Tag Archives: politics

The Call-to-Whiteness

The Call-to-Whiteness: The Rise of the New White Nationalism and Inadequate Establishment Whiteness Response

Note: This essay is not meant to present a unified theory of or definition of whiteness, but to point out that white identity is both a critical pivot point in American politics that remains understudied; and that we are undergoing a crisis of white identity that affects people of all races and ethnicities. As someone who reports on and engages online with white nationalists to this day, I am speaking with as much perspective as my decades of attention to these issues can offer. If you have different perspectives, I would welcome them but ask you reveal how much attention you have paid to the issues at hand.

Secondly: this is very long and somewhat discursive – definitely a draft and not a finished document. I welcome your thoughts and comments and will continue to refine it. Get a cup of tea and sit down with me. I hope you’ll find it worth the time.


Did I/We Hear the Call to Whiteness?

There are many moments from my covering the American electorate this season that, in retrospect, I realize were more significant than I perceived.

One of them was when I interviewed a woman in Las Vegas about the election and she said she had more than once been told that part of the reason to vote for Donald Trump was to avoid the dilution of the white race. As the white mother of a mixed-race (black, white, Latino) child, she reacted with anger and horror. Though I recounted her position, a section was struck from the interview where she talked about how her daughter was studying World War II and the rise of Hitler. Her daughter asked, “How could anybody ever elect somebody who feels like this?” and the mother replied that they had a “front row seat to see how history is repeating itself.”

My editor struck that section from the short liveblog post when voicing concern about how we’d look mounting such a head-on critique of Trump without a passionate Trump supporter, a voice I later found. I don’t blame him for his choice since I didn’t challenge it, and especially since I often write overly-long. I’m not sure if the World War II analogy crossed the line for him because it seemed histrionic.

That said, I now view both her statement and my quick acquiescence to our deletion of it as significant. In retrospect, I realize how deeply this woman’s perception of her own whiteness had been challenged by the conversations she was having; and how unwilling I and we were as journalists to foreground this clash over the nationalist call-to-whiteness as part of the political narrative. This horrified mother was staring white nationalism in the face, and it was staring back at her. We as journalists, myself included, did not foreground in our reporting the struggles of white voters who heard and rejected the call.

Holding this minor anecdote in mind, know that I will mount an argument below that this election represents a call-to-whiteness to activate white nationalist sentiment; plus a suppression of the importance of this call in discussing our current politics, and a troubling inability to disaggregate the call-to-whiteness from other motivations for voting for Donald Trump. I do not believe all Trump voters are racially motivated or primarily racially motivated, but white Americans, regardless of who they voted for, are now being asked to make an implicit choice in endorsing or rejecting white nationalist agendas and their integration into the body politic. There’s a good argument using a “Cinemax”/cable analogy for the “bundling” of racial animus into every Trump vote, whether or not individual voters explicitly endorsed that.

As a reporter with 25 years of field experience in covering both politics and white nationalist movements, I see the two converging in ways we are woefully unprepared to cover or respond to because we as Americans have avoided the topic out of a mix of ignorance, fear, and aversion. I would argue we can avoid it no longer.

If you need to understand why the elevation of Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions, among others, as players in American democracy signals a rise of white nationalism – implicitly and explicitly – then you probably need to do a bit more research on your own before reading the rest of this article.

There has been a concerted effort — covert, overt, or both — to keep the narrative of white nationalism, including its violence and extralegal workings — out of the American eye. Much of it, I believe, comes from the inability of media and of many individuals to ascribe racial/group characteristics to whiteness in the way blackness is grouped and tracked, or, in the context of terrorism, Muslim beliefs. If blacks are a group and Muslims are a group judged on the violent behavior of some, then white nationalist violence and terrorism is much more organized and overt but gets less mainstream coverage.

The majority of the domestic terrorism before and after 9/11 was by white nationalists and white supremacists, including the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh was a white nationalist who helped bomb and murder 168 people including 19 children in daycare, and was subsequently put to death. And then there are smaller but no less heartbreaking attacks like white supremacist Dylan Roof’s killing of nine people including Pastor Clementa Pinkney at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

The alt-right is also known to use swatting and doxxing as techniques against people they dislike, disagree with, or turn on. Swatting in particular, used in online gaming feuds as well, can result in violence or threats of violence administered in person by the unwitting first responders who fail to realize this is a deliberate provocation by an unseen hand.

In other words, these are, as president-elect Donald Trump might put it, some “bad hombres.”

And now, their ideological cousins are moving into government, quite likely with an agenda to use the law to increase America’s divides rather than bridge them. This is a hostile takeover of the U.S. government by forces including people cozy with white nationalists. It is profoundly un-American — at least I think so.

The dialogues in our civic space should let us know how far the debate has gone. Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who drives an Uber in his spare time, has been engaging online with journalists and also challenging people who apparently hold white nationalist views. He responded on Twitter to one person who apparently argued that the 13th-15th amendments granting full citizenship and the franchise to black men was because “limited government failed.” (And here I was thinking it was because slavery failed — failed to live up to the unrealized promise in the first version of the U.S. Constitution.)


