Monthly Archives: August 2013

The following was originally published at the Urban Times on March 22, 2013. it is posted here for archival purposes.

A look at the racial composition of a Tea Party rally like this one goes a long way to explaining why the black conservative is still a noteworthy phenomenon in American politics. (Fibonacci Blue/ Flickr)

A look at the racial composition of a Tea Party rally like this one goes a long way to demonstrating why the black conservative is still a noteworthy phenomenon in American politics. (Source: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

A look at one of the most maligned, mocked, and misunderstood tropes in American politics.

The most unusual thing about the “black conservative”, or the “black Republican” is that it is a uniquely American phenomenon. While conservative parties in other nations, such as in the United Kingdom or in Canada, have had issues with appealing to minority voters, the inability of the American Republican party to do so is on an entirely different level.

Chief among the minority groups the Republican party has been unable to connect with are African-Americans, who have shunned the party by margins of over 80 percent in presidential elections since the political realignment of the sixties—and this is without looking at the two most recent cycles that actually featured an African-American candidate on the Democratic ticket.

This overwhelming black support of the Democratic Party makes the black Republican such an unusual cultural phenomenon. Every Republican National Convention, for example, is marked by references—comedic and otherwise—to the lack of black delegates. Even the HBO program Girls, that oft-referenced cultural lodestone of the chattering classes, used a black conservative love interest as a way to acknowledge criticism of the cast’s whiteness while also keeping the audience off balance.

However, despite its cultural place, the black conservative is for many simply a political prop, deployed for an obvious ideological purpose when needed but otherwise ignored. To see a broader view, one needs to look at the history of the black conservative thought, which can be traced to Booker T. Washington, a major black leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Educator Booker T. Washington was one of the first prominent black conservatives. (Source: cliff1066 via Flickr)

Booker T.Washington’s characterization as a black conservative is in contrast with one of his contemporaries, W.E.B Du Bois. Washington and Du Bois were once allies as black leaders, but a rift between the two opened after Washington’s 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech. The speech was notable because it advocated an acceptance—for the time being—of the status quo of political racial inequality. Instead of immediately agitating for political civil rights, an aim Washington said was of “the extremest [sic] folly”, he proposed that African-Americans focus on self-improvement within their own communities, accumulating economic success and allying with white southerners to secure protections from the harder edges of segregation. His view was that those with something to offer to society would eventually be given rights.

W.E.B.Du Bois was dubious of this outlook, critiquing Booker T. Washington in a 1903 essay, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” This essay describes Washington’s “compromise” as an “attitude of adjustment and submission”, countering that in the years after Washington laid out his vision, conditions for African Americans in the south had not markedly improved. The divide exemplified by this century-old argument, between those in the black community who would focus on internal community improvement versus those who would focus on pushing back against discrimination in society, lives on today.

There are several perspectives on the “new” black conservatism that has emerged in the past few decades. One view laid out by University of Iowa law professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, in a lengthy analysis of the roots of Clarence Thomas’ political and judicial worldview, argues that black conservatism not only comes from a place of deep concern for the black community, but also is ideologically distinct from white conservatism in many ways. Two pillars of the new black conservatism she identifies are a desire for the wider black community to escape the self destructive frame of themselves as “victims”, and a desire for blacks to reduce, if not eliminate, their dependence on government programs. Similarly, according to Willig, black conservatives do not deny the continued existence of racism, but simply view economic advancement through self-help as a more productive pursuit.

The other, far more hostile view, comes from Harvard University professor Martin Kilson, in his  “Anatomy of Black Conservatism” (Jstor/subscription required). Unlike Willig, he characterizes modern black conservatism as being little different from white conservatism, incapable of providing substantive solutions advancing the black community. He also challenges the black conservative view that the community is held back in economic advancement by an ideology of victimization, pointing to the success of the Jewish community despite a similar “victim” experience throughout history. Most critically, he characterizes contemporary black conservatives as “ritualistic dissenters,” who are “manipulating the dissident tradition and its modalities (rhetoric, allusions, demeanor) to support established patterns of power.”

That latter view is generally representative of the low regard that black conservatives are held in the broader African-American community. The most infamous example of this is the hatred of conservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. He has been described by some as “self loathing”,  while others have argued that he owes an“apology” to the black community. Efforts by groups (aside from those on the right) to have Justice Thomas speak or receive some sort of honor are usually met with pushback from other African-Americans. Justice Thomas is often characterized as a weak legal mind, and is usually (erroneously) characterized as an ideological vassal of fellow justice Antonin Scalia.

