Friday, August 31, 2007

Blogging for Justice: Free the Jena Six

(This is going up here a day after I posted this on Maat's Feather on the Day of Blogging for Justice for the Jena Six. Feel free to come over for discussion!).

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This diary is part of the Afrospear campaign (the call for which was made by Bro. D. Yobachi Boswell - hat tip to him!) to raise our voices against the travesty of justice being played out in the case of six teenagers known as the Jena Six.  Why this campaign? Well, the Afrospear press release today makes it plain:

The Afrosphere Jena 6 Coalition "ask that the mainstream traditional media step forward and discharge their duty to provide coverage of this vitally important event to their viewers and readers and act as "the fourth institution" of governmental "checks and balance" that constitutional framers intended the press to be."

I regret only that this diary is coming late in the designated day, a victim of 48-hours of work-crisis I won't bore the reader with.

When I was in law school, my first-year moot court assignment was about free speech, and high school students.  The central issue in our mock case was whether a 1952 Supreme Court case that evaluated the right to free-speech against the Fourteenth Amendment rights of Black folks to live free from public expressions of racial hatred and white supremacy -- Beauharnais v. Illinois -- was still good law that would govern racially-based speech.  In Beauharnais, a white man was convicted under an Illinois libel statute making it a crime to exhibit in any public place any publication which "portray[ed] depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, color, creed or religion" or which "expose[d] the citizens of any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy."

Mr. Beauharnais was convicted because he was handing out what the Beauharnais court quaintly called "anti-Negro literature" on the streets of Chicago.  (I'll let y'all click the link to the case and read some of it for yourself; then tell me if it sounds all that much different than Ron Paul or Michael Richards, 55 years later.)

Justice Frankfurter, writing for a bitterly divided majority, relied on the 1942 case which enunciated the fighting words exception to the First Amendment, Chaplinsky v. United States to conclude that the Illinois statute under which Beauharnais was charged was constitutional, well within the police power of the State to keep the peace following centuries of slavery and white supremacy.  Justice Black, writing the lead minority opinion in Beauharnais (despite having been part of the unanimous ruling in Chaplinsky where race was not an issue, claimed that the First Amendment was virtually inviolate, such that speech inciting race hatred, like that advanced by Mr. Beauharnais in Chicago, was protected under it without regard to asserted countervailing rights, such as those arising under the Fourteenth Amendment, which were not equally absolute.  And, as a portend of today's High Court reasoning in a variety of contexts involving race, we were told that this was for our own good.  Justice Black's eloquent dissent in Beauharnais ended by warning "minorities" that, in essence, we should be careful what we ask for (the right to be free from public assault on our characters and dignity) because we may get it:

If there be minority groups who hail this holding as their victory, they might consider the possible relevancy of this ancient remark:

"Another such victory and I am undone."

Ultimately, because that's what our professors made plain was the "only right answer", those of us who were eager 1L's being exposed to modern Constitutional law in the area of race readily, even if sadly, concluded that Beauharnais was no longer good law, having been impliedly if not expressly overruled by Sullivan v. New York Times.  Yet I wonder from time to time whether our High Court's accidental or purposeful retreat from the interpretations of the First Amendment which balanced free speech against the societal injury of racial fighting words and concluded that the societal harm from certain speech was so severe as to justify public (although not private) censorship -- as affirmed forth in Beauharnais and its predecessor case, Chaplinsky -- is directly correlated with this country's shift, beginning in 1953 with Brown v. Board of Education from an overtly-white supremacist nation to a covert one, as Blacks and whites in this country came more and more into constant contact with each other over the objections of most whites.  With the result that white supremacy was forced under ground by the law which, as set forth in Beauharnais, (which was fatally undermined by Sullivan v. NY Times but has never been expressly overruled by the Supreme Court, much the way that Brown v. Board of Education just was by Parents Involved v. Seattle School Dist. #1), criminalized attacking the character of people of color through "free speech" in public.

I wonder because had Beauharnais in particular not been effectively overruled ot make way for "absolute" First Amendment rights -- rights that the story of the Jena Six should confirm even for the staunchest racial utopianist tare not rights that all races enjoy equally on the ground in America -- perhaps the "racial free speech" act that began the saga which ended with the criminal case of the Jena Six would have never been necessary.  Or, even if it had been, it certainly might have been nipped in the bud as soon as one of the country's most ancient symbols of racial terror was hung from a tree in Jena, Louisiana last September, 2006.

On the assumption that a reader seeing this diary might not have actually heard of the Jena Six (since that's what I was told last time I wrote about this case a month ago), here's my synopsis of the facts as they are known today following the trial and conviction of the first of the Jena Six, Mychal Bell:

In September, 2006, a black student at Jena High School asked school administrators whether he could sit under the "white tree," a shade tree on school grounds that had historically been used only by white students in the largely-segregated town of Jena, Louisiana.    After hearing that he could sit wherever they wanted, he did. 

The next morning, he and the other Black students of Jena High School were greeted with three nooses hanging from the "white tree." -- in the school colors, I guess to make them more noticeable. 

Following an investigation, Jena High's principal identified the responsible parties - three of the school's white students.  To his credit, he recommended expulsion.  He was overruled, however, by the School Superintendent, who imposed only a three-day suspension as punishment.  Trying to justify this to the media later, this paragon of academic virtue said that the act was not a threat to anyone; instead it was just a simple case of happy teenage foolishness: "Adolescents play pranks."

Spoken as only a true redneck of the South could speak, about a symbol of racial violence that is as well known in Jena, Louisiana as it is everywhere South (and many places North!) of the Mason-Dixon line.

Naturally, the Black community got a bit upset.  Parents started trying to identify who to complain to.  The Black students of Jena High went a different route.  They (apparently spontaneously) reached into the wellspring of political action that has served justice well for millenia:

They decided to collectively protest by ALL sitting under the white tree at the same time.

Anywhere other than America, the point would likely have been proven by that act.  But we're not talking about anywhere.  We are talking about a small Louisiana town (that is nonetheless the largest town in LaSalle Parish, Louisiana.)  A town whose population of just under 3,000 is 85% white, with only 350 Black residents in its borders.  A town that still refers to its single Black school board member as "colored" and that has a town barber who seems to find it a point of honor that he has never cut a Black man's hair.

In light of this, the official reaction to this collective political action by our young Black youth in Jena (which puts me in mind of that great understatement from "Stand by Me" spoken by one of the few white castmembers: "It appears that [the] students have assembled in an exercise of their First Amendment rights.") was not entirely unpredictable, especially in America today.  Jena High's administration called a mandatory student assembly. LaSalle Parish's DA, Reed Walters, accompanied by 10 fine representatives of LaSalle Parish law enforcement, came to address the students.  Students contend that the DA threatened the protesting Black students with retribution if they didn't stop making a fuss about the noose incident.  He reportedly also said to these young men and women the  words that were portends of the nightmare that the Jena Six now face:

I can be your best friend or your worst enemy.

I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.

After this assembly, and the DA's "laying down the law"  students were reportedly put on lock down for the rest of the school week. 

Despite this "mandatory cooling off" at Jena High, things remained tense throughout the fall, reportedly calmed only by the fact that it was football season -- which is a big deal in the South, no matter what race you are.

Yet on the night of November 30, 2006, someone set fire to the main academic building of Jena High School. Nobody knows who did it, to this day.

  It doesn't matter, I guess, since the next night, Friday December 1, 2006, a Jena High black student named Robert Bailey Jr. accepted an invitation to a party held at an establishment normally frequented only by whites in Jena.  Upon his arrival, he was punched in the face, knocked down, and jumped by several white youth who were present.  Of this gang of thugs, only one student was (subsequently, and much later) identified.  Instead of facing what Robert Bailey Jr. now faces -- which is up to 80 years in prison -- this upstanding young white citizen was given probation, and asked to apologize.

The next day, a white man who may, or may not, have been at the party the night before got into a verbal fight with three Black teenagers, including Robert Bailey, Jr. at the Gotta Go convenience store outside Jena.  At some point, the white guy pullled out a shotgun from his vehicle and brandished it at the Black kids.  Their response was to wrestle it from him, and run away with it (no doubt to ensure they would not be buckshotted as they fled). They called the police, and reported the incident.

They were subsequently arrested and charged with theft of the shotgun.  (No charges were filed against the white man who brandished it at them.)

On December 4, 2006 - Monday -- back at school at Jena High, a white student named Justin Barker, allegedly began taunting Black students, including Robert Bailey, Jr..  He called them niggers repeatedly and expressing support for the white students who hung the nooses and beat up Bailey.

(Justin Barker's mama obviously has not taught him the fine Southern arts of minding your own business and knowing when to shut-the-hell-up.  Equally obviously, she *did* teach him the fine Southern art of feeling entitled to break the law just because he is a privileged white male kid who is afraid of a butt wuppin' by uppity darkies.  I say this because young master Barker this May decided to bring a loaded hunting rifle onto the Jena High school grounds with 13 rounds in it, I guess since he knew that Mychael Bell was about to go to trial.

