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Articles printed here are from the Black Commentator online newsmagazine.


Black Commentator
vs
The Wall Street Journal

In their quest for absolute political hegemony in the United States, some elements of the Right now dare to claim to share with blacks - if not common cause - common conclusions about the state of race relations in America. In a January 8, 2006 piece weighted with the full freight of centuries of white supremacist delusions, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto claimed that BC's January 5, 2006 Cover Story, "Katrina Study: Black Consensus, White Dispute," showed that BC and the WSJ agree that African Americans and whites see the world quite differently.

The BC story was based on a small slice of an important, soon to be released study by University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson. Dr. Dawson's team's study shows what every conscious Black person already knows: there is a yawning chasm between white and black perceptions of life, politics and opportunity in 21st Century America.

The United States has created wildly different realities for its black and white citizens.  From the unequal availability of prenatal care and early childhood education, through ubiquitous and continuing racially segregated education and racially selective policies of crime control and mass imprisonment, through generations of housing and employment discrimination resulting in huge gaps in the accumulation of wealth between black and white families, to early graves occasioned by differential access to medical care for African Americans, it is clear that for centuries blacks and whites have lived in the same country but in different worlds.  Perhaps we should be grateful that the esteemed editor of the Wall Street Journal's opinion page has deigned to acknowledge this fact. Or maybe not.

The WSJ's Taranto begins his January 8, 2005 OpinionJournal.com column thusly:

"BlackCommentator.com, which describes itself as a source of 'commentary, analysis and investigations on issues affecting African Americans' and has a harshly left-wing outlook, has an analysis of a poll on racial attitudes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. BC.com's analysis is remarkably similar to our analysis, back in September, of a similar poll:"

Taranto goes on to quote BC at some length:

"Hurricane Katrina may mark a watershed in Black perceptions of the African American presence and prospects in the United States. 'It could very well shape this generation of young people in the same way that the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King shaped our generation,' said Prof. Michael Dawson, of the University of Chicago whose team conducted a survey of Black and white reactions to the disaster between October 28 and November 17, 2005. 'It suggested to Blacks the utter lack of the liberal possibility in the United States,' said Dawson, the nation's premier Black social demographer.

"Huge majorities of Blacks agreed that the federal government's response would have been faster if the victims of Katrina in New Orleans had been white (84 percent), and that the Katrina experience shows there is a lesson to be learned about continued racial inequality (90 percent).

"But only 20 percent of whites believe that the federal government's failure to respond had anything to do with race, and only 38 percent think there is something to be learned about racial inequality from the Katrina disaster. . . .

"A Grand Canyon looms between the way African Americans and white people view the world, despite the fact that both groups are privy to the same information and images.

Same planet.  Different worlds. Unintentionally, Taranto manages to prove both his and our point by misstating his very small area of agreement with us harsh leftists at BC.  The poll he cites does indeed illuminate the same gulf between black and white views of the Katrina disaster as last week's BC cover story reported.  What the Wall Street Journal agrees with BC about, and then only implicitly, is the existence of what we call the Black Consensus.  But what Taranto offers by way of "analysis" is the very embodiment of racist arrogance. He writes:

"The truth about race that Katrina illuminates, then, is that, at least when it comes to matters involving race, black Americans are extreme political outliers. This is why attempts to play the race card are politically futile: They have to appeal not just to blacks, but to a substantial minority of whites. The Gallup poll results make clear that the current racial appeals are not resonating with whites."

Here we find exposed the delusional heart of whiteness.  Taranto would dismiss African American opinions on race wholesale as "extreme," "outlying," and "playing the race card." For the Wall Street Journal and the chunk of America's ruling elite and wannabes it speaks for and to, black opinion fails the fundamental test of legitimacy simply because it differs from white opinion. Taranto goes on to supersize his ahistorical silliness.

"Why do blacks and whites have such divergent views on racial matters? We would argue that it is because of the course that racial policies have taken over the past 40 years…"

For Taranto, the difference between black and white views on race owes nothing to centuries of slavery, nothing to generations of de jure and de facto segregation.  It has nothing to do with the criminalization of a generation of black youth by a racially selective crime control and prison industry, and is completely unrelated to the fact that African Americans pay more for the same services, are compensated less for the same education and job performance, live shorter lives with less medical care and are much more likely to experience poverty, especially as elders or children.  For Taranto, nearly four hundred years and counting of black experience in America that often differs substantially from that of our white neighbors, is irrelevant.  Instead, it all stems from white resentment at being "discriminated" against by affirmative action, and black sour grapes at not achieving "equality of results" in the imagined meritocracy that is the Wall Street Journal's America.  The solution recommended by the editor of WSJ's opinion page is for white America to stay the course and wait out the Black Consensus until it's replaced by what he calls "more nuanced ideas about race" in a decade or two.

We suspect Mr. Taranto is in for a much longer wait than he expects.  The Black Consensus that he would de-legitimize, wait out or wish away, and the distance between it and white opinion is an outcome of white supremacy as practiced by America's ruling circles and actively or passively endorsed by most of its white citizens.  The gap between white and black opinion will only narrow if and to the extent that American whites learn to stop thinking like white people so that progress can be made toward equality of opportunity for everybody, a goal which Taranto also dismisses as impractical and unworthy.

In a sane, democratic and educated society, whose citizens are acquainted with their own history and served by a press and broadcast media which equips them with the information necessary to the exercise of responsible citizenship, septic nonsense like Taranto's would be swiftly laughed out of the public space.  But this is 21st century America, where unelected pirates rule, the public airwaves are private property and the press is only free for those who own it.

Black public opinion does not have to be legitimized by whites.  The Black Consensus is not the voice of extremists and outliers.  It is the prophetic voice that calls all of us, of whatever color, class and creed to responsible citizenship and real humanity.  African Americans knew, presumably with near unanimity that slavery was wrong before most of white America would admit it.  Our black grandparents and great grandparents were certain that convict leasing, Jim Crow and lynching were abominations at the same time the Supreme Court and white public opinion ignored or endorsed these practices.  Were our forbears right all along?  Or only when whites agreed with them? 

Today black public opinion opposes the war in Iraq by more than two to one.  African Americans overwhelmingly favor full and equal funding for public education, ending the so-called drug war, mandating the right to organize and join unions, health care as a human right, and impeachment of the president.  Are we extremists?  Outliers?  Or prophets?  Time will tell.

We take this opportunity to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Dr. Michael Dawson, the nation's foremost black demographer, for his pioneering research into black public opinion, black political thought, and the Black Consensus.  The three questions in last week's BC cover story were lifted from a larger study of the state of public opinion in America's black communities that will be published very soon.  Look out for it.  If Taranto and the Wall Street Journal admire Dr. Dawson's science and BC's logical analysis, we find that interesting.  But being "harsh leftists," we are not flattered.

 

Reject the Language of White Supremacy

As we move toward an historic national Black convention in the first quarter of 2006 – “Going back to Gary,” as convener William Lucy, President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists phrased it, referring to the 1972 National Black Political Convention in that Indiana city – it is imperative that we reexamine the language of our political discourse. Otherwise, we will wind up talking nonsense – or worse, speaking against our own interests.

In the 33 years since the Gary convention, corporate-speak has become ever more deeply embedded in the national conversation, reflecting the assumptions and aspirations of the very rich, who have vastly increased and concentrated their power over civil society. This alien language saturates the political culture via corporate media of all kinds, insidiously defining the parameters of discussion. Once one becomes entrapped in the value-laden matrix of the enemy’s language, the battle is all but lost. We cannot strategize ourselves out of the racist-corporate coil while ensnared in the enemy’s carefully crafted definitions and points of reference.

“Going back to Gary” must mean going back to straight talk, from the African American perspective. The political consensus among the Black masses remains remarkably consistent, but has been relentlessly challenged since 1972 by 1) the rise of a small but vocal corporate class of African Americans who see their own fortunes as linked to larger corporate structures, and 2) aggressive corporate subsidization, beginning in the mid-Nineties, of a growing clique of Black politicians who define Black progress in terms of acceptance among rich, white people.

Thus, the internal contradictions in African American politics have greatly multiplied since Gary. This has not occurred because of increasing conservatism among a much enlarged Black middle class over the last three decades – a corporate-concocted slander for which there is no factual evidence – but by the determination of Big Money to impose an alternative leadership on the recalcitrant Black masses.

Time for confrontation, not celebration

The 1972 National Black Political Convention took place in an atmosphere of euphoria over the demise of Jim Crow, which unleashed the shackles of those Black social sectors that were prepared to take advantage of new opportunities, and empowered a new set of politicians who found themselves in majority Black jurisdictions. When the call to convention went out, everyone was welcomed, and as many as 5,000 showed up. Although much worthwhile political work was accomplished, the general atmosphere was celebratory. We were “Movin’ on Up” to “Celebrate Good Times.” Most believed there “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now – We’re on the Move.”

Essentially, the Gary-era Black discussion centered on consolidation of the gains made during the previous civil rights decade. Short shrift was given to those who had called for deep structural change in the United States, whose demands (and often, lives) were snuffed out by U.S. police and intelligence agencies amidst the carnival of No-Mo’-Jim-Crow. There seemed to be great promise for Black America under a post-segregation regime – and certainly there was, for some. As long as that promise seemed attainable, demands for basic change in American (and world) power relationships were deemed  by the upwardly mobile African American sectors as passé, distractions, quaint, but dated.

This self-satisfied analysis was encouraged by a (mostly) white corporate class that harbored larger plans for total world domination: for the absolute, planetary rule of money. By the mid-Nineties, important elements of this class finally got over their reflexive racism – the aversion to sitting in a room with more than a few Black people – and invited some Black folks to join the club.

In 1972, Black collaborators had to work hard to get paid even a pittance to advance the corporate agenda that is inextricably entwined with the ideology of White American Manifest Destiny. Today, they are actively solicited, and handsomely paid in monetary, media and political currency. Corporate-speak is mimicked in many high places of Black American society. For example, corporations dominated the leadership-selection process of our largest mass organization, the NAACP. Corporations have always had a special place in the National Urban League. Corporate influence has reached unprecedented levels among members of the Congressional Black Caucus – while most members stand firm with the historical Black Consensus. And corporations have created out of whole cloth a number of purportedly “Black” organizations, such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), which serve the interests of Wal-Mart and the rightwing Bradley Foundation – and are now also subsidized by the Bush regime.

