Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Race, Volume 1

One of the things that I didn't think was a big deal in my support for Barack is his biracialness. I too am the son of a Black man and a white woman, and I too was born during the civil rights movement (just a few years after Barack). I just figured that the fact that he and I share many political ideas and convictions was just coincidence (or evidence of his good sense).

But after his speech on race, I have a new appreciation of how our shared biracial heritage has shaped our world views. Most Black folk have to be bi-cultural. We have to understand the ways of white folk so that we can navigate in their world. And even in our little hamlets and ghettos, it's still their world.

But biracial folks are put in a situation where we actually have to be able to see the world from both perspectives. For some, it's just too damned difficult to be forced to have multiple perspectives - it robs us of the easy, absolute, no-gray-area decision. It can create a situation where every sentence ends with "on the other hand."

But for the fortunate among us, that multi perspective vision creates an ability to see solutions based on common ground where others see only problems and division. I had believed that Barack has the 'good' version of that vision, but his speech on race in Philadelphia (coincidentially, my home town) proved it.

There's a lot in that speech, and I'll get to more of it later. But to me, the absolute biggest thing in the speech came after several paragraphs explaining in gentle but quite powerful terms, exactly how the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow affect modern Black folk. The most important part of his speech, the part that shows he has an understanding of the situation that is far riccher than that of most people was this:
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

In that short paragraph, he showed working class white people (and those who have been working class, or who have working class family or friends) that he understands their issue. He demonstrated a link between the effects of slavery, Jim Crow and institutional racism and the frustration that comes from thinking that someone else is getting an unfair advantage.

But note that he didn't say it was the same thing. Or that being white and feeling put upon by Affirmative Action was justified. He just said that he understood it. In fact, he didn't even say that Blacks were even benefiting from Affirmative Action, just that when a working class white person hears that Blacks are getting a benefit for something that that white person never did wrong, he understands that "resentment builds."

The reason why this is so brilliant is that he has pointed out a tiny bit of common ground for people who want to talk to each other to stand on. In the short term, that little bit of ground is not going to be big enough for the really angry on either side, but it is enough to get us started. And if we can listen to each other, and try very hard to understand where the other is coming from, maybe we can learn enough to understand that we are in this together. And by this, I mean this country, which is at war, in a recession (or worse), has inadequate schools, crumbling infrastructure and a divide between the haves and the have-nots that is threatening the very concept of the American Dream.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

What We Almost Didn't Have

In addition to being a fairly rabid Obama fan, I'm also a fan of the HBO series "The Wire." Without going into all of the reasons for my obsession with Omar, Snoop, Dukie, Marlo, Bunk, McNulty, Bubbles (ok, I'll stop now, but it makes me smile, sadly, just thinking about em all, even the bad ones), I will just say that "The Wire" has a great deal to say about the state of our country.

One of the main things that is says is that the war on drugs is a horrifically criminal destruction of human lives, and that we are literally killing ourselves by continuing it. I agree.

But I'm not going to try to convince you yy talking about the macro stuff. Like the at least six billion dollar cost of imprisoning people on non-violent drug offenses. Or the almost 2000% increase in the Federal prison budget since mandatory minimum sentences were enacted for non-violent drug offences. Or, or, or.

Instead, I'd like to make a page from the writers of The Wire, and make up a story: think back to the 80's or early 90's. A young man, a college student (race is irrelevant to this, but imagine him to be Black), buys some weed, with the plan of taking it home to share with some of his friends.

On his way home, he is stopped for speeding (or making an illegal left turn, or weaving in his lane, or just for being Black). The police find this small amount or recreational drugs in his car, and arrest him for possession. Let's assume that this young man is also honest and naive, so he admits to his plan of partying with his friends. The police now have enough evidence to charge him with possession with intent to distribute. And they do.

Let's imagine that our young man comes from a family with enough money to hire a good and well connected lawyer. This lawyer convinces the DA to reduce the charges to simple possession and to let our guy off with a guilty plea and a fine, but no jail time. And our guy is now smart enough to not tell anyone, so his college does not find out and he is not expelled. So now, our "lucky" middle class college student is out just several thousand dollars and is stuck with only a permanent criminal record for drug possession (and yes I did say our guy is lucky, because it could have been much, much worse).

