Saturday, August 16, 2014

I Believe the Problem with Racism in America is That it is Not Intentional

I admit it, I genuinely feel sorry for police chief Thomas Jackson.

I don't know him, but I believe he is genuine. I also believe he made a very serious misstep when he released the video of the convenience store robbery allegedly committed by Mike Brown simultaneously with Darren Wilson's name. I don't think it was malicious, but it looks calculated, and so often, appearance is everything.

But I believe what happened with Jackson is symptomatic of a problem we have in our culture: we don't want to believe we're racist, and yet unfortunately, racism may be embedded in our cultural DNA.

For the past 40 years, TV has been our reality. And TV has fed us a world where blacks exist as a very small minority, and Latinos and Asians exist nearly not at all. And you have to look extremely hard to find Native American characters on TV.

Movies are somewhat more diverse, but there is a decided difference in roles cast for ethnic stereotypes. You almost never see a minority CEO, and it's just as rare to see a caucasion drug lord (Walter White being a prominent exception). Even music has genres that typically fall along race lines.

If I look across the people I count as friends in this area, I see people who are overwhelmingly generous, loving, and caring individuals. People who would never consider themselves racist, and you would never consider to be racist. Yet when officials were trying to place refugees some years ago in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, these same people stipulated that they were willing to take in white children.

And yet, in the wake of that, I would defend them against anyone who said they were racist. Because their actions consistently show otherwise.

But we need to look no further than America's justice system to see a disparity in treatment between minority offenders and caucasian. This connection is not speculative; it's been shown pretty conclusively. We look at the number of minorities in our prison, on death roles, their disproportionate representation on the poverty roles.

I remember years ago when I applied for a job in Wisconsin. I had a string of jobs prior to the one I was applying to, and had moved considerably. The gentleman next to me had somewhat similar history. He was black. The factory had not called for references on us, not drug tested either of us. I got the job; he didn't (and there were multiple positions to fill). I heard the owner specifically cite hjs inconsistent work history as the reason, and that was a common factor we both shared.

Now this was a small factory I worked at for 3 1/2 years. I knew this man. I saw him provide opportunities for a wide variety of people in the time I worked for him, and I don't believe that he had a conscious racist bone in his body. Yet I also know what I saw and heard that day. I was given an opportunity where someone of a different race with a similar resume was denied his.

Maybe it's time we start listening to minority voices in their criticism of our society. I really don't think if my lily white kids walked through a subdivision in Sanford, Florida, they would be profiled, let alone killed. I don't believe that had my lily white kid been standing in Mike Brown's case doing the same thing, they would have met the same fate.  And while that is wholly opinion, I also have a lot of empirical evidence that supports that theory.

We owe it to the Trayvon Martins and the Mike Browns of the world to take a very hard look at the cultural fabric of this country. And to adjust it, change it if we have to in order to create a more equitable society.

Because some mother in some community is due, by law of averages, to get the call tonight that her son was next. And because we owe our children better.

Friday, August 15, 2014

3445 Reasons Why Michael Brown's Shooter Doesn't Get the Benefit of the Doubt.

When Michael Brown was executed in Missouri, the conservative response was to wait until the facts came out. Brown's shooter, they insist, deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Yet as I seriously ponder the issue of white privilege, a fact that disturbs me because it should not exist, yet sadly does, I reject the premise that Brown's shooter "deserves" the benefit of the doubt. He will get it of course, but because he is given the assurance of recognition of his rights. That is an assurance that was not given to Michael Brown.

It is an assurance that was not given to 73 black men, later proven innocent, who have faced the executioner. 57 whites, 12 Latinos, and 2 identified as "other" race shared that fate, but the majority of the exonerated were of minority race.

And it's an assurance that was not given to 3,445 men and women of African American descent who met their fate at the hands of lunch mobs that didn't care about their guilt or innocence. That's an average of one every 9 days in America...for 86 years!

