Friday, January 29, 2010

Two Voices Remember: The 50th Anniversary of the Sit-in of the Greensboro Four

One of the unexpected pleasures of blogging is making new friends. I met Nance Meeker, Mature Landscaping, through a mutual friend, Jack, Self-Sufficient Steward. Recently, Nance, a fellow southerner, proposed that we co-write a blog entry to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Sit-in of the Greensboro Four. The sit-in by four college students at the Woolworth’s lunch counter marked the start of the modern civil rights movement. This is a rather long entry, Nance and I each had a lot to say about how and why the sit-in resonates with each of us. Our voices alternate, weaving our independently written pieces into what I hope is a cohesive whole.

Nance: February 1st marks the 50th anniversary of the Sit-in of The Greensboro Four, an historic event which, due to the media attention it received and the momentum it launched for desegregation, has been called the Dawn of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. My hometown marked the anniversary by opening the International Civil Rights Center and Museum at the old Woolworth & Co. building on Market Street on January 20th. The museum includes both a full-sized restoration and a child-sized replica of the lunch counter…and that seems fitting, for I have a child-sized, vivid memory of the time and the place.

Before the sit-ins, that particular Woolworth’s was familiar to me for Saturday morning visits to kid-level displays of the kind of five-and-dime, “Made In Japan” trinkets no six year old could resist; it’s lunch counter gained my devotion for vanilla-spiked fountain Coca Colas and buttery grilled cheese sandwiches on white bread…manna meant for all children. Black children could shop at Woolworth’s, but they could only eat standing with their parents at a designated “Non-Whites” area at the end of the big counter…and few parents would choose such a meal for their child.

By the time of the sit-ins, I was twelve and had outgrown Saturday visits to the dime-store after dance class; in seventh grade, I was being taught to read the newspaper seriously and to study current events as part of the flow of history. I was old enough to understand that something monumental, and monumentally sensible, was happening in our hometown. It seemed to pre-teen me that the grown-up rules for segregation, the visible manifestations of Jim Crow laws that were sometimes marked with signs and sometimes merely “understood,” were just stupid. I was sorry for the tension stirred by the protests, for there was real fear that harm would come to the college kids thought to be primarily involved, but I was pulling for them.

Sheria: I was born March 26, 1955 in Wilson County. The year before I was born, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its first decision in Brown v. the Topeka Kansas Board of Education, striking down legal segregation.

Nance: To a child’s mind, separate doors, separate toilets and water fountains, the designated back seats of the bus, and the forbidden seats at the counter were all in the same class as the arbitrary rules of children’s games like Keep-Away, Red-Rover, and Hop-Scotch: somebody just made up such silliness and it only worked if everybody agreed to play the game. The Sit-in marked the day some smart folks refused to play. My 12-year-old opinion was: “Well, it’s high time and I’m glad somebody was brave.” I didn’t realize that the brave folks were not all that much older than me, but that would have made sense to me, too. I know now that the sit-in did not occur in a vacuum, that there had been a long history of resistance to Jim Crow and substantial challenges to segregation elsewhere in the country that had grown over the previous twenty years. Now, it’s clear that the actions of the Four could not have been attempted in the South at an earlier time.

On February 1, 1960, four young AT&T College students, Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain (seventeen years old) did a little late afternoon school supply and sundry shopping (toothpaste!) at Woolworth. When they had made their purchases, they sat down at the Whites-Only lunch counter and ordered coffee and doughnuts. This was so unprecedented, so unlikely a thing, that they were ignored and remained un-served until Woolworth’s closed at 5:00 p.m. Franklin McCain recalls:

"I think the waitress and the counter people were so perplexed and so surprised they tried to ignore us: 'They're not, they can't be sitting there! They're not sitting there! I can't believe what I'm seeing!'"

Sheria: I wasn’t quite five years old when four young AT&T College students, Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and ordered coffee and donuts. It was 1960 and I don’t remember the sit-ins but I know all about them. The adults in my life talked about them for years.

Nance: It was some time before anyone thought to call the store’s owner. According to the timeline provided by the Greensboro News and Record, on February 2nd, the Greensboro Four were joined by twenty-five men, along with five young women from Greensboro’s Bennett College for “colored” women. By February 3rd, sixty-three of the sixty-five available seats at the lunch counter were occupied by protesters, and, on February 4th, five young white women from Greensboro Women’s College (UNC-G, today) joined them. There were many unsung heroes in those first days.

