Friday, July 27, 2012

Erect monument for martyrs to the 2nd Amendment


They are among the latest martyrs to the Second Amendment – the 70 moviegoers who were shot, 12 fatally, in a Denver suburb last week. Politicians will wring their hands, but won’t rein in guns because they regard as sacrosanct the right of a person to own a ton of firepower. They value that right more than life itself.

But don’t they at least owe tribute to the innocents who pay for our lax gun laws with their blood? I propose that Congress erect on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a monument to the Second Amendment martyrs. Private organizations, like the National Rifle Association, could help finance the project.

The monument could take the shape of a bullet with the names of the many thousands of  martyrs etched on it. Or it could take the form of a giant pistol with thousands of notches on the handle, one for each innocent killed, à la the Wild West. Or maybe the monument could go high tech, with flashing images of the men and women and boys and girls who spilt their blood for the Second Amendment.

You’d think that, in the face of bloodbaths – such as at Columbine and Virginia Tech – our politicians would narrow gun rights. Well, they did the opposite. In the last decade, Congress let the ban on semiautomatic weapons expire; one statehouse after another permitted the carrying of concealed firearms, and the nation's top court ensconced the right of individuals to bear arms more firmly in the U.S. Constitution. Even the shooting of one of their own, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, has failed to move politicians to reverse course.

International comparisons point to the role our lax gun laws play in our frequent murders and occasional massacres.  With an assault rate more than twice as high as America’s, Great Britain appears to be the more violent country. Yet, paradoxically, America’s murder rate is almost four times Britain’s. In other words, though violent conflicts happen more frequently in Britain, they are far less likely to end up as homicides there than in the United States. The most logical explanation: The United Kingdom’s strict gun controls mean that guns don’t wildly proliferate there,  as they do in America. So Britons are less likely than Americans to reach for a gun to settle their differences. Yes, NRA, guns do kill.

Canada, which has stricter gun laws than does the United States, shows a similar pattern. Its assault rate is almost twice  America’s. Yet, the murder rate of the United States is almost three times that of Canada’s.

Tellingly, James E. Holmes, the accused shooter at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., broke no law in purchasing a semiautomatic rifle with a 100-round barrel magazine and perhaps two semiautomatic pistols, as well as a shotgun. He violated no law in buying over the Internet 3,000 rounds for the rifle, another 3,000 for the pistols and 350 shotgun shells.

So highly do they value the right to bear arms, American politicians want everybody to have the ability to be armed for combat. Inevitably, that combat will from time to time take place against unsuspecting civilians at a movie theater, in a classroom, at a political event – a price that politicians show through their action and inaction they are willing to pay. But if they’re going to sacrifice lives to the almighty gun, the least they can do is pay homage to those lives with a Second Amendment monument on the National Mall.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Photo ID beneftits hard to detect, judge notes

In striking down the nation’s most draconian photo ID mandate for voting, a Wisconsin judge said this week of the law in question: “Serious recent efforts to investigate voter fraud have found nothing (emphasis mine) that Act 23 would have prevented.”

Critics typically argue that such laws are unnecessary since voter fraud is rare. But they are actually understating their case. After all, tighter identification requirements can prevent just one type of voter fraud: the use of a false identity to vote. Try though they have, the authorities in Wisconsin have uncovered not a single, solitary case of identification fraud at the polls in recent decades.

In other words, the type of fraud a stricter ID law can possibly curb is rarer than rare. It’s almost non-existent in Wisconsin and, I daresay, throughout the land.

Republicans like to muddy the waters, though, by citing any hint of fraud, however faint, and claiming that a strict photo ID requirement would somehow solve the problem. For instance, official probes of voting have uncovered a few felons who have cast ballots while they were still on probation or parole, in violation of Wisconsin law. The fix? A sterner ID law, of course. Trouble is, identification isn’t the issue. The voting felons had used their real names, which they backed up in some cases with driver’s licenses – the chief form of ID required by the stricken law. Act 23 has absolutely no capacity – I repeat, none – to stop a felon with a requisite ID from illegally voting.

