A Conservative Victory in the Senate

   Posted by: Robert   in News

In news that is unlikely to be hailed as a major conservative victory, the Senate last week passed a budget for the first time in four years.  The Senate’s budget is rife with all of the usual vices of the Democrat agenda, including a new round of tax increases and minimal reductions in spending.  Unlike the Republican budget passed in the House, the Senate budget never balances and could hardly be portrayed by anyone as being a true gesture of fiscal responsibility.  The Democrat budget, in other words, is every bit as liberal as one would expect from the Democrats.  But its very existence is a victory for conservatism.

Ever since Republicans took decisive control over the House in the 2010 elections, passing a budget has been a major party focus.  For conservatives, a budget was promoted as a cornerstone of fiscal responsibility and a core feature of the Tea Party movement.  For liberal Republicans, the budget was a low risk vehicle which would allow them to feign opposition to big spending Democrats without taking positions on actual issues.

For Democrats, however, the story was different.  They have been generally opposed to creating a budget ever since they took control of the government in 2008 and likely for many years beforehand.  By their nature, budgets tend to constrain spending and limit the possibilities for distributing pork.  Even a grandiose, Democrat promoted budget is more constraining than having no budget at all.  The closest that Democrats have come to a budget came during the 2011 budget debate when President Obama offered a budget proposal which was never meant to be taken seriously, but was used to deflect criticism from charges that Democrats were refusing to consider any budget.  Hilariously, many Democrats refused to consider even the President’s budget proposal.

Things this time appear to be different.  Conservatives and some Republicans have continued to advocate strongly for a budget as a matter both of fiscal discipline and common sense.  The pressure on Democrats has increased substantially, heightened by increasing public disgust at the tri-monthly cycle of fiscal near-disaster.  Interestingly, despite the best efforts of the partisan political media to blame Republicans for sequestration, the public at large has been willing to blame everyone in the government, with Democrats taking at least some of the heat.  To their credit, Republicans have managed to stay largely on point with their argument that the solution to America’s rolling fiscal near-disaster is an actual budget.  With the help of Paul Ryan, Republicans were the first to deliver.

Against that backdrop, Democrats were forced to not merely talk about a budget or to have the President propose a budget which could then be forgotten.  No, this time around Democrats have been forced to vote for a budget, with a narrow majority in the Senate doing just that.  In so doing, the Democrats have been forced to accept the premise that a budget is necessary.

Forcing Democrats to accept that premise is a huge win for conservatives, because political premises are often more important than the policies that they produce.  By convincing the nation that we had a present and urgent health care crisis, Democrats were able to force Obamacare or comparable alternatives onto the public and capture the nation into being concerned about an issue that wasn’t nearly important as it had been made out to be.  If conservatives are able to be successful here with the budget — an issue which actually is at least as important as it seems — any result can only benefit conservatism.

Conservatives will still have a long way to go before they are able to see any lasting success.  The Democrat budget is entirely ridiculous and its failure to balance makes it an immediate non-starter.  But as a starting point, having Democrats focused on developing a budget is excellent news for conservatism.  It can only get better from here.


Budget, Ho!

   Posted by: Robert   in News, Philosophy

On the heels of the striking success Senator Rand Paul had in addressing the threat of drone strikes against American citizens, Congress’s other famously conservative Paul has come out with a full fledged budget proposal to solve the sequester and put America on the path toward fiscal sanity.  Representative Paul Ryan’s latest budget should come as a surprise to nobody who has paid any attention to his work the past several years.  Indeed, it’s substantially the same budget he proposed back in 2011, but repackaged to account for the progression of time over the past two years.  The goals of the budget have remained the same, and most of the specific policy initiatives are familiar.  Expect a video depicting Paul Ryan throwing a grandmother off a cliff any day now.

What is different this time around is the pretence of Democrats and Republicans having a common objective in budget negotiations.  To be specific, we had that in 2011. This year, any illusion of common ground is being swiftly laid to rest.

