Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why I Have Hope

About a month ago a good friend called me and informed me that my blogs were depressing him and that he needed to stop reading them for a while. I was bit taken back because despite a frequent focus on the injustices in so many facets of our public life, on a day to day basis I’m a pretty hopeful guy. His comment got me reflecting on what gives me hope in the midst of the corporate greed, institutional racism, government gridlock and general erosion of basic human rights in our country I so often focus on.

Here’s what I came up with.

Upon reflection I would say that my hope comes from three main sources. The first source of hope is the students I am privileged to teach in the Eastern University Urban Studies program. When each new group of students begins our program I tell them that they are special slice of humanity because they have forgone the lures of consumerism and materialism and, for reasons that vary from individual to individual, have decided to dedicate their lives to work in solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten and the oppressed. These students are not only extremely committed and intelligent, but they bring a clear belief that they can make a difference in the world. After taking classes in urban problems, racism, broken communities, research, leadership, and the like, their idealism gets tempered with a gritty awareness of how to address the challenges before them, and  they go on to work in organizations and with community groups do the work of justice at the grassroots level. Being able to invest myself in these young folks (most are in their mid to late 20’s) and seeing what they are doing gives me tremendous hope for the future. The battle for justice is long but there are people committed to that process for decades to come.

My second source of hope lies in the many small movements for social justice that are happening and continue to happen: fast food workers advocating for a raise in the minimum wage; undocumented folks and their allies pushing for immigration reform; moms and student resisting the NRA and gun lobby to work for changes in laws around the use and purchase of firearms; and people from across Pennsylvania working together to make a fair funding formula for public education a top political priority in the state – just to name a few recent ones. As I read the blogs and newsletters of progressive organizations, I am reminded that the Montgomery (AL) Bus Boycott in 1955 that brought the Civil Rights Movement into national media attention was preceded by decades of effort by small groups of committed individuals working to bring about change in the segregated South. Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated public bus, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the first preacher to give voice to black people’s concerns, and Montgomery was not the only Southern city to have faced a challenge from its citizens of color. These things had been going on in communities big and small for a long time; what Montgomery did was light a spark that brought the energy together to forge a movement. I see the seemingly small and disconnected efforts that have been going on for the past several years as moving us toward a time when a larger movement will emerge to challenge the corporate power structure and the government leaders who have sold their soul to lobbyists and the big donors instead of listening to their constituents. A new civil rights movement is coming. I don’t know when, how, where or what it will look like, but I can feel the movement coming; like clouds before storm, like tremors before an earthquake.

My third source of hope comes from the promise of the Bible that God is truly on the side of the oppressed. During this Advent season I have been struck by how often the promise of the coming Messiah is couched in the language of justice. Isaiah 40 speaks of the Messiah being one who “gives strength to the weary and power to the weak” (vs. 29).  Isaiah 11 says that this Messiah “with righteousness judge the needy, with justice give[s] decisions for the poor of the earth” (vs. 4). Mary in her beautiful song upon learning that she is given birth sings that God “has brought down the rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1. 52-53). Paulo Freire, who is my inspiration for many things having to do with justice, said that God gives us the vision of what the world can and should be and then commissions us to go out and make it reality thru what he calls denunciation and annunciation. According to Freire, our job in essence is to denounce things in our current reality that block or undermine that just society from coming into being and work to dismantle them. Then our job is to announce the new reality, the just society God desires to see, and work toward it.  I don’t think that God is somehow going to wave his hand and all injustice will go away, nor am I waiting for things to get better only in the afterlife. Rather I believe God gives us a picture of what life can and should be, and empowers us to make it happen.

This hope is not based in a quick fix or magic transformation. Hope calls me and others like me to a life of struggle, disappointment, frustration and occasional celebrations for small victories. As the apostle Paul points out in Romans 5.1-5, hope is borne out of suffering, but that the hope connects us with an infilling of God’s spirit, the spirit of history, to continue the struggle. In non-theological terms it comes down to knowing one is on the right side of history, working for that which is good, just and true, and moving into the future with a conviction shared with other like-minded individuals. This hope recognizes that the power structures are deeply entrenched and will not easily be toppled or transformed, but it also recognizes the continued concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few is not sustainable for the planet or the country. If nothing else the structure will topple under the weight of its own hubris or more likely it will be torn down like the Berlin Wall, but in any case it will fall.

I was too young to fully appreciate the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s in the moment. However in my study of that movement I know that from it issued forth other movements for peace in Vietnam, women’s rights, and environmental awareness. Could something similar be about to happen now? The increased racial/cultural diversity of our nation, the pressure of global warming, the arrogant intransigence of the one-percenters and the growing unrest within the general population are setting the stage for something to happen. That is why I keep writing and working and teaching and living into that newer, more just and inclusive world; therein lies my hope.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Thank You, Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday (Dec 5) and I was informed of this death as fittingly I was talking about the effects of racism in our society with a group of young adults involved in a program called Mission Year. As has been and will be repeated many times over the next few days, the world has lost one of the 20th century’s great leaders. In a fortuitous timing the movie, “Mandela” was just recently released; hopefully this sad event will entice even more persons to see the movie, a tribute to one of history’s great individuals.

On a hot summer day in 1993 Nelson Mandela came to Philadelphia to receive the Medal of Freedom along with F. W. de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid regime in South African with whom Mandela had negotiated the transition to full enfranchisement of the black people of that nation. My family and I took the train Philadelphia to see the ceremony, which was held on the steps of Independence Hall. My children ages 9, 6 and 3 at the time, may not remember that day, but it was important to me that they have an opportunity to see and participate in history. We were not able to get very close to the front as there were thousands of people of all races and colors on the mall that day – a fitting tribute to Mandela, an icon of racial reconciliation. Despite the heat and the crowds the kids did not complain or whine as might have been expected; it’s as if they sensed something important was going on.

Both de Klerk and Mandela spoke briefly that day. They did not seem comfortable with each other and in fact in his autobiography Mandela acknowledged his dislike and distrust of de Klerk. Even from a distance de Klerk himself looked uneasy receiving the award. It was as if he resented having been forced into a position of acceding power and prestige to Mandela. In releasing Mandela from jail de Klerk and the white government had hoped to manipulate him into supporting the continuance of the white apartheid government, but Mandela had out maneuvered them and used his public power to force them to dismantle the regime. By contrast on that day Nelson Mandela seemed to glow in the spotlight of the new hour, but not only for himself but for all of Africa. Many observers, friends, and associates of Mandela have commented on his incredible humility, most clearly evidenced in his resignation from South African’s presidency after only one term. I sensed his humility that day as well.

