Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Of Childhood Innocence and Rice Fields

I think that intensity is both my gift and my flaw. I am passionate about those things in which I believe but sometimes the passion is so intense that I forget to breathe. I think that I'm perhaps too hard on my fellow humans. I get frustrated with our disdain for the pursuit of the intellectual and angered by our obsessive selfishness. Every now and then I realize that it's time for me to stop and smell the roses, to embrace the moments of joy, to be awed by our creativity instead of appalled by our destructive impulses.

My nearly 19 month old great nephew is the joy of my life. I entertain him by blowing bubbles; he lets me know when he wants more bubble blowing by walking over, placing a small hand on each of my knees and announcing, "Bub." He never tires of trying to capture those spheres of soap and water, and I never tire of blowing them.

When he's at my house, he likes to follow me around whenever I leave the room. Generally the trip is to the kitchen in response to his announcement, "Eat, eat," his shorthand for, "I'm hungry." He makes me laugh at the way he walks close to the open refrigerator and peers inside as if seeking hidden treasure. His new favorite thing is to drink out of my cup, a blue and white 28 oz monster cup. My job is to hold the cup as he sips out of my straw. Most of the time, it contains water, but once it was a bit of mango juice. His face lit up and he did a little jig as he tasted it.

I hope that he will be creative. His grandfather Bob, my sister's husband, is a talented musician, so he's got creative genes.

The creative impulse may be humankind's saving grace. We make grand wars but we also make grand music and art. We paint masterpieces on ceilings and walls. We write operas with music so sweetly beautiful that it makes us weep with joy.

I saw an interesting story on the CBS evening news about rice art in Japan. Artists create images that are transferred onto computer generated grids and enlarged on a massive scale. Then the entire town comes together to plant the images in rice.  How wonderfully awesome that hundreds of people work to create these transistory works of art. The rice is eventually harvested, but before the harvest tens of thousands of visitors come to town, boosting the local economy, as they view the rice fields in all their glory.

Inakadate Village, where this creative endeavor began has a population of 8,400. Last year there were 170,000 visitors to the village's rice field. Other rural areas of Japan have also created their own rice art.

I felt uplifted by this story. It seems that I may be wrong about humankind. Perhaps there is hope for a better us, a hope born out of the innocence of childhood and rice fields.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shirley Sherrod and the Myth of Reverse Racism

As shameful as the firing of Shirley Sherrod based on false allegations was, it is also shameful how quick folks are to blame the Obama administration. Black folks who play in the white arena have always had to bend over backwards to combat accusations of reverse racism. The NAACP and the Obama administration acted quickly to refute any support of what appeared to be blatantly discriminatory statements by a federal employee; if it had turned out to be an accurate assessment and the NAACP and the administration had not swiftly condemned what much of white America is quick to call "reverse racism," then the condemnation of Obama and the NAACP would have been loudly proclaimed. Like it or not, it boils down to race. Being black in this society is a constant balancing act.

The Obama administration and the NAACP have publicly apologized to Ms. Sherrod. The Agricultural Department has offered Sherrod a new job. However, Andrew Breitbart, the imitation Glenn Beck, and the poster of the heavily edited video that made it appear that Sherrod was a supporter of racial discrimination, hasn't apolgized. In his appearance on Nightline Wednesday night,  Breitbart relished the tempest that he stirred up with the selective clip of Sherrod's speech, a speech that rather than promoting racism was about racial reconciliation. Sherrod used her initial reaction to a white farmer's request for assistance 24 years ago when she worked for a nonprofit that assisted farmers to make her point that race should not be the issue and that the significant divide was haves and have nots, regardless of race. The white farmer and his wife, Roger and Eloise Spooner, were among the first to speak in defense of Sherrod, crediting her efforts 24 years ago with saving their farm.

However, Andrew Breitbart is not interested in truth but sensationalism and controversey. Appearing on Good Morning America after the entire video speech had been widely released, Breitbart appeared delighted with the hornet's nest that he intentionally stirred up, particularly the discomfort that it caused the Obama administration and the NAACP. Of course, he may have cause for delight. Instead of widely condemning Breitbart and later Fox News for choosing to release the highly edited clip, the attention has been on chastising the Obama administration for reacting too quickly to the video clip.

I wish that the administration had waited and gathered more facts. I wish that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had given Sherrod the opportunity to explain. It appears that CNN the Atlanta-Journal Constitution used good old fashioned journalism and interviewed Sherrod and the Spooners. Evidently, Breitbart knows about as much about real journalism as I do about building a space shuttle.

