Bush: A Do-Nothing President for the Poor
The abject failure of President George W. Bush’s international policy has longed obscured the damage he and his policies are doing to working Americans. Backstopped by a media fixated on an overheated housing market and increasing gas prices, many have overlooked other indicators that the Bush economy is creating more space between wealthy and poor. While his inability, some say unwillingness, to help low-income Americans is no surprise to most. There are millions of people around the country who have seen their jobs go oversees, access to health care and education limited, and general fiscal well-being decrease or evaporate. Despite this reality, Bush defenders continue to advocate his economic policy plan. That’s unfortunate because the facts on the ground clearly indicate that there is a growing segment of America that is in big economic trouble.
The latest evidence of Bush’s failure to look out for those most in need can be seen in Census Bureau data on the 2004 poverty rate. According to their statistics, the nations poverty rate rose to 12.7 percent of the population last year, the fourth consecutive annual increase. Overall, there were 37 million people living in poverty, up 1.1 million people from 2003.
Four consecutive increases in the poverty rate are ridiculous, given that Bush inherited an economy from President Bill Clinton that drove down poverty. Clinton inherited an economy in far worse shape than current President Bush. Of course, Bush defenders use the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as a major reason why America’s economy has underperformed. That is a tired excuse that overlooks bad policies heaped on top of each other that have driven the poor and near-poor into more distress that can be fixed with a poorly conceived tax cuts or slick marketing of occasional good economic news.
Most knowledgeable observers argue that official government poverty statistics actually undercount poverty rates, so it’s safe to say that things are actually worse than reported. In other words, government-issued poverty data is a minimal indicator. The rate is much higher in certain groups. Black poverty generally runs three times the White rate. For example, while more than 20 percent of single mothers with no male in the home live in poverty, more than half of all Black single mothers live in poverty.
Bush’s legacy begins with Iraq. That’s irrefutable. But the impact of his domestic policies on the poor and his inability to do anything to help should be as much a part of his legacy as his international policy failures. Five years into his presidency, there is no evidence that life is getting better for the millions of people at the bottom of America’s economic order. He is what he is: a president committed to improving America’s corporate bottom line at the expense of workers who see growth in their costs of living, but not their income. Bush’s assault on the poor is an embarrassment to all who cling to the notion of compassionate conservatism and should wake up all that believe that corporate welfare and tax cuts will improve the lot of all Americans.
© Michael K. Fauntroy
August 30, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Thursday, September 01, 2005
Congress and the Presidency
Warning to Democrats: Black Republicans are Organizing
Buoyed by recent media attention and speeches to African American groups by President Bush and other high ranking officials and politicians, African American Republicans are intensifying their efforts to bring more Blacks to the GOP. New organizations are joining existing groups in this effort. The most recently formed organization is the National Black Republican Association (NBRA). It should be closely watched. While I don’t think it will lead to significant change at the ballot box, just enough votes in just enough places around the country could be problematic for Democrats. For that reason, I do think liberals and progressives should take note of what’s brewing on the Black Right and avoid the arrogance and condescension that can, all too easily, lead them to ignore what is happening. To do so might prove costly to a progressive movement that is in trouble at the ballot box and send the Democrats into oblivion.
The NBRA is part of a long lineage of Black conservative organizations and think tanks since the start of the Reagan Revolution that try to influence African American public opinion toward the GOP. Every few years or so, Black Republicans get together to build an organization they hope will create a wave of support for the GOP in African American communities around the nation. These regular attempts to grow Black Republicans reflect two realities: first, there is the continued perception, contrary evidence notwithstanding, that a movement of Black conservatives is ready to be motivated but simply lacks leadership and, second, the organizations that do come along ultimately fail to provide that leadership, are unable to sustain themselves, and fade in significance.
The NBRA had its first formal meetings in mid-August and see their mission in part as serving as a resource in the Black community on Republican ideals and principles. It’s goal is to increase the number of African Americans who vote Republican and provide networking opportunities for Black Republicans nationwide. It takes a decidedly different approach from many of its predecessors in that it is focused on building grass roots support, without much interference from Washington elites. One member told me that the traditional Republican “top-down” approach is a failure and that national Republicans don’t yet understand that Black support for the GOP has to be built, first, at the neighborhood level.
