Sunday, September 30, 2007

Michelle Obama Admits What Hubby Won’t---A Loss in Iowa Will Sink Him

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama couldn’t sprint fast enough to publicly correct his wife when she candidly said that “Iowa will make the difference. If Barack doesn’t win Iowa, then it's just a dream.” An Obama campaign spokesperson said that Iowa’s only one state and a win or loss there won’t derail his self-proclaimed American Dream campaign. He’s dead wrong, and Michelle’s right. But Obama acts like he doesn’t know she got it right. He’s spent a lot of money in the state, and has more field offices there than Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. But he has skipped several key Democratic forums and events in Iowa.

Obama has spent some time chit chatting with farmers and local townspeople at coffee shops and diners in Iowa's back country towns. He’s talked about affordable health care, farm support programs, and the war in stump speeches in the state. However, his no-shows on the big ticket events have raised red flags about his prospects in Iowa and tells why Michelle has the jitters about them.

Iowa is crucial to Obama. It has little to do with it being the first state out the presidential primary box and that a win there gives a candidate’s campaign a rocket launch upward. Iowa is a bell weather of how effective a candidate is in connecting with mid-America voters. It’s a state small and folksy enough where voters can look a candidate in the eye and tell if they’re honest and sincere and can speak plainly on the issues. A candidate that flunks that litmus test is dead in the water. A candidate that passes it will front stroke ahead of the pack.

Democratic Presidential contender Howard Dean found that out in 2004. He had tons of money, lots of media hype, and supposedly represented the Democrat’s populist hope. He bumbled and stumbled with the regular folk in Iowa. This marked him as a high brow, arrogant loser. By contrast, Dean’s rival, John Kerry came into Iowa floundering in the polls. But he convinced the folk that he was a regular guy and could talk their talk on the issues. The rest of course with Kerry is history.
The ability to connect with a dairy farmer, a waitress, or a tractor driver helped Kerry and the inability to do that hurt Dean. That won’t be enough for Obama. He’s got an added obstacle that Dean and Kerry didn’t have. He’s the first black presidential candidate running in one of the whitest, most rural, and conservative centrist states in the nation. He’s got to do more than speak the language of mid-America. He’s got to convince the voters that he’s not a black presidential candidate, but a color neutral presidential candidate. The slightest hint that Obama will tilt toward minorities on the big ticket issues will thicken the clouds of suspicion about him.

He’ll also have to overcome polling day conversion. That’s the penchant of more than a few white voters to fib to pollsters and interviewers in a tight race involving a black and white candidate and say they will vote for the candidate solely on their competency and qualifications, not color. Then on Election Day turn right around in the privacy of the voting booth and vote on color. The conversion phenomena did in Harvey Gantt and Harold Ford in senate races in North Carolina and Tennessee, and Tom Bradley in the race for governor in California, and almost did in Doug Wilder in the governor’s race in Virginia. In pre-election polls, they had comfortable leads over their white opponents and were projected to win their races handily.

Obama has a companion problem with polling day conversion. Nearly all white voters say that they have no problem voting for an African-American for president. In the next breath they say that qualifications rank at or near the top of the list in determining their candidate choice. Obama has consistently ranked well beneath Hillary and Edwards on the qualification scale. That’s not exactly racial code speak for saying that Obama as a black candidate doesn’t have the right stuff. Yet it does raise another huge red flag that he’s got a long way to go to overcome voter suspicion about his qualifications. A suspicion that Hillary’s husband, Bill, fueled when he said that he was more experienced than Obama at a comparable stage of the presidential contest game.

A second place finish will not totally dash Obama’s dream but it will do little to dispel the doubts of the mass of heartland American voters that he’s still a political question mark. It will cast deep doubt on whether he can pull one or two Southern or Western states out of the GOP orbit. He’ll need substantial white male centrist voters to do that. That feat is mandatory this time around for a Democrat to cinch the White House. There is almost no chance Obama can pull that off.
Michelle didn’t need a crystal ball to predict that Iowa is the political and psychological break point state for Obama. She got it right. The question is is her hubby listening?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Juvenile Court is No Bargain for Mychal Bell(s)
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A beaming Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III effusively praised Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco for arm twisting La Salle Parish Prosecutor Reed Walters not to challenge an appellate court’s decision overturning the adult court conviction of Jena 6 centerpiece defendant Mychal Bell. But there is really no need for Walters to waste time and money waging a long drawn out time consuming legal war to toss the appellate court ruling on Bell.

If Walters chooses to retry Bell in juvenile court, and given his dogged and hardball pursuit of Bell, there is a good likelihood that he will retry; he still holds a full deck of legal cards. Juvenile courts are and have never been any bargain for a Mychal Bell, and the countless other Mychal Bells nationally that face major felony cases. It’s a broken, flawed, repressive system that emphasizes punishment, and not rehabilitation for teens. Louisiana’s juvenile justice system that Bell will be dumped back into is a textbook example of the towering failures of the system.

Three years before the Sharpton-Blanco meeting on Bell, Blanco sternly vowed to do everything in her power to overhaul Louisiana’s badly broken juvenile justice system. It was long past time for that call. Juvenile courts and facilities in the state are grossly under-funded and understaffed; the teens are warehoused in crowded, cramped, and aging facilities. They have few opportunities to obtain job and skills training, mentoring and counseling and family support programs that could help them stay out of legal harm’s way.

Numerous reports on the workings of the juvenile justice system in other states have also found that the system is often a dumping ground for youth that the society has thrown in the towel on. They are children with mental health problems, minor school-related misconduct and other adolescent problems.

Then there are the courts. The youthful offenders in many cases have shoddy or non-existent legal representation, few appeal rights, and there is no bail. Juvenile offenders are considered child wards of the court, and the judge has the discretion to release them to their parents or keep them locked down indefinitely. Louisiana is hardly an aberration to this sorry pattern.

An American Bar Association study in 2003 found that when Ohio children were arrested or cited on a charge, the offenders waived their right to counsel without an explanation of what rights they were giving up and how waiving those rights could harm them in the future. In some courts, the defense attorneys did not play a significant enough role, the study found. Vigorous representation for children also varied county to county, but investigators found meaningful representation lacking at the arrest or detention hearing stage, little pretrial or trial advocacy, and limited or nonexistent appeals in many jurisdictions.

Studies also have found that many U.S. children age 15 and younger are unable to understand criminal proceedings, hindering their ability to be competent defendants. Bell’s troubles started at about that age. He was remanded to juvenile courts for the four offenses he was charged with before his conviction for beating white teen Justin Barker.