I don't believe that the Obama administration is above reproach in all of this. I want this administration to stop letting Beck, Breitbart, and the Tea Party play the tune and call the steps and I think that it is important that we send a clear message that we actively support soundly kicking purveyors of lies and half-truths in their yellow journalism keyboards. However, at the same time, we must stop allowing these rabid, lying, rabble rousing wingnut lunatics to perpetrate their faux news, then sit back and laugh while progressives eat their young.

The Obama administration acted rashly based on intentionally misleading information and the apology offered to Ms. Sherrod was absolutely necessary. However, progressives need to turn our attention to the real culprits, Andrew Breitbart and Fox News. Divide and conquer is an old adage but it still applies unless we refuse to be distracted by lies and distortions from the real issues.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Oh Hell, I'm Talking About Race Again!

"There are two kinds of white people, John Brown's and all the rest of them are clowns." -Malcom X

A Facebook friend posted the above observation from Malcolm on her wall and it generated quite a few comments. Many of them were along these lines: "Malcolm X owed an apology to every white Union Soldier that died in the Civil War." The topic of reparations was brought up and a friend queried, "do I get "reparations" for my ancestor from the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment who was killed by the Confederate Army?"

Then there was the following observation from a white male whom I don't know: "I get frustrated as well with every white person being blamed... slavery was due just as much to black Africans as white Americans... and not all white Americans past or present accepted or believed/supported slavery/racism... my family and self being one of those... don't slap those who are supporting you."

I have some empathy for the frustration and confusion expressed by people regarding Malcolm's words. Most people have never engaged in any honest dialogue about race and race relations in this country. We avoid the topic as much as possible even though the history of race permeates all aspects of American culture. It's why we have a president born of a white mother and a black father who is identified as black. Trust me, I'm happy to claim Obama as black, but he is no more black than he is white, but in these United States of America, the one-drop rule still holds true.

Every time I write about race in America, I promise myself it will be the last time. I never keep that promise. I am so weary of trying to explain what seems perfectly clear to me; yet, I cannot simply let the moment pass when maybe there will be a moment of pure communication where someone nods their head in understanding and we make a meaningful connection. So here I go again.

Slavery was an abominaton but it may be argued that it was based on a system of economics; however, after the Civil War, there was the Jim Crow era (link to detailed PBS historical overview of Jim Crow). That takes a lot more explaining. The intense discrimination that followed slavery is the real shame of America. I don't blame every white person as having individual responsibility for slavery but in my opinion, white America benefited as a whole from the institution of slavery. The subsequent spread of Jim Crow, the legalized, systemic oppression of black people based solely on skin color was not supported by every white person either, but again the benefit of such a system accrued to white people, not blacks (examples of Jim Crow laws).The concept is called "white privilege" and until white people understand and acknowledge the very real benefits of white privilege in a society that made discrimination based on race not just a practice but the law of the land, then I don't think that an honest dialogue about race is possible.

One Facebook comment dwelled on the unfairness of affirmative action to white males. He asserted that he has worked hard for all that he has achieved. I don't doubt that he has. So have I. So have most people, regardless of race, but there are obstacles on that "level playing field" for people of color that aren't there for whites.

Affirmative action does not negate white privilege; it affirms it. (What Is White Privilege?) If not for the legalized discrimination of Jim Crow, there would have been no need for affirmative action. If the playing field had been meaningfully and permanently leveled post Civil War, then the freed slaves would have been able to fully participate in the society and eventually compete with white America. Instead, after a brief period of Reconstruction when blacks were becoming educated (remember, it was a crime punishable by death to teach slaves to read), being elected to public office, developing businesses and integrating themselves into the larger society, white America began to implement laws to take away the newly realized rights of blacks. Not just in the South, the North had its own issues of legalized discrimination as well.

Here's an analogy: imagine that you have worn a chain attached to a heavy weight around your ankles all of your life. Finally someone removes the chain and the weight and tells you can now participate in a 10K race and if you win, you get a prize. All of the other runners have been racing for years and have never worn the weight. Some of them participated in placing the weight around your ankles in the past but some of them did not. You have never run before, your muscles have atrophied, but hell, they are letting you run so it's an allegedly fair race. Affirmative action was the scooter provided to black people after generations of being denied the right to even particpate in the race. Those who didn't actively oppress black people, nonetheless benefitted from being allowed to freely participate in the race without the encumbrances that were imposed on black people. If there had never been the chains of oppression, then affirmative action would have never been a necessity.