This organization, like so many others before it, has a high hill to climb. President Bush received 11 percent of the Black vote in 2004; a paltry 2 percentage point increase from 2000. Black support for GOP House and Senate candidates is, more often than not, in the high single or low double digits. Things are worse when you consider Black Republican office seekers. A total of sixty-four African American Republicans captured their party’s nomination for the U.S. House or Senate during the 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2004 congressional election cycles combined (this figure includes multiple counting for candidates who ran more than one election cycle). With the exception of now-retired Representative J.C. Watts, most haven’t come close to winning. Fifty-two of the sixty-four nominees (81%) lost by at least twenty-five percentage points. Add to this Black opposition to the Iraq War and historically low funding support for these groups and one doesn’t have to make much of a leap to conclude that organizations dedicated to bringing more African Americans to the GOP are spitting in the wind.
Conversely, though, it this reveals an era that may be pregnant with opportunity for the GOP. Any increase it gets, as minuscule as it may be, can be spun as an improvement that puts pressure on the Democrats to expend more resources. Democrats are then forced to pay more attention to its most loyal group of voters–African Americans, which prevents the party from making inroads in other segments of the electorate.
Democrats better focus on what’s going on; failing to do so can ensure minority status in Congress for years to come.
© Michael K. Fauntroy
August 19, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Saturday, August 27, 2005
Race and American Politics
U.S. Electoral Politics
Bush’s “Sheehan” Problem
History will record Cindy Sheehan as either the spark that ignited the “bring-the-troops-home” movement or as merely one footnote in a long book on the Iraq War. That we all now know her name is the fault of President Bush, whose arrogance and ham-handedness has made Sheehan a cause-celebre’ and the darling of the anti-war movement. The irony here is, of course, that by dissing Sheehan, he may have ignited the anti-war movement and pushed those on the fence to the anti-war side.
Bush could have put this to rest weeks ago by calling Sheehan into his ranch, talking with her about her issue, and sending her on her way. It would have been a two day story, tops. Now, Crawford, Texas, is the political equivalent of Mecca, with the anti-war crowd making a pilgrimage to the Bush ranch to support Sheehan and advance its own agenda. Add to that the candlelight vigils taking place in large and small cities around the country last week and it’s easy to see that Bush mishandled Sheehan and may have unwittingly been the match that lit the spark that ended the Iraq War. Wouldn’t that be ironic?
Granted, Bush had a tricky decision to make. He could meet with Sheehan for a second time, which could have sparked other “peace moms and dads” to seek meetings too. That would have blown his entire vacation and he didn’t want to do that. Or he could have done what he did, which is to ignore a mother who lost her son and run the risk of creating a media storm that could undo his war. He chose the latter and it was a mistake. Everyone who knows him says Bush is a compassionate man. He may be, but ignoring a mourning mother who has lost her son, is about to lose her husband who wants a divorce, and whose mother just had a stroke is heavy evidence to the contrary.
Of course, hindsight is 20-20, but the choice he made has created “Camp Casey” replete with hoards of peaceniks and the requisite media to document all that is, or isn’t, happening. That can’t be a visual the Bushies expected and certainly not one they wanted. Now, the President looks uncaring and aloof to the pain of a mother whose son made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, one that Bush says was for a noble cause.
An anti-war march is being planned for September in Washington, D.C. This is likely to be a significantly covered story anyway. But the coverage of Cindy Sheehan promises to beat the protest drums from now until the march, giving more publicity and attention to what may now be a massive protest. Imagine for a second what could be part two of the “Camp Casey” visual: President Bush returns to Washington, D.C. following his five-week-long vacation (memo to Bush’s advisors–it’s a bad idea to have the president out so long when so many people can’t take off that much time without losing their jobs or their homes and are changing their vacation plans due to objectionably high gas prices. Where’s your compassion meter?) only to have Sheehan go to Washington also and set up camp in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House.
