Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Black and White of Race in America

"Blacks have traditionally had to operate in a situation where whites have set themselves up as the custodians of the black experience.”
August Wilson

For me, the question of inequality between Blacks and Whites in America boils down to one simple question: how many black parents tell their kids that they can achieve the American dream, one where anybody can start from humble beginnings and with honest hard work and perseverance rise to the greatest heights?

If the American Dream is achievable for blacks, then tell me where are the black scientists, artists, nuclear physicists, painters and playwrights? Where are the black Nobel Laureates? Where are the black Walter Cronkites, Charlie Roses and Tom Brokaws? Where are the black Michael Phelps and Arnold Palmers? How many famous black historians, economists and army generals can you quote? Where are the black Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalkers? Can you name one black super hero? Where is the black David Ogilvy? For that matter in the liberal bastion of Hollywood can you find me a black studio head?

In Silicon Valley there are numerous Indian and Asian entrepreneurs, tech moguls and billionaire venture capitalists. Currently, Microsoft, Google and Adobe all have Indian born CEO’s at their helm. Yet, I struggle to name one black startup founder, tech mogul, hedge fund billionaire or even Wall Street tycoon.

It is hard to argue a case for blanket racism in America because many non-white immigrants tend to do extremely well, across many different industries and fields, from medicine to science and technology. In fact, Asian-Americans continue to have the highest household incomes in America (Source: Pew Research Article). I want to know why the American dream continues to seem largely unattainable for black people outside of music and a few sports.

Across every major statistic used to measure social mobility and economic progress, there is huge disparity between whites and blacks in education, unemployment and income. In fact, after the financial crisis things got worse for blacks; the income inequality between black and whites is now the worst it has been in America’s history. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households….” “These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009.” (Source: Pew Research Center)Hispanics fare badly too but are still considerably better off than blacks.

All this data has been debated and discussed to death but nobody has really provided sufficient answers as to why this should be the case. Why does the plight of black people in 2017 still seem dire, one hundred and fifty years after slavery was abolished?

The first place to start is to think about the images that have consistently been portrayed through Hollywood movies, mainstream television and media; black people have long been stereotyped as thuggish hoodlums in hoodies and portrayed as drug dealers and petty criminals. Even Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop had a disdain for rules and broke the law while the white cops were disciplined and anal about upholding and following the law.

To this day we are bombarded with mugshots of black criminals and rapists on national and local news every night. Until very recently politicians routinely talked about the black community’s desire to live off the welfare state as a truism. They made it seem like all blacks were lazy and that black youth were a lost cause, choosing to live off handouts, sell drugs or join gangs versus getting an education and lifting themselves out of poverty. For too long we have been told that the reason for the black community’s lack of social mobility is that they are inherently lazy, lacking determination and self-motivation.

Before we default to this lazy argument, we should look at a few things in America’s history that can explain the inter-generational disenfranchisement and lack of mobility among the black community.

For years, corporate and mainstream America buried its head with tokenism. I remember when ad agencies were told by clients to put one black person in the ad to check the box for diversity. In the same way that clients added a token black person in an ad, to prevent being sued for lack of diversity, the same false reality gave rise to the Cosby Show, Eddie Murphy and the Arsenio Hall Show. It was tokenism that allowed white Americans to feel better about the opportunities being provided to black people; it was never real social or racial integration.

Consider that “approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 37% of prison inmates” (Source: US Department of Justice, 2014). “African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males…. “If  current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime—compared to one of every seventeen white males”(Source: Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, 2013).

These two statistics alone are alarming and led to my investigating why it was that the US prison system is overwhelmingly filled with black males, in spite of the fact that black people are no more criminally prone than Indian, Chinese, white or any other ethnic group in the world.

To fully understand this anomaly, we need to go back to the abolition of slavery because there is a common misconception that it ended with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863; this assumption masks a reality that slavery silently got institutionalized into other forms of legally sanctioned barriers against blacks that exist even today.

I recommend watching Ava Duvernay documentary, '13th'. It chronicles the institutionalisation of slavery from 1863 to after the civil war, through the war on drugs started by Nixon, broadened by Reagan and codified by Bill Clinton into the industrial prison complex we see today. It explains the insane rates of incarceration we see among black youth today.

As a non-white immigrant, I felt there was something dramatically wrong in America because I realised very early on that I had a much greater chance of achieving the American Dream, in virtually any profession, than a black person born here.

It is worth noting that the majority of successful non-white immigrants from India, Middle East and Asia who came here in the 1950’s were typically middle class, well-educated and came of their own free will and volition; for this reason I believe they have never been viewed through the same lens as blacks, who were all brought here in servitude and never considered equals by their white masters. Every black person in American can trace their ancestral roots back to a slave. I believe this stigma still prevails among white Americans, albeit unconsciously for the vast majority.

