29 January 2010

Racial Discrimination: The Reality Show Version

Watching the cable news pundits on TV make their obligatory references to African Americans, race, and racism these last few days, many of them as casually as if they were checking off a "to do" list at the grocery store, I wondered - what actually goes through the mind of someone who is NOT a descendant of a historically oppressed minority when they think about discrimination?

Even if you have watched Roots and the PBS specials on Jim Crow and the network specials on the civil rights movement, it was and is more of an "outsider looking in" kind of experience if you weren't black. American culture has been very good at de-emphasizing this part of our history, transmogrifying these human horror stories into a type of temporary racial exile, its effects to be sloughed off as easily as a non-slave descendant forgets about a traffic ticket they've paid.

So I figured, since we have reality shows about everything else - why not one that details the way racial discrimination has affected the African American's perspective of the American dream over the years? One that flips the script, the way they do on shows like Wife Swap, except on this show, the show's premise flip flops the entire U.S. population, shrinking the number of whites and multiplying the number of blacks:

    Imagine that you have volunteered to pretend you are a slave for a reality show where black people are the slave owners - you are unable to read and chronically hungry and run down from the substandard food you eat. 

    The blacks are all armed with shotguns to be holstered in a quiver on their backs for instant access, and .22 pistols, which they are required to keep cocked at all times. The black people have been instructed to shoot at the whites randomly, while they were working, or eating, or resting during the day, nicking a toe here, a forearm there, an ear here, laughing all the while.

    The black people have also been instructed to draw their shotguns from their holsters at least three or four times a week, to remind their slaves why they put up with being shot at with the smaller gun all the time. Subliminal tapes play in the slave huts at night, tapes that reconstruct your past, explaining to you that all of your forbears had been treated the same way, that they had passed down secrets on how to turn sideways so that the bullets wouldn’t take off the entire earlobe, that you really didn’t need ten toes anyway...and that in the afterlife, if you were somehow lucky, and the masters fucked up their aim and shot you in the heart or the head, you might finally get to stop hearing the constant pop of those pistols, might finally get to stop worrying about how that shotgun blast would feel in your back if you had ever decided to run.

    The subliminal voices would switch gears about four a.m., shifting into a frenetic sing song cadence as they reminded you vociferously that your future would be no better than your past, that this life as you know it would exist for all time, that for you, unceaseless toil and weariness were the best you could ever hope to achieve, the best that your children, and your children's children could hope to achieve. As the show’s season progressed, you would be emancipated.

    You would be happy for a little while, until you realized that you were working for the same black folks that you were before, only now they paid you a few coppers...a few coppers they would get back when you paid them rent on the same shacks you used to live in for free. Most of you still wouldn't be able to read. Most of you wouldn't even believe you were really free - after all, those black folks would still be allowed to shoot at you with those .22's. 

    Jim Crow would change the rules a little – the shotguns would still be there, but now the blacks would have to account for all the shells they discharged. The .22's would be exchanged for BB guns, and all day long you would feel the pock pock pock of the little copper pellets biting into your skin. Every once in awhile one would hit one of you in the eye, maiming you for life. Your skin, after years of pelting, would actually become thicker, until you felt like you were wearing a second coat of skin. You would learn to keep your head down to protect your eyes. You'd learn to keep your mouth shut to keep from getting your teeth chipped. And even with all those precautions, and all of those adaptations, there would still be the danger of life threatening infections in those tender areas that were not callused against this constant daily onslaught.

    Concentrating on things like learning to read well enough to refuse to sign one sided legal agreements, learning to count well enough to understand how much that twenty five percent interest rate on your second hand car was costing you, or getting your faculties clear enough to compare the cost of your industrial life insurance policy with whole life insurance would have taken more energy than you had to give after battling those BB's all day. 

    In the sixties and seventies, just before the last episode, in a dramatic show of racial reconciliation, all the black oppressors would lay down their weapons on the ground in front of you, just to show you ex-slaves that they could now be trusted. Not because they really wanted to, but because the government made them do it. But with such a huge undertaking, it would be impossible to collect each and every weapon. And there would be quite a few blacks who would secrete BB's in their pockets, intending to continue throwing them at you by hand, because...well, because that's just what they had always done it. 

    The eighties and nineties, the decades that would comprise the big finale, would show the black people inviting you and your newly educated, conservatively dressed brethren into their highrises offices, country club dining rooms, and even their gated communities - not in huge numbers, but enough for you to see they were at least trying to make a difference. The blacks would watch the you like hawks to see if you had retained any of those tendencies your kind were known to succumb to, if no one was watching you. 

