Is Past Prologue?

Everything old is new again, including Ferguson, and a post I wrote 6 months ago about the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty.  As I look at Ferguson, and think about Selma, and Birmingham and the struggles of the people of Mississippi summed up by Fannie Lou Hamer’s epic, “sick and tired of being sick and tired, “I think about how just over 50 years ago, southern law enforcement was complicit in the repression of black people’s struggles for freedom.  With dogs, and firehoses, and brutality and bullets.  Then I look at Ferguson, MO in 2014 and see little difference when tanks, and rubber bullets, and tear gas and military grade weaponry are on parade as the local cops try to put the genie back in the bottle.   But,  the genie is out:  “In Ferguson, Missouri, blacks outnumber whites by more than 2-to-1 … [But,]  from January to April of this year, there were 27 whites arrested in the city compared with 217 blacks, or about 8.1 times as many black arrests as white arrests.”  It’s been suggested that the racially disparate nature of traffic stops may be connected to the ways in which the local municipalities are funded.   A key difference 50 years on is the difference that cell phones and twitter make in telling this story …  Where the mainstream media seems to be missing, misrepresenting, or not addressing the issue in a sufficiently nuanced way,  journalists on the ground local and federal officials are filling in those gaps in real time, making it possible for us, whoever and wherever we are to see the video, hear the affected people and make the assessments and judgements for ourselves.

20140817_132145 (1)

But should we bother?  Looking at the video footage, listening to those for whom the Mike Brown tragedy is not a media story, but lived experience, make the assessment about what the role of law enforcement has been in this community?  Should it matter to us, why, and if so, what should we do?

  • It should matter every bit as much as the bitter conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis that demanded our attention, until this tragedy happened and hit closer to home.
  • It does matter because the place where Mike Brown breathed his last, on his knees and begging for his life, is a place that we as a people pledged to move away from, and to reject 50 years ago.
  • What should we do?  As Fannie Lou Hamer exhorted, “we’ve got to bring in justice where there’s been so much injustice.”  First, we have to stop ignoring it.  Whether or not you’re a person of faith, you’re a person that matters to someone, and Mike Brown was a person who mattered, too.  We must not allow him to have died in vain, which is precisely what continuing on “business as usual,” will do. Finally, we need to check our own privilege and use it for good.  Our ability to engage or not, care, or not, is a privilege that the folks of Ferguson, some of whom have been arrested for sitting in cars in their driveway smoking cigarettes, do not have. We have the ability to dismiss this, “as not relevant to the concerns of middle class people,” as someone in a position to make a difference did in the story I tell in the 4th paragraph below the ****.   Recognize that your privilege, whether SES, race, geographical or otherwise enables you to walk away, but make a different choice, a better choice, a decent choice, a human choice.  Use your privilege for good (my previous blog on this is pasted in below the  *****).
  • We can decide to make a difference:  1) self educate.  if you’ve not been following the stories, here is an amazing set of pictures that sets forth a chronology and lets you see the folks of Ferguson, and how this has affected/is affecting them. Missing from those pictures is the notable sidebar story of several journalists who were covering the Ferguson story being detained and arrested.  2) if and when you start to read, do so critically.  Read multiple sources …. Mike Brown died one week ago (8/9).  The responsible officer’s name was not released until last Friday, and they still have not released the autopsy report or the incident report. So when the same folks who seem to have problems being candid with key info. do things like, a) release convenience store video they were told by the Justice Department not to release; b) tell you that their bullets, their tear gas etc. were prompted by the actions of others, and c) fail to read their own reports as the Ferguson police chief has ‘fessed up to not having read the incident report, be skeptical.  BE VERY SKEPTICAL. 3) contribute to the Mike Brown trust fund, or other groups doing good work,  3) sign a petition If the government call afford to give all this military hardware to local police, it can figure out a way to make sure that police cars, and officers have cameras.  Not that all cops are bad, by any stretch, but cameras cause the bad ones to clean up their acts, and stop giving the good ones a bad name, 4) check here to see if any supportive  activities are taking place near your home. If not, plan one. 5)  Devise your own action plan, but act.  Martin Luther King could well have been talking about Ferguson when he said the following:  “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

*******************************

I’m starting this post the way I ended one about 6 1/2 months ago:  by affirming my belief that difference makes a difference.  The post ended this way:  “Diversity  is even more crucial for this reason:  so that we recognize the basic humanity of “the other.”  If a judge has no exposure to, or understanding of the background, experience and perspective of the people whose cases s/he is called upon hear, how close to rendering justice can he or she come?  And how much stock should we put in the fairness of courts and competence of schools, legislatures and government offices if the people who work there don’t bear some resemblance to us and our communities? That post was focused on the differences that diversity of race and sex can bring to the table.  What I want to explore here –in the shadow of the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty –is the difference that economic diversity brings.  I was struck last week as I read articles on the War on Poverty to learn that Lyndon Baines Johnson had been poor growing up.  He knew what it was to live in fear of losing your home, and to not have food in the house.  And although Johnson as President was implementing a determination that President Kennedy had made to focus on poverty issues, it was his personal experience of poverty that led him to declare war on it.  Fast forward

