Tuesday, March 7, 2017

House Bill 610 and the Coming Education Death Spiral

Somehow, with everyone screaming about the future of Obamacare, a bill quietly slipped through the House of Representatives that I still have yet to see covered by mainstream media. House Bill 610 would repeal Johnson’s landmark education bill, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This is a law that mandates that every child have an equitable opportunity to receive a free public education, and prohibits any discrimination of a child on the basis of, well, anything—skin color, his or her last name, religion, disability, gender, etc. Not only does it prohibit such discrimination, it requires states and school districts to work to close “achievement gaps” created by differences in demographics. Furthermore, ESEA will be replaced with a law that turns every state’s education into a voucher system.

Let me explain. We live in an America where we pretend we have achieved total equality, yet our cities and towns are mostly still segregated by race and ethnicity. When schools began to desegregate in the 1960s, white families founded private schools or fled to far-reaching suburbs and brought with them their buying power. Those communities thrived, while the black and Hispanic neighborhoods rotted. Not surprisingly, there are differences in economic prowess that befalls segregated neighborhoods. Decades of racially and ethnically-driven city and suburban development has led to lacking job opportunities in those neighborhoods, as well as underfunded schools and a variety of social problems that stem from poverty. As an educator, I’ve seen the yearly testing reports. The lowest-performing demographics with regard to standardized tests are consistently Latino, African American, Special Education, and kids with at-risk indicators. Thus, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act ensures that we as educators work to help all kids reach their full potential, combatting the effects of poverty and disability on those opportunities.

The new law really doesn’t take any of that into account. In fact, it seems to discard the notion that there are really any differences between children in schools at all. The new law does away with funding for Advanced Placement classes and says nothing about the future of students with learning disabilities. Furthermore, there has been a change in the rhetoric behind what “equality” in education is. Instead of acknowledging the need to ensure equity for our children, and working to extent the same opportunities to the underserved, I have actually engaged in conversations with people who think that it is a violation of their children’s equal rights to not subsidize their private school education. So wait a minute. That’s a hardship? I’m discriminating against your child because it’s expensive for you to choose to send your kid to private school? Tell that to the mom working three jobs and still can’t provide enough food for her kid who goes to that underfunded elementary school that uses twenty-year old textbooks and pays their teachers $30,000 a year. And you want me to subsidize your private school tuition, or else it’s discrimination? How oppressed you are!

Never mind the obvious first amendment implications of using public funds to send your kid to a religious private schools. I’m going to explain to you precisely how this voucher thing plays out over the next ten years, should it actually become law. First we start with the comparison between private, charter, and public schools. It’s worth saying, first of all, that one of the downsides of individual states taking charge of their own education is that some of them suck at it. They either underfund it altogether, or they underfund impoverished areas while favoring more affluent ones. But in states and school districts that are adequately funded, and where educators are professional, put the child first, and use the latest research and techniques to genuinely improve achievement, charters don’t really do any better of a job. The data just isn’t there. I know in my school district, I’ve seen a number of students start the year over at that fancy charter school that teaches Mandarin, and end up back here. I’m sorry. I know that’s not what you wanted to hear. You totally knew in your heart of hearts that charters are better. Maybe you live in one of those states that have sucked at education. Charters did great there. But it doesn’t make the case for a nationwide initiative to funnel public funds that way.

Private schools? I’ll say this. I went to private school from Kindergarten through 12th grade. I have nothing against that school or any private schools, really. I have some fond memories, and I’m grateful that my parents cared enough about my education to send me there. They felt that’s what was best for me.  But as a professional educator, I know that at bare minimum, the public school kids in my town probably got the same quality education, and for sure had a greater variety of courses offered. Private schools aren’t about quality of education. They’re about environment. Why else would you send your kid to a Christian Academy if you didn’t want your kid to simply go to school with other Christian kids and have a lesson delivered with a Christian slant? You wanted your kid to openly pray with the other kids. I get it. That’s your choice. But don’t pretend that your kid’s private education is about anything but environment, because it’s not about being educationally competitive with public schools.