Bell backers railed that his trial in adult court was a farce. His public defender never requested a change of venue, never challenged the all-white jury selection, presented no evidence, and didn't call a single defense witness. But if he had been tried in juvenile court, the likelihood is the outcome would have been exactly the same, or worse. He could have been detained without bail if he was considered a threat to the community. Walters and Judge J.P. Mauffray have repeatedly called Bell a threat. That was a prime reason Mauffray revoked his bail.

The judge has the sole power to make that decision. In La Salle Parish Mauffray wears the dual hat of both a juvenile court as well as a district judge. Bell would have been assigned a public defender, tried by an adult judge (possibly even Mauffray), and if convicted by the adult judge on the serious felony charge of aggravated battery with his prior juvenile offenses could have been ordered held until he’s age 21, in a prison-like juvenile facility. Or he could be shipped off to an adult prison to serve his sentence. Nationally, black and Latino youth make up the majority of those youthful offenders that are convicted in juvenile courts and ordered to serve their sentences in adult prisons.

The towering flaws and abuses that wrack the juvenile court and justice system in Louisiana are no different than those that plague the system in other states. It’s a system that desperately screams for reform. Louisiana governor Blanco knew that reform is desperately needed even as she met with Sharpton on Bell. But those screams have mostly fallen on the tone deaf ears of a public and state legislators determined to be as tough on youthful offenders as adults. Bell and the nation will discover that harsh truth if he’s dumped back in a juvenile court docket.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

In Defense of O’Reilly
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Spin Zone Bill haters are having another field day with Bill O’Reilly after his latest shoot from the lip seeming insult of blacks. At first glance O’Reilly’s quip on his radio show that he marveled that black diners at Harlem’s famed Sylvia’s restaurant were “respectful,” didn’t utter m’f s when they ordered, and acted, well, like white folks, in a suburban Italian restaurant, looked and sounded dumb and racist. O’Reilly haters trotted out a string of other O’Reilly borderline race tinged cracks and gaffes over the past years as proof that O’Reilly is at best racially insensitive and at worst an unreconstructed bigot.

Spin Bill is a jello soft target for dumping the racist tag on. But aside from his usual acerbic take-no-prisoners, let fly with the cracks style, the talk show host didn’t say anything that was earth shatteringly offensive. And he certainly didn’t say anything that many whites, non-blacks and a fair number of blacks don’t routinely whisper behind closed doors. That is that blacks supposedly act crude and uncouth in public. There’s no mystery why so many would think and say that. The nightly newscast’s steady diet of crime, drugs, violence, poverty, and dereliction news about life in inner cities reinforces the belief that black neighborhoods are cesspools of neglect, decay, and ill-mannered, bad behaving folk.

Then there’s the other stubborn fact of American life, and that’s that segregation is still alive and well in parts of America. That makes it even tougher to exorcise the warped racial perceptions. The Sunday church hour is still as the old saying goes one of the most segregated hours in America. In school cafeterias, office lunchrooms, and at countless social events, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and whites more often than not huddle tightly together in their separate racial enclaves. There is no prohibition against them mixing and mingling, but it's simply chalked up to personal and social preference.

Most big city schools are more segregated than a decade ago, and they are also poorer and miserably failing. Residential segregation is still the norm in most of these cities, and even when blacks and Latinos integrate neighborhoods, they often don't stay that way very long, white flight insures that they are soon re-segregated.
That's only the big-ticket stuff of segregation. There are the less visible and less easily provable, annoying race distinctions. The cabs that whiz by black passengers, the police officer that routinely stops and frisks young blacks solely because they are young, black, and the galling indignity of being followed by security guards and ignored by clerks and sales personnel in department stores. They are thorn in the side reminders that race in far too many cases still matters. And an even more offensive reminder that the ancient stereotypes of blacks as crime prone and deviant are still very much alive.

The academy award wining film Crash poked fun at the racial stereotypes and off color attitudes of blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians toward each other. One scene that painfully resonated with many blacks was the fearful murmuring of a white middle-class couple that clutched their belongings as they passed two young blacks on the street. The couple couldn’t be blamed for their paranoid fears. They lived in a cloistered world, scared of, and angry with minorities and in perpetual turmoil. Their world was driven by myths, distortions, and half-truths on race.

Even Barack Obama is not totally immune from the occasional veiled racial dig. Talk show guru Rush Limbaugh’s stirred a brief dust up with his insulting tag of Obama as the “magic Negro,” meaning he’s a black that’s bland and palatable to whites. Though Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden profusely apologized for his ill-framed quip that Obama had the intelligence, there was the dangling suspicion that Obama was being singled out as smart as contrast to dumb blacks.

While polls show that whites by big margins say that they’d vote for a black presidential candidate, in the next breath by overwhelming margins they also express big doubts about whether Obama possesses the right stuff to be president. This is a legitimate concern given his relative newness and inexperience with national political issues. But it’s also code talk on the part of some to question his intelligence.

The racist gaffes, cracks, slips of the tongue from politicians and celebrities about blacks that seem to crop up like clockwork every few months is a bell weather that at least with some racial attitudes are frozen deep in time, and stereotypes are still more the norm than the exception.

It’s easy and fun to razz O’Reilly as a loudmouthed racist, turn the tables and give him a dose of his own medicine. But dumping on O’Reilly for giving his honest personal reaction to the scene at Sylvia’s is disingenuous and self-serving. It simply puts O’Reilly on the hook while letting far too many others off of it.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Send This Message to Jena 6 Judge J.P. Mauffray
P.O. BOX 1316
JENA, LA 71342
(318)992-2002- phone

In the past Judge J.P. Mauffray you have shown both compassion and a willingness to work with young people that have gotten into legal trouble and have come before you in juvenile court. And that includes Mychal Bell. You recognized in those that you have helped that rehabilitation is not a dirty word and that with the right mix of counseling and mentoring, troubled youth can easily become productive adults. You have given some of these youth a second chance. And again, that includes Bell.

Revoking Bell’s bail sends the wrong message about fairness and rehabilitation. Bell’s parents, his attorneys, and prominent Jena ministers have publicly vowed to mentor and counsel him to make sure he and Jena put the contentious past behind.
Judge you can be part of that healing process by releasing Bell. This time Judge he won’t fail. There are too many eyes in Jena and the nation watching him to make sure that he doesn’t.

A Plea to Jena 6 Defendant Judge J.P.Mauffray
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

La Salle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. watchers are adamant that the judge is not a bigot, a back country bumpkin, or a judge that’s in the hip pocket of La Salle District Attorney Reed Walters. Mauffray has even been criticized by some conservatives as being too fair-minded; meaning that he’s willing to tilt ever so slightly toward working to help some of the troubled teens that parade before him in his juvenile court stay out of jail.

