The Important Role of Armed Resistance in the Black Civil Rights Movement
Photo Credit: Atomazul / Shutterstock.com
Photo Credit: Atomazul / Shutterstock.com
At every annual convention.Â At every luncheon.Â At every conference. There is the panel discussion as the centerpiece of the “agenda.”Â And for the most part, these sessions repeat already known information and no calls to action.
Where the centerpiece of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was results based physical activities such as marches, boycotts and civil disobedience, the centerpiece now appears to be lots and lots of talking.
The activities of five decades ago yielded big results — like the Civil Rights Act — few of those big results and political victories can be seen today.Â And the problems, for the African American community in particular, are getting larger.Â
Can panels create change and get results at a time when the wealth gap between black and white is the worst in 40 years and the dropout and incarceration rates remain at crisis levels?Â Can marches get the same results they did in the 1960s as a more money and tech driven political landscape drives agendas?
Were it not for Rev. William Barber’s Moral Mondays there would be no consistent activism at all.Â But even with those events one has to ask: Are the marches yielding tangible results?Â It’s likely Dr. King didn’t have time for panels.Â The actions Dr. King took got results and won victories.Â Like the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act struck down the South’s segregation laws, outlawed employment discrimination and forbade discrimination in federal programs. For black Americans living in the South, the voting rights law finally secured the right to the ballot. And President Johnson initiated a sweeping new government policy called affirmative action. Its purpose was to overcome at least some of the accumulated human damage caused by 350 years of slavery and Jim Crow, and to ensure further progress toward equality.
Benefiting from that ”shining moment” in the 1960’s, a black middle class has prospered and grown rapidly. Yet millions of African-Americans remain mired in poverty in a nation bitterly divided over whether special help to minorities should continue. Affirmative action programs have long been under siege, vigorously attacked in Congress and the federal courts and criticized for ”discriminating” against the white majority. With conservatives dominating the federal government, civil rights groups and other liberal organizations have waged a mostly defensive battle to protect the gains of the 1960’s. Fresh ideas and effective leadership to advance the American ideals of equality and social justice have been in short supply.
Ira Katznelson, the Ruggles professor of political science and history at Columbia University, enters this fray with a provocative new book, ”When Affirmative Action Was White,” which seeks to provide a broader historical justification for continuing affirmative action programs. Katznelson’s principal focus is on the monumental social programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He contends that those programs not only discriminated against blacks, but actually contributed to widening the gap between white and black Americans — judged in terms of educational achievement, quality of jobs and housing, and attainment of higher income. Arguing for the necessity of affirmative action today, Katznelson contends that policy makers and the judiciary previously failed to consider just how unfairly blacks had been treated by the federal government in the 30 years before the civil rights revolution of the 1960’s.
This history has been told before, but Katznelson offers a penetrating new analysis, supported by vivid examples and statistics. He examines closely how the federal government discriminated against black citizens as it created and administered the sweeping social programs that provided the vital framework for a vibrant and secure American middle class. Considered revolutionary at the time, the new legislation included the Social Security system, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, protection of the right of workers to join labor unions and the G.I. Bill of Rights.
Even though blacks benefited to a degree from many of these programs, Katznelson shows how and why they received far less assistance than whites did. He documents the political process by which powerful Southern Congressional barons shaped the programs in discriminatory ways — as their price for supporting them. (A black newspaper editorial criticized Roosevelt for excluding from the minimum wage law the black women who worked long hours for $4.50 a week at the resort the president frequented in Warm Springs, Ga.)
At the time, most blacks in the labor force were employed in agriculture or as domestic household workers. Members of Congress from the Deep South demanded that those occupations be excluded from the minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance and workmen’s compensation. When labor unions scored initial victories in organizing poor factory workers in the South after World War II, the Southern Congressional leaders spearheaded legislation to cripple those efforts. The Southerners’ principal objective, Katznelson contends, was to safeguard the racist economic and social order known as the Southern ”way of life.”
Katznelson reserves his harshest criticism for the unfair application of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, a series of programs that poured $95 billion into expanding opportunity for soldiers returning from World War II. Over all, the G.I. Bill was a dramatic success, helping 16 million veterans attend college, receive job training, start businesses and purchase their first homes. Half a century later, President Clinton praised the G.I. Bill as ”the best deal ever made by Uncle Sam,” and said it ”helped to unleash a prosperity never before known.”
But Katznelson demonstrates that African-American veterans received significantly less help from the G.I. Bill than their white counterparts. ”Written under Southern auspices,” he reports, ”the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow.” He cites one 1940’s study that concluded it was ”as though the G.I. Bill had been earmarked ‘For White Veterans Only.’ ” Southern Congressional leaders made certain that the programs were directed not by Washington but by local white officials, businessmen, bankers and college administrators who would honor past practices. As a result, thousands of black veterans in the South — and the North as well — were denied housing and business loans, as well as admission to whites-only colleges and universities. They were also excluded from job-training programs for careers in promising new fields like radio and electrical work, commercial photography and mechanics. Instead, most African-Americans were channeled toward traditional, low-paying ”black jobs” and small black colleges, which were pitifully underfinanced and ill equipped to meet the needs of a surging enrollment of returning soldiers.
