Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Tonight my wife and our adult sons watched televised replays of the activities surrounding the inauguration of U.S. President Barack H. Obama and Vice President Joe R. Biden. Like millions of people from countless places across the United States, we were in Washington to personally witness the inauguration. Like them, we braved the cold weather, endured the necessary security measures, and persevered through long lines and fatigue. Many others viewed the inauguration on television sets around the world. Together, we rejoiced.

Now the people who witnessed Inauguration Day will return to diverse homes and lives. Many of them will cherish memories of the sights, sounds, and other sensations that made this historic event unforgettable. They will recall where they were when Obama won the election for President of the United States on November 4, 2008, and where they were when Obama took the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States on January 20, 2009. They will email photographs, videos, and messages of recollection to family members and friends. Many Americans will reaffirm their faith in that unique brand of democracy practiced in the United States.

Another faith will also be reaffirmed. It is a faith that spans geographic, national, cultural, language, religious, and other boundaries. It is faith that people can overcome hate, fear, and the divisiveness that has often bedeviled and infected political power. Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency based on that faith. His campaign was fueled and energized by people of all backgrounds who embraced that faith. His election is a testimony to that faith. And his presidency will challenge Americans and the world with the implications and realities of that faith.

As the writer of the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews asserted, "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The faith affirmed by countless people surrounding the Obama presidency is not defined by partisan political labels (Democratic v. Republican, liberal v. conservative) or by national boundaries. The hope that Obama called on Americans to embrace is not an American creation, and cannot be accurately defined as uniquely American. There is no American monopoly on the capacity to hope for freedom, equality, justice, peace, and dignity. The capacity for that hope lives in every soul.

We must remember that hope is a choice made by morally capable intelligent beings. Just as many people interpret the Obama presidency as the triumph of hope, others choose to view it through the lens of their fears and the fury of their hatred. Some people are overwhelmed by the fear of change. Some are furious about the notion of anyone who is different from their notion of leadership holding the power and potential of the U.S. presidency. And, let us not forget, that there are people whose world view is defined by their faith in the supremacy of their race, religion, dogma, or history and who perceive the Obama presidency as a force to be fought, not something to be celebrated. One need only read some of the messages posted on Internet blogs to verify these observations.

My family, like so many others in the United States and throughout the world, chose faith over fear. We are people of faith who recognize the realities of hate, power addiction, and injustice. Yet, we refuse to live in fear about them. We know that hateful and fearful people can think, say, and do hurtful (even tragic) things. But today we have new, unmistakable, unapologetic, and hate and fear-defying proof that faith can triumph over fear. We have new proof that the words of the black spiritual sung with such determination during even the most challenging times of the modern civil rights movement in the U.S. are true: "Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day."

That faith prompted civil rights workers to also sing: "We are not afraid. We are not afraid. We are not afraid today. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday." The Southern Christian Leadership Conference now sings "today" instead of "someday." Today, let us press onward as President Obama leads in the power of that faith. Others may choose to live in the shadows of fear and hate. Those among us who reject fear are not afraid. Despite the fear, hate, injustice, and other trials of our time, we know and Obama proves the moral supremacy of faith over fear. Despite the fears and fury, we shall overcome by the power and relentless effort fueled by our faith.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been indicted by the federal government on charges that include scheming to sell President-Elect Obama's Senate seat for money or other personal gain. Based on published comments and demands that Governor Blagojevich resign, one would think that indictment and conviction mean the same thing. They do not, and Americans should act like we know they are not the same thing.

An indictment is nothing more than an accusation by a prosecutor that the person named in the indictment has engaged in criminal conduct. In the case of Governor Blagojevich, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has leveled the accusations. Governor Blagojevich has been arrested and released on his own recognizance pending the outcome of the case. No persons have been summoned for jury duty in this case, let alone selected to hear the evidence. No trial date has been set. No witnesses have been subpoenaed for trial. Nothing has been introduced into evidence. No verdict has been returned.

Governor Blagojevich is not guilty. In the United States, a criminal finding of guilt requires one of three things. The accused person must either be tried by a jury which returns a verdict of guilt, must be tried by a judge who renders a finding of guilt, or must make a voluntary and intelligent plea of guilt which is then accepted by a judge. Governor Blagojevich has not been found guilty. He has not made a guilty plea nor been convicted by a jury or judge. Governor Blagojevich is not guilty.

