Salim Muwakkil

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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,, "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, "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 . “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.


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