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A Label of One's Own

| Tue Oct. 9, 2007 2:48 PM EDT

If he's not careful, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson is going to end up in the racial rogue's gallery right next to me, misunderstood and villified by those too blinded by America's moribund racial discourse to know that they're in violent agreement with us. In fact, Robinson's own words show that he, too, suffered from the same myopia from which he seems now to be in the early stages of recovery.

In a now infamous column written earlier this year, I pointed out the obvious: Barack Obama isn't black. He's an immigrant black, or a la Stephen Colbert either a nouveau black or a 'late to the scene' black...call him what you will, just don't call him black and think you've conveyed any useful information. But neither should you think you've conveyed a put down. Just consider it a community service to have bothered to define your terms.

The point isn't that immigrant blacks aren't 'authentic' or that they haven't suffered through the slavery experience and are therefore unworthy of blackness, concepts which I reject as puerile and unworthy. The point is that the term 'black,' in the American socio-political context, simply doesn't make room for them. It leaches them of all context except an inapplicable one - descent from American slaves and the legacy of Jim Crow. Other than skin color, 'black' doesn't tell you anything you need to know about immigrant blacks - the function of a label, if I'm not mistaken - and in fact misleads you with false information. Be honest: when someone is described to you as black or African American, doesn't it make a difference to learn that their parents came here from Jamaica or that they recently arrived from Ethiopia and speak only Amharic? Trick question, because if it doesn't it should; there's no reason to assume a political or cultural consonance between immigrant blacks and the slave-descended. So why use the same term? Labels ought to illuminate more than they obscure, a test which the label 'black' fails pretty abysmally in 2007. We don't need yet another word for blacks (colored, Negro, Black, African American - a person could get dizzy.) What we need is to interrogate the label wherever we encounter it until 'black' or 'African American' means what Asian, for example, does: not much until you have more information. Are they Viet Namese, Korean or Tibetan? Now those are labels that actually illuminate a few things whereas 'Asian' only gives you over-broad physiognomic hints. If 'Asian' matters in any particular situation - quick! what's the Asian attitude toward affirmative action? - you can't procede until you know which flavor, which region of America. Ironically, if only to me, many of the hundreds of insulting emails I received in the wake of that column began something like "I'm from Ghana. You are a m(*&^..." or "My parents came from Trinidad and your mama is a m(&^..." If black skin is all that counts, all it takes to helpfully occupy the same term, why mention their homelands? How odd, their insistence on minimizing what is surely more important to their identity than the cotton my ancestors picked. How odd, to help keep whites' racist essentializations alive and well. Eugene Robinson, who criticized my take on Obama, is beginning to agree though he isn't fully 'there' yet.

In his latest column, he wrote, "black America" is an increasingly meaningless concept -- nearly as imprecise as just plain "America." ...Let's start by opening our eyes and recognizing that if there ever was a monolithic "black America" -- absolutely and uniformly deprived and aggrieved, with invariant values and attitudes -- there certainly isn't one now."

It isn't new for blacks to point out that their community isn't an affirmative action-supporting, 'hood-living, OJ-supporting one-note wonder. Unfortunately, though, that's usually a Potemkin village erected only to highlight white disinterest in black complexity; any black who stray off the plantation (Clarence Thomas, Sec. Rice), intermarry or offer internal critiques of the party line are swiftly punished and ex-communicated. So much for diversity. What is new is an apparent willingness for a leading thinker to follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion - a redefinition of the term 'black' and a possible wholesale realignment of the politics of blackness. The piece deserves a read.

Unfortunately, Robinson, like most blacks, ignores entirely the existence of immigrant blacks, a glaring omission in a discussion of black diversity and suggests that it might best be those immigrants who lead the charge for a label of their own. Their quiescence is a testament to both the strangle hold that traditional blacks enjoy on the race discourse and, one has to believe, an immigrant buy-in to that discourse such that it needs its consciousness raised as to its own marginalization. What must they think when they read reports like this one (emphasis added):

