Saturday, October 29, 2011

Obama, FDR, and Me

Warning: I'm in a bad mood. I've been reading comments on a friend's blog (The Rant by Tom Degan) and I've finally reached my limit. I've tried to not let the debate over Obama's job performance among progressives get personal but I've finally accepted that for me, it is personal. President Obama represents everything that I hoped for when I was growing up a little black girl in the segregated South. I remember hearing the grownups talk about politics. They would ruefully shake their heads and discuss the lack of Negroes in positions of authority. No one even spoke of a black man being president; it was so out of reach. But I secretly thought about being president someday, ignoring that my gender as well as my race made that unlikely.

When I read Tom's blog post, "Time to Get Moving," I thought it was reasonably balanced. I didn't fully agree with his assessment of Obama or his review of FDR's presidency but his post didn't engender my foul mood. I concur that a great many Americans of voting age have a deficit of knowledge when it comes to the history of this country. However, I also think one of our failures is that we idealize historical figures and make them into icons that they never were. The problem is that no one in the immediate present can ever measure up to these past icons which never really existed, at least not as portrayed.

Which brings me to consideration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the president that so many progressives have repeatedly compared Obama to and always find Obama lacking.  Roosevelt just told Congress what he would and would not do and shoved his New Deal through, Congress be damned. Only, that isn't factual; the real story is much more complex.

FDR  moved the country forward through a very difficult time. However, he didn't walk on water. No president ever has.

FDR had to deal with the southern Democrats, the Dixiecrats. They and a great deal of the country opposed anything that even vaguely resembled civil rights for black Americans. Roosevelt needed the southern votes to pass his legislation; so he compromised big time on civil rights issues. FDR failed to support proposed federal anti-lynching legislation. Lynching was a family sport that was ever growing in the South during FDR's administration but he refused to get behind efforts by blacks and white civil rights advocates efforts to pass federal anti-lynching legislation. FDR also refused to integrate the armed forces, leaving that to Truman to begin the integration of the armed forces in 1946. Blacks fought for this country but weren't allowed to train on the white military bases nor to interact with their white counterparts. When they came home, it was to return to the same segregation and Jim Crow laws that they faced prior to joining the military. FDR sold out black Americans in order to push through his New Deal.

It was also FDR's administration that interred Japanese Americans in camps during WWII. FDR made nine appointments to the Supreme Court and eight of those nine justices supported the administrations's decision to strip Japanese Americans of property and homes, and place them in confinement in Korematsu v. United States (1944).

Then there were the provisions of the New Deal, great intentions but not always realized.

The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to inflate prices by reducing farm acreage. This meant white farm owners (it was 1933 and blacks were sharecroppers, not farm owners) were paid to let their fields lie fallow, which often resulted in the eviction of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, a significant number of whom were African Americans. In addition, the Department of Agriculture, paid farmers to destroy crops and slaughter livestock while millions of Americans went hungry.

The cornerstone of the New Deal, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The NIRA also authorized the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which organized cartels, fixed wages and prices, and, under section 7(a), established the practice of collective bargaining, whereby a union selected by a majority of employees exclusively represented all employees. Sounds like a good idea but many of these compulsory unions closed their doors to black workers. If you weren't a member of the union, you couldn't work in that particular industry. The NIRA was in effect from June 1933 until May 1935 when the Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional.

My point is that when one starts talking about remembering history, it's important to remember all of it. My point is that every president has had his less than stellar moments because politics has always been about compromise. For every gain, you surrender something. It's a balancing act; you hope that what you get is worth what you give up.

I think that all of the expressed disappointment in Obama is unmerited and I'm particular tired of the dismissal of Obama as fearful of not being liked or being a coward. Have you ever been the first person of your race to enter into a position that has always been held by another race? I have and it is the most difficult step that a person can take. You have to deal with your own people expecting that their interests will take priority, those of the other race who feel that you don't deserve the position, and those of the other race who mythologized you into an archetype of nobility and are disappointed to find out that you are only human and don't walk on water. In the mean time, you actually have to carry out the duties of your job and remain civil and calm while not only you are being attacked, but in Obama's case, his wife is the object of ridicule, compared to various members of the simian family in right wing publications on a fairly regular basis.

The courage that it took for Obama to run for president is phenomenal in a country where assassination is not unheard of and it was less than 50 years ago when lynching of black men and women was public entertainment, documented in photographs of the crowds of men women and children in attendance. (According to the Tuskegee Institute, lynching occurred as late as 1968). When Billie sang about southern trees bearing strange fruit, she wasn't merely being metaphorical.

I'm tired of whites who supported Obama in 2008 acting as if they did him a favor and righteously declaring their indignant disappointment. Enjoy your right to be critical of anyone but don't expect me to like it and I'm exercising my right to say so. The man has worked within the confines of Republicans who have publicly declared that their goal is to ensure that he is not re-elected. That has been their stated goal since his inauguration. Instead of bitching about what he hasn't done or disagreeing with what he has, take a look at what he has accomplished in spite of having a rock equivalent to that of Sisyphus to continually push up the hill.

