Open Letter to Ahmed Mohamed

Dear Ahmed,

I heard with great sadness about the awful experience you had after you brought a home-made clock to school. I cannot imagine how embarrassing — humiliating, even — it must have been for you to be singled out from your classmates and led away in handcuffs. I want to join the many people who have spoken out in your support and protested the way you were treated.

I also want to tell you, Ahmed, that you have nothing to be ashamed of because you did nothing wrong. You used your curiosity and intelligence to create something wonderful, and you should be very proud of that. It is the adults — the teacher, the principal, and the police — who are in the wrong and who acted disgracefully. They are the ones who should feel ashamed for letting their ignorance and prejudice guide their actions. Where normal, decent people would have seen a technological achievement by a talented teenager, they saw only threat and reacted with fear instead of admiration.

Perhaps they were jealous that never in a million years could they have created a working electronic timepiece. Or perhaps they resented you for your intelligence and creativity and felt the need to shame you by pretending your clock was a destructive weapon. Whatever their reasons, their actions show that their small minds and limited imaginations could come up with only one scenario; one in which the boy with the Muslim name is a villain.

Ahmed, do not let the stupidity of these adults change who you are or how you see the world. You see, Ahmed, people with small minds and limited imaginations need to make the entire world — and everyone in it — small enough to fit into their limited vision. They are like the blind men from the children’s story who, unable to see the full majesty of the elephant, saw it simply as a collection of ordinary objects. To the small-minded adults who work at and were called to your school, a Muslim boy cannot build a digital clock because in their small minds, Muslims only make weapons. Their limited imagination cannot allow them to see you for who you really are; a curious teenager with an interest in electronics and a talent for building things.

Ahmed, the truth is that the world is full of small-minded people with limited imaginations. They will always try to make you small enough to fit into their small minds. They will try to limit you so that you fit their limited view of themselves and of the world. You must not let this happen, Ahmed. Do not let them limit your potential. Do not let them change how you see yourself. Do not let them squeeze you into their small minds, Ahmed, because a small mind is the worst of all prisons. Instead, continue to be the curious, creative, and talented person that you are now and show these people that you refuse to be caged by their imagination or imprisoned by their minds.

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Deja-Vu All Over Again: Still Killing Them Softly . . .

I originally wrote the post below on August 3, 2007. I have made only minor changes to the text to reflect the number of casualties and the location of the disaster, and to correct any anachronisms.

Today, 10 Sierra Leoneans drowned (many more are still missing) when their boat capsized on a sea journey from Shenge to Tombo, a village south of the capital, Freetown. Official sources claim the boat—which has not yet been recovered—was overloaded and did not contain lifejackets, in violation of the law. Many of the passengers were children. In spite of the shocking casualty figures, I am sure nobody will be held accountable for these disasters. People die, nobody answers for their deaths and nothing is done to prevent future deaths. In this way, Sierra Leone’s leaders continue to get away with murder.

Sure, the boat that collapsed today was—like all other means of motorized transport in Sierra Leone—old and rickety, overloaded with passengers and cargo. Sure, the water was rough where the Great Scarcies, swollen by recent rains, met the Atlantic. And sure, when God calls you, you can’t avoid it. Nonetheless, somebody should take responsibility for all this loss of life. Somebody should be held accountable. Somebody must be punished so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. But nobody will be.

Ultimately, no matter how this story is sliced or diced, one thing is certain. The government—the people who are supposed to be responsible for the welfare of the nation—bears responsibility for this catastrophe. But one question will not be asked: “Why were there so many people packed into a rickety, overloaded boat traveling up the Atlantic coast during the rainy season?” The answer is simple. They have no choice.