Sasse battled back, Tweeting, “The Civil War & its 3 amendmts are not a rejection of the Amer’n Founding. Rather…a living UP to our universal/colorblind vision of rights”. The fact that Sasse, much to his credit for doing so, needs to say this at all speaks volumes about the depths of disregard for universal human and American rights right now.


The Surge of the Pack-Mentality

Let me start with a story that has nothing to do with white nationalism, and everything to do with survival.

One time, when I was in Guatemala for three weeks doing an immersion program in Spanish, I was walking home alone after a night drinking with other students. It was a safe town near Lake Atitlan, and all of us were doing homestudies with different families. I wasn’t worried about being attacked by a human.

The road to my host family’s house ran parallel to the lake, which was about 300 yards away. As I walked down the road, with its shuttered and gated houses, I saw out of the corner of my eye two dogs way down by the river. They scented or saw me and I saw them break into a fierce run, the equivalent of a horse’s full gallop.

I had no possibility of outrunning them and no obvious place to hide. So knowing what I do of dog behavior, I kept walking slowly and steadily. Sooner than I would have liked, but just as expected, the dogs were around me, snapping and snarling. I did not make eye contact. I kept walking slowly and intently toward the side street that would take me home, with my eyes fixed on a streetlight. And after a time – how long, I will never be sure – the dogs stopped snarling and went away.

I did not act like prey. I did not act like a threat or challenge their dominance. I got home with nothing more than a bad scare.

But I can still remember that night vividly – the lake to my left, with scrub and rushes leading the way to the waterfront; the dark pierced by the street lights and the moon; the vector of the road that the animals sprinted down, and how I could not even afford to keep my eyes on it directly but had to peer out of the corner of my eye as I prepared to react to the threat. I remember because my life literally depended on my perception of and reaction to the threat.

Sometimes it seems like the call to American whiteness we’ve seen during this election is like the attack of those dogs: a sudden onrushing of power and energy and threat. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the best first action to take is often to remain very calm and still.

No, I am not comparing white Americans to dogs. That should be obvious but in our heightened times is not. I am comparing the pack mentality of the nationalist call-to-whiteness to the ferocity of these animals. We are seeing that pack mentality in operation right now. Better late than never we must examine the pack mentality; emphasize why white Americans must awake to what’s being invoked in their names; and also why the reactions of the broader white community to “extremist” constructions of whiteness will help determine the future of our nation.

I’ve been covering white nationalists and supremacists in person for more than two decades. I once met Klanspeople in a blizzard to get part of a larger story about women in the white supremacist movement. The Klan is, perhaps, the ceremonial figurehead of white supremacy but hardly the most powerful influence and considered quite outdated by today’s digitally sophisticated nationalist alt-right. At the time I did that investigation of female white supremacists in the 1990s, I spoke by phone with a woman from a dysfunctional wealthy family who had run off to join the violent Aryan Nation, a group that was later bankrupted by civil lawsuits for violent assault. The woman described how her family, which was part of the Social Register, so turned her off with their lack of regard for nurturing their own children that she sought out a new family in white supremacy.

The woman from the Aryan nation also explained something that would stick with me throughout my reporting career. I asked why she would grant me an interview, and she said that a fraction of the people who read the article would be persuaded to her cause, and that was reason enough for her to grant an interview to someone she perceived as hostile to her white supremacist mission. While depressing in some ways, the knowledge of her beliefs – which I have come to believe as well, as an inevitable cost of doing the reporting I do – was enlightening. After that point, I rarely feared whether people who perceived me as hostile to their racial separatist, nationalist, or supremacist interests would grant me an interview, and I have found that to be the case.



Can You Be Objective If You Can’t See Whiteness?

Since then, I have continued to study whiteness as part of my reporting on American politics and culture. It has seemed a particularly important part of my work, and frankly, one that is sometimes viewed with suspicion by my own journalistic peers, as if studying something makes me unqualified to understand it rather than particularly qualified to do so.

It also gets to an ongoing debate in journalism over objectivity. I admit I am not neutral about race, racism, or white supremacy. I do not believe that disqualifies me from reporting on it as long as I am fair to those I report on. I have always found a common human bond with white supremacists I have reported on. I do not view them as demons; more as lost, confused, and sometimes dangerous cousins. I see whiteness in ways that my white colleagues often seem to ignore, as if it cannot be seen at all.

In my experience the white people I’ve met that seem most attuned to the power struggle over American whiteness are immigrants and people who grew up as working-class white Americans and moved into other circles where they were judged as different from established or powerful white norms. One friend had grown up largely in France but partly in central Florida, and he understood and acknowledged the layers of meaning people ascribed to him was different in both places. I also found common cause with people who moved to big cities and found themselves thrust into new American cultures, often Americans from rural or exurban areas. I found their “double consciousness” familiar and comforting, as it was an analogue to my own.

