Tag Archives: obama

Post-Post Racial

Another post-racial America moment: small-town law enforcement called the President the N word; refuses to apologize. I am noodling over the idea of doing a 20th anniversary edition of my book Don’t Believe the Hype, on race/politics/culture/media. I am not depressed about race relations today; rather, I think we have another chance to turn the lens on ourselves and examine our incredible capacity for perpetuating stereotypes. What the past 20 years have taught me, among many things, is that no legal equality alone produces societal equality. We as humans have to change. How? For one, we better get over the concept of being post-racial, posthaste.

The Act of Killing: Syria, and Our Moral Dilemma

Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This weekend I went to a lecture by Thich Nhat Hanh, an author and Buddhist teacher who, among many things, encouraged Rev. Martin Luther King to take a stand against the Vietnam War. That war was vastly different from any possible U.S. engagement in Syria, but at the end of the day, all warfare comes down to killing – killing as an act of aggression, and killing as an act of indirect mercy, when perpetrators of a greater violence are eliminated. Even many Buddhist teachings, which generally forbid killing, acknowledge that a moral circumstance may arise where it is necessary.

The questions about Syria that have bedeviled the President and Congress have tended to blend questions of morality (when is killing justified?) with those of national interest (when will intervention help America?). Let’s parse out a few of these different lines, and who espouses them. The first two are pro-intervention; the second two, against.

One – This is the new Rwanda. We can’t sit out a genocide.

President Obama appointed Samantha Power US Ambassador to the United Nations. She is the author of A Problem From Hell, a landmark and Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide. It certainly jibes with the moral argument made by the President when he stated “People who decry international inaction in Rwanda and say, ‘How terrible it is that there are these human rights violations that take place around the world, and why aren’t we doing something about it?’ And they always look to the United States. ‘Why isn’t the United States doing something about this, the most powerful nation on earth? Why are you allowing these terrible things to happen?’” He added “And then if the international community turns around when we’re saying it’s time to take some responsibility and says, ‘Well hold on a second. We’re not sure,’ that erodes our ability to maintain the kind of norms that we’re looking at.”

(These very graphic and disturbing videos released by the Senate Intelligence Committee show Syrian citizens — including children — convulsing, dead, and dying from what appears to be a chemical gas attack.)

Two – This is a regional cascade and Iran will be emboldened by American inaction.

AIPAC (the biggest Israeli-interest political action committee in America) has put its muscle behind pushing Syria action. As Politico put it:

They are expected to lobby virtually every member of Congress, arguing that “barbarism” by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated, and that failing to act would “send a message” to Tehran that the U.S. won’t stand up to hostile countries’ efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, according to a source with the group. “History tells us that ambiguity [in U.S. actions] invites aggression,” said the AIPAC source who asked not to be named. The source added the group will now be engaged in a “major mobilization” over the issue.

Three — We’ll just make things worse. Plus, intervening while our own government is a mess is fiddling while Rome burns.

This is an opinion shared by both some Democrats and some Republicans. Via Politico: “Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), a retired Army colonel, said he believes a “military strike will make matters worse and it could potentially Americanize the Syrian civil war.” He added, “At this time of sequester, the parties need to be working together on a pro-growth, fiscally responsible replacement for the sequester.”

Four – We can’t win.

The Washington Post ran an article titled “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.” From the piece:

Why hasn’t the United States fixed this yet?
Because it can’t. There are no viable options. Sorry. The military options are all bad. Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war (the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan’s early 1990s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in 1996). Taking out Assad somehow would probably do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching airstrikes or a “no-fly zone” could suck us in, possibly for years, and probably wouldn’t make much difference on the ground. An Iraq-style ground invasion would, in the very best outcome, accelerate the killing, cost a lot of U.S. lives, wildly exacerbate anti-Americanism in a boon to jihadists and nationalist dictators alike, and would require the United States to impose order for years across a country full of people trying to kill each other. Nope.

How and when and why the United States kills is a topic of broader debate. (Note the fight over US use of drone warfare.)

But in the end, the fight over Syria intervention boils down to this: Americans are fatigued by our involvement in un-winnable wars. A majority of the nation sees intervention as a decision to wade willingly into a quagmire. And even with all of the moral arguments for intervention, those who champion going into Syria have to convince the American public that killing in the name of peace will actually achieve it.

The Gun Bone’s Connected to the Jobs Bone, and Other Surprising and Unpleasant Truths About American Politics

Today is a big day in the gun debate. Entities from the NRA to Walmart and Hollywood executives are converging on the White House to speak with Joe Biden in a series of meetings whose tonality will likely range from “don’t blame me” to “the heck with you.” After all, the NRA has added 100,000 members since the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.

via MSNBC.com

Remember that song Dry Bones?

The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone…

And so on, and so on and so on….

Well, it’s possible to come up with a litany of complaints about how guns are being debated in the United States right now. Here’s mine: we act as if gun issues are just gun issues, when in fact they are woven into the entire fabric of American life and politics.

