Friday, February 27, 2009

End is near for Cuba embargo

By DeWayne Wickham

This could be the beginning of the end for the 47-year U.S. economic embargo of Cuba.
A relic of the Cold War, this archaic attempt to strangle the life out of our communist neighbor was dealt a critical blow a few days ago when the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations released a report that brands the embargo an abysmal failure.

Not only has it not succeeded in toppling the government Fidel Castro installed in Cuba shortly after coming to power in 1959, but the embargo has also undermined U.S. foreign policy in other parts of the world, the report concluded. It “remains a contentious subject” with many Latin American countries and “a source of controversy between the U.S. and the European Union,” said the report, which was prepared by a top aide to Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the panel’s ranking Republican.

This country’s Cuba policy is nearly universally condemned – and for good reason. It reeks of hypocrisy.

While successive administrations have used claims of lack of democratization and human rights abuses on the island to keep the restrictions on American travel and trade with Cuba in place, they maintained normal relations with nations that have more troubling records of mistreating their people, according to the State Department’s annual report on human rights abuses around the world.

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to loosen restrictions on how often Cuban Americans can travel to Cuba and how much money they can send to relatives there.
The Senate committee’s report suggests that much more be done. It wants Congress to consider an outright end to the embargo.

The travel ban is an especially vexing problem. As it stands, Cuban Americans have a special right to travel to Cuba, while most other Americans are denied the freedom to visit the Caribbean nation. Enforcing a travel policy that’s based on national origin is morally wrong – and legally questionable.

With all the foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration, Cuba is low-hanging fruit that should be harvested quickly.

Ending the embargo will help the U.S. reclaim some of the moral high ground it has lost in Central and South America, where a growing number of leftist leaders have come to power berating this country for trying to impose our will on other nations in the hemisphere.

There’s no good foreign policy reason to continue the embargo. This nation’s engagement of China and Vietnam has done more to open up those communist societies than decades of diplomatic stalemate.

And neither is there a good domestic policy reason to continue the embargo. The Cuban-American vote in Florida – a state that often plays a decisive role in presidential elections – was not a key factor in 2008. While most Cuban Americans in Florida voted for Republican John McCain, a majority of the state’s Hispanics who went to the polls voted for Obama, according to exit polls.

More importantly, a December poll of Cuban Americans by Florida International University found that nearly two of three favored ending the restrictions on sending money to Cuba and support allowing all Americans to travel freely there.

All of this suggests that those who still back the embargo are political dinosaurs who will soon discover that their time has passed.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Labeling blacks a monkey: A long, fatal history

By DeWayne Wickham

Phillip Atiba Goff, who probably knows more than just about anyone about the metaphorical linking of blacks to apes, was on a nonstop flight from New York to Los Angeles when he got word I was trying to reach him.

An assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, Goff has spent years probing the psyche of whites for an understanding of why so many of them tend, consciously or unconsciously, to associate blacks with apes, monkey, baboons or gorillas. Using an onboard Wi-Fi connection, Goff sent me a copy an article he co-authored on this subject two years ago, along with a cell phone number that I could reach him on when he landed.

The article should have been required reading at the New York Post before the newspaper published a half-hearted apology for a cartoon it ran that many thought depicted Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, as a monkey. The drawing, by cartoonist Sean Delonas, shows two cops, one with a smoking gun in hand, standing over the bullet-riddled body of a marauding monkey - an apparent reference to a violent chimpanzee that had been gunned down by police in Stamford, Conn., two days before.

"They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," the caption read. Obama authored the original stimulus bill. The Post said the cartoon was simply meant "to mock the ineptly written federal stimulus bill," and not suggest that the president is a monkey.

But Goff told me there's a long history of whites portraying blacks as primates - and a recent record of incidents, largely underreported, in which Obama "was portrayed as a monkey" during the presidential campaign. Such treatment of Obama doesn't surprise him. Goff's research found that when made to think about apes, many whites associated them with blacks. And such references of blacks to simians - especially in crime reporting by the media - can produce serious results, he told me.

One 20-year study of death penalty cases in Philadelphia found "the more that media coverage used ape-like metaphors to describe a murder trial, the more likely black suspects, but not white suspects, were to be put to death," Goff wrote in the article, which appeared in, an online academic research publication.

Goff's work is not the stuff that leads to a front page newspaper article, but it should have caught the attention of anyone at the Post who was seriously interested in repairing the damage done by the cartoon. Instead, while offering a tepid apology, the paper went on the attack, blaming "some in the media and in public life who have had differences with the Post in the past" for fanning the controversy.