Mauffray seemed anything but the fair-minded, erudite jurist when he revoked the $90,000 bond of centerpiece Jena 6 defendant Mychal Bell. This brought howls of rage from Bell’s family, attorneys, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and the thousands that flocked to Jena to demand his freedom. But Mauffray as a key juvenile judge in La Salle Parish, in fact virtually the only judge in the parish that hears juvenile cases, is certainly well familiar with Bell.

He has been involved with Bell to one degree or another when he was charged with four prior offenses. In the past two years, he was hauled into the juvenile court that Mauffray helps oversee on battery and property damage charges. The juvenile court and Mauffray did not toss the book at Bell after he committed those offenses. He was placed on probation in April 2006 until his 18th birthday. With the prior offenses that Bell had, he could have easily been held in juvenile jail for the two year period. That has been the fate of legions of other black teens in legions of juvenile courts throughout the country. Many of these youth that languish in juvenile or even adult jails with fewer prior offenses than Bell.

But Mauffray and the juvenile court gave Bell the benefit of the doubt and another chance.
This seemed in keeping with Mauffray’s bent, and the source of some of the criticism, that he is willing to work with troubled youth. Bell is his greatest challenge yet, though. And the notoriety of the case makes it even more of a challenge, and a prime reason for his hard ball on Bell’s bail. He ticked off these three reasons for revoking bail: the seriousness of the offense (beating white student Justin Barker), the weight of the evidence, and of course, his previous record.

Yet Mauffray also heard Bell’s father, and several prominent local African-American ministers publicly vow to monitor, counsel, and tightly supervise Bell. He heard them promise to get him into another high school in another town or parish in an aggressive effort to put Bell in a new environment that will help him straighten out his life. Mauffray obviously wasn’t moved enough to release him, but he did offer a glimmer of hope when he conceded that those who would cocoon Bell had “excellent intentions.” That showed that the judge at least recognized that many people are now committed to helping Bell put the past behind him, finish high school and go on to college, maybe even on a football scholarship.

Mauffray can make this possible if he translates his glimmer of recognition that help has been offered into action and releasing Bell. The nine months that Bell spent in jail before even being convicted of the aggravated battery charge is not just harsh punishment, but also a harsh and sobering experience and lesson for Bell. A long jail sentence is the best and the worst kind of wake-up call that the system is pitiless and no-nonsense when it comes to meting out punishment to black teens accused of serious crimes. Bell is no different than countless other black teens that have gotten into trouble with the law, and could turn their lives around if given a second, and yes, if necessary even a third chance.

The sledgehammer treatment of black teens in juvenile courts nationally is tormenting proof that that chance is more often than not given to them. The teens become yet another tragic statistic and a monument to the towering failure of the juvenile criminal justice system to fulfill what was once its mandate, namely to rehabilitate youth, and not simply toss away the cell key on them.

In the past, Judge Mauffray has shown both compassion and a willingness to work with young people. He has recognized in those that he has helped that rehabilitation is not a dirty word and that with the right mix of counseling and mentoring, troubled youth can easily become productive adults. He has given these youth a second chance. And he has given Bell a second chance. He should give it to him again. This time Judge he won’t fail, there are too many eyes in Jena and the nation watching him to make sure that he doesn’t.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Cautionary Tale in Mychal Bell’s Jail Plight

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Huey Crockett has a much different view of Jena 6 defendant Mychal Bell than the thousands of protestors that stormed Jena to demand his freedom. Months before Bell became a cause celebre, Crockett said he called the police to report that Bell and some other youths were vandalizing cars in his mostly black neighborhood outside Jena. Crockett bitterly charged that police moved with glacial speed to come out and investigate. Crockett chalked police lethargy and indifference to it being just another case of blacks committing criminal acts against other blacks. If Bell and his pals had been vandalizing cars in white neighborhoods the police would have been all over it, said Crockett.

The double standard that outraged Crockett in the glaring difference in how police handle black on black crime and black on white crime was probably the single biggest thing that infuriated the tens of thousands that flooded Jena’s streets. Studies repeatedly show that black teens such as Bell are far more likely than white teens to be arrested, tried, and convicted in adult courts, given harsher sentences and are more likely than white teens to serve their sentences in adult prisons.
But this tormenting double standard doesn’t totally explain why Bell languished in jail since December. Nor does it tell why even after civil rights leaders and activists belatedly raised his bond money when the case jumped into the national spotlight, that the judge promptly revoked his bail. The judge had the perfect legal hook to keep Bell in jail. It had little to do with his conviction for the beating of a white student, and much to do with Bell’s prior offenses. In this case there were three of them that included a battery charge, and a charge of criminal damage to property. The battery charge landed Bell on probation until January 2008.

Prosecutors and courts have wide latitude to hold a juvenile offender with high bail or no bail that they deem a threat to the community. In Louisiana bail is permitted after a conviction and the maximum sentence is more than five years. But, as in other states, prosecutors can request and the courts can deny bail if they believe the offender is a threat to the community. Jena prosecutors quickly slapped that tag on Bell. However, this would not have flown if there were no prior charges.
That’s a powerful cautionary tale of how and why legions of black teens such as Bell stay in jail much longer than white teens even when they are charged with the same or similar felony counts. Though juvenile crime rates have plunged in the past decade, and the crime plunge has been steepest among black teens, media sensationalism on gangs, drugs, and drive-by shootings, as well as the far harsher treatment of black juveniles in the courts reinforce public fears that black teens commit more crimes and especially more violent crimes than whites.

When a teen has a prior record this further reinforces the notion that young blacks are habitual offenders, and they become instant cannon fodder for a legal system that is harsh and unsparing toward them. It’s biased, and unfair, but it gave the Jena prosecutor the right to say with a straight face that the Jena case is not about race and that Bell’s continued jailing has nothing to do with beating a white kid. Though thousands fumed at the court’s hard ball play toward Bell, his record gave the judge the legal cover to get away with revoking his bail.

The warning signs that some black teens repeatedly put themselves in legal harm’s way glare like neon. They are heeded only the rare times that a case explodes into the national arena. Then the anger, finger pointing and hand wringing over what went wrong begin. In Bell’s case, his father and local ministers publicly pledged to put him on a crash program of mentoring, counseling and tougher fatherly supervision when he’s released. The idea is to do everything they can to get him back on the straight path.

Bell’s prior record, and the much needed intervention by his parents and community leaders doesn’t absolve the prosecutors and courts of the gross overkill on the charges against the him or even revoking his bail. He’s still a teen and the presumption is that teens can turn things around if given a fair chance at rehabilitation. And, it certainly doesn’t wipe away the double standard that deeply taints the juvenile criminal justice system that hammers Bell and other black teens even when they have no prior records.

