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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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Call for Husbands/Fathers Willing to Share Stories

Looking for married men to share stories about unexpected pregnancies, particularly in situations where they disagreed with their wife about what they should do. Stories may be published, but anonymity will be guaranteed, if necessary. If interested, or for more info, email, and please include concise answers to the following questions.

1. How long ago was the pregnancy?
2. How old were you at the time?
3. How old was your wife at the time?
4. How long had you been married at that time?
5. Did you already have children? If so, how old were they?

Please feel free to forward to anyone you think may be interested.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dr. Laura, Meet Omar Thornton

Over the past few days, I have been intrigued by the aftermath of Dr. Laura’s racist rant. What’s been most interesting to me is the way that Dr. Laura and her supporters have transformed her from culprit to victim, claiming that her first amendment rights have been taken away. Apart from demonstrating that she clearly doesn’t understand the first amendment, her claims of censorship were not only ironic but amusing considering that she made her announcement on national television while simultaneously plugging her soon to be released book—sales of which will probably skyrocket thanks to this latest controversy.

Oddly enough, this juxtaposition of victimhood and culpability reminded me of another story which had been in the news just a few days earlier—Omar Thornton’s tragic workplace shooting in Manchester. That story could have led to a useful national conversation about workplace discrimination, but that would have required recognizing that the shooting’s perpetrator, Thornton, may have also been a victim, and that some of the victims of the shooting, while not deserving their fate, may have contributed to what would eventually become a deadly situation. Instead, most media coverage of the story treated Thornton as your typical disgruntled employee with psychological problems. Then, 24-48 hours later, it was out of the news cycle completely as the country moved on to more pressing matters such as renegade flight attendants.

Nevertheless, there were brief moments when it looked like the racism issue might be addressed, but those moments usually ended with someone suggesting that if Thornton really was experiencing racism, it would have been addressed by the appropriate company and/or union representatives. To many observers, the thought that he may have actually raised the issue with someone who did not take his complaints seriously seemed out of the question. Perhaps we should consider for a moment what would have happened if Omar Thornton had shared his frustrations with Dr. Larua Schlessinger.

SCHLESSINGER: Hello, Caller. Welcome to the show.

THORNTON: Hi, Dr. Laura. I'm having an issue with some of my co-workers who make racist comments.

SCHLESSINGER: Well, can you give me an example of a racist comment? ‘Cause sometimes people are hypersensitive.

THORNTON: OK. The other day they called me the N-word. They said “we need to get rid of that N-word”.

SCHLESSINGER: So what? Black guys say “ni****” all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a Black comic and all you hear is “ni****, ni****, ni****”.

THORNTON: But these co-workers aren’t comics. They drew pictures of a noose. A noose!

SCHLESSINGER: I’m sure they were just trying to be funny. If you're that hypersensitive about color and don't have a sense of humor, you shouldn’t get a job at a predominantly white company.

THORNTON: You sound like them.

SCHLESSINGER: Don’t take things out of context. Don’t NAACP me.

THORNTON: Whatever. I’ll just have to figure it out on my own. [Click] [Dial tone]

In spite of all of the attention being paid to Dr. Laura’s use of the N-word, I actually believe that was the least problematic aspect of her rant. What’s more important than the one word that she repeated eleven times is the overall racial perspective that she demonstrates in sentence after sentence; paragraph after paragraph. In Dr. Laura’s world,

· If you complain about racism you are “hypersensitive” and you have a “chip on your shoulder”;
· Racism no longer exists because we have a Black president who was elected by Whites. In fact, Blacks are more racist than Whites, which is the only reason Blacks voted for Barack Obama;
· Ongoing discussion of racism is the result of Black activists seeking to “demonize” Whites.

The sad reality is that there are a lot of folks who agree with Dr. Laura’s racial perspective, and it’s a perspective that is embedded in systems and institutions all around this country. Many Black employees have lost discrimination cases over the past two decades because judges have essentially said that they were being hypersensitive. The election of President Obama has led several cities and states to try to eliminate affirmative action programs. And notions of Black racism and “reverse discrimination” have reached a point where it’s now easier for a White plaintiff to win a discrimination case than it is for a Black plaintiff. Just ask the city of New Haven, which lost a major Supreme Court case last year to White firefighters claiming discrimination.

In short, the beliefs and propaganda expressed in Dr. Laura’s ignorant rant make it increasingly difficult to deal with the realities of structural racism. Instead, we can all criticize her use of the N-word and then pat ourselves on the back as if we’ve dealt with the problem.

Having said that, I must say that Dr. Laura did make an important point with which I agree. At one point at the end of her tirade, after declaring that Black efforts to “demonize Whites” have grown, she concludes, “it’s all about power.” And although her remarks both during her rant and in the days following suggest that she’s in a dreadful state of denial about who actually has power in this society, her observation is relevant nonetheless.

Yes, Dr. Laura, it is all about power, and those who have power will always view those without power as being “hypersensitive”. More importantly, Frederick Douglass’ words from more than 150 years ago still ring true today: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

We who believe in justice must continue to demand a discussion on race that goes beyond the N-word and that fully explores the issue of structural racism. Otherwise, we will continue to see more Dr. Lauras…

…And perhaps more Omar Thorntons as well.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Why Obama's Speech Betrays an Important Legacy

I was actually asleep when a friend called me and told me to turn on President Obama’s acceptance speech the other day. She was troubled by his remarks, and after a few minutes, I understood why. To be sure, it was a well prepared, well delivered speech. Nevertheless, the substance of the speech was troubling to those of us who feel that a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech ought to be an occasion to talk about… what’s the word… peace.