So what happens when you start allowing parents to move their kids to a private or charter schools and take public money with them? It’s important to know that having “school choice” does not mean that the school is going to choose you back. Those charters and private schools have limits on availability and standards for admissions. It may be a lottery. It may be that the number of schools like this in your area are very limited. It may be that the richer kids can afford the thirty minute commute, where the less affluent kids don’t have that option. Who gets in? The smart kids? The kids with a cleaner home life? The ones whose parents can make donations to the football booster club? I bet it’s not the kids with single parents working three jobs. I bet the at-risk kids that have been in trouble a few times get passed over, although those are the ones who need the most from us. So the top kids go to the fancy schools, while the others go to the “dumb” schools. And don’t think kids who get passed over won’t wonder why they don’t get to go to the nice schools.

The next step is a matter of supply and demand. Suddenly everyone wants to go to charters. That increased demand will likely be followed by a supply response. New charters for everyone! But wait, haven’t we effectively turned charter and private schools into de-facto public schools at this point? Kids have just been funneled out of existing school buildings into other charter and private schools. From a public funding standpoint, where is the money to build new charter schools? We already had all of these existing schools that are now half-full. We don’t have extra money to build new charters. Furthermore, even as these existing public schools sit half empty, the district still has to pay for the maintenance and overhead on the building itself. They have to keep the lights on, the water, keep it clean, and make sure it doesn’t decay to the point of being a safety hazard to the students left behind. That’s not even getting into the money still owed in servicing the interest on the bonds taken out to build the facilities in the first place. Now you have school districts having to operate buildings and educated students on less money. They’ve already had to lay off half the teachers, who ended up at the charters and private schools where they’re paid less. In the end, you end up seeing some great teachers leave the field because they can’t live on what they’re paid. At this point, wouldn’t it have been easier and more prudent to invest money in better practices that ensure quality of education in our existing school? But now you have this funding and operating dilemma.

Oh my gosh! [places hand on cheek with a distressed expression] How do you fix a thing like this? State and local governments are going bankrupt over this. Something has to be done fast. In an emergency effort to keep the ship from sinking, states do what governments always turn to when they can’t fund the services and institutions they are supposed to be providing. They do it with roads. They do it with prisons. Now we will privatize education at the tax payer’s expense. Corporate education will become a reality. Companies will swoop in and buy facilities, as well as build those new charters everyone wanted. Or even more, all schools may essentially become charter schools, and they’re all for profit. That means these companies will be glad to take your tax dollars and provide an education in return. But just as health insurance companies raise your rates and cut back on claims they’ll cover, these education companies will cut corners on your kids’ education. They can’t turn a profit if they don’t do this. Right now, schools find efficient ways to use taxpayer dollars to run the school. There is little waste because the funding is limited, and we have a job to do—teach your kid. But with for-profit schools, They’ll find ways to save on school nutrition, technology, facilities, textbooks, class size, and how much they pay their staff. Even more teachers will leave the field. Education will be a joke, and your billionaire Secretary of Education and her billionaire friends will be the ones laughing…all the way to the bank.


If all this sounds like something you’d want, then by all means, continue to push for those vouchers. But if this sounds as nightmarish to you as it does to me, then I suggest you make TWO calls. The first one is to your Congressperson. Tell them no. Hell no. The second should be to your state or local governments demanding that they fix your school systems before the private sector does it for them.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Islam is Not Responsible for Terrorism

I watch Bill Maher every weekend. I enjoy the commentary from various people. I like it when multiple brains are involved and therefore multiple perspectives. But a common position that Maher takes is that Islam is an evil. He believes that the religion of Islam is the root cause of terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists, and he is certainly not alone in this belief. But one has to remember that Bill Maher believes all religion is dangerous, and to his credit any religion can become so. Any religion can be used to justify abuse, declare war, or justify human rights violations. But to say that Islamic terrorism is an “Islam problem” is a falsehood, and here’s why.

Let’s start with holy books, and not just the Qu’ran. Islam is one of the youngest world religions and is still well over a thousand years old. Have you ever noticed that the Torah depicts slavery under the Egyptians and war with the Hittites, while Christian gospels frequently reference the Romans? We have to remember that a lot of what goes into the recording of these holy books is cultural and influenced by historical events of that time. Why does the Qu’ran even mention war and fighting? Because war occurred between the cities of Yathrib (Medina) and Mecca during Mohammad’s time, just as the Hebrews had to fight for Israel after the Exodus. One would be surprised how much of what is to be taken as religious law was simply influence from the environment at the time of the compilation of these books. My point is this:  if you were to take all holy books literally, the Bible would have you enslaving pagans, beating your wives, stoning sinners, and screwing your brother’s widow when you die. You’d go to hell for getting a new TV just because your neighbor got one or because you ate too much at Golden Corral.

