Non-Violent Discourse

This past week has seen a new and violent turn surrounding the national dialogue about local police and minority communities currently underway. The tragic loss of two of NYPD’s finest has upped the proverbial ante on both sides. The supporters of the police see these killings as a natural outcome of recent protests, whereas protestors decry them as the acts of a lone madman whose anti-social tendencies were likely shaped, if only in part, by the proliferation of unnecessarily harsh police tactics. Wherever the truth may lie, one thing is for certain: acts of violence from either side will only escalate the dangerously high tensions which already exist between police and the community. And in corollary to this, I believe that FURTHER acts of violence will eventually force the hand of law enforcement in ways that will be counter-productive to the largely peaceful protests that have been gaining momentum nationwide.

America right now sits on a powder keg of anger, indignation and fear. In every city and urban area across this country, minority communities are attempting to give voice to long-held resentments and frustrations with what they perceive as blatantly biased and unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement. And while much of it is surely justified, not all of it is. The oft cited sentiment that ‘most’ police officers are ‘good’ and that it is only a ‘few’ who give the rest of law enforcement a ‘bad’ name is true to a large degree. To what degree that is, I do not know for certain. But I am confident that, in 2014, more officers than not are of the ‘good’ variety and do, in fact, have the public’s best interest at heart. They do a job that not only many of us would not do, but many of us could not. And to that extent, I believe they are to be commended for such. Likewise, I believe that as socially-conscious citizens in a civilized society, we have an obligation to show respect for the authority and police powers granted to law enforcement by the state. Indeed, such is not only a rational but also a beneficial exercise of one’s duty to a democratic society (to the extent, of course, that the state’s authority is exercised in a manner not inconsistent with our Constitution’s Bill of Rights). In other words, the legitimate exercise of authority by the police should always be adhered to as well as respected. Concomitantly, where such authority is abused, we as citizens have a right to seek redress. Clearly, civil demonstrations by way of marching, protests, boycotts, etc., have long been recognized as legitimate avenues of such redress.

Additionally, I feel that as human beings living in a post-Enlightenment world, we have not only a social but a moral obligation to minimize the use of violence as a means of solving social and political issues. Resorting to violence in order to make a political statement is sign of weakness — it demonstrates that one has given up on the almost always more effective (as well is infinitely more humane and civilized) approaches of diplomacy, negotiation and compromise. The violent acts that we have seen perpetrated against police in the last several weeks, amid nationwide upheaval, simply CANNOT BE CONDONED as an acceptable form of protest. The anger and frustration of the aggrieved communities is palpable and real, of this there can be no doubt. But in 2014, the pathway to justice cannot be paved in blood. And so violence against the police in any form must be ROUNDLY AND UNEQUIVOCALLY CONDEMNED! Not only is it wrong, it is counter-productive to any movement that seeking a change in police policy, methodology and procedure. There is no surer way to convince your opponent of the rightness of his or her own convictions than by attempting to make your point through the use of force. It is a recipe for disaster that, in the end, will likely only produce the opposite effect of what was intended. This principle applies equally to law enforcement, to the extent they are inclined to overstep the bounds of their legal authority.

So in this instance, though I am typically critical of government in its exercise of police powers, I stand with law enforcement in condemning any acts of violence perpetrated against police officers in the name of so-called justice. Such misguided expressions of ‘political protest’ are wrong and should be neither endorsed nor tolerated by any of us, regardless of which side of this issue we stand. Those of us who are involved with or sympathize with the protestors of police brutality and excessive force must disavow such acts as much for the sake of keeping the peace as for our own collective social conscience. And while I disagree with the recent proclamations of those who insist that the blood of slain police officers is ‘on the hands’ of the protestors, I feel that continued retributive acts of this sort will only perpetuate such misplaced perceptions and so fan the flames of hateful rhetoric. So I would strongly urge we continue the call for peaceful collaboration between our community, our leaders and the police as we strive to find solutions to the many deep, perplexing and longstanding social issues that have once more bubbled to the surface. We can only move forward together. Divided, we will only continue to fragment until we ultimately disintegrate.

