Friday, August 12, 2016

Where Simone Manuel and Langston Hughes Meet Donald Trump

When I was young, I used to love watching the Olympics. I remember watching, at the age of 10, the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and following every game of the U.S. hockey team’s journey to gold, and I can still hear Al Michaels’ “do you believe in miracles” as if it were yesterday. I remember watching the 1984 Summer Olympics, cheering for Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton as if they were personal friends of mine.

I can even remember how excited I was when I found out that handball was an Olympic sport, only to find out that the Olympic version was far different than the handball I was exceptionally good at playing on handball courts in the Bronx. So I wasn’t likely to have my own moment on the podium, but I could still feel a sense of pride and joy watching U.S. athletes receive gold as the flag was raised and The Star Spangled Banner was played.

As I became older and more politically conscious (now known as “woke”), the Olympics became more problematic. To be sure, I still loved the athleticism and the incredibly human stories behind every athlete in every event. But the questions of who I was cheering for, and why, were far less clear than in my youth. And the U.S.-centric television coverage, only occasionally muted by a fascination with European athletes, became outright irritating.

Watching the Olympics became another manifestation of W.E.B. DuBois' “double consciousness”. If you’re not familiar with the concept, this quote from his classic The Souls of Black Folks should make it plain: “One ever feels his two-ness— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Nevertheless, like most Black folks, I have always reserved special hopes and prayers for athletes of color in events where we don’t usually participate. Whether Debi Thomas in 1988, Dominique Dawes in 1996, or the Jamaican bobsled team for that matter, I feel a personal connection to every Black athlete trying to become “the first”. When Debi fell in ’88, my heart sunk, and when Gabby nailed her landings in 2012, my heart raced!

Which brings us to yesterday—a day on which we saw the expected coronation of Simone Biles in the gymnastics all-around competition. However, what was far less expected was the performance of “the other Simone”, swimmer Simone Manuel. I say, “far less expected”, but perhaps it should have been expected, considering she had the second fastest time in the semi-finals. has written about how her performance in the semis received almost no attention from the NBC commentators. And as points out, NBC’s pattern of ignoring Simone continued in the finals.
Before the race began, NBC focused its narrative on Australian sisters Cate and Bronte Campbell, whose father was in the stands... If Simone Manuel’s family members were cheering her on, NBC didn’t show them. “And then there is Simone Manuel, the other American in the final,” Dan Hicks said as the camera showed Manuel adjusting her goggles. "The other American in the final"—that was how Simone Manuel was introduced to NBC's star-spangled audience.

The commentators then spent 80% of the race obsessed with the two Australian sisters in the race—neither of whom ended up with a medal. In fairness, NBC did a decent job of capturing the aftermath of the race, capturing Simone’s classic reaction upon seeing her winning time on the board, and an emotional moment with her coach and teammates after leaving the water. But the network then embarrassed itself and infuriated viewers by NOT showing Simone’s medal ceremony live, and instead broadcasting videotaped footage of Russian gymnasts.

So by the time I finally got to watch her ceremony at around midnight, I was already feeling some type of way. And as I watched a tearful Simone during the playing of the national anthem, I couldn’t help to think about (and not for the first time during these Olympics), Langston’s Hughes’ poem, “Let America Be America Again”. I hesitate to excerpt a few verses here, because the entire poem is a must-read, but nevertheless, here are the first few verses:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
As powerful as the opening verses are, it was only after re-reading the entire poem, that I realized why this poem has been on my mind. In truth, it’s been on my mind not only since the Olympics started, but ever since the Democratic convention. After four days of praise for American Exceptionalism, the final verses from Langston’s poem have been somewhere in my subconscious. They read:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
As so, I’ve come to this conclusion: Donald Trump is right.

We must make America great again.

Not by returning America to some mythical time period, but by demanding that it actually be what it has always claimed to be.

At times, I’m not sure that’s ever going to be possible.

But then I experience some #BlackGirlMagic… and I believe.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and a Brief History of Black Gun Rights

As events continue to unfold in relation to the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the Dallas shooting, and consecutive nights of protests in more than a dozen cities, there's no shortage of stories and trends that need deeper discussion. Among these are the important connection between police force and municipal revenue stemming from traffic violations, as well as the troubling, but necessary question of whether media outlets would have given the policy/excessive force issue this much attention if the Dallas shooting had not taken place.

However, one issue that is worth discussing, if for no other reason than it's apparent permanence is U.S. history and social reality, is the issue of gun rights, or the lack thereof, for Black folks in America. An aspect in both the Castile and the Sterling shootings is that both were in possession of a gun (not sure if this has actually been confirmed in the the Sterling case, but it seems generally accepted at this point). In the case of Philando Castile, the role that the gun may have played in his shooting is particularly troubling since Castile, according to his girlfriend, did exactly what he should have done--he notified the officer that there was a gun in the vehicle and that he had a permit. In essence he was killed because he dared to exercise his second amendment right to own a gun--that and the fact that the officer felt his "wide nose" fit the description of another suspect, but that's a topic for a-whole-nother article.