That's 3445 reasons why we should insist that Michael Brown's executioner does not get special treatment. I am not calling for a lynch mob mentality, but I am calling for him to be brought to justice; justice he sadly denied Brown when he acted as judge, jury and executioner.

I know that as a parent I am statistically less likely than a father in Ferguson to find my child lying dead on the pavement. I am less likely to have to search the morgue because an overzealous night watchman who thought he was John Wayne targetted my child. I am less likely to find my child profiled for a crime they didn't commit.

I am angry because I was promised a vision where people were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. But everywhere I look, I see that I have been given benefits that are denied my brothers and sisters of color. And that infuriates me.

I don't want to benefit from white privilege. I want these families to enjoy the same safety and security that I do. I want to see equal treatment in the justice system and on the streets. And I want to see Michael Brown's murderer live a long life behind the bars of a federal prison for his callous disregard for that young man's life.

We cannot undo the sins of the past, but we can atone for them by focusing more intently on the sins of the present!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why Should I Subsidize Your Hamburger?

The debate on minimum wage sadly is not occurring in the highest levels of government. Conservatives have so conveniently steered the conversation to side issues that it is hardly thought of anymore. And for a country where the effects of recession have all but wiped out the household savings of most families, and where even professionals have had to accept jobs at substantial reductions from their previous job levels, it has never been more relevant.

In fact, as a middle aged worker, I can honestly say that in three decades in the workforce, I have never seen a time when the average family has less money.

The push of many conservatives, even those without a lot of money, has been to oppose increases in wages on the premise that it hurts middle income workers by increasing the cost of goods and services. And certainly it does have an effect, but not as much as people tend to think. There is not a dollar to dollar correlation; in fact because labor costs are usually set below 20% of the gross at service industry businesses (the 20% is a figure lifted from a major fast food chain), even a doubling of wages should only increase prices about 20% or so.

It also bears mentioning that the wages of middle income workers will increase with the rise in minimum wage. Businesses aren't likely to keep paying $30,000 a year for network engineers when that is the minimum wage. And yet, currently, I know many network engineers with degrees who barely make that. Which is disturbing, because that's about what I made 20 years ago as an unskilled, nonunion factory worker.

But the argument that is being overlooked is that in suppressing the price of minimum wage workers, we are effectively subsidizing your burger. As the GOP uses the "hamburger" argument (arguing that you'd have to pay $15 for a burger if you increased the minimum wage to the suggested $15 an hour), essentially they are saying that we should suppress the wages of the poor in order to keep the prices of goods and services low for the middle class. This is a faulty argument, and a cruel one.

We have created a world where it is impossible to survive on minimum wage. Not difficult; impossible. It is not a living wage by any stretch of the imagination. And while the good news is that a decreasing percentage of Americans are making minimum wage, the bad news is that an increasing number of Americans are making less than $15 an hour, as post recession jobs have focused heavily on suppressing wages.

So how do low income families make it? Simple answer: subsidies. The only way they can survive is by accepting subsidies that keep their families' heads above water. In fact, the numbers are interesting: 28% of Americans make less than $15 an hour; 20% of Americans receive SNAP (more popularly called by it's old name of "food stamps". This means that by denying an increase in benefits, taxpayers are effectively working to subsidize the hamburgers of the middle class. Ironically enough, burgers that the workers who make them increasingly cannot afford (most "value meals" hover in the $6-8 an hour range, meaning a minimum wage worker would need to sacrifice an hour's pay to eat their own product. And here Henry Ford was worried about workers being able to afford to own CARS!)

Anyone who has gone to the grocery store recently is aware that costs of food, even staples, has increased at an alarming rate. Pinto beans, for instance, have nearly tripled in price over the last 10 years. As those prices increase, families who are struggling have to stretch and make sacrifices, which usually means eliminating the quality foods from their diet. And while the ACA thankfully covers most of those workers, it can only cover the cost of the consequence from those poor diets; it can't provide food to keep that from happening.