'Any black student will do'
A disturbing report shows some African Americans are being squeezed out of the US university population. Joanna Walters reports.
When Shirley Wilcher went to a reunion at her prestigious alma mater, Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, she got quite a shock. The number of black graduates whose parents were born outside the US seemed to have grown dramatically compared with those whose families had been in America for generations - back to the times of slavery - like herself. She suspected that, in the process of becoming more diversified, top universities had recruited more black students but, increasingly, they were not those from post-slavery African-American US backgrounds who were supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the civil rights movement and controversial policies such as affirmative action.
Wilcher demanded data from reluctant admissions officials and her suspicions were confirmed: student recruits from what is termed the native, or domestic, US African-American population had been dropping. Not only were blacks overall still under-represented, but within the black student population African-Americans were being squeezed out.
"It's shocking. Awfully short-sighted, at best. I'm disappointed," she says.
Wilcher is the executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action, which promotes policies that discriminate in favour of black students in an effort to correct the long legacy of racism in the US. And there was wider confirmation of her informal research to come.
A report just released shows African-Americans losing out at selective colleges across the country, particularly at elite universities, and their places being taken by first- or second-generation American immigrants, at least one of whose parents was born in the Caribbean or Africa.
The joint University of Pennsylvania-Princeton report found that although immigrant-origin black students make up only 13% of the black population in the US, they now comprise 27% of black students at the 28 top US universities surveyed.
And in a sample of the elite ivy league universities the figures were even more dramatic. More than 40% of black students in the ivy league now come from immigrant families.
"Immigrant and second-generation blacks are over-represented at these schools, while overall black students are still too few," says Dr Camille Charles, sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the report's co-authors, "which means the problem of access for African-Americans - that group which has the longest history of oppression in the US - is of even greater concern than we thought."

My, oh my. Where to begin with such madness?

Let's just say that the above is what I mean by the way 'black' and 'African American' are used on the socio-political ground, whatever its politcally correct definition. When those terms are not meaningless they're worse; they're tools for silencing immigrant blacks even as blacks fight to keep their 'brothers' in their place.

Come on over to the dark side, Eugene. But don't forget your flak jacket.

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Tuesday's Suffused With Music News Day

| Tue Oct. 9, 2007 1:50 PM EDT

mojo-photo-lilwayne2.jpg

  • Lil Wayne was arrested on Friday night after a concert in Boise, Idaho, of all places. Officers were acting on a marijuana-possession charge from 2005, after Wayne failed to show for two court hearings. A spokesperson for the rapper called it all just a "clerical mix-up," which is code for "too stoned to remember our court dates."

  • Elvis Costello will perform at Hillary Clinton's 60th birthday party, to be held at New York's Beacon Theater on October 25th. Bill had the Rolling Stones and Christina Aguilera last year, apparently, so who knows what that signifies. Tickets start at $250.
  • Moby has finished work on his new album, to be called Last Night and released in 2008. He calls it "more electronic and dance-oriented" than his recent work; with only about every third Moby album being listenable at all, maybe we're about due for a good one, right? The diminutive producer will also be launching a club night called "Degenerates" in his hometown of New York starting this Thursday.
  • Andy Summers tells the AP that the reunited Police might record a new album, saying he sees it as a "challenge, to make an absolutely brilliant pop album at this stage of our career." That, and not killing each other in the process.
  • Making a Killing: A Blackwater Timeline

    | Tue Oct. 9, 2007 1:46 PM EDT

    An investigation ordered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into Blackwater's September 16 shooting in Baghdad, in which 17 civilians were killed and another 24 were wounded, has determined that the company's operators opened fired indiscriminately and without provocation. The official Iraqi report on the incident demands that the U.S. government pay $8 million in compensation to each of the victims' families and sever all Iraq-based contracts with Blackwater within the next 6 months. It also demands that the Blackwater operators involved in the shootings be handed over to Iraqi authorities for possible prosecution in Iraqi courts.

    It's unclear if the U.S. government will comply and perhaps even more unclear if it could meet the Iraqi government's demands even if it wanted to. Civilian employees of the State Department rely on Blackwater for protection. If the company were banished from Iraq, U.S. diplomatic operations would be paralyzed, at least until another private contractor could be hired for the job. Even if this were to happen, it's doubtful that booting Blackwater would make much difference. More than likely, its operators would quickly find work with competitors like Triple Canopy and DynCorp, who would have to fill the Baghdad security void in Blackwater's absence. The private security sector is a small one after all. Even Andrew Moonen, the Blackwater operator who got drunk in the Green Zone last Christmas Eve and murdered one of the Iraqi vice president's security guards, found a new job with Combat Support Services Associates, which put him back to work in Kuwait just two months after the shooting.

