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Julianne Malveaux

A Tragedy and My Apology

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(NNPA) My cellphone pinged on Saturday to say I had a message. I was in the middle of lunch and chose to ignore it. When I picked it up a couple of hours later, I felt the same sickness that millions did, learning that Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford was shot in an assassination attempt. Television news bubbled over with the news, with fact, spin, and interpretation. Would all 435 members of Congress need ramped up security? Was hate speech the basis of this shooting? I even saw Neil Boortz, the peripatetic Atlanta lawyer and talk show host suggest that President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama had been guilty of some of the same hate speech that the right has been accused of. Please.

The talk about hate speech, however, is important and I’m going to own my part of it, and apologize. A bazillion years ago (actually in 1992) I made a wisecrack about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Anyone who knows me would see it as a wisecrack, but those who don’t saw it as hate speech. Here’s the background. Thomas said he would live to be 120 to stay on the court to frustrate liberals. I replied that the average Black man had a life expectancy of about 65, and that if his wife fed him lots of butter and eggs (if her recent call to Anita Hill is any indication she isn’t cooking much these days), ingredients for high cholesterol and heart trouble, he’d die an early death. Conservatives called it a death wish. Death by breakfast, I responded, still in jest. As if someone were standing over Thomas with an Uzi forcing him to eat that butter and eggs. The wisecrack has to be taken even less seriously if Justice Thomas’ purported commitment to physical fitness and working out is taken into consideration.

No matter, and no excuses. My comment about Thomas, my wisecrack, was in poor taste. Out of line. Out of order. I am sorry if the words I spoke at all contributed to the climate in which we live, to the vitriol that has poisoned the atmosphere. My apology does not mitigate or reduce my contempt for Clarence Thomas and for his arrogant dismissal of liberals and for the African American community. If I could do it all over, I’d have wished him the bacon and eggs, or simply made reference to the Black male life expectancy rate and his own hubris, but left out the comment about his early death. The fact is that none of us should joke about death. It just isn’t funny.

To be sure, the right has had a great time distorting my words, and they’ve disseminated them widely. And, anytime a liberal makes an inappropriate comment they take their media machine and work it overtime. These conservatives invoke free speech when pastors pray for President Obama’s death from their pulpits (if it were any other president, that pastor might have been looking the FBI in the face). These same conservatives say they aren’t racist when they use images of apes to describe the First Family. These conservatives have both fingerprints and footprints in the poisoned language that poses as free speech. Yet it is true that it takes sticks and twigs, not just logs and trees, to build a fire. Was my comment one of the twigs?

It has taken me nearly two decades and an attempted assassination to understand the damage that my wisecrack might have caused, not to Justice Thomas, but to the public discourse. I hope it won’t take our nation two more decades to understand and embrace the notion of speech civility, even for, no, especially for, political opponents. Every day, and in every way, I tell my students, faculty, and staff that I value civility. Yet, my comment about Clarence Thomas was not only uncivil, it was ugly and unnecessary. And, it really wasn’t that funny. I regret it. I apologize for it. I wish I could take it back.

A dynamic young Congresswoman is fighting for her life, and I am among those who will fall to my knees in prayer for her each day. The assassin who shot her also took out a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl, a Congressional aide, and others. A dozen more were wounded. Scores of lives will never be the same. Even as we pray for Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, we need to fight to restrict easy access to guns. And, we all need to be reminded to tone it down.

Julianne Malveaux is the 15th President of Bennett College for Women. Her most recent book, Surviving and Thriving, 365 Facts in Black Economic History, can be purchased at www.lastwordprod.com.

Surviving, Thriving, and Holiday Kwanzaa

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(NNPA) When I look at the data that define the reality for African Americans in the economy, I am often alarmed and discouraged. One in four African American lives in poverty. Nearly one in three is out of work, according to unofficial data (official data says one in six). African Americans have lost billions of dollars worth of wealth in the foreclosure crisis. We aren’t alone in our pain – our nation is hurting. But, our pain is more pronounced, more acute, more debilitating.

This is hardly the first time African Americans have experienced disproportionate pain. Indeed, the story of our presence in this nation has been a story of us shouldering more than our share of economic pain. When people ask me about the wealth gap, I remind them that Black folks used to be the wealth White folks accumulated. Under those circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that the wealth gap will ever be closed.

