Friday, February 28, 2014

My Brother's Keeper: Addressing the generational cycles of racism

Last night Chris Hayes hosted a conversation about President Obama's new initiative "My Brother's Keeper" with professors Imani Perry and Jelani Cobb. Due to the fact that this initiative will primarily be privately funded, the title of the segment was The Politics of Philanthropy. In it both the host and the guests made assumptions that are simply untrue.

Their first error was to assume that philanthropy only funds programs that address the needs of individuals to the exclusion of public policy. I know from my own experience of working in nonprofits that this is simply not true. Many of the individuals and foundations with which I came in contact were transitioning into providing support for systemic change - recognizing that an either/or approach was not sufficient, but that both are needed.

I also know that many organizations struggle with this tension. As children of color are literally being lost daily, limited resources often mean making decisions about whether to continue to focus efforts on the very real devastation to their individual lives, or attempt to swim upstream and try to affect the forces that are creating the problem in the first place. Hayes, Perry and Cobb - to my ear - appeared pretty dismissive of attempts to do the former. But I challenge them to spend one day with those young people and tell me that their individual lives do not present the same kind of urgency we feel about the need to fight for systemic change.

The second error they made was to suggest that the Obama administration is doing nothing about addressing the systemic issues that affect these young men of color. I would certainly agree with anyone who suggested that more could be done - especially in regards to criminal justice system reform. But as I've chronicled before, their position completely ignores things like the Departments of Education and Justice efforts to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline as well as this administration's work to end the war on drugs. To suggest that President Obama is ignoring the systemic issues that affect these young men is an assumption made in ignorance of actual facts.

More insidious in their assumptions is the idea that centuries of oppression in this country have no impact on the minds and hearts of many young people and their families. To ignore that is to ignore our history. Lifting them up individually is also a way to address the systemic issues of racism.  As President Obama said yesterday:
None of this is going to be easy. This is not a one-year proposition. It’s not a two-year proposition. It's going to take time. We're dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our history, run deep in our society, and are entrenched in our minds.
I am reminded of one time years ago when I was meeting with a philanthropic foundation's program officer to ask for funding for a program that worked to help students (mostly black boys) succeed in school. I had included some of the African American staff who worked directly with students in the meeting and they were explaining how so many of these young men are surrounded by fathers/uncles/brothers who were either in prison or had spent significant amounts of time there. The program officer commented that these young men must feel ashamed about that. The staff quickly chimed in to correct her - saying that many of them actually wear it as a badge of honor and see their own destinies as leading them there as well.

Recognizing that reality is in no way an attempt to blame them for it. From slavery to Jim Crow to the war on drugs, our country's history is littered with attempts to tear black families apart and terrorize black men. It should come as no surprise to us that those policies have created cycles of despair and hopelessness among many African Americans. The question then becomes, what do we do about that? It is initiatives like "My Brother's Keeper" combined WITH efforts to make systemic changes that are needed. As President Obama said:
We need to give every child, no matter what they look like, where they live, the chance to reach their full potential. Because if we do -- if we help these wonderful young men become better husbands and fathers, and well-educated, hardworking, good citizens -- then not only will they contribute to the growth and prosperity of this country, but they will pass those lessons on to their children, on to their grandchildren, they will start a different cycle.
Breaking that cycle happens when we demonstrate that we have Christian Campagne's back.
President Obama and Christian Campagne walk into East Room for "My Brother's Keeper" event.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

GOP on the issues for 2014: FAIL

I keep hearing that Republicans are expected to do well in the 2014 midterm elections. So I'm trying to figure out what issues they'll be running on. Here's how the landscape looks to me:

Obamacare - We hear a lot these days about how the main focus for Republicans will be to run against Obamacare. But is sure seems like every time they highlight a scare story about its implementation - it turns out to be a hoax. Then yesterday's Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll was bad news for the Republicans in that it showed that a majority of Americans want Congress to keep the health care law in place.  Furthermore, Republicans keep fumbling with the "replace" part of "repeal and replace." CBO just scored their latest attempt and said it would mean that 1 million people would lose their health insurance and it would cost an additional $73 billion.

Government Spending - Reducing government spending has been the standard "go-to" message for the Republicans for over 40 years. But given that the federal deficit has been cut in half since President Obama took office during the Great Recession, that's going to be a hard sell. I'm sure we'll still see a lot of rhetoric about it. But any attempt to get specific will be impossible to justify.

