Friday, October 24, 2014

Review of Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney Lopez

When I heard Bill Moyers' two part interview with Ian Haney Lopez, I knew intuitively that what he was saying was true. This book by Lopez not only confirmed that intuition but added depth and detail to my understanding of the way racism has become endemic to politics in the U.S. Simply put, Lopez's thesis is that since the early 1960's conservative politicians in the Republican party and the Southern wing of the Democratic party (when Democrats had a majority in the South) have used racial code words and images to invoke race-based fear and tension in White voters to garner votes. In response liberals (largely Democrats) have shied away from talking specifically about race for fear of alienating white voters, and instead have adopted the language of post-racialism, which says we seek "universal" solutions to the nation's problems rather than race-targeted solutions (such as Affirmative Action).

Beginning with the 1964 presidential election campaign of Barry Goldwater going thru the current presidency of Barack Obama, Lopez documents in detail how "dog whistle politics" (talking about race without mentioning the word) has been used by both parties. Harking back to the words of his Harvard Law professor and originator of Critical Race Theory, Derrick Bell, Lopez shows that while racism is a permanent fixture in American life it has evolved and changed, and the ways of addressing racism must also change. The tactics of the 1950's and 60's largely do not work today, so that addressing racism today must take into account the commitment to colorblindness and post-racialism at work in the Republican and Democratic parties respectively. Lopez concludes the book with a number of suggestions for politicians, foundations, unions, civil rights organizations, educators and ordinary citizens to talk about race openly and demonstrate how the use of dog whistle politics not only injures people of color, but also a large majority of middle class and low income whites.

My one concern and criticism of the book is that Lopez clearly sees the path to racial justice running through a return to the liberal policies of FDR's New Deal. His criticism of liberals is not just that they have avoided talking about race, but also that they aren't liberal enough. However, Lopez has romanticized the FDR/New Deal era and seems to have overlooked that many of FDR's reforms excluded blacks initially and only when A. Philip Randolph called for a March on Washington in 1941 (an idea that never died and was resurrected in the famous 1963 March at which MLK gave his famous Dream speech), that FDR relented and began opening up opportunities for blacks. Haney assumes that the white liberal is the friend of the person of color, but history does not support that assumption. What is needed is a far more radical solution than a return to liberalism. Many of his suggestions will move the country in the right direction, but unless race-based policies (such as the way public schools are funded) are not completely overhauled, the structural inequities that plague the US will only morph and change some more.

The other thing I wished he had addressed, but perhaps this is the responsibility of others, is the way in which white progressives can be allies in the efforts to uncover and undermine dog whistle racism. Lopez shows how "common sense racism" operates in many all white settings, but leaves unanswered how whites committed to anti-racism, can respond to and counter the self-defeating and racially tinged assumptions that lead many whites to vote for policies that would greatly benefit them, while also helping people of color.

That being said, Lopez has provided us with a new window in which to look at the nature of racism in our society. Like Alexander's The New Jim Crow, Dog Whistle Politics is a must read for anyone wanting to understand and then dismantle the racist practices and policies at work in our society today.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ebola Hype and the Government We Deserve

There is no question that the Ebola epidemic is a tragedy that deserves our care and concern as Americans, as people of faith, and as compassionate citizens of the world. The rising toll of deaths from this dread disease in West Africa, especially Liberia, is staggering.

Yet the response by American politicians to the handful of cases now reported to have been discovered in the U.S. has been excessive. While the disease is indeed deadly, health officials have made clear that Ebola only occurs when one is exposed to bodily fluids of one who has the disease. Thus medical personnel – nurses, doctors, aides – are the most vulnerable and have to take the strictest precautions. However, for Pres. Obama under pressure from the media and the Congress to appoint an Ebola czar, and for now Republican politicians calling for closing off our borders to travelers from certain countries speaks of political hype, and overkill.

Contrast that to these same leaders’ non-response to the ongoing problem of gun violence with thousands of deaths each year. Father Michael Phleger, a Roman Catholic priest and prophetic voice from South Chicago, recently posted these words on Facebook:

Ok, so, two Americans get the Ebola and just the fear of an epidemic has Sen. Mark Kirk say we Must Ban ALL West African Countries from coming to the US.. and the President appoint an Ebola Czar......OVER 30,000 people get killed each Year from Gun Violence, which IS an epidemic....but there is NO VIOLENCE Czar....and Mark Kirk won't even vote to have Common Sense Gun Laws.....or Ban Assault Weapons..........Interesting.........Oh, that's right, most of those killed by gun violence are Black and Brown.......silly me.....

Somehow Second Amendment Rights trump everything else, even the overwhelming death and  violence due to young people’s access to guns, which Harvard professor of Public Health Debra Prothrow-Stith has long called an “epidemic.” But then perhaps Fr. Phleger has it right when he says that the majority of victims from this violence are Blacks and Latinos, and so their situation demands no such pull-out-the-stops response.

