To prevent a coup – strengthen the military spine

August 4, 2020

Two weeks ago, I commented about Jefferson’s fear of a presidential coup. Last week I spoke about using nonviolent methods to prevent a takeover by the incumbent president, who told Chris Wallace on Fox that he might not leave the White House if he loses the coming election. Afterward, I expressed my concerns and showed a copy to Ian Shapiro, a friend and polymath who’s done brilliant work on both foreign and domestic policy. He sent me back a portion of his new book on economic insecurity, The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It. I quickly realized we were approaching the same problem from different angles. Insecurity makes people want to believe that Trump is leading them to better days. And getting Ian’s message across will help protect us against a presidential takeover.

The Army is a crucial player in any takeover. American military tradition is stanchly against political activity and devoted to defending the Constitution. There would be great resistance at all levels to using the military politically, especially to end politics by takeover. And because the military contains a large cross-section of America, we all influence it. Military diversity makes it harder to unite on unauthorized, unpopular activities in conflict with American military tradition, especially if they depend on secret planning.

But presidential takeovers in other countries force us to the sobering realization that a perverted commander-in-chief can pervert the military, given enough time. That makes all the work we’re doing to prepare for this election crucial to prevent White House treason – even though he’s talked about it openly. Concerted opposition to Trump and to takeovers, expressed in a vigorous campaign, make it less likely that the military will participate in a coup.

But outside the military, Trump has been constructing other forces which respond to him – using or threatening to use the National Guard, border guards and other armed federal agents in Portland[1] and elsewhere to stir up trouble where peace had reigned. Even more serious are the private militias that conduct their own training with their own arsenals. The great bulk of domestic terrorism has come from those groups. Instead of fidelity to the Constitution, they aim at violently defeating American government in order to achieve undemocratic aims in conflict with the Constitution and the law. Some American elections have been overturned by force of arms.

Unreconstructed admirers of Civil War secessionists would gladly reverse the results of the Civil War. Guns and racism have become closely entwined. Gun shows and private militias confront us with a plethora of racist and conspiracy theories making the point.[2] Their treasonous impulses fuel my strongest objections to gun rights today – guns are not being used for self-defense but for calculated murder, intimidation and political takeover.[3]

Trump’s outrageous racism and complements to racist killers are obvious efforts to get those armed but irresponsible groups behind him, ready to function as a palace guard to keep him in office regardless of the election. Private militias, like gangs and criminal cartels are dangerous because they oppose democracy, are divorced from national values, and expect to gain from violence. Instead of respecting peaceful demonstrations, they’ve spawned provocateurs in places like Portland, to give Trump an excuse for shutting democracy down. They and their standard-bearer in the White House must be stopped. And we have to keep up the fight for government of, by, and for the people.

[1] Washington Post Blogs, A violent send-off on feds’ final night at Portland courthouse, July 31, 2020 Friday 12:07 AM EST

[2] John A. Wood, THE PANTHERS AND THE MILITIAS (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002); Kenneth S. Stern, A FORCE UPON THE PLAIN: THE AMERICAN MILITIA MOVEMENT AND THE POLITICS OF HATE (Norman: U. Okla. Press, 1997); Southern Poverty Law Center, “Terror From the Right: Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City,” http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/terror-from-the-right (visited Jan. 23, 2014).

[3] Stephen E. Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 173-77 (NYU Press, 2016).


The Case for Black Reparations

July 6, 2020

Many years ago, one of my professors at law school, Boris Bittker, wrote a book called The Case for Black Reparations. Bittker was known mostly for his work on taxation, but he cared and wrote a great deal about race. One year at Reunions, he took my wife and me to see a pair of very interesting films about the confinement of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast in internment camps during World War II, and the experience of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, many of whom served in the American military. Bittker’s book on black reparations went through the issues in a very lawyerly way as if he were arguing to a court. But let me describe it on a very human level.