Cultural Issues - The mood of the country has changed since the days that Karl Rove cooked up a scheme to put marriage equality on ballots to ramp up conservative voter turnout. In just the last two days we've seen a judge in Texas rule against that state's ban on gay marriage and even Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona recognized that her state legislature's attempt to legalize discrimination was not a good idea. After all the fiascos of Republican candidates saying stupid things about rape and birth control, the memo on staying clear of abortion politics has gone out from the establishment.

Immigration Reform - This one is causing Republicans major headaches. They know they need to do something, but the teapublicans won't let them. So at this point it looks like the decision is simply going to be to punt on it for now.

Tax Reform - Rep. Dave Camp tried. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told him to STFU.

Deregulation - I'm sure we'll be hearing about this one from lots of Republicans. But when plants blow up in Texas and water isn't safe to drink in West Virginia, that's a tough sell.

Foreign Policy - Right now the John McCain hawks are at war with the Rand Paul non-interventionist libertarians. There is no clear end in sight on that conflict.

That about covers the standard Republican fare. Nothing much to work with there. And so we'll likely see the default position that Republicans tend to rely on - negativity as a means to induce fear. The only question that remains is whether or not enough Americans will buy it. Let's just call it what it is...FAIL.

Friday, February 21, 2014

What Democrats need to do to maintain the "coalition of the ascendant"

We've seen how it worked. In both 2008 and 2012, President Obama put together a "coalition of the ascendant" that recognized the changing face of America and beat the historical odds to win two national elections. That coalition was made up of people of color, millenials and college educated white people (mostly women).

But while pundits are warning Republicans that if they don't reach out to Latinos their Party is doomed in the future, most of the advice they are giving Democrats tends to ignore the very coalition that brought this success to Democrats. The narrative that we hear most often is all about a progressive populism that focuses primarily on income inequality.

And so I'd like to counter that narrative by suggesting that there are some things Democrats need to do in order to maintain the momentum started by President Obama and build on the success of the coalition of the ascendant.

First and foremost, they need to go "all in" on the 2014 mid-term election. Groups like Priorities USA that decide to sit this one out and wait for 2016 risk incurring the ire of those of us who know that what has halted progress in this country is NOT the lack of presidential leadership, but Republican obstructionism. That is a direct result of the 2010 mid-term election when too many Democrats decided to sit things out - giving the teapublicans the opportunity to win both Congressional majorities and governorships/state legislatures. The real base of the Democratic Party knows that winning presidential elections is not enough. And we'll be watching to see who puts it all on the line to do what needs to be done in 2014.

In terms of issues, supporting a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers as a necessary component of immigration reform is a must. The current status quo is not sustainable. End of story.

A HUGE issue for this coalition are the Republican attacks on voting rights. These affect nearly all components of this group - including people of color primarily, but also students and low income Americans. Protecting the franchise (and actually expanding it as AG Eric Holder has called for with the abolition of disenfranchisement of felons) will be a critical component of maintaining the coalition.

Anyone who really watched what Mayor Bill DeBlasio did in New York City to win his overwhelming victory there is aware that he did not simply champion the cause of income inequality. He also promised to do away with the odious Stop and Frisk policy of his predecessor. That garnered him huge support in the African American and Latino communities - as well as many of the millenials who were often subject to that policy.

Watching the reaction to the murders of young black men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, we can draw parallels to the need to end policies like Stand Your Ground and the school-to-prison pipeline that affects so many young people of color. Much like the attacks on voting rights, these are issues that often fall off the radar screen of too many white middle class Democrats.  But they are literally life and death issues to many of the people who make up the coalition of the ascendant.

Of course continuing the work of President Obama on LGBT equality, women's rights, education and healthcare reform will be crucial as well as addressing the issues of income inequality and climate change. The point here is that there is no single issue that unites this coalition. All the voices must be heard.

Back in 1981 Bernice Johnson Reagon (who is perhaps best known for founding the group Sweet Honey in the Rock) gave a speech on coalition politics that is a must-read for every Democrat/progressive/liberal. I'll simply give you a little taste - but seriously, go read (and study) the whole thing.
We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is “yours only”—just for the people you want to be there...To a large extent it’s because we have just finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up...

Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for a home! They’re looking for a bottle with some milk in it and a nipple, which does not happen in a coalition. You don’t get a lot of food in a coalition. You don’t get fed a lot in a coalition. In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home...

It must become necessary for all of us to feel that this is our world. And that we are here to stay and that anything that is here is ours to take and to use in our image. And watch that “ours’ make it as big as you can...The “our” must include everybody you have to include in order for you to survive. You must be sure you understand that you ain’t gonna be able to have an “our” that don’t include Bernice Johnson Reagon, cause I don’t plan to go nowhere! That’s why we have to have coalitions. Cause I ain’t gonna let you live unless you let me live. Now there’s danger in that, but there’s also the possibility that we can both live—if you can stand it...