This criminal act is, of course, something that in our post-Columbine era -- where young students are arrested for writing fiction stories in class even hinting of possible school violence -- you'd have thought would have landed Justin Barker under the jailhouse.  Yet LaSalle Parish law enforcement clearly decided that this was just another case of "adolescents play pranks" since after Justin Barker was quite belatedly arrested, he was promptly released on only $5,000 bail.  Juxtapose this outcome with Mychal Bell's bail of $90,000 for getting into a school fight - if you dare risk your head exploding.)

This was the proverbial camel-breaking straw, I guess, for the young Black male students of Jena High School who witnessed it.  Justin Barker was apparently knocked out cold with a single punch, and while he was down, allegedly kicked by several black students.  He was up and about by the time the police and ambulance arrived.  After being scanned, treatened and released at the hospital, he attended his school's ring party that same evening.  He reportedly had to spend the next week on Tylenol.

Would that the Jena Six had it so good.  For their headache, six black Jena students -- Robert Bailey Jr. (17), Mychal Bell (16 - charged as an adult), Carwin Jones (18), Theo Shaw (17), Bryant Purvis (17), and an unidentified 15-year old were each arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder because of their alleged involvement in the beat-down of Justin Barker.  Their bail amounts ranged from a low of $70,000 to a high of $138,000 (for Robert Bailey, Jr.)  Most remained in jail for months until their poverty-stricken families could post bond.  Mychal Bell and Carwin Shaw have never left jail - neither of their families could afford to bail them out.

The Jena Six were all expelled from Jena High School, their academic careers now officially over.

While there was a great deal of pressure for the students to plead guilty, Mychal Bell (represented by a white public defender) refused to plead guilty to a felony.  This prompted the DA to immediately reduce the charges on the morning of trial to second degree aggravated battery (in Louisiana, battery with a dangerous weapon.)

I know you're asking:  what dangerous weapon?

Mychal Bell's tennis shoes, with which his feet were shod when he allegedly kicked Justin Barker.

(I will one day write a diary about how I feel as an attorney knowing that in the State of Louisiana, there are *multiple* cases actually concluding that sneakers are a dangerous weapon.)

Mychal Bell's fate was swift, and once again, predictable -- since his public defender put on no witnesses on his behalf, whereas the DA put on 17 witnesses -- all white, including young master Barker.  Trial was held before a white judge, and an all-white jury selected from an all-white venire, on which sat two friends of the DA, a white witness' relative, and several friends of witnesses for the prosecution. Mychal Bell's parents could not attend the trial to support their son, excluded by the rule that normally excludes trial witnesses to avoid tainting their testimony -- yet Justin Barker was permitted to attend, despite his also being a witness governed by that rule.  A gag order was even placed on Bell's parents, preventing them from letting the world know that their son was on trial for an aggravated felony only for racial reasons.  At trial, 11 white students, 3 white teachers and 2 white school nurses gave varying testimony about whether Mychal Bell did, or did not, do anything to Justin Barker.  Justin Barker admitted he did not know whether Mychal Bell even touched him.

But this is Jena, Louisiana.  So after only 3 hours of deliberation, Mychal Bell was convicted on July 28, 2007 of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit it.  He is scheduled to be sentenced on September 20, 2007.  He faces a maximum sentence of 22 years in prison.

The remaining members of the Jena Six have not yet stood trial.  They all still face charges of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit attempted murder, their charges having not been reduced by the LaSalle Parish DA.

The first time I blogged about the Jena Six, in a diary called The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree it was shortly after I first heard that Mychal Bell, a young Black man in high school -- with a promising athletic future, status on the school honor roll -- and what I have now learned is a a minor juvenile record, for getting into fights and vandalism (something that my own son faced as a teenager, his temper having once been inconsistent with a zero-tolerance world) -- had been convicted by an all-white jury of aggravated assault on one of his white peers, such that he faced up to 22 years in prison for what under normal circumstances would have been deemed a high school fight justifying, at best, his suspension and, perhaps a juvenile court referral. 

But the circumtances of Jena are not "normal circumstances".  

Not normal, unless you view the circumstances that have led to six young men -- all children, in my eyes -- facing what is now between 22 and 80 years in prison for a high school fight as normal through the gauzy lens of racial history in America, in which Blacks have always had to confront the "fighting words" aspect of America's love of Free Speech - but have almost always been punished severely for reacting, as the Supreme Court in both Chaplinsky and Beauharnais recognized, as normal human beings would react to fighting words - by fighting white racist speech with their bodies, the only power that usually they have to stop it.  To know the facts of the story in Jena, Louisiana as they relate to the Jena Six is to experience an evocative, frustating, memory -- perhaps a collective memory -- of what we thought was a different time when we could neither fight in self-defense to save our own manhood and womanhood or protest peacefully against it without meaningful risk of life.  The memory of a time they said was done now, in our colorblind, post-Dr. King society:  when public terrorist threats against Black folks for simply exercising their God given rights was not an uncommon thing.

(And for those self-serving racist naysayers out there like the LaSalle Parish School Superintendent, make no mistake, hanging nooses was a terrorist threat -- the threat of lynching at the hands of whites -- and it is that terrorist threat that was the genesis and remains at the root of the poisonous tree of racist injustice known as case of the Jena Six.  For what other American symbol (other than the white sheet and hood of the Ku Klux Klan) is more recognizable to Black folks born and raised in America as the harbinger of the end of Black lives for exercising their rights -- it was once called "being uppity" -- than the hangsman's noose?

I thought we learned all those lessons -- about long ago.

Yet Jena Louisiana obviously continues not to learn its lessons.  This is evident when their white supermajority -- 85% of the town -- has spent more time complaining that they are being unfairly branded as the collective racists they are than about the unfairness of what they almost all also admit was a schoolhouse fight that should not land someone in jail for 22 years.  This was evident when on Tuesday, nine children -- children who have a right to free speech, or did before the Supreme Court's decision in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case -- were suspended on Tuesday from Jena High School for were advised that wearing their tee shirts advocating to "Free the Jena Six" were "disruptive."  Wearing tee shirts in a school that has no dress code.

It seems that the good white citizens of Jena, Louisiana have not yet learned what justice really means outcomes which are just, not just the procedural appearance of a courtroom show called "justice." True justice does not waste time trying to sweep injustice under the rug, or deflect from injustice, as Louisiana is desperately now trying to do by doing something of questionable legality:  releasing information about Mychal Bell's juvenile record to the media, in response to what is an increasing hue and cry against the injustice of the Jena Six case.  This retributive, self-serving and quite likely illegal act on the part of LaSalle Parish is clearly, along with most things Jena these days, is a travesty of justice.

The travesty of justice in Jena, Louisiana is the old evocative story I mentioned above:  The story in which Justice in America for Black folks is, increasingly again, Just Us, when it comes to the criminal law.

It is likely to always be so, here in America.

Unless we fight.

Since I am not an advocate of kicking ass and taking no prisoners as a method of social change, except rhetorically, unless one has truly has no other options, all that is left is for folks like me -- mothers like me of young Black men -- to tell the story and spread it far and wide.  Tell it so that it is never forgotten and it is front and center.  Until justice, which like the symbol of my blog, Maat's Feather, is done grounded in truth.

But if we don't tell the story, protest this injustice, nobody will.

Since the mainstream media does not care about these young Black men in Jena - go check out how few stories they have written, even today, about the resurgence of sanctioned Jim Crow misconduct in American law enforcement that is evinced by this story.  

Since Governor Kathleen Blanco (D) of Louisiana, who has the power to instantly stop the railroading of these children doesn't care -- go check out the form letters she sent us all when we wrote to beg her to intervene. 

We won't even mention Bobby Jindal or Emperor George W. Bush.

They don't care in Louisiana about the lives of young Black children.  They don't care that whites are again from an early age free to taunt and levy psychic -- and PHYSICAL -- threats and injuries at Black children.  Don't believe me? Then ask yourself this question:

Why is it that we know the names of ALL of the young Black men that allegedly did wrong in Jena, Louisiana (except for the one that the law expressly prohibits the press or anyone else from naming due to his age), yet we know NONE of the names of the several white youths who committed the acts of harassment, terrorist threats, threatened and actual violence which created the racial tinderbox that ultimately exploded in a loss of patience -- the final moment of "sick and tired of being sick and tired", for which the Jena Six's lives are now being thrown away, legally, before they have all even become old enough to vote?  Not ONE of these white hooligans names has ever been printed in the press that one can find on the Internet. 