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The Education Funding Gap: Part I

The most successful and influential societies have always been the most educated. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, clergymen, philosophers and scientists have been the architects of every social, political and economic system that exists today. Great men and women of vision have been the facilitators of human progress from the very start — and they have always been society’s most educated individuals. There is a direct correlation between education level (which naturally contemplates high degrees of literacy) and social mobility. Aside from affording better job opportunities, education invariably gives the individual a wider platform form which he or she can engage the community. It also tends to give a better understanding of how social, political and economic forces interact in the world around them.

In theory, every child is legally entitled to a fair public education. Whether in public or private school, children across the nation are being taught under the rubric of an increasingly uniform set of standards that are designed to achieve that goal. Ostensibly, this occurs everyday in every school around the country. In reality, however, there is a vast disparity in the quality of that education and that disparity is, without question, a function of economics.

Suburban school districts, on the whole, have more money and better resources than do urban and rural districts. This is largely due to having wealthier tax bases and which means more money pupil. Add to this picture state and federal aid and subsidies based on enrollments which, in many cases, are the same as those received by poorer districts, and the picture gains a clearer focus. Such economic advantages allow the wealthier districts tend to attract higher quality educators and administrators on account of higher salaries, better resources facilities and all the accoutrements poorer districts are simply unable to offer. These districts are also able to offer better educational and student enrichment opportunities than the urban and rural counterparts. Finally, these wealthier districts, on the whole, are comprised almost exclusively of white students.

Urban and rural school districts, by contrast, are generally characterized by poorer tax bases unable to as easily absorb the educational costs as are their suburban counterparts; they tend to have higher student enrollments resulting in lower average funding per pupil; they also have greater costs associated with accommodating the needs of students who are either learning disabled or coping with significant behavioral problems. These three factors, alone, are enough to create an virtually insurmountable disparity in the quality of education between wealthy and poor districts. However, when they are coupled with static or shrinking government aid, the gap widens even further, thus making the prospect of providing equal educational opportunities for all children a virtual impossibility.

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The Secessionst Dilemma: Has Crimea Gone Rogue?

The recent referendum in Crimea, an area in the Ukraine predominantly made up of ethnic Russians, has been decided overwhelmingly in favor of Crimea’s secession from the Ukraine. According to the election results, upwards of 97% of voters approved the measure. If this is true, there seems little doubt that the tiny peninsular region wishes to be absorbed into the Russian Federation. And since the vast majority of Crimeans are ethnically Russian, their ‘right’ to request annexation is fully supported in the motherland.

The question on my mind, and perhaps on the minds of others, is this: At what point, exactly, does it becomes appropriate to vote for secession? When eighty percent of a nation’s population demands it? Ninety percent? A two-thirds majority? A simple majority? What about those who do not wish to secede? How is their fate to be decided and by whom? If secession occurs, should they be made to swear allegiance to the new government? And if they do not wish to, what then?

Obviously, many questions have arisen since the ostensibly autonomous Crimean government announced it was abandoning its allegiance to the Ukraine and seeking accession to the Russian Federation. In addition to the economic ramifications that Crimea’s secession would have on the greater Ukrainian economy (which are likely to be substantial), the social and legal questions raised are also significant. For not only does such a move challenge the nature of Ukrainian sovereignty, it calls into question the very notion of statehood itself.

The concept of state sovereignty represents the idea that a nation’s right to handle its own affairs is absolute. Thus, in all matters affecting that nation, in whole or in part, it should be given complete deference by other nations with respect how it handles those matters. Clearly, this idea of sovereignty does not extend to cases where there are violations of international law (e.g., genocidal campaigns or the commission of other crimes against humanity), as such adversely affects the rights and interests of other nations. Aside from that, however, sovereignty should be respected.

