Thursday, September 27, 2018

America Needs a Reset: Set Terms for Supreme Court Justices, Senators, Congress Representatives, and Presidents

America has politically become a dysfunctional entity.  For example, Supreme Court justices are now just as overtly politicized and as tribalized as the politicians who support them.  Such a phenomenon is the effect of a larger problem:  national politicians should be limited to specific terms in office and then banned from running for other national offices other than for President of the U.S.  And even the President should be limited to one term in office as well:  Get the job done in a certain number of years.

For example, Supreme Court justices should be limited to one eight-year terms, not lifetime appointments.  And such terms should be staggered so that diversity becomes the norm in the highest court of the land.  And like judges in many jurisdictions, they should face public reaffirmation via the voting booth after their first four years to determine if they can finish their eight-year terms or be removed from the bench within 30 days after the election results are certified.  This would keep them on their toes:  the public should be the final arbiters of judges' abilities to serve.  Thus, such individuals literally can't negatively affects millions of lives because they serve until they die or retire.  And whatever controversial rulings they issue, the public can be assured that a new set of judges can decide to overturn such rulings.

Furthermore, the President of the U.S. should be limited to one five-year term in office:  This would prevent any president from wasting years running for reelection.  And they should be banned from hiring any immediate family members as cabinet members or as staff in the Oval office since those relatives will undoubtedly have plenty of access to influence their familial heads of state.

As for Senators and Congress men and women, all should be limited to one four-year terms in office.  And once they serve, they should be banned from running for any other elected offices at the national level for at least a ten-year period--unless they decide to run for the presidency.   And once they've served in the Senate or the House of Representatives, they can never again run for the same office from the same state.  Let them move to another state if they wish to run again for a U.S. Senate or House of Representatives seat--but they will have to wait for ten years to do so.

And new rules need to control both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.  Let's take a cue from California:  If the state's legislature fails to pass the state budget by a certain deadline, these state politicians don't get paid.  Let's withhold pay from Senators and Congress men and women if they too fail to get budgets passed by certain deadlines.  And we should require a two-thirds majority vote for all legislation and for all appointments to the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court.  If two-thirds can't agree, then the public will vote via secured means (such as simple paper ballots instead of electronic voting machines that can be hacked) to determine if legislation should be passed or if judicial appointees should be confirmed.

Might this slow our government's daily business?  Possibly, but at least we can limit the time a piece of legislation will be debated before politicians vote, and then if these national leaders fail to pass legislation, those in the public who want to vote will vote and the issues will be settled.

And we need to limit the amount of money that can be spent by political candidates for their campaigns:  No national hopeful should spend more than one million dollars for rallys, signage, bumper stickers, and buttons; as for political ads on radio or television, candidates for national offices should be given--given--five-minute to ten-minute spots on Saturday and Sunday mornings aired just twice each weekend day by local and national networks as part of their commitment to public service--and such ads should only run for three months prior to the election days.  This would take billionaires and PACs out of the equation entirely:  the media should no longer be flooded by paid political advertisements that can literally skew the public's perceptions.  But candidates should be allowed to go door-to-door or hold political rallys in venues that would be limited to no more than 5,000 rally goers--and they should be limited to no more than one rally a week.  Let their campaigns become truly grass roots-oriented operations.

Moveover, to get more people to vote, all voters in America who vote both in primaries and in November elections should be able to get both federal and state tax deductions that would literally double those deduction amounts:  financial incentives have a way of spurring even the most lazy or apathetic among us.

And, finally, for the United States of America to become a true democracy, our simple majority votes should determine who wins the presidency, not an Electoral College that has its roots in slavery.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Trump's NFL Comments Promote Institutional Racism

In his book Uprooting Racism, author Paul Kivel explains what he terms "the myth of the happy family" tactic that some use to promote institutional racism:  Whites like to think that society is a "happy family" that generally works for them; however, when people of color protest about the injustice they daily suffer, in particular when it comes to violence perpetrated by police officers, they're accused of upsetting America's "happy family":  Whites call those people (to use Trump's phrase when referring to mainly black athletes) troublemakers or "sons of bitches."   In short, the myth of the happy family strategy castigates people of color as somehow being unruly or insensitive:   Those people are upsetting our happy family.

