Callie House and Rosa Parks
The recent deaths of Rosa Parks, Vivian Malone, and C. Delores Tucker should lead us to pause and reflect on the pivotal roles women played, often without much fanfare, in the civil rights movement. The pomp and circumstance surrounding Parks upon the announcement of her death confirm the iconic status she achieved. It also gives us an opportunity to herald the contributions of many African American women who have not received their due. For every Rosa Parks, who is nearly universally known, there are dozens of African American women whose stories have been forgotten. Callie House is one such woman. But if Mary Frances Berry has her way, House’s story will be much more widely known. Berry, the civil rights activist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written an enlightening and uplifting book on House, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations, which details House’s struggle to get reparations for ex-slaves.
House, born into slavery, was a crusader who led a movement to get the federal government to provide pensions for ex-slaves. She thought it an abomination that ex-slaves, whose work was the backbone of the southern economy and made many businessmen wealthy, were destitute and left to fend for themselves when their bodies gave out and they could no longer work. For those who could still work, it wasn’t unusual to see domestic workers who were in their 80s and 90s. Berry noted the plight of one women, 101 years old, who was still a working domestic.
House’s story is also a cautionary tale. Her work was undermined by the usual suspects in the federal government as Congress and the Department of Justice created the environment that ultimately led to her incarceration and the destruction of her movement. She was also undercut by Black newspapers and leaders who thought she and her supporters embodied something less than the “talented tenth” they were trying to promote to White America. They sold out House in an effort to remain the “favored Negroes” in the eyes of the White power structure.
Berry wrote the book “because everybody started talking about reparations” and all those interested in the reparations debate, regardless of their position on the issue, should read it. Supporters will likely learn more than they previously knew about the historical nature of the uphill battles facing. Opponents will see that the reparations movement is not some scheme cooked up by the nationalist wing of the African American community to shake down the government for money.
Berry believes that there are “other Callie House’s out there” and, while the contributions of women like House have been lost in history, their work is still relevant to dealing with contemporary issues. Let’s hope that the leaders of the current reparations movement learn the lessons of the past so as not to repeat those mistakes. That way, the legitimate arguments surrounding reparations are given a legitimate hearing in the court of public opinion. Then House can take her place in the annals of African American history with all the others who gave their lives to the cause.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, November 5, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Race and American Culture
Globalization and “Little Ethiopia”
Globalization is a firmly entrenched reality that presents new challenges and opportunities. It allows us to travel, do business, and communicate more easily with people thousands of miles away. It flattens the world, as Tom Friedman argues, so that someone in a remote Chinese village can compete in the world of ideas and commerce with someone else in the most developed and sophisticated locale. That the world has become smaller is due entirely to the forces of globalization and this is a good thing. The downside of globalization, however, is that it can accelerate a culture clash through the immigration it facilitates. The culture clash is evident in many places around the world including here in Washington, D.C. where Ethiopian immigrants are pushing the City Council to rename part of a city neighborhood “Little Ethiopia.” This is a bad idea because the neighborhood in question is so steeped in African American history that it was dubbed “Black Broadway.” Given the history of the neighborhood and the infinitesimal Ethiopian presence therein, the effort to rename it Little Ethiopia is historically unjustified and is a slap in the face to the memory of all the important African American individuals, organizations, and institutions that have made that neighborhood great.
The volume of Ethiopian restaurants, churches, hair salons, and a community services center cited by plan supporters, pale in comparison to the multi-generational record of long-standing African American businesses, churches, hair salons, community organizations, and other entities that have served this neighborhood. For example, African American churches in the neighborhood, such as New Bethel Baptist and Metropolitan Baptist, played key organizing roles in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and continue to assist the residents of the neighborhood. Businesses such as Ben’s Chili Bowl and Lee’s Flower Shop, and organizations such as the Mason’s helped sustain the neighborhood during the difficult times following the 1968 riots and the seemingly interminable period when Metro construction delays made it nearly impossible to do business on U Street. And Industrial Bank is one of the largest African American-owned banks in the world anchors a corner in the heart of the area. Each of these businesses has a long and storied history in the community. Civic organizations such as the Model Inner City Community Development Organization created urban redevelopment plans for housing low-income and senior residents were supported and funded by President Lyndon Johnson. Given this history, it is not a stretch to suggest that this neighborhood would not be what it is today without the significant and long-lasting contributions of African Americans. These and other contributions would be significantly overshadowed by designating the area as Little Ethiopia.
As a fourth-generation Washingtonian who lives in the same house in which my grandparents raised my father and his brothers and sisters, I am intimately aware of what this neighborhood has meant to this city generally, and African Americans in particular. I am also sufficiently versed in the history of this community to know that the “Little Ethiopia” proposal is an attempt to attach a label to this community that is not supported by the historical record.
