Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Israel should be a better friend

By DeWayne Wickham

The unspoken message that the Obama administration appeared to send Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week is this: Stop behaving like an ungrateful friend.

Ever since Netanyahu's government blindsided Vice President Biden during his recent visit to the Jewish state with an announcement that it will build 1,600 new housing units in east Jerusalem, the Obama administration has been smarting.

And for good reason.

Of all the hurdles to an enduring peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, the fate of Jerusalem - which both claim as their capital - is the most daunting. Every time Israel breaks ground on more housing there, the peace lamps flicker.

Reeling from Israel's announcement, the Obama administration urged Netanyahu to rescind the decision. In a phone call, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the prime minister that the new construction was "a deeply negative signal" about Israel's relationship with the United States. The Israeli government "needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions" its commitment to that relationship and the peace process, Clinton said, according to State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley.

But in a speech last week in Washington to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Netanyahu thumbed his nose at these concerns. "Jerusalem is not a settlement; it's our capital," he proclaimed.

The United States is Israel's oldest and closest friend. And since its creation in 1948, Israel has been the largest cumulative recipient of American foreign aid. In addition to now receiving nearly $3 billion annually in grants from this country, Israel has gotten billions of dollars worth of loan guarantees since 1972 to help build housing and shore up its economy.

While Israel is forbidden from using any of this money to construct housing in its occupied territory, the largesse frees Israel to use other parts of its budget to fund such projects. Not to mention that without U.S. military assistance, Israel would struggle to fend off its enemies.

Our support of Israel is costly in non-monetary ways, too.

"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests" in that part of the world, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month. "Arab anger over the Palestinian question" hurts this country's relationship with other governments in the region and "weakens the legitimacy" of moderate Arab leaders, he said.

And while unemployment in Israel dropped to 7.4 percent in the last quarter of 2009, joblessness during that period in the United States hovered around 10 peercent.
The investment of treasure, and as Petraeus hinted, perhaps U.S. blood, on behalf of Israel should evoke deep gratitude. Instead, Netanyahu's government takes a go-it-alone approach when it serves Israel's interest - the rest of the world be damned.

The United States is right to champion Israel's right to exist, of course, and to provide an umbrella of protection to help ensure the Jewish state's survival.

But the Netanyahu government strains this longstanding friendship when it pursues a course of action that unnecessarily inflames passions in the Arab world and weakens the ability of moderate Arab leaders to talk peace.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Improving public schools will make America a healthier nation

By DeWayne Wickham

When the history of Barack Obama’s presidency is written, much will be said about his effort to reform this nation’s health care system. That’s understandable. The 46 million in America who don’t have health insurance have fallen through a gaping hole in this country’s social safety net. That’s a troubling oxymoron in a nation that leads the world in medical research and treatment.

But if Obama succeeds in his efforts to transform America’s education system, that will be the hallmark of his presidency and the thing historians should most remember about his stint in the White House. As important as it is for Obama to end this nation’s health care crisis, it is even more necessary for him to fix our public education system.

As the Obama administration was trying last week to round up the votes needed to win passage of its health care reform bill in the House of Representatives, the Detroit education system announced it is considering closing 45 of its 172 schools. This is being done not only to address the system’s huge financial deficit, but also to repair its educational shortfall.

Just 3 percent of Detroit’s fourth-graders were proficient in math, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. The city’s eighth-graders didn’t do much better. Only 4 percent were rated proficient. Detroit’s fourth- and eighth-graders recorded the lowest scores of the 18 cities that took part in the NAEP math test.

By closing schools and reorganizing the school system’s structure and approach to education, Detroit hopes to improve high school graduation rates from the current level of 58 percent to 98 percent by 2015.

School officials in Kansas City, Mo., are shutting down an even bigger chunk of their school system. To avoid bankruptcy, they are closing 26 of 61 schools. To boost academic performance, they are proposing a longer school day — and a longer school year for the school district, which has slightly fewer than 18,000 students.

