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History > 2008 > USA > African-Americans (III)




Illustration: Barry Blitt


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner




Main character: Barack Obama















Murders by Black Teenagers Rise,

Bucking a Trend


December 29, 2008
The New York Times


The murder rate among black teenagers has climbed since 2000 even as murders by young whites have scarcely grown or declined in some places, according to a new report.

The celebrated reduction in murder rates nationally has concealed a “worrisome divergence,” said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University who wrote the report, to be released Monday, with Marc L. Swatt. And there are signs, they said, that the racial gap will grow without countermeasures like restoring police officers in the streets and creating social programs for poor youths.

The main racial difference involves juveniles ages 14 to 17. In 2000, 539 white and 851 black juveniles committed murder, according to an analysis of federal data by the authors. In 2007, the number for whites, 547, had barely changed, while that for blacks was 1,142, up 34 percent.

The increase coincided with a rise in the number of murders involving guns, Dr. Fox said. The number of young blacks who were victims of murder also rose in this period.

Murder rates around the country are far below the record highs of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a crack epidemic spawned violent turf battles.

“Regrettably, as the nation celebrated the successful fight against violent crime in the 1990s, we grew complacent and eased up on our crime-fighting efforts,” the authors said.

The report primarily blames cutbacks in federal support for community policing and juvenile crime prevention, reduced support for after-school and other social programs, and a weakening of gun laws. Cuts in these areas have been felt most deeply in poor, black urban areas, helping to explain the growing racial disparity in violent crime, Dr. Fox said.

But Bruce Western, a sociologist at Harvard, cautioned that the change in murder rates was not large and did not yet show a clear trend. Dr. Western also said that the impact of the reduction in government spending on crime control would have to be studied on a city-by-city basis, and that many other changes, including a sagging economy, could have affected murder rates.

Conservative criminologists place greater emphasis on the breakdown of black families, rather than cuts in government programs, in explaining the travails of black youths.

Much of the increase, experts say, is a product of gang activity, in midsize and large cities.

“The aggregate national murder rate since 2000 has been impressively flat — not to say there haven’t been fluctuations in individual cities,” said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University. “But when you see a spike in a city,” he said, as in Chicago recently, “it very often involves young black males shooting other young black males.”

Dr. Blumstein said that while federal cuts might have contributed to the rise in murders by black teenagers, “I think there are much more endemic problems going on.”

“In the inner city, you have large numbers of kids with no future, hanging out together with a great emphasis on their street credibility,” he said. “They’ll go to great lengths to avenge an insult.” Many of these teenagers do not stay in school, let alone join the Boys Clubs or other after-school programs.

The heightened attention to security after the 9/11 attacks might, paradoxically, have contributed to a decline in crime-fighting.

“One problem we faced was a disinvestment in policing in the post-2001 environment,” said Chief Edward A. Flynn of the Milwaukee police, who served from 2003 to 2006 as secretary of public safety in Massachusetts. “I witnessed homeland security become the monster that ate criminal justice,” Chief Flynn said, as money went to security equipment and communications and the number of police officers fell.

To fight violent crime, Chief Flynn said, the police must be a visible presence in neighborhoods with high crime rates.

From 2000 to 2007, according to the report, murders in Milwaukee by whites ages 14 to 24 rose by 4 percent, while those by blacks rose by 62 percent.

This year, Chief Flynn’s first leading the department, he deployed new teams of officers to the most violent neighborhoods, having them patrol on foot and bicycles, while federal agencies helped bring down some large gangs. The number of murders this year — 70 as of last Friday — is down one-third from last year and is the lowest since 1985.

Still, Chief Flynn said, “any improvements will be temporary unless there’s more investment in the futures of our young people.”

    Murders by Black Teenagers Rise, Bucking a Trend, NYT, 29.12.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/29/us/29homicide.html?hp






Yale Poet Prepares for Inauguration


December 19, 2008
Filed at 12:52 p.m. ET
The New York Times


NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) -- Elizabeth Alexander was a toddler in a baby stroller when her parents took her to hear Martin Luther King's historic ''I Have a Dream'' speech in Washington.

Now, it's Alexander's turn to move the nation.

Alexander, professor of African-American studies at Yale University, was chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to compose and read a poem for his inauguration on Jan. 20.

''I'm completely thrilled and deeply, deeply honored,'' Alexander said Thursday.

Alexander's mother is a historian specializing in African-American women's history at George Washington University. Her father was a presidential civil rights adviser and secretary of the Army.

''The civil rights movement was fully alive in our home,'' Alexander said.

Attending King's 1963 speech was an iconic moment for the family.

''That story was always a part of family stories that were told as a way of thinking about the importance of being civic, the importance of looking forward, the importance of having visionary leaders, the importance of involving yourself with the community, the importance of recognizing the historical moment and historical possibilities,'' Alexander said.

Alexander said her parents are thrilled at her selection.

''This is an incomparable thrill to them in the way that Obama's presidency is an especially potent and powerful thing for African-Americans in their 70s who have devoted their lives to progress,'' Alexander said. ''To be a part of it, I almost can't imagine it myself.''

Alexander, who is 46 and married with two children, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 for her collection ''American Sublime.'' Her other books include ''The Venus Hottentot,'' ''Body of Life'' and ''Antebellum Dream Book.''

Last year, she won the $50,000 Jackson Poetry Prize.

Alexander will be only the fourth poet to read at a presidential swearing in. Robert Frost read for President John F. Kennedy, while Maya Angelou and Miller Williams read at President Clinton's inaugurations.

''I think what I hope to symbolize and demonstrate is the important role that arts and literature can play in this moment when the country is thinking so keenly about moving forward and coming together,'' Alexander said.

Alexander acknowledged the challenge before her. She said she does not start with a message in mind, likening the process to a radio antenna in which she listens for the right language.

''You're always trying to catch a rhythm,'' she said. ''It's something I will be chipping away at every day.''

Alexander is friends with Obama from her days when they were on the faculty at the University of Chicago in the 1990s.

''That friendship makes this opportunity all the more special,'' she said.

Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, welcomed her selection.

''Elizabeth Alexander is a superb choice for the Obama inauguration: She is from Washington, she represents Obama's generation, and she has written about the civil rights conflict and other historical events that have shaped the character of this country,'' Swenson said. ''At the same time, her intense personal vision reveals the commonplace life illuminated from startling new angles -- as good poetry always does.''

Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins said Alexander faces a tall order.

''I don't envy her,'' Collins wrote in an e-mail. ''Such poems are nearly impossible to bring off. Because of the heaviness of the subject the risk is that you will end up under it rather than on top. I wish her well and I'm certainly glad Obama is making room for a poet.''


Associated Press writer Nancy Benac in Washington contributed to this story.

    Yale Poet Prepares for Inauguration, NYT, 19.12.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2008/12/19/arts/AP-Inauguration-Poet.html






Tuskegee Airmen Invited to Obama Inauguration


December 10, 2008
The New York Times


When the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black force of elite pilots, emerged from combat in World War II, they faced as much discrimination as they had before the war. It was not until six decades later that their valor was recognized and they received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can give.

Now, the roughly 330 pilots and members of the ground crew who are left from about 16,000 who served are receiving another honor that has surpassed their dreams: They are being invited to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama as the country’s first black president.

“I didn’t believe I’d live long enough to see something like this,” said Lt. Col. Charles A. Lane Jr., 83, of Omaha, a retired Tuskegee fighter pilot who flew missions over Italy.

“I would love to be there, I would love to be able to see it with my own eyes,” he said, chuckling on the phone as he heard about the invitation. But, he said, he had a “physical limitation” and was not sure he would be able to attend.

Thousands of people who participated in the fight for civil rights over several decades helped pave the way for Mr. Obama’s triumph. But the Tuskegee Airmen have a special place in history. Their bravery during the war — on behalf of a country that actively discriminated against them — helped persuade President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.

“The election of Barack Obama was like a culmination of a struggle that we were going through, wanting to be pilots,” said William M. Wheeler, 85, a retired Tuskegee combat fighter pilot who lives in Hempstead, N.Y. He tried to become a commercial pilot after the war but was offered a job cleaning planes instead.

Mr. Obama has acknowledged his debt to the airmen, issuing a statement in 2007, when they received the Congressional Gold Medal. It said in part: “My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed.”

The invitation to his swearing-in was extended Tuesday by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Howard Gantman, staff director for the committee, said of the decision to invite them: “They served honorably on behalf of our country, helped fight the battle to overcome racial barriers and because of the historic nature of this election, we thought they deserved to be there.”

Tickets to the Jan. 20 inauguration are the most sought-after commodity, with more than 1.5 million people expected in Washington. Of the 240,000 tickets, the airmen would have seats among the 30,000 on the terrace below the podium, along with former members of Congress and others.

For logistical reasons, the actual invitation ended up with Robert D. Rose, a retired Air Force captain in Bellevue, Neb., who was not a Tuskegee airman but is the first vice president of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., an association of the original airmen and their supporters.

The onus is on the association to extend the invitation to the airmen, who must respond by Dec. 19. Each can bring one guest. The tickets are not transferable, so if an airman cannot make it, he cannot give his ticket away.

“We’ll have a lot of happy fellows and ladies,” said Mr. Rose, who predicted that many would try to attend.

He said that before the invitation was made Tuesday, he had already been trying to get word to higher ups that the airmen would like to be invited. “I thought if the name ‘Tuskegee’ surfaced at a high enough level, someone would recognize it and it would make sense to invite them,” he said.

There is no firm handle on how many are still alive. More than 300 came forward in March 2007 to collect their bronze replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony at the Capitol. The actual Gold Medal itself was given to the Smithsonian Institution.

In all, 994 pilots and about 15,000 ground personnel collectively known as the Tuskegee Airmen were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama from 1942 to 1946.

About 119 pilots and 211 ground personnel are still alive, according to Tuskegee Airmen Inc. They are in their 80s and 90s, many are frail, and it is unclear how many will be able to make the trip to Washington. And those who make it will face various challenges: they will most likely have to walk some distance, the weather could be harsh, the crowds will be huge and accommodations are scarce.

Still, these are some of the airmen who flew more than 150,000 sorties over Europe and North Africa during World War II, escorting Allied bombers and destroying hundreds of enemy aircraft. Some were taken prisoner. And most faced fierce discrimination during and after the war.

“Even the Nazis asked why they would fight for a country that treated them unfairly,” President Bush said in awarding the medals.

Mr. Rose, of the airmen’s association, said he saw a direct connection between the Tuskegee experience and Mr. Obama’s election.

“The Tuskegee Airmen preceded Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and if they hadn’t helped generate a climate of tolerance by integration of the military, we might not have progressed through the civil rights era,” he said. ”We would have seen a different civil rights movement, if we would have seen one at all.”

    Tuskegee Airmen Invited to Obama Inauguration, NYT, 10.12.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/10/us/politics/10inaug.html?hp






Dorothy Sterling, 95, Children’s Author, Dies


December 5, 2008
The New York Times


Dorothy Sterling, whose more than 35 books for children and adults included some of the first nonfiction works about black history for young readers, notably “Freedom Train,” about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, died on Monday at her home in Wellfleet, Mass. She was 95.

The death was confirmed by her daughter, Anne Fausto-Sterling.

A New Yorker with a passion for trees, flowers and bugs, Ms. Sterling found many of her subjects while following up on questions about the natural world posed by her two children. While casting about for a biographical subject, she found inspiration in Tubman and her work for the Underground Railroad, which led to the groundbreaking “Freedom Train” in 1954, as the civil rights movement gathered momentum. Her research for that book using the Schomburg collection of the New York Public Library resulted in a series of books designed to introduce young readers to black history. These included “Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls” (1958), about a former slave who captured a Confederate gunboat and later became a congressman from South Carolina, and “Lucretia Mott: Gentle Warrior” (1964), a biography of that Quaker abolitionist.

“I had found a subject about which I cared deeply,” Ms. Sterling wrote for the reference work “Something About the Author.” “At the age of 40, I had finally become a writer.”

Dorothy Dannenberg was born in Manhattan in 1913. A precocious student, she was plucked from Public School 46 in Washington Heights and placed in a special class for gifted students at a school farther downtown. She later attended the Dalton School and, at 15, won entrance to Wellesley College. She found it disappointing and transferred to Barnard, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1934, just in time to enter the ranks of the unemployed.

While working for the Federal Writers’ Project she met and married Philip Sterling, an unemployed journalist and later an author, who died in 1989. In addition to her daughter, Anne, of Providence, R.I., she is survived by a son, Peter, of Philadelphia; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In the 1940s, Ms. Sterling worked for Life as a researcher, but left in frustration at a system under which women, as researchers, fed material to men, who got the bylines. In the early 1950s she began writing books for children, starting with “Sophie and Her Puppies” (1951), a Life-style photo essay about the family dogs. Determined to write the biography of a strong woman who could inspire girls, she found her way to Tubman and discovered a new field of research.

“I was excited, but also bewildered and angry,” she wrote. “Why had I never heard of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison? Here was a wealth of information, dozens of inspiring stories to tell to young readers.”

Ms. Sterling wrote two books on black history for children, “Forever Free: The Story of the Emancipation Proclamation” (1963) and “It Started in Montgomery” (1972), and many more for young adults, notably “Tear Down the Walls!: A History of the American Civil Rights Movement” (1968) and “Black Foremothers: Three Lives” (1979).

She also wrote, for adults, “Tender Warriors” (1958), about students entering previously segregated schools. The book, based on interviews she conducted on a tour of the South in 1957, provided raw material for “Mary Jane” (1959), a young-adult novel.

Her last book was a political memoir, “Close to My Heart” (2005), which included an account of a successful late-life crusade on behalf of local shellfishers whose access to the beaches of Wellfleet was being blocked by wealthy homeowners. Ms. Sterling, who had moved to Wellfleet in the early 1970s, allowed the shellfishers to use her right of access. The stretch of beach at the end of her road is now officially named Sterling Path.

    Dorothy Sterling, 95, Children’s Author, Dies, NYT, 5.12.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/05/arts/05sterling.html







The Next Attorney General


December 3, 2008
The New York Times

If he is confirmed by the Senate as attorney general, Eric Holder, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for the job, will inherit a Justice Department that has been mired in scandal and that has seriously lost its way in critical areas. Under President Bush, the department has been used to defend the indefensible, like indefinite detention and torture of prisoners, and to undermine rather than protect Americans’ cherished rights. Mr. Holder could be an exemplary choice to face this daunting agenda, but he must answer serious questions before the Senate votes on his confirmation.

Mr. Holder, who would be the first African-American attorney general, has a particularly good record of public service for this job. He has been a United States attorney for the District of Columbia, a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s public integrity section and a deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton.

He has been outspoken on the most critical issue facing the department: restoring the rule of law. In a speech in June, he described the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policies as “excessive and unlawful.” And he has called for closing the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

But senators should ask Mr. Holder to square those views with comments he made after the Sept. 11 attacks when he defended the Bush administration’s prisoner policies by declaring that “you can think of these people as combatants and we are in the middle of a war.”

Americans need to know that Mr. Holder does not believe that detainees can be held indefinitely without being brought before a judge — and that he would stand up for the Constitution when times are tough.

There are other aspects of Mr. Holder’s record that are of concern, starting with his role in Mr. Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, a billionaire financier who had fled the country rather than face federal tax-evasion charges whose ex-wife, Denise Rich, had contributed heavily to the Clinton presidential library and the Democratic Party.

The Senate needs to probe that serious lapse in judgment closely to seek assurances that Mr. Holder will be unyielding about keeping political influence out of the Justice Department, which was shamefully politicized under Alberto Gonzales.

In addition to signing off on torture memos and depriving detainees of basic rights, the Bush Justice Department adopted legal positions that greatly expanded executive power. These policies must be quickly undone. The next attorney general also will have to get to the bottom of the department’s disgraceful record of politicized hiring and firing. The attorney general will need to ensure that the investigation of the firings of United States attorneys for what appear to be partisan reasons is thorough and credible, and that witnesses who have been defying subpoenas, including Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, testify under oath.

There already are people — mainly Republicans — who say investigating these matters would be divisive. But the department’s integrity cannot be restored until the truth comes out and any wrongdoers are punished.

Many parts of the Justice Department must be pointed in a new direction. In the Bush years, the voting rights section worked against voting rights. The civil rights division too often sat idly by, or supported the wrong side, when rights were infringed. The antitrust division all but abandoned its responsibility to protect the public from the harm of monopoly power.

The attorney general is the nation’s top law enforcement official. The Senate must make sure that Mr. Holder is committed to the right kind of change in that job.

    The Next Attorney General, NYT, 3.12.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/opinion/03wed1.html







Voice of Civil Rights Movement,

Dies at 77


December 3, 2008
The New York Times


Odetta, the singer whose deep voice wove together the strongest songs of American folk music and the civil rights movement, died on Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. She was 77.

The cause was heart disease, said her manager, Doug Yeager. He added that she had been hoping to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Odetta sang at coffeehouses and at Carnegie Hall, made highly influential recordings of blues and ballads, and became one of the most widely known folk-music artists of the 1950s and ’60s. She was a formative influence on dozens of artists, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin.

Her voice was an accompaniment to the black-and-white images of the freedom marchers who walked the roads of Alabama and Mississippi and the boulevards of Washington in the quest to end racial discrimination.

Rosa Parks, the woman who started the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., was once asked which songs meant the most to her. She replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.”

Odetta sang at the march on Washington, a pivotal event in the civil rights movement, in August 1963. Her song that day was “O Freedom,” dating to slavery days: “O freedom, O freedom, O freedom over me, And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free.”

Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930, in the depths of the Depression. The music of that time and place — particularly prison songs and work songs recorded in the fields of the Deep South — shaped her life.

“They were liberation songs,” she said in a videotaped interview with The New York Times in 2007 for its online feature “The Last Word.” “You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life.”

Her father, Reuben Holmes, died when she was young, and in 1937 she and her mother, Flora Sanders, moved to Los Angeles. Three years later, Odetta discovered that she could sing.

“A teacher told my mother that I had a voice, that maybe I should study,” she recalled. “But I myself didn’t have anything to measure it by.”

She found her own voice by listening to blues, jazz and folk music from the African-American and Anglo-American traditions. She earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College. Her training in classical music and musical theater was “a nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with my life,” she said.

“The folk songs were — the anger,” she emphasized.

In a 2005 National Public Radio interview, she said: “School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together. But as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music.”

In 1950, Odetta began singing professionally in a West Coast production of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow,” but she found a stronger calling in the bohemian coffeehouses of San Francisco. “We would finish our play, we’d go to the joint, and people would sit around playing guitars and singing songs and it felt like home,” she said.

She began singing in nightclubs, cutting a striking figure with her guitar and her close-cropped hair.

Her voice plunged deep and soared high, and her songs blended the personal and the political, the theatrical and the spiritual. Her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” resonated with an audience hearing old songs made new.

Bob Dylan, referring to that recording, said in a 1978 interview, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” He said he heard something “vital and personal,” and added, “I learned all the songs on that record.” It was her first, and the songs were “Mule Skinner,” “Jack of Diamonds,” “Water Boy,” “ ’Buked and Scorned.”

Her blues and spirituals led directly to her work for the civil rights movement. They were two rivers running together, she said in her interview with The Times. The words and music captured “the fury and frustration that I had growing up.”

Her fame hit a peak in 1963, when she marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and performed for President John F. Kennedy. But after King was assassinated in 1968, the wind went out of the sails of the civil rights movement and the songs of protest and resistance that had been the movement’s soundtrack. Odetta’s fame flagged for years thereafter.

In 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded Odetta the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities.

Odetta was married three times: to Don Gordon, to Gary Shead, and, in 1977, to the blues musician Iverson Minter, known professionally as Louisiana Red. The first two marriages ended in divorce; Mr. Minter moved to Germany in 1983 to pursue his performing career.

