Showing posts with label Martin Luther King. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Martin Luther King. Show all posts

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. 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. According to Pew Research "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.” 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”  according to a 2014 US Department of Justice report. A 2013 UN Human Rights Committee report  found that “African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males…. And went on to conclude that  “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.”

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.” 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 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 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 home ownership 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." 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.

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 more recently a 2009 study by the National Institute of Health that looked into how much people consider race when choosing a neighborhood to live in, concluded that “that White people prefer to live in communities where there are fewer Black people, regardless of their income.”

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.”
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.”


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?”

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 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.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Open Letter to America: To Defeat Trump We Need To Be Better Than He Is



Many young people say they want to carry on Dr. King’s legacy. They want to battle racism, hate, and intolerance to level the societal playing field and unify us. It is for these reasons they want to stop Donald Trump and his supporters, believing they stand for the opposite and try to divide us. Yet, it seems in Chicago the other night they forgot about the “how” that Dr. King used to fight ALL bigotry and hatred.

The protestors who went to the Trump rally were well organized. They came armed with inflammatory t-shirts and signs with the intention of pressing buttons and inciting Trump supporters. They have admitted as much. “They got the job done, Vickie Deanda, 54, an accountant from Chicago, said of the demonstrators. “Someone has to object to this hatred" (Source: New York Times article). They went there not to protest peacefully, which is their right, but to shut it down and prevent it from taking place, infringing on Trump’s right.

When I got on Twitter the evening after the rally was cancelled, many young people, who claimed to have been at the venue and part of the anti-Trump crew were gloating about how they had won; by ‘shutting down’ hate.  They were openly proud of the fact that they had forced Donald Trump to send home his supporters, and cancel a legally organized and permitted event. The irony is that these so-called champions and defenders of free speech did not seem to care that they had just trampled on someone else's right to it.

I am not writing to defend Trump, but in Chicago the actions of the demonstrators made him seem the victim and brought people who despise him, like me, to his defense. This while also emboldening his supporters by proving both that they do not have a voice in this country and that they get shutdown when they try to express it. So I ask you, what was achieved?

Trump has shown that he lacks both the maturity and the temperament to lead. He openly tells lies, bullies people when confronted, and uses reckless, irresponsible rhetoric to prey on genuine fears. That is not leadership; it is cowardice. Anyone can use people’s insecurities, fear and anger to rally them. True leadership aims to help people rise above.

That is the point I want to make to the next generation of America. To beat Trump we need to unite and rise above the anger, fear and frustrations he uses to rally his base. This means we need to first acknowledge the very real fears of many Americans; people who have lost their jobs to foreign countries and immigrants like me. We need to acknowledge their realities and struggles to make ends meet without the proper education, skills or training necessary to compete in a technologically-driven and rapidly changing world. And we need to offer them an alternative narrative to his hate, bigotry and divisiveness. That is how we beat Trump and win, not by resorting to his bullying, bashing and shouting.

Some of the young people on Twitter told me that we are at war; they compared Trump to the rise of Hitler. To them I say first we are not at war, but yes, we need to fight back. However, it is imperative we do so by upholding our values, beliefs and principles, not by compromising them by fighting on Trump's terms. Even during WWII we did not gas every Nazi soldier we captured, though many of us could have justified it, nor did we execute those responsible for setting up and running the concentration camps; we tried and sentenced them. Our actions when fighting and punishing them were not based on an emotional reaction to the heinousness of their crimes, but on our values, humanity, intellect and sense of justice.

One young man on Twitter asked me how we beat Trump. To him and every other young person angered by his hate-filled rhetoric, I say we do it by uniting; that is the only way. This is a time to look beyond party lines; there are no republicans or democrats in this fight. We are all Americans and irrespective of our political differences, we share the same values. 

Only by standing together, united as one nation, can we show Trump that he will not hijack a nation by misleading and playing on the fears and emotions of a small group of angry people. We need to show him that we are better than that. That we can put aside our differences when something greater is at stake and defeat a common enemy.

Trump is appealing to humanity’s basest instincts; we must appeal to the noblest.

Remember, that while we should be willing to die for our cause, we should never be willing to kill for it. This is what differentiates us from the people who are filled with hate. If we are to lose that distinction, we become no different than people we disagree with, even if our cause claims to be the greater one.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Israel & Palestine: After Mavi Marmara