Hopefully this will be one of the smaller globalization fights and not the start of a long and painful intraracial and intercultural struggle between newcomers to America and those who’ve been here for generations and still struggle to secure their place in America.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, October 28, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Thursday, November 03, 2005
Race and American Culture
Washington, D.C Local Politics
Beginning of the End for GOP
I’m not one to overreact to news that a politician has been indicted. It’s not an unusual occurrence and, in more cases than you might expect, the indicted is ultimately exonerated. So forgive me for not jumping up and down in celebration of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s indictment for conspiring to illegally funnel corporate cash to Texas state Republicans in 2002. I don’t know if he did it and smart people are split as to whether he’s guilty of the crime for which he has been charged. For me, his guilt or innocence is almost beside the point. You see, his possible acquittal doesn’t obviate the fact that he is a dirty politician and his continued presence as such a prominent Republican marks the beginning of the end of GOP dominance of Congress. I write this not because I know a secret but, rather, because DeLay’s indictment is one of a long list of ethical lapses that show the national GOP is corrupt and uses its power to enrich their friends and punish their enemies.
The DeLay indictment is yet another in a long line of recent events to demonstrate that the Republican Party in Washington, D.C., from the White House to Capitol Hill, is shot through with corruption and besotted with their power. They've looted the federal treasury of billions to pay for an unjustified war in Iraq (and the Coalition Provisional Authority has literally lost $8 billion there), no-bid contracts to their friends seems to be their preferred way of operating, they've jeopardized people all over the country with that ridiculous bankruptcy bill they wrote and passed, they've been wasteful spenders of taxpayers money, and they don't seem to care about the damage their policies are doing to the federal deficit.
Karl Rove outed a covert CIA operative. David Safavian, until two weeks ago, the Bush Administration's chief procurement officer, was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice surrounding crooked GOP lobbyist, and DeLay crony, Jack Abramoff. There are examples too numerous to list here of political appointees that are patently unqualified for the jobs to which they have been assigned. Add to that fact that some of these jobs require decisions to be made that literally have life and death consequences (Mike "Brownie, you're doing a great job" Brown) and it's not a stretch to see that the party is in trouble.
Meanwhile, Republican elected officials are being caught in scheme after scheme to enrich themselves. Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham sold his house to a government contractor doing business before Cunningham’s committee for nearly twice its market value in what can only be called a bribe. Further, Cunningham lived for years on this same contractor's houseboat in D.C. Senator Bill Frist is now under investigation for what may turn out to be insider trading. Numerous Ohio Republicans, most notably Governor Robert Taft, have undergone varying investigations, not to mention legitimate concerns about voter suppression in the 2004 election. And let's not forget former Illinois Governor George Ryan, who is currently in court facing charges that he took cash and gifts to help insiders land lucrative state contracts.
DeLay’s indictment may turn out to be nothing. It may turn out to be a big deal. Either way you slice it, it's part of a long pattern of corruption that has developed over the years of GOP dominance of Congress and the White House. The Gingrich Revolution was largely built around the argument that 40 years of Democratic control led to arrogance and corruption. It appears now that the GOP has done more in a shorter time and the nation is worse off as a result.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, September 29, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Sunday, October 02, 2005
U.S. Electoral Politics
A Fly in the Anti-War Ointment
Organizers of the recent anti-war march in Washington, D.C. pulled off a successful event for which they should congratulate themselves. They far exceeded their goal of 100,000 marchers and the speakers, left, and far-left, all sang from the “get-the-troops-out-now” hymnal in tune and (mostly) on time. But one thing was missing: significant numbers of minorities, particularly Black people.
While only time will tell if the recent and massive anti-war march has any impact on public opinion or public policy toward Iraq–after all, mass protests are supposed to change the status quo–what can clearly be seen in its aftermath is that the anti-war movement has a problem that must be rectified if it is to become the unifying force that it can: too few of the marchers were people of color. African Americans were particularly scarce at a gathering to protest a war in which 17 percent of those killed are Black. And, the march was held in a majority African American city. The lack of a substantial minority presence in the march is a serious void that weakens the anti-war movement by exposing it as a movement that does not take advantage of all its possible resources. It also feeds the cynicism that some feel about the movement, particularly in the Black community, where these kinds of events are largely seen as a “White thing.”
The following is only a slight exaggeration: There were more Black people speaking into microphones than listening to what was said. That represents a comprehensive failure for march organizers and African American activists who are sympathetic to the cause. The White liberal anti-war march organizers did an abysmal job of coordinating with Black organizations to ensure that their like-minded members knew about the march and were encouraged to participate. There is no evidence that an aggressive campaign was undertaken to organize Black churches, social groups, fraternities, sororities, or the myriad other organizations to which Black people who oppose the war may belong. If such an effort did exist, then it was a miserable failure. This is particularly egregious considering that the march was held on the same weekend as the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual legislative conference–a meeting with a 35-year history of African Americans coming to Washington, D.C. to discuss and strategize on the most important issues of the day. Also troublesome is the fact that Howard University, the most significant historically Black university in the country, is located less than three miles from the march location.
