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“Words, Ideas, Actions, And The Tangle Of Race”: Sometimes Language Isn’t Really The Problem

We seem to be having one of those moments when a series of controversies come in rapid succession and make everyone newly aware of the relationship between language, ideas, and actions. And naturally, it revolves around our eternal national wound of race.

Nevertheless, it’s nice to see that in a few of these controversies, we aren’t actually arguing about what words mean. This is often a focus of disagreement when somebody says something that other people take offense at; for instance, when Paul Ryan said a few weeks ago that “[w]e have got this tailspin of culture in our inner cities, in particular, of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value of the culture of work,” conservatives believed he was being unfairly tagged as racist for using a common phrase, while liberals objected to the connection between the word and the idea that followed. There’s nothing racist about the term “inner city” in and of itself, but when people say it they are usually referring to urban areas where black people are concentrated, and when you then describe a pathological laziness that is supposedly prevalent there, then you’ve said something problematic.

But when Cliven Bundy offered his fascinating thoughts on the state of black America, people weren’t appalled because of his use of the outdated term “Negro” in “Let me tell you another thing about the Negro.” It was what came afterward. He could have said “Let me tell you another thing about the African-American,” and it would have been just as bad, and not only because he was about to paint all members of a race with the same ugly brush. (Cliven, it’s safe to surmise, would never say “Let me tell you another thing about the white,” because the idea that all white people are the same in some fundamental way would be ridiculous to him.) To conservatives’ credit, they got this immediately and ran away from Bundy as fast as they could, even if there was still plenty to criticize about the fact that they embraced him in the first place.

And then there’s Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who has apparently been caught on tape telling his “girlfriend” (I put that in quotes because there’s just no way to even think of a relationship between an 81-year-old billionaire and a 31-year-old model type without being seriously repulsed) that he doesn’t want her publicly associating with black people, putting pictures of her with black people, or bringing black people to his games, despite the fact that we’re talking about an NBA team here. Even weirder is that the black person in question is Magic Johnson, one of the most revered and beloved sports heroes of the last half-century or so.

A statement released by the Clippers said: “Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life.” Which is the kind of thing you say when there’s a dispute over the interpretation of a word or phrase. We all say things we don’t exactly mean sometimes, or say something in a way that can be misinterpreted. But when you go on and on about how you don’t want people to know that your “girlfriend” hangs out with black people, that’s hard to misinterpret. And so, no one is defending Sterling. Some ridiculous conservatives have tried to make the case that since he donated money to a couple of Democrats a couple of decades ago that this is yet more evidence that Democrats are The Real Racists (Michael Tomasky vivisects that here), but not even many of their compatriots are going to bother with that.

As Jay Smooth points out, it’s interesting that Sterling’s longstanding and widely known record of racist actions, like trying to keep blacks and Hispanics out of rental buildings he owns, weren’t enough to generate calls for him to get booted from the NBA, but some racists words were. Despite all our arguments about the ambiguities of language, it’s his language—or, more properly, his ideas expressed through language—that everyone can agree on. And there wasn’t a racial slur in his conversation, as though he knows which words are OK to use and which ones aren’t, but he still thinks it’s OK to express racism toward black people, so long as you just call them “black people.”

Which brings us back to Paul Ryan. McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed has a piece out today about Ryan that features this exchange:

At one point, as he tells me about his efforts during the presidential race to get the Romney campaign to spend more time in urban areas, he says, “I wanted to do these inner-city tours—” then he stops abruptly and corrects himself. “I guess we’re not supposed to use that.”

His eyes dart back and forth for a moment as he searches for words that won’t rain down more charges of racism. “These…these…”

I suggest that the term is appropriate in this context, since it is obviously intended as an innocuous description of place. He’s unconvinced, and eventually settles on a retreat to imprecision: “I mean, I wanted to take our ideas and principles everywhere, and try for everybody’s vote. I just thought, morally speaking, it was important to ask everyone for their support.”

Ryan is laboring under the misimpression that all he did wrong before was use the term “inner city,” and if he banishes that term and any other dangerous ones from his vocabulary, then everything will be cool. Sorry, Congressman—it’s not so easy.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 28, 2014

April 29, 2014 Posted by | Race and Ethnicity, Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Poverty, Policy, And Paul Ryan”: The Emperor In The Empty Suit Has No Clothes

If it seems every few months brings us another installment in the “Paul Ryan cares about poor people” series, it’s not your imagination. In November, the Washington Post helped get the ball rolling with a front-page article on the House Budget Committee chairman, celebrating the congressman for his efforts “fighting poverty and winning minds.”

The gist of the piece was that the far-right congressman is entirely sincere about using conservative ideas to combat poverty.

In December, BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins ran a related piece, and today Coppins published another: Ryan is “trying to challenge the notion that his party is out of touch with poor people the old-fashioned way: by talking to some.”