And why do they have no choice? Because the government has not bothered to try to make sure that people can travel from one part of the country to another without taking  their lives into their hands. And because there is virtually no public transportation network in Sierra Leone. Or in most of West Africa. The old colonial highways (and I use “highway” loosely because these roads are seldom wider than one lane in either direction) are in poor condition, unpaved, bumpy and barely navigable at speeds greater than 20 miles an hour. To go by land, would-be passengers have to cram themselves into . . . you guessed it . . . old, rickety, and overloaded minibuses. Secondly, there are no major roads that run from Freetown due north. Passengers would have to go towards the center of the country and transfer at one of the major junctions. Finally, the transportation system is a neoliberal freemarketeer’s wet dream come true. Drivers only go where there is demand, and the evidence of demand is a full vehicle. Passengers wait, sometimes longer than an hour, until the vehicle cannot hold another person or item of luggage. If you’re traveling from Freetown to another part of Sierra Leone, it doesn’t matter how you decide to get there. Traveling by sea or road is a costly, crowded, and uncomfortable experience. And you may not survive the trip.

Since independence, the country’s infrastructure has slowly been falling apart. Official corruption and public apathy—more accurately fatalism—have resulted in the literal and physical deterioration of every aspect of social life: housing, health care, education, transportation. Everything is falling apart. The recently ended civil war, which raged for a decade and a half, did nothing to improve the situation.

Now the war is over. It’s been over since 2003. And what has this meant for infrastructure in Sierra Leone? Not much, except that the international community has done a good job of rebuilding and refurbishing the main commercial and administrative buildings in the capital’s city center. When I was there last September, my guide pointed out all the buildings that had been rebuilt by the British, the French, the EU, the UN but I didn’t see a single building that had been rebuilt by the Sierra Leonean government.

“But,” I hear you say, “isn’t it a lot to ask of the fragile new administration of a post-conflict-country to invest huge sums of revenue into reconstruction?” Fair enough. But if they can’t or don’t spend money on rebuilding the country, what can or do they spend revenues on? Last time I checked, it was the duty of a government to provide for the wellbeing of its people. Certainly I’m not naive enough to believe that the government must do so out of altruism but the Sierra Leonean government is failing at performing its basic role even if we look at it from purely economic terms. How can the country progress economically without a reliable and comprehensive transportation system, a requirement for even the most primitive systems of trade and commerce?

Besides, not having enough money is no excuse. Isn’t it part of the government’s job to have money? Whether through loans or foreign aid or domestic revenue generation, it is up to the government to generate revenue, which can then be reinvested into the economy. Despite what we hear about the role of government in the US, this is actually how modern, industrialized and—dare I say it—civilized countries function. Sure there’s a role for the market and the entrepreneur and all that good stuff but even the most die-hard advocates of the free market would never claim that the market exists to serve the public good. Entrepreneurs will tell you that they are in the business of seeking profits, not serving the public good. So, if the market won’t do it, who should? I say the government should. Find me one modern, industrialized, civilized country in which the government does nothing to provide for the public good.

Which brings me to my greater point. The government of Sierra Leone does not give a sh*t about the people of Sierra Leone. Since indepencence—46 years ago—Sierra Leone’s leaders (like the leaders of much of the “developing” world) have been busy enriching themselves. Sure, colonialism left homogenous, un-diversified economies throughout sub-Saharan Africa that were dependent on European economies for their survival. And yes, structural adjustments took a grievous toll on social welfare programs in developing countries but the time has come to call a spade a spade. African leaders don’t care about their people. They have never cared about their people. In the ’60s and ’70s, Sierra Leone was a decent place to live, with passable roads, round-the-clock electricity, and running water in the capital (the “provinces” were always a different story).

On my recent trip, however, Freetown had become like the provinces. Roads in the once-affluent western suburbs were now rutted and potholed, the asphalt broken up by tank treads from the days of the war and the soil underneath washed away by rain. Where there were once sidewalks, I saw deep ravines and gullies where water had eroded the soil on the side of the road. In some places, so much of the road had been washed away that two cars traveling in opposite directions could not pass each other along the same narrow stretch of road. And the roads are just the most visible part of the decay. Schools, hospitals, homes are all in a deplorable state of disrepair. More and more people live in slums and shanties.

