Salim Muwakkil

Meet the Group of African-American Organizers Building Black Support for Bernie Sanders

Will Crosby, 63, a veteran political organizer in Chicago’s bruising electoral battles, is worried that the black community will be caught flat-footed in the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Why Linking ISIS to the Struggles of Black Americans Is Flawed

As Ferguson, Missouri, erupted this summer over the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, radical Islamists tried to co-opt the protests for their own cause. Many right-leaning media outlets jumped on the story, quoting Ferguson-related tweets by supporters of the Iraq- and Syria-based group the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).

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Infamous Police Commander Who Oversaw Torture of Over 100 Prisoners Awaits His Sentence

G. Flint Taylor should be basking in the glow of vindication as he awaits the January 20 sentencing of Jon Burge, the retired Chicago police commander convicted for lying about a ring of torturing cops he led.

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Media Blackout In the Age of Obama

The election of the nation’s first black president has done little to improve media coverage of the nation’s black community.

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The Squandering of Obama

I have known Barack Obama since the early '90s. My various conversations with him had convinced me he was an indelible progressive. I celebrated his entry into politics with his first election to the state senate from Illinois' 13th District, and he compiled a strikingly progressive legislative record during his seven-year stint.

Conditions conspired perfectly to grease Obama's route into the U.S. Senate and then into the presidential race. Those of us following the "Obama phenomenon" from its inception were amazed by the magical, dreamlike quality of his ascent. A local astrologer explained it by noting a propitious celestial alignment in Obama's chart.

Perhaps astrology could best explain his meteoric rise. After all, what rational pundit would have predicted that a black candidate with a name like Barack Hussein Obama would become a U.S. senator and a legitimate presidential candidate during a war with Islamic terrorism?

The dream continues with Obama as a frontrunner in the Democratic primary race. Somehow, though, the magic has gone missing. The cut-and-parse, political calibrations employed by Obama's campaign staff have devalued enchantment and put a premium on marketing. His political masterminds have transformed Obama from a political visionary into an electoral product (with demographically designed components) just like every other presidential aspirant. His handlers have excised the very quality that distinguished Obama from the usual suspects.

No one in this well-populated brood of presidential candidates has yet said much about the incarceration crisis in black America, or the large black unemployment rate, or the chronically low quality of education in city schools, or anything else relating to the specific needs of the African-American electorate. That is no surprise for the GOP's gang of 11. It is surprising, however, that Democrats have been similarly reticent, since black voters are the party's largest and most faithful electoral bloc.

This avoidance is deliberate. Party strategists apparently believe American voters are less likely to choose Democratic candidates if they perceive them under the sway of the party's most loyal constituents. For example, candidate Bill Clinton's criticism of Sister Souljah's inflammatory comments in 1992 about the Los Angeles riots (now referred to as Clinton's "Souljah Moment") is often credited with helping him win the votes of many "Reagan Democrats." He demonstrated a willingness to put blacks in their place.

Sophisticated African-American voters are expected to tolerate this perverse electoral tendency and squash their specific gripes for the good of the progressive whole. Obama's progressive supporters often utilize this argument to push back black demands for specific campaign attention.

Many of us familiar with Obama hoped he would help put an end to the Democrats' racial schizophrenia. Knowing him as a strong advocate of racial pride, with a deep knowledge of African-Americans' liberation struggle, we thought Obama was perfectly cast as the candidate who could bring needed perspective to our racial dilemma. Our past conversations led me to believe he would seek that role as well.

Perhaps he came to believe that political success was incompatible with efforts to promote a serious racial reckoning. He may have wanted to ride the Obama magic all the way to a progressive revolution, but was reined in by more seasoned political hands. You can almost hear their hypothetical arguments: "Personal magic and charisma will take you only so far. The rest of the trip requires astute political calculations."

Political calculations must be the reason Obama is playing the "Bill Cosby card" (that is, focusing on individual behavior as the primary cause of racial disparity) in his latest speeches. He knows better than that. After all, Obama wrote the foreward to the National Urban League's distressing 2007 report "The State of Black America: Portrait of the Black Male," which indicts institutional racism as the major culprit.

With his knowledge of context and his unique access to the public square, many wonder why Obama is focusing on issues that reinforce white Americans' denial of slavery's legacy. Some commentators point to that very focus as the reason for his popularity. Paul Street, for example, writes in the June 20 edition of the webzine, blackagendareport.com, "Obama allows whites to assuage their racial guilt and feel non-racist by liking and perhaps even voting for him while signaling that he won't do anything to tackle and redress the steep racial disparities and systematic racial oppression."

Street has been a consistent critic of the Obama phenomenon, but many of us who know the candidate begged to differ. We argued he was a true progressive who would use his extraordinary time in the limelight to speak unpopular truths about U.S. foreign and domestic policy while unflinchingly reminding the nation of its racial obligations.

That prospect was the magic ingredient in Obama mania. His strategists are busy squandering it.

Missing Tookie

Last month's execution of Stanley Tookie Williams is part of a grotesque revenge ritual that likely will deepen the cycle of violence it purports to diminish.

Williams, a co-founder of the Crips street gang, had transformed himself into a passionate anti-gang activist during his near quarter century in prison. When he talked of personal redemption and racial pride, it had a ring of authenticity---and it rang a bell with other inmates. Record numbers of black ex-inmates now are flooding into communities that are woefully ill-equipped to absorb them. These returning community members are angrier than when they left. Cooped in fetid warehouses that long ago abandoned the goal of rehabilitation, they usually lack marketable skills and often scorn old-school black leadership. The resulting community friction is heating up and likely will worsen.

Williams embodied a style of leadership that is needed now more than ever, and America had much more to gain from his presence than his absence. He helped to bridge the widening gap between a growing class of criminalized "have nots" and an increasingly hostile black and white mainstream. Commuting his death sentence to life imprisonment would have allowed his message and his example to reach a larger audience.

But the state of California concluded that Williams' death would serve a greater purpose. In the name of the people, the state committed premeditated murder to foster the notion that committing murder warrents the punishment of death. This circular logic is more than just dizzying; it corrupts the very logic of criminal justice.

A preponderance of studies have shown that capital punishment does not deter crime, ensure equal justice or promote domestic tranquility. But the practice persists because it resonates with a human impulse that demands vengeance. State-sponsored executions provide public sanction for that impulse, applying a Babylonian calculus to provide justification for this outmoded public ritual, positing a metaphysical scorekeeper with an "eye-for-an-eye" balance sheet. Our embrace of capital punishment is an atavistic romance.

This U.S. tolerance for official killing perplexes much of the Western world, which largely views it as barbaric. Entreaties from the Vatican and the European Union to spare Williams' life failed, providing once again a vivid example of American exceptionalism on issues of social justice. Is our fondness for the death penalty a legacy of America's "frontier spirit," which fueled the massive massacre of indigenous inhabitants? Could it be a cultural remnant of a slave society's need for brutal enforcement of racial hierarchy? (After all, most executions occur in the former "slave states.")

But even eye-for-an-eye advocates should abhor the possibility of executing the wrong person. Williams was convicted on circumstantial evidence largely on the testimony of dubious witnesses; some of the questions surrounding the case were murky enough to warrant reasonable doubt. But his notoriety as a co-founder of the infamous Crips street gang mooted that doubt. The issue of his possible innocence has fueled a renewed focus on wrongful convictions.

Public awareness of wrongful convictions is the primary reason support for the death penalty is down to 64 percent from a high of 80 percent in 1994. Former Illinois governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executing death row inmates in 2000 after the state released 13 Death Row inmates who were wrongfully convicted. His executive order began a slow roll of concern among other states. New Jersey is the most recent: On January 10 the state legislature signed an order suspending executions while a panel examines their fairness.

Death penalty abolitionists will gain new support if campaigns to determine whether the state executed the wrong people bear fruit. The 1993 execution of Ruben Cantu in Texas and the 1995 execution of Larry Griffin in Missouri are being reexamined in the face of new evidence that casts doubt on their guilt

No account of William's state-sanctioned slaying would be complete without a discussion of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's weird logic in refusing to grant him clemency. "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption," Schwarzenegger argued. Williams consistently insisted he was innocent of the four murders for which he was charged in 1981. (Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang and Yu-Chin Yang Lin were the victims.) Thus, the governor demanded the former gang leader admit to murders he denied committing in order to gain clemency. The logical inconsistency of Schwarzenegger's ruling is par for the course when dealing with issues surrounding capital punishment. Paradox is inherent to a punishment that prescribes killing for killing.

But even if the death penalty made sense, it was senseless to kill a man whose life could have prevented many more killings. Unfortunately, we're going to need all the Tookies we can get.






The Persistent Taint

This is the time of year when the subject of race is almost mandatory for a black commentator. The period between King Day in late January and the public recognition of February as Black History Month offers an opportunity to obsess on race without guilt.

I'm tempted to skip the subject, just to confound expectations. But the topic is too serious.

Many white Americans already are convinced the problem of anti-black racism is a relic. The Republican Party encourages this belief because it opposes, on principle, the kinds of compensatory programs needed to mitigate the consequences of racism.

The Democratic Party became an ally of civil rights during the '60s, but has been in slow retreat ever since. Some would say there's a good reason for that backup: LBJ's 1964 election was the last time the Democrats carried the white vote.

The retreat picked up steam during the 2004 campaign, when the Democratic presidential candidate seemed allergic to any direct reference to black folks, the party's most faithful voting bloc. What's more, the issues of most consequence to African-American voters (mass incarceration and its attendant dislocations, soaring rates of unemployment, growing homelessness of black families, lack of medical insurance and care, crumbling schools, etc.) received scant attention in campaign rhetoric.

This lack of attention to racial issues is not just a problem affecting the nation's two major political parties. Race has faded into the background as an issue for most Americans, including progressives.

The masses of African Americans are faring badly. A recent analysis, "State of the Dream 2005," by United for a Fair Economy reveals the depth of the economic crisis in black America. Ultimately, all Americans are paying for the continuing waste of human resources that we blithely countenance, not just in diminished economic growth, but also in increasing civic enmity.

But as denial so pervades our culture, most of us are barely aware of the varied manifestations of slavery's crippling legacy. One current story in the news offers a fine example of this denial process.

Last month, Mississippi authorities arrested Edgar Ray Killen for orchestrating the 1964 abduction and murder of three voting rights volunteers, one of the most infamous episodes in the volatile civil rights struggle four decades ago.

Killen, a 79-year-old preacher and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, was formally charged with the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

The public mood surrounding this retroactive police action has been downright triumphant. And while I too cheer justice's belated arrival, I fear this rush for self-congratulation has a downside; it serves to strengthen Americans' reluctance to confront our racist present.

In current media accounts, Killen's hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., was identified as an odious symbol of racism for African Americans. But most of those accounts failed to note that the infamous town was also the launching point for the 1980 campaign of presidential aspirant Ronald Reagan.

Reagan launched his campaign in a rousing speech touting "states' rights," a term that had been a Southern euphemism for white supremacy since the days of the Civil War. His advocacy of states' rights from a podium in Philadelphia, Miss., sent a powerful message to white Southerners.

This symbolic gesture of solidarity with segregationists was part of the GOP's "Southern Strategy," a plan initiated by Richard Nixon in 1968 to attract Southern whites by appealing to their segregationist sentiments and racial biases. But when Reagan died last year, few mainstream accounts mentioned his penchant for racist pandering.

So now, most Americans will consume media stories about Killen and never learn how the famous murders – and the racist spirit they symbolized – helped transform segregationist Dixiecrats into Republicans.

It's easier to cheer Killen's arrest than to examine how the GOP's cynical plan to exploit Southern racism succeeded. The current Republican strategy to carve a national electorate out of conservative red states is deeply indebted to the "Southern Strategy." By pandering to persistent biases, exacerbating cultural divisions between so-called "common folk" and the "pointy-headed" liberals who control the Democratic Party, and disparaging "welfare state" government programs, today's GOP is replicating Nixon's tactics.

Few progressive analysts have weighed in on this point. Even Tom Frank – whose book What's the Matter with Kansas? is one of the most insightful examinations of the GOP ascendancy on the market – gives race short shrift.

In a society dependent for so long on racial slavery and color hierarchy, racist attitudes have become so deeply embedded they are easily ignored. Even during Black History Month.

The Public Intellectual

Cornel West may be America’s best-known public intellectual. He’s a professor of religion at Princeton University, where he has taught since a very public exit from Harvard in 2002. He is the author and co-author of several books, including Democracy Matters, his most recent, which is a sequel to his 1993 Race Matters, which won the American Book Award.

It’s not likely that West’s book would change the mind of those who were already committed to the reelection of President George W. Bush. But its appearance at this time provides yet another indictment of the administration’s foreign and domestic policies. West argues that American democracy is being distorted in the Bush era by three dominating dogmas: free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism and escalating authoritarianism.

Although many of his works are aimed at popular audience, West has published a host of scholarly texts, including Prophetic Fragments, The American Evasion of Philosophy and Post-Analytic Philosophy. While he is a prolific academic, that’s not the reason for his wide appeal. He’s appeared in two of the three Matrix films and created two spoken-word CDs: Sketches of My Culture and the two-CD set Street Knowledge. West’s Harvard classes were so popular, he sometimes had to take them off campus to find a large enough venue.

Students, just like audiences at his public performances, no doubt are dazzled by West’s torrents of words and thematic virtuosity. He crosses boundaries of discipline and genre to link disparate notions, dropping names and eccentric references as he riffs.

During a West performance, you’re likely to hear names like Soren Kierkegaard and KRS-One mentioned in the same sentence. I wouldn’t be surprised if he found some way to link jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Naima” solo to some forgotten rhetorical flourish of Benjamin Franklin or to some passage in a novel by Ralph Waldo Emerson or James Baldwin. West regularly limns Western cultural history for unlikely juxtapositions. No allusion is too far-flung.