Herman Cain, like many black conservative politicians before him, quickly went from contender to comic relief in media accounts. (markn3tel/ Flickr)

Herman Cain, like many black conservative politicians before him, quickly went from contender to comic relief in media accounts. (Source: markn3tel via Flickr)

The black conservative in the realm of wider politics does not receive better treatment. Some of the most prominent right-wing African American candidates and politicians as of late—former Tea Party congressman Allen West, pizza magnate and former presidential candidate Herman Cain, and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, have all been successfully characterized less as serious politicians and more as outlandish, cartoonish showmen either lacking ideas, or full of dubious ones. A quick look at all three figures suggests a sort of chicken and egg question; are black conservatives in politics seen as lacking seriousness and sincerity because of unfair attacks from a “liberal media”, as those on the right are wont to claim, or do black politicians seeking greater publicity take conservative positions knowing that they’ll be more prominent as a “dissenting” voice in their community? It is hard to say.

So what is next? The black conservative will still generate confusion and consternation from observers for as long as the Republican Party can be credibly criticized as a party of old, angry white men. A GOP molded to the contours of a more multicultural America, one that can tap into a positive vision of self-reliance, instead of a harsh “tough-luck” libertarianism, is one that might finally gain a real foothold among a broader base of African-Americans. Here the political class has looked to the recently appointed Republican senator out of South Carolina, Tim Scott, as a man with seriousness and a vision.

One might ask why a person of color, but especially a black person in the United States, would identify with a right wing ideology. To ask such a question is to, on some level, question the judgment and pigeonhole the black conservative, to rob them of their agency. Why would, or should, someone see the world through a different lens from the one they’re expected to take, is the usual undertone of such an inquiry. To see the black conservative as anything other than one of many perfectly valid ways to be black in America, is to be profoundly unfair to a serious political outlook. This is not to say that conservatism has the right solutions for the black community, but it is to say that they have the right to a seat at the table.

Moussako, Abraham. “On the Black Conservative .” The Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, March 22, 2013. 


The following was originally published at the Urban Times on January 25th, 2013. It is republished here for archival purposes.

How an uncritical media have helped distort the American education debate.

The current American debate over education reform has centered, for the most part, on several major themes; that American schools are, in some broad sense, “failing”, that American students are vastly outperformed on international tests of assessment by ‘lesser’ nations, and that teachers and their obstinate unions are the main reason for this failure.

This June 2011 piece in the prominent American magazine The Atlantic by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein is an excellent example of every one of those above elements distilled into one article, down to its title, “The Failure of American Schools”. While the piece was written by a former public official intimately involved with the “education reform” movement, it is only slightly more ‘biased’ on the subject than treatments of the issue by  most journalists.

Before continuing, it should be said that one of the main underpinnings of this standard “failure” narrative—lukewarm American scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—is in many ways flawed. For one, the jurisdictions tested don’t lead to apples to apples comparisons. Scores for the entire Chinese school system, for example, are not available; rather the cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, both highly unrepresentative of the “average” Chinese student, participate in the test. Even for the places where true country to country comparisons are being made, a closer look at the test scores shows that the source of America’s middling international ranking is more  ineffective education of chronically disadvantaged ethnic groups, rather than a fundamental problem with all of American pedagogy.

That American schools are “failing”, in the sense that they are not adequately preparing their students to compete in the global economy, has become an article of faith of not just education reformers, but of the media itself. A study looking at media coverage of the subject from October 2010 to October 2011 found that 10 percent of all education news coverage was framed through a crisis frame, portraying the system as irreparably broken and incapable of fully educating its students. 20 percent of these pieces did not even engage in a discussion of solutions.

Melinda Gates (of the Gates Foundation) visiting a Chicago school in 2007. The Gates Foundation has been a big proponent of the current education 'reform' movement.  (image: Gates Foundation / Flickr)

Melinda Gates visiting a Chicago school in 2007. The Gates Foundation has been a big proponent of the current education ‘reform’ movement, and has received largely positive media attention as a result. (image: Gates Foundation / Flickr)

In terms of solutions, another major flaw of American education coverage is that it has by and large bought the claim of education reformers that most blame for the supposed ‘failure’ of American schools falls with teachers, as opposed to external social problems in impoverished school districts. This teacher-centric understanding has prompted media outlets in both Los Angeles and New York to publish—with teacher names attached—reports prepared by the respective school districts on teacher effectiveness based on a “value added” score, or a measurement that purports to measure the year-over-year improvement on standardized test scores a teacher provides to a student, accounting for socioeconomic differences. However, these statistics are highly flawed,often failing to adequately control for socioeconomic status and fluctuating wildly from year to year. Still, these evaluations were made public, with the predictable backlash towards teachers who scored poorly on this dubious metric.

