Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hate Crimes and Justice in the Black Community

Note: Today’s blog is written by a special quest. Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She received her B.A. in English from Wake Forest University, her Ph.D. in political science from Duke University and an honorary doctorate from Meadville Lombard Theological School. She is also a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

She is author Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, (Princeton 2004). I’m featured in the section that examines the Black church role in molding political ideologies. The work was awarded the 2005 W.E.B. DuBois book award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. It is also the winner of the 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. Her academic research has been published in scholarly journals and edited volumes and her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. She is at work on a new book: For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn't Enough. It is an examination of the connections between shame, sadness, and strength in African American women's politics.

Black Christians understand justice. Rooted in a history of struggle against oppression the black church has historically led the nation in a moral quest for human dignity and freedom. Unfortunately, some outspoken African-American clergy have rejected the moral vision of black Christianity by fueling anti-gay prejudice in their opposition to the Matthew Shepard Act. These African-American preachers are more interested in the media spotlight than in honoring the black Christian tradition of justice.

Poised for a vote in the Senate, the Matthew Shepard Act extends federal hate crime protections to citizens who are violently victimized because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. It provides local law enforcement with the resources to thoroughly investigate heinous, bias-fueled crimes. Intending to shift public opinion against this bill, a few conservative African-American pastors are working overtime--through protests and provocative advertisements--to spread the false message that this legislation will criminalize them for condemning gay people.

It is time for black Christians to speak out against this distorted and ugly campaign against the Matthew Shepard Act. The proposed federal statute does not punish nor prohibit free expression of one’s religious beliefs. The hate crimes bill includes language protecting individuals from race-based and religion-based crimes as well. The Act protects first Amendment rights for everyone while ensuring that the authorities fully investigate all violent crimes intended to degrade and oppress their victims. The bill protects our children, because black youth are proportionately targeted and victimized in anti-gay hate crimes.

Homophobic black clergy do not speak for the entire black Christian community. Though they receive dramatically less media attention than Bishop Harry Jackson, many African-American religious leaders are encouraging acceptance and inclusion in their congregations and communities. African-American Christians have long resisted readings of the Bible that exclude and oppress. Enslaved blacks were admonished to “obey their masters” but they believed the story of Moses leading his people from bondage. Jim Crow religion told black people to be silent about oppression because the” meek shall inherit the earth," but Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. called for “justice to run down like waters and righteousness as a mighty and ever-flowing stream.” Lamentably, as the Matthew Shepard Act debate has illustrated, the Black religious voices urging inclusion and respect rarely receive as much media notice as those preaching division and bigotry.

To be sure, there is still much work to be done before homophobia ceases to cause pain and division. African-American gay men and lesbians continue to find themselves marginalized in some churches and in the mainstream black media. On the news, a handful of Black athletes and performers received enormous media attention after making hateful anti-gay statements this year. While homophobia remains a serious and pernicious problem across this nation, it's important for us to recognize that there are far more people within the black religious community who support equality and dignity for gay people than the media has given credit. The public--especially those young people who are now recognizing their sexual orientation and gender identity--should know that those who preach bigotry in their unfounded assault on the Matthew Shepard Act do not define the level of open-mindedness and acceptance in the African-American religious community.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from a letter from a Birmingham jail to express his grave disappointment in his fellow clergy because they failed to support eh struggle for equal rights and human dignity. Let us now register our equal disappointment with the intolerance or homophobic clergy in our community. When asked why he’d come to Birmingham, King wrote “I am here because injustice is here.” When asked why we support the Matthew Shepard Act black Christians can respond the same.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell will participate in a symposium entitled: "Sites of Struggle: Centering African-American Women in Politics and Culture" on Monday, October 8 from 5-7 pm in the Hitchcock Room of UNC's Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Katrina Project: A Spirit that Will Not Be Washed Away

Whatever happened to all that talent down in New Orleans? I will never forget the time spent in the Crescent city to unwind and reflect. Cajun country has a way of reminding me of the power of creativity.

