December 2, 2014

Ferguson’s lesson to our black sons: Your lives don’t matter

A St. Louis County, Missouri grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. Honestly, I cannot say I am the least bit surprised by the decision, because I did not expect things to unfold in any other way. I wanted to be pleasantly surprised, but past experience convinced me otherwise. And it is unfortunate to have to think that way.
But that does not mean that I — as a black father with a black son — am not troubled by the news and have nothing to say about it.
Black lives do matter, to be sure, but the grand jury is telling us that we really don’t matter. And once again, as we face another case of an unarmed young black man gunned down by the law in cold blood without recourse, without justice, we have to decide what to make of this information, and what to take from it.
My son Micah, who is about to turn five years old over the holidays, might be too young to comprehend what is going on in Ferguson, because for him, good guys and bad guys are still mostly limited to super heroes and cartoons. But one day I’ll have to explain it to him, as I fear for his safety and the kind of America he is growing up into, which sometimes is no country for black men.
I always hear black parents giving their children, particularly black boys, advice on what to do if stopped by a police officer. Don’t argue with the cops. Don’t talk back. Always say “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” Don’t make any sudden moves and always tell the officer you are reaching for your license and registration. And so on, and so on. One black family even took it upon themselves to take their son to the police station after they moved into town, so the police would know the boy if they come into contact with him on the street.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that black mothers and fathers want nothing but the best when they impart this knowledge to their offspring. And I am certain that such information can save and has saved innocent lives. Yet, I fear we run the risk of lulling ourselves into a false sense of security by thinking we have complete control over the forces at play, when we really do not control the police, the courts or the prisons, despite our best intentions. The sad fact is that my child, or your child, can follow all of our instructions, but still end up a statistic.
Rather, shouldn’t someone — namely we — tell these cops to stop killing our babies? And while the powers that be are so preoccupied with protests and riots in the wake of the grand jury decision, what if they had invested half as much energy in ensuring the safety of our children?
When it comes to my son, I should be able to focus on the positive and aspirational, on telling my son he can become president one day because he looks like the president, not instructing him on how to avoid death by bullets because he fits the description.
Unfortunately, Michael Brown joins a long list of young men of color too long to mention, with Emmett Till, James Powell, Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Jordan Davis as only a handful of examples. They were taken from us much too soon, whether from police officers who believed they had the power to end their lives, or from vigilantes, thugs and lynch mobs who empowered themselves to act in such a manner.
Ultimately, society empowered these killers, who were conditioned by a society that criminalized the badge of slavery hundreds of years earlier. Under slavery, all white men were deputized to uphold the social order, which meant keeping slaves in line, with a legal sanction to kill black folks if necessary. This mentality continued through Jim Crow up until the present day, which is why so many white men can murder black boys in the twenty-first century with reckless abandon, no punishment and perhaps even a reward.
Meanwhile, as I teach my son about social injustice and the civil rights struggles — about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and the movement to turn bad laws into good laws — I must help him understand that this is not ancient history, and we are not yet in the promised land.
Michael Brown was shot like a dog and his body was left out there for 4 ½ hours — not 100 years ago, not 50 years, but in August of this year.  Ferguson is happening now, and we are living it. 

The Republican Party Takes a Stand For Jim Crow

In the South, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu angered Republicans when she pointed out the obvious, which is that President Obama’s unpopularity in the South is tied to the problem of race. 
“I'll be very, very honest with you. The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans,” Landrieu said. “It's been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader.”

In response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-Louisiana) called Landrieu’s statement “remarkably divisive.”  Meanwhile, state Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere said her remarks were “insulting to me and to every other Louisianian,” adding “Louisiana deserves better than a senator who denigrates her own people by questioning and projecting insidious motives on the very people she claims to represent.”

Earlier in the election season, one Cajun voter had choice words for Senator “Obama lady” and her support for that black man’s healthcare: “I don’t vote for black people, lady,” he said. “No, ma’am. I don’t vote for black people. They got their place, I got my place. That’s the way I was raised.”