However, the biggest problem with the media’s coverage of education is an aggravating tendency to cast any and all signs of improvement in near-messianic terms. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the generally positive, if not effusive, coverage charter schools have received from the media, even including a blockbuster 2010 documentary,Waiting for “Superman”, which focused on the lengths families went through to get their children into charters. The film, which portrayed charter schools as the be-all and end-all of education reform, reflected many of the problems with regular media coverage of charters and reforms in general; an inability to recognize the variation in quality among charters—there are some that are as bad as the worst public schools in their states—an overreliance on anecdotal storytelling, and a lack of context on education trends in the US independent of what the ‘reformers’ are saying, likely a product of many media outlets no longer staffing education beat reporters.

It would be unfair to characterize the entire media as having failed in reporting on education reform; even the media outlets that released the “value added” data in New York and Los Angeles followed up with reports exploring the flawed nature of the data, for example. However, what is clear is that public misconceptions like the widespread publicbelief in the effectiveness of charter schools, can be largely blamed on inadequate media coverage.

Moussako, Abraham. “The Media and Education Reform: The Triumph of Neat Narratives.” The Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, January 25, 2013.

The following was originally published at the Urban Times on December 26th, 2012. It is posted here for archival purposes.
Deciphering the intentions and biases of professional journalists is a popular pastime of political activists. (Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District/ Flickr)

Previous in Critical Conversations: Made in Prison: The Rise of America’s New Labour Class

How political partisans mistake the natural tendencies of media for ideological animosity.

“Media bias” means radically different things to different people, especially in the United States, it has become yet another front in the culture wars. To a right winger, “media bias” is a lack of ideological diversity in newsrooms, with a majority of journalists being drawn from the halls of “elitist”, left-leaning institutions (e.g. the Ivy League). To a left winger, “media bias” iscorporate influence, media consolidation, and the pressure to keep powerful sources happy. Each side has some favored examples—for the past decade the right has pointed to a supposed leftward slant in coverage of social issues, while the left has pointed to the seemingly deferential coverage of the War on Terror, from the failure to fact check Iraq War intelligence to coverage of drones that omits considerations of civilian casualties and international law.

However, what both of these ideological critiques—to varying degrees—ignore or downplay are the wholly non-ideological tendencies of the media. There are many of these, but this piece will center on the media’s tendency to cover the sensational, unusual, and remarkable. The first incident is one that you might have missed, as it happened in the middle of August: the attempted shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council that left one man, a security guard, injured. The FRC is a socially conservative advocacy group that has provoked major controversy with their generally hostile stance towards LGBT issues, with the respected Southern Poverty Law Center going so far as to controversially label the organization an anti-gay hate group, on a list that includes various Neo-Nazi groups, among others.

Related: Martyn Lewis: Solutions-Driven Journalism and the Future of News

While a motive was not known at the outset, as soon as it became clear that the shooting was politically motivated, those on the right sniffed suspiciously at the media’s treatment of the incident. Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center—an influential right-wing media watchdog—argued on the organization’s blog that the media had ignored the shooting because they wanted to suppress incidents of political violence that didn’t fit their preconceived narrative, which to Bozell, is of portraying right-wingers as hateful ideologues prone to violence. Bozell appeals to the counterfactual in the piece, claiming that if the exact same scenario had occurred with a politically motivated attack on a left-leaning group—even with the same lack of a body count—the media would have been all over the story.

What such an argument misses is the fact that the media places a very high premium on the body count when it comes to violence. The national media, as opposed to local news, has a documented tendency to only focus on crimes when there is a unique or sensational angle to them. To that point, while Bozell and others on the right consider the time that the national newscasts and cable news spent on the story to be scandalously small, the political angle is the very reason why a shooting with no deaths in Washington DC, a city with 108 murder deaths in 2011, got any time on all three of the national newscasts in the first place.

The controversy over the Stanford University study focused on the claims the researchers made about the nutritional value of organic foods, such as those pictured.

[broken/expired photo link removed]

(Image: Tropic~7/ Flickr)

A similar firestorm erupted on the left earlier this year when researchers at Stanford University published a study which found that organic foods were no more nutritious than non-organic foods. Critics on the left pounced, alleging corporate influence on both the study itself and on the media for playing up the study’s negative, if narrow, main conclusion on organic foods. The controversy at times was torn between being angry about the study and the media’s reaction. The fact that the slew of stories used the study to make a broad claim against the value of organics is simply a combination of the media tendency to focus on the remarkable result, and the fact that scientists themselves spin the “flashiest” results in their press releases and abstracts, leaving the mitigating factors and more mundane findings for the few journalists who manage to pick through the paper.

