Tag Archives: Pamela Reed

It is High Time for a Black Woman on the High Court

By Dr. Pamela D. Reed

“Make me do it.”
-Barack Hussein Obama

pamela-reed08The relevance of the above challenge issued by then-Senator Barack Obama will soon become obvious.

For now, let me first congratulate Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s nominee for the soon-to-be vacant seat of retiring high court Associate Justice David Souter.

Obama’s historic nomination of the first Latina to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) comes on the heels of a months-long full court press by Hispanic organizationslike the Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, not to mention Women’s groups, all advocating for just such a groundbreaking pick.

No sooner than it was determined that Hispanics accounted for 7.4 percent of the 131 million people who voted in November–of which 67 percent cast their votes for the Obama-Biden ticket–the Hispanic judicial lobby moved into high gear.

Mind you, these numbers pale in comparison to African Americans who comprised a record 12.1 percent of the total vote, 95 percent of whom voted for Obama.

But who’s counting, right?

Ramona Romero, Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) president, certainly was. Almost immediately, the HNBA launched the Hispanic Appointments Project, and she reached out to President-elect Obama, only 10 days after the election–and months before he took office.

“The presence of a Latino or Latina at the conference table could add a needed ‘special voice’ to the Supreme Court’s deliberations and decisions– a voice that can speak about the law as it affects U.S. Hispanics with the authority that only firsthand knowledge can provide,” she wrote.

In other words, they “made” him do it…and good for them (and hopefully for all who would otherwise be marginalized judicially).

Of course, Team Obama insists that politics did not factor into the Sotomayor nomination, and that the president simply–organically– chose “the most qualified person for the job.” And, in all fairness, President Obama might very well have made the same choice, absent the very public lobbying effort.

But since Hispanics left nothing to chance, we’ll never know, will we?

Whatever the case–assuming that Sotomayor is confirmed to the SCOTUS–there will now be two representatives of the female perspective on that august judicial body, and one of the Hispanic. In my view, this is a beautiful thing.

What is profoundly problematic, however, is the fact that there is still not one solitary Black advocate.

Indeed, this is a glaring and unacceptable omission on the high court. Sure, there’s Clarence Thomas, but, in every way that matters, his is not a “Black seat.”

There, I said it.

I mean, we all know that his has been the deciding vote in a number of decisions that have all but wiped out affirmative action and other racial gains made during the tenure of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the SCOTUS. (And isn’t it just the cruelest of ironies that Thomas was the Sr. Bush’s choice to replace Marshall, the civil rights lion?)

It is as Romero said, “being Hispanic doesn’t always mean that you are grounded in the culture.”

By the same token, and for all intents and purposes, Clarence Thomas should not count in the “minority” tally on the Supreme Court, as he has shown no evidence of being willing or able to articulate–or appreciate, even– the predominant African American world view, shaped by centuries of enslavement, Jim Crow and continuing racial discrimination.

And am I the only one who finds it troublesome that, of the four widely reported finalists for the open SCOTUS seat–all women, three of whom were White–there was not one African American among the elite group?

Not one.

This is all the more vexing when one considers that, according to a Pew Research Center report, “overall, among all racial, ethnic and gender groups, Black women had the highest voter turnout rate in November’s election [68.8 percent]–a first.”

So, are we to assume that there are no “qualified” African American female jurists worthy of even symbolic consideration for the Supreme Court? (And we are way beyond symbolism at this point.)

What about the Honorable Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, the 57-year-old Rhode Island Superior Court Justice, who–in April–was recommended by both Rhode Island senators for the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals?

Then there is the Honorable Ann Claire Williams, the 59 year-old U.S. Seventh Circuit Appellate Judge and globally acclaimed legal scholar. Among her many public service efforts, Judge Williams lead and taught at the first Kenyan Women’s Trial Advocacy Program for domestic violence attorneys. Williams has also been a prosecutor and faculty member at both Northwestern and John Marshall Schools of Law.

Of course, President Obama knows of these and many other imminently qualified Black female esquires worthy of elevation to the high court-including several law school deans. The question is: Why did the Obama Administration not even float any African American names?

Could it be because Black advocacy groups didn’t “make” him?