But people do often take their holy books literally. Sometimes it’s harmless, and sometimes it leads to hurting others. It’s one thing to not get a tattoo because you believe it to be a sin. It’s another thing to disown your son for being gay, or worse, subject him to harm because you view him as an abomination. One thing that we should consider is where we might find the vast majority of people who take the Bible literally. In the US, that would be rural areas somewhat isolated from places that gather more diversity thus experience a higher degree of social dynamics. I’m not saying that rural living is bad. I quite enjoyed my rural upbringing. But I can tell you from experience that there is a lot more taking the Bible literally in the country than there is in the cities and suburbs. There, people generally approach their religion thematically. Rather than getting hung up on commandments, deadly sins, and details about who you can love, there is more of an emphasis on general, positive themes like looking out for your neighbor, helping the helpless, loving your family, faith, salvation, and being moral. Never mind the details and scripture quoting. And with most of the people in the US living in those areas, I’d venture to assume that most Americans approach religion this way. I think this keeps Americans somewhat civil about religion. We typically don’t impugn one another over faith.

Now, look at Islam. The Qu’ran actually says that a Muslim is to adopt the laws and customs of the place in which they live. Every Muslim I’ve ever known in the US has done this. Some of the women choose to wear a hijab, which is not required by the Qu’ran, though it is encouraged as a degree of decency. All of them follow the law as closely as any non-Muslim. They seem to approach Islam as thematically and generally as most Christians do with their religion. So why is it that we find Muslims in other parts of the world killing liquor store owners and subjugating women? Why to so many openly advocate for killing someone who strays from the religion? I bring you back to the issue of taking one’s religion literally. The Middle East as a whole has been highly isolated for most of human history, mainly because of the barren, desertous geography. It has not experienced the social changes in real time with the rest of the world. Basically, much of the Middle East still exists in the middle ages, in a time when women were second to men and stoning a person to death was common. Much of their religious book took on the culture of seventh century Arabia, and even now in the twenty-first century, much of these areas still bear those cultural standards. Men still hold control over the status quo, and so do Muslims. Outside influences are shunned. When terrible things happen in the name of Islam, it isn’t because the religion is evil. The religion contains broad themes of helping the impoverished and even the exaltation of women as largely equal to men. But the places where Islam is dominant often bear an ethnic (not religious) culture where women are mistreated, non-Muslims are hated, and extremist groups come to be. This is a result of isolation and literal interpretation of the religion. It stands in resistance of changes in human rights and progressive thinking.


Islam is not more the perpetrator behind atrocities and terrorism than Christianity is the culprit behind hate crimes against gays. Either the religion is misunderstood, perverted, altered by cultural standards, or people are outright using the religion to justify their hateful intentions and actions. It isn't fair to demonize an entire religion, especially when all other religions have had hateful fundamentalists, themselves. And it isn't fair to single out Muslims for their faith and force them to take responsibility for the wrongs of others. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Make America Great Again

Usually, a slogan is just a slogan. Perhaps it’s a catchy rhyme or humorous phrase. Really, they’re just mnemonics; memory aids. I’ve been known to walk around all day singing “Chicken parm, you taste so good”. It’s ridiculous, and taken out of context, people should be giving me strange looks for singing about my food. But everyone knows that I’m referencing Nationwide Insurance. Imagine that:  a jingle about chicken parmesan sandwiches that make me think about car insurance.

Some slogans simply stand as a sort of mission statement; something that is intended in the message. That brings me to campaign slogans. President Obama used the “Change We Can Believe In” slogan, and presented to voters, stood as a powerful message of intent. But I can’t remember people walking around saying that, or using that phrase in conversation. What I find interesting about Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is that his supporters actually say those words in conversation with others. It has happened to me many times. It happened just the other day, actually. I was having a conversation with a Trump supporter who told me that he believed Trump was going to “bring back jobs and make America great again.” It didn’t even sound like he used it as some kind of rallying cry; like it was rehearsed. It may as well have been an original line in his dialogue based in his true beliefs about what comes next.

