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Why I Voted for Barack Obama and Will Again

8 Sep

A lot of folks I think of as leftists have told me they are considering not giving their vote to Barack Obama in November. They say they feel cheated that the actions of his administration didn’t live up to the soaring rhetoric of his campaign, and are opting out in protest.

I’m no Democratic Party loyalist, nor am I uncritical of the President. But their disappointment to the point of opting out frustrates me nonetheless. My frustration can be summed up by the question, “what in the world did you expect?”

It speaks to an uncritical liberalism not worthy of the left to assume that by electing a Black liberal to the presidency we would experience a revolution of values and priorities in governance. As leftists we know, or should know, that the institutions of government in the U.S. only allow change to occur in increments, and always within the parameters of the interests of those who control those institutions.

This is what I believe Derrick Bell meant when he wrote,

Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an ultimate act of defiance.

I’ve used that quote often because I believe in it. It is, to me, a statement relevant to the condition of all oppressed people in America. The system of governance under which we live, and the elites who control our institutions of power, both public and private, will never voluntarily concede to the demands of justice. In order to win justice, we need a complete reorganization of power.

To expect a reorganization of power via the election of a president is simply unrealistic. It is a notion based in the magical thinking that if  enough of “us” are elected to government, we can overcome the limits of our institutions and create “change we can believe in.

Obama is just a man, barely a liberal much less a progressive, and the party he represents, the office he holds, and the institutions to which he is accountable will never allow any such magic to be conjured.

But I did vote for Obama-Biden in ’08, and I will do so again this year. Why? For a couple of reasons.

First, I believe the Republican Party has become the instrument by which a growing right wing movement hopes to exercise unjust power of a sort far worse than the horrors we are witnessing at this moment. If voting for a Democratic ticket slows them down, even slightly, and preserves the political space within which we can use the time we steal to do something, to organize ourselves, to seek an alternative or at least duck and cover, I’m there. I don’t care how many IDs I have to produce or how long the line.

Secondly, while Obama-Biden may only represent a difference in degree and not in kind from Bush-Cheney, McCain-Palin, or Romney-Ryan, I’ll take those degrees of difference. I’ll take them because, even from my perch in my very comfortable and well-stocked home, I know those degrees are measured in terms of human suffering.

It may not be the revolution of values and action that I am working for, but that work requires opportunity, certain freedoms of expression and of movement, and I may sound paranoid by saying this, but I feel those freedoms threatened, and more and more each day. Voting for Obama is just a tactical maneuver to be sure, but politics is made up, not just of vision, but of tactics.

Read This: Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America

23 Jul

If you’re like me, the bubble economy of the turn of this century, how it burst, the economic crisis that followed, and what it means that those who were behind all this mess were ultimately bailed out at tax payers’ expense, has you by turns confused and angry. We may understand the machinations of elites and the manipulation of the rest of us in broad strokes, but the specifics are enough to make us cross-eyed.

I’ve looked for good reading material to help me decode the whole situation, and have found a lot of it very dense and difficult reading. Then I found Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi.

This is a terrific book! It’s short, easy-to-read, and funny as hell. Matt Taibbi is a good writer with a very good sense of humor and a f-you attitude toward unjust power and the arrogance of those who wield it that I found refreshing. Finally, someone who will just come right out and call Alan Greenspan a short-sighted, selfish, deluded, irresponsible, narcissistic a**hole!

I might have added a few adjectives in there, but for sure that a**hole part is all Taibbi.

If that wasn’t satisfying enough, Taibbi explains the financial crisis with its maze of credit swapping and derivatives, etc., in language that makes these manipulative and totally f’ed up instruments through which corporate types grabbed power and toppled the economy understandable to financial dunces like me. Better yet, he makes the connection between Wall Street and Washington, presenting a bleak but nonetheless instructive and surprisingly inspiring picture of the political circumstances under which we live today in what truly does feel, by the end, like Griftopia.

All Things Considered on NPR did a story on it that you might want to check out before taking the long walk to the library.

There is, of course, a race dimension to this story. For more about racism and the housing market, follow me. I’ll review another book I’ve been reading on the subject shortly.

Meanwhile, check out Griftopia and let me know what you think.

Read This Book: Slavery By Another Name

6 Jun

If you’re like me, you grew up with the belief that the Civil War ended slavery.  Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon puts that lie to rest by telling the story of the period of neo-slavery in America – a 75-year sweep of history, starting at the end of the Civil War up to the mid-20th century.