She was singing and performing well into the 21st century, and her influence stayed strong.

In April 2007, half a century after Bob Dylan first heard her, she was on stage at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Bruce Springsteen. She turned one of his songs, “57 Channels,” into a chanted poem, and Mr. Springsteen came out from the wings to call it “the greatest version” of the song he had ever heard.

Reviewing a December 2006 performance, James Reed of The Boston Globe wrote: “Odetta’s voice is still a force of nature — something commented upon endlessly as folks exited the auditorium — and her phrasing and sensibility for a song have grown more complex and shaded.”

The critic called her “a majestic figure in American music, a direct gateway to bygone generations that feel so foreign today.”

    Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77, NYT, 3.12.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/arts/music/03odetta.html?hp






Harnessing a Cause

Without Yielding to It


November 9, 2008
The New York Times


The historic victory of Barack Obama contained many dramas, but none was more important than the climactic turn it symbolized in the present-day fortunes of two outsize forces in recent political history — the civil rights movement and the conservative movement.

Together they have probably been the most powerful engines of political change during the past half-century, but they have also exacted large demands from the two parties and their leaders. And it happened again in this election.

For Senator Obama, the fraught alliance between the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party was a persistent though unwelcome theme in this campaign — whether it was the crisis occasioned by the recorded sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or the defeats Mr. Obama was dealt in the primary by blue-collar voters whose distrust of him seemed to replay the racial anxieties of the 1960s, when civil rights protest loosed a white “backlash” that divided the Democratic Party.

John McCain, for his part, was haunted by his uneasy and at times hostile dealings through the years with the movement conservatives who helped elect every recent Republican president. In choosing to solicit their support, Mr. McCain alienated the moderates and independents who ultimately deserted him.

The tangled nexus between movements and parties has been complicating American politics since the middle of the 19th century. To a great extent, both major parties owe their identities to movements.

The modern Democratic Party was shaped by the populism of the 1890s, the antibusiness reformism of the 1930s and the civil rights crusade of the 1960s. The Republican Party was formed by abolitionism in the 1850s, anti-Communism in the 1950s, antitax revolts in the 1970s and 1980s and the evangelical conservatism of the 1990s and 2000s.

In each instance, a movement and a party came together. But the partnership was seldom satisfactory to either side. This isn’t surprising. While movements are driven by specific causes (punishing “robber barons,” ending “big government”), parties stay relevant by adjusting to new conditions.

This is why movement activists often think politicians are either spineless or unscrupulous — and sometimes both — while practicing politicians sometimes find movement activists more trouble than they’re worth.

A classic example is the mutual distrust that festered between Abraham Lincoln and the radical abolitionists of his day. Lincoln patiently tolerated them even as they raged that he was an opportunist — “a first-rate second-rate man,” in the opinion of the antislavery agitator Wendell Phillips, “a mere convenience waiting like any other broomstick to be used.”

In the end, Lincoln fulfilled most of the abolitionists’ hopes — as circumstances allowed. “I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events controlled me,” Lincoln said in 1864.

The conservatives who today lionize Ronald Reagan forget how often he, too, disappointed them — whether by increasing taxes or bargaining with Mikhail Gorbachev. “So was the critical election of 1980 merely a mirage,” Irving Kristol wondered in 1983, distraught that “the administration bumbles along in foreign policy, in social policy, in economic policy.”

These grumblings aside, Mr. Reagan managed to placate his movement followers most of the time.

Two other presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush, entered the White House with reputations for being skilled politicians, but then took the unusual step of subordinating pragmatic political goals to movement ideals — and they and their parties paid a steep price. Mr. Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty programs, though popular at the time, later fed the resentments of white working-class voters who deserted the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mr. Bush embraced the crusading vision of two powerful movement factions — the neoconservatives and the evangelicals — when he decided to initiate the Iraq war, which damaged his presidency beyond repair.

Both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Bush succumbed, it seems, to the unusual power of the movements that dominated their years in office. This is understandable since both governed at a time when the movements they were allied with were at peak strength.

LIKE abolitionism a century and a half ago, the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ideological conservatism in the 2000s each subsumed the most intense political, economic and cultural passions of the day.

And their histories are strikingly parallel. Both emerged in the 1950s as vehicles of protest built on moral and often religious arguments. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy owed much of their authority to their exalted place in the church, as reflected in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization they led.

Prominent figures in the postwar conservative movement also made their case in religious terms. First it was anti-Communist Catholics like William F. Buckley Jr., Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen; later it was evangelical Protestants like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Both movements reaped their biggest gains when they channeled their arguments into political action. Civil rights leaders sponsored courtroom challenges to Jim Crow and lobbied in support of causes like voting rights, equal housing and fair employment practices.

Conservatives likewise diligently worked through legal and legislative channels on a range of issues, from school prayer and abortion and gun ownership to attacks on same-sex marriage (with the latest successes coming this week) .

Each movement did more than align itself with a party. It also played a major part in establishing that party’s broadest aims and in shaping the values of its rank-and-file membership.

The civil rights movement helped guide the Democratic Party toward an agenda of equal rights and economic justice. Movement conservatives led the insurgent campaigns that transferred power in the Republican Party from the East Coast to the Sunbelt.

One telling difference between the candidates in this year’s election was their contrasting approaches to the movements attached to their parties. Mr. McCain often gave the impression that he was at the mercy of the conservatives he had struggled against for so many years, while Mr. Obama harnessed the energies of the civil rights movement that made his candidacy possible and was able to balance its visionary ends with his pragmatic means.

It is a performance he may have to repeat more than once over the next four years.

    Harnessing a Cause Without Yielding to It, NYT, 9.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/weekinreview/09tanenhaus.html






Op-Ed Columnist

Take a Bow, America


November 8, 2008
The New York Times


The markets are battered and job losses are skyrocketing, but even in the midst of a national economic crisis, we should not lose sight of the profound significance of this week and what it tells us about the continuing promise of America.

Voters said no to incompetence and divisiveness and elbowed their way past the blight of racism that has been such a barrier to progress for so long. Barack Obama won the state of North Carolina, for crying out loud.

The nation deserves to take a bow. This is not the same place it used to be.

Election night brought a cascade of memories to Taylor Rogers, who is 82 and still lives in Memphis, where he grew up. He remembered a big crowd that jammed a Masonic temple in Memphis on an April night 40 years ago.

“It was filled with people from wall to wall,” he said. “And it was storming and raining outside.”

The men and women, nearly all of them black, were crushed against one another as they listened, almost as one, to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give his final speech.

Mr. Rogers was one of the sanitation men whose strike drew Dr. King to Memphis. In the aftermath of the Obama victory on Tuesday night, he recited from memory the climactic phrases from the speech, the part where Dr. King said that God had allowed him to go up to the mountain and that he had looked over and seen the promised land.

“I remember it so well,” said Mr. Rogers. “Dr. King told us: ‘I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.’

“You could tell from the words and from the expression on his face that he really felt that something was about to happen.”

The next day, of course, Dr. King was killed.

Like so many other older African-Americans that I spoke with during this long, long campaign season, Mr. Rogers said he never dreamed that he would live to see a black person elected president of the United States.

“A black president in the White House?” he said. “In those days, you wouldn’t even have thought about going to the White House. Not unless you were a janitor or something.”

It can be easy in such a moment of triumph to lose sight of the agony wrought by the unrelieved evil of racism and to forget how crucial a role anti-black racism played in shaping American life since the first slaves were dumped ashore 400 years ago.

Blacks have been holding fast to the promise of America for all that time. Not without anger. Not without rage. But with a fidelity that in the darkest moments — those moments when the flow of blood seemed like it would never stop, when enslaved families were wrenched apart, when entire communities were put to the torch, when the breeze put the stiffened bodies of lynched victims in motion, when even small children were murdered and Dr. King was taken from us — even in those dire moments, African-Americans held fast to the promise of America with a fidelity that defied logic.

The multiracial crowds dancing with unrestrained joy from coast to coast on Tuesday night were proof that the promise of America lives — and that you can’t always hang your hat on logic.

You knew something was up when the exit polls revealed early Tuesday evening that Senator Obama had carried the white working-class vote in Indiana, one of the reddest of the red states and a onetime stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.

I got a call on Friday from David Goodman, whose brother Andrew was one of three civil rights workers slain in the searing racial heat of Mississippi in 1964.

“It’s shocking, isn’t it?” he said of the election.

I agreed.

“It’s wonderful,” he said.

Arthur Miller liked to say that the essence of America was its promise. In the darkest of the dark times, in wartime and drastic economic downturns, in the crucible of witch hunts or racial strife, in the traumatic aftermath of a terror attack, that promise lights the way forward.

This week marked a renewal of America’s promise. Voters went to the polls and placed a bet on a better future, handing the power to an unlikely candidate who promised to draw people together rather than exploit their differences.

The final tally wasn’t close.

We still have two wars to deal with and an economic crisis as severe as any in decades. But we should take a moment to recognize the stunning significance of this moment in history. It’s worth a smile, a toast, a sigh, a tear.

America should be proud.

    Take a Bow, America, NYT, 8.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/08/opinion/08herbert.html






Obama victory

signals shift in race relations


Tue Nov 4, 2008
11:24pm EST
The New York Times
By Matthew Bigg - Analysis


ATLANTA (Reuters) - For Americans burdened by a sense of history, something once unthinkable has happened. The United States has elected a black president.

What has changed in terms of race to enable Democratic candidate Barack Obama's defeat of Republican John McCain and what might change as a result?

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said his satisfaction at Obama's success was conditioned by a sense of history. Jackson witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and twice ran for president in the 1980s.

"His (Obama) winning means America's getting better. We are more mature. We are less anxious around each other," he said in an interview.

Jackson put the election in the context of the movement to end racial segregation in the South in the 1950s and 1960s and win voting rights for blacks in the teeth of violent opposition.

"I know so many people white, black and Jewish who marched and were martyred. I wish that those who paid the supreme sacrifice could see the results of their labors," he said.

One surprise apparent in the earliest primaries in which parties chose their nominees was the support Obama attracted among whites voters.

At the same time, black voters were integral to Obama's success, swinging a number of states in his favor. And Obama went out of his way to embrace black voters and their concerns, most notably in a high-profile speech on race in March.

Those factors deal a blow to black skepticism about their role in politics and a lingering sense of disenfranchisement.

"The first thing Obama's presidency means for black people is, at least momentarily, a sense of full citizenship," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a political science professor at Princeton University.

Just as the election could change the way blacks perceive politics and their place in U.S. society, it could also alter the way they are perceived, particularly if Obama's administration gains a reputation for competence.


Conservative leader Newt Gingrich said Obama's rise reflected changes that have already taken place. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor Colin Powell proved that blacks could deal at the highest levels in government, he said.

"It begins to be accepted that young men and women of color who can certainly dream the biggest dreams .... America has moved beyond any narrowly defined sense of racism," said the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in an interview.

Stubborn facts, however, point toward persistent inequality that Obama may struggle to tackle given the downturn facing the U.S. economy.

Black Americans make up around 13 percent of the population but earn less money and are less healthy than the general population. They are also more likely to be unemployed, less likely to own property and more likely to be convicted and jailed for crimes.

A debate rages over whether those disparities are due to prejudice, social disadvantages such as less well-funded schools in inner cities where many black Americans live, or whether African Americans should work harder to deal with their own issues.

Obama's frequent injunctions to parents to switch off the television set, get children to do homework and take better care of their children could tip the balance in the debate.

And if his administration expands health care it could significantly redress one big disparity, said Harris-Lacewell.

But one concern for people seeking to redress inequality is that Obama's victory could diminish their leverage when it comes to addressing those issues.

"People will say: 'We have elected a black president. We are done with race,'" said William Jelani Cobb, author of books about contemporary black culture.


Exit polls showed that large numbers of young voters turned out to vote for Obama as president.

That support is partly a product of school integration, which began in the 1960s, though recent studies show that the process of integration is being reversed.

It is also the result of the increasing visibility of African Americans in popular culture from music to movies. Jackson argued that the presence of blacks in sports had helped transform racial attitudes.

Music mogul Russell Simmons said hip hop and hip-hop culture and fashion had also profoundly impacted youth culture, despite the controversy associated with it.

"Hip hop and hip-hop culture had so much to do with this shift in race relations. ... The doors were knocked down by hip hop. It had more to do with a shift in race relations than all the civil rights leaders," he said.

Another fact that played little role in voting choices could yet prove important -- for the next four years the country's first family will be black.

Americans will watch Obama's daughters, who are 10 and 7, grow up in the White House.

That could give young people of color a renewed sense of the opportunities open to them.

(Editing by Jackie Frank)

    Obama victory signals shift in race relations, R, 4.11.2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUKTRE4A42I720081105







Racial inequality

in the United States


Tue Nov 4, 2008
11:24pm EST


(Reuters) - Democratic candidate Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States with his win in Tuesday's election, a milestone in a country with a long legacy of racial oppression of African Americans.

Stark racial disparities persist in the United States.

Following is a list of some inequalities.


-- The infant mortality rate for babies of black women is 2.4 times the rate for babies of white women, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in October.

-- Doctors are less likely to give black women radiation therapy after surgery to remove early-stage breast cancer than white women, according to a study by the Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in September.

-- The study was one of many to show that U.S. blacks get inferior care for cancer and other ailments compared to that given whites, although doctors have struggled to understand why.

-- Life expectancy for the white population exceeded that for the black population by 5.1 years, the figures said.

-- The maternal mortality rate was 3.3 times greater for the black population than for the white population.


-- 6.1 percent of the overall U.S. labor force was unemployed in the third quarter of 2008, but 11.4 percent of the black labor force was out of work, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.

-- The total median income for a white family was $64,427 in 2007. The total for a black family was $40,143, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

-- 10.6 percent of the white U.S. population in 2007 lived below the official poverty threshold of $21,000 for a family of four, compared to 24.4 percent of the black population, the data said.

-- 14.3 percent of white Americans lacked health insurance compared to 19.2 percent of black Americans, according to 2007 U.S. census data.

-- 72 percent of white Americans own their own homes, compared with 46 percent of African Americans, the data said.


-- 0.8 percent of the white male population is incarcerated as opposed to 4.6 percent of the black male population, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

-- 10.7 percent of the black male population aged 30-34 was incarcerated, versus 1.9 percent of the white male population of the same age, according to the same statistics.

-- 1,406 black men are incarcerated in the United States for every 100,000 people. For white men that figure is 773 for every 100,000, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures.

-- Rates for the number of women imprisoned were much lower than for males, though for black women rates were higher than for white women.


-- Public schools in the United States are becoming more racially segregated and the trend is likely to accelerate because of a Supreme Court decision in June, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project of the University of California Los Angeles.

-- The rise in segregation threatens the quality of education received by nonwhite students, who make up 43 percent of the total U.S. student body, the report said.

-- Many segregated schools struggle to attract highly qualified teachers and administrators. This leads to soaring drop-out rates and students not well prepared for college.

-- The percentage of white public school students fell from 80 to 57 percent between 1968 and 2005 and Latino enrollment nearly quadrupled during that period.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services/CDC; U.S. Department of Justice; U.S. Census Bureau.

(Writing by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit, editing by Matthew Bigg and Patricia Zengerle)

    FACTBOX: Racial inequality in the United States, R, 4.11.2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUKTRE4A42I820081105






Obama Sweeps to Victory

as First Black President


November 5, 2008
Filed at 2:23 a.m. ET
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Barack Obama swept to victory as the nation's first black president Tuesday night in an electoral college landslide that overcame racial barriers as old as America itself. ''Change has come,'' he told a jubilant hometown Chicago crowd estimated at nearly a quarter-million people.

The son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, the Democratic senator from Illinois sealed his historic triumph by defeating Republican Sen. John McCain in a string of wins in hard-fought battleground states -- Ohio, Florida, Iowa and more. He captured Virginia and Indiana, too, the first candidate of his party in 44 years to win either.

Obama's election capped a meteoric rise -- from mere state senator to president-elect in four years.

Spontaneous celebrations erupted from Atlanta to New York and Philadelphia as word of Obama's victory spread. A big crowd filled Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

In his first speech as victor, to an enormous throng at Grant Park in Chicago, Obama catalogued the challenges ahead. ''The greatest of a lifetime,'' he said, ''two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.''

He added, ''There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face.''

McCain called his former rival to concede defeat -- and the end of his own 10-year quest for the White House. ''The American people have spoken, and spoken clearly,'' McCain told disappointed supporters in Arizona.

President Bush added his congratulations from the White House, where his tenure runs out on Jan. 20. ''May God bless whoever wins tonight,'' he had told dinner guests earlier.

Obama, in his speech, invoked the words of Lincoln, recalled Martin Luther King Jr., and seemed to echo John F. Kennedy.

''So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder,'' he said.

He and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, will take their oaths of office as president and vice president on Jan. 20, 2009. McCain remains in the Senate.

Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, returns to Alaska as governor after a tumultuous debut on the national stage.

He will move into the Oval Office as leader of a country that is almost certainly in recession, and fighting two long wars, one in Iraq, the other in Afghanistan.

The popular vote was close -- 51.7 percent to 47 percent with 84 percent of all U.S. precincts tallied -- but not the count in the Electoral College, where it mattered most.

There, Obama's audacious decision to contest McCain in states that hadn't gone Democratic in years paid rich dividends.

Shortly after 2 a.m. the East, The Associated Press count showed Obama with 349 electoral votes, well over the 270 needed for victory. McCain had 144 after winning states that comprised the normal Republican base, including Texas and most of the South.

Interviews with voters suggested that almost six in 10 women were backing Obama nationwide, while men leaned his way by a narrow margin. Just over half of whites supported McCain, giving him a slim advantage in a group that Bush carried overwhelmingly in 2004.

The results of the AP survey were based on a preliminary partial sample of nearly 10,000 voters in Election Day polls and in telephone interviews over the past week for early voters. Obama has said his first order of presidential business will be to tackle the economy. He has also pledged to withdraw most U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months.

In Washington, the Democratic leaders of Congress celebrated.

''It is not a mandate for a party or ideology but a mandate for change,'' said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California: ''Tonight the American people have called for a new direction. They have called for change in America.''

Democrats also acclaimed Senate successes by former Gov. Mark Warner in Virginia, Rep. Tom Udall in New Mexico and Rep. Mark Udall in Colorado. All won seats left open by Republican retirements.

In New Hampshire, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen defeated Republican Sen. John Sununu in a rematch of their 2002 race, and Sen. Elizabeth Dole fell to Democrat Kay Hagan in North Carolina.

Biden won a new term in Delaware, a seat he will resign before he is sworn in as vice president.

The Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, survived a scare in Kentucky, and in Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss hoped to avoid a December runoff.

The Democrats piled up gains in the House, as well.

They defeated seven Republican incumbents, including 22-year veteran Chris Shays in Connecticut, and picked up nine more seats where GOP lawmakers had retired.

At least three Democrats lost their seats, including Florida Rep. Tim Mahoney, turned out of office after admitting to two extramarital affairs while serving his first term in Florida. In Louisiana, Democratic Rep. Don Cazayoux lost the seat he had won in a special election six months ago.

The resurgent Democrats also elected a governor in one of the nation's traditional bellwether states when Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon won his race.

An estimated 187 million voters were registered, and in an indication of interest in the battle for the White House, 40 million or so had already voted as Election Day dawned.

Obama sought election as one of the youngest presidents, and one of the least experienced in national political affairs.

That wasn't what set the Illinois senator apart, though -- neither from his rivals nor from the other men who had served as president since the nation's founding more than two centuries ago. A black man, he confronted a previously unbreakable barrier as he campaigned on twin themes of change and hope in uncertain times.

McCain, a prisoner of war during Vietnam, a generation older than his rival at 72, was making his second try for the White House, following his defeat in the battle for the GOP nomination in 2000.

A conservative, he stressed his maverick's streak. And although a Republican, he did what he could to separate himself from an unpopular president.