I’m passing no judgement for this at all. The purpose of this article isn’t debate the qualities of President Trump or to try to predict what kind of policies are to come. I won’t begrudge the person who cast their vote, confident that Trump will do well as president. Rather, what set me to thinking was the slogan itself. Make America Great Again. Again is the word that strikes me first. It implies that greatness had been achieved, but it was lost somewhere along the way. When did we lose it? Would Trump or his supporters mark that time with the previous eight years under Obama? Did his presidency evaporate American greatness that had been established in the aftermath of World War II? Or had our greatness been declining for some time? No one has quite pointed that out. I’m not sure that Donald Trump has even fully outlined that fall from grace and the timeline by which it coursed. Perhaps the idea is that, from a conservative’s perspective, America can’t possibly be great under the leadership of the left. “Make America Great Again”, therefore, begins to sound strangely akin to a previous slogan used by others—“Take Our Country Back”. That one always had me questioning what non-American outsiders had taken hold of our country and government. I guess if you’re different, you’re dangerous.

What really evokes deeper thought is the concept of greatness. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of Americans feel that America is or was great. I guess it depends on who you ask, though. Is it possible that someone whose family and ancestors have always been marginalized, enslaved, discriminated against, or even slaughtered might differ? Perhaps a Native American might not agree with the idea that America has ever been great. Perspective is a funny thing. I always grew up believing in America’s exceptional status in the world. Maybe that’s what I was taught, and I never experienced anything to personally challenge that idea. But the older I have gotten, I can see that not everyone has had that experience.

Doesn’t that mean greatness is kind of a subjective thing? Can it be great for some people and terrible for others? How do we even define such greatness? What are the parameters? I’ve decided that most people might point to wealth and military dominance. The biggest, baddest, richest kid on the block. We established a post-depression economy that was the strongest in the world, mainly because there was no competition. Europe, Russia, Japan, and China had been ravaged by war. They spent the following twenty years rebuilding, and not one shot was fired in America. On top of that, we had increased the size of our military during the war, and with the Truman Doctrine, escalated it from there. It was in those following decades after WWII that we built a strong sense of capitalistic nationalism that could see you locked up as a communist for questioning or defying. A rich country and huge military was the end result of the fighting our grandfathers had endured on the beaches of France and the jungles of the Philippines.

But are wealth and brute strength truly the measure of greatness. Let us personify those qualities. What about a person who is very wealthy? Does that immediately make that person great? They might be, but is it wealth that makes them great? That person might be a real shit stain. Thus, wealth doesn’t make you great. Neither does a person’s ability to kick another’s ass. It might make him a bully. In fact, it might very well land that person in jail for assault.

Some people point to our founding fathers and the constitution. There, I might say you’re on to something. From my perspective, I’ve never had to deal with racism or any other consequence of the darker aspects of our history. The Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement didn’t do much to affect my life today. I’ve never had to fight for the right to marry who I choose. I’ve never had someone discriminate against me for my religious beliefs. Slavery, Native American removal, Jim Crow—all of these things point to a society that has been far from perfect as our founding fathers attempted. But the spirit of what they did in the latter half of the 18th century is the very thing that makes America great. It’s the spirit of progress. It’s the spirit of innovation. We take risks and try new things. We try to correct our misgivings and move forward.


Progress, until recently, was not a politicized word. It wasn’t merely a left wing ideal bemoaned by the right. People on both ends of the political spectrum embraced innovation. Eisenhower was a Republican, and under his administration, we got interstate highways. The revolution, the 13th amendment, the extension of marriage rights to same sex couples. The invention of flight. Jonas Salk created the polio vaccine and gave it away for free. If you look throughout American history, the bright points—the moments that define our country and make it great—are always moments of progress and innovation. We decided to do it better. We decided to make our society better. We pioneered modern democracy for many other countries to use as a model. We invented things that would change human life the world over. We revolutionized art and literature. That is what makes America great. So if you want to make America great again, go out and do something new. You make it great again. Not Donald Trump.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Is the Label of "Racist" Overused?