Chaos and confusion prevailed at the polls during the 2004 presidential election in Milwaukee and elsewhere in Wisconsin, as a large turnout overwhelmed unprepared and understaffed polling sites. Clerical errors and miscues abounded. Republican politicians like to portray this bureaucratic bungling as widespread voter fraud – a bogus claim that Wisconsonite Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, repeated last May. The fix is again, of course, a stiffer ID requirement. The real remedy, however, was a staff better prepared to handle a tidal wave of voters, as evidenced by the smoothly run presidential election of 2008.

The law’s scant benefit contrasts with the ample harm it could do to the sacred voting rights of the 300,000-plus Wisconsin voters who lack a requisite photo ID, Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan noted Tuesday. He became the second Wisconsin judge to permanently bar enforcement of the law on the grounds that it violated the Wisconsin Constitution, which, unlike the U.S. Constitution, specifically protects the right to vote. (The 15th amendment of the federal Constititution does broach the topic, outlawing infringement of the right to vote on account “of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”)

Flanagan ruled on a suit brought by the Milwaukee NAACP branch; Voces de la Frontera, a Wisconisin immigrant-rights group; and 12 individuals. In March Dane County Judge Richard Niess permanently blocked the voter ID law in a case brought by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

The Republican electoral romp in state governments across the country in 2010 led to the passage of tighter ID laws for voting in 11 states, including Wisconsin. Flanagan notes that the Wisconsin law appears to be the strictest in that the range of allowable forms of ID is the narrowest and that the recourse for voters who lack the requisite IDs is the most limited.

The two cases now go to an appeals court, which should pay heed to this insight from Flanagan: “Act 23 addresses a problem which is very limited, if indeed it exists. It does not appear to recognize or account for the difficulty its demands impose upon indigent and elderly citizens who are eligible under the constitution to vote. It offers no flexibility, no alternative to prevent the exclusion of a constitutionally qualified voter. Given the sacred, fundamental interest at issue, it is clear that Act 23, while perhaps addressing a legitimate concern, is not sufficiently narrow to avoid needless and significant impairment of the right to vote.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wisconsin's middle-class still needs saving


The movement that sought unsuccessfully to oust Scott Walker from Wisconsin’s governorship must by no means disband. Rather, it must dig in for the long haul.

The fight always centered on the plight of Wisconsin’s middle class – a plight Walker’s victory Tuesday keeps in jeopardy.

This is no time to sulk. Ousting Walker from office was a long shot anyway. Besides, in the one bright spot,  the Democrats did seize control of the state Senate – which should keep Walker from ramrodding more of his right-wing agenda through the Legislature. The movement deserves praise for getting as far as it did. Now, it must keep fighting this good fight.
Illustration by Resizia
The middle-class has gotten weaker in large part because unions have gotten weaker. Private-sector unions were the first to bite the dust. Thus, public-sector unions long carried the torch for the working person. But Walker fixed that. He eviscerated public-sector unions in Wisconsin, in line with the Republican tendency to tilt power away from working people and toward rich corporations.

I myself have been a critic of public-sector unions, particularly for teachers and police officers. But, in contrast to Walker, I believe in their right to exist. In fact, the role they play in society is vital.

During the campaign Walker intimated that he would make nice to the other side – a meaningless promise unless he intends to restore to the unions the right to collectively bargain. Which, of course, he does not intend.to do.

Walker is pursuing policies that would hasten the growth of income inequality in Wisconsin and the decline of the middle-class. His opposition can’t just give in. Rather, it must work out a long-term strategy for winning.

True, in smashing the unions, Walker is decimating the source of large amounts of Democratic funds, leaving Republican corporate campaign money with no rival. So keeping up the fight for the middle class will become tougher. But that fight must nonetheless be waged.

