Posted on July 1, 2009

O Tempora, O Mores! (July, 2009)

American Renaissance, July 2009

Cuento del Lado Oeste

Much has changed in the 50 years since West Side Story debuted on Broadway. For one thing, Puerto Ricans, or “Spanish” as many called them then, are no longer exotic to New York City — one is likely to be on the Supreme Court by summer’s end. Puerto Ricans started coming to the mainland by the thousands after the Second World War, and numbered 41,000 by 1960, making up 14 percent of the population between 58th and 110th Streets on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Today, nearly 4 million Puerto Ricans live in the United States, and fewer than 4 million live on the island itself. The Census Bureau estimated that the number of stateside Puerto Ricans first exceeded the number back home in 2003. Most Puerto Ricans have left Manhattan; there are 787,000 living in New York City, and only 6,700 in the old West Side Story neighborhood. There is still a Puerto Rican Day parade down Fifth Avenue every year, and the musical remains popular for school and amateur theatrics.

A new version opened on Broadway in March and has been nominated for several Tony awards. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the original play and at age 91 is directing the revival, says it needed a fresh approach. He insisted that all Puerto Rican roles go to Spanish-speaking Hispanics, and that they perform all of their parts in Spanish. Audiences therefore hear “Siento Hermosa” instead of “I Feel Pretty” and “Un Hombre Asi” instead of “A Boy Like That.” Mr. Laurents isn’t reviving West Side Story to appeal to Hispanics, who account for only 5.7 percent of all Broadway ticket sales. He says the Spanish “heightens emotional drama” by giving audiences “a truer sense of the cultural misunderstandings at the heart of” the play. Josefina Scaglione, the 21-year-old Argentine actress who plays Maria explains that her character “is from Puerto Rico, so she would speak Spanish with her friends.” [Patricia Cohen, Same City, New Story, New York Times, March 15, 2009, p. 1.]

Ticket sales matter, though, so Miss Scaglione’s looks have more in common with Natalie Wood’s than Sonia Sotomayor’s.

‘Too Christian’

In 1969, Queen Elizabeth established an award called the Trinity Cross of the Order of Trinity, to recognize “distinguished service and gallantry” in the former British colony of Trinidad and Tobago. Sixty-two people, including novelist V. S. Naipaul, have won the award. The islands have been independent since 1962 and severed ties to the monarchy in 1976, but chose to retain the British Privy Council as their final court of appeals.

Trinidad and Tobago have a population of 1.3 million; 80 percent are either of African or Indian descent, and 30 percent are either Muslim or Hindu. Hindus and Muslims have long objected to the Christian symbolism of the Trinity Cross — some have refused to accept it for that reason — and in 2004 a mixed group sued to have it renamed or retired. The High Court of Trinidad ruled that the decoration discriminated against non-Christians, but noted that it did not have the power to invalidate a royal award.

The plaintiffs then appealed to the Privy Council, which in May junked the award, saying it is “perceived by Hindus and Muslims . . . as an overtly Christian symbol both in name and in substance.” The Trinidad government established a new award called the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and conferred by the president.

It seems to have escaped the notice of Muslims and Hindus that Columbus named their country in recognition of the Holy Trinity. The name of Tobago also could be offensive. The cigar-shaped island’s name derives from the Spanish word for tobacco.

The British are squabbling over awards and decorations, too. In 2004, a parliamentary committee recommended reducing the number of decorations from twelve to four, and removing references to the Cross or Christian saints. Paul Flynn, a Labour member of the committee, said, “The titles are now meaningless, they are a remnant of another age and I don’t think they have any particular Christian significance.”

In 2003, black poet Benjamin Zephaniah publicly rejected the Order of the British Empire, saying it reminded him of white supremacy. In 2008, Christine Grahame, a member of the Scottish Parliament, declared the George Medal, the highest British civilian award for bravery, as unsuitable for Scots because it is “very clearly Anglocentric.” St. George is the patron saint of England. [David Brown, Queen’s Merit Decoration Ruled Illegal for Being Too Christian, Times (London), May 8, 2009, p. 6.]