Not one of the names is publicly known -- even the allies of the Jena Six have not printed them.  Except for one - Justin Barker, the so-called victim of the Jena Six.  This is not accidental, even if it's not conscious.  It's merely a continuation of the same unconscious white supremacy that makes sure that when a Black person commits a crime, his race is announced to the world, but never mentioned when a criminal is white.  It's because their young white lives, even though they have all done dirty and there has never been any dispute about that, are perceived as still having future value despite their bad acts -- not just in Jena, Louisiana, but everywhere.  So, unconsciously or consciously, they are allowed protection of their future reputations despite their being the catalysts in this travesty of justice.  In contrast, the Black youth who were involved and who were demonstrably the responders, not the instigators, are obviously seen as having no future worth protecting.  If they were, then why are they all facing sentences that guarantee they will finish growing up behind the walls of a hellish Louisiana prison, and if they are given the maximums, will likely die there as well?

Yet they don't care anywhere else either.  Because the travesty of justice that is occuring in Jena, Louisiana in connection with six of our Black youth is happening all over America now, in increasingly frequent travesties of justice small and large that are collectively condemning our young Black men's futures before they've even had a chance to become legal men.  There was a quote in one of the first articles I ever read about the Jena Six that makes it plain what time it is for us in light of that:

You better get out of your houses. You better come out and defend your children - because they are incarcerating them by the thousands. Jena's not the beginning, but Jena has crossed the line.  Justice is not right when you put on the wrong charges and then convict. I believe in justice. I believe in the point of law. I believe in accepting the punishment if I'm guilty. If I'm guilty, convict me and punish me, but if I'm innocent, no justice.

I believe in those things too, and have since long before I ever took my oath as an attorney all these many years ago.  Which is why I'm glad that we have had today to blog for justice for the Jena Six - our youth, being snatched away from us by the injustice of ongoing white supremacy in America and its handmaiden, prosecutorial discretion in the hands of racist whites. 

But, since when it comes to the Jena Six, neither the media nor the politicians stumping for our votes seem to care much (including, except as a member of the collective Congressional Black Caucus since I cannot find any public statement he has yet made about the Jena Six despite being the only Black man running for President at this time -- Senator Barack Obama /sigh.) 

So it's up to us to care, since they are OUR children, that our young men are being railroaded into figurative death -- their youth being potentially stripped away from them, merely for a youthful loss of temper that those much older probably would have had long before young master Justin Barker got the ass-whuppin his racist mouth had coming to it.

Here's the call to action:  those of you who believe in justice -- those for who the words of Dr. King about the nature of justice and his wise counsel that where injustice is concerned, what affects one, affects all --  those of you in solidarity, raise your mouses.  Raise your virtual pens.  Beauharnais v. Illinois may no longer be considered good law, but some words are still fighting words. 

So let's fight.

Since we cannot and should not in a just world need to use our fists, let's fight through our blogs.  But don't stop there.  Fight through our letters and phone calls and through taking our bodies to the streets in protest if we have to, to save these young men's lives from the travesty of justice unfolding in Jena.

Blog for justice today, and tomorrow and until we as Black people actually see it as something more than a one-off whenever whites accuse us of committing crimes against them.  Justice for the Jena Six, whose finally getting sick and tired of being sick and tired have them now facing between 22 and 80 years in prison for a schoolyard brawl.  Justice the New Jersey 4, young Black women who like the Jena Six had no criminal records yet who are now serving between 3 and 11 years in prison merely for defending themselves against a gender-based physical attack on them grounded in their status as lesbians -- despite videotape proving they acted in self-defense against, not as instigators of, violence.  Blog for justice for the survivors of Katrina who rang bells in the Big Easy yesterday on the Second Anniversary to both honor the souls of the dead and to warn future generations that the tide may still one day rise against us - unless we are ever vigilant.

And after you're done blogging, please take the time to read the words of those other Afrospear members who have taken up the cause of justice through their blogs today for the Jena 6, and follow their links to action:

  • Wayne Hicks @ Electronic Village

  • D. Yobachi Boswell @ Black Perspective

  • Daz Wilson @ Ultraviolet Underground

  • Francis Holland @ Afrosphere Bloggers Association

  • Jim D. Walton @ Black in Business

  • 6. Cooper @ Wonderland or Not

  • 7. Yolonda @Ebony Mommy

  • 8. Vanessa Byers @ Vanessa: Unplugged

  • 9. Sincere @ http://sincere-thoug...

  • 10. Pia @ Courting Destiny

  • 11. Adrianne George @ Black Women in Europe

  • 12. Eddie Griffin @ Eddie Griffin BASG

  • 13. PB @ Savant Writer

  • 14. Tom Autopref @The Small Business Weekly

  • 15. Dave J. @Wandering in Ether

  • 16.  B. Medusa @ Mnemosyne

  • 17.  Shawn Williams @Dallas South Blog

  • 18. Deidra @Black and Missing but Not Forgotten

  • 19.  AAPP @ African American Political Pundit & African-American Opinion

  • 20. Invisible Woman @Invisible Cinema

  • 21. Plez @PlezWorld

  • 22. Mahogony Diva @ Mahogany Diva

  • 23. Saba @ Greasy Guide

  • 24.  Out of the Jungle

  • More Below!

    Monday, August 27, 2007

    Alberto Gonzales - Latest Rat to Abandon the Ship

    One of the fun things about being a crack-of-dawn person (even today, on my birthday) is that sometimes you get greeted with news that can't help but make you grin from ear to ear.

    The resignation of the disgrace with a law license known as the (now former) Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is one of them.

    The most telling part of the New York Times' article is that "Bush accepted [the resignation] begrudgingly."

    This tells me that despite his apparent willingness to perjure himself before Congress; despite glad endorsement of torture; despite his cold-blooded justification of spying on Americans (and everyone else too); despite his zealous pursuit of the federal death penalty even over the concerns of his own prosecutors; and despite his willingess to trash the government careers of good lawyers solely because they did not follow his Party's party line, Gonzales hadn't yet completely lost his sense of personal survival. 

    Perhaps like Karl Rove, his resignation over the objections of George Bush is clearly the act of a man who saw that he'd better get while the getting is good.  (Not that this absolves him from perjury but knowing the historical temperament of Congress, they are less likely to pursue him if he's gone.)  Gonzales' former master President George W. Bush may still be drunk on the elixir he quaffs as So-Called Leader of the Free World, but Gonzales apparently hadn't forgotten that big ass bullseye painted across his forehead while they were drinking their asses off, and decided that he'd better get sober before he ended up in the drunk tank.

    (Although I think they call that federal prison......)

    A lot of folks are going to lament today that the Democratic Party didn't "get" Gonzales and be angry.  I am not angry.  Since I am not about retribution, I am about saving the country from its descent into a rogue state.  So the more of these anti-American architects and masters of George Bush's fascist-in-training government pick up and leave, the greater the chance we might actually get our country back.

    I won't even spend time talking about the shame and disgrace that Alberto Gonzales is as a person of color who was given so much blessing given his humble origins as the son of migrant workers, only to have chosen to use it to do evil in the world for the benefit of the white and the wealthy instead of those from whence he came, such that despite all of his awards from various minority Bar Associations, he ends his government career with his name forever remembered as a giant blot on this nation's fundamental principles of justice under the law. I'll let someone else far more eloquent have at that one.

    More Below!

    Friday, August 24, 2007

    The Rich Get Richer. The Poor? Maybe Homeless

    Something that not too many folks are talking about in connection with the mortgage and market shakeouts is the divergent impact of this problem on communities, depending on the demographics.

    At present, there still appears to be no meaningful harm to the upper end of the housing market in terms of either devaluation or a flattening sales curve.  For the wealthy, real estate business (as opposed to mortgage-backed securities investment, anyhow!) appears to still be booming.  Inventories in some of the more "upscale" (almost all white and Asian) places to live in the Bay Area are just around 30 days - which means that sales are beyond brisk.

    While there is a temporary panic over the fact that jumbo loan financing (that which exceeds $417,000, the maximum loan amount that can be guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddic Mac) shut completely down two Fridays ago and thus, high end folks had to pony up even more money for closing home deals, the word on the street is that this was only temporary and now business is inching upward again already (no doubt because those who can come up with more cash are doing so.)

    Would that the working and middle class had it so good.  With plummeting values and sales non-existent, with some "not upscale" communities (like east and south San Jose, where there are lots and lots of Brown people) now faced with more than a 1 year inventory of homes up for sale, things are grim and California is facing the highest levels of foreclosure activity it has seen in a decade.

    At the same time that prices for housing continue to go up - but only if you want to buy in the "right neighborhoods."

    In other words, the rich continue to make each other richer, through their homes - median prices continue to rise for them, even as they plummet for those whose only real asset was the equity in their homes.  It at times feels like well-off folks (not to mention the equity purchasers and foreclosure rescuers, for whom RealtyTrac conitnues to be valuable) are presently having an orgy, that they are driving prices up at the same time they know how bad it is out there for more modest homeowners whose struggle to become homeowners far more closely reflects the original meaning of the "American Dream" than the new money which followed the post-Reagan era of personal greed.
    The frightening proof in the pudding about what we face here in California as a result of the "mortgage liquidity crisis" is seen in the number of trustee's deeds recorded - after homes were actually sold on the auction block, the ultimate failure of lending that historically both borrowers and lenders have done everything possible to avoid, such that they heretofore were a comparatively rare occurrence in life. 