After all– when asked if he would be able to forge a lasting peace in the Middle East–Obama himself advised this very course of action to the questioner at a presidential campaign rally. Syndicated columnist Amy Goodman recounts this story in her commentary “Make Obama Keep his Promises.”

Obama is said to have repeated the famous story of how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt–upon hearing A. Philip Randolph’s assessment of the plight of Black America and what corrective actions were needed–reportedly issued this very same challenge to the civil rights legend.

Specifically, FDR reportedly challenged Randolph with this call to arms: “I’ve heard everything you’ve said tonight…and I agree with everything that you’ve said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit… But I would ask one thing of you…and that is, go out and make me do it.”

The presidents’ words echo and confirm Frederick Douglass’ learned declaration of almost a century earlier: “Power concedes nothing without demand.”

African Americans would do well to remember these historic lessons during the presidency of Barack Obama–along with the contemporary counsel of Sandra Finley, President and CEO of the League of Black Women, in her article “The League of Black Women’s Role in President Obama’s Administration: Homecoming.”
“You’ve watched this amazing election unfold for two years, don’t blink now,” Finley wrote. “The President-elect has promised to talk directly to you. Pay attention. Call, email and write your legislators. Tell them exactly how you want them to vote on funding health care, education, and your jobs in this economy.”

I would add that we must also make our voices heard with regard to the changing composition of the Supreme Court. Otherwise, we will emerge from the Obama era with Clarence Thomas still the lone Black face among the nine.

And if we were to sit by mutely and idly, allowing this miscarriage of justice to happen, we would deserve it. But, in that event, at least we would still have our “I was there” buttons, our Obama calendars/posters, and our J. Crew cardigan twin sets to show to our children and grandchildren.

What I am trying to say here is that African American organizations, particularly women’s, must get past the novelty of President Barack Hussein Obama, Black Man. Only then will we begin to place collective expectations on him, just as all valued political constituencies do in the American body politic.

As Finley wrote, Black women, have “worked together to help lift and elect Barack Obama to the highest office in the land.” Yes, we have done the heavy lifting, which is nothing new.

Zora Neale Hurston observed, in her classic novel Their Eyes were Watching God, that the Black woman has historically been “de mule uh de world.”

Well, I say, no more. I agree with Finley: “This is our moment too.” In other words, it is high time for a Black woman to sit on the high court.

And this is not to dismiss the fact that President Obama has numerous highly visible, highly placed Black women in his administration, like senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, United Nations Ambassador, Dr. Susan Rice, or Desiree Rogers, White House social secretary, among others. Without question, these are all very important appointments, many of them firsts. For this, he should be applauded.

But the Supreme Court is a horse of another color.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic, and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

Black History, No More?

By Pamela Reed

pamela-reed08Now that Barack Obama is President of the United States, why don’t we just pretend that America wasn’t built on slaveholding?

If the spate of recent “post-racial” articles suggesting that we need no longer commemorate the African American struggle for freedom and equality in this country is any indication, this seems to be where we’re heading.

This is a classic case of the phenomenon called selective history/memory, or as some have termed it, historical amnesia.

We’ve been bombarded with calls to end affirmative action and claims of reverse racism. Indeed, it seems like just yesterday I was writing in defense of Black History Month, which is now deemed racist, counterproductive, and/or irrelevant by some prominent African Americans, as did Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist (and former editorial page editor) Cynthia Tucker in a commentary earlier this year.

Most recently, Corey Dade’s Wall Street Journal article “Civil-Rights Gains Test New Memorials’ Relevance,” poses the following curious question: “Does the America of 2009, led by an African-American president, need any more museums or monuments to the struggle for civil rights?”

Dade’s piece details the fundraising hurdles confronting the organizers of the proposed Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR) in Atlanta. According to Doug Shipman, would-be executive director of the future CCHR, primary among them is the question that is apparently uppermost in the minds of some potential donors: “Why does it [the Civil Rights Movement] matter today?”

Perhaps this explains why, presently, public and private pledges total less than half of the $125 million needed for the completion of the historic 100,000-square-foot museum, scheduled to open its doors in 2011.

Hopefully, this problem will not carry-over to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which is moving toward its groundbreaking, and is tentatively set to open on the National Mall in 2015.

In an effort to broaden the pool of contributors, CCHR organizers have had to rethink their original vision of a monument dedicated solely to the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., housed in the city of his birth–and widely considered the seat of the movement.