The men begin filing into the Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis around 5:30 a.m. They are ex-convicts and reformed drug dealers, recovering addicts and at-risk youth: a proud brotherhood of the city’s undesirables. Some of them like to joke that if he were around today, Jesus would hang out with reprobates like them. On this cold April morning, they’re getting Paul Ryan instead.

Ryan has been here once before, about a year ago, but most of the congregants rambling in through the front door don’t appear to recognize the wiry white guy loitering in the lobby of their church. He is sporting khakis and a new-haircut coif, clutching a coffee as he chats with three besuited associates. A few parishioners come up and introduce themselves to him, but most pass by, exchanging quizzical glances and indifferent shrugs.

After several minutes, a sturdy, smiling pastor named Darryl Webster arrives and greets their guest of honor. “I appreciate you coming,” Webster says as he clasps the congressman’s hand. “You know, when you get up this early in the morning, it’s intentional.”

“Usually when I get up this early, I get up to kill something,” Ryan cracks.

It was a hunting joke.

In any case, Coppins’ lengthy article reads quite nicely: the Wisconsin Republican really has invested considerable time and energy in going to inner cities, meeting with community leaders, and talking to people who’ve struggled with poverty. If someone who’s otherwise unfamiliar with Ryan reads the 7,000-word piece and nothing else, he or she would likely come away with the sense that his interest in helping poor communities is sincere.

The trouble, however, are the parts of Ryan’s vision and policy agenda that Coppins neglected to mention.

For example, just last month, Ryan published a lengthy audit of sorts, criticizing federal efforts to combat poverty. It generated some attention, though what was largely overlooked was the fact that the Republican congressman was soon accused of misrepresenting much of the academic research he cited in his report.

Soon after, Ryan suggested low-income children who rely on the school-lunch program aren’t treasured the way wealthier children are, relying on an anecdote that wasn’t true anyway.

Then earlier this month, Ryan released a new budget blueprint that cut spending $5.1 trillion, specifically targeting public services that benefit – you guessed it – those on the lowest end of the socio-economic scale. Most notably, the Republican’s plan focused on slashing investments in health coverage, food assistance, and college affordability.

My point is not to question Paul Ryan’s sincerity. I don’t know him personally and I have no reason to question whether he means what he says about trying to combat poverty his own way.

Rather, my point is put aside his rhetoric and question the efficacy of his policy proposals. And on this, Jared Bernstein recently said of Ryan, “the emperor in the empty suit has no clothes,” adding:

Ryan Poverty Plan

1. Cut spending on the poor, cut taxes on the wealthy

2. Shred safety net through block granting federal programs

3. Encourage entrepreneurism, sprinkle around some vouchers and tax credits

4. ???

5. Poverty falls

Matt Yglesias added this morning, “I admit that this way of looking at things is a bit less colorful than following Ryan around a bunch of visits to low-income neighborhoods. But to the extent that you want to know how an increase in political power for Ryan and his allies is likely to impact the lives of American citizens, it’s worth looking at these things. His big job in politics is to write budgets. And his big budget idea is that rich people should pay lower taxes, middle class and working class people should pay more taxes, and poor people should get less food, medicine, and college tuition.”


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 28, 2014

April 29, 2014 Posted by | Paul Ryan, Poverty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Far More Sinister”: Donald Sterling Is Not Cliven Bundy, He’s Much Worse

It is tempting to compare racists. That’s especially true when you look at what’s happened in the last week, when two white men—Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling—have drawn massive and warranted scrutiny over abhorrently racist remarks. Those lines are already being drawn.

Cliven Bundy’s story is well-known by now. The Nevada rancher, who had become a cause celebre among some conservatives for fighting the federal government over overdue grazing fees, went on a rant last week about “the Negro,” suggesting that life for black Americans may’ve been better under slavery.

Donald Sterling’s case is more complicated. An audiotape released to TMZ late Friday night purports to reveal the Los Angeles Clippers owner berating his mixed-race girlfriend for bringing Magic Johnson, a black former NBA all-star, to Clippers games and for posting a picture of him on her Instagram account due to his skin color. On Sunday, Deadspin released the full, unedited recording, which gets much, much worse.

More than just the comments, what’s really astonishing here is what pulls these two men apart: While Cliven Bundy is just a rancher, Donald Sterling is a massively powerful, wealthy, and influential man. What’s hard about Sterling’s case, and what makes it completely different from Bundy’s, is that it reveals that even at the top of one of America’s proudest, most diverse institutions, an abject racist can still pull the strings.

Cliven Bundy owes the federal government slightly more than $1 million in fees. Donald Sterling owns a basketball franchise that’s valued at well over $500 million. Bundy may’ve had his moment in the media spotlight, but Donald Sterling has been firmly ensconced in wealth and power for decades.

