Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

17 July 2007

Random Thoughts on Race in America

Two TV features last weekend created an interesting juxtaposition. A segment of Sixty Minutes, the CBS Television News Magazine, dealt with a man named Sam Simon, an ex-TV-producer who lives in luxury on a six-acre estate in Malibu, California, one of the world’s richest beach communities.

Simon has an interesting history. He co-produced the first few years of the cartoon show The Simpsons. The intensity of that experience and his interaction with his colleagues, he explained, drove him crazy. So he negotiated an exit contract and left the show.

Simon’s contract gave him a “piece of the action” not only for the episodes he co-produced, but for all future Simpsons episodes and related reruns and merchandizing rights. The show has been so successful that his income from that contract amounts to over $10 million per year. Apparently he was a good negotiator.

Now Simon is not a bad person. He spends much of his millions running a high-class dog shelter on his huge estate. The shelter saves dogs that otherwise might be put down. It also trains “helper” dogs for deaf people.

Yet Simon is twice married, twice divorced. He seems a thoroughly self-indulgent man. When he speaks of his former work driving him “crazy,” it’s hard to sympathize with him, not only because of his wealth, but because he looks and sounds like a spoiled brat when he recalls how “hard” it was. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t get along with his colleagues. He’s an interesting character, but I found it impossible to admire or even to envy him.

A segment of Now, on PBS, dealt with a very different sort of character: Robert Moses. People my age will remember his name, if not his image. A handsome and earnest guy, he was a key leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. After having just faced down dogs, guns and high-pressure water cannon, he would turn to the TV cameras. He would explain, in articulate English—without a trace of anger or bitterness—why descendants of Africans in the South wanted their rights as Americans and how they intended to secure them peacefully. His aplomb before the cameras was as impressive as his courage on the streets.

When the segment on him started, I thought it would focus on his heroism in the sixties. But no, Moses had a second act. At the age when most people are ready to retire, he had reinvented himself as a high-school algebra teacher. He had become the leader of an educational movement designed to inspire inner-city kids with a love of algebra and creative problem-solving in mathematics. He used algebra to instill in them self-confidence, love of learning and the drive to succeed.

Moses’ algebra project had been so successful that 10,000 kids were benefiting from his method, and most of them were going on to college. You could see the joy and self-confidence in their faces, and you could hear their educational achievement in their clear and forceful articulation.

Now I don’t know whether Moses was a math prodigy as well as a hero. But I suspect he had to bone up on algebra to be so successful both in teaching it and teaching others to teach it well. It struck me that there might be no limit to the man’s courage, perseverance, and dedicated intelligence. Whatever problem he addressed—whether a nationwide denial of civil rights or a vast gap in education—his personal algebra would come up with an answer.

This odd juxtaposition of segments made me wonder. How many people like Simon are there, with no African blood, whom birth or family wealth or sheer luck dealt a winning hand, but who in the end seem sorry excuses for human beings? How many people like Moses are there, whose African heritage forced them to overcome obstacles that most of us never see in our worst nightmares? How many, like him, surmount those hurdles with courage, intelligence and grace? How many other such superheroes are there in our nation, unsung and unnoticed, until discovered at random by a news reporter with a sharp eye for character?

My thoughts then turned to Colin Powell. I’m sorry, but I can’t think of Colin Powell without tearing up. I weep not for him, nor for his much abused and much underestimated race. I weep for myself and my country. You see, I just can’t help believing that Colin Powell would be president today if only he had run in 2000.

In that alternative universe, the last seven years of our national nightmare become pleasant dreams. We are not at war in Iraq. Or we have capitalized cleverly on our quick initial victory, stabilized the nation, and are on our way to full and victorious withdrawal. The attacks of 9/11 did not happen; or, if they did, bin Laden and Zawahiri are captured or dead.

As for me personally, I don’t have to wince each time I hear our president speak. Instead, I enjoy Powell’s proper English, soft voice, gentility and quiet determination. I don’t have to fear for my country’s future but have confidence in our president’s good judgment. I don’t have to explain to foreign colleagues that I didn’t vote for the president and that I trust he is an historical anomaly and does not reflect our national values. In my alternative universe with President Powell, I am proud of my country and its leader.

Whenever my mind drifts down this track—as it has countless times over the last seven years—I marvel at the twist of fate. How, I ask myself, could a swaggering bully like Bush, a man without a trace of intelligence, judgment or character, end up as president of the United States? How could a man with Colin’s Powell’s obvious talents becomes marginalized as Secretary of State? How could his good advice, which could have saved us untold pain and suffering, go unheeded? Did the accident of their birth set their fates? Is being white and a former president’s rich and idle son an insuperable advantage, no matter how despicable a human being you might be? Is African blood an insuperable obstacle, now matter how good your judgment, how bright your mind, how noble your character?

My random thoughts next turn to, of all things, congestion pricing in New York City. That’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s now aborted plan to charge drivers a fee of $8 per car and $21 per truck for weekday entry into the most congested parts of Manhattan. London and Stockholm had used a similar approach successfully to cut both traffic and pollution. Careful studies showed that the plan would decrease traffic and pollution by 20%, with corresponding decreases in travel time within Manhattan.

A parking place in central Manhattan recently went on the market for $225,000. If I were rich enough to pay that much for a parking space, I know I would fight tooth and nail for the chance to pay $8 for each commute and receive, in return, a shorter, less congested and less smoggy ride. Most travelers in Manhattan take the subway or a cab, and cab rides would also be quicker and more pleasant with less congestion. Polls showed that New Yorkers generally favored Bloomberg’s plan, and it seemed like a no-brainer.

Enter the New York state legislature. The City had to apply for up to $500 million in federal funds to pay for the program, for such things as automatic cameras and computers to enforce the pricing system. In order to get that federal money, the state legislators had to sign on to the plan. All they had to do was approve the plan to get up to half a billion federal dollars for the city that puts their state on the map everywhere on the globe.

Did they? No. And why didn’t they? No particular reason. They just didn’t like the cut of Bloomberg’s jib. Some Democrats resented him for switching to the Republican party in order to win the mayor’s office. Some resented his success as mayor and his lofting a trial balloon for the presidency as an independent. Some had the gall to claim that he had not explained the program adequately, when his staff had provided material three months in advance and even I, who lived in New York only briefly 30 years ago, knew most of its details.

When I read that article, I was dumfounded. I could not believe that grown-up legislators could destroy such a promising and innovative energy-saving program for such petty, stupid and childish reasons. And then I recalled Congress and Washington over the last decade. As I began to wonder how soon the United States might devolve into a third-world nation, I thought again of race.

Without giving up my anonymity, I can confess I have no African blood. I hope that I’ve managed to expunge both racism and reverse racism from my psyche. Every time I have trouble seeing an African-American in perspective, I imagine that he or she is white. Sometimes that helps.

But try as I might, I just can’t imagine Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Robert Moses or Charlie Rangel being as stupid and petty as the members of the New York Legislature. They weren’t born with Dubya’s family or Sam Simon’s luck. They had to fight for every step forward. They had to ignore the slings and arrows of outrageous insult every day of their lives. Their struggles made them serious people. Their African blood and the constant pressure of American racism didn’t give them the luxury of indolence, pettiness or stupidity.

My mind drifted back to Robert Moses, and I thought again about his algebra. Surely if the New York legislature were full of Robert Moseses, it could add two and two. Surely if Congress could do algebra like him, it could find a way out of Iraq and convince even a recalcitrant president. We should be so lucky.

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