Justice, Obama Style

In January, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a voter intimidation suit against the New Black Panther Party. Three party members showed up at a Philadelphia polling station last November, dressed like soldiers and armed with billy clubs. Footage aired on Fox News and CNN showed them menacing voters and making racial threats. DOJ lawyers argued that if it is left unpunished, the New Panther Party will “continue to violate . . . the Voting Rights Act by continuing to direct intimidation, threats and coercion at voters and potential voters . . . .” On April 20, the department won a default judgment in federal court when the Panthers named in the lawsuit — Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz, Minister King Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson — failed to appear.

On May 5, DOJ lawyers were working with Judge Stewart Dalzell to determine what penalties they would seek, but 10 days later they were overruled by political appointees in the department who told them to dismiss the complaints against Malik Zulu Shabazz and Mr. Jackson. They were ordered to seek a judgment against only the ringleader, King Samir Shabazz, with the laughable penalty of being forbidden to display a “weapon within 100 feet of any open polling location” until Nov. 15, 2012.

It is virtually unprecedented for the department to walk away from a default judgment. When asked why Justice reversed itself, spokesman Alejandro Miyar refused to explain, saying only that “claims were dismissed against the other defendants based on a careful assessment of the facts and the law.” [Jerry Seper, Career Lawyers Overruled on Voting Case, Washington Times, May 29, 2009.]

In a separate matter, the state of Georgia wants to make sure only US citizens vote in elections so it set up a verification system to check voters’ Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses. Last fall, Hispanic voters sued, claiming discrimination, and in October, a three-judge federal panel ordered the state to seek Justice Department approval for the ID checks under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Georgia is one of several states that need federal permission before changing election rules because of a “history of discriminatory, Jim Crow-era voting practices.”

At the end of May, the department ruled that verification had a “discriminatory effect” against non-white voters and must stop. “This flawed system frequently subjects a disproportionate number of African-American, Asian and/or Hispanic voters to additional, and more importantly, erroneous burdens on the right to register to vote,” a DOJ official wrote, claiming that Justice found more than 7,000 cases in which the system mistakenly flagged an eligible voter as an illegal. (According to the Georgia Secretary of State, there are 5,588,218 registered voters. Assuming Justice got the numbers right, that means the system is 99.9987 percent accurate.)

Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican who is running for governor next year, complained that “clearly, politics took priority over common sense and good public policy.” She says 2,100 people who attempted to register to vote last year still have “unresolved questions” about their citizenship, and that her inspector general is investigating more than 30 cases of non-citizens casting ballots in Georgia elections.

The US Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the portion of the Voting Rights Act that requires Georgia and a few other states to seek federal approval before they can change election laws. [Shannon McCaffrey, Feds Spike Voter Citizenship Checks in Georgia, AP, June 1, 2009.]

Persistent Gap

More than seven years have passed since No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), President Bush’s much ballyhooed effort to close the racial achievement gap, went into effect. There is little to show for the $100 billion NCLB has cost taxpayers. Blacks and Hispanics are getting better scores on standardized tests, but so are whites, and while the gap has narrowed slightly since the 1970s, it remains wide. The US Department of Education says it is roughly equivalent to between two and three school years’ worth of learning, meaning that blacks in their senior year test at about the level of whites at the beginning of their sophomore years. “There’s not much indication that NCLB is causing the kind of change we were all hoping for,” says G. Gage Kingsbury, a testing expert who is a director at the Northwest Evaluation Association in Portland.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, believes schools need to do more for black students at an early age. “Where there are programs that encourage that additional work, students of color do the work and their performance improves and the gap narrows,” he says. [Sam Dillon, ‘No Child’ Law Is Not Closing a Racial Gap, New York Times, April 28, 2009, p. A1] If whites got the same attention, the gap might widen.

