Quantcast

Melissa Harris-Perry | The Nation

  •  
Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry

 Race, gender, politics, religion and our struggles.

On Dorothy Height's Passing

On Tuesday Dorothy Height passed away at the age of 98. Her passage has evoked moving tributes by politicians, journalists, organizational leaders and ordinary citizens who were inspired and transformed by her decades of public work on behalf of racial equality.

For decades, Height led the National Council of Negro Women. She used her voice to advocate for African American women’s inclusion in higher education, corporate America, world politics and community leadership. She had the ear of American presidents and she used her role to speak for those whose voices and interests mostly went unheard. As president of Delta Sigma Theta, a national, historic, women’s service organization Height encouraged young women to follow her lead as organizers and servants of their communities.

Dorothy Height’s legacy was visible on the night Barack Obama was elected to the United States presidency. On that night he concluded his speech by discussing Ann Cooper, a 106-year old black woman whose life bore witness to the exceptional changes wrought in our country during the last century. Through her story, President Obama asked us to reconsider the American story through the eyes of black women and thereby challenged us to find a new American narrative that might emerge if we tell the story on their terms.

It was a moment that honored and bore the fruit of Dorothy Height’s decades of work to encourage American political leaders to make black women’s stories central to our national self understanding.

African American women historians like Darlene Clark Hine, Deborah Gray White, Elsa Barkley Brown, Barbara Ransby, Chana Kai Lee and Tera Hunter have taken up her call. Their work reveals the tensions in the American narrative when we read it through black women’s lives as slaves, sharecroppers, agricultural workers, laundresses, domestics, professionals and community organizers. Their texts force us to think about the difficult conditions that characterize black women's lives throughout most of American history. They also allow us to observe how African American women have fought to maintain dignity and humanity despite these conditions, and how they used organizing and collective effort to resist exploitation.

In contemporary America, black women have taken on many different roles. We have had a black woman serve as Secretary as State, one currently serves as the ambassador to the U.N. African American women own businesses anchor the nightly news, teach at prestigious universities, and live in the White House.

It is easy to look over this century and celebrate. But it remains important to be clear about the continuing realities of black women's lives. Black women still earn only a fraction of their white female and black male counterparts. African American women continue to suffer the highest divorce rates and are increasingly likely to never marry. This means that black mothers must often balance work and family out of strict economic necessity and with few social and emotional supports. Fewer than one quarter of African American women earn college degrees and black women continue to disproportionately the occupy lowest paid segments of the labor force.

In addition to these economic realities, African American women labor under internally and externally imposed stereotypes that link their human value to their productive value. They exist in a world where "welfare queens" and "baby-mamas" are common ways of characterizing black womanhood. The battle against these vicious stereotypes leads many black women to work themselves to physical illness and mental exhaustion in order to justify having a seat at the table.

Nearly every tribute this week referred to Dorothy Height as an icon. Icon is too staid and safe a characterization for Height and for the women who labor and organize in her spirit. “Icon” encourages us to remember the image of Height, her dignity, poise, and exceptional style. I prefer to remember Height by her voice. Hers was a voice speaking out when black women were silenced.

Two Virginias

Governor Robert McDonnell declared April Confederate History Month in Virginia. In his declaration Governor McDonnell called for Virginians to "understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War."

In his original declaration, McDonnell made no mention of slavery as a root cause for the Civil War. His insistence on remembering only "leaders, soldiers, and citizens" refuses to acknowledge the existence of black people in the South. There were some black soldiers who fought in the Confederate army, but the vast majority of African Americans contributed to the Confederate effort through the violently coerced, unpaid labor that was part and parcel of the their dehumanizing, totalizing, intergenerational, chattel bondage. McDonnell seems to believe that this reality is unworthy of remembrance.

It’s taken me nearly two days to respond to the Governor’s declaration of Confederate History Month and his flip erasure of black life, suffering, and struggle because this particular news story is profoundly personal.

On my father’s side we traced our family tree as far as we could follow it and discovered we are descended from an African woman sold into slavery on a corner in Richmond, Virginia. My father and his siblings grew up in the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond. They attended racially segregated schools. Despite being nearly starved for school resources by the state, my father and his twin brother became the first in the family to attend college. Both became college professors.

My uncle had a distinguished career as a student at the University of Virginia. My father went on to become the first Dean of African American Affairs at the University of Virginia in 1976.

I grew up in Virginia. I had social studies teachers who referred to the Civil War as “the war between the states” or “the war of Northern aggression.” My interracial family experienced harassment and abuse during the two decades we made our home in the Commonwealth. But Virginia is also the place where I made lifelong friends, found spiritual communities and was educated by many tough and loving teachers. I came to political consciousness in Virginia and distinctly remember listening to every word of Douglass Wilder’s inauguration address as the first black governor. I cheered on election night 2008 when Virginia turned blue just moments before Barack Obama’s presidential win was announced.

I share this personal history because it is not exceptional. Black Americans are, by and large, Southerners. Our roots, our stories, our lives, our struggles, our joys have a distinctly Southern flavor. Slavery and Jim Crow are part of our experience, but so are church picnics, HBCU football games and jazz music. There is no Black American history that is not deeply intertwined with Southern history. It is extraordinarily painful to watch an elected official in the 21st century engage in an act of willful and racist historical erasure of our very selves.

Virginia history is my history. Yet the story of the Confederacy that McDonnell seeks to propagate and profit from is unrecognizably alien.