As context for how I do the work I do, know my childhood shaped my journalistic pursuits. First, there’s the fact that my parents were both journalists at different times and met at the graduate school of communications at Syracuse University before moving to Zambia to start a newspaper. In that sense, reporting is in my blood; but the way I perceive race was also seared into my consciousness by a childhood dis- and re-location both physical and metaphorical in nature.

The summer before I entered first grade, my family moved from Central Park West and 100th street to a virtually all black neighborhood in Baltimore. In New York, my friends were not just black or white. My best friend was half black and half Jewish; my extended friend circle included Cuban-American girls who were clearly Afro-Cuban, but who were not asked to choose a side in the black/white dichotomies of American racial taxonomy. My friends were blond and Asian and black and it was all very Free to Be You and Me.

When we moved to Baltimore, to a tree-lined street of 1920s and 1930s wood houses near the city line, I was plunged into a world where there was only blackness and whiteness, and the two were engaged in a fierce cold war. My sister and I were suddenly chided or rewarded by other black people for “speaking proper” and viewed as small Martians by white Americans. Everyone, regardless of race, was confused as to how I could have an African father – a real actual African man with an accent and a PhD! I’ll spare you an endless string of anecdotes about moments when I understood how much and how differently I was being observed by others in my new city.

This dislocation/re-location meant that by the age of six I had laid out some of my fundamental principles and psychology that remain with me today, and have shaped my perspective as a journalist.

  • First, I came to believe that humans lived in “reality zones” with quite different rules about identity, fairness and achievement. Inside each of these zones was an internally consistent reality, but as one crossed barriers of geography, class, culture, religion and race, the rules changed entirely.
  • Second, that whiteness, which was inconsequential to my early childhood, was of the paramount importance to understand.
  • Third, that I was able to cross these worlds and remain self-aware of how I was being perceived; and that usually it was not in my best interest to reveal that I understood how others were viewing me, because it made others uncomfortable. If I made people aware that I was observing their construct as intently as they were observing me, that made them observe their own construct in new and discomfiting ways. So I remained friendly and engaged on the outside (and inside) while keeping the more piercing aspects of my cultural studies to myself.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, coming from the above: that whiteness could be observed, even in fearful times, if one got close enough and stayed relatively silent.


Disaggregating White Nationalism from the Trump Vote

I have spent this election observing politics, race, and the rise of a particularly passionate, disruptive, and dangerous form of white nationalism.

As people look at the outcome of the election, we are left with questions about disaggregating political behavior like voting from intent. Given the rise of white nationalism and its integration into our government, was Ted Cruz simply not Anglo enough to be a viable candidate for president? Was Jeb Bush’s marriage to a Mexican woman part of the reason he was viewed so tepidly by Republican voters? These are questions we probably didn’t measure for at the time – and if there is research on the matter, please let me know – but in retrospect I really wish we had.

I have also not been afraid to see Trump voters for who they are, in their many forms, and realize that what I know so far, despite my reporting, is simply not enough. In some ways, the real work of understanding motivations and disaggregating voter intent and how the message hit the target is just beginning.

The other day I sat across from a woman on a crowded Amtrak train at one of their four-tops. She was black, or appeared so to me, though she later emphasized on an exceedingly loud and profanity-filled phone call that she was Brazilian (which I mention simply because she seemed to be distancing herself from American blackness in the remarks). She was wearing clubwear (kitten ears; revealing hyper-sexualized gear in more of an electronica/post-punk mode than anything vaguely hip hop); mentioned she was a bartender; and when she wasn’t on the phone spent the ride hitting on a baffled Asian-American businessman next to her and generally being an enlightening (to a reporter like me) nuisance on the train. Before I moved away to get some ear-space from her aggressive monologue on the phone, I learned that she was a Trump voter; she and the friend on the other line were mocking non-Trump voters; and she saw her vote as a flag planted squarely in the center of her identity.

What I learned from her conversation made me think: maybe this woman thought of Donald Trump as representing freedom. And what’s more American than that?

She didn’t want to be put in a box, and as she and her friend apparently mocked non-Trump voters, her rhetorical emphasis was on what a maverick her vote for Trump made her.

Hillary Clinton, for all else you do or don’t think of her, was committed to an establishment path to power. Donald Trump, vulgar by his and his family’s own admission, clearly spoke to this woman on a personal level. On some semiotic levels, Trump functions as an American antihero, someone who gives people permission to imagine themselves as just as vulgar and just as powerful, and winning not despite their vulgarity but because of it.

Listening to this young voter put together one more puzzle piece of the many reasons people, including some people of color, voted for Trump.

And I have to confess, Donald Trump has been liberating to me too, in one sense.

If a man who has settled out of court on charges of educational fraud and racially discriminating in housing can be our next white male President, I double down on my rejection of the conceit of exceptional blackness, aka “better than” syndrome.

