Friday, September 23, 2011

That Four Letter Word Again

Two days ago I read an article that I found of interest, "Black President, Double Standard: Why Liberals Are Abandoning Obama." (Melissa Harris-Perry, The Nation, October 10, 2011). Desiring to share the piece with others, I posted it to my Facebook Wall a day ago. Forty comments and a few attacks later, I've decided to further share my thoughts via blogging. 

Some of those who read the article took offense at their perception that the author was labeling all white liberals who don't support Obama as racists. Regrettably, they were unable to get beyond protesting loudly, "I am not a racist." Hush, no one said that you were.

The thesis of the piece is not that white liberals who question Obama's policies are racists. It fascinates me that when the term racism appears in any piece of writing, particularly by a black person, that the immediate reaction of so many whites is to become indignant at being called a racist. Makes it sort of difficult to get to the heart of the matter being discussed.

Harris-Perry's essential point can be summed up in these lines: 
The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors. (The Nation)
Harris-Perry only arrives at this point after carefully explaining the concept of electoral racism: Electoral racism in its most naked, egregious and aggressive form is the unwillingness of white Americans to vote for a black candidate regardless of the candidate’s qualifications, ideology or party. Harris-Perry is also careful to affirm that positive movement has been made beyond such electoral racism in its most blatant form.

She then tackles the issue of the criticism of Obama, who has actually accomplished a great deal, and how the liberal base appears to hold Obama to a far higher standard than the most recent Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Essentially, Perry's discussion is informed by the noble savage archetype that has characterized much of the European interaction with indigenous peoples or with those of African ancestry for generations. (See for example: Noble Savage, Magical Negro, or On Being a Noble Savage) Essential to this archetype is elevating the non-white to a favored status as noble and honest, an admirable race in spite of its oppressed status. This archetypal pattern is particularly seen in American culture, indeed it is promoted in much of early American literature in works such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "The Last of the Mohicans." These unrealistic portraits lead to expectations that are based on a glorified and mythological image rather than the realities of the people of color.

Perry questions whether those archetypal patterns are informing the differing expectations that generate what she labels electoral racism in which some liberals held such unrealistic expectations of Obama that they were bound to be disappointed with the reality of his presidency. In simplistic terms, take Bill Maher's comment, repeated with approval by Michael Moore in which Maher asserts that he voted for the black guy but got the white guy. (See clip from The View) In other commentary, Maher laments that Obama is too professorial and not a real black president, "the kind that lifts up his shirt so that you can see the gun in his pants." (Frances Martel, Bill Maher Disappointed that Obama Isn't a Real Black President, 5/29/2010) 

I don't suggest that Maher is a card carrying racist but there is inherent unrealized racism in his observation. What is Maher's definition of blackness? What is there about Obama that's not black enough for him? What is there in Obama's demeanor that makes Maher define him as acting white? Who is Bill Maher to define what it means to be black? A similar observation with regards to unrealized racism is asserting that, "All Asians are good at math." It doesn't have to be a negative observation, but simply a sweeping generalization that presumes to define an entire group based on a perceived characteristic.

The animosity against Obama is couched in very personal terms. Some accuse him of intentionally betraying liberal or progressive causes, of being a sellout who has turned to the dark side and abandoned all progressive goals. That goes far beyond being disappointed and desiring a change in his policies. It's the worst type of character assassination. Perry raises the question as to why so much vitriol is directed towards Obama on this very personal level when in comparison with Bill Clinton, he has accomplished as much and in many cases more than Clinton. I recall when Clinton signed DADT into law; he didn't get nearly the attacks from the left for signing the bigoted law as Obama has received for not fighting for an anti-discrimination provision in the bill repealing the law.