There are two different ways that we can tell the Southern history of Virginia. One narrative is rooted in Virginia’s colonial past and centers on the contributions of Thomas Jefferson and other patriots who gave their talents and their lives to resist tyranny and craft the Union. Jeffersonian Virginia history is not free from the ugly stain of slavery. Jefferson was an enslaver. His great architectural contributions were made possible by the slave labor that built the majestic Monticello and the breathtaking University of Virginia. His intellectual and political contributions were undergirded by wealth generated by the forced labor of dozens of black men and women.

Yet Jeffersonian history is surprisingly transcendent. When Jefferson was faced with the task of declaring an independent nation he chose to write a document motivated by a nearly unimaginable claim of human equality.

 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

 

When Jefferson asserted the self-evident nature of human equality there were few things in the world less self-evident. Monarchy, feudalism, imperialism, slavery, rigid caste systems and profound inequality were the realities of the 18th century. But Jefferson wrote for our new nation a broad and sweeping document that was bigger than himself, greater than his own historical moment, and unconstrained by the realities of inequality. It audaciously asserted that the natural order rested in equality and self government. This document became a promissory note.

Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence did not bring a free and fair American into being. But it created a vision for a free and fair America that generations of social movements could point to as the nation’s promise. The Declaration of Independence required the nation to respond with social change when its citizens fought for greater equality.

As I child I lived in the shadow of Monticello. As a teen I lived on Jefferson Davis Highway, and there I discovered the other Virginia history. This is the Virginia history that is etched in the stony faces of confederate traitors who line Monument Avenue in Richmond. This narrative of Virginia laments the end of slavery, romanticizes traitorous action against the state and memorializes sedition. This history is built on a false and romantic notion of an imagined Confederate past that refuses to acknowledged the ways that slavery degraded not only black labor, but white labor; how it destroyed the land; and how it starved the region of innovation.

This is the history that Governor McDonnell is attempting to resurrect.

Without a hint of irony McDonnell suggested that he hopes to profit from Confederate inspired tourism. Clearly he hopes that the racial anxieties brewing in America will serve as a tourist boon for the former Confederate capital. Having profited for centuries from the forced labor of enslaved black Americans, Virginia seeks to further commodify black suffering in the 21st century. McDonnell is welcoming Rebel flag waving whites from rural Pennsylvania, downstate Illinois, and Southern California to come spend their money and steep themselves in Virginia past when white citizens, determined to keep black people as non-humans, fought back against the federal government.

Virginia has other histories that we can use to resist this false and frightening narrative. We must insist on remembering Jefferson's Virginia that called us to be better than ourselves, to defend freedom, and to hold together our union. We must remember the histories of all the black families like my own whose struggle and strength cannot be erased from Southern history.

Is this the Birth of a Nation?

In response to the imminent passage of health care reform protesters spat on Representative Emmanuel Cleaver. They hurled homophobic obscenities at Representative Barney Frank. They shouted racial slurs at Representative John Lewis.

Democratic leadership responded by marching to the Capitol in a scene that looked more like a 1960s demonstration than a morning commute for the majority party.

The attacks on black and gay members of Congress immediately mobilized lefty mainstream media. On Monday night both Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow drew parallels between the health care battle and the civil rights movement. I like, respect, and appear frequently on both programs, but I think both have missed the mark in their racial analysis.

Crafting a metaphor that connects the civil rights movement and the bigoted language of this weekend's protesters is seductive. It seems so obvious given that Representative John Lewis plays a critical role in both. A young Lewis was severely beaten 45 years ago when he tried to lead a group of brave citizens across the Edmund Pettus bridge in an effort to secure voting rights for black Americans.

This weekend he graciously rebuffed his detractors in a perfect example of nonviolent, direct resistance. Representative Lewis said he harbored no ill will against those who called him names and insisted that we are all citizens of this nation and that we must learn to live peacefully and respectfully together. It was the kind of response that makes Lewis a hero to many.

But there is a very important difference between Bloody Sunday of 1965 and Health Care Reform Sunday of 2010. In 1965 Lewis was a disenfranchised protester fighting to be recognized as a full citizen. When he was beaten by the police, he was being attacked by the state. In 2010 Lewis is a long time, elected representative. When he is attacked by protesters, he is himself an agent of the state. This difference is critically important; not because it changes the fact that racism is present in both moments, but because it radically alters the way we should understand the meaning of power, protest and race.

I often begin my political science courses with a brief introduction to the idea of "the state." The state is the entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, force and coercion. If an individual travels to another country and kills its citizens, we call it terrorism. If the state does it, we call it war. If a man kills his neighbor it is murder; if the state does it is the death penalty. If an individual takes his neighbor's money, it is theft; if the state does it, it is taxation.

To the extent that a state is challenged as the sole, legitimate owner of the tools of violence, force, and coercion, it is challenged at its core. This is why "state's rights" led to secession and Civil War. The legitimacy of the central state was challenged, then reestablished. It is also why the Civil Rights Movement was so powerful. The overt abuse of state power evidenced by the violence of Southern police called into question their foundational legitimacy. The federal government had to act or risk losing its authority as a state altogether.

Which leads us to March 2010.

The Tea Party is a challenge to the legitimacy of the U.S. state. When Tea Party participants charge the current administration with various forms of totalitarianism, they are arguing that this government has no right to levy taxes or make policy. Many GOP elected officials offered nearly secessionist rhetoric from the floor of Congress this weekend. They joined as co-conspirators with the Tea Party protesters by arguing that this government has no monopoly on legitimacy.

I appreciate the parallels to the civil rights movement drawn by the MSNBC crowd, but they are inadequate. When protesters spit on and scream at duly elected representatives of the United States government it is more than act of racism. It is an act of sedition.

John Lewis is no longer just a brave American fighting for the soul of his country- he is an elected official. He is an embodiment of the state.

