Saturday, July 30, 2016

RNC versus DNC: Two Very Different Visions of America

The past two weeks have been kind of surreal: I watched four nights of the Republican convention and then four nights of the Democratic convention, and somehow I survived.  But I must admit I'm still recovering from what I saw and heard.  It's not that watching political conventions is something new for me-- I've seen my share of them over the years.  But these two conventions were surprisingly compelling (and sometimes concerning).  And now, even after both events have concluded, many of us are still trying to sort out what happened.

I've watched enough political conventions to understand that Republican and Democratic conventions showcase two entirely different perspectives on the issues.  It just seemed that this year's RNC and DNC showcased two entirely different universes. It's not that one was good and one was bad-- although both had moments of drama, moments of tension, moments of anger, and yes, moments of boredom; and both conventions had speakers who were inspirational, as well as speakers who put the audience to sleep.  But what struck me when I watched was that one convention was the polar opposite of the other in terms of its tone, and its vision of America.

At the Republican convention, I saw speakers who were furious, who vehemently blamed Hillary Clinton (and Barack Obama) for everything wrong in the world.  According to various speakers, there was no terrorism (and certainly no ISIS) before the two of them came along; crime rates were low; people had good jobs; and everyone felt secure.  But now, because of them, life in America has become nightmarish.  Donald Trump in his keynote speech said that illegal immigrants with criminal records are running rampant, there are riots in the streets, racial tensions are worse than ever, the Second Amendment is about to be eliminated... and only he can make us feel safe again by restoring order to a chaotic America and a dangerous world.  

And then there was the Democratic convention. Yes, many Bernie Sanders supporters were also furious, especially after the conveniently leaked emails that showed what many of us knew all along:  the establishment of the Democratic Party was not neutral about who should be nominated.  Party leaders supported Mrs. Clinton; they did not see Bernie as electable, nor did they see him as someone with any loyalty to the Democratic Party.  But the fact remains that Mrs. Clinton did get more votes during the primaries, and while Senator Sanders was a gentleman (and a pragmatist) about the fact that he did not get the nomination, some of his supporters decided it was okay to disrupt the convention.  They were incredibly rude, interrupting speakers (including widely-respected civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis) every time Hillary's name was said, and even booing Bernie himself when he asked them to accept Hillary as the nominee and focus their energy on defeating Donald Trump.

But after that first night, after speeches from both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, there seemed to be a shift.  Some Bernie supporters remained furious throughout the convention, but they seemed to be a minority of the attendees.  Nearly everyone else was caught up in the historic nature of nominating the first woman presidential candidate of a major party.  Over the next several nights, there were amazing speeches by Michelle Obama (hers was so uplifting that even Donald Trump and his endless tweets could find no fault with it); Barack Obama and Joe Biden were also effective in making their case for why Mrs. Clinton was the right choice. And when Hillary gave her acceptance speech, she did not talk about a dystopian and hopeless America:  she talked with pride about the goodness of America, about how "we," the American people, can work together to improve our democracy, and how great America would continue to be.  She even quoted Ronald Reagan, much to the appreciation of some of the Republicans who were watching.  (Some Republican critics noted that she wasn't wearing a flag pin, as if somehow that was a sin; but the entire convention hall was filled with flags both small and large, and with red-white-and-blue balloons.)  If the stereotype of Democrats is that they do not embrace patriotic symbols, they certainly embraced them enthusiastically throughout the convention.

There were two deeply emotional moments for me-- at the Republican convention, one of the mothers who lost her son during the attack on Benghazi angrily denounced Hillary and said she held Mrs. Clinton personally to blame.  And at the Democratic convention, a Muslim-American man whose soldier son had died fighting in Iraq lashed out at Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim ban and for questioning the loyalty of American Muslims.  The man's wife stood next to him but did not speak-- not because (as Trump later suggested-- erroneously) Muslim women aren't allowed to speak in public, but because she is still unable to speak about her son without crying.  