I’ve come to the conclusion that people overuse the word racist. Please let me explain what I mean. Racism is a complicated thing, and most people mistakenly believe that racism is simply overt hatred for a person of another race or ethnicity. That would be prejudice, and while that can certainly be seen as a symptom of racism, it goes much deeper than that. Racism is usually cultivated over time. It becomes woven in the very fabric of cultural norms. It begins with negative attitude about another group, and maybe mistreatment and discrimination. In our own history, for example, African Americans began as slaves; property. Once freed and extended citizenship, the attitudes people had about African Americans didn’t change. They still saw them as lesser Americans, and passed laws that limited their rights and ability to participate equally in our society. Over the course of centuries, that systemic treatment of African Americans became the norm. No one questioned it. If you were born white (even poor), at least you didn’t have to deal with the crap African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, or Latinos had to go through. There was a level of racial and social privilege that came with it. People of different races were kept in separate communities and separate in all social facilities. In no way was it ever equal. It was deliberate, and largely that segregation still exists today.

Here’s what changed. The Civil Rights Movement made this division and inequality a national conversation. Suddenly, people were standing up and fighting for their rights. Aside from the abolition of separate but equal conditions, this movement made outward, blatant prejudice socially unacceptable. Beforehand, it wasn’t uncommon for people to use racial slurs as part of their normal vernacular. But after the movement had finally settled down, not only could businesses no longer turn people away over skin color, it became wrong to call people by these racial slurs. But while we taught America that being racist was bad, we didn’t really define it, and we really only addressed certain aspects of it.

Racism is more commonly defined today by social scientists as a condition where one dominant racial group uses social and governmental institutions to limit the rights of people of a non-dominant racial group. For most of US history, this has been true. When people say that we’ve moved past that time, we have so in one sense, but the infrastructure is still there. We no longer call each other by those words used in the past. We may not even harbor any ill will or negative attitudes for people in the minority, but we have to realize that those systemic aspect of racism still lie beneath the surface in the form of stereotypes, segregation, and even the discounting of the lives and conditions often experienced by those who come from those minority groups.

It’s hard to see that from the perspective of a white person. We have largely experienced a different America, and it’s almost impossible to see the world through the eyes of others. That should be acknowledged. Here’s where I say the racist label is overused, and perhaps a little unfair.

One of the things white Americans are most sensitive about is being deemed a racist. That’s a powerful word; a powerful label. People get really upset when you call them a racist, or even imply that they are. I would even go as far as to say that saying, “that’s racist” may cause a person to think you’re calling them a racist. Truly, in their hearts, they believe they are not. They don’t hate people of other races or ethnicities. Perhaps they have friends in those groups. Maybe they occasionally step into that trap where they are either ignorant to something they didn’t realize about the other group, or they might mistakenly say something that plays into a stereotype or something that is insensitive. Hell, I do it from time to time. But I don’t think that makes a person racist.


People break the law all the time. I’m sure I drive faster than the speed limit at least 95% of the time. I have run red lights and driven with my seat belt unbuckled. Does that make me a criminal? I have committed crimes, but am I deserving of the label? The label changes everything. It comes with a stigma. If you were to tell someone who didn’t know me that I’m a criminal, they might assume that I rob people on a regular basis or something worse. They wouldn’t be thinking about traffic violations. I don’t even think we really view people with DWI convictions as criminals, and that’s something we take very seriously as a society. Furthermore, placing a suffix like –ist at the end of a word implies that a person is actively operating something. A motorist actively drives a car. You’re not a motorist if you’re a passenger. A racist, to me, might do more to describe someone who actively uses a prejudiced attitude and sees people of a non-dominant race as inferior. David Duke? Racist. Neo-Nazis? Racist. You’re Uncle Joe that uses the n-word every five minutes? Probably racist. I believe that most people, when they say they’re not racist, are probably being truthful. They don’t dislike another on the basis of skin color or ethnic background. They may say things, often without realizing, that are part of the remnant infrastructure of racism. They may even say or do things that are racist. But I don’t think that necessarily makes them deserving of the label of racist. Why not reserve that word for true, blatant racists? Don’t cheapen the power of that word by using it to describe anyone who says something insensitive. It corrupts the conversation about what racism is, and how to change its presence in society. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Moving Forward: The Trump Presidency

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, there are a lot of emotions taking hold. Supporters are gleeful, if not perhaps a little bit shocked themselves. Some may see him as a Godsend of an alternative to the partisan establishments. Others see him as a reprieve from what they consider the loathsome Obama years.  Of course, on the left, there is sadness and horror. How could someone as pompous and disgusting be chosen as president? Can we trust him with the nuclear codes? We see the scatterplot of triumph and dismay apparent in every conversation you’ve heard since Election Day and in your social media feed. With much speculation about where America goes from here, this what I think to be a reality.

