It’s no secret that the American public is less than pleased with the performance of its national political leaders. As Republicans and Democrats once again threaten to shut down the federal government over budget disagreements, more Americans are becoming fed up. Anecdotes of anger and distrust have been repeated at length from the mouths of journalists across the country. A recent CNN poll joins a string of others that reflect America’s growing uneasiness with the White House and Congress. The findings of these polls are no surprise to those struggling to make financial ends meet, pay for college, or find a decent job.
Only 15 percent of Americans approve of how Congress is managing the economy. Only about 40 percent approve of the job President Obama is doing in leading our country. It’s safe to say Washington politicians don’t possess a good reputation these days.
Common sense, which seems to be increasingly less common, will tell you that reputation is important. Even the reputation of non-breathing entities, like companies, can be broken by a loss of confidence or a reputation for dishonesty (Enron, anyone?). Common sense would also suggest that Congress and the president should begin listening very closely to the desires of those who voted for them.
If the 2008 Obama campaign helped inspire a new movement of young and engaged voters, and the Obama presidency helped stoke the emergence of the fiery Tea Party, then the current economic crisis seems to be fostering a new scrutiny from voters who are demanding less partisan dogmatism and more practical results from Washington. This is the reason why, for instance, President Obama cranked out his ambitious proposal for a new jobs bill and immediately hopped on a bus to tout its benefits to voters across Middle America.
While the Middle East is continuing to wrestle with the negative and positive repercussions of the “Arab Spring,” America is undergoing its own kind of political uprising. The fallout of the debt-ceiling debate, high unemployment, and the global economic breakdown is causing a sharp awareness of just how important politics is to our everyday life. On the swift wings of social media like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, more Americans are reaching out and connecting with others who share their struggles and their convictions.
Many Americans are beginning to take a long, hard look at what their political parties stand for and are for the first time truly recognizing what lies behind the banners of donkeys and elephants. They are beginning to debate and school themselves on federal programs and legislation that were formerly relegated to Political Science 101 term papers.
Social Security, unemployment benefits, health care, class structure, welfare, immigration reform, tax cuts, abortion, and gay marriage are but a few issues that are forcing Americans, in the wake of Congress’ total disassociation with the public consciousness, to reevaluate what it means to exercise their political voice.
This renewed “awakening” has consequences for those in Washington and those unhappy with it. For some it means kissing reelection goodbye, for others it means confronting personal biases against their fellow Americans to forge common bonds and promote positive changes in their communities.
It means recognizing the true political beliefs of our neighbors and ourselves — beyond the Red State/Blue State trope. It means daring to talk about the deep divides in worldview that may exist inside and outside of party lines. It means rejecting some popular philosophies and embracing others.
It means taking time to read, watch, and listen.
It means talking, debating, and at times arguing.
For Christians it means being more focused and intentional in our prayers.
It also means a yearning for real answers to our problems.
The growing frustration in America, fueled by Washington’s legislative intransigence, is driving a political awakening that is something new for many Americans. It is a painfully personal coming-to-terms with where one stands as an American, regardless of party affiliation. It is a willingness to make tough decisions about the future, and to make short-term sacrifices for the nation’s long-term wellbeing.
It is an awakening driven by the harsh, inescapable realities of our new economic environment.
Our political leaders would do well to turn their eyes and ears toward an American populace more poignantly aware than ever of its political interests and influence.
The members of Congress may be demonstrating that they have lost their will to seek practical solutions, but those that elected them certainly have not.
POINT/COUNTERPOINT: Protesters from either side of the political divide have descended on Washington this year to make their cases for the preservation or elimination of federal programs.
I have to ask myself: am I part of the American majority who wants to scale back government expenses — as long as none of my personal benefits are touched?
I confess: I turned 63 last week, and I don’t want Social Security or Medicare reduced or — heaven help us — privatized.
I have personal reasons.
