OBAMA AT THE NATIONAL PRAYER BREAKFAST

All the negative hoopla about President Barack Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, February 5, 2015, should stop. First of all, it was a brief reference to the Crusades and the Inquisition, to which Obama alluded in demonstrating that even Christians have engaged in immoral violence. I do not believe that Obama really offended anyone, except those who do not understand their own humanity. Obama cautioned humility when referring to one’s faith, for as long as we are all on this side of the Jordan River, so to speak, we make many mistakes and commit many atrocities. We all need to do better—even Christians!

It is very peculiar that very few are making comments about Obama’s references to slavery and Jim Crow. Or is it? Of course not! Slavery and Jim Crow are too close to home—for the pernicious practices of those two historical facts were committed primarily by people who confessed and professed Christianity. Institutional discrimination that still continues to this day is perpetrated fundamentally by Christians. It is as if most of the commentators slamming Obama have no comprehension of lynching and treating human beings inhumanely in this country. Just because we now have the Internet and social media galore does not mean that the hidden killings of countless individuals of indigenous, African, and Latin descent is not as egregious as the horrific beheadings and burning of people by Isis.

I ask that you do an Internet search and discover the whole speech by Obama at the prayer breakfast. You will find that Obama received numerous applause throughout his remarks. In actual fact, his address was quite poignant, piquant, and moving, and I would suggest that everyone take a look at it. I do not necessarily like a head of state waxing religious or sharing one’s personal faith in public settings, so I did feel a bit awkward when I first perused his remarks. However, in light of all the criticisms levied against Obama, I want to lift up his statement as an example of what adherents to Christianity should consider and should do.

It is so easy to grab an excerpt of a person’s speech and to parade it around as if that is all the person said. Inevitably, doing so results in distortion or corruption of the original full comments—and that is, indeed, what has happened with Obama’s talk at the prayer breakfast. Whether the juxtaposition of Muslim extremists with Christian perpetrators of evil seems a bit untimely or ill-advised or awkward in some way, let us not forget that we can find people of murderous malevolence in all religions and in all humanity regardless of their philosophies or worldviews. Such is the nature of human affairs—but isn’t it great that such evil is not the practice of the majority of us?

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A KING’S VILLANELLE

I think with King most folks get the rhyme wrong:
He’s left so many signs that tell his mind.
What joy it is to sing his simple song!

His care for those who ached all the day long
Engrossed him humane solutions to find.
I think with King most folks get the rhyme wrong.

He spoke inspiring words to lift the throng,
Compelling them to treat each other kind.
What joy it is to sing his simple song!

He read of Marx, Lenin, and Mao Zedong;
With Jesus, Gandhi, Niebuhr, he aligned.
I think with King most folks get the rhyme wrong.

A revolution of values crooned Chong;
From Royce details of beloved he divined.
What joy it is to sing his simple song!

I wish we all could hear his words so strong,
And share the melody he once opined.
I think with King most folks get the rhyme wrong.
What joy it is to sing his simple song!

Happy Birthday, Martin!

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THE REAL KING

During the last three years of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr., was making some changes in his approach to realizing his vision of the beloved community.

After having received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964 and witnessing the Voting Rights Bill enacted into law the following year; King was acutely aware of the challenges ahead. Issues concerning educational attainment, Job training, employment opportunities, poverty, and militarization became increasingly important since the so-called cosmetic changes relating to interstate travel, public accommodations, civil rights, and the franchise had been tackled.  King recognized the road ahead would be difficult and more complex because dealing with the multifaceted dimensions of economic development is a task that would impact and call into question the very nature of American society and its role in the world

It is easier for many of us to focus on the earlier King. As long as he was addressing racial discrimination in its overt forms, he was all right with us. Allowing a person to sit anywhere on a bus or to eat at whatever restaurant of one’s own choosing was not a serious concession to make.

However, attacking the gap between the haves and the have-nots in all of its social forms, which became King’s focus in the latter part of 1965until his assassination in April1968, met with much resistance. Why? Because it would concentrate on more subtle types of racial discrimination and call into question the very structure and processes of the American capitalist and militarist system.