The music, the food, the architecture, the ocean- combined to soothe my aching soul in a way unlike any other place. When the levies broke and the water rose flooding years of evolving culture, the mood of the nation sunk with the constant images of countless broken people.

Their tears pierced a part of each of us. Many wanted to do more to aid those who miraculously escaped the venom of Katrina. They could not stay there. After days of abandonment, they finally made the voyage to safe haven. All of us were impacted by the uprooting of Cajun land.

What happened to the voices of these people? The sound of the trumpet and the beat of many drums have been transported to other places. With the uprooting of this unique culture comes the emergence of a new voice. A voice molded in the hub of pain. New songs unfold. New dances leap across the stage to express the bitterness related to being forced to find a new home.

What happened to all talent? Uprooted: The Katrina Project is a collaboration of Gulf Coast musicians, dancers and poets, relocated by Hurricane Katrina, who share their profound stories of enduring after the waters settled down.

The spirit of New Orleans can not be washed away, is the message of the Katrina Project. This work is at the forefront of a relief effort focused on energizing and rebuilding communities. The event takes center stage at The Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC on Friday, September 28 and again on Saturday, September 29. Show time for both days is 8:00 p.m.

In connection with the show, The Carolina Theatre will present community outreach events with the artist from the show on Friday, September 28 at 12:30 p.m. at the Durham Center for Senior Life and 4:30 p.m. at the Durham School of the Arts.

The show and the community events should provide much needed insight into the twinge that comes with witnessing the shifting of a significant culture. The uprooting of New Orleans has impact beyond the placement of people to new communities. It is a city within a nation with a culture of its own. The food of the city is its own. The music and dance have been formed over years of experiences. The language is an inimitable blend of French influence and localized vernacular.

We, those who loved to visit, came because the city offered a break from normalcy. It was our escape away from a community void of a rare identity. Much of what we know and celebrate is borrowed from those who made their way to our cities.

They have joined us in our bland communities. They bring with them that special edge to life. Their uprooting is our gift, for they bring their culture to us. Oh, what a gift to us! With it comes a challenge-never let go of the power of culture. It is what makes each of us special. The assimilation of cultures can mean the death of a unique expression.

The lesson is simple. We must rebuild New Orleans. There are no other cities like it in America. Shame on us if we’re forced to say to our children’s children, there once was a place called New Orleans. Those were the good ole days. Then came a flood and it has never been the same since.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Public Transportation Blues

The next time you think about getting down with the homies by riding the city bus, take a few pills and rest until you get over that notion.

In my quest to be green conscious, I have decided to exert more energy into walking and riding public transportation versus jumping into the old SUV to get from place to place. Yes, getting rid of the SUV and purchasing a hybrid is on my list of things to do.

The problem with public transportation in Durham, North Carolina is the amount of time it takes to get from place to place. The system isn’t designed for those who have busy lives. If you want to get from point A to point B you must, and again I say you must, give yourself an hour or so to make the trip.

One can come to expect all of that. What took me by surprise during my journey from downtown Durham to near the old South Square area and back was the total lack of understanding coming from the people who drive and manage the buses.

My story began as expected. I was dropped off at the corner of University Drive and Shannon Road. My destination was close to a mile away on the other side of 15-501. Maybe there was a bus that could have gotten me closer, but hey, I don’t do this everyday. Somebody help a brother out.

I gladly made my way in the ninety degree heat. No problem, I’m in good physical condition and walking is good for you. I took care of my business and made my way back near the corner of Shannon Road and University Drive to catch the bus headed back (one hour later) to the downtown terminal. Since I live downtown, everything seemed easy. I sat waiting and thinking, hey, I can do this.

The bus was on schedule. I made my way to the middle of the bus (I refuse to sit in the back. Rosa Parks fought too hard for me to go back there), closed my eyes and imagined the lives of the other people on the bus.

The bus picked up a woman with child. Things were fine until she screams, “You not going to go to….”

“It’s not on my schedule,” the driver responds.

“Yes it is! You’re supposed to go there. This is the last bus to go there today,” the angry but confident passenger pleaded.