The demanded performance of exceptional blackness is a pernicious part of the construct of American meritocracy. By “exceptional blackness” I mean the idea that blacks not only have to work twice as hard as whites, but specifically that doing so means we will be liberated from discrimination and transcend race. I may be better than white peers sometimes; and I at other times I will not be; but that alone will not change the construct of race in America. But if Donald Trump can be president, then I can at least be black and free.

Be clear that what I am rejecting is not the urge for excellence or self-improvement, but the idea that my excellence and self-improvement is a blood price I must pay to prove black Americans’ worthiness of a true meritocracy. You either believe in working toward a true meritocracy or you do not, and I will not bribe you into belief by my individual performance. Are you for equality, or are you not?


White Nationalists Challenge the Fiction of American Meritocracy

In many ways, the white nationalist crowd is calling out the lie of American meritocracy from its own admittedly ideologically bent perch. In my conversations online and off with white nationalists, they admit a reliance on the law to enforce a dominance that they then also claim a birthright to.

When a self-described white nationalist and other members of the alt-right I was in conversation with on Twitter claimed America was a white nation, I pointed out that blacks have been in Virginia since the first half of the 1600s, and that the founding of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the nation’s oldest capital city in 1610, indicates that the oldest Americans in our current geographic configuration were Latino (Spanish; indigenous, and mixed) and not Anglo Saxon white. They then admitted that America was not truly founded as a white nation, but that laws made it so. Their claim to a white homeland is better understood, then, as a claim to their right to use the law to protect their dominance when neither history nor meritocracy is on their side. This is similar in result to European white nationalism, but with an origin story more like the claim of South African Boers to lands, which provoked the clash of power known as the end of apartheid. White Afrikaaner nationalist calls for a volkstaat, or white homeland, persist to this day.

Their admission that the law must be leveraged to protect white dominance in America also indicates a profound fear of erasure – returning to the idea of the dilution of the white race cited by the woman in Las Vegas – and a fear of a true meritocracy. For all the criticisms of welfare and entitlement programs, whiteness has been the biggest wealth-building and land-grabbing entitlement program in America.

The white nationalist stance on American meritocracy should be extremely troubling to what I call “establishment whiteness,” a construct that believes that evocations of whiteness by and large do not challenge the access to advancement of other people. These white nationalist claims explicitly reject the “post-racial” and “color-blind” putative politics of establishment whiteness.

As a journalist, after all these years of reading headlines about the crisis of American blackness, I must ask when are we going to see an equal number of journalistic explorations about the crises of both American whiteness and global whiteness? (The far-right National Front party in France has taken a once-unthinkable polling lead in the upcoming elections, and I have written about the rise of Europe’s far right parties here.) Isn’t it about time for a serious and sustained inquiry?


It is Up to White Americans to Hear and Fight the Call-to-Whiteness Being Raised in Their Name

I have learned as much about whiteness as I have because it was critical to my survival and my personal, intellectual, and professional development. The question I have now is whether white Americans feel they have a stake in understanding whiteness as well. For this call is being made in all white Americans’ names, and to claim you are a bystander is a dangerous thing to do. This is a culture war, and as in all wars, bystanders are likely to be bloodied in the melee.

American whiteness, when activated in this particularly aggressive nationalistic way, will be worse for me and my family than it will be for many white Americans. On the other hand, I am well prepared for this moment in time. Based on my upbringing and my field studies on the world, I never presumed America was a safe place for me, although I love this nation dearly.

I have studied the geography and culture of America as intently as I have studied whiteness. I am going in December to cover the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and on that trip I intend to visit both North and South Dakota, which will complete me having visited all 50 of the U.S. states. I have family by marriage in South Dakota, and if the fates are willing I will see them on this trip. As I remain in the adoption pipeline, and my life will change dramatically once I have a child, I hear the everything-ness of America calling me to an adventure, perhaps the last one of its kind for a while.

This is my land, and no white nationalist will tell me otherwise. However, I do believe in their ability to harm me and my nation. If establishment white Americans do not recognize the challenge that the call-to-whiteness presents to their lives as well as to mine, my struggles and our nation’s struggles will be materially more difficult. But I can’t determine anyone else’s actions, only my own.

It thus remains very much up to white America to control the baser urges of the call-to-whiteness. You are not above it, particularly if you have not bothered to learn about it — and especially if you claim it doesn’t exist or doesn’t concern you. The call-to-whiteness is being invoked in your name. Can you hear it now? And how will you respond? The world is waiting to know.


In 2008, Hillary Clinton said mother would have been in foster care today

She was Senator Hillary Clinton in 2008, when she ran against Senator Barack Obama and John Edwards in South Carolina, the last state before Edwards dropped out of the race.

I spoke to her for NPR’s News and Notes, and she mentioned her mother, saying, “If she had been born at a later time, I believe she probably would have been put into the foster care system because her parents essentially abandoned her.”  Today, former Secretary of State Clinton is expected to formally announce for President, foregrounding themes of her mother.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 10.32.29 AM

The New York Times says:

Sharing that story is a shift for Mrs. Clinton, who in her 2008 campaign was fiercely protective of her mother’s privacy and eager to project an image of strength as she sought to become the first female commander in chief. And in this campaign, her mother’s story may help address one of Mrs. Clinton’s central challenges: convincing voters who feel they already know everything about her that there is, indeed, more to know, and that she is motivated by more than ambition.