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
Mahatma Gandhi

Indians and Israelis have long felt a strong kinship with each other. Perhaps it has partly to do with both nations celebrating their birth and freedom from British rule barely 6 months apart. Or that both peoples have been invaded, persecuted and ruled by foreigners, and both share a rich history of culture and civilization dating back many centuries. In fact, a 2009 extensive International Study called "Branding Israel" done by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, looked at 13 countries (considered to be important in the world, including US, India, Canada, Great Britain, France, China and Russia), the greatest level of sympathy towards Israel was found in India. People always talk about the United States’ unconditional support and pro Israeli bias, but amazingly 58% of Indians showed sympathy to the Jewish State, with the United States coming in second. This kinship is also evident in our countries military and trade relations, with India being Israel’s second largest military and economic partner, after the US and Russia respectively. Even more fascinating is that the Bnei Menashe (“Children of Manasseh”) is a group of more than 9,000 people from the North East of India who claim descendant from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Their oral history, passed down 2,700 years, charts their escape from slavery in Assyria and journey to Persia. They travelled through Afghanistan toward the Hindu-Kush and proceeded to Tibet, then to Kaifeng, reaching the Chinese city around 240 B.C.E. During their years there, large numbers of the Israelites were killed and once again enslaved and persecuted. From here they pressed on to India where they were welcomed and stayed for the next few centuries (Source: Wikipedia). Today many are starting to learn and practice Judaism again and a few hundred have also relocated to Israel. I am told that Hindi movies are hugely popular in Israel, even played on prime time television. So India too, much like the US, has historically had a pro-Israel default position in every situation regarding Palestine. However, when Israeli Commandos recently raided a Turkish flotilla killing 9 people, India for the first time was openly critical of Israel’s actions. India’s stance made me wonder how things have gone so horribly wrong, for in the last decade things seems to have gotten much worse between Israelis and Palestinians, and now it feels like there is not even an inkling of light at the end of this tunnel. To my mind this is directly a result of a severe dearth of leadership on both sides.


What Mahatma Gandhi realised was that Indians could not defeat the might of the British Empire on the battlefield or through freedom fighter’s tactics, as we called them, used to disrupt the Empire in small ways through bombs blasts and using small arms. He knew that the only way to defeat the British was to take the higher ground, to boycott their products, their rule and their way of life - much like Mandella who followed Gandhian principles decades later to unshackle South Africa from the chains of Apartheid and even Martin Luther King Jr. who followed Gandhi’s principles to fight for civil rights in America. All these men understood that freedom can only be won by stirring the masses and waking within them a sense of patriotism, pride and conviction that is not hindered by the thought of losing one’s life – it has to be more precious and worth more than the fear we feel in the absence of it. This is something no leader has stirred within the Palestinian people until now. There is a small and growing movement stirring within the West Bank, where men who once wore masks and carried guns are joining unarmed protest marches, goods produced in Israeli settlements are being burned in defiance and the Palestinian Prime Minister is visiting areas officially off limits to him and his people to plant trees to declare the land a part of a future state, according to a New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/07/world/middleeast/07westbank.html).  It is an extremely powerful way to empower the ordinary citizen, the majority of whom do not agree with the violent path their leaders have lead them on, a path that has seen no results after decades. In the last few months Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, visited and joined a protest march and Martin Luther King III is scheduled to speak at a conference on nonviolence. It is still far from what can be called a mass movement, but it feels like Palestinians are realizing that violence and hard-nosed diplomacy have gotten them nowhere and that perhaps another approach is necessary to break this endless deadlock.

In recent times it feels like Israel in particular has lost its once strong leadership and the actions of the men and women who now govern her seem increasingly desperate, and more poorly thought out than ever before. From the war with Lebanon, to the current blockade of Gaza and the most recent botched Commando raid, Israel has not only not managed to accomplish the goals she stated at the outset of these operations but also seems to be rapidly losing the much more costly moral high ground and public opinion. In the most recent incident, where 9 civilians carrying humanitarian aid were killed, it is hard not to see Israel as the bad guy. To make a case for self-defense for highly trained Commandoes (arguably among the best in the world) facing a group of men armed with chairs, clubs and sticks – hardly the makings of an armed and trained terrorist unit – is a tough one. At least in the court of global public opinion. Granted the Palestinians have not stopped their attacks on Israelis as the peace roadmap states, but Israel too has not held its end of the agreement, to dismantle illegal outposts and not build any new ones. By building a fence and walling in the Palestinians, Israel is only succeeding in cutting them off from their land, means of economic survival and livelihood which will in all probability have the opposite effect it intended. By creating more hunger, poverty, unemployment, and lack of education and opportunity, it will serve to make the next generation of Palestinians even more desperate. If you cage people like animals long enough, one day they will behave like animals.

Ultimately, somebody will need to take the higher ground for there to be any resolution and lasting peace for both peoples. It feels to me like the Turkish flotilla incident is a real chance for Israel’s leadership to reset course. To change their tactics, their policies and take the higher ground to forge a new peace agreement with the Fatah backed Palestinian government. If they can do this to create a two-state solution which brings peace and economic prosperity to the West Bank, its economy and people, then Hamas will be totally isolated and the people of Gaza less likely to support them and their failed policies – forcing Hamas to come to the negotiating table on Israel’s terms. But if Israel continues to flounder and the peaceful moment within the Palestinians begins to take real and meaningful root and, much like Gandhi’s famous salt march to Dandi, we see start to see widespread civil disobedience with unarmed Palestinian women creating roadside blockades, protests and showing peaceful defiance against armed Israeli soldiers and there is even one drop of bloodshed in this situation – then it will be hard for India and America to continue defending Israel, and for the world not to see Israel as the bad guy.