First the white slavers stole the freedom of Africans. Then they stole many of their lives, and, of those who survived, they stole the fruits of Black labor. When finally, the slaves were legally freed, White Supremacists stole it all again: the lives of African-Americans by lynching, their labors by a century of intimidation that virtually re-enslaved them. And when finally they found places where they could prosper, White Supremacists, many in the white robes of Klansmen, burned those places to the ground – the Black Wall Street in Tulsa,  Rosewood in FL;  changed election results by murder in places like Colfax County, Louisiana,  and Wilmington, North Carolina; and went on murderous rampages in a number of northern cities.  When whites made programs that helped build white wealth – like Social Security and Unemployment Insurance – jobs held by Blacks were excluded by statute. When Blacks sought good jobs, discrimination shut them out. When segregation finally became illegal, African-Americans had to start again on the ground floor of white men’s businesses, where once again they were given little for their effort – how many times do Trump and his white supremacist supporters insist on making their own wealth by stealing the labors of African-Americans?

And when they engage in peaceful protest, they’re told it’s unseemly behavior. Heaven forbid a Black man take a knee, or complain that Black Lives Matter. We aren’t supposed to focus on righting the wrongs to our African-American friends, colleagues, clients, customers and citizens.

So yes, there’s a strong case for reparations. I understand we’re not equally responsible nor equally beneficiaries of the wrongs done. But we Americans quite ordinarily help each other when we can. And, anyway, that’s a problem for the tax code – if the rich make the poor pay for reparations, it will be just as unfair as everything else the rich make others pay for. It matters how it’s done.

I have, however, one reservation. The most important thing that we can do for our African-American brothers and sisters is to secure their safety. We’ve all been talking about that nonstop for quite a while as each new case surfaces of African-Americans viciously and needlessly killed.  I’ve been commenting about that for years and have worked to fight it in the courts. I’m not sure what road gets there first, so that my friends, colleagues and former clients can enjoy their lives, family, property and careers in safety. That will take more than money. It will take effort and commitment to turn so-called law enforcement around so that it enforces the law for the benefit of everyone, including people of color. Few things would give me greater joy or peace of mind than to be able to share this life in peace and justice with all of you.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on July 7, 2020.

 


Our Umpteenth Effort to End Racial Murder and Abuse

June 28, 2020

I wanted to deliver this last week but Trump’s use of the military against domestic protestors had me fear for the future of our republic and I put this off.

But I want to talk about these horrible scenes of murder of African-Americans by police. People killed who posed no threat, where the police had everything well under control, and it wasn’t even clear if the victim had done anything meriting police attention, let alone murder. Breonna Taylor, an EMT, was killed in her bed in Louisville.

This reminds me of the Civil Rights Movement I grew up with. People in prayer outside boards of election that wouldn’t let them register. 14-year- old Emmet Til killed on a visit to Mississippi relatives, accused of whistling at a white woman. Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker shot in her car. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, an integrated trio of civil rights workers, released by police in front of thugs who followed, murdered and buried them where they were not expected to be found.

The murders and lynchings stayed in front of our eyes until we hurt, just as we are hurting for George Floyd, choked to death in Minneapolis; Walter Scott, over a brake light in Charleston, SC; Ahmaud Aubrey, killed for jogging while Black in Georgia; Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old, in Cleveland; Stephon Clark, killed for holding a cell phone in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard;  Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner, in Staten Island; Tony McDade in Tallahassee; and Trayvon Martin, a teenager, killed by a neighborhood vigilante who thought he didn’t belong, compounded by the jury’s acquittal. Their stories, and so many more, are unacceptable. The police are supposed to protect us. But they kill too. African-Americans have learned not to call the police in order to protect their own families. I can’t forget the acquittal of four officers here in Albany for killing Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, in a barrage of forty-one shots for trying to put a key in his door.

The U.S. Supreme Court enabled a century of lynching in 1876 by holding that a U.S. Attorney had no authority to prosecute the perpetrators of the Colfax Massacre.[i] After that, police and the Klan, which also infiltrated the FBI, acted with impunity in much of the country. The Court now does its best to restore the worst abuses of that century of intimidation and impunity.[ii] I recently worked on a brief in support of the family of a Mexican boy, in a cross-border shooting by American officers for playing too near the border. The Supreme Court protected his killer. As Pete Seeger asked, “When will it ever end”?