    And every once in awhile, just when you had gotten used to this new life, one of those damn BB's would ping you out of nowhere, just when you least expected it. Even now, at the cast reunion show that is set in the new millennium, though you haven't been startled by the ping of a BB or the sound of a .22 or the frenetic sing song cadence of those subliminal voices in awhile - even though you know the black people around you were simply playing their parts, acting according to the script, you are still on the alert against any of the abuse you had to suffer through on the show.

To run this type of gauntlet of perpetual psychological abuse and come out whole, in need of only a Tony Robbins tape or a few faith - based counseling sessions to deprogram yourself from recoiling at the sound of a BB hitting the floor would be unrealistic. To equate this racial ignominy to a traffic violation of sorts, the record of racial discrimination to be wiped clean because the judge simply threw the case out, would insinuate that this was an offense committed against individuals instead of an entire community.

[This was originally posted July 30th, 2009 - you can thank Chris Matthews of MSNBC for its resurrection]

28 January 2010

Hill Harper Checkmates Negative State Of The Union Spin

The best moment during the commentary after President Barack Obama's State Of The Union speech last night was during an exchange on the Larry King Show between Hill Harper and two Republican political strategists. Larry King had opened the door for the GOP operatives with a softball question -- what did they think about the president's message? The two practically began talking over each other, they were so intent on getting their standard talking points across, as if they got paid for every negative phrase they said on the air.

Harper, who was live in the studio, reared back in his chair, raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips, as if he were saying "are you finished yet?" with his eyes. When King turned to Harper for a response, Harper looked coolly into the camera and asked the two, "if you don't like what the president is saying, what are your solutions?"

The twosome responded by continuing their original line of attack.

The more they talked, the more ridiculous they looked, until even Larry King had to break in and ask them if they were going to answer the question.

I don't know why the PEOPLE ON TV WHO GET PAID BIG BUCKS TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT POLITICS are so concerned with counting the number of times a word like "jobs" or a phrase like "the economy" was used. You would think they are ESPN sports analysts who are about to tell you "he broke the single term record for most pregnant pauses in a speech" or something else just as stupid. The most eloquently delivered, most carefully prepared speech in the world doesn't mean jack shit if there is no one or no way to implement it.

Since we're on sports analogies, I've got one I use whenever I talk to someone about my hometown Falcons and their on-field woes -- "instead of trading the players, what we need to do is trade the owners".

The room was electric last night, with all eyes on the man of the hour. Obama worked the microphone like owned the room. He was conversational.  He was professorial.  He was confessional. He was charming, and roguish, and Father Knows Best, sometimes in the same sentence. 

And all I heard about for the next two hours was the same old bullshit analysis from the same old people, as if the dramatic effect of the president acting large and in charge for a change didn't mean a damn thing.

A really really really big part of our problem in this country is the people who tell the story of what happened, what is happening, and what should happen next. We are back to the narrative I am obsessed with this year, not because I'm a writer, but because it is the perspective of this narrative that determines in large part what we are willing to believe and why we may be willing to take action.

Hill Harper is out there every day, helping in his own way to reshape the narrative that binds us all.

Thank you, Mr. Harper, for bringing a little sanity last night into what was otherwise a total waste of political analysis.

26 January 2010

Supreme Court Brings Legal Frankenstein To Life

Why is this Supreme Court decision about the Citizens United VS. Federal Election Commission case bothering me so much?

My brother, who has gone back to school to be a lawyer, once told me that one of his professors described the Supreme Court as “America’s council of wise men”. It really wasn’t a court in the normal sense at all, he said, because it was not bound by precedent or law.

Which is one of the reasons why we struggle so mightily with Supreme Court confirmations these days if we feel that a nominee is overly biased in one direction or another.

Because the reality is, there are times when the Supreme Court, as wise as its members may be, renders legal opinions that are flat out wrong. As august as this body is, it is still prone, even now, to have the occasional lapse in judgment, to take the proverbial wrong turn. Its not like the Supreme Court hasn't done it before.

I didn't even have to hit my trusty internet search engine to know that the Dred Scott case would be at the top of the list of Supreme Court decisions that ignored the reality of the facts before them. And I'd like to say I was just lucky when I guessed that it had to be Plessy V. Ferguson that was one of the other cases on this infamous list of Supreme Court screw-ups.

But it was really that key concept of denying black people full citizenship rights, the one that America's "council of wise men" were so fond of for a hundred years AFTER the Emancipation Proclamation, that immediately came to mind.

If it were merely as simple as the idea that the corporation has now become so ubiquitous, so entrenched in our society that the natural next step would be to legally recognize certain of its human-like characteristics, I might only be merely incensed at the idea.