Case in point is an article in the New York Times which quotes President Obama as saying, “Our biggest problems in the next 10 years are not deficits.”  According to the New York Times, he went on to say, “It may be that ideologically, if their position is, ‘We can’t do any revenue,’ or, ‘We can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid,’ if that’s the position, then we’re probably not going to be able to get a deal.”  The New York Times summarizes the Democrat position in this way:  “Congressional Democrats and Mr. Obama, noting that the government has long operated with deep deficits, do not see a need for a balanced budget as long as spending is kept in check.”  A budget proposal from Senate Democrats adds $100 billion in new stimulus spending and runs a $600 billion deficit in ten years.  The contrast with Congressman Ryan’s proposal is stunning.  The Ryan proposal makes meaningful changes to entitlement programs and cuts spending throughout the government.  His proposal eventually balances the budget without raising taxes.

Fundamentally, the difference between the Right and the Left is that conservatives believe that prosperity comes from saving money, while liberals believe that prosperity results from spending.  Between those positions is no common ground, which means that there’s ultimately nothing to negotiate over.  Victory in this battle over budgets means winning outright.

The good news for conservatives is that, even despite Obama’s victory, Republicans are still seen as being the party of choice when it comes to finance and the economy.  Even better, because nothing much has changed about the Republican budget since the last time it was introduced, the Democrats have already used up most of their attacks.  Also good is the fact that the nation is surviving the sequester well enough that getting away from it is hardly the national crisis that it was made out to be.  Indeed, by proving that the country can survive with reduced spending, the sequester plays directly into conservatives’ hands.

The key for Republicans is to not negotiate a chance at victory into a certain defeat.  Republicans need to stand by Senator McConnell’s assertion after the “fiscal cliff” tax increases that additional tax increases are off the table, and will stay there.  Democrats must not be allowed to have a “balanced approach” of immediate tax increases coupled with deferred imaginary spending cuts to happen at a later date never.

The contrast between the Republican and Democrat budgets is a great backdrop for renewing the conversation about economics and government spending in America.  With a boost of momentum right now on our side, now is the time to push forward and stay strong.  After all, a balanced budget is a wonderful thing.


Changing the Game

   Posted by: Robert   in News

Late last week, Senator Rand Paul accomplished one of the most important conservative victories since the midterm sweep of 2010.  Taking to the floor of the Senate chamber, the Senator from Kentucky captivated the nation with a simple, though long spoken, request to President Obama.  Concerned over a memo which indicated that the administration may consider the use of targeted drone strikes on American soil against American citizens believed to be terrorists, Senator Paul wanted assurance that the President, quite simply, would never do such a thing.  And he wanted assurance in writing.

Senator Paul’s request comes with both a political and a constitutional dimension.  Politically, it should be an embarrassment to the administration that targeted drone strikes against American citizens suspected of terrorism on American soil should even be considered when they have taken great care to ensure that known members of al Qaeda have access to America’s civilian courts.  It’s made all the more egregious when you consider that the administration once publicly expressed their belief that military veterans, gun owners, and people who vote Republican are all one bad day away from trying to blow up the White House.  Constitutionally, Senator Paul spent a great deal of time talking about due process, which was a major issue for the Left back when President George W. Bush authorized the capture and indefinite military detention of American citizens on American soil.  While the Supreme Court ultimately allowed President Bush to have his detentions, in the case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, I continue to believe that Justice Scalia’s dissent was correct: The constitutional solution to citizen terror suspects is to suspend habeas corpus, or to try and convict them of a crime like treason.

But my point here isn’t to discuss the merits of Senator Paul’s argument, because what he did is far more important than what he said or why he said it.

To understand what Senator Paul accomplished, it’s important to understand what was supposed to have happened.  Wednesday night was the meeting between President Obama and several senior establishment Republicans to discuss finding a way out of the national “emergency” of the sequester.  The news cycle on Thursday was supposed to be about bipartisanship, and compromise, and reaching across the table, and finding a balanced approach.  While nobody was supposed to actually achieve anything, it was supposed to be the start of a dialog that would (and likely still will) result in the Democrats getting more tax increases and Republicans getting very few spending cuts.  Mostly, it would let the establishment Republicans look like they’re accomplishing something even as they actually accomplish nothing.

