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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

new era

Well, 2009 is just about here. In the linear world, this mark of time matters. In the grand scheme of things, it is just the infinite universe. But since we are unwilling to figure out how to use our 10 dimensions and the full power of our brains, we are comforted by the man-made phenomenon that we call time. So in honor of our superstitious rites, I thought I would consider what I am looking forward to in 2009.

The inaugural of the new President can't come soon enough. I'm looking forward to the country working together to address our financial, ecological, and personal issues. kum-bay-ah and all that.

Wouldn't it be great if the election of Obama and the presence of our new first family gave hope to millions of African-Americans in our country? A friend and I were discussing how things will ever change in the glacially slow evolution of our race relations. We settled on the notion that hope is an underrated salve for our interpersonal warfare. If we continue to give meaning to difference, then race will forever be an issue that divides us v. them and enabling the question who is better than the other. By demystifying racial differences and putting meaning on success instead of competition based on race - well, we might make some progress.

Related to demystifying racial differences is the acceleration of educational achievement for kids in the worst performing schools. How can we continue to let generation after generation of young minds go to waste because we refuse to change our educational process to actually ensure that children learn. I'm so tired of teachers complaining that they can't be social workers and teachers too. I'm sick of hearing that there is no money for schools. It is a national nightmare that we place more emphasis on standardized test results than we do on actually producing well educated people. These issues have been plaguing our education system for many years. Get over it and get on with the important work we must do. Teach, educate, and ensure that learning goes on. You know what the characteristics of the students are, what conditions you will have, and what needs to be taught - so get on with it and figure out how to get it done. Enough with the excuses. I don't care if it takes one teacher for every student - do it.

Having a community organizer as our head of state, hopefully will produce attention to our urban ills. We have learned much since our last serious national effort at urban revitalization - see the Jimmy Carter administration... Let's hope our new prez puts his sklz to good use and sends some new options to cities. If we have to keep tweaking the margins, we will never see any significant improvement. I'll be sitting by the phone in case the administration needs some advise.

On a more personal front, I am looking forward to another Gator championship in football, rooting for the Cubs to actually succeed in post season, and enjoying all the benefits of powerfully living a life I love. Check out landmark education to experience what I enjoy every day. I look forward to continuing to put my virtual pen to virtual paper on this blog and contributing to a better world. See you in 2009.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Katrina aftermath says it all - depression may be next round

The Nation has done an interesting story and expose of the aftermath of Katrina in Algiers Point - a white area of New Orleans. Vigilantes took to the streets and shot "looters." Problem is that some of those people were simply trying to find dry ground and Algiers was dry. Other people were trying to get to the National Guard processing point to catch a bus to Houston. The video shows a couple of shooting victims watching Algiers residents boast about their vigilante heroics. This is a sad and viscous commentary on the state of race relations. Here is the full story.

There are stories coming out about a significant uptick in shoplifting as the economic woes of our country grow worse. It is only a matter of time before the vigilante fever erupts in other places of the country that will experience dire straits. Donations to charities and toy drives are down and the need is increasing daily. We need to think about how we as a nation of people will address the crisis that is building. How will we help our neighbors? How will we help the destitute? Will we be willing to give up our material goods, share food and space, and help people or will we resort to "protecting what's mine" and be a vigilante? The economic downturn right now is like a plague - people are hoping that their home is not taken and that their job is not cut. But even if you are not individually a victim or hit by the depression, you will be affected. Everyone will feel the sting as others feel the pain. Everyone will lose a little as others lose everything. This is not a rising river that we can outrun. This is a tsunami and we will all be touched. I worry that race will be the first line of demarcation and that people will stoop to the easy route of racism in order to "protect" themselves.

I read a story today about a wealthy black businessman with a family foundation who has dropped a million dollars on inaugural festivities that will be made available to poor people, wounded veterans, nonprofit volunteers. A nice gesture for sure. They will witness the history in DC on Jan. 20. But I can't help but think that in these economic times if we don't need to be thinking about more strategic uses of $1million. It's his money and he can throw a party or burn it. Whateva.

But what do we do on Jan. 21? Let's not let Algiers set the standard for how we deal with the fear that comes with crisis.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Buck O'Neil

I am a really avid baseball fan - Chicago Cubs. My favorite player from my day was Billy Williams. Most people think of the Cubs and think Ernie "Mr. Cubs" Banks or Ron Santo - current radio voice of the Cubs and shamefully kept out of the Hall.

I had the good fortune of living in KC, home of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum - a must visit if you are anywhere in the vicinity or visiting in the area. The Negro Leagues existed when the Major Leagues were segregated - BJR (before Jackie Robinson). The Negro teams were amazing and had a number of great players (some who went on to the MLB when it integrated) and some who retired long before the opportunity became available. The Museum chronicles the teams and all the great history of the players and the times. One of the greats was John "Buck" O'Neil. He was my hero and died a couple of years ago.

Buck O'Neil grew up in Florida and wanted to attend the University of Florida - my alma mater. He was turned down because UF at the time was segregated. Buck played baseball for the KC Monarchs and was a standout, though not the best player. He went on to become the first African-American coach in the MLB - for the Chicago Cubs. He was a talent scout and signed Ernie Banks to the Cubs. So, you can see that for me, I had to love Buck.

In his retirement, Buck took on the Negro Leagues with great passion, becoming the ambassador for their story and champion of the museum. Of course, in KC he was a legend and celebrity. He was a tireless and incredibly optimistic supporter of the mission of the Museum across the country. Annually, there is a dinner and weekend in KC for African-American ball players that draws a number of luminaries from the MLB to support the museum. Very cool. All these fans of the Leagues and friends of Buck fought to get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sadly, shamefully, an error of historic proportions, worst judgment in history - Buck was denied entry into the Hall in his last opportunity when a vote was taken for Negro League players. With great aplomb, Buck said it was ok and in one of the classiest moments in baseball history - Buck spoke at their induction at the Hall. That's who he was and the character he infused into the Museum. (Note: a statue of Buck was erected outside the Hall - once again indicating the closed door policy of the MLB...).

Buck had a dream for KC - to build an education center for kids in the building where the Negro Leagues were formed. It is a beautiful old red brick structure that has been closed for years and is a silent sentinel to what will be Buck's legacy. I started a group on the UF Alumni social network site - the Gator Nation - called Gators Love Baseball - as a tribute to Buck and his connection to the University. I had hoped to have Buck recognized by the Alumni association, but sadly, he died before I was successful. I hoped that Gator Alumni would donate to Buck's dream.

This weekend the Museum hired a new Executive Director, Greg Baker. There are concerns that the Museum will drop their plans for the Education Center. One, the Museum has always been in financial peril and two, the fundraising for the Center has been lackluster to say the least. Seems that when Buck died, the enthusiasm for these efforts died with him.

I contacted Greg as soon as I heard he had been selected. I've known him and his family since arriving in KC. I am pledging to redouble my efforts to this cause. Maybe the Museum will spin off the Center to another group. Maybe it won't. Doesn't matter - as both causes will go on. The African-American community is quite stirred up about the 8-7 board vote that settled on Greg. I don't envy him having to go into a divided situation like that. Jason Whitlock, sports commentator, wrote a scathing column about Greg's selection. Way to support the cause, Jason! Comments about Greg center on questioning his commitment to the Museum, his commitment to the black community, and his professional skills. Glad the community could come together to honor Buck's memory. Well. I loved Buck. I love baseball. I love UF. I love the Cubs. I have no choice but to support the Museum and the Center. Expect to read more about it here!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Urban Policy Agenda

The election was like no other and now this new administration is engaging in a transition like no other. Bold and innovative don't begin to describe the way the Obama group is shaping up how government will be approached. From YouTube vids, to podcasts, to blogs, to a completely open and transparent process - you can watch it all unfold AND engage in the process. Talk about a 180 change from the secretive administration of Bush. This is great stuff! Here is the link the to the Urban Policy agenda. It covers a lot of territory and I suspect it will be implemented using many interrelated strategies, new tools, and participation from every corner of our country. I particularly like the attention to "green" approaches to economic development and urban revitalization. These are approaches that make sense and can have a meaningful impact on our cities.It also has a focus on the next generation - urban education, youth violence, technology and new industry - things we can build on, not just the typical panoply of programs.

As an urbanist and someone who is dedicated to the preservation, resurrection, and advancement of cities as a significant piece of our national fabric, I am elated that we have a new administration that a: knows what a city is, b: understands that "urban" is not a dirty word and c: is willing to be bold and creative in actually making a difference with federal policies towards our cities. Honestly, not since Nixon have we seen such attention given to Urban America and this broad of a scale. Clinton paid attention to cities but the attention was narrowly focused and conceived. He was more about "reform" than "innovative." But that was his place in history and I get that. Obama has the luxury of a paradigm shift and is taking full advantage of it. Very Kennedy-esque. You might want to bookmark and visit it often. It is where our country is going and it will be a great ride!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

It's Thanksgiving

As a vegetarian, I am not participating in the traditional bird binge. However, I do have my veggies at the ready and plan to have a nice meal. Watching and listening to the events unfold in India tonight, I thought it was time to pause, reflect, and realize all that I am thankful for.

that I live in a country where I probably won't ever face a situation of chaos like they had in Mumbai tonight.

that I am not reeling from the economic collapse, mainly because I downsized years ago thanks to the urging of a good friend.

that I will see friends over the long weekend and enjoy their company rather than get into the shopping frenzy of the 5am crowd on Friday.

that our new president-elect has acted more presidential since Nov. 4th this year than our current president has in the last 8 years. This bodes well for our country.

that there is very little open hostility from extreme quarters about Obama's race.

that I feel like I am making a difference by having taken this new job even though I have moved so far from everyone I love.

that I have the serenity to keep me from going ballistic on my frat house neighbors.

that I have people to care for my cat while I am out of town.

that I am aware, alive, and purposeful on this planet and enjoy all the people, places and goings on around me and in my life. Not too shabby.