The dispute goes back and forth until the passenger calls the DATA office. I was amused that she had the number memorized. “He wants to talk to you,” she shouts after a brief conversation.

The driver pulled to the side of the road. It was clear from the tone of the conversation that the old adage applied in this case-the customer is always right. She was, so the driver made the detour to take the passenger to the requested place.

The moans on the bus began. “What about us!” a man filling out a crossword puzzle with a pen shouted. I was impressed that he had the confidence to use a pen versus pencil.

“This is Bull _ _ _ _,” another man complained. It didn’t matter. We were headed back. No recourse for those on the bus. No I’m sorry coming from the bus driver who made the mistake.

“I’m gonna miss the 6:30 bus and be late for work,” the man with the crossword puzzle yelled. “I’m getting sick of this.”

Sick of what I wondered. The reporter in me took over. “Is it like this all the time,” I asked.

“Buses break down, sometimes there’s no air or heat,” the puzzle master responded. “We have no option. What else can we do?”

We made our way toward the downtown connection. As we approached we saw the 6:30 p.m. buses take passengers to their destination. “Damn, we missed the bus,” the collective moan of frustration echoed throughout the bus.

As I made my way off the bus to make the short walk to my place, I expected, no, I hoped to find someone waiting to apologize for the mistake. Someone to offer a free ride the next time we decided to use the bus. Someone to say something, anything for the mistake that caused some to be late for work.

What’s the lesson in all of this? There are no apologies and explanations for those who ride the bus. They’re treated like none of it matters.

The next day I drove my SUV.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Black Power-Again!

Thursday, September 20 is black Thursday. By now, thousands of people from across the nation have boarded buses headed to a little bitty town in Louisiana-Jena.

Jena is on the national radar screen due to a series of incidents reminiscent of great granddaddy’s ole south. From a noose hanging from what is called “The White Tree” (due to the unwritten rule forbidding colored folks from sitting underneath it), the District Attorney giving a firm warning of what happens when “you people” refuse to do what we say -"I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen," a black student being assaulted by a white adult as he entered a predominately white party. After being struck in the face, the young black student was assaulted by white students brandishing beer bottles and was punched and kicked before adults broke up the fight. Are you tired yet?

Things came to a boil when a white student, Justin Barker (later arrested for having a rifle with 13 bullets in his trunk on school property) was attacked by a group of black students. Less than an hour later six black students were arrested and charged with aggravated battery. Not good enough. Due to complaints coming from disgruntled teachers, the District Attorney upped the charges on the six boys to attempted second-degree murder.

Sadly, this story has lacked national press attention. In previous blogs, I compared this travesty of justice to the Duke Lacrosse Rape case, where the press stayed parked in front of the Durham Court house until all the dust in the city made its way to Nebraska. This case proves that the face of those charged makes a difference when it comes to how aggressive editors pursue the story.

In another blog, I chastised Barack Obama for taking too long to get down to Jena to put pressure on the power players to rethink the case. My attack of Obama was based on the ease in which he put his fresh nose into the Duke Lacrosse Rape case. It didn’t take long after being sworn in as Senator for him to write a letter to the state Attorney General about the happenings with that case.

The bottom line is this. On Thursday, September 20, there is no story more important than this one. This is bigger than the case against six boys being railroaded to prison while white boys are overlooked for their role in the conflict. This is about two dissimilar systems of justice in American. There’s the system for the privileged, and there’s the one where JUST US can be found.

Thursday, September 20 is a day of national protest. For those who can’t get on the bus, it’s time to go old school. Wear all black and raise that black power sign. The protest isn’t limited to black people. Anyone who hates what’s taking place in Jena should stand in solidarity by wearing black.

Enough is enough. Let’s go down there and show them who’s their daddy!


Youth, Students, Parents, Labor & Community Activists and allJustice-minded Neighbors who cannot go to Jena, Louisiana to showsupport for the Jena 6 are invited to come out to a:Solidarity RallyThursday; September 20, 20076:00pm at theFruit of Labor World Cultural Center4200 Lake Ridge Drive; Raleigh, NC

Monday, September 17, 2007

Lock Him Up!