    Not anymore. 

    The percentage increase in the most devastating event to occur in a homeowner's life -- one's home being sold at public trustee's sale -- in those California counties which house huge numbers of the poor/working/lower middle-class population in of our state -- particularly in the rural/farmworker counties -- in just one year should bring any decent person close to tears:

  • San Bernadino County:  986.9% increase

  • Contra Costa County:  1,154.8%

  • San Luis Obispo County:  1,200%

  • Stanislaus County:  1,350%

  • Monterey County:  1,825%

  • Yuba County:  2,000%

  • Kern County:  2,032%

  • El Dorado County:  2,125%

  • Merced County:  3,328.6%

  • Yolo County:  10,200%

  • (Source:  DataQuick)

    That the state's bottom line of trustee's sales is "only" 799.2% more than it was a year ago in light of the numbers I've listed above is something for celebration, only if you're in one of the neighborhoods whose average pulled the listed numbers down to "only" 799.2%.

    This is occurring all over the country and while this diary won't post all the data, it isn't hard to find, and confirm.  For those skeptics -- almost all employed by the real estate sales industry at this point -- who insist insanely that all this shakeout of low-income communities is either (a) just a fluke given the high cost of California housing or (b) a natural correction in the marketplace -- I urge them to review ALL of Dataquick's market reports that are publicly available as a starting place: 

    For Portland, Oregon (21% fewer homes sold, but at a 2.6% higher price);

    Seattle, Washington (23% decrease in home sales yet prices rose 7.6%) 

    Miami, Florida (33.3% decrease in sales yet prices rose 5.1%)

    Honolulu, Hawaii (in most expensive zip codes, price per square foot rose between 3.7 and 115.2% yet fell in less costly neighborhoods)

    Nashville, Tennessee (sales decreased up to 11.8% in most expensive neighborhoods yet prices rose up to 13.3%)

    Chicago, Illinois (many exclusive residential areas, such as Lake Forest, Hinsdale, Kenilworth, Glencoe, Oak Park, River Forest, Winnetka and Western Springs, saw sales decrease as much as 39.4% yet prices increase up to 34.3%)

    Sure, there were a few communities going in a slightly different direction, where prices were actually going down a tiny bit, but it is (a) tiny and (b) they are all markets which boomed as people fled the central urban areas in the past 10 years -- in search of affordable home ownership:

    Denver, Colorado (16.3% increase in sales with 3.3% decrease in price)

    Las Vegas, Nevada (43.8% decrease in sales, 3.7% decrease in price)

    Phoenix, Arizona (32.8% decrease in sales, 5.4% decrease in price)

    Oh well, no point talking too much about the obvious. 

    Especially since I didn't write this diary to talk about homeowners. 

    What prompted this diary was not the ongoing crisis in the news about housing.  What prompted this diary was this week's effort to help my young son, a hard worker but just starting out, find an apartment for himself, his lady, and their baby who is coming in January.  Because of the sticky wicket of pregnancy discrimination against his woman (another diary in and of itself), my son is currently the sole support for his family.  He makes $21,000 per year.  After taxes, he will bring home around $19,000 of that, since you can't avoid social security and disability taxes no matter what you do.

    In the Bay Area, other than living in dangerous neighborhoods or dilapidated housing (and I know what they are, living in the 'Hood myself, so my standards are not the traditional bougie standards) this week I could find no 2-bedroom rental unit on the market for less than $1,350 per month.  $16,200 per year.

    (Subsidized housing, you say? Not even - our local county has not had any available Section 8 vouchers since 2001 and their waiting list is, yet again, closed; now nearly every county in the Bay Area is in the same position. )

    Fortunately for my son, I can and will obviously be helping his new family with serious financial subsidies, even if it won't be easy for any of us since my income is not All That.  But it is better than them being in the streets; that they at least won't have to face  Yet even when his partner returns to work after the baby in 6 months or so, even between the two of them they will make just barely enough to afford the cheapest unit for their new family which is available right now here in the Bay Area.

    That gave me serious pause, but not as much pause as the next question that popped into my mind, which was this:

    What is the rental market going to be like in in six months to a year, after the country is fully engaged in the *practical* fallout of the mortgage meltdown crisis? What will rental housing markets look like after hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of families are forced to move when they are evicted following foreclosure?

    It is that question which caused me to almost stop breathing.

    Obviously, folks have to live somewhere when they lose their homes and, just as obviously they will be renters (nobody is going to allow their home to be foreclosed if they have any ability to avoid it; since they won't be homeowners again for at least 2-5 years simply because of the credit impact of the foreclosure).

    But where?

    Superficially, at least, one can take some comfort in the 9.6% rental vacancy rate nationally.  But only cuperficially.  But if you scratch that number, two things become clear.  First, in urban markets, the vacancy rate is nowhere near 9.6% - it's been less than 4% for years.

    Second, most of the existing rental housing vacancies are higher priced rentals.  One-third (1/3) of all rentals in the United States cost more than $800 per month.  As housing is considered affordable only if it costs less than 25%-30% of gross income or using the most free-market friendly percentages30% of net income, an $800/month rental unit is affordable only to a family who grosses $3200 a month - $37,000 per year.

    Before you say "Big Deal, that's not that bad" remember that the median family income in the United States as of the last publicly released data set (2005) was $46,242 per year. And that median family income continues to decrease as it has since the dot-com bust, especially for lower income workers. As of 2005, nearly 1/2 of all US households reported earned income of less than $30,000; 2/3 reported less than income of $50,000. Of the 111 million households in the United States at that time, 42.5 million (38%) of them had total household income of less than $35,000 per year in 2005, despite the "average/mean" income in the United States exceeding $62,000 at that time. 

    What does this all mean? Well, it means if nothing else that in 2005, rentals at an $800 rent level were unaffordable to a large number of families.

    But it also means that in urban erntal markets, where folks would have signed over their firstborn for a rental at $800 a month two years ago, since many rents were multiples of $800 in price at even that time, most working folks can't really afford to both have a nuclear family and keep a decent roof over their heads.  Take a look at the Bay Area as an example:

    Bay Area Housing Affordability Data

    This was the case all over the country in 2005. 

    Don't believe me? Well take a look at this map, created with the last-reported national data. .  The "lower income colors" predominate all but small financial oasises (oases?) nationwide:

    The third thing that one needs to remember is that (according to the reports linked above) nearly 50% of multifamily housing units (apartments, the only thing that's affordable in urban markets) stayed on the market less than 60 days.  This meant that it was rented as soon as availability was announced, practically. 

    In other words, there has historically been nowhere near enough affordable rental housing for who needed it, when they needed it.

    But that was in 2005.  Before the bottom fell out of the mortgage markets and credit markets, and folks started losing their homes. 

    You can probably all guess where this is going.

    Things are going to get very very ugly.

    Because at some point, those homeowners who are being now wiped out (and wiped out they will be, for they will expend everything to try and save their homes) and will be in direct competition for rental housing with those who are lifetime renters, already competing in a expensive rental housing market that has lately required 2-3 minimum wage jobs to keep a decent roof over their heads. 

    We all know what that means.  As is always the case in "free markets", those who have more to spend on rental housing will begin to displace those who have less to spend.  Since, in a free market in which there are many renters, few "affordable" units, and almost no governmental controls on landlord pricing or landlord evictions, landlords can afford to "pick and choose" who to rent to.  And why would a landlord take or keep a tenant that only just makes the rent payment, who could be late at any moment if they lose their job, when the landlord is now being solicited by families that have more income (even if not enough to be homeowners?) Why would any landlord not do what has been the tried and true method to success in the residential real estate rentals market:  rent to the highest bidders with the "best" credit ratings and the most disposible income?

    (After all, it's not like we have a right to ask those fortunate enough to earn property to actually *choose* to make less profit off of it for the good of society, or anything socialist/communist like that.  This is America, damnit.)

    Since we know the past, we know the future, once former homeowners start flooding the rental marketplace again.  The poor, with nowhere else to go, because God isn't presently building any more land and the land that was previously built already is built to capacity, will be outmaneuvered, and thus out of the few secure and decent places to live that are available to them.  In numbers that nobody knows yet - but will likely rival the dot-com boom, where in places like the Bay Area working folks slept in barns and in cars and in shifts on other people's floors, because there was simply no housing available at all that they could afford to rent.

    But who cares about the working poor?

    After all, if even before the mortgage crisis hit, many poor renters were still already largely being left out, and across the country decent safe sanitary and affordable housing continued to be out of reach for many working folks, there is no question that as the mortgage crisis continues, the poor will become the transient, the discarded, the homeless, in a free market that encourages property owners to maximize their profits.