The Black community and its activist/organizing class also bears great responsibility for their weak turnout. Virtually every poll taken since President Bush even whispered about going into Iraq has shown Black people more opposed to the war than any other racial group in the country. Black people represent a large, untapped reservoir of support than can energize the anti-war movement in new ways. Even if Black activists felt locked out of the organizing process, and I have no reason to believe that they do or were, they should have done a better job in taking their own initiative to organize some of the more than one million African Americans who live in Washington, D.C. and it’s suburbs. Very few radio stations, newspapers, or other information outlets that target African Americans ran announcements or editorials to encourage Blacks to attend the march. Given the role of the Internet in spreading information about parties, conspiracy theories, and urban legends, the lack of email circulating in the Black community about the march and its potential to help save Black lives can only charitably be seen as a missed opportunity. The most strident view is that the poor Black turnout exposed the Black activist community as paper tigers, unable to turn out large numbers of Black people for a cause for which African Americans should be willing to hit the streets.
March organizers should congratulate themselves for the outstanding turnout they were able to generate. Also, the proceedings went off without violence or the kinds of problems that can mar such a large gathering. But organizers better find a way to involve more people of color to participate in future events if they really want to spark change and be seen as something other than liberal elitists. If they don’t, then they run the risk of Kanye West going on television and saying: “White liberals don’t care about Black people.”
© Michael K. Fauntroy, September 25, 2005
Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Monday, September 26, 2005
Race and American Culture
So Much for GOP Outreach to Black America
Republicans have long been unpopular among African Americans. Too often, the GOP purposely played on racial fears and hatred among many White conservatives to win elections. From the Southern Strategy, to “Welfare Queens,” to opposing a Federal holiday to commemorate the life and work of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to “constructive engagement” in South Africa, and “mandatory minimums” that warehouse Black men in the prison-industrial complex, the GOP has rarely missed an opportunity to turn away from Black America. Add New Orleans to the long bill of particulars that African Americans have for the GOP and it’s no wonder why Republicans get almost no support in Black America. The pathetic, disgusting response of the Republican-controlled Federal government will long be remembered in the Black community and will explain why recent Republican outreach efforts to the Black community are now shot to hell, perhaps never to return.
Now I know some will say it’s too early to think about the political implications of New Orleans. I say politics explains everything and ignoring it is naive. You better believe that Karl Rove and the political arm of the White House as well as the Republican National Committee are surveying the political damage that is now following the physical and emotional pain caused by Hurricane Katrina. The Rove gang is building strategies to minimize the damage to President Bush and congressional Republicans while silently heaping as much blame as possible on New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, both Democrats. I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to blame Bill and Hilary Clinton too–the former first family is the GOP’s default source of criticism.
Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives for the last ten years and the Senate nearly as long. They’ve held the White House for 16 of the last 24 years. Their budget cuts are partly responsible for the flooding that has submerged New Orleans. Republicans reduced or stripped altogether money from Federal budgets intended to strengthen the levee system. The penny wise and pound foolish Congress thought the $14 billion dollar price tag presented years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers and other state and Federal agencies was too high. That figure looks like a bargain now given what it will cost to rebuild New Orleans. Republicans, no doubt, will point out that the Democrats didn’t do anything about the levees when they were in charge. That is true, but irrelevant. The GOP is in charge now and they failed. They have to take the weight for their failure to act efficiently and compassionately for New Orleans.
Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee and leader of recent GOP/Black outreach efforts, may not know it yet, but his job just became impossible. That’s because what is going on in New Orleans elicits angry and negative responses throughout the Black community. Some shake their heads in pain after watching for television for hours seeing American citizens stranded for days waiting for their government to help them deal with the greatest, widest, most expensive natural disaster in American history. Some note the concern they have for friends and family who are trapped and possibly dead. Others note how a Black mayor wasn’t properly supported when he called for the evacuation of his city.
The most common response, though, is one of anger and disgust about how the Federal government has handled this and is voiced in two questions. First, how is it that the U.S. government can be so efficient in dealing with crises in other parts of the country (e.g. Florida hurricanes) or the world (e.g. Tsunami response) and leave so many Americans in the lurch, struggling to live? The second question is more pointed: would the Federal response be the same if New Orleans were two-thirds White and middle-class instead of two-thirds Black and poor? Conservative protestations aside, the only correct answer is: of course not. Who among us believes that it would have taken President Bush five days to get to Austin, Texas, San Diego, California, Orlando, Florida, or Phoenix, Arizona? Who among us believes that White bodies would be allowed to rot in the streets of New Orleans?
