Friday, February 27, 2009

Are We Not Human?

After my post Wednesday (which took three days to write!), I don't have a lot of juice (or time) left this week for the post on human rights violations I'm committed to do on the 27th of every month. Still, I came across an article yesterday that is another aspect of what I got my butt in a sling for writing about elsewhere last month. I was writing about a local issue, of course, and yes, it was veeeeery pointed, but still it was not only true, but, as this piece by Michelle Chen demonstrates, children coast to coast in the United States are being similarly affected, as well.

Ignoring the effect on students of the social context in which badly underfunded public schools exist is just another way of insuring that poor children of color will not fully develop as whole individuals. It's like feeding them on bread and water and then putting them into foot races with youth whose nutritional needs have been completely met. And I would argue that those with the Power-to-Define know it full well. Which, in my book, makes it a human rights violation.

I see students of color, and most particularly African-American students, every day who are struggling because they are unprepared to meet the challenges of higher education. Invariably, they believe they are, for whatever reason, incapable. Not only do I do back flips in the attempt to assure them that they've been shoved into a trick-bag and CAN, in fact, still get out, I boldly offer to be their ally while they do it.

Public school education in schools that have been given short shrift needs to be a major recipient of any "stimulus package" funding over coming years. Investing in the education of humans who have been (and are being) left behind is not only appropriate, but crucial, if we want to climb out of the economic and social slough of despond into which we have fallen as a nation.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mule Train!

MLK's Mule Train, Poor People's Campaign, 1968
As I wrote last week, I’ve been necessarily distracted of late because of being neck-deep in a personal political drama. Were I able to describe it here, you’d see why I’ve been distracted. And it’s 110% consistent with the topics you’re used to finding on this site. Suffice it to say that I wrote something elsewhere that was effective enough in pushing for social change locally that members of the White power structure tried to get rid of me. But I took a little trip this week-end that pushed my problems to the back burner and right off the stove. Buckle up, folks. This one’s gonna take the varnish off the woodwork.

About a year ago, I met and subsequently blogged about Antoinette Harrell and her work related to what some folks call re-enslavement and Harrell refers to as “peonage.” This week-end, I loaded into a troop of minivans with twenty-one other people and headed for the Mississippi Delta to see for myself. It was quite an education and the only way to do it justice will be to write more than I usually include in one post, maybe considerably more.

To set the stage for you, I’ll first outline the cast of characters Harrell assembled to take her first “Mississippi Delta Poverty Tour.” Harrell, being the typical director, is unapologetically frenetic, high energy, and demanding (almost too demanding sometimes), but when it comes to her passion –- going back to reach out to those who’ve been left behind –- she is meticulous in her planning, ruthless in her follow-through, and utterly committed to making sure her points are made. No one escaped her agenda or its effects. Dr. Ron Walters, eminent professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, scholar, author and Director of the African American Leadership Institute (the star of the show, obviously), even put in a call to the publisher of his next book –- on re-enslavement in the 20th Century –- asking that they hold publication until he can re-write the last chapter, based on what he learned on this trip.

Other players, besides yours truly, included Donna Owens, a firebrand free-lance journalist who was taping for National Public Radio, but who also writes for such print publications as Essence, Esquire, and O; Mae Walls Miller, who was herself trapped in slave-like conditions in Mississippi until 1962; a group of young Puerto Rican activists from Boston led by city planner Ines Soto Palmarin; her Sri Lankan colleague, Easwaran Selvarajah, also with the Boston Redevelopment Authority; a team of community organizers from New Orleans, including H.M.K. Amen, who is not only a lawyer, but the President of the New Orleans Association of Black Social Workers, and her mother, Millie Charles, the elder who crafted the strength-based model social work program at Southern University at New Orleans to train social workers to empower, advocate and transform through social change; a gaggle of high school and college students from Louisiana; and two crack photographers: Walter C. Black, Sr., who trails Antoinette wherever her work takes her, and Shawn Escoffery. Are you feelin’ this thing yet?
Boston City Planner & Gathering of Hearts co-founder Ines Soto Palmarin

