Our place in history ...

Sunday, July 29, 2012

With Liberty & Justice For All...

After expressing my most sincere condolences to all those grieving, and deepest respect for the memory of Alex Okrent and the victims of senseless violence in Aurora, Colorado and Chicago, Illinois, I prayed for a respite from sadness, heartache, and frustration. But after Sally Ride’s loss to pancreatic cancer, Sherman Hemsley’s passing, and Lupe Ontiveros’s loss to liver cancer, I don’t feel I can. These three human beings pushed boundaries, paved paths, and deserved better than to have vital elements of their identities minimized until death.

Wow! That’s how the biography for Dr. Sally Ride on National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s “Learning Center for Young Astronomers” webpage begins. And this word choice could not be more appropriate. The first American woman in space, applied for NASA’s astronaut program in response to a newspaper announcement of the opportunity to serve as a scientist committed to space exploration, innovation, and the betterment of all living beings. 8,000 men and women applied for 35 slots. Dr. Ride, who received four degrees from Stanford University, including a Ph.D. in astrophysics, was one of six women accepted. Dr. Ride was never a stranger to success, or national recognition of her talent. In college, she was ranked one of the best tennis players in the nation. Legendary superstar Billie Jean King even urged her to drop out so she could immediately start playing professionally. A hero for the United States and all nations, Dr. Ride refused to rest on her laurels, she translated her inspirational biography into a career as an educator, mentor, and leader in the effort to recruit diverse students from all gender, ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). A case in point, her support of “Change the Equation,” a national initiative to increase STEM literacy, announced by President Obama in 2010.

Dr. Ride’s professional life was one of milestones. But her personal life would always be void of one. She loved a woman named Tam O’Shaughnessy for 27 years. In the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s, NASA would not have retained an astronaut openly engaged in a same-sex relationship. Dr. Ride’s personal sense of privacy notwithstanding, coming out would have meant an end to her career in the space program. Today, regardless of President Obama and Vice-President Biden’s support for same-sex marriage, only 6 states and the District of Columbia embrace equal marriage rights. Two states recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. 42 states have statutes or amendments to their state constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage.

Dr. Ride never married her loving partner of 27 years. This is likely because if they had wished to do so legally, prior to Dr. Ride’s passing, they would not have been able to in 84% of the United States of America—the country that today mourns her and calls her a hero and role model.

Because she is not legally recognized as a widow, Dr. O’Shaughnessy is not eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is the law of the land. And this means more than the fact that some Americans are afforded the opportunity to file joint tax returns while others are not. It speaks to a lingering hypocrisy in the words that conclude the Pledge of Allegiance. DOMA made Dr. Ride and Dr. O’Shaughnessy second-class citizens.

We need to conquer cancer the way that Dr. Ride conquered space. Nearly 580,000 Americans are expected to die of cancer in 2012. We also need to conquer everything preventing same-sex marriage in all 50 states—from DOMA to the homophobia demonstrated by Jennifer Carroll, the Boy Scouts, and Chick-fil-A—not just because it is the right thing to do. But because “with liberty and justice for all,” is neither an ideal, nor an aspiration: It is a promise assented to, a guarantee that equal protection under the law was not written into the Constitution alongside a “damned asterisk.”

Sherman Hemsley and Lupe Ontiveros were artists; celebrities in their lifetimes, performers, actors, pop culture icons. To some, it may seem unorthodox or inappropriate to eulogize them alongside an astronaut, a symbol of our national strength, like Dr. Ride. In response, I offer President John F. Kennedy words:

“Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much… Art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment… The artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life… If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist… If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens… And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”

Sherman Hemsley learned the craft of acting at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts. He joined the Negro Ensemble Company, and studied with renowned actor, director, and future Dean of the Yale School of Drama, Lloyd Richards. He performed with the Urban Arts Corps, and worked with the first African American woman to ever direct on Broadway, distinguished playwright, Vinnette Carroll. Norman Lear cast him as the iconic television character, George Jefferson, after seeing him on the stage as Gitlow Judson in a Broadway production of “Purlie.”

Mr. Hemsley was a professionally trained performer, prepared for the challenge and complexity of any acting role. He was told by the show’s producers to portray a “pompous and feisty” character. In this, he was pitch perfect. But Hollywood has historically traded in stereotypical caricatures, not multidimensional identities. The complexities he would bring to the character by which he is still defined, were not explicitly asked for, or rewarded.