Not everyone lives in dilapidation, though. I saw the president’s house. It’s a mansion that sits on a hillside overlooking the capital. Paved driveway, fence, swimming pool. But this man presides over a country that is slipping further and further backwards. But here’s the rub. The very poverty of Sierra Leone is what keeps these people in business. Millions of dollars and euros in foreign and development aid are funnelled into Sierra Leone—and many other impoverished countries—but how much of that money gets to the people who really need it? Having seen the president’s mansion, I have to say, not much.

The government of Sierra Leone is parasitic, and that corrupting mentality trickles all the way down through the society as low-level civil servants, underpaid and undertrained, scrounge around for scraps—bribes and other forms of official theft. How many people get into government because they want to make a difference, to help lift their country out of poverty? Not many, I imagine. After all, why has it taken so long to make that difference, and why is the country so much worse than it was at independence? Yes I know, colonialism and the international financial institutions must bear some of the blame but let’s not forget, Africa was not the only colonized continent. Yet today, Africa is by far the most impoverished region in the world.

Why do so many Sierra Leoneans who have attained professional and financial success abroad give it all up to pursue a political career in Sierra Leone? Because that’s where the money is. Take the former ambassador to the US, who had been a successful attorney and businessman prior to his appointment. Why did he go to Sierra Leone to try to get involved in politics? Why not lecture at the university there? He has a law degree and legal experience after all. Why not find investors and open a factory or some other revenue-generating business? After all, he had worked in the private sector before. Because he was not interested in doing anything to make Sierra Leone a safer, cleaner, or more comfortable place for its citizens to live. But he’s not alone.

Post-independence administrations—from Siaka Stevens’ on—have demonstrated a stunning lack of vision and imagination. As the rest of the world has moved forwards, Sierra Leone has slipped backwards. Why has no post-independence government implemented any policies for sustainable development? No large-scale, industrialized agriculture; no modern land, sea, or river transportation network; no new schoolhouses; no new hospitals; no modern air- or seaport; nothing! Just a government that maintains form without function.

When the president travels abroad, he is treated with all the respect befitting a dignitary. But every day in Sierra Leone, and in much of Africa, how many people die daily from easily preventable accidents and diseases? How many lives could be saved if the government committed itself to improving road networks and making transportation a faster and less dangerous business? Would the president be treated with such respect if he had lined the casualties of today’s boat catastrophe up against a wall and shot them all in the head? Sierra Leone boasts the world’s highest rates of infant mortality, with measles and malaria respectively accounting for 48 and 33 percent of all under-five deaths. What if, instead of having succumbed to easily prevented diseases, all these children had been gassed to death on the orders of the present government? There would be an international outcry, that’s what! No member of the Sierra Leonean government could travel abroad as smugly and proudly as they do now.

However, these people are not dying from accidents and disease. They are dying because the people who were elected or appointed to provide the basic amenities that would prevent their deaths are failing to do their jobs. Not having enough money to fix roads, build hospitals, or educate children should no longer be an acceptable excuse! Finding the money is part of the job description. Using the money to improve the country for everyone is another part of the job. Failing to do either of these things is the same as failing in the job. And failing to do one’s job is negligence. Every day, in Sierra Leone and all around Africa, people are dying from government negligence. But because they are dying from negligence instead of deliberate government action, the world looks the other way. Nobody is held accountable. The negligence goes unpunished.

Today, as 50 people go to their watery graves, we have seen one more demonstration of this negligence. With elections around the corner, let’s hope the next government is better than the previous ones. Let’s hope the next government values the lives of Sierra Leoneans enough to actively attempt to prevent such catastrophic accidents.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Gang Rape/Murder Trials May Strike a Blow for Women’s Rights in South Africa.

A little over a year ago, the body of 31-year-old Eudy Simelane was found in a park near her home on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. She had been gang raped and stabbed 25 times. Eudy was a sportscaster and a former midfielder on the South African national women’s football team. She was also a lesbian.