In Democracy Matters, for example, West cites characters in Plato’s Republic and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Kararmazov to illustrate some of “deadening nihilisms” he says are suffocating the “deep democratic energies” in America today. He goes to the novels of Herman Melville for what he calls “an unprecedented and unmatched meditation on the imperialist and racist impediments to democracy in American life.”

West also believes the musical genre of the blues is a philosophical lodestone for successful democracy. The blues aesthetic placed stress “on dialogue, resistance and hope,” which, he writes, “is the very lifeblood for a vital democratic citizenry.” For West, novelist Toni Morrison’s “magisterial corpus” best exemplifies this blues aesthetic.

“Morrison’s fundamental democratic insight,” he writes, “is that there can be democratic dialogue only when one is open to the humanity of individuals and to the intensity of their personalities.”

Democracy Matters also includes a very well-argued chapter on the conflict in the Middle East and the overarching problem of Muslims and Jews. He makes common cause with progressive Jews as he excoriates the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He urges a more complex understanding of Islam, but forthrightly condemns “Islamic fundamentalist gangsters” and “the anti-Semitism of autocratic Islamic states.”

Critics often cite his wide-ranging concerns as proof of their charge he is miles wide and inches deep, favoring style over substance. And, to be frank, West gives these critics plenty of ammunition.

There is something excessive about him. He chronically overdresses. He is verbose, occasionally even grandiloquent. His histrionic oratorical style sometimes distracts from his message. At times his eclectic “multicontextualism” periodically veers into a maze of incoherence. That seeming incoherence is what prompted the dust-up between him and Lawrence H. Summers, then the newly installed president of Harvard.

Although West authored more than 10 books and is heavily cited in scholarly references, Summers questioned his commitment to Harvard-caliber scholarship. At the time West was a part of Harvard’s vaunted dream team of Black Studies stars, assembled by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Summers’ behavior insulted West and he bounced to Princeton, where he had taught before joining Gates’ team.

“Weaving a web of interconnections between the academy, mass media, prisons, churches and the streets ... did not fit into the narrow field of his technocratic vision,” he writes explaining his exit.

Those interconnections are laudable and make him the very definition of a public intellectual. But sometimes those connections get clogged: This imaginative aesthetic can render him politically inconsequential—as in 2000 when he backed Ralph Nader over Al Gore.

But that obdurate romanticism just might be the price we have to pay for West’s manifest brilliance.

Out To Punch

Don King is a hustler who rose from the depths of a manslaughter conviction to the heights of boxing promotion by dint of a well-honed ability to play the angles. So, it's really no surprise that King has thrown his lot into the reelection campaign of George W. Bush; he's playing the angles.

The Bush team's embrace of King is surprising, however. But embrace him it has. The spiky-haired boxing promoter has been accompanying Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie on an "Economic Empowerment" tour across the country, trying to convince African-American audiences that Bush's reelection is in their best interest. In the last few weeks, the tour has visited Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania and is planning stops in several so-called battleground states.

"People understand that George Walker Bush is the man with the plan to make America better," King said at a stop in Philadelphia. And then, using a line from a stump speech he repeats at virtually every location, he said, "Sometimes, just sometimes, it ain't too bad to be in the Bushes." That line is the flip side of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's warning for Americans to "stay out of the Bushes."

More substantially, King argues that Bush has appointed four blacks to important positions — Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Education Secretary Rod Paige and HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson — and that Bush "utilizes the big stick." He told Jada Yuan of New York metro.com, "If he wasn't in that White House when we had the despicable attack of terrorism in New York, I shudder to think, I tremble at what would be happening."

The tour is part of a larger effort by GOP leadership to increase the party's share of the black vote. Gillespie, who long has urged his party to more actively seek the black vote, is in the forefront of those efforts. "We want to do better than the nine percent that President Bush got in 2000. I'm confident we can do that,” Gillespie told Black PressUSA.com . “The president has done a lot to reposition the party and reach out to African-American voters.”

Gillespie argues that Bush's policies have empowered African-American entrepreneurs and small business owners and he has organized the empowerment tour to highlight those policies. He says King approached him with a plan to reach out to black voters and he decided to take his advice. "Very few people have been more successful in marketing and promotions as Don King has been in our country, Gillespie said. "He helps us - no pun intended - punch through with our message, and one that resonates with African-Americans."

The RNC chairman's so-called outreach efforts are nothing new. For the last 25 years, the GOP has sought to cultivate new black leadership to supplant the left-leaning cadre of traditional black leaders. The tactic reached public notoriety in the early 1980s, when a young Congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich publicly argued against trying to appeal to traditional black leadership. "It is in the interest of the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan to invent new black leadership, so to speak. People who have a belief in discipline, hard-work and patriotism, the kind of people who applauded Regan's actions in (invading) Grenada."

King apparently is one of those invented black leaders suggested by Gingrich, who incidentally remains an influential GOP strategist. King is best known for his wild hair, his "only in America" mock patriotism and his shady dealings in the disreputable boxing business. That public image and his prison record make him an odd pitchman for a law-and-order administration with a solid base on the Christian right. "What's next for the GOP?" one Republican blogger asked, "a photo-op with OJ?"

Perhaps the Bush administration's success with picking external leadership for Iraq has convinced it that picking King as a black leader just might work. In fact, this mindset may also have infected Illinois Republicans, who drafted Maryland's Alan Keyes for a Senate run against Illinois Democrat Barack Obama. Since Obama is African-American, GOP leaders reasoned, they could oppose him best with Keyes, one of their African-Americans.

Maybe the corporate mania for outsourcing has inspired Bushites to look beyond the shores of political propriety, as it were, by seeking an unlikely advocate like King. Whatever the reasons may be for enlisting King, the Bush campaign has chosen a man who has developed a reputation for skullduggery. It's a well-earned reputation: He shot a man to death in 1954 in what was ruled self-defense; he was convicted of manslaughter in 1967 for beating a man to death. Ohio governor James Rhodes pardoned him for that crime, however. Since his release from jail, he's been indicted on federal charges of tax fraud and racketeering, but never convicted. He also survived three grand jury investigations, though they took a toll on his already tarnished image.

Moreover, he has been sued by several of the fighters he promoted – including Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. For many in the black community, King's pseudo-eloquence and exaggerated affability come across as mere hustler affectations; he is seen as little more than an amusing oddity. If nothing else, his choice reveals just how tone deaf the GOP is to the tenor of the times in black America. It's likely they've noticed the hip-hop community is gearing-up to get out the vote against Bush and they figured someone as flamboyant as King could serve as an appropriate counterweight. "After all," one can hear them thinking, "he is ghetto fabulous."

When King gets to Florida to stump for Bush, he should reflect on that state's disenfranchisement laws, which would bar him from voting were he an unpardoned resident. And which unjustly barred several thousand black men from voting in Florida in the 2000 election according to Greg Palast's book, the Best Democracy Money Can Buy.

Although they're as clueless as usual on the cultural nuances of black America, these Republican leaders are serious about their efforts to pull as many black votes as possible from the Democrats. They know that if they lose the black vote by as large a margin as they did in 2000, the Democrats will get a much larger boost in the battleground states. In addition to King, the Republicans are likely to enlist other prominent blacks to push their cause so we probably should expect a slew of strange bedfellows.

The Crisis of the Black Man

Barack Obama wowed them with his speech during the Democratic National Convention. Not only is he likely to make history as only the third black U.S. senator elected since Reconstruction; pundits already are touting his presidential possibilities. With his probable electoral victory this November, Sen. Obama will join a number of African-American men who are making a real mark on American culture.

Obama's stage is politics. Black men are exerting their influence in every other nook and cranny of American life – cinema, athletics, media, medicine, theater. These are important milestones, but we can't let them obscure a more troubling assessment of black men's status.

It's an "emerging catastrophe," New York Times' columnist Bob Herbert wrote on July 19. And he's not alone in invoking such urgent language. Many experts are warning that black men are in the midst of a social crisis that Americans seem eager to ignore.

"Ignore" may be the wrong word. The media focus relentlessly on one aspect of this crisis: crime. But that focus is from the "if it bleeds, it leads," angle. The street crime that captures so much media attention is just the effect of a long list of causes. This crisis has many components – high unemployment, under education, poor healthcare, inadequate housing – that are not quite as media friendly.

Herbert's Times column highlighted a study by Andrew Sum, of Boston's Northeastern University, that found "by 2002, one of every four black men in the U.S. was idle all year long." And this unemployment rate of at least 25 percent did not include homeless men or those in jail or prison. "It is believed that up to 10 percent of the black male population under age 40 is incarcerated," Herbert writes.

That study had a national focus, but things are even worse in some urban centers. In Chicago, for example, the urgency of the situation prompted three Illinois Democrats – Reps. Danny K. Davis, Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and Bobby Rush – to convene a State of the African American Males Conference in June. In the press release announcing the success of the conference, organizers asked a number of questions:

"Why are more than 50 percent of African-American males between the ages of 16 and 22 out of work and not in school? Why are 87 percent of juvenile parolees African-American males? Why are 60 percent of adult parolees African-American males? Why have only 38 percent of black males graduated from Chicago high schools since 1995, while 62 percent have dropped out?" Most of those numbers pertain to Illinois and Chicago, but also echo the statistics of other urban centers.

Earlier this year, the Community Service Society of New York released a report, "A Crisis in Black Male Employment," that found only 51.8 percent of black men between the ages of 16 through 64 were employed from 2000 to 2003.

But issues of criminal justice are perhaps the most troublesome aspects of this crisis. According to Justice Department figures, 12.9 percent of black males ages 25-29 were in prison or jail; for white men in the same age group the number is 1.6 percent. These racially disparate incarceration rates influence public perception of black men and debilitate other aspects of black community life.

The corrections complex occupies too much space in African-American culture and long has exerted disproportionate influence on the lives of young black people. Long lists of statistics detail the depths of this crisis, but just one – the U.S. Justice Department projects that 32 percent of African-American men born in 2001 will spend time in prison – is enough to reveal its debilitating effects.

A flurry of research is unearthing the interlocking dimensions of this crisis. A study by Becky Pettit of the University of Washington and Bruce Western of Princeton University found that "fully 60 percent of African-American male high-school dropouts born between 1965 and 1969 had been incarcerated by the time they reached their early 30s." (See, "Prison in the Cards," Page 8)

Despite Obama's promise, conditions are worsening for far too many black men. Rep. Davis wrote President George W. Bush a letter urging him to establish a federal commission to analyze the dire plight of African-American males. "I urge you to take this step to bring national attention to a very serious problem and a great need," he wrote.

Davis supports Democrat John Kerry, who now has the national spotlight. Perhaps he should write Kerry a similar letter.

Hip Hop Cops

"Police Secretly Watching Hip-Hop Artists" read the headline of the Miami Herald article that put the spotlight on a practice that has grown more ominous at the same time that hip-hop has grown more popular.

As Nichole White and Evelyn McDonnell reported on March 9, "Miami and Miami Beach police are secretly watching and keeping dossiers on hip-hop celebrities like P. Diddy and DMX and their entourages when they come to South Florida." Police officials told the Herald they photographed rappers as they arrived at Miami International Airport and staked out hotels, nightclubs and video shoots. The reporters explained that dozens of major and minor rappers are listed and tracked in a "6-inch thick" binder supplied by the New York City Police Department (NYPD).

Rap artists and others associated with hip-hop culture have long complained of being targets of police harassment. New York, the birthplace of hip-hop music, has become the de facto center of hip-hop intelligence. A special NYPD unit is dedicated to hip-hop surveillance, according to The Village Voice. Police officials downplay the reports. They insist hip-hop cops are a small part of the intelligence division's gang unit and that they simply try to preempt the kind of violence that seems to follow hip-hop artists.

But the NYPD's response sparked more questions: Why is hip-hop associated with gangs? Why the intelligence division?

Those preemptive strategies apparently are being adopted by police forces in other cities. The Herald noted that the NYPD hosted a three-day "hip-hop training session" in May 2003 attended by officers from "other major cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta."

Miami officials said they were compelled to do a crash course on hip-hop after realizing their city was becoming a favorite destination. But just like their big-city mentors, Miami cops' actions are being driven by stereotypes. "A lot of, if not most, rappers belong to some sort of gang," Miami Police Sergeant Rafael Tapenes told the Herald. Law enforcement conflates gangs and hip-hop because young black men are at the core of both – the same black youth who have had problems with American law enforcement since the days of the slave patrols.

Even before recent revelations of hip-hop surveillance units, in March 2003, The Source declared in a headline: "State of Emergency: Hip-Hop Under Attack." The magazine, the country's largest hip-hop oriented publication, sounded the alarm about attacks from the increasingly influential cultural right and more intrusive police scrutiny. It featured an interview with a New York City cop who admitted that a special unit existed specifically to monitor, even harass, hip-hop figures. The unidentified cop told The Source that these efforts were aided by an increased focus on security after 9/11, which "opened up avenues for the government to change laws and violate public rights."

Some see motives that are even more nefarious. Cedric Muhammad, publisher of the webzine BlackElectorate.com and former manager of the hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan, ran a series linking police harassment of rappers to the infamous COINTELPRO programs of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Muhammad recently wrote a public letter to the Miami Herald, suggesting that reporters should shift the focus of attention beyond police harassment and racial profiling, "properly placing it where it belongs – at the federal level."

The feds already have used antiterrorism strategies to crack down on domestic street gangs, and some officials have even linked such gangs to terrorism. Muhammad writes that linking gangsta rappers to genuine gangsters allows a COINTELPRO-like program to continue under the guise of homeland security, thus preempting the potential for a militant mass movement of black people.

Of course, hip-hop made itself an easy target. A large part of the genre's appeal is its flamboyant roguishness. The ghetto-centric sensibilities and crime-laced narratives that dominate so much of the genre offer a vicarious escape for some and, perhaps, a how-to manual for others.

Hip-hop artists often project images that skirt the edges of respectability, posturing a hard, "no sell-out" image, even as they rake in mainstream bucks. And then there are the "beefs" – the feuds that too often have jumped off records into reality. What's more, critics increasingly complain that rap lyrics go beyond promoting violence and crime to self-hatred and misogyny. And these complaints are most strenuous within the African-American community, not the FBI.