While some may choose to look at these tragic shootings and the possession of guns as isolated incidents, it's impossible to understand these events without looking at the history of Blacks and "gun rights" in America. This history dates back to before the United States was actually the United States--back to before the American Revolution, while colonies both with and without slavery had combinations of "Slave Codes" and "Black Codes" which not only made it illegal for enslaved Africans to own/posses guns, but placed limits on FREE Blacks as well. Obviously, this was before there was such a thing as the U.S. Constitution, so there was no second amendment. Nevertheless, these codes and practices established what would be a reality, either de jure or de facto, for more than 400 years: Blacks with guns was simply unacceptable to White America.

This pattern continued even as the American patriots declared that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. Most of us know that those rights did not extend to Blacks in America, whether enslaved or free. What most of us don't know if how calculated and thoughtful the effort was to keep Blacks from fighting in the Revolutionary War, out of fear that Blacks should not be allowed to carry guns. General Washington, himself a slave owner, did not want Black soldiers, clearly agreeing with the premise stated above--Blacks with guns was simply unacceptable to White America. It was not until the British began recruiting and arming Blacks, through Lord Dunmore's Proclamation, that the revolutionaries changed their minds. Coincidentally, up until this point, the revolutionaries were not fairing particularly well against the British army. This would not be the last time in U.S. history that a change regarding Black rights was tied solely--SOLELY--to broader strategic needs.

This pattern would later be repeated during the Civil War, with similar results. Once again, the decision to recruit and begrudgingly arm Black soldiers coincided with the tide turning from Confederate victories to Union success.

Fast forward to the late 1960s, and the early Black Panthers' practice policing the police in their California communities by carrying guns openly in compliance with California law. In response, the state of Californina, led by a Republican state assemblyman and Governor Ronald Reagan, attempted to pass the Mulford Act, also known as the "Panthers Bill", which was specifically designed to prevent the Panthers from benefiting from 2nd Amendment rights. This Huffington Post article provides more information, including the interesting note that the gun control bill was passed with support from the NRA. So we should not be surprised that fifty years later, the NRA has been remarkably silent, or at least restrained, regarding such blatant violations of gun rights as we've seen in the Castile and Sterling shootings.

Again, fast forward another fifty years, and the basic premise has been modified slightly. Blacks with guns is no longer completely unacceptable; if it were, you would see some level of gun control. However, the notion and image of Blacks with guns is only acceptable as long as those guns are being pointed at other Blacks. But when the gun is associated with gun rights in general, not to mention any level of political activity, then the premise remains as true as the days of slave codes and Black codes. If you doubt that, just take a look at the video below.

That video was originally distributed in 2015. Perhaps if more of us, including those in law enforcement, truly considered the frightening implications of the clear double standard, shootings such as those we've seen in the past week could have been avoided. Perhaps if congresspeople were as concerned with Blacks lives, as they are with Hillary's emails, just maybe some of these shootings could be avoided. But for any of the pain of the past week to result in anything positive and progressive, we must first understand the systemic nature and historic roots of what we are up against. If we have the courage to start from that space of truth, anything is possible.

If not...

I'm Cliff, and these are my notes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Injustice Anywhere...

The other day, I was listening to a local radio station, and heard the tail end of some comments related to the transgender bathroom issue and the recent guidelines from the Obama administration. The conversation made reference to a post at the station's Facebook page, and after taking a look it became clear that the radio personality had expressed her opposition to President Obama's support for the transgendered population. I generally ignore Facebook posts that I disagree with, mainly because I've never known much good to come out of battling comments, but I decided to respond and posted the following:
Disappointing when we as Black folks are unable to translate the discrimination we've faced in a way that lets us better understand other marginalized groups, whether that be women, immigrants, LGBT or others. Much of the language that conservatives are using against this is the same language that was used to oppose integration, and the same states hollering about states rights on this issue are the same states that wish WE were never allowed in the bathrooms. Yes, all students need to be protected, but the "threat" that conservatives are raising about bathroom predators are about as legitimate as the voting fraud that they said was driving the need for voter ID. This is what they do...they create propaganda that speaks to people's darkest fears in order to justify discrimination. If a pedophile wants to dress like the opposite sex to sneak into the opposite bathroom guess what--they could do that TODAY regardless of policy changes. Nothing the Obama administration is suggesting makes that any more likely, but the people who think he never should have been president want us to believe otherwise. Please don't fall for it.
To view the original post, and some of the other comments, go here. Warning, although there are several supportive and encouraging comments, please don't visit if you have a low tolerance for ignorance.

