Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Which Box Should I Check, and Why?

My previous entry on Tiger Woods notwithstanding, I’m truly not opposed to the so-called multiracial movement.
The central topic of my senior thesis was the political activism of New Orleans’ freeborn people of color during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In antebellum New Orleans, this was a predominantly “multiracial” group living in a tripartite racial system. After 1865, this group found itself coping with the realities of a monoracial society.

A monoracial view of the United States ignores not only our history, but also social, cultural, economic, and political realities. The fact that this monoracial viewpoint continues to be reflected in the manner in which the federal government collects data on race is not, in my opinion, a very good thing. I was surprised, however, at my own reaction when I looked at the new guidelines proposed by the Department of Education with respect to racial classifications for students. This reaction ran the gamut of emotions from skepticism to more skepticism.

Nine years ago, the United States Office of Management and Budget set forth guidelines mandating that individuals completing federally required forms be allowed to mark more than one racial category to identify themselves on such forms. The U.S. Census adopted that change, using it in 2000. 6.8 million people elected to identify themselves as multiracial. Timely, as ever, the Department of Education is now proposing regulations allowing students to self-identify in as many categories as they want.

As it stands now, institutions of higher learning must report how many of their students fall into one of five categories. These categories are the “old stand-bys”: (1) black; (2) white; (3) Hispanic; (4) Asian/Pacific Islander; and (5) Native American/Alaska Native.

There were plenty of reasons why it took the Department of Education such a comparatively long time to propose its own new set of standards, “stability” being perhaps the most obvious and important. Most institutions affected by these changes have been collecting their own data on this for years, and they certainly expected the Department of Education to eventually implement such changes.

The regulations proposed by the Department of Education asks first if the student is Hispanic and then asks students to select one or more descriptions from the groups American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and white. Uh-oh.

Aggregate statistical data and statistical comparisons to previous years will be extremely difficult, as the new regulations would not require updating existing records and statistics. A student who self-identified as “black” in 2006 but as “multiracial” in 2007 will make it seem as if yet another black student has fallen from the rolls. At this point, sociology is causing at least as big of a fuss as logistics.

In case you missed it, under the new regulations, students who self-identify as Hispanic would be counted only as Hispanics, regardless of whether they also check off or circle other categories. If non-Hispanic students responding to the second question check off more than one racial category, these students will be listed under “two or more races.” Those races will not be specified.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think that the Latino/Hispanic “lobby” threw its weight around on this. I just think the Department of Education got this one wrong. An obvious outcome under these proposed regulations appears to be that the number of Hispanic students counted would be maximized while counts for other racial groups would be diminished. Someone who self-identifies as Hispanic and black is counted as Hispanic. Someone who self-identifies as black and Native American is counted as "multiracial".
So, two students rightly or wrongly limited to identification as black under the current regulations would now be counted as Hispanic and "multiracial" under the proposed regulations. Substitute any non-Hispanic racial classification for "black" and the example still holds true. "Vanishing" non-Hispanic students who reappear in a generic "other" category does not seem like such a great thing to me. There has to be a better way to recognize the need for multiracial identification.

In addition, while the proposed regulations provide, on the surface at least, a greater opportunity for accurate self-identification, the end result seems unsatisfactory. An individual who self-identifies as “multiracial” is lumped into this “two or more” category with no ultimate distinction made as to which two or more races she has selected. At the end of the day, for statistical purposes, there’s still no distinction made between lots of racial categories. Instead of having one or more aspects of your racial heritage “ignored”, all are now ignored or at least not identified with any degree of specificity.

I don’t even pretend to have an answer for this one. The Department of Education, as with a lot of other federal agencies, has to balance a lot of concerns and interests. The department is accepting public comments on its proposed guidelines until September 21, 2006. At least there is now a greater opportunity for a legitimate discussion on an important issue.


Saturday, August 05, 2006

How the Game is Played

On Thursday, August 3, a bill, already approved by the House of Representatives, went up to a vote by their counterparts in the U.S. Senate. The bill included a phased-in increase of the federal minimum wage, which, after three years, would see the minimum wage rise from $5.15 an hour to $7.25.

A Republican-controlled Senate needed 60 votes to pass the bill. The Senate voted 56-42 against, leaving us with the unlikely situation in which Democratic members of the U.S. Senate are, on the surface, responsible for keeping the minimum wage laughably low. Has Hell frozen over? Was that a pig I just saw flying past my window? Did the Cincinnati Bengals just win the Super Bowl?

Hell is still hot, they tell me. That was a pigeon (with a weight problem) I caught out of the corner of my eye. And the Bengals aren’t winning the Super Bowl in this or any other century. It was actually just business as usual in our nation’s capital. Six Senators in total crossed the aisles, 4 Democrats voted for it and 2 Republicans voted against it. Otherwise, it was just another example of pre-election electioneering.

