Our Country Forward
November 5, 2003
By The Plaid Adder
And now, for a special treat, this week's column presents a brand new musical act! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Trent Lott and the GOPspel Singers performing their new interpretation of a traditional sea chanty:
We've got an excuse now that they're fighting back,
Way, hey, mow the place down...
Don't mind the civilians, it's only Iraq,
We'll try so hard to mow the place down.
We came here to liberate, and we will yet,
Way, hey, mow the place down...
Or was that 'obliterate'? Damn, I forget,
We'll try so hard to mow the place down.
All right, that's quite enough of THAT.
Indeed, we would all be better off if we could stop this crowd from writing any more verses to this depressing and repetitive tune. And it is in hopes of cutting this song off entirely before it reaches its bloody climax that I want to talk about an epiphany I experienced not too long ago during the California recall election. At some point, back in late September, I said to myself:
"Arnold Schwarzenegger is the frontrunner...and Al Sharpton is not a serious candidate. What the hell is up with that?"
Sharpton has been written off by almost everyone, despite his considerable talents as a speaker, his strong performances in the debates, and the same willingness to challenge the party leadership that has paid off big time for Howard Dean. Even when Sharpton does get a nod for something, it is usually followed by a ritual repetition of "...but of course he could never really be elected." Well, it is time to stop and ask ourselves: why not?
I'm serious about this. Because the major thing underlying that attitude, whether people state it or not, is that America "isn't ready" for an African-American president. And my contention is that if we want to finally prevent Trent Lott's genocidal fantasies from playing themselves out, we cannot take "the country isn't ready" for an answer.
Now there are many who would say that the Reverend Al Sharpton is unelectable not because he is an African-American, but because he is the Reverend Al Sharpton. And indeed, in a sane country, these people would have a point. Despite unexpectedly strong showings in several local Democratic primaries, Sharpton has no experience holding public office. He is better known for his one-liners than for his policies. He has been accused of anti-Semitism. And thanks to some skeletons in his closet, he is seen by most people who know his name not as a credible politician, but as an irresponsible attention-seeking celebrity.
To all of which I have a three-word rebuttal: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Similarly, you could argue that as an ordained Pentecostal minister, Sharpton would be unduly influenced by a Christian zeal that might lead to poor decision making in the global arena and the erosion of the separation of church and state at home; or that his somewhat unorthodox resume might leave him unprepared to handle the tremendous demands that the job of President of the United States would make on him.
To all of which I have a three-and-a-fraction word rebuttal: President George W. Bush.
My point is not to rejoice in America's record of electing musclebound ass-grabbers and zealous dimwits; my point is that the Republican party, when they want to foist someone or something on the American public, does not ask if the country is ready; they get the country ready. Is California ready for Governor Conan? I don't think so. But they've got him anyway, because the Republican Party made it happen. And the country was definitely not ready for a George W. Bush presidency - and yet there he sits. Because instead of accepting reality, Bush's party went out and remade it. The Republican party does not succeed by pitching its message to the opinions of the average American; it succeeds by molding the opinions of the average American to fit its message.
So if we're going to play this game for real, we have to learn how to make a majority instead of passively accepting the minority the Republicans leave us. And one of the ways the Democratic Party could do that would be to connect with the segment of the population for whom, right now, Reverend Al Sharpton is the only serious candidate: the disenfranchised, disaffected, and disgusted working-class and underclass African-Americans who have suffered the worst since the Reagan Revolution.
That's Sharpton's constituency; and that's exactly why he hasn't been taken seriously by the party establishment, the media, or even people like us leftist wackos on Democratic Underground who are willing to back lunatics like Kucinich. Sharpton's background is not in Congress or state government; it's in activism, and specifically he has made a career out of protesting the violence directed by the state and by white Americans against urban African-Americans. The name everyone knows is Tawana Brawley, the African-American teenage girl who fabricated a story about being abducted, abused, and raped by a gang of white men (including policemen). Sharpton championed her cause, and so of course he was discredited along with her.
What is less well known is Sharpton's subsequent work on behalf of victims whose cases were absolutely legitimate - such as Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant who in 1999 was shot 47 times in the lobby of his building by a group of New York police officers who never wavered in their insistence that their perception that Diallo was armed and dangerous (even though he was neither) absolutely justified the overwhelming lethal force that they used against him. At the time, I found that shocking - the assumption that just by standing there and reaching for his wallet, Diallo had somehow provoked the horrible death he died. Now, we all realize that those police officers were simply visionaries who anticipated our President's policy of preventive war. Get them before they get you; shoot to kill before you even know if they're armed. We do it at home; no wonder we do it abroad.
