Category Archives: Racial Equality

Can We Ever Lance This Boil?

One of the people whose writing I very much admire is Phil Gulley. I first encountered his essays in The Indianapolis Monthly, but I subsequently learned that he contributes to a number of other venues, and recently I came across a really profound piece he wrote for Salon.

These paragraphs, particularly, struck me:

The merit of a position can be gauged by the temperament of its supporters, and these days the NRA reminds me of the folks who packed the courtroom of the Scopes monkey trial, fighting to preserve a worldview no thoughtful person espoused. This worship of guns grows more ridiculous, more difficult to sustain, and they know it, hence their theatrics, their parading through Home Depot and Target, rifles slung over shoulders. Defending themselves, they say. From what, from whom? I have whiled away many an hour at Home Depots and Targets and never once come under attack.

What drives this fanaticism? Can I venture a guess? Have you noticed the simultaneous increase in gun sales and the decline of the white majority? After the 2010 census, when social scientists predicted a white minority in America by the year 2043, we began to hear talk of “taking back our country.” Gun shops popped up like mushrooms, mostly in the white enclaves of America’s suburbs and small towns. One can’t help wondering if the zeal for weaponry has been fueled by the same dismal racism that has propelled so many social ills.

Although I agree with Gulley about guns, I think I responded so strongly to these  paragraphs because I have become increasingly despondent about the unbelievable (at least to me) resurgence in overt racism since the election of Barack Obama.

Let me get a couple of caveats out of the way first: yes, it is perfectly possible to disagree with President Obama without being a racist. Not every such disagreement, or strong criticism, is fueled by racist animus. And although the election of a black President is not, unfortunately, a sign that we are a post-racial society, it is a sign that America has made progress.

That said, after Obama’s election, and before he even took office, the rocks lifted and what crawled out should shame us all.

It began with internet “jokes” about watermelons and “uppity” African-Americans, with Fox News “commentators” charging that Obama was the “real racist” and vast amounts of similar garbage that fed the accusations of the “birthers” (a black man by definition couldn’t be a “real American”). Long-time bigots like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck had a field day, as we might have expected, but the pushback we also should have expected wasn’t exactly resounding.

It has become acceptable again to share racist sentiments in “polite company”–to tell “jokes” or make aspersions that had previously (and thankfully) gone underground.

And so here we are.

A California man claims he was defending himself last year when he ran over a black man, killing him, following an altercation outside McDonalds.

Joseph Paul Leonard Jr. burned rubber for 23 feet before crashing into 34-year-old Toussaint Harrison during the June 6, 2013 incident, reported the Sacramento Bee.

Leonard, now 62, got out of his pickup and kicked Harrison several times in the head with his steel-toed work boots, authorities said.

“Just because we got Obama for a president, these people think they are real special,” Leonard said after his arrest.

These people.

When the President nominated Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder, twitter feeds exploded with racist comments. White supremacists recently rallied outside Dallas, “to protect the American way of life.” George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missiouri.  A noose around the neck of a statue of a famous civil rights figure at the University of Mississippi. The list could go on for pages–indeed, examples routinely dot my Facebook feed, as friends post everything from insensitive behaviors to horrifying incidents–most accompanied by sentiments like “words fail.”

Words do fail.

I understand that people resent losing privilege and hegemony. I recognize that social change can be profoundly disorienting, and that the gun-toting, race-baiting bullies are frightened and lost. But ultimately, the bullies aren’t the problem. The “nice” people who forward the emails, who chuckle approvingly at the “jokes,” who claim to hate the President because he’s an unAmerican Nazi-socialist and not because he’s black, the elected officials who have made it their sole mission is to keep this President from achieving anything, no matter how good for the country, no matter that their party thought of it first–those people are the problem.

And Houston, we really, really have a problem.

 

 

 

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…..