Op-ed Submission: Ignoring Race & Trayvon Martin

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an op-ed piece I submitted. I discuss the importance of acknowledging the role race continues to play in American society in light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. It is the last article on the page.

Justice for Trayvon Martin: Yes, Race Still Matters

For some Americans, especially conservatives, the election of Barack Obama was proof that race no longer mattered. Sure, these same conservatives often conspired that Obama was not legally the president because he was not a real American, and his birth certificate was fake. They questioned if he was actually born in Kenya, which was such an absurd topic, yet one that Obama was required to address on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, the race problem was solved as evidenced by the election of a black president, according to many conservative pundits.

For those of us who realized the absurdity of white Republicans celebrating the end of racism, the murder and lack of immediate charges against George Zimmerman prove that racism continues to exist. Racism changes, as society does, and so racism is not the same today as it was in the 1960s, and advances have been made, but that does not mean the race problem is solved.

If Trayvon Martin was white, would George Zimmerman have been arrested? Certainly he would have. The police would not have believed that an unarmed white child attacked an armed man who was much larger than him, causing Zimmerman to shoot him out of “self-defense.” Zimmerman’s family has defended him saying that he is Hispanic and not racist. The fact that Zimmerman is Hispanic does not disprove the accusations that he is racist; Hispanics can be racist. Zimmerman saw a black kid in his upper teens in a hooded sweatshirt in his neighborhood and immediately reported him as “suspicious” and “up to no good.”  What was so suspicious about the kid? Would a white kid have had the police called on him for acting suspicious? I am white, and I have never had the police called on me for acting suspicious.

Zimmerman is not the Ku Klux Klan type of racist that burns crosses in black people’s yards if they enter their neighborhood. But Zimmerman craves authority and power and believes that he needs to police the neighborhood for himself, and he also believes it is suspicious if young black males are in the neighborhood. Race still matters in that Zimmerman’s reaction to seeing a young black male in his neighborhood is different than his reaction would have been if it was a young white male. Race still matters in the police’s reaction to seeing a dead black male on the ground was different than if it was a dead white male. The police would not have immediately believed Zimmerman’s account if the races were different, and Zimmerman would not have been immediately suspicious of Martin if he was not black.

The other unsettling aspect of the murder of Trayvon Martin is the legal challenge that the “Stand Your Guard” law poses in Florida. The law was first passed in Florida in 2005, and has since been passed in 16 other states. This law is what Zimmerman will cling to as his defense, and it allows one to use force if they feel threatened in a public situation without needing to flee. Unless there are key eyewitnesses to the murder to contradict the murderer’s account, the murderer can easily say they acted in self-defense, and then how do you convict the person? In 2010, the Tampa Bay Tribune found how often this law has been used as a defense in murder charges, and justifiable homicides were definitely up. If an unarmed kid can be chased and then shot and killed, and yet the child is considered the provocateur by the police since they had nothing to contradict the murderer’s story, it shows how flawed the law is. It becomes extremely difficult to prosecute a murderer without key eyewitnesses because how can the jury be convinced that the killer was not acting out of self-defense if no one saw it? It opens a slippery slope of how one defines self-defense then. Hypothetically, one could harass someone at a park, follow them around, spit on them, push them, and refuse to leave them alone, then once the person has had enough of the harassment and fights back, the provocateur could shoot and kill the person and then simply claim self-defense to the police. People need to be required to attempt to flee what they perceive as a threatening scene instead of provoking them if they are going to claim self-defense. But the “Stand Your Ground” law does not require this and it sets up the potential for these violent incidents. Clearly Florida needs to revise their gun laws, as well as the other 16 states to have since passed them.

The tragic murder of Trayvon Martin is so unfortunate that one has to feel horrible for him and his poor family and friends. The only way that any good can come out of this killing is if it sparks a much needed renewed conversation about race in the United States and it also makes states reconsider these “Stand Your Ground” laws. Both of these issues need to be addressed, and hopefully this tragedy can make Americans reconsider these topics. In addition, Watch Groups need to have careful guidelines of what they follow. Watch Groups are not meant to be police officers without a badge or training. They should not be trying to enforce the laws themselves, but to watch for laws being broken, and then call the police to take action without getting involved themselves. Trayvon Martin will never get his life back, but we can at least learn something from his unfortunate murder by taking action and learning lessons from it.