Slavery By Another Name is an accessible and highly informative read. You should check it out. I promise, it’s easy on the noggin, even if hard on the heart. And through the lens of the current war on drugs, the story is also relevant to our contemporary condition.

In the pages of this book we are assured that white resistance to racial equity is rooted in more than stereotypes and simple bigotry. The emancipation of slaves left Southern plantations “not just financially but intellectually bereft” because whites lacked the knowledge and skills necessary to keep agricultural enterprises profitable, and to bring the economically bankrupt post-war South into the industrial age. In order to accomplish that, African American know-how and labor was necessary.

This situation is a parallel of the condition of the early colonists whose settlements could not have survived without the intellectual contributions and labor of African slaves. Both these justifications for slavery speak to the economic incentives that drive the political system of racism.

Having made enemies of African Americans, how were whites to continue exploiting African Americans if not through coercion? Hence the establishment of criminal codes throughout the South specifically targeting African Americans. Through these laws, thousands were arrested for petty offenses like “selling cotton after sunset,” or changing employers without permission. Many were simply arrested because they were not protected by a white employer.

The incarcerated were consigned to forced labor camps where they worked on chain gangs. Many were leased to private enterprises such as U.S. Steel Corporation, the first billion dollar business and once the largest corporation in the world. U.S. Steel used convicts in coal mines under horrific conditions.

I guess that’s why we call them job creators, right?

And the system didn’t only result in the exploitation of those in labor camps. In Georgia in 1930, “In excess of 8,000 men – nearly all of them Black – worked in chain gangs in 116 counties. Of 1.1 million African Americans in the state that year, approximately half lived under the direct control and force of whites – unable to move or seek employment elsewhere under threat that doing so would lead to the dreaded chain gang.”

And what of the fortunes made through convict leasing? Many of the heirs of those who profited from neo-slavery are captains of industry today. Their fortunes remain intact. No one was ever held financially accountable.

In fact, the primary reason convict leasing was brought to an end was not concern for human rights. The system ended mainly because addressing the most extreme examples of American racism was necessary to building a successful WWII alliance against European fascism (not to mention a military industrial complex through which companies like U.S. Steel got even richer).

Check it out. Read it. Tell me what you think.

Read This Book!

7 May

Today is my birthday. The passage of time has me reflecting a lot on the years behind me, especially as I’m looking down the barrel of 50.

Among the most frustrating yet inspiring experiences I’ve had over the years was the time I spent working on criminal justice reform. During those years I spent a lot of time in juvenile detention facilities, jails, prisons, and courtrooms. From that perch, the racism of the system seemed so plain as to be indisputable. Just as plain was the amazing resiliency of people caught up in the system, many of them non-violent drug offenders whose convictions as “criminals” erased their status as parents, siblings, sons and daughters.

But as close to it as I was, I always struggled for the language to describe the racism of our criminal justice system in ways that got more than a “yeah, that sucks” reaction. Now Michelle Alexander has written a book that’s changed that for me. If my birthday wish comes true, all of you will read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It’s just that powerful.

In just 261 six by nine inch pages, excluding end notes and index (both of which are very useful), the current paperback edition of The New Jim Crow relates the history of the drug war starting with it’s origins in the Nixon years all the way through the present.

In the present, one in 10 black males between the ages of 25 and 29 are in prison or jail, and the majority in the same age group bear the stigma of past convictions. That means they are limited in their ability to contribute financially to their families. Many are unable to live in public housing and may be separated from family members who do. Parolees are in constant jeopardy of being incarcerated again because of parole violations that include not associating with others who have been incarcerated which, I repeat for emphasis, includes an overwhelming number of their peers.Today, a black child is less likely to be raised by both parents than a child born in the age of slavery.

According to a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, 13% of black males lost their right to vote to felony disenfranchisement laws. In some states, as many as one in three lost their voting rights. The report predicted that if the trend continued, 40% of black men would lose their right to vote in states that disenfranchise felons.

In 2000, felony disenfranchisement in Florida very likely cost Al Gore the presidential election.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”

The shame of this reality should be enough to cause a society-wide revolt. Alexander helps us to understand why we have remained largely silent by describing the way racial caste manages to morph over generations, creating a “new normal” of civility that accommodates continued racism and the structural exclusion of African Americans from democratic decision-making.

Make my birthday wish come true. Read this book. Share what you learn. Don’t let yourself be part of the “new normal” that stands in the way of true democracy for all of us.

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