Hope everyone has a great holiday weekend!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What I'm learning from a 3rd grader

I signed up for the lunchtime Big Sisters program in Camden. I visit a 3rd grade student once per week at lunchtime. For me this activity serves multiple purposes. I am in solidarity with the 100,000 of Kansas City, I get to hang out with kids which I was really missing and these kids are fantastic!, and I get to experience a public school in my city and see just how things really are for kids.

This school, by virtue of being in Camden, is all children who are African-American, Latino, and a rainbow of others. I occasionally see an Anglo kid. They wear uniforms that vary by grade. My lil' sis wears a light blue polo with navy pants or tan pants. She loves to accessorize with jewelry or on days like today, a turtleneck underneath the polo. Adorable. If they want to (and can afford it) there is a fancy uniform pinafore to wear. The kids are eager to talk and hang out and they enjoy meeting new people. They all talk about their families at home and extended families. It's great.

What I hate is the chaos of the school. I meet my sis in the lunchroom which is a converted gym. The acoustics add to the din. The teachers get exasperated with the children and start yelling. As the din grows louder, the teacher just shouts louder. You can guess the rest. The kids have 55 minutes to get from their class, to the lunchroom, get food, eat, have recess, and get back to class. It doesn't work real well. Fights erupt, kids are crying, security is bringing kids in from the playground, and using the lunchroom as a time out spot where the offenders and victims are shouting to their friends about who did what. Meanwhile, I'm trying to connect with my sis and her chums. We would have gone to the guidance room as we are supposed to, but it was locked and no one was there. Sigh. But she is a joy and brings a lot of sunshine to my day and week. Camden is bleak. But the kids are a bright spot. I try to keep that thought when I get weary dealing with crazy adults.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

the backlash, ignoring it may not be an option

Amidst the fanfare and euphoria of the election results, come some sobering news stories. A man in Lawrence, KS found anti-Obama racist graffiti on his house next to his Obama yard sign. A black church in the Northeast was burned to the ground and fears arose that the act was related to the election aftermath. A conservative opinion piece appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer stating that white guilt about race could now be declared dead, along with all affirmative action and other support systems for poor people. At some point, this backlash will intensify and the nation must be ready with a response.

Pundits on the right are gearing up to tear the new President down. This is part of politics and to be expected. The backlash, however, will be carried out against regular people, not the president. And if it is not carried out, then any violence that entails blacks and whites will be laid at the feet of the new President. In my area of the country there was an incident of violence at a local university involving blacks and whites. The very first response was a suggestion that this was in response to the election results. Who knows if that is so, but it is raised as a possibility.

Instead of taking the election of Barack Obama as a cum-bay-ah moment - perhaps we need to be preemptive about the inevitable second guessing and finger pointing. What would that look like? Maybe it would look like the night of the election - where people of all different stripes, joined together, and shared in the victory. If there is a racially tinged incident - we all need to speak up and support whomever is being victimized and let everyone know such attacks will not be tolerated. Will all the euphoria over the Obama victory be channeled in this way? Will the people who said "yes we can" step up and say "yes we do?"

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Global Warmning Wanes as Hell Freezes Over

The old school opinion said it would never happen - but it did. The victory of Obama as our 44th Prez defies superlatives. I've been trying to wrap my head around it all week. Surely, hell has frozen over. I believe I saw a pig fly by. And there goes a beggar on a horse.

Everything looks different. I have no idea where the stock market is at the moment and I don't care. I have confidence in the new administration and whatever happens - even further catastrophe, I know we have a leader I can believe in and trust. It's like a huge weight has been lifted. No longer do I have to second guess the foxes in the white hen house who sought daily to tear down all that I believe in. It's a miracle.

Instead of reading doom and gloom on the web, I am reading dozens of intelligent, uplifting, spirited essays and stories. The intelligentsia has come out of the closet. I just read a story about Generation O - the young people who worked for Obama and danced in the streets on Tuesday. The author said the Us v. Them of the 60's is now over. Thank God! It was exhausting keeping up that divide. LOL. What happened on Tuesday is what that 60's generation was fighting for. They just forgot that fighting could be turned into positive working - more coalition building and less division. And, voila, the job was done.

The symbolism of making the acceptance speech in Grant Park may be lost on Generation O, but not on those who lived through the 60's. It was there that "the whole world was watching" at the Democratic convention in 1968. Mayor Daley put the cops on the hippies and all hell broke loose. The old man must be wondering why he has to wear a coat now - see the title of this post. But many of us who are not in Generation O get it too. We use Facebook. We text message. We email. We twitter. So maybe it is time to stop labeling the generations and let us all be one. In the old days, people were expected to age with dignity - meaning shrivel up and get out of the way. Not so today. Our Rock n Roll roots continue to drive the modern culture. It is a beautiful blend and the election proved it.

So here is to old and new, hippies and O'ers, Millenium, Gen-Xers, and everyone in between. We are one nation. Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we will.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Today is THE day!

8am EST: I voted. I cried. I am overwhelmed. The enormity of the day hit me. I thought back to my childhood and all the racism I saw inflicted in Chicago. I thought back to my family and all the times the N word flew. I thought back to my first job as a white minority in a black social service agency. I thought about my white privilege. It is a profound honor to cast my vote for Sen. Obama. I'll check in throughout the day on this blog to record this momentous occasion. Wow.

Noon EST: I'm reading about friends in KC who had to wait hours to vote because the wrong voter registration books were at the polls. Hope people who had to leave will come back later. I can't break away from CNN audio - hearing about reports all over the country on voting experiences. The anticipation is excruciating! The turnout seems to be overwhelming!! What a day!!!

3pm EST: I made 100 phone calls for Obama to voters in Pennsylvania - tough room to work, as these were NOT in Philadelphia. But hey, I did get to talk to 2 people who DID vote for Obama and one sweet older lady who was on her way to go vote for him! Made me feel like I made a contribution to the street effort to GOTV!

Midnight+ EST: I let the returns wash over me like an elixir. I am seeing what I had hoped for. I'm experiencing what I never thought I would see. After FL in 2000 and OH in 2004, now there is no doubt. A victory so stunning, so overwhelming, there is no need for a recount. Watching everyone in Grant Park in Chicago made me homesick, wishing I could be there to enjoy the revelry. Watching the faces of all the people, representing our country, yes OUR country, is profound. Then the speech. Children will learn it and recite it. I wept at its elegance, its hope, its inspiration. I have never been so moved by a political speech, one person's vision for all of us. I will never, never forget this moment. I am so lucky to be here. I look forward to the tomorrow. Yes we can - have hope, have peace, have prosperity, have equality.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Race in Philadelphia

Anyone who has lived in this area for 5 minutes knows that the city of Brotherly Love, isn't. There were 6 murders over the weekend. Meanwhile, I attended an event at Penn U. where Chris Mathews of Hardball fame was on the panel. He's a Phily native and felt he could drop some comments along the way as he and others commented on the Presidential election. Several times he casually dissed North Phily for its crime and well, you know (blackness...shhhhh - don't actually say it). He used all manner of code to speak about the way the old neighborhood changed. I cringed as the mostly white crowd (it was at the Wharton School, no less)laughed along with his derision, as if it were a wink-wink moment. Sigh.

But then I read something uplifting - a discussion at Temple U. (located in North Phily) about race. They tackled it, opened up about it, and generated some insight. Here's the article from the Phily Inquirer. Penn U. could take a lesson.

Gives me inspiration for how we can generate some movement on the Rutgers campus to work with Camden instead of against it. I heard a faculty member who lives in my neighborhood, sit in a meeting and dis the city. She spoke authoritatively about crime and how unsafe the city is. She's the type who will be the first recruit...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The "real" America

No surprise, but I think Gov. Palin got it wrong. The "real" America is not the backwoods uber-conservative crowd. It is actually the thoughtful people who agree to disagree but when all is said and done, come together for their country. All that crap about "country first" is accurate only if you believe in lock-step with McCain. Sorry, John, but you are waaaaaaay out of touch.

Here is a fantastic video of republicans, who are white, talking about why they are not voting for McCain, and yes, they are voting for Obama. These are not lefty socialists, but thoughtful people who have pondered where their vote should be placed. This is part of the "real" America - people who think.