Reconsidering Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 Campaign

(Update: Since originally writing this, I have also come across this: Ugandans are suspicious of the video as well. If you took the time to watch the 30 minute Kony 2012 video, you need to also watch this 6 minute response, which is a brilliant critique that makes many of the same points I attempted to make, but more eloquently and better informed.)

If you are on Facebook or Twitter, you probably have seen someone post the “Stop Kony 2012” video by now. At the time of writing this, the official video has almost 39 million views on YouTube, and #StopKony has been trending on Twitter for the past couple days. If you bothered to watch the video, you will see a well directed 30 minute video by a not-for-profit organization called Invisible Children demanding the arrest of a Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony, who is accused of using children as soldiers and raping women. The directors requested everyone share the video on social media sites, in particular targeting celebrities and policy makers, and as a result the video has gone viral. While Joseph Kony deserves to be arrested, this organization and its method also deserves to be scrutinized.

Several other blogs have raised criticism of the Invisible Children organization, and I encourage you to read them (1, 2, 3, 4). Many point out the poor financial record of Invisible Children, which only provides 32% of its donations to the active cause. Certainly there are better not-for-profit organizations that one could donate to if they want to make a difference in central Africa. The video and its directors deserve further criticism though. I am not an expert on Uganda, Joseph Kony, or central Africa, but the fact that I felt just as comfortable talking about the situation before watching the video than I did after watching it raises serious concerns about its educational value. True, the video raised my awareness of Kony, and as an interested person, I will research it for myself, but the majority of viewers will not do the same, and therefore will learn little from the increased awareness of Kony.

What exactly does wearing “Kony 2012” bracelets and hanging up posters do to solve the conflict in central Africa? There is a difference between bringing awareness to the serious issues in Africa and making it a trendy movement that will fade away as soon as 2012 ends or Kony is captured. The film does not explore the roots of the problem or how large the problems are in Africa. Kony is not the only African warlord, and if he is captured the problem is not solved as another one will simply replace him. Yet the video presents it as a single issue that Kony needs to be stopped, and that is the solution to the problems in central Africa. It simplifies the problem to such an extent that the viewer learns little from it, and hence there is no educational value to it. Nothing is mentioned about the diversity of Uganda, which contains many different ethnic groups without any one being the majority. Nor is anything mentioned about Uganda’s colonial past, which continues to shape the country which only gained its independence fifty years ago. When a country consisting of such a diverse population gains its independence, wars between different ethnic groups are not uncommon. Invisible Children seems to ally itself with the Ugandan government against Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but the Ugandan government is not free from human rights abuses itself. The Ugandan government has considered passing an Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would punish those convicted of homosexual acts with the death penalty. Is this the government that an organization for peace should be allying itself with? Arresting Kony certainly will not improve the government’s human rights record. To understand the problems in Uganda or central Africa, one has to know at least a little about the background of the country or the region. In fact, the viewer learns more about the director and narrator’s five year old son, who is vital to the video, than anyone else, including Kony.

The fact that the narrator and his son play such a major role in the video romanticizes their role in an uncomfortable way reminiscent of the White Man’s Burden. I do not believe the narrator had bad intentions while making the video, and I believe he thinks his organization is truly helping, but the fact that he can create a video with his five year old son pointing to a picture of Kony as saying he’s “the bad guy” that needs to be stopped without recognizing the inherent cultural imperialism behind it demonstrates how clueless the organization is. The idea of the White Man’s Burden is that it is whites noble mission to uplift other “uncivilized” races. It makes me very uncomfortable to watch a video where a white narrator talks to and about his son and how he wants to raise him in a world where (black) children in other countries are not forced to serve in a military. His plan to make sure his son does not grow up in such a world is simply to make videos such as this one, have people share them, spread “Kony 2012” posters and bracelets, and press lawmakers to make sure Kony is arrested. White Americans need to realize that the best way to help solve a conflict in Africa is not to make it into movement using social media. If people want to become true activists and raise awareness of complex issues, they need to first fully understand them themselves (which I do not, nor do I claim to) and second they need to educate others so they understand the problems at hand.

Instead of a video about “Kony 2012” that ignores the complexities of the problem and focuses on his (white) five year old son, the narrator would be better suited to make a video about the war torn region and poverty in it that educates the viewer instead of telling the viewer it is our duty to rescue them.