What actually happened was pretty much the opposite of that.

Senator Paul, the Freshman from Kentucky and son of libertarian congressman Ron Paul, took to the Senate floor for an extended speech about drone strikes against American citizens.  The issue is one that most people didn’t even know existed before Wednesday night.  Senator Paul was politely insistent that President Obama issue a written statement that he would not use drones to attack American citizens suspected of terrorism on American soil who were not actively engaging in terrorist acts.  His argument was a compelling, common sense vision for what Due Process means for citizens in America.  It was also fundamentally conservative, insisting that there is a limit on the government and demanding that the government recognize itself as being so limited.  He did not ask for a bipartisan agreement on cutting death warrants or razing taxis, he insisted on a specific, tangible result.  He dominated the news cycle Thursday, Friday, and through the weekend.

Making matters even more remarkable, the media was unable to control the story.  They had doubtlessly already written their reports about the sequestration dinner when Senator Paul stood up to begin his filibuster Wednesday night and they surely had no interest in giving attention to anything else; surely not the off-topic ramblings of the Tea Party backed son of Ron Paul.  But even in this era of perpetual filibuster, an actual speaking filibuster remains so unusual that its happening is unavoidably news.  What’s more, his subject was so resonant with American values that despite the media’s attempt to portray as crazy the notion that drones would be sent after Americans sitting in American cafes, they had no room to move as long as the President came across as sounding even crazier by his refusal to agree.  Indeed, the most coherent criticism came from people who believe that blowing up cafes with drones might, under some circumstances, actually be a good idea.

Conservatives take notice: By speaking powerfully and with the conviction of principle, Senator Paul disrupted politics as usual, captured the attention of the American people, and tied the hands of the media.  From the moment he stood up to begin speaking, he was in command of his message.  He didn’t need moderate Republicans — all of whom were with Obama and were most likely pounding their heads on the dinner table — to make his message more attractive to independents.  Bedrock conservatism won the day, as it always does when we let ourselves express it.

And best of all, when the dust settled, Senator Paul got the commitment he was after.  That makes him more effective after thirteen hours than establishment Republicans have been in four years.

Update: This post originally referred to Senator Paul as being from Kansas.  He is actually from Kentucky.  Darned ‘K’ states.


One Fewer Dictator

   Posted by: Robert   in News

Starting last night and all through today, the news has been buzzing about the death of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.  With his passing, the world is now short one more dictator who pillaged his nation in the name of his people and earned the praise of the American Left for his frequent denunciations of the United States.  He is the latest in a line of important dictators who are no longer available to continue their policies of power and destruction.  His death ushers in an interesting new era for the world as he has was the last celebrity anti-American power broker standing who had come to prominence before the start of the global war on terror.

In his policies in Venezuela, President Chavez was a classic liberal socialist dictator.  He amassed great personal wealth by leveraging his country’s vast oil reserves, becoming ever wealthier even as his nation grew more and more impoverished.  Under his leadership, poverty and hunger increased, crime increased, and human rights became decreasingly relevant.  As the leader of nationalized “big oil,” President Chavez took aim at organized labor, firing as much as 40% of the employees who worked for his oil company in retaliation for a strike during 2002.  President Chavez has also been entirely ineffective in the fight to prevent global climate change, allowing Venezuela to become the top carbon dioxide producing nation in the region.

He is, nevertheless, adored by the American Left.

With President Chavez out of the way, there appears at this point to be something of a vacuum in the global market for powerful anti-American celebrities.  Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong Il are all dead, and Fidel Castro may as well be.  Of course, fellow America hater Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came out right away to declare a national day of mourning in Iran over the death of President Chavez.  Fellow America hater Barack Obama was more reserved, issuing a statement that borders on meaningless.  The new leadership in Venezuela has already jumped in with both feet as well, as Vice President Nicolas Maduro blamed President Chavez’s cancer on the United States and ejected a military attache.