Ann Dearsley, Jeannie Seaman and Marilyn Lott were among the Greensboro Women’s College students. In an excellent interview with the Greensboro News and Record (January 17, 2010), Ann Dearsley-Vernon recalls:

“We just read it in the newspaper one morning, and by mid-afternoon or early afternoon, we arrived” …The girls ordered nothing. The waitress backed away. An arts major, Dearsley-Vernon began sketching faces in the crowd on her lined notebook paper — even as, at one point, someone pressed a knife against the back of her Woman’s College jacket. The young women stayed until closing time but did not come back again... As the women stood up for their principles, there was still the matter of getting back to campus once the store closed.

Realizing their predicament, a group of young black men — who Dearsley-Vernon would come to learn were members of the N.C. A&T football team — joined hands around them and escorted the three past the angry crowd.

Back at school, the women were chastised by school officials and told they would have to leave. That changed after parents intervened, but Dearsley-Vernon didn’t get to walk across the stage to receive her diploma. Still, she doesn’t regret being guided by her convictions that day.

“Of many actions in my life,” she said, “this is one I would do again.”
The protest group eventually grew to over 300 (on a day known as Black Saturday) and was largely peaceful, although there was a regular police presence and unnecessary arrests were made. Logistics during the protest were a problem; the protesters could not risk being stopped along the route to Woolworth’s. The people who provided assistance to the original Four and who joined them to keep the counter manned throughout store hours are often referred to collectively as “The Fifth Man.”

Edward Lee McAdoo remembers being spit upon and threatened as he provided transportation from the colleges to the sit-in.

McAdoo’s job was to drive reinforcements to the lunch counter demonstration in his ’57 Galaxy convertible when the protesters thinned.

“David said, 'Cause, we’ve got to keep those chairs filled,’” McAdoo said, referring to his cousin, David Richmond. When McAdoo wasn’t giving rides, he sat alongside the others at the counter. Beginning the second day of the protest, he kept coming back.

“He dropped everything and became our main supporter,’’ Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair, Jr.) said of the former Marine. “He was very upset that he came home from service and was treated like a second-class citizen.”

McAdoo had to be extra careful as he rumbled back and forth downtown.

“I knew I couldn’t get arrested because I had a job to do,” McAdoo, now 74, recalled. “I had to get the people there. When the police tried to make an arrest, I’d move back in the crowd.”
Of course, the real heroes were the four young men who dared to do the unthinkable first, and who kept coming back again and again…the backbone of the beginning of the end of segregated dining in America. There is some disagreement about whether the protests were planned solely by these young men or whether the female students at Bennett College, along with a professor, were the original planners, but the Greensboro Four had the weight of the entire history of the country riding on their shoulders that first day.

Sheria: What I remember is the segregation that continued to prevail long after those first sit-ins. My mother would take me, and my younger sister and brother with her when she went shopping. The grocery store was fine. It was a black grocery store. Not black owned, the owner was white, but it was on the black side of town and only black people shopped at the store. Of course, we weren’t black then; we were colored.

Nance: The news coverage these early North Carolina events received sparked lunch-counter sit-ins throughout America, an unstoppable movement that changed everything for the country. Back home in Greensboro, the protest ran on (only briefly interrupted by a few days of store closure) until July 26th, the day Woolworth’s on Market Street was formally desegregated.

Sheria: However, there wasn’t much shopping on the black side of town, and we had to venture downtown for clothing and toiletries. Some of the stores had signs that proclaimed, “No Colored Allowed;” however, most of them wanted money, regardless of the color of the hand that proffered it. Many of them had separate entrances, a white only entrance and a colored only entrance. Some allowed us to enter through the same door but had restrictions on how we could shop. There was a ladies clothing store called Barshays. I remember my mother shopping for a hat there and the sales clerk made her put a white cloth over her hair before she could try on any hats. Only black women had to do that. Still, it was better than the stores where you couldn’t try on any items of clothing and all sales were final.

I learned practical things like which stores had two water fountains and two bathrooms. If there was only one fountain and one bathroom it was marked white only. If there was a second fountain or bathroom, it would be for colored only. Downtown Wilson merchants ignored the Brown decisions of 1954 and 1955 that declared that separate but equal was inherently unequal, and that segregation was outlawed.

However, my biggest disappointment was that I couldn’t sit at the lunch counter at the dime store and have a soda with crushed ice. Wilson had a Roses Five and Dime Store and it sold everything. I was always thrilled to follow my mother around, staring at all the wondrous items that lined the store’s shelves. At the front, near the checkout line, was the lunch counter where people sat on stools and ate hot dogs, and ice cream, and drank sodas with a straw. Except black people weren’t allowed to sit at the counter and had to go down to the far end where there was a sign, Coloreds. We could purchase food and drink but we couldn't sit down at the counter to consume them.

