Monday, April 29, 2013

A portrait of grace and courage

Last week Susan and I saw the movie '42.' It is the story of Jackie Robinson who, in 1947, became the first African American to play Major League Baseball.

If you want to see a story of courage, grace and persistence, this is the film for you. The narrative is compelling and the cast is outstanding.

Chadwick Boseman is entirely convincing as Robinson. He obviously studied Robison's trademark base-stealing runs, and his portrayal of dignity under virulent and unrelenting abuse on and off the field cannot fail to move. Equally touching is the quiet but unflinching support of his wife, Rachel, played by Nicole Beharie. In today's era of fallen sports heroes it is nice to see such integrity in professional and family life.
Harrison Ford is perfectly cast as Branch Rickey, the executive who signed Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey was a religious man ("God is a Methodist") who takes his faith seriously. He tells baseball commissioner Happy Chandler, who is resisting Rickey's effort to break the color bar,  "One of these days, you’re going to meet your maker, and God’s going to ask you why you didn’t let Jackie Robinson play baseball, and you’re going to have to say, ‘because he was black,’ and that might not be a sufficient answer."

But as a shrewd businessman, Rickey also understands the fundamental truth that money is green, not black or white. Racism is not just evil, it is an economic loser.

Anyone who thinks racism was confined to the Deep South will be startled by the unvarnished portrayal of prejudice in New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. A teammate confides to Robinson his nervousness about playing in Cincinnati so close to his home state of Kentucky. But as the crowd boos and shouts racial epithets he walks across the field and puts an arm around Robinson's shoulder: his family is in the stands and he wants them to see. 

One cannot see '42' and not draw some parallels with Obama's experience two generations later. Although the disrespect is now cloaked in questions about citizenship and religion rather than an overt racial attack, the underlying strategy is the same. Its particular cowardice lies in the knowledge that the target cannot respond in anger.

We saw '42' in a packed movie house with a diverse and multi-generational audience in Richmond, Virginia. At the end everyone applauded.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Notes from Punta Cana

We disembark in bright sunshine and walk towards the welcoming thatched roofs of the Punta Cana airport in the Dominican Republic. A chaotic scene unfolds inside as five flights have arrived almost simultaneously from the US and Canada and there appears to be only two functioning staff at the immigration desks. A long line snakes slowly through the airport under the thatched roof and ceiling fans. Time takes on a different dimension.

A large and obnoxious American in line behind us loses patience. "Who the hell's in charge here?" he shouts (in English). 

After a few anxious minutes searching through the many hundreds of bags we find ours standing alone by the airline desk – perhaps someone has taken it by mistake and returned it to this spot. 

As we drive into town we chat with our cheerful driver. He ran his own business until the economic downturn. Now he runs a cab for the real estate company and hopes for better days.

Along the road, in between the many beautiful all-inclusive resorts, there are quite a number of half-finished constructions, evidence of a tourist-driven real estate frenzy which has stalled.

Our "home away" condo is part of a quiet and attractive development just ten minutes walk from the beach. This walk requires negotiating a road full of buses, vans, scooters, mopeds and motor bikes (the favored form of taxi). The sidewalk is under construction which makes the short journey an adventure.

We make our daily base camp on the beach in front of a restaurant away from the main resort areas. The owner supplies us with Dominican food of red beans, rice, and goat – enough for two meals. By the end of the week he says we have become friends for life. Along with dinners of paella and seafood we get special side dishes and small shots of Mama Juana, a Dominican concoction of rum, red wine and honey(to aid digestion!) Our waiter says he spent 19 years in Toronto. We agree that the weather here is better.
After many entreaties from the owner of the neighboring gift shop we purchase a necklace and a carving. The manager says next time we are to visit his home in Santo Domingo. His daughter is in the US.

Slightly removed from the resort area we are able to get some glimpse of everyday life. The tourist industry has generated considerable employment. Many have come from Haiti, an eight-hour bus journey, to find work here.

