Baltimore, A “Riot”? Really?

April 29, 2015

Screen shot of map of violent incidents in Baltimore near site of Freddie Gray protests on Monday, April 28, 2015. ( via Twitter).

Screen shot of map of violent incidents in Baltimore near site of Freddie Gray protests on Monday, April 28, 2015. ( via Twitter).

What happened in Baltimore on Monday wasn’t a riot. Let me repeat that. The violence that broke on in Baltimore a day and a half ago was NOT a riot. Nor was it a referendum on Black violence. Nor was it a microcosm of Black youth as “thugs.” Nor was it “violent clashes between police and protestors,” at least not in any formal sense. It was random violence and vandalism, spread out far enough to be, sadly, a typical week in an impoverished Baltimore neighborhood, as part of larger impoverished and divided city. Period.

Exhibit A of media coverage, Erin Burnett, CNN, April 28, 2015. (

Exhibit A of media coverage, Erin Burnett, CNN, April 28, 2015. (

The Baltimore coverage has been a caustic cocktail so far. One of a media with bipolar disorder, bouncing from ignoring Freddie Gray’s death and the first protests during the White House Correspondence Dinner to wall-to-wall coverage for the past two days. Combine that with the inaction on moving forward with disciplining or arresting the Baltimore PD officers involved in making Freddie Gray paralyzed and dead. Combine that with the Black Respectability Police yammering on as if vandalism is simply an issue of undisciplined youth. Mix that with White columnists and commentators spewing racial stereotypes like a sewer hole. And you get the same numbskull presentation of a situation in which the questions are about how a handful in a community responded in snapshot to years of oppression, neglect, ignoring and ignorance.

Overhead shot of L.A. riots, contrast between South Central LA fires and downtown LA smog, April 30, 1992. (

Overhead shot of L.A. riots, contrast between South Central LA fires and downtown LA smog, April 30, 1992. (

Twenty-three years ago today, half-a-lifetime ago for me, the L.A. riots began, within a couple of hours of the first verdict in the Rodney King case. You know, the one where that all-White Simi Valley jury made up of retired cops acquitted the police officers involved of all charges. That was a riot, in every sense of the word. It was organized, it was disorganized, it went on for days, it took out whole city blocks, it left 53 dead, more than 2,000 injured, and the police and the National Guard arrested more than 11,000 people.

Watching that unfold was a traumatic experience. It was the kind of experience that should make people — especially in the news business — remember that not every act of violence that occurs during a protest is part of that protest or constitutes a riot. By labeling what happened on Monday in Baltimore a “riot” is insulting to anyone with a long memory. Seven fires, a few clashes, a handful of burned out and bashed in vehicles. Heck, where I grew up, in “Money Earnin'” Mount Vernon, New York, that’s a bad weekend in December ’99. But it’s not a riot.

I’ll tell you what is a riot, though. East St. Louis, Illinois in 1917. The 1863 Draft Riots in New York. Chicago and Washington, DC during the Red Summer of 1919. Detroit in 1943. The 100-plus riots after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Vancouver, in 2011, after the Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup Finals (again). Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention, Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization conference. But when White folks destroy property or take lives during widespread and seemingly random violence, it’s either a “protest” or “civil unrest.”

Vancouver Canucks fans riot after team's Stanley Cup Finals Game 7 defeat, June 16, 2011. (Reuters via

Vancouver Canucks fans riot after team’s Stanley Cup Finals Game 7 defeat, June 16, 2011. (Reuters via

I’ll tell you something else. The media, the respectability police, and Whites in denial want nothing more than to make the Freddie Gray killing and the protests a besides-the-point news story. For them, making Blacks look less than human is the story. For them, any imperfection, any violence, any sense of the full range of humanity on display when under systemic oppression, is reason to celebrate. Because it means they can spend another day living in their matrix, where all their racism and race-based privilege is confirmed.

Cold Snap 1994

January 9, 2014

East Cold Wave Compared To 1994,  January 13, 2009. (

East Cold Wave Compared To 1994, January 13, 2009. (

This week’s so-called polar vortex is hardly the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced, whether living in New York, Pittsburgh or DC, or visiting places like Chicago and New Hampshire in the dead of winter. But like all things driven by traditional and social media coverage, anything that happened five minutes ago becomes the penultimate event of all time.

