Pacific News Service

Voting Rights Act Under Fire Again

Many continue to be shocked and puzzled over congressional foot-dragging over renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The assumption was that Congress would quickly renew it and that President Bush, as promised, would just as quickly sign the renewal. In the weeks before House Republicans dashed that hope, Senate and House Republicans publicly gushed over the act and practically consecrated it as an untouchable civil rights icon.

Renewal was thought to be such a lock that a mysterious email circulated a couple of years ago that claimed that Congress would torpedo the Voting Rights Act and blacks would be again summarily kicked out the voting booth was branded as race paranoia run amok. The warning that blacks would be stripped of the vote altogether deserves laughter. The warning that their voting rights might be in trouble, however, does not.

The Voting Rights Act has always been more controversial than many have believed. The popular myth is that congressional leaders were so appalled at the shocking TV clips of Alabama state troopers battering civil rights marchers in Selma in April 1965 that they promptly passed the landmark act that restored voting rights to Southern blacks. What's forgotten is that the marchers were there in the first place because the bill was badly stalled in the Senate and the House. It took nearly five months to get the bill passed.

Senate Minority leader and Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen showered amendments on the bill that included scrapping the ban on the poll tax, exemption and escape clauses for Southern counties and the exclusion of all states outside the South. House Republicans tacked more amendments on the bill to weaken it. The fight over these amendments dragged on for weeks in Congress.

The biggest fight, however, was over the poll tax ban. The tax was the most odious and hated symbol of Southern racial exclusion. Civil rights leaders were enraged when the Senate refused to eliminate the poll tax by arguing that the ban wouldn't pass constitutional muster. House leaders agreed.

A furious Martin Luther King Jr. called the congressional stonewall of the poll tax ban an "insult and a blasphemy," and vowed to launch mass protests against the watering down move. King's threat and action worked, but only in part. Congress was horrified at the brutal attack on civil rights marchers and dumped most of the provisions tossed in to cripple the bill. But congressional leaders refused to budge on the poll tax. King read the political tea leaves and rather than risk more delays, reluctantly agreed to support the bill even without the outright poll tax ban.

The act instantly transformed Southern politics. The number of black elected officials in the South soared from a handful in 1965 to several thousand a decade later. That did not make the act any more palatable to the white South. When it came time for renewal in 1982, a red flag that signaled much of the South's disdain for the act again rose high. In memo after memo to his boss Attorney General William French Smith, then assistant attorney general John Roberts blasted the act as "intrusive interference" and flatly demanded that Reagan veto its renewal.

Last year, during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and under grilling from Sen. Edward Kennedy, Roberts effusively praised the Voting Rights Act as one our "most precious rights." In the next breath, Roberts insisted that when he lobbied for dumping the act he was only articulating and defending the Reagan administration's position on civil rights. Reagan was hostile to affirmative action and expanded civil rights protections, but the president signed the act and made no public criticism of it. Robert's memos may or may not have articulated Reagan's true thinking on the Voting Rights Act, but it did articulate the contempt many Southern conservatives had for the act.

A quarter century after the act's passage, that hasn't changed. The act didn't stall in the House because a handful of diehard House Republicans are piqued over the provision for bilingual ballots. Nearly 100 House Republicans have expressed qualms about the act and now demand that hearings be held. In the Senate, Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott drove home the South's near four-decade low-intensity fight against the act when he protested that the South was still "being treated differently." If Lott had been in the Senate in 1965, he would have led the charge to scuttle the act. As House Republican whip in 1982, he voted against renewal.

No House or Senate Republican has yet dared go so far as to say that they will vote to kill the act. That would be in horrid political taste. But the maneuvering to stall and even weaken the act is in full throttle. It's always been that way.

N-Word on Trial Again

The never-ending debate over the "N-word" heated up again on the street -- and, oddly, in a courtroom. A parade of black scholars, writers, activists, hip-hop artists and plain folk sparred over the use of the N-word during a panel discussion in New York. Some defended it. Some railed against it.

The renewed public debate is sparked in part by the wind down of the trial of Nicholas Minucci. "Fat Nick," as he is affectionately known, is charged with assault and robbery in the June 2005 baseball bat attack on Glenn Moore in Queens. Minucci is white and Moore is black.

The case has drawn national attention because Minucci allegedly pummeled Moore with the bat, and the N-word, before the assault. The N-word debate is also sparked by a national campaign by black activists to ban the use of the word. There's even a website that hawks T shirts, DVDs and exhorts blacks, especially young blacks, to solemnly pledge not to use the word or patronize anyone who puts out products that use the word. Presumably, that's aimed at rappers -- and a popular comic strip writer -- who have turned the N-word into a lucrative growth industry.

The anti-N-word campaigners are both right and wrong in assailing the N-word. There's no disagreement that the term hurled by white bigots is vile, offensive and hate filled. And that it has caused much personal pain and suffering. But that's where agreement ends. Many rappers have made a mighty effort to stand the word on its head, and take the hurt out of it. Their effort has some merit, and is not new. Dick Gregory had the same idea some years ago when he titled his autobiography, Nigger. Black writer, Robert DeCoy also tried to apply the same racial shock therapy to whites when he titled his novel, The Nigger Bible. Richard Pryor for a time made the term practically his personal national anthem. 

Though words aren't value neutral and are often used to promote hate, they in themselves don't trigger racial violence, or psychologically destroy blacks. The N-word did not stir the century of Jim Crow violence, segregation, and disenfranchisement, and poverty that blacks suffered. That was done to preserve white political and economic power, control, and privilege. But even in those days, when a white person, especially a celebrity, athlete or public official, slipped and used the word or made any overt racist reference, black outrage was swift and ferocious. The NAACP even pushed Merriam Webster dictionary to purge the word. But the word in and of itself is not a code sign for discrimination, or a trigger to commit racial violence.  The outcry, however, pointed to the double standard far too many blacks apply to whites. In the past a small band of activists, and Bill Cosby, waged war against the use of the word by blacks.

They have been the exception. Blacks have been more than willing to give other blacks that use the word a pass. The indulgence sends the subtle signal that the word is hardly the earth-shattering, illegitimate word that many blacks and whites brand it. Fat Nick pretty much argued that in his defense. He claimed that his black friends routinely use the word. A black attorney who is also a hip hop record producer partially backed him up and said that the word had lost some of its sting since white hip hoppers use the word and do mean any offense by it. It was self-serving ploy by a defendant grasping to paint himself as bigotry free. But the point was a good one.

That's not the only reason the N-word debate is suspect. The day before the New York panelists shadowboxed over the term, the nation marked the 25th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic. Other than a handful of articles and remembrances, the day mostly came and went. But blacks, particularly the black poor, have been hammered the hardest by the disease. Then a few days before that, beltway sniper John Muhammad was convicted, and following close on that was the slaughter of a family in Indianapolis allegedly by young blacks.

That's a warning that the cycle of crime and violence, hopelessness, desperation, that wracks some poor black communities has reached beyond those communities with deadly consequences. Failing inner city public schools, the near depression level unemployment among young black males, the more than 1 million blacks that pack America's jails, and the surging homelessness numbers, in which blacks make up a disproportionate share of, is more warning that the ills of the black poor are mounting.  Yet, there are few impassioned panels, pulsating websites, marches and demonstrations by blacks demanding action on these crisis problems.

Then again it's much easier and more fun to generate passion and heat over a word, than to generate passion and heat over real crisis problems. Putting the N-word on trial again won't change that.

Why Republicans Will Cave on Immigration Reform

Judging from the cold shoulder conservative Republicans gave President Bush when he called for a humane, balanced immigration reform law in a recent speech in Orange County, Calif., one would think these hardliners won't budge from their demand for a crackdown on illegal immigration. But eventually, most of them will.

With stratospheric gas prices, the Iraq quagmire, creeping inflation and Bush's Great Depression-era low approval ratings, the Republicans are in trouble. Polls show that if the national elections were held today, Democrats would grab a majority in the House and make deep inroads into the Republican majority in the Senate.

The political peril is so great that the GOP can't afford to alienate its one tenuous voting trump card: the Latino vote. Bush knows this better than anyone else. He also knows that immigration reform is the key to getting those votes.

The Latino vote numbers tell the story. In 2002, the Pew Hispanic Center found that one-fifth of Latino voters were registered as Republicans. In the 2004 presidential election, Bush got more than one-third of the Latino vote. Without those votes John Kerry would have won the White House.

It isn't just the votes. It's where those votes come from that cinched the victory for Bush, and where they could come from in the 2008 presidential elections that Republicans hope will cinch victory for them again. The greatest numbers of Latino voters are in California, Florida, Texas and New York. In the next two years, the Latino vote will swell in Illinois and New Jersey. The number of Latino elected officials doubled and tripled in those states in 2004. These are the key electoral states that virtually determine who will sit in the White House for years to come.

Bush got Latino votes in 2004 by pumping millions into ads on Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo. The ads saturated the airwaves in New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Arizona. The money was well spent. Bush won the four states, and he did it with substantial Latino support.

Republicans didn't just spend heavily on Spanish-language ads, and enlist a bevy of talking heads, and that at times included Bush with his weekly radio broadcasts in bad, broken Spanish. They adroitly tailored their political pitches to their Spanish audience in Florida, Texas, California and other Southwestern states, complete with local accents and idioms. If Republicans can hold a substantial part of those votes in 2004, and bolster those numbers with thousands more undocumented workers transformed into citizens and voters, that could potentially result in millions more Republican loyalists.

Then there are the evangelicals. Latino evangelicals, both legal and illegal immigrants, make up about one-fourth of the membership of evangelical churches in America, and their numbers are growing. They are staunchly anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion and pro-family values. They are prime political pickings for the GOP. Latino evangelicals flexed their political muscle in March when they forced several prominent national evangelical groups to back-peddle fast from their hard-nosed stance on immigration reform, and either remain neutral in the debate or issue cautious statements calling on Congress to enact a fair and balanced immigration reform law.

There is a cautionary tale for the Republicans in playing fast and loose with the immigration issue. During the hard-fought Virginia Republican gubernatorial campaign in November 2005, Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore fanned the anti-immigrant flames with a series of 11th-hour anti-illegal immigration campaign ads. It backfired. It cost him crucial votes in Northern Virginia where the number of Latino voters has leaped in the past few years.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie was one of the first to sound the alarm bell. In a Wall Street Journal editorial in April, he firmly put the GOP on notice that it must not become known as the anti-immigrant party. Gillespie crunched the numbers and noted that Republicans can't win in 2008 without the key swing states of New Mexico, Florida, Colorado and Nevada, which Bush won in 2004.

Bush and the Republicans fix their political eye on more than Latino population numbers and votes. They also see Latinos' dollars. In politics money doesn't talk, it screams. The disposable income of Latinos soared to nearly $1 trillion during the 1990s and continues to climb. Credit card, shipping and communications companies, trade and tourist associations, hotels, airlines and sports franchises are now feverishly marketing products to snatch a bigger share of Latinos' dollars. Republican campaign officials will do the same.

Latino campaign contributions can influence and shape political attitudes and politician's actions the same as others' dollars routinely have. Republican senators warn that it's absolutely imperative to pass an immigration reform bill, and that the bill should look pretty much like the one Bush wants. For the Republicans it's more than a matter of fairness -- it's also a matter of votes.

Immigration Debate Rages Among Blacks

Two things happened within one day of each other this month that rammed race back into the debate over illegal immigration. First, a Field poll in California found that blacks -- by a bigger percentage than whites, and even American-born Latinos -- back liberal immigration reform measures. The next day, a spirited group of black activists marched in front of the Los Angeles office of popular, outspoken black California House Democrat Maxine Waters. They protested Waters' firm support of citizenship for illegal immigrants.

The protesters claimed that the overwhelming majority of blacks oppose illegal immigration. They denounced black leaders such as Waters, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for allegedly selling out black interests by backing immigration reform.

The Field poll findings, and the flap between Waters and anti-immigration protesters, is another painful example of the deep fissure that the illegal immigration debate has opened among blacks.

The Field poll is accurate, but only up to a point. The majority of blacks instinctively pull for the underdog, especially if the underdog is poor and non-white. The majority of illegal immigrants fit that bill, and much more.

Many come from countries plagued by civil war and economic destitution. They work jobs that pay scant wages with minimal or non-existent labor protections. Blacks suffered decades of Jim Crow segregation, violence and poverty. Many liken the marches, rallies and political lobbying by immigrant rights' groups to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

Then there's the faint and fond memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign in 1968. The aim was to unite blacks, Latinos, American Indians, and poor whites in a campaign for economic justice. Against the opposition of some civil rights activists, King actively courted Latino leaders.

Blacks also cringe at the thought that they could be perceived as racial bigots. When pollsters ask blacks their opinions on issues that deal with civil rights and racial justice, they reflexively give the response that will cast them in the best favorable racial light on these issues. Yet, like many whites, a significant number of blacks privately express doubts -- even animosity -- toward illegal immigrants.

The month before the results of the Field Poll were announced, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that many blacks were hostile toward illegal immigrants. The sore point with them was jobs. They blamed illegal immigrants for worsening the dire plight of young, poor African American males. Recent studies by researchers at Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, as well as the Urban League's annual State of Black America report, confirm that black males suffer a jobless rate double and triple that of white males in some urban areas. Their unemployment numbers are also substantially higher than those of Latino males.

Some economists and employment studies finger illegal immigration as a big cause of the economic slippage of low- and marginally-skilled young black males. There is some evidence that the poorest and least skilled blacks have lost jobs to illegal immigrants. But that job loss is not unique to blacks. Unskilled workers of all ethnic groups, including whites, lose jobs as the number of unskilled workers increases, regardless of whether those in the unskilled work pool are illegal immigrants or native-born workers.

Even if illegal immigration had no adverse economic impact on the urban poor, many would still fervently believe that it does. When an issue stirs intense passions and fears, and illegal immigration is certainly an issue that does that, belief can trump reality. That's plainly evident in the blistering comments that many blacks have made on black talk radio shows in recent weeks slamming illegal immigrants. Some even implore blacks not to join immigrant rights protests.

Many of them cite the remark that Mexican President Vicente Fox made last May in a speech in the seacoast town of Puerta Vallarta. Fox praised Mexicans for their dignity and hard work ethic, and their willingness to work the toughest, dirtiest jobs in the U.S. But he then added that they worked jobs that blacks won't work. This gaffe was, at best, insensitive and, at worst, racially demeaning -- and many blacks were furious at Fox, and they took it as evidence that Mexicans disdained blacks.

While most civil rights leaders and black Democrats now firmly support illegal immigrants' rights, for a long time they were mute on the issue. The Congressional Black Caucus opposed the Sensenbrenner bill in the House last December. But it made little effort to expose the punitive, draconian provisions of the bill, let alone inform and engage blacks on how illegal immigration impacts their interests. This sowed more doubt and confusion about illegal immigration among blacks.

