Tag Archives: race

A Dream Sours

9 Nov

Whither the Democratic Party, after Tuesday’s stunning defeat? There will be time enough to contemplate how our new Republican majority goes forward, but for now, it’s time for an autopsy on the demise of a Democratic era, and the collapse of an Electoral College Maginot Line.

This begins by looking back on the past two elections. It’s time we recognize that Barack Obama was not at the head of a tide, or at least not one for the immediate future. He was exceptional. He ran on an agenda that did not have broad popular support, but swept to power twice on the force of sheer charisma, integrity, and ability to inspire optimism in spite of it all. The repeated decimation of Democrats down ballot across the country shows how quickly this wore thin. The wins at the presidential level masked some serious shortcomings in state and local races, and are an embarrassment for a party that had reason to think it was on the rise.

Obama’s presidency will thus go down as a paradox: a popular man whose legacy will likely not outlive him, unless President Trump truly surprises us. The economy performed steadily under conventional measures during the Obama years, but nothing reversed the widening gaps that preceded him. His signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, helped cover more people but has been fraught with issues throughout, and probably won’t resemble the original after a few months. His foreign policy was better than that of his predecessor and of the alternatives to him in 2008, but never quite amounted to a coherent doctrine. Everywhere else, he faced resistance and gridlock; he responded with executive orders, effective in the short term but setting a dangerous precedent for successors to roll them back and more. There were some momentous shifts on social issues, though future Supreme Courts may have some word on how permanent those are. The real question, I suppose, will be whether the Democrats can harness the electoral machinery he put into place and reuse it in the future, or if it will languish. Otherwise, Obama is just the bookend to an era of rising and falling global liberalism, a Washington Consensus that arose out of post-Cold War confidence and now heads into the great unknown.

It was bound to end, as all movements must; the question was how, or when. Even if Hillary Clinton had won, she probably was the end of the line; the Democrats just didn’t have a new generation ready to carry it forward, and its limitations were becoming obvious. It could have evolved, if there were an effective leader to bridge the gap, but there wasn’t. Instead, the Democrats had a candidate of the status quo, and when she crashed, so did the whole enterprise.

Our old friend Mitt Romney has been on my mind lately. In fact, I think there are a lot of parallels between the Clinton and Romney campaigns: blandness, occasional tone-deaf statements, inability to broadcast much of an agenda other than opposition to the other guy, reliance on sheer institutional inertia, certainty of ultimate victory. The unexpected polling error in both Obama and Trump’s favors are not coincidental; it’s just that one more clearly swung the election. Candidates who fail to be fresh will always underachieve, even if they don’t make any unforced errors.

I won’t wade into the discussion over the magnitude of Clinton’s email- and foundation-related sins, but the existence of these issues is a fundamental problem when the theme of one’s campaign is competence and reliability. When a candidate gives mixed messages on the thing she’s supposed to be good at, it’s a bad sign. I’d also add that, whether there were fires or not, there has always been an awful lot of smoke around the Clintons. Yes, Republicans have drummed a lot of this up, but eight years of the same efforts exposed practically nothing on Barack Obama. Clinton was a flawed candidate, and flawed in the worst possible way for the pitch she was trying to make. Her time would have been 2004 or 2008. By 2016, it was too late.

In retrospect, I do think Bernie Sanders probably had better odds than a lot of people gave him credit for, though not as good as his supporters would have liked to believe. He certainly would have played better among the rural white people around the city I live in. But gains in one place could lead to losses elsewhere. Clinton wrecked Sanders among people of color, and Clinton herself failed to generate the needed turnout from people of color. Maybe Sanders wins back some of those Midwestern states, but Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia might all flip the other way. Do the math, and it’s still a toss-up. That particular “what if” is a murky one, and the moment is past. The Democrat most capable of building a big tent was Joe Biden, and that ship has also sailed.

A lot will be said on the left about racism or bigotry, and its apparent triumph. But any discussion of racism has to get past that loaded word and look at the details. Two hundred counties that broke for a black man four years ago went to Trump. This wasn’t a rush of people suddenly discovering hate in their hearts. Instead, you have a lot of people for whom the battle with racism was not their primary reason for going to the polls. Many of these people probably have no real desire to discriminate, but live in places where racial issues aren’t really present in day-to-day life, and are far more motivated by other factors. And when a candidate gives voice to their dearer causes, it’s not hard to dismiss some warts; once that dismissal of warts is normalized, further revelations aren’t going to upend the process. Sure, Trump would take a hit in the tracking polls when he went after someone based on their ethnicity or gender, but before long, the dynamics of the two-horse race would have him trending back upward, as the latest spurt of outrage faded from memory and the persistence of day-to-day life on the ground rose up again.

It’s also worth asking some questions about the wide range of things that fall under that blanket label of “racism.” The working definition on the left considers both a card-carrying member of the KKK and a person who questions protest tactics when Black Lives Matter occupies the freeway and fouls up a commute as exhibiting racist tendencies. Deplorable as one may find all of these attitudes and the many shades in between, it’s counterproductive to treat these phenomena the same way, and slap the same label on the full range of people who hold them. Much as “47 percent” doomed Mitt Romney, the “basket of deplorables” comment left a lot of wavering people fundamentally alienated. Once again, Clinton was supposed to be the uniter, the candidate of “stronger together.” This made her failures to live up to that ideal considerably more impactful than those of Donald Trump, who made no such claim (or, at least, not one anyone took seriously). The candidate of unity failed to display it, and the other guy spoke to voters on a levels they actually cared about. If the Democrats continue to paint with the broad brush of racism instead of interrogating different cases carefully, they will continue to appear condescending, and will continue to lose.

