Monday, July 16, 2012

Romney's denial of Bain responsibility fails laugh test

By DeWayne Wickham
Is the outsourcing noose tightening around Mitt Romney’s neck, or is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee being unfairly accused of having headed a venture capital company that put profits ahead of preserving American jobs?
The Obama campaign’s charge that Bain Capital, the Boston-based firm Romney founded, controlled businesses that outsourced thousands of U.S. jobs to Australia, Asia and Europe has hurt the GOP candidate, according to polls of voters in several battleground states.

But Romney, who says that as president, he’ll be the job-creator-in-chief for Americans, claims he left Bain in February 1999 to run the U.S. Olympics Committee, before the outsourcing began. The Obama campaign has countered with a television ad that says under Romney’s leadership, Bain actually pioneered the outsourcing of American jobs. Each campaign has accused the other of lying.

What’s certain is that an odor of mendacity pollutes the air of this political season. And, with so much stock being placed in this ugly war of words, the outcome of the presidential election could turn on the exposure of the fabulist in this matter.
That might not be easily done. Though The Boston Globe has uncovered Securities and Exchange Commission documents that show that Bain said Romney was the company’s “sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer and president” until 2002, the GOP presidential candidate says he played no role in the running of the company after 1999. His denial comes even as the newspaper uncovered a Massachusetts financial disclosure form in which Romney reported that he earned executive compensation from the firm in 2001 and 2002.

Seizing on this issue, the Obama campaign started airing some hard-hitting television ads in battleground states that appear to have chipped away at Romney’s support.

Romney’s campaign responded with a TV ad that calls the president a liar, a claim supported by The Washington Post. Its Fact Checker column concluded after examining the documents the Globe uncovered “that Romney essentially left Bain in 1999” and played no part in outsourcing U.S. jobs.

But, the Tampa Bay Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking column, disagreed. The “exact month that Romney stepped away from Bain makes little difference,” it concluded this month. The outsourcing decisions that came after he purportedly left his firm were “the kind of move Romney and Bain expected” when they invested in companies that sought to increase their profits by moving jobs to countries with lower labor costs, said.

On this issue, Romney should cut and run. When a company says as unequivocally as Bain did that Romney was its chairman, CEO and president until 2002, it fails the laugh test for anyone to argue otherwise.

Maybe he delegated most of his day-to-day decision-making during the years he was running the U.S. Olympics Committee, but he was the captain of Bain’s ship, even if he wasn’t on the bridge. And it’s not as though he was averse to outsourcing, since the contract to produce uniforms for the 2002 Olympics team was given to a Canadian company while he was away from Bain running that operation.

When it comes to outsourcing, Romney would do well to change the subject. The more he tries to answer the Obama campaign’s attack ads, the more damage he’s going to do to his hopes of ever getting into the Oval Office without an invitation.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A presidential candidate's shamless action

By DeWayne Wickham

It’s a good bet history will remember this presidential election as one in which a candidate, faced with polls that showed the contest was too close to call, shamelessly pandered to one of his party’s constituencies to boost their turnout and his chances of victory.

History will recall that, in a widely covered speech, this guy sounded as though he had less concern for the law of the land than the arch of his political ambition. And it will conclude that in the wake of that grossly political moment, he showed no contrition for his hurtful act.

 It’s also probably a good bet you don’t realize I’m talking about Ronald Reagan — not Barack Obama.

Though his Republican critics claim that President Obama’s decision to stop the deportation of young people — most of them Hispanics — who entered this country illegally as children was a crassly political action, what Obama did last week doesn’t compare with Reagan’s action in 1980.

In a White House Rose Garden speech Friday, Obama used his executive authority to order an immediate stop to efforts to return these young people to countries many of them left before they even learned to speak. Instead, they will get a temporary reprieve until Congress enacts a badly needed immigration reform law.

“It seems the president has put election-year politics above responsible policies,” Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement released by his office.

But while the president’s action is clearly intended to court Hispanics, whose votes in the battleground states of Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina could tilt the election to Obama, it was as much an act of compassion as politics.

The same can’t be said for what Reagan did. Shortly after the 1980 GOP convention, Reagan went to Philadelphia, Miss., scene of one of the civil rights era’s most brutal crimes, to launch his campaign to unseat President Carter. In his speech, Reagan told his audience, “I believe in states’ rights,” which, then and now, are buzzwords for those who want to undo the civil rights gains blacks made in the 1960s.

In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon used a race-baiting “Southern strategy” of appeasement of Southern racists to help him win the presidency. It also turned the party of Abraham Lincoln into the party of Strom Thurmond. But in 1976, Carter reversed that gain when he won every state of the old Confederacy except Virginia and put the White House back in the Democratic Party column.

What Reagan did in 1980 to defeat Carter far exceeds what Obama has done to court Hispanic voters in a race with Republican Mitt Romney that many analysts say is too close to call.

Obama’s suspension of the deportation of children brought into this country illegally is as much a humanitarian act as a political gesture. It doesn’t sit well with right-wingers, I suspect, because they are more concerned with who is allowed to migrate into this country than with whether they got here legally.

They want to slow the arrival of the day, projected to be around 2050, when minorities in the U.S. will outnumber non-Hispanic whites. This is what they mean when they say, “I want my country back.”

This is the view of America that Reagan emboldened with his states’ rights speech.

And it is the antithesis of the message of inclusion that Obama sent when he announced a decision that’s not only, for him, good politics — but also is good public policy in this nation of immigrants.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Connecticut could have fix for nation's ailing schools

By DeWayne Wickham
Nobody’s calling what Connecticut just did the second “Great Compromise,” but in time it might be remembered as something akin to the agreement that settled the biggest problem this nation’s Founding Fathers faced.

In 1787, Roger Sherman, a Connecticut delegate to the Constitutional Convention produced that first compromise. It settled the argument over how states would be represented in the U.S. Congress by proposing the creation of two houses. In one, states would have equal representation; in the other, representation would be based on each state’s population.

This month, Connecticut’s Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law a compromise bill that may be a blueprint for meaningful education reform in the other 49 states. The bill, which passed with near- unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats, is a broad attack on the state’s troubled public schools.

In Connecticut, the academic achievement gap between poor kids and children from affluent families is the worst in the nation. And, as in many other parts of the country, black and Hispanic youngsters are more likely to come from poor urban households, while white schoolchildren are more likely to be part of affluent, suburban families.

Recognizing the dire consequences of failing to fix this problem, the governor and legislators overcame partisan bickering and produced a law that also won the backing of public school administrators and teachers’ unions.

The law authorizes nearly $100 million in new funding for the state’s troubled schools, 1,000 more pre-school slots for students, grants to help low-performing schools recruit new teachers and a new evaluation process for administrators, and also teachers, that for them is linked to how they receive tenure and can be dismissed.

The wakeup call for Connecticut’s lawmakers came late last year when the state failed for the third time to win a “Race to the Top” grant — from the federal government.

“Our state’s positioning has weakened to the point that we are not competitive in national grant competitions like the recent Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge,” Malloy said in a letter to lawmakers. “Worse Connecticut’s poor and minority students are less prepared for success than their peers in the vast majority of other states.”