Russia argues that that the heavy ethnic population in Crimea, which is Russian, gives it the right to support secession from the Ukraine. Legally, however, any vote for secession by the autonomous (not separate) Crimean authorities can be vetoed by the Ukrainian government. This power is expressly authorized by their constitution. Hence, under the principle of state sovereignty it is the prerogative of the Ukrainian government to accept or reject any such decision by Crimea. Yet instead, Russia has effectively made this decision by threat of force.

Recent history has witnessed countless examples of governments that were ultimately forced to bend to the will of their populace in the face of rapid and often unprecedented social change. This has served to demonstrate the supreme political axiom that the state is neither infallible nor is it ever beyond the control of the citizenry it serves. In my opinion, the Russian annexation of Crimea is incompatible with the right of a sovereign state like the Ukraine to determine the political future of its own people. By continuing to interfere with this right, Russia is throwing the integrity of this entire process into jeopardy, not to mention the doorway it opens for similar actions in the future.

The world has spent much of the last century trying to undo the mistakes of the previous fifty. Practically every political crises on record has stemmed from one nation meddling in the affairs of another — a maneuver that is almost always calculated to further the interests of the meddlers, not those being meddled with. The time where larger nations should be allowed to arbitrarily disrupt and usurp the legitimate authority of smaller governments, short of seeking to avert an actual humanitarian crises, has passed. By all accounts, championing the plight of Crimea’s ethnic Russians, seems to be a thinly veiled pretext for Russia to not only reclaim portions of its former satellite states, but to also put itself into strategic position for similar actions in the future.

The Ukrainian legal system already has mechanisms in place to deal with political crises like the one in Crimea. The meddling influence of Russian politics, coupled with the presence of Russian troops, only serves to undermine that process, along with Ukrainian sovereignty. This is but another example of how political crises can rarely be solved by subterfuge and threat or use of force. The employment of these methods almost always makes things worse, not better. Such lack of diplomacy, objectivity and reason can only invite further chaos.

In the mid-19th century, a nation went to war with itself over social and economic issues so polarizing that they split country right down the middle politically and geographically. The end result was a four year war — the bloodiest in the nation’s history. It took years to rebuild in the aftermath. Yet today, the republic for which the United States stands is stronger than it ever was during that time. Although it seems the die is already cast in the Crimean peninsula, there is hopefully still time to leave Ukrainian sovereignty intact and allow rule of law to prevail

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Equality of Opportunity: Socio-Economic Building Blocks for a New Generation

True social equality can only be achieved when each member of society finally begins to embrace one another as equal. The notion that the attainment of wealth at any cost, including the life, liberty and dignity of one’s fellow citizen, must be abandoned. Rather, the desire for economic should be made to serve not only one’s personal ambitions, but the greater the good of the community as well. We must strive to create a society wherein all persons can attain social, economic and legal parity. Where people are not only viewed as equals, but are also treated as equals. And by leveling the economic playing field, so to speak, there will be benefits for both the ‘haves’ AND the ‘have-nots’.

We must ensure the right of every individual to be afforded equal protection under the law; to be given the same educational opportunities; to have access to the same economic and job opportunities; to be granted full access to the political process without unjustified government interference. Guaranteeing these rights can only benefit society in the long run. A better educated and more fully-employed citizenry is not only a boon to the national market, it is what every solid economy is built upon. And the best way to achieve this is by providing greater access to education and, consequently, better earnings, particularly in those communities at the lower end of the economic spectrum. This in turn will, over time, not only lessen poverty levels and reduce crime (which is largely a function of economics), but will also reduce the need for social welfare programs that place financial strain on the public fist.

The research on the matter is clear: there is a direct correlation between education level and income. Similarly, there is a direct linkage between the socio-economic status of a community and the level of education it provides to its children. The future of any society always has been, and always will be, dependent upon the success of its children. This is as much a law of nature as it as a staple of social progress. The failure to adhere to this principle has no upside. The willful failure to provide equal economic and educational opportunities for all will only serve to cripple society in the long run.
Instead of building bombs to flatten school buildings in foreign lands, we should be building more and better schools here. Instead of raising an army to fight on foreign soil, we should training an army of teachers to combat illiteracy. Rather than spending billions on corporate subsidies to increase profit margins, we should be investing in job training programs and the economic infrastructure needed to bring our nation into the 21st century.