These racial lines have an added drawback for Democrats: most people of color are tightly packed into cities, and as we’ve seen, this limits their odds of winning majorities in the House and of winning the Electoral College despite taking the popular vote. The Democrats, the supposed party of tolerance, are extremely likely to live just among themselves, and it hurts them. Sure, it would be nice to eliminate some of those structural issues that give rural voters added influence, but this is the system we have, and it’s not going to change without getting a hand on the wheel in the first place.

The hubris of so many Democratic operatives, the belief that a more diverse nation would create a firewall and a longer-term majority, might yet come to pass. But as I explained in my initial reaction, the rise in white identity on the right is the natural outflow of identity politics on the left, however justified it may or may not be. This is why identity politics is ugly and dangerous, and it is a major reason why so many struggling states around the globe lapse into ethnic groups squabbling over government. There can be no functioning state without a nation, and that nation needs to approximate some sort of broad identity, even while allowing for nuance within it. Sure, the Democrats may be on track to pick up Arizona and Georgia and maybe even Texas over the next decade. But if they don’t change course somewhat, and rely on demography alone while failing to reach out to large demographics, things will continue to flip. Minnesota—yes, Minnesota—will be the next state to go red, along with the rural northeast, and more will follow.

I heard from a reliable source that Obama wanted to go spend time in Appalachia, but that his advisers told him it wasn’t worth the time. If true, it may prove a fatal error.

I’ve come back to Obama a lot in this post, in part because he is very much my president. The first bubble I ever filled on a ballot was for him, and even as I’ve drifted away from doctrinaire liberalism into something a lot more complicated, I don’t regret either of my votes for him. I was in Washington, D.C. the night he won, and that night might be the most momentous bit of history I ever live. Temperamentally, I relate to the man: cautious and intellectual, prone to elevated rhetoric and a desire for communal action, while perhaps suffering from a certain aloofness and detachment at times. He had genuine empathy for the America that was left behind, but forces beyond his control—forces beyond anyone’s control—largely rendered him powerless to change things. George Packer put it presciently, back in 2010, as the Tea Party arose to face Obama and the failures of Middle East nation-building and the end-of-history Pax Americana became evident:

The noble mission to make the world safe for democracy ended inconclusively, and its aftermath has curdled into an atmosphere more like that of the Palmer raids and the second coming of the Klan. This is why Obama seems less and less able to speak to and for our times. He’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia. An epigraph for our times appears in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom”: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

The dream has soured, and it has done so on both sides of the aisle. Fortunately, we have ways to pick up the pieces.

RFK in Indianapolis, 1968

4 Apr

On Friday morning, I went for a run along Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis. It was a chilly morning, one that forced me to pull out the sweatshirt and the gloves, and a lingering winter sun provided little warmth. Later in the afternoon, a vigil and protest would take place here, but at this early hour, the streets sat silent as I approached an impromptu memorial. Ahead of me, a man and a woman crossed the street to ponder the collection of mementos to a dead man and snap a picture of themselves. I pushed on, past quiet midrise apartments and the Fourth Precinct police station, it too in an end-of-week slumber. Should it be reassuring to know we can soldier on as if nothing happened, or is it chilling that it can disappear from consciousness so quickly?

On Wednesday of this past week, Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, announced two Minneapolis police officers would not be charged in the death of Jamar Clark, a young black man killed in an altercation last November. Freeman cited DNA evidence and the officers’ testimony to justify the use of deadly force. He reviewed the case personally to avoid the anonymity of a grand jury, and released a mountain of evidence in a quest for transparency. The community along Plymouth Avenue and its allies, skeptical after competing claims from eyewitnesses and burdened by a long history of mistrust, did not buy the attorney’s tale. Hennepin County employees bolted the Government Center en masse to avoid getting caught up in a protest that afternoon, but I hung around, and it all remained tame. We’re Minnesotans, after all.

The march made its way to the plaza, and its speakers made their case. After my run on Friday, the protesters returned to downtown Minneaplis, this time taking their case to the skyways before heading back to the little memorial for another remembrance. They promise to continue their crusade, and additional investigations will carry on. To what end? To justice; to peace, whatever those may look like.

It is easy to dispense judgment and advice from an Uptown armchair a world away from North, a world away from the streets where young men try to carve out some safety, or the beat walked by police in an effort to hold it all together. Perhaps I’m ignoring an imperative for justice after a legacy of oppression; perhaps I’m shirking my call to uphold a fragile order that stands between this country and chaos. Two degrees in public affairs, countless debates, and ten thousand hours of reading get me no closer to an answer. I can offer only one unsatisfying bit of analysis: the Clark affair has pulled up the curtain on Minnesota Niceness and revealed a simmering tension that this state must reckon with. The collapse of that façade opens up a possible dialogue, but also threatens to tear it all apart at the seams, with everyone speaking past one another as each person attempts to impose one narrative on an uncooperative history.

At this, I recall the words of one man who tried to transcend these tangled narratives. Forty-eight years ago today, in Indianapolis, Robert F. Kennedy made one of the more enduring speeches in American history. In a few short minutes, he broke the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death to an unknowing crowd, pondered his role as a white man speaking to black Americans, and found, in ancient wisdom, a guide toward a common goal. His quote from Aeschylus is as haunting as any in literature, and he crescendos to this finish:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we—and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Two months later, RFK would join MLK in martyrdom. His ideal struggles on, often wandering in darkness, but never dead. Time to rededicate ourselves to that old Greek task. The stakes are growing higher.