The senator’s comments—so simple yet so profound—reveal much about the South, and the eternal Civil War that Southern conservatives continue to wage against black people.  Specifically, Southern conservatives and their problematic racial attitudes translate into destructive policies for the nation, particularly voter suppression and disenfranchisement.  And despite the positive changes taking place in the South, this region of the country cannot shake off its legacy of Jefferson Davis and Bull Connor, of criminalizing people of color and depriving them of their rights.

The Landrieu family typifies the complexities of race in the South.  The senator’s father, Maurice Edwin “Moon” Landrieu, was mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978.  Claiming victory with a progressive biracial coalition of blacks and middle-class whites, Moon Landrieu was credited with opening up opportunities for blacks.  And for his support of civil rights, he was called “Moon the Coon” and “n*gger lover.”

When Moon Landrieu’s son Mitch ran to become NOLA’s first white mayor since his father, some in the black community wondered if the candidate would come clean about the family’s purported African ancestry.  In a nation where one drop of black blood made you black under Jim Crow laws—and to be black was wear the badge of slavery—many light-skinned blacks were known to pass for white, disappear into white society, even abandon their families to make it in America.

And New Orleans, with its history of racial ambiguities, became ground zero for the system of Jim Crow segregation.  In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court legally sanctioned Jim Crow, providing it with the constitutional legitimacy it would enjoy until the civil rights movement and the Brown school desegregation decision.  Homer Plessy—an octoroon who was seven-eighths white and not visibly black--violated Louisiana’s Separate Car Act by sitting in a whites-only railroad car.  He had been recruited by the Citizens’ Committee of New Orleans to help bring down racial segregation laws.  The court ruled in favor of separate but equal accommodations for the races.  But in reality, Jim Crow depended on upholding white superiority and maintaining the subordination of blacks.  Clearly demarcating the color line, the Supreme Court validated whiteness as a property right. In determining who was white and black and what that meant for each, Plessy revealed race to be a random and capricious, yet potent political construct.

And in the name of upholding the white race and keeping the emancipated slaves out of power, the former Confederate states enacted voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement measures, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and the implied and actual threat of Klan violence and lynching.  The black members of Congress, all Republican, dwindled due to black voter disenfranchisement. The last man standing, Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina-- the first to introduce a federal anti-lynching bill in Congress, and who proposed penalizing Southern states for disenfranchising blacks— addressed the House floor at the end of his term in 1901:

Mr. Chairman, before concluding my remarks I want to submit a brief recipe for the solution of the so-called ‘American Negro problem.’ He asks no special favors, but simply demands that he be given the same chance for existence, for earning a livelihood, for raising himself in the scales of manhood and womanhood, that are accorded to kindred nationalities.” 

A black face would not return to Congress until 1928, or represent a Southern state until 1972.

In the interim, martyrs were created fighting for the right to vote.  Southern states incorporated the confederate “stars and bars” into their state flags to protest desegregation.  The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed.  And the segregationist Dixiecrats changed teams.  Capitalizing on Southern white resentment over the civil rights gains made by African-Americans, the Republican Party assumed the mantle of whiteness.  Today’s Republican brand rests on white supremacy, with a Southern Strategy that lured disaffected whites away from the Democrats. 

In 27 states, GOP election officials have launched a massive voter purge scheme called the Interstate Crosscheck program, as was reported by Al Jazeera.  With 7 million names targeted for scrubbing from the voter rolls, the program weighs heavily towards people of color-sounding names.  In a nation where voter fraud is nonexistent, Republicans would have us believe that 1 in 7 African-Americans, 1 in 8 Asian- and Latino-Americans, and 1 in 11 whites may have voted twice.  What we are experiencing is a twenty-first century Reconstruction era, with massive voter suppression not unlike the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.  Add to that the restrictive voter ID laws, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Republican-owned Supreme Court. 

