Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Reading Is My Passion And Was A Key To My Success

I have two real passions in life: listening to jazz and reading books.

I'll save for another day, a discussion about my love of jazz. For now, I'll use some of the space on my blog to talk about books.

I admit that I own a lot of books.

My colleagues who drop by my office often crack jokes about how I'm running out of space for books.

I can't prove it scientifically, but I believe that if a scientist sequenced my DNA, they would find buried somewhere in that long molecule cells coded for the two things I love to do the most, listening to jazz and reading.

The bookcases in my home and office are stacked with books.

I have books laying on top of books on my bookshelves (some books are even in stacks on my floor).

I have boxes of books in my closet and in my storage space in the basement of my complex.

Most of the books in my office are about race, gender, and class. I have books on race and politics, autobiographical and biographical books about important historical figures of color, books about social movements such as the black Civil Rights and Chicano Movements, books on philosophy (African, African American and European), and books by and about Karl Marx and other leftist thinkers.

Most of the books in my apartment are fiction. In addition to classic fiction books by authors of color ranging from James Baldwin and Zora Neal Hurston to Langston Hughes and Junot Diaz, I have fiction by white authors ranging from Jon Krakauer and William Golding to Philip Roth and John Updike.

Students who drop by my office always ask me whether I've read all the books on my bookshelves.

The truth is that I haven't read everything. But, I've read a huge chunk of the books that I own. Even though I constantly strive to carve out more time in my busy schedule to read even more than I currently do, it pains me to admit that I haven't had the time to read every one of my books.

So, why buy so many books if I don't have the time to read them all? One reason I do it is because of something a professor I had when I was an undergraduate once told me. He said, "I should get every book that I'm interested in because although they're here today they may be gone tomorrow and hard to find." A lot of the books I own are currently out of print.

So, why do I love books so much?

First of all, I love books so much because I love to learn. I sometime joke with people about how the moment I stop trying to learn is when I'll know that I'm dead.

I also love books, because I strongly believe that reading and educating myself was my key out of the ghetto.

Someone asked me the other day, "what is the reason for your success in life." I answered, "I realized a long time ago that I'm both the source and solution to 99.99% of my problems."

This doesn't mean that I'm blaming people for their problems as many conservatives often do. It's certainly not a suggestion that all one needs to do is pull up their bootstraps if you want to be successful. I'm a social scientist, so I fully understand the role structures and institutions play in promulgating racial and class inequality in American society.

But, I also believe that to fully challenge oppressive systems, we have to find a way to take charge of our lives and arm ourselves with the tools needed to fight for our freedom.

Educating oneself through reading is a tool people everywhere can use to win their freedom.

Paulo Freire summed up my thinking best when he wrote: "Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."

Or, as Dr. Suess put it in his book, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, "The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."

The beautiful thing about what you learn from reading is that no one can take that away from you.

Of course, many household in America, especially one's headed by people of color, do not have books in them.

Here are a few practical things we can all do to change that.

This holiday season, instead of buying an Xbox 360 or Sony Playstation 3, give kids a stack of books. In fact, give kids books for their birthday. Heck, give them books anytime you feel like it.

Also, cut the television off and use the time to read to and with your kids.

And, rather than take kids to the movie sometimes take them to the library or drop by a bookstore and sit and read.

Finally, make time to volunteer to teach a kid (or an adult) to read and write.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Nein, Nein, Nein: The Rise And Fall Of Citizen Cain

Another Conquerors' Day, or as most Americans affectionately call it, Thanksgiving Day, has come and gone. But, I have something to be thankful for this Holiday Season: the Herman Cain charade – a presidential campaign that was nothing more than a front for an ego-driven self-promotion tour – is, thankfully, finally over.

Thank goodness!

Let's get real. Herman Cain was never going to be elected President of the United States. With the exception of perhaps former Alaska Governor and fellow perennial self-promoter, Sarah Palin, there has never been a modern presidential candidate who was less qualified to be the leader of the nation than was Cain (okay, Palin only flirted for years with the idea).

In spite of his so-called charisma and rags-to-riches story, Citizen Cain lacked two qualities that should be needed to be President, character and intellect.

Cain's character flaws have been on full display ever since he launched his bid for the presidency. There is, of course, the obvious character issue; at least four women accused the former Republican presidential candidate of sexual harassment. However, the act of sliding your hand up a women's dress without her consistent and then trying to force her head toward your lap for oral sex as one of his accusers described, is well beyond sexual harassment. That's a sexual assault.

Despite the fact that there were four accusers (unlike many sexual assault cases when it's only his word against her word, in Cain's case, it was his word against hers and hers and hers and hers), many core supporters refused to believe the candidate was capable of such appalling behavior. Sadly, the women and the mainstream media were accused by Cain's supporters of trying to bring down a "good black man" who wasn't on the so-called liberal plantation. Cain's campaign even went so far as to create a "Women For Cain" website where female supporters could slam his accusers for being "vindictive," "jealous," "unstable," and "husbandless." (And we all wonder why so many victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault are afraid to come forward.)