Marion Barry, Art Johnston, and the Politics of Personality

24 Nov

Sunday brought the news that Marion Barry, the “mayor for life” of Washington, D.C., passed away at the age of 78. He was a living legend by the time I arrived in Washington, serving on the DC City Council long into his old age. Most people know him for his 1990 arrest for smoking crack. It was an especially awkward incident at the height of the inner city drug epidemic, one that epitomized DC’s dysfunctional government and broken culture, a sorry statement on life in the shadow of the Capitol.

Still, Barry was much more than the Rob Ford of his day. His popularity, from his first election to his final days, was genuine, as anyone who actually bothered to talk to people in Southeast DC would have learned. He was a real Civil Rights movement leader in his early days, and he did things to break down glass ceilings for African-Americans in DC. He had charisma, a winning charm that even allowed him to do well in snow-white Northwest in his first election, and his followers were rewarded handsomely.

I am always hesitant to walk on ground where racial questions loom so large, especially as I write on the night of the Ferguson verdict. But the style of politics Barry practiced transcends race, and has been around since the dawn of time. It is a style that substitutes charisma for institutions, and steamrolls any sense of genuine equity beneath a cynical patronage machine. In the end, the man became bigger than his project, and few things he does can outlive him. Perhaps it seemed the only method available in a city that had long before lost its compass; there in the heart of our imperial capital, where so many succumb to the desire to allow ends to justify means. It allowed him to rise above the rest, yes, but in the end, we are left with a distinctive character but little else. He was hardly alone even among DC politicians in harnessing the political machine; witness Jack Evans, of opulent Ward 2, who uses an absurd campaign war chest to bully any potential opposition into submission.

Barry had his moment, but did not know when to let go, and justified his political comeback in brutally honest terms: he needed power to keep himself sane. It had consumed him. By the end he was a dinosaur from a different era, still playing the same old cards as the DC he once led slipped away. The city’s African-American majority has disappeared behind the forces of gentrification, and will not be coming back anytime soon, barring a drastic change. The new DC is not necessarily a better place, but it is in need of a new champion, not someone whose politics revolves around himself.

***

An over-inflated sense of one’s own role is a common affliction in politics, and it is one I have diagnosed at times in Art Johnston, the embattled Duluth school board member. As the thousands of words spilled on this blog have shown, I’ve struggled to make sense of Johnston over the past year and a half. For the past seven years, he has fought a long and often very lonely battle against a school facilities plan and a number of other perceived failings of ISD 709.

The attorney hired by the District to investigate several accusations against Johnston has delivered her report. This past week, the Duluth News Tribune received the redacted version, which tells of Johnston’s alleged transgressions. The ultimate verdict is about what one might have expected. The supposedly racial comment, which always seemed the least plausible of the charges, was not substantiated. In a heat of rage, he did indeed loudly confront Superintendent Bill Gronseth and Board Chair Mike Miernicki at the Duluth East graduation in June, demanding to know why his partner, Jane Bushey, was being shuffled off to a different school. Having seen Johnston’s episodes when particularly incensed by Board proceedings, this is entirely plausible. It is out of line, and makes it easy to understand others’ discomfort in him. Is this bit of discomfort enough to supersede the will of the voters and axe a man from the School Board? That seems extreme.

We’re not done yet, though. The most interesting of the charges coming out of this is the alleged conflict of interest, in which Johnston sat in on many meetings on Bushey’s behalf. It was never entirely clear if he was there a school board member or a spouse, leading to some very understandable discomfort. Harry Welty, Johnston’s erstwhile Board ally, claims it would have been easy for the District to pitch Johnston from these meetings if it so desired; while true, this does not justify Johnston’s actions there.

We don’t have the full account, and may never actually have it. I’ll agree with Welty that the investigating attorney does indeed seem to have her narrative wrapped up awfully tightly. On the flip side, I’m not nearly as skeptical of her professionalism as Johnston’s defenders, whose willingness to believe the worst in people knows no bounds. (It’s been a while since I’ve been accused of having an overly rosy view of humanity.) The self-styled defender of truth in Duluth and his staunch allies remain incapable of getting out of the cave in which their truth exists.

Still, in the end, I’m left exactly where I started when these accusations first came out. I remain sympathetic to Johnston’s willingness to raise serious questions and (based on what I know) would not vote to remove him, but believe he himself has become too toxic to ever be an effective voice for his cause. This is bigger than him, and while the board’s majority may not act justly and should face the consequences at the ballot box, any defender of fiscal sanity or underrepresented voices should also be ready to move on. Johnston’s mediocre accusers may be the ones pulling the trigger, but he handed them the gun all too willingly. I am left only with a few questions for everyone involved, save Johnston, as my experience suggests he is unwilling to listen to somewhat divergent viewpoints, even when carefully qualified. (Nor do I really blame him for lashing out at this point in the saga; what else is he supposed to do?)

To the board majority: is this worth it? Let’s say you do go through and axe Johnston. What comes next? The fight for his cause will go on, you know. Don’t kid yourself; there will be some blowback, no matter what. He has a loyal following and a mouthpiece in a weekly local paper in Loren Martell. Do you really want the next election to be a referendum on this decision? You may find Johnston obnoxious and tiresome, and at times terribly wrong, but is a single voice in the wilderness really a serious threat to your agenda as a board member?

To Harry Welty: well, it’s pretty much up to you to try to get as many answers as you can during the hearing on December 2. Still, let’s say the Board does go through and remove Johnston. Is this really the cross you want to die on? Do you really want to escalate this war, with so many pressing issues at stake in the district? Obviously justice is a worthy ideal, but it also runs the risk of turning into a hopeless circus act. Think Mike Randolph 2.0, since I know you weren’t too fond of some of the perhaps unexpected consequences of that whole affair. Tread carefully.