Commentators and observers need to move their historical lens back a little further. The relevant comparison here is not the mid-20th century civil rights movement. The better analogy is the mid-19th century period of Reconstruction. From the end of the Civil War in 1865 until the unholy Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877, black Americans enjoyed a brief experiment with full citizenship and political power sharing.

During this decade black men voted, held office and organized as laborers and farmers. It was a fragile political equality made possible only by the determined and powerful presence of the federal government. Then in 1877 the federal government abdicated its responsibilities to new black citizens and withdrew from the South. When it did so it allowed local governments and racial terrorist organizations like the KKK to have the monopoly on violence, force and coercion in the South for nearly 100 years.

As I watch the rising tide of racial anxiety and secessionist sentiment I am not so much reminded of the Bloody Sunday protests as I am reminded of D.W. Griffith's Birth of Nation. This 1915 film depicts the racist imagination currently at work in our nation as a black president first appoints a Latina Supreme Court Justice and then works with a woman Speaker of the House to pass sweeping national legislation. This bigotry assumes no such government could possibly be legitimate and therefore frames resistance against this government as a patriotic responsibility.

There are historic lessons to be learned. But they are the lessons of the 19th century not the 20th. We must now guard against the end of our new Reconstruction and the descent of a vicious new Jim Crow terrorism.

Power in the Blood

The first chapter of W.E.B. Du Bois's classic 1903 text The Souls of Black Folk is titled "Of Our Spiritual Strivings." It begins by posing the dilemma of blackness in America this way: "between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question... How does it feel to be a problem?" Du Bois goes on to offer a history of America that arrives at a core spiritual striving for black people: the desire to be fully recognized citizens with equal franchise and unfettered opportunity to secure property and pursue human fulfillment.

Though Du Bois was an empirical social scientist with a somewhat ambivalent relationship to religion; he framed black political efforts as a spiritual yearning.

Today I am reminded of the connection between religious fervor and African American political efforts. March 7, 2010, is the 45th anniversary of the Selma voting rights demonstration, which has become known as Bloody Sunday. On Bloody Sunday, more than 600 non-violent protesters were attacked by local Alabama police who assaulted the crowd with tear gas and night sticks.

Bloody Sunday was the definitive turning point in the struggle for African American voting rights in the South. Just one week after the attack, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and called for passage of the what became the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As he argued for the bill, LBJ intoned, in his famous Texas accent, "we shall overcome." It was an act of solidarity and great courage. It was also an act of principled partisan recklessness that initiated the GOP's southern strategy and delivered the former Confederate states to Republican control.

The protesters and the president who stood with them were great American patriots who changed the country despite the unlikeliness of their alliance and the risks posed by their endeavors. For that, we remember them.

However, Bloody Sunday is more than an anniversary of heroic and political significance. The anniversary also evokes particular religious imagery that is meaningfully connected to the ways that African American religion and political efforts intersect.

Blood is a literal description of the battered bodies of demonstrators. Blood also harkens to a specifically Christian messianic tradition that designates the salvific and redemptive properties of unearned suffering willingly embraced for the good of others.

The black church is often cited as an interconnected element of African American politics. Sociologist Aldon Morris points to Southern, black, Protestant churches as key organizational resources for the civil rights movement. Political scientist Fred Harris argues that black Christianity contributes to political efficacy and activism by creating,“a sense of competence and resilience, inspiring them to believe in their own ability, with the assistance of an acknowledged sacred force.”

These observations about the structural and psychological resources of black, Christian traditions only capture part of the work of African American religiosity. Another element is more firmly rooted in the Christology itself, which claims a messianic role for those who suffer at the hands of the state.

This theological perspective puts the struggle for liberation at the center of both the historic ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and the experiences of black people in America. It pinpoints suffering, struggle, resistance and freedom as core elements of the Christian experience.

This theology explicitly links the cross to the lynching tree and perceives the historical torment of Jesus as directly tied to the contemporary brutality faced by black Americans.

I am not suggesting that only a specific Christology, available only to black Americans is capable of motivating social movement activity against injustice. The sacrifices of many liberal, white, Jewish Americans who were deeply committed to racial freedom struggles is evidence against any narrow claim. Many Jewish allies were harassed and beaten. Some were even murdered for their civil rights efforts. Though a black Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. was deeply affected by the spiritual teachings of the Gandhi's Hinduism and the Quaker pacifism of Bayard Rustin.

As a Unitarian Universalist I am not personally attached to a particular theological claim about Jesus as messiah. But I am emboldened by these claims as an African American woman who seeks to honor the legacy of black struggles for equality. In this sense I fully embrace and lean heavily on Jesus. I acknowledge and honor those who found in Jesus a representation of divine love that understood suffering and embraced those who were trampled by the powerful.

Whatever our religious commitments, it is worth pausing for a moment on this day to honor those who did, so recently and so willingly, spill blood as a sacrifice for our collective good. Bloody Sunday evokes the kind of reverence typically reserved for Communion.

These are the Americans whose bodies were broken for us. We pause today in rememberance of their sacrifices.

Our other public option

Like most progressives, I support the public option. In this most unlikely moment, it appears that the public option may have a fighting chance. Democrats have managed to secure backing by 34 Senators willing to support a public option in reconciliation. It is still a long haul to get to 50. But for the first time since the 21st century version of massive resistance began, there is some hope that American lawmakers will offer a public insurance plan capable of competing with private insurers.

The public option is the most effective tool to control costs and the most substantive health care reform available in this political environment. But the history of public education offers some cautionary lessons that should temper our enthusiasm and encourage us to move forward thoughtfully as we advocate for a public option.