The gun bone’s connected to the crime bone — and I don’t just mean that in the most obvious senses. Some people buy guns for self-defense, and 83,000 Americans a year do report using guns for that purpose. But according to the Department of Justice, five times as many guns a year are stolen from their owners as used for self-defense. That’s a low estimate, by the way. What do you want to bet that some of these stolen guns get used for crimes? Gun owners who say they champion self-defense may be part of the key pipeline of getting guns to criminals, especially because of lax home gun safety, which can also lead to the deaths of children who find unsecured guns in the home.

via ThinkProgress.org

The gun bone’s connected to the death bone. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that “The mortality rate was 7 times higher in the four states with the most guns compared to the four states with the fewest guns.” In the words of contemporary rock musician Martin Luther, we are “killing ourselves safe.”

Additionally, an article by SUNY Stonybrook professor Noah Smith in The Atlantic posits: “The Single Best Anti-Gun-Death Policy? Ending the Drug War.” It reads in part:

Legal bans on drug sales lead to a vacuum in legal regulation; instead of going to court, drug suppliers settle their disputes by shooting each other…. And stuffing our overcrowded prisons full of harmless, hapless drug addicts forces us to give accelerated parole to hardened killers.

Ending the drug war would involve reducing all of these incentives to murder. Treating addicts in hospitals and rehab centers, instead of sticking them in prisons, would reduce demand for drugs, lowering the price and starving gangs of income while reducing their incentive to wage turf wars.

In other words, yes, gun control is good. BUT don’t expect it to be a panacea for America’s gun violence problem. If we really want to save some of those 9,000 people, we need to end the self-destructive, failed drug policies that have turned us into a prison state and turned many of our cities into war zones.

The gun sales bone is connected to the drug trafficking bone. Because of our gun laws, the U.S. is one of the main suppliers to Mexican and Latin American drug cartels. Even conservative estimates acknowledge that thousands of guns a year confiscated by Mexican officials were originally sold in the U.S. And some gun dealers are in on the game, like a Phoenix dealer arrested for selling 650 AK-47-style assault weapons to cartels.

The drug trafficking bone’s connected to the prison bone, as outlined in the Atlantic article by Smith. In the United States, Seventeen percent of state prisoners and eighteen percent of Federal prisoners also said they committed their crimes to get money for drugs. The Bureau adds:

BJS examined homicides in the 75 most populous counties in the United States in 1988. Many of the homicides involved drugs or drug trafficking, including the following: drug manufacture, dispute over drugs, theft of drugs or drug money, a drug scam, a bad drug deal, punishment for drug theft, or illegal use of drugs. One of these circumstances was involved for 18% of defendants and 16% of victims


The prison bone’s connected to the race bone. Authors like Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim Crow has become a must-read among students of race and criminal justice, document the ways in which unequal penalties for criminals of different races and felony disenfranchisement laws have created a system in which, Professor Alexander writes: “mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

via the Orange County Register

And finally, the drugs/gun/prison bone is connected to the jobs bone. In a time when more people want to work than can get secure full-time employment, prisons function both as a holding pen for the unemployed, and as a Bizarro World replacement for the good manufacturing jobs held by high school graduates of the past. For example, manufacturing jobs decreased as a perent of the total from 28% in 1962 to 9% in 2011. Now, the prison sector is far smaller than manufacturing, but it’s been seen as an economic savior, particularly in rural areas seeking to recruit a facility (for-profit or government run), and provide jobs to local citizens. A Congressional Research Service report worth reading at length says:

The U.S. corrections system has gone through an unprecedented expansion during the last few
decades, with a more than 400% jump in the prison population and a corresponding boom in
prison construction. At the end of 2008, 2.3 million adults were in state, local, or federal custody, with another 5.1 million on probation or parole. Of that total, 9% were in federal custody. Globally, the United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners…..

The historic, sustained rise in incarceration has broad implications, not just for the criminal
justice system, but for the larger economy. About 770,000 people worked in the corrections sector
in 2008. The U.S. Labor Department expects the number of guards, supervisors, and other staff to
grow by 9% between 2008 and 2018, while the number of probation and parole officers is to
increase by 16%. In addition to those working directly in institutions, many more jobs are tied to
a multi-billion dollar private industry that constructs, finances, equips, and provides health care, education, food, rehabilitation and other services to prisons and jails. By comparison, in 2008 there were 880,000 workers in the entire U.S. auto manufacturing sector. Private prison
companies have bounced back from financial troubles in the late 1990s, buoyed in part by
growing federal contracts. Nearly all new U.S. prisons opened from 2000-2005 were private.
Private prisons housed 8% of U.S. inmates in 2008, including more than 16% of federal
….A number of rural areas have chosen to tie
their economies to prisons, viewing the institutions as recession-proof development engines.
Though many local officials cite benefits, broader research suggests that prisons may not generate
the nature and scale of benefits municipalities anticipate or may even slow growth in some

The issue of guns in America is not one issue, but a hydra-headed beast that affects American democracy, economics, and quality of life. We are haunted by the dry bones of our inability to view the issues as a synergistic whole, and act in concert to improve our nation and our communities.

Disadvantage Black? Race, Politics, and Gun Reform

President Barack Obama has weathered two seasons of thinly-veiled racial attacks, apparently a standard part of what it takes to be elected President if you’re black. Before he took office in January 2009, there was a run on guns, sparked in part by the head of the NRA arguing that the President wanted a total ban. (That was factually incorrect.)

After the shooting in Connecticut that left 20 schoolchildren dead, the President said:

As a country we have been through this too many times. Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.