In spite of Brown, in spite of those four young men sitting at that lunch counter in Greensboro, the restrictions, the blatant practices of racism continued until I was a teenager. My memories of this are clear and are my own, not stories told to me by the adults. Wilson’s famous barbecue restaurant for many years was a place named Parker’s Barbecue. It had a huge dining room but I didn’t see it until I was in my teens. Colored people had to purchase their food at the back door; we weren’t allowed to come inside and sit down. Even after the law changed, customs didn’t change.

The Wilson that I grew up in had a white waiting room and a colored waiting room at the health clinic, the train station, the doctor’s office, even the stone benches in front of the court house where designated by skin color. The facilities were never equal in quality. Sometimes, white people my age who grew up in Wilson tell me that they don’t remember this. I used to think that they were either intentionally lying or just damn stupid. However, I’ve come to another conclusion. I think that when you are not the object of the discrimination, that the existence of it often makes no impression on you; perhaps oppression only leaves lasting scars on its victims.

Sometimes, people who are much younger than I am, ask why we tolerated it, why we didn’t just push for equality, after all the law was on our side. I tell them the other story that the grownups talked about when I was growing up. In August 1956, when I was 17 months old, Emmett Till, age 14, was murdered in Mississippi.

Two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, beat him, gouged out one of his eyes, and shot him in the head. Then they attached a 70 pound cotton gin fan to his body and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. His crime was being too familiar with the wife of one of the perpetrators [the details vary, some say he whistled at her and other stories say that he said “bye baby” as he was leaving the store where she worked]. The all male and all white jury deliberated 67 minutes before acquitting the two men. Following the trial, Look magazine paid Milam and Bryant $4,000 to tell their story. Double jeopardy had attached and so the two admitted to killing Emmett Till, explaining that they initially planned to just teach him a lesson but that Till was defiant and refused to show any fear, and they killed him to make an example of him.

Milam died in 1980 and Bryant in 1994, both of cancer. Neither ever expressed any remorse for what they had done.

I find what those four young men began at the Woolworth’s lunch counter nothing short of miraculous. I don’t know that I would have had that much bravery. They were college students; one of them was only 17. I think that they surely must have had some fear; I have no doubt that they knew the story of Emmett Till.

Nance: Within that first week of lunch-counter desegregation, around 300 blacks sat for a meal at Woolworth’s five-and-dime. I like to think that some of them were able to relax enough eventually to enjoy some pretty good grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sheria: On this 50th anniversary of that glorious act of civil disobedience, I salute Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain and all of those brave men and women that joined them day after day at that lunch counter and at lunch counters across America. The world in which I live now is so different that there are times when I almost forget what it was like to live in a world that pretended that separate was equal; almost…

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Idealism Is Not a Four-Letter Word

A good friend recently observed, "Democracy is about majority rule, and Obama wants consensus." I actually agree with my friend's broader argument that Obama needs to assert authority and take the reins if he is to succesfully move his agenda forward, especially health care reform. However, I fundamentally disagree that democrary is about majority rule.

I think that it is a valid assessment of what Democracy has become, but the truth of what Democracy is intended to do is to make certain that the rights of the few aren't trampled by the many. That was the intent of the founding fathers in their drafting of the consititution.

This isn't just supposition on my part; it's based on the writings of Jefferson, Franklin, and others on the principles and purposes of government. The founding fathers were well read men, familiar with the theories and principals of government. They certainly had their flaws, but they did not lightly undertake creating a new nation. It's not the majority that needs protecting; by sheer numbers they have power to do as they please. The constitution protects the few, those whose voices who would otherwise be drowned out. Democracy is not majority rule, real democracy is about consensus.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The rights spoken of are individual rights and the very purpose of government is to protect those rights, not to ensure that the majority has its rights enforced at the expense of the minority. The tragedy is that too many elected officials have forgotten that and so have the people. Majority rule is simply a variation on "might makes right" which is the very ideology rejected by the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

The right often references "majority rule." I see it in the comments left after news stories and blog posts. They declare that Obama is ruining this country and trying to take away the rights of the majority and give them to illegal aliens and minorities. If the concept of majority rule were allowed to fully play out, personal liberties and freedoms would wax and wane dependent upon who was in power. I hate to think what would have become of the civil rights movement under a philosophy of majority rule. Indeed, most progressive change takes place in spite of majority rule, implemented and pushed forward by laws designed to protect the rights of groups that are marginalized by the majority. Government cannot be run on a principal of majority rule; if it were, someone would always be being shafted.