King believed that the gap in educational achievement between blacks and whites could be closed not only by improving the quality of schools in ghettoized neighborhoods, but also by improving the socioeconomic and political options available to the poor. He sought the cooperation of businesses to offer on-the-job training to help reshape the economic conditions of impoverished communities and improve the changes of the younger generation to realize success in life.

Since the employment picture was bleak, King also advocated a guaranteed annual income so that the poor would be able to meet the needs of their families. King championed a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged to assist the indigent in becoming full participants in the fabric of our democratic republic.

In addition, King backed President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative. But because of the escalation of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War, this endeavor was significantly diminished—much to King’s consternation. He believed that the war effort considerably diverted attention away from eliminating the concerns of the economically depressed and exploited, not to mention that the war sent young black men onto the battlefield abroad while they were continually locked out of equal opportunities at home.

King broadened the scope of his proactive concern for the poor by seeking by seeking to speak to all those who are economically strapped regardless of their racial and ethnic background. Thus was born the Poor People’s Campaign.

What King attempted to do was to gather people together in a tent city in the nation’s capital to bring the plight of the poor front and center. He wanted the Johnson administration and Congress to take seriously the War on Poverty by instituting steps to end economic injustice.

King was promoting a bold and dynamic nonviolent revolution that would take on the socio-structural problems of racism, poverty, militarism, materialism, and anticommunism. As a matter of fact, King had become increasingly convinced that the traditional tools of the civil rights movement—boycotts,sit-ins, demonstrations, etc.—were no longer effective in the new era of social action he was inaugurating.

He felt the time for depending on the largesse of the white population and for counting on governmental goodwill was over. Consequently, he was no longer averse to utilizing massive civil disobedience to sabotage the functioning of the social system until these structural problems were attended to and resolved. The world never got to see the radicalization of the Movement under King’s leadership. Today, we find the very things King desired to eliminate still plaguing us: racial and ethnic disparities in education, employment, economic class, health care, incarceration, home ownership, social mobility, and so forth. To honor King’s dream and to continue his search for the beloved community, we need to make a concerted effort to eliminate racism and poverty.

In 2015, 50 years after King’s decision to shift his focus and to wage a new nonviolent revolution, we should work together in creative ways to improve the lot of those who are suffering.

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CALIFANO MISREPRESENTS JOHNSON’S ROLE

Any representation of Martin Luther King, Jr., will always be hopelessly inadequate in my estimation—so enamored of the real deal am I!  I think the enactment by David Oyelowo is less than satisfactory; I feel he does not really capture the emotional intelligence, pathos, and warmth of personality that was Martin.  I realize that I am, perhaps, a bit unfair in my assessment, but I was less than thrilled by the acting in Selma overall.  I saw the film late at night after a long day of successive meetings, so maybe I was not in any condition to evaluate it properly.

The jumping back from the planning and beginning of Selma march to the September 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, depicting the murder of the four girls, was quite a shock and unexpected—since it was a year-and-a-half before Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965).  I’m not sure of director Ava DuVernay’s motivation for cutting to that tragic event, but it was certainly alarming to the audience and me.  However, maybe it was prescient.  For after the bombing of the church in Birmingham, a variety of activists began focusing on voting, including King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  Even though a lot of attention was given to public accommodations in 1964, by the end of that year, the SCLC staff, through the encouragement of James Bevel and the invitation of Amelia Boynton, were inclined towards Selma and a multidimensional voting rights campaign.

What’s important here to realize is that the idea of focusing on voting was already underway in Mississippi.  After all, Freedom Summer was focused on registering blacks to vote.  The refusal to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City further brought home the necessity of demonstrating for elimination of de facto discrimination at election offices and at the polls.  Talk about a voting rights bill was happening long before the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy.