Still, it is another tragic warning that there’s little margin for error in the criminal justice system for black teens. Once Bell is freed, and eventually he will be, the trick is to make sure that he and the countless others that do not have a cast of thousands shouting to free them but face a similar legal plight, stay free.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Hutchinson Political Report Update

Jena 6 defendant Mychal Bell's $90,000 bond was revoked by a judge. Bell has been in jail since last December. The $90,000 bond was in place BEFORE the revocation. That was certainly ample time for civil rights leaders and activists to raise the money. They didn't. That was the point and criticism in "Civil Rights Leaders Failed Jena 6 Defendant Mychal Bell" by Earl Ofari Hutchinson.
The point and criticism still stands.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Civil Rights Leaders Failed Jena 6 Defendant Mychal Bell
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

One very conspicuous person missing from the cast of thousands in Jena was Mychal Bell. The seventeen year old more than any other of the Jena 6 teens fueled the furor over the case. Bell has languished in jail since last December. He’s stayed there in part because of the heavy duty charges against him. The DA claims that several other scrapes with the law helped keep him there. But he’s there in bigger part because his family couldn’t raise the portion of the $90,000 bond the courts slapped on Bell. For a working class, black family, in a low wage small Southern town, this seems like a King’s ransom. But as bail goes in felony conviction cases, this is not exorbitant. So why didn’t civil rights leaders, the black celebrities, and the marchers that made Bell a cause celebre and eagerly mugged for the TV cameras pony up the cash to get him out?

The painful answer to that is that civil rights leaders let Bell down. They filled the air with harsh rhetoric about a new civil rights movement, hawked and wore black T-shirts with slogans like "Enough is enough" and "Free the Jena 6," and saber rattled the DA with talk about hauling him before a Congressional committee. Instead, they should have filled baskets with checks to spring Bell. British rocker/actor David Bowie pointed to this shameful failure when he did more than shout and fist wave. He put up $10,000 for the Jena Defense legal Fund. Any one of the legion of high profile, millionaire black entertainers and athletes that routinely shell out big bucks for dinners, soirees, and celebrity bashes could have easily written a check for $10, 000. But the Jena 6 cause is not a social event or a respected and safe charity. These are the kind of feel-good, safe and respectable conscience salvers that athletes and entertainers are comfortable giving too. The Jena 6 case is edgy, controversial, and squarely finger points the deep and troubling racial bias in the criminal justice system, it also makes some squirm at the uncomfortable thought of siding with black male teens. They have been relentlessly tagged as crime prone and deviant.

The reluctance of the black endowed to fork over Bell’s bail makes makes some sense given what they typically give too. The parsimony of the civil rights groups and leaders, as well as the chanting marchers, doesn’t make sense. But this is hardly the first time civil rights leaders and activists have been knocked for not putting their money where their protest is. During the heyday of the 1960s civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., logged more hours begging, cajoling, and pleading with wealthy white Hollywood celebs, foundation heads, and corporate executives to bankroll SCLC than in the streets. Without their backing SCLC would have been out of business.

The NAACP found itself on the financial rocks in the 1980s when the nickels and dimes that it relied on for decades from working class blacks dried up. To keep the doors open, it had to hustle dollars from major corporations through pricey dinners and banquets. The organization in turn was rapped by black activists for retreating from cutting edge social activism. Yet, if their corporate benefactors hadn’t filled the NAACP’s coffers it would have sunk.

The reluctance and refusal of activists that shouted until they were hoarse for “freedom for the Jena 6” to back up the call with cash for Bell is only part of the reason why Bell sat in a jail cell during the march. There’s the deep suspicion that funds raised for a political cause often get lost on the way to helping the cause. That’s a charitable way of saying that more than once large sums have been raised for a cause, and the cause turned out to be a fatter bank account for those who hustled the money. The Jena 6 case is no exception. One well-known national civil rights organization touched off howls of protests when it announced on its website that it was raising money for the teen’s legal defense. The problem was that it asked that the money be sent to it. It backpedaled fast after the outcry and quickly announced that the funds should go directly to the address of the Jena 6 Legal Fund in Louisiana.

The disgust at the injustice within the injustice of Bell still having to scratch and claw for bond money even as thousands screamed for his release prompted several civil rights groups in Los Angeles to immediately write checks for his release and his legal expenses. They didn’t stop there. They challenged the national civil rights organizations and leaders to match their donations. Their challenge was more than a grab for money for Bell. It sent a message that shouting about injustice rings hollow if it’s not matched by a willingness to make a financial sacrifice to combat that injustice.

The Reverend Al Sharpton said that he was practically moved to tears at the sight of Bell in shackles and a prison jump suit. It’s not tears that will get him out of that suit, it’s dollars. The shame is that many of those who demand his freedom didn’t put up a nickel to see that he got it.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Can Even O.J. Be a Victim of a Police Rush to Judgment?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

O.J. Simpson screamed loud and long that anyone who thinks he’s stupid enough to commit robbery in of all places Las Vegas has got to be nuts. The world’s best known accused and acquitted double murder defendant seems to have a point. His mug is known far and wide, and any and everything he does generally makes news. And when it doesn’t he makes sure that he turns up at a sports card signing, makes a reality show pitch, or takes a failed shot at a self-confessional book to grab some headlines and further stir the public’s hate Simpson juices.

So why did Simpson according to police feel that he needed to charge into a hotel room and snatch and grab some sports memorabilia from two collectors, at gunpoint no less? Why not call the police if the items as he claims are his and have them recover them? Simpson says the explanation is simple. The police won’t lift a finger to help him. That’s a clumsy, but tactful way of saying that he’s a marked man, and that police have had it in for him ever since he beat the double murder charge.
At first glance this seems to be the desperate rant of a guy who’s prone to lie, cheat, and as most think kill. But beyond his vehement protest that he’s innocent, Simpson also knows that playing the anti- police card might resonate if ever so slight with some. There’s no evidence at this stage of the case that Simpson was framed, or that Las Vegas police licked their chops at the thought of getting him back in a legal noose. He was at the hotel, the goods were taken, and a robbery complaint was filed.