***

I’m not naive. I know politics is personal, and that it will inevitably lead to results like this. It’s part of the game. But, as I sit here watching things go up in flames in Missouri, it puts things in perspective. For all the madness, for all my acceptance of messy reality…there are situations that just cry for someone to rise above it all. Neither of the men detailed in this post ever did so. I don’t expect it, but the Answer to Everything does allow for it, from time to time. Perchance to dream.

Realizing Dreams, 50 Years Later

28 Aug

Fifty years ago today, when several hundred thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., I wasn’t anywhere close to the world of the living. I grew up on the whitest end of a town that is over 90% white; questions of race were, by in large, something that happened somewhere else. Imagine my shock when I ventured into The Bronx during a visit to New York late in high school, when my father and I were the only non-black people on a crowded shopping street. It wasn’t fear or discomfort; it was simply recognition of being distinctly different. Perhaps because of that lack of experience with other races, I have never found dialogues on race easy. Indeed, I’ve read that white Northerners can often be cagy to the point of excess when confronted with the topic, and I am probably guilty of that.

Even so, it is hard to think of any Americans who inspired more reverence in my childhood than Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK is ensconced in America’s civic religion, complete with a monument on the National Mall and a statue that, while not without its controversy, does capture his deep, searing eyes. He is as much of a hero as we’re likely to find in American history, and deserves so many of the plaudits he receives. But in the worship of past figures, there is a danger of sanitizing people; of turning them into saintly icons rather than the human beings they were. MLK was a complicated man who stood for many things that went far beyond race.

Fifty years later, where is his dream? It’s hard to say. There have been monumental advances in some fields, and in simple, basic civility. But at the same time, African-Americans lag behind whites in any number of indicators, and some cities look just as segregated as they did fifty years ago. Things are more difficult to measure, however: blatant racism is much less common than it once was, and the forces complicating things are invariably more subtle than Southern segregationists of the 1960s. The public policy initiatives used to combat racial inequality in 2013—affirmative action, forced school desegregation, various education reform plans—tend to be crude tools that oversimplify the problem. Ending the single greatest contributor to systemic racism in the current U.S.—the war on drugs—will come with some serious trade-offs; and while I think the benefits outweigh the costs, the costs do exist, and will have to be confronted in a careful manner, if and when the war is drawn down. Rarely are racial issues as clear-cut and morally obvious as they were in the 1960s. From the Trayvon Martin debate to the case of a local black principal sloppily removed from her job, I struggle to believe the motives at play were as vicious as some claim: too often, they seem to assume the worst in other people, and seek to pass blame—something that does not strike me as terribly MLK-ish. (Admittedly, MLK’s willingness to forgive sets a very high bar, and it probably isn’t realistic to expect most people to meet it. We have to work with the world we live in.)

What we are witnessing here is the collision of American meritocracy with ongoing cycles of poverty and culture that leave African-Americans, as a whole, on unequal footing. King said his dream was “deeply rooted in the American Dream,” but as James Baldwin noted in a famed 1965 debate with Bill Buckley, for all its claims of equal opportunity, the future-oriented American creed is not well-designed to redress lingering legacies of the past. (I say this simply as a statement of fact, not as a call for revolution. I don’t know what a better alternative would look like.) No one encapsulates the tension between the American Dream and the past better than President Obama himself: whatever one may think of the President’s record, it is now clear he never had a prayer of re-orienting the national debate on race. Even though his election was a sign of racial progress and the possibility for anyone to achieve something, it didn’t erase the past. Ross Douthat’s Sunday column points out how the “post-racial” Obama era has seen more questions of race than most other recent administrations, with affirmative action and voting rights and  profiling issues coming back to the fore (to say nothing of the racial alarmism around the President himself). History prevents us from ever getting rid of these questions.

In a sign of the oddness of our times, Douthat’s column went on to argue that both parties have much to gain from a cross-racial coalition of working class Americans who have been left behind by the business and technology interests that are now deeply embedded in the political establishment. Yes, that’s right: the New York Times’ “conservative” columnist is making what is, essentially, a Marxist argument. Across the spectrum, political pundits are trying to find some source of a sustainable majority in American politics. Some have said the Republican Party will be dead unless it can increase its appeal among minorities, and while this is in essence true, I think it is also a horribly reductionist way of thinking. Aligning parties along racial lines is identity politics at its worst, and is not a recipe for societal health for either party.

Still, I’m skeptical of Douthat’s solution. One of the great lessons of the failure of Communism was that uniting the underclass against entrenched interests didn’t work particularly well. I’d be intrigued by populist candidates who try to lead insurgencies on behalf of Middle America, but even if those candidates should start to win, they would find a hostile environment in Washington. Reading some of the retrospectives on the 1963 March, it is astonishing to see how much the nation pulled together for such a display of collective conscience. Perhaps even more striking is trying to imagine that sort of rally in 2013 America, and failing miserably. Sure, there have been marches on Washington (Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and so on), and as a D.C. resident at the time, there was definitely something different about Obama’s election and inauguration. But the election alone was mostly symbolic in nature, and the militant political movements are a far cry from the unity preached by Dr. King and his fellow travelers.

This nation is deeply fragmented, and I’ve written on here with some sympathy for people who worry about this. Whether it’s the result of self-segregation in suburbs, the atomizing effects of technology, or the failures of the political system to inspire much confidence, some parts of this country seem further apart than ever before—a curious fact, considering how much more interconnected things are due to technology. The few forces that can hold things together—popular culture, national news networks, a handful of sporting events—often appeal to the lowest common denominator, and rarely offer us much in the way  of deep insights or patient reflection.