50 years and we have a U.S. Congress that is disproportionately occupied by millionaires.  That Congress is having an extraordinarily difficult time making simple commitments to helping those who do not have enough to eat, or those whose unemployment insurance has or is about to run out.  Whether or not that is because of merely philosophical differences, or because there is some (dis)connect between socio-economic status and the ability to empathize, I cannot say.  I can advert to having seen some pretty disturbing articles in recent days including:

  • A Republican candidate for Senate (thankfully not the leading one) in North Carolina likening receipt of SNAP benefits to slavery;
  • Members of Congress suggesting that low income students should have to sweep floors in order to learn the lesson that “there’s no free lunch,” while expensing thousands of dollars worth of free lunches themselves;
  • Members of Congress attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act for the what?  The 45th time?  I’ve honestly lost count.
  • Members of a House Judiciary panel focused on denying tax benefits to small businesses that provide health insurance that includes coverage for abortion;
  • But wait, there’s more on the abortion front:  At a hearing on an anti-abortion bill last week, one Congressman opined that ensuring that more babies were born was about job creation.

While I write with a decidedly partisan bent, let me be clear:  I think it’s entirely possible to be Republican, compassionate, and capable of empathy.  When then Vice-Pres. George Bush said you don’t have to have cancer to be able to understand what that’s like, he was credible, and I believed him.  But honestly, it feels like some of these folks on Capitol Hill are missing a gene or something as people go hungry and contemplate losing their homes while  members of the House engage in another pointless Obamacare vote, and hold hearings about abortion. It just feels like we talk past as much as to each other these days.  What is the disconnect?  Is it lack of shared experience?  Background?  Belief?  Why is it so hard for us to find the other person’s needs and priorities worthy of consideration and respect?  Is there something about the relatively privileged nature of our leaders that makes them unable,  unwilling,  uninterested in acting on behalf of constituents that are different than themselves?

As I look back over this blog, I see that I began it by talking about privilege, and that it’s a theme that I’ve returned to repeatedly.  I’m feeling impelled by this congressional impasse, among other things, to go there again.  I want to start by giving a concrete example of how privilege works.  The example I’m using is from a conference that I attended last week.  Onstage were a moderator and 3 panelists, and the subject matter was being addressed in a pretty nuanced way.  One panelist, an African American man, was talking about how low income black men may be more interested in discussions about co-parenting because a significant number aren’t custodial parents, and have diminished access to their kids. It was the oppression they experienced as a result of their poverty, he argued, that led them to create the space to have a discussion about rights or gender equality, or oppression.    He further suggested that the need or inclination to have such a discussion was missing among middle or upper class men.  The panel moderator contended that middle class families were experiencing conflicts around their roles as well.  The African American panelist then proceeded to describe how group oppression and domination work:  People of color, he argued,  talk about undoing racism, but spaces are  not being created for whites to get together alone to talk about racism, straight folks are not getting together or creating spaces to talk about heterosexism  That, he argued, is how privilege works, i.e. although society needs discussions about undoing racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. to occur, the people who are benefitting most, and best placed to dismantle these structures are not talking about the advantages they enjoy as a result of the way society is structured.   Then “it” happened.  The very thing the African American speaker had been talking about occurred during the panel:  the moderator, in response to what had been laid out, said that while he agreed, that the factors that had been laid out were not  “relevant to all middle class people.”  In so doing, he basically gave a pass to all people who are benefitting from structural inequality, and excused them from the African American panelist’s call for everyone to have the discussion.  What happened next was equally interesting:  the panelist seated closest to the moderator, himself a white male, “got” what the African American panelist had been trying to say, and offered his own experience of how difficult it is  for white people to have a discussion about white privilege even when that is the explicit goal. (The entirety of the discussion I’ve described can be viewed here by clicking on the link “What About the Men?,” at beginning at the the 23 minute mark).  So why should people care about having such conversations?  Because once privilege is visible to the person who has it, they are much more likely to prioritize moving in the direction of fairness and equity, and to spend a lot less time blaming others for their poverty, joblessness, etc. when factors like these are often heavily impacted by the advantages that individuals do (not) have.  Here’s a good read on privilege from a person who, when told that she was privileged, began from the perspective that “[her] white skin didn’t do shit to prevent [her] from experiencing poverty,”  but who went on to write this pretty comprehensive piece on privilege.

So, how does my segue through “privilege made visible” connect to either the War on Poverty or today’s Congress?  Quite simply, actually:  1) Lyndon Baines Johnson never forgot where he came from or what it had been like to be poor, so even as he ascended to the heights of political power where it would have been easy, and perhaps expected for him to dismiss the concerns of the poor with a “this is not relevant” to the concerns of the [American] people, he did not.  To the contrary, he sought to redress the difficulties he knew that poor people experienced through no fault of their own; 2) We are now confronted with a Congress that because of its disproportionate wealth, its political views, or both, is very disposed to not only dismiss as “not relevant” the concerns of those who are struggling financially, but also to blame people who are facing financial hardships in the middle of an economic downturn for their own misfortune.  If there’s anything I hope that we’ve all learned in this economic crisis, it’s “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  Who among us does not know someone who’s been laid off, or had their wages or hours reduced?  Yet, despite all this, the punitive measures keep coming, the latest of which is Sen. David Vitter’s proposal to require people using a SNAP EBT card to buy groceries to show an i.d.  Senator David Vitter … google him if the mere mention of his name does not evoke the eye rolling, and bold assertions that he who is with sins should be the last to cast a stone that it does on Capitol Hill from advocate and Hill staff, alike.  That, my friends, is how privilege at its worst can operate:  it can permit a David Vitter to commit gross moral transgressions, and yet continue to stand in judgement of others as a U.S. Senator, and to heap indignities upon those whose greatest crime is not to have the wherewithal that he does.

