Tuesday, March 31, 2009

John Hope Franklin: An American historian

By DeWayne Wickham

John Hope Franklin, who died last week at age 94, had already reached the emeritus status of his illustrious career when our paths first crossed.

It was during an April 1999 reception at Duke University that I met Franklin, who along with Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison, dominated the room that night like a couple of California Redwoods in a pygmy tree forest. It was the eve of the new millennium and the school’s African and African American Studies program had invited a group of black intellectuals and journalists to campus to talk about race in the 21st century.

In its obituary, The New York Times called Franklin a “prolific scholar of African American history.” He was much more than that. In writing about and teaching largely the history of blacks in this country, during a career that spanned nearly three quarters of a century, Franklin was essentially a scholar of American history.

His works chronicled the intersection of black and white life in this country in ways that far too many historians ignore. Any college graduate who has not read “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans” – a book that was first published in 1947 and is now in its 7th edition – probably has a gaping hole in their understanding of this nation.

That book is the demarcation line between the marginalization and acceptance of the serious study of the role of blacks in the life of this country by American historians. “It has been necessary…to a considerable extent, to retell the story of the evolution of the people of the United States in order to place the Negro in his proper relationship and perspective,” Franklin wrote in the preface to the book’s first edition.

Putting the relationship between blacks and whites into the proper perspective was the life’s work of Franklin.

He did it not only through his outstanding scholarship, but also with his public service. President Kennedy chose Franklin to serve on the Board of Foreign Scholarships; President Ford appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities, and President Carter placed him on the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. In 1997, President Clinton picked Franklin to chair his “Initiative on Race,” an effort to address the racial issues that continued to plague the nation. Two years earlier, Clinton gave Franklin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award.

But his most rewarding honor may have come from his work as an advisor to an Oklahoma commission that was created to study the causes of the 1921 Tulsa race riot. Franklin was 6 years old when his father, Buck Franklin, moved to Tulsa from Rentiesville, Okla., to set up a law practice. Before his dad earned enough money to send for his family to join him, a race riot erupted in Tulsa on May 31, 1921.

By the time the violence ended a couple days later, nearly 40 blocks of Tulsa’s black community. Virtually all of the city’s black business district was destroyed. According to several accounts, airplanes were used to rain bullets and some improvised explosives down on Tulsa’s black community.

Several days passed before Franklin’s family got word that his father was safe and unharmed by the rioting, which took scores of lives – most of them black – when white mobs descended upon the city’s black neighborhood.

If all goes as planned, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park will open in Tulsa this summer. Such a park, in a place where a horrific race riot occurred, is a fitting tribute to the life and work of a great American historian.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Obama's bad response to good question

By DeWayne Wickham

Barack Obama should have had a better answer to the question Ann Compton asked during his White House press conference.

The query from Compton, an ABC News correspondent, came late during the nationally televised give-and-take between the president and members of the White House press corps - a session dominated by talk of the nation's economic crisis.

"Could I ask about race?" she began, raising an issue that still makes a lot of Americans uncomfortable. "Yours is a rather historic presidency, and I'm just wondering whether, in any of the policy debates that you've had within the White House, the issue of race has come up," she asked the nation's first black president.

"I think that the last 64 days has been dominated by me trying to figure how we're going to fix the economy. And that affects black, brown and white," Obama responded, sounding every bit like the first president of America's post-racial era.

And then, to put a fine point on his answer, Obama acknowledged the "justifiable pride" many people felt when he was inaugurated. But now, he said, the American people are judging him "exactly the way I should be judged, and that is, 'Are we taking steps to improve liquidity in the
financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to reopen, keep America safe?' And that's what I've been spending my time thinking about."

That sounds a lot like the kind of "rising tide lifts all boats" answer that many of the white men who preceded him in the Oval Office used to give when asked whether the issue of race came up in any of their policy debates. The problem with such a generic answer then - and now - is that
there is no one-size-fits-all fix for this nation's problems - especially the current economic crisis.
Last month, overall unemployment among whites rose to 7.3 percent, and black unemployment jumped to 13.4 percent. Joblessness among white teenagers (ages 16-19) was 19.1 percent, while 38.8 percent of black teens were out of work.

In answering Compton's question, did Obama really mean to say that these stark differences haven't been raised in White House discussions about how to get Americans off the unemployment rolls?