What finally toppled Cain's presidential bid was the accusation of a 13-year-affair with an Atlanta woman named Ginger White. Just like the accusations of sexual harassment, Cain denied the affair with White, but he did admit to giving her money over the years to help her pay bills. What a bighearted guy. It may come as no surprise, however, that Cain never told his wife about his generosity toward his "friend."

If all of these accusations are true (and, I tend to believe them all), Cain is not just a sexual harasser and a cheater, he fits the profile of a serial sexual predator.

While not nearly as critical of a concern as being a serial sexual predator, Cain had other character flaws that were also quite pathological in nature. His so-called charisma and folksy charm reinforced in my mind some ugly racist stereotypes about black people. Throughout his campaign, he would greet his overwhelmingly white crowds with the phrase, "Aww, shucky ducky, as the man would say (he uttered that phrase at the two minute and forty four second mark of his announcement speech)." He would also sometimes charm his white audiences by singing a gospel song or responding defiantly to criticism with a quote from his grandfather, "I does not care."

"What the Fucky?"

Moreover, Cain's anti-intellectualism (stupidity) was stunning. In a television interview he said, "When they ask me who's the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say, 'You know, I don't know. Do you know?' And then I'm going to say, 'How's that going to create one job?'" Defending his woeful lack of foreign policy depth and lack of intellectual curiosity, he followed up at a campaign stop with the asinine statement, "We need a leader, not a reader."

Cain, perhaps, was just too busy selling his book ("This Is Herman Cain! My Journey To The White House"), and his bogus "9-9-9 Plan" for tax reform, to do a little bit of studying.

Cain meteoric rise is something that I will never fully understand. I wouldn't be terribly off the mark if I accused him of "shucking and jiving" and "playing the coon" just to gain support from conservative white voters. But, there is more to the Cain phenomena than that. The New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, sheds further light on the Cain phenomena in a column from early November:

Cain isn't a regular candidate, and this isn't a regular race. He is the anti-Obama, and that absolves him from his multiplying errors and inoculates him against his enemy's poison arrows... Cain is an "American black conservative — an A.B.C." who rejects prevailing wisdom among blacks about the racial state of play in America. He is a walking rebuff to the 400-year-old racism issue that continues to dog and drain this country. He lifts the burden of guilt from whites on the right and places it on the shoulders of blacks on the left — the ones still on "the Democrat plantation" and not willing or able to think for themselves. He is a fascinating sociological phenomenon but also an affront to some basic facts about the existence and impact of our racial reality.

The fact that Herman Cain lacked any of the conventional qualities that you would look for in a presidential candidate was of no concern to many of his white supporters. The only thing important to them is that he was the opposite of President Obama (and also not Mitt Romney) and he reinforced in their minds the stereotype of the "happy, non-threatening, and compliant Negro".

But, whatever the explanation, I'm thankful that Cain has suspended his run for the presidency. My hope is that we never hear from him again. Unfortunately, in American politics, we don't always get what we want.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

We Can No Longer Afford To Remain Silent About Growing Inequality.

In Volume 1, Chapter 26 (The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation), of Capital, Karl Marx describes how the more closely society corresponds to a deregulated, free-market economy, the more the lop-sidedness of power between those who own the means of production and those who labor under them will produce an "accumulation of wealth on one pole" and an "accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole."

This was not idle speculation on Marx's part; history has proven him correct.

You don't believe me? Well, look at the data.

The nation's poverty rate: according to data released earlier this month by the US Census Bureau, about 2.5 million Americans slid into poverty last year. The number of people living below the poverty line (46.2 million) is the highest number ever reported in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing poverty statistics.

The official poverty rate, however, does not fully capture the breadth and depth of poverty in America. To put it bluntly, the way in which we measure poverty is ridiculous, dramatically underestimating the extent to which people are experiencing social and economic hardship. The official poverty line in 2010 for a family of four was $22,314. Few families anywhere in the country live comfortably on such a paltry income.

Not surprisingly, the poverty rate is worse for people of color. According to the bureau, the poverty rate for blacks rose to 27 percent, up from 25 percent in 2009, and, the Latino poverty rate stood at 26 percent, up from 25 percent the year before. By comparison, the white poverty rate was 9.9 percent, up slightly from the 2009 rate of 9.4 percent.

The nation's unemployment rate: The poverty rate is climbing, in part, because of the high unemployment rate that has gripped the nation since the start of the Great Recession. Overall, the unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent, which has left roughly 14 million Americans out of work. If you include people who have given up on their search for a job out of frustration and the people who prefer full-time work but have only been able to find part-time work, about 15 percent of all Americans (roughly 25 million people) have an employment problem.

Joblessness has hit people of color particularly hard. The unemployment rate for Latinos is about 11.3 percent and about 15.9 percent for Blacks (which leads the nation).

Growing wealth inequality: Household wealth – the accumulated sum of assets (houses, cars, savings and checking accounts, stocks and mutual funds, retirement accounts, etc) minus the sum of debt (mortgages, auto loans, credit card debt, etc.) – is a far better measure of inequality than income.