The caravan pulled into Clarksdale, Mississippi (yes, the home of the blues) around 2:30 a.m. Friday night after running into Mardi Gras issues earlier in the evening. Antoinette had placed me in a van with Dr. Walters and Donna Owens, so we began a dialogue that consisted at that point primarily of laying groundwork and comparing notes, after I brought them up to speed on what I’ve learned about current life in The Deep South since moving here eighteen months ago. Dr. Walters lives in Washington, D.C., and Owens resides in Baltimore, though my sense is that she’s often on the road. While I was awe-struck –- and appropriately so, I think –- at finding myself paired in intense conversation with Walters, the following day he informed me casually that, after we arrived at the motel in Clarksdale, he found it necessary to write for an hour before he could go to sleep –- even knowing that Harrell would have us hitting the road again at 7:00 a.m. Saturday.

Saturday morning started with some tension over the fact that Mae Walls Miller decided not to leave the motel with the rest of us. She’s an older woman and I assumed that the rough nature of her first two decades of life probably made rising after a long trip and only four hours of sleep difficult at best. She set us straight during the reflections ceremony over dinner Sunday evening, but early Saturday, as Harrell was determined to stay on schedule, not to mention get and keep her ducks in a row, the rest of us wound up climbing into the vans too late to have breakfast. So, edgy with exhaustion and hunger, we headed for Lambert, a community of 1700 people in Quitman County, passing through the “town” of Marks, Mississippi, where Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the original mule train kick-off for his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.

On the way, Walters and Harrell and I did the first of the day’s interviews on Radio Station KSYB, AM 1300, of the Amistad Radio Group out of Shreveport, Louisiana. I would have been frantic with fatigue and the lack of my morning coffee if it hadn’t been that Walters, even older than I am, was so infinitely elegant in his comments –- and I didn’t even know at that point that he’d had even less sleep than me. His intelligent and insightful analyses of racial and economic systems of oppression in this country and what we saw as the day went on drove me to taking notes over and over as he quietly spoke from the front seat and the miles sped by.

Lambert proved to be the prologue to what would come later. We were met by Pastor Gene Price and his wife, Linda, at their Union Grove Missionary Baptist Outreach Ministries food pantry. About sixty or seventy people huddled under and around the old building’s porch in a light drizzle. Some of them had come to get clothing the Boston contingency had gathered with help from students at Harvard University. Some had come to say their piece on the radio. And some had come in the hopes that U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-2nd District of MS) would show up, as he had committed to do.

Antoinette Harrell unloading truck at Outreach Center
Asked how many were descended from sharecroppers, virtually all of them raised their hands.

“I’m not ashamed to tell it,” 78-year-old Lambert native Evelean Heags said to me. “I had to quit school in the ninth grade to go to the fields. I planted cotton, chopped cotton, picked cotton, whatever you could do to cotton, I did it. I worked a plow just like a man. Then I got a job cleaning the credit union and I retired from there. Three of my five children died in tragic circumstances and now I’m helping to raise my great-great-grandchildren.”

Ryalisyah, a beautiful nine-year-old girl with two pony tails sporting Jesus Loves Me barrettes, grinned up at me from the warm spot inside the front of her great-grandmother’s zippered sweatshirt. Asked what she wanted for her great-great-grandchildren, Heags didn’t hesitate.

“I want ‘em to have better than me,” she declared firmly. “First, I want ‘em to get a good education. I worry about that because the teachers here just walk in off the street, looking for a paycheck. And when the children come home needing help with their schoolwork because they’re just being handed papers in school, it hurts when you can’t help ‘em.”

Heags barely took a breath before she continued. “After they get an education, though, they need jobs -– good jobs, paying a good wage, not far away, but near to here.”