Conservative Republicans for Obama

Friday, October 17, 2008


What does it take to break the cycle of people feeling such little hope that they repeat the behaviors that perpetuate the stereotypes of the inner city? Why is it that a kid that is given every opportunity to be loved, educated, cared for, and build a future would toss all of it aside to commit crimes against those who try to help them? This is not a case of being incorrigible. This is not a case of being dumb or foolish. This is a case of hopelessness; of feeling so sure that his or her life will not change, that there is no point in trying. This is a case of not even realizing that the baggage they carry with them is weighing them down. They could drop it and literally walk to safety, but they don't. There is an article I just used in a conference presentation called "dropping your tools." It states that those that fight wildfires in forests would sometimes die because they could not run from the fire fast enough to the safety zone. The reason is that they did not drop their tools and lighten their load, instead, trying to run to safety with 50 pounds of equipment. Because they could not drop their tools, they died. It wasn't that they tried and could not, it is that they didn't even realize that dropping the tools was an option - they were so habituated to being with their gear - that it was part of them.

I believe this is what keeps young people in the urban core from breaking their cycles and running to safety. Their environment is so much a part of them, they cannot drop their gear and save themselves. Even when someone is telling them to do so and it will save them. They don't. The article I was using talked about how a supervisor would yell to the firefighter, "drop the gear" and then run to that person and grab the gear. But then the supervisor would try to take the gear with them or would look to carefully set the tools aside - as if that gear was part of them and could not be discarded. I think that is part of what goes on with the kids I know. To have every opportunity thrust at them and to ignore it because they cannot drop their gear. It is not that they choose consciously, it is because they believe that it is who they are and it is necessary to survive. A fireman survives if he has his gear - without it, he could die. The irony is that sometimes he has to drop it to save himself and he doesn't see that. Kids that lie, steal, cheat and reject opportunities are merely in the mode they see as real. They cannot discern that dropping that gear will save their life.

It makes sense now that kids that go to "better" schools have difficulty in the transition - changing the place does not mean they will change their baggage. Kids that have programs and activities will continue to engage in questionable or illegal behavior - one does not affect the other. Our logic towards these kids is that they just haven't been given opportunity - and once so given, they will change. The firefighters didn't and died. These kids won't and will "die" figuratively and, yes, some will literally die.

The firefighters changed their methods to consciously adopt new patterns that would save lives. Part of it was to create new safety zone specifications so they would be able to exit to safety more quickly. Part of it was to have one person in charge of monitoring conditions to give more lead time for withdrawal from the danger zone. What are we going to do to consciously reshape the patterns for these kids. No child left behind is not doing it. After school sports are not doing it. Special summer jobs programs are not doing it. It was not the firefighter that had to change - it was the pattern of their work and supervision that changed. To help these kids, we have to change their patterns and our supervision. Maybe a traditional school system of 8-3 M-F is not working. Maybe our supervision of telling them what is right and wrong is not working. Maybe our system of checks and balances, punishment and reward, is not working.

I'm no psychologist. I'm not a juvenile expert. But I do know that some of these kids are unable to drop their gear and will be consumed by a fire that overtakes them because they can't run fast enough to get to safety. We have to change. It may be the only way to save them. And yes, Damon is my motivation for this post.

Monday, October 13, 2008

What does it take? part 1

I think about urban revitalization a great deal. It is what I do professionally. But I live it personally as well. I sometimes cannot separate the two. My new university (where I am employed) is seizing the initiative of civic engagement. Many colleges and universities are taking up this banner to be good neighbors, to build and expand their campuses responsibly, and to bring the energy and brainpower of the university to the community in which the campus is situated. Much of this has to do with enlightening students by getting them involved in the world off campus - to get them out of the ivory tower. The rest has to do with the University as a big physical institution that takes up a lot of land and has development interests that affect the city.

My interest at this point is two-fold. First is how to get students to think about the surrounding community in new ways (and in Camden, that is a herculean task), and second is to understand how the first task may affect the University's perception of the community and ultimately race relations. My school is a white institution in a black and hispanic city. The student population is diverse, but mostly white students from the surrounding suburbs. They have been immersed in a culture that has taught them to fear this city and to get in/get out as quickly as possible. Some faculty I have met have the same conception - drive in, teach, do your job, leave and get the hell out of dodge. A colleague mentioned that they had no idea there was a neighborhood next to the campus (where I live) because they get on and off the expressway and never venture beyond the campus. Someone on campus said to me the other day that if our school were located in the suburbs, we would have tripple the student population we now have. They said our location is a deterrent and we have to improve the city to make it work for us. Hmmmm.

I am building an army, a force of students, to rethink their relationship with Camden. There are over 5000 students at our campus. If there were 5000 people supporting this city, advocating for it, treating the city with respect while here, talking positively about the city to others, and getting involved - even if only to patronize a merchant off campus, imagine how that might affect the city's ability to thrive. I am not suggesting a missionary contingent. I am suggesting a listening party. A group that steps out of the way and in so doing, empowers the community.

What's needed is an army of people who will listen to what the city is really saying, listen to what the people are saying and how they want their city to be. Stop being an impediment by being so right about what you know this city to be.

I see Camden's decay as a result, at least in part, of the abuse the city takes from people that don't live here and have no stake. This includes the executives and workers that drive in and leave from their heavily guarded parking lots and buildings. This includes the students, parents, alumni, staff, administrators, and faculty that cruise into campus daily and leave as quickly as possible under the watchful gaze of a campus security force and a campus police force. These are similar groups of people that reinforce to each other that their perspective of this city as a dangerous place is spot on. Daily, I see and hear comments and actions from students, faculty, merchants, and public/civic leaders that reinforce that worldview. And then we all spend a lot of time trying to "improve" Camden. Doctors, heal thyselves!

Camden is a tough, crime-ridden city. It is in stark decay. It is poor. It is overwhelmingly minority. But treating the city with disrespect when you don't live here is not helpful. Yes, you are right. The city is a model of urban blight. But how does you being right improve the situation? It merely confirms the obvious and makes you feel justified in trashing the city. Imagine if you lived in a neighborhood where every day the newspaper said it is a rathole, people who drove in to work did not want to have anything to do with you and would not patronize your businesses. Imagine if your neighborhood were under strict supervision by authorities to make sure you and your neighbors did not get out of line, but rarely helped you. Imagine this went on for 40 years after the jobs left, after people left the rest of the city and after the money left. Welcome to inner city USA. Welcome to Camden.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Go Donna!

Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's campaign and is a perennial commentator, hits a home run in this clip on race and politics. Go Donna! (thanks to Sandy P. for sending this to me).

Given where the McCain campaign is taking itself these days, her remarks are on the money. What is the strategy when Palin states that Obama does not see America like we see it. What is she talking about? Who is we? Why would the campaign feel it necessary to reduce the discussion to an us v. them unless they were trying to use race as a wedge?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Unsung racism

Nicolas Kristof has written the definitive essay on racism without racists. Check it out here .
The best part of the essay is the hundreds of comments on the blog site

Very thoughtful readers discuss the issue of racism, subtle racism, and more in this election cycle. I need not write anymore on this topic as this will give you the full 360 on the topic. Read, learn, think, enjoy, share. The election is but a few weeks away and never has there been a more important one than this.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Money and Politics

The presidential race is entering the home stretch - debates begin Friday and we should expect some ugliness in October. How far will the Republicans and their surrogates push the race envelope? They are already doing their normal Rovian lying technique - tell a lie often enough and people will believe it. When it becomes the "truth" the Dems have to spend time tearing it down. Will there be whispers of a white mistress? Will there be links to Farakhan or other black militants? Did you see the disgusting display at the God fearing Family Focus conference of Obama on a pancake box as Aunt J with the backside showing him in a turban pointing to Mecca. I kid you not. This of course is then "exposed" by the media - giving further publicity to these racists. I am so thoroughly disgusted by it all I can't even think straight.

My bigger concern is this Wall Street crisis. How long will it take before whispers are heard about Obama's ability to manage the money? If you know the movie - Trading Places - the old geezers are overheard chortling that they would never let a N..... run their firm (Eddy Murphy as the hero thrust into the role of money manager). Will the Bernacke's and Paulson's of the world hand the keys to the safe over to Obama? We are in a full-scale economic meltdown that is scaring the pants off of a lot of people. We've already heard from a couple of good ole boy representatives from KY and GA call Obama uppity and a boy. What impact will this bailout of a gazillion bucks do to heighten fears about who is in charge? It's setting up to be a perfect storm.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What can one person do?

I'm devouring news sources today concerning 2 items that are related - Hurricane Ike and the Presidential election. The election is now in freefall and who knows where it will land - not unlike the storm surge that swept away Crystal Bay, TX and pushed Galveston into downtown Houston.

We are on the precipice of choosing a fork in the road - going down one will produce a neocon revolution that GW could only dream about. The other will produce a reality that reflects our nation as a diverse, energetic, bold, and entrepreneurial people. While I tend to promote the dramatic and rely on hyperbole, I believe there is some truth here. The stakes are high and those that think nothing changes have got their heads in the sand. I have many friends and colleagues who are working in the campaign apparatus for Obama doing all the things that organizers do (and yes, Guilliani knows what an organizer is despite his repulsive commentary). And the campaign of Obama encapsulates what race relations could become in the USA - a thoughtful, purposful, realistic integration of people and ideas into the fabric of our culture.

