and Dallas -- passing resolutions in support of a congressional bill that would spend $8 million to study reparations for slavery, it seems as if the movement for reparations is finally being taken seriously.

Cities across Connecticut should embrace this movement by passing a resolution calling for the U.S. government to pay reparations to African Americans for work their forebears did during approximately three centuries of forced servitude and for their subsequent subordination under the weight of discrimination.

Many people may object, however, claiming that reparations for the descendants of slaves are a farfetched idea. But there are a number of precedents.

For example, even though international law did not require Germany to compensate the victims of the Third Reich, in 1952 Germany began making reparation payments to survivors of the Holocaust, totaling more than $58 billion in present-day dollars.

And approximately 46 years after President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the evacuation, relocation and internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry by the U.S. military, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, setting in motion the statutory means by which Japanese Americans would receive reparations.

The moral basis for reparations for African Americans is clear.

First, the trans-Atlantic African slave trade was one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity in the last 500 years. Tens of millions of human beings were forcibly removed from their homeland and sold into slavery in the Americas.

Although the estimates vary, anywhere from 10 million to 25 million Africans died in the bowels of slave ships in route from Africa to the Americas.

As a result of this holocaust of enslavement, African people in the Americas lost their religions, languages, histories, customs, cultures and families.

Second, because of the social and economic injustices they have experienced since the end of the Civil War, more than a century after the end of slavery, compared to whites, African Americans are poorer and less educated and earn less income. Indeed, on nearly every measure of mainstream life in American society, African Americans lag behind whites.

A trust fund should be created and money from that fund should be distributed for programs designed to improve the standard of education, health and housing for black people.

The payment of group reparations would create the need and provide the opportunity for institution building in the African American community that individual compensation would not.

What would it take to adequately compensate African Americans for more than 380 years of exploitation and mistreatment? Estimates of the dollar amount of reparations vary widely.

However, even after subtracting the value of welfare programs in recent years, it would still cost America several trillion dollars to adequately compensate African Americans for damages caused by slavery and years of racism and discrimination.

Unfortunately, African Americans may never receive reparations because whites either do not know or simply refuse to acknowledge that America's economic evolution once depended on slave labor and that their white ancestors participated either in selling and buying Africans or in owning them.

If America is to bridge its racial divide, it must accept responsibility for the horrors of slavery and the century of systematic and government sanctioned oppression that followed. Reparations contain within them the seeds for that closure.”

Monday, June 8, 2009

Systemic Racism In The Housing Market: How Reverse Redlining Works

During the past couple of weeks, I read several articles that really made me think a lot about racial inequality in our country.

One article that really caught my attention appeared in the New York Times.

I like the Times article, "Bank Accused of Pushing Mortgage Deals on Blacks," because it sheds light on a key, yet rarely spoken, reason behind the collapse of the nation's housing market in cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana.

Though they don't name it, the problem identified by the Times is systemic racism.

It is really rare for me to find in the mainstream media – unless I am looking especially hard – reporting that focuses on how race continues to shape outcomes and opportunities in America.

But, before I dive into the Times article, I have to write a little about my home town, the Motor City.

How bad are things in Detroit?

A January 29, 2009 article in the Chicago Tribune reported that the median price of a home sold in Detroit last December was $7,500.

Yeah, $7,500! That is not a typo.

For those who may not know what the median means, let me put it another way: half the homes being sold in the "Big D" sell for less than $7,500.

Not $75,000 – that's seven thousand five hundred dollars, far below the asking price for the lowest-priced car on the new-car market.

"Detroit has been quietly slipping into social and economic crisis for 40 years," writes the author of the article, Tim Jones. "One-third of the population lives in poverty, and almost 50 percent of children are in poverty, according to data from the Detroit-Area Community Indicators System. Median household income has dropped 24 percent since 2000, according to the Census Bureau."

The City of Detroit, which has lost half of its population over the last 50 years, is deeply in debt, has a gutted tax base, is deceptively large (covering 139 square miles, you could fit Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco inside the city borders), and is completely dependent on a deeply troubled automobile industry.

The last thing Detroit needed was predatory lenders rooming its struggling neighborhoods singling out blacks for high-interests subprime loans.

According to the Times article, predatory lenders roomed the neighborhoods of Baltimore, Maryland. They found plenty of victims.