I can hear the echo of a collective cheer. “We told you he was a crook,” Americans from coast to coast are screaming in celebration of the arrest of the countries most notorious getaway artist-O.J. Simpson.

Who can forget the verdict that had African Americans rejoicing and others shaking their heads? This one was a draw in that the civil case found him liable for the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in the amount of $33.5 million.

‘The Juice” was arrested on Sunday and charged with six felony counts in connection with a reported hotel-room robbery. Two sport memorabilia dealers told police that Simpson and five other men burst into their room at the Palace Station Hotel and Casino. Several of the men were flaunting guns and seized various mementos, including several autographed by Simpson.

Simpson claims that he was conducting a “sting operation” to retrieve property that had been taken from him years earlier by a former sports agent. “I’m O.J. Simpson. How am I going to think that I’m going to rob somebody and get away with it,” he told the L.A. Times in a story published on Sunday. “You’ve got to understand, this ain’t somebody going to steal somebody’s drugs or something like that. This is somebody going to get his private [belongs] back. That’s it. That’s not robbery.”

His arrest comes on the heals of the release of his controversial book “If I Did It” which breaks Orenthal James Simpson’s self-imposed silence and tells, in his own words, the events leading up to and the aftermath of the murders. Now, more than ever, the public is convinced he belongs behind iron bars.

Maybe Orenthal doesn’t understand that all of those laws apply to him. Maybe, in a sick way, he believes he’s provided a do not go to jail card for killing people and robbing folks at gun point. Maybe he thinks that being insensitive enough to write a book about the deaths of his former wife will have no emotional impact on his children. It’s not funny to joke about how you would have done it if you would have done it-heee heee. I’m only kidding people, come on laugh with me, I didn’t do it, I’m only speculating on how I would have done it. Is that what he wants us to believe?

“The Juice” has lost the juice in my eyes and has been demoted to Kool Aide status for that case of poor judgment. My vote says put him in jail. Lock him up for writing the book. Lock him up for thinking his brand of vigilantly justice is a legitimate defense. Maybe that’s been his problem all along. He never grew up. He’s operating with the assumption that you go get your toys when the bad guys take them away. Since that Goldman dude took his toy-his wife-in his mind he can kill. Since his memorabilia was taken he can get some Jesse and Frank James wanna be’s to go and fetch his goods.

They may have been in Vegas, but this isn’t the ole West we see in those Clint Eastwood movies. Hmm, maybe his days as an actor have messed with his ability to distinguish truth from fiction. Whatever the case, I can hear the roars coming from over yonder. We got his ass this time! Anyone seen a white bronco headed down the highway?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Changing the rules is part of the game

I suppose the rules don’t matter when you’re trying to cover a mess that you created. Gov. Mike Easley has appointed David Saacks District Attorney in Durham, NC. The move seems to be a stroke of genius. Saacks lives in Wake County, meaning he can’t run for the office when it comes time for voters to decide on who will hold the office. There’s one major hurdle. A new law signed by Gov. Easley on August 19 states, “a person appointed to fill a vacancy in an elective office must be eligible to vote for that office if an election was held on the date of appointment.”

The law makes it clear that Saacks can’t serve; however, the Governor is arguing that he has the authority to over rule the very law he signed. This most recent addition to the Duke Lacrosse debacle proves again that regulations are made to be broken when those with power opt to change their mind.

On paper, the selection of Saacks seems to be the best thing for Durham. That is if you live outside of Durham, and care less about maintaining credibility of the merits of the office. The Governor, in selecting Saacks and snubbing the law he signed, is making a critical statement regarding the worth of estimable prosecutors who have residence in Durham County.

The maneuver appears as a decision intended to assure this appointee doesn’t run for the office. That’s the mistake Gov. Easley made in choosing Mike Nifong to replace Jim Hardin when he was appointed to serve as Superior Court Judge. We’re told the unwritten agreement was that Nifong wouldn’t run for the office. It’s hard to believe that Nifong is stupid enough to renege on a deal with the Governor.