For the most part, the two presidential candidates and their running mates, Biden and Republican Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, spent weeks campaigning in states that went for Bush four years ago.

McCain and Obama each won contested nominations -- the Democrat outdistancing former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton -- and promptly set out to claim the mantle of change.

Obama won California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

McCain had Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

He also won at least four of Nebraska's five electoral votes, with the other one in doubt.

    Obama Sweeps to Victory as First Black President, NYT, 5.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/washington/AP-Election-Rdp.html







Nov. 4: The Day of Decision Is Here


November 4, 2008
The New York Times


To the Editor:

In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (column, Nov. 2), Frank Rich writes that if Barack Obama wins the White House on Tuesday, “many will cheer and more than a few will cry as history moves inexorably forward.”

I will be one of those crying. I have not cried during the last eight years, even when I saw the picture of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and humiliated at Abu Ghraib prison, because I don’t cry when I’m horrified. I cry when I’m joyous.

I will cry when I vote for Barack Obama. I will be crying because I love my country so much and I treasure my right to vote. I will be crying with relief because the last eight years have been torture for me.

Celia Ballew Jones
Richmond, Va., Nov. 2, 2008

To the Editor:

Frank Rich is right when he describes Senator Barack Obama as an individual who the political world discovered was far from being an exotic household flower, but instead a pol from Chicago.

Perhaps Mr. Rich considered this to be a compliment, but instead it brings to memory a political machine in Chicago under the original Mayor Daley that brooked no opposition and systematically had voters still on the list who had died long ago, making a farce not only of the Chicago mayoralty election but also the statewide choices.

I agree that Mr. Obama has shown the political acumen of a Chicago politician, but does this qualify him for the highest office in the land?

Nelson Marans
Silver Spring, Md., Nov. 2, 2008

To the Editor:

Re “Hey Liberals, Don’t Worry” (column, Nov. 3): William Kristol seems forever frozen in ideology. The candidates in Tuesday’s election are running as Democrat and Republican, not liberal and conservative, those free-floating designations that may serve as honorific or epithet, depending on the spin.

Voters should be — with luck, will be — choosing the wiser candidate, the one we think better equipped by judgment, intellect and temperament to grow the economy, dislodge us prudently from Iraq, restore our reputation in the world, uphold our Constitution and strengthen the social safety net the Bush administration has been trying for eight years to shred.

We’ll do well on Tuesday to put liberal and conservative aside until the next round of electioneering and stay focused on who we think is best able to do the job.

David Kernis
Trumbull, Conn., Nov.
3, 2008

To the Editor:

William Kristol did not mention the real terror that lives in the hearts of those of us, not necessarily specifically liberal, who are voting for Senator Barack Obama. It may not be simply about the next four years; it is likely that our next president will replace justices on the Supreme Court.

One more Antonin Scalia, one more Clarence Thomas? Our secular tradition put in jeopardy, social progress stifled, the 50s reinstated? Perhaps for our lifetime? No wonder we’re not sleeping nights.

Marlene Shyer
New York, Nov. 3, 2008

To the Editor:

Maureen Dowd asks exactly the right questions concerning perhaps the most erratic, poorly run presidential campaign in history (“Who’s the Question Mark?,” column, Nov. 2).

The answer, I believe, is both simple and obvious: McCain the Authentic became McCain the Cynical. In his quixotic and desperate attempt to win the presidency, John McCain has been callously calculating and insincere, veering from one ill-conceived marketing plan to another.

We need only to remind ourselves of the failure of the “new” Coke several years ago to understand that people like the real thing.

Robert Ouriel
Los Angeles, Nov. 2, 2008

To the Editor:

Re “The Known Unknowns,” by Bob Herbert (column, Nov. 1):

The “twin towers” in this election are not the economy and race. The key determinant is whether you would risk major surgery with a surgeon performing his first surgery.

Howard Schwartz
Englewood, N.J., Nov. 1, 2008

To the Editor:

Re “Rejoin the World” (column, Nov. 2):

I would like to add a qualifying expectation to Nicholas D. Kristof’s call for the United States to rejoin the international community.

With humility, we must accept a role as other than leader. We should look up to nations that have led the diplomatic efforts with Iran, have been part of the International Criminal Court, and those that ratified the Kyoto Protocol years ago.

Like all runaways, we won’t be welcomed back if we knock on the door toting the same hubris that directed our departure.

Rich Moniak
Juneau, Alaska, Nov. 2, 2008

To the Editor:

In “Obama-Inspired Black Voters Find Politics Is for Them, Too” (front page, Nov. 2), a historical phenomenon is catalogued: the dawning of a new era in the psyche and spirit of the African-American voter.

One of the people interviewed is quoted as saying of Barack Obama: “I think it’s a testament to his campaign that he can inspire. At the end of the day, no matter what party you vote for, I think every once in a while there are inspirational moments that call for people to wake up from their deep sleep and become alive and get involved. And I think Barack at the very least is an inspirational figure.”

Until the current presidential campaign, a very significant number of blacks in this country didn’t bother to vote. Because of their deep cynicism about a system that they have viewed as corrupt and uninterested in the concerns of their communities, they concluded that voting was a useless act rather than an obligation.

The Obama campaign has ushered in a new day for these voters, one of hope, possibility and connection with a candidate they view as having their issues and their lives in mind and at heart.

Whether this is a new important trend in the American political system or a one-time occurrence will be answered in the coming years.

Alan Safron
Woodcliff Lake, N.J., Nov. 2, 2008

To the Editor:

For months now, each day we see two confident candidates. Too confident, maybe?

With the continuing financial crisis, with unsolved issues like Iraq, detainees, Social Security, with a negative international perception of a too arrogant America, what a superpower needs is for the new president to bring back the stability, prosperity and good image that the United States once had.

Perhaps it is just wrong to put all our hopes on one person. Electing a figure from one party or the other might show a path, but over all it is an entire system that needs changes to make things work again.

And this will be the most difficult task this new president will have: to find the right internal and international tools to reshape the country. Because, Republicans or Democrats, we all want back our America!

Mihaela Costin
Larchmont, N.Y., Nov. 3, 2008

To the Editor:

The day after the election: no robocalls, no new signs on the lawns or roads; fewer cable TV ranters; no e-mail or text messages from Barack Obama, no more chain letters asking for support of God’s candidate, no more rallies, no more debates, no more TV ads approved by ..., no more no more.

I give up. I voted.

Francis W. Rodgers
Rensselaer, N.Y., Nov.
3, 2008

    Nov. 4: The Day of Decision Is Here, NYT, 4.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/04/opinion/l04elect.html






Op-Ed Columnist

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner


November 2, 2008
The New York Times


AND so: just how far have we come?

As a rough gauge last week, I watched a movie I hadn’t seen since it came out when I was a teenager in 1967. Back then “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was Hollywood’s idea of a stirring call for racial justice. The premise: A young white woman falls madly in love with a black man while visiting the University of Hawaii and brings him home to San Francisco to get her parents’ blessing. Dad, a crusading newspaper publisher, and Mom, a modern art dealer, are wealthy white liberals — Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, no less — so surely there can be no problem. Complications ensue before everyone does the right thing.

Though the film was a box-office smash and received 10 Oscar nominations, even four decades ago it was widely ridiculed as dated by liberal critics. The hero, played by the first black Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, was seen as too perfect and too “white” — an impossibly handsome doctor with Johns Hopkins and Yale on his résumé and a Nobel-worthy career fighting tropical diseases in Africa for the World Health Organization. What couple would not want him as a son-in-law? “He’s so calm and sure of everything,” says his fiancée. “He doesn’t have any tensions in him.” She is confident that every single one of their biracial children will grow up to “be president of the United States and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”

What a strange movie to confront in 2008. As the world knows, Barack Obama’s own white mother and African father met at the University of Hawaii. In “Dreams From My Father,” he even imagines the awkward dinner where his mother introduced her liberal-ish parents to her intended in 1959. But what’s most startling about this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one who appears “so calm” and without “tensions” — white liberals can make utter fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being “clean” and “articulate,” he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years ago.

Biden’s gaffe, though particularly naked, prefigured a larger pattern in the extraordinary election campaign that has brought an African-American to the brink of the presidency. Our political and news media establishments — fixated for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America — have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so often.

There were countless ruminations, in print and on television, asking the same two rhetorical questions: “Is He Black Enough?” and “Is He Tough Enough?” The implied answer to both was usually, “No.” The brown-skinned child of biracial parents wasn’t really “black” and wouldn’t appeal to black voters who were overwhelmingly loyal to the wife of America’s first “black” president. And as a former constitutional law professor, Obama was undoubtedly too lofty an intellectual to be a political street fighter, too much of a wuss to land a punch in a debate, too ethereal to connect to “real” Americans. He was Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis or Bill Bradley in dark face — no populist pugilist like John Edwards.

The list of mistaken prognostications that grew from these flawed premises is long. As primary season began, we were repeatedly told that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the most battle-tested and disciplined, with an invincible organization and an unbeatable donors’ network. Poor Obama had to settle for the ineffectual passion of the starry-eyed, Internet-fixated college kids who failed to elect Howard Dean in 2004. When Clinton lost in Iowa, no matter; Obama could never breach the “firewalls” that would wrap up her nomination by Super Tuesday. Neither the Clinton campaign nor the many who bought its spin noticed the take-no-prisoners political insurgency that Obama had built throughout the caucus states and that serves him to this day.

Once Obama wrested the nomination from Clinton by surpassing her in organization, cash and black votes, he was still often seen as too wimpy to take on the Republicans. This prognosis was codified by Karl Rove, whose punditry for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek has been second only to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as a reliable source of laughs this year. Rove called Obama “lazy,” and over the summer he predicted that his fund-raising had peaked in February and that he’d have a “serious problem” winning over Hispanics. Well, Obama was lazy like a fox, and is leading John McCain among Hispanics by 2 to 1. Obama has also pulled ahead among white women despite the widespread predictions that he’d never bring furious Hillary supporters into the fold.

But certainly the single most revelatory moment of the campaign — about the political establishment, not Obama — arrived in June when he reversed his position on taking public financing. This was a huge flip-flop (if no bigger than McCain’s on the Bush tax cuts). But the reaction was priceless. Suddenly the political world discovered that far from being some exotic hothouse flower, Obama was a pol from Chicago. Up until then it rarely occurred to anyone that he had to be a ruthless competitor, not merely a sweet-talking orator, to reach the top of a political machine even rougher than the Clinton machine he had brought down. Whether that makes him more black or more white remains unresolved.

Early in the campaign, the black commentator Tavis Smiley took a lot of heat when he questioned all the rhetoric, much of it from white liberals, about Obama being “post-racial.” Smiley pointed out that there is “no such thing in America as race transcendence.” He is right of course. America can no sooner disown its racial legacy, starting with the original sin of slavery, than it can disown its flag; it’s built into our DNA. Obama acknowledged as much in his landmark speech on race in Philadelphia in March.

Yet much has changed for the better since the era of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” thanks to the epic battles of the civil-rights movement that have made the Obama phenomenon possible. As Mark Harris reminds us in his recent book about late 1960s Hollywood, “Pictures at a Revolution,” it was not until the year of the movie’s release that the Warren Court handed down the Loving decision overturning laws that forbade interracial marriage in 16 states; in the film’s final cut there’s still an outdated line referring to the possibility that the young couple’s nuptials could be illegal (as Obama’s parents’ marriage would have been in, say, Virginia). In that same year of 1967, L.B.J.’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, offered his resignation when his daughter, a Stanford student, announced her engagement to a black Georgetown grad working at NASA. (Johnson didn’t accept it.)

Obama’s message and genealogy alike embody what has changed in the decades since. When he speaks of red and blue America being seamlessly woven into the United States of America, it is always shorthand for the reconciliation of black and white and brown and yellow America as well. Demographically, that’s where America is heading in the new century, and that will be its destiny no matter who wins the election this year.

Still, the country isn’t there yet, and should Obama be elected, America will not be cleansed of its racial history or conflicts. It will still have a virtually all-white party as one of its two most powerful political organizations. There will still be white liberals who look at Obama and can’t quite figure out what to make of his complex mixture of idealism and hard-knuckled political cunning, of his twin identities of international sojourner and conventional middle-class overachiever.

After some 20 months, we’re all still getting used to Obama and still, for that matter, trying to read his sometimes ambiguous takes on both economic and foreign affairs. What we have learned definitively about him so far — and what may most account for his victory, should he achieve it — is that he had both the brains and the muscle to outsmart, outmaneuver and outlast some of the smartest people in the country, starting with the Clintons. We know that he ran a brilliant campaign that remained sane and kept to its initial plan even when his Republican opponent and his own allies were panicking all around him. We know that that plan was based on the premise that Americans actually are sick of the divisive wedge issues that have defined the past couple of decades, of which race is the most divisive of all.

Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter. For most Americans, it seems as if Obama first came to dinner only yesterday. Should he win the White House on Tuesday, many will cheer and more than a few will cry as history moves inexorably forward.

But we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.

    Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, NYT, 2.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/02/opinion/02rich.html?ref=opinion






Election divides civil rights battle town


Mon Nov 3, 2008
4:14am EST
By Matthew Bigg


SELMA, Alabama (Reuters) - If Democratic candidate Barack Obama wins Tuesday's presidential election, he will owe a debt to this Alabama town where one of the most significant confrontations of the civil rights era played out.

Forty-three years ago, state troopers and local police wielding clubs and firing tear gas charged peaceful civil rights protesters marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma and beat them senseless.

Their purpose was to stop the march and to enforce laws that prevented blacks in the South from voting.

National TV networks interrupted their evening programs to show footage of the "Bloody Sunday" attack and revulsion at the images so shocked the country it helped forge a consensus for passage of a law that enabled blacks to vote in the South.

"This presidential cycle would not be possible without the sacrifices and the courage of those people on the bridge," said Selma resident Malika Sanders-Fortier in reference to Obama, who would be the country's first black president.

"This is a monumental election for the people of Selma because it represents the direct effect from the civil rights movement," said her husband Franklin Fortier in a view shared by other African Americans in the city of 20,000.

Each year on March 7, prominent politicians march across the bridge over the Alabama River to commemorate the day in 1965 that made Selma a byword for racial intolerance. Obama joined the march in 2007.

But to many people in Selma the election has little to with race and everything to do with a clash between liberal and conservative ideologies. That sentiment matches views in much of the South where most voters say the legacy of a racial history that includes slavery will have no impact on their choices.

Alabama regularly votes Republican in presidential elections and many Selma residents said they distrusted Obama as an inexperienced liberal who would be weak on national security and had dubious friends.

"A person is known by the company he keeps and he has got a lot of clouds over the company he kept," said Allen Williams.

Williams and other white residents said that while they would not vote for Obama, they would happily have voted for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a black American.



In the most notorious example of violence on the bridge, then student leader John Lewis received a fractured skull in a beating by security forces. Lewis is now a prominent U.S. congressman from Georgia.

The night the marchers finally reached the state capital Montgomery, members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan trailed a car carrying a black man and a white woman activist down a lonely road and shot the woman dead.

Today, the river bridge still stands as a gateway to Selma but residents old enough to remember the events of that day are divided about exactly what happened.

Some white residents said the city had been invaded by outsiders bent on causing trouble. Others said segregation was softening by the mid-1960s and the marchers stirred trouble for nothing.

Still others said people failed to understand how difficult the choices were for many young whites in the South -- torn between allegiance to the only system they knew and a pressure for change.

"It was hard to know what was right and to do what was right without hurting anybody," said Jean Martin, 85, curator of the city's Old Depot museum and a newspaper columnist.

Martin said she would vote for Obama because she disliked the way McCain had treated his first wife, whom he divorced.

Williams was in the National Guard during the protests. He said black youths provoked the attack by frightening police horses into stampeding toward them.

"People in the South were separated, black and white. It caused a lot of hard feelings (among whites) when they started forcing ... (desegregation) when they were slowly taking care of themselves," Williams said.

The city and the South have fundamentally changed since then, said Williams and several other white residents.

As one piece of evidence, he cited George Evans, who was to be sworn on Monday in as mayor of Selma and is the second African American to hold the post.

Evans was elected by a coalition of black and white voters, defeating the black incumbent.

Evans, 64, left the city in 1962 for college in Kansas and watched the violence on television. In its wake he spent hours responding to questions from white fellow students on campus about whether Selma was as bad as the pictures made out.

Selma has evolved since the 1960s but race still plays a role in its politics, he said.

"There will always be some blacks and whites who will keep race as an issue but sometimes it's not an issue, it's an agenda," said Evans.

"Selma has made progress in its relationships but .... there are still some things that some people have not let go. Some people don't want to put the past behind them and move on," he said.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

    Election divides civil rights battle town, R, 3.11.2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSTRE4A20LH20081103






New Registrations

Give Georgia Blacks

More Power at the Polls


October 30, 2008
The New York Times


LITHONIA, Ga. — Just a few blocks off Max Cleland Boulevard, named for the Democrat defeated by Senator Saxby Chambliss in a bitter Congressional race six years ago, a line has formed that could be problematic for Mr. Chambliss’s own re-election this year.

Hundreds of voters, most of them black residents of bedroom communities east of Atlanta, are waiting to cast early ballots, motivated by the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama but many also taking the opportunity to vote for Jim Martin, Mr. Chambliss’s Democratic opponent.

“I voted for Jim because I like what he is saying, not just because he is Democratic,” Iris Epps said as she exited Lithonia Middle School after waiting about 90 minutes on Tuesday evening to cast her ballot. She said the wait would have been even longer earlier in the day.

Like several other Senate and House candidates in North Carolina, Ohio and Connecticut, Mr. Chambliss finds himself in a tight race even though only months ago he was considered a cinch for re-election. A significant part of his problem is the surging participation by African-American voters, their ranks bolstered by the newly registered, a group expected to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats this year.

In Georgia, where Mr. Obama’s organization worked hard to register new voters but did not mount a full-blown campaign because the state seems beyond his reach, black voters in Atlanta and the surrounding areas have been standing in line for hours. Many are among the tens of thousands of newly registered voters.

New registrations of black voters ran more than 25 percent higher this year than four years ago, with especially high registration among black women.

Nearly 1.4 million Georgians have voted, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, and more than a third were black. (Blacks make up just over 29 percent of registered voters in the state, which keeps track of racial data under civil rights laws.) Early voting began Sept. 22, and this week the state opened extra polling stations and extended their hours.

The development is not lost on Mr. Chambliss. “There has always been a rush to the polls by African-Americans early,” he said at the square in Covington, a quick stop on a bus tour as the campaign entered its final week. He predicted the crowds of early voters would motivate Republicans to turn out. “It has also got our side energized, they see what is happening,” he said.

Mr. Martin, who stood in a daunting line on Tuesday to cast his own early ballot at the Fulton County government center in Atlanta, said the greater the turnout, the better his chances.

“I am honored to have a lot of African-American support,” said Mr. Martin, a former director of the state Human Services Department and a longtime state legislator who was greeted with handshakes and encouragement by waiting voters as he worked his way to the end of the queue snaking through the building. “But I have broad-based support across the state — people who want change.”

The Georgia race was initially considered out of reach for Democrats. But Mr. Chambliss has been hurt by his vote for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout — which was widely unpopular, both among conservatives and African-Americans — and by a flood of tough attack advertisements from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The contest is one of the longshots Democrats would need to win to reach a 60-vote majority in the Senate that would let them thwart filibusters.

“A month ago this would have been a cakewalk,” said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University. “This is not the election that they thought they were running.”

The Georgia race has another twist. To be declared the winner, a candidate needs to receive more than 50 percent of the vote — an absolute majority. Both the tight race reflected in the polls and the presence of a third-party Libertarian candidate, Allen Buckley, raise the possibility that neither Mr. Chambliss nor Mr. Martin will break 50 percent, forcing a runoff on Dec. 2. If a 60-vote Senate hangs in the balance, the runoff could take on outsized importance.