Dysfunctional behavior patterns in actual families follow the same pattern:  If Father is the main dysfunctional person in power (for example, he has a substance abuse problem), Mother often is the primary enabler when called upon to shield Father from insightful criticism by the Children: "Mommy, what's wrong with Daddy?"  Mother, often fearful of angering Father, will enable the Father by promoting the notion that the Children are at fault for any familial tension:  "Nothing is wrong with your Father.  Don't you cause problems and upset our happy family."

The NFL players are seen as the Children who are upsetting the dysfunctional myth that America is a happy family, and what better time to do so than during the singing of the national anthem in order to get attention when routinely many whites turn away just as they have from the Black Lives Matter movement, just as they did decades ago when Martin Luther King, Jr., and others marched in Selma and Birmingham:  Those actively involved in the early days of the civil rights movement were also seen as troublemakers who protested at "inappropriate" times (see Dr. King's wonderful "Letter from the Birmingham Jail"), who somehow violated whites' sensibilities because protesters didn't use other means that would not upset those in power.

And just as many whites now say they were supporters of Dr. King and the marches, in twenty or thirty years many whites will say that they supported the NFL players when clearly that is not the case.

Racism in America is a difficult dysfunctional behavior pattern for many whites to deal with, partly because those afflicted, just as drug addicts are afflicted, don't want to see themselves in a negative light.  Yet, they often fall prey to unhealthy, dysfunctional appeals that Trump and his minions promote precisely because such appeals find currency with anyone who has racist tendencies:  Politicians have learned the power of "wedge issues" as a means of bringing out the worst in people.  For example, in California, Proposition 209 was aimed at whites who were and are predisposed to think that people of color get jobs based on their ethnicity or race rather than based on their qualifications (a damning stereotype that should earn Prop. 209 supporters admission to the infernal regions), yet these same whites can't fathom the idea that many of them get jobs precisely because they're white, for they're often not the sharpest knives in the drawer.  All one has to do is a quick reality check:  Have you been turning down a number of job offers?  Or are you only able to secure employment in a workplace where you "know" someone, a close friend or loved one, especially one who is already employed at your new place of employment?  Far too many whites have secured employment for unmerited reasons--and they know who they are.

The complaints about the NFL players constitute another wedge issue created to reinforce racist stereotypes:  Trump's ugly appeals attracts those who often have very few close friends of color.  In stark contrast, one should notice that many white NFL players, coaches, and even team owners who have close ties with their black players have wonderfully rebuked Trump's accusations.

For the flag is merely a symbol.  What ultimately matters are the rights we utilize, including the right to protest injustice, and protests that historically have had the most impact are those that challenge people to reconsider something they want to ignore.  Protests at so-called "inappropriate" moments, such as during the singing of the national anthem, will have the greatest impact:  We are not a happy family.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Slavery and the Electoral College

Few Americans understand why the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College phenomenon:  it can literally be traced back to James Madison and his fellow Southerners' concern that their influence in selecting the nation's chief executive would be diminished because of the North's greater population.  Hence, they came up with what was called The Three Fifths Compromise:  the 1787 Constitutional delegates allowed states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person.  Essentially, this guaranteed that the more rural states, namely the Southern states, would not be at a disadvantage: they could use their sizable ownership of slaves to influence a Presidential election (we must remember that even Thomas Jefferson, the primary architect of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, owned slaves).

Moreover, the Founders also had concerns about what they termed "qualified" voters:  they feared that uninformed citizens--certainly not themselves--would not make intelligent decisions when casting votes for President and Vice President.  Consequently, what eventually became the Electoral College was viewed as a means to control who gets to vote and how much weight should be given to such votes.  Thus, less populated states were given more input in the national election process despite their smaller number of "qualified" white voters (they benefited from slave labor and slave ownership).  Of course, the Electoral College has been modified since its inception, but the initial impulse that drove its creation has prevented America from becoming a true democracy:  We can never become a "one person, one vote" reality until we do away with the Electoral College.

Some defenders of the Electoral College suggest that the institution's existence acts as a safety valve to prevent or save the country from electing a potential tyrant or dictator (though a number of states have passed laws that literally require their Electoral College electors to vote for the winners of their states' popular votes; only two states, Nebraska and Maine, require proportional electoral votes based on the popular vote tallies).  But, considering what we've witnessed so far from President-Elect Donald Trump, his insulting, divisive campaign rhetoric could easily self-define him as probably the most tyrannical, dictatorial-driven President-Elect to ever surface in America.  Even the most recent Republican Presidents, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr., and the last Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, couldn't endorse Mr. Trump.  When a person like Mr. Trump embodies racism, sexism, and xenophobia, those "qualified" electors can do their fellow citizens a public service by denying their imprimatur and finally illustrate why the Electoral College can be useful.