From a legal and legislative perspective, chances are that not much will change. With a Republican-controlled Congress and White House, there is a great potential for some policymaking that conservatives might champion. But with that said, I don’t think you can expect massive rollbacks in laws that exist. Obamacare comes to mind. They’ve tried to repeal it dozens of times since 2009, and it always fails. The truth is that there are millions of people that actually benefit from it despite rising premiums and whatever your racist cousin might say about it all. And these beneficiaries fall both in the liberal and conservative spectrums. At this point, only two years from midterm elections, the GOP has a vested interest in holding control over both houses for as long as possible. The last thing they need is backlash from the working class costing them conservative votes, as well as energizing Democrats in 2018. If anything, you’ll see some Republican tweaking of Obamacare, not a repeal. And maybe, just maybe, red states will now accept the Medicaid expansion money now that Obama’s cooties aren’t all over it.

I certainly don’t think you will see a lot of real backtracking on civil rights. Americans are very conscious of this—even conservatives to some degree. In the age of social media, we are all plugged in, and we are all watching. Social views are changing, and anytime there is a threat to civil rights, there is an immediate response. I don’t think the GOP wants to continue to be the party of archaic social views. They might not want to go as far as progressivism on these, but they’re not going to undo marriage equality for gay and lesbian people. Again, they don’t want Democrats energized for 2018, and they don’t want to be the prejudiced party. Plus, it’s hard to overturn Supreme Court precedence.

And that’s another element I’m not quite as worried about. There is an open seat on the Supreme Court. And as you may well know, the Senate, controlled by Republicans, has obstructed the appointment of a new justice for the last two hundred-plus days since Antonin Scalia’s death. So now, as was the plan, they will fill that seat on the bench with another conservative. But try to understand that though this will be a conservative pick, he or she will replace another conservative. Really, Scalia was one of the most conservative justices they had, and yet marriage equality was still approved. Yes, a conservative majority Supreme Court will sometimes lean right on certain decisions, but rest assured that they are still bound by the constitution, and when it comes to equal protection and civil rights, they will usually rule in favor of American equality.

That being said, I’m a white guy. Almost nothing will change for me other than not feeling aligned with many of the views of our new president. But I have no need to fear when I step into public. I won’t be met with racism and discrimination. I’m a white male raised as a Christian. So my experience with this election and the days, months, and years to follow will differ from that of gays and lesbians or Muslim Americans. And I can tell you that my friends and students who are members of minority groups are frightened. Can you imagine being a Muslim woman who wears a hijab (head scarf) for your religion, and feeling afraid enough that you can’t even carry out religious duties? Muslims, Latinos, gays, lesbians, and African Americans all tell me they’re afraid. They’re not afraid of what Donald Trump will do. They’re afraid of what his supporters will do.

That statement isn’t meant to equate Trump supporters in general with bigots by any means. But consider this:  the KKK and the American Nazi Party both endorsed him. And I think it’s safe to say that there were a lot of actual racists and bigots that did support and vote for Trump. You can see this in his rhetoric throughout the campaign. With all the things that he has said about Mexicans or Muslims throughout his campaign, it’s quite possible that very little of that aligns with his actual beliefs. He said those things to get elected. There is no wall. Never was. A real estate developer with contractors on his speed dial has a year and a half to come up with estimates, dimensions, and plans for a wall, and right after the election, still has none of those things? It was just something that some conservatives wanted to hear. The same goes for his position on Muslims. He’s playing to the cheap seats—the people that actually believe Sharia Law is coming.

That seems relatively harmless, I know. Oh, maybe he’s not as racist or xenophobic as we thought. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. That remains to be seen. But here’s what I do know. There are people out there who voted for him because of that rhetoric, meaning there are some people out there who hate Mexicans, Muslims, gays, and African Americans, and they voted for Trump. And since he won, perhaps they feel represented, and thus emboldened. And for the people in these minority groups, this is a terrifying thought. Again, before you shrug off this notion, please take a moment to remember that if you’re not a member of those groups, you might not understand this the way they do. You haven’t walked in those shoes.