As it were, there are still many who are in denial about the ugliness of America’s past. This segment of the population doesn’t want to even hearabout lynchings, cross-burnings, or the Ku Klux Klan, let alone see exhibits about them.

Says Lonnie King, a member of the CCHR planning committee (but not the MLK family): “There are people who wanted to turn it into a museum that will glorify a lot of things other than civil rights.” Consequently, although the 10,000-piece collection of King papers will be the centerpiece, only one-third of the facility will focus on King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Another third of the building will be devoted to early American history, particularly the enslavement period and the systemic discrimination that followed in the Jim Crow era. The remaining tierce will highlight the “modern era” of human rights struggles of other American groups since the 1970’s: primarily, women, Hispanics, and gays, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people.

This is a recurring theme in the African American saga.

Even the advisory council of the NMAAHC had to fight for its placement on the National Mall, which was built by enslaved Africans. The New York Times reports that BET founder Bob Johnson threatened to resign from the council if the long-awaited museum had not been built on the Mall. “To have relegated this museum to another site,” he said, “when people are looking to it to answer everything from the need for an apology for slavery to reparations, would have been the ultimate dismissal.”

Especially since at no time since the abolition of the “peculiar institution” of American enslavement has there been any program or initiative intended for the sole purpose of attempting to make whole the formerly enslaved–and their descendants.

Not one.

Not the Freedmen’s Bureau, formed during Reconstruction, and charged with rebuilding the lives of the newly “freed”–and the war-torn south, and poor Whites, andthe former enslavers who, by the way, were compensated for their lost “property.” In stark contrast, the Black Freedmen (and women and children) were–by and large–given nothing but the clothes on their backs…and a hard way to go.

Not affirmative action, which is routinely pointed to as a form of reparations for African Americans for centuries of enslavement. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Granted, because of affirmative action, many African Americans have made tremendous strides in the areas of business, education, government, journalism, etc.

But, let’s be clear. It is White women, as quiet as it’s kept, who have reaped the lion’s share of affirmative action benefits. And, I hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with that, as they outnumber all other “minorities.” I’m just saying…let’s keep it real.

And, without question, women have suffered–and continue to suffer–grave injustices in this country, but that is a separate issue from that of the African American. By the same token, Hispanics have also been–and continue to be–treated as second-class citizens in America. The same is true for the GLBT community.

But here’s the problem. There is this constant effort to lump the Black American story under the “civil rights” or “human rights” umbrella. Moreover, the tendency to dismiss the singular experience in this country that is the African Americans’, like yesterday’s news, is downright disrespectful.

It’s like there is an expiration date or statute of limitations on Black history, after which it will be deemed irrelevant–or dead, even.

Frankly, I find insulting the suggestion that just because the American people have elected an African-American president, the past 400 years of American hegemony are no longer relevant.

This is simply not acceptable. Nor is it credible. It would be just as ludicrous to suggest that we should one day cease telling the story of the Trail of Tears, or other chapters of the near annihilation of the Native American peoples because one Native American crossed a certain threshold previously reserved for White Americans.

I mean, there’s a reason why we study past events, and why history is one of the oldest and most venerated of the disciplines of the academy. As Malcolm X observed in 1964, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.”

Yet, according to the Wall Street Journal, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who is faced with the admittedly awesome task of bringing the CCHR to fruition, reasons thus. “If this center only looks backward it won’t be successful.”

While, I agree that we must be forward-thinking and embrace and promote racial and intercultural harmony, I believe that, in the long-run, we will do more harm than good to race relations by attempting to water down –or bury–the past.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic, and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

Obama Decision to Boycott World Racism Conference is Regrettable

By Dr. Pamela D. Reed

Change has come to America.

pamela-reed08Doubters of this undeniable truth need only look to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for confirmation. Or to the international stage, where President Barack Obama — along with first lady Michelle Obama — has taken the world by storm.

Let’s face it. It was nothing short of amazing to witness the Obamas deplane Air Force One in London for the G-20 Summit … and to be received by the queen at Buckingham Palace. And let me tell you, I literally wiped away tears as I watched Michelle Obama’s profoundly personal, uplifting message to a group of young immigrant girls of color at a London school.