It's time the nation has an adult conversation about the long legacy of portraying blacks as monkeys. But as the Post's response shows, this won't be easy.

Attorney General Eric Holder was right when he said during a Justice Department Black History Month speech that "in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." Talk of racial issues like this is too unpleasant for those who believe Obama's election has ushered in a post-racial era.

That's why Holder was widely attacked for what he said. It explains why the Post went on the attack while offering a mealy-mouthed apology. And it's why those who were offended by the cartoon will ratchet up the pressure on the Post to make an acceptable act of contrition.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Monkey business at NY Post

By DeWayne Wickham

Al Sharpton, not surprisingly, was the first to sound the alarm about the newest target of an old racist slur.

The Pentecostal minister and longtime civil-rights first responder was on Tom Joyner's nationally syndicated radio show shortly after the New York Post published a cartoon linking the shooting of an out-of-control chimpanzee to congressional passage of the financial stimulus bill.

The drawing shows two cops, one with a smoking gun in hand, standing over the bullet-riddle body of the dead primate.

"They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," the offending words read.

Sharpton's beef? The caption seems to connect the chimp to President Barack Obama, whose administration wrote the first version of the legislation - and pushed hard for passage of the final draft.

The Post, part of Rupert Murdoch's right-wing media empire, was just as quick to answer Sharpton's criticism.

"The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event - to wit, the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut," Post editor-in-chief Col Allan said. "It broadly mocks Washington's effort to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist."

But Sharpton was by no means the only one outraged by Sean Delonas' cartoon. The National Association of Black Journalists, the nation's largest organization of minority journalists, also denounced it.

"How could the Post let this cartoon pass as satire?" NABJ President Barbara Ciara said. "To compare the nation's first African American commander-in-chief to a dead chimpanzee is nothing short of racist drivel."

She's right.

The Post's defense is weak. It wants us to believe Obama wasn't the target of the cartoon's not-so-veiled racist jibe. It wants to be seen as unmindful of the long history of labeling blacks as some form of simian - a baboon, gorilla, ape or monkey.

It hopes we buy the argument that its crude attack was aimed broadly at official Washington - and not narrowly at the man who has the most to win or lose from passage of the stimulus bill.

Of course, it's possible Allan and his underlings missed the recent flap over the King Conga Inaugural Edition of TheSockcq Obama doll with its monkey-like features. And maybe they weren't aware of the angry responses an Albuquerque Journal cartoon produced two days after Obama was sworn in as president.

In that cartoon, the new president, with the distinct features of a primate, was shown standing atop a small hill gazing up at a mountain of "expectations" covered with ominous clouds and lightning bolts.

It's possible none of this was the action of overt racists. But it seems entirely likely they're the product of something far more insidious: a deeply embedded insensitivity to the historic use of words of images to dehumanize blacks.

Labeling blacks as monkeys or baboons is akin to calling them niggers.

Journalists - especially cartoonists - should be especially careful not to use such imagery when writing about or depicting blacks. The New York Post was not and deserves the criticism it has gotten for Delonas' cartoon.

"One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation," Attorney General Eric Holder said during a Black History Month speech a day after the Post cartoon was published.

Negative stereotyping of blacks has long been a way to brand them an inferior race that doesn't deserve fair or equal treatment. Consciously or not, in publishing - and then defending - Delonas' cartoon, the Post does nothing to distance itself from those who still cling to such racism.

Monday, February 16, 2009

NAACP at 100: A time for celebration and sober reflection

By DeWayne Wickham

The NAACP turned 100 this month. The centennial anniversary of the civil rights organization's birth has produced a rash of news stories that give short shrift to its contributions to this nation, and provide scant understanding of its roller-coaster ride through history.

The telling of both needs to be improved upon to put the NAACP's first 100 years into proper context. History was important to its founders, who purposefully declared its creation on Feb. 12, 1909 - the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth.

In the 20th century, when "the color line" was America's most daunting problem, the NAACP was on the cutting edge of every major civil rights battle. In 1944, it helped overturn a Texas law that had kept blacks from voting in primaries, thus ushering in change across the nation. (It also made it possible 64 years later for blacks to play a key pivotal role in the selection of Barack Obama as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.)

