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.

The Triumph of Hope

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cultural Incompetence Overtakes the Republican Party

The election of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States is a political victory for Obama and Vice President-Elect Joe Biden, his running mate. It also represents the cultural incompetence of the Republican Party, its leading strategists, and the rejected candidacy of John McCain and Sarah Palin.

The population of the United States has never been homogenous. However, a review of news footage of Republican National Conventions over the past several election cycles quickly reveals that the Republican Party lacks even a respectable handful of non-white attendees at its quadrennial gatherings.

The Republican Party lacks any semblance of non-white involvement at its state and local levels. The Grand Ole Party points with pride to the historical fact that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and presided over the Civil War which ultimately led to the start of political freedom for black people. However, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, certainly the most respected black Republican of our time, finds his political party an uncomfortable association. Aside from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Powell, most people are hard pressed to identify a black Republican at the national level. There are no black Republican elected federal office holders.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is of Indian ancestry. By any legitimate political measure, Governor Jindal is a rising political figure within the Republican Party. He is a fiscal conservative and a devout Catholic, having converted from Hindu while in high school. Governor Jindal graduated with honors from Brown University and is a Rhodes Scholar. He won election as U.S. Congressman from Louisiana's 1st Congressional District, and is the first Indian-American governor in U.S. history. Jindal also served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Planning and Evaluation during the Bush Administration before he left that post to mount his successful race for governor.

However, there is little evidence that the GOP has consulted Jindal about ways to attract other persons of color. Moreover, and tellingly, Jindal has been quoted as saying that he never was approached by John McCain about being a vice presidential candidate. That McCain would not even approach Jindal about being a candidate given his substantial resume, yet chose Sarah Palin (about whom more will be said later in this essay), says a great deal about McCain's ability to evaluate personnel, not to mention McCain's cultural incompetence and that of his political strategists and GOP advisors. A national political party that ignores a sitting governor of color as a potential running mate in the face of a ticket consisting of another person of color (Obama) and another Catholic (Biden) suffers from colossal political and cultural incompetence.

Because of the abortion issue, some within the GOP hoped it would be embraced by the rising Hispanic population. Hispanics now out-numbers blacks as the nation's largest non-white population. Until the presidential election of 2008, the GOP could count on support from the influential Cuban-American population in Florida, largely due to the anti-Castro positions espoused by the GOP.

However, Hispanic voters have been offended by Republican policies. Karl Rove, who counted on Hispanic voters to be part of the GOP political base for the foreseeable future, failed to realize that anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy positions would eventually alienate Hispanic voters in California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Florida, and elsewhere. GOP leaders apparently did not notice that Hispanic voters are not politically homogenous, and that younger Hispanic voters found Republican policy positions and rhetoric off-putting, if not racist and xenophobic. Younger Cuban-Americans are as repelled by Communism as their elders, but they are hardly single-issue voters. Moreover, Republican policy positions and rhetoric are often associated with the strident faction of the GOP often identified as "religious conservatives," a largely white voter constituency to which John McCain shamelessly pandered when he selected Sarah Palin as his running mate.

McCain also pandered women voters when he selected Palin. It was interesting to observe Republican pundits and members of the news media opine that Palin would somehow induce women who supported Senator Hillary Clinton to forsake the Obama-Biden ticket in favor of McCain and Palin. Hillary Clinton is a respected figure regarding U.S. public policy. Sarah Palin was a relative unknown before McCain selected her as his running mate, and is nowhere close to Clinton on any public policy issue. Clinton is unmistakably and indisputably smart, both politically and academically. If Palin is smart, she failed to demonstrate it. McCain's pandering selection of Palin as his running mate was not only politically disastrous, but was also culturally blind.

When pandering to voters who are culturally different is the first and strongest strategy a political organization and its leadership have for attracting support, the strategy is effective only if the voters are politically uninformed and/or if they have no better choices. In 2008, the Obama-Biden ticket was embraced by well-informed voters across a wide spectrum of backgrounds, identities, and interests. By contrast, the McCain-Palin ticket exposed cultural incompetence within the GOP at every level. While the Obama campaign actively recruited and openly included younger voters from all backgrounds, the McCain campaign was run by older white men and religious fundamentalists who pandered to everyone else and built its strategy on fomenting distrust for Obama.

Republicans tried the same policies and tactics of divisiveness, distrust, and alienation in 2008 that have been their mainstay since the Richard Nixon presidency. That approach worked for Nixon in 1968 and 1972, for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, for George H.W. Bush in 1988, and worked for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. It did not work in 2008 because American voters are more culturally diverse than ever, while GOP strategists are as culturally incompetent as they were when Nixon was elected in 1968. Obama understood the meaning and implications of that incompetence and exploited it at every turn throughout the long presidential campaign. Republican political strategy ignored cultural realities, which explains why McCain-Palin campaign events looked and sounded as if they could have occurred in 1968, except for the fact that Palin was on the ticket. Somehow, none of the supposedly smart strategists within the Republican Party appreciated that Palin's selection represented tokenism at its worst, not respect for diversity.

One wonders whether anyone among Republican strategists now engaged in hand-wringing, navel-gazing, and fault-finding about the political losses suffered during the 2008 elections will identify cultural incompetence as one of the most powerful factors for the current plight of that political party. I doubt it. Few, if any, of the GOP presidential contenders are known for being culturally sensitive. The GOP does not listen to Colin Powell. Like President Bush, the GOP pimped Powell's cultural competence and political acumen, while it questioned his relevance, until he endorsed President-Elect Obama. One doubts that Powell has been invited since then to counsel GOP strategists about how to navigate out of the cultural and political wilderness in which they find themselves. As my father would often say, that would be too much like right.