Not So Tragic Anymore

According to the latest Census Bureau estimates, there are now 5.2 million multiracial Americans. Since 2000 their number has risen 33 percent and they are now 3.4 percent of the population. Demographers say celebrities like Tiger Woods and Barack Obama are making multiracialism more acceptable. By percentages, Hawaii has the most multiracial people with close to 20 percent, followed by Alaska and Oklahoma, both with about 4 percent.

“Multiracial unions have been happening for a very long time, but we are only now really coming to terms with saying it’s OK,” says Carolyn Liebler, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. She thinks many more simply have not classified themselves accurately. “Millions are yet to come out,” she says.

Kayci Baldwin, 17, of Middletown, New Jersey, says she remembers how her black father and white mother worried whether she would fit in. While she at first struggled with her identity, Baldwin now embraces it, sponsoring support groups and a nationwide multiracial teen club with 1,000 members. “I went to my high school prom last week with my date who is Ecuadoran-Nigerian, a friend who is Chinese-white and another friend who is part Dominican,” she explains. “While we are a group that was previously ignored in many ways, we now have an opportunity to fully identify and express ourselves.”

About one in 13 marriages are mixed race, with the most common being white-Hispanic, white-American Indian and white-Asian. More than half of the multiracial population is younger than 20 years old. [Multiracial America is Fastest Growing Group, AP, May 28, 2009.]

White Baby Boom?

It used to be said that there were more dogs than children in San Francisco, but the city is now seeing its biggest increase in the number of births since the early 1970s. More than 9,000 babies were born in San Francisco in 2007, the most since 1994, and the number of children under age five has increased 24 percent since 2000. Three fourths of the increase is among whites. San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, a homosexual man raising his 2-1/2-year-old daughter with a lesbian partner, says, “There has been a demographic boom in the gay community having kids,” but the trend isn’t just among homosexuals, nor is it limited to the Bay Area.

White families are fueling increases in the child population in several cities that were worried about dwindling numbers. “I think there is a new generation of white, well-off parents who want to stay in the city, in high-amenity cities like San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., and Portland,” says William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. “They are willing to pay for private schools and child-safe neighborhoods in order to do this. It’s a trend that wasn’t apparent for the baby boomers, who left for the suburbs when they started having kids.” However, he adds, “This is not a trend that’s going to sweep the country. It’s going to sweep pockets of wealth and privilege and upper middle-class lifestyles.” [Mike Swift, San Francisco Sees Baby Boom, Mercury News (San Jose), May 24, 2009.]

21 Children, 11 Mothers, 1 Father

Desmond Hatchett is a busy man. The 29-year-old minimum-wage worker from Knoxville, Tennessee, is father of at least 21 children, ranging from newborn to 11-years-old, with at least 11 different women. In May, Mr. Hatchett appeared in Juvenile Child Support Court to explain why he hasn’t paid what he owes to the mothers of 15 of his children. The women are supposed to get anywhere from $25 to $309 a month, but when his garnished paycheck is divvied up, some women only get $1.98 a month. He managed to bring $400 to court, which was split among the mothers, but he faces jail time if he can’t pay more. The court cannot keep Mr. Hatchett behind bars forever, which means he will probably sire even more children for which the taxpayers of Tennessee will provide. [Cris Mullen, Man Has 21 Children with 11 Mothers, WTSP-TV (Tampa Bay), May 23, 2009.]

Kiss Off

Carolyn Forword is a 22-year-old South African actress who used to be in a production of The Pied Piper of Hamelin with the Riverside Theatre Company, based in Cape Town. There are one black and three white actors in a play that is intended to promote racial harmony to South African children. The script calls for Miss Forward’s character to kiss the character played by the black actor, 28-year-old Unathi Dyantyi. She didn’t like kissing him and left the production after 12 performances.

Mr. Dyanti is angry. “She said she found it unnecessary and the kiss was unhygienic,” he says. He also thinks he knows why she didn’t want to kiss him: “There is still racism in South African theater today, but it’s very subtle.”

“It is a play for eight-year-olds,” counters Miss Forword. “They wanted me to kiss the guy for 20 seconds, which is inappropriate for that audience. It wouldn’t have gone down well at a Catholic school, for example. It would have been unhygienic because it was a traveling show. I pulled out because the director never gave my agent an idea of where we were staying. It had nothing to do with the kissing thing. But now I’m seen as a racist.”