But the chances of those electors saving us from Mr. Trump are nil--and hence why Americans should demand an end to the Electoral College.  We should finally grow up and trust the public to directly elect our Presidents--we already do so with respect to governors, senators, and literally all other political leaders.  After all, even Russia elects their President via a popular vote.  If we can't do likewise, then how can we promote democracy around the world without sounding like hypocrites?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

How to Ease Tensions Between Police and People of Color

We're witnessing an odd phenomenon:  Police officers are promoting the slogan "Blue Lives Matter" in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement.

What some fail to understand is that police officers historically since America's inception should have been promoting the notion that all lives, including black lives, matter.  Sadly, that has not been the case--and in many cities and counties across America, people of color fear for their lives whenever a police officer stops and questions them.  Rather, all police officers should focus on saving lives and serving the public, not on taking lives and harassing people of color.  All one has to research is how often people of color are stopped by police versus whites who are stopped by police officers--the numbers that President Obama mentioned in a speech should alert anyone who thinks that racial profiling doesn't seriously impact the lives of people of color to the point of losing their lives.

To minimize such stops, all states should issue bar codes to be placed on the front and rear bumpers of all vehicles; officers would then be issued bar code readers that can read such bar codes from a reasonable distance from their vehicles, note the offending vehicle for a minor problem like a broken taillight, and submit it to a central computer that would issue a "fix it" notification to the registered owner, all without the need to pull over such motorists.  Such reduced interaction between police and the public would certainly result in the saving of lives, especially lives of color.  How often do we see whites killed by white officers as a result of trivial traffic stops?  Hence, one way to save lives immediately is to reduce the number of police stops.

Moreover, police departments need to hire more diverse officers who might actually empathize with the plight of people of color.  One way to do this is to require all police officer applicants to prove that they have diverse personal lives:  If applicants can't list at least three people who come from racial groups different than their own as friends, then what's the problem?  Why can't these individuals foster personal relationships with people who come from different racial backgrounds?  Will such people bring their segregationist tendencies to the job?  Will they see others who are different as "dangerous"?  If anything, such a requirement would spur those with non-diverse relationships to reach out to those they normally shun or ignore.

When the Miami Heat basketball players took a group photo to note their support for the slain Trayvon Martin, they made clear their unified concern that far too many people of color are needlessly killed because of racial profiling.  

In a similar vein, police departments need to ask themselves why they have not posed for similar photos of support to help end the senseless killing of people of color at the hands of other police officers.  If police officers want the public to embrace the "Blue Lives Matter" cause, these officers need to join hands with movements like Black Lives Matter--to do anything less is to condone the ruthless, criminal acts by officers who have taken--and will continue to take--the lives of people of color.

The way to end a nightmare is to confront it, dissect it, and take positive actions to end the causes for the nightmare.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Philip Levine, Poet and Teacher, Dies at 87 on Feb. 14, 2015

My one great teacher, Philip Levine, died on Valentine's Day last Saturday.

Of all the teachers I've studied with as a student, none were as great as Phil Levine.  I had the pleasure of taking of his advanced poetry writing workshops at Fresno State for five semesters, from the late 1970s and to the mid 1980s just before I went to graduate school.

Some of my fellow students complained about Phil's rather harsh criticism:  I found his stinging, sometimes comic-tinged advice incredibly helpful.  If Phil didn't like something in one of my poems, I knew after his comments that I would never repeat such flaws.  For I also found the opposite, his praise, just as helpful:  If he had no harsh words for one of my poems, then I knew I had written something that might--might--have some merit.  His criticism and praise were the sharp points that spurred me on to always try to go beyond what I knew I could write.

That was Phil's gift as a teacher:  He wanted his students to challenge themselves, to never be satisfied with one's work.

Of course, his poetry will be with us for as long as written words matter.  But as a former student of Phil's, I know that I share a unique kinship with others who winced, floated, and laughed--sometimes in the same class meeting--because of Phil's gifts as a teacher.