The statistics on disparate treatment are staggering. By October 1946, 6,500 former soldiers had been placed in nonfarm jobs by the employment service in Mississippi; 86 percent of the skilled and semiskilled jobs were filled by whites, 92 percent of the unskilled ones by blacks. In New York and northern New Jersey, ”fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.” Discrimination continued as well in elite Northern colleges. The University of Pennsylvania, along with Columbia the least discriminatory of the Ivy League colleges, enrolled only 46 black students in its student body of 9,000 in 1946. The traditional black colleges did not have places for an estimated 70,000 black veterans in 1947. At the same time, white universities were doubling their enrollments and prospering with the infusion of public and private funds, and of students with their G.I. benefits.
Katznelson argues that the case for affirmative action today is made more effectively by citing concrete history rather than through general exhortations. Studying the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the civil rights movements of the 1960’s could not be more relevant at a time when the administration seems determined to weaken many of the federal programs that for decades have not just sustained the nation’s minorities but built its solid middle class. Whether or not Katznelson’s study directly influences the affirmative action debate, it serves an important purpose. With key parts of the Voting Rights Act set to expire in 2007 and other civil rights protections subject to change, we must understand a continuing reality: the insidious and recurrent racial bias in the history of American public life.
– “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. April 4, 1967
As America commemorates the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom I am compelled to ask the following question, would Dr. King be invited to speak at upcoming events to commemorate the March?
If you get past the marketed “Dream” reference in the “I Have a Dream” speech you will understand that it was an indictment of America. If you read “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” or Dr. King’s last book Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos or Community?; you can rest assured that today Dr. King would be in opposition to America’s backing of the assignation of Muammar Gaddafi, drone attacks, indefinite detention at Guantanamo, NSA wiretapping, mass incarceration, and the Obama administration’s failure to speak forcefully about poverty in America. From that premise one can only conclude that if Dr. King were alive today, those within the African American community who are engaged in stifling honest, fact-based, critical analysis of the administration’s policies would not allow Dr. King on the dais. Reason being, Dr. King committed his life to a morally based sense of justice and humanity not actions taken from a sense of political expediency or realpolitik.
On August 28, 1963 Dr. King stated, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation…One hundred years later, the colored American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Today according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate stands at 7.6% and 15% in the African American community. Today, “in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” according to Bread For the World, “14.5 percent of U.S. households—nearly 49 million Americans, including 16.2 million children—struggle to put food on the table” and “more than one in five children is at risk of hunger. Among African-Americans and Latinos, nearly one in three children is at risk of hunger.”
President Obama has claimed to be a champion of the middle class but rarely speaks to the plight of the poor in America. Dr. King would not stand idly by and allow this to go unchallenged. As America spends billions of dollars on its drone program, children continue to go hungry. In his 1967 speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence Dr. King stated, “A few years ago…It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program…Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” If you replace Vietnam with Afghanistan and the War on Terror I believe Dr. King would be engaged in the same analysis and saying the same things today.
Dr. King said that the people of Vietnam must see, “Americans as strange liberators…they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy…What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them…?” Today, Dr. King would be asking the same questions about America’s actions in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and the continued US support for the Zionist government in Israel as it continues to build settlements on Palestinian land in violation of international law.
Let’s be very clear, I have used actions of the Obama administration to highlight many of the contradictions that we face and to demonstrate how the man we now revere, the icon that will be lauded at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington would not be invited to speak in today’s political context. That’s the symptom of a greater problem.
To gain great insight into the real problem you have to examine the work of Edward Bernays and the rise of the propaganda industry in the 1920’s. “[The] American business community was also very impressed with the propaganda effort (created by Bernays). They had a problem at that time. The country was becoming formally more democratic. A lot more people were able to vote and that sort of thing. The country was becoming wealthier and more people could participate and a lot of new immigrants were coming in, and so on. So what do you do? It’s going to be harder to run things as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people think. There had been public relation specialists but there was never a public relations industry.” History as a Weapon – Noam Chomsky – 1997.
The business community as Chomsky discussed or the corptocracy in today’s parlance uses propaganda to co-opt the American political landscape and has contributed to the decline of the American political left. The politics and policies of the Obama administration are examples of that decline, not responsible for it. th
At the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington pay very close attention to what is said and even closer attention to what is not (August 27, 2013 is the 50th commemoration of the passing of W.E.B. DuBois).
Understanding the moral basis of Dr. King’s analysis, he would be standing today for the very things he stood for then. He would be critical of the current administration, and as such, great efforts would be made to shut him out of the national debate since many in the African American community see honest, fact based, criticism of Obama administration policy as antithetical to the interests of the African American community. The prophet is never welcome in his own village.
Dr. King’s “Dream” was significant because of its juxtaposition against the reality of the Negros nightmare but Bernaysian propaganda keeps the focus on the “Dream”.
Dr. Wilmer Leon is the Producer/ Host of the Sirisu/XM Satellite radio channel 110 call-in talk radio program “Inside the Issues with Leon” Go to www.wilmerleon.com or email:firstname.lastname@example.org. www.twitter.com/drwleon and Dr. Leon’s Prescription at Facebook.com He is an OUR COMMON GROUND Voice, joining us as Guest and Co-Host.