This post was revised later on June 6 to reflect the Democratic takeover of the Wisconsin Senate – which had not been clear at the time this article was originally written.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Walker kills Milwaukee jobs, makes Barrett the fall guy


Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
You’d think you wouldn’t need a Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote in this case. After all, Scott Walker killed jobs in Milwaukee in broad daylight, with eyewitnesses all over the place. He single-handedly idled scores of construction workers, engineers and others when he halted newly initiated work on a planned rail line between Beer Town and the capitol city, handing back to the feds $810 million in stimulus money and the thousands of jobs it promised to stimulate.

Yet, Walker is pointing a finger at a fall guy. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is to blame for the city’s sluggish economy, Walker insists. Demonstrating an uncanny ability to fog minds, the governor may get away with this misdirection.

Amid the bravado with which Walker delivered his victory speech after Tuesday’s recall primary, it was easy to forget a little detail: Under Walker, Wisconsin leads the nation in job loss. Walker kept the focus on Milwaukee, whose unemployment numbers and poverty levels he derided, as if his hands were clean. “We don’t want to be like Milwaukee,” he thundered.

Ouch. The city can’t help but feel like the state’s unwanted stepchild. The March jobless rate for Milwaukee was 10.4%. For Wausau, it was 10.1%. Yet, you can’t imagine the governor sneering, We don’t want to be like Wausau – even were he running against Wausau’s mayor.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett
Actually, Walker is deeply implicated in Milwaukee’s plight. Not only did he actively kill jobs, but, for crying our loud, he served as Milwaukee County executive for eight years. True, when he ran for governor in 2010, he disowned responsibility for the city – a pattern he’s now repeating. But that denial raises the issue of what was the point of his being county exec. He boasts submitting budgets with no tax increases and keeping light rail out of the city, but none of these “accomplishments” apparently made the city better off, to judge from his own description of how bad things are in Milwaukee.

Walker helped shape Milwaukee’s plight even before he was county exec. As a state lawmaker, he helped put together Wisconsin Works, which replaced the thoroughly vilified Aid to Families with Dependent Children. To hear Walker and his colleagues talk back then, this new way of aiding needy moms and their kids was supposed to liberate families from poverty. But in noting that Milwaukee has one of the worst poverty rates in the nation, Walker inadvertently indicted W-2 as a failure.

Barrett, the Democrat chosen to face the Republican Walker in the recall election, has helped attract companies to Milwaukee. One such company is Talgo, the Spanish train maker, which set up shop at the old Tower plant at Townsend and 28th Streets. But Walker is chasing that company out of town by quashing its business due to the governor’s distaste for rail.

You’d think this wouldn’t be much of a whodunit. Walker is holding the smoking gun. The corpse is at his feet. The victim’s blood is on his hands. And eyewitnesses saw him shoot. Yet, Walker is brazenly pointing his finger at Barrett.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

GOP two-faced on stay-at-home moms


Stay-at-home moms get much homage from Republicans – unless the moms happen to be poor.

A Democratic operative and talking head by the name of Hilary Rosen made a half-baked remark on CNN last week when she said that Ann Romney, mother of five and wife of Mitt, “has never actually worked a day in her life.”

Ann Romney
Dems, like Michelle Obama, almost beat Republicans out of the gate to condemn the tactless comment, which Rosen has since taken back. Nonetheless – surprise! – the GOP is exploiting the incident for political gain.

"I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys.” Mrs. Romney tweeted. “Believe me, it was hard work." Amen went the GOP chorus.

Ann Romney further confided on Fox News that her husband has considered her career choice more important than his: "He would say, 'My job is temporary...Your job is a forever job that's going to bring forever happiness.’"

During the welfare debate of the 1990s, however, the Republican Party pooh-poohed such reasoning. Needy, single moms who stayed home to raise children got scorn, not sympathy. They should get their lazy butts off the couch and get a job, the party said, by which the GOP did not mean a job inside the home.