So what does it look like to use your privilege for good?  In my mind, and the minds of many, the use of privilege for good will always look like the late Senator Ted Kennedy.  It is undeniably true that Sen. Kennedy had his faults or, to move closer to what I said about David Vitter, engaged in acts for which he’s had to answer to the deity, however, it is undeniably true that Sen. Kennedy recognized that he came from an extraordinarily privileged background, and that he felt it was his obligation to use his privilege for the common good, which he did innumerable times on the Hill whether he was fighting to raise the minimum wage, to enact a fair pay bill, to strengthen civil rights laws, for universal health care or a host of other things he secured so that all of us, and not just a privileged few, could have a better tomorrow.

Just as both of these men knew that helping to press forward on civil rights, for the poor, for the unemployed, and for so many others was the right thing to do, we know that the time for victim blaming, finger pointing, and “not relevant” — if there was ever a right time — is long over and our future and our children’s hangs in the balance.  The politics of obstruction and destruction must cease.  That’s a tall order indeed in an election year, but the fact that it is an election year holds incredible promise for us to right the listing ship.  We have to stop sending to Washington people who are supposed to carry out the will of the people, but who instead, do anything but:  obstructing, grandstanding,  and politicizing. We have to hold people accountable and refuse to send anyone to Washington who does not have a solid record and history of fighting for the common good.

I close by pointing out that in President Obama, we have a man who has known what it is to struggle, and who gets the need to address inequality.  Excerpted below are two key parts of his recent speech on income equality:

  • “I take this personally.  I’m only here because this country educated my grandfather on the GI Bill.  When my father left and my mom hit hard times trying to raise my sister and me while she was going to school, this country helped make sure we didn’t go hungry.”
  • “The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.  …  A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top.  A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top.  He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is.”

Fifty years later, there’s still a war to won won whether you talk about poverty or inequality.  Our challenge is to use our privilege for good, and to send the President (by way of the Congress) people who are willing to do the same.  There are too many crucial things that need to get done:  immigration reform, unemployment insurance extensions, voting rights reform, and reauthorization of the SNAP program just to name four. Ask yourself today, as we reflect on the legacy of Dr. King, and every day, how you can use your privilege for good.

Chapter Next: Mike Brown is the New Trayvon Martin

   ferg When past is prologue. As many of y’all know, I blog about all kinds of social justice stuff, including the kinds of things that have been taking place in Ferguson this week. I’ve not written a new blog because it’s Groundhog Day … people of color have lived and agonized this repeatedly … It’s a scary thing, though, when my own blog proves prophetic … Last summer, when I wrote about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case, I spent a paragraph talking about how I would share with Alex the fact that the justice system instinctively mistrusts people of color. And I recounted a story of how I’d called the cops for help, then been treated like a suspect when Alex “went for a walk” just short of his 3rd birthday. It’s a year later, and this morning, I shared that very story with him to make the point that in my encounter with the cops and in Mike Brown’s encounter, people of color are often viewed with suspicion by law enforcement. I commend this piece to you now (it’s linked below) .. .and also point out the deja vu of my exhorting folks to attend what I will call rally 2013, when Alex and I just attended rally 2014 last night for the same reasons and at the same park. Insanity is doing the same thing, or (my interpretation) having the same toxic institutional forces visited upon you  repeatedly and expecting different results. We must be the change, folks … we must be the change!!!

Looking Back and Looking Forward: Trayvon & the Quest for Justice.

Musings of a Discontented Rabbit

So, I haven’t written much lately.  While the world raged about mooching ranchers, and racist NBA owners.  While Afghanistan prepares to vote, while Crimea and the Lord knows what else are summarily annexed.  While planes disappeared, and ferries capsized. While aged windbags pontificated about women needing husbands here, while the world was silent about girls in Nigeria being kidnapped by people who would shortly force marriage upon them.   It has been difficult to summon the urge to write about much of this because it’s not new: it was a little more than 2 years ago that Alexandra Pelosi chronicled federal dole frequent fliers who probably needed it more than Cliven Bundy. Donald Sterling’s contempt for people of color has been a matter of public record for years; Russia is hegemonic, again, not new.  It’s not that I can only write about new things. The issues/examples I will raise later certainly aren’t all that novel.  It’s just that I need to feel like there is something novel to be said, so let’s forge ahead and see if that’s true.