You see, the bill didn’t just call for a show of hands as to who thought the minimum wage should be increased. (If it had, the bill still wouldn’t have passed, but at least we’d all be a little less confused as to why.) It actually combined a reduction in the estate tax (and the revival of other tax cuts) with the proposed minimum wage increase. For what it’s worth, the AFL-CIO also opposed the bill.

This was a double-edged GOP strategy, and a pretty shrewd one at that. An earlier attempt at bringing the estate tax issue up for debate fell a mere three votes short. So, they linked the proposed estate tax reduction to the proposed minimum wage increase. Even if Democrats succeeded in blocking the bill’s passage, the Republicans could claim that it was the Democratic minority that was responsible for yet another stalled piece of legislation. On a sports discussion board I frequent, Republicans were already asking Democrats to explain why “their” party was against increasing the minimum wage. Oh, boy.

I am not arguing that Democrats have never been guilty of the same type of maneuvering. Filibusters, shutdowns, hey, it all comes with the territory. It’s why politics is the dirtiest game going (though cycling made a strong push during and after this year’s Tour de France)
I shed no tears over the fact that this bill died on the vine. Under the proposed bill, by 2015, the amount of an estate exempt from taxation would have been increased to $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples. Estates less than or equal to $25 million would have been taxed at capital gains rates (currently 15% and scheduled to increase to 20%). The top tax rate on larger estates would have fallen to 30% (again by 2015).

Don’t get me wrong, I think the minimum wage is long overdue for an increase. I just do not believe that increase is worth it when inextricably linked to yet more tax breaks for those least in need of them. A reduction in the estate tax will arguably lead to cuts in federal programs for the poor due to reduced federal revenue.

The “double taxation” argument against the estate tax has never made any sense to me. You’d be hard-pressed to find a legal transfer of funds that doesn’t constitute “multiple taxation.” My employer has paid taxes on the money that has gone into every paycheck I’ve received. If I don’t get relief from this “double taxation” why should the scion of a wealthy family be exempt from it for money he hasn’t worked for?

Let me put it this way. If I win the lottery, I will gladly pay taxes on my winnings. Likewise, if I inherit an estate large enough to qualify, I will gladly pay estate taxes. In neither instance am I somehow deserving of a tax-free windfall.
The games people play. . .


Thursday, August 03, 2006

Flag Daze: South Carolina and That Whacky Confederate Flag

I was genuinely surprised to find out yesterday that the NCAA is considering expanding its ban of championship events in South Carolina because the flag of the former Confederacy is still displayed on Statehouse grounds. That is to say, I was surprised that the ban hadn't already been expanded.

The NCAA is responding (or rather, considering a response) to a request from the Black Coaches Association. Predetermined NCAA postseason events (e.g. conference championships, regionals, etc.) have been barred from the state since 2001. The NCAA is weighing whether or not to expand the ban to postseason events which individual teams in the state might host due to their regular season performance.

In 2000, the NAACP led an economic boycott of South Carolina because, at that time, the Confederate flag flew high over the state's Capitol dome. [Begin sarcasm] In an extremely bold and progressive move, the South Carolina Legislature voted, in the spring of 2000, to move the flag to the Confederate monument located in front of the Statehouse. Surprisingly, the NAACP was not satisfied. [End sarcasm]

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union in 1860. Truth be told, they were pretty close to doing so in 1832, but, as they say, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. A scant 97 years after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, the Confederate flag was placed atop South Carolina's Statehouse dome in 1962, where it was to remain until July 1, 2000.

Many individuals, both inside and outside of South Carolina, claim that the Confederate flag is not a racist symbol. They cite the flag's ties to an important part of Southern heritage. The Confederate flag is now displayed as part of a monument to soldiers of the former Confederate States of America. The vast majority of these soldiers were not Rhett Butler. Like most other wars, the have-nots get put on the front lines to defend the interests of the haves. I get that.
What these individuals do not seem to get, is that the Confederate flag is also inextricably linked to the institution of slavery, de jure racial segregation, and opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. These are not good things, and to display the Confederate flag anywhere near the Statehouse is, in my opinion, an implicit endorsement of this legacy. You can't have one without the other.

I'm a big fan of the Bill of Rights. I moved back to Louisiana in early 2006. Since that time, I have passed more houses than I can count whose owners choose to fly the Confederate flag. The First Amendment and I both say, "more power to you." Fly whatever flag you want. As long as you're not violating a content-neutral noise ordinance, you can sit in a rocking chair under that flag and sing "You Fought All the Way, Johnny Reb." If, however, "Trading Spaces" chooses not to use your home because you won't get rid of the Confederate flag hanging in your living room, I have no sympathy for you. Similarly, the NCAA is well within its rights not to allow its postseason games to be played in South Carolina until the Confederate flag is no longer displayed on top of, in front of, or around the Statehouse.