And I smiled broadly at the decidedly soulful vibe of this year’s Easter Egg Roll, which was like no other, I’m sure.

Fast forward to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, where President Obama, with his talk of equal partnerships, seemed to begin a new chapter in relations with Cuba and Venezuela, and one finds further evidence of seismic change.

Yes, it is a new day.

One thing, however, has not changed: America will not be in attendance at this year’s United Nations World Conference against Racism (WCAR), commonly referred to as Durban II. Representatives of the Bush administration, and the Israelis, famously walked out of the WCAR in Durban, South Africa eight years ago because Zionism — the political movement advocating support for the modern state of Israel — was declared racist.

In a bit of unfortunate continuity, the Obama administration has elected to boycott this week’s historic gathering in Geneva, Switzerland — “with regret,” of course.

U. S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood says that “The United States will work with all people and nations to build greater resolve and enduring political will to halt racism and discrimination wherever it occurs.”

Just not at the UN racism conference, apparently.

Also skipping Durban II are Australia, Italy, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Israel. Other European nations are still undecided about sending representatives. Britain is reportedly sending a diplomatic delegation.

The Associated Press reports that the major stated American objection, this time, is the concern that Islamic countries will demand the denunciation of Israel and ban criticism of Islam.
Am I alone in seeing this concern as contradictory? On the one hand, the Obama administration is objecting to the critique of Israel, yet they are concerned that “free speech” will be a casualty if Islamic nations are successful at curtailing critique of Islam.

But free speech — even the incendiary rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — should be universal, shouldn’t it? After all, people are smart and the world community can think for itself, can’t it?

Meanwhile, President Obama has missed the opportunity to take his message of hope and change to Geneva. And he has disappointed and angered large swaths of his coalition — namely Blacks and Hispanics who are still subjected to random acts of racism here in America.

And surely, Black and Brown people worldwide are asking, “Don’t our struggles matter to the first Black American President?” Here’s another question: Is anyone beyond reproach? I mean, must American loyalty to its “stalwart” ally Israel mean forsaking all others — even American constituencies?

After 61 years of existence, the state of Israel is stilled locked in an existential struggle that makes any semblance of normalcy impossible. Even many Jewish people recognize that Israel is at a moral and ethical crossroads. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen writes of this in his recent column “Israel, Iran and Fear.”

Cohen cites a prominent political figure’s 1999 comments: “Every attempt to keep hold of this area [The West Bank] as one political entity leads, necessarily, to either a non-democratic or a non-Jewish state, because if the Palestinians vote, then it is a binational state, and if they don’t vote it is an apartheid state …”

These are not my words, nor those of former President Jimmy Carter, who is often excoriated for criticizing the Israelis, but those of Ehud Barak, the current defense minister and former Prime Minister of Israel, no less.

But I don’t want this to morph into an article on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is about an American President’s willingness to forgo the opportunity to be counted in the number of nations actively working to eradicate the cancer of racism from the face of the earth.

And I’m not saying that the President himself should necessarily be in Geneva. That’s why he has a secretary of state or a United Nations ambassador.

As it stands, though, President Barack Hussein Obama — the first African-American to hold the vaunted, so-called highest office in the land — now has the regrettable, irrevocable legacy of boycotting the World Racism Conference.

What a shame.

 

Dr. Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

 

Virginia State Election Board’s Use of Jim Crow-like Student Residency Questionnaire Raises Voting Rights Questions

By Dr. Pamela Reed         

 The New York Timesreports that E. Randall Wertz, the county registrar of voters in Montgomery County, Va., recently issued two outrageous and confusing (at best) press releases with regard to college student voter registration.

            The first of the official missives made several patently false claims:  1) the parents of students who register and vote locally cannot claim their children as dependents; 2) students registering to vote using a local college address risk losing scholarships; and 3) such students will no longer be eligible for coverage under their parent’s health and auto insurance. 

            Coincidentally or otherwise, these official county notices went out in late August, in the midst of a highly successful voter-registration drive at Virginia Tech, the state’s largest university which boasts an enrollment of over 25,000 students (over 5,000 of whom are incoming freshmen). At that time Barack Obama supporters had registered thousands of students. 