This sentiment reflected what others expressed as well there in the early morning hours at the Outreach Center. When I suggested that some folks don’t understand why they don’t just leave the area, which they’d already explained has no doctor, no grocery store, and no jobs, they seemed almost surprised.

“This is my home,” several said in one voice. “This is where I was born and grew up. This is where I’ve always been.”

And I was caused to wonder just how deep their roots go into the cotton fields that still exist, how many generations of their ancestors had been born and died within walking distance of the building where we now stood. I was even caused to remember how, on the continent of Africa, a family might serve a given community in a particular role for not only decades, which we find admirable, but for as much as 700 years, as I once heard about one case.

Bennie Thompson did not attend the event, after all. He sent his aide, Samuel McCray, wearing a blue jean jacket and a wool beanie with an Obama logo on the front, but after several minutes of speaking political-ese into the various videocams and microphones, McCray said something about thanking Ronald Reagan for some policy or program or other. My attempt to smother a laugh didn’t escape Ron Walters, whose face remained implacable with only a hint of raised eyebrows as he turned and caught my eye.

Later, when Donna Owens was taping McCray, I walked up just in time to hear her say, “Let’s cut to the chase…what legislation has Congressman Thompson introduced in recent years that would have helped these people in some meaningful way?”

McCray never flinched. Wearing a tight little smile, he pondered the question for a good moment. “Well…” he began. “Uhhhm…uh…”

His eyes, squinting softly in concentration, looked this way and that, as if he thought a cue card might magically appear any second to save him. Finally, he gave up. “You have to understand,” he said without the chagrin I would have expected under the circumstances, “I’m a field rep…”

Once I got home, I went on-line to explore what had happened to the Garanimals factory that was mentioned that morning in passing. What I found was the connection I didn’t make while in Mississippi, but probably should have.

Garan, Inc., most famous for its Garanimals line of children’s clothing and owned since 2002 by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway division, was incorporated in 1957 and built its factory in Lambert in 1961. In 1964, the Lambert facility was doubled in size. In fact, of Garan’s original eleven factories, seven were in rural Mississippi. By 1985, Garan had expanded to twenty factories, all of them in very poor southern or western states, where the labor force was hungry –- ready and willing to work longer and harder for less.

By 1984, however, Garan had been through some economic changes and had begun to read the writing on the wall. The wave of the future, it was apparent, would be in moving even further south, so they began their migration to Central America ahead of the pack. NAFTA, of course, was signed in 1994, increasing the acceptability of such a move, and in 1995, the Lambert plant was closed. It wasn’t just the Lambert plant, either. In fact, Mississippi had 41,000 textile jobs in 1992. A decade later, 29,500 of those workers were more or less permanently unemployed.

The Mayor of Lambert, Reginald Griffin, is a real piece of work. He’s a big man – tall and hefty – a small town godfather type without, it would seem on the surface, at least, any commitment to need-meeting. Sporting an upscale athletic suit and a NRA ball cap, he was almost a caricature of a small town official in a poverty-stricken community and I kept waiting to see why folks would vote for him. Then it occurred to me. We were not seeing at the Outreach Center the constituents who had voted him in.

Lambert is still surrounded by fully operational cotton fields. The only difference is that the work is now done almost entirely by machines. Sidney Wilhelm’s book Who Needs the Negro?, published originally in 1900, suggested that with labor intensive businesses turning to machines, the African-American worker would be increasingly out of luck. And so they are in Lambert. The workers went straight from the cotton fields to the Garan factories, but as the factories closed down, the former field workers -– now displaced by technology –- entered an even darker period economically than they had known before.

Reginald Griffin is more like the house worker: Black, but lording it over his other brothers, convinced that he’s not like them, imagining, in fact, that he’s an honorary White man because he “deserves” to be. The principal of one of the local schools, Griffin is probably seen as a Black man who has “made it.” And indeed, he has, if you consider “making it” being a fat frog in a very tiny pond where most of the other frogs are nearly starving.