My husband and I have been saving heavily for 20 years, have paid off the mortgage on our modest house, have nursing-home insurance policies, and have no debts whatsoever. Nevertheless, our retirement accounts have been significantly diminished by the recession of 2008-11, and the future of stocks and bonds does not look good. Without Social Security to supplement our savings, we’d have a rough retirement.
Both of us take good care of our health. We’ve never smoked, and we exercise daily. We eat no red meat, few desserts, and lots of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. My weight has always been right where it’s supposed to be, and his isn’t far off. Nevertheless, I’m scheduled to have open heart surgery next week, and I will need to have costly check-ups and possibly medications for the rest of my life. Without Medicare, I’d probably have a very short retirement.
So yes, I’d much prefer that we strengthen Social Security, Medicare, and our entire health-care system and stop paying for 46.5 percent of global military spending, for example.
But my reasons are not entirely personal. Although my husband and I are the kind of people Republicans love (and Jesus worried about), we will be in trouble if the senior safety nets come down, right along with people who have had to face unemployment, divorce, foreclosure, addictions, natural disasters, accidents, disabilities, and catastrophic illness; right along with people who don’t know how to manage money, who abuse their health, and who long ago stopped thinking about tomorrow (see my personal blog for an earlier post, “The United States of Florida“).
Really, folks, this isn’t a question of deserving. As Jesus pointed out, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). God may or may not be the sender, but I’ve noticed that crap falls on both the good and the bad as well. We all benefit from God’s grace, and we’re all just one step away from catastrophe.
Government programs can’t give us comfortable lifestyles if we have no job and no savings. They may not be able to give us good health if our bodies are faulty or abused. They can’t keep us from getting old and dying. What they can do is help us — all of us who need help — have food, shelter, and necessary medical care.
By the way, I’m not saying that Social Security and Medicare are our most important social programs. Nothing is more important than educating our young, and comparative test scores show that the U.S. is in trouble here (22nd place in math!). Still, many of our suburban schools are excellent. We say we believe in equality of opportunity: what are we doing to assure that all of our children, no matter where they live or how much their parents pay in property tax, have access to good schools?
Back to my main point. If all of this means additional funding — a payroll tax on all earned income, for example, and not just the first $106,800 — so be it. If it means ending President Obama’s extremely unwise payroll tax holiday, so be it. If it means I have to pay more taxes, so be it.
Our government is not only of the people and by the people, it is also for the people. May Lincoln’s vision of a nation dedicated to the common good not perish from the earth.
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.”
Shelton wondered if Peterson had spoken to the Tea Party Nationalist group out of St. Louis that Shelton said is the outgrowth of the Conservative Citizens Council and the White Citizens Council or the Tea Party construct in Kansas that he said was built by the Minutemen Association.
“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.
A resolution that was passed at the NAACP’s 2010 convention grew out of a number of racist incidents, he said. Among them were Tea Partiers using the N-word to describe the president of the United States, the painting of swastikas on the side of U.S. Congressman David Scott’s office in Georgia, an incident of spitting at U.S. Congressman John Lewis, and a racial slur directed at U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II.
“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.
Listen to Jesse Lee Peterson’s over-the-top criticism of Barack Obama and his presidency.
What do you think? Is Rev. Peterson out of bounds? Or, is he just crudely stating what an increasing number of African Americans already believe?
NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous.
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.
Honest dialogue about race and racial issues should move the conversation forward and advance its participants further down the road of understanding. Unfortunately, we’ve been doing the opposite. That’s why our columnist is proposing this radical idea: a moratorium on the use of the “R-word.”
I just can’t take it anymore. Something has to stop.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham recently made comments about illegal immigrants having children, calling into question the validity of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Almost immediately, many people called his comments, and the people who support them, racist. (Do I even need to mention this happened on Fox News?)
Technology writer Farhad Manjoo recently posted a thoughtful, broadly generalized analysis of the ways in which many young black people use Twitter. Various bloggers have either called it, or more generally insinuated it to be, racist.
