Friday, July 25, 2008

An Appeal for Action (Thoughts on CNN’s Black in America Series)

Read this post on the Jamestown Project's Blog, the Democracy Spot.

I have received several emails and phone calls from friends and family who have been moved to tears of sadness (laced with hope) by what they saw on CNN last night. The program made me reflect on an exchange I had with a colleague a few years ago when my son was less than two years old. My colleague was an older White man for whom I had unyielding affection and respect. Despite his political leanings, which were opposite from mine, we actually shared common values and principles including a love of justice and fairness and a commitment to education and hard work. I called him friend.

On this particular day, we were discussing my career choices and the impact on my young family. I remarked about the challenges that confronted me raising a Black boy in today’s society. To my surprise, he was taken aback, shocked that I would be so pessimistic to have even voiced such a concern. While I know that there is a gulf in this country between the Black experience and that of the average White American, I was surprised perhaps because I’d never judged this particular colleague to be “average.” In addition to his personal challenge of living with a disability, through countless conversations over the years, he’d consistently demonstrated a keen thoughtfulness on and compassionate understanding of the social ills that plagued our society.

So when my friend and colleague expressed his gall at my remark, when he interpreted it as a sign of weakness or pessimism, my spirit shrank, but I tried to explain. I tried to explain that I was committed to nothing less than a mother’s hope, faith and optimism for the life of my son. But that my reality, growing up Black in America, taught me that sometimes these commitments were not enough. I told him that my family was full of folks who had the same opportunities but ended up oceans apart due to life’s circumstances. I tried to explain that when I turned on the evening news to the constant bombardment of crime-ridden African-American images, my reality was that the star of the show could be my childhood friend, neighbor, cousin, uncle, brother, or even my son. I tried to explain that I was not pessimistic, I was realistic, that this was a war for the souls of my son and daughter, and that I was simply an activist mother that knew I had to put on my armor and do anything and everything possible to fight the battles and win the war. I wonder if he heard me or if the gulf that divided our realities was simply too vast, despite our common values and principles.

The CNN focus on Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and his brother Everett highlighted this reality for America. Two brothers, same parents, same opportunities, two very different outcomes. When I saw these two beautiful brothers sharing their story, I wanted to scream to my colleague and to so many others and say, “See, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you.” Though I am a hawk on the issue of personal responsibility in our community, it simply doesn’t go far enough to explain our collective condition. Everett Dyson explained his situation by highlighting the poor choices he’d made in his life. But the consequences of his “poor choices” and the consequences of those of the average American are vastly different. For a Black man, the unforgiving nature of our society is stinging.

But it is what it is. So this brings me back around to my role as the activist mother suiting herself and her children with armor. My experiences have taught me that for my children, there is little room for error. No pardons for pitiful choices they may make in their futures. So what is a mother to do? What is our community to do? What is America to do?

Last year, through The Jamestown Project I worked tirelessly on a campaign for the American family that largely fell on deaf ears. Perhaps because it was not highlighted on CNN. Perhaps because it had no champions like Soledad O’Brien, Bill Cosby, or D.L. Hughley to lift it up.

It started with a document entitled An Appeal to the American Imagination calling for the need for a radical change in direction – for the Black community and for all of America. It called Black America to a renewed commitment to 1) self-love, 2) family, and 3) education. It challenged all of America to renew its commitment to racial and economic justice, with a focus on strengthening the Black family, and to take steps to strengthen all families and to reform its poisonous media culture. Now that CNN has called the conversation, I encourage you to take the time. Read it. And sign the Appeal petition.

In addition to simply watching the CNN special (we all should) and signing onto the above-referenced Appeal (we all should), you can do more. The Jamestown Project designed three simple Checklists for Action for individuals, community organizations and churches and religious institutions. Read these Checklists. Incorporate some of the suggestions into your life, your church, and your community organizations. Urge your family, friends and networks to do the same.

The time has come for a fresh nationwide commitment to healing, renewal, and transformation. The CNN special, the historic candidacy of Barack Obama and the fact that you are reading these words right now all speak volumes. You are the leader that you have been looking for. You can take steps right now to help reset the moral compass of Black America and all of America. You can help to bridge the gulfs that divide us, setting the stage for our common principles and values to shine. None of us can do it alone. It starts today. And it begins with you.

Charisse Carney-Nunes, attorney and social entrepreneur, is Senior Vice-President of The Jamestown Project and the author of two children’s books, Nappy and I Dream for You a World.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Barack Is More Electable

Read this post on The Daily Voice

When my friend Keith Boykin asked me to reflect on my feelings on race and gender in the presidential campaign, I was reticent to add my voice. For one, I am thoroughly exhausted - as well as annoyed - by the 24-hour news cycle perpetuated by the media and political pundits who project their views on the American people while rarely speaking to ordinary Americans.