Although it's a global phenomenon, in the U.S., over the last three decades, the super rich have been piling up fortunes at an astonishing rate. In 2007, the people at the top of the income distribution, the top 1 percent of earners, took home a whopping 18.3 percent of national income. In 1973, their share was only 7.7 percent – in a little over thirty years, the super rich increased their portion of national income by more than two and a half times. "Richie Rich" hasn't lived this good since 1929.

Once again, not surprisingly, some groups have been hit harder than others by growing inequality. An analysis of data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau shows a widening racial and ethnic wealth gap. Based on data from 2009, according to the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white households ($113,149) is 20 times that of black households ($5,677) and 18 times that of Latino households ($6,325). This is the largest wealth gap ever found since the government began publishing such data more than 25 years ago.

The reason for the "lopsided wealth ratio," write the authors of the Pew report, is because "the bursting of the housing market bubble in 2006 and the recession that followed from late 2007 to mid-2009 took a far greater toll on the wealth of minorities than whites."

Amazingly, the Pew analysis also shows that roughly 1 out of 3 black (35 percent) and Latino (31 percent) households had zero or negative wealth in 2009, compared to only 15 percent of white households.

In a new report, Private Transfers, Race, and Wealth, the Urban Institute examines the relationship between private transfers (financial support received and given from extended families and friends, as well as large gifts and inheritances) and the racial and ethnic wealth gap. They conclude that blacks and Latinos receive less private transfers than whites – especially in the form of large gifts and inheritances. According to their analysis, inter vivos and intergenerational transfers of wealth account for about 12 percent of the racial gap in wealth between blacks and whites.

So, where is the anger?

Where is the outrage?

Why are people so silent about growing inequality?

Why the silence?: One reason for the silence is that most Americans don't envy the rich; we drink the Kool-Aid. While the gap between the rich and the poor in the US is larger than in any other advanced capitalist society, most people want to join the "super" rich rather than see wealth spread more evenly across society.

And, in spite of the evidence showing that social mobility has grown increasingly difficult for most people, Americans cling stubbornly to the belief that if they work harder than the next guy, there is a pot of gold sitting at the end of the rainbow.

There was a time not long ago – the first couple of decades following World War II – when the U.S. economy expanded and American workers saw their wages and quality of living rise dramatically. But, since the early 1970s, the wages of most workers have failed to keep pace with inflation.

The impact of stagnant wages, however, was dulled by rising house prices and easy access to credit. When they didn't find their pot of gold, the middle class used home equity loans and credit card debt to make the dream "seem" real.

Another reason for the silence is because most people believe that poverty is not caused by capitalism and that people are poor simply because they are less able and less talented. Hence, most people, especially the rich, have no interest in ending poverty and have resigned themselves to the idea that inequality is never going to go away because some people deserve to be poor.

We can no longer afford to remain silent about growing inequality. Changing our way of thinking will not be easy. The widespread embrace of the benefits to be gained from individualism and the financial rewards that capitalism provides the highly skilled and highly educated, along with the acceptance of personal responsibility for one's own well-being together constitute a formidable ideological barrier to the kind of collective action needed to confront poverty and inequality.

Nonetheless, the truth is that the fundamental forces shaping global capitalism today – jobs ranging from manufacturing to clerical work can be done more cheaply and more profitably by machines and low-wage workers in developing countries – are hostile to the middle class dream that defined our nation during much of the second half of the 20th Century.

It's time to let our voices be heard.

Friday, July 15, 2011

It’s Time For Another Poor People’s Campaign To Bring About Economic Justice

"Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts. "

- Charles Dickens -

Those hardhearted bastards! I could barely control my rage when I saw the headline from my hometown newspaper, The Detroit News: "48-month welfare cap clears Senate: Gov. Snyder expected to sign bill that would cut off monthly benefit payments for thousands."

As I read the article, the rage in me kept building.

The Michigan State Senate voted to impose a 48 month lifetime cap for recipients of welfare. If the bill is signed by the governor (he intends to sign it, so it will be), the new law will immediately affect 12,600 families statewide.

"The cap," according to the article, "would be retroactive and cumulative, so families would begin to lose payments averaging $515 a month starting Oct. 1." Critics of the proposed law contend that tens of thousands of people, including more than 20,000 children, will be thrown off welfare and told to fend for themselves.

Gloating about their Party's success, Phyllis Browne, spokeswoman for Michigan's House Speaker Jase Bolger, is quoted as saying: "This has been a priority of our caucus since Day One."

The cap comes on top of other, presumably, "Day One" legislative "accomplishments" by Republican state lawmakers that include slashing unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks and cutting the earned income tax credit for the working poor.

Let me get this right.

Cutting people off of welfare and shredding Michigan's social safety net in the midst of a major recession (a jobless economic recovery if you prefer the Orwellian take on the situation) has been a priority of the Republican legislative caucus "since Day One?"

These are, without a doubt, a bunch of hardhearted bastards!

I just can't wrap my mind around the idea that Republican lawmakers in Michigan plan to cut people's monthly benefits in a state which has been hit harder than practically any other state in the country by decades of deindustrialization, and more recently, the Great Recession.

