race race

22 11 2008

A national poll taken last week showed that 69 percent of Americans believe that race relations will improve with Obama in office. And I don’t blame this majority for their optimism: after all, didn’t you see all those people — black and white alike — crying their eyes out in Grant Park on November 4th? Didn’t you read all those heartening quotes from the little old ladies who never thought they would see the day? At last, the Constitution has been ratified, more than a century after the fact. At last, we are learning the true meaning of equal rights.

I’m among those pessimistic liberals who sees Obama’s election as symbolic more than anything else. This is an unpopular camp to be in these days, at least in my circle. My friends, students, and family members alike have told me to give the man a chance. He really might be the change we can believe in. Well, I’m certainly glad about the victory — elated, even. And I don’t think there’s anything all that WRONG with electing a symbol. He’s qualified, he’s articulate, he evokes the kind of hero-worship celebrity that the American people hunger for. And more than anything, I hope he will inspire people. I hope he will drive people to commit acts of sacrifice and goodness that stretch beyond their own lives. In that way, I think he could significantly change the world.

But will Obama improve race relations? That’s an interesting question.

I remember the worry that surrounded certain black activists during the election season. They were scared that if Obama was elected, white people would say, “Well, we’ve done it. We’ve evolved to be a truly colorblind society.” And no one is saying that outright, but you can tell that people are feeling it. People are letting their guard down a little bit.

It’s not just white people. My (all African-American) students have been spending the last three weeks saying, “I don’t have to do what you say anymore; I’ve got a black man as my president.” They don’t get it. They don’t understand that the racism in the education system is about the fact that they are often 20 years old and for some reason cannot read on a first grade level. Is Obama’s presidency magically going to fix that? Of course not.

And it’s interesting. We hear all these stories about grown black men moved to tears over the election, and they make us feel good, we understand them, they give us hope. But we seem to pass over the deep red items that seem like they should have come from a newspaper in the early 1900s: The second graders on a school bus in Boise, Idaho who were heard chanting “Assassinate Obama” over and over again; or the African-American church in Massachusetts that was burned down hours after Obama’s election.

In fact, worldwide, race-based threats and incidents have skyrocketed since the United States’ 44th president was announced. As reported in an article in the Times of London U.K.:

The phenomenon appears to be at its most intense in the Southern states, where opposition to Obama is at its highest and where reports of hate crimes were emerging even before the election. Incidents involving adults, college students and even schoolchildren have dampened the early post-election glow of racial progress and harmony, with some African American residents reporting an atmosphere of fear and inter-community tension.

But for me, the most frustrating story I’ve read was in the Times Picayune. It was nothing all that sensational or outwardly terrible. There are always going to be the ratty, nasty few who burn churches or hit people with bats; luckily, they are everywhere within the minority. I mean, the people who reported the story about the children chanting “Assassinate Obama” voted for McCain. Generally, we can tell right from wrong.

But in St. Tammany Parish, a small, mostly-white parish outside New Orleans (76 percent of the population here voted for McCain, and 13 percent of the demographic is African-American), frustrated teachers banned student from talking about the election. As the story reports:

In some cases, students said they were threatened with punishment if they talked about the election.

“She said that if we did talk about (the election) she’d write us up,” 14 year-old Briana Seals, who is black, said of a teacher at Slidell Junior High School.

In Covington, parent Dominique Elzy, who is black, said she complained to the principal at E.E. Lyon Elementary School after her 7-year-old son told her that he was made to stand along the playground wall after he shouted, “Obama won!” during recess.

I know it’s a small thing. But this is the kind of small thing that bothers me the most. Public school should be a place where students begin to understand the world around them. The students at my school should start to understand what it is that a president does, and the students in St. Tammany should be allowed to talk freely about what is going on in the world. I don’t care if discussions like these might make some people upset. That’s what this country is all about, after all: we talk about our differences, we discuss our options, we give each other the freedom to believe what we believe.

Places in this country that are stubbornly conservative have stayed stubbornly conservative, despite the overwhelming shift to the left sparked by this election. I think we ought to be wary of celebrating too soon. It is desperately important that we continue discussions on race, class, politics, what is going on in the world. This country is still so young, and it is going to take a long time to get to reach some kind of nationwide understanding as to what it all means.

I was pleased to hear Cornel West on Democracy Now last week talking on this issue in particular. On a the new presidential elect he had this to say:

Barack Obama is a symbol, but we’ve got to move from symbol to substance. We’ve got to move from what he represents in a broad sense—and it’s a beautiful thing to have a black man in the White House, we know that, and black slaves and laborers and other white immigrants built the White House. …But can we revitalize democratic possibilities on the ground with Barack in the White House? I think we can. We can put some serious pressure on him, and we can actually continue the democratic awakening among working people and poor people and push Barack in a progressive direction.