Issues like these were addressed at the National Hip-Hop Political Convention in Newark, N.J. The mid-June event gathered activists, politicians, scholars and hip-hop artists from across the country to discuss ways to empower the so-called hip-hop generation. I'm sure the police were watching.

Racial Bias Still Haunts Media

Editor's Note: This article is part of a special In These Times issue on the media, in which In These Times editors and contributors examine the current progressive media strategy and suggest what's needed, what progressives can learn and what the future holds. To see the other articles in this issue, please visit the In These Times website.

The fight to contain the monopolistic impulses of the corporate media has galvanized media activists. Their efforts have borne some fruit, mobilizing considerable opposition to a Federal Communications Commissions ruling that loosens limits on the number of stations a single company may own. On Sept. 17 the Senate passed a full rollback of the FCC ruling.

But this sharp, almost exclusive focus on corporate ownership has drowned out other crucial concerns in the struggle for media democracy. And one of the most serious issues is the continuing problem of racial bias.

Many of our current headlines are suffused with racial content. But there’s precious little effort to place that content in an understandable context. The long line of statistics that point to continuing racial inequities -- in health care, incarceration, poverty, education, employment and more -- are often marginalized as aberrations in a land of opportunity. There is a “race fatigue” factor in much mainstream media coverage these days. The media message to African Americans is this: Racism is old news -- get over it.

Rush Limbaugh was essentially fired for saying on air that the media was giving black NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb a pass because it was “very desirous that a black quarterback do well.” His comments were troubling more for the context of his words than the content. He was hired by ESPN to attract white males (“NASCAR Dads”) similarly offended by affirmative action. Limbaugh’s argument feeds the notion that an unbridled beast of affirmative action is roaming the countryside, victimizing helpless whites.

This animus against affirmative action is part of a general American narrative of racial hierarchy and privilege. It’s an old narrative with many subplots and subtleties (Confederate patriots thought that freeing slaves was “affirmative action”), but the overall theme is white supremacy. An important part of the media’s job during America’s formative years was to transform racial hierarchy into conventional wisdom. Their success was overwhelming.

Racist assumptions have blocked African-American progress at every historical juncture, but these biases are so deeply embedded in U.S. institutions and attitudes that most of the white Americans who share them often can’t detect them. Distressingly, these notions can also be found in some progressive quarters. The history of this nation’s progressive movement is rife with racial rancor. And although progressives have more openly confronted racial issues than other spheres of society in America, they still have a lot of work to do -- just look at the leadership ranks of progressive organizations.

That may be one reason why the movement for media democracy, as commendable as it is, has failed to attract the attention of black activists with whom it would seem to have much in common.

“The corporate preoccupations of most white media activists have very little relevance to the everyday lives of the black people I see who are adversely affected by the media on a regular basis,” explains Karen Bond, a black media activist from Evanston, Illinois. Bond says her basic struggle is to reduce media portrayals that promote negative racial stereotypes influencing the life chances of American minorities. “That’s where the rubber really meets the road in the media.” Ownership diversity doesn’t necessarily speak to that core problem, she says. “When media had more diverse ownership, stereotypes still reigned.”

Bond has a point. Media-driven stereotypes tend to drive social policy. I have no doubt that media stereotypes of black criminality help account for the incarceration epidemic afflicting black youth. One of the more recent examples of this correlation showed up in a landmark 2001 study, co-authored by Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group and Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute.

The study found that media coverage of crime exaggerates its scope and unduly connects it to youth and race, noting that 62 percent of the poll respondents felt juvenile crime was on the increase, although violent crime by youth in 1998 was at its lowest point in more than two decades. The authors concluded, “In an environment in which fear of youth crime and actual youth crime are so out of sync, policies affecting young people are bound to be impacted.”

And they have been; during this same period, legislators across the country were racing to pass ever more onerous measures to try children as adults or to increase the range of punishment available to youthful offenders. “A disproportionate number of perpetrators on the news are people of color, especially African Americans,” the authors write. They note that a study of Time and Newsweek stories found that the term “young black males” was synonymous with the word "criminal."

These cultural synonyms have helped create a social system of racial disparities in which, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, there are five times more white drug users than black ones, but African Americans are imprisoned at several times the rate of whites. Even black men who evade prison and seek employment are less likely to find it than white men, according to work by Northwestern University sociologist Devah Pager. Her study found that white applicants with prison records were more likely to be hired than black men without records.

Race bias is still a fact in America, and media too often facilitate it. We are still haunted by notions of racial hierarchy because the United States has yet to confront the complex legacy of slavery. Progressive activists must remind themselves that a true struggle for media democracy demands they continually challenge the conventional wisdom of white supremacy.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983, and an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a Crime and Communities Media Fellow of the Open Society Institute, examining the impact of ex-inmates and gang leaders in leadership positions in the black community.

The Devil and Daniel Pipes

The Bush administration's war on terrorism has done little so far but increase the ranks of potential terrorists. And while this may seem to be the regrettable result of a bumbling foreign policy, there are signs the administration is deliberately trying to antagonize the Islamic world; there seems to be method to its madness.

After a few bellicose statements about "crusades" early on, Bush's public soundbites have consistently portrayed Islam as a peaceful religion that has been "hijacked" by the forces of terrorism. But his official policies have done little to mark that distinction. The latest White House affront to Muslims is the recess appointment of Daniel Pipes to the board of directors of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The Institute is a quasi-governmental think tank dedicated to international "peace and conflict resolution." It was created to help build bridges between cultures and, since 9/11, one of its most pressing projects has been the Special Initiative on the Muslim World.

Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum, a right-wing think tank based in Philadelphia, a prolific author of anti-Islamic screeds and creator of Campus Watch, a Web site that monitors professors who criticize Israel. He has a long paper trail, and perusal of Pipes' oeuvre reveals two clear positions: He is strongly pro-Israel and avidly anti-Muslim.

His appointment is opposed by a number of Islamic, Christian, Jewish, and interfaith groups, all of which argue that Pipes is better at building barriers than bridges to the Islamic world. A number of editorial boards, including the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, have also urged the administration to rescind his appointment.

Pipes gained some public infamy in May 1995, when he told USA Today that the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was "just the beginning" of an offensive by Islamic fundamentalists. Many journalists already had learned to be wary of Pipes' biased analysis of issues concerning the Middle East or Islam.

"Pipes has repeatedly demonstrated hostility toward Arabs and toward Islam as a religion," says Mitchell Plitnick, co-director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Voice for Peace, one of several Jewish organizations that have mobilized against him. "Of equal concern is that Pipes has often espoused the view that force is the most appropriate solution to the problems in the Middle East and the Muslim world.

It seems odd that the administration would go out of its way to nominate such a belligerent and divisive voice to an organization seeking peaceful solutions. If the Bushites are trying to provoke the Muslim world, however, naming Pipes makes sense.

Such a motive would also explain why the Bush administration initially chose retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner as the first administrator of U.S. operations in Iraq. Garner is president of SY Coleman Technologies, a firm that, among other things, helped develop Israel's Arrow missile system. He is a leading weapons manufacturer who was posing as a man of peace.

Garner also has a cozy relationship with Israel's right wing, particularly the Jewish Institute for Security Affairs (JINSA). He visited Israel in 1998 on a trip sponsored by JINSA. He also signed a JINSA-sponsored statement that praised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for exercising "remarkable restraint in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by the leaders of a Palestinian Authority."

Even if Garner were a competent administrator (he wasn't), his support for Israel's right wing and the widely reviled Sharon should have instantly disqualified him as custodian of an Islamic nation in need of reassurance and reconstruction. Garner proved to be an embarrassment and was quickly replaced by career diplomat L. Paul Bremer. But why did the Bush administration name such a polarizing figure in the first place?

Perhaps it did if for the same reason Bush's Defense Department invited the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, to deliver the 2003 Good Friday homily at the Pentagon. Franklin Graham is one of a number of prominent evangelical preachers and Bush supporters who have embarked on a freewheeling, Islam-bashing spree: He calls Islam a "very evil and wicked religion" bent on "world domination." Many Islamic groups and Muslim employees of the Defense Department frantically urged the Pentagon chaplain's office to disinvite the Islamaphobic clergyman, but to no avail. Graham's invitation was an astringent irritant to Muslim sensibilities, utterly unfathomable -- unless it was intended to offend.

The Bush administration seemingly has done all it could to offend Muslims and increase the allure of "jihadists" like Osama bin Laden, who argue that the West is inherently offensive to Islam. The military invasion of Iraq has unleashed forces of religious fervor that also feed jihadist passions. Many young Muslims now will be taught that secular ideologies are unable to protect Islamic lands from crusading imperialists.

The U.S. "victory" provides a ready argument to help recruit young people into groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad. This is one component of the "clash of civilizations" long predicted by the neocons now running foreign policy. And right before our eyes, they are transforming that prediction into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983, and an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a Crime and Communities Media Fellow of the Open Society Institute, examining the impact of ex-inmates and gang leaders in leadership positions in the black community.

The Summer of Civil Rights

Each of the four major civil rights organizations -- the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League (NUL), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Rainbow/PUSH -- has staked out its own turf in the civil rights landscape over the years. This summer, the quartet held their annual conventions, and the media focused on how many of the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls showed up at each, and whether President Bush even acknowledged their existence.

These conventions have become seasonal rites and attract less and less media coverage, as civil rights issues fade further into the background of American concerns. But these gatherings still serve as rallying points for many African-Americans who cut their teeth on the civil rights movement. The social space opened by that movement has allowed many of these erstwhile activists to move into the middle class.

Spawned and perpetuated by noble intentions, the annual confabs are often corporate-sponsored reunions where well-heeled participants come to socialize and chart their relative affluence. While these soirées draw some of America’s most attractive and best-dressed black folks, the naked hucksterism on display is not a pretty sight.

On the other hand, they do provide unique opportunities to bring a public focus to African-Americans’ specific concerns. And, despite some conventioneers’ superficial preoccupations and the marketing lust of the corporate sponsors, useful information is usually available.

The territories of the four groups occasionally overlap, but disputes among them are rare. Some observers have speculated that President Bush has sought to spark a dispute between the NAACP and the NUL by snubbing the former and embracing the latter. As the eldest organization, the 94-year-old NAACP traditionally has been the first in line for all the symbolic perks. Bush ignored this tradition by withdrawing the biggest symbol of all -- a presidential address -- from the NAACP and accepting the NUL’s invitation to speak at its Pittsburgh convention.

Bush likely sought to send a message to the NAACP, whose CEO Kweisi Mfume and chairman Julian Bond have been critical of his administration. But Bush wasn’t alone in his dismissive treatment of the NAACP; three of the nine candidates for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination had also planned to skip the group’s convention in Miami until harangued back into line by Mfume and Bond.

Seven of the nine Democratic candidates also traveled to the Pittsburgh convention of the NUL, which recently selected former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial as its new president, succeeding Hugh Price. Rainbow/PUSH’s 32nd annual convention in late June also pulled seven Democratic candidates; they no doubt were lured to Chicago by the continuing influence of PUSH’s president, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The SCLC attracted no presidential candidates to its 45th annual convention in Memphis. Although co-founded in 1957 by civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and currently headed by his son Martin Luther King III, the SCLC has the lowest public profile of the civil rights quartet and is the least influential of the groups.

As their convention rhetoric reveals, all four groups have similar missions. The NAACP’s Mfume said it was “time to marshal our resources to stave off the insidious attacks on affirmative action in education, judicial activism on the Supreme Court, and an economy indifferent to the poor and middle class.”

The NUL’s Morial outlined a plan for what he called a new empowerment movement that will close the “the equality gap” in all aspects of American life. “The Urban League must offer solutions, ideas, and action,” Morial said. “We cannot simply be doctors who are long on diagnosis and short on prescriptions.”

At its convention, Rainbow/PUSH hosted a group from Benton Harbor, Michigan, the economically ravaged town that exploded into group violence earlier this summer. The organization sought to bring a focus to the needs of other communities that are similarly impoverished. Jackson’s oratory was predictably insightful; his prescriptions echoed those of Morial and Mfume.

Delegates at the SCLC Memphis convention took expected positions on issues of interest to black Americans. Their well-pedigreed president said the group is poised to attack the triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism. “We’re spending $4 billion a month occupying Iraq ... so don’t tell me we can’t afford decent health care for the people of America,” King said.

Civil rights organizations are still searching for a unifying thread capable of binding progressive Americans into a common struggle for racial justice. Erstwhile allies now dispute strategies, like affirmative action, that once garnered wide support. In fact, increasing numbers of Americans are questioning the efficacy of such strategies and the relevance of the civil rights organizations that push them.

I’m not one of those Americans. While I am discomfited by the excesses and pretensions sometimes paraded at these summer conventions, I also treasure the opportunity to meet and exchange views with activists from other parts of the country and address issues usually ignored.

Civil rights organizations may be ideologically adrift and struggling for a lifeline that will keep them afloat in a new era. But until their replacements arrive, they are not irrelevant.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983, and an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a Crime and Communities Media Fellow of the Open Society Institute, examining the impact of ex-inmates and gang leaders in leadership positions in the black community.

Ready for Reparations

One of the primary reasons I support the congressional bill to study the feasibility of reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans is the need to acquaint Americans with the devastating effects racial slavery has had on African-Americans.

That need was never more apparent than during national discussions of the Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action rulings. In a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled that the University of Michigan law school (and thus all colleges and universities) could constitutionally consider race as a factor in admissions. The court also ruled that the school’s undergraduate admissions point system, which awards points for certain racial identities, is unconstitutional.

Progressives applauded the top court’s law school ruling as a victory for the forces of social justice. But it was a win by default only. The law school maintained it took race into account to help produce a more diverse student body. Diversity enhanced the university environment, it argued. A slim majority of the court bought that argument, which reasoned, essentially, that minorities should be tolerated because they add texture to whites’ educational experience.

