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.
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.Ã‚Â
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.Ã‚Â 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.Ã‚Â 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
"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."
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.
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."