These two examples are not intended to debunk the broader idea that media outlets are capable of exhibiting an ideological bias, as a look at American cable news or British tabloids will make clear. Rather, what these two cases aim to illustrate is that bias is truly in the eye of the beholder. What may seem to be a partisan slant in a story might simply be the result of the observer falling victim to the hostile media effect—a tendency to see the media as biased against their own ideology.

Moussako, Abraham. “The Problem of Misattributed Media Bias.” Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, December 26, 2012. 

The following was published at the Urban Times on November 12th, 2012. It is posted here for archival purposes.

Do politicians use the rhetoric of dispassionate decision making to sugarcoat the ideological?

The concept of technocracy, a government managed by experts insulated from public opinion, is one that has enjoyed a certain appeal as of late – particularly considering its direct conflict with the central purpose of democracy. As the “Euro-crisis” continued, there was much excited media talk about the “technocrats” who were to take over from the governments that purportedly plunged the continent into crisis. This piece is not an attempt to opine about such talk specifically, but rather to look at the broader phenomenon of whether the rhetoric of technocracy, this holy grail of rational, cost-benefit based decision-making, is used to conceal what really are ideologically motivated policy changes and budget cuts.

At its core, this sort of rhetorical sleight of hand is just a particularly noticeable form of the old political game of targeted messaging, tailoring rhetoric to different slices of the electorate. A great example of this sort of dual messaging is the recurring debate in the United States over the funding of public broadcasting. Every so often, some in the Republican party threaten to remove federal government funding from NPR and PBS. Most recently, this debate was triggered by a promise Mitt Romney made at the first presidential debate this cycle to cut federal funding for PBS.

Here we can see him targeting both groups. He said that  while he “love[ed]” Big Bird, a reference to an iconic character on the PBS children’s staple Sesame Street, “I’m going to stop borrowing money from China to pay for things we don’t need.” On the one hand, the reference to China is a clear attempt to paint the ending of the government subsidy as a necessary move to cut the budget deficit. On the other hand, we hear a slight nod to the underlying ideological underpinnings of opposition to public broadcast funding by saying that PBS is something “we don’t need”. The ensuing debate followed the same template as previous debates over public broadcast funding, with those on the left pointing out that public broadcasting composes a vanishingly small part of the federal budget (0.014% to be exact) and those on the right arguing that it still is not something the government should be funding.

This sort of dual rhetoric is not limited to the American political scene. In Canada, Toronto mayor Rob Ford has become a polarizing figure through the course of his mayoralty, which he has held for just short of 2 years. Ford ran on a campaign based largely on taking back the city for the taxpayer, tapping into voter grievances about government waste and a perceived inability of the previous mayor to stand up to union demands. A particular phrase he leaned on during the campaign was the idea of the“gravy train” – that bureaucrats had become fat at the direct expense of the taxpayer. By all accounts this framing succeeded with a surprisingly wide cross section of voters in the city.

An obstacle to productivity? (image: Wikimedia Commons)

Ford’s actual time in office, however, has struck a different note. One of the major controversies during his tenure involved the funding of the Transit City project, an attempt to expand bus and light rail service. A major plank of Ford’s campaign centered on ending the project entirely and replacing the light rail lines with two subway lines. While he cited cost reasons for stopping the plan, a major theme of his opposition was that Transit City represented a part of the “War on the Car” that needed to be stopped. In the ensuing controversy, it became clear that the budgetary justification for eliminating the light rail lines was far from clear cut, leaving it as little but a fig leaf for the underlying ideological opposition to forms of transit that “impede” cars. This was one of just many episodes of this rhetorical sleight of hand. Another involved his removal of a bike lane on a downtown street. Despite the $300,000 removal cost, he dubiously claimed that the removal would pay off in extra economic activity that would come from the two to seven minutes saved by drivers.

What we are left wondering after looking at these cases is whether it is ever possible to detect the intent of a political policy. At its root, all budget decisions are motivated by an underlying ideology; even the very concept of “technocracy” is a very distinct and real ideology, with a whole host of assumptions about the fallibility of democratic majorities baked into its prescriptions of expert-based governance. Whenever any sort of government action is proposed, it sells to say it is because of rational, impartial criteria. Opponents, in turn will often want to paint their opponents as dangerous ideologues—see the debate in the US over the Paul Ryan budget and in Canada over the Harper Government’s budget cuts. Ideally, the public would consider political policies on their merits, and often they do. Even so, the way that a voter views the merits of a policy is inevitably colored by those who succeed in framing its intent.

Moussako, Abraham. “The Smokescreen of Technocracy?” The Urban Times, sec. Politics: Critical Conversations, November 13, 2012.

%d bloggers like this: