Sandra Day O’Connor and the Triumph of Affirmative Action

Plaudits have poured in from all corners for Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor since she announced her retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court.  Some liberals applauded her “reasoned moderation” or “mainstream conservatism” hoping, of course, that President Bush nominates someone in her judicial image–conservative, but not radically so–to replace her (that’s the best that Democrats could ever hope for in this case).  Some conservatives thanked O'Connor for her service and used the opportunity to remind the nation that President Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of conservatism, nominated her to be the first woman to the U.S. Supreme Court (I guess you can never get too much Reagan, huh?).  Many of those same conservatives wring their hands in anticipation of what will be a bruising fight to find a suitable conservative to succeed her.  After all, some conservatives confess annoyance with O'Connor, contending that she wasn't sufficiently tied to the right on all important issues.

Trailblazer, independent thinker, and pivotal are among the most frequently used terms to describe Justice O’Connor.  I’d like to add another:  affirmative action beneficiary.  Now I know this may seem a strange, perhaps even offensive, thought, given her mixed record on affirmation action cases before the Supreme Court.  Justice O'Connor wrote the 1989 decision that struck down as an unconstitutional form of affirmative action a minority set-aside program for construction projects and joined the majority holding that the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions program engaged in unconstitutional reverse discrimination.  Conversely, she voted to uphold the constitutionality of the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action practices in admissions.

Justice O’Connor is proof positive that affirmative action is good for the country.  At its core, affirmative action policies are intended to open the door to opportunity to a wider range of qualified candidates for a given vacancy, be they students seeking admission to prestigious institutions of higher education, contractors seeking to do business with government, or someone seeking employment in some industry.  Providing that opportunity, though, often requires going outside traditional means for finding good  candidates and taking a chance on someone who has potential but only needs an opportunity to reach it.

My belief that Justice O’Connor was a beneficiary of affirmative action in her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court is not intended as a slight.  My intention is quite the contrary–simply to point out that her appointment and service on the Court clearly demonstrates what can happen when a well-qualified person from an under-represented group can do when given an opportunity.  That is what she got when President Ronald Reagan picked her from the relative obscurity of the Arizona Court of Appeals.  How else do you explain the appointment of someone from a mid-level state court?  After all, the state appeals court level, certainly sufficient to gain the experience necessary to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, is not exactly among the first places a president looks when looking for someone to nominate to America’s highest court.

It’s fair to say there were other candidates as well-qualified and more so when O’Connor was nominated–jurists with more experience at higher levels of state and federal courts that could have been appointed.  But she was well-qualified nonetheless and met Reagan’s judicial and, more importantly, political needs (Reagan campaigned for the presidency in 1980 promising to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court).  There’s nothing wrong with that.  I just wish we’d call it as it is:  affirmative action.

There is a great deal of legacy-writing going on now with Justice O’Connor–a jurist worthy of such high esteem.  While most of the plaudits are likely to overlook the role affirmative action played in her appointment to the Court, it is clear that her presence there broke down many barriers that would have  continued to exist were it not for the practice of affirmative action to give someone from an underrepresented group an opportunity–exactly what affirmation action is about.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
July 8, 2005.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Friday, July 08, 2005
Current Affairs

Bush to the Nation:  Stick With Me Despite My Failures

President Bush gave a pep-talk to the nation on June 28th regarding his Iraqi incursion.  The speech was the rhetorical equivalent to warmed-up leftovers–not bad, but better the first time.  He offered us nothing new about which we can be optimistic.  In fact, I’m more worried about our position in Iraq now than ever before.  Man, I wish we could have a “do-over” of the November 2004 election.

So why did Bush speak when he had nothing new to offer?  Polls indicate that Bush is in a precarious position with the public and that he risks losing the backing of some of his most ardent supporters over the way the Iraq war has been executed.  Also, those members of Congress who are up for reelection next year are beginning to get restless and Bush can’t afford to have them back-peddling their support for Bush and his war.  He had to do something to try to slow the erosion of support for his Iraq war and a pep-talk to the country before a well–dressed gathering of props was the best opportunity he was going to get.  Bush’s Iraqi excursion has morphed from weapons of mass destruction to support regime change to fighting terrorism.

Bush, facing growing pessimism around the country and in his own party over the constant stream of casualties in Iraq, declared that the American deaths and injuries were “worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country."  That strikes me as illogical and irrational.  It’s illogical because we have yet to see a link between Iraqi democracy and U.S. security.  One does not automatically beget the other.  Also, for every Iraqi killed by U.S. forces, three insurgents are created, according to a high ranking military official on the ground in Iraq.  It’s irrational because it runs counter to the feelings of so many Americans, particularly the friends and families of the nearly 1,800 American servicemen and women who’ve been killed in Iraq or those of the tens of thousands who have been injured and don’t know what for. 

Bush’s roll call of nations represented by killed or captured foreign fighters doesn’t prove that Iraq is a hotbed of terrorism.  It merely represents where the mercenaries work–they go where the fight is.  It’s quite likely that these same insurgents who have appeared in Iraq from other nations would be in Afghanistan right now if that was where the action was.  Remember Afghanistan?  That’s where Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11th attacks has been operating with impunity for years.  You don’t hear Bush talk too much about him, do you?

Bush can be criticized on a number of levels for his speech.  What drives me up the wall is the way he played the “September 11th card”–cynically and too often.  He knows that invoking those terrorist attacks pulls the strings of many Americans who are becoming disaffected by what’s going on in Iraq.  Remember, there were high percentages of people who supported the war in Iraq because they believed, or were led to believe by the government, that Saddam Hussein had something to do with September 11th.  There are still people who believe Hussein played a role in those attacks.  If Bush can keep people focused on the horror of September 11th rather than the folly of this Iraq war–even though no Iraqis participated in the attacks–then the better positioned he is to stop the erosion of his support for his Iraq policy.  Just saying “September 11th” does the trick as so many Americans don’t know about or care about the difference between Iraq and Saddam Hussein on one hand and Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden on the other.

What is particularly offensive to me is how Bush refuses to acknowledge his illegitimate arguments for invading Iraq in the first place.  Bush has yet to offer a sincere acknowledgment that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction or was involved in the September 11th attacks–his two primary reasons for declaring the need for regime change in Iraq and initiating the invasion.  He has also forgone any intelligent rebuttal to the Downing Street memo, which makes clear that the U.S. government didn’t want to continue with diplomacy, ignored more dangerous nations like Iran and North Korea, and didn’t clearly think through what was going to happen when the shooting stopped. 

I think Bush’s arrogance and that of his administration helps explain his falling poll numbers.  Administration officials told us that this would not be a financially expensive endeavor and that the overwhelming bulk of the costs would be paid with Iraqi oil; in fact, early administration estimates were less than $3 billion for the entire effort.  Well, we’re in for $300 billion so far with the tab climbing every day.  They said our troops would be greeted as liberators, but the facts show otherwise.  The growing insurgency appears to show that the U.S. is seen more as an “occupier” than friend.  Now, in the height of arrogance, the Bush Administration doesn’t want to talk about this factual, but inconvenient  history.  Bush communications director Dan Bartlett said "The past is the past," and "The president is addressing the question of what we are doing now, and we can all agree that we must finish the job."  But how can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.

Let’s hope, for the good of the country, that we can figure out where we’re going without too much more death and destruction.  The country is losing patience with Bush and the clock is ticking on his Iraq plan.  History is watching and it doesn’t look good.

© Michael Fauntroy
June 30, 2005

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Friday, July 01, 2005
Congress and the Presidency

Is Bill Cosby Right?  Or Has Michael Eric Dyson Lost His Mind?

Bill Cosby hates poor Black folk, so say the many critics of his May 2004 remarks following receipt of an award acknowledging his philanthropic work.  His comments, made at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education held in Washington, D.C., sparked a wave of criticism and discussion in the Black community.  Sadly, the response was predictable.  The thin-skinned pseudo-nationalist wing of the Black community went on the offensive charging Cosby and other Black elites with the crime of being “bougie” toward the Black poor.  That charge, like those of “sellout” and “Uncle Tom”, ranks among the worst slurs possible from one African American to another.

Much of the discussion following Cosby’s comments have, regrettably, focused more on the delivery of the comments and less on their substance.  Michael Eric Dyson has attempted to go beyond that and offer a substantive critique of Cosby’s comments in his book Is Bill Cosby Right?  Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?  Dyson, a self-fashioned defender of the poor and check on the Black middle class, has emerged as one of the generals in the anti-Cosby army (He has written critically of Cosby for over a decade).  He took to the airwaves almost immediately after the controversial comments were made public to condemn Cosby’s thesis and criticize the larger Black “Afristocracy–lawyers, physicians, intellectuals, civil rights leaders, entertainers, athletes, bankers and the like” for turning their collective back to the Black poor.  In so doing, Dyson put himself in the unenviable position of defending Black underachievement, not the Black underclass as he claims.  Cosby sees the difference between the two; Dyson doesn’t.

Dyson’s book is written with the self-assurance and self-righteousness only hindsight can provide.  He uses 40-year-old quotes to contextualize Cosby’s racial world view, allowing no space for evolution.  I hope no one judges me in my 60's based mostly on things I said when I was in my 20's.  The book’s biggest problem, like many of Cosby’s critics, is that it blows out of context Cosby’s May 2004 comments and uses it as a pretext to batter him about the head and shoulders.  Cosby was clearly frustrated when he spoke that night, but those comments didn’t reflect the totality of his feelings on this matter.  Just a few days after his comments in D.C., Cosby did an interview on Tavis Smiley’s PBS television program.  Cosby clarified his remarks, making clear that the condemnation did not extend to all of the Black poor: “What I'm saying here, and the mistake I made was… In [not]saying that there are people who are striving and working in the lower economic area.”  Clearly, Cosby knows that problems in the Black community are not exclusively about poverty.

Dyson’s book misinterprets many of Cosby's statements, overlooks the history of Black progress in the face of racism and segregation, and slaps in the face all African Americans who have succeed against the odds.  Imagine for a moment how many of the millions of African Americans who have scratched and clawed their way to a middle-class existence (or better) through the sweat of their hard work and taking advantage of opportunities must feel when they return to their old neighborhoods and see persistent dysfunction.  Are they supposed to apologize for their success?  Why were they successful when others weren’t?  There is no shame in being poor, but being unwilling to help yourself is unforgivable.  In claiming to defend the former, Dyson actually validates the latter.

Launched by overreactions surfing on a wave of mistaken interpretations, this book is based upon two false premises: one, that Cosby has only targeted the poor with his vitriol over the years and, two, that Cosby is playing the class warfare card.  The first premise is false primarily because this is something Cosby has been saying for years and has targeted dysfunction generally, not just in the Black underclass.  Cosby made that clear in his comments on Tavis Smiley’s show and for years prior to that in other public settings.  In a 1998 speech to students at Howard University, which was broadcast on Howard University Television, Cosby took the Black middle class to task for many of the same points that Dyson is criticizing him for.

On the second premise, Dyson sets up a tired and simplistic contest between the “Afristocracy– upper-middle-class Blacks and the Black elite who rain down fire and brimstone upon poor Blacks for their deviance and pathology, and for their lack of couth and culture” and the “Ghettocracy–the desperately unemployed and underemployed, those trapped in underground economies, and those working poor folk who slave in menial jobs at the edge of the economy” (this is classic bourgeois vs. the lumpen proletariat or "jiggaboos" vs. "wannabees").

This contest is tired because its been around since slavery and we are no better for it.  It plays on unfortunate intraracial stereotypes that too many Black folk hold about what is authentic Blackness.  It's simplistic because it attempts to apply an easy label to a complex problem and overlooks the fact that many in the first category rose to their station in life beginning in the second.  There are trifling people in the Afristocracy and there are good, hard-working people in the Ghettocracy.  What Cosby is angry about, along with millions of other Black people of all socio-economic positions, is the lazy, trifling, and dysfunctional brothers and sisters from both groups.

Dyson classifies Cosby’s racial self-view with the likes of Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, and Tiger Woods as “accidentally Black,” whom Dyson describes as “people who happen to be born Black.”  Cosby may be a lot of things, but to classify him with these people is unfair.  Cosby, in my mind, is better classified with those Dyson refers to as “incidentally Black”--people like Colin Powell and Barack Obama “who are proud to be Black, but see it as one strand of their identity.”

The book is at its best when it explores the dilemmas of race.  It’s at its worst when it discusses Cosby’s family tragedies to prove that the entertainer doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Dyson’s is actually two intertwined books: the first, a reasonably well-done discussion of race; the second, a “hit job” on someone who exemplifies what a Black man can do when he prepares himself to take advantage of whatever opportunities life presents.  The first book is necessary in the worst way; we don’t have enough of these kinds of books.  The second is unnecessary and adds no value to an important discourse.

While there is no question that there are odious systemic barriers to Black progress–poor public education, the disappearance of work, a criminal justice system that targets Black men, and poor health care, to name four–it is foolish to suggest that personal responsibility and educational achievement, Cosby’s areas of emphasis, aren't a major part of the solution.  It is further folly to get into a discussion about what proportion of future Black progress is due to “the man” or any other issue.  The fact is we need as much of all the positive factors for success as possible to reach true freedom.  All the systemic improvement in the world won’t help someone who doesn’t want to do right.  Conversely, it’s difficult to win if all you have is “do right.”  There have to be opportunities within the system.

Dyson charges Cosby with overemphasizing personal responsibility and underemphasizing the larger White societal structure that creates most of the framework in which African Americans operate.  I think Dyson misses the point.  It is personal responsibility that leads one to support the black institutions and individuals that can bring about large societal change and success.  It’s personal responsibility that leads one to support the Black businesses and organizations that help give structure and meaning to the prosperous Black experience.  He also expresses concern that Cosby’s comments legitimate right-wing feelings about Black America.  That is naive.  Right-wing racial  conservatives don’t need Cosby to validate their ill-founded positions.  They’ve felt the way they do pre-Cosby and will continue to do so long after Cosby exits the scene.

Writers often need villains to justify the positions they take when defending someone or some group of people.  Cosby is low-hanging fruit and fits the bill for Dyson, who uses the legendary entertainer as a straw man to engage in a larger war on the Black middle-class.  Dyson is interesting in this way, much like many others who won’t, for example, criticize the clear misogyny and unhealthy materialism in too much of the most popular hip-hop on the airwaves today.  He won’t tell the truth to those who most need to hear it for fear of offending and losing his “street credibility” as a “hip-hop intellectual.”  To help maintain his “street cred,”  Dyson picks and easier target, one less likely to write a rhyme about a well-educated, Ivy League professor getting his skull air conditioned or some other violent image.