From the day that he beat the double murder rap and walked out of a Los Angeles court a decade ago, he has gone wherever he pleased and done what he pleased. He’s at times been trailed by a pack of doting former fans, and celebrity gawkers. There is no evidence that police in any of these cities have routinely subjected him to a special get Simpson profile. Yet, Simpson’s ill gained notoriety and perverse celebrity virtually guarantee that the legal hammer will drop especially hard on him at the first whiff of criminal wrongdoing. There is little chance that given the savage public mood toward him and the two person truth squad of Fred Goldman and Denise Brown continually wagging the guilt finger at him that Simpson would get benefit of the doubt on any charges against him, and he, of all people, should know that.
Since the bloody and mangled bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found in the walkway of his Brentwood, California apartment a more than a decade ago, it seems that time has stood still with him. Tongues still furiously wag at the mention of the murders and at him. If a poll were taken today, a majority of the public will still rage that Simpson is a murderer who skipped away scot-free, and that the trial and his acquittal were a farce and a blatant travesty of justice. But there are also some who would contend that Simpson was victimized by a biased criminal justice system and the verdict to acquit was a just one.
Simpson didn't invent or originate this sometimes ugly divide in public opinion about celebrity guilt. It has always lurked just beneath the surface. But his case propelled it to the front of public debate and anger. The horde of Simpson media commentators, legal experts and politicians that branded the legal system corrupt and compromised also fueled public belief that justice is for sale. Simpson's acquittal seemed to confirm that the rich, famous and powerful have the deep pockets to hire a small army of high priced, high profile attorneys, expert witnesses, experts, and investigators that routinely mangle the legal system to stall, delay, and drag out their cases, and eventually allow their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment. Even when prosecutors manage to win convictions of or guilty pleas from celebrities, their money, fame, power, and legal twisting often guarantee that they will get a hand slap jail sentence, if that.
Whether the police did indeed as Simpson claims rush to judgment and grossly overcharged him, and he eventually stands trial, the chatter from most will be that a killer is finally getting at least some of his due. Others will say that even Simpson can be a victim of a vindictive and unforgiving criminal justice system. The truth as always may lie somewhere between the two views. In any case, Simpson will do his best to make sure that a public that believes that everything he says is a lie believes that even he can be falsely accused. A second non-trial of the century, anyone?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Why the Feds Won’t Prosecute West Virginia Torture Case as a Hate Crime
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The Reverend Emanuel Heyliger, pastor of the Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church in Dunbar, West Virginia was livid when he got word that federal prosecutors won’t prosecute the attack on Megan Williams as a hate crime. It seemed that if ever there was a case that screamed for the feds to jump in and charge the six crime prone, apparently hate spewing whites that assailed the young black woman with a hate crime, this was the case. The heinous facts seemed beyond dispute. The bunch allegedly kidnapped, tortured, raped and harangued her with racial epithets.
But Heyliger in his understandable anger missed one thing. The feds will do anything and everything possible to stay out of state criminal cases, especially cases that are racial tinged. There are two reasons for their keeping hands off. Federal prosecutors are loath to step on the toes of police and prosecutors in criminal cases, no matter how badly the crime is tainted by race. Federal prosecutors flatly said that William’s assailants are more likely to be convicted and get stiff sentences in state court. That makes perfectly good legal and political sense.
The other reason for their non-involvement is much more troubling. Federal prosecutors have rarely placed much stock on bringing criminal civil rights cases. They see them as no-win cases with little political gain, and the risk of making enemies of local police, DAs, and state officials. The rare time that the feds cracked down on civil rights violence was during the 1960s civil rights battles. The wave of violence then stirred national and international revulsion and forced then President Lyndon Johnson to order more civil rights prosecutions.
Though federal prosecutors in recent times have had more than sufficient legal ground to bring cases in the old race murders from the 1960s, the prosecutions have been almost exclusively in state courts. The only exceptions to the set in stone rule that prosecutors stay out of state cases occurs when a hate crime triggers a major riot, generates mass protests or attracts major press attention. The Rodney King beating case in Los Angles in 1992 is still the best example of how it took a mass civil upheaval to move the feds to go full blast after a conviction of the police that beat King, and then only after a failed prosecution in state court. The King case is also an example of how criminal cases with clear civil rights abuses become highly politicized and racially divisive.
The Williams case is a near textbook example of how prosecutors deal with crimes, even possibly racially motivated crimes. They may be horrific, but they are seen as common crimes and are treated as such. Few state prosecutor will chance inflaming racial passions and hatreds by slapping a hate crime tag on a case.
There’s also the belief that hate crimes are mostly a thing of the past. When they do occur, they are isolated acts committed by a handful of quacks, and unreconstructed bigots, and that state authorities vigorously report and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes.
When Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, it compelled the FBI to collect figures on hate violence. However, it did not compel police agencies to report them. Record keeping on hate crimes is still left up to the discretion of local police chiefs and city officials. Many police departments still refuse to report hate crimes, or to label crimes in which gays, and minorities are targeted because of race or sexual preference as hate crimes. Still other police departments don't bother compiling them because they regard hate crimes as a politically loaded minefield that can tarnish their image and create even more racial friction. The official indifference by many police agencies to hate crimes prevents federal officials, even if they wanted to more aggressively enforce civil rights laws, from accurately gauging the magnitude of civil rights violence.
The picture of how much hate violence there actually is in the country and even what constitutes hate violence is even more blurred by confusion and uncertainty over what makes a crime a hate crime. Simply pillorying someone with racial epithets while committing a physical assault may not pass the legal muster of what is a hate crime. The crucial element is whether the racial epithets shouted out were incidental to the attack or were they the precipitating factor in the attack? It’s the finest of fine legal hair splitting. But ultimately that’s what prosecutors rightly or wrong look at in deciding whether they have any chance to get convictions in crimes where race is involved.
The black ministers in West Virginia are dumbfounded at the apparent refusal of federal prosecutors to recognize what they see as a cut and dried case of white bigots brutalizing an innocent young black woman. That’s probably exactly what happened. Yet when prosecutors try to sort out whether a crime is a hate motivated crime or just plain crime it’s anything but cut and dried.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jena Case Won’t Help Black Teen Offenders in Louisiana (Or Anywhere Else)
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Four years before an indifferent, drowsy press and public finally fumed at the news that a prosecutor and judge tossed the book at six black teens in a small Louisiana town for beating up a white teen following a racially charged incident, a Louisiana legislative investigating team sternly warned that the state’s juvenile justice system was horribly mangled. It found that the state couldn’t lock up juveniles fast enough for mostly non-violent crimes. The team noted that the sentences slapped on them were wildly out of proportion to their crimes, and that the kids had almost no access to counseling, job and skills training, and family support programs that could ensure that they didn’t wind up back in the slammer. Though alternative sentencing programs are far more cost effective than jailing, they are scarce and under-funded, and Louisiana officials have resisted calls to increase funding and resources to boost these programs.

The investigators also found unsurprisingly that black teens were hit with far stiffer sentences than white teens for the same crimes. It made no difference whether the whites had a prior history of criminal or bad behavior and the black teens were alter boys and had a squeaky clean record. The blacks still got harsher sentences. Countless studies show that a black teen is six times more likely to be tried and sentenced to prison than young whites, even when the crimes are similar, or even less severe than those committed by white teens. Nationally, blacks make up 40 percent of youths tried in adult courts and nearly 60 percent of those sentenced to state prisons.