At the Republican convention, even a preacher giving the benediction felt the need to be partisan, saying Mrs. Clinton and Democrats were "the enemy," and calling upon God to bring about their defeat.  One speaker repeated the myth, widely believed by many Republicans, that President Obama is a secret Muslim; another suggested Hillary Clinton is a servant of Lucifer.  But in fairness, some of the Democratic speakers had equally harsh assessments of Donald Trump and of what he has done to the Republican party (and what damage he could do to America if elected).

The Democrats had more appearances by celebrities, and a number of big-name Democrats (along with a few Republicans) gave testimonials about why they thought Hillary would make a fine commander-in-chief.  Many women, especially those who had waited for so many years to see a women get the nomination (including one who was 102 years old), beamed with pride when Mrs. Clinton took the stage.  Yes, there were those who didn't agree with her on every issue, but seeing her accept the nomination was very moving for a lot of the delegates in the hall.  The Republicans had few big names-- in fact, even major members of their own party stayed away.  But the lack of star power wasn't a problem, nor did it seem to upset the attendees-- for them, Donald Trump was the biggest star of all, and they had a wonderful time being there to show their support for him.

And now, the campaign for president begins in earnest.  The next 100 days will show us which vision of America will prevail, and which of these two very polarizing candidates-- who have records of accomplishment as well as record low approval ratings-- will persuade the majority of Americans. Mr. Trump said the Democratic convention was too optimistic and failed to address the real issues; Mrs. Clinton said the Republicans offered only fear, bigotry, and a dangerous claim that we need an autocratic leader to solve our problems.  Mr. Trump said Mrs. Clinton is too corrupt to lead.  Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Trump is too thin-skinned, and incapable of providing steady and calm leadership during a crisis.  I'm not looking forward to 100 more days of name-calling, but as I sit here writing this, I sincerely wonder how the voters are feeling now that they have seen two such different visions of what America needs...

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Telling the Truth About White Privilege

It was 2012, and I was doing some volunteer work as a Big Sister.  My Little Sister was a truly adorable African-American ten year old. She was somewhat shy, very polite, and really appreciative of anyplace I took her.  One afternoon, I took her to a shopping mall so we could find a birthday gift for her mom.  She asked me if she could first look at the DVDs (I took her to a lot of movies, and she was eager to see if any of them were out on DVD yet), and I said that would be fine. I told her I needed to go over to the pharmacy department to get something for my allergies, and I said I'd meet her where the DVDs were.  But as soon as she walked away from me, I noticed something interesting:  a store security person began to follow her.  I found this puzzling, since the kid was not doing anything out-of-the-ordinary.  There were other kids (all of whom were white) looking at various things in the store, but the store detective was focused on my Little Sister.  I quickly headed in her direction and asked the security guy if there was a problem; I also told him she was with me, which for some reason, seemed to reassure him.  I, on the other hand, found the entire experience really troubling.  It certainly seemed like the store security person had made the assumption that a black kid looking at DVDs must be a potential shoplifter, whereas white kids doing the exact same thing did not cause any suspicion. 

Lest you think I am reading too much into one incident,  I can assure you these sorts of things happen far too often, and not just to adorable ten year olds. They happen to black people of all ages, and from all walks of life-- members of the clergy, lawyers, business executives, and athletes.  And they've been happening for years.  One event I still remember occurred in 1990, when Boston Celtics first-round draft choice Dee Brown was house-hunting with his fiancĂ©e in a wealthy (and mostly white) suburb.  The couple had found what they thought was the perfect home, and were about to get into their rental car when something went terribly wrong:  they were surrounded by seven police officers, five of whom were armed. Brown and his girlfriend were told to get on the ground. They had no idea why.  As it turned out, the manager of a nearby bank had recently been robbed, and he called the police, saying he thought he saw the robber getting into a car.  What he saw, of course, was one of the few black faces in that town. There was NO resemblance between the bank robber and Dee Brown, nor was Mr. Brown armed or threatening.  Yet he was confronted by officers with guns, and told to lie face down on the sidewalk like a criminal while police checked his ID.  They ultimately concluded it was a case of mistaken identity (all black people look alike?), but needless to say, this was not the welcome to greater Boston that Dee Brown had expected.     