But, rather than bemoan our fate, I’m going to look for some bright spots in this apparent lack of national unity. The failures of the political class may lead people to hate national politics, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into complete alienation: as I’ve said before, politics need not go through formal institutions, and re-focusing on things we actually can affect can be quite gratifying. For the first time in a very long time, the American public is deeply skeptical of embroiling itself in foreign wars; whether due to the excesses of the Bush years or the lack of a real existential threat, that skepticism is a far cry from the blind patriotism behind past American military adventures. From localist liberals to communitarian conservatives, there are growing groups of people who find little to like in the crony capitalism/corporate welfare that has become so prevalent. At some point, they may even realize they have something in common, even if it never coheres into a national movement. Keeping political movements on a smaller scale allows for more nuance and attention to particular cases, rather than trying to slap a one-size-fits-all approach over a wildly diverse country of 300 million.

This doesn’t mean an end of attention to national politics: given the state’s power, it can’t be totally ignored, and there are some problems that can only be solved on a national level. Inertia is a powerful force, and the national media isn’t going to change the narrative anytime soon. It will be hard to limit ambition, and many successful local politicians will heed the call to climb the ladder in search of some “greater” opportunity. Still, the untapped potential in local energy for improving everyone’s lot in life is enormous.

Focusing on the immediate also keeps with a key tradition within the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s words in front of the Lincoln Memorial are what we remember most, but so many of the key moments in the Civil Rights Movement took place in towns and cities across the South, carefully coordinated by civic groups and churches confronting an ambivalent or hostile national political scene. We should remember 1963, but better societies do not come about just because some people decided to hold a march, or because of a great speech or two. The important work is far more mundane.

In Which I Wade into the Trayvon Martin Affair

25 Jul

I realize the George Zimmerman trial has been beaten to death in the media over the past few weeks, and that I am rather late to the party. But this blog is, after all, a patient cycle, so I think that gives me some liberty to weigh things over the course of time. So, here are a few bullet points on the whole affair. They are complicated and will probably not satisfy anyone who has a set opinion on the Trayvon Martin saga. I offer them in the spirit of further healthy debate.

-I see no great injustice in the jury’s verdict. They had more evidence at their hands than any of us do, and from what I have seen, we have very little idea of what happened in the few minutes leading up to Martin’s death. I would not be shocked to learn that Zimmerman erred in his conduct, or even to learn that he acted on a racial bias, whether conscious or unconscious. But there seems to be too much ambiguity here to render a guilty verdict, and he is innocent until proven guilty of second-degree murder beyond reasonable doubt. There is plenty of reasonable doubt here. Much as we may want to turn Zimmerman into a cause celébre to highlight the very real ongoing racial tensions in the United States, this case isn’t that black-and-white. (Pun intended. Sorry.)

-I also do not support trying to launch a civil suit against Zimmerman. That strikes me as a vindictive show trial that would give both sides in this debate another opportunity for a lot of shrill self-righteousness while still ignoring the more important underlying debates. Martin’s supporters need to ask themselves this simple question: is their cause best served by an effort to lock up a single man, or is there perhaps some better way to make sure some good comes out of this whole sad affair?

-All of that said, President Obama’s remarks on the whole affair were well-measured and on target, and did constitute a real effort to focus on those more important underlying debates. A few critics tried to attack the President for making such remarks when he had a rather privileged upbringing. This completely misses the point: he has encountered some prejudice—not of a seriously life-limiting sort, clearly, but prejudice nonetheless. Obama lays out an agenda that deserves to be questioned and further explored in future debate, but I also think his words were sincere, and I do not think he did much (in this particular address) to further politicize a tragedy that has already been politicized to the point of excess.

-It is true that a disproportionate amount of crime in this country is committed by African-Americans, and I certainly do not believe their higher incarceration rate is simply the result of white racism. There are very real pathologies of crime and violence and poverty and broken families that afflict many African-American communities in this country, and until they are resolved, the statistics are going to be skewed. However, telling “black people” to go clean up their act isn’t going to do anyone any good. There is no one “black community,” except to the extent that it has been manufactured by people with political agendas (both with the intent to help and hurt the prospects of African-Americans in the United States). Instead, there are many, many communities, some of which happen to include lots of black people. We never hear public cries for wealthy white people to clean up the trailer parks of Appalachia out of racial solidarity, and it is no less absurd to expect middle-class African-Americans to do the same for inner-city ghettoes. Sure, people with certain cultural traits share certain bonds, as our President noted in his remarks, and many people do admirable things for the disadvantaged with whom they share a cultural affinity. But the vast majority of people do not feel the need to act on these identities on a day-to-day basis, and try to get on with their lives, few of which involve heaps of free time to go “save” people one has never met.

Thinking about these things strictly as “black problems” is an impoverished view, and only gets at a tiny bit of the problem. We can argue about whether the solution is economic or moral or some combination of the two, but it is not just racial. Without getting into an argument over causes and effects, the economic destitution of inner cities and the collapse of marriage within those communities are the most powerful forces behind the racial achievement and well-being gaps. And while racism is still a problem, I do wonder if invoking it in all but the most blatant cases really serves a constructive purpose. There is no more charged topic in the U.S. today than race, and nothing is more likely to bring out predictable responses. We all argue for a while, call people racists or counter-racists, and demand more “dialogue,” as if there weren’t already a lot of yelling going on. And then the issue fades from the news, and we go back to the old normal. Perhaps combatting the vestiges of racism requires a little more subtlety; a different mode of dialogue.

