Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tea Party may sink with Republican ship

By DeWayne Wickham

I just read the NAACP’s report on the links between racial and religious bigots and the Tea Party, and there’s nothing in it that makes my skin begin to crawl, but I still think there’s good reason for concern.

“We know the majority of Tea Party supporters are sincere, principled people of good will,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in the opening line of his forward to this 94-page report. In other words, the Tea Party is not the Ku Klux Klan.

Of course, it’s the job of the NAACP, which was created 101 years ago to combat racism, to keep track of things like this and to sound the alarm when it believes bigots have reached a critical mass anywhere in this society.

The Tea Party has some bigots in its ranks, the civil rights group’s report concludes, but there’s no evidence that they have a commanding presence in the group. In fact, Jealous said Tea Party leaders have taken welcome “first steps” to weed out racist images and actions at their gatherings.

That’s the good news about this fringe political movement.

The bad news is that it is less an independent voice for political reform than an appendage of the Republican Party, to which it has attached itself like barnacles to the bottom of a rusting ship. The Tea Party is the GOP’s life raft.

Don’t be fooled by the political gains Republicans are expected to make in the midterm elections. The GOP is on the critical list. The wins it will score, possibly enough to give it control of the House of Representatives, will be short lived. They are the dying gasp of a political party that has become too intolerant and too white in a nation whose population soon will be dominated by Hispanics, blacks and Asians.

Today’s Republican Party looks — and sometimes acts — more like the National Party that foisted apartheid on South Africa back in 1948, than the GOP that won 32% of the black vote in the 1960 presidential election.

It is the nation’s deep-seated economic problems that have given life to the Tea Party movement, which in turn has removed the “do not resuscitate” sign from the Republican Party.

The Tea Party didn’t start out as a wing of the GOP, but in aligning itself and its interests with the Republican Party in the midterm elections, it has effectively become just that. And once in office, Tea Party members (to be distinguished from Republican candidates who were backed by the Tea Party) will have no choice but to toe the GOP line in Congress — or become powerless backbenchers.

And worse, the efforts the Tea Party has made to bring racial and ethnic diversity to its ranks will be severely compromised by the movement’s alignment with a Republican Party that is widely rejected by black and Hispanic voters.

This is worrisome because, as Jealous points out in the NAACP report, “ties between Tea Party factions and acknowledged racist groups endure.”

It’s possible the Tea Party made a smart move in joining up with the Republican Party. As the GOP’s political partner, it could be in the best position to inherit the lion’s share of its followers when the GOP finally implodes.

Or it could have made a big mistake in hitching a ride on a dying star.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Obama's presidency, not Congress, is GOP's top target in midterm election

By DeWayne Wickham

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As I watched Barack Obama walk alone across the south lawn of the White House to his waiting helicopter, I had something of a political awakening.

It was in that moment, following the president’s one-hour meeting with me and nine other black columnists, that I understood the campaign strategy Republicans have cleverly crafted and their Democratic counterparts are struggling to counter. For the GOP, the central issue of the midterm election is Obama.

It didn’t start out that way. Early on, the Republican strategy was to avoid any mention of the president as they probed the political landscape for vulnerable House and Senate Democrats whose defeat would put control of the Congress in Republican hands. Back then Obama’s job approval rating was high and most Americans thought the nation was headed in the right direction.

But after months of withering, right-wing attacks on the Obama-led efforts to bail the nation out of the economic mess that took root when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, and a nagging concern about broken promises among elements of Obama’s political base, Republicans are using the president’s declining popularity to rally support for GOP congressional candidates.

They are buoyed in this effort by those on the rabid fringe of the right wing who chant: “I want my country back,” as if slaves have taken over the planation. And they are financed to a great degree by right-wing donors who pour money — much of it untraceable — into the GOP coffers.

“If the election is posed as a choice between Republican policies that got us into this mess and (my) policies that are getting us out of this mess, then I think we can do very well,” Obama said during his meeting with members of The Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists. “And, frankly, I would feel very confident about our position right now if it weren’t for the fact that these third-party independent groups, funded by corporate special interests and run by Republican operatives, without disclosing where that money is coming from, are outspending our candidates” by big margins.

Obama said the floodgates were opened for this massive infusion of money into political campaigns by what he called the Supreme Court’s “profoundly faulty” decision last year in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. Now money, gushing in from right-wing donors who want their country back, is fueling Republicans’ hope of winning control on Congress this year — and the White House in 2012.

To stop them, Democrats must energize their base. They’ve got to get young whites and Hispanics to the polls in numbers that are not usually seen in midterm elections by making them understand what’s at stake if Republicans win the Congress.

And they’ve got to make blacks understand that while Obama is not on the ballot next month, he is under attack.

“Our numbers and our ability to organize the grassroots have to counter those millions of dollars” Republicans are using “to try to take this election,” Obama told the black columnists.

A day earlier, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies said a large black turnout could put a big dent in the loses Democrats are expected to suffer in the midterm election.

But that won’t happen unless Democrats make it clear that what is at stake in this election, more than the Congress, is Barack Obama’s presidency.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Obama rises above the racial swamp

By DeWayne Wickham

WASHINGTON — As I sat with a small group of black columnists a few feet away from the Oval Office waiting to meet with President Barack Obama, I couldn’t help but think about William Monroe Trotter.

