FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.
The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.
A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:
Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.
The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.
The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.
Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.
Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.
Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.
After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.
View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.
MITT’S PITCH: GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney took his conservative message to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention on Wednesday, telling the audience that President Obama’s policies have hurt African Americans. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)
Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney “received the most hostile reaction from any campaign audience this year” and “appeared unsettled by three rounds of loud boos” July 11 at the NAACP national convention in Houston , The Washington Post reported.
‘Obamacare’ Opposition Booed
The booing came after Romney expressed his opposition to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, The Postreported, but the article said “many portions of his speech received reserved cheers, such as his promise to defend traditional marriage, and many black voters in the audience stood to applaud him when he finished.”
Trumped Up Support
Colorlines published a gallery of frowning faces from the event and quoted tweetsfrom pundit Roland Martin that accused Romney of busing in supporters. Is anyone else not surprised that a political campaign would bus in supporters, especially when the audience is expected to be less than friendly?
Failure to Connect
“It wasn’t just [Romney’s] sharply-worded criticism of President Obama’s policies” that drew the audience’s ire, according to BuzzFeed. “It’s that Romney doesn’t know how to talk to black audiences.” For example, Charlette Stoker Manning, chair of Women in NAACP, reportedly said, “I believe his vested interests are in white Americans. …You cannot possibly talk about jobs for black people at the level he’s coming from. He’s talking about entrepreneurship, savings accounts — black people can barely find a way to get back and forth from work.” I’m not sure about you, but to me that last bit sounds like a pretty insulting generalization.
Bold, Consistent Message
“We understand that folks aren’t going to agree with us 100 percent,” Romney adviser Tara Wallis quoted as saying. “But at the end of the day, I think that Gov. Romney’s message was bold. He said what needed to be said, and he said what he’s always said.”
Thumbs Up for Courage
“I give him thumbs up for being courageous,” William Braxton, a retiree from Charles County, Md. told The New York Times. However, Braxton also reportedly said he has “never, ever” heard Romney “say anything about how he would help the poor or underprivileged, let alone the black community.”
Obama Absence ‘Perplexing’
Molly Ball, of The Atlantic, found it “perplexing”that President Obama didn’t speak to the group at all, but instead sent Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday and Vice President Joe Biden today because of “scheduling” conflicts. “When the president is invited and sends an underling instead, that’s an undeniable dis, especially when his opponent shows up in person,” said Ball. “Obama, who won 95 percent of the black vote in 2008 (and who, you may have heard, is America’s first black president), may believe he can afford to take black voters for granted. But that’s not at all clear.”
Biden Draws Cheers
The audience was perhaps forgiving, because “Biden drew cheers as he credited Obama for championing a landmark health care law, launching the mission that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and stepping in to rescue the financial system and U.S. automakers General Motors and Chrysler,” the Associated Press reported.
What do you think?
Is President Obama taking the Black vote for granted?
“I regret any comments I have ever made which may have cast any doubt on the personal faith of our president, Mr. Obama,” Graham is quoted as saying. “I apologize to him and to any I have offended for not better articulating my reason for not supporting him in this election — for his faith has nothing to do with my consideration of him as a candidate.”
In the 15-minute panel discussion on the “Morning Joe” show, Graham, who is president of the Samaratin’s Purse relief organization and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, declined to affirm the president’s Christian faith, but heartily affirmed that of Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
“We can disagree about what it means to be a Christian engaged in politics, but Christians should not bear false witness,” the open letter to Graham said. “We are also concerned that Rev. Graham’s comments can be used to encourage racism. We urge him to be mindful of the unprecedented verbal attacks on President Obama based on his race and be careful not to allow his own voice to be used to help drive such hateful words.”
The letter also warned that “statements like Rev. Graham’s have potentially dangerous consequences domestically and internationally.” Signatories included leaders from predominantly African American denominations and members of the NAACP Religious Affairs Committee.
President’s Faith Council ‘Has Gone Dark’
In related news, less than a week after members of the president’s first Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships participated in a press call that was designed to defend the president’s faith, Politico reported that “three years into his presidency, Obama’s marquee council of faith advisers has gone dark.”
“The president’s first Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships delivered a 163-page report in March 2010 and then disbanded. The second council has waited more than a year for a full slate of appointees and has yet to meet. And the hottest issue — whether religious groups that receive public money can discriminate in hiring — remains unresolved more than three years after Obama promised to address it,” the article said.