            Keep in mind that Virginia is a major swing state that in past years has been reliably Republican; however, this year Barack Obama has made significant inroads, claiming 64 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 35 percent in the state’s Democratic primary in February.  Many political analysts even predict that Obama could actually win the state in November, which would effectively signal nothing less than a historic sea-change in the American electoral map.  So, that is the backdrop of this grossly underreported controversy that is reminiscent of Jim Crow era electoral shenanigans.            

            According to the Times, Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director of the Student Public Interest Research Group’s New Voters Project, indicates that her organization “registered 500,000 young voters in 2004, the majority on college campuses, and we’ve never heard of a single one who lost health insurance, scholarship or tax status because of where they registered to vote. …There’s no issue for snowbirds who live in Iowa but fly to Florida for the winter.” 

            Understandably, this has all lead to mass confusion and anxiety among students and parents alike.  It has also prompted queries from civil rights lawyers who are quick to point out that this practice is in clear contravention of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Symm v. U.S, 439 U. S. 1105 (1979) which clearly established that students can absolutely register to vote using their local college addresses, regardless of their permanent home addresses.   Jon Greenbaum, who directs the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, condemns the highly suspect activities, saying in the Times that ”what the state Board of Elections has on its Web site…sounds like it is discouraging students from registering at their school address.” 

            The county registrar, who blames the “mix-up” on an intern tasked with summarizing the state’s guidelines in this regard, confirms that some students have elected to withdraw their local registration, fearful that their families will be penalized economically.  The registrar claims that his office’s “clarification” is driven by his interpretation of the state’s election laws.  Which brings us to the heart of the matter:  the Virginia code with regard to college student voter registration is fuzzy, at best, while the law of the land is unequivocal:  A college student can absolutely register to vote using a local address.  There is really nothing complicated about it.  Still, Werner claims that ”we’ve asked for more guidance from the state legislature, but they haven’t wanted to deal with it.”  The obvious question here, at least in my mind, is this:  “Why ever not?”

            In response to the public outcry—and the civil rights lawyers—the Virginia State Board of Elections (VSBE) sought to “modify” and “clarify” the legal basis for the misleading communications disseminated by the Montgomery county registrar.  What did they do, you ask?  Amazingly, they have gone so far as to post on their website a “self-guided questionnaire”—that is not required, and some would even argue that it is not allowed, by law—to “assist” college students in determining their “legal” residency.  This harkening back to the very same tactics that the High Court ruled illegal almost 30 years ago when the Waller County, Texas, registrar of voters, LeRoy Symm, routinely required the students of the HBCU Prairie View A&M University to complete a residency questionnaire that is almost identical to the one on the VSBE website today—in 2008.

            What does the Obama campaign have to say about this turn of events?  Not much.  According to the New York Times, Kevin Griffis, the campaign’s state spokesperson said “the release appeared to be a good-faith effort to convey state guidelines, not a politically motivated effort to stop voting by students.”  Really?  Good faith?

            This writer begs to differ.  Obama should have a swarm of lawyers blanketing the state, serving notice that he will not sit back and allow Virginia to be the Florida or Ohio of 2008.  They should begin by demanding that the VSBE immediately pull down its confusing and perhaps illegal questionnaire.  They should also be monitoring Chesterfield County, Va., very carefully-the home of Virginia State University—where nine of 64 precincts ran out of ballots during the February Democratic primary, which has prompted an ongoing Justice Department investigation.  These voting irregularities, among others across the nation, are currently being examined by the Senate Judiciary Committee, as detailed in a Richmond Times-Dispatch report from Sept. 10.  But I digress.

            Here’s another pressing question:  Whereis the Democratic National Committee (DNC)?  Why are they not on the case in Virginia?  Are they so afraid of being accused of “race-baiting” or playing the “race card” that they will not call a spade a spade?  This is a clear violation of the voting rights of the students of Virginia Tech.  I know it.  You know it.  The state of Virginia knows it.  Barack Obama, the Harvard-trained esquire, knows it. 

            According to the VSEB website, “even the homeless may register by using the site ‘where they lay their head at night.’”  Are college students in Virginia not entitled to the same right?            

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic, and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

Apologies Abound and CNN’s Black in America: The Inescapable Nexus

By Dr. Pamela D. Reed

On July 28, in the year 2008, the United States House of Representatives, almost 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, passed H. Res. 194, offering a formal apology for the centuries-long, government-sanctioned enslavement of African Americans and for the generations of Jim Crow segregation and for the institutionalized discrimination that followed and that persists in this, the “land of the free.”  Florida, Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia had done so previously.

