Sunday, May 31, 2020

When Nothing Seems to Change: Some Thoughts About Minneapolis

I've always found it amusing to read "let's predict the future" articles-- newspaper and magazine editors throughout history have looked into their proverbial crystal ball to tell readers what the world of tomorrow had in store. Often, their predictions didn't quite pan out-- I recall a 1900 newspaper article that predicted flying cars within the next fifty years; and the ability to make contact with other planets by telephone was supposed to be coming along very soon.  But I also recall a 1921 article that predicted by the late 1970s, there would be a small, radio-like device that would fit in your pocket and be able to read stories to you (an audacious prediction at the time-- radios back then were large, cumbersome to operate, and the technology for listening to a recorded program hadn't been invented).

I recently found my copy of the January 2000 copy of Emerge, a news magazine aimed at the black community. This was their futurist edition, where they predicted what life would be like 20 years from now, in society in general and in the black community in particular. They got it right when predicting the technology 20 years into the future: they predicted the "smart home," where you could get appliances to work just by giving a command, and they said by 2020, your computer and your TV and your phone would all have merged into one unit (the word "device" was not yet in common use in late 1999). Emerge also predicted a black president (although they didn't name anyone in particular-- Barack Obama was not well-known yet). And the writers predicted that the Black middle class would continue to grow.  In fact, the articles were generally positive and optimistic, with lots of practical suggestions for preparing the next generation of young Black leaders.

Unfortunately, there would be no follow-up issue in January 2020 to assess how accurate those earlier articles had been:  Emerge suddenly, and unexpectedly, went out of business a few months after the January 2000 issue came out-- something that, evidently, nobody at the magazine predicted.  And sad to say, the optimistic vision in the magazine was only partially accurate: while the black middle class has continued to grow, a huge wealth gap between white and minority families persists. This is especially true in Minneapolis, the scene of ongoing protests the past few nights, as anger intensified over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by police.  I am not going to comment on the protests-- many others have done so already. But I'd like to discuss what life is like for minorities in Minneapolis, where the wealth gap is one of the biggest in the nation:  The median income for African-Americans there is $36,000, compared to about $70,000 for the average white family.  And only 19.8% of African-Americans in Minneapolis own their own home, while as many as 70% of whites do.

Over all, Minneapolis is a beautiful city; I've been there many times, and still have friends there. But Minneapolis has a problem I've seen all too often: like many cities (including Boston), its Black residents have generally been relegated to some of the worst neighborhoods, with below-average schools and less access to transportation or new technologies.  They were often blamed for their own poverty, as if public policies and systemic racism had not contributed to their situation: it is well-documented, for example, that even in elementary school, Black kids are suspended for behaviors that are excused in white kids; and later on, Black young people who get in trouble are more likely to be sent to jail than their white counterparts. (Mr. Floyd was accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill; four officers went to the scene to arrest him-- a reaction that I doubt would occur if someone from a "nice" neighborhood had been similarly accused.)  Yes, on some levels, we've come a long way from what life was like in the era of segregation: there are more minority members of congress, more minority mayors, doctors, business executives, and college graduates.

And yet, the future for the average African-American kid in 2020 is still not what it should be.  For far too long, many people (especially certain politicians around election time) have given lip service to promoting equality and combating racism; but when it came time for finding and implementing actual solutions, it was just more of the same.  I hope that doesn't happen again this time. I hope that even amid the chaos and the anger, there will be the will to create something better.  I'd like to see that optimistic vision the writers in Emerge offered finally become a reality.  And while I can't predict the future, I know if we keep doing the same thing that we've done before, we'll get the same result; and innocent people will once again pay the price for our society's unwillingness to change.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Politics and Pandemics, or When Selfishness Isn't a Virtue

As a professor who teaches Political Communication, and as a former broadcaster, I understand that lots of stuff politicians say is tailored to their core supporters, and meant to rally them to the politician's side in difficult times. Politicians from both sides have used this technique. But what has me concerned about our current president is not his constant dog-whistles to his base. It's that he seems to feel no loyalty to the rest of us, even in a time of crisis. And that really worries me, not because I disagree with his politics; but rather, because I see no evidence that he is committed to what used to be called the "common good"-- even in a time of great peril for our country.  

