Sunday, March 3, 2013

Voting Rights Act Still Needed

In case you haven't heard--meaning that you have probably been living under a rock for the past month--there are a few things that are happening historically that need your immediate attention.  The Supreme Court is deciding whether to uphold the 1965 Voting Rights Act, making Southern states like Mississipi and Alabama--who have long and bloody histories of denying African Americans the right to vote--get fed approval before making any changes to their state voting practices/laws.  To be clear, the VRA was put in place because these states have historically legislated racial terrorism.

From poll taxes--which only applied to blacks--to draconian laws designed to intimidate black voters--like making people memorize the state's constitution or guess the number of jelly beans in a two gallon jug--, the states were not only complicit in this process of racial terrorism, they were by all accounts the driving force.

While it makes perfect sense to me to end laws that are no longer needed (shout out to Mississippi for finally making it officially legal in the state not to own slaves), it is irresponsible and indeed dangerous to eliminate laws, especially ones that protect American citizens from state-sponsored terrorism, without careful deliberation.

If the Supreme Court errs here, it should certainly be on the side of protecting freedom, not caving to claims of federal government overreach or the notoriously racist claims of states rights.  The voting debacle that took place in the last presidential election cycle, of which Florida--the state in which I now reside--was a primary culprit in trying to suppress the black and Democratic vote, should reveal the pressing need to keep such federal laws/mandates in place.

The problem is that we have been conditioned to see racism as passe, the election of the first black president for two consecutive terms just added fuel to the fire of this dangerous myth.  Tell the 1.4 million black men in prison that we are post-racial or peep this: "Today, 1 in 15 African-American children and 1 in 42 Latino children have a parent in prison, compared to 1 in 111 white children. In some areas, a large majority of African-American men – 55 percent in Chicago, for example – are labeled felons for life, and, as a result, may be prevented from voting and accessing public housing, student loans and other public assistance."

And, no, black and brown men are not pathologically criminal.  What they are is systemically targeted--that is, they are not committing more crimes than white men or, for that matter, doing more drugs or handling more firearms (go to the white surburbs if you want to know where all the guns are in our society), they're simply being convicted at much higher rates than their white peers for the largely the same crimes.

In a word, if you're poor and of color, you are prison bait.  Plain and simple.  And, as Michelle Alexander so brilliantly argues in The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration is the new form of black political and economic disenfranchisement. 

Given that our impulse as Empire is to forget that which challenges or contradicts whites' will to power, it is hardly surprising that important debates--like the one before the Supreme Court discussed above--tend to be ahistorical and grounded in emotion rather than fact.  Have we come along way since that historic ruling against voting suppression in the South.  Of course.  No one is debating that, but there is a distinct difference in moving in the right direction and arriving at one's destination.

So to the folks out there who think that any invocation of race to address matters such as these is an act of "playing the race card," which seemed to be a recurring them in the comment section of a piece on CNN I was reading this morning about the Emory U's racial problems, including the asinine comments of the University prez, James W. Wagner, I say do your historical homework.

If we're being real, whites invented the race card (can you say legacy admissions, the prison industrial complex, and corporate welfare or slavery, Japanese internment camps, and Native American genocide).  Now, racial privilege, which blacks folks have never historically benefited from (and, for the record, Affirmative Action is a corrective to white male supremacy not racial privilege) is somehow magically the domain of black and brown folks.  The growing wealth gap between whites and black/brown folks blows that argument up.  White hegemony is a mofo.

Nobody wants this country to be post-racist more than black and brown folks.  Trust me.  But the extant reality of institutionalized racism and structural inequalities keeps getting in the way.  So enough with the race card rhetoric already.  Its insulting and historically absurd.  

Monday, August 22, 2011

Barack Obama and the Black Vote: A Complicated Matter

"Obama refuses ... to conceptualize 'minority unemployment' as a discrete issue warranting special treatment apart from the overall treatment of unemployment in general. He insists that by raising the economic fortunes of all, regardless of race, he is necessarily raising the economic fortunes of the black poor who suffer disproportionately in hard times. Sometimes this formulation accords with realities.

Sometimes, however, rising fortunes accentuate inequalities, leaving behind those on the bottom or raising them much less than other groups higher on the socioeconomic-political pecking order. Depending on the circumstances, a rising tide might only lift the yachts, stranding the rowboats."