And yet we can’t get tired, we can’t stop, we can’t let all the abuses this country has tried to stop elsewhere define life for a third of our citizens at home. No one is free when anyone is in chains. I don’t want to have the deaths of thousands of decent people on my conscience. I don’t want my darker skinned friends, colleagues, clients, neighbors, essential workers, athletes, entertainers or any other good people and their families having to worry day and night about eluding people who want to kill them or think they aren’t worth living?

When Yugoslavia started to come apart, we had an exchange student living with us who was from Belgrade. She cried about what was happening to her country – the whole country, Yugoslavia. There was intermarriage, friendship, strong neighborhoods, business partnerships, and none of that protected people. When things start to fall apart, there is no safety. We need to stand up for decent people of all backgrounds. And remember that none of us and none of those dear to us are safe when shooters are empowered, with or without a badge.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on the WAMC Northeast Report, on June 30, 2020.

[i] LeeAnna Keith, The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction (Oxford Univ. Press 2008); Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction (Henry Holt & Company 2008); and United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876), the case that turned a massacre into a century of intimidation and impunity.

[ii] Stephen Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 189-208 (2016).


Cops, Blacks, Presidents and Stereotypes

June 2, 2020

After practicing law, it’s hard to stick to stereotypes about people, whether the police, the looters, whites, presidents or anyone else. Lawyers see the best and the worst, Mother Teresa and Jack the Ripper. The good and bad aren’t predictable.

We have lots of stereotypes about African-Americans. I’ve worked in and for the Black community but I’ve never met the stereotype. Instead I’ve gotten to know a lot of wonderful people at all levels of American society.

Police? Actually I think the police are like rest of us in all other walks of life, comprised of everyone from the best to the worst. We stereotype the police. Since they’re brave, we stereotype them all as good people. Americans don’t like to call people they despise brave, but if risking death is brave, the cops share that honor with lots of the people they pursue – gangsters, gang members and terrorists. So it’s pretty obvious that I don’t see the connection between bravery and decency. There are police who heroically track down dangerous people and rescue the innocent. But there are other police convicted of everything from fraud to the murder of women and children as well as unarmed and peaceful African-Americans.

Presidents? It had to happen that we would have one who’d try to preserve his power against the wishes of the American people. He fans the flames and encourages chaos so that he can gather the military and pretend to put out fires that he fanned, using the military against domestic dissent. He stripped many of the finest military men from command to quote “work” in his White House, and when they discovered they could not behave intelligently and patriotically they resigned. Monkeying with military leadership is dangerous. And Trump is using his die-hard armed supporters with their “Second Amendment rights” as Storm Troopers in disguise. It couldn’t be clearer that he wants to become dictator. That’s the route they take – encourage violence, create chaos and then pose as the savior.

The men who created our country knew that power corrupts. They made no assumptions but tried to create checks and balances to counter against the certainty that it would happen. They didn’t figure out how to control the Senate before it made a mockery of the impeachment process. Yes, he’s guilty of lying and a cover-up, but no matter, that’s not serious enough. Is abandoning world leadership to the Russians and Chinese disloyal enough? Is a daily string of lying to the American people and making up fake quote “facts” serious enough? Is threatening insurrection with what he refers to as “Second Amendment rights” serious enough? Is there a Second Amendment right to storm state houses and threaten governors with their weapons? Is that serious enough? Is trying to poison Americans with fake so-called “cures” serious enough? Is the slaughter of a hundred thousand Americans because he dithered in dealing with disease serious enough?

Yes, along with decent and heroic officers, there are some who are intoxicated by the power of their weapons, corrupted by their stereotypes of African-Americans, and protected by a culture of silence and solidarity. But their faults are encouraged by a pretender in the White House for whom nothing is too much to keep him in power.


What are Americans that God is mindful of us?

