Friday, March 1, 2013

Harry Belafonte at 86 Continues To Fight For Social Justice, Cultural Transformation, and the Powerful Legacy of Paul Robeson


(b. March 1, 1927)


"We Must Unleash Radical Thought":  
Harry Belafonte’s 
Stirring Speech Accepting NAACP Spingarn Medal

Along with his rise to worldwide stardom, the musician and actor Harry Belafonte has been deeply involved in social activism for decades. One of Dr. Martin Luther King’s closest confidants, Belafonte helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. On Friday, the NAACP awarded Belafonte their highest honor, the Spingarn Medal. "Numerous strategies in the quest of our freedom has been played out at all levels of the social spectrum," Belafonte says in his acceptance speech. "What is missing, I think, from the equation in our struggle today is that we must unleash radical thought. ... America has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices being at the helm of any such quest." 
Harry Belafonte, musician, actor and activist, accepting the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the group’s highest honor.


AMY GOODMAN: "Harlem Nocturne" by Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers, performed by the Newark Boys Chorus, singing Friday night at the NAACP event honoring the legendary musician Harry Belafonte. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The son of Caribbean immigrants, Harry Belafonte grew up on the streets of Harlem and Jamaica. In the '50s, he spearheaded the calypso craze, became the first artist in recording history with a million-selling album. He was also the first African-American musician to win an Emmy. Along with his rise to worldwide stardom, Belafonte became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. One of Dr. King's closest confidants, he helped organize the March on Washington in 1963.

Well, on Friday night, the NAACP honored him with their highest honor, the Spingarn Medal. He began his speech referring to Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s introduction.

HARRY BELAFONTE: Mayor Booker, that was heavy. I—I don’t know that I’ve ever been introduced quite like that before. And as you called out the moments that represent the crossroads of the paths in my life, I’m reminded that no matter how I am anointed for what it is that I do and try to do, it was never without the knowledge and the joy that what I said and what I still say was really rooted in the courage and the strength of so many remarkable people who befriended me and who counseled me and who became an intricate part of my journey. And to sit here and to watch you do the work that you do in the city of Newark, which is not a garden, not a paradise, but a place of remarkable struggle, you are to be anointed for how well you’re doing the job in Newark. But your mother didn’t tell you everything. But your daddy was my best friend.

What I’m about to say, I had occasion to say a couple of weeks ago. I was in California celebrating the NAACP Image Awards. And what made that event, which I have attended quite often, and I’ve been anointed with the awards in different intervals in my journey, but what made this one particularly significant was that it was the first time that in the history of the NAACP awards that the Spingarn Medal honoree was being platformed. So the country got an opportunity to not only look at the young men and women who have achieved so much in the arts, but to also take a moment and a pause to look at our social concerns as well as our social journey. The speech I’m about to give is one that I gave the night on television. Some of you may have heard it. And for those of you who haven’t, I will give you the opportunity to hear it now. For those who are hearing it for the second time, I hope the redundancy doesn’t drive you from the room. But it won’t be long. But it says there’s a preciseness to the thought, when I put those thoughts on paper, that it was about America as I see it today and where we stand.

The group that is most devastated by America’s obsession with the gun is African Americans. Although making comparisons can be dangerous, there are times when they must be noted. America has the largest prison population in the world, and the over two million men, women and children who make up the incarcerated, the overwhelming majority of them is black. African Americans are the most unemployed, the most caught in the unjust systems of justice. And in the gun game, they are the most hunted. The rivers of blood that wash the streets of our nation flow mostly from the bodies of our black children. Yet, as the great debate emerges on the question of the gun, white America discusses the constitutional issues of ownership, while no one speaks to the consequences of our racial carnage. Where is the outraged voice of black America? Where? And why are we mute? Where are our leaders? Where are our legislators? Where is the church?

Not all, but many who have been the recipients of this distinguished award, were men and women who spoke up to remedy the ills of the nation. They were all committed to radical thought. They were my mentors, my inspiration, my moral compass. Through them, I understood America’s greatness. I understood America’s potential. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, and others like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, Bobby Kennedy and Miss Constance Rice, and perhaps, for me, most of all, Paul Robeson.

For me, Mr. Robeson was the sparrow. He was an artist who made those of us in the arts understand the depth of that calling, when he said, "Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice." Never in the history of black America has there been such a harvest of truly gifted and powerfully celebrated artists. Yet, our nation hungers for their radical song. In the field of sports, our presence dominates. In the landscape of corporate power, we have more African-American presence as captains and leaders of industry than we’ve ever known. Yet we suffer still from abject poverty and moral malnutrition.

Our only hope lies in the recall of a moment which has been to referred to earlier here, and was my last meeting with Dr. King. It was just before he left to go off to Memphis to join the strike with sanitation workers. We held a strategy meeting, and Dr. King—the meeting was in my home, and Dr. King, during that meeting, appeared to be distracted and in a dark mood. When we asked him what was the matter, he said, "We have come far in the struggle for integration, and although we may be winning some battles, we have not won the war. And I have come to the conclusion that in our struggle to integrate, we may be integrating into a burning house." That thought, we found deeply disturbing. And when we asked him if such was his belief, what would he have us do? And his reply was, "We will have to become firemen."