Georgia, do not execute Troy Davis

I do not know all the details of the Troy Davis case, nor do I — or anyone else besides him and whoever is responsible — know if he is guilty or not. But there is beyond enough evidence to question whether Davis committed the murder, and therefore, the state should not take someone’s life in its own hands. With no physical evidence available, no DNA, and nothing but witnesses who later recanted their testimony, Georgia — and the nation as a whole — cannot justify taking a man’s life. Casey Anthony got away with killing her daughter because there was not enough physical evidence that tied her to the crime, so the prosecutors were unable to prove her guilt without a reasonable doubt, even though everyone knows she is responsible for the child’s death. But barring a miracle, in a few hours, the state of Georgia will execute a man who very well may not be guilty. Again, I do not know if he is guilty, but neither does anyone else because the case is based on such flimsy evidence, which means the state should have the moral high ground to allow the man to survive.

It’s simple, Tea Party: want to reduce the deficit? Tax the rich!

While the Republicans and the Tea Party insist on reducing the deficit, they refuse the most logical solution to reducing the deficit: raising taxes on those who can most afford it. The GOP’s strategy is simply irrational and mind-boggling. Never has a minority party been so hard headed and reluctant to compromise on an obvious solution to the problems that they are emphasizing.

The Republicans and Tea Party are the ones making such a major deal out of the budget deficit, and while it is a concern, it is far from the catastrophic problem that the Republicans are pushing the U.S. towards. During a significant economic recession, the solution — as history has shown — is not to slash all spending, but to spend more to create jobs and wealth, which raises more revenue for the government. In addition, the idea that what the U.S. needs to do reduce the deficit is simply cut these “entitlement” programs without raising taxes is absurd! Whether its a family or the federal government, the most obvious solution to reduce debt is to increase revenue.

Nevertheless, when President Barack Obama proposes a tax increase on the wealthiest class, the so called “Buffett Tax”, which simply asks millionaires to pay at least as much as the middle class in taxes, House Speaker John Boehner (Republican) rejects it, saying the only acceptable way to reduce the deficit is to cut entitlement programs. During a severe economic recession, when many Americans are unemployed, why is unacceptable to raise on the most wealthy of Americans? Does anyone truly believe it will hurt the economy if taxes are raised on the wealthy? Why does the Tea Party have so much support? By far the majority of Tea Party supporters would benefit rather than be hindered by a tax increase on the most wealthy, yet they — and the politicians they support — refuse to negotiate on it. The U.S. has performed a lot of irrational policies in its history, but the Tea Party’s stranglehold on the government and the economy is perhaps the most unusual in that it benefits almost none of its supporters.

Studies have shown that “racial resent” is one of the most consistent and popular beliefs among Tea Party supporters, which makes one wonder: are the Tea Party supporters working against their and the nation’s overall benefit for the simple fact that they insist on fighting tooth and nail to a black president, regardless of what he proposes? I am willing to hear other explanations, but I cannot think of a rational reason why Tea Party supporters, who the majority of them are not millionaires, would object to raising the taxes on millionaires so they are at least equal to the taxes on the middle class? If the Tea Party insists on the reduced deficit, it’s completely irrational to think that they would object to a tax raise on millionaires who are paying less in taxes than the middle class!

If any Tea Party supporters read this, please comment and explain to me your logic behind this. I cannot understand your rationale.

NATO and the NTC Need to Act Immediately to End the Racism in Libya

LIBYA: END THE COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY RACIST ATROCITIES

I posted last night about the racist attacks by some Libyan rebels against dark skinned black Africans, and since then other news reports have come out about it, including a report of twenty migrant black African women claim to have been raped by Libyan rebels. Racism in Libya is nothing new; Gaddafi exploited black African migrant workers, and millions of them are now entrapped in Libya. Yet, some rebels have decided to take advantage of the chaos ensuing since the revolution by attacking, executing, and raping innocent black Africans. While it certainly is not all Libyan rebels, too many accounts of it have come out for it to not be addressed yet.

NATO must threaten to stop supporting the NTC unless the NTC acts immediately to put an end to these racist atrocities. The NTC must make it clear that racist atrocities against the black Africans are counter-revolutionary and human rights violations, and that any rebels found guilty of them will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, just as any of Gaddafi’s war criminals will be prosecuted. I realize that in this time of chaos it is difficult to police all of the rebels, but the lack of public criticism of these acts by NATO and the NTC is unacceptable. I stand by a revolution that overthrew a brutal tyrant, but I strongly oppose any revolution that simply replicates the atrocities of the prior regime. NATO acted responsibly by defending citizens from being slaughtered by Gaddafi’s forces, but now they must act responsibly by defending the black Africans from being slaughtered by some of the rebel forces. NATO and the NTC must immediately speak out and demand an end to these atrocities, otherwise Libya will be no better off than it was under Gaddafi.