As I mentioned above, when I heard of his death I was talking with some young adults about racism in our society, and in my talk I stressed that racism is like a powerful drug to which we all became addicted the moment we are born into this society. That is, the ubiquitous nature of racism is so pervasive in our culture and social system that we can not avoid being influenced and shaped by it. While we may be able to curb our language and our actions so as to be civil, our media and social, political and economic structures operate continue to privilege the white and the wealthy and the expense of people of color and the poor. Unless we choose to actively work against these effects – be it unearned privilege for the white and wealthy, or destructive self-negation for the poor and people of color – we just will go along supporting a system benefits the few and the expense of the many.

How fitting that yesterday on the same day of Mandela’s death that fast food workers across the country were engaged in an organized protest demanding the minimum wage be raised from $7.25/hour to a more livable wage. When people can work a full time job and not be able to make an adequate living and the CEOs of those same companies get bonuses on top of their multi-million dollar salaries, there is something horribly wrong in a broken and unjust economic system.

I told the young adults that we are living in dynamic times, where within the next 30 years the racial make-up of this country will change so that no racial group will comprise more than 50% of the population. I challenged and encouraged them to be part of creating a equitable, multi-racial democratic society by continuing to face-up to the racism in their own lives and challenge and change the racist structures of our society. One woman did not share my hope fearing that our society would become even more divided; I acknowledge that I too shared her fear. Yet I suggested we must choose to live in hope, and live into the future we hope to create.

What we face in our time might have seemed small to the black people of South Africa during the decades leading up to 1991 when Mandela was released. Despite being confined for decades to a jail cell, Mandela never gave up hope, and never stopped believing in the power of truth and justice to have the last word. As a Christian I find hope in my faith that tells me that “God gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (Isaiah 40.29). Mandela’s story, like so many other champions of justice, reminds us that tyranny and oppression sow the seeds of their own destruction, and it is up to the committed and the faithful to work toward building the just society.

So I mourn Nelson Mandela’s passing, but celebrate his life and cherish the legacy that continues to guide and inspire me to work for the just society everyone deserves.

(*** images from Google Image)

Sunday, November 03, 2013

"Twelve Years a Slave" and the Banality of Evil

Last night my wife and went to see the film “12 Years a Slave,” the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black from Saratoga, NY who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Eventually, thru the help of friends he was discovered and freed after 12 years. While the story of Northup’s ordeal supplies the plot line, the real purpose of director Steve McQueen is to bring forth in graphic detail, the utter brutality and horror of slavery itself. There is one scene, where Solomon is being hung from a tree such that his feet barely touch the ground so he does not suffocate; the camera fixes on the hanging man for what seems like three or four minutes (but feels like thirty) from all angles and I wanted to scream “someone cut him down!” But no one did, until finally the master comes and lets him down. At several other points in the film we watch slaves being brutally whipped and beaten and are then shown their scar-striped backs. In another scene Solomon is ordered to whip his fellow slave, a woman who earlier in the film has begged him to drown her and put her out of her misery; Solomon does so unwillingly but it is either do it or become the victim himself, and I found myself hoping that perhaps at least he could whip her to death to fulfill the young woman’s desire to die – but to no avail she survives. Even when Solomon is freed there is no sense of victory because as the wagon taking him home pulls out, the camera focuses on all his fellow slaves he leaves behind whose suffering one knows will continue. While the film ends with Northup being reunited with his family, there is no joy. I was left with a feeling of deep sadness over the reality of our history that has been sanitized and glossed over, a past white America would rather forget than face, a past we would rather rationalize than repent of.

While viewing the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals following World War II, journalist and philosopher Hannah Arendt was struck by what she called the “banality of evil”; that is, how evil can become so normalized that one can participate in evil without thought or deliberate intention. As I watched “12 Years a Slave,” I was struck by the fact that the brutality and inhumanity of the whites toward blacks during slavery was a given, and few if any whites were either aware enough or courageous enough to challenge it. At several points in the movie, various white characters had opportunities to take action to help Solomon regain his freedom and yet backed away out of fear of what might happen to them. This is how oppression works – it breeds fear in both the oppressor and oppressed so that both are paralyzed by the system that keeps them acting and being treated in unjust and inhuman ways.

While in one sense it is enough for us to look long and hard into the horror of our American history to see what we can learn and change from the past, I could not help but wonder in what ways are we, am I, accommodating evils as horrific as the brutality of slavery. What goes on today in the name of “civilization” or American freedom or Christianity that is so “normal” and so “acceptable” that it becomes banal and thereby unrecognizable as the evil it is? Several realities of our world come to mind:   the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, many of whom who have never been accused of a crime yet remain imprisoned after 12 years (ironic isn’t it); the subhuman treatment of undocumented immigrants coming to this country to flee persecution and suffering, only to be scapegoated and oppressed here; the use of military drones targeting “terrorists” in  remote areas of Pakistan, which despite official denials more often than not kill and main innocent victims in the name of our “freedom;” hunger, homelessness and poverty in a nation where the wealthy 1% continue to accumulate while nearly 20% exist below the official poverty line (which itself is not a true standard of poverty). I could go on, but my point is simple – we are not so far removed from the same conditions portrayed in “12 Years a Slave.”

Of the banality of evil Hannah Arendt wrote: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” That is, the evil is so embedded in our systems and way of life, we see it as normal rather than the evil it is. We don’t have to decide to hurt, maim and dehumanize others, the system and culture in which we live does it for us and we, sometimes unwittingly, but more often operating out of denial, just choose to look the other way.

I wept at the end of the movie in part for the horror that was American slavery (recognizing that in many parts of the world slavery still exists), but I also wept because I realized how easily I go along with similar evil in our day. The movie challenges me to keep a critical eye open and to look at the evils in our world directly, and not turn away no matter how painful or uncomfortable or intimidating. I am challenged to be one of those few who through history have been willing to risk safety, security and reputation in pursuit of what is right. I am challenged to look into my own heart and around my own community and to do what I can to remain vigilant, so as not to be seduced by evil’s banality.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spiritual Crisis

My good friend Mary Wade, an urban peacemaker, formerly working at the U.N. offers this response to my last posting "Disgusted." She is far more eloquent than I and gets to the heart of the issue: a spiritual crisis. Here is Mary's response.

More and more in my speaking I hear myself saying,this crisis is spiritual.  It
involves matters of morality, ethics, humanity, respect for the human race and
creator of all.