Numerous strategies in the quest of our freedom has been played out at all levels of the social spectrum—youth groups, women’s groups, labor groups, religious groups. The list goes on and on. And yet, the opposition persists in its resistance to our quest. What is missing, I think, from the equation in our struggle today is that we must unleash radical thought. America keeps that part of the discourse mute. I would make an appeal for the NAACP, as the oldest institution in our quest for human dignity and human rights, that we stimulate more fully the concept and the need for radical thinking. America has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices being at the helm of any such quest.

The pursuit of justice is all I have ever known. And I have often said that what defines a true patriot—and in reading a book, The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, I came upon a quote, where he said that when the state finds itself moving away from its commitment to the rights of the citizen, when those rights are being trampled and misguided, when there are those who would wrest from the Constitution the equality that it attempted to give all of us, then the citizens of the nation have not only the obligation, but the right, to challenge the state and those who run it. And he said, if we fail to do that, if we fail to meet that moral criteria, then we, the citizens, should be charged with patriotic treason.

And that struck me because what we are really on is a journey to end the treasonous behavior of the contemporary political scene and what it is trying to do to steal our votes—to steal our votes, to what it’s doing to our women, to what it’s doing to our children, to what it’s doing to wherever black people have moments of need and want. I would ask that unless black America—or I would say that unless black America raises its voice loud and clear, America—and it is specifically our responsibility—of all the cultural diversity that makes up this nation and its promise to be great, the most powerful force is the voice of African Americans, and America will never become whole, and America will never become what it dreams to be, until we are truly free and truly a bigger part of this.

AMY GOODMAN: The legendary actor, musician, activist Harry Belafonte, speaking on Friday night, awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal. He turns 86 years old on March 1st. You can go to our website for our full interview with Harry Belafonte, our archive of interviews.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Dr. Boyce Watkins, Geoffrey Jacques and Kofi Natambu Weigh in on the Ongoing National Debate On Race, Ideology, Public Policy, and the Obama Administration


Just very briefly in response to your inquiry about my definition of "neoliberal" as posited in your second paragraph below: I am obviously referring to the exact same thing you are with respect to the fundamental meaning of the term, since in an economic sense that is precisely what the term means. However, what I am identifying as problematic and even exasperating in Obama's "strategic and tactical responses to his own (essentially liberal) agenda" is an often confusing, inconsistent, and what I among others have often perceived as a  regrettable tendency on the President's part to politically try to curry favor with the Republican and Tea Party right by improperly conflating the abstract notion of the "necessity for political compromise" with visibly weakening his actual commitment to his own publicly stated (social democratic) agenda.  I hasten to add that this is not merely a question of personal political form/style or provisional tactical considerations over content.  This tendency can be seen very clearly and concretely in the ongoing fight over the national deficit and the so-called legislative quest for a "grand bargain" between the White House and Congress that still currently calls for draconian domestic spending cuts (vis-a-vis the government's demand for increased revenues via structural tax reform), and the specific debt crisis debacle of 2011.  This tendency is most disturbing however in the Clintonian semi-triangulating strategy of the President and his administration advancing the notion of "challenging and opposing [his] own base" in constantly declaring that he is "open" to major cuts in the quintessential social democratic "entitlement programs" of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.

So while on the surface it may well be difficult to imagine as you indicate that an administration that has sponsored such liberal reform programs and initiatives as the automobile bailout, the Affordable Care Act, and even Dodd-Frank (which specifically I must point out is in content far weaker as genuine regulatory reform legislation than it could or should be) would be considered even remotely "neoliberal", it is important to acknowledge that neoliberalism possesses both a major ideological/political component as well as an economic one.  It is this contradiction alongside the paradoxically structural one of an imperial democratic state that I maintain we should remain vigilant and reasonably critical about with regard to this President and the party (and state apparatus) that he leads--even with the comforting and significant presence of a Patrick Gaspard in Obama's 'inner circle'. So I agree that "complication of our assessment" of the President's core values and policies in this context is obviously good and useful but bedrock political and moral integrity along with policy discipline and commitment no matter what kind of sordid games your opposition tries to play are even better...



On Mar 1, 2013, at 12:29 PM, Geoffrey Jacques wrote:


I'm always glad to have these sorts of conversations, since they help me clarify my own views. Another reason I find them so valuable is that I continue to believe it's important for all of us to understand, as clearly as possible, our current state of affairs. It's also part of my ongoing attempt to learn from the past while not being hemmed in by the past's epistemological boundaries.

I understand why you might find my characterizations of the Obama administration & the Democratic Party "problematic" and "suspect." I also hear you when you say that "it is not always clear how much Obama as a leading Democratic Party politician takes seriously a truly liberal as opposed to neoliberal position in his own strategic and tactical political responses to his own agenda."  Some of the difference between us may have to do with the terms we are using and the meanings we are attaching to those terms. For instance, when I use the term "neoliberal," I am referring to the anti-Keynesian, anti-state interventionist, free market policies (deregulation, privatization, tight money) advocated by economists like von Hayek, von Mises, and Friedman, & pursued by their political followers Reagan & Thatcher, & by the fans of those economists & politicians. You may, or may not, mean something else by the term. However, it's hard to see how an administration that is responsible for policies like the auto bailout, the Affordable Care Act, or the Dodd-Frank legislation can be called "neoliberal," by the definitions that seem to be accepted by most economists & political thinkers & activists. (On the other hand, neoliberals count libertarians among their constituents, so acts like the repeal of DADT could be consistent with that label.)