This book could have been written without using Cosby’s name.  But since a book that attempts to take an honest look at “Blackness” and Black progress doesn’t often hit the best-sellers list, a book that does the same thing and rips into a legendary Black celebrity will have to suffice.  Dyson uses a man who donates untold time and millions of dollars to help improve the lives of African Americans in an attempt to sell more copies of a book that appears to criticize Black success.  It's regrettable that Dyson has lost his mind on Cosby.  Hopefully, he'll recover in time to return to his previous position as important Black scholar.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
June 28, 2005

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Friday, July 01, 2005
Race and American Culture

Are We Entering a New Period of Racial Reconciliation?

A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewer recently asked me if America is entering a new period of racial reconciliation.  I wondered if he knew something I didn’t because “racial reconciliation” and “America” are not often linked in the same sentence (unless, of course, one asks:  Why hasn’t America fully embraced racial reconciliation?).  After considering his points, I concluded that while the events he cited are significant and  occurring at about the same time, they represent nothing more than a symbolic coincidence that should not be seen as a turning point in American race relations.  While America has made much progress from its slaving (Blacks), murdering (Native Americans) birth to now, the fact is that things are not as good as some would argue.

The interviewer pointed to three recent events that led to his question, all of which sought to bring about “justice” in response to the brutal, murderous treatment of Blacks by racist, regressive White conservatives.  First, was the recently begun trial of Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist preacher charged with masterminding the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers seeking to  register Blacks to vote in Mississippi in 1964.  Dubbed the “Mississippi Burning” trial, this represents a second bite at the justice apple.  Killen avoided a conviction in a 1967 trial for the same murders when the jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction.  The one holdout stated that he couldn’t convict a preacher. 

Second, was the exhumation and autopsy of Emmett Till’s body 50 years after he was murdered by White racists who, in their version of vigilante justice, beat and shot Till for allegedly whistling at a White woman.  According to the Associated Press, Federal investigators exhumed Till's remains to determine if DNA or other evidence might help determine who killed the 14-year-old and whether anyone still alive should be prosecuted.  This strikes me as closing the barn door after the cattle have left.  After all, the two men who admitted to the killing died long ago.

Lastly, was the recent apology issued by the U.S. Senate for failing to enact federal anti-lynching legislation decades ago when these criminal acts were all the rage in the American South.  For over a century, the U.S. Senate failed to follow the lead of the House of Representatives which consistently passed such legislation.  The Senate never overcame Southern racial conservatives in whose states Blacks were lynched for a variety of illegitimate reasons.  Now, decades removed from that era, the Senate wants to remove this inaction from its list of embarrassments. 

Forgive me for not cheering the Senate here, but the apology reeks of electoral politics.  As a cynic who views almost everything in political terms, I wonder if members wanted to get this resolution through to help their positions with their Black and moderate White constituents in anticipation of next year’s elections.  While the apology is notable, the fact is that it is also one of those “throwaway” measures in which members support something that won’t cost them anything or commit the government to do anything.  In this case, it allows conservative members to bathe in the relative warmth of racial enlightenment while, at the same time, giving nothing to African Americans that would anger their White conservative supporters. 

By the way, did you notice that there was no roll call vote to get the members on the historical record?  They used a “voice vote” which gives cover for those who did not support the resolution so no one can say they actually voted against the measure.  So much for standing up and being counted, huh?

While these events are important examples of what can happen when leaders decide they want to do the right thing, the reality is that these events are less than they seem.  After all, what if we look back a year from now and see that Killen walked again or otherwise avoided justice, Till’s autopsy failed to reveal any useful information, or the Senate continued to pass legislation that works against Black interests (all of which are distinct possibilities)?  In other words, if nothing of significance happens in the wake of all this, then this period will be seen as a blip on America’s racial radar.  My cynicism aside, let’s hope that this period is the start of something new and useful.  America needs it.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
June 21, 2005

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Monday, June 20, 2005
Race and American CultureRace and American Politics

BET Nightly News Cancelled—No Big Loss

Some people howled in outrage when BET recently announced that it is shutting down its nightly newscast in lieu of hourly updates of the day’s events.  The 11pm half hour program was billed as a window to the Black world, offering Black Americans news stories they could not see on the other networks.  Since I never saw the show that way, the loss of BET Nightly News, while unfortunate, is not a big deal in the larger scheme of things. The reason why it won’t be such a loss is that the newscast was a failure, unable to enlighten those who watched its unimaginative, poorly produced program.  It wasn’t appointment television and it was unlikely to ever be.  It was yet another in a long stream of disappointments offered to us by the network that was supposed to be a reasonable representation of Black life.  Instead, BET went for the money and sold out Black people by over-representing the worst visual imagery possible.  I don’t believe that it has to be a zero-sum game; you can be dignified and still make money.

Newscasts are Money Losers

BET president and chief operating officer Debra Lee said in a press release, "With 24-hour news networks and everyone getting news off the Internet, our audience doesn't want to wait until 11 p.m. to find out what the news is."  That’s her way of saying the newscast was a money loser and she didn’t want to throw any more money down the toilet.  There’s only one problem with the statement:  It’s wrong.  If news at 11p.m. was not a demand of the community, then thousands of stations all over the country would not invest dollars and manpower into these broadcasts. 

Many stations across the nation record huge audiences at 11pm and the competition for viewers is as aggressive at that hour as it is during dinner time.  More resources are being poured into the late night newscasts than ever before, with live on-the-scene reporters, new stories not seen at 6 p.m.., and the biggest investment of them all—HD broadcasts.  The late night market is such an attraction that ABC produces a newscast, “Nightline,” after the local shows and has been a solid moneymaker for the network for 26 years.  In fact, “Nightline” is reportedly undergoing a revamping that may result in it being expanded to an hour.  Late night news stations make these investments because they know there is a financial pay off.  But BET can’t make it profitable and worthwhile?!?

Production Values?  What Production Values?

The BET Nightly News was hampered by at least two forces.  First, it was surrounded by the kinds of shows that draw viewers who don’t watch the news. The newscast was a bad fit, existing in a sea of booty shaking, stand-up comedy, and low-brow television.  You can’t place a pseudo-serious newscast in the midst of music videos and shows of that ilk and expect the current events show to do well.  Sadly, people who spend hours watching videos are not interested in the news.  Who believes that that Black Americans interested in the public policy or serious issues would sit through the latest Snoop Dogg soft porn to see the news?  How often was the newscast advertised during the day on the network and in other formats?  Was the news there break ground or just satisfy critics who believe a Black television network should be more than a place to watch Black men sexually abuse Black women?