Folks, it’s probably going to be okay. And if you don’t like the result of this election, get out there and vote next time. But please don’t perpetuate hate, regardless of your views or who you wanted in office. We are all Americans. You may feel like you took your country back or you had your country taken away from you. But this country belongs to all of us. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Be Bold. Stand For What You Believe. And Take Responsibility For the Consequences

Can we talk for a moment about Colin Kaepernick? I’m not a huge 49-ers fan. I’m a Saints fan. Moreover, I’m not a Colin Kaepernick fan. But honestly, I fully support his right to protest in the way he wants to protest. If you haven’t been paying attention, Kaepernick opted to sit through the national anthem during two pregame football games so far. When asked why he did it, he revealed that he is staging a personal protest, citing that he refused to show pride in a “flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Since then, plenty of people have shown just how they feel about that. One video I’ve seen shows a man torching a Kaepernick jersey while saluting the flames and playing the national anthem.

It’s important to remember that we are a nation of diversity; a nation of varied individuals with all sorts of different experiences and outlooks on life. While that may hold relevance in the overall conversation about Black Lives Matter and Back the Blue alike, it also holds relevance in how we express ourselves. We have the freedom to speak our minds or boycott products we don’t agree with. We have the right to criticize our government or drone strikes in Pakistan. We also have the right to sit down during the national anthem or refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag. You may not agree with it. It might anger you. But this is well within our rights.

To be honest, what Kaepernick is doing is mild compared to how heated BLM rallies have gotten. Some have even escalated into riots. Silent disobedience is essentially what Kaepernick’s actions boil down to. Something akin to Gandhi’s tactics against the British in India. He didn’t trample a flag. He didn’t disrespect anyone directly. He made a simple choice, and wasn’t even super outspoken about it in the beginning. Someone had to ask him why he didn’t stand. And he has been crucified over it. He and Gabby Douglas are met with outrage far beyond the severity of our social sanctioning of Ryan Lochte and his buddies. Vandalize a gas station and lie about the police robbing you in an Olympic host city? No big deal. We’ll get over it. Forget to place your hand over your heart or refuse to stand during the national anthem? Outrage.


At the same time, free speech and expression isn’t free. It comes with a price. That’s the other part about this. People are going to react. If you willingly dissent—if you say or do something out of protest—that can be an honorable thing for some. However it won’t always be popular. If fact, it usually isn’t, at least at first. Martin Luther King, Jr., were he alive today, would tell you that. His legacy has been a positive one. But at the time, he was well hated by most white Americans in his time. Your public words and actions have consequences. Your freedom doesn’t make you immune to the outcome. Just ask Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty or Don Imus, who on his radio program called the Rutgers women’s basketball team a bunch of “nappy-headed hoes”. He was fired, and people were outraged that his “freedoms were being infringed upon”. No. He had every bit of freedom afforded by the Constitution. No one locked him up on a federal prison for what he said. But what you say can get you into trouble. People will react. And if we’re talking about an employer, that can be a rocky situation. Colin Kapernick may even see some of that sanctioning come his way. Who knows? Stand up for what you believe. There is honor and respectability that is due for having that courage. But it’s not easy. Expect consequences.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Cleveland, Louisiana

The great American playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote that America has three cities:  New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everything else is Cleveland. That’s nothing against Cleveland. It’s just that Cleveland, is Anytown, USA. Vanilla middle America. New Orleans is unique, and what makes that happen is the people and their diversity—a collision of culture and history that could only have happened in that little crescent on the Mississippi River. But like a lot of unique American towns and cities, from San Francisco and Austin, TX to Honolulu, Hawaii, what makes these places vibrant and special is slipping away. And it isn’t some natural cultural erosion. It’s kind of on purpose.

I was just recently visiting the city I call home. It’s worth noting that I was not born or raised in New Orleans proper. I grew up in the area—close enough to call it home. It’s my favorite place on earth. Her Southern US meets Northern Caribbean vibe continues to inspire the stories in my heart and the music in my soul. I was there promoting my upcoming fourth novel, The Barataria Key, which is largely set in New Orleans and involves some of her darker history and lore. While there, I had the opportunity to catch up with some old college friends, and for some reason, the conversation turned to the gentrification of the city.

