Monday, August 30, 2010

A Tale of Two Events: The 1963 March on Washington and Glen Beck’s “Restoring Honor” Rally
Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

The 1963 March on Washington changed my life. As a 17 year old college athlete moved by the Civil Rights struggle, but unsure how to get involved, the sight of two hundred fifty thousand Blacks and whites peacefully gathering together in the Nation’s capital to demand passage of a Civil Rights bill made me feel that something profound and significant was happening in the country that demanded my participation. And when I heard Dr King’s speech offering a vision of justice in which people of all racial and religious backgrounds could play a part, I felt he was speaking directly to me. As soon as I got back to school, I joined the campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality and volunteered to do tutoring and tenant organizing. The rest is history. Forty seven years later, I am a Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University, whose life has been profoundly enriched by participation in social justice struggles, the study of African American history, and the building of deep friendships that cross lines of race, religion, nationality and sexual orientation.
Given this history, it was both shocking and upsetting to see Glen Beck use the very same setting, and the very same date, to mount all-white protest against the policies of the Obama Administration and promulgate a vision of religious faith that negates everything that Dr King stood for during his extraordinary life. That Beck could speak of “reclaiming the civil rights movement” in one sentence and denounce any form of religious faith that promoted redistribution of wealth, in another shows either his total cynicism, or his complete lack of familiarity with Dr King’s speeches and writings. Dr King, the theologian, was not just concerned with assuring individual rights for all, regardless of race creed or color, he was preoccupied with understanding how imbalances in wealth and power, deformed societies and created a climate where violence would thrive. One of his greatest speeches, his” Declaration of Independence from the War In Vietnam” was all about how the US “ was on the wrong side of a world revolution,” and how the pursuit of profits and he defense of vast imbalances in wealth was responsible for violence at home and abroad.
Dr Martin Luther King, though a man of peace, was a social revolutionary who believed that the health of societies was enhanced by the pursuit of equality. No where was that more true than his speech at the March on Washington. As I listened to that speech, I was overwhelmed by a sense not only that America could only be true to its ideals if Black people were given equal rights, but that each of us would be ultimately judged by how well our actions served those less fortunate than themselves. A nation, like a family, Dr King argued powerfully, could only truly achieve well being if all of its members were healthy and cared for, and he spoke of healing the wounds of racism and poverty as a sacred task that would not only ennoble everyone associated with it, but would greatly enhance America’s standing among the nations of the world.
Dr King’s genius was his ability to make people feel that devoting their lives to helping others immeasurably enriched their experience of living, while making the nation they lived in stronger and more respected. That someone could use his words and example to promote institutionalized selfishness as both Christian and patriotic is not only to distort his legacy, it is to defile it!
Mark Naison
September 30, 2010

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is the Tea Party Upsurge a "White Power" Movement in Disguise?
Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

The more I observe the Tea Party movement, the more it seems to resemble the movements that overthrew Radical Reconstruction and returned the South to "White Rule."

It’s not that the rhetoric of the Tea Party mirrors the white supremacist oratory that accompanied the end of Reconstruction, or that it has violent allies that engage in murder and intimidation that way the Ku Klux Klan did, it is that the Tea Party movement is composed of white people who feel that the world has been turned upside down, that their status has fallen, and that their livelihoods are at risk, because a Black man is in power.

The overwhelming emotional response to the Tea Party movement among working class and middle class whites- which I have seen first hand in the working class neighborhood where I have a vacation house- bespeaks more than a concern about deficits and government waste. It reflects a sense that the election of Barack Hussein Obama as President threatens whites of modest means in some profound and elemental way, a feeling that has been stoked by accusations that President Obama is a Muslim and not a US Citizen.

Unlike the people who overthrew Reconstruction, who openly argued that the United States was founded as a "White Man’s Country" and could only prosper if it remained that way, I am not sure that most Tea Party activists would use openly racial reasoning to proclaim the illegitimacy of the Obama Presidency. But their sense of displacement and outraged dignity seems every bit as powerful as that of white southerners after the Civil War ruled by coalitions of Black and White Radical Republicans whose governance was secured by the presence of federal troops.
When talking to Tea Party supporters, you get an overwhelming sense that they view President Obama as an "imposter," someone whose presence not only defies long standing American traditions, but threatens them personally.

There is also a peculiar chemistry in the movement that deserves interrogation; its propensity to bring like minded white people together in settings where they can express rage and disappointment in a way they could not easily do at work, in school, or even in places of recreation where they might have to share space with people of different racial backgrounds,

The energy released in such gatherings is extraordinary, as is the release of inhibitions. White people who feel constrained from expressing racial resentments in multiracial gatherings, seem to feel "liberated" by Tea Party gatherings. Finally, they can be themselves. Finally, they are in a place where "real" American values and traditions are honored.