    So, will Blackwater survive this latest scandal? It's impossible to know for sure, but there's little reason to believe otherwise. The company, which started as a small-scale provider of firearms training in 1998, has grown into a billion-dollar Goliath, complete with an army of lobbyists and sympathetic politicians to press its agenda on Capitol Hill. Guided by its reclusive founder, Erik Prince, the company, over its short history, has deflected controversy with ease, all the while simultaneously expanding its reach into new markets and generating ever more profitable government contracts. What follows is a timeline that documents Blackwater's rise and its history of misconduct in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    1965
    Prince Corporation is founded in Holland, Michigan, by Edgar Prince, father of future Blackwater founder Erik Prince. The company specializes in auto parts.

    June 6, 1969
    Erik Prince is born.

    1973
    Prince Corporation begins marketing the "lighted sun visor" to car companies, a wildly successful innovation that nets the company billions of dollars.

    February 1979
    Erik Prince's older sister Betsy marries Dick Devos, CEO of Amway and a billionaire contributor to the GOP and right-wing political causes. Devos was the Republican candidate for governor in Michigan in 2006.

    1988
    Gary Bauer and James Dobson found the socially conservative Family Research Council, funded primarily by the Prince family. Erik Prince interns there, before moving on to an internship in President George H.W. Bush's White House.

    1992
    Erik Prince earns a commission in the U.S. Navy. He goes on to become a Navy SEAL and serves in Haiti, Bosnia, and the Middle East.

    March 2, 1995
    Edgar Prince dies of a heart attack.

    July 22, 1996

    Prince Corporation is sold for $1.35 billion. Erik Prince retires early from the U.S. military.

    December 26, 1996
    Erik Prince's Blackwater Lodge and Training Center Inc. is incorporated in Delaware.

    No Wontons for Fred Fielding This Week

    | Tue Oct. 9, 2007 1:42 PM EDT

    Every month, the right-wing legal group, the Federalist Society, meets at a D.C. Chinese restaurant, where they hear from an impressive array of conservative luminaries, including the occasional Bush administration official who comes to brief the faithful on various legal developments. This Friday's scheduled guest was Fred Fielding, who we now know is not Deep Throat (as had long been suspected) but who is currently the White House counsel.

    This morning at 10:02 a.m., the Federalists sent out word that Fielding would be a no-show. One hour, 52 minutes later, the Washington Post uploaded a story blaming the Bush administration for blowing the cover off a private intelligence company's Al-Qaeda spy operation. The company had given the administration an advance copy of the latest bin Laden video, with warnings to keep it under wraps. Naturally, the administration leaked it to cable news outlets, allegedly destroying years of undercover work by the company. The first White House official to get the video? Yes, that would be Fred Fielding, who probably didn't need a fortune cookie to see his future this week.

    Disgraced Mexican Politician Cheats on Marathon, Too

    | Tue Oct. 9, 2007 1:09 PM EDT

    Favorite story of the week:

    After a humiliating defeat in Mexico's presidential election last year, Roberto Madrazo appeared to be back on top: He'd won the men's age-55 category in the Sept. 30 Berlin marathon with a surprising time of 2:41:12.
    But Madrazo couldn't leave his reputation for shady dealings in the dust. Race officials said Monday they disqualified him for apparently taking a short cut -- an electronic tracking chip indicates he skipped two checkpoints in the race and would have needed superhuman speed to achieve his win.
    According to the chip, Madrazo took only 21 minutes to cover nine miles -- faster than any human can run. "Not even the world record holder can go that fast," race director Mark Milde said.
    In a photograph taken as he crossed the finish line, Madrazo wears an ear-to-ear grin and pumps his arms in the air. But he also wore a wind breaker, hat and long, skintight running pants -- too much clothing, some said, for a person who had just run 26.2 miles in 60-degree weather.
    Madrazo's outfit caught the attention of the New York-based marathon photographer Victor Sailer, who alerted race organizers that they might have a cheater on their hands.
    "It was so obvious to me, if you look at everyone else that's in the picture, everyone's wearing T-shirts and shorts, and the guy's got a jacket on and a hat or whatever," Sailer said. "I looked at it and was like, wait a second."

