Sunday, October 30, 2022

The America I Believe In

Over the last couple of days, Barack Obama raised the roof on the campaign trail in Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin. I'd love to reflect on all the ways he's re-energized Democrats at this crucial moment in time. But that would require a whole post in and of itself. Instead, I want to highlight one moment in Georgia where he addressed the most crucial issue of this election. It comes at the 0:21 mark of this video compiled by Stacey Abrams.
There have always been certain values that bind us together as citizens, no matter who we are, where we come from, what we look like, or who we love. That's the promise of America. That's who we are. And in this election you have the chance to vote for leaders...who will fight for that big, inclusive, hopeful, forward-looking America that we believe in."

I was reminded of the fact that, even in a divided country, there's one thing most voters agree on. 

Seven in ten Americans think that our democracy is under threat. Where we're at odds is over what, exactly, poses a threat to our democracy. The difference is stark and rooted in the story we tell ourselves about this country. 

I recently watched the movie, "The Good Shepherd," in which Matt Damon plays a fictional character  (Edward Wilson) who spearheaded the formation of the counter-intelligence division at CIA. Late in the film, he tried to force an Italian mobster into becoming a government asset by threatening to deport him. The target responded by saying, "We Italians got our families and the church. The Irish have their homeland. The Jews their tradition. Even the n****rs, they've got their music. What about you people Mr. Wilson? What do you have?" Wilson answered with, "The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting." That is a story of America that consistently runs throughout our history.

The radical right continues to embrace that story - describing an ugly place where we’re all divided into tribes that see each other as the enemy. It’s a zero sum story where, in order for me to win, you have to lose - where advances in civil rights for people of color, women, and LGBTQ Americans pose a threat to those who assume that this country belongs to them. 

That's why that clip from Obama's speech in Georgia is so important. It is a theme he returned to over and over again from his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention to the one he gave during the 2008 election when he talked about "perfecting our union." But it was his speech at the 50th Anniversary in Selma that was devoted entirely to articulating this story of America. 
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America...

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it... 
Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

Back in 2017, John Favreau wrote that "every election is a competition between two stories about America." Never has that been more true than this year. I think about that when I see candidates like Stacey Abrams campaign on the slogan: "One Georgia." 

My own Governor, Tim Walz, is campaigning on a similar slogan. 

And I'll never get tired of watching this! 

Our democracy is being threatened by those who assume that America belongs to them based on their gender, race, religion, and/or sexual orientation. But as Obama said, "in this election you have the chance to vote for leaders...who will fight for that big, inclusive, hopeful, forward-looking America that we believe in."

Monday, October 17, 2022

The Normalization of Racism - Updated

I spent some time literally weeping for my country today. I know we're all worried about a lot of things. But what triggered my tears today was this clip from a meeting of the Board of Regents for the University of Minnesota. 

Of course, it goes without saying that Sviggum was talking about white students who chose not to attend the University of Minnesota at Morris because they would be uncomfortable with diversity. The correct response to them would be to ask what it is about diversity that would make them uncomfortable - because the only possible response would be racism. 

There are a couple of other facts that are important to include in order to get the context of all of this. First of all, prior to serving on the Board of Regents, Sviggum was a Republican member of the MN House - even serving as its speaker and minority leader. He is now an executive assistant to and communications director for the Republican caucus in the Minnesota Senate.

But even more important would be some background about the U of M at Morris. The student body is 3% African American, 4% Hispanic, and 2% Asian. It is hard to imagine that - even for racists - those numbers would be significant. But that summary leaves out an important figure: 28% of students are Native American. 

The U of M at Morris, located about 150 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, makes its home on lands first inhabited by the Anishinaabe and Dakota/Lakota people. The first campus buildings housed an American Indian boarding school, administered by the Sisters of Mercy order of the Catholic Church and later by the United States Government. 

In 1909, when the federal government closed the school and transferred the campus to the State of Minnesota, it was with the stipulation that American Indian students “shall at all times be admitted to such school free of charge for tuition.” Today Morris continues to admit American Indian students qualified for admission free of charge for tuition, as mandated in federal law and state statute. Morris also offers extensive Native American cultural and academic programing.

That is the history of the campus that attracts Native students. In the photo above you'll see some of the students Sviggum and his white friends are referring to when they suggest that the school is "too diverse" for their children to feel comfortable.

As a member of the Board of Regents, I'm sure that Sviggum is very well aware of that history. He just doesn't seem to give a damn. Instead, he gave voice to racism in a public setting. As examples from Senator Tommy Tuberville and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene demonstrate, that is happening quite frequently these day. In other words, the dog whistles of the past are giving way to overt racism. After making these remarks, Sviggum admitted that, "at 71 or 72 years old I say things that I would never even thought when I was 52.”

I am reminded of something Biden said during the 2020 campaign.

Over the last few years, Republican leaders have been fanning the flames of racism and hate - giving it the oxygen it needs to come out of hiding.  

There are those who suggest that bringing it out into the open is a good thing. But in chronicling Chief Justice Robert's long crusade against voting rights, Ian Millhiser notes why his efforts efforts failed in the past.

As Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) told Reagan in October of 1981, conservative lawmakers feared that “anyone who seeks to change” an expansive voting rights renewal that had already passed the House “will risk being branded as racist.” Ultimately, Reagan signed the bill, extending preclearance for another quarter century...

As Edward Blum, a wealthy anti-civil rights activist who would go on to be the driving force behind the Supreme Court case that gutted preclearance in 2013, complained in a 2006 National Review article, “Republicans don’t want to be branded as hostile to minorities, especially just months from an election.”

The reason why the Voting Rights Act was continually renewed with such large majorities is that even Republicans who opposed it feared being branded as "hostile to minorities." But by essentially normalizing racism, that concern has been vanquished. 

The Supreme Court is now poised to overturn almost all of the gains made as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to the rising number of hate crimes, that's what happens when Republican leaders give oxygen to hate and racism climbs out from under the rock.

UPDATE (10/20/22): Sviggum issued a non- apology apology.

I do apologize to the students who took it wrongly as if it was an attack on them. It was not.

The students who said he gave voice to racism were wrong, and he's sorry about that. But then he took it a step further.

“If the far left doesn’t ruin [this country], identity politics will. The woke community, the liberal community, if I may be so bold as to say, has taken [my question] and jumped on it. They say it’s racist and sexist. That’s the community that says, ‘If you don’t think like me and you’re not part of the group, you don’t belong. You’re a bad guy, and we will destroy you,'” he said.

So in the midst of an "apology," Sviggum suggested that those who objected to his remarks are going to "ruin this country." He goes on to say that any attempt to point out racism is just another example of cancel culture. That's so extreme that it's like suggesting that a parent who holds their child accountable for bad behavior is saying, "you don't belong, you're a bad guy, and I will destroy you." Yes, I just compared Sviggum to a child. But when it comes to what is/is not racism, the best I can say about him is that he's totally ignorant. 

I'm not pointing this out because Sviggum's behavior is unique. This is the kind of thing we've been hearing for a very long time now. It is the mindset that maintains the status quo of white patriarchy. As I said previously, however, the volume of these attacks has simply been ramped up over the last few years. 

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