Malloy and lawmakers from both parties understand that they cannot get a long-term reduction in the state’s unemployment rate without a better educated workforce. They know that fixing the state’s broken schools is a win-win proposition for both political parties and the constituencies they serve.

“Meaningful education reform is an issue not just in Connecticut, but across the nation. If politicians, parents, teachers and community leaders can come together in Connecticut to initiate positive change, other states may be able to profit from this example,” said William Harvey, dean of the School of Education at North Carolina A&T State University.

He’s right.

To maintain its global economic and political leadership, this nation has to fix the education “problems it has allowed to fester for too long,” a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations reported in March. Led by Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of State, and Joel Klein, an ex-head of New York City’s school system, it called for a “national security readiness audit” to demonstrate the seriousness of this problem.

And just as this nation did 225 years ago, it could find the solution to one of its most vexing problem in a Connecticut compromise.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Gay Republican group attacks Obama, dithers over Romney

By DeWayne Wickham

To defend their claim to a smidgen of space in the GOP’s ideological pup tent, the Log Cabin Republicans — a gay and lesbian group — is attacking Barack Obama for doing what Mitt Romney won’t: say he supports same-sex marriage.

Under other circumstances, the president’s statement might have moved the group to respond with high praise. Same-sex marriage is, after all, a top Log Cabin goal. But in this political silly season, rational behavior is the first casualty.

“That the president has chosen today to finally speak up for marriage equality is offensive and callous,” the organization said in a press release. Obama announced his position a day after North Carolina voters amended their state’s constitution to define marriage only as a union between one man and one woman.

While the GOP homosexuals were angered by the timing of the president’s announcement, they voiced no such rage over the position of Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, who opposes legal unions between gays or lesbians.

“Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,” Romney said Saturday during a commencement address at Liberty University, an evangelical school that teaches that his faith —Mormonism — is a cult. By siding with evangelicals on gay marriage, he seeks to weaken such concerns.

Campaigning in Colorado a few days earlier, Romney told a Denver TV station: “I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender, and I do not favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage.” But even as Romney throws gays and lesbians under his campaign bus, the Log Cabin Republicans offered only a dithering response to Romney’s opposition to any form of legal status for gay couples.

“What we said is consistent with where we’ve been on Gov. Romney for some time,” R. Clarke Cooper, the Log Cabin Republicans executive director told me. Yes, consistently tepid.

The GOP didn’t always appear to be this insensitive to the interests of gays and lesbians. Twenty years ago, the Republican’s slide to the right seemed to slow just a bit when Mary Fisher, an HIV-positive former aide to President Gerald Ford, was allowed to address the Republican convention.

“I bear a message of challenge, not self-congratulation. I want your attention, not your applause,” Fisher said in a nationally televised speech. She asked the Republican Party to treat the victims of AIDS, which was then widely thought to be a gay disease, with compassion. “We cannot love justice and ignore prejudice,” she said.

Now, as the GOP’s presidential candidate tries to do just that, the Log Cabin Republicans lack the courage to forcefully challenge him. Instead, the group bashes Obama because it doesn’t like the timing of his support of their cause. In an offering of faint praise, Cooper said Obama’s announcement “is starting to make lawmakers on my side of the aisle who haven’t done so take a position” on gay marriage.

The Log Cabin Republicans are outcasts within the GOP. The marital equality they seek is opposed by Romney and many of the right-wingers whose votes he hopes will help him defeat Obama in November.

The Republican homosexual group seems bent on subjecting its members to an unyielding brand of political flagellation.

It is apparently willing to pay any price, bear any burden and endure any insult to maintain a toehold in the GOP ranks — a political obsession that is as oxymoronic as a black joining the Ku Klux Klan, or a Jew becoming a follower of Hamas.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Political pandering, not guns biggest threat to GOP convention

By DeWayne Wickham

TAMPA - Maybe if the request to expand the no-concealed-weapons zone in this city during the Republican National Convention had come from someone less conflicted over this issue, it might have generated a different response.

Maybe if that request had gone to someone less inclined to engage in political pandering, it might have been approved.

But as it is, it was Tampa Democratic Mayor Bob Buckhorn who sent a letter to Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott asking him to ban the carrying of concealed weapons in areas of this city's downtown where protests are expected during the four-day meeting, Aug. 27-30.

In his letter, Buckhorn, who has a permit to carry his .38-caiber revolver, told the governor that people who legally carry hidden weapons usually don't "pose a significant threat to the public." But in "the potentially contentious environment surrounding the (Republican convention), a firearm unnecessarily increases the threat of imminent harm and injury to the residents and visitors of the city," the mayor said.

 During the convention, thousands of protesters will descend upon Tampa, which expects as many as 50,000 people to be drawn to the GOP's quadrennial gathering. City officials hope to herd protesters into an "event zone" where demonstrations will be limited to 90 minutes.

The City Council also is considering an ordinance that would ban people from bringing a long list of things that could be used as a weapon into this area. Among the items on this list are hammers, sticks, switch blades, nun-chucks, BB guns and containers with fecal matter, urine, blood and other bodily fluids.
But any of the more than 900,000 Floridians with a concealed weapons permit will be allowed to bring a gun into the event area.

Although the Secret Service won't allow anyone with a concealed weapons permit to bring their gun inside the security zone it will throw up around the convention site, Scott rejected Buckhorn's request to expand the ban to areas of the city where local police might encounter protesters.

"The short answer to your question is found in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," which protects the right "to keep and bear arms," Scott work Buckhorn. His public response to the mayor panders to the GOP's right wing. The governor's failure to challenge the Secret Service's gun ban is a concession to good sense.

But before anyone could accuse Scott of waffling, Buckhorn issued a wavering statement of his own.

"My job as mayor first and foremose is to protect the people of my city, and the law enforcement (officers) who serve on the front lines," the mayor said. "I believe that there is no reason to have a concealed firearm in downtown Tampa that week. And, to be clear, I am far less concerned with those who have concealed weapons permits than the ones who may somehow acquire a weapon and use it to create mayhem."

No, Mr. Mayor, you are not being clear. The obvious intent of the gun ban you requested was to stop people with concealed weapons permits from bringing their guns downtown during the GOP convention. To say now that your real concern is to stop those who might "somehow" illegally posses a gun and "use it to create mayhem" is to imply that those who are intent on causing trouble would abide by a gun ban.

All of this suggests that, more than anything else, what's needed to safeguard this city during the GOP convention is a ban on pandering politicians.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Political Puritanism puts Edwards on trial

By DeWayne Wickham

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Back in 1925, a trial in Dayton, Tenn., a far-more sanctimonious part of the Bible Belt than this place, transfixed the nation. In that farce of a legal proceeding, John Scopes, a high school instructor, was convicted of teaching his students the theory of human evolution.

The so-called Monkey Trial was more a tug of war between backers of a scientific explanation of the beginning of life and fervent believers in the literal word of Genesis, than it was a search for justice.

John Edwards, the former U.S. senator and Democratic Party presidential candidate, is now on trial here ostensibly for violating federal campaign-finance rules. And as with Scopes, the charges against Edwards have the rank smell of political Puritanism. The essence of this case is undeniable, even if the charges against Edwards suggest otherwise.