On Abortion

When I started this blog a year ago, it was because I wanted to respond to what I thought was a breach of decorum vis a vis the First Lady.  The protagonist in that story started heckling FLOTUS, then sought to complain about/critique the rebuke she received. Fast forward a year:  last week, CA legislators sought to hold a nonpartisan prayer breakfast, and one lawmaker, feeling the decorum had been breached, walked out after Jim Dobson labelled the President, “the abortion president.”  On the one hand, I agree with her completely.  Political name-calling has no place at a non-partisan prayer event.  On the other, I feel a little like I did about the lady complaining when the First Lady gave her a hard time:  sometimes you get what you pay for.  Jim Dobson is not anyone’s idea of a guy who does apolitical or nonpartisan well, thus I’m not that surprised that he went there.  Maybe a better question is “does that make it ok,” or “is there anything new here?”  I think what’s new is that we find ourselves increasingly in a time where people have lost their filter … their sensitivity …their consideration … whatever it is that has historically prevented us from “going there,” seems to have fallen away, been switched off, whatever.  Is this an inevitable result of the many opportunities for dumbing down, from reality tv shows to a variety of shows whose agenda is more political than factual?  Is it a by-product of the 24 hour news cycle such that so called news like this goes national when, in a bygone era, this would have been passed over in favor of something more substantial?  Or is it something else?10155449_10152136974881275_8880036041511972997_nOn Husbands

Last month, it was this one:  on the heels of the President signing an executive order relating to equal pay, arch anti-feminist, Phyllis Schlafly took it upon herself to opine that women prefer to marry men who make more money than they do, and thus, that achieving equal pay would deprive women of the types of mates that they seek.  Setting aside — as I’m sure Phyllis did and without a second thought — the fact that some women are either already or planning to be married to another woman, Phyllis, as is her wont, failed to take account of economic reality:  1) we’re in a recession, thus many families are happy and lucky to have two people with jobs, if that’s what they’re after, so are unlikely to sit back and cling to some sort of antiquated notion about who should make more; 2) household budgets don’t have the predictability they once did.  In a two-earner household, either spouse could be laid off, or subject to a salary freeze, or a pay cut or any moment, so forgoing income because the spouses want one of them to make more is not a reflection of how things actually work in these challenging economic time; 3) there’s also the idea that many men are perfectly happy to have their wives earn a comparable salary, and the whole thinking around men needing to earn more is one of those, “Mad Men,” relics the President dismissed earlier this year during the State of the Union address. 4) then there’s my category of women that Phyllis alway leaves out of her Father Knows Best panacea: single women-headed households.  It doesn’t matter what our view on men making more than women is.  We are the only source of incomes for our families, despite the fact that many of us were once married, or in a relationship.  And we most assuredly are not in support of the idea that women should make less because for us that means less options about where and how we live, less stability for our families, less savings put away for retirement and less options for our children about whether they will go on to higher education.

On the Trivialization of Rape

Before I get to the “headline,” of this section, let me pause.  As many of you know, I have the great privilege of advocating for laws and policies that better serve, and protect survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and stalking.  It means I get to work alongside some of the most dedicated, hard-working and talented people you’d ever want to meet, much less work with.   Last week, when the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released their first report, I got to pause and reflect for a moment on the ability of our government to do good, and to strive for better.   The amount of time that my “sisters in struggle,” took to listen to the stories of survivors, to move the federal government to new levels of transparency so that everyone could be better informed about where complaints involving sexual assault on campuses were being filed, to investigate and sort through options and approaches for better equipping survivors to make empowering choices, and to urge colleges and universities — with both the carrot and the stick — to do more and better by their student body, our future, is staggering.  We owe them, their spouses, their kids (2 & 4 legged) a debt that we may not be able to repay, but thank them we must for working tirelessly to eliminate this scourge of epidemic proportions, and ensure that one day, it is no more.

So, what is there to say about rape?  That it is everywhere?  Even as the newspapers filled last week with stories of the Obama Administration’s work to stem campus rape, and of the more than 50 colleges and universities currently under investigation, there were other stories as well … of a valiant 8 y.o. who was killed while trying to fend off his 12 year old sister’s attacker .. of the judge who problematically thought that the appropriate community service sentence for  a perpetrator of sexual assault would be a placement at an organization that serves survivors of sexual assault.  Apparently, the people seeking services from this provider do not merit much, if any consideration. And then there’s the story that vexed me most, to put it mildly  …. of last year’s Heisman trophy winner, Jameis Winston, being disciplined by Florida State U. for stealing crab legs from a grocery store last week.  Why it was not possible for them to summon this level of interest in holding Winston accountable when he stood accused of sexually assaulting a FU freshman in 2012?  I cannot overstate the depth of my simultaneous incredulousness, and outrage as I relate the following facts: 1) according to the survivor, the assault occurred in December of 2012, 2) the FSU athletic dept. knew about the allegations no more than one month later as one of the assistant athletic directors called the police to inquire about it; 3)  despite this knowledge, university officials only questioned Winton ONE YEAR LATER AFTER THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME in January of this year.  Maybe I’m the only one surprised by this.  Whether or not I am, we all have work to do because this is unacceptable.  On the part of the young man who, the article suggests may have committed sexual assault previously; on the part of the university who seemed content to ignore the situation until after the championship; an on the part of parents who do not talk to their children early and often about this issue generally. My child is 5 — for another few days, anyway — and though he could not tell you the specifics, he knows that relating to law enforcement is complicated, and is mommy’s job, so when a cop approached him and I was not immediately nearby, he ran to me.  He didn’t do that because he overheard me talking to someone about the Trayvon Martin case, or about the several problematic interactions I’ve had with cops in my lifetime.  He got it because he and I talked about it more than once, and the line was clear and he knew what was expected and what (not) to do.  I both expect and fear that when he gets a little older, we’re going to have more than one talk about sex, and many more talks than one about consent.  What I heard from college aged young adults speaking last week on a White House panel on campus sexual assault has left me better equipped to talk to Alex. Consent, one panelist pointed out, is not the absence of a “no,” but the presence of a “yes.” The most troubling piece of the article I read about mishandling of the investigation into the allegations of sexual assault against Jameis Winston came in the description of the account of another young woman who was likely (in my view) assaulted by Winston as well.  She was disturbed enough by her encounter with Winston to have sought counseling from the FSU victim advocate, however she did not describe the encounter as rape, the article suggests, because she did not say no.  Reduced to an equation “Silence” does not equal Yes.” Nor does not saying no.