But she did, in fact talk about it… perhaps not extensively, but you can still listen here (sometimes with a long page load time). It begins at 5:17.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2008, for NPR’s News and Notes, 1/25/2008, responding to why she has done children’s-rights work in her legal and political career.

I think it was initially important because my mother had such a very difficult life.

If she had been born at a later time, I believe she probably would have been put into the foster care system because her parents essentially abandoned her and her grandparents were very unwelcoming, and basically she had to leave their home when she was 13 just to go work in someone else’s home, just to have a safe place to live and to try to be able to make some way in her life.
They let her take care of her children but she had to but she had to get up and get the other children off to school, and they let her go to high school. I really saw at a very early age, that despite my comfortable, secure upbringing in my family that wasn’t the case for so many children.
It just became the cause of my passionate commitments here in public service to do what I can to give every child a chance to live up to his or her God-given potential.


Digital Diplomacy and Global Economy: An Interivew with Alec Ross on One with Farai

Alec Ross

Alec Ross

Author and former U.S. diplomat Alec Ross on globalization

Alec Ross helped define “digital diplomacy”, and logged nearly a million air miles for work — as Senior Advisor of Innovation to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He talked with Farai Chideya about technology and the future of globalization.

The Gulf: Can We Bring Empathy Back Into Politics?

America is too big to wrap your brain around, at least all at once. So, apparently, is the GOP. At times, speakers at the Republican National Convention contradicted each other. Rand Paul’s argument for cutting military spending was followed directly by John McCain’s critique of military cuts. Ann Romney’s ode to love was followed by NJ Governor Chris Christie, who criticized politicians for wanting to be loved. He expanded on the point, saying America in general has to choose between love and respect. “I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved.”

What’s healthy about that is that it shows less of a party moving in lockstep (or, to use a beauty metaphor for lockstep, think like the strands in Callista’s hair). But the Republican party has yet develop a new rhythm for incorporating differing ideologies. The entire 2012 race on the Republican side has been driven by the social-conservative grip on the party as a whole (witness its platform on abortion) being led in this race by a fiscal conservative and social moderate. His move from passionately defending womens’ right to choose in 2002, in the gubernatorial election, to pronouncing himself a strong pro-life conservative in 2012 is striking. Although, unlike the party, Romney favors exceptions for rape, incest, the life and the health of the mother, that still means he publicly desires an end to legalized abortion as we know it.

The Guttmacher Institute, an independent research group that was once a part of Planned Parenthood, wrote a paper stating:

Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. One analysis, extrapolating from data from North Carolina, concluded that an estimated 829,000 illegal or self-induced abortions occurred in 1967.
One stark indication of the prevalence of illegal abortion was the death toll….. By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17% of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. And these are just the number that were officially reported; the actual number was likely much higher.

I remember sitting in the back of a cab in Washington, DC, during one of the election seasons with George W. Bush. The driver, who was African-American, told a very graphic story about finding his dead cousin slumped in the barn after she’d bled out from a coathanger abortion. With palpable scorn in his voice, he said, “I can’t respect anyone who doesn’t vote. They don’t know what we’ll go back to.”

It was one of those rare moments where I am quiet as a mouse, just listening and visualizing all too clearly the young dead woman propped against a pole, the lower part of her dress soaked in blood.

That’s where my mind goes when people talk about banning abortion. For some people, their mind goes to the tiny broken fetuses removed in abortions. We’ve all seen those pictures hoisted at anti-abortion-rights protests. Even as I remain opposed to the specific protests that harass women entering clinics, I can understand why an image would hold such power, and also give the person marching the feeling of defending the powerless.

The New Testament, John 13:34 reads, “I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” The Dalai Lama says, “All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.” Many Buddhist teachings ask practitioners to live in love and acceptance of all circumstance — including bad breaks, outrageous fortune, and everything in between. Another Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote in his book True Love: “So if we love someone, we should train in being able to listen. By listening with calm and understanding, we can ease the suffering of another person.”

Convention season puts our listening skills to the challenge — not just to note the badly broken facts, but also the silences. America espouses a belief that anyone can become rich. Statistics show that you are less likely than ever to become rich if you are not already, i.e., diminished social mobility. The Republican convention became a meta-dialogue on class and social mobility. Just about every speaker, including Mitt Romney, talked about humble beginnings… if not theirs, then a parent’s or grandparent’s. It’s a better strategy than Romney being defensive about his tax returns, but a worse strategy, to me, than him talking about how he uses his tremendous wealth for good. If he does use his wealth for good, in a religious context or otherwise, now would be the time to talk about it… the same way he finally introduced church members he had helped at the convention.