Under Bush, the Black clergy have been subjected to wholesale cooptation, through the Bradley Foundation-invented Faith Based Initiatives bribery schemes. This massive subornation of a critical Black institution resulted in only a net two percent change in Black party affiliation – from nine percent to eleven percent Black GOP voters in 2004. The base remains steadfast, but the leadership institutions have been infected by corporate and Republican money.

Even so, the major Black Baptist denominations this year reaffirmed their allegiance to the “social gospel” that is our proudest legacy, and has generated and encouraged so many other movements that have pushed the envelope of civilization.

Who, then, should be welcomed to the next “Gary” convention, tentatively scheduled for March, 2006? Everyone, just as in 1972.

It is the job of the conveners and organizers of the next National Black Political Convention to set the terms of the Great Black Debate. In large part, this is a function of language – to craft a language that is not infested with assumptions born of white privilege, imperialism, war-mongering, and anti-social ideology. In other words: Let’s talk Black. Among our own people, that kind of conversation wins the day, every time. Amen.

The apologists, collaborators, and opportunists cannot confuse us if we speak directly to the issues that our people care about most deeply. Let the turncoats come – and be exposed. Some may even be saved.

No rule of law?

It is at times of crisis that precise language becomes most important. The Bush regime has plunged the entire planet into crisis – their grotesque version of globalization. While serving as White House counsel, the current Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzalez, derided the Geneva Convention – the basis of international law, and codified as U.S. law – as “quaint.” The 2002 Gonzalez memo signaled that the regime was preparing to launch, not a War on Terror, but a war against world order, and against the rule of law within U.S. borders. We must reject his proclamation, in precise language that affirms the magnificent wording of the Geneva Convention, which outlaws aggressive war and upholds the right of all peoples to self-determination. That means get out of Iraq now, and no further threats to the independence and self-determination of other nations.

Black America is the firmest national constituency for peace, having opposed U.S. adventures abroad in greater proportions than any other ethnic group. We arrived at this more civilized state of being through our own gory experience of White American Manifest Destiny, which declared that a Black person has no rights “that a white man is bound to respect.” George Bush is acting out this vicious dictum on a global scale, and we know it.  Therefore, we must tell the truth, as the masses of Black folks understand it: the United States is an aggressor nation in the world, and we demand that it cease, immediately. The problem in Iraq is not U.S. casualties, which are the result of George Bush’s crimes, but the predicate crime of U.S. aggression, a violation of international law.

Mass Incarceration is Genocide

Black America has always stood for the rule of law, despite the fact that American law has so often ruled against us. It does so every day, in vast disproportion to the anti-social behavior of some African American individuals. Guantanamo Bay is, indeed, part of an international “gulag” of American prisons, dotting the globe, as Amnesty International has declared. But the largest “gulag” in the world is in the United States – half Black and only 30 percent white, in a 70 percent white country. Fully one out of eight incarcerated human beings on earth are African American, the casualties of an internal war that has not ceased since the Euro-American aggressions against Africa. Rather, it escalates.

At our next grand convention, we must state in no uncertain terms that the real crime wave is being committed against us by all levels of U.S. governments, which have placed Black people under surveillance for the purpose of incarcerating them, and devised laws that impact most heavily on our communities. Mass Black incarceration is a legacy of slavery and, therefore, a form of genocide. “We Charge Genocide,” again – because our social structures are being deliberately destroyed through government policy. Our language must make that plain.

This language is not meant for the oppressors’ ears, but for those of our own people. Black conventions are meant to mobilize Black people. Others are invited to take note. Our object is to galvanize African Americans to take action.

Our history tells us that others follow our lead. Therefore, as a people that believe in the oneness of humanity, we are obligated to lead. We must reject the entire edifice of language that justifies a U.S. war machine that costs more than all the rest of the world’s militaries, combined, and then claims there is no money for the people’s welfare. We know where the money is: it is engaged in criminal, global corporate enterprises, such as war. We demand these enterprises cease, and that the national treasure be redirected to domestic concerns, and to righting the wrongs that the oppressors have inflicted on humanity throughout the planet – including the wrongs committed against Black people in the United States.

We must not argue on corporate terms, about the “affordability” of national health insurance, or housing. We have a right to life, and to live somewhere. There will be no negotiation. Human rights trump property rights and corporate rights and warmonger rights. State it clearly.

A real social contract

Corporate politicians and media deploy the code words of “working people” and “middle class” to mean “white people” as the “deserving” members of the national community. We must reject such language, which is intended to exclude all Black people, including those who work, but explicitly dismisses the unemployed. We must not accept that corporate decisions to eject or bar people from the workplace, should have moral authority or political effect. All citizens have a right to live a decent life. We must demand a national minimum income, in addition to living wage standards.

The cost of the Iraq war and related U.S. military deployments would finance a fundamental change in the average American’s life expectations – and life span. Nobody needs such a change more than Black folks. The rich can afford it. We need to say so, and dare the rich to go to some other country with their money. Nobody else wants them, and nobody else will fund their military, which is the savior of their holdings.

We must directly confront the idea – the unquestioned Holy Grail of corporate politicians and media – that corporations have the rights of citizens. Black and brown metropolises (the top 100 largest U.S. cities have non-white majorities) are at the mercy of corporate barons who shape the urban landscape to fit their profit-driven needs. Inevitably, they move in white people, the process that we call “gentrification.” This process is mostly unchallenged, yet it decides where Black people will live and work, and whether we will preserve the majorities that allow us to even contemplate meaningful democracy in urban America. While we are still majorities in these places, we must take action to exercise the powers that cities possess, in the service of our people. There must be a movement for Democratic Development – development that serves the people who already live in the city.  This is perhaps the greatest challenge that faces the next National Black Convention because, if it turns out anything like Gary, in 1972, there will be plenty of Black politicians in attendance who have not done a damn thing to preserve the assets of the cities they nominally oversee, or to protect their own electorate from being displaced by corporate power. So be it. We must tell the truth, because our people are in crisis.

There is no solving the problem of urban education, unless we can force the sharing of education funds. White people in the mass have shown over the last four decades that they will not share classrooms with us. But they must share the money, to correct the gross disparity between suburban and urban schools. Integration is not a one-way street, but citizenship is a shared status. We must state clearly that we are entitled to equal funding – that is, funding adequate for a white suburban district, and additional monies to deal with problems that suburbs don’t have.

There are many other issues that must be tackled as we struggle to escape the Race to the Bottom that has been initiated by multinational corporations, and is politically empowered by the historical racism of white Americans, and made lethal by the military power of the U.S. state. The conveners of the next Black Political Convention should keep the agenda as efficient as possible, knowing that our assembled folks will add a plethora of resolutions. But keep our eyes on the prize. Black folks understand racism, but the whole world is getting an education in unbridled corporate behavior, that leads to famine, wars, and the dismantling of social services worldwide – including the United States, which is intentionally being made to fail as a society.

In the current configuration, globalization means corporate rule – by the gun, if necessary. Privatization is part and parcel of the deal, a divvying up of the spoils. National rights and the rights of minorities are all subservient to the rights of capital. Voting rights go down the toilet.

We must teach a lesson in resistance, and give guidance to action – for our own people, and to those who look to us for leadership in the desert that is the United States.

If we are to Speak Truth to Power, we must aim our words with precision.

Black knowledge as a weapon

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists is ideal for the mission that faces us, since Black unionists have an intimate understanding of both corporate ruthlessness and the racist machinations that white privilege has found so successful through centuries of plunder and rule. Black unionists know the animal up close, and have smelled his foul breath. They also know the weaknesses of white co-unionists, who are quick to claim white privilege and abandon class solidarity. These are lessons learned painfully – but become weapons in the hands of those committed to struggle.

We must not accept the legitimacy of the current rulers of the United States. They are thieves: stealers of elections; of the bodies of a million imprisoned African Americans; of the minds that are enfeebled by their corporate media; of the countries that they treat as plantations, and feel they can invade at will; and thieves of the productive capacity of the world, which grows every year, but fills only their own bank accounts.

The predatory lenders of the United States have stolen a half trillion dollars from the pockets of African Americans, according to anti-racist reporter Tim Wise. They have also stolen whole continents, and converted their populations into low-wage slaves whose labor is used as a weapon against workers of the United States, including the dwindling number of Black workers fortunate enough to have jobs.

The global tentacles of multinational corporations are not a logical consequence of human civilization, but a construction of predators, whom we know all too well. It is our task to uphold civilization, against the corporate machine that would crush all humans underfoot. We know the feeling. We’ve been crushed before, and reel from the butt of the gun. But still we rise, to indict the criminals.

And we, alone, have a constituency that is ready to march – if we tell them where and why to go. Let us choose our words carefully.

Reaffirm the Black Consensus

We are not looking for drama, but for clarity. The corporations and their war machines are providing the drama. A nation and world in crisis need clarity. Black America retains the power to speak, in the terms of our elders who identified with – and were – the Wretched of the Earth. On this coming Fourth of July, remember the words of Frederick Douglass, our greatest thinker and leader of the 19th Century, who spoke in the darkest hours of our people’s oppression, in 1852:

“I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!”

Frederick Douglass’s words were not popular with his white audience, but they buoyed the spirits of a people seeking freedom. They resonate with us now, when the “character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker.”

We can end this madness, but not without great exercise of discipline, and the precise use of language. Much of it has already been written. But we must write the next version of our destiny…and act on it.


Health Discrimination:
A 21st Century Civil Rights Issue

 

Recent efforts by various groups to shift the U.S. health care system to one that provides health coverage for all should be of vital concern to African Americans, other racial and ethnic minorities, and lower income families.  After all, it is in the area of healthcare where we can clearly see evidence of the “separate and unequal” philosophy still at work. 