And yet we rise. I wrote my latest book, Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History, to remind me, to remind all of us, that even in harsh times African Americans have been more than survivors, we have been thrivers. We have made it despite horrible conditions, despite unfairness, despite racism. The playing field has never been level, and yet we have played on the slanted field, returning, returning, and sometimes winning. In the middle of a week of running around, talking about the book in Detroit and in Chicago, I had to smile at myself with air of satisfaction and acknowledge a job well done.

Madame C.J. Walker is on the book’s cover, and everyone knows about this first self-made woman millionaire in the United States, but few know of Maggie Lena Walker, the woman who started the Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia. Californians are often familiar with Mary Ellen Pleasant (known as “Mammy Pleasant”) who was a millionaire who gained stock tips by working in White people’s kitchens. William Liedesdorff was the first treasurer of San Francisco. He was a man of African descent.

The most powerful acts of economic history, acts at our foundation, were those African Americans who bought their own freedom. I can’t ever even begin to utter those words, or write them, without feeling a bit of nausea at the contradiction implicit in buying one’s own freedom, and yet it happened. We bought ourselves, so committed to freedom that we were willing to cut a deal with massa, with those who believed us somehow less than human. We cut deals despite the fact that the Dred Scott decision said that blacks had no rights whites were bound to respect. We were smart enough to cut deals, and we could have run away, but we stayed and paid unscrupulous masters for a freedom that our very humanity had already earned for us. We bought ourselves. Purchased ourselves. And in the case of some, like Free Frank McWhorter, purchased our relatives, too. In the case of John Parker, of Cincinnati, not only freed ourselves but also walked up on plantations and, despite a price on our head, freed others. History books don’t talk about self-emancipation, but they should. I wrote my book because everyone needs to know about self-emancipation, about the will and the tenacity of people of African descent.

This book is not just a book about entrepreneurs, but about others that influenced economic history, those who protested segregation, those “firsts” like Federal Reserve Governor Andrew Brimmer, who influenced public policy, the women who were “firsts” in earning academic degrees in economics, Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, and Dr. Phyllis Ann Wallace, with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, respectively. This is also the story of the results of economic envy, shameful facts in our economic history, but essential ones nonetheless. The destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the destruction of a vital Black community in Rosewood, Florida, and the demolition of Black life in Wilmington, North Carolina have had an impact on contemporary Black life.

And so we need Kwanzaa now more than ever. We need the principle of Ujamaa – cooperative economics. The statistics tell a grim story about our status, but our history is a compelling reminder that in good times and in bad, African Americans have survived and thrived.

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her book, Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History is available at www.lastwordprod.com.

Some Want Jobs for Christmas

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(NNPA) In the weeks since the “shellacking” of the November 2 election, there has been much talk that the economy will turn around and, indeed, is on the mend. Both pundits and expert economists are saying the economic indicators are better. The recession is over, according to these indicators, and it is unlikely that we have a double dip recession. The stock market has done well this year. So why is the unemployment rate so high?

The November unemployment numbers went up, not down. Now at 9.8 percent we are only two-tenths of a percentage point lower than this time a year ago. No wonder voters rejected Democrats at the polls in November. If there is progress it has come far too slowly, and all Americans are taking it in the pocketbook.

What does 9.8 percent unemployment translate into? It translates into a whole heck of a lot of human misery. It translates into 15.1 million people who want jobs but can’t find them, 6.3 million who haven’t worked for at least half a year. It means that the marginal attachment to the labor force is rising, with 2.5 million now part of that group. It means that the traditionally reported black unemployment rate is now 16 percent, 16.7 percent for African American men, and 13.1 percent for African American women. And Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says we might have to live with unemployment rates this high for another few years, and that unemployment rates might not return to the “normal” 5 or 6 percent until 2015.

Of course, the 9.8 percent that is reported totally understates the reality of the situation. Including discouraged workers and others, the unemployment rate is closer to 16.3 percent and thus closer to 30 percent for African Americans. The enormity of this problem in the African American community is staggering and gives one the sense that the Senate and Congress are fiddling, figuratively as Rome burns and much less figuratively, in the African American community.