I know there are some people who will insist that the police and mall security have every right to be suspicious when they see black people, especially black young men.  Recently, I've also seen an increase in Facebook and Twitter memes about how blacks are inherently violent, often quoting exaggerated statistics about black criminality, and expressing the need for a return to law and order  (for whatever it's worth, these memes are usually sent to me by Donald Trump supporters).  I've also heard various pundits on conservative media outlets asserting that the reason black young men get into trouble is they refuse to "comply" when police give them an order.  Unfortunately, compliance is not the only problem.  In all too many cases, it appears that prejudiced assumptions play a role.  For example, there are numerous studies showing that blacks and whites are treated very differently by law enforcement, and the same is true when it comes to the criminal justice system-- if a black defendant and a white defendant are convicted of the same crime, the black defendant tends to receive a substantially longer sentence (sometimes as much as 20% longer).  More about some of these studies can be found online at 

And it's not just black defendants who endure unequal treatment-- how about black three year olds?  Over the past several years, a number of news articles have noted that black children in preschool are being suspended for a wide range of offenses, from wetting their pants to refusing to put on their shoes-- misbehavior that white children are not being suspended for.  Studies have also found that black boys are far more likely to be expelled from preschool for behaviors that, while annoying, are certainly not unusual in young children... and once again, behaviors that do not cause white children to be expelled.  Agreed, kids who don't behave can be frustrating, and teachers have every right to apply appropriate punishment.  But I find it troubling that some preschools are giving up on black kids at the age of three, whereas white kids are given far more chances to learn to behave.  

As a media historian, I can tell you that much of this is not new.  There have been stereotypes about minorities for centuries, often articulated by supposedly educated white "authorities," including professors, doctors, and preachers.  These stereotypes have been both useful and necessary to the majority culture, because if a certain group (in this case, African-Americans) is labeled as inherently dishonest, if their kids can't behave properly by age three, if they refuse to comply with authority in the right way, well then, who came blame society for discriminating against them?  The concept of "white privilege" is often misunderstood because it seems to say that white people have it easy-- they're privileged.  But that's not what it means. It means that there are negative assumptions that most white people never encounter... and all too many black people face on a regular basis.  Few people assume the average white guy is a criminal when they see him walking down the street. A number of my white friends have had broken tail-lights on their car but none of them have been pulled over and subsequently shot by police.   Few people assume that the average white person in a store is a thief.  And even fewer people assume that a three year old white kid is hopeless and needs to be expelled from preschool.

Please don't misunderstand me:  I am not saying that all white people are racists, nor am I denying that some black people do in fact commit violent crimes (as do some white people).  But my study of history tells me that certain racist beliefs are woven into the fabric of our culture.  Many of us who are white don't want to believe that; but rather than denying the existence of racist stereotypes and myths, it might be useful to begin telling the truth about them.  No, we do not live in a post-racial society.  No, racism is not a thing of the past.  And while we have absolutely made progress, there is much more we can and should be doing to make sure that everyone, no matter their race, receives an equal opportunity.  If you haven't seen it already, I strongly recommend watching an excellent 2013 documentary called "White Like Me: Race, Racism and White Privilege in America."  You may not agree with it, but I promise it will make you think: And during these difficult times, when accusatory rhetoric (from people on both sides of the racial divide) is far too prevalent, I hope there are still enough of us who want to move beyond blame and continue these difficult conversations.  Communication is the most powerful thing we have.  But we need to use it wisely, and use it well, so that the end result will be greater understanding, rather than just the same old myths and the same old memes.