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Barack Obama and the Rhetorical Presidency

September 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Coming from a Communications background, one of the most fascinating aspects of Barack Obama’s Presidency to me has been his impact as a rhetorician. For most people, the first time they had ever heard of the State Senator from Illinois was during his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, and in the age of YouTube, he was able to transform that moment into a successful Presidential run just four years later. With dissatisfaction of President Bush, the Iraq War, and the Republican party at record levels that prompted Time magazine to wonder if the Republican party was dead in America, many on the left thought they may have a generational President who could serve as a counter to Reagan’s legacy as “The Great Communicator” and usher in a long-term shift in the politics of the majority.

While President Obama has lived up to his eloquence as a public speaker, his overall communication has been unexpectedly disappointing to both sides of the aisle. For as much as he has accomplished as President (regardless of your opinion of it), so much of it has been with a detached administrative style more reminiscent of the professor and lawyer he was, than the firebrand some people talked themselves into. Perhaps more importantly, his reserved style had allowed many of his substantive accomplishments to fly under the radar.

There was actually a draft of this article from 2011, during the heart of the Health Care debate, wondering why Obama had eschewed the Oval Office for addresses in favor of the East Room. Instead of the historic sit-down style address favored by Presidents in the age of television, Obama has preferred the lectern and the background of the White House’s largest room. It was where he delivered the news that the Marines finally killed Osama bin Laden, it’s where he’s given speeches on the progress of the Affordable Care Act, his Jobs bill pitch and several others. In a break from tradition, Obama has only used the famous setting twice in his six years in office.

So much of the modern Presidency has been rhetorically driven that it’s easy to miss, yet is absolutely imperative to our conception of the office. The State of the Union, as mandated by the Constitution for years was simply a written letter to congress, and yet with the advent of radio and later television it became an address to the nation using the power of Congress and government as a backdrop. (Update: Rhetorical tradition backfired on President Obama for failing to properly return a salute exiting Marine One, in a ritual that was only started under President Reagan, and many officers still feel is inappropriate for a civilian.) Ceding back some of that accumulated rhetorical power and prestige always struck me as an odd decision. Read more…

A Primer: Class and Race

September 18, 2014 1 comment

Class and Race

This has been one hell of a summer. From Donald Sterling to Eric Garner and all the way through the continuing nightmare in Ferguson, there has been an inescapable stream of bad news these days. Dealing with so many harrowing situations in succession is bad enough, but all too familiar tropes have been popping like clockwork to make matters worse. I touched on the faulty Black-on-Black crime narrative earlier, but repeated prompting on social media has necessitated a deeper examination of another misguided theory: that in the present it is class, rather than race that is the leading factor in many of these miscarriages of justice. 

The argument, which is most frequently deployed in education debates centered around affirmative action is far from new. It’s the increased volume of these claims, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s article on Ferguson (and I promise I’m not picking on him), to the response to Hawks’ owner Bruce Levenson’s comments that has forced me to respond. To avoid setting up a straw man, I’ll quote from Joel Kotkin’s column in the Daily Beast recently making the claim,

Instead the real defining issue—class—does not fit so easily into the current political calculus. In terms of racial justice, we have made real progress since the ’60s, when even successful educated minorities were discriminated against and the brightest minority students were often discouraged from attending college. Today an African-American holds the highest office in the land, and African Americans also fill the offices of U.S. attorney general and national security advisor. This makes the notion that race thwarts success increasingly outdated.

But at the same time that formal racial barriers have been demolished, the class divide continues to grow steeper than in at any time in the nation’s recent history. Today America’s class structure is increasingly ossified, and this affects not only minorities, who are hit disproportionately, but also many whites, who constitute more than 40 percent of the nation’s poor. Upward mobility has stalled under both Bush and Obama, not only for minorities but for vast swaths of working class and middle class Americans. Increasingly, it’s not the color of one’s skin that determines one’s place in society, but access to education and capital, often the inherited variety.

For the sake of fairness, there are a number of truths in that argument. It is true individual opportunities for racial minorities have never been greater; the fact that President Obama is a Black man is never far from this discussion. It is also true that income inequality in the United States by many metrics is among the most severe in the developed world and the highest it’s been since the great depression. Why then, am I dismissive of arguments that place class at a premium above even race as a barrier to success?

Because the hierarchical conception of oppression even among the well-meaning, is inherently flawed and simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. That approach, based on logic that is easily refuted by facts, is monumentally naive and (either unintentionally or willfully) ignores the scope and measurable impact of structural racism which occurs simultaneously with classism. Put simply, class is an important barometer but its force is demonstrably distinct from the tangible reality of race. The two often work in tandem, but heralding class as “the real issue” as opposed to racism, fails to account for the differences in each and serves as a further disservice to the specificity of the threat. 

Read more…

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No Excuse

September 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Ray Rice Press Conference

There is never an excuse for domestic violence.