Consequently, the recent remark made by Joseph Califano that President Lyndon Johnson suggested a voting rights campaign to King in January of 1965 is preposterous.  Bevel had already proposed the idea and King and the SCLC staff had accepted it much prior to the latter’s conversation with Johnson to which Califano alludes.  Califano acts as if Johnson was a saint and was the lead orchestrator during this stage of the Civil Rights Movement.  That is absolutely false.  How soon Califano forgets that Johnson was opposed to King going into Saint Augustine, Florida, in the late spring of 1964 to continue to emphasize the need for passage of the civil rights bill.  Califano has a convenient amnesia that Johnson refused to seat the black delegation from Mississippi, despite King’s urging.  It was only through the dialogue between Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Joseph Rauh (among others) that suggested at least two persons from the MFDP be given a nonvoting seat.  Johnson was more concerned about reelection over Sen. Barry Goldwater, his Republican opponent, than the struggles for human decency being waged in the South.  Califano’s forgetfulness continues over Johnson’s initial conciliatoriness to Gov. George Wallace.  When an injunction was handed down against marching, Johnson was not supportive immediately after Bloody Sunday of the demonstrators to march unencumbered.  He was reluctant to federalize the National Guard.  How soon Califano forgets that King had to plead with Johnson to protect the marchers.  Some of Johnson’s staff was more progressive in this regard than the president.

In spite of the criticisms levied against the film, and regardless of my persnicketies about representations of King, I still strongly suggest people see Selma.  Most Americans since the generation of the 1960s are clueless about Jim Crow and the civil rights struggles starting during mid-twentieth century.  The film is not a documentary, but, rather, a popular screening subject to artistry, budgets, practicalities, and other creative and contingent factors.  Nevertheless, like all such projects—from media news to epic cinema—there is a mixture of fact and fiction, understatement and hyperbole, comic relief and melodrama.  Yet, because of our ignorance of past events or our revisionist histories à la Califano, watching the film can only enhance understanding of a part of our country’s development that ain’t too pretty and that can’t be denied!

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Freedom of Expression? Yes!

The Bill of Rights sets the example for all democracies and wannabes around the world.  It was a revolution in personal freedoms and restrictions on government theretofore, and since that time it has enabled many individuals and groups to promote the good and dissent against injustice throughout the country.

The decision by the French weekly Charlie Hebdo to print cartoons that put Islam and the prophet Muhammad in a bad light met with violence from individual jihadists.  This series of events brings into the foreground the degree to which freedom of expression should be limited.  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  Does the Western view of freedom of speech protect the scandalizing and ridiculing of religion; are religions somehow exempt from criticism and satire, or are they to be held sacrosanct from attack ex nihilo, adherents, or secular entities?

From my vantage point, any religion must be treated as any other social institution, and any adherent to a particular faith perspective is first a citizen.  Consequently, when the religion or one of its members takes a position on something in the public arena, that point of view is fodder for any attack.  If the religion’s founder is cited for justification of that position, then the founder is subject to criticism by opponents as well.  Such is the nature of political discourse—and it is fair.

However, the First Amendment does not protect all speech.  When the language used is intended to injure or insult so much so that societal peace is breached, then that speech is not easily protected.  Hate speech is a prime example of that.  The question whether political cartoons and satirical, or derisive, remarks are prohibitive has been debated and legally argued continually throughout American history.  It is very difficult to determine motivation and intention—so measuring genuine harm or the degree of offensiveness is no easy task.  A person, group, business, or other entity could always claim criticism of any thing, place, or person that is part of the public discourse can never be too captious and, thereby, disclaim any responsibility for how the populace reacts.  Everything is up for grabs.  What people are responsible for is how they choose to respond to whatever is interpreted as insulting—and that decision also must not be deliberately injurious, offensive, violent, or invasive to others.

There have been countless times when I have watched a movie—from classical period pieces to popular films—when I have unexpectedly heard racially derisive dialogue and seen violent acts against certain categories of people.  I have attended comedy routines during which inflammatory language has been utilized.  These are contexts in which everything is open season, i.e., there are no holds are barred.  Hence, getting all bent out of shape about what is said or done is excessive, and the best response is either to be equally creative or artistic in return or to ignore the characterization or to enter into constructive debate about why this or that verbiage or action should not have been perpetrated.