The reasoning behind Aid to Families with Dependent Children, welfare as we used to know it, sounded a lot like Ann Romney’s defense of her stay-at-home role. A presidential panel wrote in 1935 that the program was designed to "release from the wage-earning role the person whose natural function is to give her children the physical and affectionate guardianship necessary not alone to keep them from falling into social misfortune, but more affirmatively to make them citizens capable of contributing to society."

But the mood changed by the ’90s as AFDC recipients morphed into Cadillac-driving, steak-buying, couch-lounging welfare queens in the GOP’s fervid imagination. Thus, the Republican Congress, along with Democratic President Bill Clinton, ended the guarantee of financial assistance to such mothers – the only entitlement program Congress has mustered the nerve to eradicate.

The truth is most AFDC recipients did work. The trouble was, both low-end jobs and their own lives were too unstable for them to sustain work. A child’s illness, babysitting problems, transportation issues would lead them to leave their jobs and use AFDC as a safety net until they got another low-paying job.

Another truth is that welfare as we knew had to end. It lacked popular support and gave the Republicans too big a club to use against Democrats. The replacement, however, should have been more humane.

But the point here is simply that, despite all the self-righteous indignation they have expressed over Rosen’s inferred put-down of stay-at-home motherhood, Republicans actually subscribe to that put-down for some women.


Ann Romney photo is by Brad Skidmore

Friday, March 23, 2012

Not knowing Jack and running for the U.S. Senate

Jeff Fitzgerald
Wisconsin's education system has failed 45-year-old Jeff Fitzgerald. Neither at Hustisford High School nor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh did he learn an elemental fact of American life: The world is slanted against black people.

If you don't grasp that basic reality, documented as it is by a mountain of studies, you don't grasp America. Yet Fitzgerald holds a powerful post: speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, where, alarmingly, his ignorance helps shape state policies.

Now the Republican is seeking a new office: the U.S. Senate seat that Democrat Herb Kohl is vacating. His mis-education casts doubt on his fitness to represent a racially diverse state in an even more racially diverse America.

I brought up the taboo topic of race when Fitzgerald visited the Milwaukee Press Club this week. I noted these three facts:
  • The federal unemployment figures for February continued to show that young black high school grads had a harder time finding jobs than did young white high school dropouts. The unemployment rate was 35% for the black grads and 33% for the white dropouts. (Notes: 1. "Dropouts" is my term. The feds describe them as people who are not enrolled in school and have not graduated. 2. The disparity was actually less last month than usual.)
  • When sending resumes to an employer, Mary is more likely to get a response than Tameka even when they have identical backgrounds and qualifications.
  • When applying in person for entry-level jobs, young whites get further in the hiring process than do young blacks with equal credentials (and similar grooming, I could have added.)
Then I asked whether government had a role to play in addressing such racial disparity in the labor market.

Fitzgerald's responses were two:
  • "There are laws in place against discrimination."
  • The Democrats killed a bill earlier this month that would have boosted mining in Wisconsin and thereby boosted jobs at Milwaukee companies that make mining equipment.
FYI, the bill would have also loosened environmental regulations and reduced the opportunities for the public to weigh in on mining decisions.

My follow-up questions:
  • Even if the bill was passed, the trend suggests that whites would be preferred for any new jobs over equally qualified blacks. What can be done about the preferential treatment that the data suggest whites get?
  • Are laws against discrimination sufficient? After all, young white dropouts still fare better in the job market than do young black high school grads despite the laws.
Fitzgerald's retort:
  • Yes, the anti-discrimination laws are sufficient.
  • Referring to my data, "I don't know what those stats are based on."
His air was like: Why are you bothering me with this trivia?
Mark Neumann

In truth, to say that the world is slanted against black people opens you up to scorn. You are just trying to appeal to white guilt or just trying to evade responsibility for problems that African Americans themselves created. The trouble is, though, the world is slanted against black people. To ignore that slant is to ignore reality.