As an “honorary White man,” Griffin has to try harder. He must distance himself -– even in his own mind –- from those who are the struggling and suffering below him. Otherwise, he'll have to admit that the socially-constructed, political notion of ‘race’ marks him just as absolutely as any other African-American in the eyes of those he aspires to join –- or be.

So he not only refers to Lambert as a “City of Hope,” but wasted no time on the air before he began reminding his listeners that when people help themselves, then they will receive the help they ask for. And not, apparently, before, no matter how devastated they have become or how powerless they are to affect the social structures that have devastated them.

Mayor Griffin accompanied our troop to the next stop on the tour, the home of a couple in their twenties and their two young daughters. The family, who we'll call the "Jacksons", live in a house left to them by a grandmother and its condition is beyond deplorable. Unable to pay even the taxes on the property, they have operated for years on the cusp of complete disaster, but when "Bill Jackson", a high school educated man with carpentry skills, lost his job six months ago, they descended into a despair so deep, they cannot see even the tiniest point of light toward which to aim.

The first house we visited, Lambert, MS
Griffin, who did not know we were going to visit this home, unquestionably knew of the house’s existence. In a different location, perhaps, the State would have long ago taken the children, though it’s clear that the couple love their daughters very much and, with the help of relatives, strive to provide a semblance of home even in hell. And hell it is.

The front porch is loose boards criss-crossed over other loose boards, so that approaching the front door is rather like following Indiana Jones into a cave. The living room floor bounces when you walk on it and slants heavily to one side, so we had to make sure we distributed ourselves in a circle to prevent the house from crashing onto its side. Window glass appeared to be catch as catch can. One entire wall and part of the ceiling was covered by plastic and the fuse box lay bear in one corner like an avant garde wall sculpture. There was virtually no protection from the cold and little from rain, I suspect.

Mayor Reginald Griffin (in back) in the "Jackson's" living room

Even so, the ancient carpet was swept, a stuffed animal perched jauntily on the center cushion of a lint-free and mostly unspotted couch, and large brightly colored still lifes covered major portions of two walls. The young couple were gracious, if somewhat embarrassed, hosts, answering questions of their overwhelmed guests. Then, we started taking turns looking into the adjoining room in the middle of the house.

Basically, it was like a dungeon, but not like a dungeon you might see in a movie (my only experience with such places), a real dungeon, complete with almost utter darkness and damp. Every surface in the entire room was black with mold. And, from what I could tell, they must traverse this space to get to any place else in the house. As I lifted the curtain back to look into the room, Shawn Escoffery turned on a camera light at my shoulder. “You’ll need this to see,” he said. And the wan light cast an eerie glow over an image I will live with for the rest of my life. Each of us approached and then turned, visibly rocked to our pins.

Students inside the house
I could barely breathe. My stomach was flipping and, though I tried hard not to burst into tears, I was beginning to cry. Moving back into the drizzle in the front yard so that the students could come in, I found Mayor Griffin standing on the sidewalk. I did not trust myself to speak to him or even to look in his direction for fear I would slap his over-satisfied face. It was only later that I learned he was busy saying things like, “I should have had this place torn down long ago, but I felt sorry for the family” and “Look at that car they have” (an unspectacular little sedan), “they want to live this way.”

I’ll be amazed if he lets the little house stand another month now that people from outside the community have seen it, but Pastor Price and his congregation, who already paid the back taxes and saw to the official delivery of the deed to the couple, will protect the little family. And Antoinette Harrell is waiting in the wings, as well, to see what happens next.

At this point in the process, Harrell finally allowed her motley, exhausted, hungry and horrified crew a quick stop at a fast food joint before dragging us all on down the road to yet another manifestation of the on-going effects of the peculiar institution of slavery in The South.

On route to our next stop, Harrell broke out her cell phone once more and hooked the van to KSYB, poised to broadcast Walters, Harrell and me live for an hour to half million listeners around the world. Needless to say, by now we all had plenty to talk about. As we passed the phone around our tiny circle, we built on each other’s ideas in a seamless albeit extemporaneous presentation.