No buts, no exceptions, no modifications; there is NEVER an excuse for domestic abuse. It baffles me that this point is even up for debate but the release of the full tape from the elevator in the Atlantic City hotel where Ray Rice stuck his then fiancee unconscious and then dragged her limb body across the floor has, quite understandably sparked new outrage. It’s also brought bizarre and disheartening pushback from those defending Rice for… reasons that are frankly beyond me.

If you’ve read any of my work here you know I speak my mind directly. More than any other topic I’ve discussed, this one has garnered the most negative commentary. That blows my mind but it’s a stark reminder to never underestimate the extent to which hatred of women is normalized and internalized in our society. Let me clear, when I say there’s no excuse for domestic violence I mean that in all of its forms, beyond a simple binary. That obviously includes men being on the receiving end, same sex relationships and transgendered couples, but the current discourse is steeped heavily in trying to find justifications for men to abuse women and maintain that power dynamic. There is absolutely no excuse for it. 

If there were a singular reason we talk about domestic violence in terms predominantly about women, it’s because the exigency of lethal threat is so much greater for them. Of all women murdered in the United States, nearly 40% were killed by a spouse or dating partner. For men that figure is between two and three percent. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics women account for 85% of all victims of intimate partner violence. Domestic violence represents life or death moments for millions, so excuse me if I am out of patience when it comes to false equivalence and strawman arguments.  Read more…

Staying On Message

September 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Hawks Majority Ownder Bruce Levenson The man in the picture above is Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson. I tell you this now, because before Sunday, I had never heard of him. From all indications he seems to be a decent man. No different than most, and certainly not as cartoonishly villainous as his former contemporary Donald Sterling. That said, in the post-Sterling NBA landscape, Levenson’s e-mail comments and his decision to sell his majority stake in the team have been the dominant news story this week in a sport, almost actively ignoring its World Cup. What has been most disappointing hasn’t been Levenson’s comments themselves, but the refusal to deal with them in any substantive manner beyond surface level, headline driven narratives.

This really wasn’t supposed to be an article in the first place. I read the letter, mocked it’s stupidity in a Facebook post and went on with my Sunday. While far from surprising, when the curtain is pulled back on how businesses decisions are made, it’s instructive to call out bad practices and take advantage of an opportunity to have a broader conversation. Instead, I woke up Monday to unexpectedly animated arguments and think pieces from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jason Whitlock defending Levenson as a businessman and downplaying any racism on his part.  Now let me put this as clearly as I can; I have absolutely no problem with an owner of a franchise looking into all the avenues possible to expand his fan base and support, make things more palatable for as many people as possible, and in this case make his team’s games more desirable to greater numbers of white fans. That’s his fiduciary responsibility as a business man, and wringing every last dime he can out of the product is to be expected: no more, no less. I have zero problems with him diversifying the musical selections and halftime entertainment, wanting more balance on who’s featured on the kiss cam or even the makeup of the cheerleaders. As insignificant as those items are, if they’re part of the larger problem of perception he’s perfectly in his right to tweak them.

Where Levenson ran into trouble wasn’t maliciousness, as dangerous as it is too read intent from the outside, but rather the cowardice of his action. The ease with which he slipped into stereotypes and specious remarks decrying the “few fathers and sons at the games” when the crowd was 70% Black, or shots at the “latest arriving crowd in the league” (the Lakers might have something to say about that) did him no favors. But it was the specifics to which Levenson discussed the crowd demographics he had in mind that really put it over the top:  Read more…

Ferguson is America

August 14, 2014 Leave a comment

This won’t be a full-on article about the murder of Mike Brown, and the disaster of a police response in Ferguson, Missouri this week. For the moment, I’m entirely absorbed following the news from those on the ground, and far too angry and flowing in too many different directions to come up with anything cogent. For that I link you to Greg Howard’s fantastic piece “America Is Not For Black People“. 

Essentially this will be an infodump for lack of a better term so that those interested can learn more about the situation, and we can all try to reach some broader collective understanding on how this continues to happen, and what we need to do to stop pretending it’s occurring in a vacuum. More than anything, it’s selfishly a therapeutic release. The one topic I will touch on is the familiar insertion into the conversation of lamenting the lack of focus on Black-on-Black crime. 

The notion that Black people aren’t concerned about intra-community particularly violence is as predictably misguided as it is a complete and utter diversionary tactic. It does nothing to address the issue at hand, and only serves to deflect attention and responsibility from solving it. This bit of  rhetorical jiu-jitsu dates back to the 1830s (if not earlier), when Andrew Jackson defended the forced removal of Native Americans during the “Trail of Tears” and noted that no one was bringing up the scourge of Cherokee-on-Cherokee violence. With nearly 200 years of practice, the refrain comes along like clockwork, whenever Black folks have the temerity to demand justice when the killer does not look like them. 

For one, the myth that Black people don’t care about crime in Black neighborhoods has no basis in reality. The fact so many people remain convinced that this doesn’t exist is explained only by either willful ignorance, or the shameful lack of coverage in mainstream media spaces. Too often the only time there is widespread coverage of Black victims is when it is being argued that the perpetrators are often also Black. As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in 2012, when the parasitic conversation crept up during the uproar over Trayvon Martin’s killing, a simple google search yields pages and pages of local and national protests, rallies and outreach efforts to curb violence in Black neighborhoods.