Then in quick succession, the NAACP legal team, led by Thurgood Marshall, won U.S. Supreme Court rulings striking down state laws that required racial segregation on interstate trains and buses; outlawing restrictive covenants that were meant to keep blacks from buying homes in white neighborhoods; and chipping away at school segregation with high court victories negating Texas and Oklahoma laws that required separate graduate schools for black and white students. In 1954, that brilliant legal team persuaded the Supreme Court to end racial segregation in the nation's public schools, a victory that energized the civil rights movement and transformed America.

In the 20th century, no person or organization did more than the NAACP to make this country a "more perfect union" - not just for blacks, but for a broad array of Americans. This is the NAACP history that has been given short shrift.

But as much as we should celebrate the NAACP's glorious past, we must also acknowledge its inglorious moments. "The past is the cause of the present, and the present will be the cause of the future," Lincoln once said. The NAACP of today is not the NAACP of old. It is no longer a trailblazer, no more the "most effective, most consulted, most militant, most feared" civil rights organization in the world, as it was once billed. For much of the past 25 years, the NAACP has been mired in an internal power struggle.

In 1983, this infighting led the NAACP's board to certify the election of a dead man in order to oust Margaret Bush Wilson, the first black woman to chair the 64-member board. While this drawn-out battle was unfolding, the National Urban League, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH often took the lead in championing civil rights.

The NAACP sank deeper into a bog in the late '90s when two board members aligned with Chairman Myrlie Evers-Williams pleaded guilty to embezzling funds from some of the very people the organization was created to protect. Investigative committees recommended that James Ghee and Hazel Dukes be kicked off the board.

In a May 1997 closed session, the minutes of which I obtained, the board defeated a motion to oust Ghee, who was serving five years probation at the time. Seven months later, faced with criticism that the NAACP had lost its moral compass, the board voted to unseat Dukes. It also rejected an attempt by Evers-Williams to let Dukes seek re-election the following month, Ben Andrews, the investigative committee chairman, later told me.

In the past 10 years, the NAACP has had three men at its helm. Kweisi Mfume and Bruce Gordon quit after being frustrated by a heavy-handed board. Last year, Ben Jealous, a 35-year-old former journalist, was named to run day-to-day operations.

"I think that it's a real affirmation that this organization is willing to invest in the future, to invest in the ideas and the leadership of the generation that is currently raising black children in this country," Jealous told the Associated Press.

But as the NAACP celebrates its 100th birthday, the question is whether it can duplicate the successes - and avoid the pitfalls - of its past.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Two reasons to celebrate Black History Month

By DeWayne Wickham

I'm not a fan of Black History Month, but I love black history.

The idea that the celebration of black history has been assigned to the shortest month of the year rubs me raw. I think it deserves better than to be treated like an accident of the Gregorian Calendar.
Black history - especially the history of blacks in this country - should be fully woven into the fabric of the history taught in schools throughout the year.

So I usually treat Black History Month with no more reverence than any other month when it comes to celebrating the contributions blacks have made to this society since 1619, the year the first slave ship arrived on these shores.

But this year, I am moved by a momentous anniversary - and a fascinating book - to celebrate some compelling black history during Black History Month.

The anniversary: The NAACP is 100 years old this month. Founded in 1909, the centennial year of Abraham Lincoln's birth, the civil rights organization has been the greatest single force for social change in American history.

The NAACP waged the legal fight that produced the 1927 Supreme Court ruling outlawing whites-only primaries - a victory that made this nation's political process far more democratic.

In 1946, it got the high court to end segregation on interstate buses and trains. Two years later, it pushed President Harry Truman to end racial segregation in the military. And in 1954, the NAACP won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court banned racial segregation in public schools.

In recent years, the NAACP has been dogged by internal squabbles and has struggled to define its role at a time when economic inequities have replaced overt racial bigotry as the most daunting problem facing blacks.

But this shouldn't be allowed to detract from the reality that over the past century, the NAACP has done more than any other group in America to create the "more perfect union" this nation's founding fathers envisioned.

The book: "Letters from Black America" is a rich compilation of letters written over the years by an astonishing array of black men and women - some famous but most not.
The book deserves a better fate than most literary offerings introduced this month, long a fertile ground for the release of works by black authors. Black History Month has become something of a literary ghetto in which books by black writers collide - like bumper cars at a carnival - within the month's cramped confines. Far too many of these books die a quick death.

"Letters from Black America" is edited by Pamela Newkirk, a New York University journalism professor who once wrote for Gannett News Service. From its first missive, an 1805 letter from an aging slave woman to a son she hadn't seen in 20 years, the book takes readers to places few historians have gone with such purpose and foresight.