Although only 29 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans were a majority (52 percent) of the nation’s 45 million individuals who were uninsured year-round in 2003.  In that same year, 20 percent of African Americans, 33 percent of Hispanics, and 19 percent of Asians were without health insurance year round compared to 11 percent of Whites.  In 2003, 24 percent of those in households that made less than $25,000 were uninsured compared to 8 percent of those in households making more than $75,000.

Health disparity statistics reinforce that lives are unnecessarily cut short each year largely due to preventable chronic diseases.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the age-adjusted death rate for African Americans was higher than that of whites by 41 percent for stroke, 30 percent for heart disease, 25 percent for cancer, and more than 750 percent for HIV disease in 2002. 

It could be tempting to place the blame for these disparities squarely within the realm of personal responsibility, since many of these death-inducing chronic conditions are exacerbated by the common condition of overweight and obesity.  Yet, there is ample evidence to suggest that personal behaviors cannot fully explain why the low-income, African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities end up with the short end of the health stick.

Structural Bias in the U.S. Health Insurance System

The U.S. health insurance system is largely employer-based, meaning that the quality of health insurance one receives or whether health insurance is received at all is primarily dependent upon the type of employer an individual has.  According to the Census Bureau, 60 percent of non-elderly Americans were covered by health insurance related to employment in 2003.  Yet within this group, a recent article in Health Affairs reported that 70 percent of whites received health insurance through their employer compared to only 49 percent of African Americans and 41 percent of Hispanics. 

Conversely, the government is the second largest provider of health insurance, providing coverage for 27 percent of Americans through Medicaid, Medicare, and military health care.  Yet of those 65 and under in this group, it is low-income racial and ethnic minorities that are most heavily reliant on government plans.  Twenty five percent and 21 percent of African Americans and Hispanics respectively received Medicaid as their source of health insurance coverage in 2003 compared to only 9 percent of Whites.

From employer-based to government-provided health coverage, racial and ethnic minority populations are ill served by the current structure of the U.S. health care system.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the likelihood of employer provided health coverage increases if an individual is a high wage earner, employed full time, and/or works in certain business sectors known for providing coverage such as the financial services industry.

Put another way, it can also be said that structural racism, ethnocentrism and classism are inherent in the U.S. employer-based health care system since it stacks the deck heavily in favor of higher income, better educated individuals who are able to get and hold on to the white-collar or union protected full-time jobs that are most likely to provide their employees with quality health coverage. 

Indeed, the data shows that racial and ethnic minorities have higher unemployment rates, are more likely to work in part-time jobs, and/or are in those sectors that are not prone to provide health coverage such at the construction, service, and wholesale and retail trade industries.   As a result of this labor market conundrum (which is also a function of where you grew up and what type of education you received), racial and ethnic minorities comprise a majority of the nation’s year round uninsured, meaning that they are unable to afford access to a doctor either for regular check ups or for emergency care services.  The combined effect of this lack of access contributes to their poorer health status and higher rates of disability and early death.

Unfortunately, a 2003 study by the National Institutes of Medicine found that minorities were more likely to receive a poorer quality of care even when they had the same level of health insurance access as Whites.  The report concluded that this could be a result of stereotyping and bias as well as the negative effects of financial and institutional health system arrangements.

On the flip side of the coin, racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately benefit from Medicaid.  But as a health insurance coverage program of last resort for those who are very poor, the quality of care Medicaid provides is compromised because services are limited in scope, providers often do not accept its patients due to low reimbursement rates, and benefit levels and the number of people served are subject to be cut at the whim of policymakers seeking to close federal and state budget deficits. 

To make matters worse, a new study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities demonstrates that adult Medicaid beneficiaries spend more than three times as much of their income on out-of-pocket health care costs than do middle class adults with private health insurance.  So, those who are least able to afford it pay more: go figure.

Towards a New HealthCare Paradigm

Where can vulnerable populations turn to help them escape the current trap called the U.S. health care system?  Ironically, these groups could actually benefit from the health care crisis currently brewing.  Skyrocketing health care costs, growing concern about health care quality, and the increasing number of uninsured are taking a heavy financial toll on employers, hospitals, providers, state and federal governments, and American families.

In their desperate attempt to save corporate profit margins, small and large businesses are cutting back on health care benefits and some are also joining with nontraditional allies to seek new ways of insuring the American public.  It is becoming increasingly clear to many that traditionally championed coverage measures, such as ad hoc efforts to enhance smaller employers’ ability to provide coverage and the provision of health insurance tax credits for unemployed individuals, are not sufficient for offsetting the magnitude or nature of the uninsured problem in America.  A total paradigm shift is now necessary in the way U.S. health care is financed and administered.

Throughout the years there have been a number of legislative initiatives and studies calling for universal health care.  The effort with the highest recent profile was led by then First Lady Hillary Clinton circa 1994.  Since that time legislators have introduced bills such as the “Health Security for All Americans” Act (H.R. 2133) and the “United States Health Insurance Act” Act (H.R. 676), offered by Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. John Conyers respectively, which call for quality health coverage for all.  Within the past month, two additional voices have joined the chorus with the release of separate reports by the National Coalition on Health Care and The Century Foundation detailing proposals for structuring a universal health plan for America.

Civil Rights groups and other concerned organizations must begin to add their voices to this debate so as to address the factors that cause us to have less access and poorer health outcomes.  Measures that should be embraced by these groups include:  pursuing aggressive minority health worker recruitment efforts, de-linking health insurance from employment, encouraging physician diversity training and expanded data collection based on race, income, and other important variables, and providing administrative incentives for the promotion of equal health outcomes among other valid proposals.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we must all be concerned about improving the health care system as current inefficiencies are costing the country dearly not only in terms of higher costs for low quality health care services, but also in terms of lost productivity and wages and increased social insurance and welfare costs due to poor health, disability and higher mortality rates experienced by American workers who lack consistent access to quality care. 

Of course, this issue also has a direct impact on the Social Security debate since improving health care for all will increase life expectancies for African Americans and others who are presently more likely to die before receiving retirement benefits.

For a new generation of Americans who believe that there are no civil rights issues left to be addressed:  think again.  A lack of access to quality health care is one of the biggest and most egregious civil rights issues of our time and it is hidden in plain view.

Maya Rockeymoore, PhD., is of Research and Programs at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.  She is the author of The Political Action Handbook:  A How To Guide for the Hip Hop Generation and co-editor of Strengthening Communities:  Social Insurance in a Diverse America.

 

Black Labor's Voice Amidst the Madness
 

For the first time since one faction of the AFL-CIO declared war on the other nearly a year ago, Black trade unionists from across the U.S. and Canada will gather later this month in an attempt to force the contenders for control of the labor federation to recognize the interests of African Americans.

“We…have a responsibility to make our voice heard in the crucial debate taking place now on how to make the labor movement broader, more powerful and more relevant to the lives of working families, especially in communities of color, the fastest growing sector of the labor force,” said Bill Lucy, President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. The CBTU, with 50 chapters in 50 unions, holds its 34th annual convention in Phoenix, May 25 – 30, under the theme, “Forging a New Vision for Tough Challenges Ahead.”

 

With Big Labor getting smaller all the time, and the corporate regime in Washington bent on, in TransAfrica Forum executive director Bill Fletcher’s words, the “annihilation” of the union movement, the term “tough challenges” seems an understatement. “They are not talking about simply the reduction of our numbers or power,” Fletcher told a caucus of Black unionists in April, “but our total elimination.”

The language of apocalypse and fratricide dominates labor discussions, as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chief Andrew Stern and four allied union presidents, representing about 40 percent of the AFL-CIO’s membership, ratchet up their campaign to drastically restructure the labor federation – or leave it altogether.

"This is not organized labor. This is disorganized labor," exclaimed the SEIU’s Stern on May 10, laying labor’s continuing decline at the feet of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. The dissidents’ “Unity” conference, in Las Vegas, hosted by Teamsters chief James Hoffa, Jr., also included the leaders of the Laborers, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and the hotel, restaurant, and laundry workers' union, Unite Here.

"The American labor movement at the level of the AFL-CIO has lost its way,” shouted Unite Here president John Wilhelm, who may be the Stern-Hoffa group’s designated  challenger for Sweeney’s job at the federation’s annual convention, in July. “It's lost its energy. It's lost its hope. And that's a crime," Wilhelm shouted.

The Teamsters' Hoffa railed against “bottom-feeding unions…like the Machinists that are out there trying to steal our members from the Teamsters, with lower, sweetheart contracts." So vitriolic was the rhetoric in Las Vegas, it sometimes appeared the dissidents were determined to achieve a “unity” of intra-labor hatred.

The week before the verbal pyrotechnics in Las Vegas, four of the union presidents – minus the UFCW chief – demanded that AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington delete their members’ names from lists used to coordinate political campaigns. Off the record, aides to the union presidents complained that the federation was sharing the lists with Democrats.

In an attempt to mollify the opposition, AFL-CIO president Sweeney terminated the jobs of one-third of the headquarters staff – 167 employees. For them, the Apocalypse had already arrived. But Stern, Hoffa & Company were unrelenting. Writing in the dissidents’ UniteToWinBlog, Stern called Sweeney’s firings and other counterproposals “Unite To Win Lite,” – a pale version of his own 10-point program – and made plain that he’s out for Sweeney’s head:

”What is crystal clear is that even if unions representing a majority of members ultimately agree on a new strategy and structure that will help millions more workers unite with us, this AFL-CIO leadership team would not be the right group to carry it out.”
No Labor revival without Blacks

If it sounds like the Sweeney and Stern camps have reduced Black labor to mere spectators to this very uncivil war – it’s because that has been both sides' intention.

Sweeney did not consult with labor’s constituency groups before firing one-third of the federation’s staffers. And it was under Sweeney that labor’s ethnic and gender constituencies, including the 33-year-old Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, were utterly frozen out of participation in the 2004 election cycle – zero-funded, in favor of 527s and other white-controlled mechanisms.