As an advocate of nonviolent direct action, I believe there are always alternatives to violence that can be effective and instructive.  In my opinion, physical violence, that is to say the use of force or power—whether against property or people—ought never to be an option.  I know this outlook, or estimation, is absolutist, but I firmly feel that the old saw “violence begets violence” is true and causes irreparable damage.  It is always excessive.  Certainly, words can be intrusive, offensive, hypercritical, and hyperbolic; if so, there are ways to counter such interpretation that are equally incisive, trenchant, and caustic, but resort to violence—particularly that which is primarily physically or bodily harmful—is insuperably disproportionate in nature.  Here, I do not mean to downplay or minimize emotional or psychological impairment, for that is real and can most assuredly be described loosely as violence.  However, such detriment can be treated, whereas death forever ends the possibility of recovery—and especially when innocent lives are lost.

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REMEMBERING MARIO CUOMO

I did not know Mario Cuomo personally, but I came to admire him a lot—not for his role as a politician and three-term governor of New York, but for his citizenship, service, and truth-telling about the obscenities of xenophobia in the United States. When I think of Cuomo, I cannot help but to think of another giant in our country’s history, albeit in a different arena: the so-called “method actor,” Marlon Brando (1924-2004). Like with Cuomo, it is not because of what made him most noteworthy; rather, it is for his unrelenting support for pluralism and the acceptance of all people. Brando was, for example, a participant, alongside a few other celebrities, in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963—where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. On several occasions, Brando waxed eloquent on network news morning programs about racism in the United States and how it is a perennial and pernicious blight against arguably the greatest country in the world.

Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention is compared with two speeches at the 1984 convention of the same political party: Jesse Jackson’s party-unity speech and Cuomo’s “Tale of Two Cities” keynote address. Cuomo’s speech detailed how a child of Italian immigrants, stereotyped and maligned in this country, became the governor of the greatest city in the greatest country in the world. His understanding of ethnic bigotry helped him to dislike systematic oppression of all people and to fight for the disadvantaged. He could always be counted on to argue for humane treatment of others, which is something sorely lacking in the body politic today!

Cuomo was an ardent opponent of capital punishment and fought tooth and nail against the death penalty. His impassioned rhetoric against government-sanctioned killing showed prescience for the racial disparities in the criminal justice system long before it became somewhat fashionable to assert. In addition, Cuomo was a defender of woman’s rights. Despite his personal antipathy of abortion in line with his Roman Catholicism, he nevertheless advocated that the government stay out of women’s reproductive decision-making.

Whenever we embark upon characterizing a person’s life and legacy once he/she has passed, we are inevitably faced with the fact that all human beings are flawed. Knowing that no one is perfect and that all make mistakes, reflectors on an individual’s biography or obituary are faced with the moral dilemma of assessing that person’s triumphs and tragedies. It is often difficult to ascertain what is fair in such an endeavor, and much, quite frankly, often depends upon one’s own biases and presuppositions—philosophical, political, and otherwise. The figures mentioned herein—Brando, King, and Jackson—all had their foibles, idiosyncrasies, and missteps, but they also defended the highest ideals any human being could ever hope to preserve. Needless to say, the same could be stated about Cuomo.

What happens on a daily basis, however, regardless of the sociopolitical platform, is the engagement of faulty reasoning and the lack of critical thinking. It is much easier to use logical fallacies in our disagreements than to argue constructively about purposes and effects of structures, policies, procedures, services, and practices. One of the most common types of illogic is the argumentum ad hominem, which is attacking and discrediting a person’s character, and not the content of that person’s perspective. Such misguided attempts at invalidating an argument by attacking the person are ubiquitous and should not be tolerated anywhere.

