Monday, November 9, 2009

Making Sense of a Senseless Mass Murder

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I was having a meeting with one of my students in my office when my friend from CNN who had paid me a visit got a terse news alert on his Blackberry that a mass murder had just occurred at a military base in Forth Hood, Texas. I frankly didn’t think much of it then. When you live in a trigger-happy society like America you can’t help becoming inured to stories of senseless gun violence.

When I got home, I turned on the TV and realized that the mass murder my friend casually mentioned in the office was a bigger, more complicated story than I’d thought. It wasn’t the habitual, run-of-the-mill gun violence by spoiled, tantrum-throwing, and psychologically disturbed American kids or other deranged adults that I have grown used to here.

The suspect was some guy named Major Nidal Malik Hasan whom the news media at first erroneously reported to have been killed by an uncommonly plucky police woman identified as Sgt. Kim Munley. When I heard the name of the suspect, I knew this would be a volatile story. An Arab Muslim involved in the mass murder of 13 Americans in a post-September 11 era?

In America, the only thing that outsells race is sex. Rather curiously, however, all the major TV networks—Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS—did not associate Major Hasan with a Middle Eastern heritage at first. They all thought—and actually said—that he was a convert to Islam. Even when Fox News interviewed the suspect’s cousin whose last name is also Hasan, the implausibility of the theory that he was a Muslim convert hadn’t dawned on newsmen. Is it conceivable that an entire extended family would convert to Islam and change their last name to the same Muslim name?

But I guess the question to ask is: why wasn’t the man suspected to be of Arab descent? Was it because his picture appears to conform to most of the stereotypic prototypes of a “white man”? (Although the U.S. Census Bureau now officially classifies people from the Middle East and North Africa as “white,” Arabs are routinely racially profiled and “othered” because most of them, perhaps because of the recessive black African genes in them, are usually noticeably darker than the average white American).

The suspect’s physical appearance, judging from the mug shots released to the media, defies the formulaic mental images of an Arab. The American media probably thought he was too pale to be an Arab. Well, the suspect is of Palestinian descent by way of Syria, although he was born and brought in the southern U.S. state of Virginia.

Or was he thought to be a Muslim convert because there have been at least two other well-publicized cases of American Muslim converts who engaged in gun violence against the U.S. military? In 2003, an African-American Muslim convert, Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar (born Mark Fidel Kools), was sentenced to death for killing two of his comrades in Kuwait just before the US-led invasion of Iraq of 2003. And in June this year, a 24-year-old African American Muslim convert identified as Abdul-Hakeen Mujahid Muhammad (originally known as Carlos Bledsoe) also gunned down two soldiers at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Although I must say that Americans in general (especially the top military hierarchy, liberal Americans, the media and even the families if the victims of the shootings) have been remarkably and admirably restrained and have resisted the urge to tar all Muslims in the U.S. Army as closet America-hating terrorists, it can’t be denied that American soldiers who are Muslims—and indeed all Muslims in America—will now have to contend with the burden of what psychologists call courtesy stigma, that is, the vicarious stigmatization that guiltless, unaffected people suffer because of their relationship with a person who bears a stigma.

Of course, it is not only American Muslim soldiers who have a history of violently turning against their comrades. In May this year, for instance, a white male Christian American soldier gunned down five of his comrades at Camp Liberty, a sprawling U.S. base on the western edge of Baghdad. As you would expect, no dark, sinister motive was invoked to account for his irrational violence. And no person or group of people has had to suffer a collective courtesy stigma as a result of this.

We should be honest enough, though, to accept the fact that it is perfectly human, even if it’s not entirely morally defensible, for people to deploy different standards to judge their kind and people who look different from them, or for people to be more tolerant of the infractions and foibles of their kith and kin than they are of people who are different from them. That is why although we may insult and even beat up our little brother, our child, or other loved ones, we would kill a stranger who tries to do the same.

It is this sentiment that explains why the same American news media that had thought Major Hasan was a white American Muslim convert suddenly wanted to know if he has an “accent” after they found out that he is of Palestinian ancestry.

I grieve for the families that lost their loved ones in this barbarous and pointless mass slaughter. I also empathize with the thousands of American Muslims in the U.S. military (the Pentagon says there are 3,557 self-identified Muslims out of 1.4 million U.S. service members, but experts say the figure is likely higher than this because disclosure is voluntary) who must live with a devastating courtesy stigma as a result of the senseless act of violence of someone who shares their faith.

No less a person than the U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey echoed this fear in a recent interview with CNN.

"You know, there's been a lot of speculation going on and probably the curiosity is a good thing," said Casey of accused killer Nidal Malik Hasan. "But we have to be careful because we can't jump to conclusions now based on little snippets of information that come out. And frankly, I am worried—not worried, not worried, but I'm concerned—that this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers, and I've asked our army leaders to be on the look out for that. It would be a shame—as great a tragedy as this was— it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well."