The onetime golden boy of North Carolina politics cheated on his wife and tried mightily to keep that moral failing from being publicly exposed. Edwards’ dalliance with Rielle Hunter was, for a time, a syndicated secret. His wife knew about it. And so did Andrew Young, the former chief political aide to Edwards, and his wife. Young is now the star witness against Edwards.

An admitted liar and lawbreaker, Young has been granted immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony. That’s more than a bit ironic because it was Young and his wife, Cheri, who received and doled out nearly $1 million from two wealthy donors to help Edwards conceal his extramarital affair.

Some of those funds — all of which went into a bank account controlled by Young’s wife, not Edwards’ presidential campaign — were used to help build a house for Young’s family. The money that Rachel Mellon, a wealthy philanthropist, and Texas attorney Fred Baron gave Young’s wife far exceeded the $2,300 any single donor can give in federal campaigns. Using that money to keep his adultery secret during the 2008 presidential campaign meant that the funds served a political purpose , prosecutors argue, and thus constituted a violation of federal campaign-finance laws.

Still, only Edwards has been charged with a crime.

Attorneys for Edwards contend that the money was used to keep his wife from learning that he had not ended his relationship with Hunter as promised and that the relationship had produced a love child. Usually, the government leaves something this sordid to a husband and wife to resolve. It’s not a matter for a federal judge and jury to sort out. But Edwards faces charges that could send him to prison for 30 years.

The decision to prosecute Edwards makes the Justice Department lawyers look more like morality police than defenders of the American political system. The stretch they are making to link the money from Mellon and Baron to Edwards’ presidential campaign seems to be a thinly veiled effort to criminalize the adultery of a high public figure — for no good reason other than moral outrage. It’s easy not to like Edwards. Only 3% of respondents in a recent CBS News/New York Times poll said they have a favorable view of him. Thirty percent said the first thing that comes to mind when they think of him is that he cheated on his wife, who died in 2010 after a long, public battle with cancer.

But my gut tells me that the case against Edwards springs from the worst intentions of Puritanism, rather than the best values of the American legal system.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Palin needs civics lesson

By DeWayne Wickham

In a not-so-swift swift-boat attack on Barack Obama, Sarah Palin tried to link the Secret Service sex scandal to the president’s ability to manage this nation’s affairs. But she succeeds only in demonstrating how fuzzy her knowledge is of the government she came close to being a heartbeat away from running.

Palin told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren that the Secret Service agents’ inappropriate contact with Colombian prostitutes was “a symptom of a government run amok” and Obama’s “poor management skills.” Then Palin offered up this bit of nonsense as proof of her contention: “The No. 1 thing that he is responsible for is . . . violating Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 of the United States Constitution in not having a budget.”

What she’s talking about is the section of the Constitution that spells out the responsibility of Congress, not the president, to appropriate money spent by all branches of the federal government. That clause of the Constitution does not mandate creation of a federal budget. It doesn’t even use the word “budget.”

The president is required by the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act to submit a budget to Congress — and that’s exactly what Obama has done every year since taking office. That Congress hasn’t passed any of his budgets is a failing of both Republican and Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill, not the man who occupies the Oval Office.

Blaming Obama for Congress’ failure to pass a budget might be good politics for the former Alaska governor, but it’s bad civics.

It has been “over 1,000 days with no budget, no blueprint to run our federal government,” Palin told Van Susteren. Under Article 2 of the Constitution, which deals with the president’s responsibilities , Obama has a duty to ensure that laws are “faithfully executed.” But to meet that test, he only needs to make sure the money his administration spends is authorized by Congress. And though this may be news to Palin, Congress has spent merrily during Obama’s presidency through the use of appropriations, continuing resolutions and the budget reconciliation process.

To say that Palin ought to know better is to expect too much enlightenment from someone who says Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., tops her list of candidates to be the GOP’s vice presidential candidate. West recently pandered to the fears of some of his right-wing backers when he irrationally proclaimed that 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party are members of the Communist Party.

Palin is a captain in the swift-boat fleet — the same type of smear tactic used against John Kerry in 2004 — that Republicans have launched against Obama. Her mission is to inflict as much damage on him as possible — and to do it in any way she can. Back in December, she got off an early salvo when she criticized the president for sending out a Christmas card that showed his dog in front of a fireplace decorated with a holiday wreath, bulbs and ribbons. It was “odd,” she said, that the card had no overt religious symbols or emphasis on “family, faith and freedom.”

Of course Palin saw nothing wrong with the religious symbols-free holiday card Republican President George W. Bush sent out shortly after she and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., were defeated in the 2008 presidential election by Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.

That's because neither logic nor good sense has anything to do with her swift-boating attacks on Obama.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cuba tolerates more free speech, Cuban Americans clamor for less

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA – Shortly before Ozzie Guillen was banished from baseball for five games for professing his admiration for Fidel Castro’s survival skills, I chanced upon a meeting in the capital of this communist country where free speech exacted no such penalty.

It was a gathering of Cuban intellectuals – writers, historians, social activists, journalists, educators and communist party functionaries – who met at the National Union of Writers and Artists to discuss racial issues. The topics ranged from the role of hip-hop music in today’s Cuba, to a commemoration of the 1912 massacre of thousands of blacks by Cuban government troops. And while there was a lot of agreement among those who crowded into the small meeting room, there was a surprising amount of disagreement – the kind of dissent that critics say doesn’t go unpunished in Cuba.

Guillen, the newly-minted manager of the Miami Marlins, a Major League Baseball team that just moved into a $515 million stadium with a retractable roof that is largely financed by South Florida taxpayers, was punished for telling Time magazine: “I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro, You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that mother------ is still here.”

While that seems hardly the kind of praise that would get the Venezuelan-born Guillen a dinner invitation from the 85-year-old Castro, it set off calls for his head in Miami. Despite the chastened manager’s public apology, protestors demanded he be fired and threatened to boycott the team, if he isn’t dismissed.

Sure, they have a free speech right to demand that Guillen be punished for exercising his right to free speech. Our Constitutional guarantee of people’s right to speak freely sometimes extends to the outer limits of good sense. But for those who clamor for a return to democracy in Cuba to attack one of its basic underpinnings in this country is not just ironic. It’s instructive.

The Cubans in South Florida who insist on maintaining Cold War tensions with Cuba tolerate democratic freedoms only when they don’t run counter to their obsessive hatred for Fidel Castro, who led the Caribbean Island nation for 49 years until poor health forced him to retire in 2008. They genuflect wildly whenever someone suggests the United States should afford Cuba’s communist regime the same diplomatic recognition and economic engagement it has given the communist governments of Vietnam and China.

Of course, any visitor to Cuba will quickly see that it has its own paranoia – a tendency to see a plot to topple the revolution that brought Castro to power in 1959 behind every call for political and economic reform. But increasingly Cuba is showing greater tolerance for openness and a willingness to change, albeit slowly. That was apparent in both the frankness of the discussion among participants of the meeting on race – and by the presence of professor Esteban Morales.

Morales was expelled from Cuba’s communist party in 2010, a defrocking that is tantamount to internal exile, after he wrote two articles arguing that corruption is “much more dangerous” that dissidents within the country. He was reinstated last year without backing away from his criticism.

During an interview at his home three days earlier, Morales told me Cuba continues to struggles with racism, despite laws making such practices illegal. He blames this on the actions of individuals, not the complicity of government. Even this kind of nuanced acknowledgement of bigotry hasn’t always been tolerated in Cuba.