Race informs all aspects of life in this country. To pretend that it doesn't is naive and unrealistic. Interestingly, I've seen this same article shared by many of my black Facebook friends. Those who have shared it have found it credible. This doesn't mean that black people are always right; however, it does reflect a difference in perspectives along racial lines. The question to ask yourself is do you use these differences to engage in honest dialogue or do you shut down into a defensive posture in which you deny that there is anything to be discussed? I truly appreciate those of you who have elected the first option. I have found your perspectives affirming and comforting. It is through such honest exchange that we all learn and grow.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Doubt and Death in Georgia: the Troy Davis Execution

At 11:08 p.m., September 21, 2011, the state of Georgia executed a man by the name of Troy Davis via lethal injection. Davis was 42 years old. He had been on death row since his conviction in 1989 for the murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty policy officer. 

I don't know if Davis was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted but I share the concerns of thousands including the Pope, a former FBI director, and and ex-president of the United States that there were serious doubts as to his guilt.

The prosecutor in the case says that he is certain that Davis was guilty. The lack of any physical evidence linking Davis to the shooting and the recanting of key testimony by alleged witnesses to the crime did nothing to shake the prosecutor's certainty. He suggests that the witnesses lied when they recanted their identification of Davis as the shooter. I wish that I had his certainty.

Instead, I worry that the state of Georgia may have executed a man for a crime which he didn't commit. I worry that the witnesses, who say that their identification of Davis as the shooter was coerced by the police who wanted to be certain of a conviction of someone for killing one of their own, are telling the truth. I worry that the man who conveniently first pinned the shooting on Davis and who has subsequently been identified as the real shooter by an eyewitness, may have had a personal interest in misdirecting police attention to Davis. I worry that the cornerstone of criminal jurisprudence, the standard in capital cases of "beyond a reasonable doubt" has been disregarded in the state's execution of Troy Davis.

I feel for the MacPhail family, but the repeated assertions by them that Davis has had every opportunity to prove his innocence, gets it all wrong. Criminal prosecution is not about the defendant proving his innocence, it's about the state proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof that must be met in any trial. It's difficult to precisely define what the phrase means, but common law and case law have carved out the following definition: 
The standard that must be met by the prosecution's evidence in a criminal prosecution: that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
The prosecution stands firm in its belief that a jury of Mr. Davis' peers convicted him based on the the evidence with a certainty that was beyond reasonable doubt. Even accepting that as valid, what does it do to that conviction when the evidence presented by seven of the nine witnesses in that jury trial has been recanted by those witnesses? 

It's difficult for many of us to imagine lying because you want to escape continued questioning by law enforcement. However, innocent people have confessed to crimes that they did not commit under the stress of police questioning. Did you know that the police are allowed to lie to you while questioning you? Their goal is to get you to admit "the truth."  

I don't know what went on when those witnesses were questioned. I don't know if their subsequent recanting of testimony was the truth. What I do know is that no person should be executed by the state if there is any doubt as to that person's guilt. 

I admit that I oppose the death penalty in principal. I don't believe that the state should be in the business of taking what it cannot give. In the words of John Donne, "...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

Troy Davis died Wednesday night at 11:08 p.m. but we were all diminished by his death. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Monsters

I am recycling. Below is a blog entry that I first published in 2007. I was a new blogger then and trying to figure out exactly what I wanted my blog to be. It surprises me that it has turned into such a political place. Initially I planned to write about the foibles of life, share the things that made me laugh or cry.

I wrote this poem on 9/11, sometime that night. I had been on the telephone with my sister and she told me that her husband, Bob, had commented on the need to connect that was inspiring Americans across the nation to reach out and embrace one another. He also observed how sad it was that the sense of unity wouldn't last, that far too many of us would soon return to divisive mistrust, to an antipathy towards the suffering of others,  to a willingness to do violence against others, and to a selfish disregard of anyone's needs other than our own. I couldn't stop thinking about what Bob had said and the poem below was the result of my mulling over his astute insight into human nature.

There Be Monsters

The images on the screen kick you in the guts,
...smoke and ash…smoke and ash...