A chorus of African American conservatives gathered at the National Press Club, in the wake of the Shirley Sherrod fiasco and the expulsion of former Tea Party spokesman Mark Williams, largely for the purpose of advancing their belief that liberal race-baiting is just as much, if not more racist than any of the so-called racist elements in the Tea Party.
Rap mogul Diddy was asked in an interview about the rather ostentatious luxury car he had given his teenage son. Diddy was offended. According to Diddy, White luminaries in their respective fields would not be assailed with such trivialities. He said the question was racist.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger apologized for her now-infamous saying “n-word” rant during her radio show in response to an African American caller expressing consternation over racist remarks by her husband’s friends. She was chiding the caller for being hypersensitive, and ended with the following comment:
“If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.”
For many bloggers, pundits, and readers, that quote is all the evidence one needs to convict Dr. Laura of a textbook case of racist behavior.
A Year Without the R-Word
In today’s overly politicized media climate, storms of controversy continually erupt over allegations of racism, polarizing wide swaths of people in the process. It happens with big stories and small stories, with celebrities as well as regular folks. And even in stories that ostensibly seem to have nothing to do with race, it breaks out in comment threads after the fact. Somebody says that something or someone is racist, and people on both sides lose their minds and start jabbering away. The names may change, but the problem persists.
Actually, forgive my typo.
What I meant to say is that people close their minds and start jabbering.
Not that I believe that open-mindedness is the ultimate virtue to strive toward. I subscribe to the maxim of G. K. Chesterton, who once stated that an open mind is like an open mouth; useful only in its capacity to close down on something solid. His point, generally speaking, is that open minds should be constantly searching for truth.
My belief is that substantive dialogue about race and racial issues should, when done honestly and with virtue, move the conversation forward and advance its participants further down the road of understanding.
What I’ve seen too often is the exact opposite. It’s a mindless bludgeoning, day after day, perpetrated by people who wield terms like “racist” as weapons to be used only for discrediting, embarrassing or repudiating their enemies, regardless of how much truth is in the allegation. When this happens, no real dialogue or learning takes place, other than a steely resolve from both sides to dig in a little deeper and get a little nastier next time.
And like I said, I just can’t take it anymore.
Like The Winans once said, it’s time make a change. So I’m gonna summon my inner MJ, and start with the man in the mirror.
I’m gonna take a break from talking about racism.
For one whole year, I will conspicuously avoid using the word “racist” or “racism” in any written form of public discourse, except to finish this article.
Too Many Dropped Calls
This might seem like a really radical idea, but in fact a lot of intelligent black people already do this. Some of us might do it to avoid being labeled as a troublemaker. Some of us might do it because we’re tired of banging our heads against the wall. Some of us might do it because we want to prove that black people can and should talk about more than just “black issues.”
I’m doing it for a simpler reason, though.
The word “racist” is broken.
Words are supposed to represent ideas, and when the use of certain words actually impede the communication of ideas, then those words no longer function like they’re supposed to. When people argue about whether or not such-and-such was racist, there is no agreed-upon standard for what racism is or is not. The arguments just go in circles.
Some people believe that racism is strictly a matter of the heart, like jealousy or avarice. Others look at racism more in terms of structural or institutionalized inequities in society. Some people think it’s both. Some people hear or read the word “racist” and they automatically translate that to mean “not politically correct.” Others do the same and end up with “conservative.”
Is it any wonder, then, why our conversation suffers so badly?
Like a bad cell phone connection, constantly assailing racists and calling out racism leaves us with an illusion of communication. We think we’re getting our point across effectively, unaware that critical feedback is missing. Assumptions and biases block us from making relational progress across the long cultural and ideological divides where progress is needed most. It litters our discourse with misunderstandings that frustrate like so many dropped calls.
And the conversation goes nowhere.
In Other Words
When I was just out of high school, I was in a Christian discipleship program called The Master’s Commission. One of the aims of the program was to create leaders in the faith who could elucidate on matters of import. As such, the leaders at the time issued a challenge to the students, to see how many of them could carry on a conversation without using the words “dude,” “cool,” or “awesome.”