You might ask how it is possible after so many generations that these imprints might remain in people. Interestingly, there is science that suggests that our DNA also contains within it the traumas and experiences of our ancestors. “According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.” (Source: Discover Magazine). Coupled with the images we have been repeatedly fed of the stereotyped black person through Hollywood and the media’s lens, both exclusively controlled by white people, this can help to explain our perceptions and biases today.

For our purposes here I want to share a few historical facts to illustrate why I am convinced that the black experience in America is not only unique but explains the lack of social and upward mobility and among blacks.

When Southern Democrats took power after Reconstruction they passed a series of local and state laws and social rules to oppress blacks and disenfranchise them. These became known as the Jim Crow laws and etiquette and were in effect from around 1877 until the 1960’s. They legalised segregation in transport, education, restaurants and bathrooms. Below are just a few examples of the types of things that Jim Crow etiquette mandated:
1.     “A black male could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a white male because it implied being socially equal.
2.     Obviously, a black male could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a white woman, because he risked being accused of rape.
3.     Under no circumstance was a black male to offer to light the cigarette of a white female -- that gesture implied intimacy.
4.     Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended whites.” (Source: Ferris State University site).

The effect was to relegate blacks to inferior status and make them second class citizens in their own country. The laws also ensured voting restrictions such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements that prevented the majority of blacks (and the poorest whites) from voting, leaving southern blacks politically crippled and economically disadvantaged.

While the laws in the southern states were overtly segregationist, discriminatory practices were prevalent even nationally and began to get institutionalised. One of the most heinous was a policy known as redlining, which was designed to prevent black neighbourhoods from receiving housing loans. 

It “was introduced by the creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, and lasted until 1968.” “Otherwise celebrated for making homeownership accessible to white people by guaranteeing their loans, the FHA explicitly refused to back loans to black people or even other people who lived near black people.” Redlining destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived."(Source: TheAtlantic article). We know that to thrive and grow every community requires investment in jobs, housing, infrastructure, etc.; such investments were discouraged in majority black communities across America.

With the passage of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights act of 1965, people believed, like with the Emancipation Proclamation, that they would magically bring equality for all Black Americans. 
In 1963, “a Gallup poll found that 78% of white people would leave their neighborhood if many black families moved in. “When it comes to MLK’s march on Washington, 60% had an unfavorable view of the march, stating that they felt it would cause violence and would not accomplish anything.” (Source: Roper Center, Cornell). 

These laws were necessary to end 
segregation, ban employment discrimination and give blacks the right to vote, but once again what American society failed to realise was that to change deeply-ingrained beliefs and multi-generational prejudice would require much more than the passage of a law; especially when there were still white people in power determined to maintain the status quo and the inequality between Blacks and Whites.

If you find this hard to believe, consider that “as recently as 2006, a city government report found that affluent, non-white Milwaukeeans were 2.7 times likelier to be denied home loans than white people with similar incomes.” A study by the National Institute of Health from 2009 concluded that “that white people prefer to live in communities where there are fewer black people, regardless of their income.” (Source: NIH Study “Does Race Matter in Neighbourhood Preferences).

A field study conducted by CNN in 2008 found that “Among those with no criminal record, white applicants were more than twice as likely to receive a call back relative to equally qualified black applicants. Even more troubling, whites with a felony conviction fared just as well, if not better, than a black applicant with a clean background.” (Source
: CNN article). The US Department of Justice settled a lawsuit with J.P. Morgan Chase in January 2017, for charging “African-American and Hispanic borrowers higher rates than white borrowers from 2006 to 2009, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.” (WSJ article).

Based on this historical evidence it becomes clear that numerous policies purposefully put in place to institutionalise racism; these policies were designed to silently prevent black people from gaining mobility and integrating with white America. The impact can be felt to this day.

Upward social mobility requires each generation to move one step up the social ladder, which then allows the following generation to gain access to better housing and higher quality education which leads to better jobs, better pay and a higher standard of living – more than any other non-white group, black people have been denied the ability to gain social mobility.

Think back to the fact that currently 1 in 3 Black American men face jail in their lifetime and then consider that a criminal record pretty much disqualifies you from participating in US society; even for low-level, non-violent offenses, for which the majority of black people are jailed. “Even your lower-paying fast-food jobs are now doing background checks,” he said. “How can I pay child support if I can’t get a job?” (Source: NYTimes article).

