Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What’s Next--Muslim Only Lines at Airports?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Are Muslim only lines at airports next? The thought is offensive, disgusting, and blatantly unconstitutional. But it’s hardly far-fetched. Three years before suspected Nigerian airline terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was hauled off a Northwest airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with a powder and liquid explosive device stuffed in his underwear, British Department of Transportation officials openly discussed corralling men of Asian or Middle Eastern appearance at airports for intense questioning, checks and searches. The plan outraged Muslim leaders and British officials backed off the systematic profiling of Muslims. However, single men of Asian and Middle Eastern appearance were still subject to intense checks and searches. Britain was not alone. France and the Netherlands had already imposed de facto profiling of Muslim appearing young men and families at airports since the September, 2001 terror attacks. Polls showed that a substantial majority of Europeans agreed that racial profiling was not repugnant if it made airline travel safer and thwarted a possible terror attack. The clamor for a racial crackdown was first heard in the U.S. following the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1996,

Then President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno had the good sense not rush to judgment and scapegoat Muslims. The swift arrest of Timothy McVeigh squelched the building mob hysteria against them. But it didn't squelch public suspicions that all Muslims were potential terrorists. The federal building bombing propelled Clinton's 1996 Antiterrorism Act through Congress. Civil rights and civil liberties groups had waged a protracted battle against the bill. The law gave the FBI broad power to infiltrate groups, quash fundraising by foreigners, monitor airline travel, and seize motel and hotel records and trash due process by permitting the admission of secret evidence to expel immigrants. The implication was that present and future attacks would likely be launched by those with an Arab name and face rather than by men like McVeigh.

President Bush, as Clinton, took the high ground after the 911 attack. He did not reflexively finger-point Muslims. The Bush administration publicly assured that profiling was reprehensible and violated legal and constitutional principles, and that it would not be done. But the attack stirred tremors among Muslims that they would routinely be targeted, subject to search and surveillance, and profiled at airports.

The profiling alarm bells went off again after a soldier with a Muslim name shot up the military base at Ft. Hood back in November. The Council on American-Islamic Relations wasted no time and issued a loud and vigorous denunciation of the mass killing. The Council didn't know at that moment whether Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged shooter, was a Muslim by birth, a converted Muslim, or even a Muslim at all. The name and the horrific murder spree was enough to drive the group to quickly distance itself from the rampage. Other Muslim organizations instantly followed suit and issued their own equally strong disavowal of Hasan.

This didn’t stop the pack of Fox Network commentators, conservative radio talk show hosts, writers, and some officials from again openly shouting for even tighter scrutiny of Muslim groups. Terror suspect Abdulmutallab has simply raised the decibel level on their call for transportation officials to openly profile Muslims at airports, train stations, and even on the open highways.

Some elected officials have even jumped on the profiling bandwagon. Congressman Peter King, ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, predictably loudly called for the profiling of Muslims. Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind went further and announced he’d reintroduce the bill he first introduced in 2005 to let police stop and search anyone they deem to be suspicious. Hikind didn’t specifically finger Muslims, but the intent of the bill was unmistakable, namely to target Muslims.

The New York Assembly will reject Hikind’s bill again. But the rejection isn’t likely to be unanimous. Legislators read the papers and the polls. Informal on line polls taken immediately after Abdulmutallab’s failed terror attempt found that a majority of Americans are ready to turn a blind eye to law, the constitution and just plain human decency to target Muslims, any Muslim, for special scrutiny. No matter that a potential terrorist can come in any shape, size, color, gender, and disguise. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights noted that convicted terrorists John Walker Lindh were white, and Richard Reid was Jamaican and British. Abdulmutallab is Nigerian, but from all appearances he could just as easily be mistaken for a young African-American hip hop artist.

Broad-based ethnic profiling creates in turn panic and the false sense of security that airlines are actually preventing terrorist attacks. It also causes law enforcement resources to be squandered chasing the wrong targets. Worse, it’s a witch-hunt against a group based solely on their religion and ethnicity. This fuels even greater racial division, fear and hysteria. The public whispers and the right wing’s open talk of Muslim only airport lines do the same.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Something Special for Everyone from Obama, But Not for Blacks

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

President Obama’s repeat lecture to black critics that blacks shouldn’t expect anything special from him is disingenuous at best, and an insult at worst. Here are two quick political reality checks. He would not have won the White House if he had not won Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina. Three out of these four states gave Bush his crucial margin of victory over Al Gore and John Kerry. Obama won these four states because black voters turned his election into a holy crusade and stormed the polls on Election Day. The voting percentage and numbers in every other state that Obama won was equally off the charts.

The unrequited political love black voters showed for Obama didn’t stop with them giving him a top heavy vote with no strings attached. For practically his entire first year in office they’ve also given him their mute silence. This despite chronic double digit unemployment among blacks and 1930s Great Depression joblessness among young African-American males, higher percentages of homelessness, home foreclosures, school drop out rates, incarceration rates, and higher incidences of every major medical maladies among blacks than any other group in the country. African-Americans are still the prime victims of hate crimes, housing, employment and business loan discrimination than any other group.
Special interests, be they lobbyists, big money campaign contributors, corporate, labor, and political interest and ethnic groups, are the key to election victories. No politician, and I mean no politician, has a prayer of winning a major political office in America without their money, power, influence, and support. All politicians make promises to special interest groups to pocket their money and votes, and if they don’t keep them, or displease them, they will hear about it either through loud vocal protest, or their greater threat to fold up the check book, and their votes.