The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

--Randall Kennedy

Just read a rather intriguing op-ed piece by Eugene Kane that tackles the thorny, and increasingly pressing, issue of Obama's attentiveness (or rather, lack thereof) to the suffering of black America and particularly the black poor. Using Cornel West and Tavis Smiley's controversial poverty tour and Maxine Waters' criticism of the prez as touchstones, Kane argues that there is growing discontent within black spaces over President Obama's job performance as it relates to black job creation and the ever expanding wealth gap between black and white America.

Though Kane rightly concludes that the naysayers of Obama's job performance on the Right--the most vocal being the GOP presidential candidates--are political opportunists ('Cause we know how much Bachmann, Perry, and Romney tout a "black agenda"), his political "solution" is downright defeatist. Namely, that the black community should stand behind Obama despite his inattentiveness to black concerns because at bottom we can do a lot worse, especially if a Republican wins the election.

I would submit that Obama's inattentiveness to black concerns are bound up in this very political calculation. That is to say that he knows that blacks will vote for him regardless of whether he pays attention to their socioeconomic concerns. Indeed, poll after poll shows that this so-called discontentment among blacks has hardly hurt Obama's popularity in the black spaces. Truth is, Obama has eclipsed even Martin Luther King as the most admired black figure in American history.

Randall Kennedy has rightly argued that the symbolic capital of Obama's presidency neutralizes to a large degree what he actually accomplishes on behalf of black folks. His undeniable intelligence, charisma, and grace--not to mention the fact that he married a black woman that is as down as collard greens and The Roots--authenticates him to the point of hero-worship.

Granted, symbolic capital has its place. There is something psychologically significant in breaking through as Obama has.Its one thing to suggest that a black man can be president of the US and quite another to point to the reality of a black president.

That said, symbolic capitalism doesn't create jobs, hold Wall Street accountable, press rich folks to pay their share of taxes, and so on. While I don't think that black folks will turn against Obama in the upcoming election, I do believe that if he doesn't make a more concerted effort to address black concerns, a great many of us will not turn out to vote. For those that see Obama as the great compromiser-in-chief and his--what's-good-for-white-America-is-good-for-black-America-governing-style--as a politically savvy way to help black folks without outing himself to White America, I say look at the economic reality.

Black businesses received a disproportionally smaller amount of TARP money than their white counterparts, have not been highlighted as the hardest hit despite having lost nearly 60% of their wealth because of to subprime debacle, have suffered nearly twice the rate of unemployment as whites, and the list goes on. What's good for the goose in this case is clearly not what's good for the gander.

While it goes without saying that Obama, as a black man, has unique obstacles to overcome in terms of race that, at times, complicate, if not, prevent him from going hard on certain race-centric issues, he's not even tested the waters to see what is possible, an insightful point that Kennedy makes in his new book, The Persistence of the Color Line. Here's hoping that Obama stops taking the black vote for granted. One thing is for sure, if things continue in the ways that they are, I might sit this one out. Real talk.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Passing the Mic: Yo, "B" What Were You Thinking?

It has perhaps now gone viral. The White House press conference over the weekend that featured Obama passing the mic to Bill Clinton to help him sell his stinker of a deal with the GOP to continue Bush era tax breaks for the wealthy. The idea on its face was not a bad one. Clinton, after all, remains widely popular and resided over one the most economically robust periods in recent memory. And, to be sure, on the mic--Prez got game.

The problem is not that Obama passed the mic to Clinton, but how he passed the mic. After the shellacking the Dems took recently in the midterm elections Obama has visibly lost his swag. Gone is the confident, intellectual statesmen that single-handedly took on the GOP establishment in an open public debate a year or so ago. His mix of charisma, good-looks, and high IQ meant that more often than not, he was shaping the terms of the debate, a talent not seen ... well, since the Clinton years.

The post-shellacking Prez looks tired, off-centered, and exasperated. Like he's lost the fight before he's even thrown the first punch. Granted, this could be a temporary state of being; he's been down before and has bounced back nicely--at least politically speaking. Trying to find inspiration in the "come back" kid par excellence in Bill Clinton is not necessarily a bad move on this score. That is, unless, you give him the mic and the license to freestyle. Which Obama mistakenly did. Rumor was during the general presidential campaign that Obama decided against picking Hillary as his running mate precisely because of Bill Clinton's Alpha Dog personality and propensity to stir up controversy from the time to time on the home front. If Hillary couldn't keep Bill in check, then what made Obama think at this crucial juncture in his presidency that he could.

To watch the press conference is to see Obama in a very confused and awkward state. After making a few brief comments about his faith in the passage of the bill, he passes the mic to Clinton and then says that he can't stay for the duration of the press conference because of a Christmas event that he is attending with Michelle.