Conclusion 

Without being entirely clear on the “why,” writing this piece has given me some insight into the “what.”  Somewhere along the way, the individualism so prized by us as Americans, and oft decried by people abroad, has gone on some kind of steroids-like binge.  Clergy take over prayer breakfasts for their own political ends, discussions about women’s inequality are are seized upon by folks with a pro heterosexual marriage agenda, and campus sexual assault is routinely trivialized by administrators who shun bad publicity or worse,ignored by those who put the school’s athletic program above the safety of students.  Part of what’s so troubling, I think, is that alleged leaders are behaving this way:  Senate candidates comparing Food Stamp recipients to wild animals, while at the same time engaging in medicaid fraud; judges finding that the first amendment only protects christians; or permitting prayer in public spaces, while failing to note that Christian prayer is being privileged over that of other faiths.

The revolution is coming my friends.  I don’t mean that apocalyptically.  I always thought that we might ultimately see turmoil and upheaval for reasons economic:  haves v. have nots.  I suspect, though, that the revolution(s) will start for reasons far more simple: respect for human dignity, displays of human decency, and even common sense are fast becoming things of the past, even as guns are ever more easy to obtain.  Through the madness, though, there are seeds of hope.  People around the world have rallied to demand that Boko Haram #BringBackOurGirls  But, there are also seeds of madness as state legislators express extreme indifference –at best– on questions of fundamental importance like our abhorrence — written into the Constitution — for cruel and unusual punishment, while federal legislators, who at least know enough to be ashamed of their behavior, avoid responsibility by avoiding the conversation.  The outcome of this spiraling madness is yet to be known, but it can be influenced by you, if you vote, engage, debate, and take others with you. Otherwise, when November comes and we find that it is possible for things to get scarier and worse, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

On Jordan Davis & Victimhood: Post (Mis)trial Thoughts

Prologue:  I was originally motivated by Michael Dunn’s outrageous statements about rape, and his own victimhood, but as ever, the writing wants what it wants, and I’m pretty much just the scribe.  What the writing wanted was to talk about the real victims, both those above and below ground, and their realities.  A luta continua!

***************************************

One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

W.E.B. DuBois – The Souls of Black Folks

DuBois wrote those words 111 years ago, but it’s especially in times like this that I wonder whether we’ve come far from what he was talking about:  our “twoness.”  We are still a people who float around, most of us used to inhabiting two or more worlds, many of us comfortable in either, some of us comfortable in neither, or only one, but completely conversant in others and their version of reality in ways that they will never be of ours.

996503_564895100219498_1624868762_n

It is, as I said to a friend last evening, as if we exist in parallel universes when a white juror in the Michael Dunn case can honestly believe that because nothing was said about race during deliberations that race had no impact on Dunn not being held accountable for the murder of Jordan Davis.  Just as race had nothing to do with George Zimmerman getting off scot free, while a black airman with no criminal record was sentenced to 25 years in jail for defending himself with a gun after being attacked during a brawl where he was a bystander.  And race had nothing to do with Marissa Alexander similarly being denied the protection of Florida’s “stand your ground laws.”  And finally, and shockingly, to be sure, race has nothing to do with the fact that TWENTY SIX … pause and reread that number: 26 children and teens have been killed in Florida, alone, by people who went on to claim the stand your ground defense.

It is privilege, as discussed at length in the post that preceded this one, that permits people at a certain remove — afforded them by race, or class, most often — to have no idea what goes on in the lives of people who don’t share that same status.  And, as someone mentioned to me earlier, we live in a society that privileges the fear of whites over the lives of young people of color.   I mention 24 children and youths killed, in Florida alone, but also point out the recent cases of Jonathan Ferrell in, Charlotte, NC, and of Renisha McBride in a suburb of Detroit, MI.  I do so to point out a number of things: 1) this isn’t just about Florida; 2) it isn’t just about the south; 3) it isn’t just about young black men (though they are disproportionately targeted).