Up until the 1840s, the American system of education was not unlike the current health care system. It was rigidly localized and available primarily to the wealthy. Efforts to create national mandates for primary education were met with virulent opposition. As in the current health care debate, religiously fueled anxiety about an overreaching government formed the basis of opposition to public education. The greatest resistance to public education was mounted by Southerners who abhorred the idea of taxation, particularly if those taxes supported education for children of the formerly enslaved.

But progressives who understood the critical importance of primary education mounted a 50-year effort to convince Americans that public education for all children was central to the national interest. Reformers argued that a public option and a national mandate were crucial to creating an informed, productive, self-sustaining citizenry.

Many of their arguments mirror those of today’s health care reformers: health care access and health outcomes are marked by wealth and status; the nation’s productivity and economic future are threatened by these health inequalities; only mandates and public options will create enough change to dramatically alter the crisis.

By 1918 all states had passed compulsory elementary education laws. It is now easy to see that the public education system resulting from these 19th century battles was critically important to ensuring that America was a competitive and modern nation in world affairs. Public education dramatically improved literacy, worker productivity, entrepreneurship and social mobility.

But the public option in education also offers important lessons about the likely limits of a public option in health care. From its inception, public education poorly served the needs of girls, African Americans and immigrant children.

In many states the education of girls was not mandated until decades after boys began receiving public education. Even after schools were opened to girls, co-educational classrooms often poorly served their needs. Similarly, the current health care reform proposal extends coverage to millions of Americans while also instituting draconian restrictions on women’s reproductive health coverage, thereby eliminating access to a crucial area of health care for women.

For many decades localities refused public education to immigrant children, especially those who were considered non-white. Today, battles continue to rage in America's urban school systems about accommodating the needs of immigrant children.

Racism and its structural residue has been the greatest barrier to equitable public education. Once the Supreme Court demanded compulsory integration for public schools, many whites simply opted out of the public option.

Economic interests alone could not keep these families in public schools. They were willing to pay to discriminate, paying both property taxes and tuition in order to ensure their children were not marked by the stigma of the public option. Hundreds of urban and Southern public education systems collapsed when denied robust contributions across a broad and diverse public.

Right now, in Wake County, North Carolina middle class families are enthusiastically resegregating public schools. Evidence that American individualism often finds a way to trump efforts toward the public good.

Rush Limbaugh has been calling health care reform “reparations” and “a civil rights bill.” If Democrats succeed in passing a public option that is marked as inferior or assumed to be racialize,d then it may be doomed to a second-class status that makes it a poor competitor against private insurers.

We need a public option. As in the case of education, a public option in health care is likely to dramatically improve the lives of those with the fewest advantages and opportunities. Even as we enthusiastically embrace this policy, we need to learn from the continuing shortcomings of our existing public option.

Progressive Bible Study

History is replete with examples of how religion has been used to divide, abuse, and justify horror. Christian theologies have been distorted to fit ideologies of white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism and oppression. Today many Conservative spokespersons continue to selectively quote scripture, employ religious imagery and deploy twisted religious rhetoric to support policies of unprovoked international aggression and domestic oppression.

Many who resist marriage equality base their opposition in a biblical assertion that homosexuality is inherently evil and deserving of punishment. They often point to Leviticus 20:13, which reads “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

When Haiti was ravaged by a devastating earthquake, Pat Robertson argued that the nation was cursed. Robertson’s insisted the island was reaping a harvest of death and destruction because they had entered into a pact with the devil during their 19th century liberation struggle.

Just last week, Virginia state delegate Bob Marshall said that children born with disabilities are divine punishment for those who terminate earlier pregnancies. To support his position Marshall cited Exodus 13:2, which reads “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.”

With this history, it is easy to understand the progressive desire to eliminate God talk from political life. Let's banish faith claims from public life and get on with addressing the empirical realities of inequality. I am sympathetic to this solution. Policymaking should be firmly rooted in secular decision making based in evidence, science, and non-religious assessments of the common good.

But if the left remains near exclusively secular in its approach to public life, it will continue to miss important opportunities for building broader and more durable coalitions. Ignoring, denigrating or hoping to eliminate biblically based faith claims from public discourse does not serve progressive political interests.

At least part of the political Left needs to engage biblical texts and arguments directly. This does not mean simply trying to reinterpret biblical stories so that their messages are liberal and libratory; it also means acknowledging that some texts are irredeemably oppressive.

American Presbyterian minister, novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner warns against assuming that biblical stories are always comforting or edifying. Many reveal lessons that are difficult and distressing. These biblical narratives cannot simply be reinterpreted to reveal a more reassuring meaning. Some beloved stories are those of human beings doing terrible things to one another, following their own ambitions, breaking ethical rules and still reaping divine favor.

Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, but goes on to become the father of many nations. David commits adultery and murder, but remains beloved by God. Peter denies Jesus three times, but becomes the rock on which the Christian church is founded. 
 Feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible critically intervened in religious studies by emphasizing the misogyny, brutality, oppression and cruelty toward women found in many biblical stories. Trible says that these “texts of terror” should not be ignored, nor should we make attempt to easily redeem them by insisting they are only metaphors. Instead of pretending that these texts of terror don’t exist, Trible demands that we see how stories of rape, abuse, and injustice remain the central narratives for women’s lives in contemporary societies.

But there is still hope for those invested in re-imagining the bible as a tool of progressive social change.

It is black history month and the history of African Americans is instructive on this point. It is a history of organizing, leadership and efforts for justice that defies neat social scientific categorization. Efforts for racial justice are partly explained by changing social dynamics, political opportunity structures and international dynamics, but a substantial portion of black resistance and resilience must be understood as a faith story.