There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60’s that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.
In other words, maintaining this coalition is not about some Kumbaya moment designed to make you feel better. Its hard - even dangerous - work. And its not about getting our egos fed, its about giving rather than receiving.

But it is also exactly what Rev. William Barber is referring to when he talks about "fusion politics." And its what David Simon meant when he talked about "The Death of Normal."
America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions. The America in which it was otherwise is dying, thank god, and those who relied on entitlement and division to command power will either be obliged to accept the changes, or retreat to the gated communities from which they wish to wax nostalgic and brood on political irrelevance...

We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment. And those who continue to argue for such retrograde notions as a political reality will become less germane and more ridiculous with every passing year.
Any political party - including Democrats - that wants to survive had better start listening to people like Bernice Johnson Reagon, Rev. William Barber and David Simon on continuing the work President Obama has begun to build the coalition of the ascendant.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The current GOP battle is between those who are telling the lie and those who believe it

Nothing that has happened over the last few years illustrates the vacuity of the current Republican Party better than the recent vote on raising the debt ceiling. As you might know, it passed the House primarily with Democratic votes and then went to the Senate. Minority Leader McConnell's plan was to allow it to pass there with only Democratic votes - giving Republicans the cover of claiming that they did not support it. But Sen. Cruz threw a monkey wrench in those plans by insisting on a super majority of 60 votes for passage. That forced McConnell and a few others to actually vote FOR raising the debt ceiling in order to avoid a global economic crisis.

Take a listen to how Sen. Cruz talks about all this to CNN's Dana Bash.
Republican leadership said we want this to pass, but if every senator affirmatively consents to doing it on 51 votes, then we can all cast a vote 'no' and we can go home to our constituents and say we opposed it. And listen, that sort of show vote, that sort of trickery to the constituents is why Congress has a 13 percent approval rating.
I was reminded of how David Roberts talked about the post-truth politics of the Republican Party.
In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They've realized that their rhetoric doesn't have to bear any connection to their policy agenda. They can go through different slogans, different rationales, different fights, depending on the political landscape of the moment. They need not feel bound by previous slogans, rationales, or fights. They've realized that policy is policy and politics is politics and they can push for the former while waging the latter battle on its own terms. The two have become entirely unmoored.
In other words, Republican politics is based on a policy lie. In this case, they have always known that they have to raise the debt ceiling. But they've lied about it to their constituents for so long that many have come to actually believe what they've said. Sen. Cruz has now become the standard bearer of those that bought the lie.

In the end, this means that the current battle raging in the Republican Party is between those who are telling the lie and those that believe the lie. There is no way for that one to end well because the only way out of that mess is to finally face the truth. At times we see glimmers that a few Republicans are recognizing that reality. Those create the moments President Obama captures with his efforts to build a common sense caucus. But the overall fate of the Republican Party rests on whether or not their leadership is willing to give up the lie. Until they do, Sen. Cruz and the teapublicans will be there to exploit it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

White privilege: Embracing the lie

At least Ross Kaminsky acknowledges that Michael Dunn (the man who murdered Jordan Davis)  is a racist.
He seems to use the word “thug” as a synonym for “young black male.” In a letter he wrote from jail to his grandmother, Dunn said, “The Jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs. This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots when they're threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”

In my opinion, stipulating that my information is limited, Dunn seems to be an angry racist who was looking for trouble.
But I expect he mirrors the feelings a lot of white people have to the recent verdict in this case. And so its worth deconstructing what he has to say. Kaminsky levels his most virulent criticism at the response of Ta-Nehisi Coates - who provided this historical context.
I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy, and shall not be extricated through the latest innovations in Negro Finishing School. I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson's genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings [sic], that George Washington's abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge. I insist that the G.I Bill's accolades are inseparable from its racist heritage. I will not respect the lie. I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting to which, likely until the end of our days, we unerringly return.
For Kaminsky, this reference to a few examples from our history is a dangerous and twisted view of the United States. Of course, he's the one doing the twisting when he says that Coates claims that Jefferson's treatment of Sally Hemmings is more important than his writing of "the single most important political document in human history." That's not what Coates said...he said the latter is "no more important" than the former. This might sound like I'm nit picking. But exaggerating someone's point is a typical tool used to try to discredit them.

Normally I'd try to avoid Godwin's Law in a situation like this. But Kaminsky goes there.
I wonder if Mr. Coates would say that no Jew should ever forgive Germany...