Is this an idealistic view of democracy? Of course it is, but re-read the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. All of these writings, which form the foundation of our government, are filled with idealism. To be idealistic isn't to be naive, it is to believe that striving to be better than we are is what makes us human; idealism is the very core of the best of humanity.

I was drawn to Obama's candidacy because of his idealism, his belief that we all could be better than we are. Has his idealism made him vulnerable? I think the answer is yes, but I also think that he's learning how to balance his idealism in an arena that does not value idealism or its mate, integrity.

Idealism is not about being a starry-eyed dreamer, it's about adhering to your principals; it's about believing that how you accomplish your goals is just as important as accomplishing them.

Btw, Jack, I read your comment and I will get around to answering your intriguing question.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Conservatives Win; Progressives Whine: How progressives handed conservatives a win in Massachusetts

I've never been so depressed by the results of a another state's election of someone to the U.S. Senate. Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Oakley for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Brown ran on his party's platform--he opposed gun control, tax increases, gay marriage, and partial-birth abortion and supported waterboarding to interrogate suspected terrorists. He also promised to be the "41st vote" against the health care reform bill now in Congress. Coakley ran on her party's platform as well--she supported the Democratic health care bill, abortion rights, gay marriage, and climate change legislation with a "cap-and-trade" mechanism. However, she opposed Obama's planned troop increase in Afghanistan.

The one point on which I agree with the commenters following the news story that I just read is that Brown's victory is evidence that a lot of people oppose health care reform or Obama care as they like to call it. Indeed, they oppose President Obama's agenda in its entirety. Perhaps that's why I still think that getting some version of health care reform is the right thing to do. Too many rightwingers oppose even the flawed Senate version of the legislation for the bill to be totally without merit. The right doesn't want this bill passed. Looks as if they may get their wish.

I don't believe that the right is responsible for this loss of a senate seat; I think that fault rests squarely on the backs of the progressive left. We refuse to understand the political game. We whine like spoiled children and clamor for instant results. When we don't get everything that we want in the first battle, we declare that our leadership has betrayed us.

One thing that the right consistently has is solidarity. No matter how whacko some of its members are--Palin, Beck, Limbaugh--they never publicly turn on them. On the other hand, progressive liberals have been quick to attack every decision made by Obama that doesn't fit with the progressive agenda, which only helps to feed the anti-adminsitration fervor of the conservative right.

The right never publicly abandoned former president George W. Bush even after he led us into multiple non-declared wars,, increased the deficit by trillions, and set into motion the events that would lead to the largest bailout in U.S. history. On the other hand, the progressive left whines and stomps its feet because Obama won't just paddle Joe Lieberman and any other recalcitrant Democrat. We scream for Obama to shove health care reform through even though the office of the president does not wield that sort of power under our system of government. There is still this little document known as the Constitution which clearly provides that there are three branches of government and delineates the power of each. Behind the scenes negotiations and compromises take place because that's the way it was designed to be. If we want to change it, a constitutional amendment is needed. It's not an impossible task but it's not a simple one either. Neither Obama nor his staff can simply circumvent procedures. There is no authority that permits the president or his staff to  threaten difficult  Senators to get them to vote for the president's agenda.

The progressive left has been busy publicly criticizing the administration, forgetting the adage that a house divided among itself cannot stand. Meanwhile, the right has been moving in lockstep. How else to explain Brown's win in a state in which Obama won by a 26 point margin in 2008 and that elected perhaps the most liberal senator ever to seve nine terms? I am depressed but not because the conservative right has won a victory but because the progressive left handed it to them gift wrapped.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sometimes The Sky Really Is Falling: The Conrad/Gregg Commission Bill

It just goes to show you; it's always something.--Roseanne Roseannadanna (Gilda Radner)

I just read Senate Bill 2853, entitled the Bipartisan Task Force for Responsible Fiscal Action. It's also referred to as the Conrad/Gregg Commission bill. By any name, it smells like rotting meat. A fellow blogger, Nance of Mature Landscaping, alerted me to this nasty little piece of work making its way to a Congressional vote.

Bill Content
The bill creates a bi-partisan task force to "to assure the long-term fiscal stability and economic security of the Federal Government of the United States, and to expand future prosperity and growth for all Americans." We all want fiscal stability, so what's wrong with this bill?

It assigns unheard of power to the task force that it creates. The 18 member task force is to review our existing fiscal imbalance, analyze the factors contributing to the imbalance, and propose solutions including legislation. Still doesn't sound like the sky is falling, but it gets more interesting. We need to break out the hard hats.