The mode of operation involves pitting the poor, uninformed, and those striving
to achieve the rich, super-rich at the expense of every one else.  Through every
form of media it is poured into our consciousness.
Two aspects of the conditioning to accept this abuse against the American people
and the world is what Dr. Howard Thurman identifies as fear, hatred, and
deception.  Too many fear the power of the super-rich.  They fear the
apparatuses they possess in control of military, powerful allies in the
government, and the ability to weaken our meager economic survival. Then there
is their ability to stir up hate for each other and anyone who speaks out in
support the poor. This is evident in the ability to convince people who need
health care,medicare, medicaid, food stamps, inexpensive housing to act and vote
against their own best interest.

Religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, all vehicles by which to create
division.  Hate and guilt over their condition; hate and fear of each other.
Much is the crippling guilt is against the self for being in the perdicament.
Then there is the deception.  Deception by the rich who again use  trickery to
deceive us into thinking they are doing what is good for America. Too often we
deceive ourselves in believing we oppose their greed while storing up a lust for
greed in our own hearts.  Too many of us want to be like them.

Yes Drick, I too am fed up too.  The Power Movement, National Action Network,
and other movements so essential to redressing the evil and impact of the
assault on the poor and defenseless are doing their part.
The issue we must address is the spiritual state of the nation and individuals.
We are in a spiritual warfare; a battle between the two kingdoms.  The kingdom
of ungodliness, darkness, hatred, fear, deception, greed, and the kingdom of
God, the light, hope, openness, courage, and compassion.  I believe we must
support the organizations, do our part indivdiually to help people and make a
difference.  But we also need a real spiritual movement in this nation.  One
more powerful than the so called moral majority. And we cannot achieve this as
individuals, we must unite around a purely spiritual movement to "reclaim the
soul of America".

Also fed up and thanking you for helping me articulate a deep area of concern in
my heart and soul.

Mary Wade, Elevate our Nation, Building Respect in Community (BRIC)


I’m disgusted.

After several weeks of stymieing the government’s ability to operate by causing a shutdown and complaining about the expense of the Affordable Health Care Act (which unfortunately has not been launched all that effectively), House Republicans have now found some energy to start working again on a bill to weaken financial regulations placed on banks and investment brokers that were put in place following the 2008 financial crisis. In fact Citigroup lobbyists helped write one of the proposed bills.

Meanwhile the gap between the super rich and everyone else continues to widen. A recent New York Times article reported that in Forbes added 200 more names to its billionaires list . Banks are doing well. Luxury goods are flying off the shelves. Sales of million dollar homes jumped 37% just in the first half of this year. Charles Blow of the NY Times states: “it’s a great time to be a rich person in America. The rich are raking it in during this recovery.”

Meanwhile labor force participation fell to its lowest rate in 35 years. Unemployment is down because so many people have just given up looking for work and so no longer show up in the statistics. Child poverty has grown and homelessness is still high and these same representatives that want to help their Wall Street buddies also are working overtime to cut aid to low income families, education funds and of course health care.

These Republicans would say they are just being “business-friendly” but even that is not entirely true because while the Citigroups, Duponts and Comcasts of the world get huge tax breaks, the rest of the tax burden is picked up by small businesses and individuals. These mega companies hide their money in offshore accounts and thereby greatly reduce or altogether avoid paying taxes.

What I am saying is not news to anyone who has been paying attention. The Occupy Wall Street movement helped frame the issue as the 1% and the 99% but lacked the organizational strength to sustain a movement that needs to arise in this country in outrage at this disparity. I do my part in terms of responsible investing and investing my time in seeking to address these disparities both through
my teaching and my work beyond the classroom. For me the area of focus has primarily been in the area of education, but then more generally in trying to raise awareness and assisting those folks seeking to make a difference in their communities. Just last night I spent time with a couple developing their plan to help kids in their community  resist falling into the cycle of violence. It was a great conversation but seems like such an insignificant effort.

I regularly get calls from the Democratic Party asking me to donate so that we can vote out those nasty Republicans  in the House. My response is when the Democrats running a viable candidate in my district (which has one of those conservative, “business-friendly” Republicans), then I will donate. Three weeks later I get the same call and we have the same conversation. The Democrats have better rhetoric, but have not shown much stomach for really revamping the priorities either. And obviously they aren't listening to my concerns.

It's not like no one is trying. Locally POWER is taking on disparities in wages and calling for a fair funding formula for public education funding at the state level. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West did their Poverty Tour a year ago. I have heard Al Sharpton makes some strong statements and his National Action Network is trying to rally energy around the issues. Yet it all seems so weak by comparison. I am eager to sign up, but where?

For now I am just disgusted.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Uncovering the Lie of Democracy While Acting in Hope

As a federal government shutdown looms due to the Republican threats to not pass a budget bill and attempts to de-fund the Affordable Healthcare Act (so-called Obamacare), I am moved to reflect on the role of government in relationship to the poor and marginalized in our society. It is clear that leadership of the Republican Party no longer makes even a pretense of caring about those who cannot afford health insurance, attend underfunded public school systems, live in fear in neighborhoods wracked by gun violence, rely on food stamps for their meals and work for a grossly inadequate minimum wage. Their allegiance are to the business owners and wealthy donors who fund their political coffers. And while I point the finger at the Republicans, many Democrats have been bought off to be silent and inactive in the face of the suffering of the poor. Furthermore, as the new documentary “Inequality for All” featuring former Treasury Secretary Robert Reich, describes, the gap between the haves and have-nots is the greatest since the days before the Great Depression. Increasingly I find myself writing messages to my state and Congressional representatives, most of whom are Republicans that in essence say “you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” The sad and amazing thing is they have no shame.

Despite the sanitized version of history we learn in school, I increasingly have come to realize that in the 
United States it has always been that way. It took a runaway slave named Frederick Douglass, along with thousands of other nameless runaway slaves and a few brave white abolitionists to force the government to face its responsibility to treat the enslaved Africans in their midst with human decency. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s it took a populist movement made up of farmers and laborers to challenge the government to pay workers living wages and to provide working conditions that were safe and clean. In the 1950’s and 1960’s it took a courageous group of African-Americans, starting with women like Joanne Robinson and Rosa Parks in Montgomery, AL, Septima Clark in Charleston, SC and Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi, followed by clergy like Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy, and then thousands of young people to force the Federal Government to enforce its own laws against segregation and racial violence. In the 1960’s it took a group of radical students marching in the streets to call attention to atrocities of the Vietnam War and eventually drive Lyndon Baines Johnson to resign the presidency. While we call our politicians “leaders” in point of fact they are often keepers of the status quo on behalf of the few until they are forced to
act in ways that actually serve the needs of the common folk.