My own characterization of the DP & the Obama administration as "as possibly the most left-of-center governing political force we've ever had in this country, or at least since, say, the 1936-1944 period," was based on comparing like & like things, not like & unlike ones. I was not comparing Pres. Obama with some idealized notion of a "left" politician that I might have stowed away in a cherished place in my heart. I was comparing the current Presidential administration with previous ones.

Given that standard, we might consider posing the question in the opposite manner: what presidential administration in the history of the country has been more left-of-center than the current one? The second and third terms of FDR come to mind, but otherwise? Even with that comparison, we should bear in mind that the major reforms of other progressive administrations have mainly consisted of adding & institutionalizing new government programs; or, in the case of the JFK-LBJ era, also enacting new laws supporting already existing Constitutional provisions. The Obama administration has extended unprecedented government regulation (& in come cases, controls) over already existing private & third sector economic areas, including the first-time ever acquisition of a majority equity stake in a major private industry as a condition for instituting a public guarantee of that industry's continued existence. However temporary that acquisition, it was, nevertheless, a watershed, precedent-setting act on the part of a sitting U.S. president. I would argue that these acts build upon, but go much further than, the regulatory regimes constructed by previous administrations.

In addition to all that, there has been a visible shift in the ideology of the Democratic Party leadership, a shift that can best be seen by comparing the President's policies & the Democratic Party Platform with the policies of the Socialist International; it would make an interesting parlor game to try to find the daylight between the SI's policies, on the one hand, & those articulated by the current U.S. President in recent speeches, on the other. If we pay special attention to questions of taxation, regulation, & overall policy vision, the similarities between the two groups are striking. (We should also take note that Phil Angeltides, former CA Treas. & current chair of the US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, addressed the most recent, 24th SI Congress, held last August in Cape Town, on behalf of the US Democratic Party, as a "specially invited keynote speaker.")  This SI-DP ideology posits the middle class as the dynamic agent of modern society. In contrast to neoliberals, who appear to see the middle class solely as a supportive class vis a vis the wealthy elite, & whose policies toward the middle class therefore can be characterized as protectionist & conservative, the DP-SI promotes the middle class an expanding, agentive force. This seems to be a complicated response to the social changes of modern society, & a replacement for, & updating of, old Marxist ideas about the "proletariat." The DP-SI articulates as a goal the creation of a "middle class society" under a democratic polity. Both neoliberals & social democrats share a "rising tide lifts all boats" point of view, but the difference between the two might best be put this way: while neoliberals see the desired results of the tide in almost exclusively vertical terms, social democrats advocate that the tide should have both vertical and horizontal results.

This is not our father's liberalism. Or at least, it's a sort of reboot of our father's liberalism. In both its old & new forms, liberalism seems to see the middle class as a kind of courtier or lady in waiting, a point of view that befits that class's social origins. But once the middle class reached, in demographic terms, a critical mass in society, things seem to have changed. Modern social democracy, in both its international (socialist) & U.S. (postliberal-social democratic) forms, is, it seems to me, a response to those changes. The US Democratic Party has been trending toward this point of view for twenty years. The current US President, as the leader of that party, embodies that view more than any previous such leader. He does this while maintaining his position as the leader of the most powerful — & most democratic — imperial state in world history & protector & steward of its national security apparatus. It's a strange paradox, & we should be sensitive to both its strangeness & to its paradoxical nature.

If all this sounds like I have some sympathy with the DP-SI point of view as I've described it, I do. I can only attribute that to my years in the labor movement as member, activist, & staffer. While looking over the SI site I've linked you to above, I saw that my old boss, Gerald Hudson, was in attendance at the SI conference as a leader of DSA, & I recognized at least one other name among the U.S. delegation. Hudson & I worked together in the 1990s at 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East, where I was an editor of the union's magazine. Among our coworkers there was Patrick Gaspard, a poet & former Park Slope neighbor (for the latest news on him, see here), who is one of those important Obama administration officials whose inner circle presence should complicate whatever assessment we might have of the president's core policies & values.

Anyway, this post is already far too long, & please forgive me for its length. I just wanted to try to clarify a few things I may have said a little too glibly in my earlier note. I can only hope that I've succeeded.


On Feb 28, 2013, at 4:12 PM, Kofi Natambu wrote:


The major part of your response here that I agree most emphatically with--and have been asserting myself to many people  throughout the country both verbally and in print for over five years now-- are contained in paragraph two of your statement below.  However I find the assertions you make in the third paragraph having to do with the "political composition, character, and philosophy" of Obama's administration and the Democratic Party generally during this epoch to be far more problematic and even suspect on a number of different levels.  Partly because while it's demonstrably accurate to assert that Obama's life experiences outside academia with older Marxists and socialists like, for example, Frank Marshall Davis, gave him invaluable insights into the critical limits and possibilities of these ideas and their possible usages, and while it's certainly clear that Obama also has an intellectual connection to and fundamental acquaintance with these various leftist ideological and theoretical traditions, it is not always clear how much Obama as a leading Democratic Party politician takes seriously a truly liberal as opposed to neoliberal position in his own strategic and tactical political responses to his stated agenda.  Further the comment about the history of the talented tenth in this context certainly makes sense as far as it goes but it's simply not a convincing argument at all that the DP today can accurately be described as you put it "as possibly the most left-of-center governing force we've ever had in this country" (in my view that comparative--and still conflicted 'honor'--goes--ironically(?) to the 1936-1944 DP of FDR!).  The 'New Labour' metaphor/comparison seems a little more accurate on first glance but it remains to be seen if this "new emerging political formation" can actually grow and expand in an organic and pragmatic manner and thus solidify its place in U.S. politics beyond the impressive progressive coalition that Team Obama has managed to successfully agitate for and mobilize on at least the national electoral level since 2008. 