Second, the production of the broadcast was bland and amateurish.  It looked as if it were produced by a bunch of inexperienced interns operating on a tight budget.  Occasionally, there would be a ground breaking interview or story on an issue that had wide ranging relevance to African Americans.  But since Ed Gordon left the anchor desk, no substantial journalist has filled the seat.  Tavis Smiley is a commentator.  Jacque Reid, a capable newsreader, does not possess the journalistic bona fides gained through years of experience that lead viewers to know something important is going on at 11 p.m. that should not be missed.  Reid, who has worked in a number of local and national media outlets, reads very well, but is nothing more than late night eye candy, a visual appetizer for men waiting for their rump shaking entrée’—the explicit late night videos that seem more appropriate for the Playboy Channel or pay-per-view.

Promise Lost

Twenty years ago BET News started with two-minute news briefs that ran in the middle of Video Soul with Donnie Simpson.  I had high hopes that in twenty years, the network would be able to muster up some real competition in the cable news arena, thereby forcing other news outlets to cover Black issues and provide a Black perspective to the world.  I disappointed that that never happened. 

I got even more excited when Viacom, which owns CBS News, bought the music network from Bob Johnson. I had visions that BET producers would join forces with seasoned CBS producers and create unique and stimulating news broadcasts that would tap into the Black audience worldwide.  I had a hope that it would be more than just Black faces reporting CBS News stories, that I would see in-depth reporting on Black issues, perhaps even heightened stories during “sweeps” periods.  Sadly, no such thing happened. BET’s news management—despite the fact their business cards say CBS News—let a prime opportunity slip away.

Back to the Future?

I call out to TV One and The Black Family Channel to come to our collective rescue and bring us our news.  Surely you can find a way to make news delivery profitable in the context of your overall operation, particularly if your intent as a network is to show that Black-themed television can be profitable without the usage of degrading images of Black people.

There is a glimmer of hope.  While I think the BET statement announcing the end of the Nightly News overstated the competition posed by the Internet, this technology does bring the news to people whenever they want it.  There are a few important and credible Black-themed Internet sites that can provide in-depth coverage of Black issues and the number of such outlets is likely to increase as they fill the void left by BET.

Another option can be found in the hundreds of Black newspapers around the nation.  They, more than any other news sources, have given millions of African Americans news they can use.  They have been underappreciated stalwarts for generations in providing news for Black consumption and should be better supported than they are.  According to the National Newspaper Publishers Association, its member newspapers reach 12 million people per week—millions more than BET could ever hope for with its Nightly News.

I mourn less for the BET Nightly News, which is no big loss to me, than for the signal it sends:  News of interest and importance to Black people is less worthy of airing than music videos and comedy reruns.  It’s sad to think that the premiere Black-themed television network couldn’t find a way to make the news work and the tragedy will be if no media outlet—Black or white--fills the void. BET Nightly News is an example of promise lost.  It could have been so significant to such a large underserved segment of television viewers.  Now, we are left with nothing.  Then again, perhaps nothing is better than the something that was being offered to us.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
May 1, 2005

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Monday, June 20, 2005
Race and American Culture

From Political Correctness to Conservative Correctness

Political correctness, the maligned and misunderstood term that was used by conservatives to help define the American Left in the 1990s is dead. Beaten to death by conservative image makers, talking heads, and politicians, political correctness came to be derided as the way through which liberals were softening America. As I see it, though, the movement toward political correctness was more about bringing increased humanity and consideration to our treatment of each other and the world than it was to undermining America’s social fiber. However, the conservative movement in America seized upon some arguably trite examples of political correctness "run amok" and embarked upon a strategy to belittle and marginalize anyone who advocates more diversity of opinion, humanity toward all, and respect for the rest of the world in American life.

A new type of correctness has emerged in its place and threatens to undermine America’s public discourse. I call it "conservative correctness," which I define as an attempt to change the way in which we consider and debate issues in America to ensure that conservative policy positions are seen as the only right way to go, even if the facts and circumstances argue differently. More often than not, changing the way in which we debate actually means not debating at all. That way, conservatives can innoculate themselves from a range of charges while maintaining their favored status quo.

The primary characteristic of conservative correctness is efforts by conservative media, academics, politicians, and their handlers to brand as unpatriotic, divisive, and even ungodly anyone who seeks to raise questions about the direction of conservative policy. To be conservatively correct, one must accept the tenets and approaches of conservatism as best in every circumstance and that all attempts to discuss or advocate alternatives must, for the good of the country, be squelched with dispatch.

So, those who call for serious change in our current health care system are charged with wanting "socialized medicine." Those who question U.S. motives in Iraq or wonder if this is all about oil run the risk of being charged with giving cover to Sadaam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and other terrorists. African Americans cannot raise racial issues in a serious way without being charged with "playing the race card." Consequently, debate about race in America has largely been muzzled, almost to the point of silence. Indeed, the recent retrospectives on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas have largely ignored the large gulf that still exists between the haves and have nots in American public education and what that portends for America’s future.

Talk radio is dominated by conservative voices who seek to destroy any debate that may call into question their political motives. As a result, our debates on important issues are being reduced to sound bite banter that only benefits a conservative movement that resists any substantial change in American public policy that challenges or offers alternatives to their favored status in contemporary America.

Conservative correctness is the rage of the day and America is worse off as a result.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
May 21, 2004

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Friday, June 17, 2005
Race and American Culture

Cosby’s Black Critics

Bill Cosby, quietly and with little fanfare, has been traveling through African American communities around the nation talking about parenting.  It’s an extension of his comments made since May about the need for more responsibility among Black parents and proves without doubt that Cosby walks like he talks.  His critics should take note and move to focusing on the substance of his concerns, not just how he expresses them.

Like many who felt strongly one way or the other about Cosby’s comments, I believe the dysfunction he has reacted to is real.  Disproportionately high incarceration, poverty, school dropout (21% of Blacks don’t finish high school), and divorce rates, and single family households, coupled with gratuitous Black-on-Black crime and violence, disproportionately low levels of employment, social organization, and electoral participation have undermined significant portions of the African American community.  Cosby’s concern is legitimate and, while there are certainly external, societal forces that have helped create some of these problems, many of the solutions to these problems begin in Black households and communities.  Cosby appears to be saying to African Americans: “let’s clean up what belongs to us before we blame others for our problems.”

Many of Cosby’s African American critics, such as professor Michael Eric Dyson and music mogul Russell Simmons, have charged Cosby with being unjustifiably harsh and judgmental of poor Blacks.  They, and other critics, also charged Cosby with airing dirty laundry and not properly focusing on outside forces that have helped shape the environment in which poor Blacks exist. 

These critics are off-base for at least two reasons: first, the parenting problem Cosby speaks to is not income-specific.  There are plenty of middle- and upper-income parents who are falling short too, just as there are large numbers of economically poor parents who are doing right by their children.

Second, despite the external forces that help negatively shape Black life–and there are many–African Americans are far better situated than generations ago.  Many African Americans have persevered and thrived despite being given the short end of the societal stick–segregated and underfunded schools, housing, roadblocks to meaningful employment, and substandard healthcare–  but persevered through that and proceeded into the socio-economic middle-class and beyond.  The fact that the general condition of many African Americans has regressed despite substantial achievements undermines the argument made by many of Cosby’s critics that he’s letting the larger society off the hook with his comments.  In too many cases, African Americans are our own worst enemy.