In Jena, the prosecutor, mostly because of the public furor over the case, reduced charges against two of the youth. But that’s an exception. Prosecutors nearly always push for hard time for offenders. This is infuriatingly apparent in Jena. One of the defendants, a star football player, was convicted on a reduced battery charge. Yet, he still could get a 15 year prison sentence.

The investigators implored the legislature to do something to correct the problem. They came up with a series of reform recommendations. They were largely ignored and four years later, state legislators have shown little inclination to fully enact the juvenile justice reforms. Louisiana legislators haven’t turned a tin ear to screams for reform solely out of ignorance, inertia, or fear of a public backlash. The legislators read and watch the same relentless stream of newspaper and television reports of drive-by shootings, drug shootouts, and gang wars, most of them involving young blacks. This confirms the terrified feeling that many Americans have that young people -- especially young black males -- are out of control.

They are convinced that teen violence has spawned a new class of youthful "super predators" and that the juvenile justice system is far too easy on them. The notion that juveniles are running wild though is a myth. According to recent FBI crime figures, the rates for murder and assault among teenagers have plummeted since 1993, even among black teens.

Yet politicians have overreacted badly to the public panic. In the past decade, more than thirty states have loosened if not eliminated laws requiring juveniles be tried and sentenced in juvenile courts. The criminal justice system's harsh treatment of young blacks, like the Jena teens, fuels the suspicion of many blacks that judges, prosecutors and probation officers bend way over backwards to give young white offenders the benefit of the doubt and are far less willing to label and treat, them as dangerous habitual offenders, even when they commit violent crimes. One study of the attitudes of probation officers toward black and white teen offenders found that they were far more likely to attribute black juvenile crimes to family or character flaws such as chronic disrespect toward authority and to brand them as inherent troublemakers. They were more likely to blame white bad behavior on conditions outside their control such as hanging out with the wrong crowd, or to troubling family conflicts. Judges and prosecutors read the probation reports and heed their recommendations and if they are favorable, as they are more often than not with young whites, judges are much more inclined to approve alternative sentencing or treatment programs for them. An unfavorable report is just as likely to result in hard time in juvenile or adult jails.

The outrage over the Jena case will probably force town prosecutors to edge away a little more from the harsh charges against the teens, but only a little. They, like prosecutors everywhere, are convinced that black teens are habitual lawbreakers and that the public clamors for them to heave the book at them. And that’s exactly what they routinely do in daily courts throughout the country. It’s business as usual for black teen offenders and Jena won’t change that. And that’s an even bigger tragedy.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Oprah’s Star Power Does Zilch for Obama
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

What do Willie Nelson, Madonna, Jon Bovi, Martin Sheen, and in reverse, George Clooney have in common? They are big money celebrities and virtual household names. They all endorsed Democratic presidential candidates in 2004. Nelson endorsed Dennis Kucinich. Bon Jovi endorsed John Kerry. Sheen endorsed Howard Dean. Madonna backed Wesley Clark. One of their picks went down to flaming defeat. The other three never came close to getting the Democratic presidential nomination.
As for Clooney, he publicly declared that he hoped that his non-endorsement of Kerry probably helped him at the polls. It didn’t. But at least Clooney recognized a political truism that’s etched in stone. That’s that a celebrity cheer lead of a presidential candidate does absolutely nothing to boost the candidate.
Yet mega star Oprah Winfrey thinks things can be different now that she’s signed on as one of Barack Obama’s major bankrollers, an ex-officio campaign cheerleader, and celebrity marketer. After all how could millions of voters refuse a command from the closest thing to America’s earth mother to back Obama? It’s simple. Almost no one pays any attention to what celebrities have to say about politicians. A September Newsweek poll removed any doubt about that. Barely three percent of respondents said that a celebrity endorsement had any influence on who they voted for. Oprah will have zilch effect on Obama’s White House run for two common sense reasons.
In between an occasional touch on social issues, Oprah feeds millions of daytime housewives and house husbands a steady dose of sneaks and peeks into gossipy movie star chit chat and self-help marital and family relationship problem solving. Now in one big leap she’s asking the same millions that dote on her sage advice on relationships to shift gears and trust her judgment that Obama is the best to handle global warming, tax policy, the Iraq war, terrorism, job creation and inflation, failing public schools, criminal justice issues, and judicial appointments. That’s like asking millions to accept disgraced Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick as the chair of the Humane Society of the U.S.’s animal cruelty prevention week. It’s a terrible fit, and Oprah lovers will see through that.
The one group, though, that Obama is banking that Oprah can help pry loose from the Hillary column is women. But polls have shown that women voters don't march in lock step with a woman candidate solely based on gender no matter how much personal sympathy and empathy they may have with the female candidate. They also judge a female candidate on their stance on the issues, their political beliefs and party affiliation. Hillary is a tough sell to many women who either like or loathe her, and she's a politician. There's absolutely no reason to think that women voters will stampede to Obama because their favorite female talk show guru told them too.
The ultimate irony is that Oprah's roughest sale of Obama will be to black women. Polls show that they are overwhelmingly backing Hillary. Though most adore Oprah and are well aware of her long standing backing of Obama, that hasn't shaken their support of Clinton the least bit.

The other reason Oprah's lusty public cheer of Obama won't work is Oprah. She’s fabulously bankable, and much beloved, but she’s also an African-American. And so is Obama. Oprah hasn’t given the faintest hint that her tout and bankroll of Obama has anything to do with race, and is careful to make it clear that it’s based solely on her belief that his competence and qualifications make him the right presidential stuff. However, an underlying suspicion is that there’s more to it than that and that she’s just as thrilled as many other blacks at the thought that an African-American can actually bag the presidency. That’s not exactly playing the race card, but for an untold number of skeptical voters, and that include those that are enraptured with Oprah, it edges uncomfortably close to a racial motive.
Recent polls have shown that more whites than ever say they are willing to vote for a black candidate for the presidency and that they like Obama. They also say by big margins that he is to new on the scene, inexperienced, and unknown. His gaffes on foreign policy in debates, and his grope for a killer position that will separate him from the other Democratic candidates hasn’t done much to mark him as a sure-handed, experienced, public policy wonk.
Super celeb George Clooney came closest to sizing up the media and public’s infatuation with Obama when he compared him to a rock star. That's not good. How many voters would vote for Madonna for president, or even Clooney for that matter? That's not to say that endorsements don't help a candidate, but they have to be the right endorsements. The right ones come from seasoned politicians and respected industry, labor, or public interest groups that have the trust and confidence of voters, and a solid track record in fighting for legislation and public policy change.
Oprah can dump plenty of cash into Obama’s campaign coffers, and that counts for something. But it’s not the adrenalin shot that his candidacy needs. That’s the something even America's most beloved day time talk show host can’t give.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Viewing Tween-Teen Film