Though the star of the longest running sitcom with a predominantly black cast in television history, he was not showered with Emmy and Golden Globe awards. Though the star of a groundbreaking show, he was forced to play to many of the long-standing stereotypes African American artists and scholars have fought against. As a case in point, George Jefferson’s often imitated strut came from Mr. Hemsley's attempt to lighten the mood of a set exhausted by the ad nauseam of seemingly endless takes. By his own admission, he was “clowning around.” Yet that depiction, one arguably reminiscent of a minstrel show character is the one network executives, embraced and promoted.

After walking away from an unprecedented $50 million deal with Comedy Central, Dave Chappelle famously said, “I want to make sure I’m dancing and not shuffling.” Compare that to what Mr. Hemsley told Entertainment Tonight about his iconic role, “We were just happy to be working regularly.” He worried about how others might perceive him. He feared someone might attack him because of the things his character said and did. But he concluded, “In those days there wasn’t much work around for us, so we really appreciated it.”

Have things changed for performers who belong to communities of color? Has progress been made in Hollywood, writ large? 12 years ago I answered in the negative.

Ten years ago, Lupe Ontiveros agreed with me.

“When I go in [for an audition]… [If I] speak perfect [American] English [without an accent], I don’t get the part,” she told the New York Times. The Times went on to write:

“Film and television typecasting of blacks in such roles once led to protests… Today the black maid has all but disappeared from big screen and small… But that sensitivity has not carried over to Hispanics. Ms. Ontiveros has become a sort of Hispanic Hattie McDaniel… Hispanics are the most significantly underrepresented ethnic group on prime time… Latino characters, more than any other, tend to be concentrated in low-status occupations like service workers, unskilled laborers and criminals… The entertainment industry seems stuck on the image of Hispanics as mostly poor, Spanish-speaking or of recent immigrant origin… Typecasting seems entrenched… Ms. Ontiveros has had some independent film standing of her own, winning a special jury prize for acting at the Sundance Film Festival for ‘Real Women Have Curves’… She received excellent notices for her role as the maid Consuelo in Todd Solondz’s ‘Storytelling.’ And in 2000, Ms. Ontiveros won the National Board of Review award for best supporting actress in the film ‘Chuck and Buck,’ in which she played a sympathetic theater manager without an accent… [Nevertheless, Latinos] remain stuck at only 2 percent of primary recurring roles [on television]… The problem of perceptions runs deep… [Take] Oscar-winning film ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ based on the life of John Forbes Nash… [In the real world] wife, Alicia Nash, is from El Salvador, but the movie made no mention of her ethnicity and the part was played by Jennifer Connelly, a non-Latina, who won an Oscar for the portrayal… The omission robbed audiences of the image of a Hispanic professional who helped her husband re-emerge from his mental illness… For Ms. Ontiveros, being a maid is not her personal reality though it has become her signature role. Her middle-class parents sent her to Texas Women’s University, where she majored in psychology and social work, and treated her to a month-and-a-half trip to Europe on graduation… Ms. Ontiveros said she began being hired to play maids soon after she began as an extra in the 1970s, as she followed artistic leanings that came from childhood dance and piano lessons. Her maid résumé includes some memorable parts, and films including Steven Spielberg’s ‘Goonies’ and Gregory Nava’s ‘El Norte’… Ms. Ontiveros, who for a long time pursued an acting career while working as a social worker and bringing up three sons with her husband… did not regret playing so many maids. It has given her steady work and allowed her to portray working people honorably… I’m proud to represent those hands that labor in this country,’ she said. ‘I’ve given every maid I’ve ever portrayed soul and heart’…”

Lupe Ontiveros had every reason to be proud. I burst with pride, every Latino I know does, with what she did with what she was given.

But I am deeply ashamed of the entertainment industry.

Ms. Ontiveros longed to play a judge or a councilwoman, but she played a maid 150 times, because in order to work, she had to take one of few roles available to Latinas.

This has not changed. In fact, actors of color are still forced to compete for supporting roles often written for anachronistic caricatures, even when the setting dictates otherwise.

If you don’t believe me, read the letter Kendra James wrote to Lena Dunham, entitled, “I Exist,” or Jennifer Chang’s response to the casting of only two Asian actors in the stage workshop production of “The Nightingale,” a story set in China.

Natalie Portman is not a classically trained ballerina. Zoë Saldaña is. Why wasn’t Ms. Saldaña cast as Nina in “Black Swan”?