Any legislation submitted by the task force for consideration is to be fast tracked. Instead of the usual process of evaluation, discussion, submission of amendments, time for the public to contact their elected officials, all the standard practices of government, legislation from this task force will be excused from any meaningful review and discussion.

The bill provides that the task force submit its report and proposed legislation no later than November 9, 2010. Motions to consider the proposed legislation can be made beginning two days after it is submitted and a vote on the motion must be taken with no allowance for raising points of order or any other mechanisms to delay voting on a motion to consider the proposed legislation exactly as written. Debate is limited to 100 hours evenly divided between those for the proposed bill and those against. The proposed bill may not be amended. Ultimately, Senators and Representatives are limited to voting yes or no with insufficient time for consideration of whatever the proposed legislation from this task force contains.

Real Life Impact
SB 2853 is a not so thinly disguised attempt to place in the hands of the task force it creates the authority to dismantle Social Security and Medicare. The fast track status accorded legislation proposed by the task force will do an end run around any opportunity for advocacy groups to offer a rebuttal to any proposed legislation. The omnibus bill that is likely to be proposed will be able to be submitted for consideration to the House and the Senate within two days of its release from the task force; if you have ever attempted to review a piece of federal legislation you know that reading the average bill takes a lot longer than two days. Such a bill could be presented, debated, and passed before anyone not on the task force knows for certain what provisions it contains.

As time consuming as is the legislative process, shortening that process is a bad move. No bill is ever perfect in its first incarnation. The legislative process is essential to ensure that no bill is signed into law without close and detailed scrutiny.

It is not uncommon, indeed, it's highly likely that the longer a bill is, the more there is an increased likelihood of the inclusion of a rider or two that is often undiscovered except through the  time consuming process of debate and examination that typically precedes adoption of new legislation. The amendment process provides an opportunity to correct oversights, to delete obstructions, and to just make the bill better.

You Can Do Something
This bill hasn't received a lot of media attention. On its face, it appears rather innocous. At no point does the bill reference Social Security or Medicare, or any social programs for that matter. However, the power that this bill proposes to grant will make it possible for anti-Social Security and anti-Medicare foes to steamroll over these programs in the guise of fiscal responsibility, to severely decrease funding for these programs or to cut them out entirely.

The Senate will be voting on the Conrad/Gregg Commission Bill (SB 2853) this week. Your senators need to hear from you. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) has designated tomorrow, January 19, as call in day.

You can contact your senators to tell them to vote no on SB 2853 by calling 800-998-0180. You will hear a short message explaining the urgency of contacting our senators, then the service will ask you to enter your Zip Code after which it will connect you with the offices of your senators.

You may also click this link to obtain direct contact information for our senators.

The video below from NCSSPM provides a clear critique of the potential damage from passage of this bill.

The Concerns of All Humanity

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was a man of words and his words reveal much that resonates with me. The above quotation is one of my favorites. It expresses what I believe to be at the core of hope for positive change. We are individuals and we are humankind. In the words of John Donne, "the death of any man diminishes me." The Christian Bible states the same concept in terms of being our brother's keeper. Other religions express the same concept of a responsibility to the whole of humanity that transcends individual needs and desires.

Dr. King conditions having a meaningful existence, what he calls "really living," on moving beyond viewing the world only through the lens of individual goals. To really live, we have to move beond a me centered life to a life in which we see ourselves as a part of the whole of humankind. In Tuesdays With Morrie, Morrie conveys a story of two waves rushing towards the shore. One fears crashing against the shoreline and becoming nothing except foam on the sea. The other wave is not afraid, stating, "I'm not just a wave, I'm part of the ocean."

This responsibility to each other is not an easy choice. It means being willing to sacrifice individual wants if such a sacrifice is necessary for the larger good. Many of us resist this path. Much of the opposition against health care reform is couched in terms of individual needs and an attempt to minimize the direness of the need: I don't want to have to pay more taxes; it's not fair that I have to pay for people who won't work to have health care; anybody who wants health care just has to go to an emergency room.

So strong is our love affair with individualism that we continually measure not whether other people need our help but whether they deserve our help. When our elected officials discuss funding for social welfare programs, invariably the discussion turns to the merit of the individuals who need the services of these programs. I confess that I do not understand this obsession with ascertaining if someone is deserving of help prior to providing assistance.

There are those who constantly declare that we are a Christian nation. I think that's a sweeping generalization that fails to take into account the diversity of beliefs in this country. Nonetheless, from what I know of the Bible, at no point does Christ ask of anyone seeking his help, "Do you deserve it?"