By Sikivu Hutchinson

On Friday nights, after the clamor of the school day dies down and the kid-driven euphoria of the weekend mounts, a simple trip to the video store in search of a children’s DVD can resemble a cultural minefield. While feature length DVDs of Barbie, imperiled princesses, anthropomorphized ponies with flowing hair and big blue eyes, and Europeanized Japanese characters abound, cartoon or dramatic depictions that center on girl of color protagonists are, not surprisingly, absent from the shelves.* The lack is a reminder of how little progress has been made in the tween/teen film industry, despite the widespread mantra that youth multiculturalism in advertising and programming is “hot” and a colorblind standard is the norm.
To be a girl of color and a media consumer is to be positioned as perpetual voyeur. Media savvy, deluged with the latest fashion and glamour news on pop singers and fifteen minutes of fame movie stars, girls of color negotiate a morass of cultural products that supposedly promote “affirming” themes for tween/teen girlhood. In this era of tween/teen consumer sophistication, the narrative of the empowered heroine predominates. One of the more shopworn examples of this empowerment narrative is represented by the scrappy white heroine, alĂ  the protagonist of the summer movie musical hit Hairspray, set in 1960s Baltimore. The scrappy white heroine is a time honored tradition in literature, mainstream movie melodrama and teen flicks. She is generally an outsider of sorts; either in appearance, class station or both. She fearlessly treads where the more self-absorbed won’t deign to venture, breaking curfew, defying the strict Christian mores of her straight-laced family and/or most daringly, consorting with the denizens of black communities. For this heroine racial otherness is an adventure, a resort vacation into heretofore unexplored vistas of self-discovery. As always in these kinds of scenarios blackness holds special appeal for the white outsider because of its transgressive potential. Black music, black dance styles, black lingo—are all ripe territories for vigorous Euro mining and imitation. The exploration of these hackneyed themes via the travails of a white female protagonist struggling with her own “outsider” status in the thin, blond-worshipping, relatively privileged world of middle class Baltimore has its precursor in literature like Norman Mailer’s infamous 1950s “White Negro” shtick and the global appropriation of hip hop by white consumers.
In Hairspray, the white female protagonist’s spiritual journey officially takes off when she is sent to detention and discovers that it is merely a showcase for “funky” black dance shenanigans. The blacks, of course, are just waiting to corrupt an impressionable young white thing like her. Much of the film’s visual spark lies in its near obsessive focus on Tracy’s bright-eyed bushy tailed exuberance over her dalliances with forbidden fruit.
What are young black female viewers to make of these portrayals? While my elementary school-aged nieces loved the singing, dancing and pageantry of the film, they are old enough (with some prompting), to grasp the relevance of all the black students in the film being confined to detention. Disciplinary action at any age is a harsh and ever present reality for black children, one that satirical movie portrayals of frolicking black youth can’t obliterate. Since images of unruly black children abound in American culture, featuring a group of black teens dancing in a classroom with no teacher in evidence is just another slice of comic relief for most mainstream audiences.
When presented with evidence of their irrelevance, children of color make the painful adjustment to misidentification. Socialized with white beauty norms, consuming and misidentifying with whiteness becomes an intimate part of the young female viewer’s experience of visual “pleasure.” Countervailing images of black, Latino and Asian femininity are available in literature (and to a much lesser extent in alternative film by artists of color) but are insidiously measured against the gold standard of white femininity. In fact, a recent revisitation of the 1954 Kenneth and Mamie Clark “doll test” by a young filmmaker named Kiri Davis found that black children still identified white or lighter skinned dolls as being “nice,” while darker-skinned dolls were still rejected as being “bad.” Davis’ widely acclaimed documentary on black female teen self-identity, “A Girl Like Me,” is a welcome antidote to depictions of black female hypersexuality, and a reminder that more black women need to be behind the camera to truly turn the tide of disfigured black images.
The dominant culture’s equation of female agency with unbridled sexuality and exhibitionism is especially damaging for young black women. While white women like Hairspray’s fictitious heroine have always had the luxury to flout patriarchal categories of “good girl” “bad girl” without fear of relinquishing their claim to white privilege, black women and other women of color are already marked as amoral, sexual and hence outside of “normative” femininity. Early exposure to these kinds of narratives sets a dangerous precedent for tween/teen girls of color, who are readily deployed in white TV programs and films as streetwise/commonsensical sidekicks for imperiled white girls and/or the “sassy” antidote to white girl “blandness.”
If efforts like Davis’ are to be more than just a drop in the bucket there must be a nationwide push to train middle and high school aged black women to do similar documentary and narrative film work around image construction. Programs such as L.A.’s Inner City Filmmakers and New York-based Women Make Movies help connect youth with production, development and distributional resources to critically engage the media regime with their films. Without these initiatives, and more, the multi-billion dollar tween/teen film industry will continue to thrive on our complicity in the distortion of black female subjectivity.

*With the possible exception of such popular staples as Dora the Explorer and the Cheetah Girls.

Sikivu Hutchinson is an author and writer specializing on women's and cultural issues.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Here They Come Again: Another Go Round for Wacky 9/11 Conspiracy Theories
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

There isn’t much that the 9/11 conspiracy theorists say that can or should be believed. That even includes the windy claim that their celebration in New York of the sixth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks will be the biggest in history. The problem with that grandiose boast is that the same bunch claimed last year that their fifth anniversary event would be the biggest yet. In the fine print at the bottom of the website release, they add the “clarification” that many of the performance artists for their big 9/11 concert shebang are only tentatively scheduled to appear. Translated: The conspiracy theorists dumped any artist’s name they could find on the bill, and they’re keeping their fingers crossed that a few might actually show up.

None of this should surprise anyone who has the dimmest notion of what and how the 911 conspiracy theorists operate. We’re all by now well familiar with the way they’ve spun the 9/11 plot. The attacks were part of a sinister plan by President Bush, the GOP, the CIA, FBI and Justice Department to wipe out civil liberties protections, impose a national security state, create a pretext for the quagmire in Iraq, regiment the American people, and strengthen the hand of the pro Israeli lobby in U.S. politics. Some of the more shrill theorists with an anti-Semitic bent flat out say that the terror attack was part of a decades old web of intrigue woven by international Jewish groups to dominate global politics.