That would add a new twist to the story and carry it all the way to the march and could mean nearly two months of daily anti-war coverage at the top of the nightly news, which can only hurt Bush’s declining poll numbers. Many people aren’t pay attention now with the last bit of summer vacation with the kids and the preparation for the back-to-school rush but, everything could change once Labor Day arrives–all because of a grieving mother who just wants a few words with the President.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, August 20, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Saturday, August 27, 2005
Congress and the Presidency
John Roberts and the Death Penalty
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ recent comments critical of the application of the death penalty led to me wonder what the future of capital punishment could be when John Roberts, President Bush’s nominee to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor, takes his seat on the bench this fall (I know he hasn’t been officially confirmed but there is no doubt in my mind that, barring any unforeseen scandal, he’ll be on the bench in October). The Supreme Court is the venue of last resort for wrongly convicted inmates and activists seeking to stay an execution, abolish capital punishment outright, or prevent its expansion. For death penalty opponents, John Roberts may be a tough pill to swallow.
Some say Roberts’ record is insufficient to make a judgement on how he will vote on capital cases. On one hand, he is a Federalist Society conservative who, in his work in the Reagan Administration, wrote critically of death penalty appeals. Roberts argued that the lengthy appeals process clogged the federal court system and delayed justice for people in cases throughout the system. This suggests that he would be supportive of efforts to streamline the appeals process, perhaps by more strictly limiting their number. This is bad news for wrongly convicted death penalty prisoners. Conversely, though, Roberts did free legal work for a death row inmate, which suggests a willingness to keep people from being executed.
While noteworthy, I don’t think doing pro bono work for one death row inmate shifts the weight of heavy evidence, circumstantial though it may be, that we are poised to enter an era that takes a less compassionate view and accelerated application of the death penalty. This is unfortunate because years of exonerations of death row inmates and new technology that can more scientifically prove guilt or innocence has exposed flaws and corruption in our criminal justice system. It’s not a reach to believe the system has executed innocent people. Our system is broken and, rather than fix it, we appear ready to push the accelerator even further.
Roberts’ possible position on the death penalty is in substantial contrast with O’Connor, who was often the pivotal vote in 5-4 capital punishment decisions. She became skeptical of state administration of capital cases and came to be counted on to support barring the execution of mentally retarded killers and those who were juveniles when they committed their crimes. While she never supported an outright abolition of the death penalty, she did believe there were limits to its application.
Death penalty cases are a constant fixture of Supreme Court work. Justices regularly deal with emergency appeals, sometimes filed at the last possible moment. Recently, the Court has outlawed the death penalty to those who were juveniles at the time of their crime, overturned four death sentences, and ruled it was unconstitutional to force defendants to appear before juries in chains during a trial's penalty phase. And the future is full of death penalty cases. The Court will have at least four capital cases on their docket when they return to work in October. Included among these cases is one that may open the door to new challenges to the death penalty by letting inmates have a new chance to prove their innocence with DNA evidence.
Given the numerous death penalty cases heard by the Court, John Roberts’ confirmation will have a dramatic impact on how the Court rules on capital cases and will mark the beginning of dark days for death penalty opponents.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, August 10, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Friday, August 12, 2005
Race and American Culture
2008 Potomac River Primary
It has recently been reported that the Democratic National Committee has created a panel to study possible changes to the 2008 presidential nominating schedule. This is a critical election for Democrats and making the right decision could go a long way toward electing a Democrat president. There are likely to be a number of options floated and debated. It is also likely that Democrats will get weak-kneed and keep Iowa and New Hampshire at the front of the nominating line. That would be a mistake. It’s time to radically change the schedule and I want to offer the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia as the location for the first primaries of the 2008 nominating calendar. I call it the Potomac River primary and believe this is the best option for Democratic general election success.
The 2008 presidential election will be the first in over 50 years without an incumbent president or vice president in the race (if we accept Vice President Dick Cheney at his word that he won’t run). The GOP is likely to have a divisive nominating fight, which presents an opportunity for the Democrats. If the Democrats want to win in 2008, however, I think one step has to be taken to fix a fundamental flaw in the nomination process: change the primary and caucus schedule and break the tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire leading the way. This would be a controversial move and doing so will require making some difficult decisions that will upset tradition and its close adherents.
Democrats must relinquish the tradition of having Iowa and New Hampshire lead off the nomination process. While I don’t want to offend the good people of these states, the fact is that Iowa and New Hampshire are significant only because they are first; otherwise, they would be no more important to the process as Nebraska and Vermont. No reasonable argument can be made for why the process should start there. Demographically, economically, and ideologically, they do not best represent the Democratic party or the nation. Disproportionately agricultural, rural, and White, Iowa and New Hampshire lack many of the fundamental components of the Democratic electorate–large cities and large minority populations and their unique public policy problems. The attention garnered by these two states forces the candidates to craft campaigns that will win those states with the hope that doing so will drive the victor to the nomination. That hasn’t worked very well in recent years and a well-considered change can fix the problem that ails the Democrats.