As a Jew, I admit it hasn’t been easy, even though I was born two decades after the end of World War II, to consider each German I meet as an individual rather than just tar them with the brush of their country’s brutal (and relatively recent) history. But, especially when I was living in Europe and traveling to Germany for tourism or on business, I did just that and found most Germans to be like most people in any other western country.

But Mr. Coates gives me, a white guy, no such benefit of the doubt...
At this point I'm scratching my head trying to figure this one out. Nowhere does Coates address the issue of forgiveness. So I'm not sure how Kaminsky got there. But his analogy fails on a more important level. Conflating his ability to forgive individual Germans for the Holocaust to the African American experience of racism fails to take into consideration that most Americans don't even know the history Coates is referring to (lets have a contest to see how many people know about Oney Judge or how blacks were excluded from the benefits of the G.I. Bill). We've simply whitewashed it all. I have to wonder how much forgiveness Kaminsky would feel when confronting a German Holocaust denier?

But for Coates to simply try to remind us of a few episodes from that history, Kaminsky calls him "a race hustler of the first order" and "dangerous, bordering on evil." In other words, its not slavery and Jim Crow that were evil, but Coates insistence that we face that part of our history.

When Paula Deen wants to have a "plantation-themed" wedding reception, Republicans keep suggesting that African Americans were better off during slavery, a Duck Dynasty star says he never saw an "unhappy Negro" during the Jim Crow era and even a Supreme Court Justice suggests that things were better for black people prior to the Civil Rights Movement, its clear that too many Americans are clueless about our history. And so I'd suggest to Mr. Kaminsky that when we can finally face all that - perhaps THEN we can start talking about forgiveness. Until that happens, he's just asking us to continue embracing the lie.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Dear White America: Its time to get the message

For decades now, black people have been trying to tell us white folks something. Here's how it looked in the 1960's:
With the advent of social media, the same message was communicated following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin via the hashtag #HeIsNotASuspect.
Today, we're seeing black people doing their best to communicate the same thing via the hashtag #dangerousblackkids.

Hey white folks...its time to wake up and get the f*cking message!!!!!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Jordan Davis and the heritage of racism

I first heard of the death of Jordan Davis from Melissa Harris Perry when she reacted to it by suggesting that "this is no country for young black men."

Then a few nights ago, I got obsessed with watching videos of the testimony in the trial and closing arguments. I became pretty well versed on the issues of the legal case. As we heard the questions emerge from the jury, by yesterday morning I knew what the verdict would be. Last night when it finally arrived, it came as no surprise to me.

While I join with those who are disappointed that the jury was deadlocked on the charge of the murder of Jordan, it is important to me that this is NOT the same thing that happened when George Zimmerman was tried for the murder of Trayvon Martin. First of all, Michael Dunn was convicted of attempting to murder the other three boys in the car. For that he will likely be in prison for the rest of his life. And secondly, the prosecutor has already announced that she will re-try Dunn on the first degree murder of Jordan Davis. So this saga is not yet over.

Those who didn't watch the trial might not know that Dunn's testimony was that he had a verbal altercation with Jordan and "thought" he saw a weapon. In response, he started shooting. As the car Jordan was in tried to flee, Dunn got out of his car and continued shooting at it, narrowly missing killing the driver. It was this latter shooting that the jury agreed was attempted murder.

I join those who suggest that Dunn's account of what happened between he and Jordan is simply not credible. Police found no gun in the car, no one but Dunn heard any threats from Jordan, Dunn fled the scene without calling the police and he didn't say anything to his fiance about a gun over the next 24 hours as he tried to reassure her. But as I understand the law, the prosecutors had to prove - beyond a reasonable doubt - that Jordan did NOT have a gun. It is almost impossible to prove a negative. That, my friends, is the result of the odious and racist Stand Your Ground law.

I'll also be curious to hear what the jurors have to say about how they became deadlocked on the charge of the murder of Jordan Davis. On that one count, they were given 3 options: murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree and manslaughter. The entire jury of 12 was required to agree - not only on Dunn's guilt or innocence on that charge - but on which one. From the minute I heard the judges instructions to the jury on that count, I realized that was perhaps a bridge too far.

And so today many continue to rail against the poor job the prosecutor did and/or the incompetence of the jury. I'm sure there are complaints in those cases that are justified. But we lose sight of the real culprit when that is our focus. The one thing we can do to ensure that what Dunn did is clearly a crime is to get rid of the Stand Your Ground laws. To me, that would be the most powerful way to honor the short life of Jordan Davis.

As is so often the case, Ta-Nehisi Coates does an amazing job of articulating the issues.
Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition...