The other sad reality is that the vast majority of Americans, rich and poor, of all races and ethnicities, have bought the lie that our political leaders actually serve their best interests. Two years ago the Occupy Movement sought to reveal that lie by showing that the challenge facing the nation was not the debt limit the politicians were talking about, but the vast disparity between the 1% and the 99%. While Occupy itself has faded from view, it helped reframe the conversation. Michelle Alexander in her analysis of the criminal justice system has demonstrated that we now have a “New Jim Crow” that has disenfranchised millions of young men of color through the process of disproportionate incarceration. What is needed is a new populist movement, a new abolitionist movement, a new Civil Rights Movement that again calls our government leaders to account.

As an Anabaptist Christian (of the Mennonite persuasion) I do not expect much from government or look for government to act on behalf of justice and righteousness. I never have regarded the United States as any kind of Promised Land nor accepted the notion that God has given America some unique role in the world. Nor do I find comfort when our politicians, including President Obama, end their remarks with “may God bless the United States of America.” Government and its leaders are as depraved and twisted as the rest of us. However, I do have faith that people coming together on behalf and in solidarity with the poor and oppressed can sometimes force government to actually live up to its creed to provide “liberty and justice for all.”

For the past three years, I have been involved with an interfaith group, POWER, which has pushed the Philadelphia City Council to approve a referendum that if passed would require corporations doing business with the city and their subcontractors to pay all their workers a living wage. This same group is organizing across the state to make establish a fair funding formula for public education in the state of Pennsylvania; this will help assure that underfunded districts like Philadelphia and other cities are not short changed by the state when it comes to support for public education. POWER is also working with several other groups across the country for the passage of an Immigration bill that will help undocumented persons get legal status in the United States. All three of these efforts were not initiated by political leaders, but rather by groups of citizens in essence seeking to force the government to address the needs of all its people and not just a few. Now when these initiatives are passed, our job won’t be done because as we are seeing with Obamacare right now, we will have to continue to pressure our leaders to actually do what they say they are going to do.

 At the same time, we cannot wait for leaders to act. In small ways we need to create pockets of equity and justice in our own communities. Faith communities need to partners with local underfunded schools and continue to provide assistance for the poor. Community groups need to find ways to promote economic development and to bring people together rather than allow them to be divided. Organic and public intellectuals need to continue to speak out to continue to uncover the lie that is American democracy. For myself I will continue to write, to organize and to join with others such as POWER. Therein lies my hope.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Terrorism by Another Name

Yesterday, we witnessed another mass shooting in which 13 people lost their lives, eleven of them unarmed random victims. The shooter, Aaron Alexis, and a police officer were the only armed persons with a sense of purpose, the former going on a shooting spree, the latter seeking to stop him. If Alexis had an Arabic sounding name or been known to frequent Islamic gatherings, no doubt this tragic incident would have been labeled "terrorism." However, because it involved an American ex-reservist that label has not been applied.

From what we are told, our government spends billions of dollars “protecting” us from potential “terrorists.” The NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and countless other agencies (we are told) are routinely preventing potential terrorist acts, even breaking privacy laws to do so, thus allowing us to live free of fear. I have no doubt these agencies have our best interest in mind. Yet when it comes to preventing the profligate distribution of firearms that allow “ordinary” citizens to commit widespread tragedies like what happened yesterday, our leaders become hand tied by the financial and public pressure of the NRA, the gun industry and their minions. Let’s just think about it – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Aurora, now DC – had these acts been committed by those labeled as terrorists, we would spare no effort to protect ourselves from the next onslaught.

The gun industry and NRA use such incidents to promote their “stand your ground” agenda, when in fact they should be held liable for promoting and profiting by acts of terrorism. Without abridging anyone’s right to own a gun, simple legislation, more vigilant oversight, and stronger efforts at prevention and law enforcement could significantly reduce the incidents of domestic violence.

We ought to call the NRA what it is – an organization with a narrow-minded agenda complicit in acts of random violence. It is time we take off our blinders and quit euphemistically mincing our words, and call such acts and those who allow them to occur for what they are – terrorism.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The March on Washington, Racism and Education in Philadelphia

The following is an address I gave on Thursday, August 22 at the POWER Forum on "Philadelphia in Crisis: Race,Education and Economics. POWER is a network of 41 congregations in Philadelphia that have come together working on issue of economic justice, immigration and public education.

March on Washington
We gather tonight at the nexus of conflicting realities. Our public school system is in crisis, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Students, parents and teachers are caught up in a chaos of uncertainty.  Residents of our city struggle with poverty and joblessness. While the police commissioner says that homicides are down, there is still way too much violence on our streets. These are the grim realities that many of us face and all of us live with.

Yet this Saturday, my wife and I, along with what is expected to be 100,000 other people, are going to gather on the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place on April 28, 1963. The March was the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph, head of the Pullman Porters Union, and was first proposed in 1941. On that day an estimated 200,000 people gathered from communities across the country on that sweltering August day that is most often remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in which he proclaimed that they had come there to cash in a promissory note at the bank of justice.

I was only ten years old when that march occurred and was living in an all-white Midwestern suburb where the Civil Rights movement seemed something far removed from my family’s life. However, today I realize that what Randolph, John Lewis, Dr. King and the others who were speaking about was essential to the well-being of all Americans. And so I am going to pay tribute to that original vision, and reaffirm my commitment to work to help realize the Beloved Community that Dr. King so often spoke about. That’s what POWER is about, and why are so concerned about the struggles of people in our own city.

Goals of the Original March
For a few moments I want to look back at the original March on Washington and the goals that brought folks there. They were as follows:

-            - a comprehensive civil rights bill,
-            - legislation to protect the right to vote,
-           -  a $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide,
-            - desegregation of all public schools,

What came of their efforts?
-        They got a Civil Rights Act  of 1964; but through legislation like the Patriot Act we have seen those rights eroded.

-        They got the Voting Rights Act of 1965; but just a few months ago the Supreme Court gutted the provisions that required the states to get federal government approval for changes that might disadvantage certain groups of their citizens; and so even here in PA we are fighting Voter ID laws specifically designed to disenfranchise poor and senor voters and voters of color.

-        When they marched, the minimum wage was $1.15/hr. and it was raised $1.25. Which doesn’t seem like much but that would translate to $9.54/hr. today. $2 would have equaled $15.27 today. Today our minimum wage is $7.25/hr.

To further put things in perspective, unemployment among African Americans is higher today than it was in 1963. In 1963 it was 10.9%, today it is 12.6%, and we know that roughly 25% our citizens in Philadelphia, working or not, live below the poverty line.

So, while much has changed for the better since 1963, it must be put in perspective.  Many of the gains that were made then have been eroded or lost. This is why organizations like POWER are so important; the struggle for justice is never done. As Frederick Douglass reminded us 175 years ago, those in positions of authority never relinquish their power without a fight and a struggle; that is what we in POWER are engaged in.