Now, let's take a break from this fiction for minute and consider a few actual facts. Almost 30 million Americans have admitted to using marijuana in their lives. Almost 3 million have admitted to using it within the last 30 days. In other words, 10% of the population has admitted to committing a crime that could, in many places, get them locked up, or at least have them classified as a criminal. And we all know that once someone is classified as a criminal, the possibilities for their life are severely diminished. Forever.

Back to our college student. This young man realizes that his chosen career of the law is now no longer open to him, as you cannot be an officer of the court with a criminal conviction. He closes that door, and being a talented and intelligent man, picks a different path. He goes on to own a small business and lives a successful, but private, life.

So what, you say. He made a mistake and he paid for it, and it didn't even cost him that much. After all, he was still "successful." Now make the obvious leap - Barack was that college student, and but for dumb luck, we would have been deprived of the leader that he has become.

Wait, let me correct that: because of dumb luck and stupid laws, we have been deprived of great leaders, productive employees, good parents, wonderful children, loving spouses, etc., etc. etc. Hundreds of thousands of them, our fellow countrymen and woman. Deprived of their rights, segregated from society, labeled as criminal, simply for doing something that at least 10% of us have also admitted doing. And we are all paying for this idiocy. Some of us are paying with our freedom, some with our taxes. All of us are being deprived of the contribution that these people would have made. And all because of this short sighted, morally bankrupt and ultimately futile war on drugs.

So here's the call to action: if you are arrested for a non-violent drug offense, admit nothing and demand a trial by jury (but don't take my advice, talk to your lawyer, and educate yourself on your rights). If you find yourself on the jury for one of these trials, regardless of the actual red handed guilt of the person being charged, find him or her not-guilty. This is called jury nullification and it has been used to good effect in the past (it's one of the ways that Prohibition was ultimately shown to be impossible). It is a simple thing that we can do right now to bring this stupid "war" to an end.

I wish that this was something that Barack could run on, but it ain't. We'll just have to trust that he has the compassion (he does), the political will (I think he does), the intelligence (I KNOW he does) and the mandate (that's up to us) to put an end to this idiocy.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Pennsylvania Here We Come!

So this latest super Tuesday has not resolved the nomination. I guess this should be really no surprise, as Hillary has much more experience in a negative down and dirty campaign. In a way, I guess this is a validation of her point that the Democratic nominee must be ready for the opposition to go very negative. She's right of course. We know that the Republican machine will do pretty much anything legal (and much that is not) in order to gain the spoils of electoral victory.

Hillary's "3:00 AM" ad is pretty mild stuff compared to the this
ad against Harold Ford's run for senate. (Harold is young, Black and single, and was running for office in the South, so the visual of the white woman with no visible clothing, saying "Harold, call me" was pretty inflammatory). And in any case, the "3:00 am" ad is just a preview of what McCain will run against Obama in the general. So maybe Hillary has done Obama a favor by running this ad.

What saddens me, is that in many voter's minds, Obama's unwillingness to be more negative than Hillary equates with a weakness on foreign policy. Specifically, they see the willingness to negatively campaign as being tough. And they see toughness as being the required trait to keep us safe from "the terrorists." The problem is that in order to defend against this sort of attack, Obama has to go negative. In going negative, he kills some of the goodwill that he has built, and makes himself seem like the lying, duplicitous politician he's said he ain't.

Maybe they are on to something. Maybe the desire to campaign in a positive manner correlates to a desire to NOT use the military to solve every problem. Perhaps being tough means not engaging in "shoot first, ask questions later" diplomacy. The Obama campaign needs to figure out how to make that point in a pithy 30 second ad. And they need to do it quick!

On the other hand, maybe that's a good reason for an Obama - Clinton ticket. Obama gets to be the good guy, the inspirational front man, and Clinton gets to be the viscous attack dog of a VP candidate. That could work! It would allows a rapid unification of the Democratic party, it would play to both candidate's strengths. The only downside is that Clinton would bring out the hard-core republican base. But maybe if she's the VP candidate and not the Presidential candidate, they won't be so excited.

Interesting stuff.

In the mean time, I am going to start calling people in my home state of Pennsylvania. We need em to vote, and in big numbers. PA isgoing to be tough to win, but it is critically important.