Of course, the actual comments allegedly from Sterling aren’t really a surprise. Sterling has a notorious history here, whether it’s settling for nearly $3 million in a case over racial discrimination at apartment buildings he owns, or heckling his players from his courtside seat. Or the detailed racial-discrimination lawsuit brought against him by Hall of Famer and former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor. Or Sterling celebrating Black History Month (which is February) with a March Clippers game featuring limited free tickets for “underprivileged children”—because, you know, black = underprivileged.

The problems with Sterling’s power aren’t lost on NBA players. The NBA, as Charles Barkley said Saturday on TNT, is a black league. African-American players made up 76.3 percent of the league as of last June. For all players in the NBA, Sterling’s ownership sends a message. “The thing is, [Sterling] is probably not the only [owner] that feels that way,” Portland Trailblazers all-star Damian Lillard said Saturday. It’s very hard to imagine what it’s like for black players on the Clippers to pull on their jerseys and play for a man who appears to detest them. It’s very hard to imagine what it’s like for black Americans anywhere to work under the same circumstances. Undoubtedly, there are plenty who do daily.

“The United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race, slavery, and segregation,” President Obama said Sunday in response to Sterling’s alleged remarks. “And I think that we just have to be clear and steady in denouncing it.” So far, it seems like that’s coming. While Sterling’s past actions have largely been swept under the rug by the NBA, there’s some reason to be optimistic about the league’s new management, although it’s still not quite clear how much Commissioner Adam Silver can do. And by calling on the help of former player and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the NBA Players Association has a proven ally on its side (and all you political watchers out there: file away that name).

It’s been an unbelievable week for the NBA. The first week of the playoffs saw seven consecutive games within one possession of victory in the last 10 seconds. It’s been a showcase for new stars (looking at you, John Wall), and for old dudes who just won’t give up (hi, Tim Duncan). But for all of those amazing things, everything that should’ve added up to the best week for the league in recent memory has been overshadowed by an 80-year-old, seemingly repugnant man. Unlike Cliven Bundy, and barring extreme NBA intervention, Donald Sterling will only go away when he’s well and ready, and he’ll likely do so with a big check in hand.

The defining image of this last week in the NBA should have been Vince Carter’s buzzer-beating game winner for the Dallas Mavericks, or Kevin Durant’s absurd four-point play for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Instead, it’s of the Los Angeles Clippers players taking the court in Oakland on Sunday, black and white, their warm-up jerseys turned inside-out, black armbands on their wrists, trying to figure out how to keep themselves together in the face of a power that belittles them, that oversees them, that owns them.


By: Matt Berman, The National Journal, April 28, 2014

April 29, 2014 Posted by | Discrimination, Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Speaking Volumes About The GOP”: Does John McCain Care More About Deaths in Syria Than Gun Violence in America?

Please read these two statistics and notice your emotional reaction to them. Do they make you angry? Do they make you eager for government action? When you digest these roughly equivalent numbers, do they stir you equally?

  • A Human Rights groups says more than 150,000 civilians, rebels, and members of the Syrian military have been killed in the nation’s three-year conflict.
  • A U.S. gun-control group says more than 100,000 Americans are shot every year in murders, assaults, suicides, and suicide attempts and accidents.

For Sen. John McCain, the hawkish Republican senator from Arizona, the first number makes him spitting mad, literally—as judged Wednesday from my front-row seat at the Harvard Institute of Politics forum, where he answered questions from a moderator and students.

“The Syrian decision has reverberated around the globe,” McCain said, linking President Obama’s blurred red line over Syria to aggressiveness from Russia, China, and Iran. He dismissed suggestions that Americans are war-weary—noting that Ronald Reagan grew the U.S. military in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War—and harshly criticized Obama for dithering on calls to arm Syrian rebels.

Visions of the dead and dying, women and children, lined in the streets after chemical attacks, keep him awake at night, McCain said.

“I am emotional,” declared the infamously temperamental senator, his face reddening with anger. “I’m guilty. I’m emotional.”

Contrast that reaction to the one a few minutes later when a Harvard student pressed McCain on gun control. With a shrug of his shoulders, the two-time presidential candidate noted that he had supported a bill that would have required background checks on all commercial sales of guns. It failed in the Senate.

His tone, passionate and aggressive on Syria, turned professorial and passive-aggressive on guns, as McCain explained that while the U.S. Constitution protects the right to bear arms, gun violence is “an emotional issue.” Congress needs to grapple with the issue somehow, he said, noticeably uncomfortable with his wishy-washiness.

“I know that’s not a good answer,” McCain said, “I wrestle with it all the time.”

So this is how McCain reacts to those two sets of numbers: Go to war for Syrians. Wrestle for America.