With a decade's long decline in its manufacturing base, Michigan is in the midst of a severe job's crisis? The state has one of the worst unemployment rates in the country; the official unemployment rate stands at 10.3?

Although everyone is feeling pain, the black population has been hit particularly hard by the decline in Michigan's manufacturing base, especially its automobile industry. The way things are going in the automobile industry, Detroit may have to abandon its nickname, the "Motor City."

According to an Economic Policy Institute report issued in April 2011, the statewide unemployment rate for blacks is more than twice that of whites; overall, about 1-in-4 blacks in Michigan are out of work. Indeed, in Detroit, the unemployment figure is probably closer to 1-in-3 blacks.

With the American automobile industry in decline and unlikely to revisit its former glory, Michigan is a long way from an economic recovery.

Michigan is not the only state attacking the poor. This hardhearted attack on society's poorest and most vulnerable citizens has to be fought.

This country needs another Poor People's Campaign.

Here is a little background.

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis Tennessee. Dr. King had come to Memphis in March of 1968 to support a strike by some 1300 black sanitation workers.

Memphis's black sanitation workers had staged a walkout about a month earlier to protest years of racial discrimination, unequal wages (black workers were being paid significantly less than white workers), and unsafe working conditions which had caused the recent deaths of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker.

The sanitation workers demanded an end to racial discrimination, increased wages, and the right to be represented by a union (the wanted to join the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees).

By the time black workers in Memphis went on strike, America was at a critical juncture. The optimism and energy of the black freedom struggle was waning under the weight of a backlash against the civil rights movement and its leaders. Young, more radical, black power activists – who doubted the worth of racial integration – were in the process of challenging older, more established, civil rights activists for leadership in the black community. Dr. King was under attack for his bold, and courageous, stance against the Vietnam War, which he argued correctly, was draining the nation's coffers of money needed to wage President Lyndon B. Johnson's other war, the War on Poverty.

Because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and his growing awareness of the struggles of the black poor in the urban ghettos of the North in places such as Chicago, Illinois, by 1968, Dr. King's thinking about the black freedom struggle had evolved far beyond the traditional goals of civil and political rights.

Dr. King wanted to address issues of economic justice.

In early 1968, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the Poor People's Campaign. The Poor People's Campaign was the next stage of the black freedom struggle.

The main goals of the Poor People's Campaign were jobs, income and housing. Speaking before a crowd of 25,000 supporters of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike on March 18, 1968, Dr. King provided an explanation for this new focus:

With Selma, Alabama, and the voting rights bill, one era of our struggle came to an end and a new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn't enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a cup of coffee and a hamburger?

Dr. King and other civil rights leaders planned a Poor People's Campaign in Washington D.C. for the summer of 1968. The purpose was to bring together people of all races and ethnicities from across the country to draw the nation's attention to the needs and interests of the poor.

The Campaign issued an "economic bill of rights," asking that the federal government prioritize helping the poor by expanding anti-poverty efforts, including a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure, and more affordable housing.

Although Dr. King was assassinated a month before, more than 50,000 people participated in the march on May 12, 1968. Leading the demonstrators, Rev. Ralph Abernathy declared:

We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America's wealth and opportunity, and we will stay until we get it.

A week after the march, protestors returned to the city and constructed a settlement of tents and shacks on the National Mall where they refused to leave for six weeks. Organizers had planned to stay until the government took action on their demands. But, they didn't.

Over 40 years later, poverty and inequality is still with us and growing. Moreover, one political party appears to have committed itself to maintaining the racial and ethnic inequality that won't go away.

It time for a new Poor People's Campaign focused on economic justice. But this time, the protestors should not leave Washington until the government takes action on their demands.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Republican Lawmakers are Trying to Turn Back the Clock on Voting Rights by Rigging the 2012 Election

On August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is not only one of the most important legislative achievements of the 20th century, it is easily a seminal moment in American history.

Using language similar to the 15th Amendment (which gave black males the right to vote in 1870), the Act 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."

Before passage of the Voting Rights Act, a number of states – especially those in the Deep South – used a variety of tactics to systematically suppress black voter registration and turnout. The VRA outlaws discriminatory tests like literacy tests, test of good character, racial gerrymandering, and the use of poll taxes. To prevent the intimidation of voters or the rigging of the election outcome, the Act authorizes the attorney general to appoint election monitors and poll watchers. And, to block any future efforts to resurrect obstacles to black voter participation, the VRA contains special enforcement provisions targeted at those areas of the country where Congress believed the potential for discrimination to be the greatest.

The passage of the Voting Rights Act, coupled with sustained and intense enforcement of its provisions by the Federal government, meant that millions of blacks for the first time were able to participate in the political process. Over the years, the Act has been renewed and expanded to protect the voting rights of other previously disenfranchised groups. For example, the 1975 Amendments add protections from voting discrimination for language minority citizens. Specifically, jurisdictions with large language minorities are required to provide election materials in the language of the minority group and in English. Additionally, jurisdictions with large language minorities are required to have oral translators with the ability to walk the voter through the stages of the voting process, from registration to the casting of their ballot.