Secondly, though I am undoubtedly a strong and proud African-American woman (and have decades of friends who can vouch for that), I simply did not want to talk about race or gender. I didn't want to add yet another verse to the tired chorus of "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" or to "I am Woman, Hear me Roar." In the end, no one remembers the verses, but the ugly hook of "race vs. gender" plays endlessly in our minds.

I decided to write not only because I adore Keith, but because upon reflection I've concluded that I really didn't have to talk about race. Not directly anyway. To the contrary, I now believe that the fundamental issue of concern here is electability.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have been a long-time fan of Barack Obama. An "adopted" member of the Harvard Law School class of 1991 (I was actually '92), my friends and I were awed by his intellect, strength, leadership, vision and possibility - even then, it was clear.

Still, like many loyal Democrats, I felt torn during this primary season based on the incredible field of candidates. I like Hillary Clinton, and have a great deal of respect for much of the work she has done in the Senate and in general. And while I never considered Bill to be "the first Black president," like many Americans I had affection for him, much of which was rooted, no doubt, in his innate comfortableness with my culture and his evident understanding and ability to articulate our pain. As a student of politics and policy, I was well aware of the former president's occasional missteps on issues of interest to me (recall the demonization of Sista Souljah, the complete abandonment of Lani Guinier, welfare reform without real job creation or childcare reform, and much of his crime policy), but like many, I gave him the "family" pass, excusing his actions as "political."

But in recent weeks while those of us obsessed with politics were watching yet another cable network news show, something happened. Something happened while my friends and I were reading Gloria Steinheim's New York Times op-ed proclaiming gender as "the most restricting force in American life" and noting that Black men got the right to vote "a half century" before women of any race (irresponsibly overlooking the ensuing decades of lynchings and murderous suppression of voting and other civil rights as many of Steinheim's beloved suffragettes stood by enjoying privilege). While I was standing in front of an inside-the-beltway water cooler trying to explain to colleagues that my race and gender were inextricably intertwined, and that I often believe that the insidious nature of racism and sexism combined may be greater than either in isolation, something happened.

The rest of America said, "enough!"

I first noticed it when my father, a 68-year old retired African-American man in Florida (and loyal Democrat who at the time fit Hillary's demographic) announced to me that he was so offended by the Clintons' race-baiting that he would vote Republican before he'd ever vote for Hillary. (And this was well before Bill Clinton's Jesse Jackson comparison). Perhaps I have been in Washington too long but I was struck by the depth of his anger. So I reached out to others of different races and gender - including diehard Hillary Clinton supporters; I also asked about their family and friends. The results of my informal anecdotal poll were more powerful than any Gallup or media poll I'd read. While Washington pundits were drawing cartoons opining that both Obama and Clinton were equally to blame for the nasty tone in the Democratic primary, in conversations and emails across the country, ordinary Americans - Black, Latino, White and others - were becoming increasingly fed-up with Bill Clinton's (now obvious) racial attacks as Hillary stood by enjoying privilege. Sound familiar?

So all of this brings me, quite simply, to the issue of electability. To be sure, I support Barack Obama because he is experienced (he actually has more legislative experience than Senator Clinton), and because my personal experience knowing him authenticates the reasons that Caroline Kennedy and Toni Morrison so eloquently penned in their beautifully written pieces. To be sure, it would take volumes of drafting to explain the pride, power and inspiration that a "President Obama" will bring not only to my son and daughter, but also to my father who never thought he'd live to see such a day in America.

But what I now know for sure is a stone-cold hard fact. The polarizing strategy pursued by Bill Clinton (and acquiesced to by Hillary) has angered ordinary Americans. It angered not only African-Americans like my father who have lived and breathed the vile stench of racism for much of their lives, it also angered millions of younger African Americans, Latinos, Whites and all Americans who desperately want to move beyond the 20th century divisiveness that the Clinton strategy exemplified to a new day that is not about Black vs. White, Male vs. Female or Red vs. Blue. These Americans are craving something different, something better, something inspirational and have appealed to the better angels in our leaders and in all of us to create it.

I am gravely uncertain that these forward-looking Americans will forgive the Clinton tactics, abandon the Dream and simply support a Clinton Democratic nominee, rewarding the kind of behavior that they abhor. And sadly, that would only benefit the likely Republican nominee, John McCain, who for some reason is seen as a Republican maverick and is able to appeal to moderates, including African Americans like my dad. This is unacceptable to me. We do not need to take that chance. It need not happen. We don't have to abandon the Dream. We can answer the appeal to the better angels in all of us. We can hold on to the audacity of hope and ride it through to a clear victory in November. We can support Barack Obama. It is time for Obama. Now.

Charisse Carney-Nunes, attorney and social entrepreneur, is the author of two children's books and senior vice president of The Jamestown Project.