Yet, despite the boldness of this theory, we are left with the practical question of how it can be accomplished? How do we become a society where everyone is embraced as equal? Where there are the same educational opportunities for every child regardless of income or background? Where the same job opportunities are available to everyone based on solely on their qualifications ? Where the accumulation of wealth is no longer just a function of zip code or family name, but rather of the skill, discipline and ambition necessary to attain it?

We live in a society full of contrasts along ethnic, religious and political lines. Our ideological clashes are a permanent fixture of our daily social experience; a fundamental feature of our way of life. It flows directly from our basic beliefs in free speech and freedom of expression. It reflects the constitutional guarantees that such rights will endure in perpetuity. And it is this very process that is the sacred anvil upon which the iron girdle of our civil liberties was forged.

Everyone deserves to be treated with decency, respect and dignity. Unequal and disparate treatment based on class, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political persuasion or economic status is unacceptable in our day and age. It simply must cease. Our collective moral consciousness demands this if we are to continue advancing the boundaries of human society. If we are to live more harmoniously and abundantly as a people, we must recognize that achievement and success for one is a triumph for all; that the enfranchisement of the impoverished and downtrodden segments of society can only result in benefit to the whole. The days of believing that our future lies helplessly within the hands of those gluttonous ‘captains of industry’, whose insatiable cravings for wealth and power have spawned only enslavement and oppression, are at an end. We are surrounded daily with with the insidious effects that unchecked greed has wreaked on our society. There must be a better way and it is imperative that we find it before it is too late.

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New World Order: Military Intervention as a Last Resort for Conflict Resolution

The word ‘peace’ means different things to different people. For some, it conjures images of all the peoples of the world putting aside their differences and joining hands forever in social and political harmony. For some, it simply means the right to live one’s life free from interference by others. Regardless of the specific notion one has about the concept of peace, one thing is clear — on some level it always contemplates the absence of war.

The current crisis in the Ukraine typifies a situation where military intervention by outside forces will only exacerbate an increasingly unstable political and economic situation; more likely to create a humanitarian crisis rather than prevent one. In truth, actual crises of this sort rarely attract the attention of the world’s leading nations, and even less frequently prompt them to act. In recent history, the atrocities committed against the Cambodian people in the 1960s and the Tutsis of Rwanda in the 1990s serve as tragically poignant examples of this. The world’s leaders stood by and did nothing to stop mass genocide even as it unfolded before there very eyes. And while there is no definitive answer as to how or why everyone stood by during those times, one thing is clear: if ever an occasion were appropriate for military intervention, those were such occasions. On the other hand, the current situation in the Ukraine and Crimea, while tense, do not seem to warrant outside military intervention.

It is equally unclear whether Russia’s actions in the Ukraine may, at some point, necessitate a military response by the West (and I don’t believe it does). The answer to this question requires a different sort of analysis. The first question to be asked is whether or not Russia’s transparent efforts to swing the political leanings of the tiny nation inits favor has, in itself, created a humanitarian crisis. Because if not, the resultant political turmoil and unrest will ultimately resolve itself one way or the other. And regardless of how distasteful that outcome might to the political ideologies of the West, there is scant justification for military action over such differences. After all, if we are going to be so insistent that Russia not be allowed to further her political ambitions, or ’empire’, on the grounds that they are depriving the liberty of those who support a more democratic form of government, than would not our meddling in their affairs not be doing the exact same thing to those in the Ukraine, and specifically in Crimea, who desire to live under the Russian flag?