So it's time to think with a conscience. It's time to recognize the workers and give dignity to their jobs. Because people who work for a living, even at low skill jobs, are not a drain on the economy; they are DRIVERS of the economy. All work has worth, and all workers should have dignity. And if you pay them a fair wage, they will spend more, and our economy will grow, not shrink.

Dollars do not exist in limited amounts. Ironically, conservatives chide the poor by stating that the economy is not a "zero sum game" (in other words, my success need not depend on your failure). Yet they continue to suppress wages as the value of the dollar declines as if it were a zero sum game. It's time for that to stop. It's time to recognize the value of their workforce and pay a living wage.

It's time to stop subsidizing the cost of your hamburger.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Push to Make Less Money

I've seen a lot of disturbing trends in my life, and nothing concerns me more than the current trend for lower to middle class workers to beg for their employers to give them LESS money.

It might have made sense at the height of the Great Recession; one can see how misguided workers could have seen the collapse as a result of their greed, as the GOP insisted. And how they might be disinclined to ask for a raise. But it continues long after the recovery happened on Wall Street; while we are well into the recovery on Wall Street, we are still in the throes of recession on Main Street.

Of course, most will insist that they have not been begging to make less money. But they have. Here's how:

Money loses value over time. A dollar today is not the same as a dollar yesterday. And it's certainly not the same as a dollar a hundred years ago. So the longer your wage stagnates at the same level, the less you are getting paid. Don't believe me? Is your gas bill the same as it was five years ago? Your grocery bill? Your rent? In most cases, your costs are higher, in some cases, substantially. Yet we have allowed wages to stagnate.

I recently have viewed several discussions on "good paying" jobs. In each case, the mark was $10 an hour or above. I hate to say it, but I was making substantially more than that twenty years ago as an unskilled, nonunion factory worker. And my wages were not ridiculously high; they were, in fact, typical. The same twenty years ago saw fast food joints paying $9 an hour and up. Rent was cheaper, gas was cheaper, food was cheaper, and utilities were cheaper. Yet wages were higher.

Workers have long allowed themselves to be duped by propaganda that if they simply endure the current austerity measures, the "trickle down" effect would see everyone else become richer. Well, I've lived enough years with false promises to tell you with absolute confidence that the only thing that's trickling down is the effluent!

A higher minimum wage seems like a threat to the middle class simply because the GOP talking heads have made it so. But the truth is, when a full time job doesn't pay enough for a family to survive, someone's making up the difference somewhere. Either taxpayers through entitlement programs, working class families who have to sacrifice to make enough money to survive to the point where divorce and dysfunction become the norm, or, worst of all, the children through disease, malnutrition and poor education.

As for the workers making just over minimum, its ludicrous to think their salaries won't increase as well. A job that requires a degree will always pay more than one that doesn't, because the supply is smaller. And inflation keeps happening whether workers' pay is increased or not.

We don't need more welfare programs in an ideal society. A working adult should make enough money to actually see the promise of a better day. When that promise is being shattered, when they are seeing themselves make less and less while the boss makes more and more, the system has failed.

The rich truly are getting richer, and the poor truly are getting poorer. And millions of Americans are being conned into arguing and voting against their own self interest. The church refuses to take on issues of social justice, instead concentrating their efforts in the realm of Mammon, against the instructions of the Bible.

I don't want to see a revolution. Revolutions are messy and, more often than not, end up with the exact opposite effect of what is desired. But I fear that if workers are starved into submission long enough, revolution may be inevitable. Wake up, folks, and realize that a livable wage is in the best interests of everyone. Don't want to pay for food stamp programs? Then demand fair wages, and the food stamp programs will by necessity have to be reduced. To say nothing of the formerly low income workers who suddenly find themselves paying net federal taxes rather than receiving them back.

I can make a religious case for fair wages, I can make a political case for them. But the odd truth is, most people would rather continue to believe the lie that poor people making more is somehow a threat to their existence. And they're being told this by very wealthy people, with something to protect.