The City of Baltimore has launched a federal lawsuit against banking giant, Wells Fargo, for a systematic pattern of predatory lending in black communities which has contributed to thousands of homes sliding into foreclosure costing the city millions in tax dollars and city services.

A former loan officer for Wells Fargo, Beth Jacobson, has spilled the beans.

Once the banks top-producing subprime loan officer nationally, "Wells Fargo, Ms. Jacobson [who is white] said in an interview, saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation's home-owning mania. Loan officers, she said, pushed customers who could have qualified for prime loans into subprime mortgages."

According to the article, her testimony, along with that of another former loan officer, Tony Paschal [who is black], "provide the first detailed accusations of deliberate racial steering into subprimes by one of the nation's top banks."

According to Paschal, in 2001, Wells Fargo created a special unit to push subprime loans on black customers, particularly those living in Baltimore, southeast Washington and Prince George's County, Md.

Paschal said in his affidavit, "They referred to subprime loans made in minority communities as ghetto loans and minority customers as 'those people have bad credit', 'those people don't pay their bills' and 'mud people.' "

This form of reverse redlining, that is specifically marketing black (and Latino) communities for expensive and overburdening loans is not confined to Wells Fargo. The N.A.A.C.P. has filed a class-action lawsuit charging systematic racial discrimination by more than a dozen banks.

Baltimore is not as economically and socially depressed as Detroit. But, like Detroit, it suffers from the consequences of decades of White Flight, de-industrialization, and systemic racism.

The New York Times article should be mandatory reading for policy makers in Washington and should help put to rest the idea that the subprime meltdown is primarily the result of greed and mismanagement by bankers and mortgage companies on Wall Street.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Hey Newt, Rush, and Coulter: Do Me A Favor And Shut Your Big Fat Mouths

President Barack Obama’s nominee to the U. S. Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is under attack by three lunatics to the right of the fringe right of the Republican Party for comments she made during a speech during a 2001 lecture at the University of California-Berkeley.

Referring to former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's saying that "a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases," Judge Sotomayor said, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Because of this statement, the “three horsemen of the loony right,” Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are calling her a racist and are demanding that she withdraw her name from consideration for the nation’s highest court.

Judge Sotomayor will make history if she is appointed to the High Court; she is the first Latino(a) to be nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Most importantly, she comes with impeccable qualifications.

She was the first American of Puerto Rican descent to be appointed to the Federal bench in New York. Appointed a federal judge at the ripe-old-age of 38, Sotomayor chose public service over the luxurious life of a commercial litigator.

After only two and half years on the U.S. District Court, according to an April 1, 2009, New York Times article, Judge Sotomayor had “earned a reputation as a sharp, outspoken and fearless jurist, someone who does not let powerful interests bully, rush or cow her into a decision."

"She's tough and tenacious as well as smart," said Justice Jose A. Cabranes of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a mentor and former professor of Sotomayor's at Yale Law School. "She is not intimidated or overwhelmed by the eminence or power or prestige of any party, or indeed of the media."

Her story is quite amazing given the fact that she grew up in a single parented household – her father died when she was 9 years old – in a housing project in the South Bronx in New York City.

That Newt, Rush and Coulter actually have the nerve to level such an absurd charge at Sotomayor is amazing. The loony horsemen ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Talk about the “pot calling the kettle a racist!”

Here is just a small sample of some of the toxic, hateful and racist statements that have come out of the mouths of these “three hatemongers:”

Ann Coulter

-- Ranted against Muslims: "I think our motto should be post-9-11, 'raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.'"

-- Bill Clinton "was a very good rapist."

-- Attacked the religion of Islam: "Islam is "a car-burning cult."

Rush Limbaugh

-- Told an African-American caller to his show to "take that bone out of your nose."

-- Resigned his position on ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown pregame show after saying the media rooted for Donovan McNabb because he is black: "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team." He later argued that the media rooted against Rex Grossman because he is white.

-- Made disparaging remarks about Nelson Mandela and argued that we should not have replaced the white government in South Africa: "…and you go into South Africa, you get rid of the white government there. You put sanctions on them. You stand behind Nelson Mandela – who was bankrolled by communists for a time, had the support of certain communist leaders…"

Newt Gingrich

-- Ranted against bilingual education: “The American people believe English should be the official language of the government. … We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.