Without question we have come a very long way, but the fact is that many of these biases are still prevalent today and we must be aware of them in order to move forward. I believe that to heal these long simmering racial divisions (that have come to light more starkly under the first black President) and mend this broken narrative, Americans need to start by acknowledging and owning the sins of slavery (much like Germany does about the Holocaust) and gain a deeper understanding of how the subsequent years of institutionalised racism have ravaged the black community.

This is not about retribution or pity; it is about understanding the starkly different reality a black and white people in America face.

Until Americans fully appreciate this reality, we cannot begin to do the necessary work to ensure that the American Dream becomes real for future generations of black children.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Why Hillary Clinton and Democrats Lost the White House, Senate, Congress, Governorships and State Legislatures

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” 
Barack Obama

Anyone who believes Mrs. Clinton lost because she is a woman needs to wake up. There is no question that misogyny played a role, but she needed to win in spite of this because she was attempting to break a glass ceiling in what is, for now, still a man’s world. The facts clearly show that women did not unite against Mr. Trump because of his lewd and misogynistic comments, just to vote for a woman. “Instead, they voted more or less as they always have: along party lines.” (NYTimes).

Also, consider that Trump won white working class voters in “many of the areas where Mr. Obama fared best in 2008 and 2012. In the end, the linchpin of Mr. Obama’s winning coalition broke hard to the Republicans." (Source: NYTimes).

He also won almost 30% of Hispanics (more than Romney or McCain did); and overall did “…better than Romney among blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, making it more difficult to claim that racial resentment was the dominant factor explaining Trump’s support nationally.” (Source: Washington Post).

Let’s be clear that people don’t suddenly wake up one morning, turn on a racist switch and vote for hate. If that is true then we may as well pack our bags and abandon this great experiment called democracy. If we can get past the media’s hysteria and selective narrative, we will see that simply dismissing Mr. Trump’s victory as racism and misogyny (there was absolutely an element of it) is not just an over-simplification but dangerously naïve.

The next step is trying to understand, and fix, why Democrats and Mrs. Clinton lost, despite the fact that Mr. Obama had a higher approval rating than Mr. Reagan did at end of in his second term; another fact that makes it hard to blame racism. So, why did Mrs. Clinton lose?

She lost because the Democratic Party showed it had been taken over by a mafia and they were willing to use brute force to propel her candidacy, even though the base was clearly screaming for a different voice to represent them.

She lost because she came across like a Queen seeking a political coronation and someone who had become a member of the special interests and wealthy elites she promised to fight.

She lost because the majority of the world has lost faith in politicians of all stripes, and they are looking for outsiders who will use brute force to break the system, not politely try to navigate it.

She lost because she was complacent and took for granted that changing demographics would work in her favour. She simply assumed that minorities, women upset with Trump’s irresponsible and bombastic statements, and left-leaning millennials would carry the day for Democrats.

She lost because she changed her position numerous times on the minimum wage, on TPP and on trade; issues that most mattered to her voters.

She lost because she was completely tone deaf to the screams of the wider electorate, an electorate screaming for economic dignity. The kind of dignity that only a well-paying job can provide, and a sense of self-worth that comes from being able to provide for your family and promise your children a good education and a bright future.

The reason she lost is because she did not offer a vision for how she would help create decent jobs for all Americans; she forgot that it’s still “the economy, stupid”.

Her campaign was entirely rooted in trying to convince voters that Trump was an evil demagogue who is unfit to govern. But people needed to know how she would help them put food on the table, afford healthcare, find a job, get an education and lift themselves and their children from economic indignity; Mrs. Clinton failed to provide this narrative.

Instead, Mrs. Clinton and Democrats chose to stay in their bubble and ignore the growing working class cries for help. As a result the Democrats not only lost the White House, Senate and the House, but were also decimated across the board in Governor and state legislative races. Voters clearly and soundly rejected current party policies at every level of government; Democrats would be wise to take heed.

Democrats now have a clear choice to make. They can waste time and energy filing futile petitions, funding protests and calling for vote recounts. They can continue to scream and cry about Trump being racist and misogynist and refuse to accept that he is the President-elect and they can also refuse to work with him once he takes office. By doing this, they will once more bury their heads in the sand and, like the GOP has done, become a party with no vision, no rallying cause and end up with an internal civil war of their own, led by various extreme factions within the party.

Or they can come out of their bubble and spend time trying to understand why so many blue collar voters and minorities, who have historically been a guaranteed part of their base, felt so excluded and isolated that they needed to find such an extreme alternative.

They can work with President Trump to further the economic cause of all Americans while ensuring that hate never permeates the mainstream arteries of our democracy, and they can champion an alternative vision to his, one that must be more economically inclusive of all voters in 2020.