But the trend here is towards more freedom of speech and a movement away from the kind of intolerance that got Ozzie Guillen suspended.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

We need justice for Trayvon and many others

By DeWayne Wickham

I want justice for Trayvon Martin. But even more than that, I want an end to the slaughter of the many blacks for whom there were no mass protest demonstrations or rabid news media coverage.

Justice demands that George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, get his day in court. But it also cries out for an even greater showing of outrage for the thousands of black men and women whose murders have rarely gotten more than fleeting notice in a local newspaper. And that’s a crying shame.

While blacks are just 12.6 percent of the nation’s population, they’re roughly half of the people murdered in this country each year. The vast majority of these killings are at the hands of other blacks.

If that doesn’t shock you, maybe this will: More blacks were murdered in the United States in 2009 alone than all the U.S. troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to date.

Now that really makes me want to holler. But this painful truth hasn’t produced the kind of sustained national outrage that Martin’s death at the hands of a white Hispanic has generated. Why such a parsing of contempt? Maybe the people who’ve taken to the streets to protest Martin’s killing don’t care as much about the loss of other black lives because those killings don’t register on the racial conflict meter. Or maybe they’ve been numbed by the persistence of black-on-black carnage.

“The devastation homicide inflicts on black teens and adults is a national crisis, yet it is all too often ignored outside of affected communities,” according to a report on black deaths released in January by the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based, anti-violence think tank.

Sure, there have been occasional marches and calls for action to stem the deadly black-on-black violence. But these killings continue without an appropriate national response.

The fault for this doesn’t just lie with black leaders, though the failure to kick and scream should weigh most heavily on them.

Just about everyone who claims the mantle of black leadership, or aspires to it, has come to Sanford, Fla., to march in protest of the death of 17-year-old Martin, or queued up before a television camera to voice their outrage. So why won’t these leaders take to the streets with equal fervor to stop these genocidal killings of blacks by other blacks?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Martin murder case revives civil rights movement

By DeWayne Wickham

SANFORD, Fla. – For America's flagging civil rights movement, this place has become a Resurrection City.

The senseless death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin not only has made the city ground zero of a protest movement that has energized people from Boston to Los Angeles, it has resuscitated a civil rights movement that has long needed a cause célèbre to generate a wider following. And that is just what it got when gun-toting George Zimmerman killed Martin, who was armed with just a cellphone, a bottle of ice tea and a bag of Skittles.

Zimmerman, a 28-year-old whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, said he killed Martin in self-defense after trailing the black teenager inside the gated community he patrolled as a volunteer watchman. At some point, there was a confrontation and Zimmerman fired a single shot into Martin's chest. The police refused to arrest Zimmerman, who claims the protection of Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows people who feel threatened to use deadly force instead of retreating to safety.

The idea that an armed man who stalks a teenager who has committed no crime can get away — if only for a time — with saying he was the victim has outraged a lot of people. Add race to this explosive mixture, and the case propelled civil rights activists into the front ranks of protesters.

Over the weekend, when thousands of demonstrators marched through Sanford demanding Zimmerman's arrest, they were led by the "Big Three" of this nation's aging civil rights movement. Walking behind a blue and yellow "Justice for Trayvon" banner were NAACP President Ben Jealous, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, leader of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network.

Unlike the old days of the movement that transformed America, they were riding the waves of this protest, rather than creating them. That's not an indictment of these men, but rather an acknowledgment of their ability to take control of a movement created largely by social media. As a result, the campaign to get Martin's killer arrested and tried on murder charges has brought about an interesting fusion of the old and the new.

The "new" movements are in cyberspace, causes such as the Kony 2012 video, to which Millennials easily connect. The old are the on-the-ground movements such as the 1963 March on Washington that were attended largely by the so-called Silent Generation, which was anything but silent about such issues.

The mishandling of the initial police investigation of Martin's death — and the quick recognition by civil rights leaders that they could use this tragedy to regain the center stage of social protest in America — has bridged the gap between old street protesters and the new Internet activists. The immediate effects of this will likely result in Zimmerman's arrest and trial.

The long-term impact might well be a partnership between the organizations that Sharpton, Jackson and Jealous lead and those of the less organized but far more numerous Generation Xers, who have already used Facebook, Twitter and blogs to express outrage nationwide over Martin's shooting.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman said of the prophesies of futurists George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: "Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression." But Huxley worried that "people will come to love their oppression (and) to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

What the broad, cross-generational response to the death of Martin suggests about social struggle in this country is that its future might be even better than its past.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sanford cops botched investigation of Trayvon Martin's death

By DeWayne Wickham

SANFORD, Fla. -- The most revealing thing about the investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin is a blank page on the police department’s website. The heading atop it says simply, “Sanford’s Most Wanted.”

The empty space beneath those words is a metaphor for the botched response to the killing of the black 17-year-old, whose assailant the police refuse to arrest.
That’s because George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, claims he was acting in self-defense when he killed Martin with a single shot to the chest. Zimmerman, to keep from being tried, is relying on Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows a person to use deadly force when he feels threatened. But Zimmerman didn’t stand his ground; he pursued his prey.

Suspicious of Martin as the teenager walked inside the gated community he was patrolling on Feb. 26, Zimmerman followed him in his SUV. He called 911 to say Martin, who was walking in the rain to the home of his father’s fiance, looked as if he was up to no good because he had pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. The 911 operator told Zimmerman to stop following Martin and await the arrival of police. Zimmerman ignored that order.

At some point, he got out of his SUV and shot Martin. Zimmerman claims he used deadly force only after being attacked by the teen. Phone records show Martin was talking to his girlfriend seconds before he was shot. The unnamed 16-year-old says Martin told her someone was following him. Then she heard a man demand to know what Martin was doing in that neighborhood before the cellphone went dead.

The police investigation looks like the work of Keystone Kops at best. At worst, it smacks of something much more disturbing. Martin’s body wasn’t identified until the next day when police, responding to his father’s missing person report, showed him a picture of the young man’s body.

Despite this, the corpse remained in the morgue three days, classified only as “John Doe.” It took that long for the cops to send the medical examiner the required paperwork that officially identified the remains and authorized the family to retrieve it for burial, Benjamin Crump, the Martin family’s attorney, told me.

Martin’s body was tested for drugs and alcohol. Neither was found. Zimmerman, the guy who killed him, was not tested. Zimmerman’s blood-stained clothes weren’t taken for analysis; the contents of his SUV weren’t checked, Crump said. Zimmerman was set free after a brief police interrogation. Even after police chief Bill Lee “temporarily” resigned amid growing protests over his department’s handling of this case, cops cling to the position that evidence -- what little they bothered to collect -- supports Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.

That assertion should be tested by the special prosecutor appointed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to take over the investigation. Martin was armed only with his cellphone, a can of iced tea and bag of Skittles candy when he encountered the gun-toting Zimmerman.

This mismatch, and the racial slur Zimmerman appears to utter on the 911 tape shortly before he leaves his vehicle for his deadly confrontation with Martin, should force him to have to account for his actions in a court of law. “It was wrong that Zimmerman profiled Trayvon. But it was tragic that the police did it, too,” Crump said.