But imagine a day that was so cold that when the temperature rose to -20°C (that’s -4°F) three days later, it felt like a heat wave. A day that produced multiple states of emergency for much of the country. A day where your windows had thick sheets of ice on their panes, and your breath turned into icicles before you started to take in air.

I’m remembering a day twenty years ago exactly like that, one very different from the current cold snap across much of the Northern US right now.  And yes, the term is and will always be cold snap, as a vortex conjures end-of-times climate change similar to the movie The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Torrents of snow fell in the ‘Burgh, in New York, in Chicago and DC. So much snow fell in Pittsburgh that both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon shut down — something that only happens on near apocalyptic days. By the end of that month, Pittsburgh had already set a seasonal record for snowfall at 96 inches. Of course, that was nothing compared to Chicago, Cleveland or Buffalo that winter.

Frozen Pittsburgh, panoramic three rivers shot,  January 7, 2014. (Steve Mellon,

Frozen Pittsburgh, panoramic three rivers shot, January 7, 2014. (Steve Mellon,

What made it worse was the record cold weather. Over the course of nine days, between January 10 and 19, the temperature fell from a bearable 15° to 10, 8° , 5°, -2°, -10°, -15°, and to -22° on Wednesday, January 19, ’94. The wind chill that day made it feel like -50°. New York was -15° that day, and DC a balmy -11°. Only Chicago had it worse in terms of major cities, a -26° degree day with Lake Michigan wind chills of -70°. It snowed on most of those days, making conditions about as bad as living in Fairbanks, Alaska in the dead of winter.

I awoke to a cold studio apartment on January 19, even though the heat was at full blast and I’d sealed my windows with plastic. I turned on the TV, and found that the Pennsylvania governor had declared a state of emergency because of the cold and because the state’s electrical grid was on the verge of collapse. All businesses, schools, and colleges, as well as all non-essential state work, was to stop that day to preserve energy so that we wouldn’t freeze to death. To a business, everyone complied with the governor’s order.

Everyone except Carnegie Mellon, that is. They cited that they were a private and not a state institution as the reason for them not shutting down that day. Never mind that students who lived off campus would have to brave the killer temperatures to come to class. Or the fact that Pitt, a private institution with far more students than Carnegie Mellon, only two blocks away, was completely shut down. Or the fact that Carnegie Mellon, like the rest of the state, relied on the same overloaded power grid and was stretching limited resources.

So I prepared to go to my 2 pm course. Normally I would’ve walked the 2.75 miles from East Liberty to campus. Even I recognized that -22 was too cold for me to be out in for more than a half-hour, and this a forty minute walk for me in the ice and snow. I wore long-johns and sweats, two layers of socks insulted in plastic Giant Eagle bags that I’d put in my high-tops. I wore six layers of upper body clothing, snapped my hood on my winter jacket, pulled down my black wool cap to my eye lids, and wrapped my blue scarf around my mouth and neck.

I tried to time the bus so that I wouldn’t outside more than a few minutes. With the twenty-mile-per-hour wind gusts, it was like someone was trying to suck the life out of me. It hurt to breathe. Yet I found it funny to feel the icicles forming on my nose hairs and mustache. I took the first bus that came, the old 71C, which didn’t stop close to Carnegie Mellon, did stop right across the street from the Cathedral of Learning, about a half-mile from Baker Hall and my class.

Pitt, of course, was a ghost town. On the bridge that connected Pitt to Schenley Park and the southern entrance to Carnegie Mellon, two idiot joggers passed me, proving once again the dominance of brave alpha males in their attempts to control the world.

Michigan lighthouse entombed by ice, St. Joseph, Michigan, January 6, 2014. (Thomas Zakowski, HotSpot Media, via

Michigan lighthouse entombed by ice, St. Joseph, Michigan, January 6, 2014. (Thomas Zakowski, HotSpot Media, via

Upon entering Baker Hall, I was told by security that Carnegie Mellon was closing after all. I learned from the departmental office that the governor had personally called the president of Carnegie Mellon and ordered the closing under the threat of a $1 million-per-day fine, or something pretty close to that. So the elitist university was shutting down after all, at 2 pm. We could all go home. Or so we thought. John Modell decided that our classes were too precious to cancel over a little thing like a state of emergency. Now I knew that the man had taught for years at U Minnesota, so -22 for him was just a normal winter day, I guessed.