I still stand in open mouthed wonder at the realization that black people in America came to believe in a loving, benevolent and just God when there was so little empirical evidence to support that world view.

It is humbling to remember that women and men who were born into slavery, and never expected anything but slavery for their children and grandchildren, nonetheless believed that they were equal human beings worthy of the love of a benevolent and intervening God. It is a different kind of knowing, one with at least as much power as reason and evidence.

Black liberation theology emerges from this tradition of rejecting scriptural evidence of a slavery-supporting God and roots itself in a biblical interpretation of God as an advocate for the oppressed.

Despite a Democratic administration, the American Left is struggling to to create more space for itself in public discourse. To make this space progressives will need more than sterile reason, rationality, and evidence. These tools can become a kind of cynical self-righteousness that denies the powerful work of faith based claims that generate social change. An analytic lens that that reveals injustice can become paralyzing without the faith to believe that collective efforts can truly initiate change.

Faith is a practice of intellectual humility. It is a habit that reminds us of our own limitations and encourages us to remember that we don’t know everything, can’t predict every outcome, and don’t control every variable. A powerful and justice-loving God is an important political tool for those who have the fewest resources to resist inequality.

The recent reemergence of conservative, biblical claims renew my sense that we need to cultivate an active, public, prophetic, liberal core that can resist these texts of terror by arguing for a more comprehensive engagement with the bible.

I wonder if Bob Marshall has read the entire book of Exodus. It is tough text not easily distilled to a single meaning. It is both the story of a loving God who prefers liberation to slavery and the story of a murderous divinity that slaughters innocent children. It is a book of promises kept and broken. Sloppy and simple exegesis is unacceptable for those committed to the bible as a sacred text with particular relevance to social and political decision making.

It might be time for progressives to lead our national bible study.

End Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Today Congress will hear testimony aimed at finding a way to end the military's policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Groundhog day seems appropriate, because it was March 2009 when I first wrote a response to DADT. The Obama administration's failure to unilaterally end the policy along with Congressional inaction on the matter gives me chance to revisit this issue.

We must immediately end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. We must do this because the existing policy sanctions, maintains, and enforces second-class citizenship that is incommensurate with the ideals of American democracy.

Military service is at the heart of citizenship.

The implied social contract that binds a nation to her people is most fully realized in two primary acts: tax paying and military service. Those who labor and pay a portion of their income to the government have a particularly strong claim on government services and recognition. Those who willingly risk their lives to protect the borders and the ideals of their country also have a thick claim on citizenship.

This is why the armed forces have historically been the terrain on which marginal groups have sought full inclusion into the American project.

Enslaved men who escaped to freedom behind Union lines demanded the right to fight as soldiers against the Confederacy. President Lincoln's reluctance to arm these black men was rooted not only in his deep racial prejudices, but also in his concern that their service would give legitimate claims on equality. After the Civil War, Lincoln himself came to support the franchise for freedmen who had served in his army. In fact, his public declaration that black soldiers should have the vote precipitated his assassination.

During WWI, W.E.B. Du Bois urged African Americans to rally behind the flag and volunteer for military duty. He believed the services of black men could not go unnoticed by a grateful nation and felt that black soldiers would give the race stronger claims on the vote, equal education, and full citizenship. But in the years following WWI African American servicemen were regularly harassed, beaten, and lynched for wearing their uniforms on America's streets. A black body in an American uniform was a statement against Jim Crow; it was a claim to full citizenship and it was viciously punished in a country still unwilling to fulfill its promise of equality.

American historians have argued that we must locate the initial impulse of the mid-century Civil Rights Movement in the radicalizing effect that WWII battles against Nazi Germany had on black soldiers. Unwilling to accept segregated service in a war against genocide and imperialism, these soldiers were unwilling to accept Jim Crow and racial violence at home.

Similar stories can be told about European immigrants who became fully American through their initial inclusion in the armed services. It can be told about young people who used their service in Vietnam to win an extension on the right to vote to 18-21 year olds. It can be told about women who moved from support roles to combat duty even as they shattered glass ceilings back home in the states.

Gay soldiers are part of this long history. Their open and unfettered participation in America's armed services is a necessary part of the struggle for full inclusion in America. When gay men and lesbians can openly and proudly point to their sacrifices for our country then they can call upon our country for full first-class citizenship.

Let's end DADT during Black History Month. President Obama's presence in the White House was made possible by the broken bodies of black soldiers who believed and sacrificed for a country that shackled and segregated them. They willingly bled for this country and with that blood they bought for all of us a country where a black man could be president.

Today gay soldiers fight and die with the same hope. They too believe in America even though our country does not protect them in Civil Rights legislation, even though our country withholds marriage equality, even though our country is marred by anti-gay violence: still they believe. It is an astonishing kind of hope. It is the kind of inspiring hope that has made every great American success possible.

I know there are African Americans who bristle at the inclusion of LGBT equality as part of the long Civil Rights struggle. I've frequently heard black activists argue that gay identity is not like racial identity, because sexual identity can be hidden. This is a foolish argument.

The closet is not a privilege. Nothing reminds us of this more than DADT.

Soldiers not only sacrifice for our safety; they sacrifice for our equality. Now is the time for us to make good on our end of the social contract. Now is the time to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and move one step closer to ending second-class citizenship for our brave gay soldiers.

 

The Obama I Remember

Watching Barack Obama become President of the United States made me proud and hopeful, but I also found the experience somewhat amusing. I think many of us who were his Hyde Park neighbors and Illinois state senate constituents feel the same way. We may have always believed he was extraordinary, but because he was familiar it is sometimes hard to believe that he is now, as president, the purveyor of such power and the object of such scorn.