Dr. Walters started by discussing how money flows, where and to whom, so that those who are shut out to begin with, having no computers, no libraries, and substandard educations, stand on the sidelines of life as we know it, uninvited to participate in community decision-making by insensitive political and social administrative power structures at every level who do not have their best interests at heart. Walters challenged the listeners to consider what they might do to make a difference in the way power and money is distributed and used in the United States.

“There is a $787 billion stimulus package being allocated right now,” he reminded us, “and this money can come into the community, even communities such as the ones we’ve been visiting, but if we don’t act immediately, this moment can pass us by. Lambert, Mississippi, and other communities just like it, need multi-service centers to organize processes and make available funds and other resources to bring them into full parity with the rest of the citizens of the United States. The people we’ve been talking with today are the products of 19th Century, 20th Century, and now 21st Century slavery. As we consider and address the new economic crisis affecting so many in our country today, we must include these who have been left behind.”

“What if we demanded to be heard by our leaders?” Walters continued. “President Barack Obama has established an office to set policies related to poverty. Perhaps we could see this as him saying to the rest of us, ‘Make me do it. Make me do what needs to be done. I am responsible to you and I want to do it, but you have to make me.’ Forty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., set out from Marks, Mississippi, with a mule train, setting in motion a national Poor Peoples’ Campaign to force Washington to respond to the needs of ordinary Americans. Unfortunately, this important effort was derailed by his untimely death. Perhaps it is time to act on his call.”

I picked up the thread.

“We must remember,” I began, “that European-Americans, what most folks call ‘White people,’ were heavily involved in King’s original Poor Peoples’ Campaign, too. The fact is that poverty, as we are increasingly learning, is not a Black people’s problem. But more importantly perhaps, institutionalized racism is not a Black people’s problem either; it’s a White people’s problem. We have the power to do something about it and until we do, the nation will never fulfill its potential. Worse, until we band together as one citizenry, we will all see our problems as individuals and as a society deepen.”

By the time we wound up the broadcast, Antoinette Harrell was calling for listeners to begin the work of organizing a March on Washington. And as ambitious an undertaking as that would be, riding down the highway in the rain through the Mississippi Delta, processing the experiences of the day, it not only didn’t seem to be an overly dramatic suggestion. It seemed to be a no-brainer.

Pulling into our next community did nothing to change our minds. Anguilla, Mississippi, in Sharkey County, with a population of about 4,000, is not only larger than Lambert, but at first glance, infinitely more prosperous. Still, the “better” houses mask the substantial long-term, bottom-of-the-barrel pocket of poverty Pastor Edward Griffin of Integrity International Ministries guided us to. A man who joined the military and subsequently returned, having seen and been a part of a much larger world outside, but with a heart for the people of the Delta, Griffin is everything his counterpart of the same last name in Lambert is not. He’s knowledgeable, articulate, and a committed community leader. But he’s not the Mayor. The Mayor of Anguilla is White.
Dr. Ron Walters (center) talks with Pastor Edward Griffin (left)
“The last Mayor was a Black woman,” we were told, “but she looked down on [these people], so they elected a White Mayor.” One can only assume the kind of smarmy okey-doke the present Mayor laid before the voters to charm them into giving him the position. We drove by his house literally just around the corner from the broken down porch where we were standing and it was a lovely and large brick home surrounded by a wooden fence and with a tree house in the back much sturdier and more attractive than the family homes we had just left a block away and visible from his yard.

In Anguilla, we toured the home of a single mother and head of household who has been caught for years in an on-going process of off-again/on-again underemployment and lay-offs. She’s been diagnosed with both anxiety and depression and, as is so often the case, the downward spiral of panic, fear, and intergenerational sorrow is evident in every corner of her disheveled home with its decades of ground-in dirt, its ceilings thick with spider webs and mold, and rust brown water splashing out of its faucets.