I also find that the critical dichotomy that you make between a "permanent opposition" and critiquing the President's administration from the position of "standing in the President's shoes" because "we" are "closer" to being in those shoes "than we have ever been in our lifetimes" to be largely unnecessary because these distinctions are not necessarily as separate from each other as they appear.  Besides we will really only know if our varying critiques are generally sound or useful when or if they come into contact with, and are tested against the greater political realities,  on the ground at any given time.

Finally, Michael Harrington was clearly a brilliant political strategist and tactician but I never thought his theoretical formulations about the white working class especially vis-a-vis blacks were especially significant. The 'perception' that he speaks of regarding the Great Society programs not being accepted as "universal" enough (whether being stoked by the nefarious likes of Kevin Phillips and his notorious "southern strategy" or not) was informed primarily by the historical ravages and ongoing impact of the entrenched traditions of white supremacy--especially of the white citizens council variety-- rather than any 'perception' that they were being systematically neglected, ignored or taken for granted by the DP generally and especially by President Johnson. So while it's very important and necessary tactically and strategically for the Obama administration to as Valerie Jarrett pointed out make health insurance readily available to nine million black citizens as far as the Affordable Care Act is concerned this action doesn't in itself generally cancel out entirely or make fundamentally irrelevant any mature, measured, and nuanced responses to seriously confronting and trying to resolve questions of "race", class, and structural inequality from the standpoint of bold public policy initiatives--some of which will unavoidably have to "target" the needs and desires of specific ethnic constituencies--just as the Obama administration has successfully--and justifiably!-- targeted the Latino and LGBT commmunities and interests with regard to immigration policy and institutional and systemic discrimination against these groups in the economy, the military, and in terms of the right to marry. On that ultimately useful comparison and overall political assessment Dr. Watkins was not essentially wrong or misguided even if his personal rhetoric--fueled again by his own frustration and impatience-- tended to become reductive and counterproductive in the process...

In the final analysis I think it is very important that both the critics and/or supporters of Obama's agenda--and I'm speaking primarily here of those of us who generally consider ourselves to be of the "left" (whether all our "friends" colleagues, and "comrades" agree with that assertion or generalization or not--smile!)--fully realize and embrace the fact that theory and praxis on this level of political and social engagement--i.e. confronting and seriously engaging the federal government and the political parties and tendencies that wield power and authority in this realm--requires first and foremost as you pointed out earlier--and as we've both been pointing out to anybody who will listen--that a broadbased and properly organized  mass social movement that recognizes and takes full advantage of those specific historical openings and opportunities represented by the electoral ascension of President Obama is what is most important, necessary, and desirable for us all both now and in the longterm...


On February 25, 2013, at 8:52 PM, Geoffrey Jacques wrote:


My response to Watkins's article was coming from the following place: I've seen lots of these kinds of complaints coming from people who carry an aura of left critique and who also have significant media connections. I've been arguing in smaller forums with similar people who've been mounting similar complaints for most of the time this administration's been in office. My own problem is that I wonder if many of Pres. Obama's self-styled "left" critics even listen closely to what he says or look closely at what he's doing.

Part of the problem, as I've come to think of it, has to do with the inability of some progressives to take "yes" for an answer. Instead of talking how to use this historic opening to build the kind of movement we need, too many people are complaining about Obama as if he's the failed Organizer in Chief, or something. So I get irritated.

The fundamental historical significance of this administration also needs to be considered more fully, as does the political character of today's Democratic Party, which has emerged in the last few years as possibly the most left-of-center governing political force we've ever had in this country, or at least since, say, the 1936-1944 period. This is the first president of the United States whose education included a study of Marxist and socialist traditions, an education that was acquired outside the academy from people who were directly involved in the movements inspired by those traditions. All this is complicated by the fact that, to some extent, Obama's achievement represents the realization of the Talented Tenth dream — and the deal it tried to offer the country's Unionist elite — a century ago, a dream that much of the TT itself has long abandoned, but one that never completely died out among familial and political descendants of the defeated Reconstruction-era black elite. Combine all this with the wholesale adoption by the DP of a kind of centrist Socialist International politics — call it New Labour adopted to U.S. conditions — and we've got, in essence, a new political formation on our hands.

The difference between 1936-1944 and now isn't, paradoxically, the tone and tenor of the administration's leftist critics. (I spent last summer reading the second volume of Schlesinger's Age of Roosevelt, covering his first term and the run-up to the 1936 election. I felt like I was reading my daily email, except that the names had changed.) The trouble is that too few people, whether critics or partisans, seem to acknowledge just how profoundly significant this administration is, in terms of its political composition and philosophy. For my part, though, I've concluded that I can best navigate my own critique of the administrating by starting, not from the standpoint of a "permanent opposition," but from the standpoint of "what would I do if I was in Obama's shoes," because we — blacks, leftists, and various combinations of those — are right now closer to being in the shoes of a sitting president than most of us have ever been in our lifetimes.