And now, Mary Landrieu is the last white Democrat in Congress from the Deep South, as she faces a runoff to salvage her job.  And one of the few faces of color in the GOP, Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), of Sikh descent, defended the flying of the Confederate flag at the State House in Columbia.  Haley is responsible for Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the first Southern black Republican elected to Congress since Rep. White left in 1901.  Scott, who repudiates those who compare Republicans to confederates—yet will not reject the Jim Crow voter suppression policies of his own party—is no George White. 

Meanwhile, we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the savage police attack on peaceful protestors on the Edmund Pettis Bridge known as Bloody Sunday.  The march, which is dramatized in the upcoming film Selma, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  And racial politics have come full circle, and we are once again fighting against the war on voting rights. And we have to ask, what is going on here, and will it take another civil rights movement to stop the Republican Party?

September 25, 2014

Beating our black children furthers the legacy of slavery

File photo (Fotolia)

If it can be said that real men don’t hit women, then we should also say real men don’t beat children.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted on a felony charge for beating his four-year-old son with a switch — a tree branch — in an act that exceeded “reasonable discipline” according to the Montgomery County, Texas, District Attorney’s office.  The NFL player punished his son for pushing another one of his children off of a motorbike video game, and Peterson said the whooping was not unlike the discipline “heexperienced as a child growing up in East Texas.”
The boy reportedly suffered from numerous injuries, including cuts and wounds to his ankles, legs, hands, back, buttocks and scrotum.  The child also said his father hit him with belts and put leaves in his mouth while he was being hit, pants down, with the switch.
As a black father with a four-year old-son, I cannot imagine ever beating my beautiful child.  I cannot and will not treat my son like a slave.
The switch is a longstanding African-American institution, both feared and revered.  Everyone in the black community either has heard of or experienced firsthand the grandma who ordered the child to go fetch the tree branch, the switch that would be used in his or her own beating.  They said it was necessary to keep children on the straight and narrow, out of trouble and respectful of their elders.
But what if the explanation for the switch is far more troubling?  Sometimes, people act based on what they know.  And in the case of the black community and the black family, we cannot disregard our very real connection to slavery times and the internalizing and perpetuation of our trauma.
We all cringe with horror, perhaps even cry, when we view depictions of brutality in films such as 12 Years a Slave.  It feels far too familiar, too close to home.  If we recoil at the sight of slaves being beaten, then why would we subject our own children to the same treatment? The purpose of whippings, floggings and other forms of abuse under slavery was clear — to subjugate and control black people with arbitrary cruelty, beat them down not just physically but also spiritually and psychically, and reinforce the master’s control over them.
In some cases, enslaved black parents — who really had no rights over their own children, and perhaps had to care for the master’s children at the expense of their own — beat their children to please their owner, or to ward off more severe punishment from the master.
So how can this in any way benefit our children today?
Many parents physically discipline their children, and black folks are no exception.  And corporal punishment is not illegal in most states unless it causes severe harm.  But just because something is legal does not mean it is right.  And if you wonder how far you can go and steer clear of child protective services before crossing the line into criminal child abuse, then you have missed the point.
Study after study has shown that harsh physical punishment can have detrimental effects on children, including changes to the brain — literally ”less grey matter” — slow cognitive development, and increasing odds of depression and addiction, low educational achievement, aggression and criminal behavior.  Spanking during childhood also increases the chances of that child hitting other children and their parents and hitting a spouse or dating partner as an adult.
Moreover, spanking does not work better than any other form of correction; any short-term changes in misbehavior can come at a very high cost.
Let’s not forget verbal abuse, telling children — perhaps peppered with four-letter words — they are forever worthless and useless, and unloved.  This form of abuse is just as harmful to a child’s psyche as a beating is to his or her body and physical and emotional well-being.
Some parents use their kids as a punching bag out of frustration, reflecting the stresses and economic strain of daily life.  And I believe physical force is easier than mind power for many, because they cannot communicate effectively with their children.  I prefer talking to my son, using reason, incentives and other forms of non-physical correction with him.  I am not saying parenthood does not pose its challenges, and kids are smarter than we ever were.  But I want my son to respect me, not fear me.
Further, the idea is not to make Adrian Peterson a whipping boy or a poster child for child abuse.  He is by no means alone, and we know there are multitudes more parents just like him.  In any case, Peterson must come to terms with the horrible things he allegedly did to his son, as the justice system must deal with him, and surely the NFL will.
But in the end, if a criminal prosecution, league sanctions and maybe even an ousted commissioner are the only takeaways from this high profile case of child abuse, then there is a missed opportunity for society, and for black America, to deal with a serious problem.  We must break the cycle of trauma that passes from generation to generation like the DNA and heal both the victim and the victimizer.
We must challenge societal norms concerning definitions of manhood, and black manhood, and the notion that one must use physical violence against others as a means of controlling them.  This includes bastions of testosterone, including the military and law enforcement, where child and spousal abuse are rampant, and professional sports, where the data on domestic violence is nonexistent and arrests are lower than the national average, but most arrests are for domestic violence.