“Meaningful action” is one of those political code words. In this case, it might mean “We know we need to reform America’s gun laws but we don’t know if we have the political capital to do it.”

President Bill Clinton triangulated the gun issue by performing political jujitsu, arguing that President George H.W. Bush was soft on crime because he refused to crack down on rogue gun sales. That helped neutralize the argument that politicians who wanted to restrict gun sales were the ones soft on crime. But President Clinton also pushed his tough-on-crime credentials by strongly advocating for the death penalty.

I don’t normally argue that his race hurts the President’s ability to lead, but I wonder if in the case of gun laws — and the related issue of criminal justice reform — it complicates matters. The level of paranoia whipped up by the NRA and some other gun advocates about President Obama’s gun policies plays into what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls “Patriot Paranoia” about gun laws. That paranoia has a racial component, not just regarding blacks but also Jews. None of this conclusively proves that racial sentiment (and fear of blowback) influences the President’s ability to push for gun reform. But living in a multiracial (certainly not post-racial) society challenges us to ask questions about how race influences politics and policy.

What do you think: is it harder for the President to launch a hard conversation on guns because of his race? And if so, how do we change move ahead with this debate anyway? What do you want to see happen?

Audacious Politics: Marijuana

If the New York Times runs an Opinionator column called “Give Pot a Chance,” chances are things are changing in America… though not necessarily the way people assume. The column’s argument calls on President Obama to legalize marijuana and have, as its kicker states, some “backbone.” While that’s one take on the matter, the political math is that a white libertarian-leaning Republican President (someone like former Republican New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson ) would be more likely to legalize marijuana than a black centrist-progressive who gets called a socialist (and more furious/ludicrous claims) on a daily basis. The political math there just doesn’t add up for President who’s juggling Mideast tensions, a slow jobs recovery, and a panic-inducingly-named “fiscal cliff.”

But that’s the politics. Let’s break down the common-sense issues a bit. Marijuana has health risks both mental and physical, but studies show it’s much less addictive and kills far fewer people than alcohol or tobacco, which are both legal.

If today’s marijuana laws were a psychedelic musical, the citizens of Colorado and Washington State who voted for lawful recrational use would be singing “Legalize It,” with a sharp transition into the “No you can’t! Yes I can!” chorus from “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).” Singing the negatory role would be a bunch of G-men in sharp suits: the Federal government. The legalizations, by ballot initiatives, produced some ab-fab political rhetoric. For example, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper released this statement: “The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This is a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or goldfish too quickly.”

Where is marijuana law in America headed? Legalization and decriminalization of marijuana are two different things. Under the first model, legalization, marijuana would revert to being a legal and taxable good, as it was until the 1930s. The government could and certainly would regulate everything from worker safety to product labeling. (Organic, conventional… or GMO? Monsanto might want a share if the market got acceptable enough.) Depending on state regulations, you might have to buy marijuana at a state dispensary (the way New Hampshire handles liquor); or it might be behind the counter at a Duane Reade; or maybe the guys who run delis would be able to stock packets of joints with the cigarettes, and ask for IDs. The possibilities include the variety and complexity of state and local regulations around existing products including alcohol, tobacco, and the morning after pill. Medical marijuana dispensaries are a form of legalization replete with taxation. For example, in 2011, the state of Colorado got $5 million in tax revenue from dispensaries, double that of the year before.

One of the many groups opposing legalization are current pot growers, medicinal and otherwise, who would probably lose out in the long run to agribusiness, the same way small-time tobacco farmers did. At the very least, the profit margins would shrink radically. Part of the market price of marijuana today includes all of the complex maneuvers it takes to sell the vast majority of it illegally, ranging from payoff money for law enforcement to arms purchases and casualties from turf battles.

Decriminalization is a different model, one practiced in many ways in various municipalities. In Harvard Square, you can see kids (usually not the students) smoking weed in public. That’s because possession of small amounts is decriminalized — with caveats — in Massachusetts. Since 2008, state law dictates that anyone over 18 found with an ounce of marijuana or less will receive a $100 fine… if anyone even attempts to fine them, which appears not to be that common judging from the street scene in Cambridge. Now, I’m not saying Harvard students don’t smoke pot. When I was teaching there in early 2012, I heard a student brag on his cell phone: “I have four joints and two six packs of Corona.” It’s just that the students smoke in the dorms, and the buskers smoke in the Square.

The state of Massachusetts and the City of Cambridge make no money off of the sale of marijuana. It’s not taxed or regulated for safety. No one checks if it’s been sprayed with harmful pesticides, or checks your ID to see how old you are when you buy it. What decriminalization does do is get rid of a bottom tier of criminal possession arrests and prosecutions. Dealers can still be prosecuted, and of course police have to parse the line of what constitutes the legal possession amount, let alone who to stop and frisk on suspicion of dealing. But logistically it rids the court system of a bunch of low-level defendants and potentially shifts the criminal justice system’s emphasis toward violent and serious property crimes. The law is too new to have a comprehensive study on cost-savings, but an analysis by Harvard lecturer Jeffrey Miron estimates the law saves Massachusetts $30 million per year in criminal justice costs.