    Thank heavens for vigilant cameramen.

    Madrazo's history of corruption and lies while in Mexico meant everyday citizens were unsurprised by the news of his marathon shenanigans. It's all in the AP article.

    Another Nail in the Coffin for the Gitmo Tribunals

    | Tue Oct. 9, 2007 10:46 AM EDT

    More evidence has emerged that the military tribunals set up by the Pentagon to review the legal status of Guantanamo detainees are nothing more than kangaroo courts. Last week, federal public defenders in Oregon filed an affidavit describing an interview with an army reserve officer who has sat on 49 Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT). The officer, a prosecutor in his civilian life, is the second to speak out publicly against the tribunals.

    According to the affidavit, in at least six cases where the CSRT unanimously found the detainee did not qualify as an enemy combatant, the military ordered a new CSRT or forced the first one to re-open the case. The findings were then reversed with no new evidence, according to the officer, whose name was withheld. Tribunal members were poorly trained, pressured by higher-ups to rule against the detainnes, and despite congressional rules requiring the military to allow detainees to present evidence in their favor, the only witnesses allowed to testify on their behalf were other Gitmo prisoners. (Surely those Uighurs were a big help!)

    The lawyers filed the affidavit in the case of Adel Hassan Hamad, a Sudanese father of four who worked at a charity hospital in Pakistan, where he was captured and sent to Cuba in 2002. The military actually ruled that he could be released a few years ago, but he is still languishing in captivity. It's this kind of stuff that makes it hard to imagine that the Supreme Court, conservative as it is, will rule that the tribunals are a perfect substitute for real constitutional rights.

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    Top Ten Stuff 'n' Things - 10/08/07

    | Tue Oct. 9, 2007 12:02 AM EDT

    This week, I already covered the Detour festival so none of that can go in here, and on most of my drive down to LA I passed the time with French lessons, so I didn't delve into a lot of new recorded music, I'm afraid. Thus, the presence in the Top Ten of a TV show, some new stuff by people I've already covered, and a lot of hyper beats, cause when you're driving up the Grapevine and heading for Hollywood traffic, you need tunes that keep you on your toes.

    Timberlake10. Justin Timberlake – "LoveStoned" (Justice remix)
    (mp3 via Bridging the Atlantic)
    One of the most underwhelming tracks from the Trousersnake's album is turned into an epic disco megajam by the reigning kings of electro, and the fact that this doesn't come out sounding like Jamiroquai is a tribute to everyone involved. Instead, it's somewhere between the French duo's own "D.A.N.C.E." and classic Boney M, with totally up-to-date production values. What's not to love?

    Weeds9. Weeds (Monday nights on Showtime)
    Maybe this is a new tactic for TV shows: jump the shark immediately and get it out of the way. This dark comedy has always walked a very thin line between ridiculous melodrama and finely-honed satire, and at the end of last season, with everyone in a zany predicament, you had to wonder if it was just turning into a soap opera with pot. But this season, the writers seemed to remember that the show isn't called "Weed," and it's not really about drugs, it's about the weed-y people: flawed, scarred, not like everybody else, and barely keeping up on the payments for their "little boxes made of ticky tacky." For instance, a recent moment where a cancer survivor revealed her scarred breasts had surprising pathos, even though it was in a sex scene with Matthew Modine.

    mojo-photo-tt-jayz.JPG8. Jay-Z – "Blue Magic" (from American Gangster, out Nov 8 on Island Def Jam)
    (Stream at the Island Records site)
    Hova's surprise return to the music biz turns out to be a concept album based on the Frank Lucas biopic of the same name, and the lead single has an urgent intensity that we've come to expect from one of our greatest rappers ever. He addresses the complicated topic—drugs and dealing—with complex lyrics: "Blame Reagan for making me into a monster/Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra/I ran contraband that they sponsored." So, everybody out there who doesn't like gangster rap: is it okay if it's about a gangster movie?