July 22, 2014

Return to Cleveland spotlights urban problems

The decision by NBA player LeBron James to leave the Miami Heat and return home to the Cleveland Cavaliers is a testament to his character and holds lessons for us all.

Cleveland is not the type of place that people usually return to once they've hit the big time.

In 2010, Cleveland topped Forbes' list of most miserable cities, with high unemployment and a loss of manufacturing jobs, a massive foreclosure problem, abandoned homes, poorly performing schools, crime, and pollution.

"My relationship with northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," James told Sports Illustrated. "I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."

He acknowledged the problems that Cleveland and his hometown of Akron, Ohio, have faced. "Our community," he said, "has struggled so much," and "it needs all the talent it can get."

In so doing, James cast a spotlight on problems that many of our cities face due to deindustrialization, neglect, and cruel policies.

For example, Detroit fell victim to years of population decline, an exodus to the suburbs, and an eroding tax base, culminating in an undemocratic state takeover of the predominantly African American city by Gov. Rick Snyder. Recently, the city government moved to shut water service to thousands of people who could not afford to pay, prompting some Detroit residents to seek help from the United Nations.

Chicago continues to be plagued by gun violence, with at least nine dead and 60 injured over the Fourth of July weekend, and three dead and 28 wounded the following weekend. Chicago also closed 50 of its public schools last year, an unprecedented blow to the predominantly African American and Latino children who depend on them.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia has fallen prey to Tom Corbett, the tea-party governor of Pennsylvania, where debates on public education funding rage while the state builds new prisons and gives large tax breaks to corporations.

By coming back to Cleveland, LeBron James can show the country that there is a more compassionate way to handle our urban problems.

In the last few years, James has shown that he is not afraid to speak out on political issues. He denounced the death of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin, and he condemned the racist statements made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

Some star athletes such as Michael Jordan have embraced product endorsements but have eschewed community involvement and taking a stand, while other players have attracted attention for their personal exploits and foolish financial decisions.

LeBron James harkens back to the days of the socially conscious athletes, before the multimillion-dollar contracts. And he is setting the standard for the role of the athlete today.

"You know, God gave me a gift to do other things besides play the game of basketball," he said.

He has his priorities straight. So should we.