Mr. Chambliss and his allies acknowledge a rough patch after his bailout vote, which was uniformly opposed by Republican House members from the state, a glaring divide the senator quickly sought to bridge through a stepped-up schedule of appearances.

As he spoke to small but politically active crowds of conservatives in Covington and Conyers this week, Mr. Chambliss assured his audiences that survey trends were in his favor. But he urged them to beat the bushes for every available Republican vote.

“It is important that you talk to everybody you are friends with, you work with, you go to church with, you drink coffee with, whatever it may be, and make sure that on Nov. 4 they turn out to vote,” Mr. Chambliss exhorted a flag-waving group gathered in Covington’s town square, warning against a liberal takeover of Washington.

Mr. Martin has, with the help of national Democrats, hammered Mr. Chambliss for his support of Bush administration economic policies, most recently with highly visible television commercials attributing Georgia job losses and economic pain to “Saxby economics.”

Democrats would revel in defeating Mr. Chambliss. In 2002, they accused him of libeling Mr. Cleland, a badly wounded and decorated Vietnam veteran, with an advertisement that questioned his commitment to fighting terrorism. They now view Mr. Martin as the potential key to a 60-vote Senate, a distinction with which Mr. Martin seems slightly uncomfortable.

“I think that is overstated,” said Mr. Martin, who said he does not see himself as a filibuster warrior but as someone with a bipartisan history and a lawmaker who would “go up to the United States Senate and stick up for the middle-class Georgian.”

As in Senate races in North Carolina and Mississippi and a handful of House races, Democrats are closely monitoring African-American participation, calculating that a significantly increased turnout could tip the balance for their candidates.

Mr. Black, the political scientist, said that if strongly Democratic African-American voters make up more than a third of the electorate, Mr. Martin needs to secure about a quarter or slightly more of the white vote to assemble a majority. “It is certainly doable,” Mr. Black said.

The black voters who waited patiently at the Lithonia Middle School seemed aware of the difference their votes could make.

“This is the most important election,” said Cathy Blakeney of Stone Mountain, who not only voted herself but made sure her 22-year-old son showed up as well. “Based on the economic conditions and people losing their jobs and people losing their homes and the economy not growing and banks going under, I was going to make sure that I came out and voted and that he came out and voted, too.”

    New Registrations Give Georgia Blacks More Power at the Polls, NYT, 30.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/30/us/politics/30chambliss.html






Jacksonville Journal

Sense of Unease

in Some Black Voters


October 29, 2008
The New York Times


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — For weeks now, James Jones has been extra courteous in traffic and at the gas station because he has an Obama sticker on the back of his truck. “Something like that might make a difference for Barack Obama,” Mr. Jones explained. “I’m not taking a chance.”

Mr. Jones, a black warehouse worker, bought campaign signs for his yard and made sure his family had valid voter registration cards. He and his wife cast their votes 10 days early to avoid last-minute problems at the polls.

So imagine Mr. Jones’s disappointment this week when he got word of a rumor making its way around his humble southeastern part of town — that early voting is nothing more than a new disenfranchisement scam, that early votes are likely to be lost and never counted.

“I went to the library where I voted and I said, ‘Ma’am, I heard rumors that early voting is dangerous, is that true?’ ” Mr. Jones, 47, said he had asked an election worker. “She said: ‘It’s pretty well safe. I wouldn’t worry about it.’ ”

But in conversations with about a dozen Jacksonville residents in cafes, outside churches and at their homes over three days, Mr. Jones and many of his black neighbors worry anyway, unable to put aside the nagging feeling that somehow their votes will not be counted.

Wounds have not healed here in Duval County since the mangled presidential election of 2000, when more than 26,000 ballots were discarded as invalid for being improperly punched. Nearly 40 percent of the votes were thrown out in the predominantly Democratic-leaning African-American communities around Jacksonville, a reality that has caused suspicions of racial bias to linger, even though intentional disenfranchisement was never proved.

Now, in a show of early election enthusiasm, more than 84,200 people have already voted in Duval County, surpassing the number of early votes cast in the last presidential election. Added to 33,800 absentee ballots collected so far, the numbers show that 22 percent of registered voters cast their ballots as of Oct. 27, county election officials said.

But amid excitement over Mr. Obama’s historic candidacy and the chance that the country might choose an African-American president within a matter of days, there is an unmistakable sense of anxiety among blacks here that something will go wrong, that victory will slip away.

“They’re going to throw out votes,” said Larone Wesley, a 53-year-old black Vietnam veteran. “I can’t say exactly how, but they are going to accomplish that quite naturally. I’m so afraid for my friend Obama. I look at this through the eyes of the ’60s, and I feel there ain’t no way they’re going to let him make it.”

Mr. Wesley refuses to vote early. “I don’t believe the machines work properly in general,” he said, “and they really don’t work properly when they think you’re voting for Obama.”

Mr. Wesley’s wife, Paris, disagrees and thinks the best thing she can do is get to her polling place before Nov. 4. “I want to go early so that if I see and hear anything that’s not in keeping with the rules and regulations, I can make a call,” she said. “As far as faith in the system, I don’t have faith in the system. I just pray we have people in the polls who will be honest and watchful.”

Some things have not changed since 2000: Florida is still a battleground. Mr. Obama and Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, are in hot pursuit of the state’s 27 electoral votes, which could prove crucial for victory.

Other important things have changed. In 2004, there were only minor glitches. Duval County has done away with its old confusing ballot and upgraded its scanning machinery. It also has a new elections supervisor, Jerry Holland, who has reached out to blacks and earned their respect.

The skepticism about early voting is confounding to many officials because it is intended to make voting easier and more accessible, and was recently promoted in Jacksonville by Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama.

Mr. Holland said that the number of people, including blacks, who had turned out to vote early showed that misgivings were not widespread. Of the 84,273 residents who had voted as of Sunday, more than 30,900 were black.

“Obviously, we’ve come a long way since 2000,” Mr. Holland said. “For some people, it may have taken eight years to rebuild confidence. For others, it might take another election cycle. The goal is to keep building confidence one voter at a time.”

He added: “We will have record numbers. It may be feasible to get 50 percent of our voters before the election.”

Still, suspicions linger that something — faulty machines, misread ballots, mysteriously lost votes — will deny Mr. Obama some of the support that he has.

“I vote in a predominantly minority area,” said Monica Albertie, 27, a health care executive. “I worry about getting there and all of a sudden the electricity doesn’t work. Anything can happen. I know that sounds silly, but these are real concerns. We have a record of getting excited, then being disappointed. You get paranoid. What if the bus system shuts down that day?”

Ms. Albertie said she was “on the fence” about early voting, because “I don’t want my early vote to get lost.”

Her friend Susan Burroughs, who is also a health care executive, said she planned to vote early but felt “queasy.”

“You know, you don’t want to get too excited because it could go in just the opposite direction,” Ms. Burroughs said. “You read the papers here, and you know, there was something wrong with the machine over here, they lost the votes over there, they had to recount votes. That makes a lot of people leery.”

“My queasiness is that we shouldn’t become too comfortable with the polls showing he’s ahead,” she said. “It means nothing until you cast your vote, and the tally is in.”

Mr. Jones also expressed a sense of queasiness.

“I feel good, and I don’t feel good,” he said. “I’m thankful to God that this is happening in my lifetime, that I get to see it. But I’m not ready to celebrate anything. This could be a very tricky time for us. I don’t trust the polls. And the state of Florida in the past has had a lot of crooked things going on.”

    Sense of Unease in Some Black Voters, NYT, 29.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/29/us/politics/29anxiety.html






Alleged Plot to Kill Obama

Stuns Tenn. Town


October 28, 2008
Filed at 11:29 a.m. ET
The New York Times


BELLS, Tenn. (AP) -- In a rural Tennessee county where you can't buy alcohol or even find a Wal-Mart, residents of tiny Bells stopped each other to ask if anyone knew the pale-skinned young local accused of plotting to kill dozens of black people, including Barack Obama.

It was a jolt to find out on Monday that a 20-year-old who grew up among them was one of two white supremacists accused of plotting a national killing spree that would ultimately target Obama, the Democratic candidate for president.

The town surrounded by fertile cotton fields is safe and certainly not known for breeding neo-Nazis, they agreed.

''If we had any skinheads in this county I wasn't aware of it. We hardly know what they are,'' said Sam Lewis, who lives across the street from the mother of suspect Daniel Cowart. Cowart, he said, grew up in the comfortable, well-maintained neighborhood and wasn't known as a troublemaker.

''His mother is a real sweet, nice girl, and this comes as a shock and a surprise,'' Lewis said.

Cowart is charged along with Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Helena-West Helena, Ark., with planning a killing spree to shoot and decapitate black people and top it all off by attacking Obama. The charges were made public Monday, and the Obama campaign has not commented about the alleged plot.

Cowart and Schlesselman are charged by federal authorities with possessing an unregistered firearm, conspiring to steal firearms from a federally licensed gun dealer and threatening a candidate for president. They were being held without bond.

Authorities describe the two as neo-Nazi skinheads, and an affidavit from a federal agent says they devised a plot to kill 88 people -- beheading 14 of them.

The numbers 14 and 88 are symbols in skinhead culture, authorities said, referring to a 14-word phrase attributed to an imprisoned white supremacist: ''We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children'' and to the eighth letter of the alphabet, H. Two ''8''s or ''H''s stand for ''Heil Hitler.''

The two were taken into custody the night of Oct. 22, said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives Agent Brian Weeks. Authorities pulled them over because they had shot out the window of a church and used sidewalk chalk to draw racially motivated words, the numbers 14 and 88 and a swastika on Cowart's car, he said.

The killing spree was initially to target a predominantly black school, which was not identified in court documents. It was to end, authorities said, with the two suspects -- dressed in white tuxedos and top hats -- blasting guns from the windows of a speeding vehicle aimed at Obama.

The reported threat of attacking a school filled with black students worried Police Chief Fred Fielder. Helena-West Helena, with a population of 12,200, is 66 percent black. ''Predominantly black school, take your pick,'' he said.

The young men said they expected to die in the attack, the affidavit said.

In Helena-West Helena, on the Mississippi River in east Arkansas' Delta, Schlesselman was described as a ''troubled child'' by a woman who works with his adoptive father, Mark Schlesselman.

The father works as a parts manager at Riddell Flying Service, said Marty Riddell, a co-owner of the company located in one of the nation's poorest regions, trailing even parts of Appalachia in its standard of living.

Riddell said she tried to offer Paul Schlesselman a pet lizard she couldn't care for, but was warned by his family that ''he would hurt it.''

''They might have done that man a favor picking that kid up,'' Riddell said. ''He was a troubled child already.''

Schlesselman's father did not return a phone call to the flying service.

On the other hand, a former high school classmate of Cowart's in Bells said he was quiet but friendly. But it took Lacy Doss a minute to recognize the young man in the news photo brandishing a large rifle.

''I was shocked to think I was sitting in class with this guy and now he's being charged with some crazy stuff,'' said Doss, 18. ''He was a nice person, to me anyway. He was quiet. He really didn't talk much.''

Joe Byrd, a lawyer representing Cowart, said he was reviewing the charges against his client ''as well as the facts and circumstances of his arrest'' and was not yet prepared to comment.

No one answered the door at Cowart's mother's house, and no lights were on inside.

Matt Hawkins, 21, the clerk at a filling station-convenience store in the center of the town of 2,300 residents about 70 miles northeast of Memphis, said customers asked each other about Cowart, looking for people who might know him.

''One friend of mine said he knew who he is, but that's about it,'' Hawkins said. ''We're a small town. Nothing much goes on around here, no shootings or nothing.''

City Attorney Jasper Taylor said Cowart most recently lived with his grandparents in a southern, rural part of the county. He moved away, possibly to Arkansas or Texas, then returned over the summer, Taylor said.

Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Nashville, Tenn., field office for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, said authorities took the threats seriously.

''Even if they were just to try it, it would be a trail of tears around the South,'' Cavanaugh said.

At this point, there does not appear to be any formal assassination plan, Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said.

''Whether or not they had the capability or the wherewithal to carry out an attack remains to be seen,'' he said.


Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tenn., Jon Gambrell in Little Rock, Ark., and Eileen Sullivan and Lara Jakes Jordan in Washington contributed to this report.

    Alleged Plot to Kill Obama Stuns Tenn. Town, NYT, 28.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/us/AP-Skinhead-Plot.html






Rudy Ray Moore, 81,

a Precursor of Rap, Dies


October 22, 2008
The New York Times


Rudy Ray Moore, whose standup comedy, records and movies related earthy rhyming tales of a vivid gaggle of characters as they lurched from sexual escapade to sexual escapade in a boisterous tradition, born in Africa, that helped shape today’s hip-hop, died Sunday in Akron, Ohio. He was 81.

The cause was complications of diabetes, his Web site said.

Mr. Moore called himself the Godfather of Rap because of the number of hip-hop artists who used snippets of his recordings in theirs, performed with him or imitated him. These included Dr. Dre, Big Daddy Kane and 2 Live Crew.

Snoop Dogg thanked Mr. Moore in liner notes to the 2006 release of the soundtrack to Mr. Moore’s 1975 film, “Dolemite,” saying, “Without Rudy Ray Moore, there would be no Snoop Dogg, and that’s for real.”

Most critics refrained from overpraising “Dolemite,” with the possible exception of John Leland, who wrote in The New York Times in 2002 that it “remains the ‘Citizen Kane’ of kung fu pimping movies.” The film, made for $100,000, nonetheless became a cult classic among aficionados of so-called blaxploitation movies — films that so exaggerate black stereotypes that they might plausibly be said to transcend those stereotypes.

Very little of Mr. Moore’s work in any medium reached mainstream audiences, largely because his rapid-fire rhyming salaciousness exceeded the wildest excesses of even Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. His comedy records in the 1960s and ’70s — most featuring nude photographs of him and more than one woman in suggestive poses — were kept behind record store counters in plain brown wrappers and had to be explicitly requested.

But Mr. Moore could be said to represent a profound strand of African-American folk art. One of his standard stories concerns a monkey who uses his wiles and an accommodating elephant to fool a lion. The tale, which originated in West Africa, became a basis for an influential study by the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism.”

In one of his few brushes with a national audience, Mr. Moore, in a startlingly cleaned-up version, told the story on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in the early 1990s. Other characters he described were new, almost always dirtier renderings in the tradition of trickster stories represented by Brer Rabbit and the cunning slave John, who outwitted his master to win freedom.

Mr. Moore updated the story of an old minstrel show favorite, Peetie (which he changed to “Petey”) Wheatstraw, a k a the Devil’s Son-in-Law and the High Sheriff of Hell. Others in his cast were Pimpin’ Sam and Hurricane Annie. Mr. Moore became a master at “toasting,” a tradition of black rhymed storytelling over a beat in which the tallest tale — or most outlandish insult — wins.

Rudolph Frank Moore was born on March 17, 1927, in Fort Smith, Ark., where he was soon singing in church. He moved to Cleveland at 15, found work peeling potatoes and washing dishes and won a talent contest. He was drafted in 1950 and performed for his fellow soldiers as the Harlem Hillbilly, singing country songs in R&B style.

After his discharge, he resumed his pre-Army act as the turbaned dancer Prince Dumarr. He made some records as a singer under the name Rudy Moore, doing songs like “Hully Gully Papa,” who liked to “coffee grind real slow.”

His life changed in 1970 when he found himself listening to the stories of Rico, a regular at the record store in Hollywood, Calif., where Mr. Moore worked.

He was particularly captivated by Rico’s rude, rollicking stories of Dolemite, a name derived from dolomite, a mineral used in some cements. Mr. Moore perfected the Dolemite stories in comedy routines, most of which he recorded, then spent all his record earnings to make the movie “Dolemite.” A sequel, “The Human Tornado,” followed. A second sequel, “The Dolemite Explosion,” also starring Mr. Moore, may be released later this year.

Fallout Entertainment bought the rights last year to remake the original movie. Bill Fishman of Fallout said some of Mr. Moore’s famous lines would be used.

Mr. Moore is survived by four siblings; his daughter, Yvette Wesson, known as Rusty; and his 98-year-old mother, Lucille.

Violent scenes in Mr. Moore’s movies included a man’s guts being ripped out by another character’s bare hands in “Dolemite.” Almost none of the dialogue in any of his movies can be printed in a family newspaper, not to mention the language of his more than 16 comedy albums — or even many of their titles.

But what is probably his most famous line is also his most typical:

Dolemite is my name

And rappin’ and tappin’

That’s my game

I’m young and free

And just as bad as I wanna be.

    Rudy Ray Moore, 81, a Precursor of Rap, Dies, NYT, 22.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/movies/22moore.html






Justices Weigh Race

in North Carolina Case


October 15, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court returned Tuesday to the question of how to take account of race in drawing election districts, hearing arguments in a case that is likely to resolve a question the court has left open five times: Must a minority group constitute a majority in a given district before an important protection of the federal Voting Rights Act kicks in?

Christopher G. Browning Jr., North Carolina’s solicitor general, defended the decision of officials there to violate a state law in order to create a district that included about 39 percent of the black voting-age population, saying the Voting Rights Act required the creation of the district to prevent the dilution of the minority group’s ability to elect a representative of its choice.

The fact that the district did not include a majority of black voters was a virtue, Mr. Browning said. True, he said, minority voters would be able to elect a representative of their choice only with the aid of voters from other groups. “Coalition districts help us in reaching the point where race will no longer matter,” Mr. Browning said.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. cut him off. “How can you say,” the chief justice asked, “that this brings us closer to a situation where race will not matter when it expands the number of situations in which redistricting authorities have to consider race?”

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined in, saying that Mr. Browning was “proposing a brave new world of coalition districts.”

Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Columbia, said Justice Kennedy’s comments were a good guide to the case’s probable outcome, as he has been the swing vote in similar cases.

“Justice Kennedy seemed frustrated with the potential slippery slope that the state was falling down,” said Professor Persily, who attended the argument and had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case supporting neither party. “In race and redistricting cases in particular, and in redistricting cases in general, he has been the critical justice.”

In its decision last year, the North Carolina Supreme Court applied a strict numerical-majority requirement and rejected the district. The appeal in the case, Bartlett v. Strickland, No. 07-689, was filed by North Carolina’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, and other state officials. They said that nothing in the text of the federal law, its purpose or the court’s earlier cases mandated a numerical-majority requirement.

Several justices seemed to agree, saying or suggesting that a 50 percent requirement had the usual costs and benefits of what lawyers call “bright line rules.” They are easy to apply, but they can be arbitrary and inflexible.

The federal government, although it appeared in support of the residents of Pender County, N.C., who had successfully challenged the district in question, said a 50 percent requirement was too rigid. The underlying census data, the federal government said in its brief, can be subject to sampling errors and undercounting, and the data are in any event a historical snapshot that does not take account of changing demographics later.

“We would impose about a 2 percent cushion,” Daryl Joseffer, an assistant to the United States solicitor general, said Tuesday.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer proposed yet another number, one tied to the amount of crossover voting from whites needed to elect the minority group’s preferred candidate. “There’s a kind of natural stopping place,” he said. “When I worked out the numbers, it seemed that natural stopping place fell around 42-43 percent.”

Justice John Paul Stevens said all rigid mathematical rules had a common flaw. They assume, he said, “that the minority communities throughout the country are all alike.”

The court took no action on Tuesday in a case from West Virginia concerning campaign spending and judicial recusal. The case, Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Company, No. 08-22, concerns what role the federal Constitution ought to play, if any, in determining whether a State Supreme Court justice must disqualify himself from a $50 million case against a coal company after receiving more $3 million in campaign support from the company’s chief executive.

The court will again consider whether to hear the case at its private conference on Friday.