On last week’s press call, the Rev. Joel Hunter and Melissa Rogers, both of whom served on the president’s first advisory council, conceded to UrbanFaith that the Obama administration had “stumbled” in its recent communications with religious people and groups, particularly in regard to a controversial contraception mandate that was included in the Affordable Care Act. No mention was made on that call about delays in assembling his second advisory council.
“President Obama continues to expand and strengthen faith-based initiatives and the faith-based advisory council is an important part of that effort,” Joshua DuBois, director of the faith-based office, said in a written statement to Politico. “Advising the president on our ongoing partnership with faith-based groups and other nonprofits around the country is critical and we are committed to ensuring they have as much impact as possible. It is a big country with significant religious diversity, and we are very thoughtful about our approach.”
What do you think?
Are these two leaders, President Obama and the Rev. Franklin Graham stumbling badly or is the press amplifying minor missteps?
STRAIGHT TALKER: GOP presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. (Wikipedia image)
The truth can come from an unlikely messenger. Like in Numbers 22:30, when God made a donkey talk to Balaam, a prophet who had veered far from God’s purpose.
Newt Gingrich has been an unexpected source of truth during the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, which is why I hope he stays in the race and keeps talking. Gingrich’s comments have been eye opening, like when he called Congressman Paul Ryan’s economic plan “right-wing social engineering,” and then was forced to backtrack. He’s arrogant, impulsive, and morally flawed, but also smart and shrewd. Gingrich often veers from the typical political talking points and says what he truly believes. He expresses volatile thoughts that many people hold and act on privately, but won’t say publicly. Gingrich’s fellow GOP candidate Rep. Ron Paul has a similar proclivity to say what he thinks without filters. The other night, for instance, Paul was once again trying to deflect criticism about his racist newsletter from 20 years ago when he spoke about the unfairness of the criminal justice toward blacks — not exactly a topic you’ll find many Republican politicians addressing, especially one who’s running for president. Unfortunately, none of the reporters followed up with a question about what Paul has been doing about those racial disparities as a congressman or what he would do as president.
Suffice it to say, without Gingrich and Paul in the race, the political dialogue would be far less lively and informative.
Gingrich’s latest episode of unexpurgated candor is especially worth noting. The former Speaker of the House, who has a history of wandering into politically incorrect territory regarding race in America, riled the blogsphere and pundits recently with a comment about blacks and food stamps. Gingrich often refers to President Obama as the “food stamp president” because Americans are receiving the aid at the highest levels in history. The reference is also Gingrich’s way of reminding white voters that Obama is black.
During a speech to a majority-white audience prior to the New Hampshire Primary, Gingrich said:
“And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention to talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
“Insensitive,” “race baiter,” and “bigot,” were among the predictable names critics called him. The NAACP issued its standard condemning response, with the group’s president Benjamin Todd Jealous calling the remarks “inaccurate and divisive.” But perhaps Gingrich has actually done us a favor.
While clearly provocative, Gingrich’s food stamp flap unexpectedly caused the news media to focus on and dispel a longstanding racial stereotype that blacks are the main beneficiaries of food stamp handouts — a stereotype the media perpetuates. The truth is that the face of food stamps and poverty in America is white.
Gingrich triggered CBS and some other news outlets to report that whites represent 59 percent of the households on food stamps, while blacks are 28 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Previous published reports indicated that poverty is on the rise among whites, increasing 53 percent in the majority white suburbs compared to 23 percent in the cities. Two-thirds of the new suburban poor were added between 2007 (the year the economy tanked under the Bush administration) and 2010.
It would seem that poverty is something the majority-white Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements could unite over, along with the civil rights and faith communities. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a race-neutral Poor People’s Campaign and was also speaking out against the Vietnam War when he was assassinated in 1968. King understood what really mattered. His eyes were opened. However, savvy politicians also know they can rely on racism and class to divide voters and advance their own agendas.
The food stamp story also unveiled how the major news organizations often contribute to keeping Americans in the dark. Many of us probably don’t realize that reporter David Weigel of Slate.com, who attended the Gingrich speech and was reportedly the first to tweet the comment, may have done so because he is anti-Republican. Media columnist Richard Prince reminded readers that Weigel resigned from the Washington Post in 2010 from his gig blogging about conservatives after it was revealed that he had disparaged Republicans in a deeply personal way on a listserv. The Post owns the liberal-leaning Slate.com. In his blog, Weigel posted the Gingrich comment without providing proper context, then feigned surprise that others did the same. I suspect Weigel knows, as most bloggers do, that the volatile mix of race and politics often generates lots of reader page views and retweets on the Web — especially if the talker is a polarizer like Gingrich.
