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“In Many Ways, Our Policy Legs Are Like Toothpicks”: Protests Are Fine, But Policy Is Where Change Needs To Happen

On the Thursday before Baltimore burned, Mr. Lee went to Washington.

He didn’t have far to go. Rev. Tony Lee is the 46-year-old pastor of Community of Hope, an AME church housed in a shopping mall in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland, just minutes from the D.C. line. Under the auspices of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, a Washington-based advocacy group, he led a delegation of 200 African-American men to Capitol Hill. They went to their capital to talk to their legislators about issues that impact their lives: racially stratified policing, education reform, voting rights and more.

It was not about protest. It was about policy.

“Protests,” Lee told me in a telephone interview, “are one way that pushes people’s feet to the fire. Whatever the issue is, it’s brought to the forefront. But … there’s still a need for people to do legislative advocacy, dealing with policy, whether it’s from the national to the local, showing people how to be engaged and (affecting) the policies that have such direct impact.”

Too often, said Lee, African-Americans have focused solely on protest — an important element of social change, but not the only one. He used the analogy of weightlifters that focus solely on building upper-body mass while “their legs are toothpicks. … In many ways, our policy legs are like toothpicks. Most people don’t know how to engage that. What you find in the policy area is more the politicos, more the people who have been doing this stuff a while. But we want just everyday brothers — and sisters — to see how they can get engaged in policy and to make sure that their legislators, whether it’s federal, or … local, city, state, know who they are, hear their voices…”

Full disclosure: I’ve known Rev. Tony Lee for about eight years. He christened my granddaughter. And I couldn’t think of a better person to respond to Tracy. As I said in my last column, she is a reader from Austin, Texas, a 55-year-old white woman, who wrote me that she is heartsick about police violence against unarmed African-American men. I decided to focus a series of columns — open-ended and running irregularly — on finding answers to the question she asked me:

What can I do?

“I have a framework for people like her and for others,” said Lee. “It’s educate, advocate, and participate. Educate means to get educated on the issue. A lot of times, what will happen is … you can end up having a lot of blind spots because you haven’t educated yourself on the issues. … Some of those local and national organizations have a great wealth of information that you can be able to educate yourself on what’s happening around some of the issues.”

Nor, he said, should she keep what she learns to herself. “As she’s becoming more informed, start talking to the people in her life. She should never minimize what it means to talk to people who are around her, people that she daily deals with. It sounds like that would be white people. She can talk to her friends and her neighbors and … educate them on what she’s learning.”

Having educated herself, he said, she should advocate, i.e., start “to deal with and talk about these issues and how she feels about them to people who are in decision-making authority in her region, whether it’s her local lawmakers or even her national representatives.”

Tracy, said Lee, should understand the advantage her skin color affords her. “It’s one thing for some of her lawmakers to hear from some of the usual suspects. It’s another thing for them to hear from constituents that aren’t black, but are white … to hear from some of their constituents who say, ‘Hey, this is wrong.’” Even the civil rights movement, he points out, included white Americans of conscience, who realized it was not just a struggle for “black” rights, but for human rights.

Which brings us to the third leg of Lee’s model for civic engagement: participate.

“Just get connected,” he said. “All organizations can use volunteers, (even if) it’s just to come in and say, ‘I’d love to work the phones for you all for a couple of hours a week.’ But find a space to participate. The other piece of participation is to be able to give. Many of the organizations in her region and nationally, need resources to be able to do the work. … Never think that any gift is too small.”

Nor, he said, does giving stop there. “You may be in a position of fund-raising. It may be that you are able, not just to give, but to shape sessions among personal networks to be able to raise funds for some of these organizations.

Educate, advocate, participate. It is, admittedly, not an agenda as immediately and viscerally gratifying as street protest, but it highlights a salient truth about American social transformation.