Asked about her hopes and dreams for her children, young mother gave the stock reply, “Better than what I’ve had.” But they've never known anything different, I thought to myself. How can they find the door to a future they can’t even envision?

Two young men hanging out next to a trailer in Glen Allan, the next community we visited and the smallest one yet, gave at least a partial answer to my question. At twenty, both young men wanted something more. Both had received vocational training at a job training facility in the region, but one had found a job and the other had not. The one employed sported a fresh haircut and newer, cleaner clothes and he’s already enrolled at the Community College, too. The other one, shaggy haired and wearing a seriously tired old t-shirt, seemed stuck.

It didn’t take much to recognize Glen Allan as the slave community of a now long distant plantation era. Tucked between Lake Washington and a cotton field, it has no Mayor and it’s not even incorporated, at least partly because incorporation would bring increased taxation to White property owners who don’t want to be responsible for providing services to the other local residents, most of whom are poverty-stricken and Black. Water and electric bills run high, even very high, because of poor insulation and leaky pipes. And former sharecropper Julius Chaney, Jr., told us that, as rough as the homes look now, they used to be “really bad, but people lived in them, too.” Of course, that was back when Chaney and the others were being paid only $80 for putting in an 80-hour week in the fields.

Antoinette Harrell & Dr. Ron Walters talk with residents of Glen Allan
Limp and somewhat mind-blown by now and still a two-hour drive away from dinner, we stood, nevertheless, in the drizzle that had dogged us all day, talking to yet another group of volunteers, eager to tell us about their worlds –- past and present –- and their hopes, despite all, for the future. In a nutshell, they need jobs. In fact, they assured us that, as hard as field work had been –- and they had all done it –- they would return to the backbreaking labor in a heartbeat to earn a paycheck. Having no prospects elsewhere, little education, few skills, and no money to move, they live in a holding pattern, as it were, waiting for a signal that they have not been forgotten by Divine Providence or a society that has seemingly abandoned them.

It’s no wonder that at our reflection dinner the following afternoon, Mae Walls Miller shared that she hadn’t left her room Saturday because, even after the long trip, she just couldn’t bring herself to make the rounds with us.

“I know you didn’t understand why I wouldn’t go with you yesterday,” she said unapologetically through the microphone, “but I just couldn’t do it. You may not be able to imagine it, but I was even worse off than those folks and I couldn’t let the memories take me back there.”

Later on, when I kissed her cheek the way I do every time I see her, she whispered “I love you” in my ear the way she always does. Every time I think she’s only walking wounded, I re-learn that she’s a consummate teacher for any who will listen. She rode ten hours round trip to make the point that what happened to her as a Black woman in the United States was so horrific she still can’t get too close to those who suffer even similarly.

Still, one child at the Outreach Center in Lambert, a tall eight-year-old boy named Darius, carried the day in my heart. I asked him, “If you could tell the world out there one thing you feel about being an African-American boy, what would you say?”

He considered my question for a second or two, and then, looking up into my face with the smiling eyes of endless possibility, said clearly and distinctly, “I’m proud.”

He’s not ashamed, nor should he be, that his society has let him down. After all, poverty is violence, but it is not the fault of the victim against whom that violence is perpetrated. We need to make sure, however, before he is brought to feel differently about himself, life, his country, and us, that we welcome him into full citizenship in the nation of his birth, the land, as they call it, of the free.
WANT TO HELP? Pastor Gene Price, who founded the Union Grove Missionary Baptist Outreach Ministries in Lambert, Mississippi, eight years ago, wants to start a boxing club for the boys in that area. If you want to help him and his wife, Linda, with this or any other project, please contact them at 662-326-6085 or 662-292-3294.



NOTE: All photos above except for the one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s mule train were taken by Walter C. Black, Sr.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

How Change Happens

I'm sorry I've been quiet. I spent two days at an African American Studies conference last week. Besides having my regular duties to perform. But the reason I didn't post was that I was pretty heavily distracted by a series of incidents and events that, to be honest with you, rocked my world somewhat.