Conspiracy theorists allege that explosives were planted at the WTC, Jewish and Israeli Tower workers and occupants were warned the day before supposedly by Mossad (Israeli Intelligence) to stay away, a missile slammed into the Pentagon, the government hid the wreckage of the United Airlines plane that terrorists crashed in Pennsylvania. Every one of these theories has been subject to repeated and meticulous tests, studies, and examinations. And every one of them has been proven absolutely groundless.

But thousands of Americans still believe them. That’s easy to understand. The American woods swarm with groups that fervently believe that government, corporate, or international Zionist groups busily hatch secret plots, and concoct hidden plans to wreak havoc on their lives. The Manchurian Candidate syndrome popularized in books and countless movies and TV shows has firmly implanted the notion that shadowy, government groups routinely topple foreign governments, assassinate government leaders, and brainwash operatives to do dirty deeds.

9/11 conspiracy theories have so easily infected the popular imagination for two other not so zany reasons. Government agencies, such as the FBI, CIA, Army intelligence, with the connivance of presidents, have often played fast and loose with the law and even the rules of democracy. They have spied on, harassed, and jailed thousands of Americans from Communists to anti-war activists. The biggest, juiciest and most relentless target for government spymasters during the past decades has been African-American political groups from the moderate NAACP to the radical Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam. Just two weeks before this years 9/11 anniversary a fresh batch of publicly disclosed FBI documents show that the agency waged a kinder, gentler, but no less illegal, spy campaign against Coretta Scott King then the relentless, and lethal campaign the FBI waged against her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The other reason for the paranoid style about 9/11 is the fury that many Americans have toward President Bush. Many Americans are still convinced the GOP hijacked the White House by rigging the votes in Florida in 2000, and repeated the ploy in Ohio in 2004. That makes it easy to believe that the GOP and the administration will say and do anything to win and hold power. The Florida vote was a mix of registrar ineptitude, bureaucratic bungling, partisan political haggling, legal interpretation, and Democratic Party capitulation rather than a concerted conspiracy to seize the top office. The Ohio vote in 2004 was more of the same on a smaller scale. But Bush ultimately conned more voters in Ohio (including the black evangelicals) into believing that he would do a better job of defending family values and fighting the war on terrorism than Democrats. He and the GOP did not need to hatch a conspiracy to do that.

Bush, as other presidents that have got in hot water with the American people with their domestic and foreign policy fumbling, are hardly above beating the war drums and fanning national security jitters to boost their poll ratings, secure public allegiance, and increase their party’s political standing. Bush has done that at times. But his in the tank poll ratings, and the resistance of Congress, and the Democrats, and millions of Americans to the war and the further erosion of civil liberties protections, prove that if there was indeed a 9/11 conspiracy to seize power it didn’t work. But of course there wasn’t one. Yet, on the six anniversary the conspiracy theorists will again busily spin their shopworn 9/11 conspiracy fantasies. And that’s part of the fun of conspiracies; they don’t require any proof, just true belief.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Will They Arrest Britney in Mansfield for Sagging Pants?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

It’s a good thing that Brittany was at the MTV TRL show in London a year or so ago and not in Mansfield, Louisiana when she pranced across the stage with her pants slung low around her behind. If Spears had dared to show so much belly and behind flesh in the town on September 15 she would be fined $150 and tossed in the slammer for 15 days. But we all know that the screwy, harebrained law that the fashion censors in Mansfield and a handful of other Louisiana cities passed in recent years that mandate fines, community service, and now jail time for sagging pants wearers don’t really apply to the male or female Brittany’s of the world. They apply to young black males. The laws are much more than a terribly wrong headed effort to regulate public dress, decency, discipline, or moral values. They reinforce the worst media and publicly ingrained stereotype of young black males as drug dealers, drive by shooters, gang bangers, and educational cripples.

Sagging pants are an easy and convenient symbol of the supposed dereliction and menace of young blacks. The consequence of that symbol and thinking has been devastating. Despite the plummet in crime rates, racial stereotypes have deeply embedded the popular and terrifying belief that crime in America comes exclusively with a young, black male face. The result: nearly one million blacks are now warehoused in America's jails, the majority of them young blacks, and a significant number of them are there for non-violent, petty drug crimes.

Sagging pants are such a soft and juicy target for the scapegoat of young black males that even comedian Bill Cosby couldn’t resist taking a swipe at it and them in his now legendary tirade a couple of years ago against low achieving, bad behaving young blacks. He fingered sagging pants as proof to him that they had become a menace. Cosby later made a partial recant of his knock and explained that it was a call for action and not a broad brush stroke indictment of all young black males. But it was too little, too late. The sagging pants equals black male perversity notion was even more firmly imprinted in the public psyche.

Though Cosby is one of the best-known blacks to fan negative racial stereotypes, he's hardly the only one. Despite much evidence to the contrary, many blacks routinely trash, demean and ridicule themselves. In fact, it was the African-American councilpersons in Shreveport, Mansfield and the other small towns that dredged up the ridiculous sagging pants laws. Some blacks in the rap and hip-hop world, of course, are deeply complicit in fanning the stereotype. The rap moguls have reaped king's ransoms peddling their music-video-cartoon version of the thug life. The rebellious young of all colors that shell out billions to enrich them are almost totally mindless of the social complexities, and the artistic and intellectual richness of the black experience. Even more tragic, some blacks further bolster the thug life stereotype by committing or winding up as victims of violence. The murders of rap icons Tupac Shakur, and Notorious BIG have been the stuff of cheap media sensationalism.

The spate of sagging pants laws does even more social damage than just reinforcing vile stereotypes and potentially swelling the jail population. It also confirms for many that the problems of poor blacks are self made and insoluble. Many employers admit that they won't hire young blacks because they believe they are lazier, more crime prone, and educationally deficient. Many politicians, even without the excuse of ballooning state and federal budget deficits and cutbacks, mightily resist efforts to increase spending on job, health and education programs for the poor.

In Shreveport, where the sagging pants law passed by a narrow four to three vote, the opponents raised the standard arguments that the law infringes on personal and freedoms, probably violates free speech, free expression constitutional protections, and will overburden police and the courts by forcing them to waste valuable time and resources measuring the hem line on pants when they should be about the business of dealing with serious crimes. The opponents of the law though didn’t raise any protest that the law won’t provide jobs, skills training, fix failing schools, and provide greater mentoring and family support programs for young black males.

The sagging pants law has been the butt (pardon the pun) of jokes, and much ribald fun poking. But stereotypes and bad social policy are no laughing matter. The city fathers and mothers in Mansfield, and the other towns that foisted the law on their books should stop the craziness, realize that this law solves no problems, and wipe it off their books. That is before some other cities are tempted to follow their lead and make themselves look silly and pass this crazy law too. That is unless they plan to arrest Britney for her bottom dragging pants.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.