-- Attacked gay activists: "Look, I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants impose its will on the rest of us. It is prepared to use violence, to use harassment… I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion. And I think if you believe in historic Christianity, you have to confront the fact, and frankly for that matter if you believe in the historic version of Islam or the historic version of Judaism, you have to confront the reality that the secular extremists are determined to impose on you acceptance of a series of values that are antithetical, they’re the opposite of what you’re taught in Sunday school."

It is clear who the real bigots are. And, Newt, Rush and Coulter are unapologetic about their racism, homophobia, xenophobia and other various prejudices.

Sotomayor is no bigot. She was very clear about what she meant during that 2001 Berkeley lecture:

"To understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Others simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."

That is not the ranting and raving of a racist. That is someone who understands the value of having diverse voices at the table.

Now, Judge Sotomayor is not the kind of progressive jurist that I would like to see appointed to the High Court. Based on what I have read about her, like the President, she is a "play it safe" moderate. But, to accuse her of being a racist is just plain wrong.

If Sotomayor is appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, let us all hope that her experience of growing up in the projects in the South Bronx of New York will allow her to bring a level of sensitivity – about the needs and interest of the poor, the working and middle-classes, and people of color – that is noticeably absent from most of the judges that sit on the current Court.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Unseen, Unrecognized and Unaddressed: A Silent Depression in Communities of Color

According to the authors of, The Silent Depression: State of the Dream 2009, an annual report by United for a Fair Economy, people of color are suffering through a “Silent Depression” because although the evidence of its devastating effects are everywhere, it is going largely unseen, unrecognized and unaddressed.

Instead, the country’s attention has been focused on the year-old recession afflicting the nation. People of color, however, have been experiencing a recession for the last five years, which has evolved into a full-blown depression where they live. “But there has been no recognition of this depression by the Congress, the President, or the mainstream news media. There has been no bailout, no aid package, no rule changed to reverse this disaster,” write the co-authors of the report.

This year’s report, released on the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., presents some jaw-dropping statistics about unemployment, and income and wealth inequality in American society:

-- The unemployment rate among blacks is about 12 percent. Among young black males between the ages of 16 and 19, the unemployment rate is 32.8 percent.

-- The median household incomes of blacks and Latinos – $38,269 and $40,000 respectively – are substantially lower than the median household incomes of whites ($61,280).

-- Poverty disproportionately impacts people of color in America. The poverty rates for Blacks (24 percent) and Latinos (21 percent) are more than twice the poverty rate for whites (10 percent).

-- Nearly 30 percent of blacks have zero or negative wealth, compared to only 15 percent of whites.

-- Whereas, 43.4 percent of whites have retirement accounts, only 18 percent or people of color are similarly situated.

-- On the median, blacks and Latinos have 15 cents for every dollar of white wealth. On average, for every dollar of white wealth, blacks and Latinos have only 8 cents of wealth.

A May 18, 2009 article in The Washington Post puts into perspective just how precarious life is for poor people of color. The article begins, “You have to be rich to be poor.” This is the kind of paradoxical insight that only someone who really knows the experience of being poor can truly understand. “Put it another way: The poorer you are, the more things cost. More in money, time, hassle, exhaustion, menace. This is a fact of life that reality television and magazines don’t often explain,” the writer explains.

In fact, the poor are exploited and abused in a number of ways. The poor pay more for food at urban corner stores. They pay more for housing in rundown, dangerous neighborhoods. And, because they are less likely to have checking accounts or easy access to credit, the poor end up cashing their check and borrowing money at check-cashing and payday loan joints that charge outrageous fees for their services.

Some businesses even prey on the poor by offering them a loan in exchange for car titles. If the loan is not repaid, the business takes possession of their automobile.

But, the black and Latino poor are not the only one’s who are economically insecure these days.

A recent report by Demōs and the Institute for Assets and Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis University reinforces the idea that even before the current economic downturn, black and Latino middle-class families were less likely to be economically secure than other members of the middle class.

The report, “The Downslide Before The Downturn: Declining Economic Security Among Middle Class African Americans and Latinos, 2000-2006,” presents some troubling findings about the precarious position of middle-class black and Latino families:

-- Compared to middle-class white families, economic security in the form of assets, education, affordable housing, essential expenses, and healthcare access has declined more rapidly for blacks and Latinos. While 76 percent of middle-class families experienced economic insecurity in 2006, 84 percent of black and 88 percent of Latino middle class families were not financially secure, up from 74 and 77 percent in 2000.

-- Between 2000 and 2006, the number of families lacking health insurance jumped from 18 to 30 percent among blacks and from 26-39 percent for Latinos.