What an interesting world.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Sequestration has Come!

   Posted by: Robert   in News

In what should be looked at as one of the greatest political embarrassments in American history, a dispute over  fraction of a percent of the largest federal budget in history has been brandied about for weeks now as if it’s a disaster no less epic than the Great Plagues of Moses.  By increasing spending levels less than originally planned, sequestration is now to blame for a whole host of national crises.  We’re now being told that, thanks to sequestration, illegal immigrants (some of whom have also broken other laws) are being placed back on the streets, air travel is being disrupted, and an aircraft carrier is stuck in port.

Oh, and old people are going to die in California.

If you think that’s all a disproportionate response to the federal government not spending money that it already wasn’t spending, you probably don’t work in Washington.  Every bit of this debate was entirely predictable months ago, from the headlines promising disaster to Democrats calling for a “balanced approach” involving spending cuts and tax increases, despite already getting tax increases for free during the fiscal cliff debate.  Anyone who ever believed Senator McConnell’s promise that “the tax issue is over” was delusional.  The good news is that it only took Republicans two months to figure out that, yes, they really did raise taxes on everybody who earns a paycheck.  I didn’t think that would ever happen.

Sadly, the political drama isn’t the most embarrassing part of this whole charade.  More embarrassing is what it says about the American electorate when they believe that sequestration will make food less safe.  Most embarrassing is what it says about America if any of it actually is true.

The consequences of America being so fragile that it can be brought to its knees by $85 billion in reduced spending increases, the consequences are dire indeed.  After all, what would happen if terrorists bring violence which shuts down the Capitol, or the White House, or — perhaps worst of all — the Office of the Department of Health and Human Services?  What ever would we do if the Iranians set upon us with a Stuxnet-like virus that, rather than disrupting centrifuges in a nuclear facility, shaved a penny a month off of everybody’s Social Security checks?  If our enemies literally blew up the government, would we really be unable to survive?

Sequestration is a unique opportunity for us to judge how comfortable we are with the level of involvement the federal government has in our lives.  It’s relatively harmless, but it shows the degree to which the federal government has become a single point of failure that touches on almost everyone’s daily lives.  When even the people who are supposedly on our side can cause major chaos over almost nothing, that should be downright frightening.  After all, were the government to be disrupted by people or nations who wish us harm, the consequences would be much larger and longer lived.

Tax increases can’t make America stronger.  Spending cuts by them selves won’t either.  The only way to strengthen America to end the danger of disaster is to scale back the scope of the federal government.  Otherwise, our country will remain a house of cards, subject to collapse in even the lightest breeze.


Looking Back at a Look Back

   Posted by: Robert   in Uncategorized

Black history is, has been, and will always be an important part of American history.  Since long before the founding, Blacks have been living and working in America, building lives for themselves, and growing and raising families.  Blacks have served in every American war, and today occupy every level of social, political, and economic life.  The story of Black America is truly the embodiment of the American story.  In every day an in every time of our history, Blacks have been involved, overcoming obstacles, and contributing to making our nation the greatest on earth.  It is to our great misfortune that we seldom find stories of Black exceptionalism in our classrooms or cultural heritage.

While we dutifully trot out George Washington Carver as proof that Blacks really can invent things, we never talk about people like Edwin Henderson.  And why shouldn’t we talk about Edwin Henderson?  He, more or less single handedly, took a sport developed for White America and turned it into a sport that, today, is a predominantly Black sport enjoyed by millions of Americans of all races and backgrounds.  Indeed, most people never give the profound Blackness of basketball a single thought.  And yet, not only is the game played mostly by Black players, but even the style of the play itself owes much of its lineage to Mr. Henderson and the other Black players with whom he played.  White basketball could likely have never become the phenomenon that Black basketball — or, shall we say, simply, basketball — has become.  But nobody knows that story.