    The housing crisis dialogue has so far been solely at the owner and investor levels, and Lord knows there is plenty to talk about and to fear at those level, where long-standing working class neighborhoods and communities -- many of color -- are standing on a rug that is slowly being pulled out at one end with everyone standing on it listing and on the verge of toppling.  But the analysis can't stop there, because all those millions of homeowners who are facing possible displaement have to have somewhere to go when they don't have homes anymore.  And the only place they can go already doesn't do its job of housing working folks at a price most can handle.

    Those who are seeing and trying to cope with this crisis know this, which is why after a couple of weeks of watching the financial markets masturbate their players with billions of dollars to keep each other standing, all while those markets are pulling up access to credit faster than a moldy carpet -- and thus guaranteeing that millions will be in crisis when their mortgages reset, are speaking up just a little bit louder about the bottom line:

    If this crisis is to be solved, it is the homeowners who must be saved.  And fuck the banks, hedge funds, lenders and brokers, unless they are coming to the table to sacrifice of some of their previosuly windfall level profits to make it happen.

    Yes, things are so devastating that, at least here in California, non-profits from all sectors, financial to legal, have banded together (which is the Ghostbusters' equivalent of dogs and cats living together; trust me) and called for a six-month moratorium on *all* foreclosures in California until solutions are found. This call was first made in May, when the recorded defaults (the first step in the California foreclosure process) were at around 54,000 for all of 2007.

    How time flies in the blink of an eye:  With 179,559 new foreclosures being initiated in the United States in the month of July, 2007, California managed to contribute 39,000 foreclosures (72% of the previous annualized total) to that total in a single month.

    I'll end with a rant, one that I have been dedicated to for the past 26 years and continue to believe to the depths of my soul:

    Decent, Safe, Sanitary and Affordable Housing is not a commodity.

    Decent, Safe, Sanitary and Affordable Housing is a Human Right!

    Even if you're not a homeowner or investor.

    More Below!

    Sunday, August 19, 2007

    In the Presence of Giants

    Yesterday morning, after a bleary-eyed drive up to the City of Berkeley, CA following a night with Lewis Black at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall (in which he advocated for the election of Santa Claus rather than yet another same-old same-old politician labeled Democrat or Republican, or, at a minimum, forcing whoever won to wear the red suit as a unifying force for the country) I began my work day to the sounds of the drums first approaching, and ultimately being played to the heavens by the Youth as they danced into Zellerbach Hall.  The conga, the snare, the timbale, of varying rhythm melody yet all nonetheless in harmony with the same, insistent calls.  (Polyrhythmic music, as they some it in today's newfangled music labeling language.  We used to say "The Drums", knowing exactly what that meant.)

    The Drums, as a Call to Action.

    And as my body responded -- couldn't help but respond, though Lord Knows that part of me that is bougie TRIED to stay in her auditorium seat along with most of the other "professionals"! -- for 20 minutes of that musical Call to Action, as the bodies of virtually every Black person in the room (and a few whites as well) responded because it is impossible not to respond if you HEAR the drums, I knew I was going to spend the day in the presence of giants.

    When was the last time you were at a professional conference that started that way?

    Yesterday I was fortunate to attend the 4th Annual CraigsList Boot Camp here at Berkeley. The Boot Camp is a one-day training and networking event for non-profit volunteers, employees, and leadership.  Having been done in the Bay Area for the past four years, the Boot Camp is now expanding, traveling to other cities, to replicate the synergy that happens when you take thousands of people all separately dedicated to Doing Good in the World and put them all together.

    But, as someone said yesterday, the Bay Area is the incubator.  The proving ground, for political Calls to Action.

    A Call to Action that need not -- should not -- be limited to the non-profit world.

    I could write about all the inspiration and practical wisdom I absorbed (and shared in my totally limited way) about Doing Good in the World through non-profit action, including the wry wisdom shared by Ami Dar, founder of, the central web portal for volunteerism and non-profit community action these days.  But as will become clear below, I'm not going to do that.

    I can't ignore, however, the fierce luncheon keynote by sister Aimee Allison.  It was not just inspiring to those committed to non-profits and the work they do, on the ground in the grassroots (even ringers like me who work for the Man while redistributing as many of his assets as I can through pro bono).  Her call to action was *revolutionary*.  She pretty much indeed called for revolution even as she did not literally say "revolt!".  Revolution against the system, revolution against the boundaries that cause non-profit leaders and organizations to feel they have to "play the game" confusing many of the folks in the audience with her bluntness, revolution against the mindset that one has to sell out one's values and beliefs just to chase the Man's money.  Revolution against the war and what it is doing to the youth in Iraq and here at home.  Revolution against failure, in light of what is happening to our country in the era of Emperor George W. Bush and the coming descent into economic, if not actual, madness of our country.

    And, yes revolution against the mindset that real, political, revolution requires activists to put their energies always towards being "in politics" instead of making the equally activist choice to spend energy and commitment and time locally, doing small good works to create the change we wish to see.  Each one, reach one.

    (Not bad from a woman who ran for office in Oakland on the Green Party ticket, the Democratic Party choosing to go with the same old, same old broken promises Democratic incumbent, knowing that it would change absolutely nothing for the poor in Oakland and not caring -- because that's how party politics is played.)

    Normally I'm sluggish at professional conferences after lunch.  Not yesterday. 

    My only disappointment from the experience is that there were only 50 or 60 or so brothers and sisters to hear Ms. Allison -- or the Drums -- out of an audience of nearly 2,000 in Zellerbach Auditorium yesterday to hear her.

    I returned home with a wallet stuffed to the gills with business cards from activists in the non-profit world, because I made a point of meeting as many brothers and sisters going Good Works as I could (as well as dozens of others) .  Networking, they call it in the professional world.  To be inspired, to offer my firm's legal help to their organizations to those who expressed a need, to simply feel renewed in their presence.  And I was renewed.  I met brothers who are helping those who have paid their debt to society get reconnected when they are out, leveraging foundation resources to help folks pay their restitution and get jobs and reconnect with the positive aspects of their children and families.  I met sisters who were working to try and unite gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and heterosexual brothers and sisters in the common struggle to attack HIV/AIDS in our youth. I met both brothers and sisters whose sole non-profit mission is to inspire youth teaching *them* how to be activists in the grassroots; training them and teaching them to pick up the torch and raise it high.

    At the end, I walked out with three energizing principles of non-profit activism laid down at the beginning of the day by the Executive Director of CraigsList Foundation, Darian Rodriguez-Heyman, still playing in my head, along with the drums that never stopped punctuating them all day long:

    Pick Big Problems to Bring Into Your Life

    Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate

    Less is More

    I could spend hours writing about how each of these mental slogans resonated with me personally.  But that is not necessary - because the important thing is that these simple prescriptions are apt for activism, period, not just in the non-profit world.  They are just valid for those of us who blog politically, as they are for those who are in the grassroots.

    Perhaps they are even more necessary for Leftist activism than even in the non-profit world, given how much drama, infighting and ego politics plague too many blogs on the Left, these days, lessening the effectiveness of them all and almost destroying some of them.  Politics and political blogging is plagued, just as much of the non-profit sector on the Left is, with Drama (with a capital "D"), infighting and ego politics.  Things that, no matter how Evil we call our right wing opponents, are far less distracting to them in terms of actualizing their goals than they are to us who are on The Left.

    I could write lots more but I am trying to start actually applying wisdom so I am going to try really hard to apply the "less is more" prescription to my blogging.  Since lots of folks say that my diaries are Too Long (and thus, as a DailyKOS commenter once said to me having not actually read the diary he was commenting about without actually reading the diary at issue, "nobody is going to read this.")That outcome defeats the purpose of my writing, which is to communicate and inspire and reach out to others who are all fighting the same causes, even if in different ways or with a different emphasis.

    So, instead of my usual wordy tactics, I'll just issue a simple call to action to bloggers:  get out into the grassroots.  Take your activism into our communities, not just to the self-selected Internet which has passion but lacks too often a sense of what it is like to work collaboratively with real people.  Quoting the most famous campaign of that infamous sweatshop-enabling athletic shoe company, Nike:

    Just Do It.

    More Below!

    Thursday, August 16, 2007

    RIP, Nana Baffour Amankwatia II (Asa G. Hilliard III)

    ©Georgia State University

    There are names that instantly put me on the Wayback Machine.  Back to when I was a young college student, far away from home and for the first time really thinking through who I was and what I believed independently from my family's identity and family's beliefs.

    Dr. Asa Grant Hilliard III, reported to have passed at the age of 73 a few days ago in Egypt (possibly from malaria) during the annual ASCAC Conference, is one of those names.

    The teachings of Asa Hilliard are some of the foundational pillars of who I am today and my approach to Black issues and Black people.  For Dr. Hilliard first exposed me to the idea of Pan-Africanism.  Afrocentrism.  But far more importantly, Asa Hilliard did not just expose me to these ideas:  he then taught me how these concepts mattered, and why they mattered, within the field I thought then would be my career, clinical psychology treating African-American patients.