Although you won't hear people say it, Sharpton's involvement in the Diallo case is as much a political liability in some ways as his involvement with Brawley. Nobody in the establishment - on either side of the aisle - wants to hear about the racism that still permeates police culture and underwrites police practice in major American cities. And that's a shame, because if our national lawmakers had been paying more attention to the way our majority white police departments deal with minority neighborhoods, they might have learned a thing or two about the problems that were liable to crop up during an occupation of Iraq. Because in the majority-Black, majority-poor neighborhoods of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, it can start to look an awful lot like an occupation. You have the same fundamentally antagonistic relationship between the policers and the policed, the same problems with misunderstanding and mistranslation, the same assumption on each side that the other is always out for blood and acting in bad faith. And you get the same results we are getting in Iraq: the abuse of deadly force on one side, the resort to 'any means necessary' on the other.
Nobody in the establishment wants to consider doing what it would take to get the people who are most endangered by that violence onto the voter rolls and into the polling booths. Because that would involve giving them some kind of stake in the outcome; and that would involve making changes to our society so that it no longer excludes, deprives, and exploits them. And the issues that would really lead to that kind of change are not currently on the table.
After all, if the Democratic Party is serious about getting out the African-American vote, why is nobody bringing up...
The war on drugs?
Mandatory minimum sentencing for relatively minor drug offenses has had a disastrous effect on urban African-Americans, who have been disproportionately targeted by the machinery of law enforcement and by the laws themselves, which go easier on cokeheads than on crack addicts. Not only has it criminalized a sizable chunk of the African-American male population, and thus rendered many of them temporarily or permanently ineligible to vote, but it has fueled the growth of a prison industry which is now a powerful presence on lobbyists' row. Since the fortunes of the prison industry are inextricably linked to the spread of crime, the increasing financial and political clout of this particular growth sector ought to give all of us pause - and it certainly ought to worry the Iraqis who are watching the same companies spend tens of thousands of government dollars building shiny new prisons in their own country.
The Democratic Party doesn't want to touch this because it was one of Clinton's 'successes;' but with the economy as deep in the toilet as it is, it is high time to reassess the way our country treats its poor, because now there are a lot more of them. The idea that even people who cannot find work are still human beings who deserve shelter, food, medical care, and a little fucking dignity is something that apparently went out of style sometime in the late 1960s. Well, bell-bottoms are back; let's see if we can resurrect this much more useful trend. Because one thing that both Bushes have been very good at is creating more poor Americans - especially in depressed urban centers that used to be kept alive by the dying manufacturing sector.
I'm not talking about school vouchers. I'm talking about confronting the basic, foundational injustice on which public education in this country is founded: the fact that individual public schools are funded through local property taxes. To anyone committed to economic justice, it is clear that this simply makes no sense, as it guarantees that those children who would most benefit from a good education are least likely to get it. This structural inequality has been the elephant in the living room for decades now, and the elephant's tread falls most heavily on those who are most likely to live in depressed urban areas with extremely low property taxes and drastically underfunded schools. The Bush administration's all-out assault on public education in America - and that is what his approach amounts to - is in many ways simply the logical extension of that foundational inequality. To those that have, more shall be given; from those that have not, more shall be taken away.
Without real equality in education, it will always be impossible to achieve more than a token success in breaking the cycle of poverty. Of the children born in depressed school districts to struggling parents, only the lucky and/or exceptional few will even get to the point where they could benefit from affirmative action. And most of those children will always be non-white - until we can do something about
Segregation did not die with Jim Crow; and it is not just the Southern man's problem, either. I live well north of the Mason-Dixon line. For a while, my partner and I were among the few white households in a relatively prosperous majority-Black neighborhood on the fringes of a very depressed city. We liked the neighborhood, but were frustrated by the fact that it could not seem to attract any businesses, apart from fast-food chains. The grocery store closed and was replaced by a Giant No-Money Bottom Bargain Basement Food-Mart which closed down, I assume because it looked so depressing and soul-destroying that nobody ever wanted to enter it. Meanwhile, if you wanted to buy clothing, you had to drive half an hour to a town which appears to have been created entirely for the purpose of giving a home to all the retail stores that fled screaming in the wake of White Flight. Eventually, when it came time to buy property, we were so worried about being stuck with something we couldn't resell that we gave in and flew too. We now reside in a neighboring town with plenty of retail and a large and beautiful supermarket - which is, as far as I can tell, about 98% white.