Cosby’s critics also have the problem of appearing to favor the status quo.  While I’m sure they don’t, I’m also sure that continuing the same pattern will only yield the same result.  They appear to be unwilling to assign any responsibility for the problems in the African American community to all those responsible, not just the larger society.    Indeed, they’re so defensive of African Americans–which is understandable and acceptable–that they indirectly defend dysfunctional behavior, which is unacceptable.  They, and the larger African American community, would be better served if they joined with Cosby to seek solutions, not just heap criticism on the messenger. Cosby isn’t the problem; he’s just pointing out what’s wrong.  As a progressive, I applaud his unapologetic concern for African Americans and his desire to act, not just talk.

Cosby is calling for, and working toward, badly needed change that can only begin from within African American communities around the nation.  The remedy Dr. Cosby is prescribing–which includes, but is not limited to, parents spending more time with their children and young African Americans using correct grammar when speaking–is well-reasoned, unassailable, and will improve Black life, despite the external forces that try to thwart Black progress.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
November 27, 2004

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Thursday, June 16, 2005
Race and American Culture

The Cosby Dilemma

Bill Cosby’s recent comments on the Black community have touched a sensitive chord among some African Americans.  Some say he’s right in his comments and commend him for his honesty; others say he’s wrong and only “airing dirty laundry.”  For me, the problem is less about what he said–I tend to agree with most of it and think it needs to be said just the way he said it–than how it will be used negatively by racially conservative commentators looking for a new weapon in their assault on minorities. 

Let’s be clear: the dysfunction that Cosby has reacted to is real.  Too many Black children appear to be focused on everything but their future and they are being led down a path to nowhere by grownups who won’t or can’t lead young people in the right direction.  What used to be unquestioned in all families (not just Black families)–the desire of parents that their kids do better than they did–can honestly be questioned if the behavior of some adults is considered.  Too many children don’t appear to know how to conduct themselves in the world and seem more interested in materialism and emulating their music video heroes than following in the footsteps of positive roll models in all fields of endeavor. 

I know this doesn’t apply to all young Black kids.  The majority are honestly trying to build a future for themselves with adults who love them and want to see them do well.  However, the trends don’t look positive.  Disproportionately high incarceration, poverty, dropout (21% of Blacks don’t finish high school), and divorce rates, gratuitous violence, and single family households, coupled with disproportionately low levels of employment, social organization, and electoral participation have undermined the African American community.  Cosby’s concern is legitimate.

My problem with the way this is playing out is that those who take delight in bashing Black people and other minorities now can use the venerable Bill Cosby to validate their own perverted thinking.  That’s a shame, because Cosby is a living example of all the good that can happen when one chooses to take advantage of an opportunity.  Cosby grew up in Philadelphia projects and dropped out of high school after the tenth grade, joined the Navy and completed high school through a correspondence course.  He earned an athletic scholarship to Temple University, where he graduated with a degree in Radio/TV/&Film.  He began what has become a legendary entertainment career and, though he didn’t need to, he went on to earn a Masters degree and Doctor of Philosophy degree in education from the University of Massachusetts.  He’s been a leader by example with 40 years of unrivaled success to show others that you can go anywhere from the projects, if one is willing to do what is required.  He’s pained by what he’s seeing in the Black community and he’s earned the right to speak out any way he wants.  My fear is that his words will be used by racial conservatives to validate their illegitimate and ill-founded thinking.  My hope is that the furor around Cosby’s comments will ignite the hard discussions that need to take place in Black communities around the nation and lead to a search for remedies and not just recriminations.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
July 3, 2004

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Race and American Culture

Keyes, Bush, and Affirmative Action

Without a significant record of political achievement, understanding of the unique political, social, and economic needs of the state, or scintilla of a chance for victory, Alan Keyes has accepted the Illinois Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate and will challenge star-in-the-making Barack Obama for the open seat. Keyes’ acceptance of the nomination is a multi-faceted embarrassment for the candidate and the GOP.

For Keyes, who is not easily embarrassed, it is additional evidence that his ego sees things in him that mere mortals cannot. He has run twice for the U.S. Senate from Maryland and was handily defeated on both occasions. He has also twice sought the Republican presidential nomination, generating vote totals that barely warrant attention. And, in the mother of all ironies, Keyes vigorously criticized Hilary Clinton for running for New York’s open Senate seat in 2000 telling Fox News, "I deeply resent the destruction of federalism represented by Hillary Clinton's willingness to go into a state she doesn't even live in and pretend to represent people there." Well, at least Clinton ran for the nomination and won; Keyes didn’t even do that.

For the GOP, it can only be seen as proof that the Illinois party is in disarray and that the talent pipeline is dry. Following Jack Ryan’s withdrawal from the race, the party flailed around trying to find a notable nominee, even lowering to seriously consider retired football coach Mike Ditka. Of course, the argument could go the other way too: that with no willing takers for the nomination, the GOP has conceded the election to Obama. After all, what Illinois Republican with any ambition for the Senate will offer himself or herself for sacrifice in what is an unwinnable election? This is an important potential implication nationally, as this year’s presidential election will be particularly close and Illinois is one of the so-called battleground states that could go either way. By fielding an obviously weak candidate, the state party has conceded the election while appearing not to do so.

Here’s where the irony appears. Keyes opposes affirmative action viewing it as offering unearned benefits simply based on race. The irony for me is that Keyes’ being offered the nomination can only be seen as affirmative action run amok, because he has not earned the right to represent Illinois in the Senate. He simply fit the racial profile of what the Illinois GOP is trying to do in this very close national election year–the GOP hopes Keyes’ presence on the ticket can be seen as proof that it is serious about being more attractive to African Americans and, thereby, put Illinois in play for President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign. As it stood before the Keyes announcement, downstate Illinois was unlikely to turn out in larger than usual numbers with no senate candidate to support, thereby undermining Bush’s chances in this important state. By giving them a ultraconservative choice, the GOP may have given Bush new life in the state. It’s too bad that Keyes has embarrassed himself in the process.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
August 9, 2004

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Race and American PoliticsU.S. Electoral Politics • (0) Make a Comment

Stop Electoral Quotas in D.C.

    Tuesdays D.C. City Council elections decided who will serve on the city’s legislative body beginning this January.  This council, like all the others before it for 30 years, will have two members who aren’t Democrats–no small point in a city whose populace is overwhelmingly Democratic.  The two non-Democrats sit on the council because the D.C. City Charter, the congressionally-created document that outlines the parameters of home rule in the District, created an anomaly that is unique in American democracy: the reservation of two at-large seats on the council are reserved for members of “minority parties”.  In the District, “minority parties” means any party but the Democratic party.  This is anomaly is undemocratic, mutes the will of the people, elects people to office who could not win open races, and runs counter to the principles of representative democracy that binds the nation together and serves as a goal for much of the world.  It must be changed immediately.

    I do not believe that Democrats have to control every seat on the council to have good government.  In fact, history has shown that there have been too many ineffective Democrats on the council over the years and the city is the worse as a result.  Also, there have been good “minority party” representatives on the Council who have contributed greatly to the city. 

    The point is that the overwhelming majority of city voters, Democrats in this case, cannot elect whomever they choose to the council.  They have to simply choose from whatever is left.  And given the important issues of the day–public education, affordable housing, healthcare, public works and transportation, tax policy, economic development, public financing of a ballpark, and so on–it makes no sense to deny voters the right to choose everyone who will make decisions on these issues.  At-large councilmembers, for whom the quota seats are mandated, usually serve longer on the Council than ward-based councilmembers, thereby gaining more seniority and power over city decisionmaking.