He’s right. Justice won’t be served until Zimmerman and the Sanford police are made to answer for their actions in the case of Trayvon Martin.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Afghan mass murderer deserves justice, not pity

By DeWayne Wickham

Even before the identity of the Army staff sergeant believed to have massacred 16 people in an Afghanistan village became known, excuses for his ghoulish acts of terror started popping up in the news media, diminishing the likelihood that justice will prevail in this case.

In one account, an unnamed military official said the suspect who has since been identified as 38-yearold Robert Bales — had been drinking alcohol the night of the murderous rampage. Another official said he was distraught over an incident in which a fellow soldier’s leg was blown off.

There were reports that Bales might have had marital and financial problems, and a story that he suffered a head wound during the last of his three deployments to Iraq. In some “chronic cases,” that sort of injury “can lead to cognitive problems, personality changes and a loss of impulse control,” The New York Times reported after Bales was named as the lone suspect.

What we know for certain is that nine children, three women and four men were killed. These innocent victims were attacked as they slept in villages that were supposed to be protected by soldiers on Bales’ nearby base. The bodies of some of the victims were set on fire. That’s the work of a murderous madman. But don’t expect Bales to be treated like one if he’s convicted of the late-night killing spree. History suggests otherwise.

Not one of the eight Marines charged in the 2005 massacre of 24 people in Iraq, including women, children and a man in a wheelchair, was imprisoned. One was acquitted, the charges against six others were dropped. The sergeant who admitted ordering his men to “shoot first and ask questions later” was given a plea bargain, serving no time behind bars.

And though William Calley, the Army lieutenant who ordered the 1968 attack that killed 500 unarmed people in the Vietnamese village of My Lai, was found guilty of personally killing 22 people, he served just three-and-a-half years of house arrest before President Nixon commuted his sentence.

In each case, public opinion among war-weary Americans opposed harsh punishment for these mass murderers, who were seen more as victims of unpopular wars — men who were driven over the brink by the bad decision-making of their superiors or of Washington policymakers.

Such shortsightedness damages more than the American concept of justice. It also does great injury to the democratic ideals we use to justify the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. And when an American soldier who commits a crime gets off with little or no punishment, it devalues the lives of their foreign victims and creates tensions that put at risk the lives of other U.S. servicemembers who get targeted for retribution.

Of course, war can take a heavy emotional and psychological toll on those who are sent into battle. But that’s no excuse for the brutal slaughter Bales is suspected of committing. Unfortunately, many news media organizations appear to suggest otherwise by putting more effort into looking for explanations for Bales’ alleged bad acts than in trying to uncover the details of those heartless crimes.

To imply that a U.S. soldier who goes on a killing spree in a foreign land is less culpable because of the pressures of war slanders the incredibly good conduct of the millions of U.S. men and women who have served honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The person who massacred the Afghan villagers deserves the contempt of this nation — and the unyielding judgment of its criminal justice system.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"Kony 2012" puts focuson wrong story

By DeWayne Wickham

Filmmaker Jason Russell says the goal of his searing video about Joseph Kony, which got more than 70 million YouTube hits within a week, is to make the guerrilla leader famous. By that, I think he really means he wants to use the 30-minute documentary to make Kony infamous in cyberspace.

Kony has long been a pretty notorious guy. Over the past two decades he’s kidnapped tens of thousands of children. The boys are forced to fight in his army. The girls become sex slaves. In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Kony. Last year, the African Union labeled his group a terrorist organization.

Shortly before leaving office, President George W. Bush sent 17 counterterrorism advisers to help capture Kony, who was hiding in a Congo national park. He got away.

In October, the Obama administration ordered 100 U.S. military advisers into central Africa to train the military forces trying to track down Kony. But so far he remains elusive.

Russell hopes his documentary, Kony 2012, will help bring the international fugitive to justice. “Its only purpose is to stop the rebel group, LRA, and their leader, Joseph Kony,” Russell says in the video’s opening sequence.

His plan to do this is simplistic, if not naive. Russell encouraged the video’s millions of Internet viewers to send messages via Twitter to 20 “culturemakers” and 12 “policymakers” — people he believes can pressure the Obama administration to keep the U.S. military advisers in central Africa until Kony is apprehended.

His list of policymakers includes two people who need no introduction — former presidents Bush and Bill Clinton — and at least two others — Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, R-Fla. — who are far from household names and pack little clout with the Democrat in the Oval Office. Among the “culturemakers” Russell wants people to inundate with tweets calling for no end to U.S. military support of the search for Kony until he is captured is Oprah Winfrey, Bill O’Reilly, Taylor Swift and Rush Limbaugh.

That’s right, Limbaugh.

Back in October, the conservative talk show host berated President Obama for sending the military advisers to central Africa. The “Lord’s Resistance Army are Christians,” Limbaugh said at the time. “They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to…kill them.”

Alright, so maybe Russell’s plan is even more naive than simplistic. Even so, that’s not likely to stop large numbers of people from taking up his cause. Sure the world will be a far better place without Kony trolling about central Africa unleashing his violence on defenseless people. But the commitment from this country to bring him to justice, despite the message of the video, is both longstanding and surprisingly bipartisan. So there’s no need to cajole the president and congressional leaders.

“The documentary is guilty of promoting the sins of the old media,” Charles Stith, a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania said. His point is that like mainstream media organizations, it focuses too much on what is wrong with Africa and not enough on the changes taking place in Africa that have helped make Kony a pariah.

“Ten years ago there were only 11 democratically elected leaders of African countries,” said Sthti, who now heads the African Presidential Archives & Research Center at Boston University. “Today there are 33.”

It’s this change that is “tightening the noose around Kony’s neck,” he said. And it is the good news story of Africa that continues to be largely ignored.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Israeli leader should embrace Obama, not undermine him

By DeWayne Wickham

After publicly backing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism of U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offered up this bit of doublespeak.

“It’s not just about the Jewish vote and (the) 2012 (presidential election),” The New York Times reported Graham as saying in defense of his actions. “It’s about reassuring people who want to avoid war that the United States will do what’s necessary.”

No, I think it really is about election year politics. Republicans have been trying desperately to find a foreign policy issue on which to attack President Obama, whose success in killing Osama bin Laden and a long list of other terrorist leaders has made him no easy target on this front. More than Israel’s special relationship with the U.S. , it is the influence of Jewish voters in presidential elections that has turned Graham and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also in the meeting, into sedan chair carriers for Netanyahu’s concerns.

By using Graham and McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama, as his key U.S. mouthpiece, Netanyahu has inserted himself squarely in the middle of the presidential race. By associating himself with their attacks on Obama’s foreign policy, Netanyahu becomes an interloper in U.S. election politics.

On Monday, Netanyahu met at the White House with Obama. While those talks were private, it seems what the Israeli leader wants is not simply Obama’s support in the showdown with Iran , but also his compliance. Netanyahu wants the U.S. president to do what he demands — and that’s not going to happen.

Obama has repeatedly said that he will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Last week, using the language of the tough streets he once worked as a community organizer, Obama told The Atlantic magazine that he’s not bluffing when he says he won’t allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Then, in an address Sunday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Obama offered an even stronger guarantee: There shouldn’t be any doubt that “when the chips are down, I have Israel ’s back,” he said.

