Month: October 2015

Why debate questions from Don Lemon would not have mattered

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Like many who watched Tuesday’s Democratic debate, I was a little annoyed by CNN’s choice to assign to debate moderators questions on the basis of their respective “identities” (Don Lemon got to field the “black” question, Juan Carlos Lopez the “immigrant” question, Dana Bush the “woman” question, and a young woman the “youth” [i.e., climate change] question). Those issues that were presumptively non-identity based – e.g., questions concerning our unending war on terror or TPP or Iran – were assigned primarily to Anderson Cooper, the white male who presided over the debate.

As tempting as it is to agree with some critics that CNN should have (as Janell Ross of the Washington Post argued) given Lemon and Lopez the opportunity to ask questions about, for example, “education,” “the economy,” “tax policy,” “Clinton’s reference to a New Deal,” “the Islamic State,” as well as “many of the other things that concern all Americans, including Americans who are not white,” it is hard to see this as a solution that addresses what was and is really at stake in CNN’s crass demonstration of tokenism and identity politics. For the truth of the matter is, had Lemon (who I’ll use as an example) had the opportunity to ask about Syria, his doing so would not have conveyed – by any stretch of the imagination – that Syria is an issue of importance to African American communities. This is because it is the practice of CNN – and the media writ large – to construe black interests solely in terms of race. Consequently, had Lemon asked about Syria, it would not have mattered one bit since Syria would have already been understood as an issue entirely outside of black people’s political, economic, and moral interests.

Of course, CNN and the media in general are greatly assisted by white as well as African American elites (on the right and left) in this reductionist practice concerning African American interests. It is telling, for example, that Bernie Sanders’ laudable Racial Justice platform does not intersect with or speak to his platform issue that focuses on the war on terror – though the devotion of over one trillion dollars to this disastrous adventure has cost black lives, militarized our police forces, eroded civil liberties, and come at the expense of addressing economic inequality (which African Americans suffer disproportionately). Given that the Racial Justice issue in Sanders’ platform at least nods to and intersects with other platform concerns, its silence on the issue of war and peace reinforces the presumption that the war (and foreign policy generally) doesn’t matter to African Americans and perhaps doesn’t even affect our day-to-day lives.

Permitting Lemon or Lopez to ask questions on “other” issues, therefore, would not have addressed this larger problem of how black interests are framed. What is needed, instead, is news and political analysis and candidate questions that assume African American communities (and Latino communities, and women) have a stake in our nation’s domestic and foreign policies that is shaped, no doubt, by our nation’s racial politics, but also by a host of other competing interests (such as class) and lived experiences within black communities that cannot possibly be conveyed by merely having Don Lemon ask more questions, and that problematize identity politics altogether.

I invite you to explore my recently published book, Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books, 2015), at

Oregon and our routine violence

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“Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.”

Yes, Mr. President. “Somehow” these terrible mass killings like the one in Oregon this past week have become – to our shame – mind-numbingly routine.

But context is everything.

This past Sunday, a U.S.-drone strike killed 85 suspected ISIL militants located in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan.

On Monday night, another unarmed man was shot by a police officer – this time, in Baltimore.

The following day, U.S. forces launched airstrikes in the outskirts of Kunduz, a northern Afghanistan city seized by the Taliban.

Early Wednesday morning, Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner. Richard Glossip, scheduled for execution in the state of Oklahoma, received a last minute stay because the physician whose job it was to kill him noticed that his cocktail of death was incorrect. Virginia, however, executed serial killer Alfredo Prieto on Thursday – the day a young man decided to go on a killing rampage at Umpqua Community College.

The broader and perhaps more pernicious routine to which we are subject, it seems to me, is our national violence, which we have by and large rendered mundane and certainly less important, less worthy of our consideration and reflection, than Donald Trump’s hair. As a nation-state, we kill and maim and bomb and torture and execute as if the free exercise of violence – whenever and wherever we choose – is the meaning and measure of democracy. We view our constitution’s Second, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments as doctrines that enshrine a right to kill (a right too many of us consider blessed by a god who – quiet as it’s kept – commanded unequivocally: “thou shalt not kill”) and thus as above critique and correction.

And so it is preposterous to decry the violence of our ordinary, everyday citizens, for if we are honest with ourselves – and we are not – we must admit that they perform the very essence of our national character.

So let’s just say it: we are a violent society. What we do the world over collectively through the state we do as well individually in our small towns, our suburbs, our urban centers. And unless and until we as a nation take up the challenge to undergo what Martin Luther King, Jr. called (in his critical speech on Vietnam) a “radical revolution of values” – a willingness, that is, to be outraged enough about our hate and violence to love one another into peaceful coexistence, with all of the economic and political policies that that requires (including an all-out ban on guns as well as the adoption of a foreign policy premised on nonviolence and reparations for the damage we have caused from our proxy wars) – then these terrible routines will surely destroy us all.

I invite you to explore my recently published book, Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books, 2015), at