Anne Hathaway had never been cast in an action film. Eva Mendes was in “Ghost Rider,” “Once Upon A Time In Mexico,” “2 Fast, 2 Furious,” “All About The Benjamins,” and “The Spirit,” a film based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, the author of the “Dark Knight.” Did Christopher Nolen, did anyone at Warner Bros. Pictures, acknowledge that the seed of the Catwoman they wished to create was planted by Ms. Mendes' portrayal of Sand Saref?

In the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, director Danny Boyle, cast a woman of color, an 18 year-old volunteer from Deptford, (south London) named, Jasmine Breinburg to play June, and another volunteer of color, whose name I was not able to locate, to play Frankie, in “Frankie and June Say ‘Thanks Tim’!”

In a pre-ceremony briefing, the director said without apology that he was committed to representing, “the whole country.”

Ms. Ontiveros and Mr. Hemsley deserved an arts and entertainment industry populated by writers, producers, directors, and executives willing to make such a commitment.

Dr. Ride deserved a government populated by elected and appointed officials willing to make such a commitment.

We The People deserve a United States of America willing to make such a commitment. And not just for the sake of posterity or future generations. But because “with liberty and justice for all,” is neither an ideal, nor an aspiration:

It is a promise assented to.

It is a guarantee.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Aurora & Chicago...

“Our words seem small beside the loss you have endured. But I found a few I wanted to share today. I've received a lot of letters in these last terrible days. One stood out because it came from a young widow and a mother of three whose own husband was murdered with over 200 other Americans when Pan Am 103 was shot down. Here is what that woman said I should say to you today:

‘The anger you feel is valid, but you must not allow yourselves to be consumed by it. The hurt you feel must not be allowed to turn into hate, but instead into the search for justice. The loss you feel must not paralyze your own lives. Instead, you must try to pay tribute to your loved ones by continuing to do all the things they left undone, thus ensuring they did not die in vain.’

Wise words from one who also knows…

You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes… My fellow Americans, a tree takes a long time to grow, and wounds take a long time to heal. But we must begin. Those who are lost now belong to God. Some day we will be with them. But until that happens, their legacy must be our lives.”

— William Jefferson Clinton, Oklahoma Bombing Memorial Prayer Service Speech

We must have courage. We have faced violence before. And we will face it again. But whether it comes in the form of community unrest, as it has in Chicago, Illinois—a great city now immersed in crisis, where 260 lives were lost to senseless killings by the time most of us gathered to enjoy 4th of July fireworks shows—or maniacal bloodshed at the hands of an unstable individual, as it did days ago in Aurora, Colorado, this nation and its people can rise. We can and we must. These events are not symbols. They are tragedies. Violence made them tragic. Violence directed by one human being on others. And as in tragedies before, evidence of heroism has been rampant, and those with everything-to-lose remained in the path of violence, and tried to save lives—for the moment, and for the sake of a better future ushered in by the few who spend their lives in service of the many.

After the Columbine High School massacre, Michael Moore’s film, “Bowling for Columbine,” became a lightning rod for the already hyperpolarized policy debate over gun control. Unfortunately, the controversial, confrontational interview of Charlton Heston, depicted in the film, took center stage. Instead of engaging in a reflective dialogue, intended to yield positive results, informed by a diverse set of voices, (including those implicated in the incident, like Marilyn Manson) substance-averse, hackneyed pundits and politicians from both the left, and the right, engaged in bombastic, monological exchanges over which aspects of pop culture had the most negative influence on the attitudes of America’s youth.

A more courageous path would have called on the National Rifle Association to join the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Joyce Foundation, the Brady Campaign, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and so forth, in a pledge to educate all children, those who come from households with guns, and those who do not, of the legal, economic, physical, and mental health consequences of gun violence on the individual and the community. Instead of relying on a somewhat cheesy, propagandist effort like “Just say, no,” or relying solely on a series of gruesome images and statistics like, “Red Asphalt,” the film about driving fatalities, or the Montana Meth Project,” famous for its depictions of the consequences of methamphetamine use. What was called for then, and what is called for now, is an uncompromising willingness to expose young people to a comprehensive curriculum about everything that happens to someone shooting a gun, the person being shot, and everyone around these two individuals—families, friends, neighbors, merchants, workers, nurses, doctors, cops, judges, juries, teachers, classmates, etc.—once the trigger’s pulled. None of this calls for a dogmatic debate over the 2nd Amendment. But it exhorts speaking the truth in love.