Central American countries which bear the costs of law enforcement and civilan casualties from drug cartels are beginning to ask why they should keep marijuana illegal if the U.S. doesn’t. That’s just one of the big questions looming ahead in this fight. Oh, and there’s that question of state’s rights — so often quoted in the context of issues like abortion and gun laws; now coming to a dispensary near you.

Join me in hashtagging #4YearsLaterAmerica

From my newsletter:

Over the next couple days, I’ll occasionally tweet out #4YearsLaterAmerica messages, with my visions for what America can be four years from now.

#4YearsLaterAmerica will have more children who read at grade level, are healthy and strong.
#4YearsLaterAmerica ‘s prison population has shrunk AND crime has gone down.
#4YearsLaterAmerica has more people working than ever in its history.

Make up your own #4YearsLaterAmerica messages and join me! Happy voting.

Politically Viral: Videos to Watch

Props to Thanh Tan for her article about GOP Washington State gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna bringing it Gangnam Style to voters at a Korean Day event.

One of the animators of the Simpsons and Family Guy, Lucas Grey, puts images to President Obama’s words on the economy.

And President Obama goes after Mitt Romney on his Big Bird remarks… which some political observers are calling too glib; others think is just right. (Sesame Street Workshops wants the ad pulled. But it’ll live on evermore on YouTube.)

Romney Wants Debra Lee Onboard, But Can’t Remember Her Name

From Politico’s interview with Mitt Romney:

Debra L. Lee, the CEO of Black Entertainment Television, is also a leader he would take a close look at, though he couldn’t recall her name, just her title: “From all reports, a highly effective manager.”

Some simply responded, “Wow.” Others had reactions that fell into two camps — wow, Romney is trying to claim he wants a black CEO on his team and he can’t remember her name? And wow, of all the black CEO’s, why Debra Lee?

To wit:

Ms. Lee is currently a member of President Obama’s Management Advisory Board, which also includes the current or former CEOs of Adobe, Pfizer, and Motorola.

Beyond Politics and Punditry to the Common Good

I guess I finally understand what it feels like to be a typical American… or perhaps a stereotypical one. You know: the kind of person who is disappointed not only with politics, but with political discourse. Let me explain.

I grew up in a family where politics was a passion, a mission, and a sport. From the time I was in elementary school, I sat at my grandparents’ table with the extended family and heard my uncle deconstruct his time in Vietnam; my grandparents discuss the civil service jobs they had; and everyone talk about politics — national and local. Of course, the conversation often circled back around to whether the black community was being well-served by the people in power. The meal may have been my grandmother’s special lasagna, or chicken, or (just once) a venison stew made from deer another uncle had hunted and dressed. But the real meat at the table was politics and power.

After that kind of childhood, plus four years of college improv, perhaps it was not entirely improbable that I would end up as a political analyst on CNN. After all, punditry requires knowledge but mainly a quickness and cunning, the willingness to wrestle publicly with ideas whether your opponent is smarter and stronger than you or not. The circumstances of me getting this job were hard work mixed with a HUGE dose of good fortune. I wrote a book (Don’t Believe the Hype) that got me on CNN as a guest. I impressed the bookers. They offered me a job. I got to cover the 1996 conventions… and then I was off to the races.

I remember my work back then being so much fun. I never took for granted the gift I’d been given. I knew part of my appeal was intellect, and part was flavor-of-the-week — a 25 year old black woman with braids who could credibly talk about the electoral college.


Brooks Jackson on CNN in the ’90s

      I’ve had many adventures since then, working as a television correspondent, radio host, and producing multimedia content. But the apex of my love affair with political journalism was those early years at CNN, when former print journalists like Brooks Jackson regularly took the airaves based not on their ability to look sharp in a suit but to bring a sharp analysis of money, politics, and power. That was the pre-merger era, when CNN was not a part of Time Warner. I left before the merger, and for that reason and others many things have changed. CNN is now struggling to define itself against two more partisan cable networks, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Both of those two seem more comfortable in their skins (which is to say, their brand identities), while CNN struggles to figure out what the middle path is in a land of shouting heads.

Aaah, the shouting heads…The punditry game has changed. It always had an edge, or else it would be reportage and not punditry. But the signal to noise ratio has degraded appreciably over the past fifteen years. Some players, from both the left and right, aim to make their name by throwing out a fistful of steaming entrails and then immediately apologizing for the mess. What’s not to like, as a strategy? You make headlines twice — once when you make the statement, and once when you apologize. Two recent examples: Romney surrogate John Sununu, former Governor of New Hampshire and Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush, said he wished President Obama “would learn how to be an American.” He’d apologized for that remark before the day was done. (Sununu more recently attacked the President for “over-aggrandizing” his role in the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Does he remember when President Bush put up the “Mission Accomplished” sign right at what turned out to be the start of the Iraq war?) And then there’s Touré of MSNBC, who last week said that the Romney campaign was attempting the “niggerization” of President Obama. He apologized (perhaps after a stern word by his minders) almost immediately. In both cases, double headlines for the statements and the apologies. In both cases, more heat than light.

Don’t think I’m (just) a hater. I have mad love for politics still — productive politics that build our nation. I still love a good political discussion, which you can find on programs including ones hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry, Candy Crowley, and Soledad O’Brien. (And I miss the now-sidelined-by-his-own-hand Fareed Zakaria, particularly since US news programs lack a global perspective.) I watch MSNBC, CNN and Fox, and never fail to learn something from them — though, not always what they’ve intended.