    Justices Weigh Race in North Carolina Case, NYT, 15.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/15/washington/15scotus.html?hp






In Voting Booth,

Race May Play a Bigger Role


October 15, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — With less than three weeks until Election Day, a big question is looming over the campaign for the White House, and it has nothing to do with the economic crisis or the caustic exchanges between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain over character and credentials.

It is race.

Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain almost never talk directly about it. In some cases, like the condemnation of the Republican ticket issued last weekend by Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who is a civil rights leader, the topic has come up openly: Mr. Lewis invoked George Wallace, the noted segregationist, in rebuking Mr. McCain as tolerating political rallies marked by crowds yelling insults and threats at Mr. Obama.

But more often, it is found only in sentiments that are whispered, internalized or masked by discussions of culture or religion, and therefore hard to capture fully in polling or even to hear clearly in everyday conversation.

Political strategists once assumed that polls might well overstate support for black candidates, since white voters might be reluctant to admit racially tinged sentiments to a pollster. Newer research has cast doubt on that assumption. Either way, the situation is confounding aides on both sides, who like everyone else are waiting to see what role race will play in the privacy of the voting booth.

Harold Ickes, a Democrat who was the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s senior adviser when he ran for president — and who worked in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in her race against Mr. Obama this year — said that when he looked at polls now, he routinely shaved off a point or two from Mr. Obama’s number to account for hidden racial prejudices. That is no small factor, considering that Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain are separated by very thin margins in many polls in battleground states.

“If he were white, this would be a blowout,” Mr. Ickes said. “I think the country has come a long, long, long way since the 1960s. I think everybody would agree with that. But if you talk to people in certain states, they will say there are impulses that do not benefit Barack Obama because of the color of his skin.”

Saul Anuzis, the Republican chairman in Michigan, said he had become accustomed to whispered asides from voters suggesting they would not vote for Mr. Obama because he is black. “We honestly don’t know how big an issue it is,” Mr. Anuzis said. But Representative Artur Davis, an African-American Democrat of Alabama, said race was no longer the automatic barrier to the White House that it once was.

“There is a group of voters who will not vote for people who are opposite their race,” Mr. Davis said. “But I think that number is lower today than it has been at any point in our history. I don’t believe this campaign will be decided by race; there are too many other important issues. Jesse Jackson would not have been elected in 1988. But we’ve changed.”

But it is hard to tell, as Mr. Ickes and Mr. Anuzis said, to what extent voters who are opposing Mr. Obama might seize other issues — his age and level of experience, his positions on the issues, his cultural and ideological background — as a shield.

And if Mr. Obama is losing support simply because he is black, that is not a one-sided equation. A crucial part of Mr. Obama’s theory for winning the election is turning out blacks in places like Florida and North Carolina, a state that Mr. Obama’s advisers view as in play largely because of the significant African-American population.

    In Voting Booth, Race May Play a Bigger Role, NYT, 15.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/15/us/politics/15race.html






Door to Door

Volunteers for Obama

Face a Complex Issue


October 15, 2008
The New York Times


ELKO, Nev. — On a recent evening here in eastern Nevada, Cathy Vance, a volunteer for the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama, went knocking on doors of voters who had been identified as potential Obama supporters. Elko County is largely rural, with few black residents, located in a state with a dearth of black elected officials.

Among the people she found that night was Veronica Mendive, who seemed cautiously warming to Mr. Obama’s candidacy. But she had a thought.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m prejudiced,” Ms. Mendive said. “I’ve never been around a lot of black people before. I just worry that they’re nice to your face but then when they get around their own people you just have to worry about what they’re going to do to you.”

Ms. Vance responded: “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are more white than black really.” She went on to assure Ms. Mendive that she was so impressed with Mr. Obama the person, that she failed to notice the color of his skin anymore.

The exchange, posted on The Caucus blog on nytimes.com, evoked outrage among many readers. “Amazing how even white people who support Obama and are canvassing for him default to classic white supremacist language,” wrote one reader.

Another said, “What in the world is this volunteer thinking?”

But Ms. Vance’s efforts reflect the complex task that many volunteers canvassing for Mr. Obama face. While she and other Obama volunteers may feel offended by remarks like Ms. Mendive’s, an admonishment would not persuade a voter on the fence to pull the lever for Mr. Obama. So she often takes another tack.

“I meet people like that from time to time,” Ms. Vance said later. She described one woman she met who explained that she knew herself to be “prejudiced,” had come to abhor that quality in herself, and also saw it reflected through her young son, “who she said was full of hate,” Ms. Vance explained.

“We sat and talked at her kitchen table for a long time that day,” Ms. Vance recalled. “I tried to explain to her that maybe the only way to heal those years of hatred and prejudice was to finally make the move and vote for Obama.”

David W. Nickerson, a professor of political science at Notre Dame who studies campaign voter outreach, called it unusual for someone to admit racial bias to a stranger. A person from the community where the voter lives might be more persuasive on racial issues, he said.

“If you were going to persuade someone on an issue like race,” Professor Nickerson said, “I’d imagine that it would have to come from a credible source. Having it come from someone you know or someone from your neighborhood that represents.”

Darry A. Sragow, a political consultant based in Los Angeles who has worked on various Democratic campaigns, said volunteers were generally trained to “shift the discussion from anything that sounds like it may be race-based to arguments that are working best for the Obama campaign, like the economy.”

He added: “It’s like selling a car. You’re not going to convince them it’s a beautiful car if they think its ugly. But you get back to whatever the strongest points are. You don’t get far trying to convince someone that something they think of as negative is positive.”

Another person who posted a comment in response to the nytimes.com blog item from Elko wrote: “I’m canvassing for Obama. If this issue comes up, even if obliquely, I emphasize that Obama is from a multiracial background and that his father was an African intellectual, not an American from the inner city. I explain that Obama has never aligned himself solely with African-American interests — not on any issue — but rather has always sought to find a middle ground.”

Rebecca Cathcart contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

    Volunteers for Obama Face a Complex Issue, NYT, 15.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/15/us/politics/15nevada.html






Living Apart

Hot Topic Is Secondary

in a Part of Colorado


October 15, 2008
The New York Times


BUENA VISTA, Colo. — Black people are simply not in the picture in this part of Colorado. What that means, said many people in the nearly all-white corridor through Chaffee and Lake Counties along the spine of the Rockies, is that race is not on the table much when talk turns to Senator Barack Obama’s bid for the White House.

“Because there’s not any sort of daily interaction to sway us either way, to make us prejudiced in either direction, it makes it more of a candidate choice,” said Laurie Benson, 36, who owns the Buena Vista Roastery, a coffee supplier on Main Street, with her husband, Joel. “It’s more just who is the best candidate.”

The debate over race — and for some, the soul-searching — that Mr. Obama’s history-making candidacy as the Democratic nominee has engendered are clearly present here, just different. Republicans and Democrats alike, in several dozen interviews in Chaffee County (1.6 percent black) and Lake County (0.3 percent black), agreed with Ms. Benson that the lack of racial interaction made Mr. Obama’s race more of an intellectual concept, secondary to ordinary political considerations.

But in a sign of the limits of tolerance, some white voters also expressed a vague fear that if they did experience daily life in black America, their opinion of black people might change for the worse.

Peggy MacKay, a 63-year-old supporter of Mr. Obama and resident of Buena Vista, tried recently to imagine an alternative universe. What if she lived instead in an urban neighborhood where race, poverty and crime were the backdrop of life? Would she still vote for a black man?

“If I were an inner-city person, and I was confronted with those problems every day, I would hope that I could rise above it,” said Ms. MacKay, a corporate consultant and trainer. “To be honest, I don’t know that I could.”

Hugh Neas, a retired engineering worker who described himself as a Republican (he supported President Bush in 2000 and Senator John Kerry in 2004, and he plans to vote for Mr. Obama in November), said that voting for a black man was simply easier in a place where social problems were divorced from a discussion of race. He said he had been thinking lately of a police officer friend who took a job in a black neighborhood in Los Angeles years ago and came out a racial bigot.

“I’d like to think that would not happen to me,” Mr. Neas said. “But if your nose is rubbed in it every day, you have problems.”

Other people are not so sure that racism has faded. Bud Elliott, the mayor of Leadville, a depressed mining town in Lake County, said he thought Mr. Obama would win there because of the historic alliance of the mining unions and the Democratic Party. But Mr. Elliott also expects a gap, with Mr. Obama winning by a smaller margin than other Democrats, because of race-based defections.

Whether voters are newcomers with experience in other parts of the country or old-timers whose sense of race comes from television and movies is perhaps also a factor, Mr. Elliott said.

Supporters of Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, also said race had no place in their consideration. Some said that the election was about liberal versus conservative, and that they would vote as they always had — for the conservative.

But mostly, people here say that naked racism, if it still exists, is buried deep. Few residents, Democrat or Republican, said they had overheard overt racial comments. Some see that as a victory.

“At least it’s gone covert and underground,” said Pat Landreth, an artist and co-owner of Bungled Jungle, a gallery in downtown Salida. “So some good is happening.”

    Hot Topic Is Secondary in a Part of Colorado, NYT, 15.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/15/us/politics/15colorado.html






The South

For Some,

Uncertainty Starts at Racial Identity


October 15, 2008
The New York Times


MOBILE, Ala. — The McCain campaign’s depiction of Barack Obama as a mysterious “other” with an impenetrable background may not be resonating in the national polls, but it has found a receptive audience with many white Southern voters.

In interviews here in the Deep South and in Virginia, white voters made it clear that they remain deeply uneasy with Mr. Obama — with his politics, his personality and his biracial background. Being the son of a white mother and a black father has come to symbolize Mr. Obama’s larger mysteries for many voters. When asked about his background, a substantial number of people interviewed said they believed his racial heritage was unclear, giving them another reason to vote against him.

“He’s neither-nor,” said Ricky Thompson, a pipe fitter who works at a factory north of Mobile, while standing in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store just north of here. “He’s other. It’s in the Bible. Come as one. Don’t create other breeds.”

Whether Mr. Obama is black, half-black or half-white often seemed to overshadow the question of his exact stand on particular issues, and rough-edged comments on the subject flowed easily even from voters who said race should not be an issue in the campaign. Many voters seemed to have no difficulty criticizing the mixing of the races — and thus the product of such mixtures — even as they indignantly said a candidate’s color held no importance for them.

“I would think of him as I would of another of mixed race,” said Glenn Reynolds, 74, a retired textile worker in Martinsdale, Va., and a former supervisor at a Goodyear plant. “God taught the children of Israel not to intermarry. You should be proud of what you are, and not intermarry.”

Mr. Reynolds, standing outside a Kroger grocery store, described Mr. Obama as a “real charismatic person, in that he’s the type of person you can’t really hate, but you don’t really trust.”

Other voters swept past such ambiguities into old-fashioned racist gibes.

“He’s going to tear up the rose bushes and plant a watermelon patch,” said James Halsey, chuckling, while standing in the Wal-Mart parking lot with fellow workers in the environmental cleanup business. “I just don’t think we’ll ever have a black president.”

There is nothing unusual about mixed-race people in the South, although in decades past there was no ambiguity about the subject. Legally and socially, a person with any black blood was considered black when segregation was the law.

But the historic candidacy of Mr. Obama, who has said he considers himself black, has led some voters in the South to categorize him as neither black nor white. While many voters said that made them uncomfortable, others said they were pleased by Mr. Obama’s lack of connection to African-American politics.

“He doesn’t come from the African-American perspective — he’s not of that tradition,” said Kimi Oaks, a prominent community volunteer in the Mobile area, with apparent approval. Ms. Oaks, along with about 15 others, had gathered after Sunday services at Mobile’s leading Methodist church to discuss the presidential campaign. “He’s not a product of any ghetto,” Ms. Oaks added.

At the same time, however, she vigorously rejected the idea that race would be important in the election, a question met with general head-shaking from those assembled; Ms. Oaks said she was “terribly offended,” as a Southerner, at even being asked about this.

Jim Pagans, a retired software manager, interviewed in a strip mall parking lot in Roanoke, Va., said that while Mr. Obama was “half-Caucasian,” he had the characteristics of blacks.

“But you look at his background, you don’t think of that,” he said. “He’s more intelligent and a smarter person than McCain.”

Bud Rowell, a retired oil field worker interviewed at a Baptist church in Citronelle, Ala., north of Mobile, said he was uncertain about Mr. Obama’s racial identity, and was critical of him for being equivocal and indecisive.

But Mr. Rowell also said that personal experience had made him more sympathetic to biracial people.

“I’ve always been against the blacks,” said Mr. Rowell, who is in his 70s, recalling how he was arrested for throwing firecrackers in the black section of town. But now that he has three biracial grandchildren — “it was really rough on me” — he said he had “found out they were human beings, too.”

    For Some, Uncertainty Starts at Racial Identity, NYT, 15.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/15/us/politics/15biracial.html






Going Down the Road

In a Town Apart,

the Pride and Trials of Black Life


September 29, 2008
The New York Times


EATONVILLE, Fla. — Hidden in the theme-park sprawl of greater Orlando, a few miles from the shiny, the loud and the gargantuan, lies a quiet town where the pride and complications of the African-American experience come to life.

Eatonville, the first all-black town to incorporate in the country and the childhood home of Zora Neale Hurston, is no longer as simple as she described it in 1935: “the city of five lakes, three croquet courts, 300 brown skins, 300 good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse.” It is now a place of pilgrimage. Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Ruby Dee have come to the annual Zora! Festival in Eatonville to pay their respects to Hurston, the most famous female writer of the Harlem Renaissance.

And yet in many ways, the town she described — and made a tourist stop by including it in the Florida travel guide produced by the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project — remains a place apart. It is as independent, dignified and private as it was in the 1930s, when Hurston wrote that rural blacks in Florida often resisted sharing their true thoughts with the white man, who “knowing so little about us, he doesn’t know what he is missing.”

Even now, in a year when a black presidential nominee, Senator Barack Obama, has called for an open conversation about race, many here remain wary of the outsider’s gaze.

“We’re very cautious about how our story is told,” said Hortense Jones, 59, a lifelong resident and member of the town’s oldest church. “It needs to be right.”

Eatonville has long been defined as a paradox of triumph and struggle. It is both a historic model of black empowerment and a community of nearly 2,400 where the poverty rates are twice the national average. It is a literary hub but also an oak-shaded example of rural Southern black culture — sometimes disdained, sometimes praised — that was born of American slavery. Not surprisingly, residents here are both proud and protective.

And the concern about Eatonville’s image really began with Zora, which is all anyone here calls Hurston. She introduced the world to her hometown through heartfelt, dialect-heavy books like “Mules and Men” (1935) and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937).

Five paragraphs in the Florida guidebook transformed the town, just off Route 17, a road that runs through the oft-forgotten center of Florida into a stage of black history and human drama. Bold as a bass drum in both life and literature, Hurston led readers to the store owned by Eatonville’s first mayor, Joe Clarke, then veered into more private areas. “Off the road on the left,” she wrote, “is the brown-with-white-trim modern public school, with its well-kept yards and playgrounds, which Howard Miller always looks after, though he can scarcely read and write.”

She also mentioned the new husband of Widow Dash and wrote that Lee Glenn “sells drinks of all kinds and whatever goes with transient rooms.”

So in just a few hundred words, Hurston linked Eatonville with self-government but also illiteracy, remarriage and sex. Clearly, Fodor’s this was not.

In fact, it was not a portrait everyone appreciated.

“Zora told it like it was,” said Ella Dinkins, 90, one of the Johnson girls Hurston immortalized by quoting men singing off-color songs about their beauty. She added: “Some people didn’t like that.”

Hurston is still remembered here as a vivacious eccentric who frequently returned after her family moved to Jacksonville, Fla. Augustus Franklin, 77, recalled that when Hurston sped into town, she usually arrived without notice in a thumping Chevrolet, smoking and wearing pants in a town that even today prides itself on dignified dress. Most residents were fascinated, Mr. Franklin said, while many sneered.

“People were always glad to see Zora,” Mr. Franklin said. But, he added, rocking in his chair on a back patio overlooking Lake Sabelia, where Hurston was most likely baptized, “she never did stay too long.”

When Hurston died in 1960, she was poor and her books had fallen out of print. Along with much of the world, Eatonville seemed to have forgotten her.. Though she was once a literary star, a contemporary of Langston Hughes and the only black woman at Barnard College in the 1920s, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Fla., where she had been living.

In Eatonville, there were no major memorial services, no grand public readings. “I don’t think they understood her contribution to the world or her legacy at all,” said Valerie Boyd, author of “Wrapped in Rainbows,” a Hurston biography published in 2003.

A turning point came in the 1980s. Orange County officials wanted to put a five-lane highway through town to replace Kennedy Boulevard, the community’s puttering two-lane main street. Orlando’s sprawl had already pushed Interstate 4 through the western edge of town. The proposal came as Eatonville was still recovering from a difficult period in its history.

Forced integration, among other things, had ended the community’s relatively idyllic isolation. In the 1950s, the fight over racial mixing brought hate to the community’s doorstep.

“During that time, a bunch of white boys, they would come through and throw oranges and things at people sitting down on the side,” Mr. Franklin said. “We actually had a lady that got killed from that once. They threw a watermelon out of the car.”

In a 1955 letter to The Orlando Sentinel, Hurston questioned the Supreme Court’s demand for forced integration, calling its decision in Brown v. Board of Education “insulting rather than honoring my race.” Residents now say that the desegregation of schools, while positive in some respects, diluted Eatonville’s cohesiveness and undermined the confidence of its youth.

“Black children were accustomed to being hugged — I remember this — you hugged your teacher in the morning, you hugged your teacher at night,” said N. Y. Nathiri, the daughter of Ella Dinkins and the executive director of Preserve the Eatonville Community, a nonprofit group.

That lasted, she added, until the teachers and students did not come from the same place. “You were not hugging your white teacher because your white teacher — I mean there’s a cultural divide there,” Ms. Nathiri said.

Civil rights, however, helped create space for many more Zora Neale Hurstons — black writers, actors and artists who rose above prejudice, like she did, with buoyant self-assurance and lines like: “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.”

In 1975, the writer Alice Walker trekked to Hurston’s unmarked grave and began fighting to resurrect her reputation. Five years later, an acclaimed Hurston biography by Robert E. Hemenway hit bookshelves, reintroducing her to the American canon.

The highway project arrived just as Eatonville’s most famous daughter had once again found the spotlight. And this time, Hurston’s old neighbors saw her as a savior.

The community began planning in 1988 for a Hurston festival to show what the county could ruin with its highway. Thousands of fans came to the inaugural event two years later, and each January, many return for the celebration.

After several years, the county backed away from its road proposal. “The five-laning of the highway resurrected, it put in what you’d call warp speed, real civic pride,” Ms. Nathiri said.

Ms. Boyd put it more simply: “Zora saved Eatonville.”

Victory over the highway project has helped change the town’s self-image. Out-of-towners like Rachelle Munson, a lawyer who began coming to church here in 1993, started to appear in larger numbers, and residents started to revalue the past.

Eatonville joined the national historic registry in 1998. A new one-story library (named after Hurston, of course) opened in 2006 on a repaved and beautified Kennedy Boulevard.

Today, Eatonville remains a Florida anomaly: only six miles from downtown Orlando, it can, at times, feel like a back street in a summer rain, as small as it did when it was founded with just 27 black families in the 1880s. (It is 90 percent black today.) Outsiders who come looking for Eatonville’s story, its meaning, are often still treated with caution.

Advance permission is required for most interviews, and certain things — like the murals at Eatonville’s oldest church, painted by a white man, showing black men in the fields — are not allowed to be photographed.

Many in Eatonville, like Ms. Jones, a bold, confident teacher partial to bright red, still fear that their insular community will be misunderstood.

And yet, as the Hurston festival has expanded, a heightened level of hometown pride has also emerged. Young people, in particular, tend to see Eatonville as Hurston saw her entire race: beautiful, problems and all, no better, no worse and as proud, creative, hard-working, silly and mixed-up as other racial and ethnic groups in America.

