Friday, January 31, 2014

Defending Zionism under the cloak of academic freedom

Robin D. G. Kelley 
January 4, 2014

In a widely circulated Los Angeles Times op ed piece, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth denounced the American Studies Association's (ASA) resolution to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as "a repugnant attack on academic freedom." Parroting near-identical responses by other American university presidents, Roth's ill-informed, grossly distorted polemic took me by surprise. While I do not expect him to agree with our stance, I did expect a more considered and intellectually honest disagreement from the president of Wesleyan University—a world-class institution with a long and distinguished record of teaching (and doing) social justice, grounded in an internationalist, humanist vision of liberal arts education; a school to which I gave nearly a quarter of a million dollars of my hard-earned academic salary so that my daughter (class of 2012) could learn what it means to be an informed, critical, engaged citizen of the world.

Roth either misread or deliberately misrepresented the resolution's carefully considered language. He asserts that the ASA targets Israeli academic institutions merely for their "national affiliation." This is not true. They are targeted for their complicity in the illegal occupation and government policies of dispossession, repression, and racism. He also claims that the resolution extends to individual faculty. It does not. It strongly condemns any attempts to single out and/or isolate Israeli scholars or any scholar of any nationality. On the contrary, the resolution and its authors encourage collaboration and dialogue, but outside the official channels of the Israeli state-supported institutions that continue to directly benefit from or support the occupation.

Roth repeats the well-worn argument that Israel is being singled out because the ASA has not boycotted countries with documented human rights abuses. But countries such as North Korea have no formal institutional ties to the ASA, and in most instances our own government has taken action, imposing sanctions and trade barriers or openly condemning violations of human rights or war crimes. Of course, there are egregious exceptions such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain—U.S.-backed repressive regimes that some of our most prominent ASA members have subjected to sharp criticisms.

 But all of this is beside the point: Israel and the U.S. have a "special" relationship. As Carolyn Karcher recently reminded us in her rebuttal to Roth's op ed, "the U.S. not only gives far more military aid to Israel than to any other country, but has also vetoed all U.N. resolutions in recent memory that condemn Israel's abuses of human rights. The ASA resolution specifically cites the 'significant role' the U.S. plays in underwriting Israel's violations of international law." Three billion dollars a year, every year, is an awful lot of money. The money flows despite the fact that Israel's blockade of Gaza, the source of the region's immense poverty, is a clear violation of Articles 33, 55, and 56 of the 4th Geneva Convention prohibiting the collective punishment of civilians and requiring an occupying power to ensure access to food and medical supplies, and to maintain hospital and public health facilities.

Roth, who takes great pride in being a historian informed about and even critical of Israel's policies, knows that these intermittent wars in Gaza, not to mention IDF attacks and home demolitions in the West Bank, violate our own Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits the use of U.S. weapons and military aid against civilians. And the most recent violent racist attacks on African immigrants in Israel represent some of the worst examples of human rights violations. Some 60,000 undocumented workers, many having fled war-torn or economically devastated countries such as Sudan and Eritrea, are denied refugee status, subject to deportation and imprisonment for up to a year without trial, and endure horrifying violence from racist mobs. The entire community is accused of committing rape, robbery and other crimes, and in Binyamin Netanyahu's words, threatening to destroy Israel's "image as a Jewish and democratic state."

"Under the guise of phony progressivism," Roth writes, "the [ASA] has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom." It is not clear what Roth means by "phony," but the academic and cultural boycott is a legal, legitimate, non-violent form of protest that targets institutions only. The original call for an international campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) came from Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005, inspired by the global solidarity movement that helped end apartheid and bring nonracial democracy to South Africa. Since then, the movement has gained support globally as well as from Israeli organizations such as Boycott from Within and Who Profits? The ASA membership voted overwhelmingly to support the resolution, but it did not come to this conclusion cavalierly. The implication that some deep-seated anti-Israel or anti-Semitic sentiment was behind it is downright insulting. The resolution resulted from a long process of debate and deliberation within our organization over how to respond to the ongoing 46-year occupation (the longest military occupation in modern history), the deadly blockade of Gaza, the escalation of violence, the expansion of illegal settlements, the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians and some Israeli scholars critical of their government, and the massive U.S. military aid to Israel that ultimately underwrites ongoing dispossession and an entrenched system of apartheid. These discussions began some six years ago, and they have not been easy.
Had Roth taken time to read discussions leading up to the resolution, particularly the extensive critical analyses by Judith Butler or the special issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom devoted to the question of academic boycotts, he may not have been so quick to indict the resolution as an "irresponsible attack on academic freedom." As a matter of fact, the boycott will have no direct impact on the ability of individual Israeli scholars to teach, conduct research, and participate in meetings, symposia, or conferences around the globe. And ASA members are not required to abide by the resolution—it really only applies to official association business. The most important point, however, is that the resolution expresses a fundamental demand that the privileges of academic freedom extend to all: Palestinian teachers, researchers, students of all ages, as well as Jewish and Arab Israeli scholars, writers, intellectuals, artists, and students critical of the regime. Roth is silent when it comes to the academic freedom of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and within Israel itself.

While cognizant of the limited space afforded opinion pieces, I still find it baffling that an intellectual historian who has written about the Holocaust can treat academic freedom as an autonomous category separate and above other freedoms. As Sarah T. Roberts so eloquently explained:

It is a peculiar sort of academic elitism that puts academic freedom, a somewhat abstract concept in itself, in a position of primacy before other types of very real and tangible physical freedoms: the freedom to circulate unimpeded, the freedom to be treated as an equal citizen, the freedom to even access spaces of higher education, which must certainly be a prerequisite for the much-lauded academic freedom that is causing so much consternation.

Palestinian people living in lands occupied by Israel are barred from these things. There are precious few freedoms for Palestinians, academic or otherwise, in Israel and in occupied Palestine. In this sense, the boycott is, in fact, a response to an actual lack of academic freedom for an entire people, not the creation of a potential for loss of some higher-order freedom for relatively few individuals. Supporters of academic freedom must side with Palestinians or their position makes little sense and loses its meaning completely.

The boycott is one of many actions in defense of Palestinians who are denied the right to travel freely because of checkpoints and roadblock. Palestinian students and teachers risk harassment, arrest, detention, injury and even death just to get to their institutions to perform basic tasks like teaching, research, and learning. In fact, in the first half of 2013 alone, 13,064 students were affected by access denial, and UNICEF documented egregious incidents of Israeli settlers in the West Bank attacking Palestinian students. In the realm of higher education, Palestinian scholars are routinely denied the right to travel abroad to participate in conferences and symposia, let alone travel between Gaza and the West Bank.

Any consideration of "academic freedom" must acknowledge the ongoing history of Israeli raids, closures, and constant disruptions of Palestinian universities such as Birzeit and Al Quds, as well as the hundreds of students currently detained in Israeli prisons for political activity, or for reasons unknown based on "secret evidence." Israel can detain Palestinians for up to six months without charge or trial, with no limits on renewal. Administrative detention, as it is called, is based on three laws: Military Order 1651 which empowers the army to issue orders to detain civilians in the West Bank; the Unlawful Combatants Law which applies to Gaza residents; and the Emergency Powers Detention Law used against Israeli citizens. These laws violate Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits arbitrary detention, requires that detainees be told why they are being held, and stipulates that every person has the right of habeas corpus.

Violations of Palestinian academic freedom in higher education are legion. In 2008, filmmaker and professor Nizar Hassan was suspended from his teaching position at Sapir College because he asked an Israeli student not to carry his firearms and wear his military uniform to class. The administration appointed a committee to investigate Hassan's alleged anti-Israel teaching, but he argued before his interrogators that he had acted out of the very humanist values that undergird a liberal arts education. "They wanted to believe that I object to the army uniform because I am Palestinian," he explained. "But I reject the uniform because it is opposed to my universal and human values. I acted as I did because I am a teacher and a human being."