Extending unemployment benefits has become a political football. And there has been little attention focused on the possibility of job creation. If Bernanke is saying that we can expect to live with high unemployment rates for quite some time, then it is irresponsible for Congress to ignore joblessness because they want to balance budgets. Meanwhile, many are gearing up to celebrate the season, while others simply want to work, but the jobs aren’t there. To be sure, there will be a few new jobs this month in the retail sector as retailers desperately attempt to stimulate consumer sales. “Black Friday”, the traditional big day for shopping seems to have gone over with a thud, there will be new data out in mid December. So far, preliminary data say that Black Friday sales were up by about 2 percent, but prices have been dropped so significantly that profits have been hurt. But profits haven’t been as hurt as employment. People are hurting, and they aren’t getting the results they need from those policy makers who could alleviate their pain.

There will be people caroling and crooning through the New Year, celebrating the joy of a season that must be celebrated. We manage our lives around these rituals, these mysteries of faith, this time of the year when life grinds to a halt and we recognize humanity, human values, the birth of the Christ child, and the coming of winter solstice. And yet, while some croon, others will struggle to celebrate, scraping pennies together to come up with some semblance of celebration because they have children so barraged by commercialism that they equate the end of the year with gifts and goodies.

So on one hand we have people pricing what the 12 days of Christmas would cost today and others are poring through the pricey Neiman Marcus catalog; some folks just want jobs for Christmas. Maybe this Congress will manage things so that more than a few are granted their wish.

And Yet Love Exists

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(NNPA) Dr. Maya Angelou is a gracious, wise, and witty woman who has been an absolute treasure to our nation and our world. I just learned that she will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving. Of all the things that Dr. Angelou has accomplished, I am most impressed by her ability to radiate optimism even in pessimistic times and to teach about “the courage to love”. I am fortunate to have her as an advisor, sister, friend and board member at Bennett College for Women. So often, I have had the blessing of sitting at her feet and receiving phenomenal words of advice and guidance. My dear friend, Robby Gregg, shared a thanksgiving message from Dr. Angelou that motivates this column:

"I'm grateful for being here, for being able to think, for being able to see,
For being able to taste, for appreciating love - for knowing that it exists in a
world so rife with vulgarity, with brutality and violence, and yet love exists.
I'm grateful to know that it exists."

I savored Dr. Angelou’s words on the Sunday before Thanksgiving as I despaired over the Tea Party nonsense and the “vulgarity, brutality, and violence” that too frequently define our world. I was mourning the fact that four young women who were pledging Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. at East Carolina University were in a horrible car accident, with two dying and two holding on to life. The girls were 19 and 20 years old, the accident a one-car accident, the tragedy monumental, the mourning extreme. And even in mourning death, I am reminded by Dr. Maya to give thanks for life and for its ebbs and flows.

Even as I fight with life (what’s the point) and its extreme and profound unfairness, I also savor the spirit of gratitude that rests on my shoulders like a stole and makes it possible for me to manage the rage I often feel at life’s unfairness. I had a morning one day last week that made me utterly unfit for human company, and then I traveled to New York to greet more than 50 folks who came out for a book signing at the wonderfully warm Hue Man bookstore in Harlem. In my mind I asked the woman who was smiling in the evening to say a few words to the woman who was scowling in the morning, and I gave thanks.

Despite the drubbing Democrats took in the mid-term elections and the obvious obstruction Republicans plan in this next Congress, I remain grateful for leaders like President Barack Obama, now-Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn. I’m not so grateful for Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, but I am sure that I’ll get over it. I just can’t figure out how this man thought he should have Clyburn’s slot as Whip, and how Clyburn let him have it.

I suppose I am grateful for the likes of Rush Limbaugh whose racism (he had a series of extremely unflattering things to say about Clyburn) is galling. I am grateful for Limbaugh and Beck because they are poster children for ignorance, the kind of people you want to point to as examples of what not to be. They are the wind beneath Sarah Palin’s wings, and Mrs. Palin, for all her newfound influence (enough to get the talented Brandy ejected from Dancing with the Stars in favor of the clumsy Bristol), is not an example of much more than opportunism.