    Historically, the office holding “minority parties” have been the Republicans and the Statehood Party.  More recently, however, Republicans Carol Schwartz and David Catania have held the quota seats on the council (Catania recently renounced the GOP and is now an Independent).  Schwartz and Catania have benefitted greatly from the quota mandate because there is no way they could win citywide if they had to compete in Democratic primaries or in general elections against Democrats.  Catania is a particularly interesting case.  He first won election to the council in a December 1997 special election in which just 7% of the voters participated.  Since then, he has had to fend off impotent challengers and win more votes of a much smaller slice of the electoral pie than Democrats.  For that reason, it is difficult to argue that he is truly the choice of District residents.

    Reserving two seats of “minority parties” was one of the concessions Democrats made to Republicans in exchange for their support for passage of the Home Rule Act of 1973.  The GOP feared the symbolic embarrassment of being shut out of the local legislature of the nation’s capital and would not support home rule without some electoral protection.  In a curious irony, the Republicans–who came to greater national prominence and electoral success in the 1980s as opponents of “reverse discrimination” and affirmative action because it can mean mandating quotas–engaged in quota mandates at the expense of allowing citizens to vote for whomever they choose.  Republicans, now in firm control of the national government, may now be ready to give up the most undemocratic aspect of American politics.

    The city is not better represented by this quota mandate, and it’s time for District citizens and Congress to get together and mend this tear in the fabric of D.C. home rule.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
November 3, 2004

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Washington, D.C Local Politics

State GOP, Not Keyes, Will Be Real Loser

Alan Keyes and the Illinois Republican party are quickly moving toward a political avalanche of epic proportions. According to most polls, Keyes trails Barack Obama in the Illinois Senate race by over 50 percentage points. His soon-to-be devastating defeat will be even more painful for the party if the reported 35 percent of Illinois Republicans currently favoring Obama actually cross party lines and vote for the Democratic state senator. While Keyes is clearly a loser in all this, the residue of this pending political doom will stick to the Illinois Grand Old Party long after the votes are counted.

If the projections hold, then the Illinois Republican party has trouble on its hands. The results will reveal that the state party is in disarray, does not accurately reflect the will of Illinois Republicans, and has little reason to be optimistic. Keyes was in trouble the moment popular former Republican Governor Jim Thompson declined to endorse him. Thompson called Keyes "very conservative" with positions that made the former governor "uncomfortable." Thompson criticized the Keyes choice, noting that there were other numerous Illinoisans who wanted to take on the race.

Keyes’ selection can, and should, be criticized on a number of levels. First, and most obvious, is the fact that Keyes never lived in the state until a few days after receiving the nomination. The Keyes choice reeks of the worst kind of politics–finding a mercenary to come in and take a bullet for the state party. Second, it’s extraordinarily arrogant for the party to foist someone on the voters who doesn’t even reflect their values. According to a recent poll conducted by the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV, fewer than a quarter of Illinois Republicans consider themselves to be very conservative–the kind of voter most like to relate to Keyes. Indeed, a larger percentage of Illinois Republicans described themselves as moderate. Lastly, it’s a clear attempt to use race to win support–just the kind of thing the GOP accuses Democrats of doing. He simply fit the racial profile of what the Illinois GOP is trying to do in this very close national election year–the GOP hopes Keyes’ presence on the ticket can be seen as proof that it is serious about being more attractive to African Americans. Keyes opposes affirmative action viewing it as offering unearned benefits simply based on race. The irony for me is that Keyes’ being offered the nomination can only be seen as affirmative action run amok, because he has not earned the right to represent Illinois Republicans in this Senate race.

Since Keyes’ entry into the race, Illinoisans have been treated to a campaign style more reminiscent of a church revival than a political contest–and the party can’t be happy with some of his statements during the campaign. He’s in favor of reparations to slave descendants, a flip-flop from earlier statements. My guess is that that one probably didn’t go over real well in Cicero. He referred to gays and lesbians as "selfish hedonists," raising the ire of people all over the nation. While many agree with Keyes, particularly on the issue of homosexuality, the fact is that these types of statements only make it more difficult for the party to attract the moderate voters that are need to win close elections. In many ways, Keyes’ impact on Illinois politics will last long after he has re-establishes his Maryland residency. Moderate and Independent Illinoisans may wonder, "Why should I support a party that offers up Alan Keyes as its best representative?"

So here we are, just a few weeks before the election and Alan Keyes and the Illinois GOP are standing at the bottom of a political mountain as an avalanche forms at its summit. There appear to be no reasonable circumstances in which he can win the race. He’s worse off in the polls now than when he accepted the GOP nomination and he’s pushed hundreds of thousands of Republicans to vote for a liberal Democrat (talk about holding your nose!).

Illinois Republicans deserve better.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
October 1, 2004

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, June 15, 2005
U.S. Electoral Politics

Silver Lining For The Democrats

    The conventional wisdom following the reelection of President Bush is that the Democrats are sliding quickly in the irrelevance and, perhaps, extinction.  The doom-sayers look at the electoral map, flush red as it is, and wonder if the Democrats can ever again elect a president.  That line of thinking, while understandable, may actually sell short what I think can be seen as a silver lining for Democrats and a roadmap to victory in 2008.

    First, a few words on the electoral college map.  While Republican red visually overwhelms the map, it’s important to note that elected officials represent people, not vast miles of empty land.  People vote, not trees, cattle, rivers, or mountains, so it is illogical to look at the map and think that things are irretrievably broken for the Democrats or that Republicans are overwhelmingly more popular than Democrats.  The fact is there are more electoral college votes in California (55), which Kerry won, than the combined total of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nevada, Alaska, and Arizona (52), all of which Bush won.  Democrats will always be in play as long as they can win California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.  Additionally, more voters are registered as Democrats than Republicans.

    Regarding the popular vote, yes, President Bush received more votes for president than anyone in history, over three million more than Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry, and is the first candidate in 16 years to win a majority of the popular vote.  That said, it’s a mistake to call Kerry and the Democrats’ effort a total failure.  Kerry’s vote total–the most ever for a Democratic candidate, four million more than Gore received in 2000, and more than any candidate ever received in an American presidential election except Bush–represented more “no” votes for an incumbent president than anyone else in history.  And, after more than three years of effort, Bush was only able to win two states (Iowa and New Mexico), that he lost in 2000 and lost one state (New Hampshire) that he won four years ago.  This compares poorly with Ronald Reagan’s 49-state win in 1984, and Lyndon Johnson’s 44-state win in 1964.  Bush’s win was clear, but it wasn’t a mandate.

    The popular vote difference between Bush and Kerry was largely driven by increases in states Bush already had locked up.  He expanded the victory margins in many of those states because of state constitutional amendments dealing with gay marriage.  The Democrats may want to take a page from the Republicans on this for future elections and find an issue or two that plays to their strengths and craft citizen initiatives that can bring additional supporters to the polls; that effort can be the difference in closely contested states between winning ugly and losing with dignity.

    Election 2004 makes it clear that the road to the presidency in 2008 for the Democrats must go through the South.  The Democrats have to find a winnable state south of the Mason-Dixon line. That will be difficult, but not impossible.  States like Virginia and North Carolina have Democratic governors and offer a glimmer of hope that the Republican lock on the South can be broken. 