If appointing a person who refuses to run for the office is priority number one, and doing so is important enough to overlook the laws that you deem important, than the voters of Durham have some important questions that need to be answered.

For one, why is it so important to leave it up to the voters to decide on who should serve as District Attorney. Shouldn’t the Governor help identify a person who can serve not only on an interim basis, but has the credentials to hold the office for the long haul? What’s wrong with exerting strong leadership and helping Mr. and Ms. Average Joe and Jane Citizen think through who is out their worthy of holding the office?

By selecting an outsider, Easley gets off the hot seat by cleaning his hands of a mess he helped to create by first, appointing Hardin to a judgeship and then making a deal, supposedly, with Mike Nifong. He has paved the way for Freda Black to walk into the office by failing to identify one of the strong candidates within the district attorney’s office.

I was hoping voters would get a chance to see that person serve on a trail basis. Give us the opportunity to get to know the person the Governor believes has the leadership qualities needed to function in the office. I was hoping Tracy Kline would get her chance to shine. Durham deserves more than a band-aid to cover the damage caused by a series of bad decisions coming from Gov. Mike Easley.

We want a person who lives in Durham to serve as district attorney. Why should we embrace a person to serve the people of Durham who isn’t committed enough live in the county that pays his bills? Saacks residency in Wake County speaks to his thoughts regarding Durham. He doesn’t want his children going to school there. He doesn’t feel good about the quality of life in Durham, so he opts to live in Cary, NC instead.

From all accounts he’s a great guy. He has a sound reputation as a prosecutor. All of that may be true, but if he wants to lead the people of Durham, he needs to live in Durham. Voters need to see an investment in the community where you work. He needs to show a high level of familiarity to the community that enables him to serve. If the county believes in you enough to hire you, then you should believe in that same county enough to find a home there.

Gov. Mike Easley has wiped his hands clean of the problems within the district attorney office. The voters of Durham should scrutinize this appointment for the underlying assumptions made. One, there’s no one in Durham good enough to serve. Two, when it comes to Durham, NC. residency rules don’t apply because no one, some think, in their right mind would live there. And, three, laws are signed with the understanding they can be changed at any time-especially when it comes to the folks over in Durham, NC.

We deserve much more than that!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Not a penny!

Oh, no they didn’t! I’ve been patient in watching the unraveling of the Duke Lacrosse rape fiasco, but now those boys and their parents have forced me to roll up my shelves and take them to the woodshed.

It wasn’t enough that Roy Cooper, the States Attorney General, decided to drop all charges against Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, now they have the audacity to sue the city of Durham, North Carolina for a whopping $30 million. No, it wasn’t enough to have Mike Nifong disbarred and thrown in jail for 24 hours. It wasn’t enough to settle things with Duke University for their role in jumping too soon to dismiss them from school. Now, they want to force the 210,000 residents of Durham to pay an estimated $142 each for the police department’s role in the mess.

If I had my say in all of this, and I don’t, I wouldn’t give them a penny. Those boys and their parents have done a great job of convincing people of their innocence. They have become the national poster boys for the pain caused from prosecutorial misconduct. They want you to think they deserve some compensation for being the targets of the national media and the symbols of white arrogance. I’m not buying it.

As much as I’m willing to admit an injustice in this case, I will not fork up a dime to pay them for Mike Nifong’s mistake. I will concede no one in that house raped or kidnapped that woman, but a number of crimes were committed. Those boys aren’t innocent. They are innocent of the charges they faced, but these boys are not the victims of a ploy to destroy them. What happened to them is a consequence of their placing themselves within an environment where bad things happened.

Something happened in that house. Black women were called bad names. Someone made a comment about a broom stick. Someone thanked one of the girl’s grandparents for picking the cotton that made their shirt. Boys under the age of 21 were drinking, and they had called and employed the services of two exotic dancers.

Have we forgotten this wasn’t the first encounter members of the Duke Lacrosse team had with the Durham police department? The former coach of the team has written a book critical of officials at Duke for kicking him out based on an assumption of guilt. Please, please help me understand his position. From what I remember he was dismissed not because of what may have happened that night, but rather because of a series of altercations that had gone unchecked.