Still, the Field poll and the demonstration at Congresswoman Waters' office had one thing in common: it put black leaders squarely in the same spot that the rest of the nation is on when it comes to illegal immigration. Deal with it!

A Change In Black Politics

The tremor from the illegal immigration fight has shaken Democrats and Republicans. But it also threatens a tidal change in black politics. Though Latinos have displaced blacks as the nation's biggest minority group, the popular notion lingers that they're years away from packing the political wallop of black voters and politicians.

Language, citizenship, age, and lack of education supposedly prevent millions of legal and illegal Latino immigrants from muscling out blacks from the top spot in ethnic politics. The illegal immigration battle has shattered that myth.

In 2000, the 23 million blacks eligible to vote dwarfed the 13 million Latinos that were eligible to vote, even though Latinos then had reached virtual parity with blacks in the population. More than one-third of the Latino population was less than 18 years old. Forty percent of Latinos that were of eligible voting age were non-citizens. Only five percent of blacks who were of voting age were non-citizens.

But that is quickly changing. Since the 2000 election, the number of Latinos of voting age, and who are citizens, has jumped. There are now an estimated 10 million Latino registered voters. That compares favorably with the 15 million black voters in the 2004 election.

The surge in registered voters is not the only shift that has changed ethnic politics in America. In past elections, the majority of the Latino vote was concentrated in California, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. In the 2006 national elections, helped by the sharp increase in the number of legal and illegal immigrants in the Midwest and Northeastern states, the Latino vote will have national impact.

Democrat and Republican strategists will dump millions into Spanish language ads, pitches, and pleas for votes on Spanish language stations. When -- not if -- Democrats and Republicans cut an immigration reform deal, one of its features will almost certainly include some form of legalization plan which, within a few years, will turn thousands of Latino immigrants into vote-casting American citizens.

Democrats and Republicans will pour even more time, money, and personnel into courting Latino voters. The reasoning is that the potential political gain from a massive outreach effort to Latinos is far greater than putting the same resources into courting black voters.

It's sound political reasoning. That effort worked for Republicans in 2004. Bush got nearly forty percent of the Latino vote. The Democrats, meanwhile, maintain a solid lock on the black vote. In every election since 1964, blacks have given more than 80 to 90 percent of their votes to Democrats.

The sight of thousands of blacks fleeing for their lives from Katrina floodwaters in New Orleans, and Bush's comatose response to their plight, further infuriated blacks. That wrecked Bush's carefully-micromanaged effort to woo more black votes to the GOP. It would take a political miracle for the next GOP presidential candidate to duplicate the mild bump in black support that Bush got in the 2004 election.

With the tantalizing prospect of large numbers of newly enfranchised Latino voters voting Republican, there's absolutely no political incentive for Republicans to try to do more to get the black vote. That includes the GOP's relentless pursuit of black evangelicals.

Hispanic evangelical churches have an estimated 20 million members and those numbers are growing yearly. According to a survey by the Hispanic Churches in America Life, the majority of Latino evangelicals are conservative, pro-family, anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage. Latino evangelicals are GOP-friendly and they have political clout. They got several mainstream evangelical groups to back the Senate compromise immigration reform bill. And while the National Association of Evangelicals stopped short of backing the Senate bill, it still urged "humane" immigration reform.

The leap in Latino voting strength, and the likely prospect that Democrats and Republicans can bag even more voters from the rising number of legal and illegal immigrants, comes at a bad time for black politicians. Though the number of black elected officials has held steady in state offices and in Congress, their spectacular growth of prior years has flattened out. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the slight increase in the number of black elected officials has been in only a handful of deep South states -- and Illinois. There is some evidence that mainstream Democrats' de-emphasis on traditional black issues has already happened.

During the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, the seven white male Democratic presidential contenders were virtually mute on miserably-failing inner city schools, soaring black unemployment, prison incarceration, and the HIV/AIDS crisis that has torn black communities. It took loud grumbles from the Congressional Black Caucus and other black Democrats for Democratic presidential contender John Kerry to make a few cautious and circumspect statements on some of these issues.

The hard reality is that immigration, both legal and illegal, has drastically changed American's ethnic and political landscape. Black voters and elected officials have no choice but to come to grips with that change, and try to make it work for them -- not against them.

Silent Civil Rights Groups

The great irony in the gargantuan march of hundreds of thousands in Los Angeles and other cities for immigrant rights is that the old civil rights groups have been virtually mute on the explosively growing movement. There are no position papers, statements or press releases on the Web sites of the NAACP, Urban League or SCLC on immigration reform, and nothing on the marches.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) hasn't done much better. It has issued mostly perfunctory, tepid and cautious statements opposing the draconian provisions of the House bill that passed last December. The Sensenbrenner bill calls for a wall on the Southern border, a massive beef-up in border security and tough sanctions on employers who hire undocumented immigrants. The Senate Judiciary Committee will wrestle with the bill this week.

Only nine of 43 CBC members initially backed the liberal immigration reform bill introduced by CBC member Sheila Jackson Lee in 2004. The lone exception to the old guard's mute response on immigration-related issues was their lambasting of Mexican President Vicente Fox last May for his quip that Mexicans will work jobs that even blacks won't.

The silence from mainstream civil rights groups and the CBC's modest support for immigrant rights is a radical departure from the past. During the 1980s, when immigration was not the hot-button issue it is today, the Caucus in 1985 staunchly opposed tougher immigration proposals, voted against employer sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants and opposed an English-language requirement to attain legalization. That was an easy call then. Those were the Reagan years, and Reagan and conservative Republicans, then as now, pushed the bill. Civil rights leaders and black Democrats waged low-yield wars against Reagan policies.

In 2002, the NAACP made a slight nod to the immigration fight when it invited Hector Flores, president of League of United Latin American Citizens, to address its convention. The NAACP billed the invite as a "historic first." But it was careful to note that immigration was one of a list of policy initiatives the two groups would work together on. That list included support for affirmative action, expanded hate crimes legislation, voting rights protections and increased health and education funding. There is no indication that the two groups have done much together since the convention to tackle these crisis issues, and that includes immigration reform.

The CBC and civil rights leaders tread lightly on the immigrant rights battle for two reasons. They are loath to equate the immigrant rights movement with the civil rights battles of the 1960s. They see immigrant rights as a reactive, narrow, single-issue movement whose leaders have not actively reached out to black leaders and groups. Spanish language newspapers and radio stations, for instance, drove the mammoth march and rally in Los Angeles. Their fiery appeals to take action were in Spanish, and many of the marchers waved Mexican and El Salvadorian flags.

Black leaders also cast a nervous glance over their shoulder at the shrill chorus of anger rising from many African-Americans, especially the black poor, of whom a significant number flatly oppose illegal immigrant rights. But illegal immigration is not the prime reason so many poor young blacks are on the streets, and why some turn to gangs, guns and drug dealing to get ahead. A shrinking economy, sharp state and federal government cuts in and elimination of job and skills training programs, failing public schools, a soaring black prison population and employment discrimination are the prime causes of the poverty crisis in many inner city black neighborhoods. The recent studies by Princeton, Columbia and Harvard researchers on the dreary plight of young black males reconfirmed that chronic unemployment has turned thousands of young black males into America's job untouchables.

Yet, many blacks soft-target illegal immigrants for the crisis and loudly claim that they take jobs from unskilled and marginally skilled blacks. Black fury over immigration has cemented an odd alliance between black anti-immigrant activists and GOP conservatives, fringe anti-illegal immigration groups and racially tinged America-first groups.

Historians, politicians and civil rights activists hail the March on Washington in August 1963 as the watershed event in the civil rights movement. It defined an era of protest, sounded the death knell for the near century of legal segregation and challenged Americans to make racial justice a reality for blacks. But the estimated million that marched and held rallies for immigrant rights in Los Angeles and other cities dwarfed the numbers at the March on Washington. If the numbers and passion that immigration reform stirs mean anything, the judgment of history will be that it also defined an era, sounded the death knell for discrimination against immigrants and challenged Americans to make justice and equality a reality for immigrants, both legal and illegal.

The battle over immigrant rights will be fought as fiercely and doggedly as the civil rights battle of the 1960s. That battle forever altered the way Americans look at race. The immigrants rights battle will profoundly alter the way Americans look at immigrants. The silence of civil rights leaders won't change that. But there is no better time than now to end that silence.

Immigrants Rising

If 2005 was the Year of the Minutemen, 2006 is becoming the Year of Immigrants Rising. Just look at the tens of thousands of immigrants who marched in downtown Chicago last March 11 for immigrant rights and against restrictive immigration proposals.

Less than three months ago, the leadership of the House of Representatives, in a vicious act of "drive-by" legislating, rushed through a bill that experts consider to be the most anti-immigrant piece of legislation in the United States in 80 years.

Here are some of the lowlights of the Sensenbrenner bill, HR 4437:

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A Crash Course in Racial Perceptions

[Editor's Note: Although some of AlterNet's bloggers and writers have aired heavy criticisms of "Crash," Earl Ofari Hutchinson presents his reasons why it was the right choice for the Academy.]

"Crash" deservedly won the Academy award for best picture because it forces blacks as well as whites to honestly confront their stereotypes.

The film sets the course from the start when it goes squarely for "racial correctness." The opening shot has two young blacks charging out of a restaurant steaming mad. One of them claims that a waitress ignored them, then gave them lousy service, and the whites in the restaurant gave them hostile stares solely because they were black.

Then a white couple passes them on the street, and the wife locks arms with her husband for fear the two men would mug them. In an angry tirade, the angered young black covers the wide gamut of myths, stereotypes and negative perceptions that whites supposedly have of blacks.

While "Crash" pierces and pokes fun at racial stereotypes, it's the black perceptions about those stereotypes that makes the film unique. Many blacks take it as an article of faith that that most whites are hopelessly racist. A comprehensive Harvard University opinion poll in 2002 found that the racial attitudes of many whites about blacks are tightly wrapped in stereotypes. The poll reinforced the fervent belief of many blacks that whites racially disdain them. It's not that simple.

The majority of whites are probably genuinely convinced that America is a color-blind society, and that equal opportunity is a reality. They repeatedly told the Harvard pollsters that they believed blacks and whites had attained social and economic equality. Sure, the figures on income, education and health care show a gaping racial lag between blacks and whites. However, perception drives reality.

If many whites think racial equality is a reality, that's more proof to many blacks that whites are in deliberate racial denial. But many whites don't claim blacks are treated equally simply to mask their racial hostility to blacks. They no longer see "Whites only" signs and redneck Southern cops unleashing police dogs, turning fire hoses on and beating hapless black demonstrators. Whites turn on their TVs and see legions of black newscasters and talk show hosts, topped by TV's richest and most popular celebrity, Oprah Winfrey.

They see mega-rich black entertainers and athletes pampered and fawned over by a doting media and an adoring public. They see TV commercials that picture blacks living in trendy integrated suburban homes, sending their kids to integrated schools and driving expensive cars. They see blacks such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in high-profile policy-making positions in the Bush administration. They see dozens of blacks in Congress, many more in state legislatures and city halls. They see blacks heading corporations and universities. Many whites actually believe that racial problems are a thing of the past and that blacks who incessantly scream racism about their plight are afflicted with racial paranoia.

On the other hand, many blacks erroneously assume that whites live an Ozzie-and-Harriet life of bliss and are immune to personal and social angst. They are puzzled when middle-class whites shoot up their suburban schools, and neighborhoods, bludgeon their children in their homes, use and deal drugs, have high suicide rates and commit bizarre anti-social acts. They don't hear and see whites' pain.

In "Crash," a middle-class white couple lives in a cloistered world, scared of and angry with minorities and in perpetual turmoil. It's fear, ignorance and paranoia to the nth degree. But it also makes perfectly good sense to them to feel as they do. The truth is that millions of whites are also trapped in a downward cycle of need and poverty, and have about as much chance of crashing into America's corporate boardrooms, joining university faculties and getting elected to Congress as do poor blacks. The sense among many whites that they are fast losing economic and social ground in America fuels much of their fury over affirmative action programs.

In the film, a white LAPD officer comes off as an unreconstructed bigot. Yet he's also beset by the psychological pressure and financial burden of taking care of his ailing father. He blames his father's medical and financial slide on the loss of his janitorial company's contract to a minority-owned company. Perhaps he's wrong, but that's what he believes. Many whites think that society is spinning out of control and that they have little power to run their lives. They see the federal government as the culprit. They blame it for being pro-higher taxes, pro-bureaucracy, pro-immigrant and pro-criminals' rights.

A mix of economic slippage, political cynicism and personal alienation, not blind racial hatred drives much of white anger toward blacks. An equal mix of personal alienation, false perception and distrust drives much of black anger toward whites. That's the not-so-subtle message of "Crash."

What Does the Katrina Video Say About Bush?

The video of President Bush conferring with disaster officials from his Texas ranch the day before Katrina struck is disturbingly similar to the footage of the casual way Bush reacted to news of the Sept. 11 terror attack. This is the same Bush who time and again has primed his public image as a tough-talking, swaggering guy who moves quickly and decisively when a crisis hits. But Bush has been anything but a no-nonsense taskmaster in the face of disaster.

His first reaction to Sept. 11 was befuddlement and fear. It took him days to swing into action. His next response was to duck and dodge criticism of his glacial response to 9/11. His last ploy was to let others take the heat or the fall for his fumbles. Then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was the perfect patsy for Bush's Sept. 11 failing. At the 9/11 Commission hearing, she fervently defended her boss from the charge that he fell asleep at the national security wheel before, during and after the attacks. She strongly made the case that there was no laxity in the Bush administration's fight against terrorism.

Counter terrorism expert Richard Clarke, who charged that the administration had slumbered on the terrorism fight didn't have a chance to rebut anything Rice said. Rice had the last word, and thus there could be no "he-said, she-said" exchanges between them. Rice was a loyal Bush soldier and shouldered some of the blame for the Sept. 11 lapse. This helped keep some sheen on her boss' Teflon shield.

Now there's Katrina. Bush tore another page from the same dodge-and-blame playbook. It took him days to get relief efforts up to speed in New Orleans. He then ducked criticism that there was incompetence, indifference and even racism in his laggard response to the crisis. Finally, he dumped full blame for the failures on FEMA director Michael Brown. It worked. Much of the public and many in the media hammered Brown for the dire plight of the hurricane devastated evacuees. Bush quickly took the cue and canned Brown. Brown, as Rice, played the fall-guy role well, kept silent and bowed out quietly. Later, and especially with the public surface of the damning Katrina video, he's found his spine, and blames the Katrina bumbles on the "fog of bureaucracy." That's a clever way to avoid saying that the man at the top didn't do his job.