The order of state primaries and caucuses should be adjusted to better reflect the demographic changes that have occurred in the nation over the last half century or so. More people are moving South and West, as reflected by the increases in southern state apportionment in the U.S. House of Representatives following the last two decennial censuses. The first primary should be a mini version of Super Tuesday, with states that reflect not just the Democratic base, but what a Democratic nominee would have to deal with in a general election. This would force those seeking the nomination to craft a campaign that can win a general election, not just the party nod.
The Potomac River Primary–the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia–should lead the way on the first Tuesday in February of each election year. These contiguous jurisdictions best combine city, suburban, and rural voters–and their attendant issues–with large media markets that are likely to garner at least the same national attention given to Iowa and New Hampshire. Moreover, I’d be willing to bet that a secret poll of campaign workers and candidates would show that they would rather slog through the national capital area, likely closer to their homes and families, than Iowa or New Hampshire.
The District of Columbia, with both unique and traditional problems, would allow a candidate to elevate urban issues such as housing, education, and criminal justice to the forefront of the political discourse earlier in the campaign process. This ensures that these types of issues are considered earlier and more seriously in the process and the longer issues like these stay in the discourse, the better Democrats do. Like Maryland and Virginia, there is also a strong environmental vote to be had in the District.
Maryland and Virginia are interesting states in America’s political landscape. Maryland, a Democratic state, has a White Republican Governor and an African American Republican Lt. Governor. It also has the wealthiest majority-Black county in the nation, Prince George’s. Next to Prince George’s County is Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. It also has conservative bastions on the Eastern Shore and in the Western mountains.
Virginia is a conservative state with a Democratic Governor and has the distinction of electing L. Douglas Wilder as the first African American elected Governor since Reconstruction. It is also the home to Jerry Falwell in the Southwestern Virginia city of Lynchburg and Pat Robertson in the Southeastern city of Virginia Beach. The increasingly moderate, technology-heavy Northern Virginia would provide a good opportunity for a Democratic candidate to try out some general election themes that could draw in Republican voters.
If this change were to happen, Iowa and New Hampshire would understandably go up in arms. However, we’ve tried it this way for decades and it no longer serves a useful purpose. In fact, an argument can be crafted that it actually hurts more than helps. Moreover, the combined electoral vote totals of the District, Maryland, and Virginia–more than dwarfs those of Iowa and New Hampshire. This electoral vote reality should be enough of an inducement to get the candidates to stiffen their backs and tell Iowa and New Hampshire that the paradigm has shifted and new tactics are needed to move the Democrats to victory. The status quo has not worked particularly well in preparing the Democratic nominee for the issues of a general election campaign. Now is the time to move to a schedule that will produce the strongest possible nominee, not just the most popular one.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, July 31, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Saturday, July 30, 2005
U.S. Electoral Politics
Renew the Voting Rights Act
August 6th marks the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). While it’s certainly cause for celebration, we should also consider the possibility of a threat to voting rights if the Act is not renewed. No, Black people won’t automatically loose the ability to vote if the Act is not renewed. But there are forces that would like to block renewal of the Act or gut its core. Given recent election debacles in Florida, Ohio, and other places around the country, the VRA should not just be renewed, but strengthened in order to meet the new challenges and opportunities presented by changing technology.
The VRA has been an unparalleled success: 1.3 million new Black voters were registered in the south in the first two years of its existence and continued efforts since leave African Americans near parity with Whites in terms of voter registration rates. The new voters led to more Black elected officials. In 1965, approximately 70 African Americans held elected office in the eleven southern states; that number grew to 248 by 1968, 1,397 by 1974, and 2,535 by 1981. But the Act’s success is not just a southern thing. Now, more than 9,000 African Americans serve as elected officials around the nation. While African Americans are still under-represented among the nation’s elected officials, this incredible growth could not have happened without the VRA.
The VRA also, literally, changed the face of American government by transforming the political landscape from a closed society to one more culturally, racially, and economically representative of the nation than ever before. While the Act primarily targeted African Americans, the entire nation has benefitted from it and the country is better for diversity engendered by it.