Ever since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the black vote has been a force in presidential politics. In particular, the black vote can either make or break the presidential aspirations of a Democrat. On the one hand, the disenfranchisement of black voters, especially people convicted of a felony, in Florida in 2000 played a crucial role in the outcome of the election, handing it to George W. Bush. On the other hand, during the 2008 presidential election, high black voter turnout in several key battleground states cemented President Barack Obama's victory, helping the nation elect its first black president.

Broadly speaking, the election of the nation's first black president was due in large part to the success of the Voting Rights Act in opening the door of the electoral process to historically marginalized groups in Americans. According to exit polls (as reported in the New York Times) conducted in 2008 shortly after voters left the polling booth, only 43 percent of whites voted for President Obama. By comparison, blacks (95 percent), Hispanics (67 percent) and Asians (62 percent) were far more likely to have voted for the president, making possible his success.

It should be noted, however, President Obama could not have beaten the Republican nominee for president, Senator John McCain, with only the support of people of color. The president was successful because he stitched together a diverse group of voters to go along with his strong support in black, Hispanic, and Asian communities. He did very well among 18-29 year-olds (66 percent), people with less than a high school diploma (66 percent), first time voters (69 percent), and urban residents (70 percent).

Combined, these groups were crucial to the president's victory in 2008. It may come as no surprise then that Republican lawmakers across the country – drunk with power after major victories at the state and national level during the 2010 election cycle – have been enacting changes to their state's election laws designed to make it more difficult for Americans to vote. The greatest impact of these laws will be on those groups that were among the president's strongest supporters in 2008: blacks, Hispanics, the young, and new voters.

The rigging of the 2012 presidential election is underway. Voter suppression is a key component of the Republican strategy to defeat President Obama in 2012. These efforts, initiated by Republicans (and, in some states, along with their duplicitous Democratic allies) and enacted this year, may play a very significant role in whether the president gets reelected or not. For example, voter ID laws were enacted in Rhode Island, Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Tennessee (joining Indiana and Georgia). To be clear, voter ID laws are nothing more than modern day poll taxes (which, by the way, were banned by the 24 Amendment to the Constitution) which place a disproportionate and unacceptable burden on young, poor, and nonwhite people, who are less likely to have a driver's license or an official government identification card.

Early voting also came under attack by Republican lawmakers. "Early voting allows registered voters the opportunity to cast a ballot before Election Day, whether in person at designated early voting locations or through absentee mail ballot, and helps to both alleviate long lines at the polls and, in some cases, cut costs for election administration by allowing county officials to open fewer voting precincts on Election Day and expediting the voting process," writes Cristina Francisco-McGuire of the Progressive States Network. In several key states, voters were encouraged to vote early by candidate Obama's ground operation. In Florida, 54 percent of blacks cast their ballots early. In North Carolina – where candidate Obama won with less than 15,000 votes – more people voted before Election Day than on it. More than half of North Carolina's black population voted early, compared to about 40 percent of whites. Aware of the potential effectiveness of early voting to turn out Democratic leaning constituencies, Republican lawmakers in Florida and Wisconsin have shortened the early voting period and eliminated Sunday voting.

Florida, as we know, a key battleground state, also ended a longstanding practice that allows voters to change their address between counties on Election Day and cast a regular ballot, and it imposed new restrictions that will make it more difficult to conduct organized voter-registration drives.

Republican lawmakers claim that these laws are needed in order to prevent voter fraud from occurring. But, as Washington Post opinion writer, E.J. Dione Jr., points out in a recent column: "But, study after study has shown that fraud by voters is not a major problem – and is less of a problem than how hard many states make it for people to vote in the first place. Some of the new laws, notably those limiting the number of days for early voting, have little plausible connection to battling fraud."

Republicans smell blood in the water, believing that their efforts to turn back the clock on voting rights can rig this election just enough to make the president a one-termer. Keep in mind, however, that Republican lawmakers do not want to completely eliminate black voters; rather, they just want to do enough mischief to affect the outcome of the election in a way that favors the Republican presidential candidate in battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and Indiana.

Seeking relief from the courts may be difficult. The Federal Court system is stacked with conservative Republican appointees. Nonetheless, the Justice Department should aggressively challenge these laws, especially in those states that are covered by the Voting Rights Act. They clearly violate the spirit and intent of the Act.

President Obama has a tough road ahead of him. Republican lawmakers are doing their best to suppress the voting rights of key Democratic constituencies in an effort to win back the presidency. Moreover, as evidenced by the 2010 mid-term election, working-class whites are abandoning the Democratic Party in droves. It appears more and more likely that the Republican Party may just succeed in rigging the outcome of the 2012 Presidential Election just enough to win back the White House.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Equality as a Fact and Equality as a Result: The Next and More Profound Stage of the Battle for Civil Rights

Next month will mark the 46 anniversary of one the greatest civil rights speeches ever given by an American President. On June 4, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson delivered the Commencement Address at Howard University. The name of his address was, To Fulfill These Rights.

Speaking nearly a year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and less than a month before he would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, President Johnson proudly hailed the legal freedoms blacks would gain because of these two landmark pieces of legislation, but he added, "freedom is not enough." The president continued:

"You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please."