January 14, 2020

Lots of people believe their countries are best. We do too. Caring for one’s country is good. Economic objections to admitting refugees don’t justify brutality. Strategic disagreements about Iran’s objectives don’t require going to war. But demonizing people changes the stakes. Treating them as nothing but vandals and killers, unworthy of concern, drives the ugliest parts of both the refugee and Iran crises, and threatens everyone in a chorus of hate.

Trump’s African-American predecessor created a path to peace in the Middle East. Obama was hardly the first African-American with diplomatic skills. Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche negotiated the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Powell and Rice are more recent. But Trump can’t recognize Obama’s achievements. So he shredded the path to peace, revived animosities that made it useless for the US to stay in Iraq, and demonized Iranians and Mexicans, while too many of his supporters murder those they demonize.

Insistence that other peoples are unworthy of concern is like throwing a hand grenade at our common Biblical, Judeo-Christian and Muslim heritage, for the Bible, and the Abrahamic tradition it embodies, is the common heritage to which so many of us in America cling.

The Bible asks in the Book of Psalms: “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”

Must we, too, be mindful of others?

Or do we think that we’re only a little lower than the angels, entitled to rule over God’s other peoples, to disparage, demean and vilify refugees and entire countries?

America’s strength comes from protecting human rights and supporting international law. We, not just a statue in New York harbor, have been a torch of freedom throughout the world.

Our Declaration of Independence became a landmark in the development of universal human rights by showing “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” and proclaiming that all of us “are created equal … endowed by … [our] Creator with … unalienable Rights … [to] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Our Constitution guarantees rights to all. The Bill of Rights speaks to “the people,” every “person,” and any “accused.”

The 14th Amendment defined citizenship so that it could not be denied to African-Americans or any other race – red, brown, yellow, whatever. These are among the commitments in that torch of freedom.

When we refuse visas or reentry to refugees, returning citizens, residents or visitors simply because of ancestry or faith, we not only violate the Constitution, we dim and tarnish our torch.

For centuries, we’ve been devoted to a world of rules and mutual obligations as the best path to peace. America wrote the rules of international order after World War II for a grateful world. No one forced NATO, the UN, regional and world financial organizations on us. When this country dishonors our obligations, to Iran, to NATO, the EU, or to refugees, who’ll trust us? If we’ve become a rogue state, whose interests align with ours?

God rescued the ancient Israelites from Egypt. But the Lord reminded them, in Amos 9-7, that God also rescued other very different peoples. If God pays attention to America, it’s not so we can celebrate or claim to be #1, the best or most powerful. It is because we have a job to do for all humankind.


We Have Trump to Thank

September 24, 2019

The President has been taking apart all previously made progress handling the environment and global warming. His actions will contribute to what has been called the sixth extinction – the premature death of billions of people on this planet, large proportions of our children and grandchildren and the shrinking of any remaining habitable portions of earth, so that few can survive and those who manage to live on the meager remainder will have had to survive the bloodiest war of all against all just for the scraps remaining.

We have Trump to thank for trying to stop California from regulating its environment so that people can breathe in Los Angeles. We have Trump to thank for reversing the decline in greenhouse gasses from car engines and coal driven power plans. We have Trump to thank for encouraging the pollution and garbage that destroy fish and marine life, and poison the water we need to drink. We have Trump to thank for doing his best to put us out of our misery by making sure most of us cease to exist.

We have Trump to thank for making suckers out of those who supported him, putting all the resources which could have provided good jobs, into the hands of the richest among us, people who did everything except spend money on workers, who spent their tax breaks instead on stock buy-backs, dividends, McMansions, and outsourcing. We have Trump to thank for making suckers out of the people who thought he’d rebuild their jobs, their towns, their cities and their ways of life, and sacrificing them instead to twits about foreign countries.

Americans were famous across the globe for our ability to work together in everything from sports stadiums to armies and industry. America built its success on teamwork. But the President’s ego couldn’t stand it because he doesn’t get the credit. So, he found a way to destroy all those accomplishments by dividing us in order to conquer us.