The Katrina video is graphic proof that Bush did more than fumble the preparedness ball. He ignored it. Brown begged those at the government's disaster operation center to do whatever it took to get hurricane relief efforts going. He also urged that National Guard units be prepared to quickly move in and aid relief efforts, since this storm could be "the big one." Brown also showed some sensitivity to those who would have to be herded into the Superdome to escape floodwaters. He demanded that provisions be made for their medical and safety needs. He even worried about the Superdome's roof. Other disaster officials and experts warned urgently about the possibility of the levees being breached.

Bush knew all of this, and seems to have done little except offer verbal reassurances. Four days after the storm hit and floodwaters tore through the city, Bush lied and publicly stated that no one anticipated that the levees would break. Not once during the briefing, as the video shows, did Bush ask one question about the levees.

The worst part of this is that so little has changed in the months since the Katrina debacle. Thousands of evacuees are still scattered in far-flung cities across the country, many without jobs, and living under the daily threat that they can be evicted from the hotels and apartments that they have been temporarily housed in. And thousands of New Orleans and Gulf residents whose homes were severely damaged or destroyed still have not received any compensation for their losses. Bush has maintained mute silence about their predicament.

Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana officials were justifiably livid at the disgraceful shots of the president's men in crisis and their boss blithely doing nothing to deal with it. They shouldn't have been. His dumbfounded response to 9/11 offered hints that Bush can't manage a real disaster. The videotape is smoking-gun proof that Bush is not, and never has been, the man of action that the president's spin-masters have made him out too be. His embarrassingly low poll ratings are firm testament that much of the public has finally wised up to his leadership failings.

Que Viva La Musica

New York's master percussionist Ray Barretto gave me the song they will play at my funeral. I have asked those closest to me to make sure that "Que Viva La Musica" (Long Live the Music) is there at my death because the powerful guaguanco beat, the cloud-piercing trumpets, the heartfelt chorus and simple lyrics of his live version of the song have lifted me up at every key moment in my life since I first heard it more than 30 years ago.

The alegria (happiness) and simple depth of the song grabbed me the first time I heard it. My older brother Ramon was preparing to clean the house. He put the song on as background music, and before I knew it he was clapping the clave (percussion part), chanting and singing as he cleaned. The memory of the song and the image of my brother in San Francisco's Mission district in 1976 still go together as a symbol of what mattered then: that we had moments of overcoming hardship despite the many challenges facing my Salvadoran family's version of 1970s Latino poverty. Barretto made 13-year-old me feel recognized, that I mattered -- and that I had a reason to celebrate something.

For the past several days, many of us have been playing "Que Viva la Musica," "Cocinando" and other great Barretto Latin jazz and salsa songs to celebrate his life and to honor him in his death. Surrounded by his family, Barretto died last week at the age of 76. "Hard hands," as he was known, was one of the epic musicians who, along with Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe and other giants, evolved salsa and Latin jazz to global acclaim. He helped push our music out of its silence and onto the radio waves.

From the time Grammy winner Barretto released his first big hit, "El Watusi," generation after generation of Latin and jazz music lovers have found a Barretto tune to call their own. Many of us admired how Barretto was one of the only Latino musicos to play at the anti-apartheid Sun City concert.

The Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican Barretto's passing last week across the Hudson in Hackensack marks a personal milestone -- and a reflection on the Latino condition -- for millions of us in New York and beyond. A local radio station is dedicating 25 hours of programming to the great conguero; a local DJ friend told me ceremoniously this morning, "I spanned several of his songs and played them real loud at a gig I played last night." John Santos, preeminent percussionist not known for his literary skills, sent out a poem upon hearing of Barretto's passing in which he thanked Barretto for his "great strength" and "giant love."

My brother Ramon, who taught me to hear and see Latin jazz as a music that speaks to our then-little-known brown, bilingual U.S. experience, told me, "He was the one, the first one I identified as a conga player. Those rhythms got me dancing. I never thought I would be playing. His example helped me believe. He was a bad-ass." Ramon, a percussionist, will be playing Barretto in New Mexico in his honor.

I remember my brother cleaning -- and crying -- as he danced. Last year, I called Ramon from a club and held up my cell phone to let him hear Barretto playing many of the songs that made him famous. I told him of my plan to walk up and ask Barretto to play the song. After Barretto finished the first set, I walked up to the stage and told him about what the song meant to me, and thanked him for bringing "Que Viva la Musica" into my life.

He put his hands, thick from more than 60 years of slapping the congas, to his heart, bowed and said, "Thank you, brother. That means a lot to me." I asked if he would play the song during his second set and he said he'd try. As he played the second set, he stirred happy twenty-something kids in baggy clothes. He touched dressed-up thirty-something couples who held each other as he played one of his unforgettable solos on his beloved conga. Forty- and fifty-somethings closed their eyes, memories of a time when being Latino meant you held your head lower.

After Barretto said, "Thank you everybody. I love you," I was happy but disappointed that he didn't play "Que Viva la Musica," one of the first albums I bought; the song I played before pursuing my beloveds and after breaking up; the song that I listened to before going to wartime El Salvador and after I came back searching for meaning; the song that will always raise my head.

That was one of his last concerts. And although I cherish "Que Viva la Musica," it was not the most popular of his life's work. The chance to be there as a witness during one of his last performances overwhelms whatever urge I had that night to hear that song. It still sings to me, after all. I can still hear the way it sounded that first time in San Francisco, and I will continue to sing it until my time comes.

Struggling to find the words to express my gratitude and my sense of loss for Barretto while I listen to "Que Viva La Musica," I instead find a gesture, one I first saw used to honor friends and fallen heroes in Latin America. Head up, I raise my left fist and say, "Que viva Ray Barretto, que viva la musica."

More on Blacks and Immigration

"Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant." A century and a half ago, a deeply conflicted Frederick Douglass saw immigration as a looming threat to the fragile economic gains that Northern blacks had made in some trades and industries.

The famed black abolitionist and pioneer civil rights champion was no lone voice in denouncing immigration. Black leaders waged ferocious fights with each other over ideology, politics and leadership, but they closed ranks on immigration. "The continual stream of well-trained European laborers flowing into the West," warned educator Booker T. Washington in an 1882 speech, "leaves Negroes no foothold."

Washington's great fear was that immigration would displace Northern blacks from manufacturing industries and that Southern landowners would use cheap European and Asian labor to boot blacks off the land. Educator and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois railed against Washington's racially accommodationist views. Yet, like Washington, he attacked immigration as a dire threat to blacks. He accused "the Northern industrialist of the promotion of alien immigration to eliminate black workers, and depress wages."

During and immediately following World War I, millions more Eastern and Southern Europeans poured into the country to escape war, poverty, hunger and anti-Semitic pogroms. Many were poorly educated, marginally skilled workers who crowded the cities and muscled blacks out of the bottom-rung manufacturing and farm jobs. Black leaders and rabidly racist, America-first anti-immigration proponents screamed loudly for Congress to stop the flood.

In an editorial in 1919, the New York Age, a black newspaper, skipped the niceties. "Speaking purely from a motive of self-interest, the American Negro can say that the passing of a law restricting immigration for four years is a good thing." Two years later, the Chicago Defender, which had virtually become the bible for black American readers by the early 1920s, chimed in, "The restrictions recently placed upon immigration to these shores ought to help us if they do not help anybody else." In a speech in 1920, black nationalist Marcus Garvey painted an even scarier picture of what unchecked immigration could mean for blacks: "We will be out of jobs, and we will be starving." It was vintage, over the top, stir-the-masses Garvey rhetoric. But it pricked a public nerve.

When Congress passed a racially exclusionary anti-immigration bill in 1924, the black press cheered madly. The Immigration Act of 1924 barred entry of "aliens ineligible to citizenship." Because Japanese and other Asians were barred by a 1790 law stipulating that "whites only" could be naturalized, the 1924 act effectively ended the immigration of all Asians into the United States.

The radical, pro-Socialist, pro labor Messenger instantly hailed the bill as a victory for black workers and claimed that it would open up more jobs. A year later, the National Urban League's house organ, Opportunity, which championed black professional and business interests and relentlessly opposed the Messenger's pro-Socialist views still applauded the anti-immigrant assault: "The gaps made by the reduction in immigrant labor have forced a demand for Negro labor despite theories which hold that they are neither needed nor desired."

The 1924 restrictive immigration law didn't totally allay black fears that immigration would unhinge their tenuous economic plight. Some blacks viewed Mexican immigrants as the new threat to black jobs. In 1927, the Pittsburgh Courier pushed the panic button and warned that Mexican immigrants would "menace" blacks' position in industry. "The Mexicans are being used as laborers on the railroads, on public works and on the farms, thus taking the places of many Negro workers." The Courier did not blame Mexican immigrants for taking jobs, but regarded them as pathetic pawns of greedy, unscrupulous employers to depress wages, labor standards and sow divisions with black workers.

Though the Courier nailed employers for exploiting illegal immigrants, it did not take the next logical step and urge black workers, labor groups and civil rights leaders to join with Mexican workers and fight for better wages, fair hiring practices and improved labor standards, and against Jim Crow segregation that impoverished black and Mexican workers. This was the pre-Depression era of naked, laissez-faire capitalism, and the black press and black leaders banked on the goodwill of white corporate employers for black economic gains. The Courier wailed that Mexican immigrants would snatch jobs from blacks in public works and railroads in the 1920s. But the estimated million or so Mexican illegal immigrants that trickled into the United States then was relatively low. They were mostly concentrated in the Southwest and posed no direct threat to blacks in the industrial North. Yet, in singling out Mexican illegal immigration as a potential danger to blacks in the 1920s, the Courier gave verbal ammunition to opponents of illegal immigrants that some blacks decades later would eagerly pick up and use.

Starting more than a century ago, Douglass, Washington, DuBois, Garvey and the black press sounded alarms over legal and illegal immigration. They forged a strange alliance with conservative and even fringe anti-immigrant groups to finger-point immigrants as the ultimate peril to blacks. As the national debate rages over illegal immigration, some black leaders and their strange bedfellows are doing the same thing again.

Black America and Immigration

A few months before the 2004 presidential election, Project 21, a Washington, D.C.-based group of black conservative business professionals, called George Bush on his conflicted immigration reform proposals. The group railed that if Congress enacted Bush's reform proposals, it would flood the country with hordes of illegal immigrants, speed the deterioration in public education, further bulge the prisons and undercut American workers' wages.

But Project 21's biggest fear was that more illegal immigrants would have a dire impact on black workers. It claimed that illegal immigrants depress wages, elbow blacks out of low and unskilled farm and manufacturing jobs, and snatch vital services from the black poor.

This is the same worn argument of conservatives and fringe anti-immigrant groups such as the Minuteman Project. Other studies show that illegal immigrants pay more taxes, spend more consumer dollars on goods and services, and receive less in benefits from government agencies than any other group.

Project 21's leap on the anti-illegal immigration bandwagon was predictable. They are following the lead of their ultraconservative GOP boosters, which have pounded on Bush to take even harsher steps to shut down the border.

But the debate is not a manufactured ploy by conservatives to exploit black fears over illegal immigrants. In the days immediately following the Katrina debacle, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a centrist Democrat, touched off a mild flap with his shoot-from-the lip quip to local business leaders that he was appalled at the thought that Mexican workers seeking to fill reconstruction jobs would overrun New Orleans. The crack was silly, impolitic and crude, but civil rights leaders were mostly mute on it and him.

That's no surprise, either. During the past two decades, the illegal immigration debate has stirred doubt, hesitation and conflicting positions by black liberals and Democrats. In the 1980s, the Congressional Black Caucus staunchly opposed the 1984 immigration reform bill. The bill called for tougher sanctions against employers that hired illegal immigrants, tighter enforcement controls at the border and an English-language requirement to attain legalization.

But that was an easy call then for the Caucus. Those were the Reagan years, and black Democrats and civil rights leaders waged relentless war against Reagan's domestic policies. In 1985 and 1990, the Caucus opposed other reform measures that were pretty much a carbon copy of the earlier proposal.

The CBC took its cue from the Hispanic Caucus and continued to oppose tougher punitive measure immigration. But the sharp jump in the number of illegal immigrants, as well as new polls that showed that significant numbers of blacks opposed increased immigration, bilingual education and drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants, and constituents' rumbles that illegal immigrants were grabbing jobs from blacks in retail and construction industries, made some black Democrats pause.

While the NAACP and the Urban League still strongly oppose the shrill, nativist, borderline-racist calls by fringe immigration groups to deport all illegal immigrants, they cautiously demand measures to better control immigration. In 2003, the SCLC, Rainbow Push and other civil rights groups backed the Freedom Ride bus campaign to lobby Congress for amnesty for illegal immigrants and stronger labor protections. The NAACP and Urban League, though, took no official position on the Freedom Ride.

A year before the Freedom Ride, the NAACP invited Hector Flores, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, to be a featured speaker at its convention. Flores and the NAACP mostly skirted the immigration issue. It was only one of several policy initiatives, including affirmative action, tougher hate crimes legislation, health care, elimination of racial profiling, voting rights and greater public education funding, that the two groups agreed to work on more closely together. The NAACP did not say what or how it would work with LULAC on immigration reform, nor did it spell out its own position on the issue.

This is not a total retreat by some black Democrats on immigrants' rights. In 2004, the majority of Congressional Black Caucus members backed an amnesty measure that was far more generous in granting amnesty than the one offered by the Bush administration. But some civil rights leaders still warned that illegal immigration threatened black jobs in some parts of the country, and some blacks had begun to parrot the same racially charged arguments of groups such as the Minuteman Project.

The illegal immigration controversy is not going away. Civil rights leaders and black Democrats must not pander to the anti-immigrant hysteria that has gripped many Americans, including many black Americans. They must call for a fair immigration reform measure that safeguards the rights of undocumented workers, as well as the job security of black workers. That's a tall order, but it's one they must fill.

The Truth About Guantanamo

As one of the U.S. Army's few Muslim chaplains, Capt. James Yee thought he was serving both God and country at Guantanamo Bay. But in September 2003, two days after receiving an excellent evaluation, Chaplain Yee was arrested, charged with espionage and thrown into solitary confinement for 76 days. When he left the Army in 2005 after all charges were dropped, he received a medal. He recounts his journey from Muslim American poster boy to "enemy of the state" in his memoir, "For God and Country." Yee was interviewed by Sandip Roy.

Sandip Roy: As chaplain at Guantanamo Bay you served not just the soldiers but also 660 prisoners. What did you have to do for them?