Is it possible that the issue of race - or, more accurately, this nation's racial inequalities - never came up when the president talked to his economic advisers about poverty in America? Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the median income of blacks ($33,916) was
significantly lower than that of whites ($54,920). It also said that one
in four black families had incomes below the poverty level, compared to just 8.2 percent of white families.

Has the Obama team been talking about what to do about pulling families out of poverty without acknowledging how much more difficult it is going to be to lift black families out of that bog?

How can the Obama administration solve the nation's housing crisis if it doesn't understand - and hasn't discussed during policy debates - the predatory lending practices that targeted blacks to a far greater degree than any other group in this country? A 2000 study by the Department of
Housing and Urban Development found that homeowners in high-income black areas were twice as likely as homeowners in low-income white areas to have subprime loans. This month, the NAACP sued subsidiaries of two major banks that it accused of steering borrowers "unfairly into costly subprime mortgages," the Los Angeles Times reported.

I know that Obama is the president of all Americans, not just the president of black America. But black folks are Americans, too. And when the problems that afflict this nation hit them harder than any other group, they should be discussed in a White House commanded by this nation's first black president.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Obama wavering on U.S. participation in world racism meeting

By DeWayne Wickham

When it comes to the world conference on racism, the Obama administration is reluctant to accept “yes” for an answer.

In February, the White House threatened to pull out of the United Nation’s sponsored meeting after failing to get changes to its draft declaration. That document, a State Department official said, was “unsalvageable” because it unfairly singled out Israel for criticism and sought to limit criticism of religion.

“We have repeatedly shared with a wide range of countries our hopes for a document that might yet emerge that treats the issues of racism and discrimination, which we care deeply about, in a serious and constructive manner and doesn’t get sidetracked with hostile criticism of any individual country or conflict,” UN ambassador Susan Rice told me last week.

This position pleased Jewish activists who publicly pushed Obama to boycott the April conference in Geneva. Complaining that it was hopelessly anti-Semitic, the Bush administration walked out of the 2001 racism conference. But many black activists said privately that Obama was allowing this issue to scuttle U.S. participation in a meeting that could have far reaching impact for blacks.

In recent days, the two groups appeared headed towards an ugly clash over this issue. But a day after I talked with Rice, organizers of the racism conference announced changes to the draft document that appeared to satisfy U.S. concerns. All references to Israel and “defamation of religion” were eliminated.

Still, the Obama administration has been slow to react.

“This is shocking that the language has been changed to reflect the U.S. concern ad yet the decision not to attend hasn’t changed,” said Nicole Lee, executive director of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington-based that promotes the interest of people of African descent around the world.
Pointing to the historical significance of Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president, Lee said: “We really are in a unique position to show leadership” on the issue of worldwide racism, “but we can’t lead if we don’t show up.”

Now there’s a new sticking point. The amended document endorses the 2001 racism conference report, though none of the language critical of Israel is included in the compromise.

“We welcome the real progress made in the revised text and appreciate the efforts of the UN leadership and many delegates to negotiate a much improved draft…We are reviewing the revised text carefully and considering our next step,” Rice said in a statement the White House gave me Sunday.

Ironically, the Obama administration’s intransigence allows other countries, which don’t want any focus on racism within their borders, to hide behind its objection the racism conference.

The 27 members of the European Union have joined the United States in threatening to boycott the April 20 – 25 meeting. This year is the 125th anniversary of the beginning of the Berlin Conference, in which European nations divided up Africa like stolen money among thieves. The ripple effects of that action deserves special scrutiny. So does the treatment of indigenous people in places like Canada and Australia.

But that’s not likely to happen in any serious way if the United States, which once practiced one of the most virulent forms of apartheid – and now has elected a black president – won’t attend the racism conference.

Obama is right to demand fair treatment of Israel. Its dispute with Palestinians is political, not racial. But he is wrong to make U.S. participation in the racism meeting a hostage of that long running conflict.

Learning to say yes, is as important as knowing when to say no.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Obama dodges black-Jewish split

By DeWayne Wickham

Barack Obama has dodged a foreign policy train wreck.

Just when it seemed his threatened refusal to send an American delegation to a United Nations conference on racism would rupture into a nasty dispute between two of his core support groups, the president got a big breakthrough. Conference organizers announced changes to a controversial draft declaration.

The document contained language that was harshly critical of Israel and restricted freedom of speech, U.S. officials said. Unless the objectionable language was removed, the Obama administration said last month, this country would not send an official delegation to the World Summit Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Other Related Intolerance.