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

As impressive as these legislative achievements were, the president believed that they were only a beginning, not an end. Quoting Winston Churchill, he declared that even the soon-to-be passed Voting Rights Act "is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." The "next and the more profound stage" of the civil rights movement, Johnson added, was to "seek not just freedom of opportunity," but to secure racial equality not in some abstract or theoretical fashion, rather, "equality as a fact and equality as a result."

President Johnson then discussed the deteriorating economic circumstances and growing social isolation of inner-city black families. The president drew a sharp distinction between the life chances and opportunities of a growing black middle class that was "steadily narrowing the gap between them and their white counterparts," and the bleak and troubling conditions of what he called "the great majority" of blacks, "the poor, the unemployed, the uprooted, and the dispossessed." Johnson described this second group of blacks as "another nation," adding that, "despite the court orders and the laws, despite the legislative victories and the speeches, for them the walls are rising and the gulf is widening."

Given that Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan – who had just recently completed his soon to be highly controversial report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" – had helped draft Johnson's speech, the president next turned his attention to the "breakdown of the Negro Family structure" that resulted from "centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man." The family, he contended, "is the cornerstone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of the child. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale the community itself is crippled."

To bolster his position, the president presented some rather distressing figures on black family life. He pointed out that less than half of all black children under the age of 18 spent their entire lives in a household with both of their parents and that little less than two-thirds of black children are at home with both of their parents at any given time. He also contended that a majority of black children receive welfare sometime during their childhood.

President Johnson closed his speech by saying that he would convene later in the fall at the White House "a conference of scholars, and experts, and outstanding Negro leaders – men of both races – and officials of Government at every level." The conference's theme and title would be "To Fulfill These Rights."

After reading about Johnson's speech, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, "Never before has a president articulated the depths and dimensions [of the problems] more eloquently and profoundly." Unfortunately, no American president – Democrat or Republican – has spoken as eloquently or profoundly on the "race issue" as did President Johnson that night, nearly 46 years ago.

As we all know, however, President Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam divided the nation and undermined his effort to promote "equality of results" and his ambitious Great Society agenda.

One consequence of Johnson's failures, of course, is that the problems afflicting the black community that he identified that night remain with us today, and for the black lower class, have actually grown palpably worse.

According to a recent study prepared by the California-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, children of color are more likely to be born poor and spend their lives suffering from the consequences of being raised in an impoverished family, including diminished academic achievement and a greater likelihood of financial insecurity.

The report was generated by The Insight Center's "Closing the Race Gap Initiative," which according to their website, brings "together over 150 scholars, advocates, and practitioners of color to inform the national economic debate with diverse perspectives and provide policy solutions to create a more inclusive and equitable future for all Americans."

The findings from the Insight Center's report are stunning. In 2007, nationwide, roughly one-third of white children were born to families with incomes below the poverty level, and about 14 percent had no assets (remember, there is a big difference between wealth and income: income is derived from work, government benefits, or investments; wealth is generated from savings, stocks, bonds, trust funds, retirement funds, and real estate).

By comparison, Latino (69 percent) and black (71 percent) children were far more likely to be born in families that are poor and lack assets (40 percent for both groups).

Indeed, between 2005 and 2007, the number of black families living with zero or negative net worth (debt) increased from 35 percent to 39 percent. The figures for white families did not change during this period.

And last, the problem of single parent families has grown worse since the mid 1960s. According to data collected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and recently reported in The Journal Of Blacks in Higher Education: in a group of 27 industrial nations, 15.9 percent of all children are raised in single-parent households; in the United States, 25.8 percent of children are raised in single-parent households; the percentage of black children in the United States raised in single-parent households is 72 percent.

President Johnson in his Commencement Address at Howard University described "equality as a fact and equality as a result," as the "next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights" in the United States. Unfortunately, no other president since Johnson – including the current one, Barack Hussein Obama – has come close to securing the egalitarian racial goals Johnson articulated that June night or, for that matter, even come close to articulating such an ambitious agenda.

In the meantime, while we wait to elect a president up to the task, the deteriorating economic circumstances and growing social isolation of inner-city black families just simply grows worse.

My fear is that help may come too late to make a real difference.

Friday, May 13, 2011

We Are A Nation At War, And I’m A War President; Act II

"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?" – Mahatma Ghandi –

A few days after President Obama ordered the extra-judicial execution of Osama bin Laden by a Navy Seal Team in Abbottabad – not too far from the headquarters of the elite Pakistan Military Academy for young cadets and a short trip to the country's capital, Islamabad – I sat in the green room of a local television station, Fox 61, pondering what I would say about bin Laden's death while waiting to tape an appearance on the Stan Simpson Show.

The other guest for the show was a retired U.S. Army Colonel, and former CIA Operations Officer and Republican U.S. Congressman from Connecticut, Rob Simmons. Even though Simmons and I disagreed on most things we discussed while waiting in the green room – such as, whether to release a graphic "bullet to the head" photo of bin Laden – to my surprise, the one thing we agreed on was that it was time for the U.S. to pull out of these wars.