Detroit and Kansas City have company. Cities across the nation are struggling with dwindling enrollments as parents move their children from urban to suburban public schools, or into private schools. And they are grappling with ways to improve the test scores of the children who are left behind. In February, a Rhode Island school board voted to fire all the teachers and administrators at a school where half of the students are failing every subject.

Last year, Obama called for some sweeping education reforms, including a longer school year and more hours in a school day. He also increased funding for Head Start and dangled grants totaling $4.35 billion before schools willing to implement “effective education reform strategies.”

Then, last month, as the fight over his plan to reform health care raged, Obama announced major changes to the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, including new incentives for schools to make progress in educating public schoolchildren. American fourth-graders rank 11th in math scores and 10th in science scores in an international assessment of test scores, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Increasing the number of people with medical insurance is a good thing. It will improve the length and quality of life for a lot of people. But fixing our broken public schools will do even more. It will help this nation maintain its competitive edge — and its position as the world’s dominant economic and political force.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Kennedy had good reason to be screaming mad

By DeWayne Wickham

If you listened closely to the high-pitched rant of Rep. Patrick Kennedy that was played over and over again on television news shows like a Saturday Night Live parody of a politician gone wild, you might have heard a valid complaint.

I did.

"We ought to be after the Taliban and the terrorists, anybody who is organizing to strike in our country," instead of bogging down American troops in a military campaign that seeks to hew together Afghanistan's fractious tribes, the Rhode Island Democrat said breathlessly in a recent speech on the House floor.

Then, looking up to the press gallery, Kennedy screamed: "If anybody wants to know where cynicism is, cynicism is that there's one, two press people in this gallery. We're talking about Eric Massa 24/7 on the TV. We're talking about war and peace — $3 billion, 1,000 lives, and no press! No press! ... It's despicable, the national press corps right now," he said.

While it is an exaggeration to say this nation's media are obsessed with Massa and underreporting the Afghan war, it's not a big stretch. Massa, the latest member of Congress to get caught up in sexual misconduct charges, resigned his seat after the House ethics committee started looking into accusations that he inappropriately groped several male staff members. The ugly details of those charges and Massa's admission of strange behavior did get vastly more media attention than the debate of the Afghan war.

Especially lacking in the news media's coverage of the U.S. fighting in Afghanistan, now in its ninth year, is reporting on those who question the rationale for the war. War, even a nearly decade-old one like this one, should never be treated as fait accompli. But when the re-election of an Afghan government — one that is widely believed to have stuffed ballot boxes the last time voters went to the polls — gets more media attention than a debate over withdrawing U.S. troops, Kennedy has a good reason to holler.

A year after President George W. Bush launched a war in Iraq, The New York Times and The Washington Post apologized for their failure to aggressively cover critics of the war or question the rationale for that conflict.

"In most cases, what we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time. ... But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged," the Times editors wrote in a 2004 open letter to readers.

Nearly three months later, The Washington Post confessed its failure to give balanced treatment to opponents of the Iraq war. The paper was so "focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page," Executive Editor Leonard Downie said.

Of course, the Post and Times weren't alone in giving war opponents short shrift. In fact, they probably did a better job than most news organizations. But to see a debate on the Afghan war take place before a nearly empty press gallery makes me wonder why more members of Congress aren't screaming mad.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When family storyteller dies, a lot of history is lost

By DeWayne Wickham

The library is closed.

I just lost the last direct link to my family's past. Arline Jackson, my 89-year-old aunt, died Saturday, a few days after suffering brain damage from a fall. She was the last to die of the seven children born to my maternal grandmother. My mother, who died when I was just eight, was the first.

Aunt Arline (pronounced Ar-leen) was my family's storyteller. She spurred my interest in tracing the roots of my family when she told me about my maternal great-grandfather, William Howe, a man of deep chocolate complexion who mysteriously lived in Guam in the closing years of the 19th century before settling in southern Maryland.

She caused me to search for more information about a white man who was only known to her as O'Leary, who fathered her dad - and to undergo a DNA ancestry search that discovered my family tree has roots in Sierra Leone and Western Europe.