Structurally, the opposition’s plans were perceived by Black labor to be a coup de grace, as BC wrote in our March 3, 2005 Cover Story, “No Real Labor ‘Reform’ Without Blacks”:

”The SEIU and Teamsters proposals include nothing resembling formal institutional representation for Blacks, Latinos, other minorities and women – groups that comprise nearly three out of five unionized workers. It was specifically to include underrepresented groups that the AFL-CIO expanded its Executive Council from 35 to 54 seats in 1995, when John Sweeney was elected president. A decade later, ‘reformers’ place part of the blame for labor’s ongoing decline on the size of the Council, and would centralize power in the hands of consolidated union chiefs.

”The inevitable perception is that Stern, Hoffa & Co. believe that the institutional inclusion of minority and female voices on the Council is at least partially to blame for labor’s woes. Or is it a case of the key constituents getting thrown out with the Executive Council bathwater? The CBTU’s William Lucy would like to know, but he’s not getting answers. ‘Given the fact that we’ve got millions of workers to organize, how will our concerns be put on the table? How will our views be shared in terms of our politicization and organizing in our communities?’ asked Lucy, who estimates that close to 30 percent of organized labor is Black.

An early March meeting of the federation’s Executive Council produced informal assurances to Blacks that labor’s constituency organizations would not be shunted aside, and that local structures would be strengthened, should Sweeney survive the July convention, in Chicago. But the Stern-Hoffa camp offered no structural mechanisms to non-whites, only the promise that workers of color would benefit most from the remake in the long run – the same message that the SEIU’s Black vice president, Gerald Hudson, conveyed in his February 24 letter to BC, “Rebuilding the Union Movement to Empower Communities of Color.”

“We need leaders and activists at all levels of the union movement who reflect the membership in terms of race, gender, and other factors,” Hudson wrote – but not a word about institutional Black and brown representation in the corridors of union power.

Questions in Stern’s ‘own house’

In the second week of April, the Black caucus of Andrew Stern’s own union held a conference in Las Vegas – the first opportunity for AFRAM’s full leadership to discuss the implications of “reform” since June of 2004, when the SEIU’s annual convention gave Stern authority to withdraw from the AFL-CIO if he chose.

A number of papers circulated among the 400 Black caucus delegates, including BC’s March 3, 2005 Cover Story, a paper by a group that included TransAfrica’s Bill Fletcher, and Black labor consultant Dwight Kirk’s February 24, 2005 BC article, “Can Labor Go Beyond Diversity Lite.” Kirk’s article revealed that “55 percent (or 168,000) of the union jobs lost in 2004 were held by black workers” and “African American women accounted for 70 percent of the union jobs lost by women in 2004.” Nevertheless, voters of color remain the most likely to support the AFL-CIO’s “Take Back America” agenda. Yet “a decade after black trade unionists successfully thrust color and gender into labor’s last major leadership ‘makeover’ they and their allies are now on the defensive, fighting to protect past diversity gains from the knives of some new ‘reformers.’”

Bill Fletcher, paired as a Sunday speaker with SEIU executive vice president Tom Woodruff, delivered a stark analysis: “Our opponents in business and on the political Right wish our annihilation.  They are not talking about simply the reduction of our numbers or power, but our total elimination” In the face of such dangers, the split in labor amounts to “a train wreck,” said Fletcher, a former AFL-CIO operative:

“The debate has largely taken place on Mount Olympus as a battle among the gods.  There has been little attempt to engage the membership in a discussion regarding the future of the union movement.  There has been little attempt to solicit from their members their own ideas…. From my visits around the country, I have found that local activists feel both alienated from and scared of this debate.  They feel that it is not about them and does not include them.  I would go further and say that for union members of color, this is especially the case.”
Fletcher received a standing ovation from most of the delegates, while Woodruff, who kept largely to Stern’s 10-point program, got polite applause.

Stern did not attend the meeting of his union’s Black caucus, but emissaries of both warring camps circulated among the members. Stern’s lobbyists pressed AFRAM to hold back on any resolution, since the Black caucus could be expected to express grave concerns about Black constituent clout in the “reformed” AFL-CIO. Representatives of SEIU leadership passed the word that elimination of constituent representation and funding was “off the table” – but this is a war of positioning, and it remains unclear what “off the table” means.

On the morning of Monday, April 11, while the AFRAM conference was still underway in Las Vegas, Andrew Stern, Woodruff and other senior SEIU officers posted a letter on the UnitedToWinBlog, in response to Dwight Kirk’s research on the decimation of Black union workers:

”Brother Kirk finds facts like these missing from the debate over labor’s future. ‘Diversity,’ he writes, ‘has become a flabby catch-all term, no longer a form of empowering people who have been disenfranchised in this society.’

”We agree. And that’s one reason why our union is so committed to real change to give working people new strength and unity so that we can win real raises, health care, and dignity on the job.”
The letter descends further into what is now SEIU boilerplate: “A deliberate policy promoting real empowerment, not just symbolic diversity, has changed our [SEIU] International Executive Board so that it is 40 percent female (compared to 56% of our membership) and 33 percent people of color (compared to 34% of our membership) – no cause to rest on our laurels, but real progress.”

In other words, trust our example (and our numbers), but don’t expect structural inclusion in the New AFL-CIO.

Wall of White Noise

“Let me say that it would be a serious ‘omission’ for any of the sincere and articulate advocates of reform to assume what is in the best interest of black trade unionists and the coalition partners with whom we work regularly,” said CBTU president Bill Lucy, as he prepared for the organization’s May 25 – 30 convention, in Phoenix. Embattled AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney and Rev. Jesse Jackson are scheduled to speak at the affair.

Blacks confront an environment in which elements of both white male-dominated labor camps appear to believe that minority constituency representation, and empowerment of largely Black and brown big city labor councils, is something the New AFL-CIO can do without. At times, this attitude is manifested in pure racial arrogance, immediately recognizable to all African Americans.

In early May, the SEIU’s white Secretary-Treasurer, Ann Burger, shot off a letter that must rank among the worst racial indiscretions committed by union officials in recent years.

“The SEIU is expressing our displeasure that the Congressional Black Caucus is giving Wal-Mart an opportunity to fashion a false image that they are friends of African Americans and working people generally,” wrote Burger. Wal-Mart is currently on a public relations and lobbying offensive, courting constituencies all over Capitol Hill, including the Black Caucus. It is true that a growing minority in the Caucus is open to contributions and propaganda from Wal-Mart, the evil engine of America’s – and the world’s – race to the bottom. (See BC, April 28, 2005 and May 12, 2005.) But the SEIU’s broadside at the Caucus as a whole was so ill-aimed, it was inevitably perceived as racist or incompetent – or both, as the newspaper The Hill reported:

“It’s really an attempt to put CBC members in their place,” said Lanier Avant, chief of staff to Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

“No group of members of Congress has a stronger labor record than the CBC and for this kind of letter to go strictly to black lawmakers is a slap in the face,” he said, noting that four CBCers have perfect voting records with the AFL-CIO and another 21 are above the 95 percent mark.
In other words, the white leadership of the SEIU doesn’t know how to talk to Black people. It is such arrogance, almost as much as the depredations of the Bush regime, that may be the death of organized labor in America.

Labor’s color line

Even as unions struggle to respond to forces bent on their annihilation, they remain deformed by racism – the same plague that has crippled the U.S. labor movement at every stage in its history. Black workers, the most enthusiastic “joiners” and activists, also face the most dire consequences of labor’s historical weaknesses. Yet, too often, their white comrades – including those who proudly consider themselves “progressives” – seek “solutions” to labor’s problems at Black workers’ institutional expense. Labor, not so big anymore, has to get its mission straight, as the CBTU’s Bill Lucy pointed out, in January:

“We would strongly suggest that the Federation leadership resist the call to reduce the size of the Executive Council. The added size of the Council bears no relationship to the decline in labor fortunes. Those who suggest that its size affects the ability to have substantive debate, to a degree reflect our overall problem. We do not believe labor’s problem revolves around structure. We believe to the extent we have a problem, it is around mission.

”If we define our mission, our mission will dictate the necessary structure. While the composition of the Executive Council may be large, it reflects who we want to organize, mobilize and politicize. As we talk about these issues as well as global solidarity, to turn inward and return to the structure that existed when the movement went into decline strikes me as unwise and unworkable in terms of our fundamental goals.”
Three principles should guide labor’s deliberations: The Big should not dictate to the Small. White men should not dictate to people of color and women. And local struggles should not be subordinated to top-down union management.

In the New AFL-CIO envisioned by some, top-down union management will also be near lilly-white. That’s what got us into this mess, in the first place.

 

Death by Design:
The Plot to Destroy Social Insurance
by
Dr. Mary Rockymoore

 

Our nation’s political leaders are looting the federal treasury and they expect ordinary citizens not to notice.  Last week’s coverage of the release of the Social Security and Medicare Trustee’s Report proves one thing about contemporary news:  Those who control the mic, control the sound byte…and our perception of reality. 

Despite the Trustee’s report clearly showing the more immediate financial problems facing the Medicare program – which they projected will become insolvent in the year 2020 – most mainstream news sources focused on the Trustee’s less dramatic Social Security estimates which moved up the date at which the trust fund is expected to be “exhausted” from 2042 to 2041.

How has it come to pass that we are actually facing a short-term crisis in Medicare but the nation is fixated on the more distant Social Security shortfall?  More importantly, how does this bait and switch tactic obscure the likely impact of Medicare’s financing problems on the millions of African American elderly, disabled, and poor people who rely on the program as their only source of health care?

We can’t blame “Medicare Myopia” on the Trustee’s report which clearly relayed that the system would need an immediate 107 percent increase in income (tax increase) or an immediate 48 percent decrease in outlays (benefit cut) in order to bring its financing into balance.  We could, however, look to how the report was released for clues as to why many media sources overlooked the most important part of the story.

Ironically, out of six total Trustees only the four members serving in the Bush Administration participated in the report’s release.  And they – perhaps knowing that the media would focus on their spoken words instead of reading the report – chose to focus their remarks almost exclusively on Social Security.

But the stark nature of Medicare’s financing problem, its relationship to Medicaid, and the reliance of African Americans and other vulnerable populations on these vital programs, (see "Structured Inefficiency: The Impact of Medicare Reform on African Americans,” Rockeymoore) means that it is critical to move beyond mainstream sound bytes and headlines to figure out what is really going on. 