I'm not at liberty to discuss it here, but suffice it to say I made the front page of two newspapers last week even though I was dodging reporters like a gandy dancer. My job has been more than a little threatened. My anonymity as a blogger is shot to hell. It's far, far from over and, in the middle of it all, a student of mine sent this video to the members of the sociology club I advise. Even though it's an hour long, I'm going to post it here because it's just that good.


The poster featured above is by Ricardo Levins Morales and is available from the Northland Poster Collective.

Friday, February 06, 2009

More Cops -- THAT'S the Ticket!

The other day, I wrote about the fence, the net, and the ambulance as metaphors for different approaches to solving social problems. In today's New York Times, there's a graphic example of the "ambulance" approach: the possibility that the economic "stimulus" package being touted in Washington just now may carry a billion dollars worth of funding to hire more police officers on the local level.

On the surface, this looks like a great idea: more jobs (yay!), safer communities (yay!) -- I mean, what could be bad, right?

Except that, of course, if you happen to be Black or poor (and don't even think about being Black AND poor), the idea of 100,000 new cops in communities all over the United States doesn't immediately make you want to stand up and cheer. More police will mean more arrests. And we all know who is disproportionately likely to be arrested, right? More arrests will mean more African-Americans charged, tried, sentenced, and sent to prison -- regardless of innocence or circumstances. And that means more prisons. Which means more jobs (yay?). But also more tax dollars spent on corrections instead of on education and jobs programs.

The aftermath, then, will look like more Black women visiting their husbands and sons behind bars, more Black children without available fathers, more Black families losing incomes, increased Black community destabilization over both the short term and the long term (since Black men with felony convictions are virtually locked out of the employment market), and an even broader commitment to the perspective among the mainstream population that Black men in general, in fact, belong behind bars -- at all costs.

So there you have it. All in the name of "stimulating" our "economy." Slapping Black men into prison, then, becomes -- once again -- an "answer" to one of our social problems. And the African-American community makes the usual sacrifice. Funny how that keeps happening, isn't it?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Gee, Why Am I Not Surprised?

Last week, I got an email tipping me that one of the top three picks for chair of the Republican National Committee was Katon Dawson, a guy so racist, he wears it like a badge of honor. But before I could find the time to post about it, the Good Old Boys selected a man instead who just a week ago was brushed aside by the Washington Post as highly unlikely to get the nod. Why did the RNC choose former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele? Well, this is his photo:

You do the math.

I tell my students all the time that politics is ALL about getting elected. And then, of course, staying elected. I tell 'em that if they can just get enough folks to call our local representatives to make the point that voting a particular way will get them unelected, they can have whatever they want. And you can take that to the bank...or the bailout...or wherever you want to take it. It's not about principles or values or even partisan politics. It's about that office -- and the power that goes with it.

What I don't tell 'em, though, is that IF they listen and get the hang of doing this broadly enough, things will shortly get crazy. I strongly suspect that the only reason the Powers-That-Be bother to court the people at all is that the people don't really try to hold politicians accountable after the fact. The excitement, it seems, is about the race and the election and then everybody goes back to their jobs, watches the Superbowl, and moves on with their lives till the next entertainment extravaganza. And those who wound up with a ticket to ride snatch up all that power (and all that money) and make hay while the sun shines.

But if folks start making noises like they're gonna make those with their hands in the kitty actually stop acting like fascists and start repairing the damage that's been done to our nation and our world, we might just find ourselves looking dead down the throat of some real live flame-breathing dragons with full-blown agendas of their own.

But I doubt that those of the darker hue who can be fooled into imagining that the RNC has their best interests at heart will catch the vision. So the RNC is right in that respect. Hopefully, that won't include too many people because just as being Black doesn't make you a criminal (no matter what the media suggests), being Black doesn't make you a hero either.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Fence, The Net, or The Ambulance?