What President-Elect Obama said of McCain's campaign team during the campaign was true about strategists within the Republican Party as a whole. They were out of touch, out of date, and running out of time. On November 4, 2008, time ran out. Now the cultural incompetents are going out of power. George W. Bush should henceforth be remembered as Cultural Incompetent in Chief. Karl Rove, his political architect, chief handler, and the person once hailed by GOP strategists and political pundits as a political genius, should be remembered as a cultural moron.

Cultural incompetence led Bush and Company to invade Iraq and mire the United States in a military morass that will overshadow the tragic experience in Vietnam. Cultural incompetence partly explains their callous insensitivity while Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast and their casual behavior while New Orleans drowned. Cultural incompetence partly explains Bush Administration "war on terrorism" and "enemy combatant" policies that even the U.S. Supreme Court (an institution not at all known for demonstrating cultural competence) consistently rejected. Incompetence, cultural and otherwise, eventually results in failure.

The Grand Ole Party is merely the Party of old, but hardly grand, cultural incompetence. That affliction produced a political bankruptcy every bit as unpleasant as current U.S. economic and military problems which also result, to some extent, from cultural incompetence. It is doubtful that GOP strategists recognize their affliction. It is also unlikely that they are humble and honest enough to admit their condition, let alone undergo treatment for it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cultural Competence and the Election of Barack Obama

When historians, political scientists, and sociologists reflect on the election of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States, and when Americans of all ages, backgrounds, and political views do so, we should recall that his election starkly demonstrated the power and implications of cultural competence. President-Elect Obama demonstrated what cultural competence is, how it functions, and the potential that it carries.

Barack Obama is culturally competent. By that, I mean he is able to do more than recognize cultural differences, but is able to relate to people in ways that transcend our cultural difference without minimizing them, exaggerating them, or viewing them as threats to himself or our nation. In the face of cynicism, criticism, skepticism, and outright appeals to jingoism, President-Elect Obama personifies cultural competence in all its shades of meaning.

Let no one forget that Obama is competent handling the social construct of race. His competence should not be merely attributed to his biracial identity as the son of a Kenyan black man and Kansas white woman. Biracial identity is neither a guarantee of competence about diversity, nor an impediment to it.

Obama's competence extends also to handling generational, ability, and experience differences. More than any other contender during the campaign, Barack Obama harnessed the genius, energy, and hope of people of every generation, skill set, and history.

Obama also is different from every other contender by the way he blended existing and emerging technological resources. He took the street savvy of a community organizer and yoked it to the universality of Internet and social networking. In doing so, President-Elect Obama demonstrated his ability to attract people with divergent skills to achieve a feat that can only be termed historic.

All of these factors should be carefully studied, discussed, and debated by serious people, especially those of us responsible for evaluating and choosing leaders. Unfortunately, most organizations rarely do more than give lip service to the skills that Obama has displayed with elegant effectiveness. Despite what they say, most leadership selection committees put more emphasis on what candidates have done than on what skills they have for working in transformational ways with people from different identities, skills, and generations. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that their organizations merely continue age old inequities rather than heal them.

Every leader must cope with the certainty of unpredictability. No one can predict how well President-Elect Obama will lead, how much cooperation he will receive, and how he will respond to unforeseeable challenges. What is clear, however, is that Obama has demonstrated competence in addressing change, differences, and managing change and differences in ways that are proactive and productive.

It is equally clear, at least to observers who are culturally competent, that the people who were defeated by President-Elect Obama never demonstrated anything close to his skill in negotiating cultural differences. Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin openly campaigned in ways that were culturally insensitive at best, if not divisive. Their campaign, like the campaigns of the other presidential candidates from both major parties, focused on identifying and using differences as tools for dividing people, not bringing different people together.

It remains to be seen what the Republican Party will learn and what it will do from the lessons it draws from the Obama victory. From the time of Richard Nixon and George Wallace, the GOP has deliberately worked to exploit fears and distrust while attempting to incite hostility by working class white Americans against persons of color, immigrants, and persons who are branded "different." During the 2004 presidential election and 2006 Congressional mid-term elections, the GOP demonstrated its continued reliance on the tactics of Nixon and Wallace. That reliance (which could also be described as an obsession) is demonstrated by the "culture wars" strategy employed and embraced by the GOP in this and previous elections.

Barack Hussein Obama (yes, I used his middle name)openly defied and brilliantly defeated the "culture war" approach to politics with a multi-racial, multi-cultural, and trans=generational army of people from divergent political, social, economic, educational, and sexual backgrounds. For two generations, the Grand Ole Party held itself out as the exclusive bastion of American values, and rejected appeals from moderate Republicans to treat people who are different as equals rather than suspicious. It remains to be seen whether Republican leaders will understand how their arrogant divisiveness and disdain for diversity (championed by Richard Nixon and George Wallace in 1968 and culminating in the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) has been repudiated by Americans by the Obama landslide victory.

Obama and Bush are very different people, produced by drastically different political constituencies, and with diametrically different views of the world. Obama is intellectually curious. Bush is notoriously not so. Obama respects those who disagree with him. Bush denigrates them. Obama came to power because he enjoys building coalitions, much in the way one does as a community organizer. Bush came to power based on his pedigree and used cronyism as justification for what he did as chief executive.

Cultural competence distinguished Barack Obama during the presidential campaign more than anything else. That quality will be a powerful asset as he leads the United States to address existing and emerging challenges. Whatever the future holds for the President-Elect and the United States he must lead, it is safe to say that he is more than another leader. Barack Hussein Obama, President-Elect of the United States, is a new kind of leader for a new kind of United States. None of us should ignore this reality.