Cuomo was elected for three terms as governor, and prior to that tenure he was in other governmental and public service capacities. I listened to him a few times in the 1980s and was enamored of his willingness to be inclusive. His decision not to run for the nomination of his party for president in 1988 and 1992 surprised me. I learned later of his procedural agony in choosing not to run. What stands out for me, as we mourn his passing and learn from his life, is his anchorage upon the saying of his mother, Immaculata, found toward’s the end of the first chapter of his book, Reason to Believe: “that what is right is usually also what is necessary; that in helping one another we almost always help ourselves.”

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WAR AGAIN?

Here are my thoughts a day or so prior to the air strikes.

It appears we are on the brink of war, again! Massive air strikes against the capital of ISIS in Raqqa in northern Syria have begun. What does this mean? It sounds like what appears in the prophecy of Joel: that nations should beat their plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears. Why are we resorting to warriors at this time? Is it because we have been reactive, rather than proactive, after departure from Iraq? Did we do the hard work necessary to avert this emergent situation where ISIS has become so powerful that we have to utilize weapons of mass destruction to squash their expansionist and imperialistic pursuits? Were we too optimistic that Maliki would hold his own and make Iraq stable once again; or did we leave too swiftly because we couldn’t stand having supported him despite his clear hatred of Sunni Muslims?

One of the tenets of pacifism, in which I believe, is to engage assiduously in diplomatic efforts before conflicts reach a boiling point. And, yes, this means that nations and other units have to communicate with each other in order to understand each other, try to come to some reasonable agreement, and make and keep peace. We failed in our foreign policy when we seemed to have convinced ourselves that al-Qaeda or any other such group could not revitalize itself. There were many government officials and foreign diplomats that voiced concern over the possibility of other terrorist groups gaining a foothold in Iraq if we did not maintain a critical military presence in the region. I am not sure whether they had acute foresight or whether their words were based on clear signs of growing, strong opposition, but President Obama apparently felt that meeting his promise to get out of Iraq was more important than squashing all terrorist cells.

We allowed Maliki to wreak havoc upon the majority of people in Iraq, and his ouster did not come quickly enough. He angered many people with his oppression against the Sunnis, and since he was “our man,” we were deemed just as culpable as he. Consequently, many people supported the rise of ISIS, even though they might not have agreed with their Islamic centrism. Things over there are too complicated to characterize the fanaticism as predictable or a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, it would not be excessive to contend that we did not do the hard work necessary to ensure that all parties were at the table in the construction of a legitimate democratic state in Iraq. We failed.

Is it too late to go to the negotiation table, or must we seek to obliterate ISIS before we can stabilize the area and reconstruct the government and infrastructure? Some pundits are prognosticating we will remain in the area and in a state of war between two to eight years. What a nightmare! Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy both warned us against the military industrial complex and arms proliferation. Could this possibly be the result of our not heeding their earnest pleas for limiting technology in the interest of killing each other? History is definitely repeating itself, and that repetition is the mark of our diplomatic insanity and ineptitude.

Over the past three decades, I have developed a mantra about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks; about nations not rising up against nations and not studying or learning war anymore; about the lion and the lamb lying down together, and men and women sitting under their own vine and fig trees—with nothing to fear but fear itself; and about how perfect love casts out fear. I have sought to claim that God is not through with us yet, that God is still working (John 5:17) and that we must be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58). I know that we cannot be perfect, but that does not mean that we should never try! As a matter of fact, our entire lives should be about the business of doing justly, loving mercy and kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). I cannot help but to think that we must ramp up our constructive endeavors in foreign affairs precisely when our military is not directly involved. Only then will the morning stars sing together and the children of God shall shout for joy! (Job 38.7)

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VINCENT HARDING: MY KIND OF HERO!

Vincent Harding (1931-2014) was an unassuming person who was inclined to serve the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement from behind the scenes. He was a young man then—having graduated from City College of New York with a baccalaureate degree in history (1952), followed by a stint in the U.S. Army (1953-1955), and subsequently earning a master’s degree in history at the University of Chicago (1956). But Harding had a passion for justice, so he traveled to Atlanta, GA, to participate in the movement in 1960. Living around the corner from Martin Luther King, Jr., Harding and his neighbor (and their wives) became fast friends. At the time, Harding was a representative of the Mennonite Church.