While we did not discuss a timetable for withdrawal, we both were in agreement that it's time to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and bring the troops home.

I believe that we need to move swiftly and deliberately to bring these wars to an end.

My belief in the need for an immediate withdrawal, however, is not a very popular view among many Democrats or among some of the President's staunchest supporters, defenders of Obama in the black community.

Nonetheless, it's time to end these conflicts.

Many supporters of Obama say that the President inherited these wars from George W. Bush and should not be held accountable if it looks like we are stuck in a quagmire and cannot get out soon. They also claim that the President actually lacks the power to pull us out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The reason Obama cannot pull the nation out of these wars is because too many powerful interests in Washington – the Congress, the military industrial complex, the media – favor these wars and that the President's hands are tied and that without a strong anti-war movement to back him, he would be foolish to challenge them.

Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan prematurely, it is also argued, would prove disastrous for our allies in those regions (in essence, we would be abandoning them in their time of need), and could lead to the toppling of fragile American (and Western Europe) friendly regimes by anti-Western extremists, or radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden.

The President is also cautioned by his friends and supporters to not withdraw the troops too quickly because it could undermine his ambition to be reelected President in 2012 and that a hasty "retreat" would cripple the ability of Democrats to retake the Congress next year.

Mentioned less frequently as an argument to continue these wars are our strategic interests in both of these regions. Afghanistan is not as important as its neighbor Pakistan – the second largest Muslim country in the world and the recipient of nearly $20 billion of U.S. aid since 9/11. Pakistan is a fragile democracy with a military willing to intercede in the affairs of state to protect its interests when it feels it has too. Like Afghanistan, it is at war with its own homegrown version of radical Islam.

Most significantly, Pakistan possesses over 100 nuclear bombs, and shares borders with China, Iran, and India. And, along its border with Afghanistan, it is the steward of a largely ungovernable mountainous tribal region that contains more than 40 million nationalists Pashtuns (this is the place where the Bush and Obama Administrations originally suspected bin Laden was hiding and where Afghani Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters frequently go to find a place to hide from American military forces).

Iraq floats on oil; Americans are addicted to their automobiles and want cheap, reliable, sources of oil to quench that appetite. Enough said!

President Obama is the Commander in Chief (Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution). Ever since WW II, the President has operated with a free hand in the area of foreign policy; that is, he has been able to commit troops to battle without consulting the Congress. Logic follows that he can bring them home without Congressional approval. Nothing is stopping him. Please quit believing he can't end these wars.

If the time is not right to end these wars, when will it be more convenient to do so? Do we need another 2 years? What about four years? Supporters of the President usually do not have an answer.

Some say, we should stay until we "get the job done." What does that mean? If we stay longer, what is our goal? Are we there to hunt down and kill ALL of our enemies? Are we trying to build stable, secular, Islamic Republics with vibrant civil societies? Those goals may take a generation to accomplish.

If we are interested in protecting our strategic interests in Pakistan and Iraq, do we need such a heavy troop presence to get the job done? Moreover, a strong case can be made that our presence is fueling a lot of the violence in the regions. One of bin Laden's most effective recruitment pitches was to point at the U.S. presence in countries like Saudi Arabia as proof of the desecration of Muslim (Arab) lands by foreign "Crusaders."

One thing that I've concluded about these wars and the lack of urgency to extricate ourselves from them is that we don't feel it at a personal level. If we had a draft and our sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, and parents either left limbs on the battlefield or were coming home in coffins, we would want out sooner and care less about "the conditions we leave behind." There is a reason why our leaders tell us too much is at stake to pull out and sanitize war for us by not showing it to us with all of its horror. It allows them to keep doing what they are doing and it spares us from being upset while we are eating dinner.

We need an anti-war movement on the scale of the protest against the Vietnam War to convince the President, Congress, military leaders and media elites that drone attacks, extra-judicial executions, and the squandering of billions of dollars is not the way to bring about peace; rather, this path will lead inevitably toward just more death and destruction.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

How We Are Failing Our Young People; Let Me Count The Ways

Late last year, I was shocked to read in my hometown newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, that three months into the school year, a shortage of teachers due to massive teacher retirements last year and a poorly executed school reorganization plan had left the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) a mess.

DPS is not new to disturbingly difficult challenges. For decades, declining enrollments, a dysfunctional board of education, and the poor academic performance of students has plagued the school system.

The reason for this new set of trials and tribulations, however, boggles the mind.

Here is what happened. More than 800 of DPS's approximately 5000 teachers left the school system in response to a retirement incentive program designed to get highly paid teachers to leave. Just as DPS was weeding out some of its most experienced teachers to lower costs they decided to shut down 29 schools and reorganize 50 others.

Not surprisingly, a shortage of qualified teachers, especially for specialized classes – along with an unusual number of students transferring between schools, due in part, to the school closings and reorganization – has resulted in teachers overwhelmed with class of up to 50 students. The shortage of teachers in the classroom was so bad that many students received letter grades of "P" on their report cards because replacement teachers (when they could find them) felt like they did not have enough class time with the students to adequately assess their learning.

What a mess!