Already some fringe conservative groups are suggesting that a systematic purge of Muslims from the U.S. army be carried out urgently. Of course, this suggestion will be hard to implement not only because it will violate America’s much cherished values of inclusivity and tolerance but because the pool from which to recruit new members into the U.S. army has been shrinking at an alarming rate lately.

According to CNN, 75 percent of the America's young people between the ages of 17 and 24 are unfit for military service. Army statistics, CNN further said, show that many youngsters are ineligible to enlist for a number of reasons ranging from a lack of education, illegal drug use, being overweight, out of shape, to having a criminal record. Minorities and recent immigrants constitute the dominant pool for army recruitment now because they tend to rise superior to some of these problems.

Now, what could be the motivation for Major Hasan’s insensate cruelty? It is easy to conclude that it was inspired by religious zealotry, especially because he reportedly screamed “Allahu Akbar!” before he opened fire on 13 of his comrades. But, although he is said to be an observant Muslim, it has also been confirmed that he is an alcoholic who “frequented” strip clubs. Now, that’s not the picture of a good Muslim. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to be strictly religious for your acts to be actuated by religious extremism.

People who rationalize Major Hasan’s savage murders remind us that he had been at the receiving end of harassment because of his faith; that recently his car had been vandalized and the bumper sticker he placed on his car with the inscription “Allah loves” was ripped up and torn. It has also been said that he didn’t want to be posted to Afghanistan and had, in fact, considered leaving the military.

But none of these reasons are good enough justification to fatally turn against an institution that single-handedly paid for his education from bachelor’s degree to medical school and that gives him a six-figure salary—an opportunity his ancestral land would probably never have been able or willing to give him.

It seems to me that Hasan is a deeply psychologically disturbed man who would have done what he did even if he were an atheist.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Atlanta’s Reverse Obama Moment?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

When America’s political history is recapitulated decades from now, the late 2000s may well be dubbed the season of racial reconciliation in this nation whose past is often defined by its searing and blood-stained race relations.

First, in a momentously unexampled feat of racial rapprochement, America (with a 70 percent white electorate) elected Barack Obama (the son of a Black Kenyan father and a white Kansas mother who self-identifies as “black”) as president.

Then, in May this year, a predominantly white Mississippi town called Philadelphia that became notorious for its cruelly brutal murder of three civil rights activists in 1964 elected its first black mayor. You will only appreciate the enormous symbolic significance of the election of this really dark-skinned man called James Young when you realize that, for many years, Philadelphia in Mississippi had come to represent what the London Guardian aptly described as “all that was wrong with the old [American] south.”

The town’s bloodcurdling murder of one black and two white Americans (and, it was later found out, seven other black men) whose only crime was that they tried to get black people in the town the right to vote made it the byword for segregation and violent racial intolerance. This incident inspired the film Mississippi Burning.

Because of the town’s cultural and symbolic importance as the bastion of racist conservatism, American conservative icon Ronald Reagan chose it as the site from which to launch his 1980 presidential campaign. And the strategy worked: Reagan swept the south and won a landslide against then incumbent Jimmy Carter, who is a Southern liberal. That’s how deeply emblematic the town is in America’s racial and cultural wars.

Now, 43 years later, the town which savagely butchered civil rights activists in cold blood without the slightest twinge of moral compunction for no reason other than that they wanted get black people the right to vote has elected a black man as its mayor. This is as much a consequence of the radical improvement in race relations in this country as it is an after-effect of what has now been called the Obama effect.

"Obama's election sent a message to our people that it was possible,” Young said. “If we can elect a black man as president we can elect a black man as mayor of Philadelphia. In the last couple of weeks I was hearing that a lot in the community."

James Young and his supporters

Well, the mayoral election in Atlanta on November 3 has shown that the Obama effect does not always have to be a one-way street: white people electing black people. For the first time since 1973, predominantly black Atlanta is also about to elect a white woman as its mayor.

Mary Norwood, who lives in the imposingly fashionable and predominantly white Atlanta neighborhood called Buckhead, has beaten such formidable, well-regarded black candidates as Mohammed Kasim Reed (a state senator), Lisa Borders (the current president of the Atlanta City Council) and Jesse Spikes (a brilliant and successful Harvard- and Oxford-educated lawyer).

Norwood garnered 46 percent of the votes, Reed got 36 percent of the votes, Borders received 16 percent of the votes, and Spikes (who got less than one percent of the vote. To win, a candidate must get over 50 percent of the total vote. So there will be a runoff contest between Norwood and Reed on December 1.

If Norwood prevails on Dec. 1, she will go down in the annals as the first white mayor of Atlanta since 1973. Interestingly, according to the Nov. 3 pre-election polls, while over 90 percent of white voters said they would vote for Norwood, she was the leading candidate among black voters. An Insider Advantage poll showed that nearly one out of three black voters preferred her. Black people make up 59 percent of the electorate here, so no candidate can win without an overwhelming black support.