However, I want to speak specifically about education.

The March  also called for the desegregation of schools because even though the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation it have given states the freedom to decide when and how they would desegregate; Most states did nothing. For instance, I went to Boston in 1971 and they were just beginning to desegregate schools then.

Not much has changed on that score. Just because a law is in place, does not mean it will get enforced. For instance, the PA constitution requires the state government to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” What we have been experiencing is anything but thorough and efficient, and if they were offering maintenance and support, would we be in this position?” Sometimes OUR JOB is simply to get the political establishment to do ITS JOB.

The rationale for fighting so hard for desegregation in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s was not just so black and white kids would go to school together. No, those in the NAACP and others who fought for desegregation realized the only way that black kids would get access to same resources  as white kids  was by being in the same schools with them.  Then and now desegregation was about ACCESS and RESOURCES.

When we look at what is happening to our schools here in Philadelphia we see that our system  discriminates against students of color and poor kids of all colors;  that it denies them the access and resources they are entitled to by LAW. What we are looking at the effects of a system that is racist and economically unjust.

Institutional Racism
Let me pause here and say a couple things about racism.

First of all, when people think about racism they think about overtly racist acts or statements like George Zimmerman’s profiling of Trayvon Martin or Riley Cooper’s statements that have gotten so much press. But when you are talking about something like the Philadelphia school system, we are talking about what Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Ture) called “institutional racism.” People see a black school superintendent, a black mayor, a black City Council president, and Asian and Hispanic leaders in both the educational and political roles; so how can it be racist? Well maybe it’s because Governor Corbett is white – and he won’t authorize funds – is that why it’s racist? Not exactly.

In the courses I teach on racism I tell my students that when talking about institutional or systemic racism we need to distinguish between intent and impact. It does not matter what a person or a government or school system intends to do, it’s the impact of what it does that really matters.

So for instance, in the issue of school closings we look at impact. These decisions were made by a black superintendent – how could it be a racist decision? Look at the impact. According to one report I saw, black students make up 58% of the students in the school system, but make up 81% of the students affected by the school closings. White students make up 14% of the students in the system, but only 4% of students affected by closings are white.  We don’t need to know what Dr. Hite and the SRC intended in the decisions they made, we just look at the impact.

So first when talking about racism we need to look at impact not intent.

The second thing about racism is that we can’t talk about in isolation from other forms of discrimination.  When we look at the way public education is funded we need to take this into account. Racial segregation is important to note but it become much more critical when we see it linked to  what I call economic segregation. This dual form of segregation is evident in the way we have established communities in our wider metro area and the way schools are funded.

Example of Institutional Racism
One of the examples I often think of in this regard is a comparison of Overbrook High School and Lower Merion High School. The schools are less than 4 miles and 10 minutes apart on the map, but they exist in different worlds when it comes to education.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2012 the average funding per student in Lower Merion was $21, 399. In Philadelphia (of which Overbrook is a part) the average funding per student was $11,078. That’s a difference of $10,000 per student. In practical terms that means students in Lower Merion have smaller class sizes, more technology in the classroom, more highly trained teachers, overall newer facilities, larger and more contemporary collections in their libraries and an overall higher quality educational experience.
PA Dept. of Ed  reports that in 2012, Lower Merion HS had 98% of the students entered 9th grade graduate; By contrast, only 56% of the ninth grade students of Overbrook graduated.

Racism, mixed with economic discrimination spells segregation of another kind.

This why on the POWER Education Team we have been researching fair funding formulas for the State of PA. Pennsylvania is one of only 3 states in the US that doesn’t use some fair funding formula. As compared to other states PA depends most heavily on local property taxes to fund their schools. This is why Lower Merion ends up so much more per student – they have higher property values and even though their tax rate is lower than Philadelphia, the amount of money they take in is much higher.

And while money is not the only issue, it does translate (as we can see) to higher rates of success.

The Importance of Education and Despair
Why this is important is because we know that there is a correlation between getting a high school diploma and success and other areas of life.

There is a correlation between...
-                                   Dropping out of high school and joblessness
-                                  Dropping out and amount of income one can make in their lifetime
-                                  Dropping out and violence
-                                  Dropping out and incarceration

The reason we must address this issue of education is because so much else hinges on the kids in our school system getting a fair shot at making it in life.

Now one of things we need to remind ourselves is that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. In other words just because two things happen at the same time, that does not mean they necessarily caused the other. For instance,  dropping out of school does not necessarily cause joblessness, or poverty or violence. Often when you see correlations like this there is a third factor causing both. And I think the cause for both dropping out and the other social problems is despair.

At its root in POWER we are battling despair, people just giving up and throwing in the towel.
-        Its why it’s so important we partner with groups like PSU and YUC who motivate students to advocate for their own education

-        Why it’s important that we organize parents, so they realize they are not alone, when they stand up to principals, administrators and politicians and demand a quality education for their kids

-        Why this fight for education is going to be long and hard, and We MUST WIN.

New Vision
Once we get the funding solved, and WE WILL, our job is not finished.  The racism we are facing is multi-faceted and multi-layered and requires a long, committed struggle. Down the road we will need to to look at what’s happening with charters, the privatization of the public schools,  curriculum, teacher training and innovative ways of doing education for specialized learners. More than that we need a vision of what the Philadelphia School System can and must be.

Dr. King inspired the people 50 years with his vision of a dream. We need to help the students, parents, teachers and administrators of PSD develop a vision beyond just surviving and keeping schools open. We need a  dream of quality education that can pull us forward. Then and only then will we live out the legacy Dr. King left us 50 years ago, a dream toward which we are still reaching.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

From Guns Into Bicycles

On a cold January afternoon four and a half years ago, I was arrested along with seven others for sitting down and blocking the entrance to Colisimo’s Gun Store on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. Over the course of two days twelve people in all were arrested for civil disobedience; another 300 or so rallied outside the store. At the time Colisimo's was believed to be the fifth largest source of illegal guns in the country, and the major source of illegal guns in the Philadelphia metropolitan area through the process known as straw purchasing. Straw purchasing involves a person with no criminal record buying guns on behalf of someone else who pays them for their services and then turns around and sells those guns on the street where they cannot be traced. Straw purchasing is the major source of guns used in most street crimes and is a major problem in communities with high rates of gun violence. (See my description of the event at this link.)

Members of the group that came to known as Heeding God’s Call approached Mr. Colisimo on three different occasions asking him to sign the Responsible Firearms Retailer Code of Conduct developed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns; three times he refused. In our action against the store we still sought to get Mr. Colisimo to sign the Code; in fact I had a copy of the Code in my pocket when I was arrested. All to no avail.