What can be done about this? It is not, clearly, as simple as passing legislation; and yes, I admit it, I am part of the problem. But you know what, so are the banks, insurance companies, and other institutions that made it impossible to finance anything in our former town if it wasn't a bar, a strip joint, or a KFC. No development means no hiring means further depression of property values means crappier schools means even more depressed property values means more white flight means less development...how do you stop this vicious cycle? I don't know, but I can't help thinking we would be better off as a country if someone would at least ask the question, even if the answer was not immediately forthcoming.
De facto segregation in housing is the rule rather than the exception in 21st century America and it is at the root of much that is wrong with this country. It is also at the root of both parties' electoral strategies, which assume that minority voters will always be quarantined in particular areas of densely populated states, while all those 'red' states that take up so much of the West are extremely, extremely white. If we had real integration in terms of housing in this country, not only would it alleviate some of the racial inequities built into our public education system, but it would limit the Republicans' ability to play those little redistricting games they love so much. Politically speaking, it doesn't pay to be any more densely concentrated in any one district than it takes to have a controlling interest. If we could spread things out even a little, it could potentially make a big difference.
I could go on; but my point is this. The days are gone when the Democratic Party could meaningfully promote racial equality simply by taking a principled stand on the issues. Legal discrimination is no longer viable and we are left with the far more stubborn residue created and perpetuated by economic inequality. To give Sharpton's constituency a reason to go to the polls, we would have to be committed to changing the economic structure of this country - at the very least, to make it less painful for those on the bottom, to make it easier for people to escape from the lowest tier of the pyramid, and to dismantle the structures that keep African-Americans trapped in that bottom layer. And I don't see any evidence that any of the 'serious' candidates are talking about making that happen. And that is a serious problem.
If we (and by 'we' I mean my fellow white Democrats, from the centrist party leadership to the progressive mavericks) can't get our party to address the basic injustices at the heart of our own society - if we simply accept the fact that an enormous number of our country's citizens are still, forty years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Dream" speech, in a position where they either cannot vote or have nothing for which to vote - then we will not be able to address the massive injustices that we are currently perpetrating overseas. No matter how committed or angry we are, the white left is simply not large or powerful enough to carry this country. If we want change, we have to be willing to really work with other constituencies - and that means no longer expecting to control the agenda.
The party leadership cannot approach African-American voters the way that Bush approaches the U.N., asking for help but refusing to share power. They have to give to get - and one of the things that they will have to give up is the assumption that politics will always be pretty much about the needs of middle-class white people. Can you imagine an America in which out of nine Democratic presidential hopefuls, only two are white? Can you imagine a political debate in which the candidates fall all over themselves to pander to working-class African-Americans while only throwing the occasional bone to white middle-class voters? Does that scare you?
I go to a lot of anti-war rallies these days, and I often see white, college-educated activists get up and talk about "taking our country back." I do the same thing, on my smaller scale. But when we - and by 'we' I mean myself and my fellow white lefties - talk about taking our country back, we betray our own sense of entitlement, and we gloss over the fact that many of our fellow Americans could never just assume that the country belonged to them in the first place. Without them, the white left is going nowhere, and for everyone's sake we all have to realize that now.
So. We cannot take the country back without taking it forward. It is not a coincidence that the same man who was removed from his leadership position for frankly sighing over the good old days of legalized apartheid in the American South is also the one who is currently taking heat for frankly revealing the intense disrespect for the lives of non-Americans and non-whites that is absolutely foundational to this administration's foreign policy. We can't fix the evil that is this war without at least making a start on fixing the evils we are used to living with at home.
There are plenty of principled reasons not to vote for Sharpton - just as there are plenty of principled reasons not to vote for Dean, Kerry, Kucinich, Edwards, Lieberman, Gephardt, Clark and, uh, that other African-American candidate you never hear about, Carol Moseley-Braun. But we cannot justify dismissing him and the constituency he represents. Because by taking Sharpton seriously, the rest of the party might finally learn what we need to know in order to turn this country around before Trent Lott gets to sing another goddamn verse of that song.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented on-line audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.