An hour later, with the heat off, we could all see our breath as Modell yammered on and on about cultural anthropology and the meaning of objectivity in that discipline. All I know was that it was way too cold to sit in a classroom wondering what would kill us first, Modell’s disjointed diatribes or the bitter cold classroom. If we’d been ten years younger, Modell would’ve gone to jail.

Finally, Modell released us from his professorial grip, around 3:20 pm. He even acknowledged that is was just too cold to continue class. “We’ll make this up next week,” he said. Yeah, as if he couldn’t have said that an hour before.

Rachel Jeantel, A Real, True Beautiful Friend

June 28, 2013

Witness Rachel Jeantel continued her testimony,  George Zimmerman trial, Sanford, FL, June 27, 2013. (Jacob Langston, AP/Orlando Sentinel;

Witness Rachel Jeantel continued her testimony, George Zimmerman trial, Sanford, FL, June 27, 2013. (Jacob Langston, AP/Orlando Sentinel;

There will be months’ worth of stuff written and said about Rachel Jeantel and her performance on the witness stand during the George Zimmerman trial. Everything from her dark skin and being overweight to her lazy tongue syndrome and reluctance to take the witness stand. Between Black Twitter on Wednesday critiquing her language, shyness, and style and blond-haired, bubble-headed Whites picking apart her testimony on Thursday, it’s a wonder that anyone sees Ms. Jeantel as a human being. She’s far more than the hero, villain or ghetto girl that folks in social media have and will portray her to be.

Ms. Jeantel is beautiful to me, skin-deep and otherwise. Yes, she’s not perfect, which is one of the things that makes her a beautiful person. The most important thing to remember about Jeantel, though, is that she’s a real person and a real friend. The truest friend any human being could ever hope to have. I should know. I’ve never had more than eight people in my life at any time that I could truly call friend, and none during my preteen and teenage years before college. Of those, about half have proven themselves to be fair-weather friends, unreachable when I’ve needed them the most.

Jeantel is the ultimate friend, for she has acted in Trayvon Martin’s best interests even after his death. A friendship that gave her the strength to tell the truth, to endure ridicule and scorn and hours of cross-examination from Don West. Jeantel gave voice to Martin from beyond the grave, knowing that she was in the right.

Jeantel makes me think of a scene from Tombstone (1993), the one with Val Kilmer playing Doc Holliday. Dying from the long-term effects of tuberculosis and living the life of an alcoholic gambler, Holliday continued to ride with Wyatt Earp to hunt down his youngest brother’s killers. When asked, “Why you doin’ this, Doc?,” Holliday said

“Because Wyatt Earp is my friend.”

In response, the other character said, “Friend? Hell, I got lots of friends.” To which Holliday replied, “…I don’t.”

Jeantel may well have lots of friends, but her friendship with Trayvon Martin is as real, true and beautiful as it gets. I hope that my close friends are even one-tenth as true to me after I’m dead as she was to Martin this week.

Why Obama Is Only A Failed Centrist President

January 7, 2013

Photo portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson [our last transformational President] in the Oval Office, leaning on a chair, March 10, 1964. (Arnold Newman, White House Press Office via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Photo portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson [our last transformational President] in the Oval Office, leaning on a chair, March 10, 1964. (Arnold Newman, White House Press Office via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I don’t say what I have to say about President Barack Obama lightly. But in light of the recent “fiscal cliff deal”  and the negotiations process that preceded it, I’ve now become convinced that Obama will be seen as a pretty good president. Period. Obama hasn’t been a unique president, despite his race or relatively humble beginnings. Obama is hardly a great president, either. Nor will Obama be a transformational president. If anything, Obama falls right in line with every American president since the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.

Photo of living presidents with then President-Elect Barack Obama in the Oval Office, January 7, 2009. (

Photo of living presidents with then President-Elect Barack Obama in the Oval Office, January 7, 2009. (

The fact is, Obama is a centrist president, beholden to the military-industrial complex, prison-industrial complex, Wall Street and corporate interests, just like Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 before him. That Obama is Black and intellectual in his approach matters little in terms of actual policies or in the path that he and his administration have taken toward incremental policies and half-baked compromises. Based on some of Obama’s policies, I could even make the argument that the President is a borderline neo-conservative, although I don’t think you can generalize this argument to every policy.