Thus it seems that even when the top court acts in the interest of social justice, its motives are tainted by assumptions of racial hierarchy. Other than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, none of the other justices thought it necessary to link structural racial barriers to continued social and economic disparities between black and white Americans. These racial disparities endure, and in some cases have worsened. And remember, affirmative action was a program born specifically to help beat down barriers that cause those disparities.
Ironically, toppling racial barriers also was the raison d’être for the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment that foes of affirmative action now use to justify the program’s demise. In fact, irony is a consistent theme in this debate: Not only do we have the specter of affirmative action foes quoting Dr. Martin Luther King out of context about the “content of character” rather than the color of skin, we now have Justice Clarence Thomas using the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass to bolster his anti-affirmative action point.

Quoting Douglass’ 1865 speech before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, Thomas wrote, “All I ask is, give him [‘the Negro’] a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … Your interference is doing him positive injury.” Thomas failed to mention that Douglass’ speech was responding to the patronizing excesses of many Northern abolitionists, who, at the time, seemed to regard freedmen as so much flotsam and jetsam of the Civil War to be handled, rather than as human beings to be supported.
This recasting of the past is becoming a routine rhetorical tactic of the shameless right, but Americans’ lack of historical perspective makes it much easier for them to get away with it. This historical ignorance is the precise target of the congressional bill I mentioned earlier.

This bill, which has been introduced annually by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) since 1989 but languishes in committee, seeks to “establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery … and economic discrimination against African-Americans … to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”

Few Americans know of the legacy that racial slavery and Jim Crow apartheid has bequeathed to African-Americans. Because of that ignorance, many white Americans either are mystified by blacks’ disproportionate miseries or attribute them to some intrinsic quality (be it genetic or cultural). African-Americans often are urged to “get over” race; that is, accept racial inequities as a state of nature and shut up.

A more honest reckoning of our history would reveal the difficulty of transcending racial disadvantage without some attempt to repair the damage done to a people victimized by 16 generations of racial slavery and Jim Crow apartheid.

After all, African-Americans exist only because there was a transatlantic slave trade; racial slavery was a new species of human bondage, now considered one of history’s longest-running crimes against humanity. Slavery stole the labor of enslaved Africans for more than 250 years, and by depriving their descendants of any material inheritance—except poverty— slavery also damaged their futures.

Jim Crow apartheid blocked blacks from access to America’s fruits for a century following slavery’s demise. In fact, African-Americans were not fully enfranchised as citizens until 1965, and racial barriers erected to justify and protect slavery still to this day inhibit blacks’ social and economic mobility.

The peculiar institution also severed the ancestral sources of identity and cultural continuity of enslaved Africans, leaving them and their progeny especially vulnerable to the widespread biases of white supremacy and its corollary, black inferiority (including the negative aesthetic values of “kinky” hair, thick lips, and dark skin, as well as notions of intellectual inferiority) that still permeate American society. These Afrophobic biases are also a legacy of slavery, and may have been just as damaging to the psyches of African-Americans as the more overt injuries of social and economic discrimination were to their life chances.

The problem becomes more complex and expensive as the legacy of slavery lengthens; affirmative action is inadequate to the task, even without the equivocal dodge of “diversity.” In fact, affirmative action itself is a timid euphemism for reparations. Passing Conyers’ bill could help relieve our timidity.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times. He is currently a Crime and Communities Media Fellow of the Open Society Institute, examining the impact of ex-inmates and gang leaders in leadership positions in the black community.

The End of Race?

I'm not sure if many Americans have noticed, but the concept of race has taken some devastating hits in recent years. Everywhere one looks in academia these days -- from the abstract precincts of critical theory to the hard laboratories of molecular genetics -- once-mighty notions of racial taxonomy have fallen hard.

The latest assault on race was a three-part PBS series, "Race: The Power of an Illusion." Produced by California Newsreel, the series covers a wide range of race-related issues. But the program's title is its major point: Racial differences are illusory. For many Americans, this is pretty radical stuff. Well before the republic was founded, the belief in racial hierarchy was deeply embedded in our national culture, and there it endures. A person's economic and social well-being remain closely correlated to racial identity.

Notwithstanding those socio-economic distinctions, the idea of racial difference seems obvious; people with a certain skin color and hair texture also tend to have common behavioral traits. However, science is revealing that those observable, "natural" differences are social constructions rather than biological facts.

"The Difference Between Us," the first episode of "Race," explains that humanity emerged in Africa about 150,000 to 200,000 years ago and began migrating out about 70,000 years ago. As humans spread across the planet, populations intermingled, creating a variety of genetic interrelationships. These are not always what one might expect: Some Europeans have more genes in common with Nigerians than do Nigerians with Ethiopians, and so on. Most variation is within, not between, "races."

The first segment also notes that many of our "phenotypic" characteristics, like skin color, evolved recently, after we left Africa. But traits like intelligence, musical ability, and physical aptitude are of a more ancient genetic vintage and thus are common to all populations.

As if on cue, a recent archeological find provided corroborating fossil evidence for this genetic view of human history. The June 12 issue of Nature revealed that scientists working in northeast Ethiopia found the 160,000-year-old remains of two adults and a child that are said to be the earliest human remains ever discovered. According to Tim White, the University of California paleoanthropologist who led the team, "this discovery means our roots are African."

According to the New York Times, the theory of an African genesis of humanity had gained wide support in the last two decades thanks to the research findings of the growing science of molecular genetics. These genetic studies, based on evolutionary changes in mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to daughter, have concluded that humanity had a common ancestor in Africa -- the so-called "African Eve."

Before the advent of high-tech genetics, the reigning doctrines of white supremacy discouraged any consideration of an African genesis of humanity. And despite increasing archaeological evidence, many anthropologists resisted tracing humanity's origins to the so-called Dark Continent.

The more radical white supremacists postulated that there was a "multiregional evolution," in which Europeans evolved from another branch of hominids altogether -- the hearty Neanderthals. However, genetic studies have revealed no Neanderthal DNA in modern humans.

A preponderance of genetic evidence reveals the ironic fact that the same Europeans who created the idea of race and white supremacy are genetic progeny of the Africans they devalued. With this view of history, it's clear that the concept of race is an insidious fiction created primarily to justify exploitation, slavery, and imperial conquest.

"Race"'s second episode, "The Story We Tell," explores this sordid history, tracing the origins of the racial idea to the European conquest of the New World and to the American slave system. We see how the logic of racial hierarchy, which placed Africans on the lowest rung of humanity, allowed self-professed Christians to justify the institution of racial slavery.

New York University historian Robin D.G. Kelley points out that the Enlightenment idea of freedom led to the ideology of white supremacy: "The problem that they had to figure out is how can we promote liberty, freedom, democracy on the one hand, and a system of slavery and exploitation of people who are non-white on the other?" They did it by dehumanizing enslaved Africans. The episode notes that by the mid-19th century, the idea of racial hierarchy and its corollary, white supremacy, had become conventional wisdom. "The idea found fruition in racial science, Manifest Destiny, and our imperial adventures abroad," reads the PBS Web site for the episode.

The final episode, "The House We Live In," focuses on the ways U.S. institutions and policies advantage some groups at the expense of others. It outlines the historical trajectory of racial disadvantage and shows how it remains easily discernable in the wealth gap and disparities in other social indices. The segment also examines the "unmarked" race of white people. Here the documentary slides in some of the insights developed by the nascent "Whiteness" movement, which defines the very idea of white identity as an ideology of racial domination.

"Race: The Power of an Illusion" concludes that racial inequality will remain a feature of this nation's social structures until we seriously address the legacy of past discrimination and confront the historical meaning of race. The producers hope their series will blow some fresh air through a stagnant social debate and stir some new interest. I hope they're right, but I doubt it.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983, and a weekly op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a Crime and Communities Media Fellow of the Open Society Institute, examining the impact of ex-inmates and gang leaders in leadership positions in the black community.

Biowar and the Apartheid Legacy

Just as the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction now seems a neocon-concocted mirage, word has begun leaking out about the spread of bioweapons far more threatening than anything in Saddam Hussein's purported arsenal.

A two-part story in the Washington Post on April 20 and 21 revealed that biological agents developed by the South African government during its apartheid days have fallen into private hands. Written by Post reporters Joby Warrick and John Mintz, the piece noted that unique, race-specific strains of biotoxins were available on the world market -- for the right price or the right ideology.

Wouter Basson, the man who directed South Africa's clandestine bioweapons program, "spoke candidly [to federal officials] of global shopping sprees for pathogens and equipment, of plans for epidemics to be sown in black communities and of cigarettes and letters that were laced with anthrax." The Post said Basson "revealed the development of a novel anthrax strain unknown to the U.S. officials, a kind of 'stealth' anthrax that Basson claimed could fool tests used to detect the disease."

The top-secret program that Basson directed was called Project Coast, and it lasted from 1981 to 1993. The South African National Defense Force created it at a time when the white-minority regime was under increasing threat by indigenous black South Africans. Daan Goosen, the former director of Project Coast's biological research division, told the Post he was ordered by Basson to develop ways "to suppress population growth among blacks" and to "search for a 'black bomb,' a biological weapon that would select targets based on skin color."

Goosen and others involved with Project Coast have insisted, at least publicly, that Basson's orders were never carried out. Researchers who have studied the issue are not so sure. According to a 2002 book by Chandré Gould and Peter Folb, "Project Coast: Apartheid's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programme," there has never been any serious outside scrutiny of the project's products and "no records are available to confirm that the biological agents were destroyed."

The Washington Post even noted, "Goosen says many scientists kept copies of organisms and documents in order to continue work on 'dual-use' projects with commercial as well as military applications." A May 2002 story on Project Coast in the Wall Street Journal reported that Goosen said he has been "visited by scores of people looking for 'stuff to kill the blacks.'" Race-specific weapons naturally are in hot demand among racists, so it's no surprise that South Africa's race-specific research is highly coveted.

In January 1999, the British Medical Association (BMA) began warning the world of the dangers of ethnic weapons. Although the report, "Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity," made no direct charge, it said the BMA could no longer ignore the varied reports that such weapons were currently being developed. The report concluded: "Weapons could theoretically be developed which affect particular versions of genes clustered in specific ethnic or family groups." The possibilities of producing such weapons have been enhanced with the 2002 completion of the Human Genome Project.

The 1999 BMA study was provoked in part by a 1998 story in the London Sunday Times alleging that Israel already had developed a genetically specific weapon. "Unnamed South African sources," according to a report cited by the Times, "[say] Israeli scientists have used some of the South African research in trying to develop an 'ethnic bullet' against Arabs." Reported links between Israel's ethnic weapons and South Africa's Project Coast are tentative; some would say tenuous. But the possibility of such links is terrifying, and justifies as much scrutiny as was focused on Iraq's imaginary arsenal.

It also appears that the anthrax incidents of 2001, in which five people died and 13 were sickened, may also have a South African connection. The Post noted that officials found evidence in a Frederick, Maryland, pond that may explain how the perpetrators of the deadly attacks used water to handle the lethal toxin without infecting themselves or loosing the anthrax spores.

On May 11, the Post said the water theory is the result of the FBI's interest in one person, Steven J. Hatfill, a medical doctor and bioterrorism expert who formerly worked for the U.S. Army, and who lists South African diplomas in diving and underwater medicine on his résumé. A June 2002 article in the Hartford Courant reported that Hatfill also worked with a guerilla unit of the white-supremacist Rhodesian army from 1978 to 1980, when "an anthrax outbreak killed hundreds and sickened thousands of villagers." He also lived in South Africa, "where he completed various military-medical assignments."

Hatfill's connections to South African and Rhodesian apartheid are much more apparent than his alleged link to the anthrax mailings. But the legacy of Project Coast blurs that distinction considerably.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983, and a weekly op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Hip Hop Hysteria

Serious social critics could once dismiss hip hop's purveyors as a bunch of crude vulgarians extolling ghetto-centric lifestyles. No longer. Hip hop has become one of the most influential U.S. cultural exports. In virtually every city on the planet, there are hip hop communities that not only have adopted the percussion-heavy music and spoken-word vocals, but have appropriated the sartorial and attitudinal style of the black and Latino youth who created the genre.

Perhaps the most exportable aspect of hip hop is its existential sensibility -- its celebration of place, despite limitations. With verbal dexterity, hip hop's creators transformed themselves from ghetto dwellers into esteemed characters involved in complex narratives. Hip hop infused their neighborhoods with cultural currency and mythical resonance. If not a Shangri-La, then at least a "Shaolin" -- the name the Wu-Tang Clan conferred on their poverty-ridden neighborhood on New York's Staten Island. Hip hop culture renamed and re-imagined.

Some 25 years after its birth, the genre has become a $5 billion industry but remains troubled at home. Beset by a growing chorus of critics who charge that its glorification of the "Thug Life" promotes misogyny, violence and crime, hip hop's advocates are on the defensive. This is not a new position; since its emergence from the ghettos of New York City in the late '70s, many mainstream critics have deemed hip hop a dysfunctional element of pop culture -- a soundtrack for sociopaths. The violent murders of some of hip hop's most popular artists give its detractors a powerful argument.

A dedication to authenticity, or "keeping it real," is an important value that requires hip hop artists to stay close to the fears and aspirations of the community that birthed them. But since murder remains the leading cause of death for young black men, hip hop may be keeping things a bit too real.

Commercial motives have warped and corrupted the genre. The record industry uses personal rivalries between rappers as marketing tools to ratchet up sales. Rap "beefs" may reap profits, but they also wreak havoc. Carlton "Chuck D" Ridenhour, frontman of the influential group Public Enemy, blames the East Coast-West Coast beef that virtually paralyzed the rap world in the mid-'90s on a "climate of violence" perpetrated by the record industry. "I think the culture has been mishandled by putting out violence," he told Newsday following the October murder of Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell of Run-DMC in his Queens studio.

Most famously, many attribute the unsolved 1996 murders of two of hip hop's most iconic rappers, Tupac Shakur and Christopher "the Notorious B.I.G." Wallace, to a feud between rival record labels. In a two-part September series in the Los Angeles Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chuck Philips provided ammunition for those who link the murderous scenarios of many rap lyrics to the lifestyles of its major players. He reported that Shakur's killer is a gang member whom the rapper had assaulted in Las Vegas earlier that night. More explosively, Philips claims that Wallace paid a bounty for the hit and supplied the murder weapon.

But Philips' conclusions are disputed in "Biggie and Tupac," a new documentary by Nick Broomfield. The film, based heavily on a book by Randall Sullivan called "LAbyrinth," points to Marion "Suge" Knight, CEO of Death Row Records (recently renamed Tha Row Records), as the guiding hand behind both murders. Broomfield and Sullivan speculate that Knight ordered the killings because Shakur was going to sue Death Row for unpaid royalties, and Wallace's death would make the first murder look like part of the bicoastal rap feud.

Like Sullivan's book, much of the film is based on the allegations of former L.A. police detective Russell Poole, who says he was discouraged from following solid leads on the case because they pointed to police involvement. One of the most provocative aspects of Broomfield's film is the allegation from Wallace's mother that the FBI had both rappers under surveillance at the time of their murders. "It surprised me that Biggie and Tupac had been under surveillance for so long -- for months, particularly in Biggie's case," Broomfield told the Village Voice in September. "He wasn't considered a political person, but he and Tupac and rappers in general were regarded by the FBI as focal points of potential political unrest."

Some claim that federal forces are instigating hip hop beefs in the same way COINTELPRO operatives kept militant black organizations at each other's throats during the '60s. "The only way to get to the top and bottom of both murders is to find out once and for all what the U.S. government knows about them," writes Cedric Muhammad of Blackelectorate. com, a Web site that has featured several articles alleging a COINTELPRO-style campaign is in play against rappers.

The New York Times revealed the existence of a special NYPD unit designed to focus specifically on the hip hop industry, investigating violence and other crimes and consulting with "detectives who do similar work in places like California and Florida."

The FBI is investigating whether Jam Master Jay's murder is linked to organized crime, reports the Ananova.com news service, and "federal authorities say several unnamed stars from the rap industry are under the microscope for possible criminal conspiracies."

If the FBI is indeed sowing the seeds of division, the hip hop community is fertile soil. Though these murders provoked temporary spasms of remorse and public gestures of self-reflection, little seems to have changed in the brutal, materialistic core of rap culture.

Ironically, one of the most socially conscious corners of hip hop is now coming under increased scrutiny from federal authorities because of alleged ties between the "Beltway snipers" and an Islamic group known as the Five Percenters. Certain phrases and symbols used by sniper suspects John Muhammad and Lee Boyd are common jargon of the group.

Known as the "Nation of Gods and Earths" to insiders, the Five Percenters were founded in New York by Clarence "13X" Smith in 1964. Smith, a migrant from Danville, Virginia, had joined the Nation of Islam during the heyday of Malcolm X and rose to become an official at the NOI's Harlem Temple. He was excommunicated in 1964 and quickly formed his own organization based on aspects of NOI philosophy. Smith later assumed the name "Father Allah" and set up shop in Harlem, where he taught for five years until he was murdered (theories have linked both the NOI and the NYPD to his killing).

Smith's esoteric street science revolves around the notion that the universe operates by mathematical principles, and that the key to success (both personal and collective) is understanding them. Once a man achieved mastery of self, he became a God, the "sole controller" of his destiny. (Five Percenters refer to men as "Gods" and women as "Earths.") The group's name derives from a belief that 85 percent of humanity is bent on self-destruction due to ignorance of their own divinity. The next 10 percent have self-knowledge, but use it to exploit and manipulate the 85 percent; they are referred to as the "blood-suckers of the poor." The remaining 5 percent are those "poor righteous teachers" who have self-knowledge (that is, they are aware of the divinity at the core of their identity) and teach "freedom, justice and equality to all the human family." Much like the Nation of Islam, Five Percenters place a strong emphasis on family, education and self-reliance. Although the doctrine lacks the NOI's restrictions on intoxicants, it extols self-control and forbids "uncivilized" behavior.

Some of hip hop's most important innovators are Five Percenters: Rakim (whom some still consider hip hop's best lyricist) is a member, as are rappers Nas and Busta Rhymes and singer Erykah Badu. Numerous rap groups, including Brand Nubian, Gang Starr, Mobb Deep and the Wu-Tang Clan, are also affiliated. Much of the hip hop vocabulary ("word is bond," "represent," "show and prove," "dropping science," "cipher," "seeds," and "G") is rooted in Five Percent ideology.

Ted Swedenburg, a University of Arkansas anthropologist who has studied the Nation of Islam and its offshoots for many years, has compared today's "Islamic rap" to the the spread of Afrocentric ideas during the days of Marcus Garvey and Noble Drew Ali in the early 20th century. But through music, the Five Percenters' influence has been much greater. "What is interesting here is the fact that these heretical, esoteric teachings have been propelled, from their heretofore obscured places of origin, to the center of global culture," Swedenburg wrote in a 1997 paper titled "Islam in the Mix: Lessons of the Five Percent."

But with greater visibility comes increased scrutiny. Corrections departments in New Jersey and South Carolina have labeled the group a "security threat" and treat it like a gang. There are several court challenges to that designation, but as long as the group clings to its black nationalist doctrine, there's little chance that its public image will be altered. What's more, since there is no stringent membership process, some may use the group's ideology to perpetrate, and even justify, illegal acts. The Five Percenters' race-themed gnosticism also is interpreted as black supremacy by some followers, which further taints the group. The alleged connection to the Beltway snipers is sure to increase the scapegoating.

Although black nationalist ideas form a strong part of hip hop's foundation, today's most influential rapper may be a white man. White rappers have always had some input in the culture, from the Beastie Boys and Third Base to House of Pain and, most infamously, Vanilla Ice. But Marshall "Eminem" Mathers has become the genre's bestselling artist in history.

White artists historically have benefited from expropriating African-American art forms and, in that sense, Eminem simply conforms to that traditional pattern. But unlike many of his predecessors, he is recognized for his mastery of the form. He initially gained fame -- and respect -- in the non-commercial precincts of the hip hop underground, where lyrical complexity and rhythmic flow are the highest values. Hip hop fans generally applaud his rapping talent, and they don't begrudge his mainstream success.

Eminem, rumored to be a choice for Time's "Man of the Year," also has been acclaimed for his acting debut in the movie 8 Mile. His cinematic persona is attractive for many of the same reasons he is such a successful recording artist. He projects an image of vulnerability and authenticity at the same time. Instead of emulating the thematic threads favored by black rappers, Eminem crafts lyrics from his own personal history. His forthright way of confronting the "white Negro" conundrum has won both white and black fans. He adapted hip hop's celebration of situation to the trailer park and found success.

Although his rise to fame repeats a traditional pattern, it also exhibits major differences. He was "discovered," cultivated and tutored by Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, a successful African-American rap producer. Eminem also remains respectful to the African-American culture that inspired him and has devoted considerable resources to assisting the black rappers who supported him during leaner times in his Detroit hometown.

The Eminem saga is yet another lesson about the potential power of hip hop. Like the legion of other whites, Asians and Latinos who embrace hip hop, Eminem has a relationship with black culture that is so far removed from racist traditions that it creates new possibilities. That's the promise of hip hop: creating new possibilities.

This musical genre dreamed up on the streets of New York has become one of the planet's most powerful -- and enthusiastically embraced -- forces of globalization. If hip hop's originators can harness just a portion of the genre's creative power to address the issues that uniquely beset them, hip hop can redeem its promise.

Congressional Dissent Comes to Life

The Bush administration's irrational belligerence toward Iraq finally has awakened some of the "loyal opposition" to initiate a serious debate on the matter of war with that damaged nation.

On Thursday, a lineup of about 30 Democratic lawmakers gathered outside the Capitol building to detail their displeasure for a resolution that would authorize President Bush to use any force against Iraq that he deemed necessary and appropriate to defend the U.S., and to enforce UN Security Council resolutions.

Leading members of the House, including Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), already had reached an agreement with the Bush administration to support the resolution. The emergence of what seems to be a growing anti-war faction, organized primarily by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio, revealed some serious divisions within party ranks.

"I am completely at a loss to explain to you why the minority leader of the House, the Democratic leader, would join with President Bush in this kind of activity," noted Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) at the news conference. Conyers, a ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee and dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the resolution "the most disturbing arrogation of constitutional power by any president in my memory."

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) made the point that the resolution proposes a "leap before you look" strategy that ultimately jeopardizes American security.

Ohio Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown said the proposed resolution allowing pre-emptive unilateral action represents a radical change in our military doctrine.

"[Unilateral action in Iraq] sends a message to our allies and to others around the world that if the United States, the world's superpower, a member of the UN Security Council, is willing to do that, then why can't we?" Brown said. He added that Bush never once mentioned his plans for such a dramatic departure from military tradition in his presidential campaign.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) displayed two uneven stacks of e-mails and letters, claiming those opposing war represented the largest stack by far. Like many of the other House members, she argued that she is being bombarded by messages urging her to oppose the Bush administration's war resolution.

Some observers trace these ripples of dissent to a Sept. 23 speech by former Vice President Al Gore in which he argued that an Iraq attack will damage the war on terrorism, weaken U.S. leadership in the world and create new enemies.

But many members of Congress had expressed opposition to the logic of the "Bush Doctrine" long before Gore's well-publicized comments. Some members also blame the media for minimizing dissenters.

"Let's see how much media coverage there'll be of this news conference," shouted one voice in the audience.

"People have been asking `Where are the Democrats?' Well, here are the Democrats," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). Waters has been a consistent critic of the administration's overall Middle East policies and has often urged her party mates to be more vocal.

Waters said the Bush administration has failed to provide the proof that Iraq has possession of nuclear weapons and is willing to use them. The U.S. keeps pushing for an intrusive inspection regime, yet, she noted, we seem to forget that the CIA was caught spying on Iraq during the last spate of inspections.

The California lawmaker expressed considerable cynicism regarding Bush's plans for an invasion of Iraq. "Seems like no matter what we do, the determination has already been made," she said.

But there were hints that this ripple of dissent may move beyond the progressive elements of the Democratic Party. Rep. Jim Moran, a centrist Democrat from Virginia with a hawkish record, joined the crowd of dissenters.

"Saddam Hussein is the one who should be marginalized, not the U.S. Congress," Moran said. The basis of his dissent is the new powers the resolution grants to the president. He said our new national security strategy that allows for "unilateral, pre-emptive military action upon the president's own authority has implications for the rest of the world that will come back to haunt us."

There also has been an uptick in anti-war demonstrations around the U.S., including two in Chicago last week.

In addition to the usual left-leaning suspects, there is considerable opposition to the Bush administration's war plans among conservatives. Pat Buchanan has used some of that aggressive opposition to help fuel a new magazine called the American Conservative.

The voices of dissent are rising and just may prevent the U.S. from becoming the 21st Century's leading warmonger--but don't bet on it.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times

Why is Prison Becoming the Norm for Black Males?

A report released last week revealed that in the last two decades the population of black male inmates grew three times as fast as the number of black men enrolled in higher education.

Authored by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, the study showed that in 2000 there were 791,600 black men in jail or prison and 603,032 enrolled in colleges or universities. In 1980, the study noted, those numbers were 143,000 and 463,700 respectively.

Although comparisons of the two categories are not symmetrical -- students comprise a narrower age range than prison inmates -- the difference in numbers over two decades reveals the corrosive effect of our incarceration epidemic on the health of the African-American community.

The study, titled "Cellblocks or Classrooms? The Funding of Higher Education and Corrections and Its Impact on African-American Men," makes perfectly clear that society's investment priorities produce commensurate results. The survey found that during the 1980s and 1990s state spending on corrections grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education.

"Between 1980 and 2000, corrections' share of state and local spending grew by 104 percent while higher education's share of state and local spending declined by 21 percent," noted Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute and co-author of the study.

On the national level, the figures are even more lopsided. According to David Barlow, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, between 1980 and 2000, the combined expenditures of federal state and local governments on corrections skyrocketed approximately 1,000 percent.

During this same period, the total number of inmates grew from 502,000 to 2.1 million. Because of these numbers, the world's only superpower is also the world's leading jailer. With about 5 percent of the world's population, we imprison about 25 percent of the world's inmates. California alone incarcerates more people than does France, Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined.

African-Americans comprise about half of that total although they make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population.

"It is sad that our states are finding it easier to contribute more to incarcerating our men and women and creating a downward spiral of poverty and destitution rather than investing through our educational system to create an upward spiral of accomplishment and achievement," said Hilary Shelton, of the Washington branch of the NAACP.

What's even sadder is that this growth of what many critics refer to as the "prison industrial complex" is being fueled largely by an absurd war on drugs. It has failed in its professed goal to wipe out drug abuse, as the availability of drugs has increased and the price decreased.

But this disastrous war also has nourished a ruthless underground economy, triggering the growth of both international drug cartels and domestic gang warfare, and endangered Americans' civil liberties. It also has had a vastly disproportionate effect on the African-American community.

According to a 2000 study by Human Rights Watch, African-Americans comprise 62 percent of the drug offenders admitted to state prisons. In seven states, "blacks constitute between 80 and 90 percent of all people sent to prison on drug charges." Nationwide, "black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.

According to studies of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, African-Americans constitute 15 percent of the national drug users, but comprise about one-third of all those arrested on drug charges and 57 percent of those convicted on drug charges.

This is a national outrage. It is beyond explanation how Americans can continue to support the insane logic of a failed "war" that also exacerbates this nation's enduring racial divide.

The corroding effects of this war combined with the law-and-order posturing of opportunistic politicians has led us to this ignoble point where our nation leads the world in incarcerating its own citizens.

For African-Americans these misguided policies have enduring ramifications.