While helping to teach nonviolent tactics in King’s direct action campaigns, Harding continued his education—pursuing doctoral studies until he was awarded the degree from his master’s alma mater in 1965. He was a professor at Spelman College. During the early 1960s, he and his wife, Rosemary (nee Freeney) started Mennonite House, which was an interracial community center where civil rights activists were able to meet, study, strategize, and recreate. Harding called little attention to himself, but he was a solid assistant to the leadership of the movement.

As a matter of fact, Harding, so frustrated with U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam, finally convinced King, after two years, officially to speak out against the military endeavor. The speech he wrote for King was delivered at the famous Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. It was a scathing attack upon the (Lyndon) Johnson Administration and criticized the president and congressional leadership for not addressing the exacerbating plight of the poor—who were disproportionately represented on the battlefields in Vietnam. From most sectors of the body politic, King was castigated for his coming out against the war, which was ostensibly supported by the majority of the citizenry at that time. Even major, African American civil rights leader rebuked King for his outspokenness against American foreign policy—an area they deigned could not possibly be apprehensible to a black man from the Deep South!

Harding felt badly about the speech—not because it was wrong or ill timed—because one year later, to the day, King was assassinated! Harding could not help but believe that part of the reason for King’s murder was because of the speech he had written for King: “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”

Harding was a great man in his own right. I never met him personally, but I did correspond with him as I was trying to determine where I would pursue my doctoral studies. At the time, in the early 1980s, Harding was at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. I had the chance briefly to speak with him, and he was both unusually kind and very understanding of my circumstances. I finally chose to go to Boston University, but I never have forgotten the encouragement that Harding gave to me. Two books that he wrote which I truly enjoyed are: There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (1981) and Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Inconvenient Hero (1996).

As 2014 and 2015 are framed by the fiftieth anniversaries of the two major legislations regarding civil rights in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, I urge you to invest some time in reading Harding’s take on the movement and its undisputed leader, and in watching the celebrated documentary series for which he was a senior consultant, Eyes on the Prize.

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EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK

I grew up with four sisters and two brothers.  Academically, my sisters performed very well and entered the job market with a competitive advantage.  They had attended topnotch schools, with one becoming a business executive and another becoming a postmaster for USPS.  Two are in education, one teaching on the college level and the other occupying a high-school principalship.  I am certain that the first two benefitted directly from affirmative action policies of the 1970s, but they earned and deserved everything they received.  The society was still pervasively racist then, but their stellar professional performances were merely buttressed somewhat by affirmative action.  The latter two were in a slightly different environment when they embarked on their careers: the mid-to-late nineties.  Although their paths were smoother than the first two, who are sixteen years their senior, their progress toward success was not without their challenges and struggles.

What is disturbing is the fact that whereas the opportunities for women in the workforce have increased since the early 1960s, their positions, statuses, compensation, advancement, and overall roles have not become equitable on many levels.  The patriarchal tradition of the United States still remains in force and the passage of legislation to offset and neutralize it has not triumphed.  A very easy example is that of payment for equal work.  In 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that women make 77.5 cents to every dollar a man makes.  No rationalization for this exists—only excuses.  What is even worse is that African American and Hispanic women comparatively make 61 cents and 52 cents, respectively.  This is a travesty!

However, the picture gets even worse.  For example, though Hispanic men work more than white men, they earn less than white men, white women, black men, and black women.  As a matter of fact, the only ones in this demographic snapshot that make less than they are Hispanic women!  Over four decades after Pres. John F. Kennedy’s executive order dealing with affirmative action, the position of persons of color in the labor force is still abysmally discriminatory.  Despite the fact that women were excluded from the initial renderings of this executive decree and the subsequent Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is an undisputed fact that the highest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women!