The athletes do not suffer under the current ban. They will not suffer if the ban is extended. They still get to compete, and there are worse things in life than having to play on the road instead of at home. The schools and cities just don't get the extra revenue that comes with hosting these events. This particular combination of "carrot and stick" which the NCAA is considering is no different, really, than the combo used by the federal government with respect to states, the combo used by state governments with respect to counties, and county governments with respect to municipalities. Withholding a benefit is not the same as a punishment under these circumstances.

I must confess, I still chuckle when I see a "You've Got Your X, I've Got Mine" baseball cap or bumper sticker. I first saw these on my way to Myrtle Beach in the spring of 1994, and I still think that's pretty clever. Tacit state endorsement of the Confederate "X" was, is, and always will be a different matter entirely.

Continuing to display the Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina Statehouse is not clever. It's offensive and shortsighted. The NCAA should have no qualms about playing hardball with the State of South Carolina on this issue.

This fight's been over for a long time, Johnny Reb.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

In Vino Veritas: Mel Gibson, Drunken Rants, and Forgiveness

I'm usually up on my celebrity "dish". E! is programmend on my remote as one of my "favorites", I'm no stranger to, and I catch "Showbiz Tonight" whenever my schedule permits. (Which is quite often, in case you're wondering) This weekend, however, I was obviously a little bit off my game. I get a little distracted once NFL training camp starts.
I honestly did not find out about Mel Gibson and his tequila-fueled run-in with LA County police until yesterday.
I knew about Mel Gibson's history of problem drinking. He's a self-proclaimed alcoholic, and, for what it's worth I applaud him for taking responsibility for that aspect of last week's events. Relapses are not a required part of the recovery process, but they happen quite frequently. His celebrity means that his relapse is front page news. I'd be hard pressed to wish that kind of publicity on anyone. I can't defend drunk driving, though. He put his own safety and the safety of others at risk. This seems to have been somewhat forgotten in all the furor over his words and behavior after getting stopped by police. Reports are that Gibson is taking steps to get back on the wagon. I wish him all the best. To err is human, to forgive divine.
I also knew about the persistent allegations of anti-Semitism leveled at Mel Gibson. His father's comments on the subject of the Holocaust notwithstanding, Gibson's own statements always raised a few eyebrows. His drunken ramblings last Thursday night/Friday morning, however, contained invectives that would make a skinhead blush. A lot of discussion both on and off the 'net has been devoted to what extent these hateful remarks can be attributed to or explained by a problem drinker's having had too much to drink.
From a chemical standpoint ether and alcohol are close relatives. They're close enough to be brothers, as a matter of fact. Both are highly flammable and both are known to cause giggling, dizziness, and vomiting. A patient anesthetized by ether is liable to say some pretty strange things; things which he would probably not say under normal circumstances. Still, ether should not be considered the equivalent of "truth serum", and neither should alcohol. Statements made when a dying man knew he was about to die are given great weight under our legal system. Statements made when a man is dead drunk are not.
In my own experience, I've said many bluntly honest things while under the influence; things that, rightly or wrongly, I might not have said while stone cold sober. I've also lied like a rug. For every instance in which I've seen alcohol remove a man's inhibitions against hurting someone's feelings or making others uncomfortable by saying exactly what's on his mind, I've seen another instance in which alcohol has removed a man's fear of getting caught in a bald-faced lie. All that's to say that "in vino veritas" is always true . . . except when it's not.
No amount of alcohol, though, can justify or explain away the things Mel Gibson said to the arresting officers. Pour a fifth of whiskey down my throat and I'm liable to tell you launch into many diatribes. These could range from my hatred of the New York Yankees to my conviction that Lyndon Johnson gets short-changed by most Presidential historians. Most of these rants will probably not make any sense. They will, however, tend to be exaggerations of views and opinions I held long before the alcohol began to take effect. The circumstances under which I say them and the manner in which I express myself will be the major change brought about by my state of intoxication. Tequila can relax a shy man's inhibitions to the point where he'll get up in front of a crowd and start singing in a bad falsetto. He can't, however, blame the booze for the fact that he knows all the lyrics to "I Will Survive". Alcohol can't bring out anything that's not there to begin with.

The "don't you know who I am?" part of Gibson's rant is pretty commonplace. Many of us who are only household names in our own households might be tempted to say something similar given the right (or wrong) mixture of circumstances and alcohol. The guy no doubt has an ego. He wouldn't have achieved the success he has in a tough industry if he didn't. Our greatest strengths are usually tied to our greatest weaknesses as well.
Mel Gibson's timing could not have been worse. ABC has reportedly scrapped his project dealing with the Holocaust. His movie, "Apocalypto" also seems to be up in the air. As I've said, I hope that Gibson follows through on his plans for treatment. I also hope that he can work through the other issues which that bottle of tequila brought to the surface. These issues include his anti-Semitism and sense of entitlement. I hope he was motivated by a genuine sense of regret and acknowledgement that he needs to work on these things when he asked members of the very community he offended to help him in his recovery. I hope that concern for the future of his career wasn't the primary motivating factor.