However, the committee thoroughly rejected Hassan's argument. An "Arab" humanist was simply inconceivable. The report concludes: "Nizar [sic] abused his status and his authority as a teacher to flaunt his opinions, feelings and frustrations as a member of the Arab national minority in Israel, cloaking himself in a 'humane' and 'universal' garb, whereas in fact he demonstrated a stance of brute force bearing a distinctly nationalist character."1 The administration threatened dismissal if Hassan did not apologize to the student and submit a written statement promising to respect and honor the uniform of the Israeli Defense Forces. Hassan refused. The administration eventually backed down in the face of international pressure; Hassan returned to his post after a one-semester paid suspension.

Academic freedom includes the right to free speech and assembly. In November of 2012, during Israel's bombing of Gaza [Operation Pillar of Defense], Palestinian students at Hebrew University were arrested for holding peaceful demonstration in front of the campus, and at Haifa University Palestinian students were banned from further protests after gathering to observe a minute of silence in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Following the ban, Zionist students and staff were allowed to assemble in support of the bombing and many chanted "Death to Arabs" and other virulently racist slogans.

One of the worst examples of state suppression of academic freedom is the notorious "Nakba Law," passed in the Knesset in March 2011. The Nakba ("catastrophe" in Arabic) refers to the violent expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from 380 villages during the 1948 war, and the barring of the refugee population from the right to return or reclaim lost land, homes, personal property, bank accounts, etc. The law permits the minister of finance to reduce government funding to any institution (including schools and universities, civic organizations and local governments) that commemorates either independence day or the anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel as a day of mourning ('Nakba Day'), or mentions the Nakba in school textbooks. Besides the Nakba Law, right-wing parties have passed laws that directly infringe on the freedom of speech and academic freedom of Arab and Jewish citizens, including the so-called 'boycott law', which allows citizens to file a civil suit against anyone in Israel who calls for a boycott against the state or Israeli settlers in the West Bank – whether or not any damages can be proved.

In other words, many of us support the boycott out of concern for academic freedom—though, as I pointed out above, this does not supersede the main objective: to end the occupation and extend civil and human rights to all. The university presidents who have come out so strongly against the resolution betray a pedestrian understanding of academic freedom, both here and inside Palestine/Israel. Indeed, I was a bit surprised that neither Michael Roth nor Larry Summers nor any of the American university presidents who are so concerned about academic freedom mentioned the important document issued five years ago by Israeli scholars Menachem Fisch, Raphael Falk, Eva Jablonka, and Snait Gissis of Tel-Aviv University. They called on the broader academic community—especially senior scholars—to protest government and university policies that deny academic freedom to Palestinian students and faculty in the...
Occupied Territories:

We, past and present members of academic staff of Israeli universities, express great concern regarding the ongoing deterioration of the system of higher education in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We protest against the policy of our government which is causing restrictions of freedom of movement, study and instruction, and we call upon the government to allow students and lecturers free access to all the campuses in the Territories, and to allow lecturers and students who hold foreign passports to teach and study without being threatened with withdrawal of residence visas. To leave the situation as it is will cause serious harm to freedom of movement, study and instruction – harm to the foundation of academic freedom, to which we are committed.

Nor have the university presidents much to say in defense of Jewish Israeli scholars, whose criticisms of government policies have left them vulnerable to blatant violations of their academic freedom. In December of 2012, Rivka Feldhay, a professor at Tel Aviv University, was banned from participating in a scientific conference in Berlin because she signed a petition four years earlier supporting Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the West Bank. The right-wing Zionist group, Im Tirtzu (Hebrew for "if you will it") launched a virulent campaign against Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Anat Matar for her opposition to Israel's administrative detention of Palestinian prisoners. Dr. Matar is also a member of "Who Profits?: Exposing the Israeli Occupation Industry," whose son spent two years in prison for refusing to enlist in the military. Im Tirtzu mobilized dozens of students to file complaints against her to the university, but rather than defend her right to free speech and intellectual freedom, the university decided to investigate her.

Another Tel-Aviv professor, Yehuda Shenhav, experienced similar attacks for statements he made in his anthropology class. A particularly high profile case involved the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University, where what began as an Im Tirtzu-led campaign largely against Professor Neve Gordon turned into a state-sponsored witch hunt against the entire department. As early as 2008, Im Tirtzu accused some of the politics faculty of anti-Zionism. Then in August 2009, Professor Gordon published an op ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in support of the BDS movement in an effort to force Israel to move toward a two-state solution. Attacks on Professor Gordon coincided with a national review of all politics departments. After a couple of high profile resignations and administrative reshuffling, a reconstituted review committee issued a damning report on Ben Gurion's politics department that pointed to "community activism" as a central problem. Although the university acceded to the committee's recommendations, the government's Council for Higher Education appointed another committee and concluded that the department had to be shut down altogether. Only international pressure, including a powerful op ed piece in the L.A. Times by my colleague David Myers, compelled Israel's Minister of Education to withdraw the order for closure.

To put it bluntly, under the current regime academic freedom and civil liberties for all—Palestinians, Bedouins, and African immigrants more than others—are in jeopardy, and will remain in jeopardy so long as Israeli society is rooted in occupation, dispossession, militarization, racism and segregation. Some might argue that violations of Jewish Israeli academic freedom make the case against an academic boycott because, as Roth argues, there are Israeli scholars critical of the regime. Of course, the defense of a segment of academia at the expense of everyone else contradicts the principles of academic freedom. But equally damning is the evidence that Israeli universities have refused or are unable to protect their own faculty and students. The facts are unequivocal: in every case, it is the university administration that backs up state repression, that participates in denying the very intellectual freedoms Roth and his friends hold so sacrosanct. As the ASA resolution makes clear, Israeli institutions are complicit, and in defense of all of our colleagues they must be challenged.

Let me end with a very recent example of an assault on intellectual freedom from right here in the U.S. Just this fall, the artistic director of Washington D. C.'s Theater J and brilliant playwright Ari Roth, decided to produce Motti Lerner's controversial play, "The Admission." It tells the story of Teddy Katz, a graduate student whose master's thesis uncovered an attack by an Israeli brigade on the village of Tantura during the 1948 war. Although Katz never called it a massacre, 240 unarmed Palestinians were killed and were never given the opportunity to surrender. The play explores not only the massacre at Tantura but the state's attack on Katz and his defender and teacher, historian Ilan Pappe. Despite presenting solid scholarly evidence within the standards of academic history, Katz was forced to stand trial, his thesis withdrawn from the University of Haifa, and Pappe was eventually driven out of Israel. What is interesting is that a play about a gross violation of academic freedom suddenly became the object of a boycott by a group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA). COPMA waged a vicious campaign against Ari Roth and Lerner; Jewish Federations of Washington even threatened to pull $250,000 in donations if the play were staged. Roth refused to back down, just as he had a few years earlier when he produced the controversial play "Return to Haifa." But he was compelled to move the play from the main stage to a workshop.

Where were Michael S. Roth or Richard Slotkin or Larry Summers or any other gallant defenders of academic freedom when Ari Roth was battling boycotts and pickets? The truth of the matter is that Michael S. Roth and many of the most high profile, vocal critics of the ASA resolution are less interested in defending academic freedom than defending the occupation, the expansion of settlements, the continued dispossession of land, the blockade of Gaza, the system of separate roads, the building and maintenance of an apartheid wall – no matter what the cost. Nothing in Roth's editorial or similar statements directly criticizes these policies or suggests a different strategy to compel Israel to abide by international law and to end human rights violations. I don't expect to persuade Roth or other university presidents to support the boycott, but I do wish they would come clean and admit that unconditional support for Israeli apartheid and occupation is not about academic freedom or justice.