The Medicare Slight of Hand

When the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act was signed into law by President Bush in December of 2003, many fiscal conservatives expressed outrage that the Administration and their Congressional counterparts would ignore their party’s philosophical tradition of fiscal conservatism that called for relieving taxpayers of “unnecessary” burdens, particularly entitlement programs like Medicare, by shrinking big government.

So when President Bush and Congressional Republicans pushed through a historic expansion of Medicare to include an uncapped prescription drug benefit, health savings accounts, and huge subsidies for Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO) and Preferred Provider Organizations (PPO), it came as a nasty surprise to fiscal conservatives who were dismayed at the estimated $400 billion price tag reported at the time.

Many political observers inside and outside the beltway assumed the push for expanded prescription drug benefits represented an election year ploy to attract or neutralize senior citizens, a reliable voting bloc, and to make good with pharmaceutical companies and health maintenance organizations who would likely respond in kind with generous campaign donations.   

It seemed a distracting curiosity when it was revealed that the Administration went to great lengths to hide the true cost of the bill prior to its passage – threatening to fire Medicare’s chief actuary Richard S. Foster if he revealed his higher cost estimates of $500 billion to $600 billion to Congress. 

The ante was raised in early February of 2005 when the White House finally acknowledged that the actual cost of the Medicare drug benefit would reach anywhere from $720 billion to $1.2 trillion in its first decade of operation alone – more than double the cost of the original estimates.

Now that we see the Administration’s approach to Social Security privatization and examine it in light of its contorted approach to the Medicare bill, it may be that the election-year motives originally ascribed were too simplistic in hindsight.  For a pattern is emerging that may very well signal a more ominous plot to destroy the social insurance nature of Medicare and Social Security.

Privatizing Social Insurance

A simple analogy may help us understand the nature of the issues our country is facing.  When the Jackson family’s spending habits showed that soon they would be unable to pay their bills, family members worked more hours (found additional income) and ate oatmeal in place of steak (trimmed expenses) to prevent financial ruin.  If the Jackson’s had ignored their looming fiscal insolvency and instead decided to purchase a Ferrari and an Olympic-sized swimming pool, they were certain to default on their mortgage and lose their home.

Like the Jackson family, Medicare’s Hospital Insurance (HI) trust fund was already facing a long-term inability to meet its financial obligations due to rising health care costs and reduced tax revenue caused by the recession when the 2003 Medicare legislation was enacted.  Instead of generating additional revenue or trimming expenses to place Medicare on a solid financial footing, the Administration and Congress bought a Ferrari, swimming pool and an island in the South Pacific – in effect, adding prohibitively expensive programmatic expenditures in the form of an uncapped drug benefit that enables pharmaceutical companies to charge seniors and the government as much as they like and massive subsidies to prop up HMO’s that have already proven their inability to provide consistent, quality care for seniors. 

As a result, passage of the Medicare legislation sped up the date at which the program would be unable to pay full promised benefits by seven years – from 2026 to 2019.  (The latest Trustees report pushes this date back one year to 2020.)  

So what is the real reason why conservatives disregard their fiscally conservative political base to add expensive program features that are not sustainable?  It is highly probable that they are setting Medicare up for failure and building the case for privatizing all social insurance programs within the next 10-15 years.

This theory would sound conspiratorial except for the fact that we now see a similar pattern emerging in the Social Security debate.  Basic facts are the same: the Trustees estimate that Social Security will face a long term funding shortfall in the year 2041.  Instead of addressing the shortfall, the Administration proposes to create expensive private retirement accounts that add huge financial burdens to the system that cannot be sustainable in the long term. 

Like Medicare, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the addition of private retirement accounts, expected to cost 4.9 trillion over two decades, would accelerate the date of Social Security’s insolvency by about eleven years – from 2041 to 2030. 

Once social insurance programs have imploded under the weight of their fiscal pressures, the Administration schemes leave an escape hatch for privatization.  In the case of Social Security, they will simply transition individuals completely into private retirement accounts – making them solely responsible for shouldering the burden and risk of meeting their retirement needs through private savings and stock market investments.  Under this scenario, Social Security’s survivor and disability benefits – if maintained – become dramatically reduced and morph into means tested, welfare-like programs that depend upon general revenue transfers to stay afloat.

 

In the case of Medicare, the privatization escape hatch are the Health Savings Accounts and the HMO’s/PPO’s that received such favorable and prominent treatment in the 2003 legislation.  Touted as a new way to help Americans save for future health needs, the Health Savings Accounts will likely be expanded in a future where individuals are expected to carry a heavier financial responsibility for their health care.  Similarly, the 2003 Medicare law expanded the role of private insurers by providing them with government subsidies and other benefits to give the illusion that they are more efficient when compared to the traditional Medicare program.  Thus, setting the stage for the elimination of Medicare.   

In either scenario, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to project the type of arguments that will be made as the looming date of insolvency approaches for both programs and the nation buckles under the weight of the costs.  In early March, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan gave us a glimpse of them when he reportedly warned House Budget Committee members that benefits promised under Social Security and Medicare were unsustainable and would cause severe economic consequences for the economy if not retooled.  What did Greenspan identify as his preferred alternative to social insurance?  Private individual accounts.

Impact on African Americans

There is no doubt that the destruction of Medicare would have drastic consequences for African Americans of all ages – but especially black seniors and many with disabilities who also rely on Medicare for health coverage. 

Medicare has had a particularly positive impact on the quality of life for African American seniors.  Prior to the program’s implementation in 1966, African Americans received substandard treatment in segregated hospital facilities when they received treatment at all.  By requiring hospitals to prove they weren’t practicing racial discrimination in order to receive federal funds, however, the Medicare program served as the catalyst that enabled older African Americans to receive equal access to affordable health care coverage.  It is important to note that since the passage of Medicare life expectancy has increased by 20 percent.

Today, reflecting historical education and labor market inequities, African Americans are more likely to be among Medicare’s lower-income beneficiaries.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, while 40 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, 65 percent of African American seniors fall below this level.  As a result of their lower economic status, African Americans are also more likely to rely on Medicaid to supplement their Medicare coverage. (See , Rockeymoore, February 10, 2005.) Black seniors are also twice as likely as whites to lack employer-sponsored supplemental health insurance.  Complicating matters is that African American seniors are much more likely to be in poorer health and to report having one or more chronic health conditions.

So, facing all of these complex challenges, what will happen to African American seniors or those who are disabled when Medicare is replaced with a privatized system of health care coverage?  It is likely that we will return to a pre-1966 two-tiered system where large swaths of the population will be unable to afford access to health care. Unfortunately, Medicaid won’t be there to help these people since the Administration is intent on also slashing that program’s funding. 

Thus, this scenario will likely result in even shorter life expectancies for African Americans.  But perhaps that won’t matter either, since Social Security won’t be there to provide them with guaranteed income support in old age if the Administration is successful in its privatization efforts.

Conclusion

In sum, it is clear that the Administration is following the tenets of its own version of the ownership society: give away the federal treasury to the “have and have mores” by bestowing tax cuts on wealthy individuals, huge subsidies for wealthy HMO’s, no-bid contracts for wealthy defense firms, and large transfers to wealthy Wall Street money managers hungry for Social Security payroll taxes.  Perhaps it is the height of irony that an Administration that came into office with historic surpluses is striving to leave office with a legacy of having set the stage for bankrupting the nation’s two premier social insurance programs – successfully mismanaging taxpayer’s money and trust in the process.

Dr. Maya Rockeymoore previously served on the Social Security Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, she is the co-editor of Strengthening Communities: Social Insurance in a Diverse America and author of The Political Action Handbook: A How To Guide for the Hip Hop Generation.

 

Millions Still Can't Vote
by

Ryan Paul Haygood

The tragic, history-making events of “Bloody Sunday,” on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama, ultimately freed the vote for millions of African Americans. Forty years later, as we reflect on the march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are also reminded that more than two million African Americans continue to be denied the right to vote by one of the vestiges of American slavery.

Black voter registration in Selma in 1965 was made virtually impossible by Alabama’s relentless efforts to block the Black vote, which included requiring Blacks to interpret entire sections of Alabama’s constitution, an impossible feat for even the most learned.  On one occasion, even a Black man who had earned a Ph.D. was unable to pass Alabama’s literacy test.

On Bloody Sunday, John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams led almost 600 unarmed men, women and children in a peaceful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation their desire as Black people to participate in the political process.

As they crossed the highest part of the bridge, the marchers were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers, who ridiculed, tear-gassed, clubbed, spat on, whipped and trampled them with their horses.  In the end, Lewis’s skull was fractured by a state trooper’s nightstick, and 17 other marchers were hospitalized. 

In direct response to Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson, five months later, signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.  Considered by many to be the greatest victory of the civil-rights movement, the Voting Rights Act removed barriers, such as literacy tests, that had long kept Blacks from voting. 

Despite the promise of increased political participation by Blacks and other racial minorities created by the Voting Rights Act, its full potential has not been realized by one of the last excluded segments of our society:  Americans with felony convictions.

Today, nearly 5 million Americans are literally locked out of the political process by state felon disfranchisement laws that disqualify people with felony convictions from voting. 

The historical record reveals that to prevent newly freed Blacks from voting after the Civil War, many state legislatures in the North and South tailored their felon disfranchisement laws to require the loss of voting rights only for those offenses committed mostly by Blacks.

Indeed, in recognition of the fact that Alabama’s felon disfranchisement law was enacted in 1901 to prevent Blacks from voting and to reinforce white supremacy, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Hunter v. Underwood, struck down Alabama’s provision as unconstitutional.  Alabama’s felon disfranchisement law was subsequently reenacted.

As intended, modern day felon disfranchisement laws serve to disproportionately weaken the voting strength of Black and Latino communities. This results largely from the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws in Black and Latino communities, which has expanded exponentially the number of people of color subjected to felon disfranchisement.