In a country where rape and violence against women is endemic, Eudy is one among countless victims. A recently published survey found that one quarter of South African men admitted to having committed rape. Further compounding the problem, the One in Nine Campaign, which takes its name from the grim statistic that only one in nine victims comes forward, maintains that rape is grossly underreported. This is no surprise considering that in South Africa, as elsewhere, women who are raped often find themselves blamed for it. For example, in a recent high-profile rape trial, the current president defended himself with the old she-made-me-do-it line, arguing (among other things) that the victim had provoked the sexual encounter by wearing a kanga—a traditional wrap-around garment—while she was a guest at his house. Unlike the president, however, most South African rapists are never tried for their crimes.

But Eudy Simelane’s case is somewhat different from the others. She was well-known, so the trial of the men accused of raping and killing her is bringing a lot of needed attention to South Africa’s rape crisis, especially to the targeted rape of lesbians. Dubbed “corrective rape,” The Guardian describes it as a practice wherein men—or gangs of men—rape lesbians in the belief that after sex with them, a lesbian will “become a girl.”

Earlier this year, one man accused of playing a role in Eudy Simelane’s death pled guilty to robbery and murder, but not rape. Today, the remaining suspects go to trial. Womens’ and gay rights activists are organizing around the trials—as well as around two other cases of “corrective rape”—hoping to push the government to take stronger action against rape, sexual violence, homophobia, and other hate crimes.

The convictions and sentences handed down in these cases ought to send a strong message that rape is wrong and go a long way towards improving life for lesbians—and other women—in South Africa. After all, it was the first country in the world to constitutionally guarantee gay rights, and the outcome of these cases will show whether, and to what extent, the South African government is committed to the ideals enshrined in the post-Apartheid constitution.

What Would Jesus Give Up For Lent?

Jesus being tempted with wealth and power, which he spurns.

Duccio's rendition of the temptation of Jesus. Not sure why the Devil's portrayed with black skin but, whatever. You gotta pick your battles.

It’s Lent again and, if you’re Christian, you’re probably giving up something you like. Or perhaps you thought about giving something up, but decided against it: Either way, thoughts of sacrifice must have crossed your mind. And, while I can’t speak for myself—I am not a Christian—I certainly know many Christians who are giving up everything from chocolote to alcohol to sex.

Once upon a time, Christians were only asked to make sacrifices in the real world but this year, at least one Italian cleric has asked Catholics to make sacrifices in the virtual world as well. According to the BBC , the Archbishop of Modena wants young people to give up texting and social networking sites (like Facebook) in order to  “cleanse themselves from the virtual world and get back into touch with themselves.” Other Italian Archbishops have asked people to give up mineral water or to recycle more (I’m not quite sure how recycling is a fitting “sacrifice” for Lent, except that maybe not recycling is a luxury that would be hard to surrender).

All this got me thinking: People are giving up all this stuff for Lent but what would Jesus give up?

The question (like the title of this post) is purely rhetorical because we have a good idea of what Jesus would give up (if we take the Gospels at their word, anyway). In Christian tradition, Lent commemorates the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the desert. According to three of the Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and Mark), Jesus was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit after John the Baptist . . . um . . . baptised him. He ate nothing while in the desert and, at the end of 40 days, was quite hungry. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, he was visited by Satan (or the slanderer, depending on the translation) who tempted him with food, wealth, and power. Here’s how Mark, the least verbose on the subject of Christ’s temptation, put it:

At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”

The other two Evangelists go into greater detail, listing the actual temptations. First, Jesus was tempted with food:

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

Next, he was tempted with wealth:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

Finally, the Devil tempted Jesus with power:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

In the end, Jesus triumphed over the Devil and resisted his temptations, which leads to another, bigger question: If Jesus Christ, the spiritual founder of the the Christian religion, endured 40 days of hunger in the desert, at the end of which he rejected both basic needs (food) and luxuries (wealth and power), how is it that modern Christians have to give up so little for Lent? I mean, don’t get me wrong, texting is an essential part of many modern Christians’ lives, but is giving that up really in keeping with the spirit of sacrifice? Could the Vatican not demand a greater sacrifice from the congregations it instructs to emulate Christ? Frankly, it’s a little demeaning to the memory of Christ’s ordeal in the desert that today, people who claim to be memorializing his suffering, have the option of giving up something as trivial as chocolate.