There is another side of the coin, however, and it deals with the potential threat to the future of voting rights, particularly as it relates to Blacks and the poor. The threat is legitimate and warranted because portions of the VRA expire in 2007. Some point to sustained Black electoral success and question the continued need for the VRA. Those who question the need for a renewed and strengthened VRA are wrong and need only to be reminded of the outrageous examples of African Americans and others being turned away or otherwise prevented from accessing the ballot box in the last two presidential elections to know that while much progress has been made, more is necessary to secure a well-functioning electoral system.
From my perspective, there is no question that more needs to be done to ensure that the most sacred symbol of American democracy–the vote–is protected. A deteriorating electoral system undermines the credibility of our government when it preaches democracy to the Middle East and Africa. Congress and the president should renew and strengthen the VRA and include provisions that guarantee same-day voting, absentee voting and provisional ballots, and establish substantial penalties for states and localities that do not comply with the new and existing requirements. The new VRA should also provide financial benefits to states that increase their Black voting rates.
So let’s celebrate the VRA and all it has given America while being mindful that future success requires defending and advancing the VRA and continuing vigilance in order to protect one of the most important symbols of American democracy and Black political empowerment.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, July 22, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Thursday, July 28, 2005
Congress and the Presidency
Race and American Politics
Don’t Fire Rove!!
Liberals have been up in arms since the revelation that Karl Rove, known to some as “Bush’s Brain”, leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to reporters. Many have taken to the streets to protest the leak and the abuse of power it represents and burned up talk radio air time demanding that President Bush to follow through on his vow to fire anyone in his administration who was responsible for the leak. I’m here to say to the Air America crowd and the other screamers calling for Rove’s head to do one thing: Stop!!
My desire to see Karl Rove remain a prominent member of the Bush team is not driven by altruistic or an indication of support for Rove and the way he does business. Nor do I believe that Rove is a wonderful beacon of freedom and democracy that should be protected at all costs. Indeed, I believe Karl Rove best represents what’s most wrong about inside-the-beltway politics. Too much of what happens in D.C. is driven by a craven ends-justifies-the-means mentality that sometimes leads people to do scandalous things–even if those scandalous things don’t rise to the level of criminality.
My reasons for seeing Rove survive this storm are far more cynical and blatantly political. I think firing Rove is a bad idea because doing so does away with the best political villain Democrats have had since Newt Gingrich. Rove presents a great opportunity for the Democrats. He is more valuable to them if he stays along and forces White House spokesman Scott McClellan to defend him in those increasingly contentious daily briefings, than if he were to be fired and slinked his way back to Texas to be comforted by a cushy consultancy with a third party that would allow him to continue to do by phone, fax, and Internet what he was doing in D.C. As long as he stays in Washington, he’s a problem for Republicans and a boon to Democrats. His value to Democrats begins to fade the minute he returns to Texas where he recedes from public consciousness.
It is beginning to appear that Rove’s outing is a political, and maybe criminal, abuse of power. That’s nothing new in D.C., but what makes this scandal more intriguing is that it takes on the added dimension of gender. This is critical because Republicans have struggled for some time in trying to eliminate, or at least neutralize, it’s gender gap. Some women who have voted Republican in recent years, perhaps many of the well-educated suburban moms who want the sky to be the limit for their daughters, will look dimly at a political operative (Rove), administration (Bush), and party (Republicans) that would effectively end a portion of a woman’s career to play the game of payback with her husband. You see, the CIA sent Plame’s husband, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein tried to buy nuclear material from Niger. Wilson found no such evidence and concluded the Bush administration had no real case to support its desire for war and was trying to shape evidence to that end.
So Democrats have an opportunity here and, as is their wont, they want to screw it up by seeking the head of their best Republican villain since Newt Gingrich. Hey Democrats, be careful what you wish for. You might get it. In this case, that would be an opportunity missed.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, July 21, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Congress and the Presidency
Bush at the Expo
President Bush addressed a luncheon at the Indiana Black expo last week, highlighting administration policies in education, homeownership, and other areas as beneficial to African Americans. He cited a record number of black homeowners, increases in the number of loans to black-owned small businesses, and strides in closing the achievement gap between Black students and White/Asian students. Bush and his political team are out telling Blacks that their improved station in life is due to Republican policies. There’s only one problem with their arguments–it’s just one side of the coin. A look at the other side shows that Bush and the GOP have much work to do if they want to make inroads in the Black community.