I'm not holding my breath.

1 Quotes taken from Jonathan Cook, "Academic Freedom? Not for Arabs in Israel," The Electronic Intifada (March 4, 2008), For an excellent account and critical analysis of Hassan's case, see Leora Bilsky, "Muslim Headscarves in France and Army Uniforms in Israel: A Comparative Study of Citizenship as Mask," in Maleiah Malik, ed., Anti-Muslim Prejudice: Past and Present (Abingdon, UK and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 79-103.

 Robin D. G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of U.S. History University of California at Los Angeles. His books include the prize-winning, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009);Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Harvard University Press, 2012); Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (University of North Carolina Press, 1990);Race Rebels: Culture Politics and the Black Working Class (The Free Press, 1994); Yo' Mama's DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Beacon Press, 1997); Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor's Last Century, written collaboratively with Dana Frank and Howard Zinn (Beacon 2001); and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002). He also edited (with Earl Lewis), To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (Oxford University Press, 2000), and is currently completing a general survey of African American history co-authored with Tera Hunter and Earl Lewis to be published by Norton.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Through A Lens Darkly Trailer (documentary in progress)

Trailer for the documentary work-in-progress "Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People" produced and directed by award winning filmmaker, Thomas Allen Harris. The documentary is co-produced by noted scholar, curator, and author, Deborah Willis PhD who is Chair of the New York University, Tisch School of the Arts department of Photography & Imaging. Willis has authored over thirty publications on African American photography including, "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers from 1840 to the Present" and most recently, "Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs"--

Through A Lens Darkly Trailer (documentary in progress) from Thomas Allen Harris on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

 "Saving the African American Child" 
by Drs. Asa G. Hilliard III and Barbara A. Sizemore

A Black Classic Document that is Still Essential Today
 Here is the complete document to read and download: 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Barrons of East New York: Charles and Inez Barron Aren't Your Traditional Power Couple

By Albert Samaha -
Wednesday, Jan 22 2014

Robert E. Venable Park and the 130-unit Eldert Lane residential complex are just two of the many additions East New York has seen under the administrations of Charles and Inez Barron.

"The thing about Charles Barron . . .," the barber says, then pauses, eyes focused on the dome he's buzzing. On this bone-cold afternoon, there's not a single empty chair at El & John's Barbershop in East New York. The barber, William Gardner, has the floor; aside from the hum of clippers, the room is silent. "One nation? Indivisible? Under God? With liberty and justice for all? That's a damn lie."

"He has the Black Panther background — OK, he mighta been down," says Gardner. "But I don't really wanna hear that. 'Cause what that's gonna do is stop funds from coming."

Heads nod. Just as many shake. Everyone here has something to say about New York City Councilman Charles Barron, whose 42nd District encompasses this Brooklyn neighborhood along with slices of Brownsville and Canarsie. Barron is, after all, the most polarizing figure in New York City politics. Many consider him a racist, egotistical, thinks-he's-still-living-in-the-'60s madman spouting rhetoric that has no place in civilized society. Yet he has rallied enough support to hold his seat for the maximum 12 years. And his grip on power shows no signs of weakening: His wife of 31 years, state Assemblywoman Inez Barron, recently won the election to replace Charles — and Charles is the clear frontrunner for Inez's vacated seat.

Charles Barron secured $3.6 million for the 2010 renovation of Venable Park, which now boasts educational features such as multiplication table blocks, a wall of music notes, and a puppet show stage.

Which isn't to say he has won over the barbershop. Gardner and others lean toward Chris Banks, an anti-poverty activist who intends to challenge Barron for the assembly. Banks came in here a few months back when he was campaigning for City Council. He wound up losing to Inez by 20 percentage points in the Democratic primary, but he won some goodwill along the way.

"Certain people are standoffish and they don't wanna hear that Black Panther stuff," Gardner goes on. "Maybe if he would be quiet about it, it would benefit the community."

"They don't like Barron up there," says another barber, Lloyd Banks (no relation to Chris), head tipped in the estimated direction of city hall.

"They took him off the committee for higher education. 'Member that? For being belligerent. Arguing," says Gardner. "That's not helping nobody in this community."

"With politics" — Gardner's customer jumps in — "they want the black man to be the housemaid. They want him always to be the stepping boy. This is why he argues with them! They want him to fall in line, take the hooch."

"He gotta learn to play the game a little better, though," Gardner shoots back. "Benefit the community he represents."

"If you're gonna play the game, then you have to play the game right," the customer muses.

"See," Lloyd Banks's patron speaks up, "he gon' have to kiss a little tail to get what he wants."

The men rattle off things that need fixing in the neighborhood: too much crime. Too few jobs. Too many homeless shelters clustered here. A familiar refrain.

"But you know what? It's been like that forever," says Steve Watkins, a retired corrections officer sitting down for a cut.

"Well, the man ain't doin' nothin' for me," says Al Dixon, a lanky old-timer in gradient aviators, leaning on a wooden cane. "I'm a social security citizen. For thirtysomething years. Ain't getting the right treatment from anybody. The man just wanna be a movie star, I guess. Always on TV. Shows up at protests. Shows up when a building goes up. Photo ops, that's all he's good at!"

Counting Dixon, about half the room is pro-Chris Banks. Still, they are wary in their support. Over the years, these men have admired many candidates, only to lose respect for them as politicians.

"We supported Charles early into his political career," says Lloyd Banks. "That changed over the course of the years, when he became all Hollywood, being in front of the cameras, and we needed somebody to represent the people."

There have been a lot of cameras, Watkins notes, because there have been a lot of buildings going up. At this, even the anti-Barron folks shrug in acknowledgement: East New York has changed over Barron's reign, vacant lots blooming into gleaming towers and crumbling blacktops transforming into colorful parks.

"All I can say is that he was definitely a voice for a certain change," Watkins says. "He championed things, said things that other politicians were afraid to say: what the reality is for the neighborhood. And as long as New York has been New York, we're still getting the short end of the stick. He was fighting against things like that."

For public appearances, Charles Barron sports a button-up Mao Tse-tung tunic in dark brown, navy blue, or forest green. "I don't wear shirts and ties," Barron likes to say. "This is how I dress, because I'm not a white man."

In word, dress, and deed, Barron has crafted an image in contrast to American convention, a persona based largely on the notion that he is not merely an outsider to the city hall scene, but a downright outlier who has planted his flag far from nearly every other politician in the nation. He entered the City Council chamber in 2002 proclaiming himself a "black radical revolutionary anti-capitalist anti-imperialist elected official." At his first council meeting, as at every one thereafter, he refused to stand as his colleagues recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Why? "Because it's a lie and my mama told me not to lie. One nation? Indivisible? Under God? With liberty and justice for all? That's a damn lie."

Seven months into his first term, he invited Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe to speak at city hall. Thirty-six councilmembers boycotted the event, to protest Mugabe's wretched human-rights record. Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate at the time, said in 2008 that his decision to attend was "a mistake. . . . I feel ashamed of it."

Barron calls Mugabe one of his heroes, alongside Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Kwame Nkrumah, Muammar Qaddafi, and other 20th-century revolutionaries. He has less respect for the men considered heroes to most other American politicians. When he discovered his seat in the chamber placed him beside a towering bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, he unsuccessfully lobbied Speaker Christine Quinn for a move away from a monument to, as he phrased it for reporters, a "slave-holding pedophile."