Each life extinguished in Chicago and Aurora is worthy of equal recognition, deserving of our deepest condolences and most heartfelt mourning. Because lost loved ones are irreplaceable, it does us no good to channel our grief and disgust into an anger that seeks a quick and easy outlet. It behooves us to repair each and every crevasse in our society and its systems that facilitates widespread, destructive action on empathy-less intention. I agree that we must have an adult conversation about guns. I do not agree that the greatest good can come from dwelling exclusively on any matter, even this one.

When scans of brain activity, and scientific study of our behavior, prove that Americans suffer from declining empathy exacerbated by notions of racial identity, and differences in socioeconomic class, we are called upon to do much more than engage in proverbial soul searching. Incontrovertible evidence tells us that even persons holding advanced degrees, and committing themselves to fields of public service, such as healthcare and education, do not hold equitable empathy and expectations for whites and people of color, those with evidence of wealth and those who live in poverty, those whose immigration status is undocumented and those whose documentation is current. When a Phi Beta Kappa graduate student in neuroscience displays a complete lack of empathy and humanity, we are called upon not only to analyze our laws and rights. But also our responsibilities and expectations:

Should we not tax media violence the way we tax alcohol, tobacco, sugary beverages, and fatty foods? What if every bullet discharged in a movie cost the studio a substantial dollar amount, and those funds were earmarked toward the prevention and treatment of real world violence? If not for the Supreme Court Fox Television would have paid a $550,000 fine for an “indecent broadcast” during the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show. What if an equivalent per-entertainment-bullet tax went toward the benefit and wellbeing of the children in Chicago scarred by homicide? It’s clear that no TV show, video game, film, or album, is legally responsible for the loss of life in Colorado or Illinois. Nevertheless, if we are truly committed to an America free from preventable tragedy, then it only follows that we establish a norm by which the entertainment and gaming industries distribute a percentage of the profits they derive from fantasy depictions of violence, toward the reduction of actual violence, and the treatment of its resulting real world harm. This does not require censorship, merely an acknowledgement that our culture is flawed. As Samhita wrote on Feministing, “We already know censoring things doesn’t stop them from circulating, and the evidence as to whether violent [media] leads to violence is questionable… But either way the references [in this media] reflect and reinforce a culture that relies on violence and the objectification of women.”

May vice today be virtue tomorrow.

Robert Francis Kennedy once wrote, “What happens to the country, to the world, depends on what we do with what others have left us.” RFK was no stranger to loss, to challenge, to the frightening aspects of change, to both welcomed and uninvited transformation. But he also believed, as I do, that God is no closer or farther in difficult days than in glorious ones. This country and its people must bear a heavy mantle: a burden of greatness—both when confronted by an enemy at the gates and when facing discord inside our own house.

We must have courage. Not impulsive action. Not a path paved by inflamed passion and unchecked emotion. Courage is standing fast for principle. The genuine love for humanity that moves the desire to help others, free from the defeatist attitude that we lack the energies, talents, strategies, or resources needed to meet the challenges that lay before us. Let us heal with courage. Let us not fall into the temptation of exploiting tragedy for the sake of punditry. Let us not forget to pray for patience, restraint, and compassion. And let us all have courage enough to not fall into familiar traps. No political party, advocacy group, no faith, church, no editorial desk, television or radio host is empowered to dispense the final word of judgment. I would ask all those who have already pointed the finger of blame, to open accusatory hands entirely, and extend them in signs of peace: Shalom aleikhem. As-Salāmu `Alaykum. Pax vobis. Et cum spiritu tuo.

What we have witnessed in both Chicago and Aurora is violence. And there is no answer to violence, nothing that prevents the existence of cycles where harm begets harm, other than courage—the courage to stand as heirs of the American Revolution, Abolition, the Suffrage, and Civil Rights movements, and champion Bobby Kennedy’s words. As well as those of Martin Luther King Jr., who wisely noted, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it… Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate… Hate is just as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away at its vital unity. Many of our inner conflicts are rooted in hate… Time is cluttered with the wreckage of individuals and communities that surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must find another way… Humanity is waiting for something other than a blind imitation of the past.”

Thursday, July 19, 2012

It's time to transform education: Step 1

US schools are on the wrong side of an international achievement gap, and perpetuate gaps between students based on race and class. Together, these gaps deprive the US economy of as much as $2.3 trillion in economic output annually. Our ability to fix the problem is stifled by the contentious exchange between advocates of more effective teaching as a part of education reform and those who insist wealth determines student performance and those who say otherwise have dubious intentions.