One need not hold a law degree to know that indictment is not conviction, no matter how incriminating the circumstances may be surrounding the indictment. Every accused person is presumed innocent in every criminal case. There is no politician exception, no Illinois exception, and no exception for indictments that level charges of influence peddling. Although the airwaves have been cluttered by calls for Governor Blagojevich to resign from public officials ranging from President-Elect Obama to leaders in the U.S. Senate, there is no requirement that an indicted person resign. Remember, an indicted person is presumed innocent.

The Blagojevich matter is newsworthy because public officials should not seek private gain in exchange for public policy actions and should refrain from attempts to do so. However, the only news is that Blagojevich has been indicted based on secret recordings of statements that he allegedly made at various times.

Whether those statements amount to proof of any crime will be determined according to the rigorous process involved in criminal trials. Will the recorded statements be admitted into evidence? Will there be other evidence that mitigates Blagojevich, or undercuts the credibility of the proof against him? What the evidence will be and whether jurors will believe it are open questions, among others.

While U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald believes that Governor Blagojevich is guilty, his belief is not evidence. Fitzgerald's comments about the case are not evidence now and will not amount to evidence even when (and if) there is a trial. Governor Blagojevich is under no obligation to prove his innocence. U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald must prove every element of every charge beyond a reasonable doubt before Blagojevich can be found guilty. Fitzgerald may believe that he has a strong case. He is entitled to say that he has a strong case. Neither his views about the case nor his comments make a case against Blagojevich. As the saying goes, talk is cheap.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald and the rest of us have no right to behave as if suspicion equals guilt. No matter who holds the suspicion, or who is suspected, criminal guilt is always determined by proof. Unless and until that happens, Blagojevich should be treated like an innocent person who has been charged with political corruption.

Political corruption is wrong. The same is true for treating accused persons as if we do not believe our talk about the presumption of innocence. If we believe that suspicions and accusations amount to guilt, we will either stop holding trials or make a mockery of the trials we conduct. If we believe that accusations do not take the place of trial proof, we will stop treating accused persons as if they have been convicted.

Governor Blagojevich is not guilty. He is presumed innocent of all the charges. Let us respect his right to a fair trial by acting like we understand what this means.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


U.S. political and economic leaders recently admitted that that the national economy is in recession and that the recession began as long ago as December 2007. Their admission merely confirms what many Americans have long known, or at least suspected. It is revealing that the financial and political leaders responsible for forecasting and managing economic health are among the last to recognize, or at least admit, what has been obvious to the rest of us. After all, the ability to assess current realities and develop strategies for action based on estimates of likely events has long been recognized as a fundamental leadership skill.

No leader is foolproof or infallible, so a certain risk of error is always present even with the most careful planning. However, leaders are expected to be able to evaluate facts, relate existing facts to historical lessons, calculate sensible contingency plans, and implement those plans based on changing situations. Those skills are fundamental for every leader in all situations. Indeed, as leaders are entrusted with more responsibility and power, they are expected to possess and demonstrate these fundamental skills with greater ability. And, when the occasional crisis occurs, leaders must manage the crisis with competence.

Competent crisis leadership includes the ability to avoid panic thinking and behavior. Granted, it is easier to talk about avoiding panic than to develop rational responses during crisis situations. On the other hand, competent leadership is never about doing what is easy. Panic is not a competent response to a crisis, however overwhelming the crisis may seem or actually be. During a crisis, leaders should follow the counsel that is most often found in the Hebrew-Christian religious texts: fear not.

Competent crisis leadership also involves identifying and protecting people and other resources that are more vulnerable because of the crisis. The current economic crisis will affect some persons and sectors of the nation more than others because of their special vulnerability. Leaders who do not or cannot recognize that reality, or who somehow cannot or will not create and implement sensible plans in view of it, are not ethically competent no matter what their other strengths may be.

That ethical component of crisis leadership has been brought into sharp focus by the way political leaders rushed to approve legislation that provides hundreds of billions of dollars to protect the investment banking industry. Meanwhile, homeowners facing foreclosure, automobile manufacturers and their workers, suppliers, pensioners, and other apparently less-influential but more vulnerable actors are still waiting to be rescued. Some political leaders and other commentators have openly questioned whether any federal relief should be provided to them.