But today I write about inspiration of what one person can do to affect race relations. Can one person make a difference? Yes, they can. Obama is making a difference on a big stage. MLK made a big difference on a world stage. And there are scores of people who are making a difference on smaller stages in their communities. Touching the lives of others is important work of the human realm. We forget that sometimes because we are busy fighting with our boss, tending to our kids, picking up the groceries, checking our email...We forget that touching - as in touch, move and inspire - another person is a way to have an impact.

I was in a movie theater yesterday and I was really eager to see this movie. There were 3 women behind me who started to chat it up during the previews and on into the intro of the movie. Being on the east coast now, I did what any eastcoaster would do - I whipped around and said glaringly - Am I going to have to move? They shut up. Well, didn't I feel vindicated. Unfortunately for me, my behavior nagged me throughout the movie. I knew what I had to do. When the credits rolled and people stood to exit, I stood, turned around and said, Ladies, I'm sorry for my outburst. I've had a bad day. I hope you enjoyed the movie. They said no problem and thanked me. I think they were shocked. This doesn't happen on the east coast.

Here's one more detail. They were all black. I knew that when I chastised them. It had flashed through my mind - oh here we go - black people like to talk it up to the movie. I felt I had to let them know I wasn't gonna stand (or sit) for it. Yeah, it's like that. Racism rears its head everywhere. I was exerting my privilege. I would not have done that to 3 middle aged white women. I might have done it to 3 white teenagers - but that's an age thing. So I had to repair the harm - which I did. But it reminded me how slender a thread this election hangs on. There is so much talk about how white working class women won't vote for Obama and Sarah is their shiny new hope. Sarah gives these women the ability to tell Obama to be quiet - there is a new girl in town and she deserves to be heard. Why? Because she's new? No. Because she is white and a woman.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Our comfort factor

2008 is shaping up to be a watershed year. Get your seat belts on folks, because this is huge.

A colleague and I were discussing the presidential campaign and he stated that he had heard from friends that they thought people would not vote for Obama because he is "out of the comfort factor" of some voters. Of course for white people that means they have the privilege of actually voting on the basis of their comfort with anyone of another race. But most white people don't quite see it that way. Instead that "comfort factor" is based on what we all "know" about anyone who is not white - they are lazy, less educated, suspect, criminally minded, beneath us, can't be trusted, etc. Yet in polite circles we would never say we harbor racist feelings - but rather our "comfort" is not yet there. Months ago I wrote about the discussion early on in the primaries about whether America is "ready" for a black president. Well the question is whether white America is ready. Again, privilege dominates and dictates the discussion. And I know many whites will say - it has nothing to do with race - I just don't think Obama is qualified...but what is your standard of qualification? George Bush? Dan Quayle? John Kennedy? Or I don't like his policies - then were you ever shopping the Dems or are you always voting some other party? People are quick to dismiss the race issue but they sure have an opinion on Obama.

Dick Polman, a nationally recognized columnist in the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote today on the "elephant in the room." read it here. The upshot is that there are white voters who just can't bring themselves to vote for a black man for a variety of race-based reasons. I have a few words of advice.

Dear white voters who can't bring themselves to vote for a black man for president:

I understand your fear. I grew up in a violently segregated area of Chicago where staying segregated was tied to the idea that it would maintain your economic position. I get it that when you are economically vulnerable, when you fear the loss of a good paying job, that when you have a modest house and fear losing value in it, that when you feel like you have "made it" to a rung on the ladder that your spot is dependent upon not getting pulled down by the guy below you trying to get on your spot. It is so very easy to assign the race of the person below you as the reason to deny them your spot. It is so very easy to suggest that because of the race of the person below you that they are not worthy to pass you or take what's yours. And it is so very easy to claim that anyone who has passed you is because of race-based preferences that work against you. And now you face the ultimate act of faith - that you would allow someone of that race to become your President - who will determine the shape and ease of the ladder you have worked so hard to climb and on which you maintain your position. That's a lot to ask I know. But ask I must.

You have been taught for many years that blacks are the greatest threat to your economic security through their ability to pass you by using affirmativae action, special government assistance, and civil rights laws. What you never see is that it is the bosses and rich whites at the top of the ladder that are keeping you down. They tell you to fear the black population and you comply by doing whatever you can to keep blacks down. This completes a very nice cushioned and isolated position for the wealthy. You can't get to them and your attention is diverted towards the bottom, not the top. I borrow this point from Tim Wise (see it here). The Republicans have complained that the Democrats are trying to escalate class division and asking people not to buy into that. Of course they are. Because if you do, you might see past race worries and see those wealthy people at the top who are doing everything they can to keep the economic divisions they built! We all want to be financially secure and even rich. But to compound the sin of keeping down those who seek to be rich by keeping down people by race is just wrong.

I ask that you see America in a light that instead looks at hard workers and freeloaders. Who is working hard to better themselves and take care of their family? Maybe it is that black guy who is trying to get a union job, but the union is not keen on letting too many black guys in. Who is slacking and would rather sit around than work? Maybe it is that white union guy who knows his brother-in-law won't expect him to do anything while he collects his padded paycheck. This election is not about race. It is about who is working hard and who isn't. You may not know it or want to realize it, but there are hundreds of thousands of black and brown families that are struggling to get ahead just like you. They are raising their families, trying to learn in school, and going to church. But they have the added burden of someone putting their foot on their neck. Civil rights and affirmative action are just policy - and they can be distorted as easily as a union rule. People will take advantage of whatever opportunity they can find - whether it is an affirmative action hire that seems to be less worthy than a white hire or whether it is a white hire that is done on the basis of race because hiring a black is out of the boss's "comfort zone."

I ask that you not reject Barack Obama on the basis of his race. I ask that you not collapse all your political concerns into one easy measure - that he is black. I ask that you not find lots of reasons to not vote for him to justify your discomfort with his race. I am asking a lot. But the only people who can change race relations are those with privilege and power. And in race relations, being white means having privilege and power. Everything in this country is set up to compare to the white standard. You have the privilege and you have the power. Be a good steward of that power and use it wisely. Don't judge Barack Obama on the color of his skin or devise a list of his bad qualities that lead up to a justification of dismissing him because he is black. Look at the issues. Imagine him to be white. Who would you vote for? Open your eyes and be an American who is about healing our country, not dividing it beyond recognition. Thank you.

To those that have already have a strong understanding of privilege and power and race issues, please understand that I am not asking Obama to be white and I am not asking whites to maintain their power of privilege. I am asking those who are in that zone of discomfort with race to take a fresh look. It is not easy to do. Not everyone will see the issues the same way. Let each come to this conclusion on their own path. But come they must in order to see that an election dictated by race is a losing proposition for our country.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

My new neighborhood - Cooper Grant in Camden

In Kansas City I lived in a city of 500,000 and a neighborhood of 10,000. But I knew the people on my block and every day I ran into someone I knew, somewhere around town.

Camden is a city of 78,000 and my neighborhood is a few hundred - only because the only market rate apartment complex in the city is in my neighborhood. We had a block party over the holiday weekend and had a very nice turnout. The neighborhood is quite diverse - young, old, immigrant, Anglo, African-American, Camden natives, transplants (like me), Spanish speakers, Italian speakers, renters, homeowners, blue-collar, white-collar, and student. All this in about a six square block area! People wave, chat, honk, and generally feel good about this neighborhood, despite the urban challenges we face.

Camden as a whole is not as hospitable. The city is not very diverse (mostly hispanic and african-american) and very few white residents. The daytime population is centered near my neighborhood and is very white - US Courthouse, Rutgers, other schools, Campbell Soup company, hospitals, and a hi-tech manufacturer. But when the workday is done, my part of the city changes dramatically. Stores close up at 5 or 6pm - even the CVS! Traffic thins and pedestrians disappear. The streetcar train to Trenton takes the commuters away and comes much less frequently. Other parts of the city don't change nearly as much - daytime has a lot of people sitting on their porches and hanging on the street. At night the people go inside and the people hanging on the street are dealers and streetwalkers. But the shops stay open - particularly the food places. There is a grocery store on the side of town far from me, but it stays open at night. I've had simple advice from residents of all colors who are working professionals - don't drive through Camden at night. I have ignored this advice on a number of occasions but the drive can be daunting. Every day the newspapers remind us that Camden is the most dangerous city in the country - with a higher murder rate per 100,000 than Phily. I'm not sure I'm buying that factoid - because certainly NYC, Chicago, and even KC have a high number of homicides. KC is on a record setting pace this year, but so is Camden.

I don't know the city well enough yet to know where to avoid, how much fear is just hype, and what the streets are really like. The level of hysteria over the "eastside" in KC is laughable and I never worried about living or being there. But I spent time getting to know the area. I'll do the same here and figure it out. For now, I will enjoy my little neighborhood and city life.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A New Day?

August 28, 2008. Remember where you were. Today is an historic day. I watched the speech. I am inspired. I grew up on those segregated streets of Chicago. I was raised on the vitriol of racial hate. I saw Chicago burn as the whole world watched in 1968. And now, 40 years later - on the 45th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech, Barack Obama is nominated as our Democratic candidate for President. I wept. I cheered. I listened with rapt attention. What a day.