For nearly nine months, two times a week following this action members of Heeding God’s Call picketed in front of the store. The twelve who were arrested were charged with criminal trespass but were acquitted in a highly publicized trial. Yet guns kept being sold at the store. Several of us were in the process strategizing ways we might “up the ante” on Mr. Colisimo, when we received news that the U.S. Attorney Office had charged Mr. Colisimo with making false statements and failing to keep accurate records; eventually his license was revoked and his shop closed. As I wrote at the time, the action seemed like a vindication and affirmation of all the work we had done in the previous year. Heeding God’s Call has gone on to witness in front of other guns shops in Philadelphia continuing to call attention to practice of straw purchasing.

One disappointment in the Colisimo’s story was that when the store space was reopened, it opened as another gun shop under a new name. So while we had put a nefarious dealer out of business, we had not reduced the number of gun shops in the area.

So imagine my excitement when Kristyn Komarnicki, my friend and the editor of PRISM magazine, sent me an article indicating that the space formerly occupied by Colisimo’s had become a bike shop: Firth and Wilson Transport Cycles! See the article at this link.  I was so excited that I had to see for myself, so I visited the shop and spoke with the co- owner David Wilson. After introducing myself, I thanked him for being in the space and then briefly related my story.

Because the employees of Colisimo’s had locked the door when I and the others came that cold January day, I had never actually been in the shop. Today it is a long space with bikes out front and against the wall and a repair area in the back. David told me they specialize in transport cycles, that is, bikes that can be used to get around the city, transport children and generally be used in place of a car. They also have a shop in Fishtown where they build custom-made bikes of all kinds. They opened on June 1 and because it has been so rainy this summer, business has been a bit slow but is beginning to pick up.

He was aware of the shop’s previous history, and informed me that he actually rents from Mr. Colisimo. There is a special irony in knowing Mr. Colisimo is still indirectly involved. The prophets Isaiah and Micah speak of a day when people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” In spite of himself Mr. Colisimo, with the help of Firth and Wilson has transformed his guns into bicycles.

If you live in the Philadelphia area I encourage you to take a trip to 933 Spring Garden Street, stop in the shop, say thank you, and if need be purchase a bike or a bike accessory. I think I may go back and get a Firth and Wilson bike shirt, as a reminder that God has a sense of humor, and that faith and hard work can give us glimpse of the beloved community we all long for.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

School Funding Formulas

Below is the text of a letter to the editor I submitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer in response to an article about the challenges facing suburban public school districts that required them to raise property taxes and cut services. The letter seeks to point out that the challenge faced by these districts is part of a much larger issue regarding how Pennsylvania funds (or as the case may be, does not fund) its public schools.

The recent article, “School Tax Vise” (Inquirer, July 29, 2013) reveals that the funding challenges being faced by the School District of Philadelphia are also being faced many suburban districts which have had to raise school taxes and make significant cuts in order to keep their public schools operational. While currently suburban districts have been able to manage these challenges, their plight reveals a fundamental flaw in the way Pennsylvania public schools are currently being funded.

In February 2013 the Education Law Center published Funding, Formulas and Fairness, a study of how Pennsylvania funds its public schools in comparison to other states. Some troubling comparisons were revealed. On average states provide 43.5% of the total amount of money on public education; Pennsylvania spends only 35.8%. By contrast on average states expect local communities to provide approximately 44% of the funding needed through local property taxes; Pennsylvania requires local communities to raise 53% (all percentages are based on 2010 data, the most recent year available).  Furthermore, Pennsylvania is one of only 3 states that does not use a standard funding formula for allocating what state funds it does provide. Such formulas take into account community income levels, specific student needs, the number of ESL students and other factors to make sure that all public schools have the resources to provide adequate education regardless of location, income level and nature of the students. The lack of such a funding formula makes school funding a subject of political wrangling, and in particular leaves disproportionately poor districts such as Philadelphia and Chester, grossly underfunded.

Community groups such as the Education Law Center and POWER (Philadelphians Organized for Witness, Empowerment and Rebuilding) are seeking to work with political leaders, educators and like-minded citizens to establish a funding formula for all public schools, so that the constitutional mandate to provide quality public education for all Pennsylvania’s children can be fulfilled. Public education is an issue that unites both suburban and urban districts and should compel all citizens who care about our children’s futures to bring Pennsylvania in line with other states on this vital public issue.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Strange Career of Jim Crow - 50 Years Later

In my first or second year of college I read C. Vann Woodward's classic history of the segregated South, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. I don't remember what impact it had on me back then, but for some reason I hung on to the book. I recently reread the book as part of an effort this summer to reacquaint and deepen my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 1960's. 

Woodward orginally wrote the book in 1955 just after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision calling for the desegregation of public schools. A revised edition was published ten years later in 1965; this was the edition I read. Woodward ends the second edition recounting some of the major civil rights events of 1965 including the march from Selma to Montgomery, passage of the Voting Rights Act and the riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles. (Noticeably absent was any mention of the assassination fo Malcolm X.) For Woodward the 1965 Voting Rights Act marked a legal end to Jim Crow segregation, and he ends the book on that cautiously hopeful note.

However, in his conclusion to the second edition Woodward signals his own ambivalence about the future of civil rights for people of color in the U.S. Of conditions in 1965 he writes: "For the great majority [of black people in the U.S.] the gap between the races in income, education, employment and opportunity was still very large and for many it was growing even larger. Many Southern Negores might sense tangilbe gains from a low starting point. But the majority of Negroes now lived outside the South, and three-fourths of the whole Negro population lived in the cities.There they felt themselves losing out in comparison with other Americans. Even in full possession of civil and political rights they would still face unemployment, urban decay, family deterioration, entrapment in slums and de facto segregation in housing and schooling. These were grave social problems that lay largely beyond the reach of civil rights laws and called for broader and more drastic remedies."

Reading these words nearly 50 years later in light of the Supreme Court's decision to invalidate the Voting Rights Act, the George Zimmerman verdict, the recent news that the city of Detroit will file for bankruptcy and the growing gap between haves and have-nots in this country, one can easily wonder how much has changed in that time. In his recent remarks following the George Zimmerman trial, President Obama said he believed the disparities and tensions between the races was improving; however, many have questioned how true that is for the vast majority of black people. As the response to the Zimmerman trial has made clear, there are many aspects of racism and poverty in this country that either can't be or are not being addressed by our legal, political or economic system. As Woodward said nearly 50 years ago "broader and more drastic remedies are needed."