In his ninth month in office, during a speech proposing reparations for descendants of slaves, Barron declared, "I want to go up to the closest white person and say, 'You can't understand this, it's a black thing,' and then slap him, just for my mental health." Barron is not the type to slip into political blunders. He does not back down; he doubles down. So when he defends the line by calling it "hyperbole," he adds, "They're lucky we're talking about a verbal slap. They murder us, lynch us, still shooting us down, and you're talking about me saying some damn rhetoric about a 'slap'?"

His stubbornness has left him isolated. He stopped going to meetings of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus several years ago because he didn't feel his colleagues adequately represented the city's minorities. In 2010, Quinn, with the council's support, removed Barron from his chairmanship of the Committee on Higher Education, reasoning that the panel needed a "unifying force." In an editorial applauding the speaker's move, the New York Daily News deemed Barron's rhetoric "far out of step in a country struggling to get past race as a defining characteristic in the age of President Obama."

Barron's constituents have paid for his antics. Though the 42nd District has one of the highest poverty rates in the city, Quinn consistently allotted Barron little more than the bare minimum in discretionary funding. From 2009 to 2012, for instance, the speaker granted Barron a total of $11.2 million, third least among the 51 districts; the councilmember at the top of the heap brought home more than $60 million.

Not surprisingly, Barron has been in a poor position to climb the political ladder. Twice, he challenged Quinn for speakership. He lost 48-1 and 50-1, winning no vote other than his own. He launched similarly impossible runs for mayor and governor, protesting that "white men have too much power in this city."

His strongest bid for higher office came in 2006, when he took on 24-year incumbent U.S. Congressman Edolphus Towns. Barron lost by just 8 percent, so when he ran to replace the retiring Towns six years later, the city was on notice, particularly when the departing congressman lent his endorsement. Weeks before Barron's Democratic primary contest against state Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a group of city leaders held a press conference to denounce the councilman. They reminded voters that Barron had called Israel "the biggest terrorist in the world" and had described the Gaza Strip, which he'd visited with the Free Palestine Movement, as "a virtual death camp, the same kind of conditions the Nazis imposed on the Jews."

Former New York mayor Ed Koch attended the event and described Barron's rhetoric as vile and vicious. Councilman David Greenfield called Barron an anti-Semite, a hatemonger, and a bigot. Congressman Jerry Nadler said anyone who does what Barron did "has no right to be in civilized society, never mind in Congress." In the month leading up to the election, Jeffries's campaign received $470,000 in contributions, 60 percent of which came from donors outside the city. Barron's war chest contained a paltry $50,000. He lost in a landslide.

So he returned to city hall, and after the council extended term limits in 2008, Barron won the 42nd District election for the third time. His neighborhood still loved him. The bulk of the city knew Charles Barron best for his headline-grabbing quotes, but the residents of East New York knew him for all those photo ops.

'Capitalism is a failure!" says Barron, pacing through his district office. "The elites have enjoyed it and everybody else, the 99 percent, has struggled to say the least. Some have suffered severely in the most powerful, richest country that the planet Earth has ever had."

The décor is minimalist, but the furnishings have been carefully selected. On the wall behind his desk hangs a framed photo of Malcolm X. A poster on another wall shows before-and-after shots of Linden Park: patchy dirt swath in 2002; green turf with football goalposts in 2005. A similar one features Robert E. Venable Park: empty concrete lot in 2002; jungle gyms in 2010. On the desk sits a scale model of the Spring Creek Community School campus, which opened in 2012.

"I'm not in this to be careful," Barron says. "There's a lot of politicians — when they talk, they talk all slow and hesitantly, 'cause they're always thinking about who they might help or hurt or offend. I try to speak truth to power. Oftentimes, people aren't ready for that. I didn't come here to be a coward or a political punk."

At 63, Barron speaks smoothly, with a force tempered by the proud grin that accompanies his sermons. He has short white hair and hazel eyes that lock on his audience like those of a salesman shy of his quota.

He hustles out the front door and pulls down the metal grate behind him. His wife has just arrived. The couple shares a single vehicle, a black Honda Accord, and they must execute a swap. Organizing their itineraries around this isn't as complicated as it might seem. The two hold joint staff meetings, operate as a single unit. When Inez is councilwoman, Charles will have no less say in city hall, and if Charles wins her assembly seat, he'll effectively arrive in Albany with five years' experience.

A retired public school teacher and principal, Inez never intended to get into politics. Charles pushed her into it, she says as she maneuvers the car down a residential block. Though the two "are of one mind," according to Charles, Inez is of a cooler temperament, far more delicate in her approach.

The car stops in front of a modest, well-kept house on Bradford Street. Inez slides out and Charles takes the wheel. The couple purchased the home in 1983 for $26,000 and raised their two sons here. That was a different East New York, one reeling on the back end of a two-decade slide into ruin.

During the urban-renewal era of the 1960s, city officials tore down private properties across the boroughs to build housing projects. People of color, flushed out of Harlem, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and elsewhere and redlined out of most other neighborhoods, poured into East New York. In 1960, the neighborhood was 80 percent white. A scant six years later, it was 85 percent black and Puerto Rican.

Neglect followed the demographic shift. A 1971 New York Times feature noted the area's "bombed-out appearance," owing to landlords who allowed their buildings to deteriorate, milking rents before abandoning the properties. So much of the neighborhood was vacant — an estimated 1,000 buildings — that the police department assigned an "empty building patrol" to the barren landscape.

East New York's eventual upward trend followed the city's as a whole through the '90s. Crime dropped and property values rose everywhere. By the time Barron took office, the Brooklyn boom was underway. As the wave of development swept east across the borough, investors seeking cheap acreage and residents seeking affordable housing were left with fewer and fewer options. East New York offered value.

"Only thing God isn't making more of is land," says Bill Wilkins, director of East New York's Local Development Corporation. Over the past decade or so, developers have bought up 7 million square feet of empty lots in East New York, cutting the vacancy rate by 29 percent. No community board district in the city has issued more building permits, Wilkins says.

The fruits of this land rush are evident as Barron cruises around the neighborhood. There's the Fountains development, finished in 2003, a pristine white apartment complex with red archways at each entrance, the sort of structure you'd expect to see in the suburbs. Behind it are rows of brick houses lined with white fences. And there's the Elton Street Corridor, a new commercial strip adjacent to the Gateway Mall, which opened in 2002. And up the street, the Spring Creek Nehemiah houses, neat rows of more than 200 single-family homes finished in 2012, with 1,500 more units scheduled for completion in 2016. Three new bus lines and two new schools sprang up to serve areas that a generation ago were dirt lots and swampland.

"It has been euphoric," says Reverend Tyrone Stevenson, pastor of the Hope Christian Church and an East New York native. "I was driving down New Lots Avenue, trying to explain to my daughter what used to be here. There were burning cars, crime, drug dealers. It was out of control. Now you see people cutting grass, planting gardens."

From 2000 to 2010, according to U.S. Census data, East New York's population grew by about 7,000. In 2000, 36 percent of residents earned more than $35,000 a year; by 2012, 48 percent did. Over that stretch, median home value increased from $169,200 to $427,600, and the number of homeowners rose by 18 percent — 3 percent higher than the overall rate in Brooklyn (where median home value rose to $562,600 from $229,200).

Barron has overseen much of this improvement. But locals debate how much of the credit he deserves. While development proposals must pass through him to get council approval, other actors carry a hefty portion of the workload. East Brooklyn Congregations, a coalition of local churches, spearheaded the first successful efforts to draw housing developers in the 1980s and has orchestrated the construction of more than 3,000 units since. The mayor's office, meanwhile, distributes the tax-exempt bonds that lure builders, funding more than 5,000 homes in the neighborhood over the 12 years of Michael Bloomberg's administration.