July 8, 2014

Fifty years after Mississippi murders, America retreats on civil rights

Fifty years ago this month, three young civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Miss. One was an African-American, and the other two were Jewish-Americans. Their last names — Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner — stand for the martyrdom of that era.
On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, were murdered while in Mississippi to register African-Americans to vote during Freedom Summer. The men, all members of the Congress of Racial Equality, were investigating the burning of a black church when they were stopped and jailed by a deputy sheriff who was a member of the Klan. The three were released on bail but later shot to death by a lynch mob of Klan members, who buried them in an earthen dam.
Two days later, federal agents found the activists’ burned station wagon, and on August 4, their bodies were found. Nineteen men were indicted in federal court. After a three-year trial, seven of the defendants were found guilty, nine were acquitted, and the all-white jury deadlocked on the remaining three defendants.
It was the first time anyone was convicted of crimes against civil rights workers. This horrific crime opened America’s eyes to the brutality of racism, and that realization played an important role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Read more here:

Waiting For Environmental Justice to Come

Environmental toxins and pollutants know no class or race, and yet government policies and corporate activities place an undue burden on the health of the poor and communities of color.
Throughout the United States, children of color and poor children are disproportionately exposed to health hazards while attending public school, placing them at high risk. Often, this problem is unaddressed in urban centers. However, one group of New York City parents is bringing attention to polluted schools, holding elected officials accountable, and in the process, becoming a focal point in the environmental justice movement.
Located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Public School 163 is a diverse elementary school consisting of children ranging from pre-Kindergarten to third grade. The student body is 46 percent Latino, 27 percent white, 17 percent African-American and 16 percent Asian-American. Over half of these youngsters (52 percent) qualify for free lunch.
The proposal by Jewish Home Lifecare to construct a 20-story nursing home tower next to the three-story P.S. 163 over the next few years raised red flags among parents, who collectively call themselves the Task Force for a Safe School (TFSS). TFSS is concerned the construction will bring toxic fumes, excessive noise and disruptive traffic, and negatively impact the development and learning environment of their children.

50 years later, the Civil Rights Act would not pass

On this Independence Day — as we celebrate the struggles that were fought and the sacrifices that were made in the name of freedom — we also commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The landmark legislation was one of the most important laws in this nation’s civil rights history.
And sadly, the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t stand a chance of passing in today’s harsh political climate.

May 7, 2014

On the Need to Validate Young Black Men

In recent weeks there have been a number of news stories about young black men who were accepted to numerous elite colleges, including any and all of the blue chip, Ivy League schools of their choice. All of these positive news stories have provided a welcome respite from the usual fare, the portrayals of black youth as dangerous thugs, uneducated, unproductive, and a criminal element.

To be sure, as perhaps the most vulnerable demographic in America, black men have it hard. We are demonized, scapegoated and vilified, and the prisons are more than ready to accommodate us. And yet, we succeed against all odds. We always have suffered, and we always have demonstrated excellence. But I wonder, just for a second, for all of the black boys who are cultivated and supported, how many more are discouraged from succeeding on purpose?

The acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson never ceases to illuminate and educate whenever he opens his mouth, and remarks he made five years ago about the shortage of women in science are no exception. Answering a question about the predominance of male scientists and whether it is genetically related -- as former Harvard president and Treasury Secretary Larry Summers suggested -- Tyson used the opportunity to speak to the barriers facing African-Americans such as himself when he was growing up.

I've never been female, but I've been black all my life and so let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective. I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expressions of these ambitions. All I can say that is the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist was, hands-down, the path of most resistance through the forces of society.

Tyson noted that whenever he expressed this interest in becoming a scientist, teachers steered him towards athletics, throwing curveballs at every turn. And now one of the most prominent scientific minds around, this African-American man had aroused suspicion at the department store.

Now here I am, I think, one of the most visible scientists in the land. And I look behind me and I say, "Where are the others who might have been this?" And they're not there. And I wonder: Where is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not simply because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn?

The forces of society to which Tyson is referring are engaged in a collective effort. Certainly, individuals such as Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and Nevada rancher-turned-conservative folk hero Cliven Bundy do their part with their racist rants and dehumanization of people of color. Surely these men would love to stifle the aspirations of black children if they had half the chance and the power to make it happen. The former profits from the labor of young black men in a black basketball league, yet does not want black folks at his basketball games. And the latter believes the "Negro" was "better under slavery" than "under government subsidy."