© 2013 InfoWave Communications, LLC
– See more at: http://www.wilmerleon.com/
by ROBIN D.G. KELLEY
“half of y’all won’t make it”
–Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”
In the face of creeping disfranchisement, unbridled corporate power, growing poverty, an expanding police state, 2.3 million people in cages, vigilantes and cops taking our children’s lives, a presidential policy of assassination-by-drone, global environmental disaster, attacks on reproductive rights, a war on trade unions, a tidal wave of foreclosures, and entrenched racism camouflaged beneath a post-racial myth, why do we care if Harry Belafonte and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter have “beef”? Do social movements need Mr. Carter’s money or power or influence? Is justice a matter of charity or wealth? So what if Carter believes—as he retorted in response to Belafonte’s skewering of navel-gazing black celebrities—“my presence is charity”?
Let me say at the outset that I am not interested in spats between celebrities or on expending precious energy on conflict-resolution for the Negro one-percent. Anyone familiar with the dictionary definition of “charity” will find the statement ridiculous, just as anyone familiar with Jay-Z’s philanthropic work will wonder why he would say such a thing. He has been a high-profile giver: he and his mother started the John Carter Foundation ten years ago to help fund college-bound at-risk youth; he tossed a million dollars into the Red Cross’s coffers after Hurricane Katrina; he is a partner in the Global Citizen Tickets Initiative—the brainchild of the Global Poverty Project meant to hip pop music fans to world poverty and compel them to act (via sharing on social media, writing elected officials, donating money) while dropping big bucks on concert tickets. And there was “The Diary of Jay-Z: Water For Life,” the 2006 MTV documentary that raised awareness of Africa’s water crisis. Carter met with policy makers, advocates, and poor, water-starved families in Angola and South Africa, and committed to building 1,000 clean water pumps in Africa. Two years later, the United Nations honored his work with a special humanitarian award.
Does this mean Belafonte was wrong? Or Jay misspoke? Or that we need to place ‘Hova’s’ philanthropy and activism on a ledger against Bruce Springsteen’s, the celebrity Belafonte deemed more socially responsible? What does any of this do to advance a truly progressive agenda?
Focusing on the personal obscures what is really at stake: ideas, ideology, the nature of change, the realities of power, and the evisceration of our critical faculties under the veil of corporate celebrity culture. I use corporate here not as an epithet but as an expression of the structural dimensions of how celebrity is made and its ideological function. Celebrities endorse products; like any commodity, they have become “brands.” They may say and do very nice, uplifting, philanthropic things, but rarely do celebrities stand against the policies and ideas of neoliberalism and U. S. Empire. More often than not, they embody the ideology of neoliberalism (valuing wealth, free markets, privatization over human needs) and Empire (U.S. military and economic dominance over the world).
Words and deeds of high-profile individuals do matter, but too often we pay attention to the wrong words and the wrong deeds. Returning to Mr. Carter’s reply, it is what he says immediately after his charity line that should concern us. Applying his claim—that greatness alone is in-and-of itself a magnanimous gift—to the President, he adds: “Whether [Obama] does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough. Just being who he is. You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone.”
That Mr. Carter believes this is less important than the fact that his “brand” promotes it, and I’d venture to say that most African-Americans fundamentally accept its logic. The mere fact that Obama is the first black president, so the argument goes, should grant him immunity from criticism. The relentless attacks on Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, and others for their relentless critique of the Obama administration conform to this logic. Rather than address their specific criticisms on their own terms, detractors dismiss West and Smiley by repeating the well-worn claim that they are motivated by personal slights or potential monetary gain, blame an intransigent right-wing Congress for Obama’s worst policies (foreign and domestic), respond to criticisms with a laundry list of accomplishments, or simply assert that critics of the president are “haters,” race traitors, who fail to appreciate the historic significance of a black man in the White House.
The idea that the President transcends all worldly criticism corresponds with a different sort of “Empire State of Mind.” Empires dating back to Egypt, Rome, Ancient China and Japan have depended on an “imperial cult,” the notion that an emperor is to be worshipped as a messiah or a demigod. Even modern empires, like the U.S., often fall back on hero worship, adoration of strength and might over the rule of law and justice. This is why cops and soldiers are “heroes” and dissenters and the civil disobedient are troublemakers or enemies of the state. The cult of Obama has the added dimension of being the tale of a singular black man overcoming historic obstacles, breaking the color line and achieving the highest office in the land. Such representation masks the fact that it wasn’t his achievements but our achievements, our tireless mobilization on his behalf, the work of nameless millions who elected him to office to serve the people. We have an obligation in a democracy to hold government accountable to the rule of law (that includes international law) and to protect the interests of the whole of the people.
And what about deeds? I find it remarkable that Jay-Z’s four little words could set off global outrage, but revelations that Rocawear, the Hip Hop apparel company he co-founded with producer Damon Dash, employed sweatshop labor barely registered a blip in the black blogosphere. Ten years ago, anti-sweatshop activists revealed that Rocawear, along with Sean Combs’s “Sean John” label, contracted with Southeast Textiles International S. A. (SETISA) in Choloma, Honduras, to manufacture their very expensive clothing lines. SETISA sewers earned between 75 and 98 cents an hour, worked 11 to 12 hour shifts with no overtime, and had excessive production goals (T-shirt makers, for example, had to complete a little over 18 shirts per hour, and they could not leave until they met their quota). Talking was prohibited. Permission from a supervisor was required for bathroom breaks. Drinking water (found to be contaminated with fecal matter) was rationed. All employees were subjected to body searches, and female employees were required to take pregnancy tests. Those who attempted to unionize were fired. After refuting reports, Combs was ultimately pressured into making some improvements in factory conditions, but Carter had little to say and never issued a public apology. In 2007, Carter sold the rights to Rocawear to Iconix Brand Group for the princely sum of $204 million, while retaining his stake in the company and overseeing marketing, licensing, and product development.