Smoke rises from the oil,
onions, peppers, a little garlic
a woman in her kitchen
stirring, preparing
her eyes on the clock
always on the clock.

On the flickering screen, horror and hate,
smoke and ash...

She grips the spoon,
absorbs herself in tomatoes and basil,
listens for the footsteps, the metal on metal of key and lock.

"Did you hear...have you seen...all those people..."
her voice falls into the silence of expectation.

"A shame," he tells her, "a damn shame."

His words match her horror,
together watching smoke and ash...smoke and ash

But there is too much salt or too little,
too much basil or not enough,
always too much or too little.

She surrenders to the horror of the fist in the face,
wraps herself in smoke and ash
knowing that the monsters are always under the bed.

Sheria Reid

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

We Shall Overcome

I recognize that black people don't own oppression but we certainly know a hell of a lot about it first hand. I first understood what it meant to be black in this country the summer when I was 8. That was the big knee cutting incident when rubbing alcohol came in glass bottles. I tripped over my own feet while carrying a bottle to my mother, knelt down to pick up the pieces and sliced open my left knee. My mother scooped me up, grabbed my younger brother and sister and raced to the local clinic where she attempted to enter the emergency entrance, the white only entrance. As she tried to enter with me in her arms, a blood soaked towel wrapped around my knee, someone told her that she needed to go to the nigger entrance. She did.

What I learned from that experience was patience. No amount of language, foul or otherwise, no amount of defiant attitude impacts people who are driven by ignorance, hate, and downright stupidity. When Dr. King came along, he understood this. He preached nonviolence not because he was afraid but because he recognized that the real crazies were unreasonable and unreachable, but that the rest of American whites might still have enough of a conscience to feel guilt. Those peaceful marches weren't really peaceful except on the part of the protesters. They were beaten, attacked by dogs, fired upon with high pressure water hoses, murdered on dark highways and they met this violence with nonviolence. The other big factor was television. Images of people being subjected to violence were shown around the world and sympathy was with the nonviolent protesters.

Always image conscious, White America didn't suddenly acknowledge that all people are created equal but a significant number of them sought to disassociate themselves from the overtly racist extremists. Racism wasn't dead, but laws were passed that made its overt practice illegal. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important.--MLK, The Trumpet of Conscience, 1967.

I tend to think in analogical connections and our current battle against the unfettered conservatism that threatens to devour our country reminds me of the battle that was fought against that other voracious monster known as institutionalized racism . The feelings of powerlessness, frustration, and fear expressed by my fellow liberals are understandable and no Pollyanna pep talk is going to change those feelings. I don't believe that people are naturally good at heart, but from what I've seen in my lifetime, I do believe that change can happen. Forty-five years ago, I couldn't drink from a public water fountain unless it had a sign above it that read, "For Coloreds Only." The world of my childhood and today's world are as different as night and day.

We are far from a post-racial society. I'm a big science fiction fan and I think of racism as being a creature like that of the Alien movies, incubating in the chests of some people until it breaks forth screaming, spreading destruction everywhere. In the movies,  Sigourney Weaver kicks its alien ass. Alas, Sigourney isn't available except on the silver screen, so we have to do our own ass kicking when it comes to racism and the disease known as the Tea Party.

To do this, we have to be better strategists than they are. Like Dr. King, we have to determine how best to overcome. Venting our frustration may be necessary on occasion, but anger and frustration do not generate solutions. Our strength is our ability to act rationally in the face of irrationality. I don't find the use of vulgarity offensive, just useless. Anger is exactly what these people best understand. King and Ghandi understood this. Meet irrational hate with anger and you feed the fire of their hate; meet irrationality with reason and persistence and your enemy is confused and does not know what to make of your response. For that reason, we must keep our wits about us because our strength lies in our rationality, in our ability to reason and though the path be rocky, we must continue to traverse it, one step at a time.