A long time ago Michael Harrington had some interesting things to say about why the Great Society programs could have been so easily eroded by the right wing after the 1968 elections. While I don't remember all the details, I seem to remember that the gist of his argument had to do with a widespread perception among working class whites that these programs weren't universal, a perception successfully stoked, as we all remember, by the Southern Strategists of four decades ago. If assuring health insurance for nine million African Americans today had been posed as an "urban, minority" program, I'll bet Team Obama surmises, the whole program would have gone down in flames. I was, to some degree, using Watkins as a kind of straw man. He's not the only one who "misses" this improvement in the lives of nine million black people and uses his blindness to make claims about how Obama "ignores" race. Meanwhile, though, among our real problems is how can we have a significant impact on the upcoming elections to the House of Representatives, elections that could, depending on the outcome, open up some real possibilities for an effective fight for progressive changes in public policy.


On February 25, 2013 at 6:37pm Kofi Natambu wrote: 

Without pursuing the thankless, silly, and ultimately irrelevant task of "defending" or even attempting to "explain" Watkins's political POV with respect to Obama in this piece (after all those specific and important probing questions that you raise in your response would finally have to be addressed directly to him alone in any event), it strikes me that that it would be far more productive--and much more interesting for us--to simply acknowledge what individual 'perspective'  Watkins is actually attempting to suggest here.  In that rather simple context and as it stands in his article what he says here hardly rises to the level of a "critique" or even proffers to offer a detailed or specific  counterargument to what Valerie Jarrett says in defense of White House domestic public policy stances on employment, healthcare, education, housing, taxation and other important issues germane to the national African American 'community.'   No.  What's far more important and relevant to this entire discussion for the rest of us--and we need not be solely focused on the largely personal frustrations expressed by Watkins in his article--is, as you also point out, the necessity of moving well beyond the tiresome and hopelessly cliched assessments and reductive complaints about the President and his administration on the infantile level of his public 'personality' or endorsing the dumb wishful thinking projections and lazy indulgence of far too many citizens generally in political celebrity mythmaking--either 'positively' or 'negatively'-- that far too often hangs onto Obama like a suffocating wetsuit.  Like many I too agree very strongly with you that this sort of idle self serving chitchat and petty gossip is far beneath us in general and is largely worthless as far as even remotely serious political discourse is concerned and  and should be soundly rejected wherever and whenever it raises its all too inevitable head.

So given all that what strikes me as necessary and even of some potentially real value in Watkins piece is that he expresses (albeit clumsily and rather incoherently as far as any significant or specific "critique" is concerned) a fundamental frustration and personal dissatisfaction with the course that Obama's presidency is pursuing in terms of addressing those ongoing structural, institutional, and systemic issues and problems that the general black population is justly concerned about.  Beyond that observation not much more can (or should) be said.  However it is also important that we not lose sight of precisely WHY these kind of inchoate frustrations like those that Watkins expresses  are being expressed because politically and ideologically they do speak to a much larger crisis in our politics that in properly identifying the real sources of our discontent with this or any other Presidency and its actual policies and programs, it remains important for us to carefully and critically examine what we think should be happening from our own political perspective(s)--and as you point out that does indeed require that that we seriously address "a consideration of why this administration pursues its policies in relation to the black community in the way that it does.  Now I may be wrong about this because I personally have no way of knowing what's in Dr. Watkin's head on any of this (as far as any more detailed and informed "critique" is concerned that is), but I really don't think Watkins was saying that Obama is merely a "rerun" or "updating of Reagan(ism) in terms of public policy or even political ideology.  What he is basically concerned about is related to the ultimate effects of  Reagan's chief economic advisor David Stockman's largely discredited and  economic theories and practices (even by him at this point!) on black people in the U.S. with respect to the phantom political economy known as "trickle down".  and while Watkins expressed this concern rather inartfully in the article (again because of his clearly emotional frustration with the "lift all boats approach expressed by the President via Valerie Jarrett), the larger point is that the clearly structural, institutional, and systemic dimensions of our ongoing economic crisis in Black America must at some point be seriously confronted and pursued at the actual pragmatic level of public policy.  The dire importance of politically and ideologically addressing that far larger reality simply cannot be denied.   After all that's what the venal and ultimately twin legacies of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan really mean to us in the final analysis.  Just ask Lawrence Summers and especially Timothy Geithner for the relevant ugly details in this epoch...


On Feb 25, 2013, Geoffrey Jacques wrote:

I'm not sure I quite understand this critique. Is Watkins complaining because President Obama is not pursuing a politics he never claimed to have had in the first place? I have yet to hear where Obama ever advocated "targeting urban or black communities" in any of his major reform proposals. Or is Watkins just complaining because Obama doesn't talk about "race" and racism as much as past presidents such as a white Massachusetts nouveau rich Brahmin & three white Southern liberals who grew up under segregation? Why would he expect that to be the case? It almost sounds like he's saying that one's skin color ought to determine one's politics.

As for the fact that unemployment among African Americans is twice that of whites, I don't see why Watkins thinks this is news. Much can be said about that fact, but that statistic has been with us long enough that there's a consensus in at least some wings of the economics profession that this is a systemic problem, not one generated or sustained by one party or politician. This also goes for the dismal statistics regarding the economic prospects and upward mobility potential of many of the most educated and highly skilled black people.