      All punditry is theatre, on some level. But when it works — and I mean, works as news, not just as a vehicle to deliver partisan talking points — we can tease out nuances of the different challenges this enormous and diverse nation faces. The fact that the news media is based on the coasts ends up doing a great disservice to political media. Having traveled to Arizona to meet with a Tea Party group; gone out with the Border Patrol in Texas; and visited small farming towns in Iowa and Wisconsin, I see how differently Americans live life from other Americans. It is damned near impossible to wrap your arms around what America really is, especially from a perch in New York or the Beltway. But for fiscal and show-business reasons (punditry is way cheaper than reporting), we often get remote video or two-ways spoken-over by people in New York and DC. Ideally, punditry would be the spice on the meal, not the meal itself. It’s the inversion of the role of punditry in the news industry that has degraded the art of political dialogue itself. Without a solid base in reporting, particularly regional reporting, it’s hard to expect shows of talking heads to really illuminate the issues we face.

And frankly, what issues don’t we face these days? We’re facing a government debt cliff, an entitlements cliff, a personal debt cliff, an education cliff, a climate cliff, and if not an employment cliff, well then, a slippery slope. All of these issues require long-range thinking which is often antithetical to short-range partisan needs. While Mitt Romney more than overstates his case that his team is all about “preserving” Medicare and Social Security, it is true that the Obama camp will do better by riling up retirees than discussing the need to restructure entitlements. By “restructure” I do not mean privatize. Read this summary of “Saving Social Security: A Balanced Approach,” by Peter A. Diamond and Peter R. Orszag. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, has espoused a controversial plan to convert Medicare into subsidies that go to private insurers. (Worth reading: this Bloomberg Businessweek article on how Ryan claimed his Medicare plan was bipartisan when it is nothing of the sort.) I’ll talk more in my next piece about the issues we face, but suffice it to say in an election year going for the win — in the case of team Obama, playing to the fears of seniors — trumps having a more detailed discussion about how to revamp Medicare without eviscerating it.

As for me, I’ve found my personal appetite for doing television punditry has waned considerably. For the first time since 1996, I won’t be attending the conventions, and aside from missing some great parties, I’ll be just as happy watching the speeches on TV and commenting online and on radio. I don’t shill for either political party (though I certainly have my views on both), and that makes me a less-than-ideal pundit during the heat of the campaign. For me, as for media, this is a time of evolution. I personally am struggling to figure out how to contribute to political dialogues in a way that is expansive rather than reductive; critical but not blindly partisan; skeptical rather than cynical; and forward-looking rather than navel-gazing. I haven’t given up on politics, not at all. I’m just trying to reinvent how I can contribute to the conversation, at a time when our country needs true dialogue more than ever.

Searching: Is George W. Bush Speaking at the Republican Convention?

White House photo by Eric Draper (2007)

The RNC announced that Senator and 2008 Republican nominee John McCain was going to speak at the convention, along with a slew of powerful Republican women including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice; Governor Nikki Haley of of South Carolina; and Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico. (Also worth nothing these three women are, respectively, African-American, South Asian-American, and Latina American.) The quiet flipside of the announcement was the non-announcement of the non-speaker, former President George W. Bush.

Although President Bush left office only four years ago, he has been a political ghost — both in the sense of “being ghost,” i.e., absent; and haunting the Republican legacy. During the 2008 Republican National Convention, he spoke remotely, by video. I did a search to see if that would be the case again. But no. The last sitting Republican President of the United States will be utterly absent. According to his spokesperson, “he’s still enjoying his time off the political stage and respectfully declined the invitation to go to Tampa.” He also told the Hoover Institute: “I’m a supporter of Mitt Romney. I hope he does well. But he can do well without me.”

Perhaps better without him, it almost goes without saying. When President George W. Bush exited office, his approval rating was 34%, and disapproval 61%. (One wonders about the five percent of people straddling the fence…)

I can’t help but think of the moment on that freezing cold Inauguration day when the crowd began singing the chorus “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye.” I was there on the lawn and, not knowing who had started the chant, watched Marine One lift the newly-former President up into the air and away. He hasn’t been back in the public eye for more than a flash since.

Party Hopping: Rep. Artur Davis’ Move to the GOP, and Reax

Former Congressman Artur Davis, who served Alabama’s seventh district as a Democrat and then lost a primary bid in a run for governor, has announced (after writing a series of opinion pieces critical of the Democratic party) that he was switching to the GOP. Davis was one of the people who placed then-Senator Barack Obama’s name into nomination for the Presidency at the Democratic National Convention. Since losing his bid for Alabama governor, he has written a series of pieces for right-leaning media, presaging his transition to the GOP and a possible run for Congress as a Republican candidate in Northern Virginia. (Disclosure: Rep. Davis and I both served as Spring 2012 fellows at Harvard’s Institute of Politics; and also, although we did not meet in our college years, both graduated from Harvard in 1990.)

Rep. Davis spoke to NPR host Michel Martin on her show Tell Me More and said:

[T]his is not about renouncing my support of Barack Obama four years ago. That happened and you can’t change the script on that. And I very much believe and still believe in the America that you heard me describe in that line from the very forgettable nominating speech four years ago.