Relations between the countries have been strained for many years. Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for two decades in the 19th century and Dominicans still celebrate their independence from Haiti as well as that from Spain. In 1937 Dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the killing by Dominican troops of thousands of Haitians living and working in the border areas. Their bodies were thrown in the aptly named Massacre River. The history of the massacre was largely ignored until last year when members of the Haitian and Dominican diasporas living in the US led a ceremony at the border to remember the massacre and address its legacy. Hundreds of Dominicans and Haitians met on opposite sides of the river and floated candles in the water.

Yet prejudice remains. Recent policy changes have classified Dominicans of Haitian descent as foreigners rather than citizens. One observer writes of a “deep-seated racism in Dominican society which affects dark-skinned people in general and Haitians and Dominico-Haitians in particular.”  

It is interesting to see how tourists interact with the local population. Some national groups have gained a reputation for rudeness. When the sun goes down and the Europeans and North Americans retreat to their all-inclusive resorts, we see the Dominicans enjoy the beach and the water. Our days here are too short for anything but superficial impressions. But we are glad to connect with a few people and to discover something of the warmth, hospitality, and humor of this country. We are sorry we don’t speak enough Spanish to discover more.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A time for courage

In 1974, a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court (Milliken v Bradley) allowed suburban schools in Detroit, Michigan, to be protected from a metropolitan desegregation plan. It set the pattern for a national trend that enabled local jurisdictions to act as “racial Berlin walls,” according to Tom Pettigrew, a leading researcher and social psychologist. 

Forty years later, a bankruptcy lawyer has been appointed by the state of Michigan as an unelected emergency manager for Detroit, which experienced a 25 percent population drop in the past decade and is facing daunting financial challenges. A higher percentage of children live in poverty than in any other large city in America.

Detroit is a graphic example of the interaction of race and poverty and it demonstrates what many urban experts tell us: fragmented metropolitan regions do not thrive. It is impossible to build a healthy region with a deeply segregated school system.

Last month Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and  a prolific author on the topic of school segregation, was in Richmond, Va,  to kick off “Looking Back, Moving Forward: a Conference on Race, Class, Opportunity, and School Boundaries in the Richmond Region.” 

Like Detroit, the Richmond region resisted school integration and a Supreme Court decision struck down the proposed merger between city and surrounding county systems. Today the once largely white counties have a vastly more diverse population and there is a growing tendency to re-segregate by race and class within school districts.

“We have never had a long-term commitment to integration except in a few places like the US Army,” said Orfield. One of his core arguments for integration is that “if you concentrate disadvantage in schools, you create machines to perpetuate poverty.”

Case studies from several cities (Louisville, Hartford, and Omaha) provided some hopeful pointers. Suggestions for Richmond included cross-jurisdictional magnet schools; a regional dual language (English-Spanish) immersion school; or a school created by one of the universities. We also heard that citizens need to exert pressure on their elected officials at the state level.

The conference was largely driven by the conviction of Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, who teaches educational policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and who was a classmate of one of our sons in middle school. She is co-author of a new study examining school enrollment in Virginia from 1989 through 2010

Law professor Jim Ryan noted that citizens must accept responsibility for choices they make and not look to courts or other outside forces for solutions. “It really comes down to political will.”

An example of courageous citizen action was highlighted by Richmond School Board Vice Chairman Donald Coleman. He praised some young professional couples who chose to live in the city’s east end and to enroll their young children in the local elementary school – where most of the students are black and from families below the poverty line – and are working for its success.

Four young couples, graduates of the University of Virginia, decided to live out their Christian principles and belief in community development by investing their families in northeastern Church Hill. The men had been housemates at college. Two are doctors, one a pastor and another is a financial adviser.

Romesh Wijesooriya, who is interim chief of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “My greatest vision is that people with resources, people without resources, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, could live together and go to school together. There would be homes for old folks, student apartments, and single-family homes in the same community. Businesses would be thriving there. I get pretty pumped. There’s a ton of barriers and a ton of hurt and a lot of brokenness, but also a great potential for hope and healing.”

Richmond, like Detroit and every city in America, needs more people with this kind of vision and commitment. It’s a time for courage.