That position pleased Jewish activists who had urged the administration to boycott the meeting if the anti-Israeli wording remained in the document. But it angered black activists who are still smarting over the Bush administration‘s decision to pull out of the 2001 racism conference over a similar dispute.

While Jewish activists have publicly pressured the Obama administration to not attend the meeting, some of the president‘s black supporters privately complained that he should not allow the dispute to keep the United States from taking part in a worldwide conference where racism discrimination should be the main focus. They griped that while Obama sought the presidency as the candidate of change, his position on the racism conference differed little from that of his predecessor.

The black activists also argued that although the president campaigned on a promise to talk to this nation‘s enemies without preconditions, he‘d made this nation‘s participation in the racism conference dependent on the willingness of organizers to meet his precondition.

With the racism conference scheduled to begin next month in Geneva, some black activists considered going public with their concerns. That would have been a political nightmare for Obama, who got 71 percent of the Jewish vote and was backed by 95 percent of blacks who went to the polls in the Nov. 4 election.

But a disastrous public fight was avoided when the quiet diplomatic efforts of the Obama administration paid off.

“We have repeatedly shared with a wide range of countries our hopes for a document that might yet emerge that treats the issues of racism and discrimination, which we care deeply about, in a serious and constructive manner and doesn‘t get sidetracked with hostile criticism of any individual country or conflict,” UN Ambassador Susan Rice told me a day before changes in the racism conference‘s draft document were announced.
Rice said she had talked regularly with the UN secretary general and the body‘s High Commissioner for Human Rights in an effort to get the changes made so the United States can take part in the racism conference.

And while Rice said she “did not want to overstate” her role in the efforts to end the spate over the document‘s language, she said the Obama administration reached out to a wide group of nations to garner support for its position – a tactic that obviously paid off. Canada, Israel and Italy had announced that they would not take part in the conference – and the 27-member European Union recently threatened to boycott the meeting.

Adoption of the new language, which makes no mention of Israel, seems to have paved the way for the United States to now send an official delegation to the racism conference. This will forestall an ugly public fight between black and Jewish activists – a battle that could have been very costly for Obama.

Instead, his administration can now reap the benefits of a double victory, one that should satisfy the concerns of both blacks and Jews – and keeps the core of his political support intact.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Comedians doing news, is bad news

By DeWayneWickham

This wasn’t funny.

The upbraiding of CBNC “shoutmeister” Jim Cramer, who barks out stock picks with the fervor of an evangelical preacher and the reliability of a pimp who brags that he has the best streetwalkers in town, didn’t happen on the pages of a leading newspaper. Nor did it occur on a television network news program.

It was done on Comedy Central, the cable channel better known for yukking it up for viewers than for doing public service journalism. But when Cramer went on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” last week, the network became a place of more news than laughter. Stewart’s grilling of Cramer got a lot of media coverage – as well is should. He exposed Cramer – a former hedge fund manager and one-time newspaper reporter – as a cable television financial guru who was easily bamboozled by executives of the failing corporations, whose stock he urged people to buy.

Even worse, Stewart played a previously unaired video of Cramer talking about how to manipulate stock for financial gain. “I want the Jim Cramer on CNBC to protect me from that Jim Cramer,” Stewart said, as Cramer struggled to recover from that revelation. He never did.

What Stewart did to Cramer during his appearance on the laugh factory network was the kind of journalism that could put a newspaper reporter on the short list for a Pulitzer Prize. He exposed the failings of Cramer’s show and of CNBC, the television financial network that airs it – but apparently has done little to police the program.

Last month another comedian, D. L. Hughley, made news when he coaxed Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele onto his CNN show and, in an unguarded moment, got him to cross swords with Rush Limbaugh.

When Hughley referred to the right-wing radio commentator as “the de facto leader of the Republican Party,” Steele disagreed. “No, he’s not. I’m the de facto leader of the Republican Party,” Steele said. Limbaugh, he said, is an entertainer who engages in “incendiary” and “ugly” talk.

Steele’s exchange with the comedian – and Limbaugh’s reaction to it – got widespread media coverage. And while his show, “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News,” has been cancelled, the idea it actually was able to deliver on its title is another troubling sign for newspapers.

The rise of the comedic journalist fills the void created by the slashing of newspaper staffs and the diluting of their content in an effort to cope with declining revenue. This retrenchment further adds to devaluation of newspaper journalism. It’s not that Stewart, or Hughley, are better reporters than can be found at this nation’s leading newspapers. It’s that too many managers of newspapers, like horse bound cavalrymen at the turn of the 20th century, are stuck in their saddles as tanks roll off the assembly line.