Perhaps most instrumental, of course, are the market forces. There's no question Barron rode a wave he didn't create. During the decade preceding his first term, the district's vacancy rate had already dropped by 26 percent.

"East New York is one of the few neighborhoods left with a lot of open land," says Dennis Taylor, executive director of the Sabaoth Group, a nonprofit social services organization. "Economic development is going to take place. Whoever's in that seat gets the credit oftentimes, even when they had nothing to do with it. Most of the things that are happening here now were planned before Councilman Barron even took his seat."

But the nature of East New York's development has been unlike the rest of the borough's. Even among Barron's critics, there's near consensus about his drive to ward off gentrification. For a building proposal to get past Barron and into the chamber, it must meet his standard for affordable housing, which he sets at 60 percent of the borough's area median income — significantly lower than the city's official 80 percent bar. Since 2002, no district in Brooklyn has gained as many affordable housing units as Barron's. Here folks can rent a studio for $800, a two-bedroom for $1,000.

Consequently, the residents moving into the new apartments and houses are a mix of locals seeking an upgrade and outsiders displaced by gentrification. Over the past decade, while the black population dropped by 2 percent across the city — including in Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and Brooklyn as a whole — it has increased by 13 percent in East New York.

"You see an area that was dilapidated come up, but nobody you remember was there when it came up," says Stevenson. "East New York was different. The people that I played with as kids, they still live here. These are people who stayed when the crime was worst; they held onto their properties, and now they can reap the benefits."

If there is a crown jewel of what city housing officials call the "renaissance under way in East New York," it is the Gateway Mall, a brick complex just off the Belt Parkway that houses an Olive Garden and a Home Depot, among other vendors, as well as generous parking.

Shortly after the mall opened, Related Companies won the contract to build an expansion, along with 2,200 units of affordable housing on adjacent land. Barron and the community board required that Related sign a Community Benefits Agreement, which included stipulations that unemployed locals make up at least a quarter of the construction workforce and that the developer grant $3 million to a "coalition of community-based organizations."

The project looked like a glorious achievement for Barron. Instead it would serve as a sprawling, multimillion-dollar reminder of the political machine some community leaders say Barron built with the power that comes with presiding over a development surge. A majority of the community board did not see a draft of the agreement until 2011, two years after it was signed in Barron's office. The only signature representing Barron's "coalition," the board learned, was that of Andre Mitchell, founder of the anti-violence nonprofit Man Up! and Barron's former chief of staff. Barron had designated Man Up! as the job-training organization that supplied workers to Related. This the board knew. But many members were surprised to learn that no other group had taken part in the negotiations.

"This has been his means of operation in his entire tenure as councilperson," says Taylor. "He has neglected certain social services and only deals with one agency."

In fact, over the past four years, of the roughly $3 million in grants Barron was free to disperse to community organizations, Man Up! received $500,000, dwarfing every other agency's take.

"I supported Charles at first, because he was an outsider and he proclaimed inclusion," says one community board member who requested anonymity so as not to damage his relationship with the Barrons. "But then, as he stayed longer, he turned into a machine. Promoted exclusion, favored only his closest allies, and locked out the rest."

The Daily News called out Barron on this favoritism in a series of articles in July 2011. "Steered $3 million from a big developer to a community group run by a longtime political aide," read one. "Pumped $350,000 in taxpayer money into a nonprofit run by a longtime political aide," read another.

Barron stood his ground, declaring that Man Up! deserved every penny. "I told them, 'Get another article ready, 'cause I'ma give him more money next year!'" he recalls. (Mitchell praises Barron as "the biggest supporter we've had.")

Two years after the Daily News series, Man Up! once again made headlines, but in a more favorable light. A July 2013 New York Times story explained that Mitchell and a team of young men patrolled a 20-square-block high-crime area "to figure out where the violence was going next so they could hit the pause button" through conflict mediation. There'd been three homicides, wrote author Jim Dwyer, "in the days before the group began." In the 363 days since, there had been none.

The Times story did not mention Barron.

"Ironic, huh?" the councilman says, parking in front of Linden Park and stepping into the chilly night.

He walks briskly through the gate and up a concrete pathway. He looks across the park grounds. A woman in a pink windbreaker jogs around the track. A half-dozen teenage boys play touch football on the regulation-size field, bright from the stadium lights encircling the premises. Barron stretches his arms wide.

"This is my pride and joy!" he says, posing beneath the gleaming goalposts.

"That's Charles Barron!" shouts a voice in the distance.

Barron sees the boys on the field pointing at him. He waves, meets them at the 50-yard line.

"Wassup, how y'all doin'?"

"All right," the boy holding the football says. "I'm tryna get a job. They say you got jobs. Can you get me a job?"

On his way back to his car, Barron recounts a memory that comes to mind whenever a young person recognizes him: Two girls, maybe nine or 10 years old, passed him on a sidewalk a few years back. "Hey, Charles Barron," the first girl said. "Who's Charles Barron?" the second girl asked. The first girl responded, "You don't know Charles Barron? He fights for black people."

Charles Barron was hawking the Black Panther newspaper on the Lower East Side when he heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

"My first thought was if they killed Dr. King, who's talking nonviolence and peace, then we're really in trouble," he recalls.

Revolution was brewing, the teenage Barron believed. Leaders murdered, uprisings in major cities, cops in riot gear, skittish politicians pleading for calm. Barron sensed the world changing, and he was at the center of it.

He wasn't predisposed to radicalism. His father, a World War II artilleryman, made a living as a merchant marine, then as an interior decorator, and his mother did administrative office work. Neither was especially political. During Barron's adolescence in the Lillian Wald projects on Manhattan's Lower East Side, free time meant parties or basketball. Then he read Patrice Lumumba's Congo: My Country, which detailed the author's political philosophy shortly before he liberated his nation from Belgian colonialism. More books followed, and by the time Barron was in high school, he'd targeted a life path, harboring a goal as vague as it was ambitious. "I dreamed of lifting my people up," he says. "Of being the catalyst in the liberation of my people."

One day, two young men in black berets strolled into Lillian Wald with pamphlets and spirited pitches. Barron leaped into the movement. He spent his evenings in Harlem, listening to Eldridge Cleaver speeches on a friend's record player and attending political education classes at the Panthers' headquarters. There he studied the revolutionary efforts shaking up the Third World. He read about how his own government had opposed the liberators. He learned of J. Edgar Hoover's aim to stifle the Panthers. "All of my heroes were America's enemies," Barron says.

He joined his community's Area Policy Board, tasked with linking city resources to neighborhood groups. The youngest member on the panel and its only Black Panther, Barron quickly caused a stir. The board, as he remembers it, was primarily split between a coalition of 14 whites and Asians and a coalition of 10 Latinos and blacks. "They'd 14-10 us out of everything," says Barron.

At one meeting, he was so frustrated that he swept all the papers from the conference table onto the floor, shouting for his cause until police showed up to escort him out. Soon after, he orchestrated a boycott: Without his coalition, the board didn't have a quorum.

The other side's leader agreed to send more resources to black and Latino neighborhoods.

Barron's true political schooling, however, came when he met Reverend Herbert Daughtry, the Brooklyn-based community activist and chairman of the National Black United Front. Barron had invited Daughtry to speak at Hunter College, where he was a sociology major, and Daughtry came away so impressed that he took in his host as a protégé. Within a few years, Barron became Daughtry's chief of staff, sitting in on meetings with city officials and making trips to Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe to support anticolonial resistances.

