Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jacksonville's first black mayor plows road to new political heights

By DeWayne Wickham

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Alvin Brown, the Democrat who will be sworn in as mayor of this longtime Republican stronghold on July 1, is a political enigma.

He beat the Tea Party’s candidate in the runoff for the job with the help of more than $500,000 from Florida’s Democratic Party and $300,000 that was raised for him by Peter Rummell, one of this area’s most prominent Republicans fund-raisers.

Brown brandishes his faith like a card-carrying member of the religious right. He wouldn’t move into the mayor’s office he won last month until his pastor went there to bless it and pray with him. But on the issue of crime — which he wants to fight with education and after-school programs — he sounds more liberal than conservative.

Brown shuns tax increases like a disciple of Grover Norquist, but says he is committed to “closing the poverty gap and the opportunity gap” even as he works to balance Jacksonville’s budget that’s due two weeks after he takes office.

“We can’t cut our way out of” the city’s budget woes, Brown told leaders of non-profit organizations shortly before the mayor’s office was blessed by the Rev. Henry T. Rhim. “We’ve got to grow our way out of it” with new jobs and the economic activity they spawn, he said.

In a political world in which the divide between Republicans and Democrats has turned many politicians into stuttering, ideological parrots, Brown is neither fish nor fowl. He’s a new breed of elected official — one who has improved upon the multiracial, multiethnic coalition that hoisted Barack Obama into the White House three years ago.

Obama, the nation’s first black president, built his coalition with talk of change that energized his liberal base and won him a strong following among independent voters — but alienated congressional Republicans. Brown, 48, the first black mayor of Florida’s largest city, won election with a surprising fusion of Democrats and Republicans.

He won the support of influential Republicans like Rummell and Adam Herbert, who Brown called Florida’s Colin Powell. And while he claims race never surfaced as an issue in the mayoral campaign, Brown — who was a finalist for the NAACP’s top job in 2008 — said he’s never been accused of not being “black enough” because he has “always stayed connected to the black community.”

Winning the support of a sizeable block of white voters while holding onto a black base is a difficult political balancing act. But getting leading Republicans to publicly champion such a campaign is something even Alvin Toffler, who authored Future Shock — the 1970 book that envisioned the societal changes the new millennium would bring — never contemplated.

It may not be long before we know if Brown can take full advantage of the groundbreaking political alliance he’s forged. He’s appointed Audrey Moran, one of the Republican candidates in the mayoral race, and Democratic state Sen. Tony Hill, as co-chairs of his transition team.

“My campaign wasn’t about Democrats or Republicans. And it wasn’t about me. I made it about Jacksonville: one vision, one city, opportunity for all,” he told me, using words that were the mantra of his successful campaign to become mayor of the nation’s 11th largest city.

If Brown is able to make what he’s trying to do work; if he succeeds in creating a new governing alliance in a city that was once deeply wedded to partisan firefights, he will have plowed a road that can transform American politics — and carry him to an even loftier political height.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Obama: Don't let Afghanistan become your Waterloo

By DeWayne Wickham

Afghanistan isn’t Barack Obama’s war, but it might well be his Waterloo.

While campaigning for the presidency as a candidate of change, then-Sen. Obama’s position on the Afghan war was closer to that of the neocons than the progressive Democrats who hoisted him into the White House.

But that war was launched by George W. Bush, and there was always a belief among Obama’s supporters that he wouldn’t succumb to the jingoism that made his predecessor see war as the first, instead of the last, resort in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since taking office, Obama has dramatically increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and spent billions of dollars rebuilding that war-ravaged country and Iraq, while this nation's economy teeters on the brink of a double-dip recession.

If you think that’s left-wing heresy on my part, consider this: A few days ago, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa backed a call from a group of mayors for Congress to redirect the billions of dollars being spent every week on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to domestic priorities. “That we would build bridges in Baghdad and Kandahar and not Baltimore and Kansas City absolutely boggles the mind,” Villaraigosa, the new head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said at a news conference during that organization’s annual meeting.

In 2008, Villaraigosa rallied Hispanics in support of Obama’s presidential campaign. Now, he is asking Congress to cut off the flow of dollars to wars Obama has made a higher priority than helping the nation’s ailing cities.

GOP sets election trap

It is among congressional Republicans that Obama’s war policies have the most support. But in what appears to be a political pincer move, several GOP presidential candidates expressed doubt about those wars and Obama’s leadership of them during the first Republican Party presidential debate last week.

Obama shouldn’t let Republicans use this political trap to defeat his re-election bid. Instead, the president ought to withdraw to a more defensible position.

On Iraq, Obama should say we went there to uncover weapons of mass destruction and didn’t find any. Mistakenly, we stayed around and got drawn into a bloody civil war. It’s now time for the U.S. to withdraw completely from that still-simmering conflict.

On Afghanistan, he should remind Americans that we went there to get the people who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks and have pretty much done that. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of that awful crime, is in a U.S. military jail cell awaiting trial; and Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader, was killed during a raid of his Pakistani hideout by Navy SEALs. With fewer than 100 al-Qaida members remaining in Afghanistan, according to the CIA, Obama should declare victory there and bring home all U.S. servicemen and women. American drones and the threat of international isolation should be used to deal with any residual force of enemies that surface there.