I watched the speech in a local bar/restaurant in Camden, NJ at a party hosted by one of my students. The politics watchers were mostly African-American, but it was a healthy mixed crowd. But the other half of the bar was filled with mostly white college aged young people who had no interest other than getting the next round. They were completely oblivious to what was going on. It made absolutely no difference to them. They are not likely to vote. But their abstention speaks volumes about the critical state of politics in our country. What does it say about us that a significant segment of the population opts out of the polity. And you know they have counterparts in the Latino and African-American communities as well. People who just don't think it matters if they vote or not. People who don't care who wins because their cynicism about politics is like granite. People who don't think that anyone cares about them, listens to them, or could do anything for them if they were heard or cared about.

Change in this election means reaching those citizens too. They need to be brought back into the fold. Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Greenie, Socialist, Natural Rights, Constitutional, or whatever - it is important for them to be a part of the process. Without them, we are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But I will revel in the memory of tonight's history. It was awesome. I was moved. I feel connected to my country in a way that I haven't in a long time. I am too much of a realist to be Pollyanna for too long. But let me have tonight to savor. What a time it is.

Monday, August 25, 2008

History to be made this week

Well, here we are on the cusp of an event that not many people predicted. The Democrats will nominate the first African-American candidate for president. This is an historic occasion. Barack Obama will give his convention speech to accept the nomination on the 45th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Folks - 45 years is an instant when you consider that our country hung onto slavery for its first 100 years and took another 100 years for equal/civil rights legislation to be passed. The country has moved at warp speed to come to where we are in this year, in this election, at this convention this week.

Interesting conversation going on around the country. The African-American community is concerned that white America will declare an end to discrimination and racial issues upon the nomination of Sen. Obama. Furthermore, should he be elected, the concern increases that the country will no longer feel that affirmative action is needed, that voting rights no longer need to be monitored, and equal opportunity safeguards will be shelved. After all, if a black man can become the President, then our race relations must be ok. The NYTimes has a good article on this discussion today. read it here.

The discussion made me think of progressive black mayors - notably David Dinkins in NYC and Harold Washington in Chicago. Both were firsts in their city. Both had to deal with the backlash of white voters that basically said - finally, we don't have to talk about race anymore. And when those mayors attempted to provide the support and attention to race-based issues like unemployment and poverty, school performance, and redevelopment - they faced criticism, resistance, and worse. This backlash will be present when Obama is elected. He should prepare for it now.

It's ironic isn't it, that whites would claim "race fatigue" and suggest that the election of a minority to high office will put an end to the issue. Why wouldn't the assumption be, at last we have the courage to step up and deal with race by electing the only person who can directly take it on - a minority president? I imagine that blacks feel they must tread lightly on this issue for fear of scaring off the white voters who fear that a black president will make it open season on whites and give all the resources to blacks and worse. I am quite certain there are white people who will vote for Obama and internalize their understanding of what that means as something like, he will transcend race and it won't be an issue anymore. Because they can't bring themselves to vote for a black candidate in order to support race relations. Because to do so would require admitting that whites could not adequately solve the race issue. Because to do so would require admitting some culpability in discrimination. President Obama will have a tricky road ahead if he is successful in getting elected.

What if this white backlash becomes reality and he is less than successful in his presidency on issues of race relations? Will he be called ineffective by the white media (which woulde really be ironic)? Will he lose favor in the black community for not being able to deliver whatever is assumed he will deliver? Will his election actually retard progress toward racial equality? On these issues, whites must take responsibility and act accordingly. Whites will need to step aside and empower others to lead and make decisions. Whites will need to support Obama's attention to minority issues. Whites will need to back off their expectations that race divisions are over and step up to deal with race relations realistically - meaning take responsibility for the current conditions and make some changes. Who will speak to white America on what they need to do? Will Biden take this on or is his job to tell the lunch-bucket crowd that Obama is ok and he won't mess with the status quo on race relations? The campaign could miss an important opportunity to heal racial divisions, not just pretend they don't exist. Should be interesting.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Suburban angst and Section 8

Woe has come to affluent suburbs. Not only are they facing high rates of foreclosures, but some of the houses are becoming Section 8 rental units. I kid you not. Here is a great article from the NYTimes about Antioch, CA where African-Americans from Oakland are using their Section 8 vouchers to find affordable subsidized housing in the 'burbs. Check it out. There is also a post at Tony's Kansas City with some raging comments here.

The situation is ironic on a number of levels, but let me use some of my insights to sharpen the focus. The Times article pits the poor Section 8 tenants against the hostile and frightened white suburbanites. While that generates a great sympathy angle for the tenants, it does little to get at the deep issues. The Times article touches on some research that has been done on Section 8 dispersal programs where low income minority tenants are moving to the suburbs. The findings suggest that they are bringing their crime with them from the city and bringing down the quality of life in the suburbs. While that "fact" may be true, it is the interpretation of what it means that is very disturbing and it is that interpretation that permeates the Times article.

Having lived in an inner city neighborhood for a couple of years, I have a better sense than most white suburban people about the issues facing residents who migrate to the suburbs. First the section 8 tenants who are black and by necessity, low income, are moving into a neighborhood of white middle and upper middle income residents. This is culture shock for all concerned. But the big difference for the white folk is that they use their position of privilege to define what the suburban community life ought to be. They assume that life as they know it should be the default. And if minority poor people are coming into their neighborhood, they should "assimilate" and adopt the default standard of living. Those that don't are obviously unfit to live in the neighborhood and this leads to the white residents to bemoan how their community has changed. If those same white residents moved to the inner city, they would expect the existing black residents to conform to the expectations that whites bring with them (gentrifiers are known for this). No loud music or cars, no street gatherings, no hustling - because white people believe that their way of life is the way everyone should be living their life.

I am not saying that drugs, violence, and domestic disturbance ought to be tolerated in anyone's neighborhood. On that point whites and blacks agree. No one other than the perpetrators wants that kind of life condition. But whites assume that these life conditions are voluntarily adopted by minorities and/or come with the inner city territory. Bigoted whites assume that any black person who moves into their neighborhood will be violent and do drugs. Well meaning whites assume that now that these poor black folk have been delivered from the ghetto that their lives will turn around and they will live like the white people do. Only the clueless would think either of these two positions are true.

Yes, the inner city is a tough place. It is loud, it can be violent, there are drugs. But what I encountered most is that it is stressful. Stress caused by not having enough money to pay the bills when an emergency comes along. Stress caused by not having a full-time job with benefits. Stress caused by a local economic market that is built on hustling - drugs, stolen merchandise, and the ultimate renewable good - one's own body. Stress caused by being constantly surrounded by boarded up houses that white suburban investors couldn't flip or houses that neighbors couldn't make a go of. Stress caused by vacant lots everywhere filled with trash that no matter how often it is removed, it is replaced by new trash as fast as the weeds that grow high. Winter is the only respite from visual blight because it is too cold for the weeds or the trash dumpers.

Suburbanites are beginning to understand what this stress is like and how it affects your life. The news is littered with stories about rampant foreclosures and the impact it is having on neighborhoods that once were the model of American life. The fact that homeowners from CA to MO are becoming section 8 landlords is producing a lot of stress for their former neighbors! This is a nationwide phenomenon. Someone needs to look at the crime trends in neighborhoods where foreclosures are up and employment is down. You don't think that suburbanites are resorting to domestic violence, pawning their stuff (on craigs list and ebay until they sell their computer, and then the pawn shop becomes convenient). You don't think they will turn to petty crime (maybe at the office or the shopping mall) to help make ends meet?

When low income tenants move to the suburbs on a Section 8 voucher, they come as poor people but not necessarily as ghetto thugs. They bring with them an experience of what day-to-day life is like and their boundaries of behavior are based on the stress and culture that they know. It is not a stress that typically exists in the suburbs and it is not a culture known by white people. Why is it that white people in the suburbs are offended by people gathering outside of their home and being loud? Why do whites or middle class people look at blacks and poor people as being uncouth and barbaric - to the point that they will call the police to take care of the "disturbance." I now live in a mixed neighborhood of middle class and working class people (and student renters) in Camden, NJ. People here sit on their front porches and mingle and talk loudly. They are OUTDOORS. It is ok. The behavior is not just about being social. It is about protecting turf. No one bothers people on my block because we demonstrate that we are attentive to our neighborhood. Two blocks away there is petty theft because transplanted suburbanites don't tend to their street.

In Antioch, CA there are some simple ways to address the tension. Instead of sitting at the Starbucks sipping a $5 latte and complaining about how black tenants are ruining your community, get engaged with your neighbors. In the 1950s and 60s there was a service called "Welcome Wagon" to help acclimate new residents to the neighborhood, give them coupons to patronize neighborhood merchants, and generally set the tone for what the norms were in the community. As a society we let go of that kind of standardization of culture and the Welcome Wagon went the way of the dinosaur. However, many neighborhood groups and community organizations still welcome new residents with a gift of a plant or other housewarming token, just to let the new residents know who to call if they need help, have a question, or otherwise are lost. Imagine who might need this help - maybe new residents that have come from a completely different place and are now in a culturally foreign environment???? Ya think? Instead of complaining that poor black tenants are not living exactly as you think they should and are "changing" your community, and are bringing crime with them...try embracing them in a way that forces you to examine your own expectations and provides some neighborliness.

