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.