-- During the six year period, the median assets of blacks declined by 33 percent, while those held by Latinos dropped by 60 percent.

The assets of middle-income families of color have been especially hard hit by the melt-down in the housing market. A May 16, 2009 article in the New York Times showed that middle class families of color have been hurt the most by the subprime crises in New York City. The Times article is consistent with studies showing that across the nation, people of color – even middle and upper income borrowers of color – are more likely to receive subprime, predatory loans, than whites.

Unable to pay these high-cost loans, people of color have been disproportionately burdened by foreclosures in cities all over the nation.

Homeownership is a key to wealth generation in the black and Latino communities. The total loss of wealth for people of color from foreclosures and the decline in home values could reach $213 billion, including $92 billion for blacks and $98 billion for Latinos.

Blacks and Latinos suffer disproportionately because of institutional racism and public policy that evolves out of it. “Institutional racism is embedded in the structures (i.e., cultural, organizational, governmental and academic, etc.) of our society and manifests itself in the distribution, implementation and access to resources and opportunities,” write the co-authors of The Silent Depression report.

Let’s be clear, this form of racism does not grow out of hatred of people of color by a few racist whites. In the case of the housing crisis, it is the product of the deregulation of financial markets and institutions during the Administration’s of Reagan, Bush(s), and Clinton placed on top of a foundation created by decades of housing segregation – de jure and de facto.

Let's be honest with ourselves, if the white population was experiencing similar rates of poverty, unemployment, a lack of access to quality and affordable healthcare, a lack of social mobility, and exorbitant rates of foreclosure on their houses, a national emergency would have been declared a long time ago.

Given the long history of racially-biased public policy which has provided most whites with unearned advantages in our society, addressing the vulnerabilities of black and Latino families both at the bottom and the middle of our nation’s class system and other aspects of racial inequality that characterize American society will require public policies that are race-specific. On the national level, the Congress and the President must work together to pass legislation that will encourage jobs creation in the inner-city, help families of color build assets and reduce debt, deal with the housing crisis, and tackle the problem of access to affordable healthcare.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Herbert Lee And The Continuing Struggle To Secure Voting Rights

On September 25, 1961, in the small town of Liberty in Amite County, Mississippi, Black farmer, Herbert Lee, 52, was shot and killed by E. H. Hurst, a white member of the State Legislature.

At a coroner’s inquest, Hurst, testified that Lee owed him money and that when he asked about being paid, Lee had “come at him with a tire iron.” Hurst explained that the .38 he was holding “accidentally” fired a bullet into Lee’s head. “I must have pulled the trigger unconsciously,” he swore.

An all-white jury ruled Lee’s murder a “justifiable homicide.” His killer, Representative Hurst, never spent a moment in jail.

It is highly unlikely that Lee would have attacked Hurst. The father of nine children, Lee was a small (5 feet, 4 inches, and weighing only 150 pounds) man. As a matter of fact, two of three witnesses who testified at the inquest later admitted that they were coerced by the Sheriff and others into testifying that Lee had tried to hit Hurst (6-2 and 200 pounds) with the tire iron found under Lee’s body.

The real reason behind Lee’s murder, however, was that he had volunteered to drive Robert Moses around and had attended many voter registration classes organized by Moses. At the time, Moses was leading a voter registration campaign for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the Magnolia State.

Moses’ was in Mississippi to teach Black people how to vote so that they could become first-class citizens. E. W. Steptoe, the Amite County NAACP leader, summed up the significance of the SNCC registration drive this way: “Every Negro in Amite County wants to register to vote, but they’re just afraid…. If Negroes voted, we wouldn’t have any trouble.”

Nearly four years after Lee’s murder, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Voting Rights Act of 1965. The NVRA prohibits states from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."

Herbert Lee did not die “for nothing.”

According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the electorate that turned out for the 2008 presidential election was the most racially and ethnically diverse in the history of the nation – Black (12.1 percent), Latino (7.4 percent), and Asian (2.5 percent) voters accounted for a record share of the 131 million Americans who voted in last year’s presidential election.

In the case of the black population, much of the growth in the black vote was driven by a surge in turnout by black women and young people. The voter turnout rate for black women increased by 5.1 percentage points, from 63.7 percent in 2004 to 68.8 percent in 2008. For black youth between the ages of 18-29, the turnout rate increased by 8.7 percent, from 49.5 percent in 2004 to 58.2 percent. Among racial and ethnic groups, black women and black youth had the highest turnout rates – a first.