The American student could be forgiven for believing that Blacks have only ever served two roles in American history: Victims of White oppression, or civil rights activists.  Those that don’t fit neatly into the narrative tend to be ignored by our cultural academy, although their stories are likely the ones most worth telling.  How, after all, does a man like Louis Armstrong — a man who was unmistakably Black — wind up being treated like a White man back in the days of Jim Crow racism?  How did he make his skin color become nearly irrelevant in an environment that saw everything through the pigment of flesh?  To be sure, part of it was his unique skill; but as he was hardly the only talented Black man of his era, it is well worth asking why he was different, and what that might tell us about how to eliminate the barriers of systemic racism and privilege.  But nobody asks those questions.

As we teach our students about law and order, gangs and gang violence inevitably come up as important topics of discussion.  But seldom do we discuss the origins of gangs, or the important (if misguided) role they play in the greater urban landscape.  While we instruct our kids to not join gangs, we pay very little attention to the forces which make gang membership attractive in the first place.  Because gang membership is extremely racial in nature, our weak attempts at anti-gang indoctrination by rote fail to engage anyone in a conversation about race which could lead to solving actual problems and making gangs, as we know them, obsolete.  But nobody wants to talk about that.

Black history education in America is a commodity that is extremely hard to come by.  In our curriculum, it is “separate but equal” as, every year, we spend but a month out of the year drinking from the font of history which has been dutifully labeled “Colored”.  Were these histories to be integrated, as they ought to be, into the curriculum in the correct context, we would be far more likely to spark in our students an interest in learning about what people of other races had accomplished.  It shouldn’t be hard to eliminate the myth that there were only five important Black people in all of history prior to 1962.  But the people who set the curriculum seem to prefer the current segregation of history into February vs. the rest of the year.

I end this month with a parting thought aimed squarely at conservatives and Republicans:  We shouldn’t be afraid of Black history.  Indeed, we should embrace Black history.  Their story is a story of conservatism.  The struggle for equality is a struggle against oppression by overbearing and uncaring authorities that often were (and often still are) faceless government bureaucracies.  Black heroes were all exceptional men and women who did not sit idly by and wait for someone else to solve their problems; they stood up, sat down, took risks, and earned their successes with their own blood, sweat, and tears.  For too long we’ve allowed Blacks — we’ve allowed America — to believe that liberalism is the only way to achieve the goal of true racial equality.  We need to tell the other side of that story.  But don’t look for it in today’s history textbooks.

Happy Black History Month.


The Long and Winding Road of Equality

   Posted by: Robert   in Philosophy

As Black History Month enters its final week, it seems appropriate to take a long glance back at the path of Black history in America.  The sound bite version is accurate enough for what it is: Blacks have been subjected to long term discrimination and racism, but things, though still not perfect, have gotten better.  We know about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, the two events in our nation’s history which have had the most profound impact on the status of Blacks in America.  In terms of race relations, both events could be rightly regarded as revolutions, casting aside regimes of oppression to liberate a people which had been subject to tyrannical rule.

Indeed, the Civil War was all at once a revolution and a counter-revolution for which social upheaval was guaranteed, regardless of which side won.  The Confederacy was, of course, fighting for the right to direct their own future, outside of the dictates of the US Government which many at the time believed was becoming too oppressive against the Southern way of life.  The Union, although largely not fighting for the express purpose of freeing the slaves, was nevertheless fighting toward that purpose anyway.  Had the Confederacy won, their history books would likely venerate Robert E. Lee as today we do George Washington, who won a great victory against the overbearing regime of Abraham Lincoln (playing the part of King George) and securing the liberty of the Confederate States of America.  In the real world, it was the overbearing regime of plantation owners that was obliterated, adding Blacks, for the first time, to the list of “all men [who] are created equal.”  Of course, as revolutions go, this one was a bit strange: It was white people fighting white people, with the benefits to Blacks, although profound, mostly incidental to the reason for the war.