Dr. King's words remind us that our obligation to humankind is an absolute, that it is not for us to demand that those in need prove their worth to us in order to merit our concern. On this official celebration of the Dr. King's life and works, I can think of no better way to honor his memory than to embrace our collective responsibility for all of humanity.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Harry Reid Affair: Identifying the Elephant

Despite Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele's insistence to the contrary, Senator Harry Reid should not resign because of his alleged racist comments in analyzing then candidate Barack Obama's chances of winning the presidential election. I don't believe that Sen. Reid needs to apologize and quite frankly, I'm a bit tired of hearing the man continually apologize for a nonexistent offense.

Reid simply expressed that Obama's chances of winning were better because he didn't scare white voters. Reid's supposedly racist offense: he privately told two journalists in 2008 that Obama was more electable because he's "light-skinned" and lacked a "Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

It's an ugliness that we don't like to talk about but skin color does matter in the minds of a lot of people and not just in the United States. Skin lightening products are large sellers in parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. In India and China, lighteners are a multi-million dollar industry. 

Historically, there have been tangible benefits to having lighter skin. In the U.S., lighter skinned slaves were more likely to be assigned as house slaves, a step above working in the fields all day. I won't digress as to the reason some of the slaves were significantly lighter than others. If you honestly don't know, follow this link.

In many cultures lighter skin is linked to class distinctions. Dark skin is a sign that one works outside; pale skin is an indication that one is of a higher class and not subject to manual labor. Think of the look of Queen Elizabeth I and other European nobility who achieved their pale complexions via lead based powders, some laced with arsenic and if all else failed, the application of leeches to leave one pale and beautiful. In Japan and China, rice powders were applied by the upper class to achieve whiteness. Men and women sought to achieve pale skin as a sign of their elevated class. In the United States, this obsession reached a peak with a fervent need on the part of European Americans to declare their superiority to African Americans and to ensure that children born to a slave mother of a white father were not in line to inherit any of the property of the landowner. Anti-miscegenation laws were still in effect in 16 states when the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unlawful in 1967.

Sen. Reid's comments merely sum up the history of race relations in this country in a few words. Strategically, Obama possessed qualities that made him more likely to become this country's first black president. Reid summed it up well--Obama didn't look too black and he was quite eloquent in his speech. Even the reference to Obama's lack of a Negro dialect except when he wanted to have one was dead on target. If Obama spoke like Snoop Dog he would have had a good chance of success as a rapper but not in becoming President of the United States.

A 1993 study on the effect of skin color on white voter preferences by political scientist Nayda Terkildsen yielded some interesting results. Terkildsen presented a random sample of adults with descriptions of one of three fictional candidates running for governor. The candidates were described in identical terms. The only difference was that one of three photographs were attached to the descriptions--a white male, a light complexion black male, or a dark complexion black male.The report found that there was a statistically significant impact in that black candidates were penalized by white voters based on the candidates's race, skin color, and individual levels of racial prejudice. Or in simple terms, white voters preferred white candidates, but if they had to choose between a dark skin black candidate and a light skin black candidate, they chose the lighter skin black man. (Want to check out your own attitudes towards race, gender, weight and other potential areas of bias? Check out the Harvard's research site, Implicit.)

American culture is schizophrenic when it comes to skin tones and other attributes of people of color. In the early part of the 20th century, pale was still the beauty standard, but somewhere about mid century, tan became the measure of good looks and health for whites. Of course, a lot of black folks had permanent tans, but there were those who could pass for white. I like to imagine that the fixation on tanning came about because of Annette Funicello and all those beach movies. Whatever the reason, in spite of the warnings about the sun and skin cancer connection, tanning salons abound and the beaches are lined with bodies sprawled under the sun. At the same time, quite a few white women are getting collagen injections to make their lips fuller, further mimicking attributes more generally seen in black women. 

It's absurd for Michael Steele and his fellow Republicans to attempt to tar Reid with the same brush as Trent Lott, who commended Senator Strom Thurmond's racist policies stating that if the rest of the country had also voted for Thurmond the country would have been better for it. Thurmond supported segregation and was an advocate against the mingling of the races. Lott's remarks and Reid's comments do not arise from the same place. Reid's remarks were in the context of explaining why he was enthusiastic that Obama had a good shot at winning the 2008 presidential election.

Perhaps Steele is trying to divert attention from his own foray into bigotry. Last week, Steele declared that the RNC platform was the best in 25 years,"Honest injun on that." To add further insult, Steele's apology was less than sincere; when host Chris Wallace pointed out that "honest injun" was perceived as a racial slur, Steele answered, "Well, if it is, I apologize for it.” Steele went on to state, “It’s not intended to be a racial slur. I wasn’t intending to say a racial slur at all.”