Thank you, Phil, for the gift of your attention to those of us who became poets and, more importantly, became caring human beings, for you knew that the world is a vale of soul making.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

My father, Jose M. Vasquez, died on Nov. 25, 2014

My father, Jose M. Vasquez, died on Nov. 25, 2014.  He was 89 years old, and he would have turned 90 had he lived another 33 days.

After my mother died in March of 2013, I became my father's main caregiver:  I moved in with him in Fresno even though I still maintain my permanent residence 45 miles away in Visalia.  Hence, I have a great appreciation for anyone who cares for or has cared for an elderly parent.  Sadly, some people place their elderly loved ones in nursing homes--and my father briefly stayed in such a facility for rehabilitation purposes.  But like many in nursing homes, my father did not get better; rather, his health deteriorated and he could no longer walk after a three-month stay.  After one of my nephews remodeled his hallway bathroom into a wheelchair-capable shower, I was finally able to bring him back home where three caregivers and I took care of him until his death.  My advice to anyone is to avoid if at all possible placing anyone in a nursing home no matter how "nice" or expensive.  All nursing homes have flaws, some of which can be harmful to your loved ones.  For example, urinary tract infections are common in most facilities; many patients suffer falls, often because nursing home personnel are overworked or simply ill-trained and don't know how to keep their charges from falling out of beds or wheelchairs.

Since my father suffered from numerous ailments (heart disease, gallbladder problems, failing kidneys, an aortic aneurysm in his abdomen, etc.), we knew he had little time left, and we wanted him to die at his home instead of in a facility.  Medicare offers assistance to help care for a loved one at home; when he went from home care to hospice care at home, Medicare provided even more help, including paying for all of his medications and incontinence supplies--they even provided an all-electric bed instead of the usual semi-electric bed we used during his home care status.  And the hospice personnel who came to the house to attend to my father's medical needs were incredibly kind people.

And, of course, I'm glad I was able to find three caregivers who made my father's last months as comfortable as possible.

My father is now out of any pain or discomfort, for I know he's with my mother in heaven.  I have written a number of poems about my father, but I'd like to end with a few lines I just wrote for him.

Jalisco in Heaven

for Jose Mercado Vasquez

The dirt road that leads to Rancho de Los Zapotes
exhales into Jalisco's November light,
and children you once knew soon come into view;
even the mango trees wave hello instead of goodbye.

A horse neighs and extends her long face
over the neck-worn wooden pasture rails,
and the small house in the background, the adobe
the color of skin, offers an open door.

And one kiss on the cheek follows another,
and trays of bread and fruit soon shine
as you smile, aware of your strong legs
that can now walk the endless horizons.

--Robert Vasquez

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Juror B37: How Institutional Racism Affects Jurors

I have been routinely teaching a theme-oriented composition course that focuses on institutional racism for well over a decade.  During that time I've probably spent hundreds of hours doing research on the topic, and I've found that Paul Kivel's Uprooting Racism text is probably one of the best documents that can help anyone learn how institutional racism manifests itself in their daily lives regardless of race or ethnicity.  Before anyone starts to complain--especially whites who suddenly become overly defensive despite their relative lack of knowledge about institutional racism which many often confuse with personal prejudice--one should read Kivel's text or any other well-researched work that focuses on this thoroughly ingrained phenomenon.

And Juror B37's recent interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper unintentionally illustrates how institutional racism affects the judicial system and even jurors themselves.

For example, if one queries roomfuls of people of color if they think nearly all-white juries or hiring committees or police departments or court systems routinely negatively impact them, one will be overwhelmed by responses in the affirmative.  Of course, that's something white America rarely witnesses since such roomfuls don't get much attention, let alone assembled, on any cable or network news show.

One cause for institutional racism stems from one important fact:  Most whites live fairly segregated personal lives.  They might have some regular, forced contact with Latino/as, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and other non-whites via employment situations which are usually limited in scope:  it's forced, often superficial interaction.  For example, I teach at a community college where 57.5% of the students are Latino/as (most are people of Mexican descent; 70% of our student body identifies themselves as members of non-white groups); nevertheless, many--if not the overwhelming majority--of my white colleagues can't point to one truly close Latino/a friend (not someone they say hello to in the hallways or briefly talk to in a department meeting--that's an acquaintance at best) even if such colleagues have lived most of their adult lives in the surrounding area where the latest 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report noted that 60% of the populace in Tulare County is "Hispanic."  Despite this forced interaction, few colleagues develop close relationships with Latino/as.  In contrast, my best friend for over 30 years is white; moreover, he comes from a different socioeconomic background (his father was a physician; my father was a cement mason) and is approximately 17 years my senior.  What drew to us to each other was our love for poetry (we met in a poetry writing workshop in college) despite our obvious ethnic/racial/age/socioeconomic differences.  In short, I've been able to establish a close friendship with someone who's white, but I have severe doubts that many whites in this area will ever be able to establish similar close friendships with any Latino/a even though Latino/as are the largest so-called "minority" group here (that cosmic irony always makes me flinch when I hear white colleagues talk about "minorities" when whites are the numerical minority but the majority when it comes to their over-representation within the local teaching ranks:  triple affirmative action).