As Numbers 22:30 teaches, the messenger might be an ass (or even an elephant), but we ought to pay attention. There’s truth between the lines.
CLASHING PERSPECTIVES: Conservative activist and Tea Party member Jesse Lee Peterson (left) will protest the NAACP's convention; NAACP spokesman Hilary O. Shelton welcomes the debate.
On July 24, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) holds its annual convention in Los Angeles, the newly formed South Central L.A. Tea Party will be there to protest.
In a press release, the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny (BOND Action) said the NAACP has made “false allegations of ‘racism’ against the Tea Party movement,” has supported failing schools and teachers unions in opposition to black parents, especially in Harlem, where the organization filed suit along with the United Federation of Teachers to stop 22 school closings and the expansion of 20 charter schools, has “remained silent while black thugs attack white Americans and commit crimes in flash mobs across the country,” and “supports black genocide” as an ally of Planned Parenthood.
“The NAACP is set up as a non-profit organization with the pretense of helping black people get themselves together, but I can clearly see that the NAACP is a political pawn for the liberal elite white racist Democratic party and they are using black Americans for their own personal gain,” said Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, founder and president of BOND Action.
“They’re continually being served by our tax dollars and black Americans continue to support them because they don’t really know and understand that the NAACP is out of touch with reality,” he said.
‘We Were Lied To’
Peterson used to believe in the NAACP and its goals, he said, but about 20 years ago he changed his mind.
“I stepped back and realized that we had been lied to and that they’re deliberately keeping the races divided. They’re deliberately keeping blacks dependent on governmental programs so that they can use black Americans for their own personal gain,” said Peterson.
In contrast, the Tea Party stands for freedom, the Constitution, God, country, and family, he said.
Peterson has spoken at Tea Party rallies around the country and has never seen “one glimpse” of racism, he said.
It’s not that clear-cut, says one NAACP representative.
“The NAACP did a very extensive analysis of the Tea Party, so it would be good to find out which Tea Party he spoke for,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and Vice President for Advocacy. “One of the things the Tea Party says all the time is that there is no one Tea Party.”
“There are some Tea Party constructs that we’ve been in contact with, quite frankly, that as much as we may not agree with them politically, they are advancing an agenda that is done in a civilized manner and they are, quite frankly, just fine, as far as we’re concerned,” said Shelton.
“We’ve never denounced the entire Tea Party, but, as the resolution says, only those racist elements within the Tea Party. What [the NAACP] calls upon the Tea Party to do, and Rev. Peterson as well, is to simply denounce that kind of behavior,” said Shelton.
Defending the NAACP
BOND Action’s charges that the NAACP supports abortion and ignores black-on-white crime are “simply not true,” Shelton said, and the NAACP has never taken a position on “a woman’s right to choose,” but does support “a woman’s right to control her reproductive life” and Planned Parenthood’s other work in providing basic health services to women and children in underserved communities.
“If you look at the NAACP’s position on crime and violence, it is never limited to African Americans. We want to stop crime and violence for all Americans. The issue you hear most often is us talking about the disparities in how our criminal justice system treats African Americans,” said Shelton.
He suggested Peterson examine the NAACP’s new report, Smart on Crime, which compares spending on criminal justice with spending on education. The report advises redirecting resources away from incarceration and towards rehabilitation and education. Shelton also suggested Peterson look at a bill the NAACP supports that would create a federal blue ribbon commission on crime that would investigate the root causes of racial and ethnic minorities over-representation in the system.
In regard to the NAACP’s opposition to charter schools, Shelton said, “There’s a disagreement there.” The lawsuit filed by the NAACP was designed to “advance the concerns” of the 96 percent of New York students who attend traditional public schools, he said. (See the sidebar below for another perspective.)
In regard to this and the other issues outlined in BOND Action’s press release, Shelton suggested that Peterson read its position statements before making “ill-informed comments.”
UrbanFaith emailed Peterson’s office to ask if he had read any official documents about the issues he had publicly criticized.
“Rev. Peterson read news reports about the lawsuit before releasing his statement,” an email reply stated.