© Michael K. Fauntroy
November 7, 2004

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, June 15, 2005
U.S. Electoral Politics

Revenge of the Illinois Moderates?

For the life of me, I haven’t been able to figure out why the Illinois Republican party selected Alan Keyes to serve as its standard bearer in the upcoming senate election with Barack Obama. After all, he didn’t live in Illinois until after he was nominated for the Senate seat. He is a twice-failed Senate candidate in Maryland and a twice-failed presidential candidate. He didn’t exactly have what one might call a winning aura. He is very conservative in a state with a moderate political history; indeed, one recent poll showed larger percentages of Illinois Republicans describing themselves as either fairly "conservative" or "moderate" than the "very conservative." And, despite the progress we’ve made as a nation, he’s an African American, which makes difficult winning elections in most of the country. He has no particular expertise or experience in the kind of legislative work that awaits him if he were to shock the world and win the race.

Couldn’t the party find someone to run for the seat who actually lives in the state? Why would the party run the risk of offending so many Illinoisan by going out of state for its nominee? Couldn’t the party find someone who has actually won an election? Isn’t there someone in the state who is more in line with the ideology of Illinois Republicans? Couldn’t they find someone who actually knows what issues are on the minds of Illinoisans? Why would a party nominate someone with so many strikes against him to run for the seat of retiring senator Peter Fitzgerald?

Ruminating over these questions led to one more: By agreeing to give the senate nomination to Keyes, did moderates in the Illinois GOP set up the conservative wing of the party for failure and humiliation in an attempt to wrest total control of the party from the far right? The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the "set up" is just as viable an explanation for Keyes’ bid than anything else.

Part of the reason it makes so much sense is that it seems so far-fetched. Keyes, a rock-ribbed conservative, would never knowingly participate in such chicanery or allow himself to be used for such purposes. But he may just be an unwitting pawn in a state party fight between moderates and conservatives in the Illinois GOP. He didn’t really know any of the players before they approached him about his willingness to accept the nomination and may not have known if there was internecine political warfare at play in Illinois.

There is an increasing tension building in parts of the "red" America. Conservatives have successfully taken over the party from moderates and have been marching the nation to the right ever since. Now, moderates are beginning to think twice about conservative orthodoxy on the budget deficit and some social issues. Perhaps they feel that the GOP has gone too far right and what we may be seeing in Illinois is an effort to bring more moderation to the party.

Keyes is in line for a public humiliation on election day. He trails Barack Obama in the Illinois Senate race by over 50 percentage points and his soon-to-be devastating defeat will be even more painful for the party if the reported 35 percent of Illinois Republicans currently favoring Obama actually cross party lines and vote for the Democratic state senator. That may be a small price for the Illinois GOP to pay if, in the post-mortem, the moderates have a stronger grip on the party.

© Michael K. Fauntroy
September 30, 2004

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, June 15, 2005
U.S. Electoral Politics

Reconsidering Reagan

Ronald Reagan’s death has provided a new opportunity to assess his legacy. This is a particularly important time to reconsider Reagan; I believe his decade-long bout with Alzheimer’s disease had a chilling effect on critical analysis of his presidency. The effect of this chill has allowed Reagan supporters to create a mythology about Reagan and his presidency that is not supported by the facts. Now is the best time to deal with the mythology and offer an assessment that helps balances the perspective of his presidency.

Reagan is credited with lifting the nation out of the malaise that began with the Nixon presidency following the demoralizing pull out of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. My colleague, James Pfiffner, in his book The Character Factor: How We Judge America’s Presidents, points out that Ronald Reagan’s character was closely related to his strengths and weaknesses as a politician and his successes and failures as president. Part of his popularity with the American public was due to his frequent appeals to traditional American values. His American values included a suspicion of government, the national government in particular, but also a conviction that America was still destined for greatness. Optimism was one of his major strengths; he believed that there was a solution to every problem. Part of Reagan’s appeal was that he was confident in himself and projected his optimism about the United States, if it could only be brought back to its traditional values. Importantly, he did not feel the same insecurity and resentment that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did.

Pfiffner argues that Reagan’s rhetorical abilities were impressive, in part because of the professional skills he had honed as an actor and in part because he personally believed what he was preaching. That the vision of the country he projected was simple was a strength; he was easily understood and it corresponded with his own values and vision.

There is another side to the Reagan legacy as well. He is well known for his ambitious call to make America the shining city on the hill. The call provided an injection of sorely needed optimism, but may have obscured the reality of Reagan’s policy results. Indeed, America as the shining house on the hill to which he eloquently referred, had more than a few undesirable neighborhoods when he left office in January 1989. Two of those neighborhoods were known as budget deficit and racial polarization.

A Legacy of Budget Deficits

Reagan’s legacy is clear in the budget deficit neighborhood. He entered the White House in January 1981–after winning the presidency by campaigning that tax cuts and massive increases in defense spending could co-exists with a balanced budget. The budget deficit was $74 billion when he entered the White House; it grew to $231 billion in Reagan’s final year. The trade deficit was even worse, nearing $200 billion per year when Reagan left office. The national debt rose to $2 trillion.

A major contributor to the budget deficit was the impact of the tax cuts during the first five years of Reagan’s presidency. He gave $750 billion in tax relief to individuals and corporations. Thirty-five percent of all the individual tax relief went to the top five percent income earners of the country. The average person making $15,000 a year ended up paying $100 more in federal taxes than before the first Reagan cuts went into effect; however, those with $200,000 in annual earnings received an additional $20,000 in tax relief.

While creating significant revenue reductions, Reagan also increased military spending by $123 billion in his first budget, and aggregate military total of $2.3 trillion in military spending for his first five years in office.

Reagan campaigned against the federal bureaucracy, vowing to reduce the size of the federal government. However, after Reagan's two terms, spending by the federal government was one-quarter higher, factoring out inflation, than when he got there; the federal civilian workforce had increased from 2.8 million to 3 million; and federal spending, as a share of Gross Domestic Product, had decreased by one percentage point to 21.2 percent.

A Legacy of Racial Polarization

The racial polarization neighborhood is especially large in Reagan’s shining city on the hill. It was here that he adroitly used racial symbolism for political gain.

His first act as the 1980 Republican party nominee was to kick off his general election campaign at a state fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It’s unlikely he was there for the electoral votes, which were already likely to fall in the Republican column. The more likely explanation for his appearance there was that he was interested in sending a message to racial conservatives that he embodied their resistence to racial fairness and race-based public policy intended to equalize opportunity for minorities. Philadelphia, Mississippi was a particularly important symbol in America’s racial history. It was where three civil rights workers–James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman–were killed. Reagan’s appearance there, coupled with his support of states’ rights, sent an implicit message to southern conservatives.

There were other examples of political symbolism including–

• An additional symbol in this regard was Reagan’s appearance at Bob Jones University, an institution which, at that time, outlawed interracial dating. Reagan also supported tax exempt status for the university, despite its racial policies. • Also noteworthy was Reagan’s position on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday bill. Reagan opposed the bill but, in the face of overwhelming congressional support, signed it into law.