As I watched the convention, I thought of all the different places in America I’ve been. A tea party rally on a pristine new college campus off the lettuce fields of Yuma, Arizona. The Tohono O’Otham nation… far afield from any city; straddling the US and Mexico. Skid row in LA, where I saw a man drop his glass eye while being rousted by police for smoking crack. The mansions of LA — bright and gaudy, some of them, but a revelation to a New Yorker like me. Katrina. Covering Katrina changed me. I saw starving dogs on the streets of New Orleans; people trying to ride it out without gas and electricity; and even sat in on a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney while traveling with the military in Biloxi, MS.

The thing I remember most from Katrina is actually the downtime. A friend of mine gave up her house in Baton Rouge to family from New Orleans. She was staying with her friend, a mother of 2 tweens. The kids were charming and funny and welcoming beyond belief, considering their mom had just taken in strangers. We were black and white, local and from far away. A couple of other people came to stay at the house and volunteer. Even if there were disagreements, it was all done in a sense of love and healing.

How can we bring that spirit of dialogue to politics… maybe not during the fraught election season, but more of the time? I think our country depends on us figuring it out; getting out of political gridlock; and making tracks for higher political and economic ground.

ShortTease: Reaganomics, Ryanomics, Rage, and Handouts

On The Root, I explore a troubling incident from my childhood — when schoolchildren cheered at news that Ronald Reagan was shot. It was inexcusable. It was also part of the race/class warfare of the time, where even poor children felt blamed and shamed.

via The Root

Who gets the most handouts in what Mitt Romney calls a “culture of dependency”? (He’s not talking about the tax breaks he gets for his dressage horse… breaks that are more than the average American family makes in a year.)

Check the piece on The Root. What do you think about the “culture of dependency” conversation and how it plays out in the Romney/Ryan era?

Searching: Should Welfare Recipients Be Allowed to Vote?

One might think this question is a non-issue, but it turns out to be a hot one. Who knew?

By Theresa Thompson, via Creative Commons

Sitting U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) is tied with former Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren in a race for this influential seat. Brown is now blasting a plan to register people on welfare. Per the Christian Science Monitor:

Under pressure from a lawsuit with liberal backers, the state government has agreed to send voter registration forms to anyone on the state’s welfare rolls during the past year, or about 478,000 people.

“I want every legal vote to count, but it’s outrageous to use taxpayer dollars to register welfare recipients as part of a special effort to boost one political party over another,” Brown said in a statement released Wednesday. “This effort to sign up welfare recipients is being aided by Elizabeth Warren’s daughter and it’s clearly designed to benefit her mother’s political campaign.”

The politically progressive group Demos, which helped file the suit against the state of Massachusetts that resulted in the plan, calls the registration nonpartisan and “fundamental to our democracy.”

Turns out a lot of folks not only think that there should not be state-funded voter registration drives aimed at low-income voters, but that welfare recipients should not be allowed to vote at all. (This nation did start as a place where only white, landowning males could vote, so perhaps they prefer our less egalitarian eras.) Google tossed back a bunch of articles, videos, and this post on ConservativePoliticalForum.org:

What do you think?

Adam and Eve Politics: Why another war on women and families? And why now?

Law by law, proposal by proposal, the lives of American women and families are being bound, constrained, and bricked in. Here’s just a smattering of what’s going on across America:

  • Three weeks ago in Texas, a law took effect mandating that a woman seeking an has to have an ultrasound — most likely through a probe inserted into her vagina. She must, by law, listen to the fetal heartbeat and watch the fetus while the doctor explains the anatomy of the fetus and risks of abortion including “increased risk of breast cancer.” (Mind you, the American Cancer Society says “scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer.”) Then the woman has to wait 24 hours before returning for the procedure. As a result of the extra time and work, some doctors providing abortions have raised their fees.
  • Laws requiring a trans-vaginal ultrasound have been passed in North Carolina and Oklahoma, but so far courts have blocked their implementation.
  • Laws awaiting a vote include a possible 24 hour waiting period in George and a 72 hour, or 3 day, waiting period in South Dakota.

Where does this fervor come from? The easy answer would be to look to religion, but the reality is that many people embrace their faith and consider political issues in a broad context. Most Catholics support the use of birth control, and most sexually active Catholic women use it, despite the church barring most forms of family planning. And in the recent debate over whether religious-affiliated institutions should have to cover birth control in their healthcare plans, fifty-seven percent of Catholics agreed that they should… nearly identical to the fifty-nine percent of all Americans who agreed the employers should. But the political debates don’t reflect this type of nuance. I call the open warfare in our time Adam and Eve politics — a presumption that women’s choices somehow are dangerous and should be constrained.

