Thursday, November 27, 2008

The attacks in India

These attacks of November 26, 2008 hit home, occurring in places I know well and visited in the recent past with my family. I can vividly imagine the horror, as with 9/11. Also, like 9/11, this bears all the marks of Al Qaeda. The skillful exploitation of holes in security, the focus on U.S. (and British, in this case) citizens as well as Jews, the choice of target for dramatic effect and to exploit media attention. The choice of the Taj Mahal hotel as the centerpiece of the attacks, rather than an American-owned hotel, indicates that the focus is on the Indian elite, and Indian collaboration with the United States as evidenced in the recent U.S.-Indian nuclear deal. Although the killing is indiscriminate, the attack itself is a precisely condensed dramatic statement. These attacks also show the limits of Al Qaeda power at a particular moment. The attack was not on US or British soil, it did not involve weapons of mass destruction.

Barack Obama needs to go beyond expressions of outrage, horror, and sympathy for the victims to indicate quickly that he understands that this was an attack on the United States, on whomever else it may have also have been an attack. He needs to pre-empt a neo-conservative seizing on the attack to justify the fear mongering that has characterized the last eight years, and that the people of the United States so recently refused to be stampeded by.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What I'm still worrying about

I'm still worrying about poor people. Obama, like all politicians these days, talks about "working people", to signal he's concerned about people who aren't rich. But what about the unemployed, especially those who've been to prison, rightly or wrongly?
What about the backlash against gay and lesbian people? I'm troubled by the movement against gay marriage, and the outrageous proposition that passed in Arkansas to deny gay couples the right to adopt or take in foster children.
I'm sure there are other issues as well that we will need to keep on the front burner. There is a danger that Obama's election will lead to complacency among white, well off people, a feeling that race, especially as it intersects with poverty, is now no longer an issue. The successes of the Civil Rights movement, while real and valuable, had the same side effect of allowing some people to think that we no longer need to be vigilant or address racial discrimination and prejudice. I'm afraid that poverty as an issue in particular may suffer collateral damage from this election. I don't mean we shouldn't be celebrating, but that we must be realistic about the potential limitations of an Obama administration as well, and the need to keep advocating.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Now is this a post-racial society?

Well, yes and no. Did the election of Obama reflect an already-existing post-racial situation, or did the election itself create a new reality? I believe the reality is somewhere in the middle. The election of Obama, which we owe to some extent to non-racial factors like his intelligence and articulateness, the incompetence and arrogance of the Bush administration, and the timing of the economic meltdown, is one of those things that potentiates a situation that is latent and ready to crystallize given the right constellation of events. The election of Obama shows that in this country white people, at least a good number of them, are ready to be led by an upper middle class black person. It also shows that lower social class blacks will identify with, and have their hopes and aspirations stimulated by, an upper middle class black person. Finally, I think it shows that for younger white people, race may not be as salient in the choice of a leader as it is and has been for their elders.
I was in North Philadelphia over the weekend and on election day. This is almost entirely an impoverished African-American community. The volunteers were young white people from all over, and mostly local black people, including children and adolescents and whole families. I walked through the neighborhood canvassing, and here are some of the things I saw:
A group of three black men sitting on a stoop, all of them with the bloodshot eyes, I guessed, of alcoholism. one of them said "Its our turn now" with a big smile that revealed both pleasure and the fact that there were almost no teeth in his mouth.
Many people who said hello to me, wished me God's blessing, and so on. Numbers of people sitting on stoops or folding chairs on the sidewalk who volunteered that so and so was not home, had already voted, was too sick to answer the door, etc. Much more welcoming, and a much stronger feeling of community, than in the white or mixed suburban neighborhoods where I had done canvassing in the past.
Leaving North Philly last Friday, passing through Center City, where there were 2 million people, I'd say 99% white, who were celebrating the Philly's baseball championship. Drunk people were scattered around the sidewalks.
My first partner in canvassing said, when I noticed a beautiful mural on the wall of a school, that he had contributed to making the grid for the mural when he was in prison. Now he's an HIV counselor with Americorps.
Children answering the door. A parent responding from some back room to my shouted questions: "I'm from the Obama campaign. Have you voted?" One child, asked by his mother, "who is it?" said "Barack Obama"!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On Calls for Personal Responsibility

I wrote this shortly after Obama's "Father's Day Speech"