Ultimately, the prudent use of economic and political sanctions should carry the day. Even a nation as renegade and stalwart as Russia has within her borders many who understand the importance of global political and economic partnership as essential to the survival and perpetuation of modern nations. My sincere hope is that cooler heads will prevail in order to obtain a diplomatic solution to put an end to the current crisis in the Ukraine.

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Separationomics: Economic Segregation in 21st Century America

According to the US Census Bureau, the median annual income of white families was 75% greater than that of black families in 2012. This means that for every $1000 earned by white families, black families only brought home $600 by comparison. The income gap between black and white Americans is substantial and has remained largely the same since at least the late 1960s — when the Census Bureau first began collecting income data. In 1972, the median annual income for black families was just under $29,145 (in 2012 dollars), while in 2012 it was estimated at $33,718. Compare this to the median annual income for white families during those same periods, $50,644 (in 2012 dollars) and $57,009 respectively, and a very disparate picture begins to emerge of the relative economic status between the two racial groups. And although neither black nor white families have seen significant increases in median income over the last 40 years, white families have clearly enjoyed substantially greater incomes than those of their black counterparts. Over time, this difference increases exponentially.

To illustrate this point, imagine two families, one black, one white, who devoted 10 percent of their respective annual incomes into modest investments (6% annual return) from the forty year period between 1972 and 2012 (the average length of most careers). After forty years, the black family would have earned just over $537K, the white family just over $884K. Thus their average wealth gap at retirement would be just over $350K (an amount equal to that of a single-family home (in most states), a couple of brand new cars, student loans, maybe even a summer home, etc.) Further, if we were to add this amount to the difference in overall income during that forty year period, an even starker contrast emerges since the white family will have earned over $900K more than the black family. And when you add this to the difference in investment earnings above (taking into account, of course, the 10% of income devoted to such), the overall income gap widens to a staggering $1.15M!

It should be noted that the term ‘median annual income’ does not represent the actual income of every family, but rather average overall income for all families in that category. Thus, it does not show the distribution of income, which varies widely between families. As such, it does not address the issue of poverty, for while a certain percentage of families may be at or above the median income level, there are many who fall beneath it — far beneath. For example, in 2012, 13% of all black families in the U.S. (i.e., 1 out of every 7) had annual incomes equal or less to half the amount of the federal poverty threshold (which, for a family of four was approximately $23,000 that year). This means that, on average, 13% of all black families in America lived on annual incomes $11,500 or less. In contrast, only 4% of white families (1 out of every 25) lived at or below such income levels. Meanwhile, on the other end of the income spectrum, 75% of white families (3 out of every 4) had incomes that were at least double, or greater than, the federal poverty level (i.e., more than $46,000 per year for a family of four). Less than half than half of all black families managed to achieve such income levels in America in 2012.

Admittedly, statistical data can be hard to analyze as it seems, at times, susceptible to endless interpretations by its user. However, I believe that the analysis above not only represents a fair reading of the data, but coincides with everyday economic realities. It is beyond dispute that black Americans own fewer homes (with far less value, on average), drive fewer and less expensive vehicles, work more menial and lower-paying jobs (and when in positions of employment comparable to their white counterparts, are compensated significantly less on average), and have relatively far more limited access to both personal and commercial forms of credit than do white Americans.

And though my analysis is not intended to be a wholesale indictment of white America, it is a critique of an American society which still, as a whole, continues to deny financial and economic opportunity to most minorities, especially those who are black, reserving the better and the best for the majority. The reasons for this are both historical and varied and would require a much more in-depth analysis to explicate here. Indeed, countless books have been written on the subject. Yet, as each new generation becomes part of America’s workforce, the prospects for young minority men and women do not appear to be getting any better. One of the contributing factors to this is the disparity in the quality of education between whites and other minorities. But that is a subject for another discussion.

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Condemn the Act, Not the Actor

A small group of students from nearby Mahopac High School were recently suspended after school officials learned they had posted racial slurs on Twitter about students from rival Mount Vernon High School. The offending students are white, their targets black. The tweets were apparently posted after a confrontation between the fans of shcools’ two opposing basketball teams during a postseason game.