So, we have Trump to thank for encouraging a war among Americans over race, religion, parentage and national origin. Alt-wrong mass killers have murdered a multiple of the Americans killed by any other source of domestic terrorism. They work individually as copy-cat killers, to defy blame and prevention, much like the Communists worked by separate cells. Yet the President praises and encourages them and prevents funding and enabling the surveillance the FBI should be doing to defend us.

We realize it’s very important to him to destroy all the strides we have been making to recognize each other’s strengths, talents and decency, to embrace each other as brothers, sisters, cousins and children of God so that he can stay in power riding a crest of hatred.

Instead, for Trump, only Trump counts. He has become the most corrupt president in the history of the country, the only one whose very loyalty is in doubt, who encourages violence against the public instead of protecting it from violence, and does all he can to weaken, not strengthen America.

I wouldn’t have thought it a good idea to lock up presidents and presidential candidates. It’s dangerous for democracies to do that. But Trump put it on the table by encouraging the chant to “Lock her up” directed against Hillary. It would be better for the rest of us to give him some of his own medicine, locking him up as he would have Hillary, but I’ll be satisfied by any legal means of getting him out of office. Then we can get back to saving our environment, strengthening the position of our workers, and protecting Americans from descending further into violence.


Threats to Democracy – The Shadow Knows How to Divide and Conquer

January 16, 2018

Right after Trump won, a cousin offered to send me some anti-Hillary literature that she thought I’d find convincing. I responded that if Hillary had won, she and I would be safe. But Trump’s victory emboldened those who would be perfectly happy exercising what Trump euphemistically called their Second Amendment rights, getting rid of people who don’t fit their racial and religious criteria. They were already on the streets. That left neither of us safe.

Nor is the problem just what some of his supporters believe and do. His campaign and rhetoric were about who should not be here. He continually appeals to his most extreme supporters, people who barely conceal their admiration for Hitler.

Many of us have been talking about how polarized our politics have become. Polarized politics is dangerous because it is a predicate for autocracy. If people become convinced that they can’t live with the other side’s victory, that life is too dangerous, democracy becomes unsustainable. When a live and let live attitude is gone, democracy can’t be trusted.

Trump can’t be trusted. Trump stands for exactly the kind of politics that makes democracy feel more dangerous than valuable. During the campaign, he told his supporters to express their “second Amendment rights” at the polls, sending chills down the spines of loyal Americans. When neo-Fascists showed up to demonstrate in Charlottesville fully armed to sow fear and intimidation, and one of their sympathizers murdered a peaceful and unarmed woman in the crowd, Trump blamed their opponents for the carnage. To Trump and his white supremacist supporters, evil is racial – Hispanic, immigrant, Puerto Rican, or Muslim, Blacks, Jews, minorities and women. When he tried to export his racist friends to the Brits, they told him to stay out of Britain. Bless the Brits. They get what this country used to stand for – we are [quote] “one nation … indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty and democracy are “indivisible”; they are and must be for ALL.

A descent into racism, Nazi or otherwise, would not make America great again. It would destroy our country. One of the things I found fascinating in the papers of the UN Commission on Human Rights which produced the UN Declaration of Human Rights, was that human rights was not an American idea foisted on the world. Hatred of the Nazis came from across the globe, all continents, all its peoples. What they saw, regardless of economic or political system or religious or ethnic heritage was that the Nazis were a threat to everyone. All countries worked with the single-minded goal that there should be no more Hitlers, no more Nazi control of any country. The world had defeated the Nazis and they weren’t about to have to do it again.

Trump doesn’t get or care that democracy depends on our agreement that all Americans are legitimate Americans, all Americans need to be respected and cared about, and all Americans need to feel safe here, or he is wielding the demonization of some of us precisely to end self-government.

When I was a kid, there was a radio program that some of you will remember. It’s tag line, voiced by actor Frank Readick Jr., was “what evil lurks in the hearts of men, the Shadow knows.” I make no claim to knowing what evil does or doesn’t lurk in the heart of Trump. But threatening America from the inside, he is the biggest threat to the survival of America since our Civil War.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 16, 2018.