I'm sure you remember hearing the 1961 quote from John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what you what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country." Of course, the idea of sacrificing for the benefit of the country was not new. Previous presidents had spoken to us in times of crisis about putting aside our own personal needs to do what was best for our nation. Previous presidents had reminded us that we are all Americans and while we may sometimes see certain issues differently, we have more that unites us than divides us. Previous presidents called upon us to rise to the occasion, as Abraham Lincoln did in March 1861, only a few weeks before the Civil War began, when he said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."  

But I'm not hearing that kind of rhetoric from our current president. Nor am I hearing about self-sacrifice, or unity, or working together for the same goal. And as for the "better angels of our nature," this president sends out relentless verbal attacks directed at Democratic governors (who are trying their best to keep their citizens safe), and encourages people to abandon social distancing, not wear face coverings, and take to the streets to protest against... public health.   And as more than 85,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, I'm not hearing anything that resembles compassion or consolation.  Rather, I'm hearing a demand to "open the economy now," as he praises his supporters who come out to express their anger at the ongoing stay-at-home orders -- even those supporters who are carrying assault-style weapons or threatening reporters.

Don't get me wrong: I'm tired of this pandemic too. I desperately miss the autistic adult who has been in my life for 35 years; he isn't allowed to have visitors, other than his care-givers, and I haven't been allowed to see him since mid-March. My husband has a ruptured disk in his back and can hardly walk; he needs surgery but nobody could schedule it for over a month (not till next week, in fact). I have students who are struggling, due to a lack of good internet access or a chaotic home situation. And yes, I totally understand that many people are in dire financial straits.  But I'm not blaming my governor, whose stay-at-home orders reflect the fact that thousands of people are still getting this virus, and opening up the state will assure further outbreaks. Most of us here aren't happy about it, but we understand what the governor is trying to do. 

Meanwhile, I wish this president had a plan for solving our current problems. Using social media to insult his perceived enemies is not an example of showing leadership.  (And contrary to what he claims, the impending scope of the pandemic was known in January, but he downplayed it and avoided taking any action for more than a month). It would be nice if the president had a national strategy for more testing, more tracing, more personal protective equipment, reducing the spread of the virus in nursing homes or meat packing plants... instead of blaming the previous president, instead of putting out rude tweets at his perceived enemies, or launching verbal attacks on reporters, and instead of standing on the sidelines while some states get what they need and others don't. And above all, it would be nice if the president acted like a president and put the country first, instead of promoting more partisanship.

I never thought the concept of "public health" would be such a partisan issue. I never thought that some folks in red states would be saying the virus isn't that big a deal, no we won't wear masks, you can't make us practice social distancing, it's time to liberate our state from the tyranny of our governor. We can certainly debate whether the policies in some states are too restrictive; but is it really tyranny to try to prevent more outbreaks of disease? To have the president telling his followers to take to the streets and direct their outrage at Democratic governors is something I've never seen before. I can't imagine Lincoln or Kennedy or even George W. Bush doing anything so blatantly partisan during a major crisis.

And so, here we are, debating individual liberty ("I have a right to carry an AR-15 to the state house") versus the common good-- you may have the right to do it, but is it right to do it?  How does demonizing scientists like Dr. Fauci or spreading various conspiracy theories on social media make this pandemic go away? How does insulting your governor or insulting folks you disagree with make anything better?  At times like these, we need someone who can act like a leader, someone who can call upon us to work together to find solutions. Sad to say, all I see is a president who wants to keep us divided. And in such a circumstance, only the virus wins.