State felon disfranchisement statutes are the most destructive in Black and Latino communities, which are often affected disproportionately by numerous socioeconomic ills, including concentrated poverty, substandard education, housing and healthcare. As a result, people in these communities are even less able to combat these social ills through the ballot box.

Regrettably, 40 years after 600 people literally risked their lives on Bloody Sunday to expand democracy for Blacks and other racial minorities, and in the 40th anniversary year of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Blacks and Latinos, rather than experiencing increased political participation, are actually losing their voting rights daily.

It is time to erase felon disfranchisement laws from the books. Indeed, the integrity and legitimacy of America’s democracy, and the fulfillment of the promise of the Voting Rights Act and the human sacrifice that led to its passage, depends on it.

Ryan Paul Haygood is assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and Right the Vote, a national campaign which seeks to restore voting rights to persons with felony convictions

 

 

Let's Take Black History Month to the Next Level
by
Norman Otis Richmond

 

This article first appeared in Share newspaper, serving the Black and Caribbean population of greater Toronto, Canada.

Black History Month must be updated for the 21st century. February should be the month that we re-double our struggle against imperialism and White supremacy, and for reparations for slavery, the slave trade and colonialism.

This was the message that Gerald Horne, author of Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920, left the audience with when he spoke at the beautiful Trane Studio in Toronto in February last year.

While we joined back then in celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Haitian revolution, we must now fight for the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president of the first African Republic. We must also stand with the people of Zimbabwe against British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard's vicious attacks on President Robert Mugabe. The people of Zimbabwe should be allowed to resolve the contradictions among themselves. “Hands off Mugabe!” should become the cry of Africans at home and abroad, and all progressive people.

During February – and every month – we should also call on boards of education in North America to put C.L.R. James' classic book about the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, in classrooms; demand the U.S. government return Grenada's archives, stolen during the 1983 U.S. invasion; that boards of education in North America teach in the public schools about the global African presence and demand that reparations be paid to Africans at home and aboard for the enslavement and the colonization of the land and the people.

Because of African people's colonization, enslavement and dislocation, our people suffer what Harold Cruse, the author of The Crisis of The Negro Intellectual, calls historical discontinuity. We as a people still allow others to define our reality. I am concerned how others are attempting to define the month of February for their own purposes.

McDonald's calls it Black History Month; Harbourfront Centre refers to it as African Heritage Month. A growing minority prefers the term African Liberation Month.

Richard B. Moore, the great Barbadian revolutionary and author of the book, The Name Negro: Its Origin and Evil Use, was clear on the issue of naming people and historical events. Moore always maintained that dogs and slaves are named by their masters; free people name themselves.

Where did the idea of Black History Month come from? Did it drop from the skies? No. Was it conceived in the lab of a mad African scientist? Wrong again. Personally, I'm tired of hearing uninformed people remark: “They give us the coldest and shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History Month.”

First of all, they didn't give us anything. The great African American historian Carter G. Woodson, his organization – the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which was formed in 1915 – and the masses of African people in the United States and Canada forced the system to recognize the contribution of Africans to the world. Woodson's organization came into existence only 30 years after the Berlin Conference, where European colonial powers carved up Africa like a Thanksgiving turkey.

Why did Woodson pick February as the time to commemorate Africa's many gifts to humanity? Says John Henrik Clarke, in his book, Africans At the Crossroads: Notes For An African World Revolution: "Black History Week comes each year about the second Sunday in February, the objective being to select the week that will include both February 12, the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and February 14, the date Frederick Douglass calculated to have been his natal day. Sometimes the celebrations can include one day, in which case Douglass' date gets preference."

February never was meant to be the only month African people reflected on their past. Clarke states: "The aim is not to enter upon one week's study of (B)lack people's place in history. Rather, the celebration should represent the culmination of a systematic study of Black people throughout the year. Initially, the observance consisted of public exercises emphasizing the salient facts brought to light by researchers and publications of the association during the first 11 years of its existence. The observance was widely supported among (B)lack Americans in schools, churches and clubs. Gradually, the movement found support among other ethnic groups and institutions in America and abroad."

We've come a long way since Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926. His classic book, The Mis-Education of the Negro (the inspiration for the title of singer Lauryn Hill's The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill), is a must read for anyone who wants to be on the right side of history.

The time has come to update Woodson's idea. As activist/scholar Abdul Akalimat, author of The African American Experience and Cyberspace, has pointed out: "Some of us have been promoting the notion that it was important to move from Negro to Black, from Week to Month and now it is time to move from general notion of history to the specific theme of Black history which is liberation."

The question is history for what? The answer is for liberation. Huge hamburger chains have appropriated images of the great Kings and Queens of Africa while holding up those who support the status quo in North America like “colon” and “condosleezie.” African people, like all people, have a right to determine who their friends are and who their enemies are.

 

 

Understanding Black History

by

James Warren

As I brace myself for yet another routine Black history month, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be a part of a serious democratic discussion and debate about the state of Black America today in its correct historical context.  It’s all well and good to celebrate history, but the point is to understand it and build a better world by standing on the shoulders of those that came before us. After several decades of participating in Black history month celebrations I have concluded that I should share my view on how to study our glorious history of struggle to realize our humanity as a part of world humanity.

What can we expect from official and semi-official circles for this month? First and foremost the historians will try to prove that we had people in our history who were “equal to whites” – the “first Black this”, the “first Black that” – which proves only one thing; the historians believe these individuals were the exception when in fact they were the rule. We have had millions more in our past that could and did excel. The historians miss the point: there never was a question in the minds of our ancestors about their equality. Even the racist exploiters and oppressors in their vast majority didn’t believe we were inferior. That is why they fought so violently to beat us down and keep us down. We should refuse to try and prove our equality to anyone least of all ourselves.

These historians will present us as long-suffering victims. They will walk us through the slave ships, chains, death and destruction visited on millions of our people for centuries. We will be bombarded with images of church bombings, white racist riots, police brutality and frame-ups. Once again the point is lost on them. Our history is not that of victims but of fighters. We have always resisted attempts to be turned into victims. We fought back with whatever tools and weapons we had available to us, as Malcolm X said, “by any means necessary”. We fought against racist violence here at home and we laid down our lives in this country’s wars in the mistaken believe it would bring democracy and justice at home. We fought with dignity and valor, we distinguished ourselves as heroic figures by the thousands, only to have great white American heroes betray us. Teddy “big stick” Roosevelt stood up before the entire country and lied about our contributions after Black soldiers saved his butt in Cuba and the Philippines. Our ancestors didn’t conduct themselves as suffering victims. They correctly acted to resist and stand up to their tormentors in this country.

Above all, the historians will advance the pied-piper view of the history of the Civil Rights Movement. We are told that 400 years of brutal exploitation and oppression came tumbling down when Martin Luther King had a dream and marched throughout the South. With all due respect to MLK, who inspired me to become political, he didn’t create the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement created him. In fact, the one individual who could be mentioned in this vein is ignored by the historians: a man name E. D. Nixon, the president of the Montgomery NAACP and the president of a sleeping car porters local union. Rosa Parks, his part time secretary, learned her Black pride from this old veteran of the labor and Civil Rights Movement. He convinced her to fight, he organized preachers to meet at Dr. King’s church, and proposed the bus boycott.     

Above all Nixon formulated a plan of action that drew in thousands and led to the total destruction of the Jim Crow system.

The bus boycott was a fundamental departure from the tactics of the fight for Black rights utilized from the defeat of Radical Reconstruction up until the boycott. The shift was away from trying to convince white society that we were worthy of first class citizenship. We simply asserted our humanity; we took our equality and refused to surrender it for 381 days. And we won. This victory was not the result of the genius of Dr. King or Mr. Nixon. It exploded from the bottom up. It was the result of the accumulation of 80 years of experiences from the Civil War to World War II. The formula was classic, the accumulation of quantitative experiences exploding into qualitative change in expectations and actions. We took matters into our own hands and we stopped appealing to our oppressors sense of humanity – we finally realized they had none.

The image of the thousands of Black maids, laborers, farmers and farm workers should be burned into our memory. They stood up, fought and won. This invisible mass of humanity woke up, flexed their muscles and made history. They are the heroes we should be celebrating during Black history month. The fact is, that same potential power exists today. It’s a simple matter of tapping into it and utilizing it to change the deplorable conditions the majority of our people face in life today.

The historians will present the massive influx of former civil rights leaders into the electoral arena, primarily the Democratic Party, as a logical outcome of the victory of the movement. Nothing is further from the truth. Obviously winning the right to vote and running for office was a key component of the victory. The central lesson of the victory was the fact that we had organized, mobilized and overthrown Jim Crow without the right to vote or even the pretense of equality under the law. At that point in our history we stood at the threshold of making the greatest advances since our kidnapping and enslavement in this country.

The Civil Rights Movement had a beginning, middle and an end. It was over by 1968 the day after Dr. King’s assassination when the entire country burned. The challenge facing the victorious leaders of the Civil Rights Movement was to stand on the shoulders of the Civil Rights Movement and build a social movement using the same methods of struggle that got us that far. Such a movement would have advanced a social program beginning with a plan similar to the Marshal plan that rebuilt Europe and Japan after World War II. We should have demanded a publics works program to build schools, housing, and hospitals, which would have amounted to a reconstruction of the Black community. I call it reparations with teeth.

 As Malcolm X was so fond of pointing out, the goal of segregation was not to deny us rights, the denial of rights was a tool that allowed the market system to exploit us more, pay us less, condemn us to inferior housing and education, higher unemployment, sub-standard medical care, if we had any at all. These are social-economic problems that demand social and economic solutions.

Many historians are incapable of explaining why the conditions of life for the vast majority of people who are Black in this country have deteriorated since the victory of the Civil Rights Movement. The challenge we face today is the same challenge we have faced since 1968. Objective conditions cry out for a social movement. Serious fighters for Black rights today have a responsibility and obligation to stand up and tell the truth no matter how painful it may be. By doing so we will find the young fighters of today who are more than capable of bridging the gap between the past and the present with an eye toward a future of struggle and progress. It is this that we should celebrate during and after this Black history month. 