If we praise celebrities for wealth accumulation, then Rocawear is an unmitigated success. Jay-Z has done what most successful entrepreneurs do in the age of neoliberalism—seized upon the massively oppressive labor conditions produced by free trade policies, the creation of U.S.-backed free trade zones, deregulation, and the weakening of international labor standards.
And why not? Capitalists want to “live life colossal.” Milton Friedman Baby! Then again, who wants to tweet that their favorite celebrity made millions off of sweated labor, thereby perpetuating global poverty? Knowing fans tend to look the other way; the vast majority of acolytes are kept blissfully ignorant by the corporate image machine.
Enter MTV and the release of “The Diary of Jay-Z: Water For Life,” following on the heels of Rocawear’s sweatshop revelations. I doubt it was a cynical ploy to defuse the controversy, mainly because for the Jay-Z consumer there was no controversy. His brand escaped pretty much unscathed. And yet, while Carter’s concern for the 1.2 billion people without access to clean water is genuine, the film’s explanation of the crisis is problematic. “Water for Life” blames civil war and the disruptions of military violence, urbanization, and poverty, and suggests that philanthropy and visionary entrepreneurs can solve the problem by providing clean water pumps and digging wells. How so many Africans became “poor” in the first place, the legacy of colonialism, not to mention water privatization, don’t really figure in the story. When asked about privatization at a U.N. press conference upon the film’s release, Carter appeared oblivious: “that’s just bureaucracy, I don’t have any expertise in that.” He didn’t know if water was being privatized, but he did notice that in the houses he visited, the families “paid fifty cents a bucket for [water].” He then went on to praise his long-time sponsor Coca-Cola for providing money for play pumps in Southern Africa (small manual merry-go-rounds that pump water as children play). At the time, Coke was targeted by protesters in India and Colombia for depleting scarce local water sources for its bottling plants, and releasing toxic waste water into the ground, damaging farm land and leaving residents with a variety of skin and stomach ailments.
To be clear, I am in no way criticizing Shawn Carter for lacking a sophisticated critique of the ravages of privatization. To expect as much is unfair, unrealistic, and beside the point. Most Americans share his view; neoliberal logic normalizing Empire and its exploitative practices is today’s common sense. However, it is the use of his brand to sell this new common sense, to promote corporate interests and obscure the real sources of inequality, that matter.
Alicia Keys – Home Wrecker?
Ironically, it has been the Alicia Keys brand–the angelic half of the Empire State duo—that has shown a particularly egregious disregard for human rights. On July 4th of this year, Keys performed in Tel Aviv, Israel, in spite of urgent pleas by Palestinian and Israeli activists, human rights advocates, and nearly 16,000 petitioners from around the world, to respect the global boycott of Israel for its illegal occupation of the West Bank and apartheid policies toward Palestinians. Personal appeals from writer Alice Walker and Archbishop Desmond Tutu did nothing to dissuade Keys or her handlers from accepting the invitation. In response, she issued the following statement: “I look forward to my first visit to Israel. Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show.”
The statement is as ridiculous and ingenuous as “My presence is charity.” How can music unify an audience when policies of occupation and apartheid exclude the vast majority of Palestinians? What good are homilies about love and peace in a land where Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are prohibited from even entering Israel, contained by a massive concrete wall, economically starved, and living under military occupation? Where thousands of Palestinians are locked away in Israeli prisons—including hundreds of minors convicted of throwing rocks at tanks and well-armed soldiers and settlers? Where Israel continues to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank, displacing Palestinians, demolishing their homes, uprooting their olive trees—all in violation of international law. Where, on more than one occasion, Palestinian mothers were forced to give birth on the side of the road or watch their severely ill children die in their arms for want of emergency care because they were held up at an Israeli checkpoint. Where the apartheid wall has turned a fifteen-minute walk to school into a two-hour ordeal for thousands of young children. For young Palestinians living in Israel who are not incarcerated, few could afford the $62.00 ticket to hear Keys. Nearly half of all Palestinians in Israel live in poverty. Most are legally excluded from residing in non-Arab communities based on their “social unsuitability,” attend severely underfunded schools, and are denied government employment.
The point of the non-violent global boycott, of course, is to apply economic pressure on Israel to change these policies: to end the occupation, dismantle the “apartheid” wall which violates international law; recognize the fundamental rights of all Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel and other non-Jews for full equality, and grant the right to return, as stipulated by United Nations resolution 194. The boycott is an act of tough love to achieve justice through peaceful means. Alicia Keys’ concert, on the other hand, served to legitimize and normalize Israeli policies of violence, occupation, incarceration, segregation, and settlement. Keys and her handlers knew this, as they were inundated with materials from organizations supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS)–including the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Boycott from Within. Activists hoped that Keys’ role as lead supporter of “Keep a Child Alive,” an NGO dedicated to helping HIV-infected children in Africa and India, would make her more sensitive to the lives of Palestinian children. The organization’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Twyman, and co-founder Leigh Blake received pages upon pages of material documenting the daily abuses of children at the hands of the Israeli military and settlers.