On the street is where the change is demanded. At the table is where it is made.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, May 4, 2015

May 5, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Policy, Protests | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Race, Class And Neglect”: Baltimore, And America, Don’t Have To Be As Unjust As They Are

Every time you’re tempted to say that America is moving forward on race — that prejudice is no longer as important as it used to be — along comes an atrocity to puncture your complacency. Almost everyone realizes, I hope, that the Freddie Gray affair wasn’t an isolated incident, that it’s unique only to the extent that for once there seems to be a real possibility that justice may be done.

And the riots in Baltimore, destructive as they are, have served at least one useful purpose: drawing attention to the grotesque inequalities that poison the lives of too many Americans.

Yet I do worry that the centrality of race and racism to this particular story may convey the false impression that debilitating poverty and alienation from society are uniquely black experiences. In fact, much though by no means all of the horror one sees in Baltimore and many other places is really about class, about the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality.

Take, for example, issues of health and mortality. Many people have pointed out that there are a number of black neighborhoods in Baltimore where life expectancy compares unfavorably with impoverished Third World nations. But what’s really striking on a national basis is the way class disparities in death rates have been soaring even among whites.

Most notably, mortality among white women has increased sharply since the 1990s, with the rise surely concentrated among the poor and poorly educated; life expectancy among less educated whites has been falling at rates reminiscent of the collapse of life expectancy in post-Communist Russia.

And yes, these excess deaths are the result of inequality and lack of opportunity, even in those cases where their direct cause lies in self-destructive behavior. Overuse of prescription drugs, smoking, and obesity account for a lot of early deaths, but there’s a reason such behaviors are so widespread, and that reason has to do with an economy that leaves tens of millions behind.

It has been disheartening to see some commentators still writing as if poverty were simply a matter of values, as if the poor just mysteriously make bad choices and all would be well if they adopted middle-class values. Maybe, just maybe, that was a sustainable argument four decades ago, but at this point it should be obvious that middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs.

The great sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities. His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.

And so it has proved. Lagging wages — actually declining in real terms for half of working men — and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more.

As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution writes: “Blacks have faced, and will continue to face, unique challenges. But when we look for the reasons why less skilled blacks are failing to marry and join the middle class, it is largely for the same reasons that marriage and a middle-class lifestyle is eluding a growing number of whites as well.”

So it is, as I said, disheartening still to see commentators suggesting that the poor are causing their own poverty, and could easily escape if only they acted like members of the upper middle class.

And it’s also disheartening to see commentators still purveying another debunked myth, that we’ve spent vast sums fighting poverty to no avail (because of values, you see.)

In reality, federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries. That’s not a lot of money — it’s far less than other advanced countries spend — and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.

Despite this, measures that correct well-known flaws in the statistics show that we have made some real progress against poverty. And we would make a lot more progress if we were even a fraction as generous toward the needy as we imagine ourselves to be.

The point is that there is no excuse for fatalism as we contemplate the evils of poverty in America. Shrugging your shoulders as you attribute it all to values is an act of malign neglect. The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources — which we can afford to provide — and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages. Baltimore, and America, don’t have to be as unjust as they are.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 4, 2015

May 5, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Economic Inequality, Poverty | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Killing Of America”: This Country Was Born In The Fires Of Violence, And Will Die In The Flames Of Viciousness

Our country is dying on the streets of Baltimore.

I have argued before that we will never have racial reconciliation in this country, so long as some whites embrace the “They had it coming!” argument to justify police violence against people of color. Now, I’m convinced that America will end in race war. I no longer believe Americans can live together in harmony. We are coming apart.

Two decades ago, in the fall of 1995, I also wondered if America was on its way to race war. In the two weeks between O. J. Simpson’s acquittal and the Million Man March, I feared that it would only be a matter of time before white men and black men took up arms against each other, determined to slaughter as many members of “the other side” as possible.

Those fears subsided, but two decades later, those concerns are stronger than ever. Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, North Charleston and Baltimore are the battles in the race war of our time.