Seconded. I am interested in the forward motion of this country. I want the newspaper to make me happy. I want to see our school systems truly integrated, I want to see our laws fairly enforced, I want to see children whose opinions have stretched to outgrow the opinions of their parents. That’s the future of America. That’s what I have faith in.


media war on war

17 03 2008

The danger of a presidential election as monumental and central as the 2008 presidential election is that the American public loses sight of everything else going on in the world. The Iraq War, for example, was on everybody’s radar just a year ago — the annual anti-war rally I went to in Portland, Ore. last year was attended by 15,000 people. Although no numbers have come in yet for this year’s rally, I can tell you the numbers didn’t come close to last year’s. And this is the fifth year we’ve been at it.  

a peace rally two years ago

Of course, maybe it’s the five years that’s been the problem. Maybe we’re tired of protesting and we feel like picking a new political leader is the smartest thing we can do to actually make change happen internationally. I get that. For me, a peace rally is a symbolic motion. It’s really something you do more for yourself than to instigate active change. It reminds you, definitely, that you are not alone. It gives you a sense of the massive strength of a movement.But while the presidential primaries have eaten the national daily newspapers alive, even the subject we all swore was so important to us (the Iraq War) seems to have become clutter for the shelf.A Pew Poll released last week reported that public awareness for the Iraq War has not only dissipated in the past few months, it has practically dissolved:

Public awareness of the number of American military fatalities in Iraq has declined sharply since last August. Today, just 28% of adults are able to say that approximately 4,000 Americans have died in the Iraq war. As of March 10, the Department of Defense had confirmed the deaths of 3,974 U.S. military personnel in Iraq.       

That 28 percent is compared to 54 percent last August, and about half in 2004. This percentage is by far the lowest reported awareness since these polls were started in April 2004. To blame, of course, is the media, which feeds on the frenzy surrounding the current presidential election (84 percent of people in the same survey were able to name the talk show host who endorses Barack Obama). While conditions worsen and swell in Iraq, national newspapers appear to care less and less, reporting virtually nothing about the war in December, and even less in January.

If we claim to care about foreign affairs and say we want to fix the mistakes President Bush has made, we’d better know enough about those mistakes to tell our representatives what we want to change.


1 02 2008

I’m burned out. Are a lot of people burned out? Does this happen every election year, or are we all just uniquely DONE with G.W. to the extent that don’t know what to do rather than turn the ’08 election into a veritable Us Weekly special edition? As the kind of person who eats up domestic politics like Perez Hilton eats up… well anything and everything in his sight, I’ve been profoundly disappointed with the extent to which election coverage has swallowed the news over the last five months. I guess that’s the primaries for you, but aren’t they a little early this year? They are? Huh. I thought so. I’m bored of it.

Particularly annoying:

Slate’s entire subhead on Election ’08, moved up to the top of the menu, as if it is the most important thing in the world.

Wonkette’s shift from being smart and politically witty on dozens of unique front to being just another ’08 election blog.

The New York Times dropping all under-the-rug stories about instiutionalized problems in America in favor of “Hillary cried” fluff.

So I’m just going to say this the once: Upsidedownagain.com officially endorses Barack Obama as the 2008 presidential nominee, based mostly on his good track record and Kennedy-like appeal. Take it and run.

fair care

23 07 2007

Another heartening article in The Times today: The House is attempting to push a bill that “calls for major changes in Medicare and promises to intensify the battle with the White House over health care.” While the Senate had recently passed a bill that would increase coverage for lower-income children (provided, brilliantly, by tax increases to the tobacco industry), House Democrats flexed their ever-expanding political muscle today and said that the bill just wasn’t good enough.

And if there’s a time to do it, now is that time. Following the overwhelming success of Michael Moore’s latest documentary endeavor Sicko, the American public has finally received a blunt awakening to the frankly embarrassing statistics of our country’s medical inferiorities. With more doctors and nurses than ever standing behind a more universal health care plan, and with Republicans floundering at large in the face of an increasing progressive majority, the Dems should take advantage of their power on Capitol Hill.

The American people want a change. The regime under Bush has not fared anyone (excluding, of course, a handful of billionaires and Fox pundits) well. If the Democrats fail, it will really only end up making Bush look worse — and more like a dictator in a supposedly Democratic nation — than ever.