For some of us, this was a minor inconvenience. For others, it was a full-blown crisis of communication.
Some of these students were tempted to view the leaders as archaic fuddy-duddy types who abhorred casual speech, but that was not the case at all. They had no problem with those words in and of themselves. They just wanted to break the students of their habitually poor choice of words. The challenge forced the students to start using unfamiliar words, which occasionally led to some hilariously awkward exchanges.
“Du — I mean, bro, did you watch the game last night?”
“Oh yeah, when Drexler hit that three it was so … um … interesting.”
Many black folks today use the terms “racist” and “racism” with almost that same habitual reflex as my white Gen-Xer friends had with “dude” and “awesome.”
It’s not that we think everything bad or wrong is racist, but we keep it handy for any situation that fits a certain familiar scenario where our brothers and sisters get the shaft. There’s legitimate reason for this habitual usage — namely, centuries’ worth of systemic oppression and disenfranchisement against people who look like us and share our lineage. But over time, as the issues get murkier and problems have more complicated solutions, habitual cries of racism look like emotional shorthand for “something shady that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
Back in the salad days of the Internet, netizens in chat rooms and message boards used to operate on a principle known as Godwin’s Law. It says the longer any particular argument goes on, the more likely it is that someone will make a comparison to Nazi Germany. Thus, whoever reaches that point first has automatically lost the argument by default, since they obviously had nothing else worthwhile to say.
I think we ought to do the same thing with “racist” and “racism.”
Because regardless of how racist someone may actually be, the moment that word enters the discussion, you’ve lost any hope of actual dialogue with anyone who didn’t already agree with you — even if the facts are on your side.
So that’s why I’m taking this pledge. It’s not in spite of the many instances of racism I see, but precisely because of how much there is that doesn’t get talked about in any meaningful way.
No, I don’t believe that choosing not to talk about racism will make it go away. But choosing to talk about it in other terms that aren’t so emotionally charged … that’s a start.
Some may say that by doing this, even temporarily, it lets purveyors of racist acts and ideas off the hook.
I could not disagree more. Choosing to talk about these things without using the terms “racist” and “racism” can shine an even more effective light on the relative merit (or lack thereof) of these particular ideas and actions, without giving their defenders an easy way to blow off the criticism as being too P.C.
So I don’t need to call Sen. Graham a racist to combat his statements. I can simply call them insensitive, politically-calculating, cowardly, mean-spirited, a threat to the fabric of our Constitution, and lacking even a modicum of logic. (Seriously, “drop and leave”? Isn’t the whole point that they want to stay?)
I can say that Farhad Manjoo was pretty clear that not all black folks use Twitter the same way, and that even though the header image was a little silly, I’d proudly rock a baby blue fitted hat with a pound sign on it, stereotype or not. (Assuming it wasn’t a 59Fifty, those joints are expensive.)
I can say that black Tea Party apologists are fighting a lost cause if they can’t recognize rogue elements in their own movement, because everybody else can see them, even if some of them are manufactured by their opponents. Unfortunately, perception is reality.
I can say that Diddy is a rap star who popularized celebrity culture in hip-hop, and that he, of all people, should know better than to clamor for attention and then pout after getting too much. It doesn’t take a family counselor to see that no 16-year-old needs a Maybach Benz.
I can say that Dr. Laura is, like most talk-radio icons, too abrasive and combative to deal with issues like race effectively, which says less about her as a person than it does about the ineffectual nature of talk radio as a forum for serious discussion. I can say that I don’t really believe her apology, because it sounds too much like many other apologies we’ve heard after these types of racial incidents. And despite her rude and boorish response to her listener’s question, I can say that she has a point about the whole HBO-and-black-comics thing.
That’s what it’s like to talk about racial incidents without using those words. And that wasn’t so hard, was it?
That’s why I’m willing to give it a try.
Now who’s with me?
If you plan to join Jelani in refraining from use of the “R-word,” drop us a comment below and share your reasons. Even if you don’t plan to abandon the word, we’d still like to hear from you.