Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Race in America and the Beam in Michael Gerson's Eye

Michael Gerson complains that, in his recent speech on the Trayvon Martin shooting, the President didn't offer meaningful solutions to the problems of race and racism in American society. Gerson dismisses the criticism from some of his Republican peers, that the President who "attacked Obama for being 'divisive' and for injecting race into the Trayvon Martin debate", then continues,
The opposite criticism is more serious — that Obama has missed opportunities over the years to talk about race in a compelling and personal way. It is the unavoidable American issue. At one point, a third of all human beings in the South were owned by another human being. For a century beyond slavery, Jim Crow laws enforced a racial caste system. The election of an African American president — born three years before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — is a wonder of national healing and historical compression. Who can argue that we have heard too much from Obama on this topic? For five years, he strategically downplayed the reality of his own miracle.
The "reality of his own miracle"? In another context, Gerson's "miracle" might be that our society has evolved so quickly since the 1960's that the President's race was a marginal factor in his election. In the context of Gerson's column, though, the "miracle" is that the President was twice elected despite the continuing level of racism and racial divisiveness within the United States.

I tried to find out how Gerson responded to the Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action and, although I found that Gerson had referred to Chief Justice Roberts as displaying "judicial arrogance", that was over his vote upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), not over his platitudinous statements on race issues such as, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race". It's interesting to me that a tax ruling caused Gerson to sound off like an overheated tea kettle, but Roberts' shrugging off racism as a continuing issue in society didn't seem to inspire him to so much as raise an eyebrow,1 particularly given his explicit rejection of the notion that we're now living in a racially equal society:
Having finally engaged the issue of race, Obama drew the correct policy implication. Social divisions are deepest when it comes to African American boys and young men: often betrayed by schools, abandoned by fathers, treated with suspicion, unable to find jobs, wandering through dysfunctional neighborhoods, locked in prison in vast numbers and denied basic civil rights (such as voting) for the rest of their lives. Obama has a unique standing to address the challenges of minority youth. As a young man, he was prone to trouble and might have easily gotten enmeshed in an unforgiving legal system. The president can effectively argue that first impressions are not always correct and that second chances are sometimes necessary.
Giving credit where credit is due, at times George W. Bush spoke inclusively. He did not focus on traditional race issues, but was clearly interested in leading his party toward the greater involvement of minorities, made sometimes clumsy statements about Islam that were intended to diminish anti-Muslim sentiments, and at least once spoke inclusively of atheists. Gerson may have authored some of those lines. However, by any measure including word and deed, Obama has done far better.

Gerson complains about the President's policy proposals,
But Obama’s speech deserves this criticism: Its policy proposals — training police, reconsidering “stand your ground” laws, more community dialogue and “soul-searching” — were weak. It was as though the administration’s policy apparatus had never really considered the matter before — that it was somehow ambushed by America’s most obvious policy challenge.
Let me interject that the fact that the President proposes certain measures that might prevent a young black male, armed only with skittles, from arousing the suspicions of an armed self-annointed protector of the neighborhood, does not mean that he might not propose additional measures if he were broadly addressing the issue of race across society. Gerson's complaint is actually that the President spoke about the Trayvon Martin case without turning the speech into a broad narrative on race relations. Perhaps the President should give such a speech, but Gerson offers no challenge to the President's explanation of why he chose a different approach:
There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.
Frankly, Gerson need only look at the racial demagoguery of his Republican peers to know that the President is correct.

Gerson's suggestions for policy proposals that the President should have included in the speech, I think, betray the fundamental weakness of his position:
The problem of African American boys and young men is a complex mix of lingering racial prejudice, urban economic dislocation, collapsing family structure, failing schools and sick, atomized communities. But is there really nothing practical that can be done? How about providing family supports — mentoring, fatherhood initiatives, teen pregnancy prevention and removing the Earned Income Tax Credit penalty for married couples? How about strong accountability measures to close the educational achievement gap instead of granting waivers that lower standards? How about support for faith-based institutions that reclaim lives from gangs? How about prison reform, so that mandatory minimum sentences are at least reduced? How about expanding substance abuse prevention and treatment, which seem to have fallen off the national agenda?
First, let's be honest, there was nothing particularly "African American" about Trayvon Martin's story, beyond that noted by the likes of Richard Cohen and Geraldo Rivera, which I will unfairly - but not all that unfairly - paraphrase as "He was a black kid in a hoodie, so who wouldn't have wanted to shoot him?" A seventeen year old with divorced parents, acting out at school, smoking pot on occasion, perhaps involved in a petty theft, sent to live with his father because his mother thought he could use a stronger male presence in his life... that's much more an "American story" than an "African American" story. The President's speech addressed the key issues - public perceptions and community attitudes that contribute to the perceptions that caused a guy with a gun to see a kid coming home from a store with a package of Skittles and make a cognitive leap to "F--king punks... These a--holes... They always get away".

Second, had the President followed Gerson's after-the-fact suggestion, Gerson's Republican peers would have merely expanded their list of complaints from "race-baiting" and "divisiveness" to "And now he's trying to get more handouts, more goodies, for his 'base'." Gerson has to know that, and has to know that his peers play a huge role in how, when initiated by a politician - and more so when that politician is Barack Obama - these discussions "end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have."