Unfortunately, Detroit is not an anomaly. In general, the nation's urban public schools face a litany of problems, ranging from over-crowded classrooms, low teacher expectations, and a shortage of experienced, well-qualified teachers to less than challenging work, a lack of parental involvement, and high rates of racial segregation and socioeconomic isolation.

For many black, Hispanic, and American Indian students, learning to read, mastering the mechanics of writing, and becoming proficient in math are problems they face on a daily basis.

For students of color, however, getting to and from school safely can also be a challenge.

Like most people, I was distressed by the accidental shooting that occurred in Los Angeles earlier this month. A 17 year-old student brought a loaded 9 mm semiautomatic gun to school in a backpack. After he reached into his backpack during break time, the gun went off. Two 15 year-old students were injured, one critically, after the bullet grazed her skull. The shooter – a 10th-grader who was on probation for a misdemeanor battery charge – was placed in custody and charged with two felonies: possessing a firearm in a school zone and discharging a firearm in a school zone.

The 2,400 student school, Gardena High, is not new to violence. Two students were shot at the school following an attempted robbery in 2003. Gardena High ranks among the districts lowest performing schools, with approximately 35 percent of its students dropping out of school.

So, in addition to worrying about whether their children are learning how to read, write, and do arithmetic, parents of students of color also need to worry about whether their children will make it home from school safely.

The parents concerns are not groundless.

Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2010, a joint report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and National Center for Education Statistics (BJS-NCES), provides a bevy of data on the nature of crime and violence in the nation's public schools.

Based on the perspective of students, teachers, principals and the general population, the report examines crime not only in schools but also on the way and coming from school. Consider some of the findings from the BJS-NCES report:

  • In 2008, 259,700 black students and 240,200 Hispanic students ages 12 to 18 were victims of crime while at school. More than 142,000 black students and 100,000 Hispanic students were victims of violent crime. Of these, 28,000 black students and 44,000 Hispanic students were the victims of serious violent crimes such as rape, sexual assault, or robbery. Blacks were more than three times as likely as whites to be victims of serious violent crimes while at school. Hispanics were more than four times as likely as whites to be victims of serious violent crimes while at school.
  • White students were less likely to report being in a physical fight anywhere than black, Hispanic, or Native American students. For example, in 2009, 28 percent of white students in grades 9-12 reported being in a physical fight either at school or off campus at least once during the previous 12 months, compared to 36 percent of Hispanic students, 41 percent of black students, and 42 percent of Native American students. Only 9 percent of white students reported being in a fight on school property within the past year, compared to 14 percent of Hispanic students, 17 percent of black students, and 21 percent of Native American students.
  • In 2007, black students (38 percent) and Hispanic students (36 percent) were far more likely to report gang activity at their school than white students (16 percent).
  • In 2007, nearly 9 percent of black students and 7 percent of Hispanic students ages 12 to 18 reported being afraid of being attacked or harmed at school compared to 4 percent of white students. Black and Hispanic students were more afraid of being harmed at school than they were being harmed away from school (5 and 6 percent respectively).

There is no easy way to stem school violence. Many districts deal with the problem by instituting zero-tolerance policies, punishing students harshly for even minor infractions of their system's code of conduct. However, a growing body of research makes it clear that the routinization of extreme punishments such as suspensions, expulsions, and transfers to disciplinary schools may be doing more harm than good.

For example, according to a recent report by Youth United for Change, the Advancement Project, and the Education Law Center, the Philadelphia school system's zero-tolerance policy is having a devastating effect on the district's students, in particular, its students of color. The authors of the report criticize zero tolerance in Philly's schools as "a failed policy that makes city schools less safe, criminalizes or pushes out of school tens of thousands of students every year, and creates a School-to-Prison Pipeline."

A new report by the New York Civil Liberties Union draws similar conclusions about the harmful effects of zero tolerance. "Sadly, the growing reliance on suspensions in New York City schools all too often denies children – often the most vulnerable and in need of support – their right to an education," according to NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. "This harsh approach to discipline, combined with aggressive policing in schools, pushes kids from the classroom into the criminal justice system."

Students of color experience disproportionately harsh punishments under zero-tolerance policies. The NYCLU report showed that though black students make up only 30 percent of the students enrolled in city schools, they accounted for more than half of all suspensions every year from 1999-2000 to 2008-9. The authors of the Philadelphia school district zero tolerance report also present data on racial disparities in how punishment is meted out. During the 2008-09 school year, black students had 35 suspensions per 100 students; Latino students, 23 per 100; white students, 14 per 100; and Asian students, 5 per 100.

As a society, we should be doing everything we can to guarantee that every child enrolled in school has access to a quality education in a safe and secure environment. Unfortunately, that is not the case for far too many students, especially students of color. Without a doubt, violence and disciplinary issues are serious problems that need to be addressed. However, zero-tolerance is not the answer.

Both reports mentioned above offer recommendations that if implemented will more adequately address the violence and disciplinary problems in our nation's public schools and, hopefully, end the school to prison pipeline that zero-tolerance policies promote. Each makes a compelling case for more resources to improve student's access to guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists as an important step in the right direction. It's time to change course and give our young people the help they need.