What we have here is not the explicit conflation of "authentic" American identity with White Supremacy a major theme in American political culture well through the 1960’s, but rather the IMPLICIT conflation of patriotism and American values with some communally affirmed ideal of Whiteness that no one is willing to acknowledge and talk about

But the implicit quality of the Tea Party’s practice of white solidarity doesn’t make it any less real. No one can observe, or attend Tea Party events, without feeling the potential of the group to "turn on" people of color whose presence somehow offends the group ( as the Black man with the skullcap did at the Ground Zero mosque protests). The emotional investment in Whiteness among Tea Party activists is something its own leaders need to come to grips with and which the rest of us need to view with trepidation

Just because the Tea Party has not yet spawned violent actions, or an underground terrorist wing, doesn’t mean that it will not do so in the future. The emotions calls upon are extremely powerful, and the traditions it invokes have a long and tragic history.

Make no mistake about it. The Tea Party is not just a crusade to restore Fiscal Integrity. It is a White Power movement that has the power to weaken and possibly unravel the thin fabric of civility that holds American society together
Mark Naison
August 26, 2010


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Statement In Support of Tacheles- Berlin Community Art Center

Why Tacheles Must Be Preserved: A Statement by Dr Mark Naison, Professor of African American Studies and History, Fordham University, New York City.

It is both ironic and reprehensible that in the middle of a global economic crisis, where banks are being bailed out by governments, and where large numbers of commercial and residential properties stand abandoned in cities around the globe, that one of the most important examples in the world of the conversion of abandoned space for creative purposes is being threatened with elimination by banks and developers.

Make no mistake about it; people all over the globe who have visited Tacheles have been inspired by the story of a group of artists who took over a huge abandoned Department store after the fall of the Berlin wall and with their own sweat and labor transformed it into an internationally known arts center with an extraordinary music club that features artists from around the globe.

Tacheles is not a period piece; an excercise in nostalgia that recalls an exciting bygone time in Berlin's history. It is a living, breathing example of what ordinary people can do when markets collapse and governments fail.

I experienced this first hand when I visited Tacheles four years ago with the progressive hip hop group Rebel Diaz. When we saw the amazing things the artists at Tacheles had done with abandoned space, not only in the building itself, but in the adjoining lot, we wondered why nothing like it had been done in comparable spaces in New York City, especially in the Bronx, where there are many partially occupied warehouses and factories.

So inspired was Rebel Diaz by this model that they were determined to recreate it in the Bronx and this year their dream became a reality. Along with 20 other artists, musicians and community organizers- they turned an abandoned candy factory in the Bronx into the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, which, like Tacheles, has a music club, artists studios, and outdoor gardensand sitting areas showcasing graffiti arts.

At a time when the global economic crisis is leaving in its wake thousands of abandoned stores, shopping centers, and luxury housing complexes, Tacheles stands as a living example of how grass roots activism can transform such spaces into centers of artistic creativity and small scale commerce.

Not only should Tacheles be protected from irresponsible commercial development- undertaken, it should be noted, by the very institutions that brought us the global economic crisis-, it should be proudly promoted by the City of Berlin as an example to the world of how ordinary people can create opportunities in the midst of turmoil and hardship

Tacheles is not only a reminder of a heroic time in Berlin's past, it is, for many people around the globe, a symbol of their hope of a better future

August 18, 2010.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

From The Ground Up There's Little Difference Between Bush and Obama: Thoughts on a Conversation With a Working Class Neighbor

Professor Mark Naison
Fordham University

This morning at 6 AM, I ran into my former neighbor John today getting coffee at the local general store. John a white fifty something Navy veteran who works in a local lumber yard, used to live across the Street from me in the Springs section of East Hampton, but since his divorce, he lives in a house about a half a mile away. We greeted each other warmly and began to have one of he conversations that I used to look forward to when we were neighbors

John, who drives a pickup truck, wears a cowboy hat, and is a volunteer fire fighter and a local union rep, used to love to drop by to have a beer and talk about life and love and politics. I enjoyed hearing what the world and the nation looked like from his vantage point, and it was partly because of my discussions with him that I became convinced that Barack Obama could win the presidency in 2008.

But this time, in August 2010, his message was very different. John, who hated George Bush with a passion because he thought Bush was "handing the country over to the rich" was planning to vote Republican in November. His main reason for doing this, he said, is that "he didn't want to pay more taxes," but he wasn't too confident that his vote was going to make a difference. " It probably doesn't matter who is in office," he said, " I don't think that things are going to get better for a guy like me. But I'll tell you one thing. This guy we have in there isn't doing the job"

I felt my heart sink. This is not what I hoped to hear. I was hoping that John was going to vote Democrat, or sit out the election, rather than voting Republican. But clearly he was extremely disillusioned with President Obama and since he knew I had anObama sticker on my car, he was making sure to let me know.

