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.