This has been an argument I’ve made in my US History courses over the past couple of years. When I’ve raised the idea that Nixon was a liberal Republican, that President Bill Clinton was a neo-con (see the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 and TANF welfare reform in 1996 as but two examples), and that Obama is hardly a liberal at all, my students have collectively gasped. How dare I say that Nixon was more liberal than Clinton, that Obama is somewhere between a centrist and a neo-con!

But then I’ve worked with them through discussion to talk about the major domestic and foreign policy agendas of the past seven presidents in comparison to our current president. On so many issues, from the US relationship with Israel to the War on Drugs, from welfare reform to financial deregulation, from a re-escalation of the Vietnam War to the surge in Afghanistan, there hasn’t been a nanometer of space of difference in executive branch decision-making. Whether the people in these positions of power have been Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, or Obama and Hillary Clinton.

So I’ve had my students work through parts of Obama’s agenda. The surge and gradual drawing down of US military forces in Afghanistan, in which part of their role is nation-building. “How is that any different from Bush 43?,” I’ve asked. The historic Affordable Care Act, a so-called universal health care bill that fails to cover 20 million Americans and works through complex networks of government subsidies and private insurers, a neo-con plan that failed as an alternative to single-payer under Clinton in 1994. “How is this really a liberal or progressive idea?,” I’ve asked. The continuing War on Drugs, the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the highest rates of deportation of undocumented immigrants ever. “But yeah, Obama’s a liberal!,” I’ve said sarcastically in concluding this discussion with my students.

Some folks, like the reformed neo-con Bruce Bartlett, have compared the Democratic Party of recent years to the liberal Republicans of yesteryear. Bartlett, though, has stopped short of calling Democrats centrist neo-cons, which is in fact a much more apt description. Bartlett also stopped short in time, as he argued that the tipping point for the Democratic Party’s movement from left-of-center to right-of-center began with President Clinton in the 1990s. But that’s incorrect. The tipping point began when the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition of labor unions and blue-collar Whites, Southern whites, Catholics and Blacks fell apart as part of a backlash against President Lyndon Johnson’s support of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty in the late-1960s.

Photo of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon at the  Ronald Reagan Presidential Library dedication, Simi Valley, CA, November 4, 1991. (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times).

Photo of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library dedication, Simi Valley, CA, November 4, 1991. (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times).

Most Americans, though, don’t have the knowledge or luxury of taking a long view of history and their lives in attempting to put Obama in context. The media’s constant coverage of every trumped-up, imagined or real crisis hardly helps matters, either. They assume on behalf of the public the idea that there are two equal and opposite sides to every issue and every argument, which means most journalists failed geometry in high school. As a result, most Americans believe that Obama’s a liberal because the media consistently makes the false claim that all Democrats are liberals and that a Black guy with a Harvard law degree who used to be a community organizer must be a liberal.

How is a budget cutting agenda that puts Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare on the table as entitlements (and not a paid-for weak social safety net) a liberal idea or policy agenda? How is coming out reluctantly in favor of gay marriage some great progressive stance, comparable to President Kennedy’s speech in favor of civil rights in 1963? How is consistently giving into oligarchic conservatives by pushing hard for a meager tax increase on the most privileged members of our nation — the people who benefited the most from 40 years of policies that have greatly increased the gap between rich and poor — part of a liberal strategy? It isn’t and they aren’t.

Obama being three steps to Congress’ left on gay marriage and a tax increase is an incredibly weak counterargument to the fact that he’s a centrist. And a failed one at that, as his centrism has been based on garnering bipartisan support of weak legislation in terms of socioeconomic appropriations and strong legislation in terms of defense and Big Brother-esque laws. Obama has pushed climate change, long-term unemployment and underemployment, social mobility and real education reform either off his presidential agenda or into the hands of the private sector.

Thank you, but no, Obama’s a centrist, not a liberal. If you want to see a liberal policymaker in action, the nearest place to go these days is Ottawa, not Washington.

Newtown Calling

December 19, 2012

President Barack Obama tears up during White House press conference on Newtown, CT mass shooting, December 14, 2012. (UPI)

President Barack Obama tears up during White House press conference on Newtown, CT mass shooting, December 14, 2012. (UPI)

One thing that I can say about myself with confidence is that I’ve had some experience with violence and tragedy. A witness to domestic violence, a victim of child abuse, an observer of violent assaults involving knives and baseball bats. Knowing a couple of folks who committed suicide — one who jumped on my side of the office building in which I worked a decade ago — and watching a former boss flip out from a manic-depressive episode right in front of me.