Yes, childhood poverty in the United States is the second highest among developed nations. And yes some kids fall victim to drugs, gangs, mental illness, abuse, ineffably bad choices, or lost hope. But poverty is not destiny. Value-added data helps identify effective teachers by looking at test results for diverse collections of students, and specific subpopulations of learners over a number of years. The debate over whether or not this component of an educator’s evaluation incentivizes “teaching to the test,” is less important than the National Bureau of Economic Research finding that students assigned to classrooms led by ineffective instructors earn $250,000 less over their lifetimes. And certainly less important than the reduction—if not elimination—of a number of educational inequities we would realize if we fully addressed disparities in early learning and development.

Those frustrated by the state of public education need not wait to engender transformational change. Act to create incentives to send babies, toddlers, and young children to new spaces designed for school readiness.

Academic success through fifth grade is attributable to the cumulative vocabulary children are exposed to by age 3. There’s a debate over establishing standards for preschool quality, despite the fact that state after state has seen reductions preschool funding, and subsidized childcare programs have been cut as well, despite the expansion of already lengthy applicant waitlists. Since the official pre-kindergarten enrollment rate has not exceeded 26.7%, and improving public financing for early learning programs, requires overhauling the Rube Goldberg funding formula currently in place, we need to steer parents toward daycares designed for school readiness like Blythe’s Garden.

Poverty is linked with deficits that inhibit the production of new brain cells, alter the path of maturation, and rework the healthy neural circuitry in children’s brains, because living hand-to-mouth robs caregivers of the resources needed to provide a predictable environment, as well as the time required to provide consistent guidance and support, engage in the 20 hours per week of attunement (reciprocal interactions) researchers recommend, and facilitate ongoing, personalized, increasingly complex, enrichment activities. Daycares designed for school readiness like Blythe’s Garden eliminate these deficits by meeting the emotional developmental needs of infants and toddlers while concurrently guaranteeing young children will learn the letters of the alphabet, numbers, and colors. This is not a guarantee Head Start or public school pre-kindergartens make. And this, as researcher Nicholas Zill notes, is a fact that should prompt soul-searching among early childhood education policymakers.

Philanthropists, advocates, and stakeholders your marching orders are clear: Seek funding from Pampers, Huggies, Luvs, Seventh Generation, gDiapers, Earth’s Best, Enfamil, Similac, Gerber, Enfagrow, EleCare, Neocate, Babies R Us, etc., to bring a Blythe’s Garden to every block, and give parents free goods and/or cold hard cash for sending their babies, toddlers, and young children to a certified and licensed, home-based daycare, designed for school readiness, or to a certified and licensed, child care center, staffed by teachers who are both responsive to their children’s developmental needs, and guarantee learning.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Remembering Alex Okrent

“Alex Okrent possessed a tenacious drive and an indefatigable spirit, both of which he applied in the fierce pursuit to further progressive values in the election, support, and re-election of Barack Obama. The entire Obama family mourns his loss tonight. We don't frequently refer to ourselves as a family, but moments like these serve to remind us that we are bound by our shared experiences in ways we don't consider as we move from state to state or job to job. Alex was part of the family. He was a brother. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him, worked with him, and fought beside him.”
- Graves Spindler -


In 2004, I witnessed the Democratic National Convention in Boston firsthand. As a founding member of an organization called 2020 Democrats, I was to keep an eye out for young delegates and up-and-coming political staffers interested in signing on to the vision for a 21st Century America our members articulated the year before. On a hot, humid day that seemed initially unremarkable among uncomfortable summer days in New England, something unquestionable remarkable occurred: Barack Obama took center stage to deliver the keynote address and said the following:

“[I]t’s not enough for just some of us to prosper—for alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we’re all connected as one people… It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

E pluribus unum: ‘Out of many, one’…

We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?...

I’m not talking about blind optimism here—the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores… the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.

Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”

No Hollywood production could prompt the tears, chills, and hopefulness of these words.

After the DNC I was to head to New Mexico. I took a detour through Chicago, just so I could bear witness, albeit brief, to the Obama Senatorial campaign. George W. Bush’s return to the White House provoked a tremendous sense of frustration, and a barrage of epic rants. But I remained hopeful, largely because I believed one day Barack Obama might run for President. In early 2007 rumors began circulating that he would announce his candidacy. I wanted desperately to work for his campaign, but my personal and professional networks were connected to every candidate’s upper level staff except then-Senator Obama’s. I turned down jobs with other campaigns. I upset many friends who felt my loyalties should have been with then-Governor Richardson, or then-Senator Clinton. One former supervisor who remained a forthright friend warned me that if I kept chasing after an opportunity to champion the Obama campaign, I could kiss my professional reputation goodbye, because I’d be going up against all of the big name elected officials, and Democratic Party leaders—betting on a bunch of millenials to know how to beat them.