I’m going to close [for now] with one more “it isn’t just.”  I’m setting it apart because it goes directly to the issue of privilege, and does so in a way that might help us all to see things differently in this space of murder, mayhem, and privilege.  It isn’t just about the Trayvons and Jordans who were minding their own business, or doing what kids do.  It isn’t only about the Jonathans and Renishas who were looking for help.  It’s about those of us who may literally be, or just be regarded as, “a little different.”   We know them, we love them, we’re related to them, we are them, and depending on our connection: we fear for them.  Please read the linked story about an African American man who is autistic, and how the atmosphere we live in, one where it’s open season on young African American men, scares his sister nearly to the point of paralysis.  Read, and understand so that it isn’t just us, in our twoness, alone and afraid for our brothers, our sons,  our nephews, our cousins and friends.  So that we are no longer left alone to solve a problem that we did not create, but are victimized by.  Every. single. day.

Leaders? Leaders?? Anywhere?

The picture that’s worth a thousand words … The President travelled to Dallas, TX last week and was greeted by that city’s mayor.  Note the body language of these two: 1) the mayor is motionless, his arm locked at his side; 2) the President is in motion, and has his arm extended; 3) the distance between the two is closing, but only because the President is closing it. Seems like a metaphor for politics lately, and explains a lot.

The Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare is another perfect example of trying to close the gap, and being met with a stiff armed reception.  The Democrats were in control of both houses of Congress when the bill was moving through, but they both wanted, and needed (politically, symbolically, and otherwise) to have a bi-partisan bill.  Many good ideas and options, including the single payer approach, ended up on the cutting room floor, as House and particularly Senate leadership worked toward crafting a bill that both parties could support.  In the end, however, no Republicans voted for the bill, and their opposition to the final product, which contained many of their amendments, became the justification for shutting down the government last month. As someone who spends a lot of time on Capitol Hill, I must confess that I find it increasingly challenging.  You go and talk to a staffer to try to enlist his or her boss’ support on your issue, or your bill, and you get hemming and hawing.  Much more than used to be the case … ‘well, the bill will come out of committee differently, so we’ll keep our powder dry for now,’ or his or her boss has a “complicated” district, such that taking a position will make things problematic back home.

Then, there’s the opposite of closing the gap:  I thought I had seen all kinds of cynical maneuvering in my time, but the guy in Houston who sent out campaign literature giving the impression that he was black, but who turned out not to be totally takes the cake. That is not what leadership looks like. Neither is holding the federal workforce hostage while demanding capitulation to your agenda, and neither is campaigning on the basis of things you’d like to deny people, as Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli did on the gubernatorial campaign trail in opposing the expansion of Medicaid (which, for the first several years would have been entirely paid for by the federal government, by the way).

The preceding paragraph puts me in the exact posture I see too much of these days:  spending too much time talking about what you’re against, or critiquing the folks who are the antithesis. It’s not winter, but I feel spent, out of gas … like I’m running on fumes, and I attribute it very much to what I will call the “leadership vacuum.”  That’s not where I want to be, but when I look at the paralyzed Congress, passing bills that it knows have no chance –this week’s House bill is focused on letting people keep their substandard health insurance — I feel like we’ve lost our compass on the question of leadership, the qualities that comprise it, and what we derive from it.

A leader compromises.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, it is said, and both parties, when they had control (at the state or federal levels) of both sides of the legislature, have been guilty of excess:  forcing through bills that the other side was not given time to read; not accepting amendments; passing laws that rewarded their supporters too richly.  But the government in Iowa, with a Republican governor, and a split legislature (their congressional delegation is also evenly split, by the way) has figured out a way to work together to benefit all, including passing both income tax cuts and small business tax credits. They have also come up with a non-partisan redistricting process, which may well be the secret of their success.

A real leader exhorts people to cut the crap and get moving.  “You’re elected to be a leader. Then lead. Show us what you’re for, show us what you don’t like, but we’ve got to come to a resolution that makes sense for the entire country, and we need to have a debate in front of the American public.”  These are the words of CA Republican Rep. Jeff Denham who is expressing frustration with the lack of progress on a House immigration bill.  Denham chose to sign on to the House Democrat’s immigration bill, but also appears to be working to get other House members to do something, anything, whether supporting existing bills, or signing onto a letter that expresses commitment to moving on the issue.

Let it not be concluded on the basis of my first two choices that I think that legislatures are chock full of great leaders.  At the same time, things are so paralyzed here, that a willingness to show up and engage can’t go unremarked upon.   Leaders are not always at the top of the leadership chain.  To the contrary, they sometimes emerge in direct contrast to what so-called leadership is engaged in.  As the Senate prepares to vote on the Military Justice Improvement Act, the testimony of women like U.S. Marine and sexual assault survivor, Ariana Klay is a testament to standing up for what is right and just in the face of incredible adversity, and at tremendous personal cost.  This is what leadership looks like. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also deserves kudos for pressing ahead with a bill that some in the Congress and significant numbers in the military have come out against.  Leaders do what they believe to be right, not what is popular, or acceptable or easy. 