I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy, and shall not be extricated through the latest innovations in Negro Finishing School. I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson's genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington's abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge, that the G.I Bill's accolades are somehow inseparable from its racist heritage. I will not respect the lie. I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting which, likely to the end of our days, we shall unerringly return.
If you have any doubts about what he's saying - read the links he provided. The heritage to which he refers is now demonstrated via a law that suggests that a white man need only "feel" threatened by a black one in order to play judge, jury and executioner. In a culture that has for centuries told us that the mere existence of a black man is threatening, that means its open season on their lives.

I'll leave you with some thoughts from Joshua DuBois.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How political journalists gave up the freakin' plot

You've all seen the headlines. Here's one from today:

As someone who loves looking at the big picture, I am particularly glad to see Jay Rosen write about this kind of thing. He zero's in on that second article by Chris Cillizza in a piece aptly titled: Behold how badly our political journalists have lost the freakin' plot.
Nobody knows exactly when it happened. But at some point between Teddy White’s The Making of the President, 1960 and the Willie Horton ads in 1988, political journalism in this country lost the plot. When it got overly interested in the inside game, it turned you and me and everyone who has to go into the voting booth and make a decision into an object of technique, which it then tried to assess. We became the people on whom the masters of politics practiced their craft. Then political journalism tried to recover an audience from the people it had turned into poll numbers and respondents to packaged stimuli. Tricky maneuver.
In other words, political journalists turned their focus away from being the source of information to become analysts of the power game. Voters/citizens are objectified via the assumption that we are merely the field on which these games are played.

This is why Chuck Todd can so blithely claim that its not his job to call out the lies being told about Obamacare. Its not because he is a tool of the GOP. Its because he literally doesn't think its his job to provide the public with accurate information about policies. He thinks his job is to analyze what works/doesn't work for the power players in politics.

It really is fascinating to read Chris Cillizza's article with this frame in mind. The whole thing is a dismissal of the importance of the facts in the CBO report about Obamacare in favor of analyzing how GOP candidates will spin it. Cillizza even goes so far as to suggest that he and other journalists are merely the victims of all this by suggesting that no one would listen to them if they tried to be the purveyors of actual information.
You overestimate the media's ability to (a) cut through the clutter or (b) change peoples' minds about what's true and what's not. As I noted above, people, largely, believe what they want to believe. And that's even more true in a siloed media world where conservatives read, listen to and watch content that affirms their beliefs and liberals do the same.
He's basically throwing in the towel there. Cillizza uses confirmation bias and the "siloed media" as an excuse to give up on doing actual journalism. Instead he retreats into the D.C. village bubble to tell us who's winning/losing the power game. In that sense, I'd alter Rosen's title to: Behold how badly our political journalists gave up the freakin' plot.

So whether you are a liberal or a conservative, next time you see a headline like the one's above, think about what the author is saying to you..."how politics affects you is not my concern." And then look elsewhere for some actual information.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

President Obama's faith: "Maintaining your moral compass"

As someone who is dedicated to trying to understand President Obama, it is always interesting to come across a speech or an interview with him from the past that I haven't seen before. And so I was delighted to find this interview from March 2004 that he did with Cathleen Falsani about his religious faith. If you are interested, I suggest that you go read the whole thing. But I'm going to excerpt a few things he said that stood out to me.

First of all, he recounts a history that we have all become familiar with by now.

I am a Christian. 
So, I have a deep faith. So, I draw from the Christian faith.
 On the other hand, I was born in Hawaii where obviously there are a lot of Eastern influences. 
I lived in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, between the ages of six and 10. 
My father was from Kenya, and although he was probably most accurately labeled an agnostic, his father was Muslim.
 And I’d say, probably, intellectually I’ve drawn as much from Judaism as any other faith...

So, I’m rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people. That there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and there’s an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived.
And then he talks about his mother's influence.
So I don’t think as a child we were, or I had a structured religious education. But my mother was deeply spiritual person, and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world’s religions, and talk to me about them. And I think always, her view always was that underlying these religions were a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself but also for the greater good.
He then recounts his experience with the black church when he went to Chicago as a community organizer and his "conversion experience." But with that, he talks powerfully about the dangers of certainty...something I've been writing about for quite a while.
I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up, a suspicion of dogma. And I’m not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others.

I’m a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at it’s best comes with a big dose of doubt. I’m suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.

I think that, particularly as somebody who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.
In terms of his own spiritual practice, here is how he answers a question about how often he prays.

It’s not formal — me getting on my knees. I think I have an ongoing conversation with God. I think throughout the day, I’m constantly asking myself questions about what I’m doing, why am I doing it.