It’s time for NATO and the NTC to act as leaders of this rebellion instead of witnesses to it, and lead by calling on an immediate end to these atrocities.

Racism Haunts Libya’s Revolution

Since the rebellion against Gaddafi began in February, I followed the movement against him closely, I cheered the rebels on with each city they took, and when Gaddafi’s forces began to push back against the rebels and slaughtered civilians in his own country, I applauded NATO’s decision to intervene under the pretense of protecting civilians with a loose interpretation of  a no-fly zone. I still believe NATO made the right decision; it was clear Gaddafi was close to crushing the rebellion, and he would have merciless killed thousands in Benghazi, but the rebels still had enough anti-Gaddafi forces on the ground that, with help from NATO’s air force (but without any occupation), they could still easily defeat Gaddafi. It took longer than I expected for them to defeat Gaddafi, and granted they have not captured him yet as of writing this, but the days of his regime are clearly over. I still support the decision for NATO to support the revolution, and I still support the Libyan people’s courage in overthrowing Gaddafi, but the amounting stories of the Libyan rebels’ racist persecution toward dark skinned black Africans, in Tripoli and elsewhere, has diminished my hopes of a truly democratic Libya.

The majority of Libyans are Arabs and Berbers, but there’s a minority of black Africans in Libya who the majority of Libyans do not identify with. There does not seem to be any conflict yet between the Arabs and Berbers, but the black Africans have suffered at the hands of the rebels. Racism is not new in Libya: Gaddafi exploited black Africans as migrant workers, and many Libyans held prejudices toward the black Africans, but while the racism is not new, the actions of the rebels is still appalling.

When the rebellion began, rumors emerged that Gaddafi was using black African mercenaries in his military, which has not been verified and rejected by some researchers, but with Gaddafi’s mentality, it would not surprise me if he recruited any mercenaries that he could, including black Africans. However, I have no evidence that these rumors have any factual basis, but would it surprise anyone if Gaddafi did hire black Africans to serve as mercenaries in his efforts to defeat the revolution? Anyway, whether these rumors have any truth to them or not, certainly not all black Africans worked as mercenaries for Gaddafi, yet many rebels have treated all black Africans indiscriminately, and some rebels have executed already captured black Africans who they accused of being mercenaries, and calls for “ethnic cleansing” have already been discussed. Perhaps the most disturbing sign of the overt racism among some of the rebels is the graffiti that applauded the rebels as the “brigade for purging slaves, black skin.” Gaddafi’s forces have executed prisoners, prisoners of war, civilians, hospital patients, and anyone else they could take their vengeance out on since losing power, but the rebel forces need to prove they are the higher moral force than Gaddafi’s regime, and their indiscriminate racism has called that into question.

As I said earlier, I still rejoice over a revolution that overthrew Gaddafi’s 42 year long tyranny, but I am now much more skeptical over whether the Libyan revolution will live up to its democratic aspirations. The truth is the revolution had some flaws from the beginning: it was composed of diverse rebels who shared no ideological commonalities except for their opposition to Gaddafi. I have no doubt some revolutionary Libyans are disgusted by the acts of violence by some rebels against black Africans, who are now fearing for their lives. However, during a violent revolution that has been so disorganized, it is unfortunately difficult to enforce the ethics of war on all the revolutionaries. One Libyan submitted an op-ed piece denying the racism among the revolutionaries, but based on every other report, there seems no question that some rebels have committed racist atrocities that need to be stopped immediately. The rebels are composed of different factions: some proponents of human rights, some Islamic fundamentalists, some who simply resented or suffered during Gaddafi’s rule, some opportunists looking for power, and many other factions. There is no consensus among the rebels, and while I do believe the NTC (National Transitional Council) has good intentions for Libya and the people, uncertainty remains among who will fill the vacuum of power, whether they will live up to the democratic aspirations of the early rebellion, and what kind of human rights violations the rebels will commit. I am not surprised by the human rights violations; as I said, in a revolution, some rebels will take advantage of ensuing chaos. I am disappointed, however, in how widespread it seems, and how there has been a reluctance of the French, British, and U.S. officials in denouncing the acts of racism; the three powers supporting the rebels’ campaign immediately need to call on the rebels to act in a more humanitarian measure if they want to continue to receive military support or their financial aid, which is currently frozen.