Aunt Arline was the primary source for the information about my family that I included in a book about my troubled childhood. She told me my father, John T. Wickham, was drafted into the Army during World War II and served in the 366th Infantry. That information helped me discover that HE was part of a largely forgotten chapter of military history. In 1944, my father answered a call to fill vacancies in combat units during heavy fighting in Europe and became one of a small group of black soldiers to serve in a white combat unit when he joined the 12th Armored Division, more than three years before President Truman officially ordered desegregation of this nation's military.

Sadly, no one ever thought to sit my aunt down in front of a camera to capture her telling stories of the many people and events that shaped our family during her nearly nine decades of life. So all that remains of the rich history she possessed are the memories of what she shared with me and other family members.

I thought about all of this as I watched NBC's new addition to television's stable of reality shows the night my aunt was moved from a hospital to the hospice where she spent the last hours of life. The program, which is called “Who Do You Think You Are?,” is network television's exploration (some might say "exploitation") of the ancestry of some prominent people.

The first show followed actress Sarah Jessica Parker as she searched her mother's branch of their family tree and found she had links to a California gold miner and a defendant in a Salem witch trial. While some critics focused more on the actress than the stories her search uncovered, I was nearly as enthralled in learning about her relatives as I was with the stories Aunt Arline told me.

Too often, it seems, people define themselves in the narrowest of ways. While we easily identify with a racial, religious or ethnic group, we tend not to know much about the complex and intimate textures of our identities. We haven't peered under the bark of our family tree deep enough to expose the varied generations of ancestors who contributed to our gene pool.

I suspect if more of us did, if more of us mined the knowledge of our family's aging storyteller - before that library closes - we'd find there is more that connects us than divides us. And that, I think, was the point of all those stories my Aunt Arline told me.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What do blacks have a right to expect from Obama?

By DeWayne Wickham

I knew the long-simmering debate among blacks over what President Obama should be doing for blacks — his strongest backers and the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency — would heat up.

It turned red hot last week when a war of words broke out on Tom Joyner’s nationally syndicated radio show between two of this country’s leading black activists. In dueling appearances on Joyner’s program, Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton went after each other in a way that would make would make Quentin Tarantino blush.

“Some of us who call ourselves black leaders are making the wrong choice,” Smiley said of Sharpton and several other civil rights leaders who met with Obama to discuss the jobs bill that was being considered by Congress. “The president doesn’t need a black agenda, they sing. He’s not the president of black America. He’s the president of all America, and he need not focus specifically on the unique challenges black America is facing.”

Smiley said he’ll hold a televised meeting this month in Chicago to get those black leaders to explain why the president doesn’t need a black agenda. Though it’s unclear if any of those he criticized will show up, his call for such a “come to Jesus” meeting enraged Sharp-ton, who called into the show shortly after Smiley spoke.

Sharpton disputed Smiley’s characterization of that meeting. He said he met with Obama to deal with unemployment and its lopsided impact on blacks. “We did not ask for a race bill because we did not think it would pass. We asked for a ‘place bill,’ where the jobs would go to where the people were most impacted,” he said. Then Sharpton lobbed this brickbat: “When they were running around buck dancing for Bill Clinton they didn’t ask for a black agenda,” he said in a slap at Smiley, whom he accused of being a sycophant of the former president.

This is a senseless fight. Most black leaders, including Smiley, don’t expect Obama to behave like Putney Swope (the black character in a film by the same name who takes control of a white-run advertising agency and imposes his black agenda on the firm).

They don’t want him to act like some fear a consciously black president might. They don’t expect loud pronouncements from Obama about what his administration is doing for blacks. But they also don’t want him to be insensitive to problems that have a disparate impact on black people. What they do want is a go-to person on his staff to address their concerns.

Of course, Obama isn’t the president of any one group of Americans. But to offer that as a reason for not focusing on the high black unemployment rate when his administration has made a targeted effort to address the concerns gays and lesbians have about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell,” seems like a policy that penalizes blacks for being black.

Obama has to act before the divisions harden between his black supporters and detractors. The infighting among these activists will only intensify if he doesn’t find a way to salve the wounds of those who think he courted black voters during his presidential campaign and then abandoned them once he got into the Oval Office.

This is something he needs to do soon — before his political base implodes.