It is sincere civic affection that can be heard in the voice of Mr. Franklin’s nephew, Edwin Harvey, 18, who plans to come back to Eatonville after college to work in local government or for the Police Department, which he said could use some help.

And even those who are younger, like Alondra and Alexia Kenon, 11-year-old twins from Winter Park, seem to have learned to describe Eatonville correctly.

“Most people, if they just drive through here, they’ll think, ‘Oh, this city is nothing compared to any of the other ones,’ ” Alondra Kenon said after church on a recent Sunday. “But if you actually stop and take a moment to look at the history, it’s a very nice city.”

    In a Town Apart, the Pride and Trials of Black Life, NYT, 29.9.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/29/us/29florida.html






With Genie Out of Bottle,

Obama Is Careful on Race


August 2, 2008
The New York Times

Senator Barack Obama is a man of few rhetorical stumbles, but this week a few of his words opened a racial door his campaign would prefer not to step through. When Senator John McCain’s camp replied by accusing him of playing the race card from the bottom of the deck, the Obama campaign seemed at least momentarily off balance.

The instinctive urge to punch back was tempered by the fact that race is a fire that could singe both candidates. So on Friday the Obama campaign, a carefully controlled lot on the best of days, reacted most cautiously as it sought to tamp down any sense that it was at war with Mr. McCain over who was the first to inject race into the contest. Mr. Obama made no mention of the issue, except for a brief reference in an interview with a local newspaper in Florida.

“I was in Union, Mo., which is 98 percent white, a rural conservative, and what I said was what I think everyone knows, which is that I don’t look like I came out of central casting when it comes to presidential candidates,” he told The St. Petersburg Times. “There was nobody there who thought at all that I was trying to inject race in this.”

The furor started on Thursday when Rick Davis, Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, said, “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.” Mr. Davis was alluding to Mr. Obama’s remarks on Wednesday that Republicans would try to scare voters by pointing out that he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.”

As Mr. Obama carefully addressed the issue on Friday, his campaign’s formidable network of grass-roots activists, and the Web sites crafted to give them “talking points” to carry into battle against Republicans, remained uncharacteristically quiet on the matter, even though the issue dominated political blogs for a second straight day.

David Plouffe, the campaign manager, talked briefly, and not too eagerly, about it. And the campaign’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, blamed the Republicans for misconstruing Mr. Obama’s words as an attack, and quickly moved on.

The muted response should not be taken, even campaign insiders acknowledged, to reflect high-mindedness; the Obama campaign can wield a rhetorical gutting knife. There simply was no percentage for the first black major-party presidential candidate in the nation’s history to draw too much attention to his race, much less get into a shooting war with the Republicans over the combustible issue.

“For our part, there is no stake in abetting that strategy,” Mr. Axelrod said. “The best we could do is call this and move on.”

By the day’s end, Mr. McCain proclaimed that he did not want to dwell on the issue either, although he repeated his campaign’s central charge that his probable opponent had injected race into their battle.

“He brought up the issue of race; I responded to it,” Mr. McCain told reporters in Panama City, Fla. “I don’t want that issue to be part of this campaign. I’m ready to move on. And I think we should move on.”

For Mr. Obama, the risks of fighting back are that anything that calls attention to the racial dynamics of the contest would potentially polarize voters and stir unease about his candidacy, particularly among white voters in swing states. He is, after all, a candidate who has sought to transcend his own racial heritage in appealing to the broad electorate.

“Ideally, you want to punch back right to the solar plexus,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist. “But when race gets injected, given the 200-year history of this country, it is really fraught with peril.”

More broadly, the battles this week over Mr. Obama’s comments and Mr. McCain’s efforts to link Mr. Obama’s celebrity to that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears raised the question for some political types of both parties about whether Mr. Obama is aggressive enough to lunge for the Republican jugular.

Although his campaign has been known to fire volleys back at Mr. McCain, and Mr. Obama has often been critical of Mr. McCain’s policies in his speeches, opportunities to draw blood have come and gone. And he finds challenges on many fronts these days, including at one of his rallies on Friday, where seven self-styled African revolutionaries began shouting and pointing at him, accusing him of undermining revolutionary struggle.

This was perhaps one of Mr. Obama’s easier moments of the week, as the crowd was allied as one with him. He motioned the crowd to let the revolutionaries have their say, and then he responded.

“I may not have spoken out the way you want me to speak out,” he said. “But I am suggesting that I have spoken out, and spoken out forcefully.”

After two straight defeats in presidential elections, Democrats sometimes speak of hungering for a more aggressive standard-bearer to confront Republican attacks. Some wonder why, every time he speaks of the economy, Mr. Obama does not mention that Mr. McCain’s chief economic adviser referred to a “mental” recession rather than a real one.

“I am somewhat mystified that he isn’t attacking much harder on the policy front,” said Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “He needs to rev up his attacks, and his proposals.”

But this is to some extent Mr. Obama’s sleight of hand. He relies heavily on surrogates, and tends to back into his attacks. So he cues up Mr. McCain as “an honorable man” and a “war hero,” before skewering him as lacking in ideas.

He has, too, a Teflon quality that reminds Democratic strategists of Ronald Reagan. He can get himself in trouble with words, he can flip-flop on a position or three, and little sticks.

“Obama and Reagan are quite similar in this regard,” said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who managed John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2004. “They deflect humor with a quip.”

So Mr. Obama spoke to a crowd of supporters in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, and poked fun at Mr. McCain. “We were expecting a more elevated debate,” he said. “They are running commercials about Hilton and Britney — I mean, that’s frivolous.”

Still, the candidate has the peculiar habit of rehearsing his faults for listeners, apparently in an effort to inoculate himself against attacks. And that could be how Mr. Obama got himself tangled up in race.

The candidate and Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, traveled this week around the Republican precincts of rural Missouri. Ms. McCaskill tried to set minds at ease by recalling an “old Ozark habit” of saying “they say,” as in, they say he’s too young, they say he’s not the right color.

So far, so politically artful; she never specified Republicans, much less Mr. McCain.

But when Mr. Obama traveled this rhetorical ground, he tripped. “So nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me,” Mr. Obama said. “You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. You know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.”

Even some Republicans are not convinced that Mr. Obama intended to accuse Mr. McCain of racism, as there’s no percentage for him. Mr. McCain talks of himself as experienced but never, ever, old; Mr. Obama talks of change but charily of his status as a historic first.

“He’s the candidate who happens to be African-American,” Mr. Lehane said. “He’s much more effective when he can just throw McCain’s words back at him.”

Michael Cooper contributed reporting from Panama City, Fla.

    With Genie Out of Bottle, Obama Is Careful on Race, NYT, 2.8.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/02/us/politics/02obama.html?hp






U.S. Blacks, if a Nation,

Would Rank High on AIDS


July 30, 2008
The New York Times


If black America were a country, it would rank 16th in the world in the number of people living with the AIDS virus, the Black AIDS Institute, an advocacy group, reported Tuesday.

The report, financed in part by the Ford Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, provides a startling new perspective on an epidemic that was first recognized in 1981.

Nearly 600,000 African-Americans are living with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, and up to 30,000 are becoming infected each year. When adjusted for age, their death rate is two and a half times that of infected whites, the report said. Partly as a result, the hypothetical nation of black America would rank below 104 other countries in life expectancy.

Those and other disparities are “staggering,” said Dr. Kevin A. Fenton, who directs H.I.V. prevention efforts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency responsible for tracking the epidemic in the United States.

“It is a crisis that needs a new look at prevention,” Dr. Fenton said.

In a separate report on Tuesday, the United Nations painted a somewhat more optimistic picture of the worldwide AIDS epidemic, noting that fewer people are dying of the disease since its peak in the late 1990s and that more people are receiving antiretroviral drugs.

Nevertheless, the report found that progress remained uneven and that the future of the epidemic was uncertain. The report was issued in advance of the 17th International AIDS Conference, which begins this weekend in Mexico City.

The gains are partly from the Bush administration’s program to deliver drugs and preventive measures to people in countries highly affected by H.I.V.

The Black AIDS Institute took note of that program in criticizing the administration’s efforts at home. The group said that more black Americans were living with the AIDS virus than the infected populations in Botswana, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Namibia, Rwanda or Vietnam — 7 of the 15 countries that receive support from the administration’s anti-AIDS program.

The international effort is guided by a strategic plan, clear benchmarks like the prevention of seven million H.I.V. infections by 2010 and annual progress reports to Congress, the group said. By contrast, it went on, “America itself has no strategic plan to combat its own epidemic.”

In a telephone interview, Dr. Fenton said, “We recognize this is a crisis, and clearly more can be done.”

The institute, based in Los Angeles, describes itself as the only national H.I.V./AIDS study group focused exclusively on black people. Phill Wilson, the group’s chief executive and an author of the report, said his group supported the government’s international anti-AIDS program. But Mr. Wilson’s report also said that “American policy makers behave as if AIDS exists ‘elsewhere’ — as if the AIDS problem has been effectively solved” in this country.

The group also chided the government for not reporting H.I.V. statistics to the United Nations for inclusion in its biannual report.

Dr. Fenton said the C.D.C. had ensured that its data were forwarded to officials in the Department of Health and Human Services and was investigating why the data were not in the United Nations report.

Others speaking for the agency said the answer would have to come from the State Department, which did not respond to an inquiry.

Dr. Helene Gayle, president of CARE and a former director of H.I.V. prevention efforts at the disease control centers, told reporters on Tuesday that the United States needed to devote more resources to care for people with sexually transmitted diseases. Such infections can increase the risk of H.I.V. infection.

The federal government and communities needed to promote more testing among all people, particularly blacks, to detect H.I.V. infection in its earliest stages when treatment is more effective, Dr. Gayle said.

Also, she said, more needed to be done to promote needle exchange programs, which have proved effective in preventing H.I.V. infection among injecting drug users but that are illegal in many places.

The United Nations report said that in Rwanda and Zimbabwe, changes in sexual behavior had led to declines in the number of new H.I.V. infections.

Condom use is increasing among young people with multiple partners in many countries and more young people are postponing their initial sexual intercourse before age 15.

The percentage of pregnant women receiving antiretroviral drugs to prevent transmission of H.I.V. to their infants increased to 33 percent in 2007 from 14 percent in 2005. During the same period, the number of new infections among children fell to 370,000 from 410,000.

The United Nations report affirmed treatment gains in Namibia, which increased treatment to 88 percent of the estimated need in 2007, from 1 percent in 2003; and in Cambodia, where the percentage rose to 67 in 2007 from 14 percent in 2004. Other countries with high treatment rates are Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba and Laos.

In most areas of the world, more women than men are receiving antiretroviral therapy, the report said.

Despite inadequate monitoring systems in many countries, data suggest that most of the H.I.V. epidemics in the Caribbean appear to have stabilized. A few have declined in urban areas in the Dominican Republic and Haiti which have had the largest epidemics in the region.

Increased treatment was partly responsible for a decline in AIDS-related deaths to an estimated 2 million in 2007 from 2.2 million in 2005.

The AIDS epidemic has had less overall economic effect than earlier feared, the report said, but is having profound negative effects in industries and agriculture in high-prevalence countries.

The United Nations has set 2015 as the year by which it hopes to reverse the epidemic. But even if the world achieved that goal, the report said, “the epidemic would remain an overriding global challenge for decades.”

To underscore the point, the United Nations said that for every two people who received treatment, five people became newly infected.

    U.S. Blacks, if a Nation, Would Rank High on AIDS, NYT, 30.7.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/30/health/research/30aids.html






Op-Ed Contributor

Affirmative Distraction


July 6, 2008
The New York Times


Aspen, Colo.

THIRTY years ago last week, the Supreme Court handed down its Bakke decision, hoping to end the argument over the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admission. But with hindsight, it’s clear that the justices mainly helped hasten the end of serious discussion about racial justice in America. As they set the stage for a lasting argument over who should get into college, the wound of race continued to fester, unhealed, and our politics moved on.

The ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke was the court’s disorderly attempt in 1978 to bring some order to racially conscious admissions programs. The medical school of the University of California at Davis had set aside 16 spots for members of groups described as having been subjected to past discrimination.

The program was not unusual. Worried about lagging minority enrollments and prodded by the federal government, colleges across the country, having once taken race into account to keep certain groups out, had begun considering it as a factor in order to help members of those groups get in. A rejected applicant, Allan P. Bakke, argued that the program at Davis discriminated against him because he was white.

The Supreme Court was unable to make up its collective mind. Four of the justices would have upheld nearly all college affirmative action programs, and four others would have struck nearly all of them down. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.’s lone opinion therefore controlled the result.

Justice Powell proposed that university administrators could consider an applicant’s race — sometimes, anyway — as long as they did not establish any racial quota, a term he inexactly defined. Baffled colleges consulted baffled lawyers. Justice Powell’s laudable effort at compromise had sown confusion. Eventually, college administrators worked out their response: They would pay attention to the Bakke decision when it suited them — the rest of the time they would ignore it.

In the ensuing years, America has come to treat racial injustice the same way. Having failed miserably in our efforts to undo the damage wrought by two centuries of slavery and another of Jim Crow, we threw up our hands and moved on. We still fight over affirmative action and pretend it means we’re fighting over racial justice. We debate its pros and cons in order to avoid coming to grips with more fundamental challenges.

Those who suffer most from the legacy of racial oppression are not competing for spaces in the entering classes of the nation’s most selective colleges. Millions of them are not finishing high school. We countenance vast disparities in education in America, in where children start and where they come out. And we do not even want to talk about it.

It was not always this way. From the early years of the nation’s founding through somewhere in the mid-1970s, racial injustice was the fundamental moral question of American politics. Through wars and depressions, through scandals and disasters, the attention of the American people was repeatedly yanked back — at times forcefully — to the divide between black and white.

America fought over slavery. America fretted about Jim Crow and finally put a stop to it. During the 1960s, the nation tried out various remedies for its horrific history, including school integration and, especially during the Nixon administration, minority hiring programs. But by 1978, the nation’s attention was slipping to other pressing moral questions — abortion and the environment, for instance — and has never quite slipped back.

It’s true that, nowadays, some of the data on racial progress are rosy, and deserving of celebration. In the past decade alone, according to the Census Bureau, the number of black adults with advanced degrees has nearly doubled. More than half a million more black students are in college today than in the early 1990s. Since 1989, the median income of black families has increased more than 16 percent in constant dollars. In the years since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, the black-white gap in test scores has narrowed, and is now smaller than it has ever been. The black middle class has never been larger.

For the first time, a major party is going to nominate an African-American candidate for president.

But it’s also true that income stratification among African-Americans has increased, and the gap between the well-off and the poor is growing. One in three black students fails to finish high school, and nearly all of those who don’t graduate are poor. Rates of violent crime are falling nationally, but the murder rate among young black men has risen sharply. America has two black communities, really, and one of them is falling further and further behind.

Alas, the structure of our politics makes it increasingly difficult to address the plight of those for whom race and poverty have become inexorably intertwined. For example, even though we know that children of married parents are significantly less likely to have trouble in school or to wind up poor or in prison, politicians on the left continue to oppose programs to encourage marriage.

Critics like to claim that other forces — poverty, for example, or discrimination — discourage marriage. No doubt they do. But marriage rates among African-Americans were significantly higher when segregation was everywhere and poverty rampant. The poverty rate among African-Americans has declined by a quarter since Bakke was decided, but the marriage rate has plummeted, and life for the children of the inner city is often nasty, brutish and short.

What about education? According to data from the Harvard Civil Rights Project, schools are significantly more segregated in the Northeast than in the South. The reason might be not overt racism, but the fact that affluent blue-state families are likely to move to the suburbs or send their children to private school. One obvious response would be to give poor families in the inner cities the money they need to purchase private education for their children. But this the Democratic Party steadfastly opposes.

For its part, the Republican Party, last seen fighting tooth and claw against efforts to extend the Voting Rights Act, continues to oppose what activists like to call throwing money at the problem of poverty. For both parties, affirmative action represents a way to pretend to be doing something — what I have long called racial justice on the cheap.

Cheap is what we like. When political consultants say, “Programs for the poor are poor programs,” what they mean is that poverty plays poorly on the stump. Even John Edwards, in trying to focus the nation’s attention on poverty during his presidential campaign, proposed strategies like raising the minimum wage, which, while admirable, do nothing to help the poor and may, at the margins, even harm them.

University affirmative action programs, whatever their benefits, are no remedy for the problems of the black poor. Perhaps this is why Barack Obama has questioned publicly whether his children should benefit from them and also why leading voices on the black left — Cornel West comes to mind — have proposed that college admissions programs give preferential consideration based on economic class.

But restructuring affirmative action programs, although perhaps a good idea, would in the end, like the Bakke decision, amount to more tinkering around the edges. Unless racial justice once again becomes the centerpiece of American politics, with both parties willing to rethink their positions, those who are suffering most from our legacy of racial oppression will continue to fall further behind.

Stephen L. Carter, a law professor at Yale, is the author of the forthcoming novel “Palace Council.”

    Affirmative Distraction, NYT, 6.7.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/opinion/06carter.html






Old Sound in Harlem

Draws New Neighbors’ Ire


July 6, 2008
The New York Times


It is Saturday evening, the second day of summer, and the air around Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem is filled with the scent of blossoming linden trees and the sound of West African drums.

Across the street from the park is 2002 Fifth Avenue, a new seven-story cream and red brick luxury co-op with a doorman, $1 million apartments and a lobby with a fireplace.

The drummers in the park are African-American and from Africa and the Caribbean. They form a circle and have played in the park, in one form or another, since 1969, when the neighborhood was a more dangerous place. The musicians, who play until 10 p.m. every summer Saturday, are widely credited with helping to make the park safer over the years.

Their supporters, who acknowledge that the drumbeats can pierce walls and windows, regard the musicians as part of the city’s vibrant and often noisy cultural mix. But some in the building at 2002 Fifth Avenue, most of them young white professionals, have a different perspective: When the drummers occupy a spot nearby, residents say, they are unable to sleep, hear their television sets, speak on the telephone, or even have conversations with their spouses without shouting. Some say they cannot even think straight.

And so in this corner of Harlem, which is known as Mount Morris Park, two sides have formed, each with complaints that many agree are legitimate. The stalemate has bubbled over into a dispute about class, race and culture and has become a flash point in the debate over gentrification.

It is the talk of the neighborhood, and even beyond. The conflict received news media attention, but since then it has taken a darker turn: A racist e-mail message was circulated among residents advocating violence against the musicians, and the New Black Panther Party, which espouses anti-white ideals, has marched in support of the drummers.

Mount Morris Park is a tight-knit Harlem neighborhood where brownstones dating from the Gilded Age have been lovingly restored. It is also a place where black and white residents have lived harmoniously for years.

“The drummers are our friends, neighbors and brothers, and are an important cultural part of our neighborhood,” said Donald K. Williams, president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association. “But the new residents have said, ‘We have the right to live here too, and the right to have some aural privacy,’ and they do.”

Mr. Williams, 59, who has lived in the neighborhood for nine years, hesitated, before adding: “People get emotional around cultural issues. And they get emotional around sleep deprivation issues.”

Though few of the drummers’ critics say they want the musicians removed entirely from the 20-acre park, they say residents should not have to suffer for the sake of tradition.

“Everything, after four hours — even if it’s Mozart — is pure, unadulterated noise,” said a resident of a building on the park who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “The community is right: The drummers have been doing this for more than 30 years. But no one told me there would be unremitting noise every Saturday for the rest of my life.”

The view from the drum circle is quite different. The musicians emphasize the spiritual and cultural elements of African drumming, an activity that was banned during slavery.

“This is the only place we can come — this is our watering hole,” said Hru Assaan, 33, whose father, Baba Jeremiah, 59, also takes part. “It’s important to us. People come to Harlem because it has a certain vibration to it. This is part of that vibration. No one’s excluded. Anyone can bring a drum and sit in or bring a blanket and watch.”