But I no longer think that the Democratic Party is the best way to deliver that kind of America. What was it that I talked about? I talked about a country where there were no limitations based on your race. I talked about a country where aspiration was the driving force in America.

Unfortunately, I see the Democratic Party taking a step backward on both those fronts. I see more of an embrace of identity politics and group politics, which makes us more fractured than united, and candidly, I see the Republican Party talking more effectively about growth. Because growth is the key to mobility and aspiration…..

I align myself with the center right. There is no center right in the Democratic Party; there is one in the Republican Party…..

You don’t leave a party because of any one thing. You do it because, over a period of time, you look at the issues and you decided, you know what, I feel more comfortable over here. Now, what I do think is interesting is there seem to be some Democrats and liberals whose opinion is, we don’t want you in our party. We don’t want you in the other party either, you know. So I mean, I think what some people mean is we don’t like you and we wish you were silent and you were buried somewhere politically.

On the Political Jones radio show, host Leroy Jones spoke with Cory Ealons, who worked for Rep. Davis and then went to serve in the Obama Administration before heading to private industry.

Here is a portion of what Ealons had to say:

Politically, I am incredibly disappointed….

As the Congressman has talked about this week, the healthcare vote was a critical vote in 2010…. The Congressman voted against both of those [initial versions of the healthcare] bills but it was with the caveat that he would cast another vote… Ultimately, when that final vote did come in early 2010, he voted against it.

That released a tirade of opposition from individuals and organizations in the state of Alabama, many of them African-American. And then when you’ve had the record that the Congressman had, representing one of the poorest districts in the country, representing a primarily African-American district, and representing a district that was and remains so disproportionately impacted by the lack of access to healthcare, it was an incongruent message that quite frankly a lot of people had challenges rectifying in their mind. A lot of people thought he had turned their back on them….

[Also] he cast a vote in some people’s minds against the President….not just the President, but his friend. All that combined is why we have the situation that we have today.

Election 2012: Romney, Obama, and Identity

The measure of a man should be in his deeds, not the color of his skin or his religious background. That’s what enlightened people are taught to think these days, but most of us (myself included, of course) have moments of predjudicial judgment we can choose to fall prey to or overcome. Puppets and humans in the hit musical “Avenue Q” sang “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” but the issue is bigger than that. In the Presidential race, there are two icebergs looming, of unknown size: the President’s race and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s religion.

The Daily’s take on Romney’s good deeds

Could the election of President Obama actually help his challenger? One Mitt Romney supporter I met recently said that the best indication that Mormonism would not tank Romney’s chances was the election of the President. Take the now-classic 2008 article relating a story of rural Pennsylvanians saying, “We’re voting for the nigger.”) The Romney supporter thought that if the President could get elected through that haze, then Romney’s religion would not be a barrier to election.

The President still faces racial challenges in a slew of different ways, from surrealist birther movies to a group of conservative funders planning, in their own word, “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama.” (The fact that they were bold enough to put this plan on paper and distribute it to someone who leaked it to the New York times shows both their ambition and clumsiness.) The deep pockets in this case are members of the Ricketts family, who own the Chicago Cubs. (One of the Ricketts, however, is a major Obama fundraiser.) The team gearing up for attack plans to re-fight the war over the President’s connection to Pastor Jeremiah Wright, which they believe Senator John McCain was stupid not to use more in 2008.

Mitt Romney faces different identity challenges. A recent report by The Daily questions whether he has avoided talking about good deeds because of the way those mesh with his Mormon faith; and an article in the Washington Post has gotten both cheers and jeers from people who perceive it depicting young Romney as a callous, bullying rich kid.

The Daily’s article begins:

One cold December day in the early 1980s, Mitt Romney loaded up his Gran Torino with firewood and brought it to the home of a single mother whose heat had been shut off just days before Christmas. Years after a business partner died unexpectedly, Romney helped the man’s surviving daughter go to medical school with loans for tuition — loans he forgave when she graduated…. Some supporters believe he isn’t touting them [i.e., these and other accounts] because it’s impossible to separate the good works he’s done from a Mormon faith that demands them — a faith that has by all accounts been a defining influence in his life, yet which the campaign has been determined to keep out of the political conversation.

The New York Times has also contributed to the conversation over the role of Romney’s faith in his life and politics in ways both substantive and stylistic. From that article:

Mormonism teaches respect for secular authorities as well as religious ones, but “politics has required him to go against form,” said Richard Bushman, a leading historian of the church who knows Mr. Romney from church.

For example, Mr. Romney had ruled out running personal attack ads against political rivals, those close to him said. When Senator Edward M. Kennedy attacked him as an uncaring capitalist in 1994, using ads that exaggerated Mr. Romney’s role in Bain-related layoffs, Mr. Romney refused to punch back and exploit Mr. Kennedy’s history of womanizing. “Winning is not important enough to put aside my ideals and principles,” Mr. Romney told aides….

Last week, Mr. Romney repudiated efforts to attack President Obama based on his past relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. But earlier this year, he suggested that Mr. Obama wanted to make the United States “a less Christian nation.”