Captain Yee: I was an advisor to the command on the unique religious paradigm in Guantanamo, where all the prisoners are Muslim. I had open access to them and I would talk to them daily, understand their concerns and relay that information to the command so some of the tensions in the cell block between soldiers and prisoners could be relieved.

Donald Rumsfeld has called the prisoners some of the "worst of the worst." How did you find them?

I disagree with that characterization. Clearly many of them are innocent. At least three were between 12 and 14. There are a dozen Uighurs from western China. Some of them have been deemed to be not enemy combatants by the Pentagon's own review board but still haven't been released.

I saw prisoners who were so despondent they would no longer eat. At least two were permanently in the hospital being force-fed through a tube. One prisoner attempted suicide and ended up in a coma.

There were also mass suicide attempts. A prisoner would attempt suicide, the guards would unlock his cell and take him down, and the medics would come. Fifteen minutes later another prisoner would attempt suicide, and this would go on for hours. They were demanding the commanding general apologize for the abuse of the Koran.

Did you see any abuse?

As a chaplain I was able to ensure some things like halal meals, the call to prayer, the painted arrow pointing to Mecca. But the Koran was desecrated. In the conduct of searches, it often ended up ripped. There were confirmed incidents where interrogators threw the Koran on the floor and stepped on it.

When the Newsweek report about the Koran desecration outraged the entire Muslim world, the Pentagon responded by showing that there was a policy in place that gave proper guidance on how to correctly handle the Koran. What the Pentagon never said was that the chaplain they had accused of spying and threatened with the death penalty was the one who authored that policy.

The government says the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam, but you write that's not how it felt on most days at Guantanamo.

There was really strong anti-Muslim hostility directed not just toward the prisoners but also to the patriotic Muslim Americans serving there. I wasn't the only one singled out. Two others were arrested around the same time.

But was this the bigotry of a few bad apples, or more pervasive?

The commanding general told me he had enormous anger toward "those Muslims" who carried out the attacks on 9/11. When new soldiers came to Guantanamo they were given a briefing that seemed to indicate the 660 prisoners there planned and carried out 9/11. E-mails referred to Muslims as "ragheads." Muslim personnel who attended services on Friday were sometimes called "Hamas."

What do you think triggered the suspicions about you?

The Muslim personnel pray five times a day, bowing and prostrating just like the prisoners. We read the Koran in Arabic just like the prisoners. To some over-zealous, inexperienced and bigoted few, we were some kind of subversive sleeper cell.

But my ethnicity also played a role. I found out that someone had said, "Who the hell does this Chinese Taliban think he is, telling us how to treat our prisoners?"

When you were arrested were you subject to the same things the prisoners had complained about?

I was transferred to the consolidated naval brig in Charleston (S.C.), where U.S. citizen enemy combatants are held. I was shackled in three places -- wrists, waist and ankles. They put the blackened goggles on my eyes so I couldn't see anything and heavy industrial earmuffs on my ears so I couldn't hear anything. That's how prisoners are transported from Afghanistan to Guantanamo.

Were you afraid you would just disappear?

When I heard the accusations I thought they were absurd and would be cleared in a matter of days, if not hours. It became much more frightening when I heard I was being taken to some undisclosed location. Nobody knew where I was. My parents and family were not informed. My wife and daughter were in fact waiting for me at the airport to come pick them up. I never showed up. I essentially disappeared for 10 days.

Did the military learn something from the experience?

My experience has worked to undermine the efforts in fighting the war on terrorism. What the world saw was if a U.S. citizen could not get a fair look under U.S. military justice, what makes anyone think that foreign prisoners in Guantanamo are going to get a fair shake?

Now that you are out, what do you want? An apology?

When I separated from the military in January 2005, I received an honorable discharge and another army commendation, but I didn't receive that apology. Now I, my family and supporters, and several congressmen are awaiting the result of an investigation that the Department of Defense inspector general agreed to take on as to how it really was that I, Capt. James Yee, landed in prison for 76 days, being accused of these heinous crimes and being threatened with the death penalty. We are all looking forward to the results of that investigation -- and a well deserved apology.

Who Reads in America?

Two years ago, while sitting in a café in Brooklyn on a cold winter night, I ran into "Chicago Mike." In the crook of his arm he held a thick and tattered book. I asked him what he was reading and he told me it was the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon. I asked him if it was the abridged edition.

"No, it's one volume of the un-abridged text. Who needs to read the edited version?"

After ordering a cup of coffee, and with a smile on his face, he got on his bike and rode off into the snow. Mike delivered weed for a living.

The other day I read in a local paper that the department of education had released a report describing the eroding literacy skills of college students in America. One wonders if this is a bellwether for the country as a whole. What does it mean when high-achieving college students are reading less proficiently than their counterparts a generation ago? Are we slowly becoming a nation of non-readers?

This isn't the first time I've seen a red flag raised. Ten years ago Lewis Lapham heralded the death of literature in a published letter to his nephew (himself an aspiring writer) in Harper's magazine. I wondered then, as I do now: Could this be true?

I've always found literacy and literature outside the mainstream and in the private corners and cracks of society. Below Manhattan, in the city's subway system you can find more readers of classical and contemporary literature than you can in all the city's libraries. I wonder how the report might have come out had NYC subway riders been tested?

I once helped run writing workshops in the maximum security units (cell blocks) in Juvenile Halls in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. Young inmates, considered the worst offenders in the Juvenile system, found themselves confined to a small cell for the majority of the day. In many of the units even paper and pencil were considered contraband. Though desperate to get out and resume their lives, many of the kids confessed that before doing time they had never finished a book.

Among the titles I was asked to bring in by kids in the program were The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas and, on one occasion, Oscar Wilde's De Profundis.

Rob Tell was an old roommate. A college dropout, he worked a variety of jobs to earn a living -- bike messenger, shuttle driver, spot carpenter. Some years, Rob would follow the harvest trails. He spent his late summers in Maine raking blueberries, early fall in Massachusetts picking cranberries and he harvested beets in Minnesota in February. In a bar or at home, Rob could recite verse from Dylan Thomas or William Blake or a sonnet by Shakespeare, and always at an appropriate moment, either to break up a fight or during a toast.

Like Rob, I never graduated from college, and barely made it through high school. I've worked a variety of jobs, trying to support myself, sometimes going through long spells of unemployment, though not for lack of trying.

For the better part of my 20s, I was tremendously lonely, both physically and emotionally. I became an amateur boxer to deal with anger and frustration, and I read a great deal because it gave me solace.

I read Flannery O'Conner and John Milton, James Baldwin and William Styron, Homer and Shakespeare. I read Hills Like White Elephants, by Hemingway over and over again until I could understand it. I read everything by Stephen King (still do).

All that reading never found me a job, nor scored me any friends (though both came in time). I'm not sure if it really ever made me any more intelligent. Yet it did ease the loneliness. It did broaden my perspective on people and the world. I found it easier to live with my problems and in my own skin. I discovered that from a literary perspective there really is no such thing as not fitting in.

Richard Rodriguez, in Hunger of Memory, compares himself to Caliban, a half-human, spiteful creature out of Shakespearean mythology who secretly thumbs through his masters books, teaching himself to think, to read, and to plot. The son of Mexican immigrants who spoke Spanish at home, Richard found it ironic that as a young man he found himself alone in the library at Oxford studying 19th century English literature.

I have no answers for the Department of Education. I'm not sure if a "proficient reading level" is even that important for students in higher education. To Mr. Lapham, however, I would say that literature seems to come from the dysfunctional edges of culture and society.

Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, as did Virginia Woolf. Flannery O'Connor raised peacocks by herself in Milledgeville, Ga., and Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis on tissue paper with bits and pieces of charcoal while serving time in Reading Gaol, charged with "gross indecency."

I think that it's society's outcasts who will continue to treasure and reproduce literature. There are thousands of inmates in America's penal system who receive high school and college diplomas through correspondence. There are thousands of homeless who have no access to TV or the Internet but can find a discarded copy of Crime and Punishment in a trash can.

Eighties Surveillance Revival

Revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has engaged in warrantless eavesdropping in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act prompted President Bush to admit last month that in 2002 he directly authorized the activity in the wake of 9/11.

But there are reasons to suspect that the illegal eavesdropping, and the related program of illegal detentions of U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals, began earlier. Both may be part of what Vice President Dick Cheney has called the Bush administration's restoration of "the legitimate authority of the presidency" -- practices exercised by Nixon that were outlawed after Watergate.

In the 1980s Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld discussed just such emergency surveillance and detention powers in a super-secret program that planned for what was euphemistically called "Continuity of Government" (COG) in the event of a nuclear disaster.

At the time, Cheney was a Wyoming congressman, while Rumsfeld, who had been defense secretary under President Ford, was a businessman and CEO of the drug company G.D. Searle. Overall responsibility for the program had been assigned to Vice President George H.W. Bush, "with Lt. Col. Oliver North...as the National Security Council action officer," according to James Bamford in his book, "A Pretext for War."

These men planned for suspension of the Constitution, not just after nuclear attack, but for any "national security emergency," which they defined in Executive Order 12656 of 1988 as: "Any occurrence, including natural disaster, military attack, technological or other emergency, that seriously degrades or seriously threatens the national security of the United States." Clearly 9/11 would meet this definition.

As developed in the mid-1980s by Oliver North in the White House, the plans called for not just the surveillance but the potential detention of large numbers of American citizens. During the Iran-Contra hearings, North was asked about his work on "a contingency plan in the event of emergency, that would suspend the American constitution." The chairman, Democratic Senator Inouye, ruled that this was a "highly sensitive and classified" matter, not to be dealt with in an open hearing.

The supporting agency for the planning and implementation was the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA was headed for much of the 1980s by Louis Giuffrida, whose COG plans for massive detention became so extreme that even President Reagan's then Attorney General, William French Smith, raised objections.

Smith eventually left Washington, while COG continued to evolve. And in May 2001 Cheney and FEMA were reunited: President George W. Bush appointed Cheney to head a terrorism task force and created a new office within FEMA to assist him. In effect, Bush was authorizing a resumption of the kind of planning that Cheney and FEMA had conducted under the heading of COG.

Press accounts at the time claimed that the Cheney terrorism task force accomplished little and that Cheney himself spent the entire month of August in a remote location in Wyoming. But this may have just been the appearance of withdrawal; as author James Mann points out in "The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet," Cheney had regularly gone off to undisclosed locations in the 1980s as part of his secret COG planning.

As to the actual role of Bush, Cheney and FEMA on 9/11 itself, much remains unclear. But all sources agree that a central order at 10 a.m. from Bush to Cheney contained three provisions, of which the most important was, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, "the implementation of continuity of government measures."

The measures called for the immediate evacuation of key personnel from Washington. Both Cheney and Rumsfeld refused to leave, but Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was helicoptered to a bunker headquarters inside a mountain. Cheney also ordered key congressional personnel, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, to be flown out of Washington, along with several cabinet members.

During Cheney's later disappearance from public view for a long period after the attack, he too was working from a COG base -- "Site R," the so-called "Underground Pentagon" on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, according to Bamford.

Many actions of the Bush presidency resemble not only what Nixon did in the 1970s, but what Cheney and Rumsfeld had planned to restore under COG in the 1980s in the case of an attack. Prominent among these have been the detention of so-called "enemy combatants," including U.S. citizens, and placing them in special camps. Now as before, a policy of detentions outside the Constitution has been accompanied by a program of extra-constitutional surveillance to determine who will be detained.

As Cheney told reporters on his return last month from Pakistan, "Watergate and a lot of things around Watergate and Vietnam, both during the '70s served, I think, to erode the authority" of the president. But he defended as necessary for national security the aggressive program he helped shape under President George W. Bush, which includes warrantless surveillance and extrajudicial imprisonment -- in effect, a new Imperial Presidency.

At least two Democrats in Congress have suggested that Bush could be impeached for his illegal surveillance activities. The chances of impeachment may depend on whether Congress can prove that planning for this, like planning for the Iraq War, began well before 9/11.

Domestic Spying Is Old News

The big puzzle is why anyone is shocked that President Bush eavesdropped on Americans. The National Security Agency for decades has routinely monitored the phone calls and telegrams of thousands of Americans. The rationale has always been the same, and Bush said it again in defending his spying, that it was done to protect Americans from foreign threat or attack.

The named targets in the past have been Muslim extremists, Communists, peace activists, black radicals, civil rights leaders, and drug peddlers. Even before President Harry Truman established the NSA in a Cold War era directive in 1952, government cryptologists jumped in the domestic spy hunt with Operation Shamrock. That was a super-secret operation that forced private telegraph companies to turn over the telegraphic correspondence of Americans to the government.

The NSA kicked its spy campaign into high gear in the 1960s. The FBI demanded that the NSA monitor antiwar activists, civil rights leaders, and drug peddlers. The Senate Select Committee that investigated government domestic spying in 1976 pried open a tiny public window into the scope of NSA spying. But the agency slammed the window shut fast when it refused to cough up documents to the committee that would tell more about its surveillance of Americans. The NSA claimed that disclosure would compromise national security.

The few feeble Congressional attempts over the years to probe NSA domestic spying have gone nowhere. Even though rumors swirled that NSA eyes were riveted on more than a few Americans, Congressional investigators showed no stomach to fight the NSA's entrenched code of silence.

There was a huge warning sign in 2002 that government agencies would jump deeper into the domestic spy business. President Bush scrapped the old 1970s guidelines that banned FBI spying on domestic organizations. The directive gave the FBI carte blanche authority to surveil, and plant agents in churches, mosques, and political groups, and ransack the Internet to hunt for potential subversives, without the need or requirement to show probable cause of criminal wrongdoing.

The revised Bush administration spy guidelines, along with the anti-terrorist provisions of the Patriot Act, also gave local agents even wider discretion to determine what groups or individuals they can investigate and what tactics they can use to investigate them. The FBI wasted little time in flexing its new found intelligence muscle. It mounted a secret campaign to monitor and harass Iraq war protestors in Washington D.C. and San Francisco in October 2003.

Another sign that government domestic spying was back in full swing came during Condeleezza Rice's finger point at the FBI in her testimony before the 9/11 Commission in 2004. Rice blamed the FBI for allegedly failing to follow up on its investigation of Al-Qaeda operatives in the United States U.S. prior to the September 11 terror attacks. That increased the clamor for an independent domestic spy agency. FBI Director Robert Mueller made an impassioned plea against a separate agency, and the reason was simple. Domestic spying was an established fact and the FBI and the NSA had long been engaged in it.

The September 11 terror attacks, and the heat Bush administration took for its towering intelligence lapses, gave Bush the excuse to plunge even deeper into domestic spying. But Bush also recognized that if word got out about NSA domestic spying, it would ignite a firestorm of protest. Fortunately it did.