The reluctant and, in some instances aggressive, refusal to protect such obviously vulnerable persons brings Hurricane Katrina to mind. That unpleasant memory is more painful, if not bitter, because as with Katrina, some of the political leaders who question whether the federal government should rescue vulnerable people in the current crisis boasted about their belief in "moral values" when they were seeking political office. Those leaders appear to have forgotten that concern for and protection of people in vulnerable situations is a basic principle common to all respected moral and religious systems.

The present economic crisis is also revealing about moral leadership in the religious and journalism professions. The news media pay close attention to the supposed political influence of religious conservatives in affecting election outcomes. Yet, hardly anything has been reported about how religious leaders are responding to the economic crisis, or even their present failure to be as forceful on behalf of the vulnerable as they have tried to be when working to influence elections and boost the political clout of their religious constituencies.

It has been amazing, but certainly not amusing, to observe the silence of religious leaders and organizations compared to their almost deafening rhetoric at other times. Where is the prophetic spirit of Martin King, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus? What is the evidence that current U.S. religious leaders, of all political views, are advocating ethical public policies by political leaders? When will U.S. religious leaders remind political leaders about their moral duty to protect poor, weak, elderly, immigrant, young, and other vulnerable people during this crisis?

The recession offers several revelations about the state of political, economic, journalistic, and moral leadership in American society. These revelations are not flattering. It remains to be seen what lessons current and emerging American leaders will draw from them. There is much to be learned.

Friday, November 28, 2008


The Bush-Cheney presidency is drawing to the close of its actual tenure (not to be confused with its long term consequences). The news media and public are understandably focused on the transition process associated with the coming Obama-Biden administration, the dire state of the national economy, and continued threats to national security. In doing so, we should not forget I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. His name and eventual pardon by President Bush may become the last defining act of the Bush-Cheney presidency, the consummate victory for Vice President Richard B. Cheney, and may cast a long shadow on the character of U.S. public policy.

Scooter Libby, a former high-powered Washington attorney and political figure with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, is the former chief of staff for Vice President Cheney. Libby leaked the covert CIA identity of Valerie Plame after Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, authored a truthful opinion editorial in the New York Times that exposed the Bush-Cheney administration lie about Saddam Hussein having purchased uranium from Niger. The Bush-Cheney White House used that lie to persuade Congress and the American public to support waging war against Iraq. After Wilson's op ed column exposed the lie, Scooter Libby led the attack against Wilson by claiming, among other things, that Valerie Plame, a covert CIA agent, had sponsored Wilson's trip to Niger which led to his discovery and revelation that the Bush-Cheney White House was lying.

When U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed to investigate, Libby lied to the FBI and later to a grand jury, claiming that he learned about Plame's CIA identity from a member of the news media. In truth, Vice President Cheney told Libby about Plame's covert identity, and Libby leaked her identity to the media afterwards. A federal jury convicted Libby on charges of making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice, and he was sentenced to thirty months in prison and a $250,000 fine. Libby immediately paid the fine, and President Bush promptly spared him from serving a prison sentence by commuting that part of his punishment. Libby then surrendered his license to practice law. He remains, for now at least, a convicted felon who lied about his role in exposing the identity of a covert U.S. intelligence operative.

Scooter Libby deliberately divulged the identity of a covert U.S. intelligence agent—a blatant violation of national security—and then lied about doing so. Many people believe that his deceit was undertaken to shield his boss, Vice President Cheney, from exposure. After all, Cheney told Libby about Plame's CIA identity. Cheney advocated taking the nation to war against Iraq and helped spread the lie that Saddam Hussein purchased uranium from Niger. It is reasonable to infer that Libby did Cheney's bidding when he exposed Plame's identity and that Libby lied to protect Cheney.

President Bush campaigned for office in 2000 promising to restore integrity to the presidency. Far from doing that, his presidency may be remembered as the most corrupt and incompetent in American history. The Bush Administration ignored intelligence warnings about Al Qaeda designs on attacking the United States weeks before the 9/11/01 attacks; it then used the attacks as the reason to suppress civil liberties through the USA PATRIOT Act. More than 4,000 U.S. military personnel have been killed in the Iraq War, and tens of thousands more have been physically and psychologically scarred. The Iraq War has cost almost 750 billion dollars, continues at ten billion more each month, has been marked by colossal fraud and other alleged misconduct by government contractors with political ties to the Bush-Cheney political operation, and has brought the image of the United States as a nation committed to respect for law and morality to its lowest point in recent memory. We may never know how many Iraqi civilians have been killed and maimed, but some observers estimate that the number exceeds 600,000.