Besides jobs, for instance, white people have dibs on bank loans and choice housing, in comparison with black people with equal characteristics. White people have stay-out-of-jail-free cards that black people lack.

The last thing I want, however, is for white people to feel guilty about that slant. After all, it's not really their fault. It's just how society is. But I do expect believers in the American creed of equal opportunity to work to neutralize this inbred racism and not to work in the opposite direction, as Fitzgerald has done, by making it impossible for cities to consider race or residency for awarding contracts and by repealing a law that would have had law officers collect data on the race of drivers involved in traffic stops. To counteract a racial bias built into society, you have to take race into account.

Tommy Thompson
At the same time, I expect African Americans not to use that bias as a crutch, as an excuse for not fully applying themselves. Rather, the forces arrayed against us are all the more reason to hang tough. The wisdom of our foreparents still holds: You have to work twice as hard as a white person to get ahead.

Mark Neumann, the Republican ex-congressman who's also running for the Senate seat, showed some inkling of the racial disparity that hampers black people when I questioned him at his appearance at the Press Club earlier in the week. He suggested that the solution was putting jobs in the black community.

A third Republican candidate, Tommy Thompson, demonstrated some sensitivity to that racial disparity when he was governor.

Fitzgerald, in contrast, wallows in blissful ignorance of a crucial feature of American life. 

Note: There is breaking news as I post this commentary:  Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Secretary Reggie Newson announced Gov. Scott Walker was creating a task force to develop "action steps that address minority unemployment in metro Milwaukee, particularly the unacceptably high unemployment rate among black males." Co-chairs will be Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and state Rep. Elizabeth Coggs. The task force represents a departure from the pattern of hostility the Walker administration has shown toward black Milwaukee. The "action steps" should include ways to counter the preferential treatment whites receive over better qualified African Americans in the labor market, as demonstrated by a comparison of the jobless rates for black high school grads and white high school dropouts. 


More samples of studies pointing to a slant in American society against black people:
"Opportunities Denied, Opportunities Diminished: Racial Discrimination in Hiring," Urban Institute.
"The Federal Reserve  Bank of Boston Study on Mortgage Lending Revisted," Journal of Housing Research.
"Blacks pay more for Honda car loans," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"Report: Study suggests racial bias in calls by NBA referees," The New York Times.
Marked: race, crime, and finding work in an era of mass incarceration, Devah Pager.
"Racial disparities found throughout organ transplant process," Madison Capitol Times.
"Blacks Face Bias in Bankruptcy, Study Suggests," The New York Times.
"Illinois minorities more likely to do time for drugs," Associated Press.
"Study: Minorities more likely to get tickets, have vehicles searched," Chicago Sun Times.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blockbuster musical thrills audience at North

 

So mesmerizing was the performance of "We Are the Drum" by Capita Productions over the weekend, I had to keep reminding myself I was in Milwaukee's North Division High School, not on New York City's Broadway.  Everything about this high-energy, community-based musical, featuring mostly non-professionals, was superb: the choreography, the singing, the costumes, the story line, the staging.

This blockbuster traces through music and dance the African-American experience - from Africa to present-day America, with some emphasis on Milwaukee. A live band performs in a pit, and vocalists demonstrate impressive talent on stage.

Does the cast number about 100? It seemed that way. A good share was kids, and the tiniest were among the most vigorous dancers

Capita Productions was founded in 1990 by the late Brother Booker Ashe, a Capuchin monk famous for serving Milwaukee's poor. Its president is Arlene Skwierawksi, the fabled music teacher who did wonders with the North Division choir.

The show drew hundreds of people last Friday. Still too many seats  were empty in the voluminous North Division theater. The artistry and craftsmanship, the sweat and tears that went into this community production deserve a full house. At the same time, Milwaukeeans owe to themselves the honest-to-goodness high the musical induces.

There is good news, though. The show repeats this weekend, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 2 and 3. Tickets range from $10 to $20. Click here for details. It's worth your while to attend.


Photographs are courtesy of Capita Productions.