It's time we stopped letting the wealthy dictate what scraps they will offer the working class and started letting the working class negotiate for a fair wage again. Labor was strong in this country before; let it be again!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Why I Can't Embrace the "Libertarian" Label

In the past five years, "Libertarianism" has been the buzzword. It has recently driven a well oiled machine that is well funded and maintained by hypercapitalism and a brand of religiosity that is appalling to anyone with a true sense of faith. It has been used to justify everything from the right to graze public land without paying fees, to the push to eliminate minimum wage.

And it is there that Libertarianism sticks in my craw. See, the current Libertarian push (not the Randian creation) simply asks adherents to eschew the use of force to obtain political or social ends.

And yet, when I look at the suppression of workers' wages in the current landscape, I cannot help but think that "force" is the very driver of what I am seeing. The architects of this economy have used the vehicle of inflation to cleverly hide the fact that we are stealing the money of the poor and working class as they sleep. That while maintaining the minimum wage at dollar levels that are the same for 6 years running, with no relief in sight, we have actually DECREASED the real wage of the American workforce to a dangerously low level. In no state can a minimum wage job pay the average rent, to say nothing of the other expenses that must accompany it.

I recently heard a computer tech brag that he bids out his labor for assist techs at $100 hour, then pays them $10 an hour. That, in my view, is the purest, vilest form of evil.

So how does this fit into the use of force? Simple, because the theft of the wages of the working class for the enrichment of the wealthy is the ultimate expression of force. If their labor is worth $50 on your books, then you should be paying  them $50 in wages and benefits, and not pocketing that money for your own profit.

It's ironic that every discussion of wages always comes back to hamburgers, such as "would you like to pay $10 for a Big Mac?" And yet, in all of this, the same folks that argue for the elimination of subsidies such as SNAP benefits, WIC, etc, are arguing for the continuing subsidy that keeps the price of their burger low; the suppression of workers' wages.

Libertarians enjoy a great deal of debate about what it means to be Libertarian. But until that debate includes the right of workers to receive a fair wage for a fair day's work, and the responsibility of the government to ensure that, I will not again embrace that level. The battle is far too important.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Understanding White, Male "Privilege"

Recently I had a bit of bad timing when I had to head out on the road for work. I knew I wouldn't have enough money to get home, but couldn't afford to turn down the job, so I set off, planning on some money that should have deposited before I finished the assignments.

Long story short, the money didn't come through in time, and I spent 6 nights "road camping", 4 of those in two separate WalMart parking lots, one at a highway rest stop, and one at a friend's house. This extended downtime was a valuable experience, and, among other things, gave me time to think.

I thought about the term du jour "white privilege" that is used to describe the differences between the races ("male privilege" is used as well). I didn't like the term, and I thought about how I could hardly be considered "privileged" when I was living out of my van with no money to get home. And then I thought of a winter not long back when a nice healthy cough passed through our family at absolutely the worst time, the middle of winter as we'd moved into our home and hadn't had the opportunity to find the seals and drafts...with absolutely no money to spare. I didn't feel privileged on either occasion.

And, as I point out, I'm certainly more privileged than ghetto kids in Detroit, but less privileged than Will and Jada Pinkett Smith's kids.

The problem is, that is not what proponents of the "White privilege" or "male privilege" theory are talking about,. and, frankly, that's a big part of the problem. We're employing a word in the English language in a sense that is technically correct, but that is not the primary usage of the term. When most people think "privilege", they do so in a material sense. They think about it in terms of what a child is born with, of the things they have that give them a step up, and a headstart on life. They think of politicians who are "born on third base thinking they hit a triple". And they don't identify with them.

Nor should they. They certainly don't have the same experience.

The problem is, "privilege" is a rather limiting term, a rather divisive one that does not fully express the reality.

Going back to the Will Smith illustration: if you take him out of the Hollywood environment, let him go a few months without a haircut and a couple of weeks without a shave, if you put on thrift store clothes, his privilege goes away. People don't see Will Smith anymore, they suddenly see his race first. If you take a white Hollywood A lister, do the same thing and put the two together in a rough neighborhood, you will quickly see the difference in how they are treated.