-There may not be a single black community, but there is a shared black legacy dating back to slavery. This remains America’s original sin, and I have my doubts about any salvation from it on this earth. By in the large, white Americans (and most non-black minorities as well) do not have a history, so to speak; their identities as Americans are founded upon some version of the American Dream, an embrace of the U.S. for its supposed opportunity while discarding the past. For African-Americans, being an American means something much more complicated, and has given rise to a culture that cannot forget the past. That culture need not be determinative, and I do not doubt that some people invoke this culture for cynical purposes. But it exists, and can’t be wished away. Nor should it: history is a valuable thing, and while it can chain people to the past, it brings with it a wealthy cultural inheritance. Hence, in part, the outsize contributions of African-Americans in a number of artistic realms, from high art to pop culture.

-I haven’t agreed with everything Rod Dreher has written about the case, but this piece on how we all profile raises some worthwhile questions. I am guilty of this. For all my belief that I am a fair-minded person, I’ve reacted to the way some people look, especially when I lived in Washington DC. While I did not cross the street to avoid anyone, I would certainly cast a wary eye on people who dressed in certain ways, and perhaps reach for my keys in my pocket. I don’t think this is necessarily racial, mind you; I do the same thing when I walk past the horde of almost entirely white people lined up outside of the synthetic marijuana-dealing Last Place on Earth here in Duluth. Presentation matters, and it is rather naïve to claim people can dress however they would like while at the same time expecting that dress should not provoke reactions. Obviously, this is no defense for Zimmerman if he did indeed take the initiative and hunt down Martin. But while I think we should fight it when we can, a certain degree of prejudice is probably inevitable.

-Somewhere at the root of American liberalism there is a fascinating contradiction between the desire to respect all cultures and the wish that everyone be treated equally. One strand demands that we take notice of the things that separate us and remain in constant dialogue about these differences, while another tries to flatten all differences between people and claim they are only superficial accessories to a shared humanity. I don’t say this in a nasty way to point out some horrible hypocrisy; I think it simply reflects those wonderfully contradictory realities of human nature that make it impossible to boil us down to a static essence. They aren’t always in tension, and it certainly makes more sense to build a legal system in a modern state around the second strain of thought. But culture will always divide us, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. 

Raising the Staff: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/15/13

16 Jul

The Duluth City Council was in a chipper mood on Monday night, and not without good reason. Mayor Don Ness informed the Council that the city had won a Local Government of the Year award within the state of Minnesota, and Councilor Krug was “just as happy as can be” to announce that the city’s anti-synthetic drug ordinance is now officially on the books. It went into effect last Thursday, a restraining order against the city sought by synthetic drug seller Jim Carlson was rejected by a judge earlier in the day, and police report that service calls are already down by one third in the area surrounding Mr. Carlson’s business. (No one bothered to mention that one of these calls was related to an assault upon Mr. Carlson himself, at the hands of a deranged customer.)

The city council chamber was quite full for the meeting; though it only lasted an hour and did not involve a single vote that was not unanimous, many speakers made their way to the podium. Councilors Krause and Larson were missing in action, and most of the Council was in a summery mood and wore white, though Councilor Fosle, as always, wore black.

The first group of speakers to come forward took a stand on the issue of a Native American eagle staff that was planted in front of City Hall in 2011. The city recently claimed it was an unauthorized memorial that did not belong on city property, and ordered its removal. The city’s Native American community was none too fond of this decision. Ricky DeFoe, the Chair of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, railed against the “white hegemony” that was “fatal to itself, morally and spiritually,” and to the “world as a whole.” He explained that the eagle staff is a “spatial-iconic metaphor” that connected the people to land, space, and place, and juxtaposed it against other city monuments that celebrate European figures, such as the Angel of Hope and a statue of Leif Erickson, a Viking explorer who never came within a thousand miles of Duluth whom Duluth likes to celebrate anyway. The removal of the staff, he continued, amounted to “systemic racism,” and he claimed that his attempts to get a hearing in front of the council have been ignored.

Three speakers followed Mr. DeFoe and expressed similar sentiments. Mr. Gabriel Peltier greeted the council in Anishinaabe, framed the staff as a civil rights issue, and requested a conversation in good faith. Both he and the next speaker, Ms. Rebecca Domagala of the Human Rights Commission, likened the staff to a flag in its symbolic power. Mr. Allen Richardson, the final speaker, claimed the city “failed to use basic listening skills” and pointed out that Duluth was founded on land that, according to U.S. law at the time, should have been preserved as a reservation. Mr. Richardson closed by blasting the “silence of indifference” to Native American affairs common in the city.

As there was no official business involving the eagle staff before the Council, the Councilors could not respond until the end of the meeting, when most of the Native Americans and their supporters had already left the hall. Councilor Gardner, though at pains to make it clear she wanted to find a constructive resolution to the issue, did voice a pair of concerns. First, she disputed the notion that the city had ignored the Indigenous Commission, and said neither she nor Councilor Hartman had been approached for a meeting while serving as Council President. Second, while she admitted the staff was more subtle than a simple religious sign, she also reminded her colleagues of an explosive controversy surrounding the presence of a Ten Commandments monument on city property some years back. The Council, she suggested, would be wise to hold its previous line on issues of church-state separation. Councilors Julsrud and Boyle expressed hope for eventually “finding peace” on the issue, and Councilor Fosle, while not entirely clear in his comments, seemed to be disappointed the Native American groups had not been content with the offer to place the staff on Spirit Mountain, a site of religious significance to the Ojibwe in Duluth.