Although largely not violent, and never fought with the goal of establishing a new nation, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a revolution more in line with that fought by the founders during the American Revolution.  America’s founders fought as Englishmen for the rights due to them as Englishmen, which the King had seen fit to deny.  It was in much the same way that powerful Black leaders — Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and others — fought as Americans for the rights due to them as Americans, which were denied to them at every turn by governments and private actors alike.  Much like the American Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement did not come during the height of oppression, but happened at a time when small but consequential improvements were starting to be made.

Of course, between the revolutions lie a lot of in-between moments in history that seldom get discussed in history textbooks.  One of those moments came shortly after the Great Depression, as the Supreme Court began to consider cases which would shape the landscape of the coming cultural and legal changes that would overtake the country during the 1950s and 60s.  The Court during the 30s and 40s addressed racial issues only occasionally, but the decisions it made were important to the future development of the law.  Many of the Court’s rulings on criminal procedure had a disproportionate effect on Blacks, because improper and unconstitutional police tactics were often employed against Blacks to prevent them from fully exercising their rights as citizens.  By insisting on due process for Black defendants, the Court not only fought against wrongful convictions, but also helped to foster an atmosphere in which Blacks would not need to worry so greatly about being arrested merely for being Black.

Though not glamorous, such incremental changes reflect important truths about the nature of change in America.  Although we are often willing to accept radical new ideas, it also takes time to weave those ideas into our cultural fabric.  The 40s saw repeated endorsements of “separate but equal” from the federal and local governments alike, but pressure at the national level placed ever greater emphasis on ensuring that “but equal” had teeth.  While history books pan this as endorsement of segregation, it was also a necessary step in the evolution of thought which would culminate in Brown v. Board of Education‘s evisceration of the “separate but equal” doctrine.  We cannot, after all, have a revolution every day.

Morgan Freeman, complaining about Black History Month, once declared in an interview that “Black history is American history.”  Although he did not intend his words in this way, the reality is that the progress of freedom for Blacks is a story of progress and change in America.  Progress toward equality has taken a long time, in part because we started so far from the goal that getting there takes a great deal of time.  Persistence and patience are, themselves, great lessons from the struggles of Black history.


Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World

   Posted by: Robert   in Philosophy

When looking back through musical history, one name that’s almost impossible to miss is that of Louis Armstrong.  Most famous for his influence on jazz music, many of Mr. Armstrong’s recordings remain alive and appreciated today.  His voice and his trumpet produced for him a level of fame that today we would consider him a superstar.  His fame crossed racial boundaries in a way that was unprecedented in his day, and indeed has seldom been duplicated since.

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 to an impoverished family in New Orleans.  He took an interest in music from an early age, joining a quartet at age 11 to earn some additional money for his family.  His childhood led him to make several important connections which would be influential to him for the remainder of his life.  Among them was a close relationship with a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family.  Through them, he learned that discrimination was not a Blacks-only problem (antisemitism was common)  and that determination was a key to success.

Despite having directly felt the impact of racism and despite having seen the effect of discrimination on others outside of his race, Mr. Armstrong spent very little of his life on matters of race or politics.  A musician above all else, he moved around with the guidance and support of his wife to establish himself as a prominent musician.  His distinctive voice and instrumental skill distinguished him his contemporaries and formed the basis of his personal brand of music.  His preference was to avoid calling attention to his race and to allow his music to speak for itself.

And speak it did.  By any measure then or now, Mr. Armstrong was unmistakably famous; not only among Blacks, but among whites as well.  His fame across the racial divide was unusual, to say the least, and may have actually been unprecedented.  Although he was hardly the only famous Black entertainer of his day, very few of his contemporaries achieved anything like his level of success outside of Black audiences.  He was accepted by white society in a way that few other Blacks to that point had managed.  Without really trying, he became the first Black man to stay at a number of high class hotels, eat at a number of high class restaurants, and do many other things that had long been recognized as part of the providence of white privileged society.