In addition, it's a self-serving lie that makes some white folks comfortable to believe that affirmative action has placed unqualified black people ahead of qualified white people in jobs, promotions, and admissions to schools. It is just another variation on racism to assume that black people are less qualified than their white counterparts. As for preference, it's an American thing. When I attended the University of NC at Chapel Hill, I was the first person in my family to do so. My parents didn't have the option; no colored were allowed. Plenty of my classmates were "legacy" admissions. Their parents, grandparents, great grandparents had all attended UNC. I don't hear a lot of concern about that variation of affirmative action.

Some of the comments on FB have accused black people of dwelling in the past. First of all, racism isn't dead. Secondly, although the 1960s brought some end to Jim Crow laws, we were still fighting for equal rights in the 1970s. I went to segregated schools until 1971. It's easy to dismiss the past when it isn't yours. If I or any black person actually dwelled on the past then we would become obsessed not with reparations but retribution.

Slavery was well before my time but I grew up under Jim Crow. I try to be a reasonable person, but legal discrimination is not ancient history; it is my life. Where I could shop, where I could sit down and have a meal, where I could receive medical care, where I could attend school, and where I could live was all dictated based on my skin color. The jobs available to my parents were restricted because there were some jobs that black people were not allowed to do.

Personally, I'm not much interested in reparations, although I respect those who consider reparations to be appropriate. However, I think that the failure of this nation to acknowledge and apologize for the subjugation of a race of people is long overdue and that true healing cannot begin without it. I don't expect that white people should shoulder any guilt for having benefitted from white privilege but I do expect that you acknowledge its existence and that you have benefitted from it. Then we can talk.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oh Dear, the Sky Is Falling!

My dear friend, Mrs. Little, is somewhat paranoid and has warranted some negative attention over the years for her premature shouts of, "The sky is falling." However, I feel the need to apologize to Chickie, as her friends call her, for assuming that her warnings were always without substance.

Every time that I read the daily newspaper or watch the evening news, I get a sinking feeling that I need to go out and purchase a hard hat. Wars on two fronts, oil filling up the Gulf, and economic disaster lurking around the corner has become the norm. Congress thoughtfully provided a tax break for the über wealthy by allowing the estate tax to lapse for the year 2010; former President G. W. Bush signed the bill allowing the lapse into law into 2001. The Democrats failed to get their ducks in a row and repeal it by the end of 2009 and it took effect January 1, 2010. According to the New York Times, billionaire Dan L. Duncan (net worth according to Forbes is $9 billion), who died in March, gets to pass on his estate tax free to his heirs. I'm not cold hearted and I certainly have sympathy for the Duncan family, but given the financial crisis that this country is in, it just seems--I don't know--stupid to let the estate tax lapse for a year.

Yesterday's news declared that the ranks of the unemployed were going to rise as the temporary census jobs are now ending, adding millions to those needing the assistance of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Of course, the Senate doesn't believe that UI needs to be extended. It seems that a lot of unemployed people are really enjoying themselves and refusing to work because they are receiving those huge weekly checks. I've got to wonder what some of these people have been smoking. I've been on unemployment and it pays a fraction of the salary that you earned while working. It's better than nothing, but not much better.

Then there's the NRA and its expanded agenda. It seems that now that the United States Supreme Court has twice ruled (DC and Chicago cases) that the 2nd amendment guarantees an individual the right to have a gun, the NRA has had the time and resources to expand its reach into other issues that don't appear to have anything to do with the 2nd amendment. Funny how the NRA tends to only partially quote the 2nd amendment; the full text reads: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." There is another version with identical language but with a comma inserted after the word militia.

The NRA worked with Senator Harry Reid (say it ain't so Harry!) to insert a provision in the Health Care Bill that prohibits insurance companies from charging higher premiums to people with guns in their homes. Of course, the insurance may charge higher premiums to people who smoke and people who are fat. Too bad there isn't an amendment saying that we have the right to smoke and be fat. The NRA was also the force behind adding a rider on a bill to restrict anti-consumer practices by credit card lenders that permits people to carry loaded guns in national parks. In another demonstration of its considerable power, the NRA also managed to get istelf exempt from the Disclose Act (sic; that's what they call it). The Act requires contributors to political candidates and campaigns to disclose their identity, but carves out an exemption that precisely fits some donors, including the NRA.

I'm beginning to think that Chickie has been right all along and that the sky is really falling. Maybe instead of a hard hat, I need to start on an underground shelter. Polls indicate that the Republicans, aka, the party of no, may win big in November. It may be time to start laying in provisions for a long siege on civil liberties and social justice. Think that I'll get a bulletproof vest as well.