Still, even with all of that experience, I don’t know anything about being the parent of a child killed in the midst of a mass shooting like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I can only begin to imagine that kind of grief, pain and anger.

So, it’s with that in mind that I write about the things that have been said by journalists, parents, politicians and others about this latest tragedy that have really bothered me. Despite the core-shaking event in Newtown last week, apparently there are people in this country who believe in guns more than people, who believe that some lives are worth more than others, that people with mental health issues are the perpetrators of most violent crimes. These people are wrong, wrong-headed, and the kind of people who seemingly want to steal my hope that we’ll do something serious about guns and gun violence in the US.

Mogadishu (Somalia) suicide bomb victims, January 24, 2009. (Ontdek Islam website).

Mogadishu (Somalia) suicide bomb victims, January 24, 2009. (Ontdek Islam website).

1. The “I can’t believe that this happened here” response. Every time I hear someone say something like this, I think, “So it’s all right if a mass shooting happens in Mogadishu, Harlem or Southeast DC?” It’s one of the most entitled, elitist and bigoted things I’ve heard over the years. Tragedy happens everywhere, especially in a nation as fearful, violent, imperialistic and gun-obsessed as ours. And people’s lives are invariably screwed up by tragic events, regardless of race or location. Whether in a mostly White bedroom suburb like Newtown or on the South Side of Chicago.

2. “If the teachers and principal had been armed, this wouldn’t have happened” response. Really now? Folks whose job it is to teach should walk around with or have handy a handgun on the rare chance someone like Adam Lanza shows up? Gun enthusiasts can say this a billion times a day. But more people with guns doesn’t make anyone any safer. There’s about a generation’s worth of research showing this very fact. End of discussion.

3. “We need to get rid of violent video games” response. This is ludicrous. American history is replete with mass murders and mass shootings, from White “settlers” decimating American Indians to the Rosewood, Florida race riot of 1923 to Charles Whitman shooting and killing fourteen during his University of Texas clock tower rampage in 1966. Last I checked, Mortal Kombat and Halo 4 didn’t exist in 1877, 1923 or 1966. Violent video games aren’t the problem. Our violent obsession with guns and supremacy in life is the problem.

4. “We need a better mental health system in this country” response. This one is actually correct. At least, it mostly is. The assumption here, of course, is that people somehow snap in the process of taking their own and others lives without a coherent rationale. Psychological screenings (see my post “A Call for Psychological Screenings” from September ’12) and backgrounds checks with 100 hours of mandatory gun training would definitely help. But the vast majority of people with mental illness are NOT violent. There are plenty of “normal” folks who are anti-social, have borderline personalities, are psychotic, but function normally in our society. Until the day they get a hold of a gun or some other weapon, that is. Those folks, though, would likely not test as having a mental illness.

Sidewalk memorial with 26 stuffed animals representing 26 shooting victims, Newtown, CT, December 16, 2012. (David Goldman/AP).

Sidewalk memorial with 26 stuffed animals representing 26 shooting victims (cropped), Newtown, CT, December 16, 2012. (David Goldman/AP).

We need much tougher gun control laws, a total assault weapons ban, regulations on bullets sales, maybe even a repeal of the Second Amendment. We certainly need a system that promotes comprehensive mental health services from birth through death. But right now, we also need to stop engaging in clichés, to get the story right before reporting it first (hint, CNN), to step outside of our cloistered and entitled way of viewing the world. Newtown’s calling, but for me, so is Mount Vernon, New York, Littleton, Colorado, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Silver Spring, Maryland, Aurora, Colorado, Norway, Afghanistan, Pakistan and so many other parts of this world that have experienced violent tragedies.

The “Invisible” Poor & The Middle Class Mythology

July 19, 2012

Transparent (or invisible) Woman (cropped), July 19, 2012. (

This past weekend, I found myself drawn into the discussion of the middle class and middle class aspirations on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes (otherwise known as “Uppers”). It was a good and yet wholly unsatisfying discussion of technical definitions of what middle class is and of the political optics of only discussing the middle class as a socioeconomic category. Chris Hayes and his guests justified this with an all-too-common refrain. “If you’re poor, you’re aspiring to be middle class,” Hayes said on Saturday. With that, Hayes and his guests rendered America’s poor invisible, and failed to see beyond the politics of invisibility in the process.