Despite Bush's weak and self-serving national security excuse that it thwarted potential terrorist attacks, none of which is verifiable, the Supreme Court, the NSA's own mandate and past executive orders explicitly bar domestic spying without court authorization. The exception is if there is a grave and imminent terror threat. That's the shaky legal dodge that Bush used to justify domestic spying. Bush and his defenders discount the monumental threat and damage that spying on Americans poses to civil liberties. But it can't and shouldn't be shrugged off.

During the debate over the creation of a domestic spy agency in 2002, even proponents recognized the potential threat of such an agency to civil liberties. As a safeguard they recommended that the agency not have expanded wiretap and surveillance powers or law enforcement authority, and that the Senate and House intelligence committees have strict oversight over its activities.

These supposed fail-safe measures were hardly ironclad safeguards against abuses, but they understood that domestic spying is a civil liberties nightmare minefield that has blown up and wreaked havoc on American's lives in the past. The FBI is the prime example. During the 1950s and 1960s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover kicked FBI domestic spying into high gear. FBI agents compiled secret dossiers, illegally wiretapped, used undercover plants, and agent provocateurs, sent poison pen letters, and staged black bag jobs against black activists and anti-war groups.

Bush's claim that domestic spying poses no risk to civil liberties is laughable. Congress should demand that Bush and the NSA come clean on domestic spying, and then promptly end it.

Prejudice on Death Row

Because I conduct writing workshops every week in juvenile hall, and because I have far more experience with the death penalty than any civilized person should have, I was asked to come into the maximum control units of one Bay Area County juvenile hall on Tuesday morning, Dec. 13, to help diffuse the anticipated emotion generated by the execution just hours before of Stanley Tookie Williams.

For many -- especially the African-American young men who comprise the majority of the children locked away in this juvenile hall -- Mr. Williams was a kind of folk hero. Most had read one or more of the books he wrote on death row urging youths to abandon their gang affiliations and to recognize the humanity that each of us possesses. Almost all had heard the thoughtful interviews he did on various radio shows. A few had even spoken with him on the phone when a staff person had arranged a call from death row.

To prepare for my standup routine, I went through California's recent experiences with executions and came up with some startling statistics I thought these young men in particular would find relevant. Since the modern era of executions was inaugurated in California with the gassing of Robert Harris in 1992, the state has put to death 12 men. Mr. Williams' execution marks only the second time an African-American was the victim of the death chamber. (In addition, eight of the 12 were white; one was Asian; and one was Native American.)

My listeners were surprised to learn that the majority of those we Californians have put to death have been white. But they were astonished when I added this statistic: Among the 27 victims of these 12 condemned prisoners, not a single one was African-American! (Five were Asian; three were Latinos; and 19 were white.)

The shameful truth is that had Mr. Williams' four victims been black, the overwhelming likelihood is that he would still be alive today, one of the many anonymous convicted murderers who occupy our state prisons.

The fact that not a single person has been executed in this state for killing an African-American is consistent with studies across the country that show the death penalty is reserved primarily for those who kill white people. The California study, "The Impact of Legally Inappropriate Factors on Death Sentencing for California Homicides, 1990-'99," found that 80 percent of executions in California were for killers of whites, though non-Hispanic whites make up just 47 percent of all Californians, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Those who kill whites are more than four times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill Latinos, and over three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill African-Americans.

As African-American young men who have had to negotiate both systemic racism and the mean streets they live on, these young detainees were not surprised to learn that the system devalues blacks. But as the discussion veered from the execution this morning to Saddam Hussein to Hitler, one young man asked me about Jack the Ripper. I told him that those crimes were committed in England more than a century ago, and that the man who did it was never caught. And when I added that his victims were prostitutes, the young African-American said, "Oh well, who cares? They were just prostitutes."

This observation brought the discussion back to where we had begun. When I connected his belief about prostitutes with the first theme -- how the criminal justice system devalues some people by placing extra value on others -- he asked if I were accusing him of racism. I answered: "I am accusing you of ignorance, which is the prerequisite to racism. You have decided a class of people -- prostitutes -- are of less worth than you, just as the criminal justice system decides through its daily decisions that you are worth less than me."

In 1988 in Texas, Judge Jack Hampton sentenced a convicted murderer of two homosexuals to 30 years in prison, announcing as he did: "I put prostitutes and gays at about the same level, and I'd be hard put to give somebody life for killing a prostitute." The ultimate expression of his shocking admission is the fact that not one killer of a black person has been put to death in California in the modern era.

One lesson of war is that if we can objectify our enemies as worth less than us, then we can kill them. It could be prostitutes, as it was for the young man interested in Jack the Ripper; it could be gays as it was for that Texas judge. It could be Arabs or Jews or homeless or ... You fill in the blank. The sad truth is that as long as we classify groups of people under labels that strip them of their individual worth -- whether it's the Crips labeling their victims as "enemies," or the state labeling its victims as "gang bangers," etc., -- we can dispose of them.

Stanley Williams' execution just past midnight is merely the latest expression of our collective prejudices.

Is France Ready for Affirmative Action?

Unlike the United States, where affirmative action has been debated for decades, the argument over it has only just begun in France.

It is currently illegal for institutions to collect data regarding a person's ethnic origins. The law dates back to the end of World War II and was inspired by the persecution of the Jews, explains Dejane Ereau, deputy chief editor of Respect, a quarterly magazine dedicated to acceptance and diversity.

But in France, with its roots and pride in Gallic culture, a name betrays a person's origins far quicker than any survey.

"It is against the law to ask one's nationality or to count ethnicities in the census," Ereau says. "So they have now begun to discuss using anonymous resumes with no name or age, to avoid discriminating against any applicant who doesn't have a French name."

The French government itself employs only one minister with a North African name, though it is estimated that North Africans make up nearly 10 percent of the population (no official statistics exist).

While the government has been behind on this issue wracking nearly every sector, French business has taken a leap ahead. A syndicate of advocacy groups developed a charter in 2004, "La Charte de la Diversité."

There are currently 175 signatories to the charter, including some French business and industry giants, as well as SNCF, the powerful national French rail association.

The charter is not legally binding but is simply a call for awareness to avoid discriminatory hiring and promotion practices at the expense of ethnic minorities. It doesn't call for quotas, either.

"Ethnic origins will never be the criteria for employment. Our action seeks to fight discrimination, not to add new forms of discrimination," the charter states.

Despite these tentative steps, the sting of discrimination is felt in no uncertain terms in the ethnically diverse low-income suburbs of nearly all of France's cities.

On a recent night in the southern city of Toulouse, one of the cities most damaged by the recent rioting, nearly a dozen police officers descend on a small group of young men whose skin color and street corner betray them as children of North African parentage. They've been asked by visiting reporters to come down from their apartments in a monolith that resembles so many of the tenements that house minorities. A community leader steps in to explain to the police that the youths are only talking with the journalists.

"You see, we have no right to gather on the street even to talk," explains Riad Zeghab, an organizer in the low-income neighborhood where he resolves disputes between neighbors. There are more than five buildings each, housing more than 200 families.

He has spent his whole life in this community and says the recent bout of violence was not the first. He's certain it will not be the last in the minorities' fight for equal treatment in France.

Zeghab recalls an incident when police killed a young man and, trying to keep the peace, he stood between 50 police on one side and 50 angry youths on the other.

Munir, a 20-year-old of Algerian descent who would only give his first name, tells the reporters that it's not just the joblessness that affects him and his friends, but "it's the way that people look at you in the train. Look how I'm dressed," he says, pointing at his wool jacket with buttons up the front. "Do I look like someone who is going to attack you?"

Munir attests to what has been shown by a well-publicized investigative research project that used false names to respond to hundreds of job announcements. The survey found that names of North African origin resulted in 60 percent less interview prospects than those of French origin. "If my name is Jacques or Pierre, I can get a job, but if my name is Mohammed or Karim, it's a lost cause," says Munir.

Though the recent violence and vandalism in the low-income suburbs of nearly every major French city have triggered a national dialogue and lighted a spark of hope among minority citizens, a certain cynicism persists.

Even as President Jacques Chirac called for all of France to remember that the youths involved in the violence are "sons and daughters of the Republic," he also made it clear that punishment will be meted out to those who have broken the laws of the nation.

While French business and industry have taken a step forward with the Diversity Charter, the French government took another step backward in Feb. 2005 by passing a law in the National Assembly that called for French public education to teach the "positive role" of France's history in the colonies.

The new law further incensed minority communities that already feel disenfranchised and underrepresented. While the Diversity Charter is a step in the right direction, many feel that without popular education and social re-examination nothing will change the exclusive attitudes of the French mainstream.

"Even if we institute affirmative action, there will still be problems in schools," says Hortense Nouvion, founder and publisher of Cité Black, a biweekly magazine covering news and culture from a black French perspective.

Nouvion, who is French-born and is raising her two sons in Paris, says that in France, "black equals foreigner. People ask me, 'Where are you from? How did you learn to speak French?'"

"The solution is to teach kids who they are, why they're here, that they didn't drop from a parachute," she says. "They have to be included in the history."

The Moral Importance of Clemency

LOS ANGELES--As California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ponders the fate of death-row inmate Stanley "Tookie" Williams, he might examine the political fortunes of Sen. George Allen, former governor of Virginia.

In 1990, residents of Danville, Va., were shocked at the execution-style murder of a local businessman during what police described as a bungled drug deal. A jury swiftly convicted William Saunders of the killing. The betting odds were that Saunders would get the death penalty. The odds were even greater that he'd be executed. Virginia ranks close to Texas as an "execute em' quick, and in large numbers" death penalty state.

Guilt was not an issue in his case -- Saunders purportedly killed in cold blood. But later he had a jailhouse epiphany, and had become a strong advocate against drugs and violence. There were also hints of improprieties in his sentencing. Authorities praised Saunders as a changed man.

Governors are scared stiff of being tagged as soft on crime and of subverting the people's will. They routinely duck and run from granting clemency to convicted murderers. Yet, in Sept. 1997, conservative Republican Gov. George Allen did what many thought unthinkable: He spared Saunders' life.

Six months after granting clemency to Saunders, Allen's approval rating was far higher than a year earlier. Allen's clemency grant may not have caused his approval rating to climb, but the act didn't hurt him. This defied the conventional wisdom that outraged voters punish governors who grant clemency to death row inmates. Allen's political career didn't miss a beat. He left the governors post, then ran and won a Senate seat.

Allen is no aberration. In the decade since 1993, 15 governors have granted clemency in capital punishment cases, mostly on humanitarian grounds. Only one of the governors failed to win re-election. In nearly every case, the approval ratings of the governors who granted clemency remained steady or climbed.

That's no guarantee that if California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger grants clemency to Stanley "Tookie" Williams, scheduled for execution Dec. 13, there'll be an instant numbers reversal in his plummeting popularity. But clemency won't be the death knell for Schwarzenegger's re-election bid.

Nor was it for the governors who granted clemency during the 1950s and 1960s, when the death penalty was commonly used. In those years, governors granted clemency to roughly one in four death row inmates. California Gov. Pat Brown topped that rate. During the late 1950s and 1960s, with no public outcry, Brown granted clemency to one out of three death row inmates.

That abruptly changed after the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Since that time, governors have cringed at being branded as soft on crime and insensitive to victims, and they also believe they will go down in flaming political defeat should they grant a clemency appeal. They distort, ignore or misread the legal and moral importance of clemency.

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, never one to be mistaken for a bleeding heart on crime and punishment, put clemency in the right frame. In the 1993 Herrera v. Collins decision, he called clemency the "fail-safe" that governors have at hand to right a legal wrong or prevent a miscarriage of justice. It's also their legal means to simply do the humane thing when it serves justice.

Rehnquist's apt read of what clemency is supposed to be about is doubly important because the Court in that same case severely narrowed the grounds in which federal courts could intervene and grant habeas corpus to a prisoner who claimed innocence in a capital case. That further added to the burden held by prisoners who seek legal relief in courts. Judges are loath to overturn lower court convictions in death penalty cases even when there are outrageous examples of prosecutorial misconduct, witness tampering or the use of flimsy or non-existent physical evidence to obtain convictions.

In many death row cases today, governors act only when there is ironclad proof that a death row inmate was legally insane when he or she killed. Despite some evidence of mental impairment, Schwarzenegger refused to grant clemency to Donald Beardslee earlier this year. He flatly said that clemency should not be used to undo the judgment of the people, and that he'd spare a life only when there is absolute legal and clinical proof that a condemned killer was insane. That shoves the clemency bar past the point of relevance.

Tookie Williams doesn't come close to passing Schwarzenegger's clemency test. William's appeal comes down to whether his good deeds and commendations -- including one from President Bush and other world figures -- convince Schwarzenegger that he deserves to live. Good deeds in prison haven't been enough to sway most governors to grant clemency. Still, the few times that governors have bucked the death penalty crowd and spared a life, it has not been the political kiss of death for them. It won't be Schwarzenegger's, either.

What To Do About Bird Flu

While stories about political misdeeds in Washington and volatility in France and the Middle East compete for headlines in U.S. newspapers, Chinese-language newspapers have had one singular focus: avian flu.

On Nov. 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed 124 cases of the H5N1 avian flu virus, including 63 deaths. No human or bird infections have been reported in the United States.

Chinese-language readers have been riveted on avian flu developments, not just for the past several weeks but months. Yuru Chen, editor-in-chief of the Chinese-language Taiwan-based World Journal in Millbrae, Calif., estimates that the newspaper has been covering the avian flu for about the past two years. The newspaper is published in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

"Chinese are very concerned about news from their home countries. We have covered the bird flu since it first broke out in Asia," he said.

In addition to reporting on outbreaks in China, including how many birds were infected and destroyed, the newspaper also fills its pages with preparation measures in the United States. President Bush announced last week that the United States will spend $1.2 billion for an avian flu vaccine. In the meantime, the Chinese-language press has been giving advice and tips on what readers can do to help prevent and treat an infection.

The remedies range from clinical to homespun. This type of service journalism was common during the SARS crisis when Chinese papers discussed the pros and cons of such things as boiling vinegar to disinfect a household from germs. Chinese-language media as well as other ethnic media frequently bridge the two worlds of news and service for their communities.

Here is an example of six tips to treat the avian flu, according to the Chinese media:

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Blaming the Victims

Editor's Note: John Rogers is Associate Director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA), a research center at UCLA that examines key policy issues affecting equity and access within California's educational system. He spoke with Carolyn Goossen, education writer for NCM, about why IDEA opposes the High School Exit Exam and the consequences it may have for students learning English and minority students.

Q: Why are African-American and Latino kids failing the High School Exit Exam in larger numbers than other groups?