It’s their business model – advertising rates based on circulation – that has failed newspapers in an age where online readers can be measured in real time. But they have responded by cutting newsroom staffs. That’s like trying to save a sinking ship by throwing the crew overboard.

What we can learn from Stewart’s exposure of Cramer’s incestuous relationship with Wall Street’s robber barons and Hughley’s probing interview of Steele is that Americans still have a big appetite for good journalism. What should worry us is that as the ranks of newspaper journalists shrink no amount of satirists will be able to fill this void.

And that’s not funny.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What I want to tell Rihanna: I lost my mother to domestic abuse

By DeWayne Wickham

The police report of what happened in the car that night was chilling.

There was a violent confrontation between a young woman and the young man behind the wheel that caused the woman to bleed profusely. The front seat of the vehicle was drenched with her blood, police said.

I'm not talking about singer Chris Brown's alleged attack on his girlfriend, Rihanna. I'll get to that later. What I just described is what happened the night my father took my mother's life with a gun. His attack on her was the ultimate act of domestic abuse he committed before turning the weapon on himself.

I was just 8 years old the night I lost my parents - much too young to know anything about the social disease that has come to be called "domestic abuse." I didn't know then that such behavior usually starts subtly, with harsh talk, a push or a slap, then grows into something much worse.
At the time of my parents' death, I wasn't aware that what happened that night was probably the culmination of a string of abusive acts by my father that produced endless apologies and broken promises never to do it again.

I didn't understand the warning signs of domestic abuse then as I do now. I didn't realize how many lives it touches beyond those of the victim and perpetrator - even though it shattered my childhood.

Now I know better. And it is this heightened awareness that makes me wonder what is going on in the lives of Brown, the 19-year-old soul singer, and his 21-year-old R&B songstress girlfriend, Robyn Rihanna Fenty.

Los Angeles prosecutors have charged Brown with "assault likely to cause bodily injury and making criminal threats" for the Feb. 8 incident that left Rihanna badly beaten. Rihanna told police Brown became enraged and started hitting her after she questioned him about his relationship with another woman.

The blows caused Rihanna's "mouth to fill with blood and blood to splatter all over her clothing and the interior of the vehicle," police said in court papers.

Brown, driving the car with one hand and hitting Rihanna with the other, told her, "I'm going to beat the (expletive) out of you when we get home," according to Rihanna's statement to police.
At one point during the alleged beating, Rihanna said, Brown threatened to kill her.

In a photo taken of Rihanna shortly after the incident, she looks like someone used her face as a punching bag.

It's not clear yet just how the criminal proceedings in this case will turn out. So far, Brown has said only that he is sorry for what "transpired" and that he is seeking counseling.
He's scheduled to be arraigned April 6. If convicted, he could be released on probation or get up to four years and eight months in a California prison.

But as is so often the case in domestic abuse cases, Rihanna has gone back to the man she's accused of beating her so badly. In fact, the two performers are recording a love song - a duet about the trials and tribulations of love - the Los Angeles Times reported.

I don't know how many second chances my mother gave my father before their tragic end. But I know this much: A second chance is one too many for the person who savagely beat Rihanna.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rihanna should run, not walk away from Chris Brown

By DeWayne Wickham

When I read the police account of Chris Brown's alleged attack on Rihanna, I thought about what I'd say to my 15-year-old daughter about this guy.

Brown, 19, a soul singer, is a heartthrob for thousands of girls who swoon every time he takes to the stage or his records are played on the radio. When he was 16, The New York Times called him "a fast rising R&B star, “ and, in fact, his career has soared since then. But last week, it nose-dived when Los Angeles persecutors charged him with "assault likely to cause bodily injury and making criminal threats."

Robyn Rihanna Fenty, 21, whose stage name is Rihanna, is an R&B star in her own right. The native of Barbados had been dating Brown for about 18 months when, police said, the attack occurred. It allegedly started when she questioned him about his relationship with another woman. He became enraged and began punching her as he was driving in Hollywood. The blows caused Rihanna's "mouth to fill with blood and blood to splatter all over her clothing and the interior of the vehicle," police said in a court document.