Like I said, there's a widespread consensus that these are structural problems, and there is at least some historical evidence to support the idea that these problems are at least marginally ameliorated when the economy as a whole is doing better. (I won't speak, here, of the ideological and cultural factors involved in generating and maintaining these problems.) If Watkins doesn't agree with that consensus, it seems he owes us the courtesy of telling us what view he does hold on the matter. In any case, his whole "critique" strikes me as yet another of those appeals to the "great man" theory of American politics, an appeal that has become particularly strident under the Obama presidency. I at first thought that Watkins might be new to politics, but I see that this isn't quite the case. However, it strikes me as somewhat inattentive to conflate Obama's neo-social democratic philosophy and politics (well-put by Valerie Jarrett) with the Friedmanesque oligarchical politics of Ronald Reagan; to do so is to misunderstand both politicians.

I would like to see our commentators refrain from trying to turn Barack Obama into either a good dream gone bad, a figment of their imaginations, or a freak of political nature. A more productive route to criticizing the President's politics and policies could start by taking the politics Obama actually advocates seriously. What's missing from Watkins's complaint is any consideration of why this administration pursues its policies in relation to the black community in the way that it does. It's really hard to take seriously the idea that Obama is a rerun of Reagan. Politics is complicated, but I fail to see any acknowledgement of that fact in Watkins's critique. It would be comforting if I could agree with Watkins that the black political community is sleepwalking through the Obama presidency, but I just don't see it. On the other hand, accusing the black community's political classes of a form of political idiocy (e.g., atkins's "low self-esteem" comment), also just doesn't cut it.



Yet another timely and accurate article that falls into the ever expanding category of that which "we don't want to hear but we nonetheless desperately NEED to hear."  After all the painful truth never really hurts anyone nearly as much as it hurts those who insist on running away from it.  Thank you Dr. Watkins once again for your fundamental honesty, clarity, and insight.  This is what is required of us all if we are truly sincere in our collective desire to effectively attack and ultimately resolve the real problems and crises facing us no matter who's in the White House...As always:  Stay tuned...


Study: Obama Pays Less Attention to Race than Any Democratic President in the Last 50 Years
February 20, 2013
by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Black Bluedog

Research at The University of Pennsylvania says that the nation’s first bi-racial president has made among the fewest references to race in American history.  According to a study by Daniel Q. Gillion, an assistant professor of Political Science at The University of Pennsylvania, President Barack Obama has been the least racially-responsive Democratic President since 1961. Professor Gillion measured references to race with executive orders and statements on race during public speeches.

George Curry, writing on the matter at, summarizes the study’s results in an interesting way.  According to Curry:

That means he has paid less attention to race than John F. Kennedy, a liberal former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and three White Southerners who grew up under segregation – Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

Curry writes on Obama’s racial preferences in the context of a recent speech by White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, who insists that the president is not afraid to mention race in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary.   Jarrett made her remarks during a meeting with six journalists who came to visit her.

“If you look at the president’s record in the first four years, if you look at his major domestic policy accomplishments, they disproportionately do benefit the African-American community,” she said.

Jarrett continued, “If you look at the Affordable Care Act – roughly 9 million African Americans uninsured will have health insurance today – if you look at the president’s Recovery Act and subsequent budgets … If you went through the menu of tax incentives and unemployment that disproportionately benefit the African-American community, time and time again – I think unemployment insurance has been extended like nine times –every single time we had to fight the Republicans to get that done.”

I love what Valerie Jarrett is trying to say, because it perfectly explains much of the race strategy of the Obama Administration. This, my friends, is what could be called a racialized version of Trickle Down Economics.  It is a strategy which states that if we help everyone (starting with those at the top), then it’s going to filter down to the rest of us (meaning black folks).  The idea of targeting urban or black communities is taken off the table, despite the fact that we live in a nation that spent 400 years engaging in targeted strategies designed to create racial division.  As a response, we are fed the economic leftovers of an allegedly post-racial society that believes that racial inequality disappears when you simply decide not to be racist anymore.

The problem with this policy is that it didn’t work under President Ronald Reagan, and it’s not working now.  As NAACP President Ben Jealous (perhaps reluctantly) admitted, African Americans are far worse off under President Obama than even President Bush, and the racial economic gap continues to widen.  Since the recession began in 2008, Wall Street has seen a robust recovery, white Americans have seen improvements in their unemployment rate, and African American economic progress remains in the toilet.  In fact, when the recession is over, our unemployment rates will still be higher than the ones white people are complaining about right now.  There are few greater signs of inequality than the fact that white people are allowed to complain about 7% unemployment, yet black people (i.e. myself) can be called traitors for respectfully mentioning 14%.  Instead, we are expected to believe that black people don’t have jobs because they are a pack of lazy, uneducated negroes looking for a handout (which is an insult to many educated people who can’t find adequate work in this economy).

Now, if one were to buy into the notion that, according to Jarrett, the Obama Administration is breaking its back to help black people, then this leads us to a serious paradox.  The paradox is that if they are doing all they can to help the black community, and the community continues to be worse off, then the reason for the continued decline must be because there is something wrong with black people (yet another artifact of white supremacy, which tells us that whites are so much harder working than we are).  Hence, the administration being run by America’s first bi-racial president is leaning on white supremacy to excuse itself from working for black constituents as hard as it works for gay people and illegal immigrants.