 James Warren has been active in the Black and Labor movement for over 35 years. He is currently resident in Manhattan, New York where he is writing a personal history of his experiences in the movement. He can be contacted at pmact@earthlink.net.

 

 

African-Americans and Social Security:

Why the Privatization Advocates are Wrong

by
William E. Spriggs

This article originally appeared in Dollars and Sense magazine.

Proponents of Social Security privatization are trying to claim that the current program is unfair to African Americans and that a privatized program would serve African Americans better. This argument lends support to the privatization agenda while at the same time giving its advocates a compassionate gloss. But the claims about African Americans and Social Security are wrong.

The Old Age Survivors and Disability Insurance Program (OASDI), popularly known as Social Security, was put in place by Franklin Roosevelt to establish a solid bulwark of economic rights for the public – specifically, as he put it, "the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment." Most Americans associate Social Security only with the retirement – or old age – benefit. Yet it was created to do much more, and it does.

As its original name suggests, Social Security is an insurance program that protects workers and their families against the income loss that occurs when a worker retires, becomes disabled, or dies. All workers will eventually either grow too old to compete in the labor market, become disabled, or die. OASDI insures all workers and their families against these universal risks, while spreading the costs and benefits of that insurance protection among the entire workforce. Currently, 70% of Social Security funds go to retirees, 15% to disabled workers, and 15% to survivors.

Social Security is a "pay as you go" system, which means the taxes paid by today’s workers are not set aside to pay their own benefits down the road, but rather go to pay the benefits of current Social Security recipients. It’s financed using the Federal Insurance Contribution Act (or FICA) payroll tax, paid by all working Americans on earnings of less than about $90,000 a year. While the payroll tax is not progressive, Social Security benefits are – that is, low-wage workers receive a greater percentage of pre-retirement earnings from the program than higher-wage workers.

In the 1980s, recognizing that the baby boom generation would strain this system, Congress passed reforms to raise extra tax revenues above and beyond the current need and set up a trust fund to hold the reserve. (See "Social Security Isn’t Broken," Dollars and Sense.) Trustees were appointed and charged with keeping Social Security solvent. Today’s trustees warn that their projections, which are based on modest assumptions about the long-term growth of the U.S. economy, show the system could face a shortfall around 2042, when either benefits would have to be cut or the FICA tax raised.

Those who oppose the social nature of the program have pounced on its projected shortfall in revenues to argue that the program cannot – or ought not – be fixed, but should instead be fundamentally changed. Privatization proponents are seeking to frame the issue as a matter of social justice, as if Social Security "reform" would primarily benefit low-income workers, blue-collar workers, people of color, and women. Prompted by disparities in life expectancy between whites and African Americans and the racial wealth gap, a growing chorus within the privatization movement is claiming that privatizing Social Security would be beneficial to African Americans.

Opponents attack the program on the basis of an analogy to private retirement accounts. Early generations of Social Security beneficiaries received much more in benefits than they had paid into the system in taxes. Privatization proponents argue those early recipients received a "higher rate of return" on their "investment" while current and future generations are being "robbed" because they will see "lower rates of return." They argue the current system of social insurance – particularly the retirement program – should be privatized, switching from the current "pay-as-you-go" system to one in which individual workers claim their own contribution and decide where and how to invest it.

But this logic inverts the premise of social insurance. Rather than sharing risk across the entire workforce to ensure that all workers and their families are protected from the three inevitabilities of old age, disability, and death, privatizing Social Security retirement benefits would enable high-wage workers to reap gains from private retirement investment without having to help protect lower-wage workers from their (disproportionate) risks of disability and death. High-wage workers, who are more likely to live long enough to retire, could in fact do better on average if they opt out of the general risk pool and devote all their money to retirement without having to cover the risk of those who may become disabled or die, although they would of course be subjecting their retirement dollars to greater risk. But low-wage workers, who are far more likely to need disability or survivors’ benefits to help their families and are less likely to live long enough to retire, would then be left with lower disability and survivors’ benefits, and possibly no guaranteed benefits. This is what the Social Security privatization movement envisions. But you wouldn’t know it from reading their literature.

And when the myths about Social Security’s financial straits meet another American myth – race – even more confusion follows. Here is a look at three misleading claims by privatization proponents about African Americans and Social Security.

Myth #1

Several conservative research groups argue that Social Security is a bad deal for African Americans because of their lower life expectancies. "Lifetime Social Security benefits depend, in large part, on longevity," writes the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner in his briefing paper "Disparate Impact: Social Security and African Americans." "At every age, African-American men and women both have shorter life expectancies than do their white counterparts. … As a result, a black man or woman earning exactly the same lifetime wages, and paying exactly the same lifetime Social Security taxes, as his or her white counterpart will likely receive a far lower rate of return." Or as the Americans for Tax Reform web site puts it: "A black male born today has a life expectancy of 64.8 years. But the Social Security retirement age for that worker in the future will be 67 years. That means probably the majority of black males will never even receive Social Security retirement benefits."

The longevity myth is the foundation of all the race-based arguments for Social Security privatization. There are several problems with it.

First, the shorter life expectancy of African Americans compared to whites is the result of higher morbidity in mid-life, and is most acute for African-American men. The life expectancies of African-American women and white men are virtually equal. So the life expectancy argument can really only be made about African-American men.

Second, the claim that OASDI is unfair to African Americans because their expected benefits are less than their expected payments is usually raised and then answered from the perspective of the retirement (or "old age") benefit alone. That is an inaccurate way to look at the problem. Because OASDI also serves families of workers who become disabled or die, a correct measure would take into account the probability of all three risk factors – old age, disability, and death. Both survivor benefits and disability benefits, in fact, go disproportionately to African Americans.

While African Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population, 23% of children receiving Social Security survivor benefits are African American, as are about 17% of disability beneficiaries. On average, a worker who receives disability benefits or a family that receives survivor benefits gets far more in return than the worker paid in FICA taxes, notwithstanding privatizers’ attempts to argue that Social Security is a bad deal.

Survivors’ benefits also provide an important boost to poor families more generally. A recent study by the National Urban League Institute for Opportunity and Equality showed that the benefit lifted 1 million children out of poverty and helped another 1 million avoid extreme poverty (living below half the poverty line).

Finally, among workers who do live long enough to get the retirement benefit, life expectancies don’t differ much by racial group. For example, at age 65, the life expectancies of African-American and white men are virtually the same.

President Bush’s Social Security commission proposed the partial privatization of Social Security retirement accounts, but cautioned that it could not figure out how to maintain equal benefits for the other risk pools. The commission suggested that disability and survivor’s benefits would have to be reduced if the privatization plan proceeds.

This vision is of a retirement program designed for the benefit of the worker who retires – only. A program with that focus would work against, not for, African Americans because of the higher morbidity rates in middle age and the smaller share of African Americans who live to retirement.

Myth #2

African Americans have less education, and so are in the work force longer, than whites, and yet Social Security only credits 35 years of work experience in figuring benefits. Tanner says, "benefits are calculated on the basis of the highest 35 years of earnings over a worker’s lifetime. Workers must still pay Social Security taxes during years outside those 35, but those taxes do not count toward or earn additional benefits. Generally, those low-earnings years occur early in an individual’s life. That is particularly important to African Americans because they are likely to enter the workforce at an earlier age than whites…."

This claim misinterprets the benefit formula for Social Security. Yes, African Americans on average are slightly less educated than whites. The gap is mostly because of a higher college completion rate for white men compared to African-American men. But the education argument fails to acknowledge that white teenagers have a significantly higher labor force participation rate (at 46%) than do African-American teens (29%). The higher labor force participation of white teenagers helps to explain why young white adults do better in the labor market than young African-American adults. (The racial gaps in unemployment are considerably greater for teenagers and young adults than for those over 25.)

These differences in early labor market experiences mean that African-American men have more years of zero earnings than do whites. So while the statement about education is true, the inference from education differences to work histories is false. By taking only 35 years of work history into account in the benefit formula, the Social Security formula is progressive. It in effect ignores years of zero or very low earnings. This levels the playing field among long-time workers, putting African Americans with more years of zero earnings on par with whites. By contrast, a private system based on total years of earnings would exacerbate racial labor market disparities.

Myth #3

A third claim put forward by critics of Social Security is that African-American retirees are more dependent on Social Security than whites. Tanner writes: "Elderly African Americans are much more likely than their white counterparts to be dependent on Social Security benefits for most or all of their retirement income." Therefore, he concludes, "African Americans would be among those with the most to gain from the privatization of Social Security – transforming the program into a system of individually owned, privately invested accounts." Law professor and senior policy advisor to Americans for Tax Reform Peter Ferrara adds, "the personal accounts would produce far higher returns and benefits for lower-income workers, African Americans, Hispanics, women and other minorities."

It’s true that African-American retirees are more likely than whites to rely on Social Security as their only income in old age. It’s the sole source of retirement income for 40% of elderly African Americans. This is a result of discrimination in the labor market that limits the share of African Americans with jobs that offer pension benefits. Privatizing Social Security would not change labor market discrimination or its effects.

Privatizing Social Security would, however, exacerbate the earnings differences between African Americans and whites, since benefits would be based solely on individual savings. What would help African-American retirees is not privatization, but rather changing the redistributive aspects of Social Security to make it even more progressive.

The current formula for Social Security benefits is progressive in two ways: low earners get a higher share of their earnings than do higher wage earners and the lowest years of earning are ignored. Changes in the formula to raise the benefits floor enough to lift all retired Social Security recipients out of poverty would make it still more progressive. Increasing and updating the Supplemental Security Income payment, which helps low earners, could accomplish the same goal for SSI recipients. (SSI is a program administered by Social Security for very low earners and the poor who are disabled, blind, or at least 65 years old.)

The proponents of privatization argue that the heavy reliance of African-American seniors on Social Security requires higher rates of return – returns that are only possible by putting money into the stock market. Yet given the lack of access to private pensions for African-American seniors and their low savings from lifetimes of low earnings, such a notion is perverse. It would have African Americans gamble with their only leg of retirement’s supposed three-legged stool – pension, savings, and Social Security. And, given the much higher risk that African Americans face of both death before retirement and of disability, it would be a risky gamble indeed to lower those benefits while jeopardizing their only retirement leg.