The play’s director, Leslie Ehrhardt, supports Mr. Dyantyi. “Without a doubt there was a racial element from the word go until the very end,” he says. “Carolyn underlined it with her general behavior towards Unathi. She pushed him away and her face was screwed up, as if kissing him was the worst thing in the world.” He sees a larger tragedy: “It undermines what people did here in the 60s, 70s and 80s in using theatre to challenge apartheid.” [David Smith, White Actor’s Refusal to Kiss Black Man Turns Into a Race Row in South Africa, Guardian (London), May 28, 2009.]

Not Guilty After All

When Brandon McClelland’s mangled body was found by police in Paris, Texas last September, authorities feared they had another James Byrd case on their hands. James Byrd was the black man who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death by three whites in Jasper, Texas in 1998. The Byrd death was frequently cited as evidence of the need for state and national “hate” crime laws and was an issue during the 2000 presidential campaign.

Forensics tests determined that McClelland’s body was caught under a truck and that he was dragged at least 70 feet. Police arrested two white men, Shannon Finley and Charles Crostley, friend’s of McClelland’s who were drinking with him the day he died. Prosecutors contended that Mr. Finley and Mr. Crostley deliberately ran over McClelland, who was black, after a drunken argument. The case garnered national attention (the men were presumed guilty be the media), and brought out protesters from the Nation of Islam, the New Black Panther Party, and one lonely counter-demonstrator from the Ku Klux Klan.

Mr. Finley and Mr. Crostley always said they were innocent, and over the last few months the case against them has unraveled. They told police that they argued over whether Mr. Finley was too drunk to drive, and McClelland got out of the car to walk home. Investigators could find none of McClelleand’s DNA on Mr. Finley’s pickup. In May, the driver of a gravel truck gave a sworn statement acknowledging he might have accidentally run over McClelland, and in June, prosecutors dropped the charges. “I think it’s very simple,” says David Turner, Mr. Crostley’s lawyer. “These fellows didn’t do it.”

Mr. Finley and Mr. Crostley were released from jail on June 4. They had been behind bars since they were arrested last September, since they were unable to post bond. [Charges Dropped in Black Man’s Dragging Death, AP, June 4, 2009.] Their release has attracted little attention. Had blacks been finally let out of jail after being found innocent of racially-charged accusations there would have been much soul-searching about a primitive Texan justice system that had falsely accused innocent blacks.

Uncharming City

Baltimore used to call itself “Charm City,” but these days the name rings hollow. Gangs of black thugs are roaming the Inner Harbor and downtown tourist areas, fighting each other and attacking tourists. Most of the victims are white, and the attacks seem to be pure sport rather than robbery. The usual pattern is that whites are attacked from behind without warning by groups that may include young women as well as men.

No one has been killed in the recent incidents, but a May 24 attack was a near miss. A gang of blacks jumped off-duty policeman George Williams, who was visiting Baltimore from his home in Brick Township, New Jersey, with his girlfriend, Marisa Parish. Mr. Williams says four black men and three women attacked them as they walked along a downtown street. One thug pulled a knife and put it to Miss Parish’s face while a woman held her from behind. The men started punching and kicking Mr. Williams, and threw him to the ground. “They were using my head for a soccer ball — back and forth, back and forth,” he explains, and some were shouting “you’re dead.” Miss Parish managed to break away and shield Mr. Williams’s head from further kicks. She was knocked out but probably saved his life. Ironically, Mr. Williams’s hometown, Brick Township, was voted America’s Safest City in 2006.

Baltimore police say that even with this rash of attacks, downtown and the Inner Harbor are the safest places in the city, at least during the day. They have increased the number of officers patrolling the waterfront at night from 12 to 40, and have also stepped up foot patrols in other areas. [Justin Fenton, Assaults on Rise in Downtown, Inner Harbor, Baltimore Sun, May 31, 2009.]