‘Good vs. Evil, Nothing to Do with Color’
This is the first time BOND Action will protest an NAACP convention, but it isn’t the first time its members have protested a civil rights organization. For five years, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, BOND Action held Repudiation of Jesse Jackson rallies outside Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH office in Los Angeles, Peterson said.
“Bad things were written and said about me, but it also educated those blacks that really didn’t know about Jackson and as a result, he doesn’t have that same influence prior to us exposing him. We showed the contrast between Dr. King’s dream and Jesse Jackson’s nightmare with those rallies,” said Peterson.
UrbanFaith spoke to a media relations representative in Rainbow PUSH’s Chicago office on July 14. She said she would ask Rev. Jackson for a response and get back to us, but never did, despite several follow-up phone calls.
As strong proponents of free speech, the NAACP has a policy of honoring protest picket lines wherever they are, said Shelton. “[Peterson] is welcome in a non-violent, non-disruptive way to express his position, regardless of how inaccurate it might be,” he added.
“We want black Americans to know that this is a spiritual battle that we’re dealing with. It’s a warfare between good and evil, right versus wrong. It has nothing to do with color at all. Once upon a time black Americans understood that, but when they turned their lives over to government and to other people to lead and think for them, that’s when they lost that reality of what the matter’s all about and then they fell away from God and that’s why they’re living the type of lifestyle that they’re living,” said Peterson.
At one time Shelton was Federal Policy Program Director for the United Methodist Church’s social justice advocacy agency. He said that as a fellow Christian, he finds some of Peterson’s critiques “inconsistent with Christian values” as he understands them.
“I don’t want to judge what’s in his heart. I believe our faith is something that we carry in our hearts. I do think he is factually inaccurate and when you have factual inaccuracy, what you deduce from those facts is also going to be inaccurate. My guess is if he was better informed, he’d probably come to very different conclusions,” he said.
“It’s appropriate for Christians to tell the truth and if the truth is harsh; there’s nothing I can do about that. But the truth is only harsh to the ear that loves lies,” Peterson replied in an email.
The NAACP’s opposition to charter schools has opened it to criticism from conservative activists like Jesse Lee Peterson, but there are also progressive voices that take issue with some of the group’s positions on education.RiShawn Biddle is a columnist for The American Spectator, a former award-winning columnist for the Indianapolis Star who covered education and urban affairs, and publisher of DropOut Nation, a website dedicated to education reform. In a blog post, Biddle questioned NAACP president Benjamin Jealous’s insinuation that the U.S. spends more money on prisons than schools.Biddle sent UrbanFaith statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education comparing spending on criminal justice and education. In 2006-2007, the U.S. spent $228 billion on criminal justice and $562 billion on K-12 education; $1.5 billion of that spending went to building new prisons and $62 billion went to school construction.“The reality isn’t so much that America doesn’t spend too much on prisons or that too much is spent on education. It’s that the country spends far too much on both inefficiently and ineffectively,” DropOut Nation concluded.“When it comes to education, the NAACP has had a very proud legacy. What they did throughout much of the last century in terms of fighting for desegregation, trying to provide greater resources for schools that serve black children, to pushing for integration, those are wonderful legacies,” said Biddle.But, Biddle added, there is definitely room for improvement in today’s NAACP. “The issue for the NAACP these days, at least from the perspective of those folks who are supportive of school reform, is more of where is the NAACP? They seem to be adrift in terms of having an education policy and in having some approach to improving education for black and Latino children that really matches what’s happening in the 21st century,” he said.Biddle pointed to the NAACP’s longstanding relationship with teachers’ unions, particularly the American Federation of Teachers, and the fact that many older members are themselves teachers, as reasons for the organization’s opposition to charter schools.“They’re opposed to anything that in their minds seems to lead to the denigration of public education, even though what is happening is basically charter schools are public schools, privately operated,” said Biddle.It’s not just Tea Partiers who are disappointed in the NAACP’s stance on education, Biddle said. Notable black leaders who have criticized the organization include Kevin Chavous, chairman of Democrats for Education Reform; New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch; Capital Prepatory Magnet School founder Steve Perry; former New York City councilwoman Eva Moskowitz; and Harlem Children’s Zone president Geoffrey Canada.“I am unhappy in many ways that the NAACP is not living up to its legacy, and not moving with the times, and basically is fighting against black children. But we have to get them on board because they are the grandaddy of the civil rights movement, and, in all honesty, we need everybody on board to reform American public education,” said Biddle.