Netanyahu isn’t convinced of that. So he threatens to go it alone in launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran . But that would be a war Israel probably couldn’t win without massive American military and financial aid.

Understandably, Netanyahu is jittery over the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear bomb. After all, he bears a great responsibility for safeguarding his country. But Netanyahu should neither doubt the public assurances Obama has given Israel , nor try to use the president’s political adversaries to pressure him into letting Israel dictate when the U.S. sends its servicemembers to war.

“If during this political season you hear some questions regarding my administration’s support for Israel , remember that it’s not backed up by the facts. And remember that the U.S.-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics,” Obama said in his AIPAC speech. That’s a message that should not be lost on Netanyahu.

Obama has given the Israeli leader a strong, unequivocal public commitment to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power — an action that will be taken on the president’s terms. Netanyahu makes a big mistake when he tries to get Obama to do otherwise, or uses those who are trying to unseat the president to champion his concerns.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Civil rights leaders should open new front in affirmative action fight

By DeWayne Wickham

My first reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear a challenge to the University of Texas’ admissions policy was to mount a fierce defense of the school’s effort to bandage the gaping wounds in our education system.

In Texas, 90% of all slots in the freshman class are reserved for residents who graduate from high schools in the Lone Star State. The vast majority of these positions (88% in 2008) go to students who finish in the top 10% of their high school class. The rest of the positions reserved for Texas high school graduates go to students who qualify on the basis of a second-tier criteria that permits race to be considered among many other factors.

The case the justices will consider in the fall was brought by Abigail Fisher, a Texas resident whose high school class ranking was too low to get her into the University of Texas through the Top Ten Percent Plan, and her SAT score was too low to position her to be a competitive applicant in the second tier, according to the university.

Nonetheless, the conservative-dominated high court has agreed to hear Fisher’s claim that she was denied admission into the university because of her race — a brash assertion of white privilege that may give the court’s right-wingers the opening they need to strike a death blow to affirmative action in higher education.

It makes sense for civil rights groups to counter this attack with legal briefs and arguments. But it is foolhardy for them to stake a lot on the outcome of this case. Instead, they should treat it like a holding action in a wider war, while preparing for a bigger, more winnable fight. That campaign should be waged over getting rid of all standardized tests as a requirement for college admission. It should seek to replace them with recruitment strategies that aggressively favor creation of a more diverse student body and reflect this nation’s changing demographics.

The standardized tests measure what applicants learned in high school, more than their potential for success in college. They stack the deck against blacks and Hispanics, who disproportionately attend underperforming public schools and favor white students who are more likely to attend better schools and to get coaching for the tests.

A state’s failure to fix the problems of underperforming public schools shouldn’t be allowed to keep deserving minority students from getting a college education. That’s the argument civil rights activists should be making to higher education institutions that continue to use standardized test scores as an entrance requirement.

Bates College long ago made SAT scores an optional requirement for admission. In 2005, it issued a study of the students who attended the Lewiston, Maine, school over a 20-year period and concluded there was virtually no difference in academic achievement between students who submitted SAT scores and those who didn’t. Other schools like Wake Forest and Sarah Lawrence College also have made the SAT an optional part of their admissions process. That’s a good step in the right direction.

But you can expect the fight over access to higher education to heat up as the Supreme Court moves closer to deciding Fisher’s case. It’s time now for civil rights activists to open another front in this battle, one that seeks to redefine the rules for access to higher education, which is one of the most important gateways to opportunity in this society.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Whitney Houston has finally exhaled

By DeWayne Wickham

Whitney Houston finally got to exhale. After a 27-year non-stop, roller-coaster ride to steep heights of fame and the deep canyons of heartbreak, she took one last breath — and then let go of life.

Officially, it will be said death came to the pop music icon at 3:55 p.m. on Saturday in a Beverly Hills hotel room. That's the moment of her medical demise. But Houston's life started slipping away long before then. In the coming days, much will be said about the troubles that warped her time on earth.

Accounts of Houston's musical genius will be laced with talk of the time she spent on life's dark side. You'll hear about Houston's recurring bouts with drugs, her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown and her ill-advised stint on his tragically real, reality show.

But I want to remember the Houston who brought joy into the lives of millions of people worldwide, not the one whose troubled life too often kept her from experiencing the bliss she so unselfishly gave others. I want to remember the Houston whose music I loved, the actress who drew me into a Washington, D.C., theater in 1995 to see the film Waiting to Exhale, which I feared was a black-male bashing movie.

I waded into that theater, nearly packed with women, with three buddies for what we only half-jokingly called a reconnaissance mission. I left transformed by the story that unfolded onscreen and by these words from its title song:

Everyone falls in love sometime,
Sometimes it's wrong and sometimes it's right
For every win, someone must fail
But there comes a point when, when we exhale

For nearly a decade-and-a-half, Houston made it possible for a lot of us to exhale — to find an escape from a troubled world through her music and acting. Her voice — both the soft, raspy one she spoke with and the sultry, booming one she took to the recording studio and stage — was intoxicating. Her singing was as soulful as a mouth full of collard greens and as transcending as the rendition of TheStar-Spangled Banner she sang at Super Bowl XXV, just days after the start of the Persian Gulf War.

No doubt, some people will choose to remember Houston by the tragedy of her early death. But I'll remember her as an artist who sold more than 170 million albums, singles and videos and won enough musical awards to fill a museum.

Some people will focus on her struggles with drug abuse and a bad marriage, two tragic chapters in her life. I want to remember Houston for the comeback she was making in Sparkle, the remake of a 1976 movie she just completed with American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. I want to think of what might have been had she lived to star in the Waiting to Exhale sequel, which was in the works.

Asked during a 1986 Rolling Stone interview about the acclaim she got after the release of her breakthrough album Whitney Houston, she said confidently, "It was time, time for singing to come back again, to listen to words, to feel what somebody was saying."

From then on, Houston's life was a non-stop journey that propelled her into that Beverly Hills hotel room — where she finally got her chance to exhale.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Romney's election hopes shrink with lower unemployment rate

By DeWayne Wickham

In a turn of events that threatens to lay waste to the central theme of the GOP challenge to Barack Obama’s presidency, the nation’s economy appears to be solidly on a path to recovery.

The unemployment rate in January dropped to 8.3%, the fifth consecutive month that it has declined and the lowest it has been in three years. Last month, 243,000 jobs were created. That’s significantly more than the 155,000 new jobs economists predicted, according to the Associated Press.

In the wake of this report of an improving jobs market, Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the campaign to win the GOP’s presidential nomination, tried to put a bad face on this good picture.

“This recovery has been slower than it should have been,” he said while trolling the Silver State for votes on the eve of Nevada’s Republican caucuses last weekend. “People have been suffering for longer than they should have had to suffer. Will it get better? I think it’ll get better. But this president has not helped the process. He’s hurt it.”

After months of blaming Obama for the nation’s bad economic news, Romney now gives him no credit for the turnabout that seems to be underway. Instead, the former Massachusetts governor and one-time head of a private equity firm, argues that he — not Obama — has the business acumen to speed up the recovery from the economic recession.

This is the same Romney who in November 2008 opposed giving U.S. automakers about $85 billion of bailout money to avoid their collapse and a devastating ripple effect of other business failures. “If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday,” Romney predicted in a New York Times op-ed, “you can kiss the American automobile industry goodbye.”