Black unemployment and Black incarceration rates are still notoriously high and the Bush administration does not appear to be doing much to help. Add to that increasing Black foreclosure rates, Black wealth disparities, and recent bankruptcy changes are combining to squeeze African Americans. While there are some successes he can point to in those areas some, like homeownership, built on the Clinton years, there are other areas that Bush will not mention. When you look at Black unemployment rates and incarceration rates, Bush leaves much to be desired.
You may recall that Bush and congressional Republicans argued that their tax cuts would help grown the economy and create job growth. Well, there’s no question that the economy has grown, though at a smaller pace than they predicted, there also is no question that Black job growth has yet to occur. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national black unemployment rate is holding steady at about 10%, twice the national average and White unemployment rate. And while the Black unemployment rate increased by just .2%, it is the only group of Americans who’s employment rate worsened during 2005.
Black unemployment is complicated by job losses due to two factors: technology and outsourcing. Technological gains are making it possible for more work to be done with fewer people. Outsourcing is sending a share of jobs overseas. Many of the states that have suffered the most job losses in recent years are also states with substantial Black populations. Add immigration to the mix and African Americans are getting squeezed in today’s economy. Immigration is cutting into Black employment rates in many cities, particularly in the area of construction.
The data on Black incarceration are stark and must be addressed or Black America may, literally, face extinction. African Americans comprise Forty-four percent of all people incarcerated in the United States. According to Justice Department statistics, a black child born in 2003 has a 29% chance of spending time in a federal or state prison. Consider what that means for the communities in which these men come. While they are locked up, they can’t contribute to the community, which leads to community instability. When they are released they are likely to be without the skills necessary to get a job and contribute to society and become an additional drag on society that everyone else must support.
Black people want safe streets just like everyone else. But they don’t want to see the mass warehousing of Black men in a system that engages in disparate treatment. If Republicans really want to make a dent in the Black community, then they must stand up for sentencing fairness. A White man with an ounce of powder cocaine and a Black man with an ounce of crack cocaine should get the same amount of time.
Bush can talk all he wants about homeownership and education reform, but it will prove pointless if the issue of fundamental fairness is not addressed.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, July 18, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Monday, July 18, 2005
Congress and the Presidency
Race and American Politics
Why Rove Matters
Karl Rove, the man called “Bush’s Brain” by some, may well be on the verge of a Federal indictment for illegally leaking the name of a CIA operative. This may not mean much to you now, but it could have a huge impact on President Bush’s agenda for the balance of his presidency. That’s why those who know him and what he is about are intrigued by the possibility that this ultimate political operative and behind-the-scenes guru may now be neck deep in trouble.
Rove isn’t an elected official, important diplomat, or bureaucrat. So why should we care that he is potentially guilty of such a crime? Rove is important because he, more than any other person, is most responsible for George Bush being president and the strategy behind administration policies. You can thank Rove for all of the polling and strategy that has helped shape Bush policies, so the thought of Rove being in the middle of a potential crime jeopardizes not only him but, perhaps, Bush policy on Supreme Court nominations, social security reform, tax policy, health care for the poor, education funding, and so many other domestic issues. Bush’s positions in all these areas could be in jeopardy.
A grand jury is investigating the origins of the leak and Rove’s role in it. It all began when conservative columnist Robert Novak identified Valerie Plame, a covert CIA operative. It appears Novak got her name, or at least that she was married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, through a leak that reeks of political retribution. The CIA sent Wilson to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein tried to buy nuclear material from Niger. Wilson found no such evidence and concluded the Bush administration had no real case to support its desire for war and was trying to shape evidence to that end. Two reporters who were investigating the leak story but never wrote about it, Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper, were confronted by court-orders to turn over their notes. Miller refused and is now doing jail time; Cooper received a last minute reprieve from his source (Rove) and testified before the grand jury last week.
Now that Rove has been identified as the leaker, the question is whether the leak was criminal. The mere thought of such an embarrassment has sent the Bushies and their congressional allies into total spin mode. So far, their efforts aren’t very convincing. The proof that some in the White House are nervous lies is in the way the language has been morphing. Some suspected from the beginning that Rove was the leaker and he said when the story broke that he didn’t leak the name. Recently, as the investigation has expanded into new areas, Rove admitted that he spoke with Cooper right before the story broke, but that he didn’t discuss Plame. That explanation went over like a lead balloon, so they tried a new one: Rove discussed Plame, but never mentioned her name. It may only be a matter of time before the story changes again to “Yes, I used her name, but I didn’t know she was a spy.”