            Just a few days before the passage of H. Res. 194, in an ironic bit of timing, CNN launched its much-hyped documentary chronicling the plight of the contemporary African American people, Black in America.  Most would read these two headlines and would not connect the dots.  Well not this writer, for whom this seeming historic coincidence bears critical scrutiny.

            For four hours CNN documented the mixed bag that is Afro America.  To be sure, there is much to be proud of for America’s descendants of chattel enslavement, whose forebears, as the House resolution bluntly states, “were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” for almost a quarter of a millennium.  Which brings us to what I see as the major problem with Black in America:  There was no substantial, meaningful historical context presented.  Unless you count the meeting, with cameras rolling, of the two sets of Rand offspring:  the ones descended from slaves and the ones sired by their slave-holding forefathers.   But I digress.

            In the face of incredible odds, African Americans have flourished in this country, in spite of the past.  As the CNN report documents, more Blacks are attending and completing college than ever before.  The so-called Black middle class is burgeoning.  Moreover, for the first time ever, an African American man, albeit not a descendant of enslaved Africans, is actually within reach of the American Presidency.  That’s the good news.

            This notwithstanding, recent studies indicate that only 1 in 2 of today’s African Americans will graduate with a high school diploma.  This is particularly alarming since the high school graduation rate serves as a societal bellwether and as an indicator of future skill and income levels.  Indeed, the Center for American Progress (CAP) reports that by 2006, after steadily declining in the 1990s, the poverty rate for African Americans had increased to nearly one-quarter of its population, 24.2 percent to be exact.  This is in stark contrast to the 8.2 percent of impoverished Whites.  The CAP analysis, The State of Minorities (April 2008), went on to report that the unemployment rate for African Americans, 8.3 percent, is double that of White America’s 4.1 percent.

            And still there’s more.  The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act revealed that, in 2006, of the 322,356 home-purchase loans made to African Americans, 172,055 were “high-cost.”  That is a whopping 53 percent.  Only 150,301 were at the market rate.  In a rare instance of being outpaced economically by Blacks, the subprime rate was only 18 percent for Whites.

            Then there are the staggering incarceration disparities between Blacks and Whites in America.  Much has been written of it; however, it is clearly crystallized in a Washington Post article “New High in U.S. Prison Numbers” (29 February 2008).  It broke to the world the news of the findings of the Pew Center of the States report, One in 100:  Behind Bars in America 2008:  “One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women ages 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 for white women in the same age group.”  Truth be told, this is a new low.

             I won’t even go into allthe dismal statistics relevant to the healthcare disparities in America. It’s too depressing. The AIDS pandemic in Afro America, which has been likened to that of some developing African nations, cannot be ignored here, though, as many contend it has been by the federal government.  CNN’s Black in America sounded the alarm regarding the skyrocketing rate of HIV/AIDS infection among African Americans, particularly women between ages 25 and 34, for whom AIDS is the leading cause of death.

            This modern-day “black plague” is particularly dangerous because the primary modes of transmission are behavioral, i.e. sexual intercourse, drug use, etc.  Hence, it is far too easy for some, particularly in the church, to write it off as some sort of divine penance.  Further, many fear that as AIDS becomes known as a “black disease,” still fewer dollars will be spent for medical research in this area. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Blacks were, well, mistreated. 

            Even the American Medical Association (AMA) has owned up to this, issuing an apology of its own last month. The nation’s largest organization of physicians is seeking forgiveness for generations of race-based discrimination against Black physicians, who for many years were denied entry into this professional enclave. In a written statement, the National Medical Association (NMA), the organization of Black doctors in America, graciously accepted the apology, but stressed the deadly legacy left in its wake. 

            This medical redlining, “a litany of discriminatory practices, [has] had a devastating effect on the health of African-Americans,” says Dr. Nelson L. Adams, NMA president.  “These persistent, race-based health disparities have led to a precipitous decline in the health of African-Americans when compared to their white counterparts and the population as a whole,” added Dr. Nedra H. Joyner, chair of the NMA’s board of trustees.