Several other speakers came forward before the meeting continued. There was a second plea in as many meetings to enforce the city’s fireworks ordinance; one man complained about zoning and planning issues around an office tower planned for downtown Duluth; a man expressed worry about a derelict property alongside his house; and a representative of the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory clarified his group’s stance on possible development beneath the bird-watching area on the city’s east side.

After that, the Council cruised through most of its official agenda, the most significant action taken being the return of the long-tabled Pastoret Terrace project to the administration by a unanimous vote. Councilor Gardner explained that, after a meeting with the developer, the backers of the project decided not to pursue city-approved grant funding, but will instead move forward seeking other sources of funding for mixed-income and low-income housing at the site of the old Kozy Bar.

One last issue brought forth significant public input, as four citizens spoke on a pair of opposing resolutions; one which would make lower Piedmont Avenue an official truck route to receive state funding, and one to ban trucks from the same roadway. The speakers, all of whom live along Piedmont Avenue, begged the council to get rid of the trucks, which have drastically lowered the quality of life along that street as they go through countless shift points on their way up toward the mall. The trucks have “decimated” the neighborhood, with as many as sixty an hour climbing up what was supposed to be a residential street, causing excessive noise and vibrating one man’s deck away from his house. The Councilors rallied to their cause, with Councilor Fosle congratulating whoever had written the resolution for making exceptions for oversized windmill trucks that cannot use an alternate route. The truck ban passed, 7-0, rendering the second resolution academic.

In the closing comments unrelated to the eagle staff and synthetic drugs, the Councilors focused primarily on a street repair timeline. Council President Boyle introduced the timeline and suggested another open session for input was in order, while Councilor Fosle made it clear he opposed the process. Councilor Stauber had other issues with the timeline, which he and Council President Boyle appeared to resolve after a brief back-and-forth. Councilor Fosle expressed some incredulity over taxes levied on the sale of old bricks torn out of the recently repaved Superior Street, and Mayor Ness promised to look into the matter. Councilor Hartman wrapped things up by reminding the public that the filing deadline for the 2013 city elections is tomorrow, and the Council then adjourned to its three-week summer recess. 

Art Johnston vs. the World: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/18/13

19 Jun

For whatever reason, this very old post still generates a lot of traffic. My thoughts have evolved some since. For my more recent posts on ISD 709 affairs, check out the school board tag here.

In my continuing coverage of local politics, here is an account of a recent Duluth school board meeting.

First, some background information: in the face of declining enrollment, Duluth launched a huge school consolidation and reconstruction project, the Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP), colloquially known as the Red Plan, in 2007. Most people agreed something had to be done; the debate centered on how to implement the changes, and quickly spiraled into bedlam. The LRFP was highly controversial due to its large price tag and because it did not go to a referendum. (It is my understanding that the school board is by no means required to hold a referendum, but many citizens were so upset with the size of the measure that they thought it constituted an attack on the democratic process—and now, years later, there are still people who come to each school board meeting to berate its members.)

The school board pushed the measure through just in time for the economy to crash. Many of the shuttered schools remain unsold—buy yourself an old high school on Craigslist here!—and the district has failed to meet its enrollment projections. But far more significantly, anger over the LRFP has been a major factor in the failure of several school board levies. Class sizes have skyrocketed into the 40s, teachers have been axed, and a number of students have open-enrolled in neighboring districts. While the large class sizes are not okay, I do think the apocalyptic views of Duluth schools taken by some critics are over-the-top; the facilities are indeed excellent, the curriculum is still fairly strong, there are many great teachers and administrators who haven’t gone anywhere, and Duluth East, at least, still seems to send just as many (if not more) kids off to top-end colleges. But all is not rosy in ISD 709, and Tuesday night’s circus before the Board revealed a community still torn apart by a nearly-complete process that began six years ago.

It was a fairly full house for the meeting, which is held in what appears to have once been the cavernous cafeteria of Historic Old Central High School, a building that now houses the district’s administration and several alternative learning programs. (HOCHS is not to be confused with the Unhistoric Old Central High School, the one that is now for sale.) All seven school board members were on hand, along with Superintendent Bill Gronseth and the two non-voting student members, one from each high school. Seven of the ten people seated at the front of the room wore glasses, of which Member Westholm won the hotly contested award for the most professorially-perched spectacles.

In the audience, ten to fifteen of us had no obvious business before the Board; our number included school administrators, candidates for the Board in this fall’s elections, and the media. A handful of people who had been first incensed into action by the LRFP were on hand; whatever the merits of their initial critiques, their presence now seems to be little more than an exercise in self-righteousness, their shtick so exhausted that one must struggle to take them at all seriously. (At one point, I thought Silly Hat Lady had actually let a worthwhile suggestion slip into her endless bloviating, but when the topic in question came up in the Board’s discussion, it was clear they were already miles ahead of her.)

About twenty people dressed in red were there to support the clerical workers’ union, and their leader made an impassioned plea on behalf of the district’s overstretched secretaries. But the most visible and vocal crowd in the hall, their number somewhere around 25, was on hand to decry the decision not to retain Ms. Leea Power, a school principal.

Ms. Power had moved her family to Duluth the previous summer, and after a year working at the alternative high school had been appointed principal of Piedmont Elementary. Roughly a week later, the Board turned around and made a motion to terminate Ms. Power’s contract. The reasons, which went unsaid until after the Board voted to cut Ms. Power due to data privacy regulations, included issues of communication, leadership, time management, learning attitude, professionalism, and building trust. Her supporters, naturally, disagreed. But there was an added element that fueled the debate over Ms. Power: she is black.