He was wrong. GM is again the world’s top automaker with sales of more than 9 million cars worldwide in 2011. And Chrysler, which also is back in the black, saw its U.S. sales increase 44% in January. Ford, which overtook Toyota as the nation’s second leading seller in 2010, had earnings of $20.2 billion in 2011 — its second highest earnings year ever. Even Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, credits the bailout for the auto industry’s resurrection.

Having largely made his case for replacing Obama by claiming he’d be a better steward of the nation’s economy, Romney has, at least for now, been reduced to arguing nebulously that the improving economy would be even better if he were at the nation’s helm.

Of course, a lot can change between now and November. The decline in the jobless rate could stall. The forecasted turnaround in the housing market, which is tied to the growing economic confidence of Americans, might not materialize. Or a game-changing event, such as an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, could dramatically alter the focus of the presidential campaign from domestic to foreign affairs.

Romney wants voters to think Obama is in over his head when it comes to lifting this nation’s recovery from the deep economic hole that George W. Bush, his Republican predecessor, dug. He’s betting that despite the president’s deft handling of the war on terror, which was once a greater concern than the nation’s unemployment rate, the state of the nation’s economy will determine the outcome of the November election.

For many voters, the job market is the leading indicator of economic recovery. And as the unemployment rate shrinks, so too does Romney’s chance of defeating Obama.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Arizona gov. uses old racist dodge to explain bad treatment of President Obama

By DeWayne Wickham

I really wanted to ignore the dust up over President Obama’s recent ugly encounter with Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. As troubling as it was to see the picture of her wagging her finger in his face, the shock value of such a showing of disrespect towards the president has by now worn off on me.

Brewer was just the most recent in a growing list of right-wingers to publicly display their contempt for him. My outrage over how she got up in Obama’s face like an irate mother lecturing an overgrown son also was tempered by the president’s attempt to downplay the incident, which centered on how he was portrayed in Brewer’s recent book.

“This is not a big deal,” Obama told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer about the incident that occurred on the tarmac of Phoenix’s airport moments after he stepped off of Air Force One a few days ago. “I think this is a classic example of things getting blown out of proportion.”

Brewer’s actions would have been disrespectful to any president, but the fact that Obama is our first black president raises questions of her real motives. That’s because the Arizona governor seemed to be channeling Willa Jean Boswell when she said she “felt a little bit threatened” by the president during her terse exchange with him, which occurred in front of two local mayors, Secret Service agents, a knot of journalists and a small group of people who stood in a nearby receiving line.

Threatened, really? I don’t think so.

Back in 1951, Boswell, a 17-year-old white girl, had Matt Ingram thrown in jail for something akin to what Brewer claims the president did. Boswell complained the 44-year-old black farmer looked at her in a frightening way. Charged with rape by leer, Ingram was found guilty by an all-white jury that convicted him of looking at Boswell in a way that constituted an assault — even though he never said a word or came within 75 feet of her.

Just as Ingram was jailed for “reckless eyeballing,” Brewer wants us to believe that in her encounter with the president — in which she appeared to do most of the talking — he somehow managed to threaten her. Maybe she was intimidated by his calm demeanor as he voiced his objection to what she wrote in her book about a White House meeting she had with the president last year.

Or maybe she was alarmed by his wry smile as she leaned into him and put her finger in his face. It could be she was frightened by Obama’s decision to walk away from her in mid-sentence as she was giving the president his comeuppance in front of a bank of news photographers?

But I suspect the feisty governor didn’t feel a pang of fear until the picture of her tongue-wagging, finger-shaking assault on the president of the United States was flashed around the world and generated a lot of negative reactions.

What she did on that airport tarmac was by any reasonable standard a gross act of disrespect to the president. But what she said in defense of her bad behavior was even worse. It was a less than subtle appeal to the well-worn racial stereotype of a black man who can assault a white woman with little more than a glance.

And for that Brewer deserves to be called out.

Monday, January 23, 2012

"Red Tails" set in an America Gingrich wants to bring back

By DeWayne Wickham

ORLANDO — By the time Newt Gingrich claimed victory in the South Carolina primary, I was in a crowded theater watching the movie about a kind of untold “American exceptionalism” that the Republican candidate seems to dismiss, if not disdain.

The newly released Red Tails tells the story of the black pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, who before facing Hitler’s Luftwaffe had to overcome their countrymen’s implacable and groundless belief that they lacked the intelligence and courage to be fighter pilots during World War II. Overcoming an obstacle no white trainee faced, the pilots of the 332nd dealt the Luftwaffe a blow that once again underscored the vital contributions of blacks to America ’s greatness.

This is not what Gingrich “the historian” seems to have in mind when he speaks of “returning to the America we love.” If you listen to the former Georgia congressman’s campaign rhetoric, he makes subtle but unmistakable references to race, whether labeling the nation’s first black president a “food-stamp president” or insinuating that African Americans don’t have a work ethic. His solution? Let urban school children be in-house janitors. But of course.

Ahhh, the good ol’ days, when whites had job security and white picket fences and couldn’t be bossed around by uppity blacks, and African-Americans had to suffer gross indignities in order to put their lives on the line to defend their country. Gingrich doesn’t say this, but he doesn’t have to. A not-too-distant history, as seen in Red Tails, takes us back to that time. We don’t need Gingrich’s help.

The film documents the Tuskegee Airmen, Army aviators who were part of a U.S. government experiment to train black combat pilots in the 1940s. They were initially forced to fly second-hand planes and then derided by white superiors who thought blacks were unfit for duty. Eventually the airmen were allowed to fly better fighters and given critical missions.

Red Tails is a fictional account of this unit that gives moviegoers a basic lesson in the courage and heroism of these young black pilots. Heroically, several Tuskegee Airmen who stayed in the military after the war rose to the rank of general, including Daniel “Chappie” James, who became this nation’s first black four-star general — the kind of “exceptionalism” few of any race who serve in the U.S. military ever achieve.

In his effort to replace Obama as president, Gingrich pledges to his right-wing backers that, if elected, he will “rebuild the America we love.” He paints Obama as an enemy of “the classical America ” from which he draws his understanding of what it is to be an American. Think Leave It To Beaver.

As movies go, Red Tails, which Obama recently viewed at the White House along with some of the film’s cast, is an enthralling look at a history many Americans would rather forget. But we can’t and shouldn’t. The thing that is truly exceptional about America is not its democratic idealism, but the willingness of those who have been denied its promise to still believe in the vision of the “more perfect union” enshrined in the Constitution’s preamble, if not in the actual text.

What is truly exceptional about this country is that just two generations after many questioned the ability of blacks to come to the nation’s defense, Americans elected a black man to lead them.

That’s a history lesson Gingrich seems determined to undo at any cost.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Barbour deserves praise, not silence for pardons that restored voting rights

By DeWayne Wickham

When former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour got around to offering an explanation for the pardons and clemencies he granted 215 convicted felons shortly before leaving office this month, you'd think there might have been a few loud voices of support.

But despite the claim that his actions were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to let the felons — 27 of whom were convicted of manslaughter or murder — regain their right to vote, not a discernible peep has been heard from proponents of returning that most precious of American rights to ex-convicts.