The superficiality and political opportunism of our political leaders’ response to the Ebola crisis is made evident by the contrast to their continued unwillingness and inability to address ongoing and extensive issues of human suffering in our country from gun violence to immigration to underfunded public schools to economic disparity to health care, and so much more.

Yesterday, I was part of a group  knocking on doors in West talking about pressuring politicians to adequately fund public education in Pennsylvania. There are times I wonder if it really matters when we engage in social activism or urge people to vote on certain issue like raising the minimum wage or for a fair and full funding formula for public education or reform of the nation’s gun laws.  Then I realize that if I/we don’t continue to work and press for justice, we will get the leaders and the government we deserve.  Thankfully there are folks like Father Phleger  who remind us that if we don’t raise our voices, we can be certain that the charade in government will continue. I don’t think any citizen deserves that.

[Images provided by Google Images]

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Reflections on My Day in Court

Yesterday (Oct 10) I had jury duty. Ninety of us were placed in a jury pool from which 12 jurors and four alternates would be chosen for a criminal trial. The case involved the murder of a young Black man by another Black man in the small city of Chester, PA. The defendant, who looked to be in his early twenties, was nicely dressed as he sat silently with his White lawyer and the two White lawyers across from the D.A’s office, and the White judge and his clerks behind him. There we sat in the courtroom, ninety potential jurors facing the defendant, lawyers and judge.  As I looked around at the ninety of us, overwhelmingly White (maybe 8 of the 90 were not white), mostly middle aged or older, I concluded that there was no way this man could get to be tried by “a jury of his peers.”

As is customary in these proceedings, the judge asked us a series of questions designed to determine whether or not we had any preconceived notions or biases that would prevent us from being “objective” jurors. If we answered “yes” to a question, we were to stand while our juror number could be recorded. I stood when the question was asked if anyone had ever been arrested and charged with a crime. (I had been arrested in 2009 for a civil disobedience action against a gun shop). I also stood when the question was asked whether the fact that the defendant was Black would influence my ability to follow the judge’s instructions about the law in this case.

Later, along with many others I was asked to come back into a room with the judge and lawyers to explain my answers; this was not unique as approximately 80 of the 90 jurors were called back for some purpose. However, it seemed unfair that the defendant was not allowed to be in that back room and have the opportunity to question a juror if he wanted to, and at least hear their responses. When my turn came, I explained to the judge that I had been arrested in protesting straw purchasing to prevent situations like what occurred in this case, and that I “could see both sides of this issue” having also worked with youth at an early period of life.

When asked about my bias because the defendant was Black, I explained that I did not think a young Black man could get a fair trial in this system. The judge was obviously upset by this statement and insisted that he worked hard to avoid bias in his court. I responded by saying that I believed he had good intentions, but mentioning Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow,  I replied that I saw the system as broken and did not think that this man could not be fairly tried in such a system. The judge dismissed me abruptly.

Had I the opportunity to say more, I would have expressed my concern about the circumstances in education and law enforcement that contributes to young men on the street, who are unemployable, live according to a “code of the street” characterized by violence. I would have gone on to say that if the man was convicted and sent into the prison system (in which he had already been held for a year), and served his time, he would be disenfranchised upon returning to the community. Moreover, his time in prison, if it educated and trained him at all, most likely would enhance his criminal skills and not prepare him for productive citizenship. I also would have suggested that in addition to the perpetrator that the straw purchaser, the gun shop and the gun manufacturer who made it possible for an illegal gun to be used in this crime should also be on trial. Moreover, I would have raised a concern as to whether an all-white jury (which I strongly assumed would be the final jury) given the way Whites (like the judge and I) had been socialized could see that young man as much more than a thug and a threat.
Needless to say, I was dismissed from the jury pool shortly after that.

As I feared, the final jury was not representative of the overall pool or the young defendant, being comprised of eleven White Women and one White man with four alternates one of whom was an older Black man.

As I left the courthouse I was torn about my experience and the answers I had given. Had I answered the questions differently, was there a chance that I might be on the jury? Were there the individuals on the jury with views similar to mine, despite the limitations of our White socialization? However, on the other hand, I wondered, could I participate in a process and a system I know to be fatally flawed and inherently biased?

 I don’t think people who kill others should be allowed to go free, but I don’t think the system we have is designed to do any more than to remove perpetrators from the general public and dehumanize them in the process of doing so. Recently, some friends whose son was gunned down by another young man, went to trial and the perpetrator was convicted. Yet in the aftermath the couple was torn, wanting “justice” for their son, but feeling that sending the young man to jail was neither a relief to them or a solution to the larger problems facing young Black men. I left the courthouse with the same sort of confusion and ambivalence.

While situations like Trayvon Martin’s and Michael Brown’s deaths get a great deal of media play, there are thousands of low income, largely people of color, predominately male, defendants standing trial every day. The criminal justice is successful in “putting them away” but is anything being accomplished? The evidence clearly suggests not; yet how we change the system remains a conundrum and a burden I feel, especially after my day in court.

[Images from Google Images]