I cried when Obama won. I cried for the years when the signs over the water fountains said white and colored. I cried for the stores in which I couldn't sit and the lunch counters that my mother grabbed me away from lest someone take offense. I cried for the time my mother entered the wrong door at the clinic because my knee was bleeding profusely and she was confused, and she was met at the door by a white woman who told her to go to the colored entrance. I cried because of the job my mother quit because the KKK threaten to kill me and my brother and sister if she didn't. I cried for my father who went to Korea and had to ride in the back of the bus to go to boot camp. I cried because my mother died two months before Barack Obama became president and she never got to see President Obama. I'm proud of the President and what he has accomplished and I think that he has done a far better job than this country deserves.

[Suggested reading for two differing contemporary historical perspectives on FDR and the New Deal: 
Powell, Jim. FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great DepressionNew York: Crown Forum (2003).
McMahon, Kevin J. Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2003).
A review, "Bad Deal," of both books by Damien W. Root.]

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Hypocrisy of Herman Cain

Illustration by Mark Olmsted
Friends, whom I like and respect, recently discussed whether or not Herman Cain could be said to be evil. It is a term which I'm generally reluctant to use as it tends to distract from dealing with the real issues in the beliefs and policies of the individual or group. I think that it allows us to distance ourselves from the entity that we have identified as evil and actually absolve ourselves from responsibility for confronting that entity. Who wants to tangle with the devil? 
However after much thought, I think that evil is the most accurate term to describe GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain. He's also a lying, shameless hypocrite. 

Cain is older than I am and he grew up in the Jim Crow south.  Born in 1945 in Tennessee, his family moved to Atlanta, Georgia where he grew up. I don't have to question whether or not Cain's life was impacted by segregation and racism. His mother worked as a cleaning woman, and his dad held three jobs as a barber, janitor, and a chauffeur at the same time in order to make ends meet. Cain grew up poor and black in the deep south; he couldn't avoid experiencing racism.

Atlanta's Antioch Baptist Church North, of which Cain is a member, is a liberal black church with a congregation of 14,000 and an annual operating budget of more than $5 million. Antioch is known for hosting a "who's who" of civil rights activists as guest speakers. (The CNN Belief Blog, Eric Marrapodi & John Blake, The Liberal Church of Herman Cain, 10/18/11.) A recent article in the CNN Belief Blog includes interviews with some members and former members of the church who know Cain. It seems that many do not agree with his politics and avoid conflict by not discussing their differences. (Id.)

I don't buy for a moment that Cain really believes that the GOP has the best interests of low income people on their radar, and he fully knows that a disproportionate number of poor people are African-American and Hispanic.

Rev. Frederick Robinson, former associate pastor at Antioch Church, and a friend of Cain, is quoted as stating, “He knows there’s racism in the tea party, but he’ll never say that because they are his supporters. That bothers a lot of people, but he plays to that base not because he’s a sellout but because he’s a politician.” (The CNN Belief Blog.)

I say it's because he is a sellout, a hypocrite, and evil. Cain knows firsthand what racial apartheid means and yet he offers electric fences with sufficient voltage to kill those attempting to cross the border as a solution to unwanted immigration. He then tries to dismiss it as a joke. Let's suppose that Rick Perry made a joke about lynching black folks, anyone laughing yet?

A lot of Cain's popularity comes from his skin color. There is nothing that annoys some white people more than having attention called to any racist behavior exhibited by any white person. The immediate response is typically, "I'm not a racist." Witness the response to thoughtful analyses by writers, white and black, about the role race plays in the level of vitriol directed at Obama since his first day in office. Many appear incapable of hearing the messages, which generally are not accusing whites of intentional racism but are instead questioning perceptions and expectations that may be grounded in harmful racial stereotypes.

Cain is a black man who says what Tea Party types want to hear. He blames poverty on the laziness of those who are poor. He proclaims that Obama is a socialist out to destroy the country. He advocates killing illegal immigrants rather than letting them cross our borders. He thinks that all social welfare programs just make people lazy and greedy and would eliminate them under his watch. What's not to love if you're a Tea Partier?

Magically, whites who are uncomfortable with any discussion of race and who consciously or subconsciously promote racist attitudes can say with proud defiance, "I am not a racist, after all I support Herman Cain."

Prostituting the heritage of black people's oppression in this country for his political gain is shameful and yes, that makes Cain evil and dangerous. His repeated affirmations that issues of race are figments of the imagination of people of color undermine the progress that has been made in honestly and openly addressing the legacy of racism in this country. He insults the memory of all those who fought and died in the struggle to defeat Jim Crow and promote equality. His head should be bowed in shame over his minstrel show act performed for the gleeful Tea Party crowds that hang on his every word. 

Why label Herman Cain as evil? Because he is indifferent to the needs of others, indifferent to the suffering endured by those who came before him and fought for the liberties that allow him to run for office. He takes no responsibility for his words, using them to further incite those who oppose the very concept of social justice. In the words of Elie Wiesel, "Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil." It is indifference, the refusal to act to prevent injustice, that provides evil with the fertilizer that it needs to grow.

Monday, October 17, 2011

President Obama Visits NC

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