Rifat Kassis of Defence for Children International Palestine, and Shatha Odeh of the Health Work Committees, submitted a powerful letter appealing to Keys to cancel, outlining in devastating detail how the occupation and Israeli policies have affected Palestinian children. They reveal that since 2003, some 8,000 Palestinian children as young as 12 have been arrested, interrogated (often without access to parents and legal counsel), and detained by the Israeli army and prosecuted in military courts—some held in solitary confinement. (With a 98% conviction rate, it is no surprise that confessions obtained by coercion are rarely thrown out by military judges.) They discuss how military checkpoints and the apartheid wall have become barriers to basic and emergency medical care. And they point out that the blockade of Gaza “is the single greatest contributor to the endemic and long-lasting poverty, deterioration of health care, infant mortality, disease, chronic malnutrition and preventable deaths of children. Palestinian children in Gaza lack access to clean water, health care and are scarred by repeated Israeli military offensives and the constant fear of impending attacks.”
Keys’s decision to perform was made not out of ignorance or an abiding love for Israel or a personal mission to jump-start the peace process. It was about getting paid. The Alicia Keys brand stood to lose financially and likely feared retaliation from pro-Zionist forces. Indeed, her decision to violate the boycott earned her kudos from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its allies, who in turn placed a flurry of publicity pieces praising her “courage” in the face of BDS “bullies.” But as with Shawn Carter, I don’t blame Keys personally, nor do I question her humanitarian commitments. Alicia Keys is a corporate entity driven by profits and propelled by shareholders (backers and fans). Just as Jay-Z lovers ignored Rocawear’s callous use of sweated labor, Keys’s followers have quietly supported her Israel foray. The sad truth is that 16,000 signatures is nothing against the Keys-AIPAC alliance, and most Americans see Palestine through the official lens of the Israeli government and U.S. policy.
Had Keys paid a visit to Atta Muhammad Atta Sabah, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot by an Israeli soldier in Jalazoun refugee camp in the West Bank just six weeks prior to her concert, perhaps she might have changed her mind. She would have met a small, bright-eyed boy paralyzed from the waist down with holes in his liver, lungs, pancreas and spleen, and angry parents resigned to the reality that their son will never see justice. He was shot while attempting to retrieve his school bag. What if she had driven to Southern Israel to the Naqab desert and met a few of the 40,000 Bedouin whom the government plans to forcibly remove from their ancestral homeland to make way for Jewish settlements? And what if she decided to spend a few days in the West Bank after her Tel Aviv performance, meeting and playing for kids in Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, touring the refugee camps, listening to their stories? She might have been passing through Hebron on July 9th, the day Israeli soldiers detained five-year-old Wadi’ Maswadeh for allegedly throwing a stone at a settler’s car. When Wadi’s father, Karam, complained about the arrest and treatment of his son, he was handcuffed and blindfolded and taken, along with his terrified, crying son, to the Palestinian Authority police. They were both eventually released.
Keys never met Atta Muhammad Atta Sabah or Wadi’ Maswadeh or any of the Palestinian children growing up in a world of refugee camps, home demolitions, settler and military violence, displacement, economic deprivation, and educational policies designed to literally deny their existence. The Keys brand could ill afford to expose their star to such “negativity,” lest she walk away from the machine. But here is the real tragedy: the Keys machine was never compelled to apologize or even mildly acknowledge that something is rotten in the state of Israel.
The sad truth is that Keys’s romantic involvement with producer Swizz Beatz, apparently while he was still married, was considered infinitely more scandalous than playing Tel Aviv. Twitter and Facebook and gossip columns were abuzz with accusations that Alicia Keys is a home wrecker. By contrast, neither her fan base nor the Alicia Keys “haters” had much to say about the wrecking of Palestinian homes. (This year alone, Israel announced plans to build another 2,000+ settlement houses in the West Bank.) Equally disheartening is the Black Entertainment Television (BET) poll that 59% of its on-line readerssupport Keys’s decision to violate the boycott. Of course, it is likely that AIPAC operatives posing as BET on-line readers skewed the results, but not by much. Most African-Americans simply don’t know a lot about Palestine, and many devout Christians among us tend to buy the argument that defending the State of Israel is tantamount to defending the Holy Land. Few vocal critics of New York’s “stop and frisk” policy, for example, know that the Israeli military version of “stop and frisk” in the West Bank means entering Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, forcing families out of bed, photographing all the boys and young men and taking their information. These routine acts are not part of ongoing investigations or require probable cause, but an official policy of surveillance and intimidation. Such outrageous policies should have generated some 1.6 million signatures rather than 16,000.
Let me repeat: I am not arguing that Jay-Z or Alicia Keys or any corporate mega-star is personally responsible for the kind of political and ethical blinders endemic to what has become a national corporate consciousness, an Empire State of Mind. Corporate celebrities, or rather their brands, are merely the messengers. The responsibility for shedding those blinders and developing an informed, global, ethical critique of materialism, militarism, exploitation and dispossession, rests with us. The absence of a broad-based, progressive black movement has not only opened the floodgates for the spread of neoliberalism as the new common sense, but it has severely hampered the ability of too many African Americans to think critically and globally about oppression and inequality—though, to be sure, this problem is not unique to the black community. Our romance with corporate celebrity culture merely fuels a persistent belief that the black one percent are our natural allies, our role models, our hope for the future. Many of us embrace black millionaires and billionaires—the P-Diddy’s, Russell Simmons’s, Jay-Z’s, and Oprah’s of the world—as embodiments of “our” wealth, without ever questioning the source of their wealth, the limits of philanthropy, or the persistence of poverty among the remaining 99%.