The guy I was talking to took the position that this was a good thing. Local and out of town developers coming in and transforming old, dilapidated sections of the city into nice, attractive, high-end neighborhoods, thus running out all the crime elements. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? It’s first worth noting that these areas are particularly predominantly black neighborhoods with a history of poverty and desperation. So of course there is a crime element. There are two common denominators in these high-crime neighborhoods. The race of the inhabitants and their socioeconomic status. So let’s ask which of these things causes the crime? Race? Would you be insinuating that somehow the melanin levels in someone’s skin drives them to rob, steal, or murder? That’s like saying the spots on a dog makes it more aggressive or not. I couldn’t think of many more sentiments that are more racist and vile than that one. So it has to be the other thing. Think about it. A neighborhood purposely segregated for most of its existence and bypassed by opportunities for adequate employment. A dumping ground for poor black citizens in a city where public education is among the worst in the country. Areas like this breed desperation and a mentality of survival, which sometimes drives people to rob, steal, deal drugs, and form gangs.

These are all things that should go away for sure. We want people to visit the city, but who is going to want to if they are afraid of getting murdered? But is gentrification really the answer? This is a topic that really got stirred up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What a perfect opportunity for a modern group of carpetbaggers to come in and take advantage of a suffering and devastated city. I remember that in the years following the hurricane there was a renewed national intrigue with New Orleans. That city everyone thought of as just a humid Las Vegas—a place of gambling, excessive drinking, and college girls flashing their boobs—was back on the map as a cultural Mecca right there in Cleveland’s backyard. The hurricane stirred up a renaissance of sorts as people in Anytown became interested in gumbo, jazz, Mardi Gras, and the second line. Movies were made about it. And of course we got to witness the wonder that is Scott Bakula pretending to be a New Orleanian in CSI: New Orleans. If you’re a New York or Texas developer, you see this and you also recognize that as people from Anytown will visit unique cities around the world, but don’t want to be too far away from their Starbucks and Olive Garden. Americans need some level of familiarity to travel. A person from Madison, Wisconsin will visit New York City for the first time and despite the great local restaurants one can choose from, they will still eat at the Times Square location of Applebee’s. So you go into NOLA and transform all these poor neighborhoods into high end real estate. If you build it, they will come.

But here’s the problem. Where are the people who lived there going to go? Here’s a bit of a history lesson. When the French founded New Orleans in 1718, they brought slaves with them. But swamps and humidity bred disease-carrying mosquitoes, and on top of that, famine plagued the settlers. They could barely feed themselves, much less their slaves. So they let them go. They were freed—some of the earliest freedmen in all of what would become the US. They were allowed to set up residence outside the all-French (and all white) colony now referred to as the French Quarter. These early French-speaking African Americans (who often gave birth to mixed-race children) became known as Creoles. The neighborhoods they founded have been predominantly black Creole sections of the city ever since. They invented jazz in these neighborhoods, and still give residence to some of the best jazz clubs in the city. They also invented Creole cuisine in these areas. People. Culture. Uniqueness. The very elements that give New Orleans its soul—the whole reason people visit.

Are we then willing to sacrifice the local musicians and cooks, not to mention the people who work in the hotels and businesses throughout the city, just to get rid of the “crime element” within it? Let’s say you find a trailer park where one of the residents has a meth lab. Do you get rid of everyone the in the trailer park and build a strip mall with an Old Navy and a Chick-fil-a? And where are these people going to live? What about when Bernie Madoff stole billions from investors. Did we kick every millionaire out of Wall Street or out of their penthouse apartments? No. We went after stock swindlers and increased regulations. We attacked the problem, rather than the people. Why can’t we do that in New Orleans? Why can’t we improve public education or transit systems so that people in these neighborhoods can get to the better-paying jobs? Instead, there are those who want corporate restaurants and themed blues bars on Frenchmen St. in place of the local venues and flavor. They want these neighborhoods to be too expensive for the residents and once they’re all gone, they can up the rent or tear down 150-year-old Creole cottages and shotgun houses to build million-dollar high rise apartments for Hollywood actors and pretentious pop stars. The look of New Orleans will change. The sound will change. Street performers will disappear. Your crawfish etouffe√© will cease to taste authentic and become a processed, preservative-filled version of its former glory. You will ruin New Orleans the way Silicon Valley has ruined San Francisco, and Carnival Cruiselines will ruin Havana. Austin, Honolulu, Key West…all facing the same fate. I’m all about making NOLA safer, cleaner, and better. I’m just not willing to make it Cleveland in the process.