Now the inevitable conclusion is that there will be nice, white people who embrace their new neighbors and welcome them, only to be rebuffed and deduce that crime follows people from the inner city. "I tried" they say, "but they didn't respond and there is nothing else I can do." Except call the police and join the local latte whiner's club. Whites assert privilege and use the police to enforce their world view. It is laughable that researchers frame this as section 8 tenants bringing crime with them (like it is in their suitcase and they unpack it) or that crime follows them (like a lost dog) to the suburbs. Put people with stress into any situation and crime will ensue. To suggest that a change of geography is all it takes to change behavior, then let's all move to Palm Beach!!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Gender and Race - Still a Perculating Issue

My heroine, Maureen Dowd, has written a fabulous piece comparing Sen./candidate Obama to Mr. Darcy of Jane Austin's novel. Read it here.

The upshot of her thinking is that Sen. Obama is perceived by Hilary women supporters as haughty and not worthy of their vote. Sen. Obama must win them over by demonstrating his caring side and vulnerability. This is not an easy show and sell in a historic political campaign where a lot is riding on the outcome. In previous posts I wrote about the gender vs. race factor and the institution of privilege be it men or be it white. Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton share status as United States Senators but he is considered junior due to length of service. But it is there that the comparisons end. Sen. Clinton's supporters continue to rail against the gender bias that was leveled against Hillary during the primaries. Yet they say nothing about the racial bigotry leveled against Obama. The Hillary-ites want the Democratic Party to include a gender bias issue in the platform, which seems fair enough, only some want the item to be in specific reference to Hillary. Issues now become pulpits for candidates, and it is not the first time. Hillary wants her pound of flesh. Ok. I get it. I support it. But can it be done without casting aspersions at Obama? Can the feminist position cast a narrow net, or must all men be caught up in it. Well, it's kind of like white privilege - do any whites get a free pass just because their heart is in the right place? No. So Obama can't take a pass either.

What he can do is get out in front of the issue and champion it. He could score more points by embracing what the Hilliary folks want than trying to finesse it. Let your guard down Mr. Darcy. Embrace what you are not sure of and take a chance. Millions of whites are afraid to take a chance on a black man. Surely Mr. Obama in this historic setting can take a chance on women and support the cause. It may make taking a chance on him less of a risk than currently is sensed by some.

Face it. If someone is not going to vote for you only because you are black, do you really think you are going to jeopardize their potential vote by supporting women? Doubtful, because you were never going to get them anyway.

Supporting women can be part of the profound change movement, that seems to be ever so slowly ebbing away from us as Sen. Obama seeks to cling to his lead. Hedging bets is not the one that brought you to this dance and leaving with a new admirer is not going to generate the enthusiasm and support that you need to win. Black voters have supported Obama because of his race AND for some because of his hope and inspiration. He can't run from that now and by not giving something to the Hillary camp, he risks being seen as a cut and run guy.

White privilege is so easy to dismiss in our minds and pretend we don't have it. But the very fact of being white is to have privilege. What we can do is refuse to use it and that is hard. Obama has privilege by being a man and he can never shake that off. However, he can refuse is use it and that is what he must do now.

I am finding a similar twist of fate in my new city. While I am living in the city and not the suburbs, and gaining points with other whites who are dazzled at my courage (oh puleeeze), I am not living in a part of town that challenges my privilege. In fact my privilege is on display every day as a kind of I can live here and you have to get used it kind of scenario. I am very conflicted by the position I am in. I need to figure out how to take a bit of my own advice and eschew this privilege in a way that empowers those who are brought down by my position. I don't expect everyone to get my sentiment or to agree with my stance. But it is mine and I have to live it. Wish me luck. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

New City, Same Talk

Well, here I am in Camden, NJ. I live in the city, much to the surprise of many who think it is much too unsafe to live here. It is, after all, one of the top crime cities in the country. It is predominantly African-American and Latino. I picked my location because I can walk to work. It also is the only gentrified part of the city. My neighborhood is tiny - maybe 8 blocks total and is flanked by the river, a dead "downtown," the state university, and a large bridge which bisects the city. I went to my first neighborhood association meeting tonight. We spent at least 45 minutes talking about crime - and apparently it is rampant in my neighborhood. There were at least 3 reports of flowers being stolen off of porches and worse, GPS equipment is being stolen out of cars. Burglars are targeting easy cash items like laptops and tv's. Apparently there is a lot of door handle jiggling going on where brazen burglars jiggle the door handle to see if there is easy entry. No one reported an assault, no muggings, no gunshots, no guns drawn. But one of my neighbors did suggest that if confronted that you blow the sob away before he has a chance to attack you. He was quite adamant. He also is quite white, like the rest of the neighbors who came to the meeting. Most are young and have recently bought new townhouses in the area. The group is led by the developer who partnered to build the units. For him, the customer is always right. If you want to kvetch about petty theft for 45 minutes and get all macho about blowing away the bad guys, well go ahead. The main item on the agenda that I came to hear about is the upcoming neighborhood block party. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn't get to talk about it too much. I think that is part of the problem of this group. They have no sense of community and would rather bark about crime and how awful it is and why doesn't somebody DO something....

I thought about my old neighborhood and the frequent gunfire, police helicopters, drug dealing, and other typical urban ills. None of that is in evidence in my neighborhood. What a bunch of whiners. If you want suburban living, go live there. The city is grittier and Camden is very gritty. But the neighborhood we live in is charming. I think this gives people a sense that it should be a suburb in the city environment where you can go for drinks and dinner and never have to step around any difficult situations. Yes, flower stealing is a pain and shouldn't happen. Yes, petty theft and brazen burglars are an urban ill and no one wants to have to struggle with that. But if you live in an urban neighborhood, you need to figure out how to live there - not how to turn the urban place into the suburbs. The police officer who attended our meeting strongly suggested burglar alarms, but also sitting on the porch or taking a walk in the neighborhood. Demonstrate to people that the community is occupied and aware. That was the best advice I heard all night. My flat neighbors do that regularly. They know all the neighbors (and by way of them, I do too) and chat with folks as they come by. That's how to live in an urban neighborhood. Only one problem where I live - the new townhouses don't have porches. Seems the developer cut some corners...pity.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

hiatus to end s oon

Just to let readers know that my blogging on this site is in a hiatus. I have recently moved from Kansas City to Camden, NJ. I'm expecting that I will be ready to write again by July 10 - a month off in the summer is not a bad thing! I will have many new issues to write about as I become a resident of this somewhat notorious city - known for political corruption, white flight, poverty, drug crime, and urban decline. I am looking forward to a new level of urban education. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Interpersonal reactions

I've been traveling a lot lately and have not had time to process all that is going on around me. So I put down this blog for awhile and now I am back. I don't really know how people have something to blog about every day. I would rather wait until I have something at least of interest to me on which to write.

Several different types of interpersonal reactions have surfaced making me acutely aware of my instinctive rush to judgment and inherent racism,
my lack of racial understanding, and the need to see the humor in indefensible situations.

The racism: my friend and I have been giving some work to a neighborhood guy - mowing, cleaning up - labor with minimal need for tools type stuff. We wanted the work done, he was willing to put his back into it, and it seemed a good fit. I vacillate in this type of situation between do-gooder and super do-gooder. By this I mean that I feel good helping out another person who needs a break. And I feel really good about helping out a black man through my white largess. This is where it gets tricky for me. I can validate my feelings of wanting to help someone out. But when do I cross that line into sanctimonious, "look at me," the great white hope, helping out the downtrodden black man? I am not quite that derogatory, but I want you to get the drift of this because what happens next is difficult to navigate in terms of the racist-ness of my reactions. We don't lock our doors and have not had any trouble with this practice except when somebody wants to do harm by taking stuff. See some of my earlier posts about this issue. We took off for a few days and told our "handyman" that he could do some work while we were gone. We came back a day early to find that he had moved in, made himself quite comfortable with our stuff, and brought some illicit items in with him. I had a fit and all my racist vitriol bubbled right to the surface. I was certain my emotions were linked to the fact that this guy took advantage of us - the nerve of a homeless person to do that, that he disrespected our home by bringing in illicit materials - an addict that can't manage his habit elsewhere is just rude, and that he endangered our reputation by these things - doesn't he know how good and right we are? Once I got calm I thought about why I had that outrage. In part, I was ticked off that the guy took advantage of us - but the litmus test is whether I would feel as outraged if he were white. Maybe. But the illicit materials was the tell - I am sure that my stereotype of the urban black man as purveyor of such materials was in play and thus, my racial hostility was full-blown. I'm not trying to excuse his actions - wrong is wrong. I'm trying to get at my reactions to it.