In the end, the difference between, say, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, and Alice Walker and the Jay-Z’s and Alicia Keys’s of the world is not generational. It is not a simple-minded division between Old School Civil Rights and the Hip Hop Generation. Before Belafonte, Glover, and Walker became “celebrities,” they were activists first. They joined social movements and risked their bodies and futures before they even had careers. And in this respect, they have more in common with Hip Hop artists/activists such as Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Boots Riley, Rebel Diaz, Chuck D, Rosa Clemente, Immortal Technique, Twice Thou, Lupe Fiasco, Keny Arkana, and others. Their movement work was never about achieving wealth or success, but a commitment to fighting for a world where power rests with the people, not an oligarchy; a world where oppression, exploitation, dispossession, and caging of all people—irrespective of color, gender, nationality, sexual identity—is a thing of the past; a world where such corporate-backed philanthropy is unnecessary, and one need not buy high-priced concert tickets to fight oppression.
Robin D. G. Kelley, who teaches at UCLA, is the author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009) and most recently Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012).
Arnwine is president and executive director of theLawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law,which works on issues like racial profiling and voter protection.
Why is she on theGrio’s 100?
Arnwine and her group were instrumental in battling controversial voting laws, such as ones requiring photo identification to vote, that were passed by Republican legislatures in 2011 and 2012. The committee joined lawsuits against many of the laws, helping lead to many of them being struck down by courts. The group also created a “Map of Shame” depicting which states had the most controversial voting laws and a hotline for people to report voting or registration problems in the months before Election Day.
“Voter suppression legislation that has been debated and passed across the nation since the 2010 mid-terms threatens to heighten voter confusion this November,” Arnwine said in the midst of the campaign.
The effort by Arnwine and others was successful, as Obama campaign aides said the voter laws had little impact on the 2012 election results.
What ‘s next for Arnwine?
The battle over voter laws is likely to continue. While courts put aside many of the laws in 2012, Republican-led legislatures and governors are likely to propose them again in the future. And the 2014 and 2016 campaigns are not far away.
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Jobs
Like the country it governs, Washington is a city of extremes. In a car, you can zip in bare moments from northwest District of Columbia, its streets lined with million-dollar homes and palatial embassies, its inhabitants sporting one of the nation’s lowest jobless rates, to Anacostia, a mostly forgotten neighborhood in southeastern D.C. with one of the highest unemployment rates anywhere in America. Or, if you happen to be jobless, upset about it, and living in that neighborhood, on a crisp morning in March you could have joined an angry band of protesters marching on the nearby 11th Street Bridge.
They weren’t looking for trouble. They were looking for work.
Those protesters, most of them black, chanted and hoisted signs that read “D.C. JOBS FOR D.C. RESIDENTS” and “JOBS OR ELSE.” The target of their outrage: contractors hired to replace the very bridge under their feet, a $300 million project that will be one of the largest in District history. The problem: few D.C. citizens, which means few African Americans, had so far been hired. “It’s deplorable,”insisted civil rights attorney Donald Temple, “that… you can find men from West Virginia to work in D.C. You can find men from Maryland to work in D.C. And you can find men from Virginia to work in D.C. But you can’t find men and women in D.C. to work in D.C.”
The 11th Street Bridge arches over the slow-flowing Anacostia River, connecting the poverty-stricken, largely black Anacostia neighborhood with the rest of the District. By foot the distance is small; in opportunity and wealth, it couldn’t be larger. At one end of the bridge the economy is booming even amid a halting recovery and jobs crisis. At the other end, hard times, always present, are worse than ever.
Live in Washington long enough and you’ll hear someone mention “east of the river.“ That’s D.C.’s version of “the other side of the tracks,” the place friends warn against visiting late at night or on your own. It’s home to District Wards 7 and 8, neighborhoods with a long, rich history. Once known as Uniontown, Anacostia was one of the District’s first suburbs; Frederick Douglass, nicknamed the “Sage of Anacostia,” once lived there, as did the poet Ezra Pound and singer Marvin Gaye. Today the area’s unemployment rate is officially nearly 20%. District-wide, it’s 9.8%, a figure that drops as low as 3.6% in the whiter, more affluent northwestern suburbs.
D.C.’s divide is America’s writ large. Nationwide, the unemployment rate for black workers at 16.2% is almost double the 9.1% rate for the rest of the population. And it’s twice the 8% white jobless rate.
The size of those numbers can, in part, be chalked up to the current jobs crisis in which black workers are being decimated. According to Duke University public policy expert William Darity, that means blacks are “the last to be hired in a good economy, and when there’s a downturn, they’re the first to be released.”
That may account for the soaring numbers of unemployed African Americans, but not the yawning chasm between the black and white employment rates, which is no artifact of the present moment. It’s a problem that spans generations, goes remarkably unnoticed, and condemns millions of black Americans to a life of scraping by. That unerring, unchanging gap between white and black employment figures goes back at least 60 years. It should be a scandal, but whether on Capitol Hill or in the media it gets remarkably little attention. Ever.
The 60-Year Scandal
The unemployment lines run through history like a pair of train tracks. Since the 1940s, the jobless rate for blacks in America has held remarkably, if grimly, steady at twice the rate for whites. The question of why has vexed and divided economists, historians, and sociologists for nearly as long.