Disclosure: I briefly considered working for McCain in 2007, and respect his service to the nation as well as his willingness to compromise with Democrats. On the other hand, I opposed intervention in Syria, support gun regulations, and object to the policies and tactics of the NRA.

And so as McCain hemmed and hawed on gun violence, I turned to the person sitting next to me, Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., and whispered, “Where’s the emotion he showed on Syria?” Kennedy nodded.

The contrast of emotion may speak as much about the Republican Party as it does about McCain. The GOP is lurching so far to the right that this Arizona conservative is considered a “RINO,” a Republican in Name Only, and there is no room for commonsense policies that uphold the Second Amendment while curbing gun violence.

After supporting one war fought on false pretenses in Iraq, McCain is still rattling U.S. sabers over the deaths of 150,000 Syrians in three years. Normally, that would hardly be notable: McCain, after all, is a consistent interventionist. But laid against the shootings of 100,000 Americans annually, McCain’s peculiar lack of emotion about gun violence seemed to speak to the sorry state of U.S. politics. And made me sad.


By: Ron Fournier, The National Journal, April 28, 2014

April 29, 2014 Posted by | Gun Control, John McCain, Syria | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Racists Among Us”: No, Racism Isn’t Back. It Never Went Away

Let’s not pretend that deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy and basketball team owner Donald Sterling are the last two racists in the United States. They have company.

I hear regularly from proud racists who send me — anonymously — some of the vilest and most hateful correspondence you could imagine. You’ll have to trust me about the content; this stuff, mostly vulgar racial insults directed at President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, is too disgusting to repeat.

My sensibilities are not delicate. I grew up in South Carolina as the civil rights movement reached its climax, a place and time where racism was open, unambiguous and often violent. I would be the last person to deny that we’ve made tremendous progress against discrimination. But it is obvious that we have miles to go.

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. was harshly criticized five years ago when he said we are “essentially a nation of cowards” in our reluctance to confront the racial issues that remain. In retrospect, Holder was merely telling a truth that many still will not acknowledge.

Bundy’s hideous assessment of “the Negro” — he wondered whether African Americans were better off as slaves, picking cotton, than they are today — should have come as no shock.

A Nevada rancher who refuses to pay for grazing his cattle on federal land, Bundy belongs to the far-right, anti-government fringe. I’m talking about the kind of people who deny the federal government has any legitimacy and expect black helicopters to land any minute. This worldview has found a home in the tea party movement, which harbors — let’s be honest — a racist strain.

This is not to say that all or most tea party adherents share Bundy’s ugly prejudices. But it has been obvious since the movement emerged that some tea partyers do. Media-savvy leaders eventually convinced those attending rallies to leave the racist placards at home, but such discretion says nothing about what remains in those people’s hearts and minds.

Racist words from Donald Sterling, a real estate mogul who owns the Los Angeles Clippers, also should have been less than surprising. In 2009, Sterling agreed to pay $2.73 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit alleging discrimination against African American and Latino tenants in his apartment buildings. In an earlier discrimination suit, settled for an undisclosed sum, one of his property managers quoted Sterling as saying of black tenants in general that “they smell, they’re not clean.”

Still, the recording of the alleged conversation between the 80-year-old Sterling — there has been no denial that it’s his voice — and his young girlfriend dominated the weekend’s news, perhaps because it was not only racist but truly weird.

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” the voice believed to be Sterling’s says to the girlfriend, V. Stiviano — who is of mixed African American and Mexican heritage.

Sterling apparently believes that since Stiviano is light-skinned and has straight hair, no one has to know that she is part black — if only she would stop posting photos of herself with African Americans, such as basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, on Instagram. He instructs her not to bring Johnson to Clippers games.

Throughout the recorded conversation, which was obtained by, Sterling is unable to grasp why a black woman might resist his demand that she not be photographed with other black people. He apparently views racial segregation, at least in public, as the way things still ought to be.

Sterling’s racism has the National Basketball Association in an uproar — understandably, given that nearly 80 percent of the league’s players are black. Even Obama, midway through a trip to Asia, felt the need to comment on what he called Sterling’s “incredibly offensive racist statements.” He said Sterling was advertising his “ignorance.”

But something more sinister than cluelessness was involved. Sterling made clear in the conversation with Stiviano that African Americans were unwelcome in his “culture.” This is old-fashioned “separate-but-equal” racism, pure and simple.

The Republican Party, Fox News and a majority of the Supreme Court would like to believe such naked prejudice is history. Yet some big-city school systems are as segregated as they were in the 1960s. Leading public universities are admitting fewer black students than a decade ago. The black-white wealth gap has grown in recent years. Blacks are no more likely than whites to use illegal drugs, yet about four times more likely to be arrested and jailed for it.

No, racism isn’t back. It never went away.


By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 28, 2014

April 29, 2014 Posted by | Discrimination, Racism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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