The hilarity ensued, however, as Obama watched former president Clinton shift into a full brown commander in chief mode. Based on Obama's physical response--and indeed the fact that he stayed around for a significant period of time before actually leaving--he clearly realized his mistake. Not that Clinton was ineffective, mind you. Just the opposite. As he held court during the press conferences, one was reminded of why he was such an effective politician and communicator. It was, in fact, his effectiveness that illuminated Obama's lack thereof in the present moment.

Who knows if this episode will have a prolonged life in the news cycle. One thing is certain though, if Obama wants to regain his swagger and demonstrate that, at bottom, he is still the man in charge, he can't so casually pass the mic. Or, at least not to the one person that can actually match or exceed his rhetorical skills. I have a sneaky suspicion that we won't see a repeat of this political theater any time soon.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Let's Rescue the Race Debate

“There is another class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. ... Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs ... There is a certain class of race-problem solvers who don’t want the patient to get well.”

Charles M. Blow

This 100-year-old, cobbled-together quote from the “the Great Accommodator” Booker T. Washington has gotten quite a bit of circulation in the right-wing blogosphere since the Tea Party came under attack over racial issues.

The quote helps support a broader sentiment that the current racial discontent is being fueled by a black liberal grievance industry that refuses to acknowledge racial progress, accept personal responsibility, or acknowledge its own racial transgressions. And that the charge of racism has become a bludgeon against anyone white and not in love with President Obama, thereby making those whites the most aggrieved — victims of the elusive reverse-racism Bigfoot. It’s perfect really: the historic words of a revered black figure being used to punch a hole in a present-day black mythology and to turn the world of racism upside down.

(The fact that those on the right would glom onto this quote is fascinating from a cultural/historical perspective. The quote is a not-so-subtle swipe by an aging Washington at his young nemesis, W.E.B. Du Bois, an Obama-like figure who advocated a more broad-based, activist movement for racial equality to be led by an erudite black intelligentsia. This is so riddled with ironies that I couldn’t possibly tackle them all in this column. Maybe another time. Rain check, please!)

The argument of these whites minimizes the victimization of others while magnifying their own victimization. While their argument may hold for some individuals, when you look at blacks writ large, the argument falls apart.

According to an ABC News poll conducted last year, blacks are even more likely than whites to admit that they “have at least some feelings of racial prejudice.” Thirty-eight percent of blacks admitted to those feelings while only 34 percent of whites did. I use the word admit because people notoriously underreport negative behaviors on polls, and knowing which groups may underreport and to what degree is impossible to gauge. For more objectivity, we need more scientific measures like Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory maintained by Harvard, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia that has administered hundreds of thousands of online tests designed to detect hidden racial biases. Tests taken from 2000 to 2006 found that a whopping three-quarters of whites have an implicit pro-white/anti-black bias, while 40 percent of blacks had a pro-black/anti-white bias, about the same amount as those admitting racial prejudice in the poll.

Furthermore, a January poll by the Pew Research Center found that most blacks agree that blacks who can’t get ahead are most responsible for their own condition. Only about a third said that racial discrimination was the main reason.

This whole hollow argument is further evidence that many whites are exhibiting the same culture of racial victimization that they decry.

The latest evidence of this comes in a poll released this week that was conducted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute and financed by the Ford Foundation. The poll found that 62 percent of whites who identified as Tea Party members, 56 percent of white Republicans, and even 53 percent of white independents said that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Only 30 percent of white Democrats agreed with that statement.

It’s an extraordinary set of responses. And my question is the same one used by the right to defend the Tea Party against claims of racism: Where’s the proof? There’s a mound of scientific evidence a mile high that documents the broad, systematic and structural discrimination against minorities. Where’s the comparable mound of documentation for discrimination against whites? There isn’t one.

We can find racial prejudices in all segments of the population, but pretending that the degree and consequences are comparable is neither true nor helpful. And attributing to the agitation of the “colored” masses to the self-aggrandizement of a callous few is truly detrimental.

In fact, some on the right seem to be doing with the race issue what they’ve done with the climate-change issue: denying the basic facts and muddying the waters around them until no one can see clearly enough to have an honest discussion or develop thoughtful solutions.

I had thought that the reflexive denials and defenses of many on the right were simply an overreaction to, in their view, being unfairly accused of racism on too broad a scale. My present worry is that denial may be the new normal and that the hot language of the past summer has cooled and hardened into a permanently warped perception of the very meaning of discrimination and racism. I worry that the last bit of distance between where we are and where we want to be on racial reconciliation is being drawn through an ever-narrowing, ever-more-treacherous terrain.