For years the sharpest minds in academia pointed to upheaval in the American economy as the culprit. In his 1996 book When Work Disappears, the sociologist William Julius Wilson depicted the forces of globalization, a slumping manufacturing sector, and suburban flight at work in Chicago as the drivers of growing joblessness and poverty in America’s inner cities and among its black residents.
He pictured the process this way: as corporations outsourced jobs to China and India, American manufacturing began its slow fade, shedding jobs often held by black workers. What jobs remained were moved to sprawling offices and factories in outlying suburbs reachable only by freeway. Those jobs proved inaccessible to the mass of black workers who remained in the inner cities and relied on public transportation to get to work.
Time and research have, however, eaten away at the significance of Wilson’s work. The hollowing-out of America’s cities and the decline of domestic manufacturing no doubt played a part in black unemployment, but then chronic black joblessness existed long before the upheaval Wilson described. Even when employment in the manufacturing sector was at its height, black workers were still twice as likely to be out of work as their white counterparts.
Another commonly cited culprit for the tenaciousness of African-American unemployment has been education. Whites, so the argument goes, are generally better educated than blacks, and so more likely to land a job at a time when a college degree is ever more significant when it comes to jobs and higher earnings. In 2009, President Obama told reporters that education was the key to narrowing racial gaps in the US. “If we close the achievement gap, then a big chunk of economic inequality in this society is diminished,” he said.
Educational levels have, in fact, steadily climbed over the past 60 years for African Americans. In 1940, less than 1% of black men and less 2% of black women earned college degrees; jump to 2000, and the figures are 10% for black men and 15% for black women. Moreover, increased education has helped to narrow wage inequality between employed whites and blacks. What it hasn’t done is close the unemployment gap.
Algernon Austin, an economist for the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., crunched data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that blacks with the same level of education as whites have consistently lower employment levels. It doesn’t matter whether you compare high-school dropouts or workers with graduate degrees, whites are still more likely to have a job than blacks. Degrees be damned.
Academics have thrown plenty of other explanations at the problem: declining wages, the embrace of crime as a way of life, increased competition with immigrants. None of them have stuck. How could they? In recent decades, the wage gap has narrowed, crime rates have plummeted, and there’s scant evidence to suggest immigrants are stealing jobs that would otherwise be filled by African Americans.
Indeed, many top researchers in this field, including several I interviewed, are left scratching their heads when trying to explain why that staggering jobless gap between blacks and white won’t budge. “I don’t know if there’s anybody out there who can tell you why that ratio stays at two to one,” Darity says. “It’s a statistical regularity that we don’t have an explanation for.”
Behind Bars, the Invisible Unemployed
So what keeps blacks from cutting into those employment figures? Among the theories, one that deserves special attention points to the high incarceration rate among blacks — and especially black men.
In 2009, 7.2 million Americans — or 3.1% of all adults — were under the jurisdiction of the U.S. corrections system, including 1.6 million Americans incarcerated in a state or federal prison. Of that population, nearly 40% percent were black, even though blacks make up only 13% percent of the American population. Blacks were six times as likely to be in prison as whites, and three times as likely as Hispanics. For some perspective, consider what author of The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexanderwrote last year: “There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
Incarceration amounts to a double whammy when it comes to African-American unemployment. Rarely mentioned in the usual drumbeat of media reports on jobs is the fact that the Labor Department doesn’t include prison populations in its official unemployment statistics. This automatically shrinks the pool of blacks capable of working and in the process lowers the black jobless rate.
In the mid-1990s, academics Bruce Western and Becky Pettit discovered that the American prison population lowered the jobless rate for black men by five percentage points, and for young black men by eight percentage points. (Of course, this applies to whites, Asians, and Hispanics as well, but the figures are particularly striking given the overrepresentation of blacks in the prison population.)
Even that vast incarcerated population pales, however, in comparison to the number of ex-cons who have rejoined the world beyond the prison walls. In 2008, there were 12 million to 14 million ex-offenders in the U.S. old enough to work, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). So many ex-cons represent a serious drag on our economy, according to CEPR, sucking from it $57 billion to $65 billion in output.
Of course, such research tells us how much, not why — as in, why are ex-cons so much more likely to be out of work? For an answer, it’s necessary to turn to an eye-opening and, in some circles, controversial field of study that may offer the best explanation for the 60-year scandal of black unemployment.
Twice as Hard, Half as Far
In 2001, a pair of black men and a pair of white men went hunting for work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each was 23 years old, a local college student, bright and articulate. They looked alike and dressed alike, had identical educational backgrounds and remarkably similar past work experience. From June to December, they combed the Sunday classified pages in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and searched a state-run job site called “Jobnet,” applying for the same entry-level jobs as waiters, delivery-truck drivers, cooks, and cashiers. There was one obvious difference in each pair: one man was a former criminal and the other was not.
If this sounds like an experiment, that’s because it was. Watching the explosive growth of the criminal justice system, fueled largely by ill-conceived “tough on crime” policies, sociologist Devah Pager took a novel approach to how prison affected ever growing numbers of Americans after they’d done their time — a process all but ignored by politicians and the judicial system.
So Pager sent those two young black men and two young white men out into the world to apply for perfectly real jobs. Then she recorded who got callbacks and who didn’t. She soon discovered that a criminal history caused a massive drop-off in employer responses — not entirely surprising. But when Pager started separating out black applicants from white ones, she stumbled across the real news in her study, a discovery that shook our understanding of racial inequality and jobs to the core.