"The pardons were intended to allow them to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses as well as hunt and vote," said Barbour, a once-idolized conservative who once served as Republican National Committee chairman

Mississippi is one of 13 states where convicted felons do not automatically regain the right to vote after being released from incarceration, probation or parole. Undoing this obstacle to voting is a cause célèbre for many left-wing activists. Last month, two civil rights groups — the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc. —jointly released a report on barriers to voting. Denying felons the right to vote "is one of the most significant barriers to political participation in this country," the report concluded.

Of the 5.3 million American felons who have lost the right to vote, nearly 2 million are black, the report states. Though Barbour's pardons and clemencies won't put a dent in that number, they could have an impact of a different sort. They are a break in the ideological picket lines between left-wing opponents of voter disenfranchisement and right-wing advocates of permanently stripping ex-convicts of the right to vote.

By resorting to an extraordinary use of executive power to return the right to vote to some of Mississippi's citizens, Barbour seems to agree with the NAACP groups that in our democracy, voting is an immutable right. Whether that was his intended message or not, voting rights proponents should have scrambled to his side. Instead, they have remained silent.

That's a pity.

In place of their voices, we now hear Jim Hood, Mississippi's Democratic attorney general, who is challenging the constitutionality of Barbour's action. Piling on, Democratic state lawmakers are pushing legislation that would make it harder for a governor to grant pardons and clemencies.

There may be reason to object to the process by which Barbour exercised his clemency and pardoning authority, but voting rights advocates should separate that from his intent. They shouldn't abandon a Southern conservative who sides with them on this issue because they agree with him on little else.

They shouldn't have to be reminded that while blacks are 37% of Mississippi's population, they're 66% of its prison inmates. So anything that's done to make it harder for ex-convicts to regain their voting rights will have a disproportionately negative impact on the political fortunes of Mississippi blacks.

Restoring the voting rights of the 2 million blacks nationwide who have a felony conviction is a fight that must be waged state by state. Common sense, rather than ideology, should be the driving force in this effort.

Unfortunately, the battle over Barbour's action is just the latest proof that in America today, partisan hang-ups too often keep people who ought to know better from doing the right thing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ron Paul exposes GOP tolerance for unequal justice

By DeWayne Wickham

Ron Paul must have known the question was coming. For weeks, he had been dogged by charges that newsletters published in his name in the 1980s and 1990s contained racist content.

So he probably wasn't surprised when ABC News' George Stephanopoulos asked him during a televised debate three days before the New Hampshire primary how that could have happened without his knowledge. But no one on the stage with the Texas congressman — not the other contenders for the Republican Party's presidential nomination who bristle with contempt for their libertarian colleague or the panel of journalists wielding the questions — was ready for Paul's answer.

Dwelling on something he didn't write but has assumed responsibility for and apologized, Paul said, diverts attention away from the "true racism" in this nation's judicial system that disproportionately imprisons blacks for their involvement in drug crimes.

And when Paul finished what the Associated Press later called "a positively leftist rant," there were no follow-up questions, no clamoring from the other candidates to have their say on the issue. There was just a moment of uneasy silence — and then a commercial break. When the debate resumed, there was no return to Paul's charge of unequal justice, an indifference that is a haunting metaphor for the nation's failure to address an issue that is even worse than Paul suggests.

In 2010, 69 percent of all people arrested in this country for committing crimes were white. Blacks were just 28 percent, according to the FBI. These percentages have remained steady every year of the past decade. During this same period, roughly twice as many whites as blacks were arrested each year for drug crimes, according to the FBI annual Crime in the United States report.

Despite this, nearly half of all persons incarcerated throughout the first decade of this century were black. More than a liberal rant, that's the ugly reality of a criminal justice system that, as Paul correctly noted, prosecutes and imprisons blacks in disproportionate numbers.

That none of the other Republicans — who are champing at the bit for the right to challenge President Obama's re-election — would align themselves with Paul on this issue doesn't surprise me. The GOP's strategy for winning back the White House is devoid of any serious appeal to black voters and lacks any real concern about the lingering vestiges of racism inflicted upon blacks, who are overwhelmingly Democrats.

Forget all their pious talk about being Americans first. Paul's unanswered "rant" exposed them all —Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry— as crass partisans who won't risk upending the conventional wisdom about crime and punishment in this country when their political butts are on the line. They don't want to derail their campaigns by giving any credence to an issue that many right-wing voters they are courting would likely discount.

“If we truly want to be concerned about racism, you ought to look at a few of those issues and look at the drug laws, which are being so unfairly enforced,” Paul said as the network cut to commercials, and all the presidential wannabes on stage with him undoubtedly heaved a big sigh of relief.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Homegrown cult leader is a terrorist we should fear

By DeWayne Wickham

The terrorist who worries me most in this New Year is not one of this nation's avowed enemies who is being stalked by American forces abroad. It is Warren Jeffs, the homegrown cult leader and imprisoned pedophile.

From his Texas prison cell, Jeffs — who is serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl and a consecutive 20-year sentence for raping a 15-year-old girl — is demanding even sheep-like behavior from members of his 10,000-member fundamentalist church.

And he is, apparently, getting it.

Jeffs has banned his followers from having sex until he is released, Joni Holm, who has relatives in the cult, told the Salt Lake City Deseret News. That’s not likely to happen anytime soon since Jeffs, 56, must serve at least 45 years before he can be paroled. Still, Jeffs has ordered his followers to reaffirm their faith (and loyalty to him) by handing over control of most of their worldly possessions to his lieutenants.
Children must give up their toys, girls under 18 aren’t allowed to work or have a cellphone, and access to media outlets and the Internet is banned, the Deseret News also reported.

Many of Jeffs’ followers were told to give his cult $5,000 by New Year’s Eve or face expulsion from his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is a breakaway faction of the Mormon Church. Jeffs’ edicts would be laughable — especially his ban on sex in a cult where men are allowed to take multiple wives — if it were not the product of a twisted mind that is capable of much worse.

Jeffs is starting to behave a lot like Jim Jones, the religious cult leader who coaxed more than 900 of his followers to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide and sedatives in 1978. The mass suicide came shortly after the ambush killing of Rep. Leo Ryan, D- Calif., who went to Jonestown, the commune Jones created in Guyana, to help some disenchanted followers leave.

The prospect of losing control of his flock while spending the rest of his life behind bars appears to have Jeffs ratcheting up his demands for sacrifices from his followers, particularly given reports of a growing exodus.

Jeffs claims to be God’s prophet. I don’t know if such talk is the hustle of a con man, or the ranting of a religious zealot. But it’s a good bet that if God is saying anything to him it is: “Cut it out.”

Like all cult leaders, Jeffs demands a blind allegiance to him that is the measure of his followers’ religious faith. And when his dominance of those who succumb to his questionable teachings is imperiled, he tries to tighten his control of them. That’s what Jones did when he moved the members of his Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Guyana.

And it is what Jeffs, who allegedly has forced young girls into illegal sexual liaisons with older men, appears to be doing now from his prison cell as he commands his followers to greater acts of acquiescence.

What worries me is that if prison officials don’t find a way to stop him, Jeffs — who has predicted the end of the world — could order his followers into some kind of Jonestown-like act of self-destruction.