When the truth of gender politics gets stranger than fiction, I turn to fiction to open up emotional truths. Recently I was reading the Chaos Walking trilogy of young adult novels, which includes an exploration of gender akin to the one in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with its totalitarian theocracy. The Chaos Walking books detail a future world colonized by expats from earth. An organism on their new planet allows both men and women to hear men’s thoughts — only men’s thoughts. Men feel women have an unfair advantage, and that starts a gender war — a literal, bombs-and-guns gender war. Sounds ridiculous, right? Of course on a rational level it is. But the writing is done with an enormous sensitivity, following a teenaged boy whose mother dies in the conflict. Like so much science fiction the book is a metaphor for our society, our inability to get along across gender lines. Men and women in this tale come to blows because of a lack of trust and a fear of each other’s power. The womens’ psychic silence becomes a metaphor for the un-knowing that men have of reproduction and carrying a child– not the science of it, but the being of it. The power to conceive a child is dual (something forgotten in laws like the ones above), but the power to bear a child is unilateral, and apparently feared.

How else besides fear can we explain the rush to pass regressive legislation? Perhaps the root is a broader panic about our future, and a sense that rolling back the past on reproductive science will make us safer. We are living in an era of enormous problems and petty squabbles over half-baked solutions. Among the challenges: new global conflicts (including the diplomatic threats surrounding Iran), a diminution in natural energy resources and climate threats to flora and fauna, and a permanent shift in the job market that leaves fewer people feeling they have a chance at employment security. Among the proposed solutions: tax cuts, incremental jobs and housing programs, and tweaks to educational policy. We are like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, but unlike the fairy tale this is unlikely to bring salvation. We have to apply big solutions to the big problems of our time. Instead, we seem designed to re-fight gender wars from the Middle Ages on, perhaps as a way of distracting ourselves from the larger questions at hand.

It’s critically important to realize (and speak the truth) that this is a war on women and families, not just on one gender. Some of the same people who are telling government to stop intruding on American enterprise and stop social services are demanding that the government literally put metal instruments into women’s bodies. These lawmakers and their supporters tell American men and women the government knows better than families how and when to bear and raise children. In other words, American families, under this barrage of laws, will be expected to privilege fertility over ability — and bear children even if they know they can’t raise them or raise them well. What a horror. What are we thinking? And for those of us of faith, how can this possibly track with our belief in a compassionate God?

Still Striving

When my family gathered at my mother’s house for Thanksgiving, we included two veterans; one active duty military member (about to be deployed to Afghanistan, after two tours in Iraq); a doctor; an engineer; scientists and a retired teacher. All of us stand on the legacy of our ancestors, including a group of proud black farmers in Virginia and my grandparents, who were book collectors and culture mavens on a shoestring salary. My grandfather dropped out of high school to support his family. My grandmother was the valedictorian of her high school class but too poor to attend college. (She later put herself through college classes after having six children.)

My grandparents have long passed on, but they had dreams for us. Although none of our lives are easy or perfect, we have followed path of achievement they told us was possible. This is the American Dream, of course, plus the African-American legacy known as striving. “Striver’s Row” in Harlem, for example, is named for the upwardly-mobile African-Americans who put their cultural stamp on the neighborhood. Harlem has seen a resurgence (not solely among Black residents). But many neighborhoods across America, like the one where my mother lives, have been battered by the economy and the housing crisis.

Next door to my mom’s house is a sad, burnt-out shell of a home. To our relief, it’s scheduled for demolition. (I’ve written more about it here.) As opposed to the well-kept brownstones of Striver’s Row, my mother’s neighborhood probably has more in common with many communities — black and non-black — in our volatile times. The community includes the house-proud and the derelict, unlike previous years where most if not all people lifted themselves to high standards. Of course there are people who are bad actors, but mainly it’s a reflection of people being dealt a bad economic hand.

Nationally, Occupy Wall Street emerged with force, if not always clarity, precisely because so many of us saw our communities, families, and lives going from everyday struggle to outright trauma. The trillion dollar question is: how do we right this ship? And that’s where we get into tricky territory. Last night, our Thanksgiving dinner ended with a bitter fight over how to deal with the problems facing the community. The specifics of the fight were about what happens in Baltimore, but of course the issues apply on a national level. How do you encourage good actors and justly (but not unfairly or hyper-reactively) fight crime? How do you encourage sustainable communities, jobs and enterprise? How do you re-create the American Dream from the American Nightmare?

My family, like many, includes people of varied and sometimes opposing political views. But underneath our self-identification and labels, we have a common goal of making life better. Take my cousin, who was at home out West last night, not in Baltimore. She’s around my age, and has a husband and two kids in grade school. This summer, they all went on an epic road trip. They camped, went fishing, and got their car towed in Philadelphia. Then they stayed with me, and learned that in New York, life comes in small packages. We all squeezed into my apartment and went out to the Brooklyn Museum late at night on First Saturday to see the mummies.

One day, my cousin was talking about raising the kids right; looking out for education and the economy; and mentioned a few times that she saw society from her perspective “as a conservative.” But what she was speaking about didn’t sound to me like conservatism as much as good common sense.

The issues we’re facing in America today are bigger than politics. We’re seeing, and experiencing, a permanent shift in labor patterns that will leave more people episodically employed. For many people out of work today, or even those in the factory or office, the road ahead will be making a quilt of different paying gigs versus having the security blanket of one long-term job with benefits. Long-term labor shifts are changing and will continue to affect our tax rolls, schools, and even our physical and mental health.