I don't know Barack Obama personally, but I had a kind of political intimacy with him during the years I lived in Chicago. He is familiar in a way that makes it impossible for me to see the President through the same prisms of perfection or loathing that many employ when assessing him.

I distinctly remember the last time I had a personal interaction with him. We were both standing in line at the 55th Street Walgreens. He was wearing flip-flops, short basketball shorts, and an old t-shirt. He was buying ice for a family picnic. Hardly the icon of fashion cool he became within two years of that moment.

I remember the first time I heard him give a public speech. He was a last minute replacement for an ill Professor Cornel West during the University of Chicago's Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. (Pause for irony) The address was adequate, but neither memorable nor particularly inspiring. Hardly the soaring rhetoric that he so regularly and effectively delivers now.

I remember the first time I saw him campaign. He was running against Bobby Rush for a congressional seat on the Southside of Chicago. He could barely fill a community center room with 25 people. Hardly the teeming crowds who now stand in lines for hours in inclement weather to hear him speak or who braved bitter cold to see him inaugurated.

These early encounters with Obama remind me that he is President not solely, or even primarily, because of innate gifts, but because he moves up a learning curve more swiftly and fully than anyone else in public life. My consistent support for President Obama, despite my real differences with him on a number of policy issues, is deeply rooted in my understanding of his openness to and capacity for learning.

I trust that when he does not have the answer he will seek it. I trust that when he fails with one strategy, he will adjust. I trust that when he needs a new skill, he will learn it. I trust that when he needs advice, he will seek it.

Today, as I watched President Obama interact with Republicans during the televised Q&A I saw another Obama that I remember: the law professor.

During the years that I was on faculty at the University of Chicago, my graduate students in political science often took courses with Professor Obama. They universally reported that he was a fair, but exceedingly tough practitioner of the Socratic method. He was willing to entertain any idea, question or observation, no matter how outrageous. But he always subjected the students to a series of logical interventions and arguments that often left students exhausted and sometimes a bit embarrassed. They quickly learned to challenge Professor Obama only if they had fully considered the implications of their arguments and prepared significant evidence in support of their case.

That Barack Obama showed up today. The President put on a clinic in public discourse, political argument, intellectual dexterity and moral courage. It was a reminder of what democracy could be if we engaged our opponents with substance, patience and civility rather than invectives, gamesmanship and boorishness.

I keep hearing from Democrats who say the President lacks courage, who ask why he bothers to speak to Republicans, and who cry out for him to wield his majority as a weapon against the GOP. Apparently he should march to Capital Hill, armed with tens of thousands of progressive blogs and tweets and demand a single payer health care system.

President Obama is modeling a different kind of democratic engagement. It is a model he adhered to during the election and he continues to follow it now. President Obama refuses to believe that we can have a functioning democracy if the majority refuses to speak to the minority. He takes seriously his responsibility to govern in the interest of both his supporters and his opponents. He remains committed to the possibility that he and his Party may not always be in sole possession of good ideas.

Over the past year it has been frustrating to watch this model of governance meet with such obstinate opposition. But the opposition is not a reason to abandon the tactic. It is a reason to redouble the efforts to change the course of our democratic discourse.


Watching Barack Obama become President of the United States made me proud and hopeful, but I also found the experience somewhat amusing. I think many of us who were his Hyde Park neighbors and Illinois state senate constituents feel the same way. We may have always believed he was extraordinary, but because he was familiar it is sometimes hard to believe that he is now, as president, the purveyor of such power and the object of such scorn.

I don't know Barack Obama personally, but I had a kind of political intimacy with him during the years I lived in Chicago. He is familiar in a way that makes it impossible for me to see the President through the same prisms of perfection or loathing that many employ when assessing him.

I distinctly remember the last time I had a personal interaction with him. We were both standing in line at the 55th Street Walgreens. He was wearing flip-flops, short basketball shorts, and an old t-shirt. He was buying ice for a family picnic. Hardly the icon of fashion cool he became within two years of that moment.

I remember the first time I heard him give a public speech. He was a last minute replacement for an ill Professor Cornel West during the University of Chicago's Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. (Pause for irony) The address was adequate, but neither memorable nor particularly inspiring. Hardly the soaring rhetoric that he so regularly and effectively delivers now.

I remember the first time I saw him campaign. He was running against Bobby Rush for a congressional seat on the Southside of Chicago. He could barely fill a community center room with 25 people. Hardly the teeming crowds who now stand in lines for hours in inclement weather to hear him speak or who braved bitter cold to see him inaugurated.

These early encounters with Obama remind me that he is President not solely, or even primarily, because of innate gifts, but because he moves up a learning curve more swiftly and fully than anyone else in public life. My consistent support for President Obama, despite my real differences with him on a number of policy issues, is deeply rooted in my understanding of his openness to and capacity for learning.

I trust that when he does not have the answer he will seek it. I trust that when he fails with one strategy, he will adjust. I trust that when he needs a new skill, he will learn it. I trust that when he needs advice, he will seek it.

Today, as I watched President Obama interact with Republicans during the televised Q&A I saw another Obama that I remember: the law professor.

During the years that I was on faculty at the University of Chicago, my graduate students in political science often took courses with Professor Obama. They universally reported that he was a fair, but exceedingly tough practitioner of the Socratic method. He was willing to entertain any idea, question or observation, no matter how outrageous. But he always subjected the students to a series of logical interventions and arguments that often left students exhausted and sometimes a bit embarrassed. They quickly learned to challenge Professor Obama only if they had fully considered the implications of their arguments and prepared significant evidence in support of their case.