His aversion of discussing matters of race did come at some personal cost.  Those interested in promoting equality for Blacks were disappointed that Mr. Armstrong did not use his fame and influence to promote the cause of civil rights.  His failure to publicly champion Black equality, particularly when combined with the “white” privilege he personally enjoyed, caused a number of commentators to label him an “Uncle Tom.”  Despite the epithet, he continued to spend most of his life and career away from race or politics.

One notable exception, however, came in 1957 when he cancelled a trip to the Soviet Union which had been planned on behalf of the United States Department of State.  The abrupt cancellation came out of his anger over President Eisenhower’s handling of a conflict in Little Rock, Arkansas over racial integration at one of the city’s schools.  Mr. Armstrong’s sharp words about the President and the Federal Government became part of a national firestorm which culminated in the President ordering the 101st airborne to escort nine Black students past the Arkansas National Guard.

Mr. Armstrong died from a heart attack a month before his 70th birthday.  In his life, he broke many barriers on the strength of his character and fame.  He is rightly regarded as one of the most influential musicians in American history and is personally credited for a number of innovations in jazz.  The determination he learned as a child carried him well through his career.  Despite criticism that he did not do enough in his life to promote civil rights, he is nevertheless a stunning example of how strong individuals can overcome their circumstances to become American legends.


Black Ganghood

   Posted by: Robert   in Philosophy

When one thinks of the way we caricature Blacks in society, images of violence are not hard to draw to mind.  So-called “crimes” of the “doing some normal thing while Black” variety can often be traced back to a cultural assumption that Black people are up to no good.  At the epitome of that cultural role is the image (and reality) of Blacks as members of gangs.  Socially and culturally, we deplore gang membership and gang violence, and have had an ongoing but largely ineffective War on Gangs.  This war, particularly as it relates to Blacks, largely ignores the history of Black gangs and the role that gang membership plays today in society.

One pillar of Black gang membership can be traced back through history to the late 1700s, the quill of Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence.  A second pillar, erected on December 15, 1791, is commonly known as the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.  The Declaration stated with some clarity that when a regime of government has become too oppressive to be considered just, that it is necessary for the victims of that oppression to chart a different course.  The Second Amendment reserved an important tool for defending such a divergent charter, expressly providing that violence may, at times, be the answer.  Black gangs are a little bit like that.

Many of America’s most well known Black gangs arose out of the pervasive racism throughout American society prior to the Civil Rights Movement.  Blacks, it’s well known, were often denied justice under the law.  The classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird illustrates the “justice” that was so often available to Blacks in America, in which legendary attorney Atticus Finch was unable to win an acquittal of a Black man who was falsely accused of rape despite presenting the court with proof of his client’s innocence.  And in the real life case of White v. Texas, a Black man convicted on the basis of a torture-coerced confession won a new trial from an institution no less than the Supreme Court of the United States, but was shot in the courtroom during his trial by the alleged victim’s father; the father was later acquitted on the urging of the prosecution.

The long and short of the matter is that, throughout much of America’s history, Blacks were unable to find justice under the rule of law.  Black on Black crime was largely ignored, White on Black crime was often condoned, and even the mere allegation of a Black on White crime was often enough to result in the death of the Black individual even if they could affirmatively prove their innocence.  To defend themselves, Blacks needed different social institutions which they could rely on.  Gangs are one of those institutions.

While we often hear talk of “random gang violence,” the reality is that most gang violence is anything but random.  Gang violence is often used as a means to enforce social norms both within a gang and between competing rival gangs.  When one gang infringes on another gang’s territory, the infingers are forcibly removed in a way that is conceptually similar to how a shop owner might evict a trespasser with the assistance of the police.  Gangs, in a sense, are their own police force, providing a useful service to Blacks who historically could not count on the actual police for their safety or security.