 

 


Dealing with Hate

October 24, 2017

Dealing with Hate

Steve Gottlieb

 

Group epithets darken our world. It is particularly dangerous because the president encourages it. Trying to revive the language and practice of hate is shameful regardless of whom it comes from. How can we deal with it?

 

Somehow I grew up curious and sought out people who seemed different. I deliberately left New York City for college and law school to mix with people from other places. Students here come from distant parts of the country for the same reason. We discover our new companions have no horns and deal decently with us, although there are always exceptions.

 

I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for it but brotherhood makes sense. And it’s a survival strategy. Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps. He wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

His words urge us to stick together as a survival tactic – we can be selfish and altruistic at the same time and should be because brotherhood is valuable to us all.

Most of us learned not to generalize – branding people en masse makes little sense and lots of damage. Our language is full of ethnic slurs like welching on deals, Indian-givers, patty-wagons, not to mention all the ethnic slurs which most of us now regard as unmentionable but to which all our ancestors were subject. In other words, it’s too easy to break down into mutual distrust.

I’ve broken bread, worked and played with people around this country and across the globe, as an attorney, a Peace Corps Volunteer, tourist and student. It’s an education. Decent, caring people come in all colors, speak all languages, and worship in all kinds of places. That was as true in Iran as it was at college – I was a religious minority in both places but gained by both experiences as I learned to understand the needs, fears, desires and beliefs of others.

Unfortunately it’s too easy to fear what one hasn’t explored. We usually notice what goes wrong first, while what goes right seems too ordinary to notice. But that leaves lots of dangerous misimpressions. I grew up in an era when violence spewed out of white ghettos, from gangs in Black jackets but white skin. Should I fear every white American or every cleric because some went wrong? I’ve known a large number of wonderful African-Americans as well as people of other faiths and nationalities – some as clients, friends, colleagues and I’ve worked for several. The goodness of different peoples obviously doesn’t prove that none ever make mistakes but equally the mistakes of some don’t imply the absence of other wonderful people.

More significant than arguments, we need to condemn, resist and speak out. Hatred reveals the hater’s weakness. Our joint condemnations reveal how hatred destroys those who do the hating, costs them respect and other social and economic rewards. We must stand together.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 24, 2017.


I Have a Dream

August 22, 2017

The North was segregated after Brown outlawed segregation in 1954. It didn’t happen by private individual choices but by government decisions that blocked banks from lending to African-Americans in both the suburbs and inner cities. Those now well documented decisions created many of the inner cities’ problems and the struggle to make equality real. But who cares?

Who cares because all the proposals to fix a huge injustice, not in the distant years of slavery but now, mean paying to help “them.” It’s fine if someone else pays. But not us, not the wealthy, the middle class or the poor.

So are there answers society could adopt?

We nibble: the Fresh Air Fund, scholarships for the African-American elite, the people who overcame all the potholes and roadblocks in their way.

In 1938, years before Brown, the Supreme Court understood that the inescapable sin of segregation was the barrier to networking. Missouri was prepared to send African-Americans to any law school in neighboring states so that they would get what Missouri called an “equal” education, but not to Missouri schools. Presaging Brown, the Court said it wasn’t equal to deny African-Americans the chance to get to know future colleagues, adversaries, judges and legislators. As Brown would say 16 years later, segregation is inherently unequal.

There lies the real problem of race – any real solution involves us all. Would we put the resources into “their” schools that we put into “ours”? Would we share some classrooms? Would we allow willing parents to send their kids to our schools or would a modest program be too much for us or the racist majority on the court in Washington?

I think there will be success for African-Americans too. Fresh out of slavery, their ancestors created a system of higher education,  fine colleges and universities which survive and thrive. Then they started the climb toward the middle class familiar to many of us. Many African-Americans joined the ranks of civil servants in the federal government. Government service had been a route out of poverty for many of our ancestors. But beginning in 1913, after years of progress, President Wilson excluded African-Americans from all but menial federal jobs, pushing educated and successful African-Americans out of the federal bureaucracy.