And yet love exists, says Dr. Maya. It does. It exists as tens of thousands of Americans devote at least part of their thanksgiving to feeding those who will not eat. It exists as people choose to spend part of their holiday time asking for change for the Salvation Army, and as even more people offer money to help others. It exists as people bring canned goods and wrapped toys to the charities that have promised to help families whose Christmas seasons might otherwise not be so bright. Would that it would exist for Haiti, where promised dollars still have not reached that beleaguered country. Love exists.

I am indebted to Dr. Maya for her Thanksgiving sentiments, to Robby Gregg for sharing them, to the Creator for grace and gratitude and for the love that exists.

Happy Thanksgiving!

What About Economic Justice?

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(NNPA) The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 seems to have uncorked a virulent racism among folks who are hatefully resentful of the fact that an African American man now leads our nation. The steady drumbeat of negative commentary is so overwhelming that many African Americans are cowed and cautioned into not even asserting our issues, so artfully poised to drown out dissent that some liberals have decided to hold their powder until after the election for fear of hurting our president.

A Saturday Washington Post article penned by bitter blasts from the past (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/29/AR2010102905966.html) shamefully compared President Obama to Richard Nixon because of his "partisanship" describing him in a manner devoid of context, as "devisive", while it took a Canadian (http://www.seniorlivingmag.com/articles/america-hes-your-president-for-goodness-sake) to remind us that President Obama is, indeed, the President of the United States, not “dude”, or a “hottie”, or a “Marxist” or a “socialist” as so many have described him. The fact is that if Barack Obama walked on water somebody would say he couldn’t swim (remember the Jackson campaign in 1984), and Republicans repeatedly rebuffed the olive branch he offered in the early days of his administration when he thought more of human nature than it was capable of in offering the possibility of bipartisanship.

Oh, well. I’m writing before Tuesday’s election, uncertain about the outcome. All the polls and the pundits say it will be a Republican rout. But polls and pundits have been wrong before and for all the negative nattering of nihilistic nabobs, there is the possibility that the least and the left out, though wanting more than they’ve gotten from the Obama administration, understand that turning the clock back is not an acceptable option. Nobody should count their chickens until the last vote clears, and even when there is a clearing, there is much work to be done as our nation embraces an uncertain economic recovery, and looks for ways to bounce back. So far our recovery has been a jobless recovery, which is shameful. Those who would simply cut taxes to balance budgets are tone deaf about the material conditions in which many Americans live.

I am especially concerned about the economic inequality faced by African Americans and the fact that our nation seems tone deaf to it. Because President Obama happens to be African American, the mention of racial economic inequality seems to be a forbidden subject. Indeed, the invocation of race is so likely to provoke unremitting hostility that many have looked for “race neutral” remedies to solve a set of issues that clearly have race at their base. In other words, a rising tide won’t lift every boat. Some boats need holes repaired, new oars, or a new motor. Some communities are woefully lagging in the midst of our so-called economic recovery. Consider these facts:

1. According to the September 18 report on income and poverty, the poverty rate for African Americans was 25.8 percent, compared to 9.4 percent for whites, 12.5 percent for Asian Americans, 25.3 percent for Hispanics, and a 14.3 percent combined rate for all of us. That rate is up by more than 1 percent in a year, and more than 43 million of us are poor.

2. The median African American income level in 2009 was $32,000, compared to $54,000 for whites, $65,000 for Asians and $38,000 for Hispanics. While income levels dropped for every racial and ethnic group, they dropped most for African Americans.

3. Last month’s unemployment rate (new rates will be released on November 5) were 9.6 percent, 8.7 percent for whites, 16.1 percent for African Americans, and 12.4 percent for Hispanics. When discouraged and part time workers are included, the overall rate is 17.1 percent, and the rate for African Americans is 28.7 percent.

4. The Survey of Consumer Finance, a report that the Federal Reserve Bank issues every three years, indicates that the median level of wealth for whites was $170,400, compared to $27,800 for African Americans in 2007. That’s a ratio of more than 6:1, an inequality more severe than income inequality. The gap may have widened since the start of the Great Recession.

These facts suggest why it is so necessary to continue to speak of racial economic justice and racial economic gaps. These stark facts are not the result of one recession, or a decade’s worth of challenges, but the accumulation of generational and contemporary racial economic inequality. These facts won’t go away because of this mid-term election, and indeed they may be exacerbated. These issues will be dealt with now or later. They cannot be indefinitely postponed.

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina and author of Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.

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