Evidently, Steele is a believer in the, "I didn't mean to offend" defense.

This tempest in a teapot over Harry Reid's off the cuff observations regarding the potential for success of Obama's campaign for president could have a beneficial aspect if it leads to honest dialogues about race and race relations in this country. However, I'm not holding my breath. Race is the perpetual elephant in the room that most of us pretend not to see.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Health Care Reform: What's In It For Me?

Passage of a health care reform bill is not a done deal, but it's definitely on track to being signed into law. The House has a version and the Senate has its own version. A conference committee consisting of House members and Senators has to resolve the differences between the two versions. In order for the final version that comes out of the conference committee to pass the Senate, it will need 60 votes, so it is likely that the House will honor the lines drawn in the sand by the Senate on the public option and abortion. That's the negative but I'm still certain that the bill will retain enough good to make it count as a step forward towards a responsible, ethical approach to providing affordable health care for all.

The big question in the minds of most people is how will health care reform affect me personally? (A notable exception is Glenn Beck; his big question is, "What new idiocy can I spout to keep my ratings up?") I just received the January 11 issue of Newsweek and it quite conveniently contains a succinct summary as to how the version of health care reform likely to be signed into law will affect us.

Yes, I know that I published some of this information in the past, but I continue to have perfectly reasonable people who aren't certain if there are any price controls likely to be in the bill (yes there are) and those who still think that the loss of the public option is the end of the world. So, once more, for clarity, here is what the health care reform act is likely to mean for us based on the existing House and Senate versions of the bill (with some additional detail that I didn't cover in my last post on this matter).

1) Everyone must purchase health insurance. The way it works is that when you file your income tax return beginning in 2014, you'll have to provide proof of insurance with your return. If you fail to do so in 2014, you will have to pay a $95 fine to the IRS. In 2015 the fine increases to $350, and to $750 in 2016. So if you're really opposed to having health insurance, don't get any and pay your fines each year.

2) A public option is unlikely, so get over it. It was never a panacea to our defunct health care system; it merely provided that the federal government could offer an insurance plan to uninsured individuals and small businesses that in theory would force private insurers to lower their rates in order to compete. Here's what we get instead: individuals and small businesses will be able to buy insurance through government regulated health insurance exchanges. The legislation requires insurers to provide coverage in 2010 that cannot cost more than $5,950 ($496 per month) for an individual and $11,900 ($992 per month) for a family. Individuals earning up to $43,320 annually and up to $88,200 for a family of four will receive credits throughout the year to subsidize insurance premiums. Other costs savings measures include a cap on out of pocket expenses. The cap is based on income. For example, a family of three earning $73,240 in 2009 would pay no more than $7,733 in out of pocket expenses.

3) Currently, insurers can and do charge the elderly, women, and smokers much higher health insurance premiums. The passage of the health care reform act will put an end to astronomical premiums by setting caps on how much more can be charged based on age (a maximum of three times the rate for younger people) or smoking status (no more than 1.5 times more than nonsmokers), and eliminates any consideration of gender as a risk factor in determining health insurance premiums. It's not perfect. As a person approaching being elderly, I'd prefer there be no additional charge allowed based on age. However, this is an improvement over current practices that allow insurers to declare you to be uninsurable and then offer to deign to supply you with insurance if you sell your family into bondage to raise enough money to pay the monthly premiums. Those of you who have been with me for a while know my tale of exploring going into private practice and discovering that the best health insurance package that I could get was $3,700 per month. No, I don't have some rare tropical fever; I am a type 2 diabetic with hypertension and chronic a-fib, conditions with which I've been living for ten years and are managed with medications. However, the diabetes alone makes me uninsurable under current standards and health insurers can charge me exorbitant  premiums  even though I haven't been hospitalized for any of these conditions in ten years.

4) Which brings me to my favorite provision, health insurers cannot deny you coverage because you have a preexisting condition (na-na-na-na-na to the health care insurers). This regulation doesn't go into effect until 2014 so until then the government will subsidize a high risk pool for people with preexisting conditions who have been uninsured for more than six months. (Under current health insurance practices, if you've been uninsured for a period of time, as little as 90 days, even if you get a job with insurance benefits, the employer's insurance plan does not have to cover your preexisiting conditions for as much as six months after you begin employment.)

5) Medicaid for more people! Anyone under 65 who makes less than $14,440 per year will be eligible for Medicaid. Under the current system, only certain specified categories of people with low incomes are eligible for Medicaid.

6) Drug manufacturers will be required to offer brand name drugs at a discount of 50% for people spending between $2,700 and $8,154 per year on prescriptions (addresses the Medicare coverage gap or doughnut hole).