That Barack Obama showed up today. The President put on a clinic in public discourse, political argument, intellectual dexterity and moral courage. It was a reminder of what democracy could be if we engaged our opponents with substance, patience and civility rather than invectives, gamesmanship and boorishness.

I keep hearing from Democrats who say the President lacks courage, who ask why he bothers to speak to Republicans, and who cry out for him to wield his majority as a weapon against the GOP. Apparently he should march to Capital Hill, armed with tens of thousands of progressive blogs and tweets and demand a single payer health care system.

President Obama is modeling a different kind of democratic engagement. It is a model he adhered to during the election and he continues to follow it now. President Obama refuses to believe that we can have a functioning democracy if the majority refuses to speak to the minority. He takes seriously his responsibility to govern in the interest of both his supporters and his opponents. He remains committed to the possibility that he and his Party may not always be in sole possession of good ideas.

Over the past year it has been frustrating to watch this model of governance meet with such obstinate opposition. But the opposition is not a reason to abandon the tactic. It is a reason to redouble the efforts to change the course of our democratic discourse.

SOTU as National Rorschach Test

A contemporary State of the Union address is less an assessment of our national circumstances than it is a collective Rorschach test: an inkblot given meaning by the viewer more than by the subject. The televised pageantry of applause and ovations has little to do with the President's articulation of a policy agenda and far more to do with how his partisan allies and opponents read the electoral viability of his phrases.

President Obama's address on Wednesday night felt like a heightened version of this classic psychological evaluation. Reactions to it will tell us less about the President and more about the country and our willingness to embrace and tackle the difficulties that we face.

Obama loyalists saw a return of their favorite version of the President: relaxed, persuasive, rhetorically tough and clear. They cheered about student loan debt forgiveness and joined the President's demand to pass a flawed but sweeping health care reform bill.

Cringing Leftists were disappointed by his deficit hawkishness, unconvinced by his promises to leave Iraq by the end of summer, and irritated by the brevity of his argument for repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell.

The GOP silence was deafening as Republicans refused to applaud tax reductions, small business investment, and budget balancing. No matter what Obama said, their inkblot test read "socialist."

In the night's weirdest Rorschach display, MSNBC host Chris Matthews declared that the speech made him forget the President was black for an hour. Revealing, of course, that race wasn't distant from Matthews' mind, but rather that it was central to his assessment of the President.

The entire first year of the Obama presidency has been defined by a kind of national psychological angst. I have argued political opponents should not describe one another as "crazy," but it can be useful to think about how our collective psychological responses influence our politics. Barack Obama framed his candidacy in psychological terms, asking voters to reject fear and embrace hope. His campaign urged voters to project onto his candidacy their dreams for a more prosperous, peaceful and unified nation.

Last week's assessments of President Obama's first year in office reflected the deterioration of these hopeful projections to anxious ones. Observers on the Right insisted on seeing a free-market, centrist as a radical socialist. Commentators on the Left refused to notice the structural barriers limiting the President, and instead decried his lack of toughness and progressive commitment.

Both sides were laboring with the fundamental attribution error that causes people to overemphasize individual factors when explaining the behaviors and outcomes of others. Both sides rarely acknowledged the nearly determinate situational factors the President inherited: two ill-advised wars, a spiraling recession, a pre-existing bailout, an obstructionist opposition party, an ideologically fragmented Democratic majority, and a country with a constantly percolating racial anxiety. It was easier to blame the disposition, choices and preferences of Barack Obama than to admit to the messy difficulties of governing a complex, diverse nation that still labors with 18th century political institutions and 19th century socioeconomic predispositions.

In Wednesday's State of the Union, President Obama attempted to break through this psychological angst with a speech meant to remind Americans of the situational constraints he faces; to shift the emotional tenor from despair back to optimism; and to ask voters and Congressional members to use common sense and rational approaches to policy making.

President Obama reminded Americans that the spectacular economic crisis began under the previous administration, not with him.

 

At the beginning of the last decade, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. That was before I walked in the door.

 

As he has done exquisitely since the campaign, the President then contextualized these difficulties within a broader historical sweep. The American story, Obama continues to insist, is replete with examples of gritty determination overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

 

It's tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable – that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were times that tested the courage of our convictions, and the strength of our union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements; our hesitations and our fears; America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, and one people.

 

But in this speech, President Obama refused to simply shift responsibility or to rely exclusively on faith in American progress; he also took on the role of civics professor. He explained how the recent Supreme Court decision threatens American politics. He provided a brief lesson in budgeting. And he explained the dangers of governing with short-term responsiveness to volatile public opinion rather than long-term commitment to collective responsibility.

 

We cannot wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about their opponent – a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual Senators. Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game. But it is precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it is sowing further division among our citizens and further distrust in our government.

 

This address seemed to disrupt predictable responses. Oddly, as President Obama built to a black church-like crescendo in the last few paragraphs, the Congressional chamber fell eerily silent. It was as though everyone was holding their breath and collectively readjusting the lens through which they viewed this President.

Like tilting your head to view the inkblot from a different angle can suddenly make a new image appear, really listening to the President last night can make the country's future seem much different than it did before. Whether the new vision is reassuring or frightening is largely our own projection.

How Barack Obama is like Martin Luther King, Jr.

All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem. –Martin Luther King, Jr.
Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's historic "I have a dream" speech. He was inaugurated the day after our national holiday celebrating the life and accomplishments of Dr. King. Many asked if Obama's presidency was the realization of King's dream. Cultural products, from t-shirts to YouTube videos, linked Obama's election to King's legacy.