Black people are rightly livid with President Bush and the Republicans; only an apologist would argue otherwise. Bush’s performance through all this has been abysmal, callous, and inept and only feeds the growing belief in some segments of America that he has been a catastrophic failure as president who doesn’t care about the well-being of America’s poor. A few minutes of Black talk radio, Black Internet sites, and conversations in Black barber shops and hair salons reveals a rage in the Black community that far exceeds what was heard during the Rodney King fiasco, for example. Indeed, this kind of anger hasn’t been seen since the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Inflaming matters was the disgusting site of President Bush holding a press conference with Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Alabama Governor Bob Riley, both Republicans, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown. It was a mutual admiration society as they heaped accolades upon one another. Bush praised the work of Brown, who has incompetently presided over the worst ever Federal response to a natural disaster. He also lauded Barbour and Riley for being “leaders.” Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who can never be expected to express criticism of the President or the party, and Riley, have fallen all over themselves to praise and defend the Federal response. All this while dead Black people are floating in filthy water throughout New Orleans.
The Republicans' failure will be duly noted in the Black community.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, September 3, 2005
Looting and Compassionless Conservatives
People who survived Hurricane Katrina are dying in the streets of New Orleans. They are women and small children, the frail and elderly, and those without their medication. Human beings are crammed in the Superdome and Convention Center without food or water. Louis Armstrong International Airport is now a hospital and people are dying there too. It is quite likely that thousands more will die as federal, state, and local officials underestimated the scope of this tragedy. This is a national disgrace and embarrassment.
And Fox News Channel and conservative bloggers are fixated on looting. They are nothing more than compassionless conservatives.
I’ve done nearly a 180 degree turn on the looting that’s taking place in New Orleans in the wake of the devastating flooding brought on by Hurricane Katrina. Originally, two thoughts came to mind: The first was what a lot of people thought: “I can’t believe my eyes . . . . punish these predators who are stealing.” The second is something that a lot of Black people undoubtedly felt, but many won’t admit: “I can’t believe my eyes . . . . Why are these brothers and sisters stealing like this? It’s embarrassing.” Those were my initial thoughts and I was wrong. The more I thought about what’s going on there and saw and heard first-hand accounts, I realized that my original thoughts were easy and simplistic and didn’t fully take into consideration the needs on the ground.
I’ve come to see that there are two kinds of looters: those who are desperate for basic needs without better alternatives and those driven by opportunism and nihilism. Those in the first group, about which I’m most concerned, should be given the benefit of the doubt. They are trying to stay alive. Those in the second group are disgusting and should be put in jail for a very long time. Those thieves are stupid–they don’t seem to remember that they don’t have homes to which they can take their stolen electronics. What's more, they'll have to leave it wherever it is when they evacuate the city.
I believe that most of the looting is driven more by desperation than rank opportunism and nihilism. People are in trouble throughout the region and there are no easy answers. Those who want to use this as an opportunity to bash poor people, particularly poor Black people, would do well to put on their compassionate conservative caps and give the benefit of the doubt to all those driven by desperation in New Orleans and the rest of that region as they deal with something that their worst dreams could not have imagined. That city is one of the poorest, Blackest cities in the country and is dealing with as large a civilian catastrophe America has seen. They don’t have the resources and infrastructure to deal with it all and they don’t have a wealthy enough population that could easily go somewhere else.
It’s easy for those of us watching this unfold from the comfort of air-conditioned, middle- and upper-middle-class existences hundreds or thousands of miles away to harshly judge the desperate who are looting. The video I’ve seen leaves me conflicted: I'm angry and sad. But the fact is that there is a level of desperation and stress running through that part of the country that we have never seen. Desperate times lead people to do things they would never normally do.
Consider this scenario: you are a 30-year-old mother who bottle-feeds a six-month old infant. You work in a service job at a downtown hotel making barely above minimum wage. You live paycheck to paycheck and only get paid when you work. You have no money. Your home is reduced to rubble. Your neighbors' homes are similarly destroyed. Your extended family is homeless. You have no one to call on to send you money. And even if you had money, there is no place to use it. Your entire neighborhood is flooded. You are indefinitely unemployed. You are now officially desperate and, oh, by the way, the baby is hungry and the formula was washed away in the flood. What do you do? It’s easy for some to say: “I would never loot” or “They’re nothing but common criminals.” But how do you know what you would do in that situation?
So let’s ease up on those driven by desperation and be tough on those stealing televisions and others who want to simply take advantage of an opportunity. After all, “but for the grace of God go I.”
© Michael K. Fauntroy
August 31, 2005
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