I have a serious concern that this issue could be used to tap into religiously conservative people of color, the same way that gay marriage was used as a wedge issue by the Bush campaign to increase his share of Black voters to 10% (and even higher for Latino voters). A similar increase this year would be disastrous. It's up to us who know better to nip this propaganda in the bud before it reaches a dangerous level.

I'm Cliff, and on that "note"...

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The "Secret" of Trump's Success (aka Don't Ask Questions You Don't Really Want to Know the Answer to)

So, I was watching Morning Joe earlier today, and enjoying Rob Reiner's take on how crazy the Trump phenomenon is. Then Willie asked the question of the hour--essentially, if Trump is so ridiculous, why are millions of people voting for him. To which, Reiner began his answer with, "There are a lot of people who are racist..." (see below or click here skip to the 8 minute mark).

To my shock and dismay, the response from the entire Morning Joe panel was... well, shock and dismay! In fact, Joe goes as far as to exclaim, "Oh my God, did you just say that!" As if Reiner had just uttered the most ridiculous words ever spoken. I was glad to see Reiner stand his ground and continue his explanation regarding racism and Trump's support. Unfortunately, the brief exchange highlighted two unavoidable facts: 1) the topic requires, and deserves, more time than what it was given, and 2) the topic will never be given that time because no one in traditional news media, nor traditional politics, is willing to have the discussion.

News anchors and political "experts" have fumbled around for months trying to understand the source of Trump's appeal. Most have ended up concluding that he has addressed economic and security fears of typical voters in ways that the Republican establishment simply hasn't, and that's certainly true. But let's dig a little deeper--exactly how has he addressed those fears? Certainly not with concrete policy solutions. In fact, his supporters have often explained that they don't care about those types of details. All they need to know is that he's for them and he's going to make America great again (because the Negro in the White House somehow messed it up)!

I won't go into all of the examples of Trump's racism and xenophobia; there are a lot of other articles that can do that. Many people recognize that the main issues that put him on top of the polls almost a year ago dealt with Latinos, Muslims and the Chinese, with a little anti-Obama and anti-Black Lives Matter sprinkled in. This much the media seems comfortable talking about, even recognizing that he's got an uphill battle to increase support among these demographics.

But to me, the bigger point isn't about Trump's rhetoric and the demographic hole in which he now finds himself. The point isn't about him, it's about his supporters. The point is most of the media seems absolutely unwilling to admit that the VERY thing which has him at such a demographic disadvantage, is the EXACT same thing that has millions of people voting for him. Whether this country wants to admit it or not, millions of predominantly white voters are supporting Trump not in spite of his racist rhetoric, but because of it.

Whether this country wants to admit it or not, the reason "White evangelicals" can give so many votes to someone whose relationship with the bible seems limited to holding it up as a prop during a stump speech, someone who is at best (at worst ?) ambiguous on reproductive rights and LGBT issues--issues which for decades have defined the religious right, is because such evangelicals have always been a, flexible, on religious beliefs as long as it helped to maintain the racial status quo. Thou shalt not kill, unless it's an uppity Negro who was trying to vote. Thou shalt not commit adultery, unless you promise to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out.

Whether this country wants to admit it or not, the reason low-income and/or working class White voters throughout the South and Midwest can find a kindred spirit in a billionaire from New York who has somehow become the voice of economic populism, is because poor Whites have ALWAYS been told that the reason they're poor isn't the slave-owner or the wealthy industrialist, it's these other people (read Black, Latino, Chinese, etc.) who are taking their jobs and destroying their country.

The experts can continue to act confused about Trump's electoral success, but his messaging is clear, just as clear as Bush's Willie Horton, Reagan's Philadelphia, Mississippi speech, Nixon's law and order, and Goldwater's... well, all of it. If you don't really want to know the source of Trump's appeal, just stop asking the question.

Is this an indictment of all of White America? Of course not. Even within the Republican party, there are millions who have refused to vote for Trump. And on the Democratic side, there are millions of low-income Whites who have the same fears as the Trump supporters, but instead of giving in to race-baiting, they have responded to Bernie's call for political revolution and Hillary's appeal to "make America whole". One might say they are listening to the better angels of their nature.

At the end of the day, the November election may in fact result in a repudiation of the Trump tactics, but that will not be the end of the story. This country will still be in need of a major conversation about race, and more importantly, there will still be serious questions regarding structural racism. Once again, questions that some may not want to know the answers to.

I'm Cliff, and on that "note"...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Note to Progressives on Hostage Taking: Don't Knock It 'til You Try It

In the aftermath of the brinksmanship which nearly led the United States to default on its debt, and which ultimately led S&P to downgrade the U.S. credit rating, much of the discussion has dealt with the concept of “hostage taking” and the irresponsible behavior of the Tea Party Caucus. As someone who has absolutely no love for the Tea Party and its Archie Bunker tendencies, it almost pains me to say this, but I have absolutely no problem with its hostage taking tactics. Instead of complaining about it, progressive ought to be taking notes.