7) If you have children, you will be able to keep them on your insurance up to age 26 (statistical data indicates that 30% of the uninsured are people in their 20s).

8) To discourage "cadillac plans" with high premiums, health insurers will have to pay a 40% tax on the portion of a premium that is more than $8500 annually for an individual and more than $23,000 annually for a family.

9) If the health care reform act passes, 30 million uninsured people will have health insurance.

Sources: "Back Story," Newsweek, January 11, 2010.
Senate health care reform bill, available online.

P.S. I've become rather annoyed with my progressive brothers and sisters who have elevated the public option to the status of the holy grail. The House bill is 1,018 pages (trying to open the website froze my computer twice) and only 12 pages deal with the public option. The PO is a good idea but it is not the only nor most significant piece of the health care reform bill. I venture a guess that most people don't really have a clue as to the precise details of the public option whose demise they are lamenting. It's not the wailing and gnashing of teeth that disturbs me; it's the irrational response of, "Let's just call the whole thing off, that will show Joe Lieberman and those mean Republicans," that's making me really want to shake some folks like a rag doll.To read a rational and objecive analysis of the failed public option, click here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Absence of War Is Not Peace

Sen. Joe Lieberman was on ABC's This Week to announce once again that the sky is falling. Lieberman and some of his fellow senators are distressed that the Obama administration has decided to prosecute the Nigerian bomber who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines international flight on Christmas Day in criminal court instead of as an enemy combatant. According to Lieberman:
That was an act of war. He should be treated as a prisoner of war. He should be held in a military brig...He should be questioned now and should have been ever since he was apprehended for intelligence that could help us stop the next attack or get the people in Yemen who directed him to do what he did. Yes, we should follow the rule of law, but the rule of law that is relevant here is the rule of the law of war.
It's business as usual for Lieberman, take any opportunity that you can to attack the actions and policies of the Obama administration. It plays well with a lot of the public, which isn't surprising given that basic civics classes seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur and the only Americans who bother to study the Constitution are the immigrants seeking to pass the citizenship exam.

Hey Joe, according to Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution, only Congress can declare war and it has only done so five times with the last time being in 1941, WWII. Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan are police actions authorized by Congress but not by formal declarations of war. This is no small distinction. Lieberman and his ilk label the attacks on the US as acts of war; perhaps they are, but if so, why doesn't Congress declare war on somebody? (Note: I do not support a formal declaration of war; however, I am disgusted that Congress is effectively getting away with playing at war without taking the responsibility for engaging us in war. Declarations of war are serious and not undertaken lightly, that's why this nation has not been quick to declare war. However, the net result of all of these police actions, or engagements of force is the same--devastation, loss of life, PTSD, and all the attendant ills of war.)

Ah ha, you might say, we have declared war on terrorism. Generally speaking wars are declared by one nation against another nation, not against an ideology that fuels behavior. This lack of a fomal declaration of war against a clearly identifiable enemy is an underlying issue when it comes to the Bush administration's decision to label suspected terrorists as enemy combatants. Obama's critics have been quick to climb on the prisoners of war bandwagon yet again, insisting that persons arrested for acts of terrorism should be treated as prisoners of war, and therefore subjected to a military interrogation. Of course, based on past behavior, that may be code speak for waterboarding.

Just like our so called war on drugs, this war on terrorism cannot be won. The definitions applied by the Bush administration have created a hybrid that does not fit the rules of war. There is no nation with whom to negotiate a treaty. The alleged enemy combatants hail from different nations, the flavor of the month is Yemen. How do we even determine when we've won? Who surrenders, who signs the treaty? Who are the parties to a treaty?

I'd like to see Congress show some chutzpah and actually deal with the elephant that has been in the room ever since they sanctioned GWB's invasion of Iraq. (Congress issued an Authorization of the Use of Military Force to attack Iraq). In order to develop a strategy for putting an end to conflict you have to clearly define the nature of the conflict. It appears that President Obama is recognizing that our current engagements of force do not fit the rules of war and that the acts of terrorism are criminal acts, appropriately tried in civilian criminal courts. This quasi war status created by the previous administration lends itself to abuses of power that undermine the very principles of the Bill of Rights. Already, the fourth amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure have been laid on the sacrificial altar of the Patriot Act.

How do we ever end a war that is not a war, against an enemy that is an ideology, and on battlefields that have no clearly defined enemy lines? The United States' longest undeclared war was fought between approximately 1840 and 1886 against the Apache Nation. During that entire 46-year period, there were never more than 90 days of "peace."