Based on Obama For America/Campaign For Change’s dominant use of social media in 2008, and President Obama’s wide margin of victory over Senator McCain, it’s hard to remember how unlikely his election seemed in 2007. In February, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote an article for TIME magazine called, “Is Obama Black Enough?.” In June, Gallup published a study entitled, “Clinton Dominant Leader Among Hispanic Democrats.” In October, the cover of USA Today read, “Blacks split between Clinton, Obama.” In December, a number of Daily Kos members and several other politically savvy bloggers were predicting John Edwards would win the Iowa Caucuses.

Even after delivering a victory on January 3, 2008, the path to the Democratic Party nomination was epically contested. In February, the Telegraph announced, “Hispanic votes keep Hillary Clinton in the race.” In March, the Washington Post declared, White Working-Class Voters Fuel Clinton’s Comeback. In April, the Free Republic was one of many publications to run Jonathan Tilove’s prescient prediction that women “will likely continue to frustrate Obama’s efforts to end the contest before the close of the primary season in June.” In May, Real Clear Politics, The Fix, Raw Story, and every political analyst with access to a television or radio program, and a print or online publication, offered an interpretation of then-Senator Clinton’s willingness to take the fight to seat Michigan and Florida delegates all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

There should have been too much bad blood and acrimony, too many salted wounds and divisions for hatchets to be buried, and the campaigns to come together in time to deliver a victory in the fall. 2008 was not a year of hedged bets. The majority of Americans placed all of their eggs in either the Clinton basket or the Obama one. But we did come together. Two monumental campaigns became one grand family that made history on November 4th.

Happy to share in the celebration of the graduations, promotions, vacations, weddings, births, get-togethers and accolades to come like any family. Even in this grand one, there were moments of displeasure. Those given Purple Inauguration Tickets were trapped in tunnels and/or denied admission at their designated entrance to the never-to-be-duplicated, January 20, 2009, Swearing-In Ceremony. There were moments of discord. Despite the fact that President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law on March 23, 2010, grumblings over the lack of a Public Option remained until the Supreme Court declared the Act Constitutional on June 28, 2012. There were moments when some faced bleak prospects, and others who were already bright stars, just got brighter, and brighter, and brighter.

None of that matters now. Grudges, resentments, jealousies, gossip, backstabbing, exclusion, shame, smugness, anything petty, these have always been unworthy of this grand family. But I must admit to having forgotten this truth until this indescribable loss.

Alex Okrent helped make Barack Obama a Senator in 2004, President of the United States in 2008, and had devoted his life to President Obama’s reelection in 2012—all before his 30th birthday. In its coverage, the Chicago Tribune referenced his statements at a 2002 anti-war protest in Washington D.C., “I’m trying to make my voice heard… I don’t want people killed in my name.” The war in Iraq ended, along with “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” America’s standing in the world was restored by concurrently winding down the war in Afghanistan, and supporting the wave of change ushered forth by the Arab Spring. After nearly one full century of presidential efforts to bring forth national healthcare insurance, it became a reality. The President of the United States even took principled stances on same-sex marriage, and immigration, despite the fact that this meant clashing with state legislature after state legislature. It is a fact, in one decade, Alex Okrent, made the world a better place.

Even though I didn’t travel with him to Vietnam, witness the search for an Internet café in Hanoi where he could connect to live feed of the launch of the Obama For America campaign in 2007. I’ve imagined that scene multiple times, as it signifies the poignancy of that moment. He was in a position to promise a world overrun with memories of a painful past that a new era was possible. And he would spend himself on its foundation.

Although I have never been fortunate enough to count myself amongst his closest circle, I am nevertheless rendered speechless by his loss. I am overwhelmed by a torrent of emotions. I have wept and continue to weep. I don’t want to let him go. There are truths about his vitality and goodness I cannot articulate regardless of the language I attempt to conjure them in. I could share anecdotes about the laughter he provoked. But I know the reason I sought to connect and remain linked with him was because of his unwavering and inspiring convictions. Alex Okrent was the awesome embodiment of the words that made Barack Obama famous in 2004. He would not belong to a country where people waving American flags in support of war were deemed more patriotic than those carrying American flags in support of peace. He would not inhabit a world where only people of color spoke out against racism, while whites ran from controversy. He was a connector, a maven, and a salesman for what really mattered. He saw a broad range of virtue and vice in humankind. But he refused to be anything less than audaciously hopeful at all times.