A: African-American and Latino students are far more likely than any other group in the state to attend schools that lack qualified teachers, space and instructional materials. Take, for example, the eight high schools in South Los Angeles. More than 99 percent of the students in those high schools are African-American or Latino. More than one-third of the teachers at these schools lack a full teaching credential. Two-thirds of the math teachers are not credentialed to teach math. Because most of these schools are dramatically overcrowded, they use a year-round calendar that provides students with 17 days fewer instruction each year than other high schools in the state. And, students attending these high schools came from South Los Angeles middle schools with similar shortages of qualified teachers and overcrowding.

Q: Statistics say that 85 percent of English learners in this state are Latino students. Does this also have an impact on the results?

A: Yes, many of the Latino students who have not yet passed the exit exam are recent immigrants still learning English. Their inability to pass the exam is often a function of their taking a test in a language that they don't yet fully understand. Latinos who are fluent in English have far higher pass rates.

Q: Many see the exit exam as a way to ensure that a high school diploma means something, and that students who graduate have at least basic English and math skills. Shouldn't we have something like the exam to make sure all students have these basic skills?

A: If we want to ensure that all students can demonstrate basic skills, we need to provide all students with access to quality instruction. More fundamentally, I would argue that basic skills are not enough. What parent would be satisfied with basic academic competence as a goal? Our high school diploma should mean young people are prepared for successful futures, which requires greater investment in our schools.

Q: Some say we need the exit exam in order to measure student performance. Do you agree?

A: The exit exam results provide some useful additional information about student performance in particular schools, but we can learn from student test scores without denying students a diploma.

Q: What kind of impact do you think this exit exam will have on students and schools in the near future?

A: It will be extremely demoralizing for young people who have survived poor school conditions for many years to be denied a diploma at the end of 12th grade. There will be a lot of anger. My hope is that young people will channel this anger into political action to change the system.

Q: How have communities who feel the exam is unfair begun to channel some of this anger?

A: Young people and parents in grassroots organizations around the state have rallied against the exit exam and in favor of better learning conditions at their schools. What is striking about this activism -- and the related organizing in Los Angeles to ensure all schools provide a college preparatory curriculum -- is that students are taking action because they believe in the importance of education. Young people from organizations like Californians for Justice and the Coalition for Educational Justice want a quality education and they want it now.

Q: Do you think high stakes standardized tests are ever needed in our public school system? What about non-high stakes standardized tests?

A: Tests and assessments of all sorts are critically important. They can provide educators, students, and parents with valuable information about what students are learning. I am not against high-stakes tests. I am opposed to putting all the pressure on the backs of young people -- particularly when it is adults at the head of the system who have failed to provide a quality education to all.

Q: On Sept. 30, the Human Resources Research Organization -- an independent evaluator of the Exit Exam -- released the exit exam passage rates. What did the results show? And what does it mean for different groups of immigrant students?

A: This recent report confirms what we have been saying for several months: that around 100,000 students in the Class of 2006 are at risk of not graduating this spring because they have yet to pass the exit exam. The vast majority of these students are: 1) special education students; 2) immigrant students still learning English; and 3) African-American and Latino students attending schools with substandard conditions.

Denying these students diplomas will undermine the ability of many young people to move on to successful futures and will generate cynicism among young people who have not been given a fair chance to succeed. It is not too late to avoid these outcomes. California still has time to follow the report's recommendations and to create options for students who have not yet passed the exit exam.

Q: What kinds of options did the report recommend?

A: It suggested on that districts could grant students diplomas if the students successfully completed a summer program. Options such as this offer a way for the state to avoid the calamity of having perhaps 100,000 students denied a diploma.

The Triumph and Tragedy of Rosa Parks

There were two defining moments in Rosa Parks' life. One was monumental and heroic, and the world honors and cherishes her for it. That of course, was her refusal to budge from her seat in the white section of a Montgomery bus in 1955. The other moment was tragic, a day in 1994 when a drugged-out young black man beat her in her Detroit home and stole $53.

The two incidents, 40 years apart, tell much about the forward and backward march of racial progress in America. Parks' courageous and long-overdue act staked out the moral high ground for the modern-day civil rights movement. It was classic good versus evil. In the years immediately following her act, gory news scenes of baton-battering racist Southern sheriffs, fire hoses, police dogs and Klan violence unleashed against peaceful black protesters sickened Americans. All except the most rabid racists considered racial segregation immoral and indefensible. Parks and civil rights leaders were hailed as American heroes in the fight for justice. Martin Luther King Jr., who tops the list of those heroes and martyrs, owed a profound debt of gratitude to Parks. The Montgomery bus boycott launched him from obscure preacher to American icon.

Still, as America unraveled in the 1960s in the anarchy of urban riots, campus takeovers and anti-war street battles, the civil rights movement and its leaders fell apart too. Many of them fell victim to their own success. When they broke down the racially restricted doors of corporations, government agencies and universities, middle class blacks, not the poor, were the ones who rushed headlong through those doors. Civil rights organizations and black politicians defined the black agenda in increasingly narrow terms: affirmative action, economic parity, professional advancement and busing replaced battling poverty, reducing unemployment, securing quality education, promoting self-help and gaining greater political empowerment as the goals for all African-Americans.

King's murder in 1968 was the turning point for race relations in America. The transformation of the old-line civil rights groups such as the NAACP into business and professional organizations left the black poor fragmented and politically rudderless. The black poor, lacking competitive technical skills and professional training and shunned by many middle-class black leaders, were shoved even further to the outer margins of American society. That included many young black men, such as the man who attacked Parks.

The chronic problems of gang and drug violence, family breakdown, soaring incarceration rates, the mounting devastation of HIV and AIDS and abysmally failing inner city public schools have devastated poor black communities. Park's adopted city, Detroit, is torn year in and year out by black-on-black violence.

The old civil rights organizations have been powerless to halt the slide. King's old organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, though it has recently shown signs of a revival, for years was wracked by bitter leadership infighting, threatened lawsuits and allegations of financial improprieties. The NAACP is still trying to find its legs with its corporate-leaning new leader. CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, is a shell of its former self, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) has long since disappeared.

Then there is the self-indulgent grab for expensive cars, clothes and dollars by the MTV generation. That came crashing down on Parks during her long-running battle with the rap group OutKast. The issue was their song "Rosa Parks." The group claimed it was a tribute to Parks. Parks saw it as a crass attempt to cash in on her name. She was horrified by the get-rich-quick gangster lifestyle of many young blacks. That was certainly not what Parks was fighting for when she made her fateful plunge into history.

Parks worried that young blacks had absolutely no sense and appreciation of the titanic battles that she and the civil rights leaders waged to make America live up to its much-betrayed promise of justice and equality. In a reflective interview many years after the bus boycott, she did not absolve herself and other blacks of her generation of blame for failing to pass on the torch. She called for a redoubling of the effort to make young blacks, as she put it, know what it means to be black in America today.

The civil rights struggle is now the stuff of nostalgia, history books and the memoirs of aging former civil rights leaders, and rightly so. Times have changed, and changed drastically. Parks and the civil rights movement did much to usher in those changes. They have made race relations in America more diverse and open, and at the same time more complex and challenging. Her heroic refusal to give up her seat on the bus, and the assault on her in her home, though world's apart in time, are both part of the triumph and tragedy of her legacy.


How Will Schwarzenegger Respond to Tookie Williams?

By now many know the story of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, courtesy of the smash performance by Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx, who played Williams in the made-for-TV film "Redemption." The story of the co-founder of the Crips street gang is a gory tale of mayhem and destruction -- and also a saintly tale of spiritual renewal, public service and human achievement. The whole of Tookie's story could be headed for a tragic end when his execution date is formally set. That could happen at an Oct. 24 hearing in Los Angeles.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has made it clear that he'll push hard for an execution date. On Oct. 11 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reopen Williams' case. That pretty much slammed the legal door shut on one of America's most famous death row inmates. Williams, convicted of four murders committed during two robberies, has languished on death row for nearly a quarter of century. He says he is innocent and claims he got a bad shake: a mostly white jury convicted him, he got a sub-par legal defense and his case was based largely on testimony from jailhouse informants.

A national campaign has been launched to prod Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant Williams clemency. California is one of 14 states where governors have sole authority to commute a condemned killer's sentence. But a commutation would buck precedent. In the nearly four decades since Ronald Reagan granted clemency to a brain-damaged death row inmate, no California governor has waved a death sentence. And Reagan took action only because the latest scientific test to determine brain damage was not available at the time of the condemned killer's trial.

Tookie Williams, on the other hand, seems a prime candidate for clemency. His prize-winning children's books, Nobel Peace Prize nomination and anti-violence messages have been the stuff of public acclaim. His radical, life-affirming about-face has made him a near-universal symbol of hope that even the most bitter and incorrigible street thug can find salvation.

But that's not necessarily enough, and Schwarzenegger has said as much. The governor has flatly refused to grant clemency to two condemned murderers. Both times he publicly declared that model behavior behind bars doesn't absolve prisoners of culpability for their crimes.

Schwarzenegger is not unique among governors when it comes to quashing clemency appeals. True, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, calling the state's capital punishment system "arbitrary and capricious," commuted the death sentences of all 156 condemned killers on Illinois' death row before departing office in 2003. But that was a rare exception to the unwritten rule that governors don't grant clemency. They're scared stiff of being tagged as soft on crime and being insensitive to victims. In the 40 years prior to Ryan's humane action, only one death row inmate in Illinois got executive clemency. Since his mass clemency, only seven other persons have gotten their death sentences commuted nationally.

Even if Schwarzenegger were inclined to grant Williams clemency, he may feel trapped by the relentless politics of crime and punishment and his nosedive in popularity. His ratings wallow at the bottom of the tank along with President Bush's. A majority of California voters blast him for ramming a costly and unnecessary special election onto the Nov. 8 California ballot.

William's personal turnabout is exemplary, and sparing his life is morally the right thing to do. Clemency, after all, is not the same as freedom -- Williams will still likely spend the rest of his days in prison. But 2006 is an election year in California, and the last thing that Republican Schwarzenegger wants is to be plastered with is the "soft on crime" label for sparing the life of a black, ex-gang leader and convicted multiple murderer.

Playing hardball with the lives of prisoners who have turned their lives around may seem like a sure way for a politician to snatch votes. But Williams is no Willie Horton, the convicted murderer and rapist who was released from a Massachusetts prison on furlough and committed more assaults. Republicans used Horton to bash Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential elections. Schwarzenegger almost surely knows that Tookie Williams can't be used in the same way. Williams, through his remorse and good deeds, deserves the second chance at life he's worked hard for. Schwarzenegger should give it to him.

A Mountain Tsunami in Kashmir

Today I miss Agha Shahid Ali. The Kashmiri poet died in 2001. Only he, the self-exiled poet from what he called "the country without a post office," could have made sense of the irony of an earthquake that in one mocking fissure kicked the "Line of Control" between India and Pakistan into rubble.

Though it rocked aquariums in New Delhi and collapsed buildings in Islamabad, the earthquake's real punch was reserved for Kashmir, the contested Himalayan territory over which both Indian and Pakistan have fought wars and which remains an emotional minefield for both sides, almost six decades after independence.

Pakistani newspapers describe the death toll in "Indian-held Kashmir." The Indian dailies talk about the devastation in "POK" or "Pakistan Occupied Kashmir." But looking at the pictures it's hard to tell from which side of the line of control they come. As Agha Shahid Ali wrote, "In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other's reflections."

I long for his poet's eye to make sense of the omens and symbols of this "mountain tsunami." It came while the Muslims were observing Ramadan. The Hindus were celebrating Durga Puja when the mother goddess comes home from her Himalayan abode.

What symbolism does one read into reports that the earthquake shattered two piers of Aman Setu (Peace Bridge), a key bridge joining the two parts of Kashmir and over which the Srinagar-Muzaffarbad bus was supposed to ply in a fragile gesture of peacemaking? There is very little possibility of the bus plying on the route on its next scheduled date on October 20, a defense spokesman told the Press Trust of India, according to Rediff.com.

It would have been a brave, romantic omen of peace if the bridge had withstood the quake which took with it at least 50 soldiers. But perhaps peace can spring yet from the rubble? Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quick to offer "any assistance with rescue and relief which you may deem appropriate" to Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, while gracious, demurred, saying it was "sensitive."

While people still remained buried under houses and hillsides, few were talking about peace. The Pakistani Daily News International quoted a shopkeeper in "held" Kashmir as saying "(India) helped America after Katrina but there is no help for us from Delhi." Meanwhile the Hindu has a headline saying starkly, "Pak Rules Out Joint Relief Ops."

But editorials in other Pakistani newspapers like Dawn complained "the government's ability to cope with such a catastrophe was found extremely wanting." The Hindustan Times in India lectured the Indian government saying, "It is one thing to talk about 'disaster management' and quite another to practise it." It was probably cold comfort for either editorialist to notice that neither New Delhi nor Islamabad was quite prepared for the "big one" despite living near the fault-line where the subcontinent is slamming into Asia to produce the still-growing Himalayas.

But there were steps forward. The two foreign secretaries spoke for the first time over a recently activated hotline that the two armies said they might use to coordinate rescue operations. And the Greater Kashmir newspaper reported that the Mutahida Jihad Council, an umbrella organization of 14 militant outfits based in Muzaffarabad, has decided to suspend operations in the quake-hit areas and instead urged its cadres to help the victims. On an email list I subscribe to, one poster wondered if the quake and the landslide had managed to do what no one else seemed to have had the guts for -- bury Osama bin Laden in his hiding place in the mountains of the Northwestern Frontier Province. I wonder what he thought as the world shook around him.

There is one other person I thought of when I read the news of the 7.6 temblor. Shenaz Kausar, a citizen of Pakistan-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, jumped into a river in 1995 to commit suicide. Instead she washed up on the Indian side, where she was arrested as a spy. Raped by the prison guard, she had a daughter. In 2001 the Indians tried to repatriate mother and daughter back to Pakistan, but the border guards refused to accept the child, an Indian citizen. Both returned and the Indian government, unsure what to do, invoked the Public Safety Act and threw them back into jail until a crusading lawyer got them freed.

Did Shenaz Kausar's daughter with her star-crossed bloodlines have the last laugh today, as the earth split into two to show, as Agha Shahid Ali wrote, that we are stitched to each other's shadows?

Today I miss Agha Shahid Ali amid the ruins of a Paradise Lost. But I still hear him say with the kind of prescience only a poet can have:

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Listening To Salman Rushdie

"What's blonde, has big breasts and lives in Tasmania?"

"Salman Rushdie," says the author with a chuckle.

No longer hiding undercover from a fatwa, Rushdie can now joke about it. But as someone who had a close encounter with religious fundamentalism long before "jihad" became part of the daily vocabulary of the West, he takes the issue with deadly seriousness. His latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, is set against the backdrop of a world of fundamentalist terror, and in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post he called for reformation in Islam.