This won’t make the neocons and other members of the GOP pincer happy, but it will give Obama and this nation’s mayors a chance to reap a “peace dividend” from the end of our central role in two wars. It will also put Obama on the right side of history, and in a good position to win re-election.

Monday, June 13, 2011

New York City's schools need a revolution, not just a revolt

By DeWayne Wickham

The NAACP is being attacked by parents of New York City schoolchildren who are angered by the civil rights group’s support of a lawsuit that seeks to keep 20 charter schools out of buildings that already are occupied by traditional public schools.

The suit also attempts to block the closing of some of the city’s underperforming public schools, the kind of schools that make many parents clamor for a way out. In the 20 years since Minnesota enacted the first law allowing this hybrid approach to public education, charter schools have become an increasingly popular escape hatch, especially for black students.

While blacks are 30% of New York City’s 1 million public school children, they are 60% of the youngsters enrolled in the Big Apple’s 125 charter schools. So, black parents of charter school students in the city think the NAACP’s support of the lawsuit, which was filed last month by the United Federation of Teachers, amounts to an act of racial treason.

But it’s not. It is an act of revolution. In his 1957 book, The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi explored the injustices of colonization and concluded that it would take a revolution, not just a revolt to end this form of human oppression.
Charter schools in New York City — and elsewhere in this country — are a revolt against public school systems that fail to properly educate black and Hispanic schoolchildren. While revolts bring about reforms, Memmi explained, revolution is needed to wipe out a system of oppression.

For far too many black children, public school systems oppress more than they educate. They place these students in underachieving, poorly funded schools. And when parents demand better, what they get is steam control — a way to vent their anger, not fix the problem.

In New York City, charter schools — where only 4% of its 1 million public school students can get in — are steam control. They keep the revolt over poor performing public schools from becoming a revolution by distracting parents with the slender reed of hope of getting their child into a better school.

In New York, the choice of who gets in the city’s charter schools is made by lottery — which is to say the luck of the draw. Notwithstanding the indignity of the selection process, there are more than 50,000 students on the waiting list to get into a charter school.

In suing city school officials, the NAACP has a better idea. It wants New York to improve all of its schools, especially its most troubled ones. That’s a revolutionary idea that will require the state of New York to take the lead in meeting its constitutional responsibility to provide “a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.”

The civil rights organization doesn’t want an escape hatch for 4% of New York City’s schoolchildren; it wants a high-quality education for all of them. It rightfully opposes a two-tiered system of public education that pits charter schools against traditional schools and demands instead better schools for all the children in New York’s school system.

What the NAACP wants is a revolutionary change, not the incrementalism — and misdirections — that offer black students the kind of meager educational gains that were a staple of the colonialism Memmi said colonized people the world over must struggle against.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In South Africa, Michelle Obama can teach young Americans an important lesson

By DeWayne Wickham

First lady Michelle Obama is going to South Africa and Botswana later this month to tout the value of education and promote her worldwide campaign to encourage young people to assume leadership roles in their countries.

This is the kind of good work that Obama, who overcame the perils of poverty to earn degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School , is well suited to do. She knows better than a lot of diplomats what it takes to scale the hurdles too many young people face.

This trip is an opportunity for Obama “to teach her daughters about how we survive or fail based upon our global connectedness,” Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor who taught both President Obama and his wife, told me.

It’s an opportunity to do that and much more.

A few days before Obama is scheduled to arrive in South Africa, the most important stop of her six-day trip, that country will observe the 35th anniversary of what was arguably the most important moment in the struggle to end apartheid — the brutal system of white-minority rule that lasted more than four decades.

What happened in South Africa on June 16, 1976, is now acknowledged there with a national holiday that is innocently called “Youth Day.” It was then that a spasm of violence by government forces erupted, taking the lives of more than 700 black South Africans, most of them schoolchildren.

These killings in Soweto, a black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, were sparked by the government’s decision to force black children to learn Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch descendants who were oppressing the country’s black majority.

The students regarded English as a passport to higher education and the world beyond South Africa, investigative reporter Les Payne wrote in an 11-part series that Newsday published in 1977. They learned the value of education through the depravation they were forced to endure; outdated textbooks, unqualified teachers and inferior school facilities taught them that lesson.

And it was out of a determination to get a better education that many young black schoolchildren joined a protest whose violent suppression fueled an anti-apartheid movement that eventually sapped the life out of South Africa’s pigmentocracy.

The story of the willingness of these students to risk their lives for a better education — and their courage to challenge the armed goons South Africa’s apartheid-era government sent into Soweto to silence them — is a history lesson every generation of American children ought to be taught. It’s also something Obama should acknowledge during her visit.

Sadly, Payne’s groundbreaking stories on the Soweto student uprising didn’t get the recognition they deserve. In 1976, he spent nearly three months in that township. He eluded his government handlers to interview student leaders who were in hiding — and went from funeral homes, to churches, to gatherings of grieving families to document a level of carnage much higher than what the South African government claimed.

For his efforts, Payne was the first choice of the judges to receive the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting. But in a controversial act, that decision was overridden by the Pulitzer’s ruling body and given to the judges’ fourth choice.

Obama would do much to inspire young people here and abroad by acknowledging the heroic sacrifices South African students made in 1976 — and the great effort Payne made to tell the world their story.