In every family, there are a special few who a seemingly connected to everyone by choice, not happenstance, whose presence, however minor, is a constant reminder of moments of tremendous joy, brotherly love, and deep fulfillment. Alex Okrent was one of these special few. In fact, he raised the standard. This grand family needed tangible, incontrovertible proof change would not come if we waited for some other person or some other time, that we were the ones we were waiting for. And he gave us that proof: Proof that we could fight the good fight. And win.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

To be an American...

There’s been a great deal of discussion about a new Pew Research Center report confirming that migrants from Asian countries now outnumber those from Latin America. The report uses broad brushstrokes to paint a picture of Asian migrants as a model minority, thus ignoring the very real challenges many Asian American communities face in terms of educational attainment, employment, immigration status, health access, and so forth. Nevertheless, it’s no coincidence that US economic growth in the Information Age, culminating in the dot-com boom on the 1990s, accompanied a rapid expansion in Asian migration, as well as Latin American migration.

There were only 500,000 immigrants from Asian countries in 1960, but 2.5 million in 1980. Thanks in part to the Immigration Act of 1990 the number of immigrants from Asian countries reached nearly 11 million by 2009. Thanks in part to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, immigrants from Latin American countries totaled nearly 8.5 million in 1990, reaching 16 million by 2000, and 21 million by 2010. 81% of economists surveyed believe that the rates of immigration experienced in the late 20th Century (both documented and undocumented) had “very favorable effects” on economic growth, US economic health and wellbeing. The net positive effect of immigration, writ large, is evidenced by data on nonprofit, military, public sector, and international service, national economic growth, direct and speculative investment, scholarship, research, innovation, intellectual proprietorship, durable and disposable goods production, exportation, consumption, and most importantly entrepreneurial activity in small business settings, in the virtual world, and even in multinational settings. A fact corroborated most recently by Forbes Magazine’s finding that 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and/or their children.

Nevertheless, immigrants from Asia and Latin America have not been welcomed by those who believe “American” is synonymous with “white,” and those of us who do not believe American identity is contingent on race or ethnicity have collided with jarring hostility and unprecedented opposition.

Former Presidential adviser, as well as Harvard and Columbia University professor Samuel P. Huntington, published a text in 2004, whose sole purpose was to paint Latinos as a threat to America’s national identity. Without apology or hesitation he argues that Latino immigrants are not as culturally American as those who came before. Although institutionalized racial profiling has been rejected by a double-digit number of states, it has been embraced by even more. Because of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Arizona’s SB 1070, “papers please” policies will remain Constitutional until their implementation unduly harms and burdens enough American citizens from communities of color to justify their modification. Every single time a law enforcement officer encounters someone he or she deems worthy of questioning, that officer will be entrusted to make a determination on that individual’s American identity. Welcome to the world where 96 year-old, former Arizona Governor, Mexican American, Raul Hector Castro, has already been detained three times.

Quite plainly, the disdain and antipathy felt toward immigrants of color is so intense that Mitt Romney captured his party’s nomination by moving to the right of all other GOP candidates on the issue of immigration. This despite the fact that President Obama doubled the number of border patrol agents George W. Bush ordered to the US-Mexico border, and set an all-time high deportation record of 400,000 human beings annually, 22% of whom have US-born children.

The racism President Obama has been forced to confront as the first person of color to lead the Executive branch is well documented. But is incredibly important to note that he has only been interrupted twice while delivering remarks to the American people, and both have involved a discussion of this nation’s treatment of immigrants. During an address to Congress, President Obama was explaining how the Affordable Care Act would not extend coverage to undocumented immigrants, when he found himself interrupted by Joe Wilson shouting, “You lie!” During a Rose Garden address, President Obama was explaining his Administration’s decision to halt deportations of DREAM Act eligible undocumented youth, when he found himself interrupted by Neil Munro shouting, “Why do you favor foreigners over Americans?”

The aggression and animus found in the reactions to Time Magazine’s cover story, “We Are Americans, Just Not Legally” is disgusting and unfounded. It tries to make the case for a false litmus test for American identity.