Ultimately, what we choose to “sacrifice” says as much about the modern world we inhabit as it does about the gap between how we live and how the majority of the rest of the planet lives. Most people on this planet have never owned a cell phone, let alone a computer. Every day, millions of people wake up hungry and go to bed thirsty. Millions have no access to clean, pipe-borne water. And uncounted numbers of women and girls have no say in when, where, how, or with whom they have sex. For them, giving up sex is impossible. Likewise, for most of the rest of the people on this planet, giving up texting or chocolate or mineral water is not even an option. These are luxuries they have no choice but to do without—day after day after day.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. At least one of those Italian Archbishops asked that people recycle more. Recycling is certainly a good start. Maybe next year he’ll ask his worshippers to oppose war or not beat their wives. Hopefully more and more religious leaders will ask people to not only give up things they enjoy but also to take up things they may not enjoy but which are beneficial to the rest of the human family. Maybe one day, a courageous Archbishop somewhere will order his congregants to never take a human life. After all, war and wifebeating (like most of our world’s ills) are intimately linked to wealth and power. Most importantly, lest we forget, these two temptations make up exactly two thirds of the temptations Jesus resisted in the desert.

Today, what are we to make of this story, which teaches us that 2000 years ago, a lone man starving himself in the desert knew that, in order to prepare for his mission, he needed to make some sacrifices? After all, his mission was no small feat: He had taken on no less a challenge than the salvation of the world! Of the three temptations, Jesus rejected one for only 40 days, but the other two he rejected for ever. He gave up food for just 40 days and nights, but he resumed eating once he returned from the desert. The bigger temptations, wealth and power, he gave up for ever—if the Gospels are to be taken literally, he did not pursue them for the rest of his life.

So when Lent rolls around next year, what will you give up?

Hate Speech is Not Free Speech: Chilean Students’ Killer had a History of Xenophobia

On the morning of Thursday, February 27, 14 friends gathered at a townhome in Miramar Beach, Florida for a party. At around 1:45 am, Dannie Roy Baker, who lived in the same complex as the hosts, crossed the compound with a rifle and opened fire on the partygoers.

By the time police arrived at the scene, five people had been shot—two of them fatally—and the shooter had returned to his home, where he awaited the arrival of police. Since his arrest, Dannie Baker has not spoken to the police so his motive for the killings is not known. But enough information has come out to indicate that it was at least partially motivated by the fact that the victims’ were not native-born Americans. All 14 people at the party, including Baker’s five victims, are Latinos. The two he killed were Chilean students visiting the US as part of a work-study program.

The story is not getting widely picked up in the national media and one of the first places to compile details was the Daily KOS, who reports that Dannie Baker had volunteered with the local Republican Electoral Committee during the 2004 presidential race, after which he apparently sent “radical” and “inappropriate” emails to other members. Baker’s emails were so disturbing that they were reported to the local sheriff’s department but, because the emails did not contain threats against a specific person, the sheriff’s department took no further action against him. The actual text of these emails has not yet been released.

Although Baker had no history of violence, it appears he was not entirely mentally or emotionally stable. According to Jim Anders, a member of the Republican Executive Committee, Baker was very “eccentric” and seemed to have “some emotional problems.” And Crystal Lynn, a neighbor of Baker’s, says “he did come up to me one time and asked me if I was ready for the revolution to begin and if I had any immigrant in my house to get them out.”

Until more information comes out, there’s no way to know what Dannie Baker wrote in those emails that so troubled people that they reported him to the police. Hopefully, he didn’t write about killing immigrants because that would mean the sheriff’s department screwed up big-time by not investigating him further and putting him someplace where he could not be a threat to others. A direct threat against a specific person should justifiably be grounds for police action, but so should threats against a specific group. After all, a hate crime does not target a specific person but it does target a specific group, identified by race, nationality, sexual orientation, or some other collective identity marker.