The jailing of so many young men (and increasingly young women) at the primary age of family formation stunts the vitality of the black community and contributes to family dissolution, single-parent households, increased incidence of HIV/AIDS, reduced job prospects and political participation (due to state-based disenfranchisement laws) and other debilitating effects.

We can do better. We must do better.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times E-mail: salim4x@aol.com.

Great White-Haired Hope of Liberals

When Phil Donahue, the 66-year-old pioneer of talk-show television, landed a spot on MSNBC's prime time lineup, many left-leaning viewers rejoiced.

Donahue is a self-professed liberal with opinions decidedly to the left of most talk-show hosts.

Because of the dearth of left-wing voices, progressive viewers fondly anticipated Donahue's well-hyped July debut on MSNBC.

Don Hazen, the executive editor of the progressive Web site AlterNet.org, even urged readers to "vote with your remote," for "Donahue." "We'll be giving the message to TV executives that there is an audience for unconventional television programming with a decidedly progressive edge that is beyond what they imagine," he wrote.

What's more, Jeff Cohen, founder and executive director of the left-leaning media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, was hired as a senior producer for "Donahue." Cohen, who also was a regular panelist on Fox News Channel's "Fox News Watch," is well-known in progressive circles as an astute media critic.

According to an Aug. 19 article in The New York Times, "Donahue" received the most promotion the channel has ever devoted to any program. Thus it seemed clear the corporate forces running MSNBC had nothing against Donahue's progressive tilt -- as long as he pulled the viewers.

Donahue's show competes against CNN's "Connie Chung Tonight" and Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" with Bill O'Reilly, the ratings leader by far. CNN is seeking to establish itself as a non-ideological purveyor of pure news, while Fox News Channel has adopted a broadcast style that clearly hews to the right.

According to a 2001 report by the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting organization, "Fox has become a central hub of the conservative movement's well-oiled media machine."

Many progressives are hoping "Donahue" might serve a similar purpose for those on the left.

Unfortunately, Donahue's early showing has not been encouraging.

Although his well-promoted opening week was fairly strong with a daily average of about 660,000 viewers, the number of viewers dropped steadily in the weeks following. "Four weeks after his debut, Donahue has lost 40 percent of his audience," noted the Times' story. "Bill O'Reilly, whose Fox News show is the most-watched on any cable network, handily beat both Mr. Donahue and Ms. Chung's shows combined."

If this television confrontation was seen as a kind of proxy election--and many saw it as just that -- would it be accurate to say that O'Reilly and the conservatives have won?

Well, not really. First, the competition is not being fought on an even playing field. Rupert Murdoch, a media mogul with an ideological commitment to conservative causes, owns Fox News Channel.

Roger Ailes, the American who runs the channel for Murdoch, is a pugnacious former Republican operative and a veteran of the Nixon, Reagan and Bush-the-elder campaigns.

In other words, Fox is on an ideological mission.

On the other hand, MSNBC's maneuvers are purely commercial. General Electric and Microsoft, two of America's largest corporations, own the channel.

It's unlikely that the anti-corporate messages progressives expect to emanate from "Donahue" will go down easy with people like General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt, who, according to the Daily News in New York, is the primary bankroller of Donahue's $1 million-a-year salary.

Donahue is locked into a format that is intrinsically favorable to right-wingers who tend to have strong, unequivocal opinions. It is less forgiving to progressives, who often need time to debunk conventional wisdom or bust biases.

In order for "Donahue" to succeed in this venue, the show's producers will have to tweak the formula. The convention of pitting ideological antagonists against each other is good theater and good for those with conservative biases.

But that format prevents the kind of context-laden discussion designed to shed light rather than heat on a subject.

Conventional wisdom holds that nuances are bad for Nielsen ratings; that is, viewers want verbal fireworks, not sober analysis. Until Phil Donahue busts that bias, the game is rigged against him.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times

Christian Conservatives Malign Islamic Faith

Aside from a few early remarks calling the war on terrorism “Operation Infinite Justice” and a “crusade,” President George W. Bush has publicly downplayed the religious aspects of the U.S. response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. But Christian fundamentalists and a belligerent coterie of influential neoconservatives have seized upon 9/11 to fire a fusillade of invective at the religion of Islam.

The most recent controversy erupted when the Rev. Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the country), told several thousand delegates at the group’s annual conference that many of America’s problems were caused by people promoting “religious pluralism.” According to the Washington Post, Vines said, “They would have us believe that Islam is just as good as Christianity.” Then he added: “Christianity was founded by the Virgin-born son of God, Jesus Christ. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives, the last one of which was a 9-year-old girl.”

Instead of scorning him, Vines’ evangelical brethren rushed to his aid. The Rev. Jack Graham, newly elected president of the SBC, called Vines’ comments “an accurate statement.” The Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote to subscribers of his newsletter: “If you want to raise the ire of the mainstream press and the swarm of politically correct organizations in this nation, just criticize Islam.” The day following Vines’ comments, President Bush addressed the SBC, praising the group for its “religious tolerance.”

Bush’s reluctance to criticize the group is likely a product of a tightening political bond between the Christian right and the president’s neoconservative brain trust in foreign policy matters. This alliance is busy producing anti-Islamic propaganda, while simultaneously urging the United States to fully embrace Israel as its only ally in the region. Included in this group are Pentagon big-wigs Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, Attorney General John Ashcroft, syndicated columnists like Michael Kelly and Charles Krauthammer, and even Watergate conspirator Charles Colson.

Colson, now chairman of the Prison Fellowship Ministries, told the Fox News Channel that, unlike Christianity, Islam is not a “religion of love” but instead is “dedicated toward hatred and violence and resentment.” He was commenting on the recent arrest of Jose Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al Muhajir, the Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican who was arrested on suspicion of plotting to explode a “dirty bomb.” Padilla, a former Chicago street gang member, reportedly converted to Islam while serving time in prison. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Colson wrote, “al Qaeda training manuals specifically identify America’s prisoners as candidates for conversion because they may be ‘disenchanted with their country’s policies.’ ” This was a canny move, Colson reasoned, because America’s “alienated, disenfranchised people are prime targets for radical Islamists who preach a religion of violence, of overcoming oppression by jihad.”

Colson’s argument is a twist on Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which posits that Islam and the West are now heading toward an acrimonious face-off. In reality, the tensions between Christianity and Islam are older than the United States itself. And Washington has a long history of antagonism and opposition toward Muslims at home and abroad. However, as illustrated most prominently by Padilla and John Walker Lindh, the U.S. citizen captured fighting for the Taliban, the distinction between indigenous and exogenous Islam can be blurry.

Lindh allegedly was first turned on to Islam by surfing hip-hop Web sites and reading Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, before visiting a mosque near his California home. Though Lindh was a child of the privileged West, his thirst for a more authentic version of the faith led him to the Middle East. He first went to Yemen, seeking a rigorous education in the Quran, made a stop in Pakistan, and then traveled on to Afghanistan, where he joined the Taliban. Captured near Mazar-e-Sharif, his spiritual quest will culminate with a 20-year sentence in federal prison.

Padilla grew up in Chicago’s gritty Logan Square neighborhood, and his teen-age years were beset with run-ins with the law. But his lengthy criminal record contains no hints of an inclination toward terrorism. The Chicago Tribune reported that he claimed to be a member of the Latin Disciples, one of the city’s most violent gangs. Although Padilla’s parents are Puerto Rican, MSNBC reported, he identified himself as African-American on a marriage license in Florida, where he moved in 1991. He was arrested there that year for aggravated assault and spent 10 months in jail. Justice Department officials say Padilla converted to Islam while imprisoned and got involved with al Qaeda in the late ’90s. He’s now being held in a military brig in South Carolina as an “enemy combatant,” a designation that allows the government to jail him without formal charges.

Both of these men’s notoriety comes from allegedly consorting with the enemy. But it’s worth giving closer scrutiny to the right’s claims of an Islamist infiltration in America. Far too little media coverage since 9/11 has focused on the country’s broader indigenous Islamic constituency. Yet the appeal of Islam in America is undeniable—indeed, it is the country’s fastest-growing religion. The increasing population of immigrant Muslims and the continuing spread of the religion among African-Americans—who comprise approximately 30 percent of the 8 million Muslims living here—as well as those influenced by African-American culture calls for an overdue look at Islam’s long history in this country.

The foundation for Islam’s attraction to black Americans was laid centuries ago. But because scholarly interest typically reflects popular biases, to past generations of American historians the idea that a large number of enslaved Africans were Muslims was unthinkable. Typical was novelist James Michener, who wrote derisively in a New York Times book review of Alex Haley’s Roots that “to have Kunta Kinte, or one of his fellow slaves praying to Allah while chained in the bottom of a Christian ship is an unjustified sop to contemporary events rather than a true reflection of the past.”

But most historians now agree there has been an Islamic presence here from the nation’s earliest years. Muslim evangelists (as conquerors, merchants and scholars) had fanned out across West Africa several hundred years before any Christians arrived. These Muslims converted many Africans in the area between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers, a region where vast numbers of Africans were enslaved and shipped west. Sylviane A. Diouf’s book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas estimates that from 10 percent to 25 percent of all enslaved Africans shipped to the Americas from the 17th to 19th century were Muslims.

Many Islamic practices disappeared after that first generation died. But the legends and myths surrounding the religion persisted among both blacks and whites. Enslaved Muslims were reputed to have instigated many of the revolts that occurred on plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean islands. Nothing frightened slave-dependent societies more than the prospect of widespread slave insurrections. Islam’s ability to provoke fear and animosity in slave owners burnished the religion’s rebellious image.

Yet as the descendants of enslaved Africans adopted Christianity, the religion of their captors, their view of Islam was shaped by Christian attitudes and the long history of antagonism between Christians and Muslims. Denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church would develop as a refuge from white supremacist theology that sanctioned chattel slavery. But Islam took on an outlaw stigma in the black community.

That began to change when Edward Wilmot Blyden, an influential Christian minister, began promoting Islam as a nationalist alternative to Christianity. His 1887 book, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, argued that Islam’s racial tolerance and doctrine of brotherhood made it a more appropriate religion for people of African descent than Christianity. He insisted that Christianity, in spite of its eastern origins, had become an ideological tool used by Europeans to help debase Africans and teach them to deny their own heritage.

The link between Islam and black nationalism was drawn tighter when an African-American migrant from North Carolina named Timothy Drew changed his name to Nobel Drew Ali and, in 1913, established the first “Canaanite Temple” in Newark, New Jersey. Ali changed the name of his group to the Moorish Science Temple of America in 1928, and temples dedicated to the notion that Islam was the old-time religion for black folks eventually opened around the country.

Ali’s doctrine was an eccentric mixture of Islamic mysticism, Gnosticism and Masonic lore. As Mattias Gardell points out in his excellent book In the Name of Elijah Muhammad, Ali’s holy text is cribbed almost verbatim from The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, a 1907 book written by Christian mystic Levi H. Dowling. Although Ali’s jerry-built theology was heavily plagiarized, his motive was to provide African-Americans with a religion and identity that transcended the ignoble conditions left in slavery’s wake.

Contemporaneous with Ali was Marcus Garvey, whose Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had the slogan “One God, One Aim, One Destiny” and pushed a doctrine of Pan-Africanism, racial pride and self-reliance. Garvey sought to unite “all the Negro peoples of the world into one great body to establish a country and government absolutely their own.” At its high point, between 1920 and 1924, the Garvey movement claimed a membership in the millions. UNIA was the first real mass movement among African-Americans and the largest international racial movement in the history of the African diaspora.

According to Richard Brent Turner, author of Islam in the African-American Experience, Garvey’s Pan-Africanism was strongly influenced by Duse Muhammad Ali, a Sudanese-Egyptian Muslim who was “a prominent member of London’s Muslim community and one of the most significant figures in the international Pan-African movement during that time.” Although UNIA wasn’t a religious movement per se, it utilized religious themes in urging black people toward economic self-reliance and cultural independence; Garvey’s professed goal of black repatriation to Africa was suffused with biblical imagery. Elijah Poole, the son of a Baptist preacher from rural Georgia, reportedly was involved with the UNIA’s Detroit chapter before joining the Nation of Islam and becoming Elijah Muhammad (and both of Malcolm X’s parents were members of UNIA).

Along with political insurgents and militants, Islam has appealed to African-American artists, from novelists to rappers. Jazz musicians like Ahmad Jamal, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner and Abbey Lincoln became practicing Muslims, and even Charlie Parker once was rumored to have changed his name to Abdul Karim. Most of these musicians were attracted to the Ahmadiyya movement, an Islamic order with roots in 19th-century India that began proselytizing in the United States during the ’20s. The Ahmadiyya movement was the first established Islamic order that focused its proselytizing efforts on the African-American community.

Ahmadiyya may have come first, but the Nation of Islam (NOI) soon became the religion’s most visible black expression. The group came into existence in 1930, when a mysterious silk merchant—known variously as W.D. Fard, Wali Farad, Wallace D. Fard or Farad Muhammad—appeared on the streets of Detroit calling himself a “prophet of Allah from the holy city of Mecca.” He preached a message of black divinity and white iniquity (and an ascetic doctrine of moral probity, frugality and sobriety). His message spoke directly to a people who had been utterly debased by America’s white-supremacist society. Historically confined to a segregated and impoverished world for no other reason than their skin color, many African-Americans found it easy to attribute their treatment to demonic influences.

Fard soon developed a large following in the ghettos of Depression-era Detroit. Although he claimed his doctrine was based on Islam, it was a fractured version of the creed. The olive-skinned stranger disappeared, just as mysteriously, in 1934 after designating Elijah Muhammad his head man. Muhammad later deified Fard and dubbed himself God’s messenger. Through Elijah Muhammad’s leadership, the NOI emphasized Fard’s racial teachings. Central were the notions that the black man was the “original man,” divine by nature. White people were created by a scientist named Yakub, who used a eugenics process to “bleach” original people of their color and their humanity. In NOI demonology, whites are referred to as “Yakub’s grafted devils.”