As President Obama et al start looking at where to go from where we have wound up, I (needless to say) have two cents of my own I'd like to throw in, if anyone's listening. It's been suggested that there are two methods for dealing with social problems -- one focused on dealing with difficulties after the fact, the other focused on preventing the difficulties in the first place. These orientations have sometimes been typified by "the ambulance" and "the fence."

"The ambulance" is placed in the valley to pick up members of a community who have fallen from some particular social cliff or other. The ambulance is expensive, often state-of-the-art, technologically masterful, and always loud. But it is, after all, an ambulance. By the time it arrives on the scene, the damage, if you will, has already been done. Some broken, bleeding clump of what once was human lies moaning or dead on the valley floor, awaiting appropriate disposal. However rapidly the ambulance arrives, and however technologically impressive its expertise and equipment, those who have fallen are never the same after the fall; and the long stays in the hospital, specially trained personnel and treatment necessary long after the incident cost the community dearly both fiscally and socially.

"The fence," on the other hand, is built on the edge of the cliff, with its costs occurring before individuals fall. It's very difficult to determine after it's built whether or not it did any good. No one fell, but then maybe no one would have fallen anyway. Even when a community decides to build a fence, it's often built too short, too light-weight, and with holes in it. This is, in some ways, worse than having no fence at all because, since the fence sometimes works, it isn't possible to predict in advance when someone will fall through. This is particularly sad when it involves the community's children because they are, at least, born innocent and because they are the community's future one way or the other.

It has been said that the community will either "pay now or pay later;” that it will either build the fence at whatever cost is involved, or it will have to support forever the ambulance in the valley. Proponents of the fence lobby for a high, solid, deeply imbedded fence the entire length of the cliff and well maintained over time. Proponents of the ambulance counter that such a project would be far too expensive, and after all, most of the community members don't fall from the cliff. They admit that those who do fall cost the community a great deal, but in the end they're willing to risk those charges rather than to pay the other one earlier in the process.

Pro-fence supporters argue that it is not necessary for anyone to fall and that the ambulance costs far more in the end than the fence would have cost. Furthermore, they point out, some pro-ambulance supporters eventually buy stock in the ambulance company and benefit from its continuing use. Pro-ambulance supporters retort by calling pro-fence supporters unrealistic idealists who would bankrupt the community for the sake of a few individuals who probably would scale the fence and jump over anyway.

The upshot of this argument is that a badly built, poorly maintained and thus inadequate fence does, in fact, get erected, but as much money as it costs, lack of cohesive planning and shared commitment sabotage the effort. This makes it appear that the pro-ambulance supporters were right. So, more and more is ultimately spent on the fleet of vehicles to deal with the physical and emotional disasters which ensue year after year, involving increasing numbers of the cliff-dwelling community on a daily basis.

Eventually, the community members become so frustrated with the situation that they put up a safety net between the cliff and the valley floor. It doesn't catch everyone who falls, but it's easier to maintain than the fence and cheaper in the long-run than the ambulance. It serves some neighborhoods better than others because of its position, but it’s easy to sell to the community at large because the ones who vote tend to live in the neighborhoods most positively affected by the position of the net. Besides, who could argue against a mechanism that does, after all, catch some of those who fall?

Over time, so much attention, planning and expenditure go into this scattered approach that it's forgotten that a proper fence would retire both net and ambulance. So many private and public agencies become involved in the process of analyzing and evaluating and maintaining and interfacing, participating in the fence-net-ambulance dialogue, that the process sometimes takes precedence over the people the process was implemented to protect. And even more intricately problematical is the fact that the people who need the protection most are often not only those who fall. They are rather those who encounter more and more regularly the increasing numbers of broken, bleeding bodies (and psyches) in various stages of decay and recuperation, some of whom never fully recover, but crawl around on the valley floor and up the road to the community on the hill.