August 11, 2015
A few months ago, I got into an argument on Twitter with a right winger over voting and taxes. I was watching MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry’s show and one segment was about felon disfranchisement. I posed this question to my Twitter followers: "Should people who have paid their debt to society still be taxed if they aren’t allowed to vote?" This question immediately attracted said right winger, who answered, "Yes." We got into a short back-and-forth, which I won’t elaborate here, but the crux of his belief was that if a person didn’t want their rights taken away, they shouldn’t commit a crime. Never mind that many people, black Americans especially, have been railroaded by our criminal justice system. Whatever happened to "no taxation without representation?"
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, but the celebrations are tempered by the United States Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the landmark legislation. Despite what the majority of the justices in that case would have us believe, racism in the electoral process is still alive and well in America. Felon disfranchisement, which disproportionately impacts Americans of color, is one problem that is at the forefront of the current movement for voting rights. States have different laws regarding incarcerated people and voting, with the most draconian disfranchising for life people convicted of felonies, to the most lenient that allow people in prison to vote in all elections. California is in the middle, restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated after they have completed their sentence and parole.
Voting rights advocates tend to frame disfranchisement in moral terms: that it’s undemocratic to exclude people from participating in our democracy. But, getting back to my Twitter argument with the right winger, I wanted to frame the issue in terms I thought conservatives would understand: would they sympathize with an apparent anti-tax argument when it came to the formerly incarcerated? At least that right winger didn’t, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Because I posed the question to expose what, I think, was a big reason behind felon disfranchisement laws: to ensure that black Americans have little to no say in how our country’s resources - through taxes - are distributed. The right winger didn’t say anything about race, but he didn’t have to.
Ultimately, voting is about deciding if, when and how much to tax ourselves, where and on whom those dollars are spent. Racism is about animosity toward other groups, but it's also about economics — keeping disfavored groups at an economic disadvantage relative to one’s own group. What better way to take resources away from blacks and the poor, and redistribute them to whites and the affluent, by making certain behaviors criminal felonies, disproportionately targeting and arresting members of marginalized groups for those behaviors, and passing laws taking away those groups’ voting rights after conviction? Now, this may sound to some like tin-foil hat conspiracy theory, but it's no coincidence that the era of the Drug War, mass incarceration, and the right-wing anti-tax revolt began not long after President Lyndon Johnson signed the set of civil rights laws guaranteeing black Americans’ equal participation in U.S. democracy.
July 3, 2015
The close of June has seen a stunning series of events for President Obama, our Democratic Party and the American people. The last few weeks were marked by farce, horrific tragedy and soaring triumph. And we seem to be on the verge of a serious and long-needed national conversation about the impact of race and racism on our society.
Let’s start with the triumphs. The U.S. Supreme Court handed President Obama his first victory this session by, once again, upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. After dozens of tries, the GOP failed in its latest attempt at stripping millions of Americans of their health coverage. Next, the high Court majority thwarted a right wing attempt to gut the Fair Housing Act by affirming the doctrine of ― "disparate impact," meaning that people suing over racial discrimination don’t have to prove racist intent, but only that the offending behavior had a racially discriminatory effect. And finally, love won out over bigotry as the Court upheld and expanded the fundamental right of gay and lesbian couples across America to wed.
But for every step forward in human rights, it seems we take three steps backward when it comes to race in America. We seem no closer to stopping the epidemic of police violence against unarmed black and brown people, even when the victims are innocent children simply trying to go to a swim party. And just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, it got worse. A young man addicted to the high of white supremacy and drunk on hatred of black people, walked into a Charleston, South Carolina, church with a gun and slaughtered eight parishioners and their pastor, who was also a popular state legislator. The national conversation had suddenly moved from questions of racial identity surrounding the bizarre story of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP leader, who for years had posed as a black woman, to a discussion of racial violence and racist symbols.
Black people in Charleston were immediately exhorted to forgive the alleged killer, and family members of the victims did so publicly within two days of the tragedy. But I know from reading many commentaries in online publications and on social media, that many other black Americans do not forgive and are tired of the constant pleas for black people to ―turn the other cheek‖ when it comes to racist violence. To not call this act of violence a terrorist attack — which it most certainly was — not only disrespects black people, but it’s also hypocritical. Whenever an act of gun violence is committed by someone who is Muslim, it is immediately deemed a terrorist attack and Muslims are unfairly lumped together for collective accountability. But when an act of gun violence is committed by a white American, the go-to explanations are "lone wolf," "hate crime," and/or "mental illness" - never terrorism. This, despite the fact that according to a recent study by law enforcement experts, right-wing, anti-government extremists have been involved in many more deadly terror attacks in the U.S. than jihadists.
That the Charleston massacre took place at a church famously known for its civil rights activism is telling. South Carolina was the first southern state to secede during the Civil War, and old feelings die hard. For decades, a majority of the state’s legislature had defiantly rebuffed calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of their capitol. However, it looks like the flag might not be there much longer. Unfortunately, it may have taken the lives of nine innocent people to finally shame South Carolina officials towards getting rid of that symbol of slavery, racism, violence and outright theft. But removing symbols is easy. Dismantling America’s institutionalized racism is a much harder task.
When most people think of ways to improve public safety, the idea that typically comes to mind is increasing the number of police in our communities.