Pager’s white applicant without a criminal record had a 34% callback rate. That promptly sunk to 17% for her white applicant with a criminal record. The figures for black applicants were 14% and 5%. And yes, you read that right: in Pager’s experiment, white job applicants with a criminal history got more callbacks than black applicants without one. “I expected to find an effect with a criminal record and some with race,” Pager says. “I certainly was not expecting that result, and it was quite a surprise.”
Pager ran a larger version of this experiment in New York City in 2004, sending teams of young, educated, and identically credentialed men out into the Big Apple’s sprawling market for entry-level jobs — once again, with one applicant posing as an ex-con, the other with a clean record. (As she did in Milwaukee, Pager had the teams alternate who posed as the ex-con.) The results? Again Pager’s African-American applicants received fewer callbacks and job offers than the whites. The disparity was particularly striking for ex-criminals: a drop off of 9 percentage points for whites, but 15 percentage points for blacks. “Employers already reluctant to hire blacks,” Pager wrote, “appear particularly wary of blacks with known criminal histories.”
Other research has supported her findings. A 2001-2002 field experiment by academics from the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, uncovered a sizeable gap in employer callbacks for job applicants with white-sounding names (Emily and Greg) versus black-sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal). They also found that the benefits of a better resume were 30% greater for whites than blacks.
These findings proved a powerful antidote to the growing notion, mostly in conservative circles, that discrimination was an illusion and racism long eradicated. In The Content of Our Character (1991),Shelby Steele argued that racial discrimination no longer held black men or women back from the jobs they wanted; the problem was in their heads. Dinesh D’Souza, a first-generation immigrant of Indian descent, published The End of Racism in 1995, similarly claiming racial discrimination had little to do with the plight of black America.
Not so, insist Pager, Darity, Harvard’s Bruce Western, and other academics using real data with an unavoidable message: racism is alive and well. It leads to endemic, deeply embedded patterns of discrimination whose harmful impact has barely changed in 60 years. And it cannot be ignored. As the old African-American adage puts it, “You’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far as a black person in white America.”
Is There a Solution for Black America?
Tracing black unemployment in America since World War II, there are two moments when, briefly, the gap between black and white joblessness narrowed ever so slightly — in the 1940s and again in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For example in 1970, unemployment was at 5.8% for blacks and 3.3% for whites, a sizeable gap but significantly better than what followed in the Reagan era. Those are moments worth revisiting, if only to understand what began to go right.
According to University of Chicago professors William Sites and Virginia Parks, those periods were marked by a flurry of civil rights and anti-discrimination activity on the federal level. A series of actions ranging from the creation of the Fair Employment Practice Committee in 1941 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which mandated the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, write Sites and Parks, had “dramatic impacts on employment discrimination.”
But those gains of the 1970s were soon wiped out. The thinning of union membership and the dwindling power of organized labor didn’t help either, after decades of pressure on employers to end discrimination against workers of color.
Today, in terrible times, with the possibility of social legislation off the table in Washington, the question remains: What, if anything, can be done to close the jobless gap between blacks and whites? When I asked Devah Pager, she called this the “million-dollar question.” This form of discrimination, she pointed out, is especially difficult to deal with. As she noted in 2005, many employers who discriminate don’t even realize they’re doing so; they’re just going with “gut feelings.” “It’s not that these employers have decided that they are not going to hire workers from a particular group,” Pager told me.
What won’t work is relying on discrimination watchdogs to crack down more often. The way federal anti-discrimination law works, it’s up to the person who was discriminated against to raise an alarm. As Duke’s William Darity points out, that’s a near impossibility for a job applicant who must convincingly read the mind of a person he or she doesn’t know. Worse than that, the applicant who wants to lodge charges of discrimination also has to prove that the discrimination was intentional, which, as Pager’s experiments make clear, is no small feat. Under the circumstances, as Darity told me, perhaps no one should be surprised to discover that blacks “grossly underreport their exposure to discrimination and whites grossly overreport it.”
Of course, fixing a problem first requires acknowledging it — something the nation has yet to do, says the Economic Policy Institute’s Algernon Austin. To put blacks back to work, lawmakers should invest federal money directly in job creation, especially for black workers. Other avenues for putting people back to work, like a payroll tax credit won’t do the trick. “We’ve spent billions in trying to build jobs overseas” in war zones, Austin told me. “But if we invested that money here in our cities, we wouldn’t have this racial gap.”
But how likely is that at a moment when, in a Washington gripped by paralysis, any discussion of spending in Washington begins and ends at how much to cut? The painful reality of permanent crisis for black workers is here to stay. That’s how it seems to blacks in D.C., especially those who live east of the river. In April, another group of protesters took to the 11th Street Bridge to demand more D.C. hires, and the following month, the group D.C. Jobs or Else took their complaints to City Hall. But progress is slow. “We’re being pushed out economically,” said William Alston El, a 63-year-old unemployed resident who grew up in D.C. “They say it’s not racism, but the name of the game is they have the money. You can’t live [in] a place if you can’t pay the rent.”
Andy Kroll is a reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine, and an associate editor at TomDispatch. He’s appeared on MSNBC, Al Jazeera English, Current TV, and Democracy Now! to discuss the economy and its ills.