Valerie Jarrett is a senior adviser and a smart woman, but let me give her some quick advice.

First, start telling the truth (a difficult task for any politician, I know).   The reality is that the Obama Administration knows that it can put the African American community on the back burner largely because some of us have such low political self-esteem that we are just happy to see a president with black skin.   Unlike other groups who fought for their gains from Obama, African Americans have rarely expressed the political will to make things happen for their children and their communities.  Valerie knows she can get away with style and no substance when it comes to King Obama.  Voting for Barack is not enough, we must also sacrifice our Democratic voice, which is something that I am NOT willing to do.

While there are those who argue that we expect more from Obama than past presidents, the fact is that we gave him more support than past presidents.  What’s most unfortunate, however, is that (by virtue of this study), we are now in the remarkable position of giving extraordinary support while begging for ordinary responses.   Some would say that it’s hard to argue that the Obama presidency was a good investment for black America:  The Obama family wins, and millions of black people lose.  I beg anyone to prove otherwise.

Second, stop inviting the same ineffective people to the White House to discuss black economic policy with the president.  The last I checked, Al Sharpton never studied economics and has rarely, if ever, created a job.  So, the logical way to explain your decision to pass over economic experts in order to speak with a preacher is that you would rather have meetings with black people who refuse to ask you the hard questions.   Al Sharpton is a strong man, but somehow you’ve weakened (or intimidated) him, and the rest of the black community is suffering because of it. I don’t know what happened to Rev. Sharpton, but I truly feel sorry for him.

Third, stop presuming that Obama’s success is the same as the success of the black community.  Yes, most of us want to support the president’s battles against the Republicans (I refuse to discuss Democratic ineptitude with Republicans until they offer better solutions), but most of us love our children more than we love your administration. This means that as the president fights for gay people and immigrants, we should fully expect that he is going to use his power to help black people find jobs, manage violence and confront the devastating impact of the prison industrial complex.  We are attacking these matters ourselves, but we can’t impact institutionalized racism the way President Obama can by picking up his pen and signing executive orders.

Valerie, I’m happy for Barack, really I am. But while the world stands cheering for Obama, the black community is dying a slow death.  This death is not due to some psychological malfunction we’re cursed with at birth, but due to the fact that some of our leaders (elected and otherwise) have fallen asleep at the wheel when it comes to unearthing the lasting impact of systematic racism.   In many cases, the term, “personal responsibility” is used to wag a finger at the black community.  But the other side of the coin is that responsibility rises to the top, and although President Obama can’t solve all of the problems of the black community, he certainly has an obligation to try.

Talk is always cheap, which is why politicians do so much of it.  It’s time to put your money where your mouth is.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and author of the book, “Black American Money.”


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Dave Zirin and Jessica Valenti On Oscar Pistorius and the Deadly Global Terrorism of Violence Against Women


The whole truth and nothing but about one of the major and most heinous forms of actual terrorism in the world today...Pass the word...


Oscar Pistorius and the Global System of Deadly Misogyny
by Dave Zirin
February 20, 2013
Oscar Pistorius stands in the dock during a break in court proceedings over the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)
A professional athlete; a home with an arsenal of firearms; a dead young woman involved in a long-term relationship with her killer. In November, her name was Kasanda Perkins and the man who shot her was Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher. Now her name is Reeva Steenkamp, killed by Olympic sprinter and double amputee Oscar “the Blade Runner” Pistorius. We don’t know whether Pistorius is guilty of murdering a woman he claims to have deeply loved or is guilty merely of being an unbelievably irresponsible gun owner, firing four bullets into the door of his bathroom in an effort to hit an imagined burglar. We do know that this is either an all-too-familiar story of a man and the woman he dated and then killed, or it’s the story of a man who thought a burglar had penetrated the electrified fence that surrounded his gated community to break into his house and use his toilet.

Just as with Belcher and Perkins, we will learn more than we ever wanted or needed to know in the weeks to come about the nature of Pistorius and Steenkamp’s relationship. We will learn about the “allegations of a domestic nature” that had brought police to his home in the past. We will learn about Pistorius’s previous allegedly violent relationships with women. We will learn about the variety of guns he kept at close hand. We will surely discuss male athletes and violence against women: the sort of all-too-common story that can create commonality between a football player from Long Island and a sprinter from Johannesburg. We might even ponder the way these gated communities, one of which was also the site of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin’s murder two years ago, become throbbing pods of paranoia and parabellums. We will learn about everything except what actually matters: there is a global epidemic of violence against women, and South Africa is at its epicenter.

Two days before Steenkamp’s death, there were protests outside of the South African parliament about the failures of the state to adjudicate the unsolved rapes and murders of women across the country. As the executive director of the Rape Crisis Centre Kathleen Dey said on February 12, “There are no overnight cures to the scourge of rape that is affecting South Africa. We have the highest instance of rape in the world and we cannot continue in this way.” The official statistics are shocking. Every seventeen seconds a woman is raped in South Africa yet just one out of nine women report it and only 14 percent of perpetrators are convicted. The Rape Crisis Centre and other organizations are starved for funds, with the demand for social services, counseling and even HIV tests far outstripping their capacity.