“I have absolutely no idea how he rationalizes it,” Mr. Kimball said of Mr. Romney’s harshest statements and attacks. “It almost seems to be the ends justifying the means.”

The interplay of election politics and identity politics will help drive campaign 2012. The question is not whether the tone and allegations about race and religion will get nasty, but how nasty. And its up to us, the American people, how to respond.

Trayvon Martin, The Long Walk to Justice, and Compassion Fatigue

Like so many people, I’ve been following the death of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teen shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain.

(Above, Martin in his football uniform.)

Here’s what we know so far: a man named George Zimmerman called police saying he’d spotted someone wearing a hoodie who was acting suspiciously. Zimmerman himself had previously been arrested, though later charges were dropped, for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. Yet Zimmerman, against the advice of the dispatcher on the 911 line, pursued the unarmed 17 year old and shot him to death, much of which was captured on audio.

The family and scores of people across the nation have been hammering the Sanford, Florida, authorities for failing to arrest Zimmerman. But now it’s spiraling into a media circus, with the grieving family caught in the middle. The audio of their son’s death is heard on news reports and available on the internet. A little known black militia is claiming they’ll make a citizen’s arrest of Zimmerman, which the family doesn’t want.

The lives of young black men are treated with suspicion and casual indifference by too many. For every case like this that makes headlines, an untold number more pass as par for the course. So while many people are asking for justice for Trayvon Martin, I have to ask myself, as a reporter and an American, how we can leverage the anger over individual incidents into a larger restructuring of perceptions and justice. There’s a well-documented bias against black boys and men, ranging from schools to jobs to the criminal justice system. (It’s worth reading each of the linked studies).

So, where do we go from here? It’s easy to work up ire about individual cases, but harder to work on systemic change. Systemic change is a long process, often tedious, with reversals in both the judicial courts and the court of public opinion. (Remember the exoneration of the five young men wrongly convicted in the Central Park jogger rape case? How many times did their faces flash across tv when they were arrested and convicted, and how many of us today even remember their names?)

(Above: the young men wrongfully convicted in the jogger case. To date, none have received compensation for years in prison.)

Too often, the overwhelming statistical evidence of bias is rebutted by citing individual crimes committed by black boys and men — and certainly those are committed, far too often, usually against African-American victims. I simply hope that in the case of Trayvon Martin, the heat of anger is accompanied by the light of justice. Context is a strong part of justice — tracking patterns and calling out bias. The developing field of data-driven journalism has provided some new ways of tracking how different Americans are treated. For example, data journalist John Keefe of WNYC used police and geographic data sets to show that the highest marijuana posession arrest rates in New York were predominately in minority neighborhoods, although national drug statistics show more use of marijuana by young whites than blacks. The WNYC data was used in conjunction with a story on alleged illegal searches.

Logic doesn’t always carry the day. In the case of racial bias in the criminal justice system, there’s sometimes an implicit tolerance for wrongful actions because, in the minds of people who don’t consider themselves morally compromised, it’s just the cost of keeping order in a chaotic society. The more that we can turn the mirror towards ourselves and ask what compromises we are willing to make to feel safe, and who gets wounded, slandered or killed as a result, the more likely we are to change. Laws are critical, yet on some level change has to come as a result of a sense of moral urgency. During the Civil Rights movement, images of hoses and dogs provoked a sense of moral urgency among people who considered themselves bystanders to racial injustice.

Today, books including The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander are drawing the much needed connections that could lead to a national push for reform. But many other tools are needed. Local news is addicted to crime scene shots, which adds to a sense of paranoia. What if that attention was turned to sorting genuine criminal patterns from citizen paranoia? The law, the media, academia — all have a role in reshaping American justice. But in the end, it’s up to us. There’s a beautiful challenge that the writer Aldous Huxley sets out when he wrote, “There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” To me, that’s not a contradiction to organized campaigns for justice. It’s a reminder — accountability begins with us. The first thing we can do to be accountable is neither to tune out the horror of a shooting like that of Trayvon Martin, nor to let it push us to unfocused anger. Fear and compassion fatigue may be George Zimmerman’s best allies. Knowledge and persistence are the tools we can use spur justice in this case, and in our nation.

Fair to Compare Mormons for Romney to Blacks for Obama?

Just a quick note…

In this weekend’s Nevada caucus, the first primary contest with a large percent of Mormon voters (26% of participants), Mitt Romney won handily by 50 percent of the total. But he strikingly won 90 percent of the Mormon vote.

During the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, African-Americans were criticized for blindly following Obama because of race. Similar charges are not being leveled, at least not to the same extent, against Mormon voters for Romney.

Humans are social animals and we all have reasons for hewing to identity and affinity groups, as well as calculations about whether and how supporting a particular candidate will affect us and our communities.

There is no question that anti-Mormon bias is going to be a factor among some Republican voters when it comes to Romney. But I’m also interested in whether and how the close hewing of Mormon voters to Romney as a candidate will be explored with the same persistence than the black vote for Obama did.

Goodbye, “Good Jobs”

I spoke this spring in Chicago at the convention for the NFBPA, or National Forum for Black Public Administrators, an organization with 2600 members in civil service at the local, state and Federal levels. I talked about something that’s been on my mind: whether African-Americans should exit professions like teaching at a local elementary school; serving in the military; or working at the Post Office.