Obama knows this. His campaign war chest bulged with millions from the Wall Street financial houses, banking interest groups and their CEOs, as well as insurance industry and pharmaceutical groups. Wall Street has been amply rewarded with billions of taxpayer bailout money. Big Pharma and private insurers have been rewarded with the dump of the public option, guaranteed mandates, with government subsidies, to private insurers, and no effective caps on drug costs in the health care reform bill.

Labor, environmentalists, and gay groups were rewarded with a guarantee to fight for Employee Free Choice Act to do away with private-ballot union elections in the workplace, reduction of greenhouse emissions, and ramped up green investment spending, the scrapping of don’t ask don’t tell, passage of the expansion of the hate crimes law, and support of gay marriage. Even religious fundamentalists who Obama had absolutely no hope of winning any substantial support from even got a small payoff from him when he pledged not to scrap Bush’s Faith Based Initiative.
Obama took umbrage at the light handslap from the Congressional Black Caucus to do a little more for the black unemployed and dire cash strapped black businesses and broadcasters, while making the ridiculous claim that the poorest and neediest will be helped by him helping everyone else. He should just level with them. And tell them that he can’t and won’t do anything special for blacks, because he’s scared stiff he’ll be even more shrilly race baited by the GOP and Sarah Palin and the tea bagger ultraconservatives as a stealth Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in the White House.

He ran for and won the White House with the mantra that any real or perceived tilt toward blacks by a black presidential candidate, let alone a black president, would be tantamount to committing political suicide with white voters. The majority of them did not vote for him, and if polls are any indication, still wouldn’t vote for him. Expect more calls from the black critics for Obama to do more for blacks, and expect more lectures from him why he won’t.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Obama Again Reminds He’s Not Black President Obama

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The Congressional Black Caucus got another painful reminder that President Obama is not black President Obama. In a press interview Obama bluntly said that he would not propose any special initiatives for blacks. Obama’s sharp retort was in direct response to questions about how he’d solve a glaring problem and a glaring demand from the Caucus. The problem is the astronomical high unemployment rate for blacks, especially young black males. Latest job figures show joblessness for young black males matches and in some parts of the country tops the unemployment rate at the height of the 1930s Great Depression.

The Congressional Black Caucus demanded that Obama specifically shell out more money and formulate more programs to help the black jobless and to aid cash strapped minority broadcasters and minority businesses. The Caucus lightly saber rattled Obama with the threat of delaying or even opposing his financial regulation plan if he didn’t play ball. The Caucus is about as likely to buck Obama on the financial legislation when the final House vote is taken as the American Bankers Association is to back it. But the Caucus made its point. And so did Obama when he reiterated that he won’t propose any new programs for blacks.

Obama set that in stone from the first day of his presidential campaign. In his candidate declaration speech in Springfield, Illinois in February 2007, he made only the barest mention of race. The focus was on change, change for everyone. He had little choice. The institution of the presidency, and what it takes to get it, demands that racial typecasting be scrapped. Obama would have had no hope of winning the Democratic presidential nomination, let alone the presidency, if there had been any hint that he embraced the race-tinged politics of Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. His campaign would have been marginalized and compartmentalized as merely the politics of racial symbolism. The month after he got in the White House he mildly chided Attorney General Eric Holder for calling Americans cowards for not candidly talking about race.

Obama got a bitter taste of the misery that race can cause a president him when in an unscripted moment he spoke his mind and blasted a Cambridge cop for cuffing and manhandling Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates. The loud squeals that he was a bigot, racist and anti police for siding with Gates bounced off the Oval Office walls. A chagrined Obama back pedaled fast and asked all for forgiveness. There would no White House repeat of the Gates fiasco.

Obama has clung tightly to the centrist blueprint Bill Clinton laid out for a Democratic presidential candidate to win elections, and to govern after he won. The blueprint required that the Democratic presidential candidate tout a strong defense, the war against terrorism, a vague plan for winding down the Iraq War, tepid proposals to control greenhouse emissions, mild tax reform for the middle class, a cautious plan for affordable health care, pro business solutions to joblessness, and make only the most genteel reproach of Wall Street.

The Clinton blueprint also required a Democratic presidential candidate to formulate a moderate agenda on civil rights, poverty, failing inner city public schools, the HIV-AIDS crisis, and the racially skewed criminal justice system in written policy statements. And then say virtually nothing about any of these things on the campaign trail. Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry followed the Clinton blueprint to the letter during their campaign and if either had won, the likelihood is they would not made these problems priority items in their White House.

Obama is tugged hard by corporate and defense industry lobbyists, the oil and nuclear power industry, government regulators, environmental watchdog groups, conservative family values groups, conservative GOP senators and house members, foreign diplomats and leaders. They all have their priorities and agendas and all vie hard to get White House support for their pet legislation, or to kill or cripple legislation that threatens their interests. The health care reform battle and the decision to escalate in Afghanistan or near textbook examples of this. The two dozen back door meetings Obama had with the major pharmaceuticals and private insurers at the White House in February virtually guaranteed that a big chunk of the health care reform package would reflect the interests and the wishes of the health care industry. This is the price to be paid to get their backing.

It’s the same with Afghanistan. The Pentagon wanted and demanded a huge ramp up in American ground forces in the country. Given the pressure to win the war, and the power of the military and the defense industry, Obama was in no real position to say no.

Obama’s no to the Congressional Black Caucus on black joblessness and a beef up of minority businesses has everything to do with the price of White House governance. That price is a cautious, conciliatory, and above all, a race neutral presidency.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.