The understanding of race: A friend shared a great NPR story with me on a new book -- "The Beautiful Struggle - Growing Up in West Baltimore" which is a tale written by a black man growing up in the 1980s and his quest to navigate the streets and black music. My friend (who is black) was so taken with the writing that she suggested we read the book and share thoughts. I read the lengthy excerpt and had no clue what it was saying. I didn't get the cultural references, I didn't get the language, I didn't get the context. I just didn't get it. I wanted to get it. I should get it. I am an enlightened person. My first reaction was to say this is not for me and I am not interested. I immediately dismissed it as not worth my time. Ouch. I then thought about why I was so ready to dismiss the book. It boiled down to - I don't have to get this. My life will go on without missing a beat and I will not feel I am missing anything by not reading and understanding this book. Why would I say this? Because I can. Now I am not trying to turn everything into race. There are many books I pass on, some I start and put down because it is of little interest, and some I never even consider. But this was recommended by a good friend, was profiled on NPR, and is about growing up in an urban setting similar to the neighborhood in which I now live. This is definitely the type of confluence that would lead me to read this book. I can only assume that my lack of understanding was defended by my white privilege - I don't have to know these things. Fortunately my better judgment prevailed and I will give this book a try with my friend.

The humor of race: My friend and I were traveling on a plane. At the stopover we had a chance to move up to the front of the plane and get choice seats. We took the second row - he at the window and I at the isle. He said - "this is great. We won't have anyone sitting with us unless the plane is completely full." This was a Southwest flight with no assigned seating - but the first few rows ALWAYS fill up. He insisted he knew what would happen. A little context is required: my friend, who is black and male, was dressed in his black sweats with a hood. He also has braids. He looked the part of the ghetto thug. Scary. The people started coming on board. I made no eye contact with anyone. Everyone - every single one - passed us by. There were 3 other middle seats vacant when they closed the door. Next time you are on a Southwest flight that is full, see how many seats are vacant in the first 5 rows. Zero is the right answer. So this is pretty appalling but it is awfully funny too. He knew he could turn the racial prejudice to his advantage and beat the white passengers at their own game. I laughed at the absurdity of it all as we enjoyed space in our seats. He asked me if I would find it as funny if they were passing me by because of my color. Yes, I would be outraged by the racism, and yes, I would still find it funny that people are so lame as to benefit me by cutting off their own nose to spite their face (as my mother used to say...). We relayed the story to a friend after we got home and laughed ourselves silly, though there is an underlying hubris that casts a pall on the joke.

So there you have it. In interpersonal situations you will find that you will always default to the stereotype, the inherent prejudice, and white privilege. Question is whether you will stop and catch yourself, examine it, learn from it, and yes, laugh at it. Your life may be richer for it.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

what we say and what people hear

I'm reading everything I can find regarding the Friday remarks of Sen. Clinton and her reference to primary campaign history as she invoked the memory of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Once again, Keith Olbermann's special comment is spot on and covers the issue quite thoroughly.

But beyond the hub-bub, it made me think about what we say and how it is heard by others. Sen. Clinton insisted that she was referring to history, etc. etc. Others heard it as a veiled assumption that in case something goes wrong it would be good to have another nominee in the wings. Obama supporters have a lingering concern that their candidate is a target for our most scurrilous political outfall - assassination. Sen. Clinton insists that was not her intent. Others insist it is what they heard. This is how we get "bogged down" in political correctness. For how can I say anything without the fear that someone will hear it in a negative context?

My take on this is shaped by my experiences of living in my neighborhood, as someone whose very presence invokes being heard differently by my neighbors. We could learn something by being sensitive to the notion that people will hear our comments through their own lenses and come up with different conclusions. White people who try to say sympathetic or endearing remarks in a situation that they see as unjust to people of color sometimes are heard as being condescending. Sometimes it is heard as something hostile or inflammatory by the very people it is intended to aid. Well-meaning intent does not overcome the hurt that people hear. The same goes for people of color. When they speak of oppression and racism, white people hear it through their lens (or ear). If that includes some racism, fear, distrust - then they will "hear" the remarks with that assumption first.

Sen. Clinton could have just been straightforward and said, primary races have lasted until June and named the contests. Raising the specter of assassination was incendiary and either she knew it and tossed it out there like a bomb or she is incredibly naive - which seems unlikely for a politician of her acumen. But sometimes we actually say things unwittingly that are heard as completely insensitive. How do we accomplish the communication we intend?

I had a conversation this weekend with friends and we were talking about poverty, judgments, and politics. The issue was whether people can overcome their own prejudices about poor people and the associated judgment about why people are in poverty and how this translates into race relations. One friend noted that she was poor as a child and held some harsh judgments of poor people today (based on her own disdain for being in a poor family). She recognized her own foible. The question then became how that judgment gets extended to others - moving beyond the bounds of poverty. My friend is white. She grew up poor. As an adult, she does not want to be poor. She found that being able to point at other poor people now was a way to elevate her own esteem and position. That if someone was "beneath" her, then she was not at the bottom. Needing someone to be "below" you on the status ladder means that someone or some group will bear the brunt of your judgment. We got to the point to in our conversation that prejudice against people could be traced to our own fear of not wanting to be at the bottom. Putting blacks and other people of color into that "lower" category of people gives whites a cushion of superiority - even if only in their own mind.

The upshot of this exercise is that prejudice is very hard to overcome because if you are not on the bottom, you have a vested interest in keeping other people there. And it may not be enough to only have the homeless, bag ladies, sweatshop workers, and others of that ilk beneath you. What if they win the lottery, get straight and get a job? They may pass you by. Therefore, it behooves anyone not on the bottom to have a permanent group of people that will forever be below you, preferably according to a category that will never allow them to change positions with you. Hence, race becomes a most convenient classification tool.

My friend could not accept the likelihood that she participated in such a system, mainly because she was certain she could treat people as individuals and not as a group and that she was not caught up in the material race to the top - even though she did admit to not wanting to be poor.

It is this last point that really identified the conundrum of race and prejudice. The notion "I don't have anything against black people" is held separately from "I don't want to be poor." We think there is a difference and there really isn't. What we mean is that we don't have anything against black people unless they are a threat to our status. Imagine if tomorrow a new Bill Gates emerged on the scene and he or she was black. Imagine that this new mogul decided to share their fortune with a cadre of black persons and a new strata of super wealthy blacks emerged overnight. They begin creating corporations and jobs and investments that opens doors to many more black people - because they are not likely to discriminate against people of the same race. In 5 years there is a complete reversal of today's demographics - blacks as a group are now wealthier than whites as a group. If you are white and are reading this, you know what you are feeling. I'm white. I can go there with you - you reaction is from mildly to greatly concerned - because you are now seeing how you could be on the bottom and somebody else will put their thumb on your neck to keep you down - just to keep themselves on top. It's what we do. We assume others would do it to us if given the opportunity.

So when well-meaning whites say they want to help poor people or they want to stand in solidarity with black people or others of color, you must apply the aforementioned litmus test. Does this mean you are willing to forgo your own status (though not your income and quality of life) to make this happen? Are you willing to be the person at the bottom? Most people will not be willing to go there. And, thus, the offer of assistance to the poor and the oppressed is quite empty, for it says - I am willing to help you as long as it doesn't diminish my standing. Or worse, it says, please accept my help for I am confident you will never surpass me. And please, in a competitive, capitalistic world, don't even try to throw out the - everyone is able to achieve based on their own qualities rhetoric, or worse, we could all be rich. Think about it - rich has no meaning unless there are poor.

We must consider that what we say and what people hear are often very different, depending on who we say it to and where they are in relation to the speaker. I have no doubt that there are those that will read this and have a very different hearing of my words than I intend. That's ok. Let's continue the dialog to ensure that what we say is what people hear.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

the suburban suspicion of the city

So I was having a casual conversation with a salesperson the other day, just to pass the time as we waited for some paperwork to be completed. She asked me what I do for a living and once she got the gist of it, started talking about her experience with the Power & Light District in downtown. In fact it was her friend that got car jacked in the parking garage downtown (of course, I have heard this same personal relationship explanation from at least 3 other people. I know this is a small place, but come on.). She gave me the knowing look, ie. "you know...." that downtown just wasn't safe. I never challenge people on these types of comments, I just let them take the string out as far as they want to see where it leads. This commentary meandered around to the homeless downtown, who are hanging around just steps from the P&L District area. Well at least there is security checking ID at the entry points, but then if they get in, they can buy drinks! I guess we don't want drunken homeless people spoiling it for the rest of us.

Anyway, the conversation turned to the Plaza, which she admitted without any prompting from me, was not that safe either, but at least they have private security and more of it. Because once again, if you leave the P&L District, there are no security people there to save you in downtown. At least in the Plaza, there are agents everywhere. At the end of the discussion, however, she told me how satisfied she was to live near Town Center and get everything she needs there. I didn't say it, but thought to myself, how sad that you require so little of your life.

I thought of this conversation in a couple of different ways. One is that this person who I do not know at all, was so freely sharing her ill-informed sentiments and biases. She had no inkling that I would have a completely different point of view. I think this helps confirm the "same race" theory - that people of the same race automatically assume there is a kindred position about race issues between them. Maybe it was a "same gender" theory - that women will share the same assumptions about which places are safe and what constitutes danger. I never agreed with anything she said, but neither did I take exception to her positions or challenge them. Sometimes I just like to listen to get a sense of just how entrenched these feelings and positions are held.

The commentary on the news today is that whites in West Virginia will never vote for a black presidential candidate. That is certainly the point that Hillary is making as a means to sell herself as the "best" candidate. Hey, the Dems can't win without the bigots, so we might as well cater to them. Hmmm. I'm not feeling that strategy.