But if we step back for a moment, and take a look at the reality of modern corporate governance, which has divorced itself, both literally and figuratively, for all practical purposes and most legally binding ones, from having any semblance of responsibility towards its shareholders, then we can fully understand why this horror the Supreme Court has concocted makes Mary Shelley’s story about the creation of a living, breathing Frankenstein sound like a bedtime story for a 5 year old.

Protecting the "free speech" of a corporate entity is a complete misuse of the phrase, a semantic sleight of hand that totally ignores the fact that a corporation has superhuman attributes that already compensate for the idea that its “speech” can be limited.

    A corporation cannot bleed. A corporation cannot breed – in the sexual sense of the word. A corporation does not die of old age.

What’s next, after free speech?

    Should a corporation have the right to vote? Should a corporation have the right to bear arms? Will we start putting corporations in jail when they break the law? Will we sentence the ones who kill people to the electric chair?

The bottom line in my mind?

If it has no DNA, then it shouldn’t have any say.

The irony of this whole thing, at least to me, is the way the Supreme Court's two other most horrific wrongs denied basic human rights to the very people whose uncompensated toil improved the stream revenues for many of our early corporations, the very people whose bodies, within the nonsensical logic of American slavery, often served as collateral for corporate loans.

To grant these inalienable rights of citizenship African Americans have fought for ever since this country was formed so casually to these agglomerations of bylaws and other people’s money that have been sprinkled with legal pixie dust is beyond abominable. It is beyond unconscionable.

I’ve complained enough for today. And although many keen legal minds are hard at work, even as I write this, there is no sure remedy yet at hand to neutralize the new found power of these Frankenstein-like creations that seek to rule flesh and blood humans.

But what I do know is this – the seminal moment in American history that repudiated the Dred Scott decision was Sherman’s march to the sea. The seminal moment in American history that rejected the legal confines of Plessy V. Ferguson for good was the March on Washington.

Whether or not a new march will be in order remains to be seen.

18 January 2010

Hate Has No Expiration Date: Reflections On The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday

...the smell of burnt gunpowder and wet cotton, the taste of cold fried chicken and cheap lipstick, the sounds of grown men weeping, of heavy wood hitting dark flesh, of rifles cocking and dogs snarling, tired bodies jumbled together in church buses and auto caravans, always dressed in their best clothes...

For a man who had no idea of the path his life would take, Martin Luther King Jr. was awfully well-prepared for the journey.

I sat and listened to a radio show last night. It was one of those productions by bloggers that are broadcast through an internet connection instead of the airwaves. I believe all the on-air guests as well as the folks who called in were black. And for almost an hour and a half, I listened and typed in comments in the chatroom attached to the site while the most of the callers and guests proceeded to trash the Obama presidency.

I was surprised, at least for awhile, until later, while putting the finishing touches on an article for Big Think about Martin Luther King, it hit me -- nothing has really changed at all.

...the sharp, acrid stench of fear had been omnipresent then, a musk that could not be cleaned from the crotches and armpits of the men’s suits, nor their hatbands and shirt collars; neither from the women’s blouses and skirts, or their bra straps and girdles...

If this was the 1960's these would be the same black people telling Martin Luther King Jr. he was "too soft", that he needed to "man up" and "show some leadership" instead of wasting time negotiating with the enemy. It was this section of the black middle class, then as now, who were not pleased with the way things seemed to be going, even when progress was slowly being made, as if any of the available alternatives would have gotten them somewhere faster.

I wondered, as I listened to this group of black professionals who were so worked up over Barack Obama's short tenure as president, what it was that we were referring to when we talked about the black community. One of my favorite catch phrases I use on radio interviews -- "hate has no expiration date" -- came to mind in a way I'd never figured I'd be imagining it. I thought about my own book I was supposed to be writing, titled Recarving Our Cultural Totem Pole, and wondered if I was really wasting my time with the few chapters I'd accumulated so far if these people were going to be my audience.

I spoke to S. about this. "I remember when King came out against the Vietnam War. People thought he was crazy back then. I had cousins over there. I wanted them to win - to kill whoever they had to kill and come back home alive." I thought about the competing interests she had to deal with back then, and wondered if the people I listened to last night had the same kind of personal, intimate reasons for denouncing the very president they had helped to elect.

...pungent odor had been birthed in slave ships, a raw stench that had been marinated in slave pens -- it was the same foul, fetid scent that had permeated the Jim Crow South, an earthy, glandular excretion that soap and water could never fully rinse away...