• The racial polarization neighborhood also housed “welfare queens,” a euphemism for Black women that was used to help justify deep cuts in social policy. The linking of Blacks and welfare made it easier to indirectly criticize Black America by actually criticizing welfare.

• Reagan initially refused to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). This was during his efforts to create an alternative Black leadership in America, so meeting with the CBC would them with a level of legitimacy than would complicate his efforts to marginalize traditional Black leadership. He ultimately had one meeting with the CBC during his eight-year presidency.

Reagan’s legacy of racial polarization also included a number of important policy stances and decisions that conflict with the conservative-preferred ideal of Reagan as a great uniter.

Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement” with the Apartheid government of South Africa was particularly useless and embarrassing to lovers of freedom and equality. Congress, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, saw Reagan’s policy as insufficient, and passed legislation over his veto to impose sanctions on the South African government, a major factor in the ending of Apartheid. Moreover, the Reagan administration chose to support Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a prominent critic of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. This move further convinced many that Reagan was not interested in freedom for Black South Africans as Buthelezi was viewed with suspicion among many anti-Apartheid groups.

Reagan gutted the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, rendering it a shell of its former self and unable to carry out its historic role as investigator of and advisor on America’s civil rights issues. First, he changed the leadership and direction of the commission, moving it away investigating racial and sexual discrimination and studying and issuing reports on the same. Second, Reagan gutted its financing. The Commissions FY 1987 budget was cut to $8 million which represented a 33% reduction from FY 1986. By fiscal year 1988, there budget was down to $5.8 million. The cuts had a demoralizing effect on staff, resulting in a mass exodus of the commission’s most experienced staffers. The Commission lost half of its overall staff during the Reagan years, beginning a descent into irrelevance that continues today. I worked as a policy analyst there during the mid-1990s and saw first hand how hard the Reagan cuts undermined the Commission.

Reagan’s efforts to destabilize the civil rights commission was part of a larger strategy to undermine civil rights enforcement throughout the federal government. Budgets were slashed and the attendant personnel and other cuts rendered impotent the ability of federal agencies to investigate and enforce civil rights regulations. The largest drops came in EEOC, Education, and Health and Human Services; Transportation also suffered a drop. The major losses of full-time civil rights personnel were in programs focused on the private sector, including fair housing, and other civil and constitutional rights.

A Mixed Legacy–At Best

Ultimately, the Reagan legacy is mixed–at best. On one hand, unemployment, interest rates, and inflation decreased; and the stock market more than doubled. The end of the Cold War was accelerated. Conversely, the budget deficit, trade deficit, national debt exploded; and not only did Reagan fail to reign in the size and scope of government, it actually grew during his presidency. Socially and culturally, the leading indicators during the 1980s argue against Reagan as a great force for moral leadership. Up: teen-suicides, births to unmarried teenagers (way up), divorce rates, number of single-parent families (as a percentage of nuclear families), children born to unmarried parents. Down: marriage rates, percentage of children living with both biological parents. Analysts are now free to explore both sides of Reagan’s record; let’s hope that now we can get a 360 degree view of it.

© Michael K. Fauntroy

June 9, 2004

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Congress and the Presidency

Education and the Election

    The November 2nd election is about more than picking a president.  It’s about selecting someone who will put into public policy ideas and aspirations that will help all citizens improve their lives.  That is particularly important to African Americans, many of whom are currently saddled with disproportionately low poor educational and economic opportunities, health care access, and high incarceration rates.  This is also a time of opportunity for African Americans, who have historically been very pragmatic voters and have supported candidates that support public policy favorable to their interests, to have a larger than usual hand in selecting the next president.  From overwhelming support for Republicans in the Reconstruction era to equally strong support for the Democrats now, African Americans have been loyal to the political party that has been loyal to them.

    African Americans are uniquely positioned to affect the 2004 presidential election due to their concentration in a number of important states.  While 12 percent of the national population, African Americans comprise at least 15 percent of the population in 16 states and the District of Columbia.  Seven of the states are in the top 10 nationally in population.  Given the close 2000 election, it is quite possible that a stronger than usual African American turnout can make the difference.  Consider this: if Al Gore won just one more state in 2000, he would be president today.  He lost Arkansas by 50,000 votes; West Virginia by 41,000.

    Both parties took note of the high turnout of African American women in 2000, which was partly attributable to the Million Woman March (African American men and women were among the few groups to see an increase in turnout from 1996 to 2000) and its impact on Black consciousness.  Given their propensity to vote Democratic, Senator John Kerry wins if African Americans show up at the polls in large numbers; if not, President George W. Bush gets another term in office.  For those looking for change, there is a great deal at stake in the election.  The U.S. Supreme Court has not had a vacancy in 10 years and the next president is expected to appoint two or three judges.  A number of important issues–including affirmative action and racial profiling among others–could all reach the Court with substantial implications.

    Education is one of today’s most important issues.  How the next president approaches education can have long term implications on communities around the nation.  Education has proven to be the best way to obtain a brighter future.  Government statistics show that people with a bachelor's degree earn over 60 percent more on average than those with only a high school diploma.  Over a lifetime, the gap in earning potential between a high school diploma and a B.A. (or higher) is more than $1,000,000.

    African Americans are overwhelmingly educated in public schools systems.  However, crumbling infrastructures, underpaid teachers, sporadic violence, and insufficient resources plague many public school systems around the nation.  As a consequence, many young people graduate without many of the skills necessary to be successful in college or the workplace.

    If a student is able to overcome the numerous problems that characterize secondary education and move on to college, astronomically high costs await.  The average cost of one year at a four-year private college or university is over $24,000; over $10,400 at a four-year public institution.  Even with scholarships and grants, students are graduating American colleges and universities with substantial debt.

    The centerpiece of President Bush’s education plan is “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB).  It emphasizes standardized testing for students and calls for greater accountability for teachers to ensure that students succeed.  The plan has proven to be controversial, though, and critics argue that the plan is too inflexible and does not adequately reflect learning differences.  Critics have also pointed out that Bush has not followed through on his plan to provide the necessary funding to ensure the NCLB can succeed.  Bush also supports school choice, whereby students can transfer from underperforming neighborhood schools to more productive ones, and government supported vouchers to allow students to attend private and parochial schools.  This has clear church-state implications and Bush signed into law a pilot program to provide vouchers to poor students in Washington, D.C.

    Senator Kerry’s education plan includes a proposal for an Education Trust Fund that will require an increase in annual federal investments in education from its current level of $23.8 billion to about $35 billion by 2008 to meet the full commitment of NCLB.  Kerry opposes Bush’s voucher proposal.  Kerry also proposes a variety of tax credits and savings plans to help make college more affordable and supports the continuation of Title IX without changes.

    African Americans have a great deal at stake in the upcoming election.  Consequently, concerned citizens have to do all that we can to ensure that whomever is elected president will have the clearest understanding possible about what direction the nation should go.  Showing up at the ballot box in large numbers helps to ensure that elected officials will create legislation that better reflects African American aspirations and priorities.  Bush and Kerry can count votes and, despite our understandable cynicism, will respond to a large African American turnout.  Failing to turnout in large numbers would likely result in increasingly difficult economic times, as national budgets tighten, interest rates rise, and military actions around the world rise. 

© Michael K. Fauntroy
October 20, 2004

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, June 15, 2005
U.S. Electoral Politics

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