For many years, Marcus Garvey Park was an uninviting place littered with garbage, home to squatters who lived in the landmark Fire Bell Tower, and beset by muggers and drug dealers. On some days, the musicians would drum for as long as 10 hours, which provided a window of time for the neighborhood’s children to play in safety, residents said.

In recent years, conditions in the park have vastly improved. The 47-foot cast-iron tower has been repaired, and the park is clean, filled with linden and sweet gum trees, families who come to barbecue and teenagers playing basketball.

On Saturdays, a core group of 30 men and women drum or provide accompaniment on trumpets, flutes, spoons, cowbells, gourd rattles and tambourines. Others, including European tourists, sit in at times. The group has no leader and no requirements to join. When a drummer feels a rhythm, he or she pounds out a beat. Others accept or reject it, adding their own flourishes. Once a cohesive rhythm has been established, African women wearing brightly colored gowns called boubous dance inside the circle.

Most of the residents of the luxury co-op have purchased apartments that cost from about $500,000 to $1.3 million. Like thousands of others who have moved to Harlem during the past several years, the residents, among them lawyers, artists and financial industry employees, have come seeking large apartments that, while still expensive, are as much as one-third cheaper than in much of the rest of Manhattan.

Complaints about the drum circle began long before the co-op was built two years ago. In the past, however, if neighbors objected, the drummers simply found a new place in the park without engendering ill will, longtime residents said.

But since receiving noise complaints from the co-op last summer, the city’s parks department has relocated the drummers within the park twice.

The current location, not far from the co-op, is marked with a parks department sign that reads “Drummers Circle,” which is propped up by a pile of paving stones.

During a brief telephone conversation last month, Barry W. Segen, president of the co-op’s board, said that neither he nor any other residents would discuss the drummers.

A few minutes later, Mr. Segen sent residents an e-mail message titled “Urgent!!!” The message, which a resident later forwarded to The New York Times, read in part: “Please do not speak with the press on this issue. As we have determined in the past there is no benefit to the building or the community in speaking with the press.”

But some residents did speak, on the condition of anonymity. Most residents, they said, wanted to reach a compromise.

“Some people in the building don’t seem to understand the sensitive nature of what is going on here,” one resident said in an e-mail message. “Our building is not united against the drummers, and many of us think it is important to respect the drummers’ rights as residents of Harlem, and as musicians who are an important part of the Mount Morris community and who are practicing something they feel passionately about.”

Sylvester Wise, 68, a sociology professor who is one of the few black residents at 2002 Fifth Avenue, said some of his neighbors had called the police to complain about the drummers and become involved in arguments with them. While acknowledging that the drumming can be loud, he said the sound “adds flavor” to the neighborhood.

“There have been times when the drums have been annoying, but it’s a cultural thing,” said Professor Wise, whose penthouse apartment overlooking the park is filled with African-inspired prints and sculpture.

Last October, an e-mail message was sent to residents from the address of one of the co-op’s residents. “Why don’t we just get nooses for everyone of those lowlifes and hang them from a tree? They’re used to that kind of treatment anyway!” read the message, a copy of which was provided to The Times.

It added: “I hope you all agree that the best thing that has happened to Harlem is gentrification. Let’s get rid of these ‘people’ and improve the neighborhood once and for all.”

Professor Wise filed a complaint with the police about the e-mail message and other incidents he believed were forms of harassment, but he said he was told by a detective that there was little the police could do. Last week, the Police Department’s press office did not respond to a request for additional information about the matter.

(The resident with the e-mail address from which the message was sent did not return calls seeking comment. Other residents said he told people that he had not sent the message, and that his computer had been hacked into).

State Senator Bill Perkins, who represents the area and has tried to mediate the dispute, said many of the co-op’s residents were new to Harlem and unaccustomed to the neighborhood’s vigorous — and often loud — street life.

“I think it is part of the change drama in Harlem, which manifests itself in a number of ways,” Mr. Perkins said. “This is part of folk learning to live together.”

    Old Sound in Harlem Draws New Neighbors’ Ire, NYT, 6.7.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/nyregion/06drummers.html?hp






The South Will Fall Again


July 1, 2008
The New York Times



THE interim between the primaries and the parties’ nominating conventions is, according to ancient writ, a fertile period for presidential campaigns to talk about how they plan to expand the political map in the fall. This year is no different. Barack Obama’s strategists are suggesting that the first African-American presidential nominee of a major political party can parlay increased turnout among black voters into a string of victories in the South.

Given that roughly half of all African-Americans live in the 11 former Confederate states, the idea seems intuitive enough. It’s also wrong. Prying Southern electoral votes away from the Republicans is not so simple.

Two pervasive and persistent myths about racial voting in the modern South are behind the notion that Mr. Obama might win in places like Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi.

The first myth is that African-American turnout in the South is low. Black voters are actually well represented in the Southern electorate: In the 11 states of the former Confederacy, African-Americans were 17.9 percent of the age-eligible population and 17.9 percent of actual voters in 2004, analysis of Census Bureau data shows.

And when socioeconomic status is held constant, black voters go to the polls at higher rates than white voters in the South. In other words, a 40-year-old African-American plumber making $60,000 a year is, on average, more likely to vote than a white man of similar background.

The second myth is that Democratic presidential candidates fare better in Southern states that have large numbers of African-Americans. In fact, the reverse is true, because the more blacks there are in a Southern state, the more likely the white voters are to vote Republican.

Mississippi, the state with the nation’s highest percentage of African-Americans in its population, illustrates how difficult Mr. Obama’s task will be in the South. Four years ago, President Bush beat John Kerry there by 20 points. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Mr. Obama could increase black turnout in Mississippi to 39 percent of the statewide electorate, up from 34 percent in 2004, according to exit polls. And let’s assume that Mr. Obama will win 95 percent of those voters, up from the 90 percent who voted for Mr. Kerry four years ago.

If that happened, the black vote would yield Mr. Obama 37 percent of Mississippi’s statewide votes. To get the last 13 percent he needs for a majority, Mr. Obama would need to persuade a mere 21 percent of white voters in Mississippi to support him. Sounds easy, right?

But only 14 percent of white voters in the state supported Mr. Kerry. Mr. Obama would need to increase that number by 7 percentage points — a 50 percent increase. Mr. Obama struggled to attract white Democrats in states like Ohio and South Dakota. It strains credulity to believe that he will attract three white voters in Mississippi for every two that Mr. Kerry did.

Keep in mind that this analysis (and the speculation that Mr. Obama will generate unprecedented black turnout in the South) does not consider the possibility that white voter turnout will rise, too. Passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act led to an upsurge in black voting in the South, but it also caused many white Southerners to register and vote as well — for the Republicans.

Granted, Mr. Obama’s campaign isn’t counting on Mississippi. What about Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, the three states that are routinely cited as new possibilities for the Democratic column this fall?

Mr. Obama can write off Georgia and North Carolina for the same reasons that Mississippi is beyond his reach — although the math in those two states is slightly less daunting. Virginia, however, is the one Southern state that Mr. Obama has a reasonable chance of winning. And it’s precisely because the home of Robert E. Lee, as NBC News’s political director, Chuck Todd, has suggested, is seceding from the Confederacy.

The demographic makeup of the electorate in Virginia is unlike that of any other state in the South. The black population in Virginia is, as a percentage, among the lowest in the region. And during the last two decades, the state has also experienced a huge influx of upscale non-Southerners, who have taken over the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia. (Florida is a perennial target for similar reasons. With a relatively small black population, a big Hispanic voting bloc and a large contingent of relocated retirees from the North, it is the least Southern of the Southern states.)

In the rest of the South, Mr. Obama cannot overcome reality. Even if unprecedented numbers of black voters turn out to vote for him, the white vote will serve as a formidable counterbalance. Mr. Obama should not hope to capture states in the country’s most racially polarized region.

Thomas F. Schaller, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is the author of “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South.”

    The South Will Fall Again, NYT, 1.7.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/01/opinion/01schaller.html






Black Americans

on long road to political equality


Mon Jun 30, 2008
9:35am EDT
By Matthew Bigg


ATLANTA (Reuters) - For black Americans, the road to political inclusion that has allowed Democratic candidate Barack Obama to make a serious bid for the White House has been long and difficult.

After the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in 1863, a series of laws and amendments to the U.S. constitution allowed Hiram Revels to be elected to the senate in 1870 in Mississippi as the country's first African American congressman.

But only a small number of black Americans have entered the U.S. senate or become state governors since then and most of those who have found a slot on a presidential ticket had no chance of winning.

The most unlikely black American on a presidential ticket was Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, Douglass taught himself to read, illegal for blacks at the time, fought a slave master and was repeatedly whipped.

He escaped to New York in 1838, where he became a prominent lecturer, newspaper publisher and a spokesman for the abolition of slavery and for women's rights.

His autobiography became a bestseller and he advised President Abraham Lincoln during the civil war and delivered a stirring eulogy at Lincoln's funeral.

But when Victoria Woodhull ran for president for the Equal Rights Party in 1872 and named Douglass as her vice-presidential candidate, Douglass, who supported incumbent President Ulysses Grant, never acknowledged that he was on Woodhull's ticket and never campaigned on his own behalf.

"It was a publicity stunt to generate attention to some for the issues she believed in," said Eric Foner, a leading expert on the period.


In the decades after the end of the civil war, two black Americans were elected to the U.S. Senate before a series of laws ushered in an era of disenfranchisement, segregation and lynchings, all of which stifled black political participation.

In 1932, 1936 and 1940, James Ford, a labor organizer, ran as the Communist Party's vice-presidential candidate. Though the party gained less than 1 percent of the vote in 1932, some blacks including prominent intellectuals were attracted to its commitment to end racial discrimination as part of the drive for equality for all oppressed workers.

Until that point, most Americans would have laughed off the idea of a black presidential bid as far-fetched.

But a change started when, in the teeth of violent opposition, the civil rights movement set winning the right for blacks to vote in the South as a goal. After landmark acts in 1964 and 1965, blacks were able to vote in large numbers.

Eldridge Cleaver, a leader of the militant Black Power movement, ran for president in 1968 on a pro-civil rights, anti-Vietnam War platform. The same year, comedian and activist Dick Gregory ran for president for the Freedom and Peace Party, which had broken off from Cleaver's Peace and Freedom Party.

That year, Charlene Mitchell, another communist, became the first African American woman on a presidential ballot -- she ran in two states.

Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, was also the first African American to vie for a major party's nomination, attempting to become the Democratic party's candidate for president in 1972.

"With her, it was something of a symbolic political exercise that people, including blacks, didn't think was possible," said Lee Edwards, presidential historian at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank.

"People were not seriously thinking that Chisholm ... could become president," Edwards said.


Rev. Jesse Jackson, who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King for civil rights, won primary elections in five states during his 1984 bid for the Democratic nomination and in at least 11 states in a repeat bid in 1988, when he was briefly considered the front-runner.

"My first run was to put the civil rights agenda, the structure of equality agenda, on the front burner," Jackson said in an interview. "It broke a cultural barrier".

Jackson set his own bids in the context of a process that began in 1954 with a landmark Supreme Court decision on public school desegregation that laid the groundwork for democratic equality and civil rights.

Obama was "running the final lap of a marathon" that had lasted for decades, Jackson said.

He said political access for minorities was already entrenched whether Obama won or not, an argument partly backed up by the increasing number of black Americans who have run for president in recent elections.

Activist Lenora Fulani was the first black woman to have her name on the ballot in 50 states at the 1988 election. Alan Keyes ran for the Republican nomination in 1996 and in 2000.

Rev. Al Sharpton campaigned for the Democratic nomination for the 2004 presidential election, a campaign in which Sen. Carol Moseley Braun was also briefly a candidate.

While none has matched Obama's prominence, he is not the only black candidate in 2008. Cynthia McKinney, an African American former congresswoman from Georgia, is the Green Party's presumptive nominee.

(Editing by Michael Christie and Eddie Evans)

    Black Americans on long road to political equality, R, 30.6.2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSN1735279520080630







Black U.S. senators and governors


Sun Jun 29, 2008
9:41pm EDT


(Reuters) - Democratic candidate Barack Obama is the first black American with a serious shot at becoming U.S. president. He is also the country's fifth black senator.

The following list of African American senators and governors can be divided into two parts -- during the so called Reconstruction era that followed the civil war and a second period after a landmark voting act in 1965:



Hiram Revels -- elected in 1870 to the U.S. Senator as a Republican from Mississippi, where there was a black majority after the civil war. Served until 1871.

Blanche Bruce -- elected in 1875 as a Republican from Mississippi. Served until 1881.


Edward Brooke -- A Massachusetts Republican, served between 1967 and 1979.

Carol Moseley Braun -- An Illinois Democratic senator between 1993 and 1999.

Barack Obama -- Became the junior senator from Illinois in 2005.



Pinckney Pinchback - served as Republican governor of Louisiana for 35 days starting in December 1872 after the previous governor was impeached.


Douglas Wilder - a Democrat, he served one term as governor of Virginia from 1990. He was the country's first elected black governor.

Deval Patrick - was elected Democratic governor of Massachusetts in 2006.

David Paterson - the lieutenant governor of New York became Democratic governor in March when Eliot Spitzer resigned because of a sex scandal.

(Compiled by Matthew Bigg in Atlanta; Editing by Michael Christie)

    FACTBOX: Black U.S. senators and governors, R, 29.6.2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSN2044253720080630?virtualBrandChannel=10112






Obama Calls

for More Responsibility

From Black Fathers


June 16, 2008
The New York Times


CHICAGO — Addressing a packed congregation at one of the city’s largest black churches, Senator Barack Obama on Sunday invoked his own absent father to deliver a sharp message to black men, saying “we need fathers to recognize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception.”

In an address that was striking for its bluntness and where he chose to give it, Mr. Obama directly addressed one of the most delicate topics confronting black leaders: how much responsibility absent fathers bear for some of the intractable problems afflicting black Americans. Mr. Obama noted that “more than half of all black children live in single-parent households,” a number that he said had doubled since his own childhood.

“Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Mr. Obama said to a chorus of approving murmurs from the audience. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

Accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, who sat in the front pew, Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, laid out his case in stark terms that would be difficult for a white candidate to make, telling the mostly black audience not to “just sit in the house watching ‘SportsCenter,’ ” and to stop praising themselves for mediocre accomplishments.

“Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation,” he said, bringing many members of the congregation to their feet, applauding. “You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.”

His themes have also been sounded by the comedian Bill Cosby, who has stirred debate among black Americans by bluntly speaking about an epidemic of fatherlessness in African-American families while suggesting that some blacks use racism as a crutch to explain the lack of economic progress.

Mr. Obama did not take his Father’s Day message to Trinity United Church of Christ, where he resigned as a member in May after a series of disputes over controversial remarks by the church’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Instead, he chose the 20,000-member Apostolic Church of God, a vast brick structure on the South Side near Lake Michigan. The church’s pastor, Byron Brazier, is an Obama supporter.

The address was not Mr. Obama’s first foray into the issue. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama has frequently returned to the topic of parenting and personal responsibility, particularly for low-income black families. Speaking in Texas in February, Mr. Obama told the mostly black audience to take responsibility for the education and nutrition of their children, and lectured them for feeding their children “cold Popeyes” for breakfast.

“I know how hard it is to get kids to eat properly,” Mr. Obama said at the time.

The remarks Sunday were Mr. Obama’s first since he claimed the nomination that have addressed the problems confronting blacks in a comprehensive and straightforward way. While Mr. Obama’s remarks were directed at a black, churchgoing audience, his campaign hopes they resonate among white social conservatives in a race where these voters may be up for grabs.

On Friday, Mr. Obama said he would co-sponsor a bill, with Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, that his campaign said would address the “national epidemic of absentee fathers.” If passed, the legislation would increase enforcement of child support payments and strengthen services for domestic violence prevention.

“We need families to raise our children,” he said at the service on Sunday. “We need fathers to recognize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception. That doesn’t just make you a father. What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child. Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”

Mr. Obama spoke of the burden that single parenthood placed on his mother, who raised him with the help of his maternal grandparents.

“I know the toll it took on me, not having a father in the house,” he continued. “The hole in your heart when you don’t have a male figure in the home who can guide you and lead you. So I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle — that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father to my children.”

But Mr. Obama also acknowledged his own flaws as a father, citing the breakneck schedule of the campaign and the rare days he spends with his children.

“I say this knowing that I have been an imperfect father,” he said, “knowing that I have made mistakes and I’ll continue to make more, wishing that I could be home for my girls and my wife more than I am right now.”

Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and an Obama supporter, said he welcomed not only the message the speech sent to black Americans, but also how it laid bare Mr. Obama’s own struggles growing up and, now, as the father of two children.

“I have been saying for some time now that he needs to talk more about his life experiences and what it means to be raised by a single mother,” Mr. Clyburn said. “He opened up.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton called the remarks on absent black fathers “courageous and important,” but cautioned that Mr. Obama’s words would not be embraced by all segments of the black community.

“There are a lot of those who will say that he should not be airing dirty laundry, those that will say he’s beating up on the victims,” Mr. Sharpton said in a telephone interview. “This will not be something that will be unanimously applauded, but I think that not discussing it is not going to make it go away.”

The Obama campaign added the speech to Mr. Obama’s schedule on Saturday, when he returned to Chicago after a campaign swing through Pennsylvania and Ohio. Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, took the day off from campaigning, but met privately in Washington with Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister.

The church did not publicize Mr. Obama’s visit in advance, and carried no mention of it on the its Web site.

But word had clearly gotten out, and by 11 a.m., as a musician warmed up on the timpani, thousands of people had filed through metal detectors at the church entrance and filled the pews, saving seats for latecomers with pocketbooks and hymnals. Even those who arrived an hour before the service milled around the church searching for empty seats.

Mr. Obama sprinkled his roughly 30-minute address with moments of levity. He said that when he asked his wife why Mother’s Day produced so much more “hoopla” than Father’s Day, she reminded him of his special status.

“She said, ‘Let me tell you, every day is Father’s Day,’ ” he said. “ ‘Every day you’re getting away with something. You’re running for president.’ ”

Michael Falcone contributed reporting from Washington.

    Obama Calls for More Responsibility From Black Fathers, NYT, 16.6.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/16/us/politics/16obama.html







Politics and Race: History Lessons


June 13, 2008
The New York Times


To the Editor:

Re “It’s a Different Country” (column, June 9):

Paul Krugman notes the speed at which the country appears to be changing racial attitudes that we once thought unchangeable.

But the current change has a history. Together with the work of the civil rights movement and the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the peaceful desegregation of the public schools of the South played a pivotal role in the transformation of America that made the presidential nomination of Barack Obama possible.

It is a historical fact, although it does not fit the conventional narrative concerning Richard M. Nixon, that Nixon was president in 1970 when the desegregation of the greatest number of public school students since Brown — indeed, the greatest number ever — took place.

For the skeptical, this is what Tom Wicker, a distinguished Southern liberal and former New York Times columnist, said in his book “One of Us”:

“Nixon was not a crusader, a liberator, or a visionary. He was a politician who had to enforce the law, and did, with the least possible outcry and upset — to his own prospects as well as to Southern society and national unity. That does not make Nixon a hero; it was only what he was elected to do. It does make him a president — for the ‘great purposes’ of 1970, if not for the long future, the right president at the right time.”

Leonard Garment
New York, June 9, 2008

The writer was special assistant and counsel to President Nixon.

To the Editor:

Paul Krugman rightly points out many factors in the lessening of the racial divide in this country. I would like to add one development that he did not mention.

I am a white woman, born in New York City in 1932. During the formative decades of my life, I saw black people only in menial positions. Gradually I came to see African-American doctors, lawyers, mayors, governors, members of the Supreme Court, secretaries of state.

This has prepared me to accept — and, in the person of Senator Barack Obama, to welcome — the idea of an African-American as president.