NOTE: Title changed on 12/5 from "2016 US Election: Why Democrats Lost and the Choice They Need to Make".

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hindutva or Development; That is the Question

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.” 
Henry David Thoreau

Capitalism and democratic freedom go hand in hand. In order for India’s economy to succeed, people need to stop fearing backlash for religious or political beliefs, and have no fear in publicly criticising the government, the PM, elected officials and even the army.

Silence is no longer an option; it will be deemed as acquiescence at worst, cowardice at best, at a time when moral policing, anti-Muslim bigotry, religious intolerance, frivolous accusations of anti-nationalism and vigilantism continue to grow.

In order for Mr. Modi’s vision of India to succeed, he needs to go well beyond cutting a few layers of our bureaucracy and corruption, and also start championing free society where diversity of thinking is encouraged, where there is respect for rule or law (and consequences for breaking it) and where there is a very clear separation between religion and state.

These are the fundamental underpinnings of every successful free market economy. India cannot progress economically with one-hand tied behind its back. If Mr. Modi continues to allow apolitical institutions like the army to be used by his political cronies as instruments of faux nationalism, he will pay a very heavy price and so will India.

The bottom-line is that every month between 2011 and 2030, nearly 1 million Indians will turn 18 and if India is unable to create well-paying jobs, no matter what else Mr. Modi achieves, his tenure will be viewed as a failure.

In my estimation, there are couple of things Mr. Modi must do to change the tenor of the current discourse in our nation and lay the foundations for a more cohesive and inclusive India.

One. As one of the few politicians who understand the power of social media, Mr. Modi must make an appeal to all digital lynch mobs to make clear that this behaviour will not be tolerated and most certainly should not be done in his name. He needs to be unequivocal in his condemnation of social media misogyny, bullying and hooliganism, but stop short of passing new laws. 

His needs to be a plea for civility without limiting free speech. It is about appealing to people’s good sense and getting them to take the higher ground, just like Mr. Modi did when he met with Nawaz Sharif and invited Pakistan’s SIT team (against the wishes of his own advisors).

Two For a man who took office promising to attract foreign companies and investment by changing the backward, corrupt, bumbling and bureaucratic image of India, his government’s own PR has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.

In a world where perception is reality, the BJP is increasingly being seen as a government of overreach. One that regularly tramples on civil liberties and constitutional rights. Granted, some of this is overreaction, media bias and orchestration by opposition parties, but truth is that beef bans have been enforced in BJP-led states, independent documentary films have been banned, funding has been blocked for NGO’s, college students have been charged with sedition and there was an attempt to blacklist an independent TV channel without judicial oversight. All of this has transpired under Mr. Modi’s watch.

The point is that the world is watching and taking note. Ultimately, nobody wants to invest in a country where rule of law is regularly trampled and sound economic policy decisions are overtaken by religious fanaticism and medieval ideology.

Three. It is easy to forget that at sixty-nine years we are still a young and nascent democracy. Witnessing the machinations of the last two Congress governments, the Aam Aadmi party’s complete ineptitude and the BJP’s Hindutva antics, it tells me that to begin our evolution into a mature democracy we need to start creating non-partisan institutions, independent think tanks, civilian ombudsman bodies and numerous other apolitical and non-partisan groups that have the ability to monitor our government’s activities and prevent overreaches. 

Such institutions are the bedrock of every mature democracy. We have seen how these independent organisations ultimately held the US government to task over recent overreaches like the illegal Iraq invasion and the torture of enemy combatants, and put a stop to intelligence agencies' infringing on citizens’ rights through opaque domestic spying programs.

India needs this type of independent oversight to hold government and elected officials accountable when they stray, as they all inevitably do. Modi can become the PM who championed the creation of these public institutions.

If he does not start to address these underlying civil and social issues, all the good he continues to do – his recent bold move to combat black money, removing foreign equity caps (from defense to railroads), launching Jan Dhan Yojana (bank accounts for the poor), smart city initiatives, fast track projects, divestment of PSU’S, women's empowerment programs – will all seem inconsequential as they are overshadowed by beef bans and the use of antiquated British laws.

I believe it comes down to a very simple question that Modi needs to ask himself: What does he want his legacy to be?

Does he want to be remembered as the Prime Minister who put India on the path to achieving its full potential - by promoting free thought, gender equality and rule of law, or the PM who allowed India to be reshaped by wildly misguided notions of Hinduism and pseudo-nationalism? 

History will certainly judge how Mr. Modi chooses to answer, but long before that we will decide at the ballot box.