Pacific News Service editor Sandip Roy recently interviewed Rushdie on the radio.

After the bombings in London, some people said the British concept of multiculturalism had allowed London to become 'Londonistan,' offering shelter to violent extremists.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: That's not the fault of multiculturalism. The mistake was a deliberate government policy to allow radical Islamic groups to come in and set up shop in London, to set up bank accounts and come and go as they pleased. The justification was twofold -- one was if you did that you would be able to monitor them, and the other was if you gave them safe haven they would not attack their own safe haven. On July 7 both those arguments went out the window.

But when Tony Blair says you can deport people for inciting hatred are you not punishing people for what they are saying, not doing? You yourself said, "What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."

The decline of Blairite politics into the kind of arrogance and opportunism that now characterizes his government is one of the great disappointments I can remember. I don't trust Blair and his new laws further than I can throw them.

But I have to say the expulsion of some of those Londonistan figures I would not grieve about at all. Taking off my liberal hat for a moment, to throw out some of these firebrand mullahs who have been working up kids like these kids who blew themselves up, frankly I wouldn't give a damn. But there is a problem when you define offense so broadly that you can kick out anyone whose face you don't like. And given the authoritarian nature of the government one has to be very, very worried.

You are calling for a reformation in Islam. What do you mean?

In a way maybe the use of the word "reformation" was wrong. That makes people think about Martin Luther. And the Christian reformation was a Puritan movement and that would be a movement in the wrong direction.

But I was talking about a reform movement. The purpose of that would be to reclaim Islam from the radicals. Islamic radicalism is relatively new. It had much less power 30 years ago. I think back to my grandfather, who was an extremely devout Muslim and went on the Haj to Mecca, but nevertheless an extremely open-minded and tolerant man. That's why I dedicate this book to him. Even though he was devout and I am not religious, he was a kind of model for me.

But does a call for reform, coming from a writer who many thousands of Muslims regard as blasphemous, have any legitimacy?

You are right. There are many who will never listen to anything I say because it's me saying it. That's fair enough. I am not asking to lead anything. I am not asking to even be a part of anything. What I am saying is if something like this does not happen, the danger is that all Muslims will begin to seem as if they are complying with the activities of the radicals. If there isn't a strong rejectionist voice, many people, particularly in the diaspora where Muslims are in the minority, will readily come to think that if you are not rejecting the stuff, that's what you secretly think. That would be catastrophic.

But standing up to extremism is hard. In 1990 you yourself published a statement of remorse.

There were enormous pressures on me, including government pressure to make some kind of gesture. But I regretted doing it. I felt the thing that gives me credibility is I say exactly what I think. And if I compromise that I lose myself and that's what I felt briefly at that moment. So I tried rapidly to un-say it.

But I think there are voices out there beginning to speak up. In response to the piece I wrote (for the Washington Post), a lot of people wrote and said they agreed.

What is the best thing the United States and the West can do to facilitate this reform? Just stay out of it?

The danger is to do deals with the bad guys. I think the problem is the West, for its own economic purposes, makes agreements and thus shores up regimes that would more easily fall. We support regimes that in another part of the forest we condemn.

In the end I don't want this to be a story of what the West is doing to the East. Because I found all my life as a writer it was too easy to make that statement. The more interesting thing to say is suppose this is our own fault, supposing we are doing this to ourselves. The reason why I try to stress the need for changes inside the Muslim world is not that I don't believe there is racism, of course there is racism, it's not that I don't believe there is oppression, of course there is oppression. What I am saying is that to take responsibility for your life is a better way to live than to assume you are an endless victim.

Chasing a Katrina Conspiracy

In the weeks since Katrina hit, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a slew of activists, and bloggers have spun a huge tale of wicked intrigue about the hurricane. Katrina, so the conspiracy theory goes, provided the perfect and long awaited pretext for either the Army Corp of Engineers, secret government agents, the Klan, FEMA operatives, corporate real estate interests, or unnamed forces to blow the levees in New Orleans and send torrents of waters raging through the city's poorest black neighborhoods.

The aim of the plot, depending on who spoke, was to kill blacks, protect the white, upper income areas from flooding, gut political strength in New Orleans, or grab black homes and land at fire sale prices and dump pricey condominiums, townhouses, upscale malls and gallerias in their neighborhoods.

To prove their point, the conspiracy theorists cited random remarks made by a handful of tired, distraught and bitter evacuees camped in the Houston Astrodome. They claimed to have heard explosions immediately before the levees broke, and they lambasted Bush and the federal government for their inaction.

This conspiracy theory would have been relegated to a fringe corner on obscure websites if Farrakhan hadn't fanned it in a speech in North Carolina a couple of weeks after Katrina struck. A bevy of conservative talk show jocks quickly pounced on it. That gave them yet another foil to use to deflect heat from Bush's bungled relief response. They railed at Farrakhan for stirring black paranoia and anti-white hatred.

There is absolutely no proof that the levees were deliberately blown. The predominantly black 9th Ward in New Orleans was not the only section of the city flooded. The flood devastated racially mixed residential areas, some white middle-income neighborhoods in New Orleans, and other Gulf Coast towns. The levees broke because of age, poor maintenance, and the millions that Bush slashed from the 2005 budget earmarked for their repair. Experts also note that explosions and sudden noises can occur during maximum force hurricanes. They attribute it to the tremendous build up of water pressure, high winds, and power outages.

During the past two decades, redevelopment agencies, developers, land speculators and young, white, middle income home buyers have transformed deteriorating inner city neighborhoods into gentrified, upscale residential and business areas complete with lofts, townhouses and trendy shops. They didn't need a hurricane or natural disaster to do that.

The belief that the Katrina disaster was anything other than a confluence of Bush bungling, budget cutting folly and nature's wrath is no surprise. The conspiracy bug has long bit many Americans. There are packs of groups that span the political spectrum that include Aryan Nation racists, Millennium Christian fundamentalists, anti-Semitic crackpots, and fringe left radicals. Their Internet sites bristle with purported official documents that detail and expose alleged plots.

These groups and thousands of individuals believe that government, corporate, or international Zionist groups busily hatch secret plots, and concoct hidden plans to wreak havoc on their lives. Hollywood and the TV industry have also honed in on the conspiracy act. They churn out countless movies and TV shows in which shadowy government groups topple foreign governments, assassinate government leaders and brainwash operatives to do dirty deeds.

A near textbook example of that was the theory spun by an Idaho meteorologist. He claimed that a Japanese Yakuza crime group used a Russian Cold War era generator to trigger Katrina. This supposedly was punishment for the Hiroshima atom bomb attack. The theory was fantastic nonsense, but the Associated Press and USA Today took it seriously enough to treat it as a legitimate news item, with quotes from experts to refute it.

The conspiracy bug bit many blacks especially hard in the 1960s. They claimed that murky government agencies flooded the ghettoes with drugs, alcohol, gangs and guns to sow division and disunity among black organizations, eliminate militant black leaders, jail black politicians and quash black activism.

The racial conspiracy theorists at least had a suspect to point the finger at, and that was the FBI. For years, it waged a disgraceful, relentless, and illegal war against Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders. That was hardly the case in the Katrina catastrophe. There was no single suspect that anyone could blame the disaster on. Farrakhan declined to finger any person or group that he believed blew up the levee. It would have required hard evidence and expert testimony to boost the contention that Katrina was an anti-black plot.

New Orleans was the culmination of a half-decade of the Bush administration's costly and reckless war, as well as fiscal policies that have resulted in the neglect and deterioration of the nation's roads, bridges, tunnels and levees. That neglect forced thousands of poor blacks in New Orleans to flee for their lives. And there was no hidden hand in that.

The Anti-Iraq War Movement is a Far Cry From Vietnam

Today's temperate anti-Iraq War movement is a far cry from the turbulent one that mobilized during Vietnam. But it has the potential to be more effective.

Big marches on Washington are mostly a thing of the past -- although two activist coalitions will sponsor a massive one on Sept. 24. The Internet has replaced them.

The groups opposing the war have diverse origins. The largest, MoveOn.org, was organized by a pair of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to promote a "progressive vision" through the Internet. Some of its 3 million online members recently volunteered 150,000 beds in their homes for victims of Katrina. MoveOn.org teamed up in August with True Majority, an online outfit organized by Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, to support antiwar Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan. They organized 1,627 "quiet vigils" across the country.

"These vigils," according to a MoveOn.org e-mail, "aren't rallies or places to give long-winded speeches. They are moments to solemnly come together and mark the sacrifice of Cindy and other families."

Win Without War, a coalition of 40 national organizations that links the National Council of Churches, the NAACP and the Sierra Club to relative newcomers like MoveOn.org, is working on several fronts to make the case that the war undermines our security. Former Maine congressman Tom Andrews heads the coalition.

Americans with connections to the military have also joined the opposition. They include four separate veterans organizations, two of them composed exclusively of Iraq vets. In addition, Military Families Speak Out, composed of relatives of active duty personnel, was founded during the run-up to the war and now has 2,400 families as members.

Contrast this antiwar activity with the opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and '70s. Then, students spurred much of the protests and a youth revolt against authority vastly complicated the work of the antiwar movement. Some rebellious youths undertook the most extreme forms of protest, which were broadcast to America on television. When a handful of protesters in a demonstration of thousands carried Viet Cong flags or burned their draft cards or even burned American flags, their actions would be seen on TV that evening as the face of the antiwar movement.

When I coordinated the first non-student march on Washington for peace in Vietnam in November 1965, I had to contend with a tiny group of radicals who insisted on carrying Viet Cong flags in the demonstration. I couldn't keep them out. Much of the media gave equal coverage to those flags and the 35,000 other demonstrators who, in the words of one leading newspaper, resembled "shoppers at Macy's."

Shortly after the march a few of us, including Dr. Benjamin Spock, met with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had been out on the stump attacking student protesters. After congratulating us for sponsoring the "first demonstration to strengthen the doves in the (Johnson) administration," Humphrey again blasted the students. "They remind me of the Commies I fought in Minneapolis in the fifties," he asserted. I had known Humphrey for five years and felt emboldened to reply, "It's not the fifties, you're not in Minneapolis and they're not Commies, but if you keep attacking them you're going to drive them in that direction." The Vice President was taken aback. I was pleased that he met soon afterward with a group of student critics on the Berkeley campus, but he later resumed his attacks.

By 1968 polls showed a majority of Americans against the war -- but a bigger majority against the war protesters. The combination of extreme forms of protest and the sensation-hungry media silenced many citizens who were sick of Vietnam. To express their opposition was to get in bed with the flag-burners. So was born the "silent majority," enabling Richard Nixon to prolong the U.S. role for four more bitter years.

Ben Cohen believes that for today's antiwar movement to succeed, growth must come from the middle of the political spectrum. Trends in public opinion show this to be realistic. Americans began to sour on the Iraq War within a year. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll in May 2003 found that 27 percent judged the war "not worth fighting;" that rose to 53 percent this past August. Now a New York Times-CBS News poll reports that, for the first time, a majority of Americans favors pulling out of Iraq immediately. And with a nod toward Katrina, 83 percent said they were concerned that the Iraq war is draining resources needed at home.

As mainstream support for the Iraq war dissolves, antiwar activists find themselves in a very different position from their Vietnam War counterparts. Can this momentum be sustained, and focused into concrete demands on when and how to pull out from Iraq? One rallying point may be a resolution, introduced in the House by two Republicans and two Democrats, calling for troop withdrawal to begin no later than Oct. 1, 2006. Called the Homeward Bound Act, the resolution is seen as a major step toward an exit strategy.

A new, antiwar "silent majority" is finding its voice. Even the cries of radicals among marchers this weekend may not drown it out.

PNS contributor Sanford Gottlieb worked in the peace movement from 1960 to 1993. He was executive director of SANE, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.

Another Young Person Dies Behind Bars

On the morning of Sept. 1, the Youth Justice Coalition got a call from one of our members behind bars. He told us another young man had died in California's youth prisons.

He said the youth had died the night before at Stockton's N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility, or "Chad." This was the fifth death inside a California state juvenile detention facility during the past 18 months.

We are a Los Angeles-based organization led by youths who have experienced lock-up or whose parents have been incarcerated. A crew of people was here when the call came in. Maritza, 13, and Destinie, 14, faxed out a statewide press advisory. We called on the media to investigate the death and push the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Roderick Hickman to account for the conditions in the state's juvenile prisons.

The rest of us started calling various people within the CDCR to get their account of what happened. Within 30 minutes, Nancy Lungren, the CDCR communications director, called us back. This is what she had to say:

"We can confirm that on August 31, 18-year-old Joseph Daniel Maldonando, born 10/02/86, a resident of Sacramento County, died within Chadjerian due to suicide. He was pronounced dead at 19:55 hours. He had a lot of behavior problems. He was causing a lot of conflict between Northerners and Crips. He came to Preston in April 2004 for auto theft. From the start, he had behavioral problems, including instigating gang-related violence. In March of 2005, he was transferred to Chad, and was placed in Pajaro Hall, a dorm with single rooms. The program is intended to deal with youth with behavioral issues."

While we were on the phone with the CDCR, Geovanni Rodriguez, 18, began to write: "A system of corruption, of greed and brutality, where death is no longer a matter of chance, but of eventuality. A place where our brothers are caged and abused -- subjected to curses and beatings, then left to die, alone, but screaming…"

In March of 2005, Lungren and then-California Youth Authority (CYA) Director Walter Allen told the Youth Justice Coalition that they were no longer using 23-hour lockdown -- a practice that research has shown exacerbates mental health problems, especially in youths. We asked Lungren whether Joseph Maldonado was on lockdown at the time of his death. This was her reply:

"Youth are in their rooms 21 hours a day. We try to get them out of their rooms for three hours a day. They get three meals a day, relationship with staff, and counseling in their room. We tried to have him in the general population, but he was still causing a lot of conflicts, and had disciplinary problems. Since July, Pajaro Hall, and also Owens and San Joaquin, have been on full or modified lockdown due to violence between Northerners and Crips."

Geovanni Rodriguez kept writing: "Crying out for someone to hear them. They're looking for a kind face. They want to see their mother again. The want to see our mother again. These are our brothers and our sisters. How can we let this happen to our kin?"

We asked Lungren about the details of Joseph's death:

"At 6:30 p.m., the counselors noticed that he put paper over his window to block the view. Wards often cover their windows in order to attack officers -- when you open the room, they assault you -- so staff is trained to call security when the windows are covered…When security entered the room they found sheets tied to the upper bunk and he was sitting on the lower bunk, hung with the sheets around his neck. Security issued a Code Four for a full emergency response. The medical team tried to do everything they could to save him. We are so proud of everything our staff did. They were heroic."