There are two issues here, and many layers within them, about America’s poor, working, on welfare, or otherwise. One issue is that journalists, commentators, political operatives and most politicians treat the poor as if they are an unknowable group of people. It’s as if they all think the same way, as if there are all Black or of color, and a complete drag on the American economy and the federal budget. And that’s on a day in which the media and politics deem America’s poor as discussable. Most of the time, America’s poor are invisible, shoved into the middle class category by commentators and politicians at every turn.

Yes, America’s middle class is struggling too, fighting tooth and nail to not slip into the class of the invisible working poor, treading water to avoid food banks and food stamps. But they have something to struggle with — and for — at least. Their homes, their cars, a retirement account, their families’ net worth, all accoutrements of being middle class in America. America’s poor don’t possess anything to struggle with or for.

Chris Hayes on a train in Switzerland, November 10, 2008. (Matthew Yglesias via Wikimedia Commons/ Released to public domain via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Except, maybe, with their vote, if they care to vote at all. Yet no mainstream commentator nor presidential candidate has truly spoken to their needs, their plight, to how their situation is completely interconnected with the struggles of the American middle class, not their aspirations. Not Chris Hayes, nor his weekend compadre, Melissa Harris-Perry, not President Barack Obama, and definitely not the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.

It’s a story I’m all too familiar with, as someone who grew up in poverty in Mount Vernon, New York. Not to mention as someone who had to go to college and graduate school and then struggled for two years at part-time work before finding a job with a Ph.D. in ’99 (see my “The Five Senses of Poverty” post from July ’10). I was thirty years old by the time I earned a middle class income. Yet in all of that time, the only mainstream politician who spent time on the issues of the American poor as if these were real people was President Jimmy Carter, and we know what happened with him. Outside of my degrees and my publications, I was invisible until the fall of ’99.

Otherwise, it’s been four decades of Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton concerned with “welfare queens,” “pink Cadillacs,” and “mend it, don’t end it” welfare policies, and the media following suit. It’s like being kicked hard by someone as one is laying on the ground with broken ribs and internal hemorrhaging, as if they want to poor to die, painfully.

But it’s not just the ones with microphones and word processing programs that kill America’s poor by rendering them invisible. Despite the general notion that the media and politicians nurture — that everyone not rich aspires to be firmly entrenched in the middle class — most Americans middle class and poor aspire to be rich, wealthy, well-off.

Creflo Dollar, pastor, World Changers Church International, November 1, 2010. (Zwicky Institut via In public domain.

This is the other neglected issue, whether inadvertent like with Chris Hayes and his guests on Uppers, or deliberate on the part of President Obama and Romney. Why so? Because they don’t acknowledge that it’s hard to be truly middle class in America these days. To be in the middle class, one must borrow, borrow, borrow, beg and sometimes steal while struggling to pay student loans, car notes, a mortgage and child care costs.

This wasn’t the case even thirty years ago, before the severe double-dip recession, high interest rates and inflation and Reagan Revolution took full hold. Then, a high school diploma and raw initiative was all most folks needed to find a job at a GM plant or to get an administrative job in government or with a large corporation (although, typing at 90 words per minute enhanced a woman’s chances, at least). Now, two years of college or postsecondary technical training, some experience in a specialized field, and a personal connection is the floor for a living wage — not exactly middle class. Of course, no one wants to be in the basement with nearly one in five Americans, 50 million in all, working just to be poor.

Stacks of money, April 13, 2008. (Allureme via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via cc-Attribution 3.0 License.

America’s poor and fledgling middle class both aspire to be rich (or die tryin’), and not just middle class. The rise of fundamentalist Christianity, mega-churches and the cult of prosperity as these pastors reimagine the New Testament. The endless lines for Powerball and Mega Millions whenever the pot is more than $100 million. The fascination with reality shows about the well-off or about competing to be well-off. All of this is the manifestation of the warping of the American Dream since the early 1970s, where the pursuit of riches has led to debt slavery for millions.

The old American Dream has become myth, and the old American middle class is but the story of Camelot, Timbuktu and Shangri-La. In our new world, “the poor will be with us always” has been made a plain and unyielding truth by those in power, reinforced by those with a media platform.

Faces At The Top Of The Well

October 8, 2011

Signed Copy of Faces at the Bottom of the Well, October 8, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

In a twenty-four hour span on Wednesday, three American giants died. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the ultimate Civil Rights activist, had been reported dead first by mid-afternoon on the fifth. Then, in quick succession the media reported two other deaths. Apple co-founder, two-time CEO and 300+ patents Steve Jobs passed around 7 pm. While Civil Rights activist, law professor, critical race theorist and best-selling author Derrick Bell also passed that evening, very quietly.

