Category Archives: Racial Equality

Ferguson

I haven’t blogged about the depressing situation in Ferguson, Missouri, for a number of reasons: first of all, unlike left- and rightwing partisans, all of whom are convinced they know exactly what happened, I’m not in possession of all the facts.

So what do I know?

I know that everyone in a position of authority, including the police chief, the Mayor and the Governor, has demonstrated what world-class bungling looks like. It’s hard to imagine more ham-handed and counterproductive efforts to deal with an already difficult situation.

I know that Ferguson’s population is two-thirds African-American, and that virtually all of the power structure–elected officials, police officers–are white. I also know that–at least according to press reports–turnout in the last municipal election was twelve percent. Maybe there is a reason the residents of Ferguson are not exercising their franchise, but on the surface, it is puzzling that members of the African-American community haven’t used the ballot to address their grievances.

But most of all, because I have a lot of black friends and because I used to be the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I know that–Sesame Street et al to the contrary– the policeman isn’t always your friend.  Most police officers are good guys, but there are far too many who use the badge and the gun to compensate for whatever demons they fight, to reassure themselves that they are superior to the people they are supposed to be protecting, and as a license to frighten and dominate people they don’t like. (A police officer who was a recent contestant on “Wheel of Fortune” described her job as “Trash Management,” because she “takes out the human trash.” That’s an attitude we can do without.)

One of the blogs I follow is “Juanita Jean: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor.” This recent post from”Juanita” helps explain the concerns and the anger, not just of African-Americans and Latinos, but of all fair-minded citizens.

True story: the first time a met a Texas Ranger, the legendary Texas lawmen not the baseball team, I was wearing a gorgeous hand loomed sarape from interior Mexico. It was one of my prize possessions because of its beauty and utility in Houston winters. The Ranger, meeting me for the first time, said to me, “Don’t you know not to wear a poncho around a Texas Ranger?” I asked why. “Because that’s what we take target practice on. Har. Har. Har.” My stomach turned. It was a life-altering moment.

That’s not funny. Not at all. And the reason it’s not funny is that there is too much truth in it. Twenty-five years later, I met the first black female Texas Ranger. I asked her if I could hug her. I didn’t tell her why but I think she saw it in my eyes. She hugged me.

I am in pain over Ferguson. We’ve fought this crap for my entire life and we still haven’t won.

I still have some fight left in me. I do.

We all need to fight–for justice, and also for forbearance. We all have preconceived notions that dictate knee-jerk responses to tragedies like Ferguson. Those preconceptions only drive us further apart, when what we really need is a narrative and definition of justice that will allow us to come together.

And really, military gear doesn’t help.

 

File Under “It’s Who You Know”…

Oligarchies work really well if you are one of the oligarchs. The Indianapolis Star recently re-engaged in something that used to be called “journalism,” and reported that the State of Indiana had intentionally misused federal funds during the Daniels Administration.

Federal auditors say Indiana intentionally misused federal funds when one of its contractors, operating with little state oversight, funneled nearly a half million dollars to a start-up business run by the nonprofit’s chairman.

Elevate Ventures, which was the subject of an Indianapolis Star investigation last year, was hired by the state to manage millions of dollars in state and federal investment funds. The federal audit concluded that the nonprofit should not have awarded $499,986 in federal cash to a start-up business called Smarter Remarketer managed by the firm’s chairman, Howard Bates.

The article was thorough, and drew a pretty damaging picture of the games being played with our tax dollars. State officials, of course, denied any intentional wrongdoing and attributed the “problem” to inadequate oversight.

Spoiler alert: I will now go into “broken record” mode. For the past quarter-century, citizens have been told that government can’t do anything by itself, and that privatizing–”contracting out”–is the way to deliver government services. Sometimes contracting makes good sense. Often, it doesn’t. See here and here.

 

When contracting is appropriate, government remains responsible for oversight and management. Even if the scam detailed by the Star wasn’t a case of cronyism (and if you believe that, I have a great bridge to sell you…), it points to one of the dangers of  contracting: government officials who lack either the will or the expertise to manage those contracts adequately.

 

Of course, the article suggests that the folks responsible for overseeing Elevate Ventures weren’t inept. They were cozy.

 

 

Ah, oligarchy….

White Privilege

Every so often, even well-meaning people will pooh-pooh the notion of “white privilege.” Most of us who enjoy that privilege fail to recognize how it works, both for us and for those who don’t benefit from the unspoken assumptions evoked by white skin.

What made me think about the subject was an email I received the other day from a (white) friend. She wrote

I’m currently reading “Ted Koppel Off Camera” a book of his daily journal of news and personal observations from 1999.   In it, he says he read a statistic that was so incredible he didn’t believe it – that 8 of 10 blacks had spent time behind bars.    That includes people held for short times in jail and released for lack of evidence or wrongful arrest, but nevertheless, he was incredulous.    So he asked 5 blacks with whom he worked if they had ever been arrested and spent time behind bars, and every one of them had -one repeatedly for driving a new car which police didn’t think a black man should be driving.

Her email reminded me of my own dumbfounded reaction several years ago, when I was part of a small group that later became the much-larger Race Relations Network of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee. There were approximately 20 of us in that early group, about half and half white and black. Most were professionals, or highly-educated executives with local companies or organizations.