I have always considered myself an integrationist. I always had faith that our society would atone for its original sin of slavery, would move from hatred to healing, would grow from the past and walk together towards a beautiful future. I believed that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream would one day be reality.

Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, North Charleston and Baltimore prove that dreams only happen when you’re asleep.

I understand now why Richard Wright and Josephine Baker decided to leave the United States. I understand now why so many despair about the future of American race relations. I understand now why there’s no hope.

Our race problems cannot be fixed. Barack Obama cannot fix them. Bernie Sanders cannot fix them. Hillary Clinton cannot fix them. Our society is doomed, poisoned by a virus injected into our veins when the slave ships first hit American shores.

Remember Michael Moore’s great cartoon from the film Bowling for Columbine about America’s history of racist violence?

If your children are old enough to understand, require them to watch this video. Compel them to comprehend why our cities are filled with anger. Teach them to recognize that the sins of the Founding Fathers have been visited upon successive generations.

America is dying. America is over. It cannot survive. It is dying from within. This country was born in the fires of violence, and it will die in the flames of viciousness. There is no hope, no change–only hatred and pain.

UPDATE: From 2013, Michael Moore and Michael Eric Dyson on the Molotov cocktail of racism, fear and violence in America.

 

By: D. R. Tucker, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, May 3, 2015

May 4, 2015 Posted by | American History, Baltimore, Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Immoral Worldview Common Among Republicans”: Police Violence Is Putting The Lie To The Tea Party Conservatism

As with so much else in modern America, the experience of Ferguson and Baltimore has turned police brutality into a partisan issue. With a few rare exceptions, Democrats and progressives tend to fall on the side of the victims of discriminatory and violent behavior by police, while conservatives tend to go to bat for the authorities.

The primary reason for this is racism: conservative whites tend to see urban minorities as either subhuman or guilty of cultural sins that are supposed to explain their endemic poverty. In that context, any police violence is excused as the necessary quelling by any means of an aggressively violent population unable to fit into civil society and unworthy of the civil rights afforded to non-minorities. It’s an immoral worldview, but extremely common among base Republicans.

The other reason is discrimination against the poor in general. Conservatives wrongly assume that the wealthy are society’s job creators, and the poor are simply moochers who eat off the generous fruits of the holders of capital. The military defends the righteous and free producers in America against the socialist and Communist freeloaders outside the U.S., while the police vigilantly defend property rights and social order against the ever-dangerous fifth column of parasites from within. That Objectivist viewpoint is just as factually wrong and immoral as the racist one, but it’s also far more acceptable within polite society largely because it’s so convenient to the wealthy elite and their enablers.

The problem, of course, is that these views run directly counter to supposed conservative stances on liberty and the 2nd Amendment. Republicans claim to be the defenders of freedom against big government tyranny. More disturbingly, they insist that deadly arsenals be permitted in every American home and even on the streets–primarily as a defense against the potential for infringement on civil rights by a totalitarian state.

But where we see the government most actively and destructively impinging on the rights of its citizens, not only are conservatives mostly silent on the abuses but they stridently stand on the side of the unaccountable state enforcers.

The reason is obvious, of course: the only government tyranny conservatives truly fear is one in which the poor–and particularly the non-white poor–have the ability to constrain their property rights. Cliven Bundy becomes a hero for threatening to shoot law enforcement that holds him accountable for stealing water and land, even as killer cops are lauded for killing unarmed black men for no legitimate reason. Welfare via taxation is seen as a greater evil than corporate malfeasance.

Conservatives can’t be upfront and honest about their immoral beliefs because only about 30% of the American population shares them, and it’s not OK to say most of these things in polite society. That’s why they’re so angry, why they feel oppressed, and why they “want their country back.”

But honesty here is necessary. We can’t move forward as a society without honest conversation, and if conservatives refuse to be openly honest about what they believe, it falls on us to provide that honesty for them.