    Not to mention that it was Asa Hilliard who first taught me -- along with other young Black scholars at Stanford in the late 1970's and early 1980's -- about Ma'at.

    Asa Hilliard's biography is way too long and impressive for me to accurately cover it all in one diary, so you can find it here.  I can only summarize it briefly.

    In the field of educational psychology, Dr. Hillard's work was responsible for elimination of mandatory IQ testing of Black children in San Francisco, as he was the first researcher who showed the cultural biases inherent in the examinations, biases that, when children performed poorly because of them, permanently limited the life chances of youth, particularly those Black youth who but for the testing would be identified as "gifted" through other educational measurements. 

    His dedication to improving the life chances and self-esteem of Black children through education was complete, leading him to co-found the National Black Child Development Institute in 1970, while newly resident at San Francisco State.

    In later years, Asa Hilliard argued forcefully for the elimination of all standardized IQ testing, contending that the well-known findings of inherent bias and inaccuracy of IQ testing for students of color were simply evidence of a tracking system that fails in everyone to measure what it claims to measure.  He continued to argue for educational psychology's return to models developed to test malleable intelligence as a means of avoiding what he believed was the inherently destructive and limiting messaging of standardized IQ testing on children.  This was true even as he believed in a quality public education for children; Dr. Hilliard was an opponent of the charter schools movement, recognizing the racist original motivations of that movement, and urging Black parents in particular not to allow the public schools to be destroyed by those who impetus for creating the movement were grounded in Black inferiority.  Instead, he argued that the failure of public education -- even in Black-led school districts -- was fundamentally a failure of will through the denial of resources to do whatever it took to educate children, regardless of socioeconomic status, and that this, and that this -- NOT the poverty of the students -- was where much of the problem with education lay when it came to the underperformance of Black poor children and, indeed, all poor children, in the public schools.

    You'd have thought that Dr. Hilliard, being quite busy challenging long-standing orthodoxies in the field of educational psychology that had harmed children's educational progress, would have been too busy to develop an alternative speciality.

    You'd have been wrong.

    From early in his career, Dr. Hilliard became a profilic researcher and writer about Africa, and Ancient Egypt -- Kemet -- in particular.  It was ultimately his pursuit of knowledge in this field that led to his departure from his tenured position at San Francisco State - where he'd served for 18 years, including as Chair of the Education department - to Africa itself, where he lived for several years including in Liberia before returning to accept a tenured position at Georgia State University as Professor of Urban Education. 

    Each year, he along with other Afrocentric scholars of the Association for the Study of Classic African Civilizations, which Dr. Hilliard helped found, would have their annual conference in Egypt, which would usually conducted on the banks of the Nile itself by Dr. Hilliard and others.  The theme of this year's conference, which was as much a spiritual journey as professional conference, was Raising Ma'at to the Height of Heaven, is poignant to me, since it was during this year's conference that the severity of Dr. Hilliard's fatal illness became apparent, and passed several days later, just before his birthday.

    I was fortunate enough to have sat in several guest lectures of Asa Hilliard's at Stanford as a psychology student, and to visit his classroom several times while he was a professor at San Francisco State University in educational psychology.  The first time I heard him lecture was when he presented his visually assisted lecture, Free Your Mind:  Return to the Source, (which later became a television show but, back then in 1978, it was a slide show) an adventure in primary source images of Egypt and ancient African civilizations.  What I remember most about Dr. Hilliard's teaching was the simplicity of his thesis as it related to the education of Black children, and their psychological well-being.  His central argument, which was that it was necessary to a non-Eurocentric focus on history for the development of self-esteem, and to reconnect children affirmatively with a past, a culture, that we still mimicked today in bits and pieces, by teaching them the greatness of our civilizations in Africa, particular Egypt, which he rightfully pointed out the west has been trying to label to make a non-Black country pretty much forever, given its historical greatness.    Everything he said made sense (especially the Egypt part, since when I was growing up we were taught in elementary school that Egypt wasn't even in Africa - and they even showed us a bogus map at least once that I personally remember to prove it.) 

    What made Dr. Hilliard's teaching forceful and engaging pedagogy for me as a college student was that rather than polemic, Dr. Hilliard insisted to all of us that our mission was not to take what he said as the gospel about Ancient African cultures, the Blackness of Egypt and ancient cultures in the East that we pretend were not influenced by Africa and the attempt to eradicate all visual trace of the nexus between them, the ongoing preservation of aspects of ancient belief systems such as Ma'at from Africa in our culture and their suitability as theoretical foundations for treatment modalities when treating Black people, particularly children.  Instead, Dr. Hilliard almost constantly punctuated everything he did and said to us with the admonition to go do the research ourselves, to learn it for ourselves - but that, unlike most folks, we must always always use primary source material for our study.

    That is a rule I still try to live by, today.  Even as I am no longer pan-African, but an Afrocentric multiculturalist, in my approach today.  Even though I am now a lawyer, not a psychologist as planned (or teacher, as Dr. Hilliard once told me I should strongly consider instead during one of the two face-to-face conversations we had, way back in the day, at a mutual friend's home.)

    Suffice it to say that while his conclusions about what some of that primary source material meant continue to be a subject of legitimate scholarly debate today, and always likely will be, Dr. Hilliard's insistence upon primary source materials as it related to all things African, including forensic research intended to be used to develop teaching methods for African American children, made him not only unquestionably a solid and honest researcher -- but an expert, in the fields of both psychology and ancient African history.

    To say that he lived his life without controversy would be a lie, in the sense that as one of the earliest educators in the field of Pan-African studies, he has always had many fierce mainstream critics (some, but not that many, still attack Dr. Hilliard's work not on the grounds that his theories about education, psychology or the nexus between each and African educational and spiritual methods were unsound, but indirectly, making arguments about scholarly failings in other Afrocentric works such as Stolen Legacy to delegitimize the entire field and everyone working in it.)  Given that for some, attacking Afrocentric scholarship has become their life's work, since they are paid handily for it, that's to be expected.

    He never let it detract him from the work.  And for those who knew Dr. Hilliard, that was to be expected, too.  Because he knew how important the work was, for us all, and that our very survival as a people depended on it.  This was his way of thinking, and it's hard to argue with it since it makes So. Much. Sense:

    No matter where Africans are-on the continent or in the diaspora-our condition is the same. We are on the bottom and descending. The "maafa" [Kiswahili term for "disaster" or "terrible occurrence"] continues to take its toll. We are unconscious, unorganized, unfocused, and lost from our purpose. Our strongest visible leadership is in hot pursuit of minimal narrow goals like 'integration,' 'civil rights,' 'jobs,' 'voter registration,' etc.  We seek minimal adjustment and temporary comfort by assimilating to whatever the political, economic and cultural order may be, even when that order is itself in chaos, or driven by values that are anti-African. . . .

    When we "dream," we often do not dream original dreams; we merely seek relief from pain.  As a result, the dream does not encompass a meaningful plan or strategy which is connected to mobilization. . . .

    We do not know who we are, cannot explain how we got here, and have no sense of our destiny beyond mere survival.  Most of us hope to hitch a ride on someone else's wagon with no thought whatsoever as to where that wagon may be going. We have no destination of our own.  Ask our leadership, ask our women, men or children on the street what our agenda is.  Ask them what plans Africans have and what we want to build for ourselves within the next five, ten, twenty-five, seventy-five or one-hundred years? We are so used to having others make long-term plans for us that the idea of our own five-year plan is petrifying to us.

    I know that those those like me who were blessed to have ever spent a day learning in rapture and awe of his intellect, your thorough scholarship, and his fierce dedication to the cause of education and psychological health for Black youth, send blessings and thanks to the maker for him, now that he is going Home, having started his journey by passing from this life in the place that all who knew Asa Hilliard understood he loved more than any other - the ancient and beautiful land known as Kemet (Egypt).

    For the sparks he lit in generations of students of African descent, like me, all over the world, through his candid words and fierce scholarship in furtherance of the cause of Black people, we can not only give thanks, but commit to keep carrying his very heavy torch and using it to light up the diaspora.

    So, Rest in Peace, Dr. Asa Grant Hilliard, III.  Rest in Peace, Nana Baffour Amankwatia II, so named by the  Ghanaian village that honored you by renaming.  If there was any man living today who I know spent his life in the glad tidings of hard service to the truth, for the benefit of his people, yet still was able to face the scales of Ma'at with his heart truly lighter than her feather, it was you. 

    More Below!

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007

    The "Silver Lining" of Newark and Black/Latino Conflict

    If I believe the papers, the murders last week of three promising Black youths in Newark (and the attempted murder of a 4th) have come with a silver lining:  the community of Newark is, at least for now, united, various factions all setting aside the political differences with everyone from Mayor Cory Booker - who is facing a recall effort from disillusioned constituents.  To reports of arch-rival gang members agreeing to (at least for now) lay down their weapons.  All have come together, apparently, in grief and commitment to Do Better, going forward.