In the name of progress, the public must reclaim the facts of the race debate in this country. Many racial problems have been solved but many remain. Some we must tackle within our individual communities and others must be dealt with between them. Racism isn’t everywhere we imagine it, but it is in far more places than we admit. If we can start from common points of agreement, we can come much closer to common ground. But to do that, everyone must step out of the shadows of denial and into the brutal light of honesty.

Booker T. Washington was right that there are some who may not “want the patient to get well.” Those people exist on all sides of the debate, and they will always be there. But they’re a minority. Cast them aside. Let the rest of us start with this point of agreement: The patient is doing better but is still sick.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Strip Searched: Race and the Unasked Question in the Airport Scanner Debate

By George White

As we enter the busiest traveling season of the year, one story has remained constant on the Internet and the evening news – the fear of and objections to TSA body scanners and pat-down searches in the nation’s airports.
As a civil libertarian, I appreciate the concerns of travelers and their allies. But at this historical moment, I’m unconvinced that civil liberties are the main thrust of the protests.

Black communities have been among the most policed and monitored groups in American history. We have been forced to live our lives out in the open, whether being groped and prodded on auction blocks or on city sidewalks as part of a “stop-and-frisk” regimen. Sometimes our right to move freely depended entirely on a White person’s determination that our “pass” was valid. At other times, that freedom could be curtailed by local, state, or federal law enforcement officials who suspected that legitimate political organizing was really a “front” for Social Justice conspiracy.

One of the interesting aspects of racial segregation was that White Supremacists consistently used concerns over “security” to justify their heinous crimes (lynching, anyone) or deprivations of freedom. Even the State of Louisiana in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case argued that its legal enshrinement of “Jim Crow” was a justifiable use of its “police powers.” Our history proves that racial profiling does not work and that it obscures more than it illuminates. Our present reveals that our city streets, bus terminals, and subway stations are sites of public humiliation, as some of us are strip searched or forced to lay face-down on the ground. These same spaces can become killing fields for people like Sean Bell or Oscar Grant. It has become common for most Americans to cheer on these efforts to “make our streets safer” or, at the very least, to walk or drive by without remark. Now, we’re supposed to be upset over body scanners at the airport…inside a building…where no one is taking down your name and address…planting evidence on you…or threatening to give you an “attitude adjustment” if you talk back?!

I agree that the security screens are invasive. I respect the voices of political conservatives like Bob Barr, one of the few Republicans who joined with the ACLU and regular citizens who organized against the USA PATRIOT ACT; regular citizens like me and other friends who founded the Greater Knoxville Civil Liberties Alliance in 2003. But the proposed alternatives frighten me too; racial profiling (you again?) and privatization (hunh?). And since the attacks-on-civil-liberties train left years ago, I am left to ponder if there is something else percolating in this anti-authoritarian brew.

I don’t travel much by air when I leave my new home in New York, but when I do I am always struck by the demographics of its airports: the travelers are overwhelmingly White and middle- or upper-class and the TSA agents are all working-class and, generally, people of color. I’m not saying that the dominant culture consciously has an aversion to being monitored by people of color, but it leads me to this thought: the fight over the body scanners and pat downs is a fight over the currency of normative (read: white) privilege.

Yes, this “crisis” is one of the ironic results of our national risk aversion. But remember, as Americans demanded to be made “perfectly safe” (an impossibility if there ever was one), the burden for this irrational stipulation fell overwhelmingly on the shoulders of people of color. Because the dominant culture wasn’t inconvenienced by these measures, there was very little resistance to such rash and draconian efforts. Fast forward to the twenty-first century.

Now that those who are accustomed to getting a free pass on these measures may have to experience the consequences of state surveillance, there is an increasing uproar about violating civil rights. Sure, the body scanners and pat-downs seem like unconstitutional violations of the 4th Amendment but so is everything else that has emerged from the silt of our radically raced and capitalist-driven “War on Terror.”

I’ll be happy to lend my outrage when everyone decides to 1) object to racial profiling; 2) remove the informants and agent provocateurs from neighborhoods and places of worship; 3) insist on the repeal of Arizona SB 1070; 4) free the Newburgh Four; 5) stop the warrantless wire-tapping and data mining; 6) protest the torture and continued imprisonment of detainees and “enemy combatants,” among other things. If, indeed, “freedom is not free,” as the conservative mantra goes, then neither is race privilege. Liberty and justice for the privileged just won’t cut it any more.