Perhaps, the Equal Pay Act and the languishing Paycheck Fairness Act should have a special clause in them that deals with the disparity in pay for persons of color.  It is clear that race plays a larger role than we are willing to admit in the job market and that the legislative efforts under the Kennedy and Pres. Lyndon Johnson administrations were not enforceable enough to make a substantive difference in the way we do business.  Often, they placed the burden on those discriminated against to prove their mistreatment, rather than making the Department of Justice more proactive in penalizing employers for continuing unfair labor practices.  Yes, we still live in a grossly patriarchal society, and we must persist in our endeavors to become manifestly more equitable.  But we must not forget the millions of women who suffer from a double indemnity: being female and a person of color.

There is a poem by an artist who emerged during the Harlem Renaissance, Georgia Douglas Johnson, who might give us some hope.  It is called “Your World.”

Your world is as big as you make it.

I know, for I used to abide

In the narrowest nest in a corner,

My wings pressing close to my side.

 

But I sighted the distant horizon

Where the skyline encircled the sea

And I throbbed with a burning desire

To travel this immensity.

 

I battered the cordons around me

And cradled my wings on the breeze,

Then soared to the uttermost reaches

With rapture, with power, with ease!

 Let us make this vision, our world!

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INCOME INEQUALITY: OBAMA V. FRANCIS

I have always admired and respected Catholic social teaching, especially with regards to helping the so-called least of these.  Concern for the needy and the disinherited in the United States and in the world has been a continuous focus of mine for all of my adult life.   As a progressive thinker, I have not bought the Church’s orientation hook, line, and sinker, for it is very conservative on a lot of issues, such as abortion, ordination of women, war, and marriage.  There appears to be some hope, however, with the ascendancy of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to Pope Francis.

The fact he chose to name his papacy after Francis of Assisi, who chose to identify with the poor, truly resonates with me.  Pope Francis has characterized his own religious life by his concern for the indigent and oppressed.  The language that he has used to address penury in the world has been quite critical of capitalism, the wealth gap, and our emphasis on the myth that economic growth trickles down to the lower classes.  Earlier in his life, he had an affinity towards communism and his words and actions over the course of his ministry have reflected democratic socialism, the ethics of Jesus, and the political economy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I cannot say the same regarding Barack Obama.  Since his organizing days on the Chicago’s South Side, Obama has been touted for this work, as he has strayed quite far from helping women and children in the hour of their greatest need.  During his 2008 candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama scarcely discussed directly and transparently the plight of the working poor and the underclass.  He never answered my questions concerning the alleviation of poverty, and promises that his staff made concerning his economic platform were unfulfilled, if not completely disregarded.  His first term as President of the United States did not improve upon that record, despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010—the verdict of which is still unsure.

On December 4 of this year, Obama spoke at a meeting of the Center for American Progress in THEARC in Washington, D.C.  During his speech, he declared what was the “defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American.”  Wanting his enduring legacy to be addressing income inequality is admirable, and the very fact he finally spoke directly on this subject momentarily warmed my heart.  However, this sanguine interlude was evanescent at best, for immediately I realized Obama’s plan to have government play a marked role in the attempt to eradicate poverty was as old as the ineffectual War on Poverty of the 1960s!

Unlike President Obama, Pope Francis has been willing to attack market capitalism at its core.  He recognizes that poverty is a structural issue that the church must work to eliminate.  He rightly asserts that a system that produces separation into classes and the majority of people possessing less than one-tenth of the nation’s wealth cannot be improved upon through sporadic remedies: such as a meager raise in the minimum wage; simple undergirding of labor unions; and/or spotty WPA-like programs that by themselves did not pull this country out of the economic depression of the 1930s.  In stating that capitalism’s ability to deal justly with poverty “has never been confirmed by the facts,” he reflects King’s aversion to the “skirmish” against poverty under the Johnson Administration, who stated in 1967 that “a nation that produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Obama’s focus on the middle class and the working poor, with his emphasis still on competitiveness and productivity, does not get at the root of the problem.  We can no longer stress the importance of temporary measures that continue to function within a system that sustains egregious income disparities.  It’s time to make a serious change in the way we do business.

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