It is not “black on black crime” that is background noise in America, but the pleas of black people. There is a pattern here, but it isn’t the one Eugene Robinson (for whom I have a great respect) thinks. The pattern is the transmutation of black protest into moral hectoring of black people. Don Imus profanely insults a group of black women. But the real problem is gangsta rap. Trayvon Martin is killed. This becomes a conversation about how black men are bad fathers. Jonathan Martin is bullied mercilessly. This proves that black people have an unfortunate sense of irony.

The politics of respectability are, at their root, the politics of changing the subject—the last resort for those who can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye. The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts—they evidence them.

Let me be clear, this is not a defense of violence in ANY community. Crime is crime across the board, but suggesting that either Black people are ignoring violence perpetrated by people who look like them, or should somehow be unconcerned by clear and present danger because there are other ills in the world is a particularly insidious distraction. In particular, the demand to treat the actions of a police officer, a law enforcement agent of the state, accused of extrajudicial killings as equal to misdeeds of individual citizens is both disingenuous and misses the point entirely.

Of course the police are held to a higher standard, and thusly it represents a more threatening message when there are questions of legitimacy within those ranks. Great power comes with greater responsibility, and when that power is authorized by the government, it becomes all the more problematic. Even if you were determined to believe the accept the narrative of Black-on-Black crime, using that as a shield against confronting police brutality raises the nonsensical notion that one cannot address one type of violence unless another is completely eradicated. You wouldn’t defend assaulting a child with “well they’re abused at home too,” the mere suggestion is patently ridiculous, just as it is in this case. 

The other element to this is that Black-on-Black crime as a signifier means absolutely nothing. The oft cited stat is that about 90-94% of Black victims were killed by Black offenders, so surely that must be the real problem. What those propping up that fact often ignore however is that nearly 90% of white victims are killed by white offenders. Almost all crime is a matter of proximity and opportunity, so in turn most crime is committed by those who live near each other.

Given the rates of segregation in the United States, there is no surprise that most crime is intra-communal. This is true across the board, and is consistent across racial lines. To wit, when two white people get into an altercation it is not viewed through the lens of white-on-white crime, nor should it be, it’s crime. Why then would we create a notion of Black-on-Black crime? It only serves as a distraction and is often used to feed into the belief that violence is an exclusively Black pathology.

So as a general rule, the next time you hear someone bringing up the point that we need to address Black-on-Black crime before we tackle a situation unfolding, they very likely are full of shit. Read more…

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

June 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Georgetown gonna Georgetown

Today started out just as an average Tuesday; a depressingly dreary June morning, an uneventful yet monotonous commute, and the air of the unspectacular that typically makes Tuesdays on the low, even worse than Mondays.

There was desperate need for something, anything, to shake off the doldrums. And then, something wonderful happened.  Read more…

What Happens When We Move On?

April 30, 2014 1 comment

Sterling

So now what?

For the last week, the news cycle has been filled with the Donald Sterling story. Equal parts salacious and pathetic, the released tapes of the Clippers owner’s racist remarks were tailor-made for the echo chamber of 24 hour media. Contrary to the breathless coverage that’s been devoted to it however, his recorded conversation was in no way surprising given Sterling’s history. What was somewhat unforeseen and far more significant has been watching the reaction to the story, which has yielded a look into the mindset of our society and the lessons we repeatedly forget in history.1

Monitoring the consumption of the story, one cannot help but be struck by the realization that there is a fundamental misunderstanding in this country of what racism really entails.

Understanding where this disconnect arises goes to the roots of the construction of race in this country. One of the successes of the American Civil Rights movement was framing racism as a moral failure that stained the national tapestry. It tapped directly into the promise of what the United States was supposed to represent coming in the post-WW2 era; and being driven by religious leaders, it made sense to channel that notion of a collectively wounded soul that aspired to be greater. Using the American mythos of freedom and self-improvement, and stirring that spirit into action to end racism was a masterstroke. The approach was unquestionably successful for activism and organizing, and produced some of the largest gains in overturning unjust legislation since the Reconstruction era.

In light of the subsequent 50 years, the unintentional consequence has been that the conversation of racism became viewed SOLELY as a moralistic issue. When filtered through a historical lens that seeks to soften the rough edges and lionize great successes of our country without confronting them, the multi-faceted reality has been lost. Racism is structural, institutional, and carries with it a pernicious power dynamic as well as tangible economic and legal costs. Too often its impact is reduced to merely the gauche language and behaviors associated with caricatures of the cartoonish bigot. As problematic and impactful as hate speech is, too often it’s easier to focus exclusively on eradicating that and obscuring the conversation from the full scope of damage that racism causes. This fallacy is laid bare when a man with Donald Sterling’s long history of racism is brought down for a distasteful conversation with his mistress, and not the hundreds of families that were displaced because of his (multiple) housing discrimination cases.

If we take anything away from this fiasco it’s the need to name racism with all its specificity, so that we we can finally have the hard conversations about its true face.  Read more…