"What attracted me to him was his assertiveness," says Daughtry, who remains a Barron fan. "If you see him angry, it ain't just that he's angry in isolation. He expresses the anger, the frustration, the despair of the people he represents."

By the mid-1980s, Barron was subsidizing his activism by teaching a leadership seminar through a company he and his wife founded (Andre Mitchell was one of his first graduates). The arrangement left him ample time to demonstrate, and he organized rallies against apartheid in South Africa, police brutality in his hometown, and dozens of other social-justice issues.

In 1997, Barron protested the proposed construction of a movie theater in East New York. He argued that a supermarket or youth center better suited the area. The city councilwoman who represented the district, Priscilla Wooten, supported the multiplex project. She was a powerful foe. She'd held the seat since 1982 and had become one of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's top allies. When Barron returned to the construction site a day after the protest, he found that workers had erected a portion of the structure's wall. Just like that, Wooten had won. "That's the job I want," Barron thought.

He'd adopted the blend of radical idealism and pragmatism at the core of the movement that shaped him: that revolution can topple an institution from the outside, but also purify it from within. "A ballot is like a bullet," Malcolm X proclaimed.

"We can't leave the power in the hands of those who sell us out," says Barron. "I call them neocolonial puppets in the hands of our oppressors."

Barron lost to incumbent Wooten in that first election but took 40 percent of votes. Four years later, with Wooten ineligible because of newly instituted term limits, Barron ran against her son. "Somebody needs to tell Donald and his mother that this is a democracy, not a monarchy," he told the Voice a few months before winning the election.

Barron recognizes the height of his platform: City Council of the biggest city in the most powerful country in the world. To him, that stage comes with a responsibility to keep alive a voice that has all but disappeared from American discourse, one that believes colonialism did not end the moment white men packed up and left the Third World, nor when a black man stepped into the Oval Office.

He watched his heroes fall, one after the other, during or after their fights against their Western conquerors. Cameroon's Félix-Roland Moumié, assassinated in 1960; the Congo's Lumumba, executed by firing squad in '61; Togo's Sylvanus Olympio, assassinated in '63; Morocco's Mehdi Ben Barka, abducted in '65 and never seen again; Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, ousted in a Western-backed coup in '66; Mozambique's Eduardo Mondlane, killed in '69; Guinea's Amílcar Cabral, assassinated in '73.

Barron feels a duty to honor the liberators still standing. By doing so, he holds up a mirror showing that no hands are without blood. "How could you talk to me about Qaddafi and Mugabe when you supported Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines, Duvalier in Haiti, Somoza in Nicaragua," Barron argues. "The most bloody, brutal, murderous dictators the world has ever known, America supported. What hypocrisy!"

He has taken on the role of counterweight against what he sees as a nation's selective memory, the double standard of history. This is a country, after all, that stamps the faces of slaveholders onto its currency, names schools and buildings after them.

Street signs, too. As Barron walks past African Burial Ground Square along New Lots Avenue, he lists the names hoisted on poles in his own district: Van Siclen, Schenck, Barbey, Hegeman, Blake, Van Sinderen, Snediker. "All slaveholders!"

This selective memory, he believes, enables the oppression he sees today. It may seem that the battle he fights ended long ago. But to Barron, it lives, through him if nowhere else. "East New York is a liberation zone," he declares. So he keeps the torch lit, no matter how faint the flame.

"When I first got elected, people asked, 'Are you upset that the revolution didn't happen when you were in the Panthers?'" he says. "Revolution is a process. It's still going on. And even though there are setbacks, it's inevitable that this must change. See, I'm a patriot. You don't love America when you allow for this false sense of security to exist, when you allow racism, classism, sexism to permeate every institution and say that's just how it is. If we want to get fundamental change in this country, we got to tell it how it is."

The City Council chamber is packed like Easter service for the term's final meeting. Staffers, reporters, lobbyists, and civilians stand shoulder to shoulder to pay respects or take in the spectacle.

The councilmembers are restless, stuck in their seats as a photographer climbs a ladder at the front of the chamber to take a group portrait. "Charles!" shouts James Oddo, one of three Republicans on the council. Barron turns behind him to see Oddo raising a Black Power fist. "Let's go, Charles!"

Barron elevates his own fist. The men chuckle. Oddo brings his arm down, but as the camera flashes, Barron keeps his raised.

The afternoon is filled with kind words and war stories. Councilmembers hug one another like prizefighters after a 12-round brawl. Constituents approach and thank their representatives.

Then Speaker Quinn opens the session by individually praising each of her 22 departing colleagues. When she gets to her bitter rival from the 42nd District, she introduces him as "the shrinking violet of the New York City Council, Councilmember Charles Barron! You are somebody who is true to your convictions, has the courage of your convictions, certainly not afraid to stand alone, and is loud and strong and clear for the issues, the communities, and the things that you believe in."

Once Quinn finishes, each departing member, in order of district number, delivers their own farewell address. Barron, 18th in line, has plenty of time to polish his thoughts.

Among those preceding him is Oddo. The recently elected Staten Island borough president declares that when he enters post-council life, "I hope I have someone who challenges how I think, like Charles Barron." Barron nods graciously. The two men will later embrace.

A few hours in, speech fatigue has overcome much of the crowd. Some browse Twitter on their phones, others compose emails on their laptops.

The presiding officer announces Barron's name.

"Uh-oh!" Bronx councilman Robert Jackson exclaims with a smirk. Knowing chuckles ripple through the crowd.

"To my colleagues," Barron begins. "In my 12 tumultuous years with you, you've been very controversial and I've tried to keep you in line, but it was very difficult. I voted 'no' for so many of your projects, and I will be voting 'no' on some more today. However, I do appreciate that when my projects came before you" — he holds for the punch line — "you voted 'yes'!"

The chamber convulses with laughter.

"I have an assignment for those who are still here," he says. "On the real side, we shouldn't just have white men's pictures up on the wall. They're not the only ones in this town."

"Right on!" a spectator yells.

"Diversify the artwork at city hall, because when our children come here, when black and Latino children come here, they should see images of their heroes as well."

A smattering of applause. All eyes are now on Barron.

"As I depart, I will leave you with a better half," he says. "You think I was something — when she finishes with you, you're gonna ask me to come back! I'm sure that Governor Cuomo and [Assembly Speaker] Shelly Silver can't wait till I get to Albany. I'll try not to disappoint them and get there as soon as I can."

Just how soon he gets there is in Cuomo's hands. If the governor calls for a special election, a Barron victory is guaranteed: Brooklyn's Democratic Committee selects the nominee in a special election, and nearly every member representing the 42nd District is a Barron ally. Charles and Inez serve as the party's two district leaders.

But if Cuomo slates the race for the normal election cycle, leaving the seat vacant through the end of the year, Barron will have to get past Banks in the primary. That's no sure thing. Banks has already secured the endorsement of Hakeem Jeffries, who vanquished Barron en route to Congress.

"Finally, I wanna leave y'all with something special," Barron says. "I have written a pledge for you that you can use to replace the pledge here."

Nervous giggles and chatter sweep the room.

"Ready? Repeat after me. I pledge allegiance . . ."

Few voices speak up.

"Look at you, you scared! You can't even play with me. Y'all are scared! I pledge allegiance to rid this nation of racism, sexism, classism."

The crowd echoes the line.

"And all forms of discrimination for which this nation stands."

Just laughs this time.

"I pledge to fight for the eradication of poverty."

Everyone proudly recites.

"And equitable distribution of wealth, income, and opportunity."


"Finally," he says, allowing the buzz to die down. "I pledge to unite this nation under human rights until there's liberty and justice for all."