But most of all, it’s time to stop pretending that Republicans care about liberty or government abuse of power. They really care about keeping poor people and minorities from having access to the same quality of life they purport to enjoy, and they’ll use every lever of tyranny to keep it way–whether through the ballot box or the ammo box.

 

By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, May 2, 2015

May 3, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Partisan Politics, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“I’m Glad The Train Didn’t Stop”: So Much For Rand Paul’s Minority Outreach

There’s an interesting Eli Stokels piece at Politico up today about Rand Paul’s less-than-sympathetic initial reaction to the trajectory of the Baltimore protests, which Team Paul folk are frantically suggesting was just a “gaffe,” even as most observers believe he’s bending to the inevitable pressures of running for president as a Republican:

On Tuesday, as Baltimore burned in the wake of the latest episode surrounding the alleged use of deadly excessive force, Paul’s response was notably off-key. “I came through the train on Baltimore last night,” Paul told host Laura Ingraham. “I’m glad the train didn’t stop.”

The senator’s breezy response came just before he blamed the violent uprising there on “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.” He also expressed his sympathy for “the plight of police,” all without speaking to the circumstances surrounding the troubling death of Freddie Gray in the custody of Baltimore Police.

His camp now acknowledges the lost chance.

“We recognize how it may have sounded to some people,” said Elroy Sailor, a senior adviser to Paul who has helped orchestrate more than two years of sustained outreach by Paul to the African-American community. “We’re listening and learning every day and we learned from this. We’re also leading this conversation.”

As if. Sailor’s implying that Paul “owns” the criminal justice reform debate. But even if you buy that, it doesn’t mean Paul is even on the same page as African-Americans when it comes to police reform, a parallel but hardly identical issue.

Stokels notes the Baltimore “gaffe” was by no mean unprecedented.

The day after his early April campaign launch, as attention focused on South Carolina — where a video showed a local police officer shoot an unarmed black man as he tried to flee — Paul took the stage in New Hampshire and said, “Today we sit atop a powder keg.” He was talking, though, about the national debt.

Asked later that day about the shooting of Walter Scott — after he didn’t weigh in on his own — Paul steered clear of addressing the outrage from many African-Americans, instead noting that “98, 99 percent of police are are doing their job on a day-to-day basis and aren’t doing things like this.” The following day, at a campaign event just 20 miles from where Scott has been killed, Paul didn’t mention it at all.

You can he said/she said this thing to death, but in reality, Paul’s priorities right now are obvious. Nobody, I hope, seriously believes that a Rand Paul-led Republican Party is going to suddenly start attracting a large African-American vote. Perhaps his gestures could open the door to some future Republican leader making inroads, and maybe burnish his image among white swing voters. But Rand stands first and foremost for fiscal policies that would largely trash the social safety net and shirk the needs of urban communities, and for monetary policies that would likely plunge the country back into a major recession. He opposes absolutely every accomplishment of the Obama administration, with the possible partial exception of the opening to Cuba. And then there’s his own and his father’s history of association with racists and neo-Confederates.

So on the one hand you have a rather fantastic speculative future appeal to African-Americans, and on the other the present reality of a Republican nominating contest in which virtually no African-Americans are going to participate. What do you think matters most to Team Paul right now?

It’s true Paul’s alleged party-broadening powers are an important part of his electability argument to Republican voters, along with the idea that dope-smoking, NSA-hating kids will vote for him against HRC. But without any question, Republicans want the maximum of general election odds with the absolute minimum of compromise on issues–which is why Scott Walker’s Wisconsin record is so seductive to them. And with the foul odor of racial politics in the air, Paul will have to show his solidarity with conservative white voters appalled once again at the bad behavior of those people. If he doesn’t, I’ll be genuinely impressed, even as I downgrade Paul’s odds of winning the nomination another ten or twenty points.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, May 1, 2015

May 2, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Minority Outreach, Rand Paul | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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