But Turner and others urge a revisionist take on the NOI’s racist dogma. In context, they argue, Fard’s race-based depiction of the Islamic message was made necessary by African-Americans’ peculiar racial history. The mythic ideal that placed blond, blue-eyed northern Europeans at the pinnacle of a racial hierarchy and black people at the nadir was the guiding principle in Western racial thinking. This view of humanity allowed Christians to own “soulless” black slaves while proclaiming their piety. Turner writes: “Before Fard could restore his converts’ knowledge of their ‘true names, history, religion and ethnicity,’ he had to destroy that aspect of the white race’s invincibility that made black inferiority and self-hatred possible on a deep psychological level.”

The NOI reached its greatest prominence with the emergence of Malcolm X. Through his extraordinary charisma and intelligence, Malcolm helped build the organization into a national force, well established in most large U.S. cities. The intensity of Malcolm’s identity quest from when he left the NOI in March 1964—changing his name to Malik Shabazz, denouncing Elijah Muhammad’s eccentric doctrine, and embracing Islamic orthodoxy—until his assassination the following February helped light the fuse for the black power explosion that followed. The Black Panther Party, cultural nationalism, a new Pan-Africanism, black arts and black studies movements, as well as a host of indigenous Islamic groups, were accelerated by his example.

But the tumult of those years took its toll on many ideological warriors. By the early ’70s, the Black Panthers had been virtually wiped out by FBI counter-intelligence programs, and infighting between the “revolutionary” and “cultural” nationalists had poisoned any larger unified efforts. Many black power veterans began taking a second look at the NOI. They discovered that numerous black power groups had cribbed their programs from Elijah Muhammad’s blend of pidgin Islam and black nationalism. If revolution meant a radical change in social conditions and communal outlook, if its result was to create a new people untainted by the socialization of the old, then the NOI surely qualified.

The NOI already had an enviable reputation of rehabilitating substance abusers and other community miscreants with unique efficiency. Tales are legion of inner-city sociopaths magically transformed into sober, reliable workaholics after hearing Elijah’s teaching. Malcolm X’s prison conversion set the mold for thousands of African-American inmates.

What’s more, the call for economic and cultural self-reliance, which became the rallying cry of the black power movement, had been answered by the NOI long before. By the early ’70s, the NOI had utilized its mostly low-income member base to accumulate an impressive portfolio of independent ventures, including grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, dry cleaners and thousands of acres of farmland. Bow-tied NOI members selling newspapers and bean pies with cordial aggression became a familiar sight in the inner city.

Some bitterness remains between black nationalists, who felt a strong affection for Malcolm, and NOI members, who remained faithful to Elijah Muhammad. Many nationalists were convinced that top-level NOI officials ordered Malcolm’s assassination. And until a public reconciliation between Minister Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm’s family in 1995, members of the NOI condemned Malcolm as an apostate, unworthy of his popular acclaim. No longer as public, many remain confirmed Malcolm-haters.

By the time of Elijah Muhammad’s death in February 1975, the group had begun de-emphasizing its anti-white message and attracting a wider range of acolytes. Wallace Delaney Muhammad, Elijah’s rebellious son and seventh child, took over when his father died. Within a year, the younger Muhammad had transformed the NOI from a race-oriented sect into a group professing Islamic orthodoxy according to Sunni tenets. (He later changed the spelling of his name to Mohammed to further distinguish himself from his father’s legacy.) This development wiped away two of the NOI’s basic beliefs: that Allah can be personified (in W.D. Fard) and that Satan can be embodied in a “race” of people.

Mohammed urged his followers to reject black nationalism and proudly embrace American citizenship. His struggle to humanize a doctrine forged by oppression was aided by the civil rights movement, which made the white-devil rhetoric less appealing. His group, now called the Muslim American Society, is by far the largest of all indigenous Muslim groups, with an estimated membership of 2 million.

For those nurtured by the NOI’s militant separatism, however, this was unspeakable blasphemy. Farrakhan initially pledged fealty to Mohammed’s new vision, but soon broke away to begin teaching anew Elijah’s race-based doctrines. Since 1977, Farrakhan has been plugging away at rebuilding Elijah’s NOI. Exact membership numbers are hard to ascertain, but knowledgeable observers estimate Farrakhan’s following at about 50,000.

The NOI’s organizational model, wedding religious and military sensibilities, has an ominous historical resonance with fascism. But Farrakhan’s rhetorical militance has won him admirers throughout black America. That aspect of his appeal largely accounts for the hip-hop generation’s continuing affection for Islam; his name is positively evoked in dozens of rap records. His conflicts with Jewish groups over his dangerous flirtation with anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers provoked a circle-the-wagons response that burnished his appeal to rebellious-minded youth as someone who refuses to bite his tongue. Despite that controversy, his 1995 Million Man March was the largest single gathering (of blacks or whites) in Washington’s history, though pundits remain reluctant to grant him that glory.

But in recent years, Farrakhan too has shifted away from racial demonology to a message more in accord with Mohammed’s inclusive Islamic vision. The two men’s annual rituals of reconciliation since 2000 hint that Farrakhan intends to slowly bring the NOI more in accord with Islamic orthodoxy. The closer Farrakhan gets to Mohammed, the further behind he leaves the NOI’s eugenic doctrine. And his gestures are not just limited to fellow Muslims. Farrakhan joined Mohammed last October at a joint appearance with Christian television minister Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral Church. Billed as an “Evening of Religious Solidarity,” the gathering marked a historic development in the evolution of the NOI, but received sparse media coverage. More ominously, Farrakhan has forged a link with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and has been friendly to Lyndon LaRouche, the eccentric economist known for his conspiracy rhetoric.

Despite growing religious links between the two former rivals, Farrakhan and Mohammed struck differing chords in their responses to September 11 and the war on terrorism. “If Mr. Bush wants the world to join him in this war, then prove to the world that [Osama bin Laden] is responsible for this heinous crime,” demanded a skeptical Farrakhan in an October 16 speech. After recounting the dismal record of American interference in the region, he concluded that U.S. action is not based on a quest for justice, but oil, or who “controls the sweet crude.” This summer Farrakhan launched a “peace mission” to a number of Arab countries, including Iraq.

Although Mohammed has expressed misgivings about “innocent Afghans being killed by these U.S. attacks,” he has urged U.S. Muslims “to be more conscious of our [American] citizenship.” Mohammed’s New York representative was even chosen by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to say a prayer at Yankee Stadium during a visit by President Bush. This is all the more remarkable recalling that Mohammed was born into an organization that once demonized the United States just as stridently as bin Laden does today.

Deeply rooted in U.S. culture, Islam has proven its utility as an agent for change and a force for stability. Those who argue that the religion is atavistic or a product of postmodern nihilism must be more careful in their condemnation. Like other religious believers, Muslims often oscillate between precept and practice. But pluralistic cultural pressures are more likely to moderate the excesses of Islamist cults, like al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, than an endless war. The nation has not done enough to mine the wisdom of Muslims—particularly African-Americans—who have successfully reconciled the obligations of Islamic piety with pluralistic democracy. We are in desperate need of such insight.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983, and a weekly op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a Crime and Communities Media Fellow of the Open Society Institute, examining the impact of ex-inmates and gang leaders in leadership positions in the black community.

A Modest Proposal for Media Balance

The ratings success of the right-wing Fox News Channel has triggered a reflexive response from the station's rivals: imitation. Both CNN and MSNBC, the two cable news stations in direct competition with Fox, are seeking more viewers by hiring more right-wingers.

In January, the 6-year-old Fox News took the lead from CNN in prime time for the first time. According to figures from Nielsen Media Research, CNN averaged 815,000 prime-time viewers in February while Fox News averaged 1.21 million. Holding down the rear was MSNBC with an average audience of 296,000.

Both Fox News and MSNBC were created in 1996 to compete against CNN, which until that time was the only cable news channel operating 24 hours a day. At the time, most analysts considered MSNBC the most likely to succeed, since it was powered by the deep pockets of both NBC (General Electric) and Microsoft.

Fox, owned by global media baron Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., was considered an upstart.

Both Fox News and CNN worked hard at crafting a distinct identity--Fox as the conservative alternative and CNN as the purveyor of hard news--while MSNBC larded its schedule with stale documentaries and retreads from the NBC network. The terrorist attack of Sept. 11 found CNN perfectly positioned as the site to seek raw news and the patriotic aftermath favored Fox News' jingoistic coverage.

But MSNBC offered nothing special except a couple of telegenic news anchors. Clearly, this wasn't enough to lure viewers to the channel and the once promising station now is struggling to find a niche in the world of cable news.

To MSNBC, allow me to offer a modest proposal: Go left.

Fox clearly is winning viewers by wearing its ideology on its sleeve. The station, headed by former Republican operative Roger Ailes, has found a winning formula by appealing to the fans of conservative talk radio.

And, although CNN seems to be sticking with its hard news focus, the station still is trying to scoop up as many right-wingers as it can. Last year, news leaked out that CNN was trying to lure Rush Limbaugh into its fold. He declined. But the AOL-Time Warner-owned station recently added William Bennett, former education secretary and current conservative moralist, to its morning lineup.

Seeking to tap into that audience, MSNBC has hired Alan Keyes, the voluble black conservative and former GOP presidential candidate.

The narrow range of political discourse in the media frustrates many Americans. Seldom do pundits on the left get the kind of exposure routinely afforded those on the right. And the so-called left-right formats of shows like CNN's "Crossfire" or Fox's "Hannity & Colmes" are better described as center-right.

And although conservatives regularly put a leftist label on the media, most Americans have little exposure to truly progressive views.

The right-wing domination of most broadcast venues renders the American public ripe for another perspective.

The shibboleth that the mainstream media have a liberal bias is a smokescreen that obscures the ascendancy of the right. Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris effectively refutes that tiresome argument in the magazine's current edition.

He argues that mainstream news shops may be somewhat liberal, but seldom proselytize for the left. Rather, Glastris writes, they tend to "take seriously the traditional journalistic strictures of fairness, accuracy and independence of judgment."

The boisterous, expanding right wing doesn't operate under those constraints, he argues. "It doesn't pretend to be in the business of presenting all sides fairly, but of promoting its side successfully." He contends that conservative pundits are "ideological warriors who attempt with every utterance to advance their causes."

Their "center-left" counterparts are not polemicists, and don't have the same kind of killer instinct. Thus the ideological debate is inherently unbalanced, with one side evangelizing for its worldview and the other devoted to analyzing the pros and cons of differing views. The search for nuance is bad for Nielsen ratings.

Were MSNBC to break that mold and boldly offer a steady diet of unapologetic progressives, not only would it provide more balance to our political discourse, but I predict it also would boost the station's sagging Nielsens.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times.