    Glad tidings at one important level.

    Yet I am torn.  I am torn because of the mixed messages about the value of our people, our youth, depending on whether they are seen as "doing the right thing" or "being a bad seed". 

    On the one hand, it seems clear that the members of the Newark community have been "shocked" into the welcome understanding that, despite their differences, they are a community.  Thus, when violence comes after one, it comes after all.  The attack is on everyone.

    On the other hand, I grieve -- I cringe -- reading that somehow, overnight, that with the murders of these college-bound children, the Newark community has found unity that only days ago it utterly lacked.

    IMO, that sense of community should not be affected by the fact that the attack was on "the best and brightest", especially when the victims are the youth.  Or -- and this is the part about which I know reasonable minds will disagree -- even when the perpetrators are. 

    Perhaps some of that unity would have been well-spent on the children who allegedly murdered them beforehand.  Or well-spent in the future, as the community heals itself.

    But why does it take the senseless death of our "good kids" to accomplish a sense of unity and family in our communities? Are we without meaning to sending the message that "bad kids" deserve to die -- and thus, because they are "less deserving", it is just "same old same old" when they are murdered? Are the only legitimate "victims" in a situation like this those that did not succumb to "badness"?

    It seems to me, from where I sit in my 'hood, that so many kids who are victimizers are also themselves victims from an early age:  victims of poverty, victims of confused messaging, victims of an "I got mine, get yours" culture, victims of a society that will spend billions in tax dollars to punish them but almost nothing to support and nurture them growing up, victims simply of folks not feeling that they were a priority, when it came from everything from time to taxes.

    Take the kids who are reported to have been in the majority of the killing group in the Newark playground last week, for example.

    I do not know much about the murderers arrested in connection with the Newark slayings - so far, there isn't much written about them, other than that they were Latino gangbangers or wannas affiliated with (or claiming, even if not formally jumped into) MS-13.

    (Those who have any meaningful experience in the 'Hood understand, I bet, that there is a likely correlation between the suspects signing MS-13, and the fact that the college students were not just murdered, but executed.  No matter how much the mainstream media believes politicians and law enforcement who insisting that "we don't know" that the Newark murderers were really gangbangers and that it seems like it "was just a robbery."

    Here's my educated guess, as someone who once was solicited to join a gang - New York's La Familia, open to me then only because I had a Puerto Rican sweetie - 3 decades ago:  The young victims were picked by what all agree was a "gang" to fulfill what they perceived as a precondition of formally entering into "family."  Maybe it was indeed the Mara Salvatrucha, which like the Bloods and Crips and Sureños and Nortenos and all the other modern versions of "gang", usually demands blood for blood; demands the murder of innocents to show the ultimate loyalty to "family".

    Stranger blood, when you can get it.

    It's sad when one can look back with nostalgia on the days where gang initiation was simply a matter of getting your butt whupped.  Not that I ever experienced it, because I declined my one invitation and, back in the day, you could actually do that and live.)

    But either way, I grieve for the children involved here.  I grieve for their mothers.  And fathers.  Both those children who were murdered and those who did the murdering.

    How can we not grieve for a 15 year old who has thrown his life away when it's reported that even as he went out to commit madness with his "crew", he was perceived by people as being forced to accompany them, because he was in tears? Is a child like that really "bad" -- so bad that we are given no pause by the fact that his life has now ended figuratively as he was taking literal life? According to the news, 1/2 of the suspects in the Newark murder were younger than the people they killed.

    That has to make you sleep worse at night. 

    (I do not know what to make of the ringleader who fired the first shots, and apparently also managed to squeeze in shaking down terrified residents and raping a 5-year old in his spare time, all at the ripe old age 28.  I know that it was not that long ago that 28 seemed old, to me.  Mature.  Now, nearly 18 years past that point myself, it seems just barely out of childhood.  Perhaps because it's not that much older than my eldest child.)

    The second reason that I have mixed feelings is not about childhood, but about the fact that Newark's new found community unity does not yet appear to confront that in Newark and elsewhere, cultures are colliding.  I admit that this story of apparently random murder of "good kids" in Newark (which already rocked me very hard coming right on the heels of the Chauncey Bailey murder) rocked me to the core when I learned of the ethnic identity of the assailants.  Because this story is getting too familiar for those who keep up with news in urban areas out here in California.

    There are some Latino folks out there who are killing Black folks.  Because they are Black. 

    This phenomena, which most argue is Mexican-Mafia prison culture spilling out into the streets, has been one of those ugly "keep under the rug" secrets about the members of two downtrodden communities colliding in Los Angeles for several years now.  And, for want of a better term, one of them negotiating space and neighborhood primacy through violence.  Some have referred to it as "ethnic cleansing", this upsurge of Latino murderers purposefully targeting African-American victims.  It certainly gives one pause, especially when one realizes that in LA, the pressure cooker for this type of heinousness at the moment -- police are telling Black folks not to go certain places -- Canoga Park, most recently -- else they place their lives at risk, that's how out of hand it's gotten.

    I don't know yet that it's ethnic cleansing, and agree with those who say that the phrase is now being deliberately misused by white supremacists to further their own anti-immigrant agendas.  On the other hand, what do you call it when folks of one ethnicity are targeting strangers for random violence based on their Black skin, as cannot be denied is an increasing phenomena?  If even the Southern Poverty Law Center -- which has made a mission out of following what it deems hate crimes -- is concerned, the rest of us need to be as well.  Those who claim that this is nothing more than "gangs killing gangs" are ignoring, accidentally or otherwise, that some of the victims have nothing to do with gangs, (such as the 14-year old girl Cheryl Griffin murdered in January, or the homeless brother killed in Highland Park.)  Even if any victims of these targeted hits do have gang-affiliations, that fact does not obviate the truth if any of them were also marked for death based on their race. 

    Or does it, in a world where we unite as a community over the death of "good kids" but seem not to care much about the ongoing death of "bad" ones?

      I am given pause by the fact that those trying to put the lid on the "ethnic cleansing" narrative are spending so much time dismissing it all on the grounds that "it's just gang members."

    So, one has to ask: in light of the execution-style manner in which the four youths in Newark were killed by what all agree was a Latino gang (whether or not it is MS-13; that's totally secondary) over what the police want us to believe is a simple robbery, is the jockeying for position that is infecting LA now spreading to other urban centers cities where Blacks and Latinos share not only their downtrodden conditions vis a vis the man, but living boundaries as well?

    Damn, I certainly hope not.

    For the record, I don't see what is going on in LA as "ethnic cleansing" so much as jockeying for position using the same anti-Black mindset as has historically plagued new arrivals to our American shores - this time around aided by the lethality of freely-available guns.  Jockeying done by entire generations who have learned both that in America, the bottom of the heap continues to be Black folks (Native Americans excepted; everyone continues to forget them) *and* that when one has no real prospects in life, power is most often wielded most effectively from the business end of a gun.

    The same impetus that causes ignorant Black folks to target victims for crime based on assuming they are illegal immigrants, based solely on their visual Latino ethnicity. 

    It seems to me that of all the aspects of long-delayed community unity now evidencing themselves in Newark, we need to encourage another dimension of unity from in this horrific crime that unites Blacks and Latinos -- in a good way -- through the common fact that no matter what the motives, it is our youth ("good kids" and "bad kids") whose lives are swirling down the drain.

    Do we even have any common purpose, Blacks and Latinos in America? I always believed we did, even though I do not agree that the common purpose needs to be furthered through turning a blind eye to illegal immigration, which no serious researcher now disputes adversely impacts unskilled and low-skilled African-American workers no matter how much well-meaning white liberals insist differently without citing any evidence and by ascribing -- backhandedly -- to racist shibboleths regarding the inferior work habits of Black folks.  I think one could discuss the answer to that question "What is our common purpose" all day long, and have a million views emerge.  And we probably need to do just that.

    But it seems to me that one common purpose is self-evident and is a true basis for unity no matter what else is going on with economic competition.  All competition for jobs and power and status in America aside, and there's lots of it right now, Blacks and Latinos still both clearly have the common purpose of seeing our not-white children grow up, thrive and survive in a racist society.

    I hope everyone can agree that our youth killing each other is not exactly the way we're going to get there. 

    More Below!

    Sunday, August 12, 2007

    Social Science Permission for the Segregated Residential Status Quo

    (As a major hat tip, if you ever want to find news affecting Black folks that evades folks like me who are always burning the candle at both ends, you cannot do much better on the 'Net than Prometheus6. His page is a must-read for me whenever I can.)

    I'm thanking P6 because but for him it would likely been a while before I found the article he linked from the Boston Globe about the latest research findings from Hah-vad:

    Diversity is bad for communities.