True leadership is transcendent.  It has a vision.  Whether or not it reaches the destination, it knows the steps needed to get there and what “there” looks like.  When Nichelle Nichols, known to many of us as Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, decided to quit the series because she felt her character was increasingly being marginalized, Martin Luther King requested a meeting with her.  He told her that she could not quit, that she was in a position to influence popular culture, to change hearts and minds, and to stand as a role model for and to African Americans who had heretofore only been portrayed in ways either servile or sexualized.  Turns out MLK was right; Nichols led change, breaking down barriers and causing people everywhere to see women of color differently.  Listen to a modern day celebrity talk about  what Nichols’ role meant to her, and see how that ripples out more than 45 years after King’s assassination.

Leadership is about doing the job even when you’re not being watched (or think you’re not).   In an era where we are awash in concerns about profiling or misconduct or other less than exemplary behavior by law enforcement, witness the simple humanity of this one officer who not only didn’t know he was being recorded, but unwittingly left this gesture as a model for posterity.

True leadership knows no age.  Witness the actions of this NC 12 year-old who spoke up when the legislature pared back the ability of teens to register to vote at the DMV, and of these PA high school students who decided their school paper should no longer use the term, “Redskin,” the name of their high school mascot.

True leadership keeps at it … as the high school students described above have in the face of opposition from their principal, and as the President has in his efforts to get the Affordable Care Act on its feet, and to secure confirmation for his judicial nominees in the face of significant congressional headwinds.

In closing, I leave you with one example of the antithesis of leadership:  the sad state of affairs with respect to the proposed cuts to the SNAP program, the nation’s leading safety net program that provides food to individuals and families, many of whom are elderly, working, veterans, have disabilities, or some combination of these.  True leaders do everything they can to avoid visiting cuts like these to programs that provide minimal support (which tends to get depleted long before the month is over) to the people who most need it.

Deja vu and Redistricting …

Three months ago to the date, I published the blog piece below.  It has only become more relevant as the events of the federal shutdown showdown have unfolded.  Run, don’t walk, folks to take our government back …

****************

Unfortunately, what we appear to be reaping at the federal level — in the process, giving rise to a Congress that is on track to be the least productive in history — are the fruits of congressional redistricting.  As the New York Times pointed out last year, “since redistricting gives many members of Congress less competitive, more politically homogeneous districts, it is often cited as one of the factors exacerbating political polarization.”

A quick look at the chart that accompanied the NYT article tells the redistricting tale:  in states where Republicans were in charge of the redistricting process, they won an outsized number of seats relative to their total vote share.   The same was true for Democrats in states where they controlled the redistricting process.   The rub, however, is this:  Republicans controlled the redistricting process in four times as many states as Democrats did. Meh?  Check out the graph, and read on, please.

Slide2

From NYT – 12.14.12: Parties Redraw the House Vote

The moral of the chart is pretty straightforward:  when states are redistricted by commissions (presumably bi-partisan ones),  R’s and D’s are elected in a manner and number that’s pretty close to the percentage of votes each party receives. Not so for partisan redistricting processes.  An additional factor (and subject of a future post) is the impact of the Supreme Court’s most recent voting rights decision.

The chart’s cautionary tale for Republicans, who controlled a much larger proportion of the redistricting in 2012,  is  ”when the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.”  While R’s were able to draw a goodly number of safe districts, and thereby strengthen their goal of holding onto the majority in the House for several election cycles, the results seem decidedly mixed where R. incumbents are concerned, and disastrous where the prospects for a productive Congress that works toward bi-partisan ends are concerned.  In the Georgia senate race I mentioned previously, the R. field is being pulled to the right, which in a state with a rising minority population, could open the door for a moderate D. challenger.  Worse yet, if you’re perceived to be an endangered species known as a moderate Republican,  is the fact that groups like the Club for Growth are already targeting for defeat next year, R’s in safe districts who they don’t consider to be conservative enough.   See who they’ve pinned a bull’s eye on here.   Here’s the thing:  I have my own increasingly short list of moderate R’s on the House side, and the ones listed on the website as being targeted, AREN’T ON IT.  Norm Ornstein called one of the folks on the list “very conservative.”  So what we’re looking at is folks being singled out and subjected to some ideological litmus test for trying to carrying out the work of “we, the people,” by being willing to “compromise to get something done.”

And we thought we knew something about the unbearable unendingness of gridlock.  Fasten your seatbelts folks … and run, do not walk, toward any sane people or institutions working on redistricting reform.

A Beautiful Dream in the Neighborhood: You Be the Change

Another strange week in the neighborhood … literally.  Alex’s bus to school has been unreliable, at best, in the morning, so I’ve been driving him there daily.  To say that I’ve encountered strange reactions from the locals about sums it up.  Though it’s a public school inside the DC/MD/VA beltway, only 1% of the kids attending Alex’s school are black.  So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that when I knocked at a cafeteria door one morning, hoping to take a shortcut, two 5th grade girls — given the demographics, you’d be correct to assume that they were white — just sat there staring at me as I peered in the door and knocked, and made no effort to open the door.  Ultimately, a boy from their class came over and let us in.  To be fair, I was knocking the same day that –unbeknownst to them at that point — the umpteeth gunman since Sandy Hook was engaged in a mass shooting at the Navy Yard less than half an hour’s drive from our location, and during the same week that the school held a state mandated lockdown drill, presumably to make sure the kids know what to do.  Still, I’m not wrong to think that race played a role, and here’s why:  incident #2.  As I said, there are a paucity of black kids in Alex’s school.  Such that when I took the kindergarten tour in June, I was almost shocked to see a little black girl in one of the classes.  Thursday morning, the shock was “on the other foot,” as the same little girl saw me standing in the hall with Alex.  She approached us with some curiousity, and asked if I was Alex’s mother.  I very much attribute that to “my kind,’ being pretty scarce in those parts.