Greens Get Real

During the first Earth Day celebrations in 1970, white students at San Jose City College wanted to dramatize the automobile's harmful effects on the environment. So they staged a spectacle that epitomized the oblivious and pampered angst of the time: They bought a new Cadillac and buried it. The Black Student Union demonstrated in protest, arguing that the money wasted on the car could have been better spent on a practical problem in San Jose's inner city.Such discordant perceptions have always complicated the relationship between the environmental and civil rights movements. Despite the fact that racial minorities are disproportionately victimized by pollution, few traditionally have been involved in the organized struggle against environmental degradation. Reasons vary. Some black activists explain that they have ignored the ecology movement for so long because it excluded them. At the turn of the century, blacks and other minorities were barred from the early wilderness preservation and conservation movements, precursors of modern-day environmentalism. Even the Sierra Club, the most progressive of the early environmental groups, excluded blacks, Jews and other minorities well into the '60s. According to some critics, vestiges of the old attitudes remain. In 1990, a coalition of civil rights groups circulated a letter accusing eight major environmental groups,the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks and Conservation Association and the Izaak Walton League, of racist hiring practices. These groups conceded that they had poor records of hiring and promoting minorities, but they denied racist motives. They attributed their racial uniformity instead to the scarcity of minorities in the pool of environmental specialists. Seven years later, the situation has changed somewhat for the better. "Some of these groups have really made a concerted effort to hire more minority staff and appoint more black and other minority board members," says Robert Bullard, director of Clark Atlanta University's Environmental Justice Resource Center and author of several books on the issue. But there's still a long way to go. The problem runs deeper than hiring practices: There is a cultural gulf that white environmentalists have only recently begun to recognize. For years, the elite pedigree and elitist culture of mainstream environmental organizations blinded them to the ecological threats facing minorities. For their part, minority activists found such issues as saving the endangered spotted owl or the snail darter too abstract and insignificant compared to more urgent concerns of pollution and other quality-of-life issues. Lately, however, the interests of environmentalists and civil rights advocates have converged in struggles that fall under the rubric "environmental justice." The environmental justice movement argues that social, political, economic and environmental issues are inextricably linked. The movement emerged as it dawned on African-American, Native-American and Latino leaders that minority communities suffer the most from pollution and benefit the least from cleanup programs."Slowly we are being picked off by industries that don't give a damn about polluting our neighborhood, contaminating our water, fouling our air, clogging our streets and lowering our property values," says Charles Streadit, an African-American resident of Houston and president of the Northeast Community Action Group. Streadit may sound paranoid, but he speaks from bitter experience. In 1979, in an action that sparked what became the environmental justice movement, his group sued the giant waste hauler Browning- Ferris Industries for maliciously targeting their northeast Houston neighborhood for placement of a solid-waste landfill. Streadit's group lost the case, but while researching the issue they discovered that between the early '20s and the late '70s, the city placed all five of its landfills and six of its eight incinerators in predominantly black neighborhoods.The Houston battle prompted similar ones throughout the nation. In 1982, North Carolina officials located a PCB (polychlorinated- biphenyl) landfill in predominantly black Warren County. Members of a broad range of civil rights groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congressional Black Caucus, gathered to protest the landfillUs construction. Several hundred demonstrators were arrested. While the Warren County battle, too, was lost, national black leadership became involved with environmental issues for the first time. One of the civil rights groups that joined the Warren County protest was the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, which later sponsored the path-breaking study "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States." Analyzing census data, the 1987 study found that race was the most significant of several variables in determining the location of commercial hazardous-waste sites in residential areas. It also revealed that three out of five African-Americans and Latinos live in communities with one or more hazardous-waste sites. The study also linked African-Americans' high rates of cancer, respiratory disorders, renal malfunctions, heart disease and mental impairment to toxic pollutants disproportionately found in their communities. The commission's executive director, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., coined the term "environmental racism" to describe the report's conclusions.The controversial findings exploded like a bombshell within the civil rights community and instantly energized many green activists, who used this potent issue to revitalize and expand the environmental movement. In October 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit took place in Washington, D.C., bringing together 650 grass-roots leaders representing more than 300 community groups from across the country. "After that conference, the movement seemed to take off," says Hazel Johnson, founder and president of the People for Community Recovery, a Chicago-based program and one of the few environmental groups based in public housing. "Organizations from different parts of the country began coordinating their activities, and things were really going strong."Most environmental justice activists conceive of their work as only distantly related to the mainstream environmental movement. The founding statement of the Southwest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, one of the largest grass-roots groups fighting environmental degradation and a prominent contributor to the 1991 summit, is typical of the genre: SWOP does not consider itself an environmental organization but rather "a community-based organization which addresses toxic issues as part of a broader agenda of action to realize social, racial and economic justice." The movement's growing organizing prowess has captured the attention of polluting industries. Many industry representatives believe it has the potential to become a more troublesome force than mainstream environmental groups. "It's a grass-roots movement, and the people leading it are much more personally involved in the issues," says John Kyte, director of environmental affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers. "It's also different [from traditional environmental groups] in terms of its aims. We have people in this movement talking about tangible survival issues." Industry was quick to respond to this threat. At a two-day conference in September 1994, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chemical Manufacturers Association resolved to aggressively fund research attacking the scientific underpinnings of the environmental justice movement. Soon after the conference, a number of reports began appearing that refuted the findings of the United Church of Christ study. Chief among them was a widely quoted study by scientists at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst funded by Waste Management, one of the nation's most egregious polluters.Such negative PR has hardly broken the movement's stride. Researchers continue to uncover links between environmental degradation and social pathologies in the black community. A 1996 study at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, for example, suggested that exposure to lead in the environment may contribute significantly to criminal behavior, a finding that might help explain the high rates of crime in America's inner cities. With the mainstream green groups under the thumb of Vice President Al Gore, their major political patron, environmental justice issues seem like the only game in town for serious activists. In fact, politicians close to the movement seem to be showing more backbone on environmental issues than anybody else. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has the best environmental voting record of any bloc in Congress, according to the League of Conservation Voters. The CBC had an average score of 76 percent during the 104th Congress, compared to an average Democratic score of 70 percent and an average Republican score of 24 percent.That's not to say, however, that they get any credit for it. "Historically, I think, environmental organizations have defined the environment basically as a white issue," says Bunyan Bryant, a professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan and a League of Conservation Voters board member. "Here are congressional representatives who time and time again have voted in the right direction, yet they have not received any recognition for their work."That's starting to change. Black Caucus members are urging mainstream groups to take on issues of environmental justice. This convergence of forces helped convince President Bill Clinton in 1994 to sign an executive order requiring federal agencies to "identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations." There have been many other movement victories: The predominantly Latino residents of Kettleman City, Calif., won a court judgment blocking plans for an incinerator in their town. Black and white residents united to quash plans for a uranium-enrichment plant in Homer, La. In Chicago, Hazel Johnson's People for Community Recovery has joined the Chicago Legal Clinic to help residents drive polluters out of several city neighborhoods. Civil rights groups are now seeking environmentalists' support to expand public transit subsidies and to rid inner-city neighborhoods of cigarette and liquor billboards.Once beyond the pale for environmentalists, these issues may help restore relevance to green politics. "If the environmental movement is going to bring about change, it can't go it alone," said Bryant, the University of Michigan professor, in an interview last year. "It's going to have to form some coalitions. Right now, the most viable movement in this country is the environmental justice movement."

Food Pyramid Scheme

Milk is becoming the major bone of contention in a rancorous debate about racism in U.S. dietary guidelines. Designed by the Department of Agriculture, the guidelines form the basis for all public and most private nutrition programs, including school breakfast and lunch programs, the food stamp program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Among other things, these federal guidelines recommend that all Americans over the age of two have two to three servings of dairy products each day, despite the fact that most non-white Americans are lactose intolerant.

Among the lactocse intolerant, dairy consumption is apt to provoke uncomfortable abdominal pain, bloating, gas and diarrhea. Yet the USDA has ignored that many Americans get sick when they drink milk. According to a two-part article last year in the Journal of the National Medical Association, lactose intolerance affects approximately 90 percent of Asian-Americans, 70 percent of African-Americans, 70 percent of Native Americans and 53 percent of Hispanics. The condition - lacking the lactase enzyme, which enables digestion of the milk sugar lactose - is rare only among Americans of northern European descent.

"Although it may be unintentional," explains Dr. Milton Mills, co-author of the Journal article, "the U.S. dietary guidelines as they exist are really a fundamental form of institutionalized racism in a rather destructive and insidious format." Mills is a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a Washington-based group that promotes preventive nutrition and has been among the most vocal opponents of the USDA guidelines. In fact, the PCRM has filed a lawsuit charging that the agency's guidelines were unhealthy and catered to the food industry.

Mills, who is African-American, told In These Times that the USDA's cavalier attitude about lactose intolerance is just one aspect of the federal government's lack of concern for the health needs of minorities. He argues that the government's refusal to encourage consumption of nondairy sources of calcium or to highlight the considerable evidence linking meat and dairy diets to many of the ailments that disproportionately affect American minorities is irresponsible at best.

Diseases that occur with a higher frequency among African-Americans, like diabetes, cardiovascular problems, prostate cancer and obesity, are aggravated by the fat and cholesterol found in the animal and dairy products recommended in the federal dietary guidelines. But there is little recognition of this link in the guidelines. The "Food Guide Pyramid," which was developed as a graphic representation of the guidelines, displays a pattern of food consumption and recommended servings that allegedly encourages the most healthy diet. At the very top of the pyramid are the foods that should be eaten sparingly: fats, oils and sweets. The next level includes meat and dairy products, and recommends two to three servings a day. The third level includes vegetables and fruits, and recommends two to five daily servings. The pyramid's foundation includes breads and grains, and recommends six to 11 servings.

The recommendation that all individuals over age two consume cow's milk daily began with the 1916 federal food guide and has remained constant despite increasing evidence that dairy consumption has major downsides. Prior to the '60s, most American health professionals believed that the lack of the lactase enzyme was rare. But, according to an article in PCRM's magazine, that changed in 1965 when researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that while just 15 percent of whites had digestive problems from ingesting lactose, no fewer than 70 percent of African-Americans had problems. The following year, a study of Maryland prison inmates found that 90 percent of African-Americans and only 10 percent of European-Americans developed symptoms. Further studies concurred that lactose intolerance was widespread.

In 1988, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that "it rapidly became apparent that this pattern (lactose intolerance) was the genetic norm, and that lactase activity was sustained only in a majority of adults whose origins were in northern European or some Mediterranean populations." Health professionals now recommend a change in terminology; those unable to digest milk should be considered normal rather than "lactose intolerant," while adults who have retained the digesting enzymes should be called "lactase persistent."

Yet more than 30 years after health professionals first realized that the inability to digest milk sugar was a normal condition, the USDA persists in recommending two dairy servings each day. One reason for this nutritional obtuseness is found in the agency's origins. When Congress created it in 1862, the USDA was charged with educating the public on agricultural matters, including food policy, while working with food producers to provide a reliable, consistent food supply. The agency published its first food guide in 1916, and it was designed largely to encourage diets based on foods produced by those with the most clout. In the early '50s, the USDA created four basic food groups: milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and breads and cereals. Food industry representatives like cattlemen and dairy farmers were integral to this process.

During the '70s, studies revealed the health dangers of fatty foods, and a Senate committee suggested the basic four food groups be revised to reduce the intake of cholesterol and saturated fat and increase the consumption of fruits, grains and vegetables. But outrage from influential groups of food producers forced a revision of the report from a message of "eat less meat and milk" to "choose lean meat and nonfat milk." In 1991, the USDA attempted to release an "Eating Right Pyramid," which emphasized grains and vegetables rather than animal products. But, according to the PCRM, "the Cattlemen's Association joined forces with the National Milk Producers Federation and other trade associations in opposing publication of this new model. Within weeks the Eating Right Pyramid was withdrawn."

The continuing influence of food producers in designing the USDA's dietary guidelines has prompted a lawsuit from the PCRM against the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), another federal agency involved in setting the dietary guidelines. The suit alleges racial bias and conflict of interest in the formulation of the guidelines and the food pyramid. American minorities are disproportionately affected by chronic diseases, the suit charges, and would be better served by dietary guidelines more inclusive of their needs.

The group claims that those concerns are missing because six of the 11 advisory committee members who devise the guidelines have explicit links to the meat or dairy industries. Specifically, the PCRM charges, the committee chairman and at least five other committee members have had links to the National Dairy Board, the National Dairy Council, the American Egg Board, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the American Meat Institute, the Dannon Research Institute and other similar groups.

"Having them on the very panel that is supposed to decide what's healthy for Americans to eat is like having Joe Camel on a committee designed to help people quit smoking," said PCRM president Neal D. Barnard when he announced the suit. While all Americans are ill-served by these questionable guidelines, Barnard noted, the problems are magnified in groups that are hardest hit by chronic, diet-related diseases.

The suit's primary goals are to encourage the committee to make recommendations that recognize the role diet plays in contributing to the high rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stoke, hypertension, obesity and lactose intolerance among Americans in general and people of color in particular; to promote the healthiest possible diet to reduce this toll; to make dairy products optional in the dietary guidelines; and to ensure that, in the future, the USDA and the DHHS choose members of advisory committees without conflicting ties to any food industries.

A number of organizations and individuals are supporting the PCRM position, including the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, the National Hispanic Medical Association, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Martin Luther King III. What's more, several supporters have joined in the lawsuit against the federal government. Massachusetts state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson joined the suit because of concerns that federally subsidized nutrition programs pushing milk may cause children in her primarily African-American district who have difficulty digesting lactose to suffer through the day with bloating and abdominal cramps.

The federal government insists that the food industry exerted no inappropriate pressure to design the guidelines. The National Dairy Council and the International Dairy Foods Association take issue with claims that milk products are dangerous. "A broad body of scientific data continues to demonstrate that dairy products are excellent sources of nutrients that are critical to disease prevention and normal physical growth and health," reads a statement issued jointly by the two groups, rebutting the PCRM's charges. "This attack is blatantly untrue and particularly irresponsible given that dairy products are an economical, widely available source of excellent nutrition for all Americans."

But critics charge that much healthier alternative sources of calcium - collard greens, broccoli, kale and beans - are omitted from the Food Guide Pyramid. In fact, the PCRM and its growing number of supporters have the USDA running for cover on the issue of inappropriate influence of the food industry in guidelines designed for optimal nutrition. By combining the dietary struggle with issues of racial fairness, the PCRM may finally have hit on a combination that will force the federal government to take a principled stand on preventive nutrition.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times.

The Color of New Activism

April's demonstrations in Washington and the ruckus in Seattle last November announced the arrival of a new spirit of political activism. After three decades of false alarms, the outlines of a new movement finally seem to be taking shape. Finding fault in such a long-awaited and deeply welcomed development may be looking a gift horse in the mouth. But one question must be asked: Where is the color in this new movement?

As the cultural pendulum swings again toward social activism, the monochromatic complexion of the activists sparks the same concern it did 35 years ago. In both Seattle and Washington, observers noted the relative absence of African-Americans from the mix of protesters, despite the fact that many of the contested issues concern policies that directly affect developing countries, especially those in Africa. Yet African-American activists, by and large, seem less concerned about the more abstract issues of globalism than they are the nuts-and-bolts problems of racial profiling, police brutality and inordinate incarceration.

This diverging agenda is easily explained by the differing social conditions black Americans must confront. A recent study sponsored by the National Science Foundation found a five-year decline in African-Americans' net worth and a wealth gap between black and white Americans that continues to expand despite a booming economy. The net worth of the median African-American family in 1999 was $7,000. For the median white family, it was $84,400. This historic disparity of capital is one reason why the issue of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow is gaining such momentum within the black community. Yet reparations have not been linked to larger issues of corporate accountability.

Similarly, the prison-industrial complex, where the scavenger logic of globalism is most crudely expressed, could be aligned with the overall battle against corporate power. As Manning Marable has written, "There is an inescapable connection between Seattle and Sing Sing Prison, between global inequality and the brutalization of Third World labor and what's happening to black, brown and working people here in the United States." Although the connection is plain, it has failed to produce an organization capable of attracting both blacks energized by recent struggles against police brutality and whites newly lured to the fight for global justice.

Back in 1966, the student activism movement split between the black power advocates and the anti-Vietnam/cultural politics axis. The fuse for this stark separation was lit when black members of the integrated Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee voted to oust white members and transform the group into a black power organization. Issues of cultural autonomy and positive self-definition were imperative to African-Americans during this period, as they came to grips with the legacy of internalized oppression and self-hatred. However, these issues were less important to their white colleagues. Inevitable differences in emphasis prevented SNCC from acting as a unified force, and white students were urged to form their own organizations.

In retrospect, it's clear that both blacks and whites were challenging the same enemy. The imperialist logic that justified the slaughter of the Vietnamese was akin to the bigoted logic that justified racial exclusion. Some radical black organizations attempted to make that link explicit, but they were drowned out by nationalist impulses coursing through black America at the time. Because of its failure to grasp black America's need for nationalist expression (and to understand that it wasn't necessarily hostile to the growing progressive movement) the left -- even the black left -- was reflexively repelled.

We still haven't overcome that divide. Here's our opportunity.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times.

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