    (At least, in the short- and medium-run)

    Whether purposeful or simply fortuitous social science timing (I assume the latter), it didn't take long for someone to announce empirical data to psychically reinforce the emotional message of the Supreme Court's decision in Parents Involved with Community Schools vs. Seattle School Dist. #1 that segregated schooling resulting from white flight/white residential segregation was not a problem for which a legal remedy should exist.  That someone is Robert Putnam of the Saguaro Seminar, Harvard's think tank on civic engagement.  And now, sure enough, we have empirical evidence suggesting that indeed neighborhood homogeneity -- including racially segregated neighborhoods -- has real benefits and diverse neighborhoods come with a real down side.  Specifically, according to the research the down side of diversity is that mixed/diverse communities are characterized, according to Putnam's research with all of the following indications of social ill:

  • Reduced levels of voting

  • Reduced volunteerism

  • Reduced charitable giving

  • Reduced levels of neighborly trust

  • Increased television watching!

  • One has to give Putnam credit as a studiously honest researcher.  Reading between the lines (because he never says why he chose to do the study but the repeated focus throughout on immigration policy and heavy citation to researchers whose work is in the area of immigration belies an original agenda) it appears that Putnam set out to prove that the diversity created by mass immigration was a net benefit to communities.  Then, when his data came in showing the opposite of his null hypothesis, instead of freaking, he published anyway, admitting that he is seeking to have peer review provide criticism for his new hypothesis that diversity reduces "social capital" in the short- and medium term in all United States communities he sampled.

    That takes guts.

    (He also appears to have hammered away testing the robustness of his data before taking a position when it first appeared inconsistent with both his hypothesis and his "common sense".  That doesn't happen much anymore and it's very nice to see.)

    Putnam also gets major credit as a researcher for realizing that the reasons for the phenemona he observed -- what he calls "hunkering down" in diverse communities, accompanied by a reduction and/or lack of either engagement with, of trust between, diverse neighbors -- may be for very different reasons depending on whose behavior you are looking at and when in time you are looking at it.  He is especially honest when he notes that that immigrants are not immune to these phenomena (even as he tries to give them a pass on anti-Black sentiment, consistent with most immigrants who deal with the question; no surprise there) and that issues relating to African-Americans may well have their genesis in white supremacy/historical discrimination as much as anything else. Even though the purpose of Putnam's research, and this publication, was clearly NOT to answer the question "Why?" so much as identify the phenomena he saw.

    (Of course, nobody ever asks "Why" when it comes to interracial relations in America.  It's too loaded a question in a country busy trying to elect a Black man president (or at least one who is 1/2 Black, since so many of his non-Black supporters keep bringing up his white mama) so they can, finally -- where dealing with structural institutionalized racism and white supremacy is concerned -- sing "Free at last, free at last - racism is officially dead we are free at last".)

    All snark aside, reading the actual white paper (which I encourage everyone to do by clicking this link) Putnam clearly realizes that his data raise a number of questions about American social policy as it has been advanced by liberals over the past 45 years, but none so clearly as the idea of diversity and integration providing an immediate benefit for Americans and America as a whole.  Putnam seems almost afraid of talking about this too much, perhaps because it violates orthodoxy for those on the left spectrum of politics.  Yet it is clear that he is also afraid of his unexpected findings being misused by evil people for evil, hateful purposes, such as undoing the clock on racial progress.  The tension between both feelings is, IMO, what leads to the most quotable quote in the entire white paper:

    It would be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny the reality of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity. It would be equally unfortunate if an ahistorical and ethnocentric conservatism were to deny that addressing that challenge is both feasible and desirable.

    Given the number of times that Putnam emphasizes points for which he cannot cite empirical support yet outside of the work place (such as his claim that nearly 1/2 of folks now worship in integrated churches, particularly evangelical metachurches; and his suggestion that historically immigrants didn't *really* take on hatred of Blacks as a condition of "becoming white"; it was just a coincidence - obviously he has not read much of the rhetoric of the times) it seems evident that he still wants to believes that in the long-term, diversity is a net benefit, a social good.  And he cites longitudinal work done in other countries to highlight this, perhaps knowing that at present, he can cite no American data to support the claim.

    I think it's fair to say that most well-meaning folks share his hope and his view about the future, when it comes to diversity in our country.

    But I'm not sure it matters much.  We all know that, in keeping with the rule "Make hay while the sun shines" that Putnam's work is going to bring joy to the hearts of both hard core white supremacists and guilty white liberals (who were most of the ones that engaged in white flight out of the Northeastern cities) all over America.

    Given that we now know that the death knell of civic engagement (at least in the short-term and medium-term horizon; nobody has said when the long-term benefits will start kicking in) is trying to live next to folks not like you, it's apparent that the Supreme Court had the ultimate right of it when it disavowed any compelling state interest in integrated education and has fully embraced the idea of grave harm in compulsory integration when one is faced with residential segregation in white-flight communities. 

    The science says so.

    Thus, with this study collectively whites (and wanna's; increasingly in this country some non-white immigrants treat Blacks no better than the descendants of Europeans do, to the point where they are also engaging in anti-Black employment discrimination, and occasionally outright anti-Black violence) now effectively have permission to continue doing something that they have been doing ever since the Warren Court's jurisprudence started undoing de jure segregation in the 1950's -- make sure that they live away from more than a handful of Black folks.  While now being able to actually cite reasons that have nothing to do with the usual "code" for "I don't want to live near too many Black people".

    It's for the good of the community, you see.

    So, since we have no idea when all the long-term benefits of diverse neighborhoods will start kicking in, it seems to me that we must come to grips with the fact that what we thought was doing the right thing in trying to integrate may in fact be diametrically opposed to the right thing. 

    At the neighborhood level, anyhow.

    But.....Setting aside legitimate fears that the reactions to this study will be the same as they were to the 1960's Moynihan paper contendng basically that Black folks' problems all came them being trapped in a "tangle of pathology" pretty much from birth and that -- with deteriorating conditions for most Black folks today -- we'll soon be in yet another era in which "Blacks' only problem is their inferiority" becomes the public justification for ongoing racism, I think the Putnam study nonetheless has a silver lining for the advocates of diversity.

    For example, even though it does not itself study this particular subject, after a brief review of the literature Putnam does does offer one extremely positive conclusion about diversity:

    There is scientific consensus that in the most intellectually-stimulated workplaces, diversity is a must to achieve the best professional solutions.

    In other words, it seems clear that the best thing for American businesses and the workplace is precisely the opposite of what is going on right now and historically, where race-based employment discrimination has been relatively unabated.  There is increasingly no remedy for such discrimination, because the standard of proof under existing law is increasingly unfavorable to worker claims of covert discrimination --with a small death knell coming in the Supreme Court's most recent narrowing of the jurisdictional period for wage discrimination in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire.  With fewer and fewer cases being resolved through either of the two federal agencies responsible:  the almost-crippled-since-2001 EEOC (private employment/contracting) or OFCCP (for federal government employment/contracting), which presently has an estimated 50,000 case backlog, one can only hope to fall on a larger social good to make the case that we should keep fighting to diversify the workplace.

    This, it seems to me, give us here in America that larger social good and presents an excellent opportunity for a win-win situation.

    I'm willing to move forward with new ideas instead of relying on the old ones that are clearly failing Black folks, largely across the board, and have only driven white racism underground and into the subconscious rather than eradicate it from American hearts.  Anything for a change.  Boldness is, it seems to me, required.

    So, therefore, for what it is worth I hereby officially assuage all white folk henceforth of any guilt they might have quietly felt because they turned tail and ran to the politically and racially homogeneous suburbs from whatever neighborhoods Black folks moved into at more density than the average raisin in a bowl of vanilla ice cream the minute we reached the raisin tipping point (statistically, something between 5 and 20% of the population.)  They are from this moment free from any obligation to let us live next door, go to their schools or hang out at their social gatherings (even though their college students seem hell bent on making sure we attend their parties -- at least in spirit!)

    I can't speak for anyone else, but I'd be willing to make a deal:  white folks will ensure that the majority of Black folks who are educated and play by the rules can finally get decent jobs at fair pay across the board (finally!) commensurate with their skills and ability despite the  obstacles for Blacks still firmly embedded in Corporate America when it comes to breaking the glass ceiling into positions of power and authority, such that law abiding Black job applicants get treated worse than white criminals, and without regard to little things like whether we have Black sounding names.  In exchange, Black folks will continue to live in racially-segregated neighborhoods with each other and eschew henceforth worrying about whether white students are in our schools, or worrying about having to come together to do things like stump during election time for our favorite candidate or collect funds for the local library.  And we'll all be a lot better off, because we'll all be apparently watching way less TV.  In other words, we're one big happy family during the day when folks are taking care of business and getting things done, and at night nobody will ever again have to worry that someone not like them will be observed through the peephole knocking on the door needing to borrow a cup of sugar at the end of the work day.

    For those households like mine in which multiple races live in the same home, we get our pick about where to live, simply because we got it going on like that.)

    I can't think of too many Black folks that would turn that type of proposal down, can you?

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