The game has changed. As my uncle put it: “I used to feel like I could switch jobs at any minute, because I had confidence that I could learn anything and there would be jobs out there.” He was proven right again and again, working at everything from being a Marine to a fine artist to a telephone lineman to a computer programmer. But today, his kids and so many others face a job market where mobility is trending downward rather than up; where cold job applications meet silence; and where more aggressive means of connecting with work (putting your own portfolio online; networking via Meetup and local groups) absolutely have to be employed.

Our family’s political disagreements mirror those on a national level. That said, we are still striving — still working to make our lives and our communities better. I see more success on the local level than the national in defining how we’re going to move ahead. In my mother’s neighborhood, for example, six years of community action finally produced the funding and plan for a business district redevelopment. We can rise; we can succeed; and we can produce new opportunities. On a good day, I believe that without reservation. Even on a bad day, I believe it can happen in time… if we make it so.

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.

This Song of Freedom

November 22, 2010

First, let’s talk about redemption. Last night I went to a brilliant one-man play (soon to be a three-man production), by someone I’ve admired for years, the executive producer of Bill Maher’s show, Scott Carter. Scott wears a vest and a jacket almost without fail. His garb makes a pointed but not churlish commentary on the slovenly dress our society has devolved into in the name of Casual Friday (and Monday-through-Thursday). He is both out of time and of his time (for he has to produce a weekly humor/current-affairs show), and he is a man who has wrestled with his faith.

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From Burning Man To Politics

Out in the Nevada desert, people are preparing to burn an effigy of a man, and hopefully be inspired, refreshed, and renewed by the experience. The annual Burning Man festival is a total “wha?” for some people and utter old hat for others, so if you don’t know about it, I will send you straight to their website, BurningMan.com.

I just got back from the playa, or the Black Rock desert where the festival is held. It was a somewhat truncated trip because work beckoned. I say “somewhat truncated” because one of the things you learn from being on the playa is that everything may not be right, but it’s right where it needs to be and right on time. So the fact that I flew a couple thousand miles and drove another three hours to be in a place with no running water for four days was exactly as it had to be, and totally worth it. While I was there, I helped build a bunch of structures for my theme camp, and for the first time I also did some reporting, on black participants at Burning Man.

To say that black Burners are a minority is beyond obvious, but as I found out many of the African-Americans (and Afro-Brits, etc) who come have been taking part in Burning Man for over a decade. I saw more color than ever before among the participants, which is to say not a lot but a noticeable uptick since I last attended three years ago. The people of African descent I spoke to included a man who did live event radio broadcasts to one who taught fire arts to another who helped run the media tent. They were there to dream, and to do.

It strikes me, and not for the first time, that Burning Man is resonant with metaphors for American life and politics. America is a shared dreaming, a place with rules and codes that are constantly being challenged and re-worked. Our Constitution was re-worked by debates over slavery and gender, among others. We have re-coded our laws to suit our changing morality, sometimes, as with California and Proposition 8, crossing the same line many times using different branches of government.

Although Burning Man is designed to be and is a place of, as they put it, “radical self-expression” as well as radical self-reliance, it has rules. No firearms, for example… You used to be able to bring guns and shoot out over the vast open lands. Now you can’t, because, among other things, it’s simply not practical to have fifty thousand people in various states of self-expression and also have weapons around. (Some will argue that point, but most agree to that rule, and others, including the rule that nothing other than coffee is to be bought or sold within the festival circle.)

One of the reasons I go to Burning Man, and I think one of the reasons many people go, is because every single moment you are forced to check in with your own relationship to other people’s choices, and your own. As Burning Man has swelled from a gathering of hundred, to thousands, to fifty thousand people, space is literally mapped out and negotiated, and the negotiations themselves are one of the most interesting parts, to me, of watching the city’s drama unfold.

What is politics but a literal negotiation of space, in forms including Congressional redistricting, as well as allocation of resources? Some negotiations are not pretty, and right now America is pulled taut by a mix of economic stress and tensions over ethnicity, immigration, and identity. We are growing as a nation and feeling the growing pains.

On Tuesday, I head off on my next reporting adventure, which I’ll talk more about later. For the online, radio, and multimedia specials “Pop and Politics with Farai Chideya,” I’ll be going on a multi-day road trip through Florida with multi-media journalists. We’ll be interviewing Senate candidates, citizens, and undocumented immigrants. We’ll be hosting a meetup in Miami. And we’ll take a look at the ways in which people use political tools — from activism to running for office — to negotiate resources and space.

I’ll leave for my reporting trip inspired by my trip to the desert, which, as every time I go, opened my mind and my heart. Driving to and from the festival, through miles and miles of open country with open sight lines, past Tribal lands and small towns, I saw a part of America that the New Yorker in me rarely sees. Is it any wonder we sometimes misunderstand each other, or take each other for granted, in this vast land? How do we come to an agreement of what is the common good? Those are questions I’ll take with me on the road.