So what is the appropriate response to someone who says illogical and unfounded things that are steeped in entrenched racial bigotry and they don't even know it? It's not my place to run around "schooling" people and telling them the error of their ways. I don't need my clock cleaned on a daily basis. If someone is being an arse about it, I'll gladly get in their face. But the innocuous ones, I let go.

I got a healthy, meaty comment to a previous post on this blog that I think in part stems from a misunderstanding of something I wrote. I think my previous paragraph could be easily misconstrued. So here are a few boundary markers to help interpret what I write:
1. I feel everyone has to take personal responsibility for themselves. For some, that means you have to suck up a whole lot more than another, but that is life.
2. Life is not fair. Get used to it.
3. Take responsibility for that which you contribute to, even if you don't realize it. Ignorance of your responsibility is no excuse to ignore it.
4. Guilt is useless, action is valuable.
5. We make the world an unbearable, competitive, mean-spirited place. We can undo that.

I realize that people will disagree with me, will criticize my outlook, and think I am full of nonsense. Isn't that what makes the blog world so great?

Monday, May 12, 2008

guns, murder, and the urban dilemma

I heard gunshots in my vicinity this evening. I am nonplussed by it. Ho Hum. Another round of shots fired. Maybe it is just someone popping some caps. Maybe it is someone getting shot. I hear police helicopters and sirens. That's part of the background noise. There have been several shootings by the police resulting in death of the suspect in recent days. These were each situations where the police were face-to-face with someone who had a gun. Who knows if they would have used it on the police. The police shoot first. I read a story about a vicious homicide in Cleveland where 15 gang members beat a man to death on the street. Cops did not get there fast enough to save him. The inhumanity of that slaying is too much even for the jaded to ignore. Guns, violence, inhumanity. Haven't we been down this road before?

I'm supposed to know what to do about urban issues. That's what I have spent a lifetime studying, researching, teaching, working with local governments, working with neighborhood groups, developing policy, crafting ideas, facilitating group dialog, and writing about it. The pundits who write comments have two answers - I'm glad I moved away from the city and good riddance to another thug on the streets. Well, you can run but you can't hide, even behind your electric fences and security systems in your suburban castles. And for every thug killed, two more take his place. It seems so obvious to me that the two are related. But no one in the suburbs thinks they should be held accountable for anything that goes on in the city. And city leaders pretty much ignore the situation and suggest that jobs are the answer, giving them license to subsidize another corporate development downtown.

This blog got noticed by a few people and it got two reactions - the first: I don't need some white chick pointing her self-righteous finger at me, and the second: I (the white person) am not to blame for the crackhead's violent behavior in the city. It is a convenient defense. Attack the veracity of the messenger (me) and deflect all responsibility onto the perpetrator. Yes, I do point the finger. Maybe I am self-righteous. Doesn't make my point incorrect. Just means you don't like my style of delivery. Yes, the perpetrator is responsible for their own actions, but the systemic racism that brought that situation to that person also is responsible. And since white people are the system and the system is racist - then white people bear some responsibility. You didn't put the gun in his hand. I get that. You didn't tell her to pull the trigger. I get that too. You are a party to the lingering dismissal of otherness that leaves people without jobs, home loans, cars, money for food, and the ability to get ahead.

The system is constructed to reflect the white world. If you are white, you probably don't see that. It rewards people who think as white people do, dress and act as white people do, talk as white people do, live in white neighborhoods, and engage socially with other white people. Yes, blacks and other people of color can get ahead in this world. But it is not an easy struggle, nor is it necessarily authentic for them.

Try this on and see if it resonates. Women - you want to earn the same as a man in the same job. You want to get ahead and get promoted. You want to be the breadwinner for your family and send your kids to college. To do this, you must work 60 hours per week and you can't have time off to go attend to your kids and family. Ok. I will make that adjustment, you say. You must enter the culture of male bonding - taking clients to the "club," the golf course, maybe even the "gentleman's club." I shouldn't have to do those things you say. But yes you do if the corporate culture is constructed to reflect men's world view. Men don't see it as right or wrong, it just is. Women are uncomfortable making those adjustments. Well, suck it up sweetie, because this is what it takes. Those that don't tow the line are just whiners. Are you starting to see the picture here?

People of color are expected to curb their accent, straighten their hair, wear "appropriate" clothes, be the minority person at the club and often get mistaken as the waiter, get pulled over by the police in white neighborhoods because it is suspicious for them to be there even if they live there, drive greater distances to stores that stock their hair products and other supplies because the stores in white neighborhoods do not carry it. The list goes on.

There are many, many, many people of color who live in the suburbs. Some are highly integrated places, some people are willing to be the minority family in the subdivision. But don't kid yourself that it isn't a struggle every day to keep it in check and live the life that is defined by white culture. If you can't financially afford to take this on, then you live in other neighborhoods that aren't as safe, that aren't as nice, but have greater authenticity for you as a person of color. What a Faustian bargain people make just to live.

So back in my neighborhood where violence is on the uptick and back in Cleveland where a man got beat to death on the street...what is the solution? Why don't we ask the people who are most greatly affected instead of pontificating that people in the 'hood should do this and not that. It would be a better start.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Clinton and the white blue-collar, lunchbucket voters

Further support for this position can be found at the Wall Street Journal, column by Peggy Noonan May 9, 2008 "Damsel of Distress":

"To play the race card as Mrs. Clinton has, to highlight and encourage a sense that we are crudely divided as a nation, to make your argument a brute and cynical "the black guy can't win but the white girl can" is -- well, so vulgar, so cynical, so cold, that once again a Clinton is making us turn off the television in case the children walk by."

And here is a little something from the NY Times about Hillary's position on who is getting the white vote to help confirm the position I'm taking...

My original post:

As always, Keith Oberman is one of the most brilliant and insightful commentators on politics in this country. Click on his name above and hear his special commentary on Hillary's continuing connection to racism that enables her to keep close to the white blue-collar crowd that harbors some degree of prejudice against blacks. She is using a disgusting wink-wink, nudge-nudge strategy to throw back a brewski with the Archie Bunker crowd, while claiming to be above the fray created by the likes of Geraldine Ferraro. White people must stand up to this type of insidious racism being practiced by the Clinton campaign. (see my earlier posts on Bill Clinton and his notorious South Carolina bigoted comments). Whites wonder why blacks and other people of color don't trust what we say. Hillary is a perfect example. By sliding by she does every one of us a disservice in getting past the racial divides that plague our country. Listen to Barak's speech on race relations again. It is stirring, it is real, it pulls no punches. The same cannot be said for Hillary and her campaign of innuendos and sly racism. Shame on you Hillary. I can't vote for you.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Obama v. Clinton

Check out this very funny youtube vid using Star Wars as the backdrop for the current Democratic primary race. Click on the title above - Obama v. Clinton.

Thanks to Dan at Gone Mild for this link.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Generation Gap

One of my neighbors hustles to do lawn mowing and he does our yard. He's an older guy, works hard, does a good job, and follows up when the lawn gets long again. Today he had some significant words to share with the young guys who hang out on our block and do little in the way of identifiable labor. He put it to them because they messed with him while he is working. He let them know exactly how he felt about them and that he would be happy to school them if necessary. The young guys talk tough, but they won't mess with him. He's scrappy.

Scrappy is a way of life in my neighborhood. Yelling is a way of life in my neighborhood. It takes a little getting used to for those that are unaccustomed. Black people say it's a black thing. Poor people say it's a poor thing. Immigrants say it's an immigrant thing. I guess it's not a white middle and upper class thing...

It brings to mind the Rev. Wright and Obama issue. Rev. Wright is a fiery preacher. Obama has said that black preachers are likely to whoop and holler in their sermons. White people are naturally taken aback by this because there is little whooping or hollering in their churches. So when you add what is perceived to be the inflammatory language of black theology to the mix, white people will feel a whole lot of discomfort. Hillary came to quick judgment and wondered aloud why Obama had not left the church and why he stayed so long. Her discomfort with the Reverend led her to tell Obama to leave his church. Quite a leap. Meanwhile the white media can't seem to let it go. They are incredulous that the whole Rev. Wright thing has happened and then they proceed to go over it again and again and again. What is really bothering the media is that they don't understand this pastor, his message, and his delivery. They understand only that he is different than what they are used to. My conclusions about this have little to do with the content of the Reverend's speech. If that were the heart of the issue, the media would be treating this much differently. Instead, they are focusing on how a preacher could behave so improperly, how a congregation could be so tolerant and unchallenging, how Obama could sit for this! Hrumph! The indignation is palpable.

On my block, the yelling and banter ebbs and flows. Sometimes it goes on longer than it should. There was a nasty altercation involving an inebriated woman, a young man, and a broken bottle that she used to threaten him, and instead only egged him on to new heights of profundity. Sometimes the yelling and anger will become violent and guns are brought out and used. I have seen this only once, but the news is filled with the commonness of this escalation. Perhaps it is this violation of white sensibilities that leads Hillary et al. to be relentless in their criticism of Obama's judgment. For if Obama is allowed to respond without outrage to the pastor, then what next? White culture may not be allowed to set the standard for decorum, propriety, or acceptability. That would be scandalous (as the guys on my block say).