Of course, it would be unpardonably reductionist to entirely attribute Norwood’s victory to a reverse Obama effect. After all, Atlanta has always prided itself on being the “city too busy hate.” As Andrew Young (who endorsed Mohammed Kasim Reed) said recently,"Atlanta has a reputation of voting for progressive white people. Atlanta's black community has been willing to vote for the person they think is the most competent."

However, it can’t be denied that the increasing tolerance toward black people nationally, as evidenced in the election of many blacks to high-profile positions all across the nation, has eased the historic disharmony that has characterized race relations here and has given black people the emotional and psychological incentive to resist the urge for knee-jerk racial solidarity.

Black people make up 59 percent of the electorate here, so no candidate can win without an overwhelming black support. (For any candidate to be declared winner, they must win over 50 percent of the total vote). Interestingly, according to pre-election opinion polls, while over 90 percent of white voters said they would vote for Norwood the white candidate (which is still not enough to get her elected) she was the leading candidate among black voters. An Insider Advantage poll showed that nearly one out of three black voters preferred her. Now, that’s political maturity.

Well, you see, Atlanta has not always been a predominantly black city. The “browning” of Atlanta started only in the 1960s when black people, for the first time, began to move out in large numbers from small rural towns to big cities in search for opportunities for upward social and economic mobility. As with all such movements all over America in the 1960s and 1970s, the white population which, because of the newly passed Civil Rights legislation, couldn't drive away freshly arrived black migrants decided to flee to the suburbs. They couldn't bear to live with black people in the same city. This phenomenon is called “white flight.”

White flight has often led to the desolation or near desolation of many previously thriving cities, such as Detroit in the state of Michigan (often dubbed America's blackest city because its population is over 80 percent black). But Atlanta defied the trend. In spite of white flight (perhaps because of it) Atlanta became one of the most prosperous cities in America, and now has the distinction of being home to the wealthiest black entrepreneurs and managers in the world.

Atlanta's string of virile, hardworking black mayors and entrepreneurial political establishment attracted an impressive flock of Fortune 500 companies (it has America’s third largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies) and helped win it the bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympics.

So Atlanta’s succession of black mayors from 1973, in more ways than one, exploded the myth of the intrinsic incompetence of black leadership. "We haven't always gotten the credit for that, no," former Atlanta Mayor and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Andrew Young, who supervised the Atlanta’s dramatic transformations during the 1980s, told the Washington Times. "I brought in 1,100 companies from around the world - $70 billion in private investment - and generated more than a million new jobs.

"But most people think that's automatic, that that would have happened anyway," he said.

Now that white people have realized that their race-induced fright of and flight from (black) Atlanta has not affected the city’s expansion and prosperity, they are moving back to the city in droves. According to the Brookings Institution, between 2000 and 2006, Atlanta's white population grew faster than that of any other U.S. city. For instance, in 2000, according to U.S. Census data, Atlanta was 33 percent white and 61 percent black. In 2007, the numbers were 38 percent white and 57 percent black. It's conceivable that in 2010 the white population could exceed 40 percent.

Whites are not only recapturing Atlanta; they are also driving low-income black people out of the city through an apparently benign but dangerously effective strategy called “gentrification.” This is the term for the restoration and buying off of run-down urban areas by the upper middle class (resulting in the displacement of low-income residents). This is done, according to Wikipedia “by over-paying for (and over-pricing) the real estate and so economically expelling the original poor inhabitants.”

Whatever it is, Norwood’s potential election will certainly go down in the annals as one moment when Atlanta truly demonstrated that it is the city too busy to hate or discriminate on the basis of primordial differences. I only hope this moment isn’t a mere flash in the pan.

Racist Louisiana Judge Who Refused to Officiate Interracial Marriage Resigns!


By Farooq A. Kperogi

I wrote a two-part series about a racist Louisiana Justice of Peace by the name of Keith Bardwell who refused to officiate the wedding of a black and white couple because of his personal revulsion toward interracial marriages. Well, in the wake of intense pressures, the man whose tenure would have expired in 2014 has thrown in the towel.

According to the Associated Press, Keith Bardwell, in a one-sentence statement to Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, said: "I do hereby resign the office of Justice of the Peace for the Eighth Ward of Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, effective November 3, 2009."

Several public officials, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (whose parents are Indians from Asia) and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu representing Louisiana, had called for his resignation.

“What he did was clearly wrong and this resignation was long overdue," Gov. Jindal said in a statement.

Senator Landrieu, for her part, said Bardwell's refusal to marry the couple has exposed Louisiana to international ridicule. "By resigning ... and ending his embarrassing tenure in office, Justice Bardwell has finally consented to the will of the vast majority of Louisiana citizens and nearly every governmental official in Louisiana ... We are better off without him in public service," she said.

But Bardwell’s troubles are not over. Beth Humphrey and Terence McKay, the couple whose request he turned down, have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against him.

A nice end to a sad story.