Third, alas, Gerson's policy proposals range from weak tea to platitudinous. Had the President make such proposals and pretended that they were significant, Gerson would be entirely justified in his complaint. The fact that this, after Gerson's years working with G.W. Bush, years in sinecures with so-called think tanks, and years of writing for the Washington Post, is the best Gerson has highlights how difficult these issues are to actually address in a meaningful manner, let alone solve.
  1. "How about providing family supports — mentoring, fatherhood initiatives, teen pregnancy prevention and removing the Earned Income Tax Credit penalty for married couples?" - There is nothing wrong with advocating for "family supports", but Gerson's ideas are neither novel nor helpful. Is Gerson unaware of existing mentoring programs? Is he unaware that live births to teen mothers3 are on the decline? What does he imainge a "fatherhood initiative" to be, and why does he imagine it will have any impact on poverty? What in the world does "removing the Earned Income Tax Credit penalty for married couples" have to do with questions of race, and how does Gerson imagine that it will have a material impact on poverty?

  2. "How about strong accountability measures to close the educational achievement gap instead of granting waivers that lower standards?" - Gerson was part of an administration led by a President who touted fraudulent educational statistics as something of a miracle, that he could replicate across the nation. That Administration foisted "No Child Left Behind" on the nation, a program built on the supposed principles that led to Houston's fabricated "miracle", and a decade later the program was a complete failure. The obvious, inherent flaws of NCLB led to a situation in which, but for waivers, very good schools would be classified as "failing" due to their "lack of improvement". Contrary to Gerson's suggestion the Obama Administration has been pushing school reforms that it hopes will be superior to NCLB, but it's not clear that a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to reform will do anything but repeat NCLB's biggest mistakes, effectively diminishing the quality of better schools by focusing on standardized test results, enriching vendors of those standardized tests at the expense of overall school funding, and causing more dedicaated teachers to leave the profession. With Gerson's exposure to the debate, and the failures of NCLB, it's astonishing that he believes that a call for "strong accountability measures to close the educational achievement gap" is an actual policy proposal and not an exhausted platitude from his early tenure with the Bush Administration.

  3. "How about support for faith-based institutions that reclaim lives from gangs?" - Say what?

  4. "How about prison reform, so that mandatory minimum sentences are at least reduced?" - While acknowledging the high rates of incarceration and contact with the criminal justice system for our society as a whole, and how much worse the numbers are for minority populations, I would like to see Gerson flesh out this idea: What crimes should have shorter sentences, how much shorter should those sentences be, and how will that have a material impact on race or poverty? For example, I've seen kids who are repeatedly caught selling drugs get ridiculous sentences as habitual offenders, and those sentences seem to me to be an absurd use of tax dollars and counter-productive to integrating those young men back into productive society, but shortening those sentences to something more reasonable isn't going to have any material impact on the economic plight of their communities. The fact that long sentences don't meaningfully deter drug trafficking, particularly street dealing, suggests that the underlying problem is economic.

  5. "How about expanding substance abuse prevention and treatment, which seem to have fallen off the national agenda?" - No objection from me, but why is Gerson of the belief that drug abuse is primarily a problem of race or of the inner cities?

Also what, in any of Gerson's ideas, would have influenced the type of thought process that automatically translates "black teenager in a hoodie" into "danger to the community"?

I am going to assume that Gerson means well, that he's not just concern trolling, but that of itself raises questions. If it's so easy for a President to stand before a microphone and heal racial and ethnic divides, why is it that those divisions seemed to expand under the tenure of his former boss? Surely that was not what Gerson and his fellow speechwriters intended when penning speeches for G.W. - if it's as easy as Gerson suggests to "drive and shape a policy debate" through grand Presidential speeches, why did we at best tread water on these issues, even as Bush called for tolerance, pushed NCLB and faith-based initiatives, and the like?

My suggestion to Gerson is this: As you're a partisan Republican, you should spend less time worrying about what the President is not saying in his speech, and spend more time thinking about what the politicians of your party are or are not saying in theirs. Seriously - as much as I would like to believe that the President has a magical power to give a few speeches and move the country toward a post-racial ideal, I think it would actually be much more powerful and much more constructive if we instead heard those speeches come from the mouths of prominent, right-wing Republicans and their party leaders.4
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1. Although there is a possibility that his employer's website has a flawed search engine, an "advanced search" on the Washington Post website starting with Jan. 1, 1987, turned up no articles by Michael Gerson that even mention "affirmative action".

2. November 3, 2004, "I will be your president regardless of your faith... And if they choose not to worship, they're just as patriotic as your neighbor."

3. Given that Gerson apparently believes that teen parenthood has a dramatic, negative impact on the welfare of children and communities, one wonders if he's willing to reconsider his opposition to reproductive freedom - provision of contraception to teenagers, the morning after pill, access to safe, affordable abortion, and the like. Does he continue to hold that allowing access to abortion "seems like addressing poverty by doing away with the poor; like fighting disease by getting rid of those with diseases" - and if so, how does he reconcile that with his own argument that we need to reduce or eliminate pregnancies among poor teenagers?

4. Even better, House Republicans can pass legislation moving those ideas from concept to reality. [And then I woke up.]

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