The ovation begins before he finishes.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

James Baldwin Talks to Teachers in Fall of 1963

“A Talk to Teachers”

By James Baldwin

(Delivered October 16, 1963, as “The Negro Child – His Self-Image”; originally published in The Saturday Review, December 21, 1963, reprinted in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985, Saint Martins 1985.)

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.  We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.  The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within.  So any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to “go for broke.”  Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.  There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.

Since I am talking to schoolteachers and I am not a teacher myself, and in some ways am fairly easily intimidated, I beg you to let me leave that and go back to what I think to be the entire purpose of education in the first place.  It would seem to me that when a child is born, if I’m the child’s parent, it is my obligation and my high duty to civilize that child.  Man is a social animal.  He cannot exist without a society.  A society, in turn, depends on certain things which everyone within that society takes for granted.  Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society.  Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians.  The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.  What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.  The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk.  This is the only hope society has.  This is the only way societies change.

Now, if what I have tried to sketch has any validity, it becomes thoroughly clear, at least to me, that any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.  He is assumed by the republic that he, his father, his mother, and his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon-eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, that the value he has as a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people.  If you think I am exaggerating, examine the myths which proliferate in this country about Negroes.

All this enters the child’s consciousness much sooner than we as adults would like to think it does.  As adults, we are easily fooled because we are so anxious to be fooled.  But children are very different.  Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions.  They don’t have the vocabulary to express what they see, and we, their elders, know how to intimidate them very easily and very soon.  But a black child, looking at the world around him, though he cannot know quite what to make of it, is aware that there is a reason why his mother works so hard, why his father is always on edge.  He is aware that there is some reason why, if he sits down in the front of the bus, his father or mother slaps him and drags him to the back of the bus.  He is aware that there is some terrible weight on his parents’ shoulders which menaces him.  And it isn’t long – in fact it begins when he is in school – before he discovers the shape of his oppression.

Let us say that the child is seven years old and I am his father, and I decide to take him to the zoo, or to Madison Square Garden, or to the U.N. Building, or to any of the tremendous monuments we find all over New York.  We get into a bus and we go from where I live on 131st Street and Seventh Avenue downtown through the park and we get in New York City, which is not Harlem.  Now, where the boy lives – even if it is a housing project – is in an undesirable neighborhood.  If he lives in one of those housing projects of which everyone in New York is so proud, he has at the front door, if not closer, the pimps, the whores, the junkies – in a word, the danger of life in the ghetto.  And the child knows this, though he doesn’t know why.

I still remember my first sight of New York.  It was really another city when I was born – where I was born.  We looked down over the Park Avenue streetcar tracks.  It was Park Avenue, but I didn’t know what Park Avenue meant downtown.  The Park Avenue I grew up on, which is still standing, is dark and dirty.   No one would dream of opening a Tiffany’s on that Park Avenue, and when you go downtown you discover that you are literally in the white world.  It is rich – or at least it looks rich.  It is clean – because they collect garbage downtown.  There are doormen.  People walk about as though they owned where they are – and indeed they do.  And it’s a great shock.  It’s very hard to relate yourself to this.  You don’t know what it means.  You know – you know instinctively – that none of this is for you.  You know this before you are told.  And who is it for and who is paying for it?  And why isn’t it for you?

Later on when you become a grocery boy or messenger and you try to enter one of those buildings a man says, “Go to the back door.”  Still later, if you happen by some odd chance to have a friend in one of those buildings, the man says, “Where’s your package?”  Now this by no means is the core of the matter.  What I’m trying to get at is that by the time the Negro child has had, effectively, almost all the doors of opportunity slammed in his face, and there are very few things he can do about it.  He can more or less accept it with an absolutely inarticulate and dangerous rage inside – all the more dangerous because it is never expressed.  It is precisely those silent people whom white people see every day of their lives – I mean your porter and your maid, who never say anything more than “Yes Sir” and “No, Ma’am.”  They will tell you it’s raining if that is what you want to hear, and they will tell you the sun is shining if that is what you want to hear.  They really hate you – really hate you because in their eyes (and they’re right) you stand between them and life.  I want to come back to that in a moment.  It is the most sinister of the facts, I think, which we now face.

There is something else the Negro child can do, to.  Every street boy – and I was a street boy, so I know – looking at the society which has produced him, looking at the standards of that society which are not honored by anybody, looking at your churches and the government and the politicians, understand that this structure is operated for someone else’s benefit – not for his.  And there’s no reason in it for him.  If he is really cunning, really ruthless, really strong – and many of us are – he becomes a kind of criminal.  He becomes a kind of criminal because that’s the only way he can live.  Harlem and every ghetto in this city – every ghetto in this country – is full of people who live outside the law.  They wouldn’t dream of calling a policeman.  They wouldn’t, for a moment, listen to any of those professions of which we are so proud on the Fourth of July.  They have turned away from this country forever and totally.  They live by their wits and really long to see the day when the entire structure comes down.

The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor.  They were indispensable to the economy.  In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved  to be treated like animals.  Therefor it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history.  The reason is that this “animal,” once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure.  This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place.  What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand.  It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh.  And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.

The Reconstruction, as I read the evidence, was a bargain between the North and South to this effect:  “We’ve liberated them from the land – and delivered them to the bosses.”  When we left Mississippi to come North we did not come to freedom.  We came to the bottom of the labor market, and we are still there.  Even the Depression of the 1930’s failed to make a dent in Negroes’ relationship to white workers in the labor unions.  Even today, so brainwashed is this republic that people seriously ask in what they suppose to be good faith, “What does the Negro want?”  I’ve heard a great many asinine questions in my life, but that is perhaps the most asinine and perhaps the most insulting.  But the point here is that people who ask that question, thinking that they ask it in good faith, are really the victims of this conspiracy to make Negroes believe they are less than human.

In order for me to live, I decided very early that some mistake had been made somewhere.  I was not a “nigger” even though you called me one.  But if I was a “nigger” in your eyes, there was something about you – there was something you needed.  I had to realize when I was very young that I was none of those things I was told I was.  I was not, for example, happy.  I never touched a watermelon for all kinds of reasons that had been invented by white people, and I knew enough about life by this time to understand that whatever you invent, whatever you project, is you!  So where we are no is that a whole country of people believe I’m a “nigger,” and I don’t , and the battle’s on!  Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either!  And that is the crisis.

It is not really a “Negro revolution” that is upsetting the country.  What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity.  If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history.  And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all.  If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself.  You are mad.

Now let’s go back a minute.  I talked earlier about those silent people - the porter and the maid – who, as I said, don’t look up at the sky if you ask them if it is raining, but look into your face.  My ancestors and I were very well trained.  We understood very early that this was not a Christian nation.  It didn’t matter what you said or how often you went to church.  My father and my mother and my grandfather and my grandmother knew that Christians didn’t act this way.  It was a simple as that.  And if that was so there was no point in dealing with white people in terms of their own moral professions, for they were not going to honor them.  What one did was to turn away, smiling all the time, and tell white people what they wanted to hear.  But people always accuse you of reckless talk when you say this.

All this means that there are in this country tremendous reservoirs of bitterness which have never been able to find an outlet, but may find an outlet soon.  It means that well-meaning white liberals place themselves in great danger when they try to deal with Negroes as though they were missionaries.  It means, in brief, that a great price is demanded to liberate all those silent people so that they can breathe for the first time and tell  you what they think of you.  And a price is demanded to liberate all those white children – some of them near forty - who have never grown up, and who never will grow up, because they have no sense of their identity.