"I'm going to beat the shit out of you when we get home," Brown told Rihanna during his violent rant, according to the police report. They never made it home, but a picture of her badly beaten and swollen face testifies to the brutality of the attack.

Like a lot of young girls, my daughter has followed Brown's career with a puppy-love fascination for the star who, until now, was seen as a clean-cut, good guy in a music business that has more than its share of bad boys.

Some of what I want to tell my daughter I think she already knows, because it has been said in our house before. Still, it's worth repeating. No man should ever physically abuse a woman. And any man who strikes a woman once will almost certainly hit her again, if she doesn't end that relationship as quickly as possible.

What I think my daughter, and millions of other young women, don't know are the hard facts about domestic abuse in this country. She doesn't know that one of every four women will be the victim of domestic abuse; or that women ages 20-24 are at the greatest risk of being beaten by a boyfriend or husband. Domestic abuse is one of this nation's most underreported crimes. I suspect that’s because women are torn between a man's promise that he'll never do it again — and a haunting fear that he will, if they report the attack.

"If you want to know the end, look at the beginning," best-selling author Iyanla Vanzant told me about abusive relationships. "I lived for nine years in an abusive marriage, and the first slap came two years into the marriage; and the second one came three years into the marriage; and by the time I was being beaten every other day I had been married five years and there was always the promise that it would never happen again. He had a second chance 842 times," she said of her abuser.

For most men who abuse women, one second chance is one too many. Brown, while not admitting that he brutally beat Rihanna, issued a statement publicly apologizing for "what transpired.” He also said he's seeking counseling. And that's a good thing. He needs to confront — and defeat — his demons.

But my advice to Rihanna is the same I'd give my daughter in a similar situation: Don't walk away from that man — run.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Michael Steele's backwards start

By DeWayne Wickham

Michael Steele, the month-old chairman of the Republican Party is off to a running start – backwards.

When Steele pulled away from a packed field of candidates to win election as head of the GOP on the sixth ballot, there was a lot of talk about his selection signaling a new day for the battered political party. And why not? The Republican Party that used its “Contract with America” to win control of both houses of Congress in the 1990s – and its attacks on liberalism to retake the White House in 2000 – suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls last year.

When the dust settled after the November election Democrats won the Oval Office, gained sizeable majorities in the House and Senate, and controlled 28 of the nation’s 50 governorships. They did it by building a bi-racial, multi-ethnic political coalition while the GOP became more insular and doctrinaire.

Steele, the first black to head the Republican Party, promised to turn things around.

“It’s time for something completely different and we are going to bring it to them,” he declared in his post election speech. But in the few weeks that he’s been in office, Steele has brought more controversy than change to the GOP. He quickly stumbled into a verbal brawl with radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who forced Steele to apologize for crossing swords with him – and to back away from his claim to be the Republican Party’s de facto leader.

For a man who promised to put the GOP on the road to recovery, this has all been movement in the wrong direction.

What the Republican Party desperately needs is to break out of its ideological cocoon. It has to move beyond the narrow construct of the conservatism that right-wing politicians cling to – and Limbaugh promotes. The promise that Steele’s election offered the GOP was one of inclusion, and an appeal to an electorate that is becoming increasing more racially and ethnically diverse.
Limbaugh preaches to the right-wing choir of the Republican Party. He is unyielding in his views; uncompromising in his politics. But he is also unable to rebuild the GOP because “if you only preach to the choir (as he does), you’ll never grow the congregation.”

Growing the GOP congregation is the job that Steele needs to do. The Republican Party base that Limbaugh appeals to is a shrinking part of the American electorate. Limbaugh is the rear guard of a mean-spirited wing of the GOP. A self-righteous blowhard who once used his housekeeper to score illegal drugs for him, he is the Republican Party’s Elmer Gantry.

And according to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, 81 percent of GOP voters reject the idea that Limbaugh is the leader of their party.Steele, on the other hand, wants to open up the Republican Party to minorities, young voters and political moderates. Such an expansion threatens to dilute the influence that the right wing now has over the GOP. But that persuasion is of little value in a comatose political organization. If he can make good on his promises, Steele offers the Republican Party a fighting chance to avoid the fate of the Whig and Know Nothing parties that gave birth to the GOP.

“I’m in the business of ticking people off. That’s why I’m Chairman,” Steele told The Washington Post. If that’s so, then the Republican Party can start making funeral arrangements. But if he wants to breathe new life into the GOP – to make it competitive again in national elections –he has to excite a lot more people than he angers.