Nonetheless, the full potential of the votes of people of color are not being fully realized due to felon disenfranchisement laws. Nationally, 5.3 million Americans (one in forty-one adults) cannot vote – some permanently – because they have been convicted of a felony in their state. According to The Sentencing Project:
  • 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense.
  • 35 states prohibit felons from voting while they are on parole and 30 of these states exclude felony probationers as well.
  • Two states deny the right to vote to all ex-offenders who have completed their sentences. Nine others disenfranchise certain categories of ex-offenders and/or permit application for restoration of rights for specified offenses after a waiting period (e.g., five years in Delaware and Wyoming, and two years in Nebraska).

Black men have been especially hard hit by felon disenfranchisement laws. An estimated 13 percent of black men (1.4 million) are denied access to the ballot, a rate seven times the national average. If current trends in rates of incarceration continue, three in ten of the next generation of black men can expect to lose their right to vote at some point in their lifetime. Shockingly, in states that strip ex-offenders of their voting rights, as many as 40% of black men may permanently lose their right to the franchise.

And, even though most states that disenfranchise have a process for restoring voting rights, the restoration processes is so confusing and difficult that few citizens convicted of a felony effectively navigate the system.

The Right To Vote campaign is a national coalition of the American Civil Liberties Union, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and The Sentencing Project that is tackling this problem head on. Formed in 2003 with other national civil rights and civil liberties organizations, the mission of The Right To Vote campaign is to:

  • Change state felony disenfranchisement policies
  • Ensure compliance with state laws that protect voting rights
  • Support targeted voter registration
  • Create a national climate that supports re-enfranchisement

Stripping the voting rights of ex-offenders is a vestige of Jim Crow segregation and a contemporary form of systemic racism. If we want to honor Herbert Lee’s sacrifice, restoring the voting rights of people convicted of a felony must become a major priority of those of us who stuggle for civil rights.

Monday, February 23, 2009

What the Black Community Can Learn From A Tragic and Senseless Death

I am still in shock about the death of a former student, Tiana Notice. Only 25, Tiana was a bright, talented, articulate, and highly motivated student who was making a difference in the world.

Tiana had done a lot in her short time with us. She earned a bachelor’s degree in politics and government in 2007, and was pursuing a master’s degree in the School of Communication. While pursing her bachelor’s degree, she almost singlehandedly founded the University of Hartford chapter of the Roosevelt Institution, a national network of student think-tanks that conduct policy research on pressing issues.

Tiana was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, James Carter II.

Tiana did what was expected of victims of intimate partner violence (IPV); she got a restraining order. However, that did not stop her ex-boyfriend from stalking and harassing her and finally on Valentine’s Day, stabbing her to death.

When I first heard about her death, I wondered how someone with the smarts and abilities of Tiana could end up in an abusive relationship that would eventually lead to her death. Her passing has made me think and read a lot about the problem of domestic violence.

Domestic violence in black communities, I found, is far worse than I ever imagined.

(While all that I write below may not apply to Tiana’s specific situation, my hope is that the analysis I provide will move my readers to try to do more about the problem of domestic violence.)

Although intimate partner homicides among blacks have declined sharply in the last 30 years, according to the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community (IDVAAC) at the University of Minnesota, homicide by domestic partners is the leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 15 and 45.

The data on domestic violence in the black community should be more widely known. Blacks are disproportionately represented among perpetrators and victims of domestic violence. An IDVAAC factsheet presents some very disturbing trends on domestic violence, especially intimate partner violence:

  • In a nationally representative survey conducted in 1996, 29% of black women and 12% of black men reported at least one instance of violence from an intimate partner.
  • Blacks account for a disproportionate number of intimate partner homicides. In 2005, blacks accounted for almost 1/3 of the intimate partner homicides in this country.
  • Black women comprise 8% of the U.S. population but in 2005 accounted for 22% of the intimate partner homicide victims and 42% of all female victims of intimate partner homicide.
  • Black women experience intimate partner violence at rates 35% higher than their white counterparts and 2.5 times the rate of men and other races.

Addressing these problems writes the editors of a special issue on domestic violence in the black community in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma (Vol. 16(3) #49, 2008), will require “efforts that seek to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural and situational context in which domestic violence occurs among African Americans.”