            Is this all accidental, this being the chasmic gap between Blacks and Whites in America?  Of course it’s not.  This is the shameful legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing racial discrimination in this country.  And this is why the House of Representatives, with no mention of restitution, whispered their long-overdue apology.  That is to say that there has been little to no media coverage of this historic resolution.  Bringing to mind this time honored question:  If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

            But what does all this mean?  The short answer is this: it will take more than apologies to right the wrongs that America has heaped upon generations of African Americans. Regret without redress is just not enough. Not when these past transgressions undeniably led to the present uneven playing field.  And more importantly, if the present high school graduation rate for African Americans is any indication, the future looms large.

         Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

Not Just One Dark Body: Scaling the Intercultural Mountain in the HBCU Classroom

By Dr. Pamela Reed

It is no secret that classrooms at historically Black colleges and universities are becoming increasingly culturally diverse, both with regard to faculty and students. More and more, international students and faculty contribute in a singularly significant way to this heterogeneous mélange. Whether they hail from the African continent, the Caribbean, South or Latin America, or other global ports, university students and faculty of color are more representative than ever of the diversity within the African Diaspora.

In my department alone at Virginia State University, the faculty is/has been comprised of citizens of Guadalupe, Panama, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ecuador. We even had Fulbright Scholars from Kenya and Egypt. Not to mention German, and other European-descended faculty members. Besides that, during my three-year tenure, I have worked with students from (or descended from) Jamaica, Ghana, Honduras, Nigeria, Trinidad, Dominican Republic, Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and Haiti, among others. Add to that mix American Indians and Caucasians. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon to the HBCU, but the numbers are steadily increasing with the passage of time.

Certainly, this turn of events is not unique to the HBCU. For beyond the manifest benefits of the mobility that is afforded to students who study abroad, economic and otherwise, there are numerous gains that are less obvious to the laic observer. Indeed, recent studies indicate that those who study abroad, while undoubtedly confronted with the stress of culture shock in the short term, are ultimately endowed with life skills that enable them to more readily handle the trials and tribulations confronted in today’s complex world.

By extension, a survey of the literature reveals that — because of increased cultural sensitivity and skills acquired in working with “the other” — American students matriculating at colleges or universities with appreciable numbers of international students are likely more capable of competing in the global marketplace. The same is presumably true of all students; however, in this instance it is the African American case under consideration.

Still, it is undeniable that this “diversity” and “multiculturalism” is a radical departure from the established norms of the American (and global) academy. Most assuredly, in recent years, colleges and universities around the world are grappling with this sea-change in the collective educational landscape. It is for this reason that academic departments, and positions devoted to diversity, inclusion, equal opportunity, multiculturalism, intercultural studies, area studies, equity (or whatever name individual universities choose to assign them) are burgeoning around the country, as well as the greater western world, and beyond.

Ironically, these areas are routinely overlooked in the boardrooms and cabinets of HBCUs. Along these lines, I recently submitted a personally requested proposal for a conference presentation on this very topic to a major national organization of HBCU professionals, and the silence was deafening. Similarly, I broached the topic with a high-ranking HBCU official who told me, in short order, that this is just not done at the HBCU, that this is the purview of majority institutions.

Indeed, because most of the faces in HBCU classrooms are of a darker hue, we typically ignore the need for multicultural affairs and intercultural conflict resolution in our midst. The time has come, I believe, to address this void in HBCU administration and student affairs, and hopefully come to the realization that we can no longer afford to view our student population as just “one dark body,” if I may borrow and extend W. E. B. Du Bois’ classic metaphor presented in The Souls of Black Folk.

Hopefully, moreover, the notion of a Black monolith will soon be forever abandoned, and a spark will be ignited, propelling HBCU’s to begin to actively and formally acknowledge the internecine tensions — often simmering beneath the surface — amongst the various groups of African descendants matriculating and teaching in our hallowed halls. That is not to say, I must hastily add, that all the branches of the Diaspora are not tributaries of the metaphorical river that is African culture; however, we must actively work on strengthening the ties that bind us — lest the African continent should instead become a distributary, from which the diverse branches of the said river flow away from the source, never to return.

To this end, elements of the cultural mosaic, focusing on the visible and invisible components of culture must be systematically explored. From language, gender, and national origin, to family, educational values and religion/spirituality, the rich diversity of the African Diaspora must be examined, not only within the context of the academy, but within real-world current events such as Darfur, or even the upcoming presidential election.