There have also had to be demonstrations against what the Women’s League of the African National Congress has termed “femicide.” In this country of 50 million people, three women a day are killed by their partners. When news of Steenkamp’s death became front-page news across the country, it pushed out ongoing headlines of the February 2 Western Cape gang rape and mutilation of a 17-year-old girl named Anene Booysen. Before her death, Booysen identified one of her perpetrators: it was someone she both trusted and knew.

This is hardly a South African problem, of course. We are confronting nothing less than a global system of brutal misogyny. Too many men across the world see too many women as repositories of their rage, frustration, narcissism or simply their will to enact violence. The World Health Organization’s reports that depending on the country, anywhere from “15% (Japan) to 71% (Ethiopia) of women report physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lives.” Like in South Africa, every statistic on this issue must be viewed with skepticism because of the transnational stigmas and shame that silence women who have survived.

In the United States, rape culture and the rape it produces have been normalized to the point where Notre Dame athletes accused of rape can take the field for a national championship football game without a peep from the sports pages. It’s a country where Fox News host Bob Beckel can ask incredulously, “When’s the last time you heard about rape on a college campus?” It’s a country, and a world, where people are now saying enough is enough.

It’s a global problem that will get solved only with a global response if we want to even dream of a world where violence against women is a relic of history. That’s the sentiment behind initiatives like “One Billion Rising to End Violence Against Women and Girls,” and this kind of brave solidarity and support is extremely welcome. This very solidarity was displayed by Reeva Steenkamp herself just before her death. Distraught over the murder of Anene Booysen, Steenkamp sent out an instragam message. It read, “I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individuals in SA. RIP Anene Booysen.” Short of a billion of us rising, happy and safe homes will not be a reality for the women of the world. It should be. We have to act now unless we want to keep telling the stories of Kasandra Perkins, Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp over and over again, only with different names.

Follow @EdgeofSports by Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

American Horror Story: Oscar Pistorius and Misogynist Myth-Making
by Jessica Valenti  
February 15, 2013
The Nation
Oscar Pistorius is led from the Boschkop police station east of Pretoria en route to court for his bail hearing as a suspect in the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. (AP Photo)

Here we go again. Another woman shot dead by her partner, another round of media coverage fawning over the killer. Just over two months ago, it was Jovan Belcher—he was called a “family man” after shooting and killing Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and mother of his newborn daughter. Today its South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius, who has been charged with the murder of his 29-year-old girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

Just one day after shooting Steenkamp four times, Pistorius has been called “calm and positive” and “inspirational.” (Steenkamp? She’s been called “a leggy blonde.”)

One reporter at The New York Times who spent a week with the double-amputee athlete, wrote that Pistorius was “not as cautious as he always should be…but I didn’t see anger in him.” The headline is “The Adrenaline-Fueled Life of Oscar Pistorius.” He was just an impulsive guy!

Give me a break.

Early media reports speculated that Pistorius shot Steenkamp mistakenly, believing she was a burglar. But prosecutors don't share that view. After all, the police had been called to his home multiple times in the past for domestic altercations. We’ve seen this happen before—many, many times before—yet still we insist on lying to ourselves. This murder may have happened in South Africa, but the misogynist response to the crime has become a familiar theme here in the United States.

The national conversation around domestic violence murders is not a discourse as much as it is a fairy tale—a narrative we create to make sense of the madness. After all, it’s more comforting to believe that Belcher had brain damage than it is to admit that someone people so admired was a controlling, violent abuser. It’s easier to think that Pistorius accidentally shot Steenkamp than realize the murder is a foreseeable end to a violent relationship.

It’s why we blame dead women for the unthinkable violence done against them—mostly because of misogyny, but also because it provides a false sense of safety. In the days after her murder, Perkins was criticized for staying out late (the nerve!), accused of trying to leave him and “take his money.” Given the sexualized descriptions of Steenkamp, I’m sure it won’t be long before someone suggests she somehow brought this on herself—she was making him jealous or flirted too much. We need to believe that these women did something to cause the violence, because then it means the same thing would never happen to us. (We’re not like “those girls!”)

Our culture is so attached to this myth making that some are willing to forgo all logic and ignore all facts. In the wake of Perkins’ murder, and now after Steenkamp’s, conservatives and gun enthusiasts insist that if these women were armed, they would still be alive. Never mind that both women lived in a house where guns were available, and yet they still died.

When I was a volunteer emergency room advocate for victims of rape and domestic violence, the first question we were trained to ask women who had been abused by their partners was whether or not there was a gun in the home. Because we knew that women whose partners had access to a gun were seven times more likely to be killed. In fact, women who are killed by their partners are more likely to be murdered by a gun than all other means combined.

Despite this tower of evidence, people will continue to insist that these women could have somehow stopped the violence. (Inaccuracies aside, the idea that women have a responsibility to keep someone from killing them rather than an abuser not to commit murder is baffling.)

The more we tell ourselves and others these lies, the more cover we give to those would do violence against women. We create a narrative where victims are to blame and abusers heroized. And perhaps worst of all, we create a culture where we fool ourselves into thinking these murders are something that just happens—unforeseeable tragedies rather than preventable violence.

The reality of domestic violence murders is stark and scary—but it is still the reality. And no amount of story-telling will stop the killings. Only the truth can do that.

A global movement to end violence against women, One Billion Rising, is taking off. Read Laura Flanders’s primer.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story reported that Pistorius claimed he had mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar. In fact, early media reports speculated that, not Pistorius himself. The story has been corrected.