Given how poorly President Bush’s second term has begun, the Rove revelation can only weaken an increasingly shaky presidency. Further, the cloud of suspicion surrounding Rove adds a new odor to the White House that far exceeds anything that went on during the Clinton years. We’re talking about national security breaches in the name of political retribution. That’s abuse of power. The success of the rest of the Bush presidency could be on the line here and that’s why Rove matters.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, July 14, 2005
G8 Aid to Africa: Get Back to Me When the Check Clears
Last week’s G8 summit focused on a number of issues with financial aid to Africa topping the agenda. The focus is undeniably necessary: much of Africa is mired in abject poverty, rendering many of its nations unable to systematically provide basic services for its citizens. It’s so bad that, according to one report, poverty kills a child in Africa every 10 seconds. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the state of the continent a "scar on the conscience of the world." The G8 commitment to give more aid to Africa is commendable but, upon further review, get back to me when the check clears.
The G8 promised to increase its annual development aid to Africa by $25 billion by 2010, more than twice the 2004 level. They also promised that overall annual development aid–currently around $50 billion–would increase by $50 billion by 2010. While these commitments are important, it should be noted that the formula for determining how much each nation would contribute toward the new commitments has not been finalized; every day of delay means more death and poverty.
I have three concerns about the promises announced at the summit. First, the leaders who promised the money don’t really have the power to allocate the money. Congress is responsible for appropriating the money here in the United States, so Bush’s promises don’t seal the deal. Congress has to put up the money and there is not much evidence that a conservative Congress is likely to add more aid money to Africa when they would prefer to use the money for Iraq, tax cuts, or other priorities. Given current congressional proclivities, there is no logical reason to believe that more money is likely to be given to Africa from the U.S. Also, and this has gone largely unreported in the U.S., Bush has not changed his position on refusing to increase U.S. assistance. Given his resistance to increasing African aid, his presence at the summit was nothing more than a photo opportunity that allowed him to bask in the light created by other leaders.
Second, conservative commentators have used the recent London train and bus bombings to claim that fighting terrorism is more important than Africa. This all or nothing approach to solving problems is unfortunate but predictable and those who hold that view should know that poverty kills 8,640 African children per day, 3,153,600 per year–not war, AIDS, or natural disasters, just poverty. On the African war front, people are dying every day in Sudan and Congo not to mention the brutalization of women and children there. Do I even have to mention Rwanda and Burundi?
The fight against terrorism versus fighting African poverty is a serious political point for people interested in African development. The G8 nations that continue to place Africa on the back-burner behind fighting terrorism do so at their potential peril. Africa is now a hotbed for terrorist recruitment in large part because of the overwhelming abject poverty and systematic exploitation at the hands of the developed world that has gripped the continent for too long. It’s not much of an argument to tell angry, desperate, and poverty-stricken people with nothing to lose that the West is largely responsible for their suffering and terrorism is the best response. Effectively dealing with African poverty supplements, not detracts, from the “War on Terrorism.” Indeed, giving to Africa is required if the West is serious about fighting poverty.
Third, the G8 didn’t do anything on debt forgiveness, which is as important and necessary for African development as the aid commitments. Many African nations are repaying International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans before servicing their people. The lack of action on debt forgiveness coupled with new aid contributions potentially creates an unfortunate circumstance: some of that money that goes to Africa may well go back to the G8 in the form of repayments to the IMF and World Bank for loans incurred in years past.
Pouring more money into Africa won’t guarantee systemic success; a tremendous aid boost is only part of the solution to Africa's problems. Also, I wonder if some of these poor nations can successfully absorb and manage such large funding increases. Many of these nations have despotic, totalitarian governments and giving them large sums of money will only enrich the dictators.
While the G8 promises are important, they can only be seen as the beginning of fixing Africa’s problems. Hopefully, a sincere discussion is beginning about Africa and the G8 will play an important role.
© Michael K. Fauntroy
July 12, 2005
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
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 Culture
Race 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.
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