One of the interesting things about being in public life is there are constantly these pressures being placed on you from different sides. To be effective, you have to be able to listen to a variety of points of view, synthesize viewpoints. You also have to know when to be just a strong advocate, and push back against certain people or views that you think aren’t right or don’t serve your constituents.

And so, the biggest challenge, I think, is always maintaining your moral compass. Those are the conversations I’m having internally. I’m measuring my actions against that inner voice that for me at least is audible, is active, it tells me where I think I’m on track and where I think I’m off track.
In other words, he's consistently calibrating whether or not his actions align with his North Star. And when he's on track, he knows it.
It’s interesting, the most powerful political moments for me come when I feel like my actions are aligned with a certain truth. I can feel it. When I’m talking to a group and I’m saying something truthful, I can feel a power that comes out of those statements that is different than when I’m just being glib or clever.
These are the kinds of things for which President Obama is critiqued by the extremists on both the left and right. From the right, he is not deemed sufficiently dogmatic and from the left he is not sufficiently critical of religious influences in politics. But what I see is a man who has looked deeply into his own soul and discovered a spiritual path to sustain himself. And when asked whether or not he believes in heaven, he's found a little bit of that right here on earth.
What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded. I don’t presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, that aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.

When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like I’ve been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they’re kind people and that they’re honest people, and they’re curious people, that’s a little piece of heaven.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"My Brother's Keeper"

Anyone who has listened regularly to President Obama's speeches knows that there is a refrain that he returns to over and over again because it makes up the core of his values. Here is how we were first introduced to it in his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention:
For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga.

A belief that we are connected as one people. If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one.
Here is how he said it in his 2008 speech on race in America - A More Perfect Union:
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
And so it comes as no surprise that this week President Obama will announce a new initiative titled "My Brother's Keeper."
President Obama will launch a significant new effort this week to bolster the lives of young men of color, seeking to use the power of the presidency to help a group of Americans whose lives are disproportionately affected by poverty and prison.

Obama on Thursday will announce a new White House initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper,” which will bring foundations and companies together to test a range of strategies across the country to support young male minorities, taking steps to keep them in school and out of the criminal justice system, a White House official said. He will also announce that his administration will launch a more vigorous evaluation of what policies work best and publicize results to school systems and others across the country.
This initiative will obviously build on the work Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder have done to eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline that currently affects so many young men of color.

Its clear that this meeting with participants of the Chicago-based program Becoming a Man had a profound impact on the President because he has referred to it several times.
I think that this is also the kind of thing we'll be seeing Barack Obama devote himself to post-presidency...because he knows: "I'm not that different from Roger."

Monday, February 10, 2014

NSA AND Drones...Oh My!

Anyone who has been watching Glenn Greenwald for as long as I have can probably get inside his head and figure out his strategies. So with the launch of the first stage of his new media platform, it doesn't surprise me that he went with a story that could maximize the fear-mongering by combining talk of drones AND the NSA.

The gist of the "revelations" is that the Obama administration uses signal intelligence collected by NSA to target the SIM cards of suspected terrorists for drone strikes. First of all...DUH!!! Their big leap is to suggest that since this is not coupled with affirmation from human intelligence, mistakes are likely. Yet they provide not one single piece of actual evidence to back up that claim.

In addition to the fact that their sources for this story seem to rely almost exclusively on the use of intelligence and drone strikes in Afghanistan (where we are clearly still engaged in a war with the Taliban), their assumption is that these mistakes inevitably lead to civilian casualties.

All of this might have been somewhat useful information back in 2010 when the U.S. implemented at least 127 drone strikes outside of Afghanistan. But as I've reported previously, we are talking about a total of 39 strikes in all of 2013. In addition, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (which has been especially critical of the Obama administration over drone strikes) reports that:
There were no confirmed reports of civilian deaths in the six months after [President Obama's counterterrosim] speech...Total civilian casualties have been falling since 2009, and the average number of civilian deaths in each strike has also been declining over the past four years.
I'll say this...Greenwald knows his audience. He's very aware of the fact that linking the topic of drone strikes to stories about NSA as the opening bid on this new media platform is a guaranteed way to prompt maximum outrage and generate clicks. His appeal is mostly to people who haven't noticed that President Obama is fulfilling his promise to end this perpetual war. And gawd knows Greenwald isn't about to inform them about that.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Faces of Change

I promised pictures of the Moral March, and here they are. These are just a few of the photographs taken by an amazing photographer Adrian Resa Jones. You can see her whole flickr page from the march at that link.