When I consider Woodward's words I am troubled and humbled by the challenge that faces us. In the U.S. we have an economic system that promises to reward hard work and dedication, but in fact privileges those that have resources. We supposedly have a democracy, but as I have often commented in this blog our system currently operates as a plutocracy (rule of the rich) and not a democracy (rule of the people). As evidenced by the recent responses to the George Zimmerman trial, we have a system which does not seem to recognize the needs or desires of a significant percentage of the population that happens to be poor and/or non-white. When one looks at the state of affairs through the eyes of those who have been cut out of the prosperity and "recovery," Woodward's words seem quite prescient.

I don't have a crystal ball to be able to say what needs to replace our current system, but I have some ideas. What we currently call capitalism needs to be dismantled into regional economies that are more accountable to the communities in which businesses operate. Banks and businesses need to be accountable to local communities and can not take without also contributing in significant ways. Local, regional and national elections need to be publicly funded and not subject to super-PACS funded by the super rich. Basic rights need to be established for health care, quality public education, housing, and basic income. CEO salaries need to be capped at a certain ratio of the lowest paid workers in their company; all should benefit by a company's success, not just those at the top. Taxes should be waged not only on the basis of an organization's income, but also their benefit to the local community, and impact on the natural environment. Laws and policies disproportionally hurting the poor or persons of color need to be re-examined.

At the same time people and local communities need to take responsibility for their own safety and security. Violence, drugs or other things detrimental to a community's well being can best be addressed by the people in those communities. Churches, community centers, community groups and the like need to work at bringing folks of different lifestyles and cultures together to address local problems Local groups need to develop grassroots leaders who care for the people in their neighborhoods and seek to help folks solve these local problems. For democracy to work as it should, it needs to be an everyday thing, and not an event once every two or four years.

Even as I write these things these ideas seem impossible, like unrealistic pipe dreams. Yet these are the kind of broad and drastic changes Woodward saw was needed fifty years ago, and are still needed today. As the racial justice activist Anne Braden once said: "The impossible just takes a little longer to achieve." The time to get started is now.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Verdict - What Does It Mean - Really?

I was stunned as I listened to the verdict being read in the George Zimmerman trial last night – not guilty of any wrong doing in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Really? As I listened to the ABC commentator explain the meaning of the verdict, I realized how many of the real issues in this incident were never up for discussion. The commentator explained that at issue was whether Mr. Zimmerman felt his life was in jeopardy, thereby justifying his shooting Trayvon in “self-defense.”

But there were so many things that make this case wrong, and yet were not discussed, such as:

-             Why in this country is a person deemed “suspicious” simply because he is black and male?

-             What justification is there for a man carrying a gun on the street that can be used to threaten and kill another human being?

-             What justification is there for vigilante-ism in which a townwatch guard can ignore police calls to leave the “suspicious” person alone and let the police investigate the matter?

-              Why in this  country are there gated communities that create an atmosphere of fear and trust leading to tragedies like this?

-             How extensive are the inadequacies of a legal system that can exclude these larger issues from the case, and focus on minute details and lawyers’ gamesmanship in a search for the truth?

-            How can a case like this be prosecuted and any mention of the racial and class dynamics involved be excluded from the courtroom?

Regardless of what happened the night that George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin had their altercation, this verdict sends a very troubling message. I am reminded of an African-American women in one of my courses years ago, who said that when she learned she was pregnant with a boy, she wept for fear of what he would go through in this society. I am reminded of a poem written by another student more recently describing the ways in which a child’s life is circumscribed and threatened simply because he is black. I reminded of one of my middle-aged African American colleagues who shared that when he walks into stores or on the streets of the predominantly white suburbs, he does not feel safe.

Many white folks would dismiss these fears as false perceptions. However, when you look at the rates of poverty, incarceration and premature violent death, those fears have pretty solid grounding. The death of Trayvon Martin reinforces those fears, which in turn gives rise to deep and profound anger and distrust. While many might rightly say our society has come a long way from days of Jim Crow segregation, lynchings and a racist justice system, this case and the issues surrounding it remind us of how far we have yet to go.

Unfortunately for the Martin family, as well as George Zimmerman, this trial had much more to do with larger meanings and symbolism, than it did about the tragic event that happened on Feb 26, 2012. If there is one good thing to point to in this situation, it is that outside the courthouse and around the country as people protested and grieved the verdict, there were many white people in the crowd protesting with their black brothers and sisters. To my black friends who may be deeply angered and upset by the outcome of this trial, all I can say is while I cannot begin to understand what it is like to be black in America in 2013, I stand with you.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Win One, Lose One .... and a Disturbing Trend

This past week the U.S. Supreme Court rendered two momentous decisions that seem to move in opposite directions when it comes to human rights. On Tuesday, the Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively freeing nine Southern states from having to submit changes in their election laws to the federal government. This law had been a source of hope for many people of color, especially African Americans, when so many states with Republican majorities in their state legislatures passed Voter ID laws which covertly, and in a couple cases overtly, were designed to make it more difficult for poor people and people of color to vote, thereby making it easier for Republicans to win elections. Also many of those same states have so gerrymandered elections districts that these communities have been further politically marginalized. ( To see full article on this decision go to this link)

Then on the Thursday, these same judges declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional, thereby allowing gay/lesbian couples the right to have the same legal protections and benefits as heterosexual couples. Until this ruling gay couples were defenseless when it came to inheritance law, tax benefits, spousal insurance protection and so on. (For full article on this decision see this link)

On the surface these two decisions seem to contradict one another. The first stripped a group of marginalized people of protections and rights, while the second gave a group of marginalized people rights that had been previously denied. I wondered: what is the underlying logic that ties these two decisions together? While I can’t be certain, it seems that a common thread is a focus on state’s rights. In both cases the decision went against the primacy of federal law in favor of allowing states to legislate on matters in ways they see fit. So in the Voting Rights decision, the Court removed federal restrictions on state actions, whereas in the second it returned state sovereignty from something that had been regulated at a federal level. Even though I am glad for the DOMA decision, I am troubled by this underlying logic.

When we look back at the Civil Rights Movement, significant changes in the social and political status of African-Americans in the South would not have occurred had not the federal government stepped in. African-Americans were beaten, lynched and killed with impunity while the perpetrators got away scott-free. Jim Crow laws institutionalized huge disparities between the races and despite the rhetoric of “separate but equal” provided far lesser quality for African-American when it came to education, health care, parks and the like. African Americans could be (& were) arrested for minor infractions; it was the process of getting arrested in large numbers that finally got the federal government’s attention, along with the violence that came with it. On the issue of voting rights itself, thousands of people were threatened and beaten, and some killed simply trying to exercise (or help people exercise) their constitutional right to vote. Even though the federal government was timid and slow to intervene in most cases, there would have been no Voting Rights Act of 1965 if Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had not forced the Southern states to amend their laws and practices so as to treat all people of all races as equal under the law.