The media — social, cable and otherwise — dutifully dedicated itself to rolling out every author and person connected to Jobs the Visionary, Jobs the Thomas Edison of the Information Age, Jobs the Innovative Entrepreneur. By 9:30 pm, even my ambivalence about Jobs the Capitalist (as tweeted @decollins1969)  would’ve been seen as heretical by the folks whom Jobs had fired over the years, or had their jobs outsourced to China in the past ten years.

No doubt that Steve Jobs, my he rest in peace, was a sort-of Wizard of Menlo Park, California (really, Silicon Valley, but taking poetic license here). But, as much as I love my MacBook, iPod, iTunes, iMovie and iPhoto, and other Apple products I’ve used since I wrote an AP English paper on an Apple IIe my senior year at Mount Vernon High School in ’87. I didn’t get this outpouring of love and sorrow two days ago.

Then it occurred to me that I was watching two stories. One story was of a generation that saw Jobs as the man who fused technological innovation with cultural relevancy, the folks who grew up while Jobs was in the midst of his second coming at Apple. As he remade the niche company into the largest corporation (more or less) in the world. The other story is the media story, the Baby Boomer story of a cultural rebel who made good as an Information Age capitalist while maintaining his Zen-ness, an ultimate cultural outsider-corporate insider.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth at Ohio Civil Rights Commission Hall of Fall Dinner, October 2009. In public domain.

As much as I think people should admire the late Steve Jobs — and there’s quite a bit to admire about his life — there’s so much more to admire about Shuttlesworth and Bell. Shuttlesworth survived multiple attempts on his life, was threatened too many times to count, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 (along with MLK and others) and helped lead the campaign to integrate Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s, among many accomplishments. Rev. Shuttlesworth literally gave his blood, sweat and tears for civil rights and equality, but I didn’t see anyone put a candle on an iPad for him Wednesday night.

Bell, well, I’m a bit more biased about Professor Bell. I met him two years before he published Faces at the Bottom of the Well. Bell gave a talk at the University of Pittsburgh Law School (his JD alma mater) in October ’90 on his essay “The Racial Preference Licensing Act,” one that would end up in the book. The idea that racist businesses could opt out of an integrated America by buying a license and paying a race tax in order to deliberately bar Blacks and others of color from their services and jobs, I thought that was truly radical. The slightly older Pitt Law students, Black and White, were up in arms. One went so far as to suggest that Bell was somehow now working for the other side, those who’d like to turn back the clock to the days of Jim Crow.

Through it all, Professor Bell just smiled and joked, and most of all, explained. His story about this Act was a way of getting ahead of the tide of politicians and judges that had been eroding Black gains since the mid-1970s, of moving beyond the crucible of the Civil Rights era — integration at any cost. Bell wasn’t suggesting self-segregation. He was hoping to provoke a larger discussion of the kind of equality Blacks and progressives should hope to achieve in a post-Civil Rights era. One in which all deny racism and racial inequality, but put it in practice in their words and actions every day.

Derrick Bell by David Shankbone, August 2007. Permission granted via GNU Free Documentation License.

Bell’s ambivalence about the achievements of his generation, about the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, about desegregation, made him the target of traditional Civil Rights royalty — the “How dare you!” crowd. But it made me and many others from the generation that actually remembers the Steve Jobs as the guy that co-built the world’s first personal computer in his garage big fans of Professor Bell.

To turn your back on three decades’ worth of struggle and success because you foresaw the coming storm around race. To bridge the divide between Baby Boomers/ the Civil Rights generation and us post-Civil Rights folks by turning complex legal theories into allegorical stories. To take a stand that costs you your job at Harvard Law to ensure that the next Asian American female candidate would be given a real chance at a job. Bell’s my hero, and I don’t have a lot of people I’d call a hero.

The media might have put Bell and Shuttlesworth at the bottom of their news cycle well — no doubt, race and the media’s consistent attempt to ignore race was a factor here — but it’s up to all of us that they are winched out of that well to the top. And I think that Jobs would agree with that. May they all RIP.

Apple logo, Think Different, 1997. (Source/TBWA\Chiat\Day). In public domain


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