Privatizing the retirement program, and separating the integrated elements of Social Security, would split America. The divisions would be many: between those more likely to be disabled and those who are not; between those more likely to die before retirement and those more likely to retire; between children who get survivors’ benefits and the elderly who get retirement benefits; between those who retire with high-yield investments and those who fare poorly in retirement. The "horizontal equity" of the program (treating similar people in a similar way) would be lost, as volatile stock fluctuations and the timing of retirement could greatly affect individuals’ rates of return. The "vertical equity" of the program (its progressive nature, insuring a floor for benefits) would be placed in greater jeopardy with the shift from social to private benefits.

Social Security works because it is "social." It is America’s only universal federal program. The proposed changes would place Social Security in the same political space as the rest of America’s federal programs – and African Americans have seen time and again how those politics work.

William E. Spriggs is a senior fellow with the Economic Policy Institute and was formerly the executive director of the National Urban League Institute for Opportunity and Equality.

 

 

The Silence of the Blonds
by
John Maxwell

This article originally appeared in the Jamaica Observer.

There was a curious story out of the Congo a few days ago. The Culture Minister, Mr. Christopher Muzungo, explained that he was personally responsible for the re-erection of a giant statue of Belgium’s King Leopold II in the capital, Kinshasa. For nearly forty years it had lain in a trash heap outside the city.

Just hours after the statue was put up it was taken down again. There was no explanation.

In the 1885 Berlin carve-up of Africa,  Leopold II persuaded the Europeans and the Americans to give him free rein in the Congo for a "civilizing project, rather like the Red Cross," he said.  In less than two decades he  made himself one of the world’s richest men.

Leopold was allowed by the great powers to murder and maim millions of Congolese while he plundered Congo’s resources. His subjects lost their hands, their feet and their heads to Leopold’s sub-agents. One of them was described, under the name of Captain Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness.  In the novel, the  narrator approaches Captain Kurtz’s jungle  encampment and sees round it a palisade with white knobs decorating the tops of the posts. It is only when he comes close that he discovers that the objects atop the posts are human skulls. Conrad’s Kurtz was based on a real Belgian lieutenant who like his fellows, carried out his monarch’s orders with fatal efficiency.

Conrad described the Congo’s Belgian experience as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience”.

According to Congo’s Minister of Culture, he replaced the statue of Leopold because it was part of Congolese history. “A people without a history is a people without a soul,” he said, and referred to the remembrance of the holocaust last week. Perhaps no one had explained to him that the Jews had not felt the need to erect  a statue of Hitler to remind themselves of their history.

Several years ago, at about the time of the start of the Iraq misadventure, I wrote a column which asked the question: “What can they be smoking?”  It was about the strange behavior of the leaders of the western civilized world, which then and now, seemed to me to be more than simply perverse. I now realize that the reason for their aberrant behavior had nothing to do with psychoactive substances, but was due to another factor entirely – their inherent and ineffable “official blondness.”

When Hitler was busy turning Jews into handbags, lampshades and black smoke, his reason was that the world needed to be rid of them (and of blacks, homosexuals, Gypsies and others) because they threatened the purity of the Aryan master archetype. This archetype was a blue eyed, blond superman with no resemblance to Hitler himself or to most of his main assassins. They, I now realize, were a new species, Geopolitically Modified Humans – GMH – Officially  Blond.  Looking at them you wouldn’t know it. Some people even said that Hitler himself “looked Jewish” –  whatever that meant, obviously missing his essential blondness which gave him the right to talk nonsense and murder as many people as he wished.

What I realized this week is that the Congo’s Muzungo was not crazy, simply blond. And when this thought occurred to me it cleared up a host of misconceptions in my mind.

I had been asking myself how could Africans like Kofi Annan and Afro-Americans like Colin Powell , Canadians like Prime Minister Paul Martin, and Haitians like Gerard LaTortue not understand the appalling wickedness which their policies have created in Haiti? Or how did Tony Blair, George Bush and Malcolm Fraser of Australia not understand the primeval wickedness they had let loose in Iraq? The answer was simple.

Like Adolph Hitler, they are GMH-Blonds and are therefore exempted from normal human feelings, duties and responsibilities. They are expected  to giggle helplessly when confronted with murdered children and dismembered teenagers, with tortured Arabs and raped Haitian women. Like the good Germans in Tom Paxton’s 1960s song –”We didn’t know a thing.”

Anyone who has seen the movie Schindler’s List or simply given thought to the logistical problem of murdering six or seven million people will realize that the neighbors must be aware when the people next to them are arrested and sent in huge trains to extermination camps. Vast stretches of housing  suddenly become vacant, people vanish from schools, synagogues are closed; something must be happening.

“We didn’t know” the blonds will tell you, "we were born with built in rose-colored glasses and a missing sense of community."

The G-7 group of First World countries is having a finance ministers meeting in London this week. The US representative has airily told the British chancellor that the US has no time to consider his proposal to reduce or abolish the debt obligations of the poorest countries. Gordon Brown, the British chancellor, wants to write off the debts completely and to construct an International Finance Facility which would double aid to Africa to $100 billion US annually. The US Treasury Undersecretary, John Taylor brushed Brown’s idea off: “Not only does the IFF not work for the US, we don’t need the IFF.”

The Americans are in favor of debt relief of course; their President regularly announces  that he will increase the amount of US aid to Africa and the Third World. 

It is an odd fact that some of the poorest countries in the world are responsible for creating much of the First World’s riches. I won’t speak of slavery and the contribution that made to accelerating the progress of Europe and America. That is old hat. But a few days ago, the Shell oil company announced that it had made a profit of £9 billion, nearly US$ 20 billion from oil. We don’t know how much of Shell’s profit was made from Nigeria, from which it gets ten percent of its oil, what they call in the business “sweet” crude, low sulphur and extremely profitable.

Shell, which is indefatigably blond, is only one of several predators in Africa and the Third World.  In Nigeria it has destroyed whole environments and rendered thousands homeless and suffering. BP – British Petroleum – is about to announce a similar quantum of profit and the five biggest British banks between them  are about to announce total profits exceeding £30 billion (US 56 billion).

None of this appears to excite the North American press, but why should it? TIME magazine a few issues ago distinguished itself in blondness by publishing a whole column of statistics about the Iraq war without even an estimate of the number of Iraqis killed – surely the most significant statistic.

It is astonishing how many of the crucial interventions which have not been made could have been made by people whose appearance, at least, might have suggested that they recognize some sort of ties to the underdog. Like Powell, the head of the TIME conglomerate is  an African American,  a man called Richard Parsons. Unfortunately, like Powell, he is hopelessly “Officially blond." His company, Time-Warner, made a net profit of nearly $4 billion.  The revenues of the world’s largest companies outstrip the Gross Domestic Product of most countries. In fact, the giant retailer Wal-Mart’s revenues – $165 billion – are larger than the combined GDP of all the lesser Developed Countries – $156.5 billion.

The uncomfortable fact is that most of these large transnational corporations derive much, if not most of their revenue  from the exploitation of Third World resources such as oil, aluminum, gold and other metals or raw materials such as cacao, coffee, sugar and so on.

The unfair distribution is, according to the blonds, a matter of historical accident, incompetence of the natives or just bad luck.

One of the factors driving the poverty is the simple fact that there are groups in the Lesser Developed countries who realize that they are being encouraged to destroy the local culture and national self-reliance and self-government by carrying out plots which are not officially ordered by their metropolitan masters.  Such a case occurred in Ghana in 1966, when, after destroying the government of Kwame Nkrumah, the new dictator General Ankrah, wrote personally to President Lyndon Johnson stating his willingness to prostitute Ghana for American moolah. In the case of Haiti, as the Griffin report makes plain, the subversion was planned and executed by conscious and paid agents of the United States.

The situation today is one of bloody chaos, unremarked by the diligent, freedom-loving, upright American press which, in its blondness, cannot see injustice or understand that their own democracy is in danger as the poison from evil foreign adventures seeps back into the American soul.

Last week an American general who is clearly, exquisitely, “blond” had his say in the press. This character, due to be played in a movie by Harrison Ford, is a US Marine general named James Mattis.

Lt. Gen. Mattis had a news conference on Tuesday in San Diego, California, after the announcement of his  scheduled immortalization in the movie.

"Actually it's quite fun to fight 'em, you know. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up front with you, I like brawling," Mattis said.

"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil," Mattis said during a panel discussion. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."

According to Reuters Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee praised Mattis as "one of this country's bravest and most experienced military leaders."

"While I understand that some people may take issue with the comments made by him, I also know he intended to reflect the unfortunate and harsh realities of war," Hagee said.

Of course we could also remember the comments of another US general who is in a crucial position of power at the Pentagon. Senior Pentagon Intelligence official Lt. Gen. William Boykin referred in 2003 to the struggle against Islamic extremists as a battle with Satan. In a speech, Boykin referred to a Muslim fighter in Somalia, and said, "Well, you know what I knew, that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol."

I remember when I was about 15,  reading an article in the Saturday Evening Post about the Congo, then completely controlled by Belgium. The place was portrayed as a demi-paradise except that nowhere was there any mention of the Africans who presumably lived there. Later, I discovered some of the real facts about the Congo, such as, that as the Belgians fled in 1960 they left in the Congo the priceless bequest of four trained doctors in a population of about 20 million. It was much later that I heard about the unspeakable  blondness of King Leopold and his campaign  of dismemberment and murder.

John Maxwell of the University of the West Indies (UWI) is the veteran Jamaican journalist who in 1999 single-handedly thwarted the Jamaican government's efforts to build houses at Hope, the nation's oldest and best known botanical gardens. His campaigning earned him first prize in the 2000 Sandals Resort's annual Environmental Journalism Competition, the region's richest journalism prize. He is also the author of How to Make Our Own News: A Primer for Environmentalists and Journalists. Jamaica, 2000. Mr. Maxwell can be reached at maxinf@cwjamaica.com

Copyright©2000 by John Maxwell

 

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