Those, my friends, are the faces of change. And when you put them all together - they look like this...

So if you are ever tempted to get discouraged and think the lunatics are winning, just go take a look at these faces and rest assured that, as Rev. Barber said:
So we're not confused, we're not schizophrenic, we are quite clear, we're clothed in our right minds, WE KNOW WHO WE ARE, we believe we've been born for this moment. Anybody that thought difficulties would depress us better look again. Resurrection always wins. Justice always wins. Love always wins. Courage always wins.

"North Carolina is ground zero" (updated w/ video of #MoralMarch)

The national media has collectively decided that the next wave of a liberal movement for Democrats will come in the form of populism fueled by income inequality. Occupy Wall Streeters take the credit for igniting this movement while liberal bloggers promote politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren as its leaders.

Meanwhile, only a few are paying attention to the actual movement underway in North Carolina...the one being led by Rev. Dr. William Barber and the NC NAACP called "Moral Mondays." Yesterday that movement drew 80,000 to 100,000 for the Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ari Berman is one of those few journalists who is paying attention.
The Moral Monday protests transformed North Carolina politics in 2013, building a multiracial, multi-issue movement centered around social justice such as the South hadn’t seen since the 1960s. “We have come to say to the extremists, who ignore the common good and have chosen the low road, your actions have worked in reverse,” said Reverend William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and the leader of the Moral Monday movement, in his boisterous keynote speech. “You may have thought you were going to discourage us, but instead you have encouraged us. The more you push us back, the more we will fight to go forward. The more you try to oppress us, the more you will inspire us.”
I am personally struck by how well Rev. Barber learned the lessons taught to us by movement leaders like Martin Luther King. He is building a coalition of citizens who are committed to clear principles that speak to the very real concerns of the people. Here are their five demands:
  • Secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that insure economic sustainability;
  • Provide well-funded, quality public education for all;
  • Stand up for the health of every North Carolinian by promoting health care access and environmental justice across all the state's communities;
  • Address the continuing inequalities in the criminal justice system and ensure equality under the law for every person, regardless of race, class, creed, documentation or sexual preference;
  • Protect and expand voting rights for people of color, women, immigrants, the elderly and students to safeguard fair democratic representation.
Notice that there's no railing against the 1%ers in that platform. They are not this movement's concern. The focus is on justice and equality for the rest of us. Added to a national call for immigration reform, these are the policies that have attracted a diverse coalition that covers the gamut of race, creed, gender and sexual orientation...exactly the kind of coalition that will be needed to secure victories in the future. 

But right now Rev. Barber is focusing all his energy on changing things in the relatively small swing state of North Carolina. That reminds me of what Pete Seeger once said that he learned from Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
When you face an opponent over a broad front, you don't aim at the opponent's strong points. You aim for something a little off to the side. But you win it. And having won that bus boycott...13 months it took him to do it...then he moved on to other things.
Rev. Barber has been at this in North Carolina for 10 months now. And as we speak, Moral Monday movements are being planned in places like Georgia and Alabama. As the Reverend says, "We know we're in the South - the crucible of change - where hope has always had to be chiseled from the stone of despair. We understand that North Carolina is ground zero and the nation is looking at us."

The other lesson Rev. Barber learned well is that successful movements are built on hope, not cynicism.
So we're not confused, we're not schizophrenic, we are quite clear, we're clothed in our right minds, WE KNOW WHO WE ARE, we believe we've been born for this moment. Anybody that thought difficulties would depress us better look again. Resurrection always wins. Justice always wins. Love always wins. Courage always wins.
As we've learned, cynicism is the refuge of the privileged while hope is often the only thing available to the oppressed.
For someone sitting on the very edge of survival, hope is extremely important. Often it is only hope, sometimes even false hope, that allows him to make it to the next day... Cynicism is deadly for someone on the edge of survival. Even in the darkest night, he cannot afford to be cynical. That cynicism just might push him over the edge.
If you're in need of an infusion of hope, I suggest you go to Rev. Barber's youtube channel and listen to more of what he has to say. Here's one of my favorites.

And so I expect that when the history books are written, it will be movements like the one being built in North Carolina that will actually "bend the arc of history towards justice." That's why I'm going to be keeping my eye on this one.

P.S. My friend Denise Oliver-Velez was in Raleigh yesterday for the Moral March. She promises pictures that I'll share here when I get them :-)

UPDATE: Here's video of the Moral March with Rev. Barber calling us all to "higher ground."

An excerpt:
You don't have enough political power to vote us away. You don't have enough insults to taunt us away. And you don't have enough money to buy us away.