If this had been a conversation taking place on the porch of my house instead of by a coffee machine in a general store, I might have responded with a long explanation of all the things Obama had tried to do for working class Americans - from saving the auto industry, to extending unemployment insurance, to pumping money into the economy through the stimulus bill- but I didn't have the time to do this and if I did I am not sure it would have made a difference

Because the bottom line is that John's life hasn't improved since Barack Obama came into office. He still has a job, but his pension is down,work is slow so he's not clocking overtime, and he can't sell his old house because no one is buying.

Now if John felt a deep personal identification with President Obama, he might be willing to give him more time. But for a working class guy who drives a pickup truck and whose major recreational pastimes are hunting and fishing, President Obama is a tough sell. Not just because he's black--,which is a factor but probably not a determinative one- (John has people of color in his extended family) but because he comes off as someone to whom life has been very kind. The beautiful wife, the kids who go to private school, the vacations in Martha's Vineyard and other upscale resorts, the time spent shooting hoops with NBA players, all those things make John feel that President Obama is not someone who really understands how people like John live or what makes them tick

The way John sees it, all politicians are crooks, and the rich get richer no matter who is in office, so he has to judge any individual politician by a combination of gut instinct and a hardheaded assessment of whether they have made his life better.

And on both of those accounts, John finds President Obama wanting

From past experience, I have learned to take what John says very seriously, not only because he is so honest, but because he is a leader in his own community,

As a lifelong Democrat, I am not very optimistic about what is going to happen in the November elections. Republicans are going to pick up huge numbers of seats because working class Americans will be holding Democrats accountable for the continued deterioration of the American economy and the failure of Democratic policies to improve the lives of ordinary people in ways they can appreciate and understand

Mark Naison
August 17,2010

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Slow Recovery at Best- Reflections on My Latest Conversation With “Sam The Developer”

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

In order to really understand where the economy is going, you can’t just rely on statistics. You have to talk to real people and see what their actual situation is. I have a excellent entrée to people in many segments of the workforce through my students and former students at Fordham, who work in education, business, and health care, and through the people I work with in the Bronx, some of whom are recent immigrants who work in entrée level jobs. .

But one of most valuable barometers of economic conditions I know is a friend and tennis partner I call “Sam The Developer” an innovative businessman who specializes in developing shopping centers in immigrant, working class neighborhoods throughout the New York Metropolitan area. Sam has made an excellent living finding niches for economic development in communities of color like East New York and the Northwest Bronx, but in the process he has provided hundreds if not thousands of jobs, in construction and in retail, to residents of those neighborhoods. Sam, along with small and medium size business people throughout the country like him, was a major source of private sector job growth before the Recession hit, and was virtually “shut down” during the first two years of the Crisis. No bank would lend to him, and as a result no new project could be launched

When I asked him whether things were getting better, his answer was instructive and frankly not that encouraging. After a two year drought, Sam said, development opportunities are starting to reappear in the New York economy, at least for people like him who work in outer borough immigrant neighborhoods, but under very changed conditions. First of all he said, the construction unions in New York have been broken. No one can build paying union wages, so developers are either hiring non union workers or paying union workers way below what was once the prevailing wage. Secondly, banks are lending again, but under such restrictive conditions as to make it impossible for small businessmen like him to work with them. They are either charging exorbitant interest rates for their loans or demanding that the recipient put up all his or her personal property – including their houses- as collateral, which Sam is unwilling to do

To take advantage of the few opportunities which are there, which Sam said, are largely in building “big box” stores in Brooklyn or the Bronx, Sam has had to get loans guaranteed by government intermediaries through Stimulus Funding. Those loans will keep him in business for several years, but when they expire, Sam will have to get his funding directly from the banks, and he is not sure that they will be willing to lend at rates that will allow him to do business.

Needless to say, the picture Sam paints suggests that the “Recovery” we are in is extremely fragile. First of all, job growth in a key economic sector- construction- in so far as it has occurred at all, has been accompanied by declining wages. This is hardly the kind of economic climate to nurture “consumer confidence” Secondly, banks are so fearful of losses from toxic assets still on their books that they are taking no risks in funding new business enterprises. As a result, it is extremely difficult to get funding for new projects or new enterprises, even when the developer has an excellent track record. Finally, many of the new projects that are being launched are made financial viable by federal stimulus funds, which are likely to run out in the next two years.

Anyway you look at it, this is a grim picture. Banks not lending, new projects remaining dormant, unemployment high, wages falling, Insofar as there is job growth, it comes from industries receiving an infusion of government stimulus funding. But what is going to happen when those funds run out. Will job growth come from consumer demand? The resurgence of small business? An infusion of bank lending?

Unfortunately, if we extrapolate from Sam’s experience, none of that is likely to happen unless the government puts a new injection of Stimulus funding into the economy
An obsession with the deficit may make sense, in the long run, but it in the short run it will doom us to years and years of economic stagnation and extreme hardship for Working America.

Mark Naison
August 7, 2010