If (when) President Bush pardons Scooter Libby as a political favor in the closing days or hours of his presidency, Vice President Cheney, Libby, and their neoconservative colleagues who lobbied for and have profitted from the Iraq War will celebrate the pardon and their private gains. The pardon will be the final defiant act by which the Bush-Cheney presidency demonstrates its colossal arrogance, duplicity, corruption, hypocrisy, and incompetence. It will also be further evidence why so many Americans no longer trust Republicans to govern the future of our nation. Americans now realize that for this group, public office is not viewed as a way to advance the national interest, but is merely a vehicle for hoarding private gains and settling personal vendettas.

Richard Nixon's presidency ended after Watergate in disgrace with his resignation. The Bush-Cheney presidency will end on a much more disgraceful note if Scooter Libby is pardoned.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The "New South" Myth

Much has been said and written over the past four decades about what some observers term the "New South." These observers are quick to emphasize that Douglas Wilder, a black man, was elected governor of Virginia and served from 1990 to 1994. Wilder is currently mayor of Richmond, Virginia. Of course, Atlanta is often heralded as a shining example of racial progress, and is viewed as a Mecca of sorts for young professionals who desire to live and work in the South.

That said, only the most seriously mis-informed or constitutionally naïve among us would suggest that the rest of the South comes close to resembling what has occurred in Richmond and Atlanta. Arkansas, my home state, has consistently refused to elect black officials to statewide office. Except for the states of Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, Barack Obama received a lower percentage of votes from white Democratic voters in the 2008 presidential election than John Kerry polled in 2004. Obama did not match Kerry in Georgia, where Atlanta is the capital city.

The 2008 presidential election result shines a bright light on the "New South" myth. It is certainly true that black people are less likely to be terrorized when attempting to register and vote than was true forty years ago. It is true that state and local governmental agencies in Southern communities are less likely to be exclusively white. Municipal, county, and state legislative bodies now include black representatives in larger numbers. None of us should deny these changes, nor should we minimize their importance.

However, we should not exaggerate the meaning of those changes or ignore current realities because of them. On the night of November 4, black students at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas assembled peacefully to celebrate Barack Obama's election. They were eventually confronted by police who demanded that they disperse. Several students were arrested and accusations of police misconduct that resulted in injuries to several persons have been leveled. Whatever may be the political and legal outcomes of this experience, it reminds one of a time forty years ago when Freedom Riders were attacked by police, Bull Connor's police dogs and fire hoses were turned on student protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, and Alabama police attacked civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

On November 4, 2008, most of the nation signaled its interest in and commitment to inter-racial progress. Sadly, most of "the New South" revealed that the more things change, the more things remain the same.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Still Missing the Point

In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bemoaned the failure of white religious leaders in the South to embrace the cause of nonviolent change to the discriminatory voting and social practices that led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to focus on Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. King openly wondered what kind of God could be worshipped and proclaimed by churches that refused to embrace nonviolent resistance to race discrimination and political disenfranchisement. Forty years after King's death, it is noteworthy that except for North Carolina and Virginia, voters in southern states were not part of the dramatic voting that resulted in the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States. White voters who supported John Kerry in 2004 in those southern states turned out in fewer numbers for Obama in 2008. In comments published by news media after the election, some white southern voters expressed open resentment about the idea of a black person leading the nation as President.

In Martin King and former President Jimmy Carter, the South produced two Nobel Peace Prize honorees. Yet, Carter's open willingness to engage in cross-cultural peacemaking efforts in the United States and around the world has yet to be affirmed by religious leaders in the South. Although King and Carter were products of a long tradition of Baptist life, they remain prophets without honor in their home region. Carter, former President Bill Clinton, and former Vice President Al Gore, are known for their cross-cultural inclusiveness. Their appeals to other southerners to embrace Obama apparently fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps the South does not suffer from deafness, but from an equally disabling and potentially more profound condition. The fact that southern religious leaders and other opinion leaders remain unconvinced about (if not altogether hostile toward) the kind of social progress that marked King's ministry, Carter's political efforts, and Obama's call for inclusive political change reminds one of the Rip Van Winkle fairy tale. Washington Irving's delightful fairy tale is set in a New York village during the colonial era. However, its moral has profound and universal meaning. The tale is especially applicable to southern white voters and religious leaders who appear to have slept, like Rip Van Winkle, through the demographic, attitudinal, and other revolutions of the past four decades.