That story was repeated after World War II, after Brown v. Board, when federal officials denied that African-Americans had any rights the capitalist system need honor and instead used the federal agencies they controlled to block African-Americans from getting loans to build businesses or join the march to the suburbs. It wasn’t anything African-Americans did, but that deliberate undermining of their efforts and successes laid the seeds of contemporary inner city problems.

There are many more chapters to the story of the ways that the financial and political rugs were pulled from under potentially successful African-Americans and their businesses. The road of our African-American brothers and sisters has been longer, harder, more unjust than the ancestors of most of the rest of us because America made it so.

I was there in front of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. Martin Luther King shared his glorious dream. That dream of equality belongs to all of us. All of us depend on the crucial American realization that all mankind is created equal. So, like most Americans, I thrilled to King’s words. And I admire the principled courage and dedication of Charlottesville’s counter-protestors. Their presence was an indication of the progress America has made, and their struggle reflects the distance still to travel.  King’s dream, our dream, is still a dream.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 22, 2017.


The Dagger in the Heart of Labor

August 15, 2017

Last week I spoke about labor. Next week is the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington. I intended to connect the two. After hate intervened in Charlottesville, that’s even more urgent.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Progressive Movement was making great strides on behalf of American workers and farmers. Gradually, the political parties adopted parts of the Progressives platform and many of their proposals were eventually adopted. But in the South, white elites drove a stake through the heart of the Progressive Movement by dividing workers on race. It took the Great Depression of the 1930s to wake America up.

The March on Washington that many of us remember as Martin Luther King’s great triumph was actually called by a coalition of labor leaders. Labor understood that workers had to stand together or they would be trashed together. If you could underpay African-American workers you could underpay everyone. The AFL-CIO, clear about the ways our fates interrelate, was a major supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.

But some politicians used racial prejudice to drive a wedge into support for progress, to prevent government from providing benefits and services for all of us, and then take the “savings” as tax breaks for themselves. Far more whites land on the public safety net but politicians want us to believe it’s just African-Americans. Far fewer African-Americans than whites depend on public schools but politicians want us to think money spent on schools is wasted because “they” get it. In area after area, politicians convinced many of us to starve public services. They want whites to think we would never need what African-Americans would get. They tell us we don’t want to spend anything on “them.” We should be allies, but the politics of race turns us into competitors.

Last time, I described how states and the Supreme Court have been undermining labor’s political role even as it augments management’s. So-called free market “conservatives” don’t want to do anything for the public, for you, your kids and your parents. They tell us that the market solves all problems for the deserving and only the undeserving need help, even while sanctimonious business men poison and defraud us. The real culprits want the freedom to take advantage of us while piling on more tax breaks for themselves. Racial prejudice just makes it easier for them to hide their own misbehavior.

So I want to make three points. First, racial prejudices do the greatest harm when politicians exploit them. I applaud those who condemn the violence and the perpetrators specifically. White supremacists don’t just object to policies – they hate everyone different from them. And no, Black Lives Matter is not a racist organization – objection to racism isn’t racism.

Second, the Supreme Court handed us heavily armed racists massing and marching to intimidate the rest of us. That must stop. Guns have no place in politics or public debate. Worse, white supremacists here admire Hitler, and study his path to power. Hitler’s Brown Shirts terrorized Germany. These folks are terrorists.

Third, Trump has done permanent damage to American politics. His close ties to groups which hate a large portion of America because they think we have the wrong parents is outrageous and highlights the danger of those hate groups. Trump has shown a path to power that every decent American must reject.

I was in front of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. Martin Luther King shared his glorious dream. I thrilled to his words. But the March on Washington which we remember for Dr. King’s words was called and organized by the labor leaders of America dreaming of unity for all the working men and women of America. It is still a dream. We have to make it come true.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 15, 2017.


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