Barbara Meister
New York, June 9, 2008

To the Editor:

I wish I could see the evidence to support Paul Krugman’s feelings of less racial polarization in America. But it has been shown in study after study that America’s public schools are resegregating to levels of the late 1960s.

This huge public school resegregation reflects hostility and resistance to “forced” integration and also mirrors America’s entrenched racial residential patterns.

Whites by and large still live in Whitelandia, and even as many blacks escaped the urban ghettos, they were resegregated in mostly black suburbs because of racial steering, outright discrimination and white flight.

The prospects of ever achieving meaningful and systemic public school integration is further reduced and complicated by societal-based hostility to affirmative action and such court-ordered remedies as busing.

Indeed, the courts have largely abandoned once effective judicial decrees that forced integration of the schools and that might have overcome exclusionary zoning and other causes of residential segregation.

Unfortunately, intense skin-color discrimination, casual stereotyping, intense fear of blacks, and black and white isolation are still very prevalent in America.

Michael Meyers
Executive Director
New York Civil Rights Coalition
New York, June 9, 2008

To the Editor:

Paul Krugman suggests that the United States has been sufficiently transformed that political candidates are unlikely to resort to efforts at racial division.

Yet just last month, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of her support among “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”

Mr. Krugman says, “I don’t think a politician today could get away with running the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad.” But in Wisconsin, it was just such a television ad that in April helped unseat an African-American justice of the State Supreme Court (“Rendering Justice, With One Eye on Re-election,” front page, May 25).

We should all hope for the transformation Mr. Krugman sees reflected in Barack Obama’s victory. But it is clear that many candidates have not moved beyond the politics of racial division.

Kathy A. Rogers
Whitefish Bay, Wis., June 9, 2008

    Politics and Race: History Lessons, NYT, 13.6.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/13/opinion/l13krugman.html






Op-Ed Columnist

It’s a Different Country


June 9, 2008
The New York Times


Fervent supporters of Barack Obama like to say that putting him in the White House would transform America. With all due respect to the candidate, that gets it backward. Mr. Obama is an impressive speaker who has run a brilliant campaign — but if he wins in November, it will be because our country has already been transformed.

Mr. Obama’s nomination wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. It’s possible today only because racial division, which has driven U.S. politics rightward for more than four decades, has lost much of its sting.

And the de-racialization of U.S. politics has implications that go far beyond the possibility that we’re about to elect an African-American president. Without racial division, the conservative message — which has long dominated the political scene — loses most of its effectiveness.

Take, for example, that old standby of conservatives: denouncing Big Government. Last week John McCain’s economic spokesman claimed that Barack Obama is President Bush’s true fiscal heir, because he’s “dedicated to the recent Bush tradition of spending money on everything.”

Now, the truth is that the Bush administration’s big-spending impulses have been largely limited to defense contractors. But more to the point, the McCain campaign is deluding itself if it thinks this issue will resonate with the public.

For Americans have never disliked Big Government in general. In fact, they love Social Security and Medicare, and strongly approve of Medicaid — which means that the three big programs that dominate domestic spending have overwhelming public support.

If Ronald Reagan and other politicians succeeded, for a time, in convincing voters that government spending was bad, it was by suggesting that bureaucrats were taking away workers’ hard-earned money and giving it to you-know-who: the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks, the welfare queen driving her Cadillac. Take away the racial element, and Americans like government spending just fine.

But why has racial division become so much less important in American politics?

Part of the credit surely goes to Bill Clinton, who ended welfare as we knew it. I’m not saying that the end of Aid to Families With Dependent Children was an unalloyed good thing; it created a great deal of hardship. But the “bums on welfare” played a role in political discourse vastly disproportionate to the actual expense of A.F.D.C., and welfare reform took that issue off the table.

Another large factor has been the decline in urban violence.

As the historian Rick Perlstein documents in his terrific new book “Nixonland,” America’s hard right turn really began in 1966, when the Democrats suffered a severe setback in Congress — and Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California.

The cause of that right turn, as Mr. Perlstein shows, was white fear of urban disorder — and the associated fear that fair housing laws would let dangerous blacks move into white neighborhoods. “Law and order” became the rallying cry of right-wing politicians, above all Richard Nixon, who rode that fear right into the White House.

But during the Clinton years, for reasons nobody fully understands, the wave of urban violence receded, and with it the ability of politicians to exploit Americans’ fear.

It’s true that 9/11 gave the fear factor a second wind: Karl Rove accusing liberals of being soft on terrorism sounded just like Spiro Agnew accusing liberals of being soft on crime. But the G.O.P.’s credibility as America’s defender has leaked away into the sands of Iraq.

Let me add one more hypothesis: although everyone makes fun of political correctness, I’d argue that decades of pressure on public figures and the media have helped drive both overt and strongly implied racism out of our national discourse. For example, I don’t think a politician today could get away with running the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad.

Unfortunately, the campaign against misogyny hasn’t been equally successful.

By the way, it was during the heyday of the baby boom generation that crude racism became unacceptable. Mr. Obama, who has been dismissive of the boomers’ “psychodrama,” might want to give the generation that brought about this change, fought for civil rights and protested the Vietnam War a bit more credit.

Anyway, none of this guarantees an Obama victory in November. Racial division has lost much of its sting, but not all: you can be sure that we’ll be hearing a lot more about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and all that. Moreover, despite Hillary Clinton’s gracious, eloquent concession speech, some of her supporters may yet refuse to support the Democratic nominee.

But if Mr. Obama does win, it will symbolize the great change that has taken place in America. Racial polarization used to be a dominating force in our politics — but we’re now a different, and better, country.

    It’s a Different Country, NYT, 9.6.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/09/opinion/09krugman.html?ref=opinion






Many Blacks Find Hope and Joy

in an Unexpected Breakthrough


June 5, 2008
The New York Times


Kwabena Sam-Brew, a 38-year-old immigrant from Ghana, doubted that Nana, his 5-year-old American-born daughter, would remember the rally that effectively crowned Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee Tuesday night.

But Mr. Sam-Brew said he would describe it to her: “I will tell her, ‘Tonight is the night that all Americans became one.’ ”

Mr. Sam-Brew, a bus driver living in Cottage Grove, Minn., said Mr. Obama’s achievement would change the nation’s image around the world, and change the mind-set of Americans, too.

“We as black people now have hope that we have never, ever had,” Mr. Sam-Brew said. “I have new goals for my little girl. She can’t give me any excuses because she’s black.”

In his remarks Tuesday, Mr. Obama did not mention becoming the first American of color with a real chance at being president of the United States, and, of course, most of the Democrats who had voted for him were white. But for that very reason, many African-Americans exulted Wednesday in a political triumph that they believed they would never live to see. Many expressed hope that their children would draw strength from the moment.

“Not that we’re so distraught, but our children need to be able to see a black adult as a leader for the country, so they can know we can reach for those same goals,” said Wilhelmina Brown, 54, an account representative for U.S. Bank in St. Paul. “We don’t need to give up at a certain level.”

Alison Kane, a white 34-year-old transportation analyst from Edina, Minn., said Mr. Obama’s success as a biracial politician would have a similar effect on her 21-month-old biracial daughter, Hawa.

“When she’s out in, God knows where, some small town in rural America, they’ll think, ‘Oh, I know someone like you. Our president is like you,’ ” Ms. Kane said. “That just opens minds for people, to have someone to relate to. And that makes me feel better, as a mom.”

But pride — in Mr. Obama and in white voters who had looked beyond race, in the view of many blacks — was tempered for many African-Americans by an unsettling concern. There remains a fear that race, which loomed large in some primaries and has previously been successfully employed as a political wedge by Republicans, might yet keep Mr. Obama from capturing the White House.

“People hate black people,” said Michella Minter, a black 21-year-old student in Huntington, W.Va., referring to persistent racism in the United States.

“I’m not trying to be racist or over the top but it is seriously apparent that black people aren’t valued in this country,” Ms. Minter said. “In the last 12 months, six kids were being tried for attempted murder for a school fight, an unarmed man got 51 bullets in his body by a New York police officer, died, and no one was charged, and endless other racist unknown acts have occurred this year.”

(In fact, three New York City detectives were charged in the shooting of Sean Bell, killed in a hail of police bullets on his wedding day in 2006, and were acquitted.)

Mr. Obama’s moment seemed to unite blacks across the political spectrum, even those who had no intention of voting for a Democrat for president.

For example, Ward Connerly, a conservative anti-affirmative-action crusader and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute, watched a replay of the announcement of Mr. Obama’s victory on Fox News early Wednesday “and I choked up,” he said. “He did it by his own achievement. Nobody gave it to him.”

Mr. Connerly expressed hope that Mr. Obama’s rise would boost his own efforts to end affirmative action.

“The entire argument for race preferences is that society is institutionally racist and institutionally sexist, and you need affirmative action to level the playing field,” Mr. Connerly said. “The historic success of Senator Obama, as well as Senator Clinton, dismantles that argument.”

Mr. Obama has said that affirmative-action programs should become “a diminishing tool” in achieving racial equality, and has asked blacks to understand why such programs might engender resentment among whites, suggesting that poor white children also need a boost. Although he did not cast his victory in racial terms on Tuesday, he acknowledged on Wednesday that it might be having an effect on other African-Americans.

“Probably the most powerful story I heard was today at a conference, a woman came up to me,” he said in an interview on NBC News. “She said her son teaches in an inner-city school in San Francisco and said that he has seen a change in behavior among the young African-American boys there in terms of how they think about their studies. And, you know, so those are the kinds of things that I think make you appreciate that it’s not about you as an individual. But it’s about our country and the progress we’ve made.”

Thus far, Mr. Obama’s appeal has extended across racial lines, though to win in November he must do better in gaining the votes of white women and white working-class voters, whom he lost in Appalachia.

Yet on Tuesday, Ann Robb, a 61-year-old white school teacher from Terra Alta, W.Va. said he had won her support.

“I would’ve supported Hillary Clinton but something about Obama makes me believe again,” Ms. Robb said.

That spirit, however long it lasts, already has left some African-Americans more optimistic than they have ever been about race relations in America.

“You can never change everybody’s minds, but it is going to help a lot,” said Mr. Sam-Brew, the bus driver, referring to Mr. Obama’s victory and the enduring resistance among some white voters to black leaders.

In Harlem on Wednesday, Hector Garcia, an African-American who manages Pee Dee Steak II, a restaurant on 125th Street, said the symbolism of Mr. Obama’s victory had not sunk in until he headed to work in the morning, when he saw the excitement it had produced.

The driver of an M102 bus chatted about it with a passenger. The owner of a hair salon and eyeglass store stopped Mr. Garcia on the sidewalk. And his customers were buzzing about it over their $6.99 steak.

“A lot of people think things will be different for the black community now,” said Mr. Garcia, 48, who supported Mrs. Clinton and has a photo of her on his wall. “It’s great.”

Ronald Jeffers, who gets a good beat on Harlem’s pulse handing out fliers under the marquee of the Apollo Theater, said he heard passers-by buzzing about Mr. Obama’s victory.

“I think it’s a monumental step,” said Mr. Jeffers, 55, who said he had been friends with Malcolm X and other leaders.

The nomination is especially significant for Harlem’s children, he said, because “if they see this, they will think it’s something they can do.”

“Otherwise,” Mr. Jeffers said, “they look up to rappers.”

Jackie Almond, who cuts hair at the Pizazz Salon and Spa on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, said she was on the phone when she learned of the victory and broke into screams.

“I was like, ‘aaaahhhh,’ ” she said. “Never in a million years would I have thought this was possible.”

Contributing reporting were Christina Capecchi from St. Paul, Brenda Goodman from Atlanta, C. J. Hughes from New York and Cynthia McCloud from West Virginia.

    Many Blacks Find Hope and Joy in an Unexpected Breakthrough, NYT, 5.6.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/05/us/politics/05race.html






In the South,

a Force to Challenge the G.O.P.


May 16, 2008
The New York Times


NEW ORLEANS — The sharp surge in black turnout that Senator Barack Obama has helped to generate in recent primaries and Congressional races could signal a threat this fall to the longtime Republican dominance of the South, according to politicians and voting experts.

Should Mr. Obama become the Democratic nominee, he would still have to struggle for white swing voters in the South and in border states like West Virginia, where he lost decisively to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in Tuesday’s presidential primary. In West Virginia, where more than three-fourths of white voters chose Mrs. Clinton, 20 percent of the white voters said the race of the candidate mattered in their choice.

But in Southern states with large black populations, like Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia, an energized black electorate could create a countervailing force, particularly if conservative white voters choose not to flock to Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, predicts “the largest black turnout in the history of the United States” this fall if Mr. Obama is the nominee.

To hold these states, Republicans may have to work harder than ever. Already, turnout in Democratic primaries this year has substantially exceeded Republican turnout in states like Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Some analysts suggest that North Carolina and Virginia may even be within reach for the Democratic nominee, and they point to the surprising result in a Congressional special election in Mississippi this week as an indicator of things to come.

With the strong support of black voters, a conservative white Democrat, Travis W. Childers, scored an upset victory in that race, in a district held by Republicans since 1995. Kelvin Buck, a black state representative who helped the Childers campaign, said he saw a “level of enthusiasm and energy” that he had not seen before from black voters — significantly motivated, he said, by a recent Republican anti-Obama campaign.

The numbers appear to bear that out. In one black precinct in the town of Amory, Miss., the number of voters nearly doubled, to 413, from the Congressional election in 2006, and this for a special election with nothing else on the ballot. Meanwhile, in a nearby white precinct, the number of voters dropped by nearly half.

A similar increase has been evident in Southern states with presidential primaries this year. In South Carolina, the black vote in the primary more than doubled from 2004, to 295,000, according to exit poll estimates. In Georgia, it rose to 536,000 from 289,000.

One expert on African-American politics, David A. Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, called those numbers “almost astounding.” Black turnout also shot up in states like Maryland, Virginia and Louisiana, even after Hurricane Katrina had driven many Louisianians out of state.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “This is going to encourage the purplization of red states. It’s going to make red states purplish over time.”

Black voters made up a larger percentage of Democratic primary voters this year in several states than in the last two presidential election years, according to exit polls conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for the National Election Pool of television networks and The Associated Press this year and in 2004, and by the Voter News Service in 2000. In Maryland, for example, black voters rose to 47 percent of the total, up from 35 percent in 2004 and 28 percent in 2000.

Ronald W. Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, who worked for the 1984 presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said of Mr. Obama, “He’s generated a tremendous force in American political culture outside the electoral system.”

Still, it would take a shift in the electoral dynamic — a substantial stumble by John McCain, for instance — for Mr. Obama to put in play a state like Mississippi, where whites gave John Kerry only about 15 percent of their vote in 2004 and where voting in presidential elections is perhaps more racially polarized than anywhere else in the nation. Even with a heavy black turnout, Mr. Bositis estimated, Mr. Obama would have to increase his white percentage by at least a third, to about 20 percent, to win the state.

“I don’t anticipate him winning Mississippi,” Mr. Bositis said, even though it has a higher percentage of blacks than any other state, 36 percent.

Many of the votes on Tuesday for Mr. Childers — an anti-abortion, pro-gun-rights Democrat — were from whites who will in all likelihood pull the lever for Mr. McCain in November, analysts and voters themselves say.

“Obama, he’s too off-the-wall,” said Chappell Sides, a white Republican-leaning voter in Yalobusha County who said he was preparing to punch the button for Mr. Childers on Tuesday. “Hillary — I thought I hated her, till Obama came along.”

Bruce Oppenheimer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said the question was not so much whether Mr. Obama would carry Mississippi as whether he would force Republicans to spend time and money in the state.

Yet one sure lesson of the surprising Congressional result from northern Mississippi is that the use of Mr. Obama as an electoral tactic — Republicans resorted to it heavily in the contest — is at best a double-edged sword. At worst it is a guillotine for Republican candidates in areas with substantial black populations, like the Mississippi district won by Mr. Childers, where 26 percent are African-American. Indeed, Tuesday’s Mississippi vote emerged as a case study in the effects and consequences of focusing on Mr. Obama.

“We realized the Republican machine was on the attack,” said Mr. Buck, the state representative who helped Mr. Childers. “They wanted to say he was tied to Barack Obama. The question we asked was, What’s wrong with that? We wanted to prove to them that there’s nothing wrong in Mississippi with a person being tied to Barack Obama.”

Between an initial vote on April 22, when Mr. Childers fell just shy of getting the 50 percent he needed to win, and Tuesday’s runoff election, when he won with a decisive 54 percent, the Republican campaign to link Mr. Childers with Mr. Obama intensified, with a barrage of advertisements specifically on that theme. Perhaps not coincidentally, vote totals in counties with large black populations went up sharply between those two dates. In Marshall County, which is 48.8 percent black, the votes nearly doubled, to 5,083. In Clay County, 56.8 black, nearly 1,500 more people voted, pushing the total to 3,898.

The attacks on Mr. Obama clearly had a galvanizing effect, local officials said. “The people I talked to said, ‘Man, I don’t like that they’re trying to use Obama against him,’ ” said Eric Powell, a black state senator who helped in voter turnout efforts. “It actually helped Travis.”

Adam Nossiter reported from New Orleans, and Janny Scott from New York.

    In the South, a Force to Challenge the G.O.P., NYT, 16.5.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/16/us/politics/16south.html







Racial Inequity and Drug Arrests


May 10, 2008
The New York Times


The United States prison system keeps marking shameful milestones. In late February, the Pew Center on the States released a report showing that more than 1 in 100 American adults are presently behind bars — an astonishingly high rate of incarceration notably skewed along racial lines. One in nine black men aged 20 to 34 are serving time, as are 1 in 36 adult Hispanic men.

Now, two new reports, by The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, have turned a critical spotlight on law enforcement’s overwhelming focus on drug use in low-income urban areas. These reports show large disparities in the rate at which blacks and whites are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses, despite roughly equal rates of illegal drug use.

Black men are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug convictions as adult white men, according to one haunting statistic cited by Human Rights Watch. Those who are not imprisoned are often arrested for possession of small quantities of drugs and later released — in some cases with a permanent stain on their records that can make it difficult to get a job or start a young person on a path to future arrests.

Similar concerns are voiced by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which issued a separate study of the outsized number of misdemeanor marijuana arrests among people of color in New York City.

Between 1980 and 2003, drug arrests for African-Americans in the nation’s largest cities rose at three times the rate for whites, a disparity “not explained by corresponding changes in rates of drug use,” The Sentencing Project finds. In sum, a dubious anti-drug strategy spawned amid the deadly crack-related urban violence of the 1980s lives on, despite changed circumstances, the existence of cost-saving alternatives to prison for low-risk offenders or the distrust of the justice system sowed in minority communities.

Nationally, drug-related arrests continue to climb. In 2006, those arrests totaled 1.89 million, according to federal data, up from 1.85 million in 2005, and 581,000 in 1980. More than four-fifths of the arrests were for possession of banned drugs, rather than for their sale or manufacture. Underscoring law enforcement’s misguided priorities, fully 4 in 10 of all drug arrests were for marijuana possession. Those who favor continuing these policies have not met their burden of proving their efficacy in fighting crime. Nor have they have persuasively justified the yawning racial disparities.

All is not gloomy. Many states have begun expanding their use of drug treatment as an alternative to prison. New York’s historic crime drop has continued even as it has begun to reduce the number of nonviolent drug offenders in prison, attesting to the oft-murky relationship between incarceration and crime control. In December, the United States Sentencing Commission amended the federal sentencing guidelines to begin to lower the disparities between the sentences imposed for crack cocaine, which is more often used by blacks, and those imposed for the powder form of the drug.

The looming challenge, says Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is to have arrest and incarceration policies that are both effective for fighting crime and promoting racial justice and respect for the law. As the new findings attest, the nation has a long road to travel to attain that goal.

Racial Inequity and Drug Arrests, NYT, 10.5.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/10/opinion/10sat1.html




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