So if it turns out that Baker had made threats against Latinos or any other immigrant group, the Sheriff’s department should explain why they took no further police action against him. Freedom of speech permits deranged and sane people alike to say whatever they please, but if one of those crazy people rants against foreigners, sends “radical” and “inappropriate” emails, and tells his neighbor to get immigrants out of her house, that ought to be grounds for the local police to do something. Now two people are dead, three are wounded, and an entire community is traumatized. But of course, until the contents of Baker’s emails are released, there’s no way to know if he had made threats against a specific racial group.

At the end of the day, hate speech is not free speech, but it seems many Americans have trouble distinguishing the two. Or perhaps, with more Americans joining hate groups and anti-immigrant rhetoric—to say nothing of anti-immigrant action—becoming more mainstream, the question should not be whether Americans can recognize hate speech but whether and to what extent they are bothered by it. (The fact that several news outlets have mentioned the victims’ immigration status—as if that is relevant to the case!—further illustrates this country’s obsession with immigration. God only knows what the news coverage of this hate crime would look like if the victims had been in the country without the proper immigration paperwork!)

Now, twenty-three-year-old Nicolas Corp-Torres and twenty-two-year-old Racine Baldontin-Aragondona—two of Dannie Baker’s victims—are dead. But they might still be alive had local law enforcement understood, or cared about, the difference between hate speech and free speech the first time they had to deal with Dannie Baker.

Post-Racialism Marches On in America.

Totally non-offensive picture showing the White House lawn prepped for the annual Easter watermelon hunt which, according to Los Alamitos Mayor Dean Grose, will replace the more traditional Easter egg hunt. Mayor Grose claims he was unfamiliar with the racial stereotype that Black people love watermelon.

Image distributed by Los Almitos Mayor Dean Grose, showing the White house lawn prepped for the annual Watermelon hunt. Grose is claiming he was unaware of the racial stereotype that Black people love watermelon.

Lest anyone was having trouble remembering that we are now living in a post-racial America, here are a few reminders.

In Los Alamitos, Mayor Dean Grose has come under fire for sending a doctored photo titled “No Easter egg hunt this year.” Offended recepients, including Keyanus Price, a Black businesswoman, have demanded an apology from the mayor. Speaking in his own defense, the mayor claimed that he had no idea there was a racial stereotype involving Black people and watermelons.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, issued a reluctant apology for the above cartoon, drawn by Sean Delonas.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, issued a reluctant apology for the above cartoon, drawn by Sean Delonas.

Other examples of post-racialism at work  have attracted nationwide attention. Take, for example, the New York Post cartoon in which two White officers shoot dead a chimpanzee, and one of the officers says to the other, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” While the Post and its supporters tried to argue that the cartoon ape and the reference to the stimulus bill were not coded racist references to President Barack Obama, there is no escaping the association. Although admittedly the president is not the bill’s author, a cursory Google search on the term “stimulus bill” turns up tons of articles that reference Obama in their opening paragraphs (see also here). So while the cartoonist may want people to believe that the link was unintentional, the reality is that on one hand, the ape has long been used as a  racist caricature of Black people, and on the other hand, there is a long history of White people doing violence to Black people. When the links among the stimulus bill and Barack Obama, the history of police violence towards Black men, and the ape as a racist caricature are considered, it’s hard—if not impossible—not to see the racist overtones in this cartoon.

Sadly, some of the other signs of post-racialism are much more real than a doctored photo or a newspaper cartoon, and the town of Paris, Texas provides a few examples. Paris is where a 14-year-old Black girl was sentenced to seven years in a juvenile prison for pushing a hall monitor. The sentencing judge had earlier sentenced a young White girl to probation for arson! Paris is also home to Turner Industries’ pipe factory, whose Black employees are complaining that nooses, confederate flags, and racist graffitti are prominently displayed all over their workplace.