It is easy now for us to revere Martin Luther King Jr. long after his death, when the clouds upon his character and judgment are swept away by the passage of time. Easy for us to cheer and shout and march safely down the main thoroughfares of our nation's southernmost cities with impunity, some of the same streets that Dr. King himself walked down as if every step might be his last.

I would hope, on a day when we pay tribute to an African American man who accomplished so much by using the means and methods of a nonviolent doctrine, a set of principles which ran counter to our gut instinct to meet violence with violence, that those of us who doubt today the intentions of our African American president may marshal the wisdom and the insight necessary to understand how his objectives will ultimately benefit us all instead of following their gut instincts.

"You must not become morbidly absorbed in a past mistake but you must seek to outlive it by creative living in the future."

Martin Luther King, Jr.

16 January 2010

Media Promotes Flawed Haiti Narrative


Part. 1.
The people inhabiting the island formerly called St. Domingo, hereby agree to form themselves into a free state sovereign and independent of any other power in the universe, under the name of empire of Hayti.

Part 2.
Slavery is forever abolished.

Haiti was the original payday loan customer.

Back in 1804 after Haiti's slave populace resisted Napoleon's efforts to subdue them, France put down its guns and checkmated Haiti. Before the ink on the Haitian declaration of independence was dry, France called on all the advanced nations of the world to freeze Haiti out of the international finance game.

By 1806 these countries, including the U.S., who had all coveted Haiti's powerhouse economy, the largest in the Caribbean, all agreed to put a financial embargo on the new West Indian nation of blacks. It was only after Haiti agreed to pay reparations to France for the loss of the economic productivity of its former slaves that the rest of the world accepted Haiti into the finance arena.

They have been paying interest ever since.

That 150 million francs was more than twice Haiti's net worth in 1825. If you think about it, it might have been the first subprime loan in the world. To add insult to injury, Haiti was forced to borrow a third of the money to pay these reparations back to France from France itself, at 6 percent interest.

Could you imagine the British rounding up the rest of the world after the Revolutionary War and demanding that America pay them a sum equal to twice the country's net worth at the time,or else be subject to a financial embargo and the possibility of being attacked by its allies?

As I said at the beginning of the year, the narrative is the thing. We are not in charge of our own narrative, nor are enough of us versed in our history to counter the revisionist version our government and our presidents have used to advance programs and policies that twist the sword of U.S. domination ever so slowly in the gut of countries like Haiti.

Which is why you are going to get the "helpless Haitians" theme and the "corruption plagues the country" meme in all the background stories the major outlets release, as if there is no evidence that shows that our own government, among others, has for decades upon decades worked to keep Haiti in a state of chaos and financial upheaval, beginning with the very first $750,000 the United States sent France over two hundred years ago to help put down the original Haitian slave revolt.

The paradoxes of Haiti are not all historical:

We can send money to Haiti, but Haitians can't seek refuge here.

We can support Haiti's efforts at democracy, but only if Haiti supports unfettered access by foreign capitalists to their workforce and their resources.

These are just some of the reasons why we need to quit crying our eyes out and start asking some hard questions about what has really gone on in places like Haiti. Lyndon Johnson exploited JKF's death to get his legislative agenda passed. We need to do the same thing - forcefully, factually, and relentlessly, while those who have helped to perpetuate the inequities of Haiti are weak and vulnerable on this issue, and while the press are all so hungry for Pulitzer Prizes that they forget who they are really working for temporarily.

And in the meantime, while we are pushing for the real story, we can begin to practice pushing our own narratives instead of repeating the carefully manufactured storylines from the nightly news.

I may sound over the top, or insensitive to some of you, but just in case you forgot, it wasn't that long ago that black people in America were getting beat over the head, kicked, stabbed, shot or hung from trees on a regular basis for trying to gain our civil rights. It wasn't until the ugliness and the blood were photographed and filmed and shown all over the world that some semblance of moral suasion kicked in right there in America enough for us to get from there to here.

And just in case you are a “bootstrapper”, who feels the “real Americans” in the heartland did it on their own, I will connect some dots for you.  The 565 million acres gained in the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million dollars, the acres the government handed out like water in free homesteads to anybody who immigrated from Europe with a strong back, were a direct result of the slave revolt in Haiti.  The revolt made the French abandon their hope of expanding their empire in America. By comparison, the 150 million francs France extorted from the freed slaves was twice as much, when converted to dollars, as the price Jefferson paid to the French to dramatically expand America.

If you are not willing to press for a political advantage while you have the stage, this same tragedy will very likely happen again.  If we are saving people today so they can die in sweatshops for our corporations later, THAT is a travesty

So press on, people. Press on