Gangs, however, are much more than mere Black constables.  Gangs are a society unto themselves, complete with social roles, taboos, mores, privileges, and responsibilities for their members.  Gangs provide their members with criteria for inclusion and a definition of success which, for many, is powerful and compelling, although it is frequently not the definition of success that is promoted by civil society.  Many Black youth who grow up in and around gangs become socialized according to gang culture, and come to view their successes and failures based on the rules of the gang.  This can, and does, become a generational heritage, in much the same way that children of veterans, who grow up in a military-oriented household, often join the military themselves.

Gang membership among the Black community may be one of the most violent lasting responses to the pervasive racism that gripped America until the late 1960s.  Today, gang membership remains a powerful aspect of identity which will not be eliminated by tougher law enforcement.  It was, after all, aggressive police action which drove many Blacks to join gangs in the first place.


Edwin Henderson and the Freedom to Play

   Posted by: Robert   in Philosophy

Among the names not discussed in any history course I’ve ever heard of is the name of Edwin Henderson.  Born in 1883, Mr. Henderson would stake his claim to fame in 1904 when he laid the groundwork for what would become the modern NBA.

Mr. Henderson, who would come to be known as the “Grandfather of Black Basketball,” first learned of the sport in a training camp for gym teachers at Harvard University.  He learned of the game from Dr. Dudley Sargent who, at the time, was involved in the promotion of athletics as a means to improve the body, mind, and spirit.  Still a relatively new sport, basketball had not yet gained a particularly large following among members of any racial demographic.  Seeing an opportunity to provide a vehicle for Black achievement, Mr. Henderson brought basketball back to his students and organized some of the first teams at his YMCA.

Basketball was not immediately successful among Mr. Henderson’s Black students.  Used to more rough and tumble sports like football, many of his students saw basketball as a “sissy” game, lumped into roughly the same category as tennis.  Indeed, white players at the time played basketball quite conservatively, even discouraging feats of great athleticism as selfish exhibitionism.  Despite an initial lack of enthusiasm, Mr. Henderson persisted in promoting basketball as both an excellent physical activity and as a way in which Black men could prove themselves equal to whites in a field of competition not so heavily smothered by overt and structural racism.

His persistence paid off.  In a mere twenty years, the New York Renaissance would be founded and begin a historic journey as one of the most victorious basketball teams in history.  The Rens, as they were called, came to be most well known for an ongoing rivalry with the Original Celtics, an all white basketball team from New York, which would ensure their eventual induction into the Hall of Fame.  Closer to home, Black youth began picking up the game in greater numbers and finding success in courts everywhere from youth leagues all the way up to professional play.  The Black style of edgier and more athletic play proved quite successful both on the court and as a way to market basketball to audiences interested in watching the game for entertainment.  Today, that style of play dominates basketball at the highest levels.

Just as Blacks have made lasting changes to the game of basketball, so too has basketball had a significant impact on Black culture.  As Mr. Henderson had hoped, basketball (and athletics more generally) has become an avenue of success for Black youth who find relatively few barriers so long as they have the requisite level of skill for the league in which they desire to play.  Many Black boys, perhaps even most, dream at some point in their lives of playing professional basketball, regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic status.

While few Blacks will realize those dreams, basketball is, nevertheless, a vehicle of empowerment for Black children and adolescents.  Basketball teaches important life skills in sportsmanship and teamwork.  More importantly, it teaches a direct link from individual effort and dedication to success.  Many Black students each year earn scholarships for their skill on the court — collegiate basketball is roughly 60% Black — and access to educational opportunities they may never have otherwise had.

Basketball was never invented to be a Black sport; it was invented by whites, for whites, just like most of the other sports Americans play.  Basketball was never a sport given to Blacks; racism was pervasive both on the court and off.  Basketball was taken by Edwin Henderson and given to Black men, who learned to play and found themselves to be quite good.  Basketball today is a testament to the influence of Blacks, of their skill and prowess, and of their ability to succeed in an important way.

Basketball needs to be one of the stories in our history books.  Everyone should know about Edwin Henderson, the Rens, and the triumph of Black Basketball.