Alexis De Tocqueville wrote, “The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis, or a battle… The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” It’s not that the United States is the only nation in which tremendous change can be achieved in a short period of time. Certainly anyone who belongs to this generation baptized by the democratization self-determination of former Soviet-bloc nations, and coming of age in last year’s Arab Spring, knows that the rising tide of change is quite a force to be reckoned with. But the America and Americans that De Tocqueville describes whose origins are largely British, (and live in a society where Native Americans and African Americans are marginalized) are the mirror image of Americans today whose family trees begin in Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Philippines, India, China, or Korea.

What is fundamentally paramount to understand is that migrants (both those willing to journey from one part of the US to another, and those willing to travel from another country to the US) are the reason there is no dilution of the American spirit De Tocqueville documented. There is no Harlem Renaissance without the Great Migration; no rise of Dartmouth College as the nation’s (back to back to back) leader in undergraduate education without the over 700 Native American students from over 200 different tribes willing to uproot and come of age in Hanover, New Hampshire. And no future for the United States as the world’s foremost superpower in the 21st Century without continued immigration from all corners of the world.

The United States of America, began with a 3/5 Compromise, and a naturalization policy that explicitly made whites of “good moral character” citizens and withheld all of the rights and privileges of citizenship to free blacks, Native Americans, and the American-born children of nonwhite residents. But America repaired herself thanks to her heroes.

The Tuskegee Airmen and the 442nd Infantry Regiment were such American heroes. Despite the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, African Americans lived in a segregated country as second-class citizens. Japanese Americans were forced to live in internment camps and abide by curfews despite the best efforts of Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu to overturn Executive Order 9066. They didn’t fight because they had a set of rights and privileges they were protecting. They fought because they were willing to go out on a limb and bet that undesirable realities could change through the principles by which America repairs her faults. But they didn’t set out to be martyrs. And they didn’t fight with the expectation that liberty and justice for all would be realized in the next world. They went all-in on the notion that what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” could be cashed in within one generation—their children were meant to reach the promised land, or at least see it from the mountaintop.

To the American hero, the toil of any journey is justified by the reward of principled pragmatism. Risks are known, yet they do not dissuade action. And not because of a rush of emotion, careless impulsivity, or a blind loyalty to exalted individuals, but because of deified notions of equality, fairness and freedom—liberty and justice for all.

By this standard, not only are young men and women who have organized for their rights under the “undocumented and unafraid” rallying cry, “Americans in every way, except for on paper.” They are American heroes. And so are their family members.

Those who embarked on journeys from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East to the United States, in the face of anti-immigrant hostility, in an increasingly violent, politically and economically uncertain world, did not take part in a transactional exchange. Moving to the United States is not like buying into a timeshare. To even insinuate that the life of an immigrant is that of a opportunistic tourist seeking a cushy place to overstay his or her welcome, ignores the facts of history, the forces of acculturation, Americanization, and De Tocqueville’s most astute observation about the American spirit:

“Two things in America are astonishing: the changeableness of most human behavior and the strange stability of certain principles. Men are constantly on the move, but the spirit of humanity seems almost unmoved.”

American heroes are unwilling and unable to turn back once their journey has begun. Their point of no return isn’t marked by the moment in which they come to terms with the fact that their strength brings weakness during an epic voyage home, (like Odysseus, the Aristotelian tragic hero of ancient Europe) or when their personal demise is guaranteed (like the many labeled martyrs who forge elements of tragedy into the mettle of inspiring peoples who populate this diverse world). There is something distinctly American about the transformation our heroes undertake. Whether examining historical figures, or pop culture characters like Spiderman, and Katniss Everdeen, there’s no going home, per se, because the hero changes, and home changes. But whether Spiderman’s alter ego is that of white, Peter Parker, or Afro-Latino, Miles Morales, his heroism is unaltered, and his American identity—his Americanness—is unchanged.

Shot at by the Mexican government when a student, deported from the United States after giving birth to me, my mother was my hero—my Katniss Everdeen—long before she was allowed to become a naturalized US citizen. My American identity—my Americanness—is rooted in the enthusiasm for America’s principles, and belief in the American spirit of humanity, she demonstrated during my formative years. This is what the anti-immigrant and Tea Party crowds are unable or unwilling to see. To be an American has never required citizenship, and the greatest American patriots have always been those who professors Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres have dubbed miner’s canaries—willing to venture forth into a space that is neither illuminated nor guaranteed to afford the very basics needed to survive.