Sunday, March 8, 2015

50 years after Selma, Wisconsin must choose fear or love.

I may not always agree with everything our president says or does, and while we are in much better economic place than the disaster that he walked into in 2009, and while we finally have achieved great strides on the front of marriage equality, I often feel he hasn't gone far enough to solve the massive problems that plague our country. But there is also no question that Barack Obama understands what those issues are, and that he knows what a positive outcome would be.

And the man can definitely rise to the occasion with the power of words to sum up the moment, as he did again yesterday in Selma, Alabama. The whole speech is great, and I recommend you read it in its entirety. But here's a small segment that not only celebrates how far we come, but it also reminds us that there is much more work and action to be done. And yes, this is something WE ALL have a stake in.
We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won. We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth. “We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin once wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”

There’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem. And this is work for all Americans, not just some. Not just whites. Not just blacks. If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built. (Applause.)

With such an effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some. Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on –- the idea that police officers are members of the community they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland, they just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago -– the protection of the law. (Applause.) Together, we can address unfair sentencing and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and good workers, and good neighbors. (Applause.)

With effort, we can roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity. Americans don’t accept a free ride for anybody, nor do we believe in equality of outcomes. But we do expect equal opportunity. And if we really mean it, if we’re not just giving lip service to it, but if we really mean it and are willing to sacrifice for it, then, yes, we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century, one that expands imaginations and lifts sights and gives those children the skills they need. We can make sure every person willing to work has the dignity of a job, and a fair wage, and a real voice, and sturdier rungs on that ladder into the middle class.
The events in my hometown and home state from this week show that the problems President Obama mentioned are especially relevant, with hundreds protesting and chanting "The whole damn system is guilty as hell" after Madison police officer killing an unarmed black 19-year-old on Williamson Street Friday night. And NPR had a long report on the same day of the shooting that went into long detail on inequities in Wisconsin and the state's largest city in a story titled "Why is Milwaukee So Bad for Black People?"
The state also has the largest achievement gap between black and white students in the country, and ranks last in reading comprehension tests among black fourth-graders. Milwaukee has the most black students in the state and is the biggest contributor to Wisconsin's achievement gap. Its public school system has been plagued by federal and state funding cuts and a 20-year-old school choice program that diverts public tax dollars to private schools through vouchers. With 4-out-of-5 black children in Wisconsin living in poverty, an inadequate education can set up the most vulnerable students for failure....


Over the past decade, many states have transitioned to policies that favor rehabilitation over incarceration. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has actually invested more in public and private prisons over the last 20 years. The state budget now allots more funding for corrections than it does for higher education. Wisconsin also incarcerates the most black men in the country, and in Milwaukee County, more than half of all black men in their 30s and 40s have served time. In the 53206 Zip Code alone [inner-city Milwaukee], 62 percent of all men have spent time in an adult correctional facility by age 34.
So what is our state leadership doing about these real 21st-Century problems of racial inequity in Wisconsin? By trying to turn up the hate and isolating the blame with the minority communities instead of taking ownership and steps to improve the situation. It is telling that the rise of Scott Walker has been achieved with a huge amount of help from Milwaukee hate radio, which broadcasts to a often-bigoted white, suburban audience, and gives no time to voices from progressives and minorities in the urban community. This is a symbiotic relationship best summed up in Alec MacGillis' excellent article from last June titled "The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker." MacGillis notes that Walker's appeal to certain voters is derived from hatred of "others" and economic superiority, and won't work in the vast majority of a country which is less racist and more equal than Wisconsin.
.... Unlike Mitt Romney, or, for that matter, John McCain, he is beloved by the conservative base, but he has the mien of a mainstream candidate, not a favorite of the fringe. His boosters, who include numerous greenroom conservatives in Washington and major donors around the country, such as the Koch brothers, see him as the rare Republican who could muster broad national support without yielding a millimeter on doctrine.

This interpretation of Walker’s appeal could hardly be more flawed. He has succeeded in the sort of environment least conducive to producing a candidate capable of winning a national majority. Over the past few decades, Walker’s home turf of metropolitan Milwaukee has developed into the most bitterly divided political ground in the country—“the most polarized part of a polarized state in a polarized nation,” as a recent series by Craig Gilbert in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel put it. Thanks to a quirk of twentieth-century history, the region encompasses a heavily Democratic and African American urban center, and suburbs that are far more uniformly white and Republican than those in any other Northern city, with a moat of resentment running between the two zones. As a result, the area has given rise to some of the most worrisome trends in American political life in supercharged form: profound racial inequality, extreme political segregation, a parallel-universe news media. These trends predate Walker, but they have enabled his ascent, and his tenure in government has only served to intensify them. Anyone who believes that he is the Republican to save his party—let alone win a presidential election—needs to understand the toxic and ruptured landscape he will leave behind.
This week's events show you have two choices on how you want to deal with racial relations in the 21st Century in America. You can choose a shared vision of prosperity and care about the fates of your fellow Americans, regardless of the race or background of those individuals, as President Obama encourages. Or you can choose the Scott Walker and AM620/1130 mentality of "divide and conquer", shelter yourself off in your little community, define yourself by your superiority to others instead of trying to excel yourself, and cast aside those who may not have been as fortunate as you.

I keep going back to this excellent speech from comic Bill Hicks in the early '90s. The numbers and issues may be a bit different, but the choice is the same. Fear or love?

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