Recent statements by Barack Obama and Bill Cosby, calling on African-American men to take responsibility for their children (see,for example, USA Today, July 15, 2008, "Obama to NAACP: Blacks Must Seize Responsibility") raise some questions that are crucial to sort out at this moment in our history. It is easy to confuse talk of holding people accountable with blaming them. Calling on a father to acknowledge his responsibility to his children is not the same as blaming him. It is asking him, going forward, to think about the consequences of his actions and how to deal with problems that he inherited from his own family of origin and from a social history of oppression and disadvantage. Blame is backward looking; it entails accusing a person of a misdeed without taking account of the problems he was born into and that shaped his circumstances. If one wants to think in terms of guilt for various social problems, there is usually more than enough to go around. It is more productive, and ultimately empowering, to encourage the individual to think about responsibility going forward than to blame. Blaming is shaming, and shame is counter-productive if what we want is change.

There is a history of blaming the victim in this country, and especially of racist blaming of African-Americans, so it is understandable that people would be sensitive to this possibility. By the same token, it is crucial to clarify that Senator Obama and Dr. Cosby are not asking people to forget about historical and ongoing suffering and oppression. They are asking that we contemplate what to do going forward. They are asking that men take account of what they can contribute as fathers, and to think about the consequences of not taking on that responsibility.

Calls for personal responsibility and efforts to remedy systemic problems are not mutually exclusive. Senator Obama, in his speech on race, and Dr. Cosby at numerous points, have recognized the history and persistence of systemic racism in the United States. As Senator Obama points out, his assumption of the burdens and risks of running for President flows from his recognition of the need for political change. Further, a major reason that he and Dr. Cosby call on fathers to be present for their children is that they recognize that sons of absent fathers are more likely to become absent fathers to their own children. In this way, they do not dismiss the fact that there are historical forces in the culture and in the family that contribute to our social problems. This recognition only strengthens their determination to hold each generation accountable for the consequences of their behavior. We can only hope that the history of poor fathering will not rule out the sense of possibility, in future generations, that the cycle can be broken. Senator Obama and Dr. Cosby themselves are both examples of men who took responsibility for blazing a new trail in their personal lives. To promote personal responsibility is not to negate that there is much social and political change that needs to occur to support families. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, the best kind of social change is
produced by those who try to live the change they, and we, want to see in the world around us.

It might be tempting for white people in the United States to assume that this conversation is happening among African Americans because that is the only place it needs to happen. White people, however, should not assume that calls to responsibility are not needed in the white community as well. All Americans can learn from the way African-American people are facing up to the problems in their community. White people should be inspired by the strength being shown to acknowledge shortcomings and to address them, rather than, in self-congratulatory fashion, choosing to see therein only evidence of African-American family pathology. Rather than African-Americans feeling only shame about their dirty laundry being washed in public, there is an opportunity to feel a sense of pride in leading the way for all Americans in productive self-examination. Whatever our backgrounds, Americans need much more of the kind of self-reflection and willingness to challenge oneself shown by Senator Obama, Dr. Cosby and others who call for renewal through courageous and honest self reflection.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The One Thing No One Can Say---

in this election campaign is we've done something(s) awful, damaging and destroying people, for no good reason. Full stop. Then, having let that sink in, maybe we were deluded, we didn't know, we were careless, we meant well, we've done good things too---all that matters as well, but it doesn't undo anything.
How burdensome is it not to be able to say and mean you're sorry?
How would you like to be married to someone who can't say and mean (s)he is sorry, or trapped in a personality that can't?
Unable, then, to get to the tragic part---

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Free Market Ideology Must Be Dead----

if the free market votes for government intervention in the free market

Saturday, September 27, 2008

What I wish Obama had said last night, and why.