 What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.  It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really appear to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free.  That happens not to be true.  What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it.  That’s all.  They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts.  Those who were making it in England, for example, did not get on the Mayflower.  That’s how the country was settled.  Not by Gary Cooper.  Yet we have a whole race of people, a whole republic, who believe the myths to the point where even today they select political representatives, as far as I can tell, by how closely they resemble Gary Cooper.  Now this is dangerously infantile, and it shows in every level of national life.  When I was living in Europe, for example, one of the worst revelations to me was the way Americans walked around Europe buying this and buying that and insulting everybody – not even out of malice, just because they didn’t know any better.  Well, that is the way they have always treated me.  They weren’t cruel; they just didn’t know you were alive.  They didn’t know you had any feelings.

What I am trying to suggest here is that in the doing of all this for 100 years or more, it is the American white man who has long since lost his grip on reality.  In some peculiar way, having created this myth about Negroes, and the myth about his own history, he created myths about the world so that, for example, he was astounded that some people could prefer Castro, astounded that there are people in the world who don’t go into hiding when they hear the word “Communism,” astounded that Communism is one of the realities of the twentieth century which we will not overcome by pretending that it does not exist.  The political level in this country now, on the part of people who should know better, is abysmal.

The Bible says somewhere that where there is no vision the people perish.  I don’t think anyone can doubt that in this country today we are menaced – intolerably menaced – by a lack of vision.

It is inconceivable that a sovereign people should continue, as we do so abjectly, to say, “I can’t do anything about it.  It’s the government.”  The government is the creation of the people.  It is responsible to the people.  And the people are responsible for it.  No American has the right to allow the present government to say, when Negro children are being bombed and hosed and shot and beaten all over the Deep South, that there is nothing we can do about it.  There must have been a day in this country’s life when the bombing of the children in Sunday School would have created a public uproar and endangered the life of a Governor Wallace.  It happened here and there was no public uproar.

I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.  It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.  And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.  Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them -  I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. 

I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.  I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.  And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth. 

I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect.  That it is up to him to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country.  I would suggest to him that the popular culture – as represented, for example, on television and in comic books and in movies – is based on fantasies created by very ill people, and he must be aware that these are fantasies that have nothing to do with reality.  I would teach him that the press he reads is not as free as it says it is – and that he can do something about that, too. 

I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger – and that it belongs to him.  I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality; that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything. 

I would try to show him that one has not learned anything about Castro when one says, “He is a Communist.”  This is a way of his learning something about Castro, something about Cuba, something, in time, about the world.  I would suggest to him that his is living, at the moment, in an enormous province.  America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way – and this child must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which this child represents.   

If this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Racist appeals undermining the middle class

Opinion: Author decries role of dog-whistle politics

By Darrell Delamaide-
Prof. Ian Haney López 
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) – Not only is the U.S. far from achieving a post-racial society, but dog-whistle politics is reinforcing the role of race and contributing to the decline of the middle class as whites vote against their own best interests.

This is the thesis in a new book by Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley, who says that racism in this country is not dead, only taking on new forms as it adapts to changes in society.

While neither the concept of dog-whistle politics nor the phenomenon of single-issue voters is new, Haney López re-frames the debate in terms of race and its impact on our widening political divide and growing economic inequality.

Legislation to resurrect benefits for the long-term unemployed overcame a procedural hurdle in the Senate amid personal lobbying by President Obama. Aaron Zitner reports on Lunch Break.

Dog-whistle politics refers to code words or phrases that carry connotations readily apparent to a target audience, much as a dog can hear the high-pitched whistle that doesn’t register with humans. The Republican Party, he argues, is using coded language to rally white voters to its side, even if it means voting against their own economic interests. 

“Over the last half-century conservatives have used racial pandering to win support from white voters for policies that principally favor the very wealthy and wreck the middle class,” Haney López writes. “Running on racial appeals, the right has promised to protect supposedly embattled whites, when in reality it has largely harnessed government to the interests of the very affluent.” 

Veiled references to the undeserving poor, illegal aliens and sharia law carry racial undertones that avoid the stigma of overt racism but nonetheless provoke the desired reaction. 

This tactic does not concern just the blacks, Latinos and Muslims targeted by these innuendoes, the author goes on to say, but also the vast swath of white middle class, whether they fall in line with this Republican appeal or not. 

“Members of the middle class … typically harbor an unfounded certainty that race holds little relevance to them or their future,” Haney López writes. “The could not be more wrong, for race constitutes the dark magic by which middle-class voters have been convinced to turn government over to the wildly affluent, notwithstanding the harm this does to themselves.” 

Oxford University Press
Haney López cites the arguments developed by his professor at Harvard Law School, Derrick Bell, which he resisted at the time but has now come to accept — that racism is a permanent feature in American society and politics. 

Permanent, the author came to realize, does not mean fixed and unchanging. The key is that it adapts in order to maintain white dominance. 

“The bottom line is that Professor Bell was correct,” he says, “racism is not disappearing, it’s adapting.”
Haney López’s book, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” appears as the polarization around the country’s first black president shows no signs of abating. 

Pundits proclaim that demographics herald the triumph of a multiracial Democratic Party, but in fact a Republican Party that panders to whites while rejecting and even insulting most nonwhites continues to win elections. 

In our gerrymandered country, constitutionally skewed to protect minority interest groups, there is talk of Republicans retaining control of the House in the 2014 elections and even capturing the Senate, despite all the talk of non-white racial minorities becoming the majority. 

President Barack Obama, in fact, has exacerbated the problem by trying to stand above race. “But in order to avoid race,” Haney López says, “he apparently calculates he must keep his distance from liberalism, too.” 

This accounts for Obama’s failure to utilize the financial crisis for a genuine dose of liberal policies, the author says, instead of accepting “conservative mythmaking” about tax cuts and deficit reduction. 

Haney López does not buy the argument that Republican obstructionism restricted Obama’s field of action when he took office. The Republican Party was in disarray, and its leaders, from outgoing President George Bush to election losers John McCain and Sarah Palin, were unpopular. 

“Far from being hamstrung by the right, Obama’s refusal to offer a liberal counterweight to right-wing mythmaking may have contributed to the conservative resurgence,” the author says. 

“The vacuum left by Obama’s refusal to embrace liberal ideas and policies allowed conservatives to offer once again their standard story of race and betrayal, big government and victimization.” 

Haney López catalogues evolving dog-whistle topics as racism continues to adapt — the attack on public schools, the xenophobic warnings about competition from China, and even expanding the definition of “white” to include Latinos much as it earlier expanded from a narrow Anglo-Saxon base to include southern Europeans. 
The best antidote to this coded racism, the author concludes, is to call it out for what it is, ignoring the catcalls that doing so is playing the race card. 

Civil-rights organizations must continue to fight for racial justice, which is far from being achieved simply because the first black president has been elected. Unions must enter that space where race and poverty intersect. 

Above all, the author contends, there must be an effort to restore liberalism. This may mean supporting Democrats for the most part, but Democratic politicians have been known to resort to dog-whistle politics, too.

The challenge, Haney López believes, is to renew the Democratic Party’s commitment to liberalism. He blames the fading impact of Occupy Wall Street on the movement’s failure to engage in partisan politics and force change in the Democratic Party in the way the tea-party movement pushed the Republican Party to the right. 

Haney López brings his argument full circle to the current fight against poverty and inequality. He cites Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address urging a “second Bill of Rights” — which included “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and education and clothing” — and Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 call for a Poor People’s March on Washington to seek “a new economic deal for the poor.” 

This is not looking backward, the author says, but is a call “to restore an interrupted future.” He urges a new commitment “to making sure racism doesn’t continue to bind our greatest aspirations.” 

Darrell Delamaide is a political columnist for MarketWatch in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @MKTWDelamaide.