Ah yes! We are living in heady times! Post-racial fever is sweeping the nation and everybody’s catching the bug! According to CNN, there has been a huge upswing in the number of Americans joining hate groups. Don Black, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard (what an unfortunate last name for a KKK Grand Wizard!?), told the cable news network that 2,000 people joined his online hate group the day after Obama’s inauguration: prior to the inauguration, he got about 80 new members a day.

Clearly, in this post-racial climate, many people are confused and disoriented, and don’t know how to handle life in the new America. In the spirit of post-racialism—and as a personal favor to Mayor Dean Grose, Turner Industries’ White employees, Don Black, and anyone else who wants to jump on the post-racial bandwagon—here are a few ways in which the post-racial esprit de corps can be advanced:

  • Don’t make any jokes about Native Americans and alcoholism;
  • Do not make casual references to Asians, math prowess, and/or penis/butt/breast size;
  • Avoid associating Black people with grape soda, fried chicken, drug dealing, or primates of any kind;
  • Whatever you do, DO NOT join a hate group. Joining a hate group will severely undermine your post-racial credentials.

Boy, it feels great to be living in a post-racial America! I shudder to think what America was like before post-racialism.

We Have Not Overcome.

electionnight

On election night, I joined thousands of revelers in the streets of Washington, DC in a spontaneous celebration of Barack Obama’s presidential victory. And we were not alone: similar celebrations erupted all across the United States and around the world. Seventy-seven days later, the spectacle was repeated on an even grander scale as over a million people streamed into DC to witness the inauguration, and millions more around the world watched it on television and computer screens.  The inauguration of Barack Obama was hailed as a truly historic occasion, a sign that America had changed, that we had entered a post-racist era. We united in self-congratulation as we watched Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi end their rendition of Sam Cooke’s classic with the line, “a change has come, ” while the more eschatologically minded described Mr. Obama’s ascension to the presidency as nothing less than the fulfilment of Martin Luther King’s prophetic dream. But have we really overcome?

Well, if news headlines from around the country are any indication, we still have a long way to go. It will take more than a changing of the guard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to fix what ails our country because, while Obama’s victory is significant for many reasons, it has not brought us into a post-racist world.

Take, for example, what is taking place in Maricopa County, Arizona, where  Sheriff Joe Arpaio—who already has a reputation for brutally mistreating undocumented county residents—sank to hitherto unimaginable depths. A short while ago, the tough-on-immigration sheriff marched over 200 immigration detainees (mainly Latino men) from the county jail to a tent city created just for them. Detainees were dressed in old-time striped prison uniforms and paraded publicly to the tent city, which is surrounded by an electric fence. In the past, the sheriff’s department has caught flak for racial profiling and disproportionately targeting Latinos for arrest and harrassment. There have also been numberous reports of mistreatment of detainees, who have been hog-tied, beaten, and forced to work in chain gangs. To put things in perspective: 70% of Arpaio’s detainees have not been tried or convicted of any offense! So much for the American ideal of “innocent until proven guilty.” One doesn’t have to be a holocaust scholar to be sickened by Sheriff Arpaio’s pogrom against Maricopa County’s Latinos.

The situation is no better on the other side of the country where Jack Lacy, the ex-president of Hamilton Township in New Jersey, was forced to resign after sending an e-mail in which he compared President Obama’s inauguration to the evacuation of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. According to Lacy, “How can two million blacks get into Washington, D.C., in sub zero (temperatures) in one day when 200,000 couldn’t get out of New Orleans at 85 degrees with four days notice?” So . . . when over a million Black people gathered in DC to celebrate what could be the greatest day in the history of Black America since emancipation, Jack Lacy saw fit to compare it to what was possibly the worst time in recent Black American history.