It contains love letters written by black soldiers at war, pleas for social justice, communications between Harlem Renaissance writers and letters that attempt to mend the frayed cloth of black families.

Probably the most propitious of the book's letters is the one most recently written.
"You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is to us," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker wrote to Barack Obama a day after he was elected president.

Like Newkirk's book, Walker's words are testament to the struggles of untold numbers of blacks whose voices have been silenced for much too long.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Aid to college students stimulates economy

By DeWayne Wickham

As best I understand it, Republican critics of the economic recovery bill winding its way through Congress this week have divided its contents into things that will give the nation's troubled economy a quick shot in the arm and those that won't.

The bulk of the money in both the House and Senate versions of this legislation, the GOP naysayers charge, amounts to little more than the ravenous spending of the Democrats who now control both halls of Congress. Republicans include in this category the money — $16 billion in the House version of the bill; $14 billion in the Senate's — to increase financial aid that college students can receive in a Pell Grant.

That's bunkum.

For many colleges and universities, the financial assistance students get from the federal government to pay their tuition makes up a big chunk of the money the schools need to operate. Keeping the schools open and at full capacity will give the nation's economy both an immediate and long-term stimulus.

In many communities, higher education institutions are a major source of employment and business activity. But 62% of private colleges and 48% of public colleges surveyed last month by the Chronicle of Higher Education said they expected to lose students this semester in the wake of the recession. An increase in the Pell Grant could help stave off more dropouts in the fall semester — and possibly get some of the students who left to return.

That would be a quick economic stimulus that could have an immediate ripple effect, as schools might then hire more adjunct faculty while increasing the purchases of supplies and services from area businesses.

The long-term effect would be even more significant for this country's economic health. The percentage of Americans ages 25-29 with college degrees is less than that for those ages 60-64, according to the Census Bureau. This nation won't experience long-term economic success if it doesn't reverse those numbers.

"This is not a game. This is not a contest of who's in power and who's up and who's down, “President Obama said last week in a speech to House Democrats. "These are your constituents. These are families you know and you care about. I believe that it is important for us to set aside some of the gamesmanship in this town and get something done."

He's right.

Lawmakers have to put the country's needs ahead of their desire to score political points. They must put the nation's immediate economic challenges ahead of a push for political victory.
The objections the Republicans are raising to the stimulus bill sound like a trial run of the kind of arguments they hope to use in the 2010 midterm elections.

Obama was correct, though he sounded a bit cocky, when he proclaimed to House Democrats that a spending bill is a stimulus bill. Sure, Democrats in both houses of Congress loaded their versions of the bill with funds for many of their spending priorities. But in politics, as in war, "to the victor go the spoils."

It is especially disingenuous for Republicans to argue that increased funding of the Pell Grant program would not have an immediate economic impact. Any parent with a child in college — or about to enter college — knows better.

Understandably, the Republicans are eager to get back on the offensive after the drubbing they took in the 2008 election. Nevertheless, their opposition to the economic recovery bill is a losing battle.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Denny's smart giveaway

By DeWayne Wickham

John Thain, meet Nelson Marchioli.

Thain, if you haven't kept up, is the former Merrill Lynch chief executive who paid nearly $2 billion in bonuses to employees of that troubled firm as it was posting a $15 billion loss, shortly before being acquired by Bank of America.

Thain has become a poster child for Wall Street's excesses. As Merrill Lynch's losses piled up, he spent $1.2 million decorating his office. He doled out $87,000 for an area rug, $35,000 for a commode, and $1,400 for a trash can. No, that's not a typo. Thain spent $1,400 on a trash can.

In a time of corporate greed run amuck, Thain is the real-life manifestation of Gordon Gekko, the ruthless corporate raider in the 1987 movie "Wall Street" who proclaimed that, "greed, for lack of a better word, is good."

Marchioli is a corporate boss of another sort. He's the CEO of Denny's, which used to be one of the nation's top breakfast restaurants but now trails behind McDonald's, Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Burger King and IHOP.

Instead of raiding his company's coffers for unearned bonuses and the cost of a pricey toilet, Marchioli hatched an innovative plan to boost Denny's market share. He served free breakfast to 2 million people two days after the Super Bowl.

The giveaway, announced in an ad that aired during the game, cost Denny's $5 million. But get this: It got the company an estimated $50 million worth of free media coverage. And it produced enough profit from selling drinks with the free meals to enable Denny's "to do better than break-even" on the day, Marchioli told USA TODAY.