Let me make the jump to Juror B37.  After listening to her interview, I can ascertain with great assurance that she probably has no close friends of color.  Why?  Any astute listener should notice how quickly she identifies with "George" (she routinely addresses him by his Christian name even though most of the attorneys in the case on both sides refer to him as "Mr. Zimmerman") and the fact that she initially voted "Not Guilty" in the face of impressive--at least according to many people of color--circumstantial evidence that Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin and used unnecessary lethal force in what was essentially a fist fight.  Conveniently for Juror B37, she ignored the medical testimony that Zimmerman was not in any way severely injured but she quickly agreed with his claim that he "feared for his life."  She's quick to defend Zimmerman in her responses, but she has to think when she answers questions about Martin.  That quickness is an indicator of her predisposed nature to defend a fellow white person who took an innocent young teen's life.

If she had close friendships with African Americans, she might have been more open to the state's evidence--and to logic.  For example, once Zimmerman shoots his pistol, the screaming stops.  Why?  Ask any forensic expert who's familiar with gunshot victims and he or she will note that once a person is shot in the torso, the immediate shock to one's cardiovascular system will generally end a person's screaming.  If Zimmerman had been the one who was screaming, he would have continued to scream to gain anyone's assistance even after shooting Martin.

If she had not been so isolated from people of color, she would have questioned Zimmerman's initial reason for calling the police.  Martin did not commit any crime, for it's not a crime to walk in any neighborhood at a leisurely pace; it's not a crime to drink an iced tea or munch on candy; it's not a crime to talk on a cell phone as one walks.  According to Zimmerman and Juror B37, Martin was "looking in houses...with no purpose."  When I walk in a neighborhood, I too look at the houses I pass, and I'm sure no one can somehow determine my "purpose" since mind reading is not a talent most possess.  Hence, Juror B37 should have asked herself this question:  "Why did Zimmerman call the police in the first place?"  We know from 911 police records that Zimmerman made numerous calls to report suspicious people in his neighborhood over the years:  All of his calls involved black people, not white people.  In essence, Zimmerman established a long pattern of racial profiling, yet Juror B37 and her fellow jurors for some reason ignored this fact.

She noted that Zimmerman had a right to "stand his ground," yet didn't Martin have a similar right to stand his ground as the person followed by a stranger?  When Martin asked Zimmerman what he wanted with him, why didn't Zimmerman identify himself as a neighborhood watch captain?  Why didn't Zimmerman immediately make an effort, considering he was armed, to assure the teen that the neighborhood has experienced a number of burglaries and he was curious as to Martin's "purpose"?

Of course, many of us know that the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights protect us from illegal search and seizure, that we have a right to our privacy, that we don't have to answer any questions from the Zimmermans in the world regardless of their mission, that they don't have the right to detain us as we walk down sidewalks.  After all, O. J. Simpson is in a Nevada prison for preventing others from leaving their hotel room--he committed technical kidnapping--and Zimmerman likewise had no legal right to detain Martin or anyone else on a public street who doesn't commit a crime.  Yet that fact also escaped Juror B37.

When I first heard about the composition of the Zimmerman jury, I shook my head, for I know from the research of others that mainly white jurors often side with white defendants when the victims are people of color.  One wonderful, eye-opening resource is the film Race to Execution:  the filmmakers bring to light various studies that prove that people of color, including victims, routinely suffer injustice at the hands of mainly white juries.

Institutional racism will continue to afflict people of color until juries, hiring committees, city councils, state legislatures, and police departments become truly diverse--and personal lives become truly diverse as well.  That will take personal effort and commitment, something many who sided with Zimmerman will never undertake or even consider.