In the same way we have "first world problems" (stressing when the car won't start, for instance), we also have "white person problems". In my instance, the fact that I had family at home, had constant communication with them and knew that ultimately it was just a matter of getting a paycheck and depositing it before I could head home was a powerful indicator of advantages that I have that, while not universal to the experience of a white American, do exist in higher percentages than among minority populations.

As a bit of a hippy, I've certainly had my share of harassment from the cops. I was pulled over and had my car searched while on the way to a job for speeding; my car was searched for no other reason than because I was driving a van with out of state plates and they somehow felt my appearance fit a profile. But my five or six such lifetime experiences don't equal out to the daily, continual experience that a lot of minorities have.

I've left the male privilege issue on the shelf for a reason: because while I don't usually see white privilege in my day to day experience, I DO see male privilege almost every day. When I come home at night, I am statistically far less likely to be mugged, raped, or kidnapped and sold into human sex trafficking (sadly, slavery is a far too overlooked problem today). When I go to the mechanic, I don't get the "dumbed down" experience, and I don't get overcharged by someone who feels they can take advantage of my ignorance. Nobody assumes that I am technically ignorant, and they don't assume I can't open a jar. In short, I'm treated as any adult should be.

So while I will continue to argue against the terminology of "white privilege" and "male privilege", the reality of what those who coined the term are expressing remains. Perhaps they should listen to the very real concerns of some of us and try to find a term that is less divisive. I am not certain what that term is, but I am certain we can find it. And hopefully, use it to reach across the aisle by people who shut out the argument when the latest politically correct term is employed.

Winning in the court of public opinion requires an ability to communicate effectively with your opponent, and I'm not seeing that from many who advance this rather relevant argument. Let's try to listen to what your opponents are saying, not trying to assume what they are not.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why I Can't Support the #NotOneMore campaign

I really hate to speak in these moments. I genuinely do. As a parent, I cannot help but feel endless sympathy for Richard Martinez. He lost a son, and the grief he feels as a parent is something that neither I, nor any politician, have the right to minimize.

But the #NotOneMore campaign, as well intentioned as it is, is in my opinion, horribly misguided. No, I am not going to insult you, or the memory of Christopher Michaels-Martinez, by using the overworn platitude "guns don't kill people; people kill people". No, my response is a little less different.

First, I believe that pointing exclusively to the gun culture is a horrible mistake. Not only are we a frighteningly violent culture, but the final words of the shooter, whose memory I will not dignify by repeating his name (it is the victims, and their families that we should remember, not the shooter), indicated a disturbing level of misogyny and disconnect with reality to say without question that there were far more issues at play. And it is the culture in which Rodger grew up that we should be addressing; a culture of entitlement in which he saw himself as being more important than those around him,. and thus deserving of the sexual favors of the women he encountered. It was narcissism at its finest.

If the #NotOneMore campaign succeeds in every single one of its aims tomorrow, guess what? There will be one more. And another. And another. Cain only needed a rock to take down his brother.

The solution lies not in the hallowed halls of Congress, or in the offices of political lobbyists. They will fail you always, as even the most fiery idealog recognizes the need to compromise. The solution lies in us, in the sense of community that we have long abandoned as we've turned electronic media into our babysitter, our teacher, our minister, our minstrel, and our mentor. We need to step away from the glow of the TVs, tablets, and smart phones, and into the presence of our children, our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors. We need to reconnect with each other and rediscover the value of relationships that is better, is deeper, than the hollow synthesis we find in our multitude of devices. We won't stop every Elliot Rodger out there, but we may stop one. And we may help one father to go to sleep at night knowing that his child is alive.

Richard Martinez is not wrong in what he is doing. He is a father. And he is reaching out in the only way he knows how. But lying lobbyists don't care about that; they care about what Martinez can do for them. And they'll sweet talk him until the cows come home.

Want to respect the memory of Christopher Michaels-Martinez? Pay attention. Be a better neighbor. And realize that we are, each and every one of us, our brother's keeper.