Meanwhile, others -- hate groups, militias and the like -- use violence and physical force rather than simply hateful words alone to make their point.

Ultimately, these angry individuals are characterized as a small, isolated group of nut jobs, often dismissed as innocuous when someone is not out there defending them. However, they are emboldened to make such statements and take certain actions because the path has been cleared for them. The national climate is shaped by policy makers who make the laws, and those with the money and power to purchase those laws.

Offended as I am by Donald Sterling's statement, I care more about his long history of discriminating against blacks and Latinos. I am concerned when Rep. Paul Ryan invokes Charles Murray, speaks of a culture in the inner cities where men do not work, and then has the power to legislate his racism. Further, I am outraged when Justices Scalia, Thomas and the rest of the Supreme Court's reactionary bloc uphold affirmative action bans and gut the Voting Rights Act, halting racial justice while declaring that racism is over. Gerrymandering, voter ID and Stand Your Ground are what racially offensive statements look like when codified into law.

An African-American presidency does not make a post-racial society, but creates a racial backlash. Throw in some micoraggression for good measure. At a time when the country is browning, some people do not like what they see, so they want to take their country back. If you require proof, you need only recall Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's disrespectful finger wagging at President Obama. Or take a look at a recent exchange between Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Black men are the perennial defendants, guilty until proven innocent of no crimes in particular, and everything in general. A jury of their "peers" comes in the form of a stacked deck, or a mob, the all-white or predominantly white jury in which the peers have been removed from the jury and silenced.

I know that as a parent of a black child, it is my responsibility first and foremost to nourish, nurture and validate him. For all of its promise, this nation presents a harsh climate for black boys, and it always did. At the same time, I must hope for an America where the resistance to my son's success is no longer normalized. This is not the 1950s, but sometimes it sure feels like it.

April 24, 2014

'Hurricane' Carter, may you rest in peace

With the death of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, we have lost a great fighter in the ring and a powerful advocate for the wrongfully convicted.  In many ways, he helped open the eyes of many to the injustices of a system that far too often throws innocent people behind bars.
Carter knew firsthand about the plight of the wrongly accused because he had spent 19 years behind bars for crimes he did not commit.  He and co-defendant John Artis were charged with a triple murder at the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966.  There was little physical evidence in the case, and the so-called eyewitnesses who testified against them were two convicted felons.  And Carter and Artis maintained their innocence and passed a lie detector test.  However, an all-white jury found them guilty.  Carter was sentenced to three life sentences.
More at theGrio

Is 911 a joke?

Terrible. Just heartbreaking. This is the only way to describe the devastation in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York early Easter morning, when a fire killed two 4-year-old children, Jai’Launi Tinglin and his half sister Ayina, due to smoke inhalation. Jai’Launi’s twin sister and the grandfather and aunt of the victims survived.
Apparently one of the children was playing with a lighter in bed while the grandfather slept.
Firefighters had to take the limp bodies of the two children out of the burning house. And what is truly outrageous is that it took the ambulance 21 minutes after the 911 call was made to arrive at the scene—14 minutes to dispatch the ambulance, and another seven to drive to the home.  The fire started before 11:50 p.m. the night before Easter, and a neighbor called 911 at 11:51 p.m.  Fire trucks arrived on the scene at 11:56 p.m. and called the dispatcher at 11:57 p.m.  And yet, the ambulances were not dispatched until 12:05 am, the first one arriving at 12:12 a.m.
An investigation is underway, with the New York Times pointing to a breakdown in communications between the firefighters and the emergency dispatchers.  How and when the breakdown occurred is unknown, but what is known is that when firefighters arrive at a scene, the ambulance is called and dispatched immediately.  That did not happen, and obviously somebody messed up.  The time lag had deadly consequences.
More at theGrio