Lastly, the role of culture on teaching and learning styles should also be a focal point, and the profound impact of cultural competence of both faculty and students must be acknowledged and studied — and restudied. Last but certainly not least, we all benefit from cultural exchange and, thus, it is to be treasured, encouraged and nurtured at the HBCU in a programmatic way, comparable to “minority” or multicultural affairs operations at majority institutions. And this cultural panoply must be critically examined. In so doing, both our kinship and our diversity must be studiously regarded. So, yes, we are one. One dark body. But, when you scratch the surface, we are so much more.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

The Intersection of Presidential Politics, Race, Culture, and Higher Learning

By Dr. Pamela Reed

 

Much has been made of education levels and voting patterns in the Presidential nominating contests of the Democratic Party for the 2008 general election, particularly since Barack Obama emerged as the presumptive nominee. Well almost. Week after week, exit polls indicate that highly educated White Americans—Democrats, Independents and even some Republicans—are more likely to cast a vote for Senator Barack Obama. 

By contrast, those Democrats with no college education tend to support Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, even when most experts agree that she has absolutely no chance of overcoming Obama’s pledged delegate lead.  An even more curious statistic is that the majority of these same respondents often express doubts about Clinton’s trustworthiness.    

Further, the polls also report that rather than pulling the proverbial lever for Obama in November, well over one-third of Democratic respondents with no college education maintain that they will vote for the Republican John McCain in November.  This, even after the undeniably disastrous soon-to-be eight years of the George W. Bush-led Republican era in America—and at a time when gasoline is now priced at, near or over $4 a gallon, and the Iraq War rages on, well into its sixth year, now longer than both World War I and World War II. 

What are we to make of this pattern?  Does this mean that Whites with only a high school education are not smart enough to realize that John McCain represents a continuation of the Bush/Cheney policies that have many of us holding our collective breath, lest we too find ourselves inhabiting the proverbial Poor House?  Or does it suggest that these Whites with less education are too racist to vote solely on the basis of merit, irregardless of race?  That is, is there a direct correlation between education level and  “racial tolerance”?  After all, significant numbers of Whites with no college education, when polled, say that race is a factor in their voting.

To the contrary, it is this writer’s perspective that it is not a matter of intellectual capacity, but cultural competence that is lacking in these White voters who have not matriculated in institutions of higher learning.  After all, studies indicate that cultural maturity can be a major benefit of college education, particularly at culturally diverse institutions. For instance in 2000, arguing in favor of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action standards, a consortium of Fortune 500 corporations offered in a court brief that students imbued with the richness of higher education in a diverse university setting are more likely to understand, appreciate and willingly work with those of varied racial and cultural backgrounds.

In view of this, it is not a stretch to suggest that this same principle can be extended in the area of voting patterns.  This is the only reasonable explanation for the willingness of some Democrats to consider voting for the Republican candidate for President of the United States, at a time when few would argue  that we are approaching a point-of-no-return with regard to the American standard of living—thanks to the policies of the Republicans.

I think this is what Barack Obama was attempting to say in his historically clumsy “bitter” remarks, in response to a question about the unwillingness of many “blue collar” voters in Pennsylvania to consider voting for him (the same people who Governor Ed Rendell announced would not vote for an African American candidate).  He was not saying that people “cling” to God and guns ONLY because of tough economic times. 

What he was trying to say, at least in the mind of this registered Independent, is that some White Americans—primarily those with no college education— even when confronted with the obvious shortcomings of the economic policies of the Republican Party, which are directly attributable to their own (and all of America’s) personal hardship, will then tend to look to other Republican platform planks to stand on.  That is right-to-life issues, gun control, gay marriage, etc.

Perhaps nothing speaks more to the need for diversity and inclusion infusion in the American education system than this political quandary. Clearly, we can no longer afford to put off this cultural enrichment for post-secondary education. After all, alarming numbers of American students are failing to even reach the high school graduate threshold. The good news, though, is that intercultural competence levels are on the rise in the United States; however, one need not be a rocket scientist to realize that there is still much more work to be done. And it must begin at the very earliest stages of American pedagogy.  Our very future depends upon it.

 

 

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.