Public employment is undergoing some of the sharpest cuts of any sector, and black families are feeling the hit. Public-sector employment is the #1 employer of black men and #2 of black women. As the public job pool shrinks rapidly, it constitutes a major mover of African-American unemployment. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, as I discussed with the NFBPA. Public-private partnerships may expand the constituency for public employment, but in this political atmosphere negotiations are fraught. (I spoke at the convention of black public administrators shortly after the showdown in Wisconsin over public labor.)

Public-sector jobs — military, civil service, public k-12 education, public colleges and universities — were a ladder to the middle class for many black families, including my own. (Grandparents: Post Office and Social Security. Mother and siblings: Post Office, US Army, US Marines, Social Security, Baltimore City (schools and water department), Baltimore County (schools). My generation: almost all private sector, save one.)

Good jobs used to come with a promise of stability, leading to a here-until-retirement mentality. No more, not in the private sector or the public. The drop in African-American employment has helped fuel a drop in African-American support for the President. A recent Washington Post-ABC news poll saw the number drop from 83 percent “strongly favorable” to 58 percent now. The Congressional Black Caucus is running a jobs initiative that has challenged the President on his approach to jobs, specifically not addressing the African-American employment crisis as a discrete thing-in-itself. To do so could be political suicide; but to not name the problem could cause widespread African-American voter attrition, particularly around first time voters and those who voted for the first time in 2008.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently spoke at a Congressional Black Caucus summit on jobs. He’s also written about the global war for what people used to call “good jobs,” a battle with high stakes beyond money. Jobs have become synonymous, for many of us, with identity and personal happiness — not just in the US but across the world. There are few things people fight for as hard as their sense of self.

Obama Children’s Book Gets 500,000 First Printing

Now that’s sales team confidence. According to the newsletter Publisher’s Lunch:

Obama Children’s Book Set for November 16
President Obama has written a children’s book, OF THEE I SING: A Letter to My Daughters, which Knopf Children’s will publish on November 16 with an announced 500,000-copy first printing. Illustrated by Loren Long, the book profiles 13 “groundbreaking Americans and the ideals that have shaped our nation–from the artistry of Georgia O’Keeffe, to the courage of Jackie Robinson, to the patriotism of George Washington.”

The book was both sold (as part of his deal with Crown and Knopf Children’s in 2004) and written before Obama took office in 2009. Proceeds from the sale will be donated to a scholarship fund for the children of fallen and disabled soldiers serving our nation.

I absolutely adore reading the Publisher’s Lunch newsletter. I don’t know why but it feels like a guilty pleasure to know all the insider-ness of the book business and what landmark books lie ahead. Also good for journalism leads. To sign up, if you choose, go here.

President Obama Admonishes Wall St., Asks for Reform

The President spoke at noon eastern at Cooper Union in New York’s East Village.

A few paragraphs from the President’s prepared remaks (full text linked here):

A free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it.That is what happened too often in the years leading up to the crisis. Some on Wall Street forgot that behind every dollar traded or leveraged, there is family looking to buy a house, pay for an education, open a business, or save for retirement. What happens here has real consequences across our country.
Continue reading »

Jobs, Race, and Reality

I hate the term “Post Racial.” It’s weasely. You might as well say that you’re post-reality.

To wit: a new report released today by Congress, revealing that 22% of Americans who have been unemployed for a year or more are African-American. The black population is 11.5 percent of the labor force.

I suspect, given the way unemployment figures are counted, that the figures are actually much starker.

The level of African-American joblessness is a profound opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us to restructure the ways we think about social mobility, business ethics, and the impact of employment on issues from mental health to child-rearing. It’s a profound opportunity for us to look at how the demographic least likely to vote for President Obama share many of the same economic issues as African-Americans. I’m talking about white Southerners in economically challenged states like Mississippi and Alabama. (Those states ranked 50 and 42 in per capita income, and ranked the lowest on the percentage of white voters who chose Obama, 11 and 10 percent respectively.) It’s a profound opportunity for us to challenge categories like “African-American” and “white Southerner,” and figure out how we can develop language about groups and constituencies that is not too broad, but does not ignore reality.

Well, that’s a lot of opportunity. There’s a lot of work to do.

Obama on Fox News for Healthcare: Not a Game Changer for Network or POTUS

President Obama Bret Baier

President Obama gave a lengthy interview to Brett Baier of Fox News Channel. It was fractious. Baier interrupted the President so often that he apologized afterwards. As a postscript, Baier asked the President a question that was emailed in about Tiger Woods… and the President answered. In the end, the interview was probably not a game changer for President Obama or for Fox News… Fox will not convince potential viewers that it is a neutral network; the POTUS will likely not win over a lot of stalwart Fox viewers.

Link to Fox News Channel full transcript of interview with the President on healthcare.

The Black President Trap

“For every factual attack, there are a thousand possibilities…and all of them strike down together.”

It’s a line from China Mieville’s speculative fiction novel The Scar, but it could easily describe today’s politics.

President Obama has been described as a socialist and tool of banks and big business; a “racist…who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and someone who “hasn’t done much for their [i.e., African-Americans’] bottom line” because “so-called black leaders are much more interested in invitations to the White House…than in raising any kind of ruckus that might benefit people in real trouble. Continue reading »