However, now the Supreme Court is saying that the federal government can’t intervene in state matters. Had this court been around in 1865, slavery would not have been abolished. Had this court been around in 1954, segregation of schools (and by extension all areas of American life) would not have been ruled unconstitutional. Had this court been around in 1965, the Voting Rights Bill would have been struck down in short order.

Underlying the Court’s decision is a shift in understanding of the role of government. Political theorist John Rawls saw a primary role of the government as providing for and protecting society’s most vulnerable; no one was to fall below what was minimally required for meeting their basic human needs. By contrast Robert Nozick focused primarily on individual liberty; an individual’s rights took precedence over the regulatory action of government, those regulations that assured that the basic needs of all people in society were being provided for and protected. Nozick went so far as to say taxes (the main means by which wealth is redistributed) were “forced labor.” The eras of Kennedy and Johnson tilted (inadequately in my view) toward a Rawlsian view, whereas today we are moving significantly toward Nozick’s view.

Increasingly our state governments don’t care about the most vulnerable, be it around civil rights, health care, education or essential services. Not only can this focus on rights be seen in these recent Court decisions but also in the Court's ruling on the Second Amendment making the right to own a gun on a par with the right to free speech and religious liberty. It can also be seen in the ruling that allows corporations to be seen as individuals when it comes to political contributions. The rights of the powerful against the vulnerable, the dominant class against the marginalized, the rich against the poor are allowed to run amok, free of any constraint that might be put upon them by the federal government.

Altogether I see the Court’s decision as signifying a troubling trend that moves us further and further away from any concept of the "common good," and more and more toward everyone fighting for themselves and their rights.  U.S. society is degenerating and devolving so that the poor and the marginalized can not look to their government for assistance; government is  now the protector of the rights of the few over against the needs and suffering of the many. I am pleased for those gay and lesbian couples who now can enjoy the benefits denied them by DOMA; however I worry about the rationale that may underlie that decision and what it says about where we are going as a society.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Immigration Reform and the Border Surge – A Waste and an Embarrassment

Robert Frost begins his famous poem “Mending Wall” with the words “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” As members of Congress seem to be heading toward an agreement on immigration reform, one of the provisions that will likely be included in the bill will be what AP journalist David Espo and Erica Werner call a “Military style border surge” to “secure the Mexican border.” More specifically the bill would double the number of border agents from its current 20,000 to 40,000, add 18 more surveillance drones and 350 more miles of fence. One would think with such an increase in the Border Patrol, already the nation’s largest police force, we were being overrun by the barbarians of Roman times. In essence, the idea is that the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. without documentation would be given a “path to citizenship” but no more would be let in. However even the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicted such an effort would fail to achieve this objective.(For the Espo/Werner article, click here).

I find the whole discussion about building a better wall to be an embarrassment as an American citizen. For the first 36 years of my life, I lived in a world dominated by the Cold War in which the entire globe was divided between those favorable to the United States versus those nations favorable to the Soviet Union. We lived in a constant awareness that at any moment we could be vaporized by a nuclear missile ignited when the “cold” war went hot. The premier symbol of this divide was the Berlin Wall, and the accompanying fence that ran between East and West Germany.  However in 1989 President Reagan proclaimed “ Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and through intense negotiations relationships between the two countries improved and the Berlin Wall came down in dramatic fashion, allowing East and West Germans to pass freely from one side to the other and eventually reuniting that country which had been divided for over 40 years.

After that I thought we might be done with walls; but then Israel built its wall to separate the Jews from the Palestinians, and now we have been building our wall with Mexico supposedly to protect us from terrorists and unwanted immigrants. But as Reese Jones from NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) points out, the wall is only partially about security; it’s really about protecting our wealth and preserving our culture from unwanted (read non-white) influences. *

What is so tragic about this rationale is not only its short sightedness, but also that it completely ignores the huge disparities between those who live north of the border  and those who live south, and the role of the United States has had in promoting and preserving that disparity. To understand the U.S. role one must go all the way back to the 1850’s when U.S. leaders began talking about “Manifest Destiny” which essentially stated that the U.S. would choose to shape the world to its own image. This helped to strengthen the 1823 Monroe Doctrine established during the presidency of James Monroe that European countries could not engage in trade or aggression in North, Central or South America without facing military aggression. In essence the U.S. said Latin America is ours to mess with and no one else.

And mess we did: from propping up military dictatorships, to grabbing and defending huge tracts of land to enabling U.S. companies to exploit resources from fruit, to oil to precious metals. In the 1980’s the CIA worked with dictators in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to suppress populist movements seeking to reform and regain control of their countries. In the 1990’s the U.S. passed NAFTA (North American Free Trade Act) which allowed U.S. companies to relocate to countries like Mexico with lower labor costs and less stringent safety and environmental standards. However, while companies could move freely laborers could not. What these 11 million undocumented folks represent are mostly people seeking to find work to support their families living in countries devastated by over a century of U.S. exploitation.

So not only is the wall an embarrassment, it represents a complete denial of U.S. responsibility and accountability for the situation we currently find ourselves in.  Several studies have found that if given the chance to travel freely between their home country and the United States, most Latin American immigrants would do so. They come here looking for work so they can provide for their families and then return home.  The sheer persistence of those who seek to come to the United States for these purposes make the so-called border surge a joke and a waste of money.

What if instead of spending billions of dollars on border patrols and a border fence ($4.7 billion was spent between 2007 and 2011*), we invested in teachers, new schools, health care workers, and quality housing for all? What if instead of billions of dollars on running undocumented immigrants through the criminal justice system ($5.5 billion in 2007 alone*), we invested in youth programs, college loan programs, and disease prevention? Not only would we be able to serve the needs of U.S. citizens but all those who are here temporarily as well.

A couple weeks ago I traveled through the Southern United States visiting sites that were prominent during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In the beginning the Civil Rights movement focused on breaking down the walls of segregation that sought to completely separate blacks and whites in all areas of life. I was amazed and appalled at the lengths to which white Southerners would go to maintain segregation often leading them to engage in violent acts that made them look barbaric and inhumane in the eyes of the world.

That’s what this border fence and the accompanying security force looks like. We even have our own version of the KKK; they are called “The Minuteman.” We look to be big bullies with our rifles, guns, drones and barbwire fence saying “No way can you play in our sandbox!” In the eyes of the world, we look to be arrogant, cold-hearted, violent and inhumane; and we are. Moreover, with time, like the walls of segregation, like the Berlin Wall, this wall will too come down, and we will be left to recover from being the sorry fools who allowed it to be built in the first place.

**these insights and figures are excerpted from Reece Jones’ book Border Walls (link here)