John, I'm so glad you've given me the opportunity to elaborate on what I meant when I said I'd talk to Iran with no preconditions. What I was trying to get at was I think we need to try to find a way to get out of the vicious circle of belligerence we've been caught up in the last eight years. Belligerence breeds belligerence, in foreign affairs and in presidential campaigns. I'm doing my best to avoid belligerence between us, and I can see how its not easy. Of course, its understandable that when we're threatened, or when ourselves or our loved ones are hurt or killed, we want to attack. Sometimes its justified too. But we need to avoid knee-jerk belligerence, we need to be able to think, to be smart, about our reactions to provocation. If we react impulsively, we're often playing into our adversaries hands. That's a big part of how we got into Iraq after 9/11, and why we're now more hated around the world than ever before, and how we squandered the good will we had after 9/11. We were overwhelmed with anger and sorrow, and we didn't make enough space to think so we could be smart as well.
When I said talks should be without preconditions, I should have said that the only precondition is that all parties to the talks commit themselves to listening to the others carefully and with respect. That doesn't mean accepting everything the others say. Threatening to wipe anybody off the face of the earth means complete lack of respect, and my preconditions would rule that out.
And, Jim, when you asked what I would cut to fund the 700 billion dollars that might be committed in the financial "rescue", of course I can't be too specific right now, but let me say this: we're going to have to give up the fantasy of the "new American century" in which we aim to establish supreme power over the whole world. Its unmanageably expensive to be the supreme power of the whole world, not to mention impossible except in video games. We need to find a way to have moral leadership in the world without being infinitely powerful, and, believe me, its a lot less expensive to exert moral leadership than it is to have supreme power.

Why do I wish Obama had said these things, aside from the fact that I wish he agreed with everything I believe? Because I think he's not naturally a belligerent person, but he seems to have felt he had to compete with McCain to sound tough. Since that's not his strength nor his inclination, he sounded lame, to my ears. But his thoughtfulness should have sounded like strength, not of the belligerent kind, but of the intelligent and smart kind. That would have come from speaking from his heart, as he said things that were true to what he feels and believes. Are the majority of the American people ready to hear that there's no bright line between evil and good in the world ,with us on the good side, and that unlimited power doesn't flow from being good and tough? Can the American people hear that we have a better chance of being a force for good in the world if we're ready to acknowledge our mistakes and have some humility? I don't know, but I wish they were presented with a good and strong case (perhaps citing the bible) to think about.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Is this a post-racial society?

White prejudice often shows up in the United States as white people speaking from their particular perspective as if it were universal, treating non-whites as if they were invisible or non-existent. With this point in mind, recent statements by white people in the context of the Obama candidacy that we live in a "post racial" society could mean just the opposite; when this view is held mainly by white people it could be evidence that race and racism are quite alive and operative, and that the form taken by racism and prejudice is predominantly of the insidious kind.  We will live in a post-racial society, paradoxically enough, when people make explicit the group perspective from which they are viewing the world. 

A case in point:  In the September 14th issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Matt Bai argues that identity politics are a minor factor in this year's presidential race.  He claims that for younger voters issues of race and gender are minor: "It turns out that the biggest deal about racial and gender identity is that, especially to younger Americans who live and work in a vastly changed country, it isn't such a very big deal after all".  (p. 10)

I wonder which younger voters Bai is referring to; it seems to me that, given the overwhelming percentage of black voters of all age groups who, according to polls, plan to vote for Obama, he must be referring to white voters.  I suppose it is possible that 97% of black voters think Obama is the better candidate based on factors having nothing to do with race, while less than half of white voters think so.  But I think it is more likely that black voters of all ages have in mind, not only the history of systematic denial of opportunity and rights to black citizens in the United States, but also the hope that Barack Obama will pay more attention to the specific challenges faced by black people and families, as well as the ongoing race-based inequities in this country.

Consider that while blacks make up 13% of the US population, as of 1995 according to Human Rights Watch, they made up 30% of those arrested, 44% of those in jail, and 49% of those serving longer terms in prison.  About 1/3 of black men aged 20-29 were in jail or prison, or on probation or parole in that year, and 13% of black adult males had lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction.  In 2002, 5% of black men were incarcerated, compared to .6% of white men.  As of mid-1999 there were nearly 800,000 black men in prison, or 4.6%, 11.3% of black men aged 20-34, as well as 68000 black women.  

It seems to me that one can claim that we live in a post-racial society only by ignoring figures such as these, and others like them having to do with racial disparities in infant mortality, poverty, substandard housing, and the like. It is to be expected that blacks will be aware of and concerned about these inequities, since they affect black communities disproportionately.  But if we were indeed a post-racial society, that is, if we were indeed one country, under God, indivisible, then whites could not be rested comfortably unaware of such suffering among the people of one sub-group.  I imagine that one of the reasons why black people favor Obama in such overwhelming numbers is that they hope that as a black man, those 868,000 black men and women in prison, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, are more likely to show up on his radar screen.  If the fact that Obama is running for President allows white people to believe that racially based inequities  are behind us, his candidacy in that particular way will have contributed, ironically, to setting us back in the effort to become a post-racial society.