What does it say that a black woman taking her son to public school is such a foreigner in a foreign land in her own neighborhood?  The same thing, I fear, that it says when various quadrants of the country FREAK OUT when this year’s Miss America turns out to be an American born Hindu of South Asian descent.  And, it’s the same message that we got this week from Charlotte, NC when a black man involved in a car accident in the middle of  the middle of the night made two mistakes:  1) banging on the door of a nearby house to seek help; and 2) running toward the police thinking that he would receive it.  The same message that was sent by our contemptuous House of Representatives Thurs. evening when they passed a bill that cut $40 billion out of the only safety net program that functioned well during the recession and kept the wolf from many a door; a program that continues to support many a low income working poor person.

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deutsch: 1964: Martin Luther King Português: Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve rattled off a number of symptoms above.  The disease stems from this simple fact:  not only have we not lived up to Martin Luther King’s aspiration that we would judge people not by the color of their skins, but by the content of their character, we have turned that on its head and made it worse. To judge someone on the basis of their character, you have to get to know them, to take time with them, to invest in them.  Not only are we increasingly unwilling, unable or incapable of engaging to this extent, to the contrary, we reach all sorts of perverse conclusions about people we don’t know.  Witness today’s version of that: where two men who presumably had never met, get into a gun battle because one was allegedly tailgating the other, and both wound up dead.   We’ve lost the ability to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to engage in civil ways with strangers, to be interested in learning people’s stories before we jump to conclusions and decide that they’re not American, or don’t look the part. Moreover, we are acting out violently against people on the basis of who we think they are. Take for instance this account, only the most recent of many that detail Sikhs being attacked because violent individuals believe that their beards and turbans somehow connect them with Osama bin Laden.

The news increasingly suggests that where we may not be failing to engage, we may be engaging problematically by resorting to profiling and stereotyping.  Witness the accounts of the NYPD spying on law abiding Muslims as well as restaurants, communities or clubs where people from 28 “ancestries of interest” were to be found. Additionally, check out both this NPR piece on citizen reporting of “suspicious behavior in CA,” and the reports themselves.  Someone bought a pallet of water, someone showed up at a rally to protest police excessive use of force, someone took pictures of a bridge or a federal building?  And, of course, these reports are generally full of suggestions that the suspicious looking people were Arab or Arab looking … It might be useful before I go on to point out that my brother wears a mustache/goatee and the enlightened citizens of Charlotte, NC were asking whether he was “an Ay-rab” in the days after 9.11.01.  Do any of us really ever “know one [fill in the blank] when we see one?”  I sometimes play a game when I see pictures in the newspaper … I try to guess where folks are from, and I’m rarely right.  And just the other day, I caught myself inadvertently profiling someone by name … Alex’s new vice principal is named Heather Hurley.  The several folks I’ve told this to have said that they’ve rarely heard a more Irish sounding name … and she did come to Arlington by way of Boston.  Imagine my surprise when she turned out to be African American.

So my challenge to you is this … stay open … challenge yourself … challenge others … in my view, we’re kind of past the point where more laws or more civil rights protections are going to help.  We all have a responsibility to push back on the problematic stuff we hear and see … whether it’s a football team with an offensive name, comments on 9-11 like, “Muslims stay home,” racist ridiculousness about Nina Davuluri, the beautiful new Miss America,  or any other ill informed commentary or behavior that threatens to drag us all down with it.  Look for opportunities to turn bad episodes into learning moments like this man did … Become an “ambassador.”  Because if you’re not part of the solution …

**************************

What the ???

Jeers:  Following the Mayor’s veto of bill that would have required Wal-Mart to pay its employees a living wage, the D.C. City Council failed to override the veto.   It is absolutely true, that folks in the poor parts of the District need jobs.  But it’s also true that they need jobs that will enable them to support their families, that Wal-Mart can afford to pay their employees better, and that a disproportionate amount of the already existing Wal-Mart workforce also relies on SNAP, or food stamps.  At least for now … see the next entry.

Jeers:  The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill this week that would cut SNAP, the only decently functioning safety net for the working poor, by nearly $40 billion over ten years.  Never mind all the rhetoric about how able bodied people should support themselves, the reality is that SNAP is a program that disproportionately helps the working poor make ends meet.  Like the above-mentioned Wal-Mart employees who are rarely given enough hours to enable them to support themselves and their families. Also, if there’s a genuine concern about work for the able bodied, how about the House funding some additional job training programs?  Anyone?  Not so much, apparently.