    Look ma no hands7. Arcade Fire – "Neon Bible"
    (crazy interactive video thing that you can watch here)
    Well, the secret Arcade Fire website turned out to be an interactive video for the title cut from the Montreal combo's critically-acclaimed album. What, you were hoping for an Arcade Fire remix album produced by James Murphy? Who gave you that idea? Anyway, this song wasn't my favorite from the album, but the video is a lot of oddly creepy fun: you can do stuff to it! Go click around!

    Goose6. Goose – "Bring It On" (from Bring It On on Skint)
    (listen at their MySpace here)
    While this track is over a year old, I just can't escape it these days; it keeps turning up in DJ mixes all over the place, and seeping into my brain. The multi-part harmony in the chorus elevates what could be typical hoover-y blog-techno into something that just plain rocks. Go, Belgium. Apparently they started out as an AC/DC cover band, so there's that.

    Bad Moon Rising

    | Mon Oct. 8, 2007 7:52 PM EDT

    Along with the esteem and credibility this administration has cost us in the world, will it also end African Americans' storied role in the armed forces? Blacks are fleeing in droves from the recruiters' offices they once thronged. According to the Boston Globe:

    Defense Department statistics show the number of young black enlistees has fallen by more than 58 percent since fiscal year 2000. The Army in particular has been hit hard: In fiscal year 2000, according to the Pentagon statistics, more than 42,000 black men and women applied to enlist; in fiscal year 2005, the most recent for which a racial breakdown is available, just over 17,000 signed up.

    No other groups' enlistment figures have dropped more. No wonder, with 83% of the black community opposing the war and this administration. One has to wonder about the long term implications most, though. The military, for all its racial problematics (which the article thoroughly lays out) has long been the black and working class safety valve; if you couldn't go to college, you could serve your country, be respected, and make a good living. You could help out the folks back home and make yourself much more employable after either a hitch or a career. One can only wonder how this turn of events will affect already bad black socio-economics and even crime rates because it's doubtful that the majority of those blacks who pass on the uniform will either head off for college or a high paying job. We'll all be dealing with the ripple effects of the Bush years for a long, long time.

    Coffee or Microchips? Costa Rica Faces Tough Decision

    | Mon Oct. 8, 2007 7:35 PM EDT

    The United States' war on Latin American populism has been around for decades, but this time it is being played out in the last place that the U.S. could have predicted: Costa Rica. This peaceful (they don't have an army) and U.S.-friendly country voted Sunday on whether or not to ratify the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Costa Rica is the only country in the region that has not done so.

    The country is divided. President Oscar Arias won the general election last February based on a platform supporting the referendum, although he doesn't have much of a mandate; Arias beat his opposition by only 2 percent. Costa Ricans are split almost evenly between those who wish to ratify this neo-liberal agreement and those who side with the rising tide of leftist politics in Latin America. Last weekend, 100,000 Costa Ricans opposed to the agreement marched in the capital of San Jose.

    The arguments for each side mirror the ideological arguments surrounding the issue in both North and South America. Supporters, including the president, say that the pact is necessary in order to create jobs and expand its fledgling technology sector. Opponents fear that it will make the rich richer, the poor poorer, and saturate the market with cheap imports from multinationals, hurting local business.

    This is an ideological battle on the most general grounds as well, between privatization and nationalization. As part of the Act, the United States is demanding that Costa Rica privatize its nationalized telecommunications and insurance sectors. This might seem like a somewhat innocuous political battle in a tiny country that has little to no influence on the global economy, but symbolically this is an incredibly important decision. Costa Rica is now centrally positioned not only geographically but as a battlefield in the opposing ideologies of North and South America.

    —Andre Sternberg

    Marijuana Laws Cost Taxpayers Billions

    | Mon Oct. 8, 2007 7:23 PM EDT

    A new study finds the marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers $41.8 billion a year in law enforcement, diverts $113 billion from the legal economy, and loses a whopping $31.1 billion in revenue annually. The Marijuana Policy Project reports the sad numbers. I mean, think how many wars we could fund with that kind of money. Not to mention the cost of all the enviro-damage from growing in national parks and supposedly pristine wilderness areas. Not to mention the good medicine never taken.

    And—shhh—don't tell the boozers, but Lawrence Welk—or Myron Floren—was on the toke many, many moons ago. Clearly the weed's been mainstream forever. Check out the video, sans bubbles:

    Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, "The Fragile Edge," and other writings, here.