And finally, who can forget the spate of hate crimes that erupted around the election? In Long Island, New York, a gang of teens went on an immigrant-bashing spree that culminated in the death of Marcelo Lucero. Another case involved a Black family of Obama supporters in New Jersey who found a burnt cross on their lawn a few days after the election. On Staten Island, New York, a Black man was beaten by two teenagers: during the beating, they insulted their victim with racial slurs and called him “Obama.” It’s worth noting that these are not isolated incidents, the death throes of bigotry in a post-racist America. In fact, there was a spike in hate crimes and ethnic intimidation around the country, according to a report put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

There are countless other examples but there’s no need to recount more, because those who share my outlook already know about them, and those who don’t cannot be convinced. Suffice to say, attitudes from racial America have been effortlessly carried over into post-racial America, and eliminating these attitudes will take much more than a Black family in the White House. America is still America and, lest we forget, Obama did not get 100% of the votes cast. Far from it. He got only slightly over half. Yet watching the nation bask in collective self-congratulation, one might be forgiven for thinking that Americans had—by the mere act of electing the first Black president in our nation’s history—accomplished nothing less than the elimination of racism from the face of the earth.

Part of the explanation for this response lies in Americans’ limited understanding of racism. Many Americans understand racism simply as namecalling or violence. Other Americans see racism as the absence of Black people or other people of color in positions of power. Racism is both these things, of course, but it is also much more. However, for the average American, who understands racism as merely the absence of colored people in positions of power, the Obama presidency is a major blow against racism: some of the more sanguine of that lot even consider it a fatal blow. But there’s more to this racism-is-dead rhetoric. The claim that America has entered a post-racist era is nothing less than an extension of our national mythology.

Our nation’s myths tell us that we are a special nation destined to blaze a unique trail in the world. America, we are often reminded, is a city on a hill, a shining beacon for the world. Everything we do, everything to do with America, is further proof of our unique place in the world. Even when we are doing wrong, it’s gets spun as proof of our inherent greatness. At any given point in our history, for instance, the majority of Americans have tolerated unimaginable injustices carried out against minorities—enslavement, segration, lynching, ethnic cleansing, torture, the racist “war on drugs,” unprovoked war against Iraq, illegal roundups of undocumented immigrants. Yet when a few courageous individuals lay their lives and freedom on the line to end some form of  injustice, we unite in collective self-congratulation, holding up the victory as proof of how great our country is.

But is the constant need for some to triumph over injustice really proof of America’s greatness? Clearly, that is what the myth-makers would have us believe. After all, we are reminded, only a great society would give a dedicated handful of people the chance to risk their lives and liberty in the fight against state-sanctioned injustice. We point to people like Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks as proof of America’s greatness, a place in which even those who are brutalized by the system can, through superhuman acts of heroism, become full citizens. Yet we never stop to wonder why these people were, in the first place,  living in a society in which they were compelled to stand up and demand that their dignity and inherent humanity be recognized. Why have minorities in America had to exert heroic efforts just to be recognized as full human beings and full citizens? What does it say about America that she has demanded nothing less than heroism from non-White people whenever they have aspired to nothing more than the chance to live as ordinary people? Would Frederick Douglass have chosen to be born a slave just for the chance to achieve greatness by rising from slave to human? Would Rosa Parks not have preferred to live in a society in which heroism was not a prerequesite for being able to sit wherever one pleased? Naturally, our myth-makers never answer these questions. Hell, they never even ask them. Instead, they tell us only that America is a great country in which Black people like Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass can become national heroes. But they never tell us why the systems of injustice under which they suffered—which forced them to become heroic—came to be so widely accepted in the first place.

And so the myth-makers are spinning the story of Barack Obama, the first Black president . . . of the United States, anyway, because many other countries have had Black presidents. The difference is that in most of these countries, White privilege and racism were never so institutionalized that it became remarkable that a non-White person would rise to the ranks of the presidency. The fact that we find it so remarkable that America actually has a Black president says a lot about our society. But our nation’s myth-makers would rather ignore this inconvenient truth, choosing to remind us instead that Obama’s victory is further proof of how great our country is.

But the Sherriff Arpaios and Jack Lacys of the world remind us of something else. They remind us that we still have a long, long way to go.