The publisher of The Guardian, a black Boston newspaper, Trotter was booted out of the White House in 1914 after challenging Woodrow Wilson’s decision to permit the segregation of federal offices in the nation’s capital.

Now, 96 years later, our organization of black columnists — called the Trotter Group — carried the memory of this fiery black journalist with us to our meeting with the nation’s first black president. Trotter would be proud, and no doubt appreciate the irony of this moment.

This nation’s racial divide was a wedge issue for Wilson, a transplanted Southern Democrat who did a stint as president of Princeton University and New Jersey governor before making a successful run for the White House in 1912. He wooed blacks like Trotter and W.E.B. DuBois away from the Republican Party with a commitment to support their demand for racial equality. Back then blacks were wedded to the GOP in much the same way we now support Democrats.

But once he got into the White House, Wilson pandered to the other side of that racial divide by instituting Jim Crow practices for federal workers.
Obama on the other hand tries mightily to rise above this nation’s racial swamp. It was a remarkable coalition of blacks, Hispanics, young whites and Asians — a mix of people who look much more like this nation’s demographic future than its past — that put him in the White House.

Ever conscious of this, Obama refuses to see race — or racism — where so many of us think it can be found.

When I asked during our one-hour meeting with him in the Roosevelt Room of the White House how he thinks the nation should observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War next year, the president didn’t take the bait.

"I think it’s important for everybody to know that history," he deadpanned. "And if it’s presented in a smart and thoughtful and balanced way, I think it could be beneficial. And if it’s not presented in a smart and balanced way, it could end up being divisive."

Not satisfied with that answer, I tried to tie the old fight to one that rages now. "There are some who say when they hear people chant, ‘We want our country back, and they talk about states’ rights, that for them the Civil War is unsettled business," I told the president.

But instead of taking the path of a divider, as Wilson did with Trotter, Obama offered a bridge-building response.

"I think it’s important not to see race behind every disagreement with me. There’s a long tradition of federalism that predates the civil rights battles of the ’60s (and) of the Civil War. There’s a long tradition of suspicion of a powerful federal government that started with Thomas Jefferson and the founding of the country.

"And so, I think that my approach is always to take people at face value. If they say that they’re concerned about a government that’s grown too large and oppressive, then rather than suggest that they’ve got some illegitimate motives, I’ll take that at their word."

"I think that there’s a way of engaging people in their own terms about the things that they care about," he said. "I may not persuade them, but I continue to have faith that over time, if you make good policies and you try to explain to them as clearly as you can," the American people will understand.

I’m not sure he’s right about that. But I think there’s something to his determination not to give in to this nation’s racial demons the way Woodrow Wilson did.

And on this point, I’m sure William Monroe Trotter would agree.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Real life impact of social media bigger than movie

By DeWayne Wickham

If you want to learn something about the impact of social media, you might try discerning fact from fiction in "The Social Network," a new movie that purports to tell the story of how Facebook came into existence.

But if what you’re looking for is a quick primer on the real-life impact that social media have had on our society, you don’t have to spend two hours in a dark theater surrounded by people who may not be your (Facebook) friends. Just type the names Tyler Clementi and Anthony Graber into a search engine.

What happened to Clementi and Graber is a troubling commentary on an individual’s expectation of privacy in a world overrun by technology that all too often peers behind the curtains of our lives. But their stories also are proof of just how much social media have reinforced Marshall McLuhan’s prophesy that “the medium is the message.”

Sadly, Clementi committed suicide after his roommate and another student allegedly used a webcam to surreptitiously transmit a sexual encounter the 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman had in his dorm room with another male. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, then used his Twitter account to say he would broadcast another live sex act involving Clementi.

Apparently distraught by this humiliating invasion of his privacy, Clementi used his cellphone to make a final posting to his Facebook page: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” Moments later he plunged from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River.

As tragic as what happened to Clementi is, his story has become an international cause célèbre, in no small part because it played out in cyberspace. Clementi complained about the video streaming of his sex act on a Yahoo gay message board, New York’s Daily News reported. And less than two weeks after he used Facebook to bid this life adieu, a Facebook page created in his honor had over 106,000 supporters.

Graber, on the other hand, wasn’t victimized by a peeping tom; he was accused of invading another person’s privacy. The victim in his case, prosecutors in Harford County, Md., said, was the state trooper who arrested Graber earlier this year.

Graber was stopped while popping wheelies and riding at 80 mph in a 65-mph stretch of Interstate 95. The officer who pulled him over, wearing civilian clothes, jumped out of his unmarked car with his gun drawn. Only after ordering Graber to get off his bike did he identify himself as a law enforcement officer.

All of this was captured on the helmet camera Graber wore that day. He posted the video on YouTube a week later. Soon after that, the 25-year-old Maryland Air National Guardsman was arrested and charged with violating the state’s arcane wiretap law, which prohibits recording a private conversation without the consent of everyone involved.

It didn’t take long for Graber’s case to be propelled through cyberspace — or for the Maryland attorney general’s office to say cops who perform their official duties in public shouldn’t have a legitimate expectation of privacy. Eventually, the charges against Graber were dropped.

Just as technology has turned our vast world into a global village, social media networks have given us access to a virtual town square. Clementi and his tormentors jockeyed for space there. Grab-er used it to rally people to his defense.

And because of this rapidly expanding medium, life for the rest of us will never be the same.