The comments at the heart of the controversy included statements like:
“2, 4, 6, 8, most of them won’t graduate,” (a reference to the mostly racial minority’s poor-performing school district); “One of the few biological fathers in Mount Vernon just tried to sell me crack outside of the county center,” ; “Thats why you shouldn’t let monkeys out of their cages #mtvernonzoo,” (an age-old analogy that presumably purports to compare African-Americans to primates indigenous to the lands from which they were stolen during the American slave trade); “Tough loss boys but at least we can talk to our dads about it #mtvernon.”

As disconcerting as these comments might seem to some, they are tragically all too common in today’s parlance. Still, this is small comfort to those on the receiving end of such inflammatory remarks. And so it seems that the spectre of racism, hate and bigotry has once again raised its ghastly head, reminding us that, in the real world, old habits die hard, and old stereotypes even harder.

As to the substance of the comments made, it should be noted that the belief that most black children do not know their biological father is untrue. Unfortunately, it has become common practice, among black and white critics alike, to attribute many, if not most, of today’s social ills to the increasing incidence of what are pejoratively labelled ‘broken homes’ (i.e., single-parent households). Apparently, such homes are to blame for things such as poor student performance, low graduation rates, teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, increased numbers of social welfare recipients, etc. Supporters of this view equate single-parent parenting with ineffective parenting or, at the very least, inferior to households where both parents are present.

At the very least, these assumptions are questionable. Like most of us I’m sure, I have a number of friends who are as successful in business as they were in school and who, coincidentally, are also products of a single-parent home. Additionally, such an analysis is flawed to the extent it mistakes causes for conditions and vice versa. Single-parent households are not the cause of social breakdown, rather it is the other way around. This is particularly true in the case of African-Americans households. The nearly irreparable harm caused to the black nuclear family by the institution of slavery, coupled with crippling poverty, political and social disenfranchisement have all contributed to the lack of social and economic stability in the African-American community at large.

Thus, it is not hard to see why insensitive comments made by the Mahopac students are particularly jarring. The truth is that, as with every community, African-Americans struggle with their fair share of social problems, some would even say disproportionately so. Yet, far from being attributable to single-parent households, or some form of ‘moral deficiency’ , this breakdown is primarily a function of social, political and economic forces that have been and continue to be outside their control. That being said, I would argue that the students who made this hurtful comments are victims of a sort themselves as many of them, it could likely be said, come from homes that are ‘broken’ in other ways. Homes that are afflicted with the social epidemics of bigotry, racism and hatred. Their incendiary remarks about African-Americans were more likely a function of both an intolerant home environment and a media which, all too often, casts African-Americans in a negative light. Thus, one could almost say these students had about as much choice in adopting their racist views as they did in being born. It is society that is on trial here, not the children which have been born into it.

And while this does not excuse the students for their actions, I believe it does allow us to condemn those actions without having to condemn the actors. Otherwise tolerant and fair-minded people often say ignorant things not because they are racists or bigots, per se, but because they are human beings who, like the rest of us, are prone to the occasional out-of-character outburst. This is particularly true when dealing with adolescents who, more often than not, are merely parroting what they hear at home.

Again, I am not suggesting that the comments made by these students go unaddressed. Clearly they must be held accountable for their actions if we are to set and example that such conduct has no place in our 21st century dialogue. But our goal should not be simply to chastise, but also to educate. The same hateful milieu that filled the minds of these adolescents with such harmful ideologies and then taught them that it was okay to express such against their fellow citizens, will continue to do so until it is changed. And that change will only come only by educating and enlightening those those still trapped inside.

Punishing a fool for acting on his own folly does nothing to discourage its repetition. Educating him, however, gives him the tools he needs to change such behavior. By doing this, we can illuminate those corners of society that still remain in the darkness of bigotry and hate, thereby encouraging them to step into the light of true tolerance, love and brotherhood one mind at a time.

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