How about that for corporate ingenuity?

I don't know if the Denny's giveaway will boost the company back into the top ranks of breakfast restaurant chains. But it sets a great example in a business environment dogged by reports of corporate executives who pad their pockets while seeking billions of taxpayer dollars to keep their firms out of bankruptcy.

"This is America. We don't disparage wealth," President Barack Obama said in announcing a $500,000 cap on the pay of executives seeking government aid. "But what gets people upset - and rightfully so - are executives being rewarded for failure, especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, many of whom are having a tough time themselves."

Those stumbling, bumbling corporate executives have gotten a lot of media attention as the federal government has been forced to dig into the Treasury for hundreds of billions to bail out troubled businesses.

The resulting rage among taxpayers pushed Obama to order the pay cap for executives getting what he calls "extraordinary help" from the government. Obama also is requiring those firms to disclose "all the perks and luxuries" given top managers - the kind of public revelation that might have kept a $35,000 toilet out of Thain's executive bathroom.

"We're asking these firms to take responsibility, to recognize the nature of this crisis and their role in it," Obama said.

I'd like to see a lot more corporate bigwigs with Marchioli's smarts - and a lot fewer with Thain's gall.

It's going to take a lot more than a financial bailout to rescue American businesses from the recession engulfing this nation. What is needed are corporate leaders smart enough to make a profit on a $5 million giveaway - without help from the Treasury.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Is Steele GOP's savior?

By DeWayne Wickham

Just when it seemed the Republican Party was rapidly descending into the political graveyard, a plunge that was hastened by Rush Limbaugh's farcical grab at the party's leadership reins, the GOP broke its fall by naming Michael Steele its chairman.

Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, is a political moderate when measured against the right-wingers who put his party into a nosedive. He's a pro-life fiscal conservative on one hand, but he supports civil unions and affirmative action on the other. Yet it is his race, more than his position on issues, that breathes new life into the Grand Old Party.

While Democrats used a multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalition to win the White House and strengthen its hold on both houses of Congress in last year's election, the Republicans took on the look of a nearly all-white party at a time when this nation is becoming more diverse.

In 2004, George W. Bush won 11% of the black vote and 44% of the ballots cast by Hispanics. Last year, John McCain managed to get the backing of just 31% of Hispanics and 4% of blacks. But even before blacks deserted the GOP at the polls, Republicans appeared to cut their ties with blacks, who were just 1.5% of the party's convention delegates vs. 6.7% four years earlier.

The GOP, which likes to call itself the party of Abraham Lincoln, was looking more like the party of Jefferson Davis until Steele was elected chairman in the 6th round of voting by members of the Republican National Committee. In the end, the field of candidates was winnowed to just two men - Steele and Katon Dawson, South Carolina's GOP head who didn't quit his membership in an all-white country club until shortly before he entered this race.

Wisely, enough committee members saw through that subterfuge and made Steele the party's first black chairman. For now, at least, his election has put the brakes on the GOP's political fall. Steele is the Republican's titular head, just as Barack Obama, our first black president, leads the Democratic Party. As symbolism goes, this is important.

But ultimately it will take more than symbolism for the GOP to stave off political extinction. For Steele to succeed - and the GOP to survive - he has to move Republicans away from their robotic embrace of the religious right and the party's thinly veiled, race-baiting Southern strategy. He'll have to convince them that the Republican Party has to stop talking about being a center-right party and become one. And he'll have to convince them that he can lead the way.

Steele is clearly a different sort of Republican. In his failed 2006 run for one of Maryland's U.S. Senate seats, he was endorsed by Mike Tyson, the former boxing heavyweight champion who was once married to Steele's sister, and by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. In that race Steele won 44% of the vote in that overwhelmingly Democratic state and carried 18 of 23 counties. But he was soundly beaten in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, Maryland's largest majority black political subdivisions.

Even so, Steele was personally well-liked in the state's black communities, where he spent a lot of time as lieutenant governor championing causes from education to minority business development. Steele seemed to anticipate his poor showing when, speaking of his party affiliation, he told The Washington Post, "I've got an 'R' here, a scarlet letter. If this race is about Republicans and Democrats, I lose."

But the scarlet letter today isn't just Steele's. It's the GOP's. And the daunting task before him is to repackage and rejuvenate a political brand that the American people simply aren't buying.