Have we forgotten that Duke University purchased homes in the Trinity Park community shortly before the fetus hit the revolving apparatus; due to complaints coming from the residents in the Trinity Park community? Duke decided to take matters into their own hands by acquiring property to give them greater control over what happened.

I have an issue with the language of innocence applied in this case. Even more critical is the application of recompense when the victims possess the resources needed to fight the system. How much did Daryl Hunt get paid after spending time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit? Why is it that the District Attorney in that case has maintained his license to practice law and now holds a position as an assistant in the Attorney General’s office? I’m steaming due to the way in which we, the citizens of Durham, are forced to pay for the mistakes made by public officials when those accused are rich, powerful and pissed off because someone had the nerve to come against them.

As much as I hurt over what they went through, I have no patience when it comes to their intent to sue us for the wrong they’ve endured. I would be more compassionate if they were utterly innocent. They’re not. They violated the rules of Duke University and the city of Durham, and now want us to pay.

I don’t think so!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Black Skin, White Mask

My uncle Lucius took me to task on my last blog post. To place that into proper context, Lucius Warrick was and is to me one of my models of black manhood. He inspired me, without knowing it, to get all those degrees that hang on my wall. Yes, it’s his fault that I’m strapped with a huge student loan debt for attending school at the University of Missouri, Duke University and Princeton Theological Seminary. He convinced me that the key to success was a good education.

Uncle Lucius is from the old school. Back in the day people believed in the notions of both Booker T. Washington and W.E. B DuBois. For some the secret to success is found in pulling up their boot straps. For the fortunate talent tenth, the road to liberation is found in the halls of the academy. It’s a message lost in the new wave of youthful thinkers more enamored with fast cash than hard work.

My uncle maintains that lashing out at Obama may be a bad move. In his words,” I am not sure that Senator Obama should be targeted as the “scape-goat” for a lack of action,” he wrote in an email. “Have you or others in your group contacted Senator Obama to ensure he is aware of the correct facts and details concerning the case?”

His concern gets at the root of the tension facing black candidates for high office. The political game requires a high level of positioning intended to convince those less likely to vote for a person due to their race; that race will not hinder their ability to see things through a white lens.
Put another way, Obama has to be careful not to associate himself with issues that remind voters of previous black Presidential hopefuls. The critical question facing Obama is what makes him different than Jesse and Al. Is he another example of a black dude with a pro black agenda? Or does he have the stuff necessary to stray away from every black concern disrupting the nation?

My chastisement of Obama was more a criticism of the process that goes into being elected than in the person running for the office. My gut tells me Obama has read those accounts of the Jena 6 in the Chicago Tribune. The Trib is his home town paper, and the folks up in Chi town are heading down to Jena, LA to protest the recent conviction of Mychal Bell.

I’m politically savvy enough to understand why it was advantageous for Obama to speak out on the Duke Lacrosse rape case while remaining silent on Jena 6. He has to weigh the pros and cons of how doing so would impact his image. It’s an example of how he could have served us better by staying put as a Senator instead of jumping into the Presidential shuffle.

My uncle’s words speak to another issue. Black folks shouldn’t talk bad about black folks. Instead of attacking Obama, I should find a way to fix things using a different method. In other words, don’t blame Obama, find a way without having to get him involved.

There’s wisdom to my uncle’s words. One shouldn’t hinder the journey toward the prize by raising issues that distract voters. I get the argument. With that being said, there is a more critical issue related to this matter. How much does one have to give up for the sake of winning? How often should black commentators close their eyes when those we want to support fail to respond to our needs?

There’s another way of looking at this. In Obama’s quest to prove to white Americans that he’s not to black to be their President, has he proven to black Americans that he’s not black enough to be their President? Does any of that matter? Is it possible to lead the country as a black President without taking notice of how race continues to strap the nation?

It all reminds me of Frantz Fanon’s book “Black Skin, White Mask”. As much as we would like to think that race doesn’t matter, Obama will face decisions that forces him to contend with the black skin covered by the white mask.