In his sermon, Sleeping through a Revolution, Dr. King emphasized that Van Winkle slept through the entire American Revolution. When Rip began his nap New York was a British Colony. When he awakened, New York was part of the United States. Rip lay down as a British subject. He awakened to find himself a citizen of the United States. Rip not only missed a few days but slept through the change of an entire era of world history.

Given the published comments of some southern white voters since the 2008 presidential election, one wonders whether the soul of the old Confederacy is merely asleep, or is comatose. One thing is clear. Like Van Winkle, the South desperately needs to be awakened. Comatose patients either awaken or die.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Myths of Transcending Race and Post-Racialism

Over the past several days, the world has been treated to many comments about "transcending race" and the beginning of a "post-racial" era in the United States because Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States. According to some commentators, Obama was elected because he somehow "transcends race." Because Obama supposedly "transcends race," the United States can now consider itself in a "post-racial" era. Such comments demonstrate how poorly the social construct of race is understood, the equally poor understanding about unconscious racism and its influence, and how the commentators project their own cultural incompetence onto someone like Obama, whose identity suggests merely a cultural difference to be navigated, not a cultural defect to be "transcended."

Barack Obama understands and accepts his racial identity, as any reader of his books will know. Yet, his writings also demonstrate that Obama does not consider his racial identity something to be transcended. He is a black man in a multi-racial world, and is as comfortable with his biracial identity as he is blood type. Neither factor defines Obama's character, intellect, political skills, or world view. The idea that Obama "transcends" his racial identity is as absurd as stating that Obama "transcends" being left-handed.

What the talk about Obama "transcending race" and that his election signals the start of a "post-racial era" actually demonstrates is our poor understanding about the impact of cultural incapacity and racism, be it conscious or unconscious, on even supposedly informed analysis and reflection about human conduct. The truth is that racial minority group members are not prevented from success because of their race. Racial identity does not make a person more or less thoughtful, articulate, gracious, civil, and competent. However, people have historically used racial identity to reward some people with unmerited advantages, while penalizing others with unmerited disadvantages, in the ongoing competition for power, wealth, and influence in the United States.

Obama's election marks the first time in U.S. history when racial identity has not worked that way. However, we should not distort its meaning by declaring that Obama somehow "transcended race," was a "post-racial candidate," or that his election has birthed a "post-racial era." As long as we think that racial identity must be "transcended," rather than considered merely an incident of humanity, race will continue to be a social construct used for issuing unmerited rewards and penalties to people we consider culturally different.

People whose racial identity is different do not justify our automatic fears, suspicions, and misgivings. Regardless to racial identity, every person has the wonderful potential to contribute joy, truth, and worth to our society and deserves acceptance as a morally accountable soul of inestimable worth. To perceive people whose racial identity is different from one's own in that light is not a matter of "transcending race," but an exercise in rejecting racism as a legitimate factor in the way we form judgments about and interact with others. Absent racism and its unwitting impact on how we think and behave, no one would speak of others needing to "transcend race," in order to merit approval or disapproval. We need a "post-racism" era, not one that is somehow "post-racial."

Obama did not transcend race, nor did the Americans who cast their votes for him, because no person can transcend racial identity, either their own or that of anyone else. What Obama and most American voters did was refuse to allow the decision on who should lead our nation to turn on racism, meaning the view that Obama is somehow less worthy to be trusted to lead the nation on account of his racial identity. Theirs was not color-blind decision-making which ignored the reality of Obama's racial identity, either for Obama or the voters who supported him. Rather, it was race-neutral decision-making, which acknowledged Obama's racial identity but refused to vest it with the illegitimate power to disqualify Obama from being elected on account of his racial identity.

Rather than speaking about a color-blind or "post-racial" society, the pundits and other observers of the Obama election should hope that it marks a society committed to "post-racism." We are not likely to do so, however, if we cannot or will not accurately judge what his triumph means.