But as policing as an institution is coming under increased scrutiny in light of widespread media coverage of controversial police shootings of unarmed people, many are questioning the wisdom of hiring more police as the preferred solution to fighting crime. I agree.
In fact, the best crime fighting weapon is to decrease inequality and increase trust in our society. The most equal societies have the least social ills and have the most trust among their citizens, according to a book I have read and recommend, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality is Better for Everyone by British researchers Kate Pickett and Richard G. Wilkinson. It makes a ton of sense. Give marginalized people access to high quality education, good jobs, better pay, and a generous social safety net, and they won’t be so desperate that they turn to crime to survive.
So, a more equal society is a safer society. The more people feel economically safe and secure, the less likely they are to fear their neighbors and want to buy guns for protection. It’s no wonder that the United States is the most unequal of the advanced democracies and has the most guns per capita and the highest level of gun violence.
A culture that prizes profits over the well-being of people is ultimately self-defeating. A society that views certain of its members with suspicion and treats them as less than human, rather than as full citizens, is self- defeating. And a country that allows a small number of its population hoard a disproportionate share of the wealth at the expense of the majority population, is self- defeating. These are the ingredients that contribute to a less safe society.
How do we end inequality and make the U.S. a safer country? Changing attitudes and culture is key. First, we should view all our fellow citizens as human beings, with the same right to a dignified well-being as we would have for ourselves. Next, we should regard all work as having value and deserving of a just compensation; the labor of the domestic worker is as important as that of the CEO. Then, we should value the public sphere as much as we do the private; our public institutions and our public spaces deserve our support and enough resources to thrive. Next, we must end draconian punishments for petty offenses; leave the quality of life issues for civilians to deal with creatively, and leave our police to handle the truly violent elements. Finally, we must break down the barriers to political participation that keep the less affluent and the less connected away from influencing public policy. America has to practice real democracy, not simply preach about it. We have come at a crossroads and we have a choice. If we pay attention to world history, a widening divide between the haves and have-nots only ends in one way, and it’s not pretty. Instead, let’s take the other path, the one toward broad societal prosperity, healthier and safer communities.
Presidential election season is officially underway, and the next Chief Executive - hopefully, a Democrat - will have to deal with an economy that, while recovering, is still less than stellar. March‟s jobs report was underwhelming: the federal government stated only 126,000 jobs were created after a year- long streak of monthly job figures north of 200,000. Meanwhile, the situation of the long-term unemployed - people out of work 27 weeks or more - has only slightly improved. Although the numbers in that group have dropped, 2.6 million people are still long-term unemployed, far higher than before the Great Recession began. That‟s a lot of wasted potential.
Despite all the rhetoric coming from the media and politicians asserting that the U.S. economy is on the upswing, many of our citizens are not feeling it. Wages are still stagnant for those who are working. Most of the gains made from the recovery have gone to the very richest. And the official employment numbers don‟t tell the whole story. For instance, the labor force participation rate is 62.7% - the lowest figure in nearly 40 years. Many people are either working part-time and want a full-time job, or have simply given up trying to find a job at all. They are not counted in the official unemployment rate of 5.5%. (Neither are people in prison, for that matter).
I can certainly attest to the problem of long-term unemployment, because I have been suffering bouts of unemployment for years, even before the 2008 financial crash (remember George W. Bush‟s “jobless recovery?”). For four blissful months last year, I had a full-time job on a state Senate campaign. Since that campaign ended last June, I have yet to land another job, despite continuing to send out resumes and leveraging my network of friends and acquaintances. There are others I know in the same situation. Unfortunately, the stigma of being unemployed for so long runs so deep in our society that some employers are openly discriminating against people who show long gaps in their employment histories. Then add to that difficulty, the unique challenges that certain groups - women, people of color, the disabled, people over 50 - have when trying to land jobs. For example, blacks, who still face rampant employment discrimination, don‟t have the same access as whites to the kinds of social networks that connect people to the best and highest paying jobs within the “hidden job market.” Decades of institutionalized racism and residential segregation have limited blacks‟ access to good employment opportunities.
Despite these challenges within American employment, the problem of long-term unemployment is getting little attention, aside from political fights over the length of time for unemployment benefits. I feel that those of us who are still unemployed and want to work are being left to twist in the wind. “Fighting for $15” minimum wage and talking up the “plight of working families” are great issues, but what about the folks who can only dream of getting a wage at all? This is where the government must come in. When the market fails, it is the government that must become “the employer of last resort.”
Democrats once trumpeted that principle from the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who established the famed Works Progress Administration that put thousands to work during the Great Depression. But, today, our party seems too timid to promote “muscular government,” and won‟t effectively push back against the ridiculous idea that “government doesn‟t create jobs (tell any civil servant that they aren‟t actually doing a „job‟).” That timidity is the result of 40 years of American society being bombarded with bad right-wing economic theories and policies. The WPA was a successful program, and so was another federal jobs program in the 1970s, called the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. CETA trained unemployed people and provided them with jobs in civil service. Other countries have similar programs. CCDC member Darryl Cherness told me about CETA. Eventually, CETA and a subsequent successor were repealed in the 1990s. But we need such a program again. The recalcitrant Republican Congress likely won‟t implement it, so our California state Legislature should.