Numerous reports have confirmed that CYA facilities fail to provide youths with basic educational, mental health and drug treatment programs that are mandated by law. Lungren referred to the staff as "counselors" when in fact they are trained as prison guards, wear a guard's uniform and are represented by the guards' union. They have not been trained as social workers or youth counselors. Days before Joseph's death, guards who had been caught on video beating two young people at Chad got their jobs back through a state Personnel Board hearing.

Chad is considered by many to be the worst of the worst among California's shameful juvenile prisons. We asked Lungren whether Joseph Maldonado's death was proof of the immediate need to close Chad: "We can't close Chad just like that. Bernie Warner [the new director of the Department of Juvenile Justice within the CDC] is analyzing each institution. We know that Chad is a building with a lot of problems. It's not conducive to a lot of programming. But we can't just close a facility. Where will we move the wards? That will affect crowding at other facilities. What will happen to the staff? That impacts people's jobs. We have to follow union rules. They have their issues connected to that [closing institutions]."

Dyron Brewer, 24. Deon Whitfield, 17. Durrell Feaster, 18. Roberto Lombana, 18. Joseph Daniel Maldonado, 18. All five died inside California's juvenile prisons in the past year and a half.

California's youth prison system is considered by many to be the most brutal in the nation. The governor's response has been to rename the California Department of Corrections the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the California Youth Authority the Division of Juvenile Justice. But the huge, inhumane facilities -- and the practice of subjecting psychologically vulnerable youth to lockdown -- remain.

Katrina Wallops Black Voters

President Bush, Karl Rove, and top GOP strategists would never publicly gloat over Katrina's unintended political consequence. But there was a big and potentially lethal one for black voters and the Democratic Party. Nature's catastrophe scattered thousands of poor, black Democratic voters throughout more than 30 states from New Hampshire to California. That could dilute black voter and Democratic strength in Louisiana, and the South.

Black voters make up one third of the state's voters, and nearly one-half of New Orleans voters. They gave Clinton more than 90 percent of the vote in 1992 and 1996. That propelled him to victory over Bush Sr. and Robert Dole, and helped break the GOP stranglehold on state offices.

It also momentarily dented the GOP's Southern strategy. The strategy entailed saying and doing as little as possible about civil rights, actively courting conservative whites, and subtly pandering to the bigotry of Dixiecrats turned Republicans. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr. (in his 1988 win) banked on that to grab the White House. Transforming Louisiana, with its nine electoral votes, into a crucial swing state, forced the GOP to pour resources, time, and energy into the state to win it.

Though Bush decisively beat Democratic presidential contenders Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, the top heavy black vote for them enabled Democrats to bag many top state and local offices in Louisiana, but just narrowly. A shift of a few thousand votes could tip those offices back to Republicans. The loss of thousands of black votes could also crack the thirty years of unbroken black, and Democratic dominance of City Hall in New Orleans. The streets were barely dry in New Orleans blackest, and poorest wards, when there was talk that a white Republican may challenge black Congressional Democrat William Jefferson.

If the majority of black voters in Jefferson's district don't return, and the likelihood is that many won't, that could make the GOP dream of seizing the Democratic Congressional seat more than just talk. Black voter dispersal could also spell trouble for Mayor Ray Nagin. He grabbed a majority of the white votes in his surprise election victory in 2002. That could easily change in 2006. He's up for reelection, and a white candidate that plays hard on the widespread perception that Nagin, as Bush, also bungled the city's relief efforts could rally white voters.


The future of black vote strength in Louisiana depends on who comes back to the city and state, and when. Many of the mostly white upscale parts of New Orleans received relatively minor storm damage. The voters in these areas will stay, and those whose homes were damaged have the resources to rebuild them. Many of them are Republican. Thousands of poor blacks don't have the resources to rebuild.

Even if many blacks choose to live permanently in the states they relocated to, that could dilute their vote, and further marginalize their political power. To prevent that, the NAACP and other voter groups have called on Congress to pass emergency legislation to extend special protections of the Voting Rights Act, which will expire in 2007, to displaced Louisiana voters.

The aim is to insure that they can vote without restrictions in the places where they relocated. There's little chance that GOP Congressional leaders will do that. They insist that there are enough protections to prevent state officials from tampering with voting laws and procedures. The Act currently requires that the Justice Department or federal courts must approve any changes in vote procedures that involve redistricting, district annexation, registration requirements, holding at large elections, and methods to qualify candidates to safeguard against discrimination.

But this hasn't stopped states from making changes in voting procedures that hurt minority voters. That includes changing, or consolidating polling place locations, tightening voter identification procedures, and adding new and tougher requirements on the timing for filing absentee ballots.

State officials claim that the changes were made to prevent fraud or streamline the voting process. There's no evidence that the changes were deliberately made to thin the ranks of minority voters. Still, if minority voters don't have proper identification, have not been informed of polling changes, or locations, or don't have transportation to get to them, they could be shut of the voting booth. The identification documents of thousands of blacks displaced by Katrina was destroyed or lost in flight.

Even with no polling restrictions, or roadblocks, the vote power of the evacuees could still be crippled. Black political strength lay in their numbers and concentration in key states such as Louisiana. Dispersal reduces them to a blip on the political chart in far-flung states they've ended up in. That further waters down their voting strength, and potential political clout.

Katrina destroyed the fortunes of thousands of New Orleans blacks, while potentially boasting the political fortunes of the GOP. That certainly hasn't escaped Bush and Rove.

Swimming to New Orleans

I just returned this past weekend from my first trip to Louisiana since Katrina. It's beyond what you can imagine -- it's hell on Earth.

I flew into Baton Rouge, which sits about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, and the city is destroyed, but not by the storm. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees from New Orleans in Baton Rouge. People are camping on the side of the roads, in their cars if they have them, and all over the LSU campus. The first thing you notice is how outraged everyone is.

The people of Baton Rouge don't want us here, and you can't blame them. There seems to be no plan for the New Orleaneans once they are dropped off in Baton Rouge, and locals are confused, horrified or worse. They know this is potentially a permanent situation, or at least the way it will be for the next several months. It's safe to say they're as scared as the homeless and exhausted refugees that litter their streets.

We rented four houses in Houma, La., which is about 50 miles south of Baton Rouge or about 30 miles west of New Orleans. We spent the weekend moving our family there, then our friends, and then people we met who had no other options. When I left, we had perhaps 40 people and another 20 on the way. It's an amazing thing to see -- your best friends, family and everyone in between huddled on floorboards, makeshift beds and sleeping bags. It's truly like a nuclear bomb hit our city, and we are doing everything we can just to keep everyone housed, fed and with clean water.

I decide to go into New Orleans as there are far too many people from our home unaccounted for. It's Saturday, September 3.

There is no way to get into the city. The roads that are open are being used to bring people out, and no traffic is headed in. I drive a rental car 30 miles on backroads that I guess won't be flooded. I make it about half way until can no longer get into the city by car. With a backpack loaded with as much water as I can carry, two packs of breakfast bars, three canisters of bug spray, and an extra pair of shoes, I start walking.

First, there's the climate. It's almost 90 degrees, and the humidity and the still water have made the swamp come alive with bugs. The mosquito swarms and other bugs make sound like a blizzard. I have to wear long-sleeve shirts and pants, and I'm drenched with sweat.

The first group of people I meet are very friendly. I trade my ipod for a kid's dirt bike so I can make better time, and they give me extra water. They try to warn me it isn't safe to head into the city. They warn me about what neighborhoods to avoid, and that above everything else, it was critical to stay away from the police. They'll force you to leave by putting you on a bus destined for who knows where, and if you resist, they'll arrest you. It's the first time I sense that the police and government are seen as enemies by Katrina survivors. At first, I simply consider that shortsighted, but over the next two days, I start to understand why they think that way.

I get to the outskirts of the city by about 2 p.m. -- an upscale neighborhood called Metaire, where most of the money of New Orleans lives. To get that far already involved about half a mile of swimming. Everything is destroyed. The area isn't just underwater, it's more that the swamps have risen over New Orleans. There are snakes and alligators everywhere, and the more you see, the more you realize the city isn't going to be livable for who knows how long.

Then there are the bodies. I first start seeing them as I cross from Metaire into what is called Midcity, the neighborhood you drive through to get to Jazz Fest and the fairgrounds. Until now, I've only seen a few dead bodies in my entire life. Some have been pushed against dry spots by, I presume, rescue workers. Others are just floating in the water. There are houses with red marks on them, meaning there's someone dead inside. The most horrifying part of all is what happens when a body is floating in the water for two or three days. It's barely recognizable as a person. When you see one, it's riddled with mosquitoes and who knows what else.

The city is not at all empty as the news says it is. I find hundreds if not thousands of people in all the different neighborhoods, and they have no intention of leaving. First and foremost, they have nowhere to go. Many people don't want to leave. They don't trust they'll ever be let back in, and they certainly aren't going to allow their homes to be pillaged by people crafty enough not to get kicked out. Finally, they just don't believe the argument that the city will be unsafe and infested with disease.

They're armed and angry. They have already survived five straight days of no food and no water, and they don't believe those who haven't gotten them food or water are going to find a place for them to live.

I grew up in the 9th Ward, one of the lowest income areas in the city and the site of the first levee break. To get to my childhood home, I would have to dive underwater just to get to the roof. I go to the second house we lived in. Its roof has been torn off and there's a body floating not 50 feet away from the front porch. I wish I can say my friends' houses fared better. Most were either completely submerged in 10 to 15 feet of water or just not standing anymore. I find three people I know, and they set off for Houma that afternoon.

People are furious. They feel they've been abandoned. You have to understand, there's no power anywhere. The rescue crews are going through New Orleans proper but not all the neighborhoods where people live. Most people don't even think there's a rescue effort underway at all. It becomes clear to me the one thing people need is communication; without it fear takes over. There's nothing more important to restoring order than giving the leaders an ability to get messages to everyone.

I know everyone has heard about people firing on helicopters. I'm certainly not saying it is right, but after being there, I understand. For five days, helicopters are flying overhead, but none of them are dropping water or food down for anyone. They fly by using load speakers saying that anyone found looting or stealing will be arrested, and those are the helicopters that are followed by gunshots, from what I see.

The only government group anyone has seen are the police with sawed-off shotguns threatening to arrest everyone who is walking around on the streets.

Everyone is fearful for his future, and fear leads people to do amazing, extraordinary things. It's a state of war. People don't even know who they're fighting, but they know they're at war. Twice, I bike away at full speed from people that come at me. Before I leave the city, my cash, backpack loaded with food and change of clothes and my camera are stolen. The final time, two people robbed me of my water. They didn't even ask for cash or my watch, just my water. It is desperation, and the last thing I could ever feel is anger.

I'll never forget this weekend. I'll probably spend years wishing I could. You just can't describe what it's like to see the hometown that you love, that's a part of everything you are, littered with floating dead bodies, and to see "your people" firing guns at strangers and hating everyone and everything. It's one of the worst things I've ever felt or seen. It's a war being fought against no one.

How to Create a Crisis

Two things happened in one day that tell much about the abysmal failure of the Bush administration to get a handle on poverty in America. The first was the tragic and disgraceful shots of hordes of New Orleans residents scurrying down the city's hurricane-ravaged streets with their arms loaded with food, clothes, appliances, and in some cases guns, looted from stores and shops. That same day, the Census Bureau released a report that found the number of poor Americans has leaped even higher since Bush took office in 2000.

While criminal gangs who take advantage of chaos and misery did much of the looting, many desperately poor, mostly black residents saw a chance to grab items they can't afford. They also did their share of the looting. That makes it no less reprehensible, but it's no surprise. New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates of any of America's big cities. According to a report by Total Community Action, a New Orleans public advocacy group, nearly one out of three New Orleans residents -- the majority of whom are black -- lives below the poverty level. A spokesperson for the United Negro College Fund noted that the city's poor live in some of the most dilapidated and deteriorated housing in the nation.

But New Orleans is not an aberration. Nationally, according to Census figures, blacks remain at the bottom of the economic totem pole. They have the lowest median income of any group. Bush's war and economic policies don't help matters. His tax cuts redistributed billions to the rich and corporations. The Iraq war has drained billions from cash-starved job training, health and education programs. Increased American dependence on Saudi oil has driven gas and oil prices skyward. Corporate downsizing, outsourcing and industrial flight have further fueled America's poverty crisis. All of this happened on Bush's watch.

The two million new jobs in 2004 Bush touts as proof that his economic policies work have been mostly smoke and mirrors number counting. The bulk of these jobs are low-paying jobs with minimal benefits and little job security in retail and service industries. A big portion of the nearly 40 million Americans who live below the official poverty line fill these jobs. They're the lucky ones. They have jobs. Many young blacks, such as those who ransacked stores in New Orleans, don't. The poverty crisis has slammed them the hardest of all. Even during the Clinton-era economic boom, the unemployment rate for young black males was double, and in some parts of the country, triple that of white males.

During the past couple of years, state and federal cutbacks in job training and skills programs, the competition for low- and semi-skilled service and retail jobs from immigrants, and the refusal of many employers to hire those with criminal records have further hammered black communities and added to the Great Depression levels of unemployment among young blacks. The tale of poverty is more evident in the nearly one million blacks behind bars, the HIV/AIDS rampage in black communities, the sea of black homeless persons, and the raging drug and gang violence that rips apart many black communities.

Then there are the children. One third of America's poor are children. Worse, the Children's Defense Fund found that nearly one million black children live in extreme poverty. That's the greatest number of black children trapped in dire poverty in nearly a quarter century.

Bush officials claim the poverty numbers do not surprise them. They contend that past trends show that poverty peaks and then declines a year after the jump in new job growth. But the poverty numbers have steadily risen for not one, but all five years of this administration. There has been no sign of a turnaround. For that to happen, Bush would have to reverse his tax and war spending policies, and commit massive funds to job, training and education programs, as well as providing tax incentives for businesses to train and hire the poor. That would take an active, national lobbying effort by congressional Democrats and civil rights and anti-poverty groups. That's not likely either. The poor are too nameless, faceless and numerous to target with a sustained lobbying campaign.

While the NAACP hammers Bush on the war and his domestic policies, poverty has not been their top priority. The fight for affirmative action, economic parity, professional advancement and busing replaced battling poverty, reducing unemployment, securing quality education, promoting self-help and gaining greater political empowerment as the goals of all African-Americans. That effectively left the one out of four blacks who wallow below the official poverty level out in the cold.

The looting in New Orleans, though deplorable, put an ugly public face on a crisis Bush administration policies have made worse. The millions in America who grow poorer, more desperate, and greater in number, are bitter testament to that.

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