For some reason, the discussion turned to speed limits, and someone asked “How many of you have been stopped for speeding?” All of us raised our hands. The next question was more pointed. “When you were stopped, how many of you were asked ‘Can I  search your vehicle’”? Every black hand went up; no white ones did.

Tell me again how “white privilege” is a myth….

The War Between the Americans

I recently read an article that traced the roots of Tea Party zealotry all the way back to 1938 and the first signs of the eventual split between Northern and Southern Democrats. The trajectory of intensely racialized politics continued through Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the Reagan realignment, giving us today’s “rigidly homogenous and disproportionately Southern Republican Party.”

That’s a nice way of saying that today’s GOP is a party of Southern white guys, and a lot of them really resent the fact that we have a black President.

My husband and I have friends from the South who still refer to the Civil War as “the war between the States.” I used to think that phrase–and the hostility it conveyed–were remnants of a time past.

Granted, when I went to school in Chapel Hill, NC, in the sixties, there were still separate restrooms and drinking fountains. Just a couple of years ago, a docent at the Rice Museum in Georgetown, SC, told us how unfair it was that slaveowners weren’t compensated for the loss of their “property” via the Emancipation Proclamation. (And before you hit that comment button, anyone who has listened to lame “jokes” at Northern cocktail parties  knows racism isn’t limited to the South.) But America was making progress! These retrograde attitudes were on the wane. Or so I (naively) thought.

And then Barack Obama was elected, and–rather than confirming progress– the boil was lanced, the rocks lifted…pick your metaphor.

Now let me say up front that it is perfectly possible to disagree with this–or any–President about policies and priorities. It is perfectly acceptable to criticize a chief executive, and to do so loudly and vehemently. And there are plenty of Republicans whose disagreements with this President are simply that: disagreements.

But only the willfully blind can deny that there are also frightening numbers of people who are clearly and obviously motivated by racial animus.

These are the people whose “policy disagreements” with Obama emerged before he had policies, and whose “principled” disputes included birther conspiracy theories, allegations that he was/is a Muslim, a Kenyan, a socialist, a Nazi–”policy disputes” that took the form of cartoons portraying him as a monkey, pictures of the White House with watermelons on the lawn,  vile comments posted to news stories, and the behavior of Tea Party crowds like the recent rally at the White House featuring Sarah Palin, a confederate flag, and demands that the President “put down the Q’uaran.”

Joe the Plumber (remember him?), never the brightest bulb in the room, wasn’t exactly subtle last weekend when he posted an article on his blog titled: “America Needs a White Republican President.”

These aren’t policy disputes.

The vitriol has been hard to miss–unless, of course, you prefer not to see it. And there are a lot of otherwise nice people–people who would never burn a cross on someone’s lawn, or make overtly racist remarks–who clearly prefer not to see what is glaringly obvious. (A lawyer of my acquaintance recently professed surprise when someone commented on the outpouring of racism in the wake of Obama’s election, saying he hadn’t noticed anything of the sort. Evidently he doesn’t get the offensive forwarded emails, or read the comments sections of the daily paper, or listen to Rush Limbaugh or his clones.)

I don’t know what we can do about the seething hatred triggered, ironically, by the election of a black President. Historians confirm that racism, Anti-Semitism, homophobia and the like tend to spike during periods of economic uncertainty, and we can hope that as the economy improves, it will subside.

I do know one thing: Edmund Burke was right when he said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

At the very least, the good people need to speak up. Pretending not to see the ugliness and vitriol just feeds the hatred.

Who’d have thought the Civil War would last so long…..

 

Madison, Bingham and the Crapshoot of History

There was a lecture at the McKinney School of Law yesterday about Jonathan Bingham, the most important constitutional figure you’ve probably never heard of. One of the professors has just written a biography of him–”American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

I came across Bingham and the role he played in U.S. history a number of years ago, when I was researching a book of my own. He was a Republican Congressman from Ohio, a fervent believer in racial equality, who wrote the first and most famous passage of the 14th Amendment–the one forbidding states to deny “the privileges and immunities of citizenship” to their citizens, and requiring that they extend to those citizens the guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws.

It was clear even from the brief research I did then that Bingham’s intent was to finish what Madison had tried but been unable to do–apply the entire Bill of Rights to state and local governments. (Originally, the Bill of Rights only restrained the federal government.) In the aftermath of the Civil War, he was able to get it done.

Or so he thought.

The Supreme Court declined to interpret the 14th Amendment as requiring complete and immediate”incorporation,” the weird term used by lawyers that means applying the Bill of Rights’ restrictions against government at all levels. The Court opted for “selective” incorporation–and only over a period of many years, as cases came before it, used the Amendment as a vehicle to ensure that  local government units respect the “fundamental liberties” protected by the Bill of Rights.

What too few Americans appreciate is the importance of the 14th Amendment to our current Constitutional system. Yale Constitutional scholar Akil Amar has called the post-civil rights period and the changes wrought by the 14th Amendment a second founding, and it does seem odd that even Americans who are quite familiar with the roles played by Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton et al have never heard of Bingham, nor been taught about the profound effect of his Amendment.

Just goes to show, I guess. HIstory’s a crapshoot.