Plus, his argument is flimsy:

President Bush has threatened to veto what he sees as a huge expansion of the children’s health care program, which he describes as a step “down the path to government-run health care for every American.”

His argument has a pretty gaping hole: America is no longer terrified of socialized medicine. Major political voices are too young to remember the blood-chilling threat of Communists infiltrating America — and even those who do remember have come to realize that the whole movement was a bit of sham (McCarthyism anyone?). What we as a people want more than anything — Conservatives and liberals alike — is for our families and friends to be safe and healthy. It is obvious that the current middle-man-oriented, insurance-driven Medicare system is not doing that. We need a change.

What the Democrats are currently suggesting may seem controversial, but it’s a long time coming. They could even up the ante a little bit — as they may be planning to do later. They are wise, however, to try to push this through Congress before the summer recess. We want to look at the last half-a-year and see that the Democratic-controlled Congress has done something we can be proud of. And if they do, that could be just what the Democratic ticket could need to secure that coveted spot in the Oval Office in ’08.

cold blood

17 07 2007

Bob Herbert’s opinion piece in the Times this morning was about Senator Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at the Vernon Park Church of God, in which he addressed the increasing number of murders among Chicago school children in the past year.

Herbert’s column basically parrots Mr. Obama’s plea for greater governmental action as well as individual responsibility:

In a conversation yesterday, he stressed that the plight of young people struggling in tough environments demands both governmental attention and a heightened sense of individual responsibility. Both are essential.

It’s safe to demand more from the government while also demanding more from people as individuals. That really covers all the bases: No one want school children to die, right? And the liberals say George W. Bush needs to impose stricter gun regulation, and the conservatives maintain that if only those lower-income minority families would stay out of trouble and stop doing crack none of this would happen. Mr. Obama’s speech, as presented by Herbert, comes out dead in the middle. He’s a smartly political man, that Obama. You’d think he was running for president.

The bold choice Mr. Obama made yesterday, however, had nothing to do with the solutions he offered. While he did mention stricter gun control regulations (a hop topic for Democratic nominees in this election), he really did something marvelous just by bringing attention to a problem that is under-reported at best.

Last September I spent four hours in a community garden in the neighborhood of South Chicago on a day that was particularly quiet. The tiny garden, cultivated by willing volunteers in the neighborhood, was the largest area of green space for miles in any direction. The woman who showed us around the garden — a volunteer who had moved to Chicago from the West coast — was sad that day. One of the teenagers who often helped at the garden and spent every day after school in the corresponding community art center had been shot and killed the night before. South Chicago falls right between gang lines — incidents like that are common. One teacher told our group that no one ever showed up to school on Halloween because it was simply too dangerous to walk outside; even in the day time. As Bob Herbert aptly wrote, “Chicago is hardly alone when it comes to the slaughter of youngsters who are living in conditions that can fairly be compared to combat.”

I don’t write that as a scare tactic. The truth is, if you’re white and middle class, you’re not really in danger at all. Funny, then, how the news disproportionately reports stories with white victims and Black or Latino attackers. An extensive Berkeley study done in 2001 shows unequivocally that the news is designed to scare white people and antagonize Black people. Among the findings:

In nine of 12 (75%) studies, minorities were overrepresented as perpetrators of crime. Six out of seven (86%) studies that clearly identify the race of victims found more attention was paid to White victims than to Black victims.

Several studies found that Black victims are less likely to be covered in newspapers than are White victims, and one found that newsworthiness increases when the victim is White.

Homicides of White victims resulted in more and longer articles than homicides of Black victims.

The truth is, it is all too easy to pull a Bill Cosby and point fingers at the minorities of America. While there is something to be said of the Black conservative argument (hotghettomess.com, for instance, discusses these arguments intelligently, hilariously and at length), there is a lot more to be said for the fact that we can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars providing aid to the friends and families of the victims of the Virginia Tech Massacre, while pushing the real victims of the American system further down the drain.

Mr. Obama was correct to address an issue which puts modern American racism on the table, looks it in the eye, and demands it to explain itself. America, what are we doing for these families who do not deserve to suffer any more than you or I do?

The solution is not for the government to ban guns in the inner cities (as Obama would have it, incidentally) and expect the problem to fix itself. The solution is not for single mothers who are working two jobs to buy healthier juice boxes and more colorful hard-bound children’s books for their impressionable kin. The solution is for America to wake the fuck up, realize that we are not living in a country where all men are treated equally, and start the long and painful discussion that is embarrassingly overdue.