Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Fifty Years After Birmingham Sunday, Where Are We?

A day after the 50th anniversary of Birmingham Sunday, an article in the September 16th issue of the New York Times caught my eye. A white middle class family (consisting of a mom, a dad, and the requisite two children) living in a gated community in South Africa spent a month in a shantytown to better understand the mentality of those living in it. (See the article  in the NewYorkTimes/ September16,2013/ “Trading Privilege for Privation, Family Hits a Nation’s Nerve”).

The article paints a stark contrast between the few haves and many have-nots in South Africa. The family was able to learn much about what the people in the shantytown have to deal with and they forged some interesting relationships. Whenever people can understand each other across ethnic and class lines, it's a positive development.

It reminded me of two books written in the United States. One was Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, a memoir from the early 1960’s about his experience becoming black temporarily with the use of dyes and other such help so that he could know how it felt to be a member of a discriminated against minority group. The other was Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. In this book, Ms. Ehrenreich goes undercover as a minimum wage worker to see what it’s like to manage on $7 per hour jobs. Can we ever know what it feels like to be a member of the other group? Do the differences go beyond skin color to the point that we can’t comprehend? To Barbara Ehrenreich’s credit, she understood that because she could always return to her bank account, car, and other class privileges, she couldn’t know. Therefore, she only investigated the practical problems of securing housing and other resources on a very limited income.

As difficult and tragic as the problems were that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement, many issues were resolved thanks to the bravery of the people who challenged the then status quo. As arduous as that was to achieve, sometimes it feels as though we only fixed the easy problems. As Dr. King said at the end of his life, it costs the government nothing to integrate a lunch counter. He went on to challenge us to do a lot more to eradicate poverty. Soon after he challenged the economics of class and race, he was assassinated. While it has never been proven in a court of law, I will always believe that his assassination was neither a coincidence nor the work of one madman working on his own.

Now we are left with the intractable problems. The unemployment rate of blacks is three times that of whites. Their rate of people living in poverty is higher as well. How do we eradicate the class differences that have become so solidified in the past 20 years? For example, a person’s income of origin is more a predictor of ability to complete a four-year college degree than any other factor. Is it more important to work on understanding one another or on changing the conditions causing our class lines to solidify? It feels to me that the issue of class is still the pink elephant in the room in any discussion of race. Where do we go from here?       



Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Why Invade Syria? Some Of Us Want to Know

Like many of you, I am quite upset about the USA’s impending invasion of Syria. Hoping that it will be stopped before it starts, I am sending the following letter to President Obama: 

Dear President Obama;

All right, so you made a mistake. Everyone does sometimes. Using the use of chemical weapons as a red line to get Assad to stop killing his own people was not a good idea. You thought that being threatened by the United States of America would be sufficient to make him stop killing Syrian civilians. This was a major tactical error on your part. Anyone who has already ordered the killing of as many people as he has will care little about the USA killing a few more. You were on the right track before when you hesitated to get us embroiled in another war in the Middle East. No good guys could be identified and as far as I know, they still haven't. We didn’t stop the genocide in Rwanda or Biafra. There are numerous oppressive governments around the world in which we don’t intervene. Why Syria? I can’t believe that you really think that any good could come from such an attack other than your saving face for having made the crossing the red line statement.

As much as your red line statement was a mistake, I have to congratulate you for asking Congress to authorize an attack. It’s a great way to save face without getting anyone killed. I hope and pray that behind the scenes, you’re begging all those Senators and Congressmen to “just say NO.” As an Illinois resident in the Ninth Congressional District, I have e-mailed Senators Durbin and Kirk and Congresswoman Schakowsky beseeching them to deny you this authorization. If Assad is toppled, we aren’t even sure that a decent government will emerge. Once again, you were right before. This is clearly a time to let bad enough alone and I am hoping against hope that Congress pulls you back from this brink.

If by some chance, however, Congress finally gets its act together and does something you purportedly want and votes yes, it will be a tragedy for the Middle East. Nevertheless, in that worst-case scenario, there is a lesson to be learned. Congress responds well to reverse psychology. This strategy can be employed during the year to pass something positive. Raising the debt ceiling and getting a farm bill that includes a decent amount of appropriations for Food Stamps comes immediately to mind.

In closing, Mr. President, I have always been one of your staunchest supporters and I’m still rooting
for you. I’ve supported you ever since as a state senator, you announced that you opposed the USA invading Iraq. I cheered when you welcomed the troops home after you brought our involvement in that disaster to an end.  I am really disappointed that you are doing a 180 -degree turn by planning this invasion of Syria now. I trust that you will find a way to cancel your plans.

Good luck in your efforts to keep America safe and make the world a better, more peaceful place.

Lisa Sachs

PS. If you really feel the need to have this invasion, shouldn’t there be an element of surprise? At this point, all Assad has to do to find out what you have in mind is to read the New York Times.