We will not give up, NOT NOW, NOT EVER.

We will never abdicate our birth right and sell it for a bowl of porridge.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Reality check

These guys just won the Superbowl...

...while this ad aired.

The next day, Vanity Fair released their latest cover photo of Hollywood's biggest stars...
...and lets not forget that all that happened while this family occupies the White House.
Any surprise that the racists are going a bit nuts?

Sunday, February 2, 2014


I wonder if any of you - like me - grew up being told that children are to be seen but not heard. If so, then you'll understand why I find these to be some of the most powerful pictures of President Obama.

And here is perhaps my very favorite picture. It was taken back during the 2008 primary when not many people were paying attention to that skinny guy with the funny name. I imagine that all this little girl knew was that she had his undivided attention.
Recently Jim Stuart has written about the fact that one of the characteristics of an integral leader is their ability to engage in deep listening.
It's hard to describe this deep listening that is the foundation of the integral leader's personal power. You the reader need to reach into your personal experience for a time, a moment when you felt totally seen, totally heard - as if the person listening to you was offering you a safe, even sacred space in which to be heard.
If only for a moment, that is what I believe we are witnessing in these photos - President Obama offering children "a safe, even sacred space in which to be heard."

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The struggle is both/and, not either/or

Ta-Nehisi Coates has done it again. What I LOVE about him is that he reaches down into the struggle in his soul and lays it all bare - and so beautifully written.
Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don't expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama's on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don't expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again. (In the private spaces of black homes, I see it all the time.) And no matter how many times I've seen it in my private life, at Howard, in my home, among my close friends, I don't ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again.

This symbolism has real meaning...And this messenger—who is Barack Obama—becomes something more to black people. He becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities.
But here is where Coates exposes his struggle.
How does a black writer approach The Man when The Man is not just us, but the Champion of our ambitions? More, how do you approach the offices that have so often brutalized black people when those offices are occupied by the Champion? How do you acknowledge the president's many gifts, his actual accomplishments, while still and all outlining the depressing limits of his own imagination?
Those "depressing limits" for Coates most often come when President Obama speaks to the African American community about personal responsibility. That's because Coates knows that the destruction of white supremacy in this country will NOT occur because African Americans embrace personal responsibility.
The young black man, coming out of storied Morehouse, should be personally responsible for the foiling of this new wave of poll taxing. He should be personally responsible for ensuring that the Medicaid expansion comes to Mississippi. He should be personally responsible for the end of this era of mass incarceration. He should be personally responsible for the destruction of the great enemy of his people—white supremacy.
And so (to use a quote from Coates himself), it makes him "suck his teeth" when President Obama talks to African Americans about personal responsibility. I think he struggles with all this from an "either/or" perspective...that the President much chose to either focus on personal responsibility OR communal responsibility for white supremacy.
And I struggle to get my head around all of this. There are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed. No other resident of the White House, could have better explained to America what the George Zimmerman verdict meant. And I think history will remember that, and remember him for it. But I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of "twice as good" in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.
Sometimes I want to reach out to Coates and suggest that this doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. I believe that in his earlier days, President Obama maneuvered this same dilemma, and it was in recognizing the both/and that he resolved it for himself. To ignore either the toll white supremacy takes on individuals or fail to challenge it on a systemic/communal level would undermine the struggle.

Ultimately I think Coates knows this. For example, he has articulated the culture of the street that affects young African American men better than any other writer I've seen.
The streets are like any other world--we all assume an armor, a garment to suit that world. And indeed, in every world, some people wear the armor better than others, and thus reap considerable social reward. In the main, it's been easy for me to discard the armor of West Baltimore, because I wore it so poorly. I was never, as they say, truly built for the streets. And still, even I struggled to take it off. But I know others who were masters. (My own brother, for instance.) Inducing them, and those in between, to change class, to trade their plate for robes, to trade the broad-sword for a spell-book, is the real work.
What I think Coates is missing is that the symbolism he described so well in that first quote has as much impact (in a different way) on white people as it does for blacks. One of the reasons so many have literally gone nuts during Obama's presidency is that the beauty, humanity and intelligence of this President challenge every fiber of white supremacy that has been hard-wired into our brains for centuries. That wound has festered for so long that it will not be lanced without tremendous pain and fury. And so, in addition to proactively tackling the major civil rights issues of our time, having the strength to maintain that beauty, humanity and intelligence in the face of the pain and fury that has been unleashed on them is perhaps the most powerful blow this President (and his family) can deliver to white supremacy.

"With fear for our democracy, I dissent."

My title is how Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded her dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court case granting presidents criminal immunity for...