Without going through the whole racial history of Duluth (a topic on which I am no expert, to be sure), it is safe to say that African-Americans face some unique issues in an otherwise very homogenous, white community. At one point, Member Johnston said the racial achievement gap in Duluth is one of the largest in the state of Minnesota, and that Minnesota’s gap is the largest nationwide. It is rare to find a black person in a prominent position in Duluth, and a number of audience members saw Ms. Power as a much-needed African-American in a position of authority. Of Ms. Power’s supporters, all but three or four were black, and their lead speaker, Ms. Sharon Witherspoon, quoted Martin Luther King several times. Member Cameron, the lone African-American on the Board, said she thought many of Ms. Power’s alleged shortcomings were correctable, given proper training.

The longest plea on Ms. Power’s behalf, however, came from the white man sitting at the far end of the dais, Member Art Johnston. Member Johnston, an older man whose hair style suggests he enjoys going for long walks along the lake before Board meetings, was one of the members elected immediately after the LFRP rancor, and his opinions on his colleagues seem to range from bitter frustration to outright contempt. In his three-plus years on the board, he has perfected the art of making a scene. He claimed the accusations against Ms. Power were full of “hearsay and contradictions,” produced a ream of letters supporting her, and ripped through a list of procedures he believed the district’s HR Department had violated. The HR Manager, Mr. Tim Sworsky, described his accusations as “appalling” in their ignorance of HR processes, and Member Johnston fired the charge right back at Mr. Sworsky. He predicted lawsuits, NAACP involvement, and called Superintendent Gronseth’s letter recommending Ms. Power’s dismissal “pretty pathetic.” He finished by saying the Board was “destroying this person’s educational career” and said the “looks in people’s eyes” as they debated the topic were “very concerning.”

One of those people with a troubled look behind his glasses was Member Kasper, who struggled to find the words to explain that he supported Ms. Power’s dismissal; though he did not do so lightly, he trusted the Superintendent’s judgment. Member Cameron, while not endorsing all of Member Johnston’s rhetoric, said the HR Department practices needed some work. No one else said a word. The Board voted to terminate Ms. Power’s contract, 5-2, with Members Johnston and Cameron providing the opposition. The ball is now in Ms. Power’s court: will she move on from Duluth, or will she pull a Mike Randolph and fight?

The Board went on to recognize a west side elementary school that improved its test scores markedly, and Member Johnston had fun slowing down the proceedings to point out any number of bylaws that were in danger of being violated. (While I certainly do not condone the violation of bylaws, the notion of choosing one’s battles seems to have no place in Member Johnston’s worldview. His obstructionism drowned out his most salient criticisms, and made one wonder if he has at this point simply resorted to disrupting as many things as he can.) There was a healthy, consensus-building discussion about possibly closing the high school campuses during lunch hours, in which the student Members played their largest role of the night; it was a rare moment of constructive engagement by everyone up on the dais, and the sort of dialogue one wished one heard more often at local board meetings.

The meeting concluded with the consideration of the budget for the upcoming year, and Member Johnston was once again at the top of his game. He harped on several change orders to a handful of ongoing LRFP projects, and insisted that any savings from the LRFP should be put directly back into classrooms, rather than paying off long-term debt created by the facilities plan. He noted that he has never voted to cut a single teacher, and claimed the Board could reduce class sizes “right now” if it wanted to.

Superintendent Gronseth was the only person to respond to Member Johnston’s charges, though he said he was “at a loss” over where to start, since he disagreed with Member Johnston on so many fronts. Many of the issues, he said, had been belabored to death, and he said the District was slowly moving in the right direction, particularly when given the impending repeal of many state-level mandates. All parts of the budget passed, 6-1, with Member Johnston being the lone ‘no’ vote. Member Johnston concluded the meeting by asking why Superintendent Gronseth had not responded to a past request for some sort of follow-up, and asked if he would like the state to weigh in on the issue. The Superintendent paused before quietly replying that his door is always open.

It would be easy to dismiss Member Johnston as a lunatic on the fringe, which is exactly what his colleagues seem to have done. But it was hard to fight the notion that, if not for Member Johnston, the Board would simply be a rubber stamp machine. Perhaps there is greater debate behind the curtains, but one wouldn’t know it from the meetings, and the other Members may not be aware of how opaque their processes can seem to the rest of the city. Whether justified or not, the LRFP process did damage the Board’s image, and the Board’s reaction appears to consist of ignoring this fact rather than doing anything about it. Half of the Members were basically mute throughout the controversial proceedings on Tuesday night, giving little indication of how they arrived at their votes. I understand their hands were tied somewhat by the Data Practices Act when discussing Ms. Power, and that many of Member Johnston’s complaints over LRFP money have likely been rehashed time and time again. But at this meeting, only a few people tried to defend their agenda. Member Seliga-Punyko rightly noted the long-term declines in district enrollment that long predate the LRFP, but it would be naïve to claim this is the sole reason for Duluth’s current bind. Superintendent Gronseth also made some effort to counter Member Johnston, but—with all due respect to the Superintendent, who was an assistant principal at East High when I was there, and about whom I have heard nothing but praise from observers other than Member Johnston—he needs to expand beyond his arsenal of education platitudes if he actually wants to convince anyone. The District needs a much stronger sales pitch, and needs to have the courage of its conviction to refute every little point Member Johnston makes. Otherwise, even those of us who are skeptical of a man who seems to be nursing a longtime grudge will wonder why the Board refuses to counter him, and whether he might be right about a thing or two.