Arguably, had progressives engaged in some hostage taking of their own during the Democrat controlled 110th Congress, perhaps health care reform would have included a public option. Or perhaps President Obama would not have been forced to cave in on extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich.

What’s that you say? The progressives don’t have the same voting power as the Tea Partiers? Not so. While the House Tea Party Caucus claims 60 members, 17 of whom are freshmen elected in the 2010 Republican takeover, the Progressive Caucus consists of 74 members, making it the largest Democratic caucus. So why is the Tea Party having so much more influence over the Republican Party (and by extension, the national debate) than progressives are having over the Democratic Party.

Winning Isn’t Everything

The truth of the matter is that the Tea Party’s hostage taking did not start with the debt ceiling debate. Its first efforts at hostage taking were during a special election that took place prior to the 2010 midterm elections. During this election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, the Tea Party zealots demonstrated that not only were they willing to challenge establishment republicans in primary elections, but they were willing to run independent candidates as well -- candidates guaranteed to split the conservative vote. As a result, the Tea Party was blamed for allowing a Democrat to win a New York district that had been held by a Republican for more than 100 years.

Later, during the November elections, Tea Party favorites Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle were blamed for allowing the Democrats to hold a majority in the Senate. So while there are plenty of ideological differences between Tea Partiers and progressives, perhaps the most important difference is a strategic one. Quite simply, the Tea Party doesn’t mind losing in order to make its point.

Although many observers took these losses and widespread criticisms as a sign that the Tea Party would decline in strength, the truth has been quite the opposite. Today, Speaker Boehner’s biggest fear is that the Tea Party will “primary” some of his key members, or even worse, that Tea Party candidates will split the vote in the general election. It’s this fear more than anything else which led him to turn down President Obama’s “grand bargain” on the debt ceiling.

Progressives are usually a lot more attached to getting a win. Possibly it’s because we generally represent interest that don’t get to win much, so we become more willing to compromise in order to get a moral victory. Or possibly it’s because we care so much about those we serve, often society’s most vulnerable, that we can’t stand the thought of the collateral damage that would accompany a strategic loss. Regardless of the source, progressives are going to have to become more willing to lose a couple of battles in order to win the larger war.

All Politics is Local

The Tea Party also understands that all movements start at the local level, or as one wise man once said, “all politics is local”. True enough, we know that the origins of the Tea Party were more Astroturf than grassroots, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Astroturf fertilizer tapped into some very real, very primal (and, I would argue, very racial) emotions at the grassroots level.

After all, it’s no coincidence that at the same time that the Tea Party is exerting its influence in Congress, we are also witnessing a wave of conservative legislative attacks against labor unions, voting rights, abortion rights, immigration and gay marriage.

In contrast, progressives often rely on presidential politics to make a point and/or to start a national movement. This trend may have started as far back as Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, and it is more recently evidenced by the infatuation with Ralph Nader. Even today there are whispers of challenging President Obama from the left in the Democratic Primary. Progressives would be much better off focusing on Congress and the state legislatures.

Follow the Money

In order to focus on a Congressional strategy, progressives must learn a third lesson from the Tea Party—in order to have independent politics you must have independent funding. Part of the reason the Tea Party Caucus could go against the will of House Speaker Boehner and the Republican establishment is because they did not rely on Boehner or establishment funding in order to win their elections. Quite the contrary, many of the Tea Party candidates won their elections in spite of funds being funneled to other more traditional Republican candidates.

Too often, progressives rely on the support of big time fundraisers like Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic National Committee and other establishment sources to financially carry their campaigns. As long as this is the case, progressive efforts to move the Democratic leadership to the left will be severely limited.

The Way Forward

Some Progressives have recognized that we need to rethink our national campaign strategies. In an analysis written right after the 2010 elections, Darcy Burner of outlined 13 suggestions for progressives to consider, including the need to “fix the way we do campaigns” and to be more strategic in how we select districts.

And more recently, Eugene Robinson wrote about how progressives need a “Big Idea”, something that can fit on a bumper sticker in order to counter the conservative mantra of “cut taxes, cut spending”. But all of the recent criticisms of “hostage taking” cause me to worry that even with a well thought out strategy and effective messaging, progressives may still be the ones to blink when the critical moment comes.

Yes, I know that hostage taking is a little harder when you’re in the minority. But heck, if 14 Wisconsin state senators can successfully halt legislation, generate a mass movement and attract the nation’s attention and resources, I refuse to believe there’s nothing 74 congressional Democrats can do. We have a blueprint. We need elected officials willing to take some hostages, and we need waves of supporters willing to take to the streets. What we don’t need is to waste time trying to figure out which needs to come first.