Domestic violence among blacks is strongly associated with such factors as concentrated poverty and high levels of unemployment. Specifically, intimate partner violence occurs more frequently in families with very low incomes, those in which the male partner is unemployed and not looking for work, and among couples that live in neighborhoods in which a majority of the residents are poor, regardless of the couple’s income.

Further complicating the situation is the problem of patriarchy. In the United States, the use of violence as a legitimate way to dominate and control is a part of patriarchal manhood.

What is the connection between domestic violence in the black community, assertions of patriarchal masculinity, and social and economic context?

The shift from a manufacturing to a technological and service-based society has left many black men behind, at great risk of becoming marginalized and obsolete. In this context, oppressive structures, practices, and conditions are creating stresses and pressures that lead to frustrations and ultimately patriarchal violence as a way to adopt to this frustration.

Social and cultural critic, bell hooks, succinctly captures this point in her book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity: “If black males are socialized from birth to embrace the notion that their manhood will be determined by whether or not they can dominate and control others and yet the political system they live within (imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy) prevents most of them from having access to socially acceptable positions of power and dominance, then they will claim their patriarchal manhood, through socially unacceptable channels.”

None of this, of course, should be interpreted as an excuse for black men who batter and/or murder their partners. Pointing out the connections between domestic violence and social and economic disadvantages does not excuse the abuser. There are plenty of black men living in impoverished communities who do not become abusers.

Without a doubt, James Carter II should go to jail for this horrible and senseless crime.

And, men, particularly black men, must accept responsibility for their own actions.

At the same time, there needs to be a holistic approach to combat the problem of domestic violence in the black community. In addition to personal agency on the part of black men, there must be initiatives (designed by churches and other indigenous institutions) in the black community designed to help black men resist patriarchal violence. Also, we must all do more to speak out against domestic violence. And last, to break the cycle of violence, more must be done to break up concentrated poverty, create sustainable employment, and guarantee access to high quality education.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Call For A New Black Politics

Commentators on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum have been suggesting in their writings that the election of Barack Obama points to the end of black politics and that America has now become a post-racial society.

Without a doubt, the election of the son of an African immigrant and a white woman from Kansas is a monumental step forward for America.

But, America is not a society free of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of exploitation and oppression. For the descendants of those who survived centuries of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation, the journey is incomplete.

Black (and brown) communities across America face a litany of social problems, including poverty, unemployment, inadequate access to quality housing and healthcare, rape, HIV/AIDS, mass incarceration, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and intraracial violence just to name a few.

  • According to “State of the Dream 2009: The Silent Depression,” the sixth annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day report from United for a Fair Economy (UFE), although the black unemployment rate is currently 11.9 percent, among young black males age 16-19, unemployment is 32.8 percent.
  • A factsheet produced by the Women of Color Network shows that for every black woman that reports her rape, at least 15 black women do not report theirs. The National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS) found that 18.8% of African American women reported rape in their lifetime.
  • A study by The Violence Policy Center, “Black Homicide Victimization in the United States,” shows that from 2002 to 2007 the number of black male juvenile homicide victims rose by 31 percent. Meanwhile, the number of young black homicide victims killed by guns rose at an even sharper rate: 54 percent.
  • Data compiled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that in 2005, the rate of AIDS diagnoses for black women was nearly 23 times the rate for white women. The rate of AIDS diagnoses for black men was 8 times the rate for white men.

Barack Obama’s election does not change overnight the fact that Blacks are routinely and systematically disadvantaged in American society.

Though the claim that black politics is dead is a bit premature, in order to tackle these problems, the content and style of black politics much change.

It is important to note that many of the social ills black America faces have gender specific dimensions, which, if they are to be solved will require that issues involving gender and sexuality must move from the periphery to the center of the black political agenda.

In her seminal book, “Black Sexual Politics: African American, Gender, and The New Racism,” Sociologist, Patricia Hill Collins, makes a compelling case that to confront these problems the black community must embrace black sexual politics.

According to Collins, “Black sexual politics consists of a set of ideas and social practices shaped by gender, race, and sexuality that frame Black men and women’s treatment of one another, as well as how African Americans are perceived and treated by others.”

To combat white supremacy and structuralized racism, race will have to remain at the center of the black political agenda. But it is also important that the black community and its political leaders embrace a political agenda that shows much greater sensitivity to issues of gender and sexuality if these longstanding social problems are ever to be solved.