Some observers have made far less complimentary comparisons between the men. Some self-professed keepers of King's legacy have insisted that Barack Obama is embarrassingly anemic on issues of race. Remembering King as an uncompromising paragon of progressive politics, these "black leaders" judge Obama as a wishy-washy sell-out, unwilling to stand firm for his constituency.

This sentiment was perfectly captured last week in the outrageous comments of African American Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson. Lost in the din surrounding Harry Reid's "Negro dialect" comments and Rush Limbaugh's scandalous tirade about Haiti, was Dyson's assertion that "Barack Obama runs from race like a black man runs from a cop."

Dyson's comment is both offensive -to President Obama and to black men in general- and false- no other American presidential candidate paused in the middle of a campaign to deliver an exquisite commentary on race. Still, Dyson's sentiment is indicative of a small, but vocal group of black public intellectuals who have regularly criticized Obama during his campaign and his presidency.

Often comparing Obama explicitly to Dr. King, they conclude the President lacks the moral courage or Leftist determination of the civil rights icon.

I disagree. Barack Obama is stunningly similar to Martin Luther King, Jr., but to see this similarity we must relinquish the false, reconstructed memories of perfection we currently project onto King.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a political philosopher and dedicated freedom fighter, but he was also a pragmatic political strategist. Seen through the perfecting lens of martyrdom, King appears to be to be an uncompromising progressive leader, undeterred by seemingly insurmountable challenges, willing to risk all to achieve the goals of his movement.

To see King exclusively in these terms requires active, willful revision of history. In his political work, King was surprisingly like President Obama. And I don't mean the oratory.

Consider this. Martin Luther King Jr. turned his back on Bayard Rustin. Rustin was his dear friend and trusted advisor. Rustin was the architect of the March on Washington. A fierce, lifelong pacifist, Rustin shepherded a young King through his first non-violent, direct action protests. Without Rustin there would have been no March on Washington and no national audience for the articulation of King's great dream.

Yet when he was pressed, Martin Luther King Jr. eventually disavowed Rustin and ejected him from the movement. Rustin asked King for his support, but King turned his back on Rustin. King rejected Rustin because Rustin was gay and socialist.

Faced with the political realities of homophobia and America's red scare, King chose to silence Rustin. King decided defending Rustin would distract the movement from its central goal of achieving an end to racial segregation.

Consider this. Martin Luther King, Jr. undercut the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party.

Black, rural laborers in Mississippi endured brutal beatings, death threats, loss of property, and exile from their homes because they wanted to vote. Despite these dangers, they formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Under the leadership of Fannie Lou Hamer they brought a delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1964. There they demanded to be recognized and seated in protest of the racial disfranchisement in their state. Hamer's testimony before the DNC credentials committee remains a powerful witness to the brutal conditions black Americans faced in their struggle for first class citizenship.

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who brokered a deal with the Democratic leadership that cut Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democrats out of the Mississippi delegation. King knew that Johnson still needed the Southern segregationists to hold the majority. King needed Johnson to pass civil rights legislation. Johnson needed the Southerners to get elected. So King undercut Hamer. It was a strategic calculation.

Consider this. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked closely with many African American women, but staunchly refused to address gender equality as part of the larger movement for civil rights.

Women like Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Daisy Bates and Fannie Lou Hamer are dimly remembered compared to the shining beacon of King's legacy. This invisibility of women activists is neither accidental nor inevitable. Despite his sweeping, visionary, social theorizing, King had surprisingly little imagination about how the extraordinary women in the movement could share leadership and accolades with the male leaders. He often relegated his women peers to supporting roles and backstage efforts. King refused to publicly address gender discrimination and often argued that women's issues were distracting to the work of civil rights.

Deriding King and his legacy is not my goal in retelling these stories. We must remember that Martin Luther King was no earthbound deity, fearlessly pursuing an uncompromising agenda; he was a strategic political leader. He was a realist whose choices were often upsetting and unpalatable to those on his left.

Martin Luther King Jr's charismatic, audacious, courageous leadership dramatically altered the trajectory of American history. His leadership lasted just over a decade. In that decade he helped bring to fruition more than a century of struggle first inaugurated when black persons became free people in the United States. No personal or political shortcoming can erase or even tarnish King's contributions.

Remembering King's own strategic choices is not an apologia for President Obama. Barack Obama's legacy will ultimately rise and fall on the strength of his own accomplishments, not primarily on his comparative skill relative to other leaders. But a more clear-eyed assessment of King should make us more careful about how we judge our own imperfect President as he navigates his own complicated historical moment.

Barack Obama is not the leader of a progressive social movement; he is the president. As president he is both more powerful than Dr. King and more structurally constrained. He has more institutional power at his disposal and more crosscutting constituencies demanding his attention. He has more powerful allies and more powerful opponents.

We remember King as the beloved and revered leader of a nation-changing movement. We forget that King was widely criticized during his life. The American media derided this Nobel Peace Prize recipient for speaking out against the Vietnam War. Many argued King had overreached and had little right to weigh in on international matters. Despite braving vicious attacks, unfair incarceration, and attempts on his life, many young leaders mocked King for being insufficiently radical, overly tied to existing institutions, and inadequately brave in the face of racial attacks. One of the most gifted speakers of any age, in the final months of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. had trouble filling an auditorium for a public address.

I have criticisms of President Obama. He has not sufficiently championed the basic civil rights of LGBT Americans. He has escalated rather than ended our country's war effort. His health care initiative is not going to include a public option. But I am grateful that extraordinary change can be achieved even through imperfect leadership.

I see King in Obama: a leader who is imperfectly, but wholeheartedly groping toward better and fairer solutions for our nation.

Syndicate content