President Obama’s speech, which has been almost universally recognized as a justification for war, has won praise from conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. I’ve even heard that former Vice President Cheney has declared a one-week verbal truce in honor of Obama’s ode to warfare.

To a large extent, the speech was simply a function of his job description. As he reminded us, he is the Commander in Chief of the United States, and at the end of the day, that position is going to shape his global perspective more than his global perspective is going to shape that position. It’s the same position that Lyndon B. Johnson held when Dr. Martin Luther King stated that America was “the greatest purveyor of violence anywhere in the world.” Nevertheless, was Oslo really the most appropriate venue for a “just war” treatise, and was it really necessary to dedicate two thirds of his speech to it?

Of course, President Obama’s speech was not only about justifying war. He managed to throw in just enough paragraphs to keep at least some progressives happy. For example, he had several lines talking about letting “our faith in human progress” guide us, and about how we should reach for “that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.” You can’t really argue with any of that.

However, a speech that began with justifying war and ended with humanity’s search for peace could have had a meaningful sweet spot in the middle. President Obama could have more adequately acknowledged that in between his concept of a just war and the concept of world peace, there’s a whole lot of space for some very real, very pragmatic alternatives to war. Yes, he briefly addressed alternatives to violence and the need for international development, but does he really feel that such a discussion is only worth two minutes?

By minimizing the very hard and real possibilities of negotiating peace, President Obama betrayed the legacies of two of his more relevant Nobel predecessors: Dr. Ralph Bunche and Dr. King. It was not romantic idealism that guided Ralph Bunche in 1948 as he worked to end the armed conflict in Palestine. After several months, Dr. Bunche was able to negotiate a series of armistice agreements between Israel and its neighbors, and his efforts earned him the 1950 Nobel Prize. Like President Obama, Dr. Bunche understood that the world was a complicated place, but that did not stop him from believing that war could be avoided.

Years later, Dr. King would receive the Nobel Prize for a different form of negotiation. The Civil Rights Movement, which obviously was bigger than just Dr. King, and which relied on thousands of unsung heroes and sheroes, was not just about getting beat up and thrown in jail. Fundamentally, it was about using whatever power you have in order to force your enemy to negotiate, even when that power is limited to your faith, your morality and your bodies.

Contrary to the dichotomy that President Obama tried to impose during his speech, the question is not whether non-violent marches and sit-ins are enough to solve all of the conflicts in the world today. After all, President Obama has far more power and far more non-violent options at his disposal than the freedom fighters of the Civil Rights Movement had. Thus, the more appropriate question is whether leaders of the world in general, and President Obama in particular, are as committed to fully exploring non-violent options before embarking on war.

Coincidentally, although he has yet to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Rev. Jesse Jackson has also demonstrated the power of negotiation globally. Over the years, Jesse has managed to obtain the release of hostages from Syria, Cuba, Iraq and Yugoslavia, and he was able to do so with no weapon other than his legitimate voice as an emissary for peace.

Thus, African-Americans have a history of championing non-violence and negotiation on the world stage. True enough, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice have damaged that legacy in recent years, but in Oslo, President Obama could have done much to help restore order to the universe.

Instead of just reminding us rhetorically that he is “someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work” and that he is a “living testimony to the moral force of non-violence,” Obama could have presented a new vision for incorporating that moral force into today’s complicated matters of international relations. In short, Obama could have elevated diplomacy from the depths of “appeasement” and bureaucratic irrelevance to the heights of being a force for change in today’s real world.

In doing so, not only would Obama have been true to Dr. King’s beliefs, but he would have been true to his own beliefs as well—beliefs that he expressed during the presidential election campaign. Certainly we all remember Candidate Obama’s statements about being willing to talk with world leaders with whom the United States has serious disagreements. And much of his criticism about the Iraq War centered around his belief that diplomacy was not given enough time to work its course.

As a presidential candidate, Obama could only float ideas about what he might do, but now, as President, Obama can actually implement his ideas. And Thursday, as a Nobel Prize winner, the President could have used the world stage he was provided in order to elaborate on those ideas. He could have used his thirty six minutes to outline a new paradigm of diplomacy. Being the student of history that he is, he could have outlined the most important examples of diplomacy that have worked, and then he could have challenged the world’s leaders, friends and foes, to renew their commitment to such efforts. In short, Obama could have raised the bar.

Instead, he used the world’s most respected peace forum as a platform from which to outline an Obama Doctrine that sounds a heck of a lot like the Bush Doctrine. In doing so, he failed to demonstrate much change, and whatever hope he provided has been relegated to idealism. Of course, he still has at least three years to demonstrate with his actions what he was unwilling to express with his words. Hopefully, during that time, the Nobel Prize sitting in his office will be a constant reminder to reject “the ‘isness’ of man’s current nature” and to seek out “the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”

On that "note", i'm outta here!


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Open Letter to Tiger Woods

On a FAR less serious note than my usual, a friend posted this on Facebook...

Dear Tiger:

Over the course of the next few weeks, several women will come forward and accuse you of cheating on your wife with them. While we cannot speak for your spouse, we are willing to forgive you provided that at least one of these women proves to be no less than 75% African-American. That small step is all that is required to gain our trust.

The Black Community

On that "note", i'm outta here!