Monday, March 30, 2009

"He Speaks So Well...He's So Well Spoken..."

"You sound articulate."

That's what the law firm partner told me towards the end of our first conversation the other day. I had to stop from laughing. I immediately got that feeling that you feel when some unwitting participant triggers an inside joke that only you and your friends know about so I had to make a real effort to hold back the grin that I could feel coming on.

Nearly every black professional or student I know has heard this word used to describe them at one point or another, so I suppose it is somewhat like an inside joke. One big inside joke that never really seems to die, even in 2009. Articulate. Ha.

We all remember the great Chris Rock stand up:

"Whenever Colin Powell is on the news, white people give him the same compliments: 'How do you feel about Colin Powell?', 'He speaks so well! He's so well spoken. I mean he really speaks so well!' Like that's a compliment. 'He speaks so well' is not a compliment, okay? 'He speaks so well' is some shit you say about retarded people that can talk. What do you mean he speaks so well? He's a fucking educated man! How the fuck did you expect him to sound, you dirty motherfucker? 'He speaks so well.' What are you talking about? What voice were you expecting to come out of his mouth? 'Imma drop me a bomb today', 'I be Pwez o dent!'."

Now, I'm quite sure the partner did not use this term out of any malice or intentional disrespect. Nevertheless, its still one of those nagging little issues that we can't seem to escape in the office space or the classroom setting when our colleagues discover that, yes, we can in fact speak the king's English just like them. Who knew?

However, before we cast aspersion over White America for their role in this inside joke, I witnessed a spectacle of a conversation yesterday on the subway between a Black mother and her children that led me to think that perhaps it is time we do some introspection on whether the joke is actually on us. In other words, is the Black community as a whole at fault for buying into the notion that speaking proper English is something that we just don't do? That somehow speaking proper English is "speaking White?"

To touch on the subway incident real quick, I basically had a Cosby moment ear hustlin' in on this conversation. Again, I had my iPod in as I usually do, trying to mind my own, when over the music I can hear this woman talking to her kid very loud and very ghetto. I didn't hear exactly what the kid said, but then this older dude who was sitting across from the mom said something like "well she's just a talker ain't she?" referring to the kid. The mom replies "yeah ever since I put her in [name I cant remember] academy she's been sounding like one of these white kids. Gonna have to take her back over to [other school who's name I can't remember]." Then they both laugh and she says "you have a good one" as she and the kid got off at their stop which had just arrived. Denzel's character in the "Great Debaters" is surely somewhere rolling over in his grave.

Speaking of Cosby, the few nights ago on CNN they were discussing the impact the Obama's may have on this the black community and it was mentioned that after the episodes of The Cosby Show aired, Black enrollment at college went up and Black home ownership also increased. The Black community, as a whole, saw something that it identified with and responded accordingly.

That being said, I guess my questions are (i) how much of this "Intelligence = White" notion is our own fault and (ii) is this something that we as a community can begin to move away from again now that we appear to have reached another paradigm shift with a very public example of an educated and popular Black First Family?

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Duality of the American Legal System

During my three year stretch of time in Newark, New Jersey, I came to witness many things that I had never seen before. One of the memories that sticks out most in my mind are the group of high school crack dealers who lived across the street from me. My roommate James and I passed by them everyday on our way to law school where we would read about the laws they were breaking and the system that, although they were oblivious to it, was deliberately designed to wait for them at the finish line.

As time moved on we observed some of their patterns of behavior. How they hid the crack when the police came down the street. The customers they had. Their respective ranking within the group. We even had nicknames for them (mostly based on characters from The Wire).

But what I remember most is that they were just kids.

The oldest was maybe 17 or 18 years old. To them, this was how life was. An expectation. If they had been born in Idaho they would have learned the family business of potato farming or something. If they were born in Silicon Valley they might have been techno-hustlers for Google or what have you. But they weren't. They were born in central ward Newark, New Jersey and in central ward Newark, New Jersey the family business is slanging on the corner.

Now, I'm not making any excuses for these cats. They did what they did. They basically fell in line with the whole Baby Boy Legacy that we discussed before. (see previous Note "The Baby Boy Legacy") They could have gone to school with the rest of the kids I suppose, but after volunteering my time with some of the Newark schools I can't exactly blame them if they questioned the long term benefits of a public school "education" in Newark.

That being said, what I came to learn about these kids in law school was best summed up by my Legal Jurisprudence professor who came into class on the first day and said "[i]n America we have two justice systems...there's one for white people, and then there's one for everybody else." (BTW, that professor was white) The more I studied, the more this proposition emerged as an unfortunate yet undeniable truth.

In 1986, Congress passed the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Crack. These laws set up a huge 100 to 1 disparity in the punishment for Crack (a drug commonly found in the ghetto) vs. Cocaine (a drug commonly found with the upper class) even though they are both derived from the same substance. For example, for powder cocaine, a conviction of possession with intent to distribute carries a five year sentence for 500 grams or more. But for crack, a conviction of possession with intent to distribute carries a five year sentence for only 5 grams.

In 1973 right here in New York, the state legislature passed what are known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. They were passed as a direct response to the heroine epidemic that swept through NYC after folks like Frank Lucas (American Gangster) literally flooded the streets with the product. These laws made carrying 100 grams of some substances equal in punishment to second degree murder: 25 years to life in prison.

Multiple studies have shown that these laws have a significantly disproportionate impact on low level street pushers primarily, like the kids across the street from me, and rarely (if ever) prosecute or stop the higher level drug suppliers who bring the product into our country. These laws are effectively the equivalent of trying to stop a bathtub from overflowing by plugging a hole in the side with your finger while leaving the faucet running.

According to the United States Sentencing Commission, approximately 2/3 of crack users are white or Hispanic, yet the vast majority of persons convicted of possession in federal courts are African American. Defendants convicted of crack possession in 1994 were 84.5% black, 10.3% white, and 5.2% Hispanic.

Three weeks ago, New York's legislature voted to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which brings me to my question.

When you consider that the young Black youth shouldn't be out on the corner selling this stuff in the first place, is it a good idea to repeal these kinds of laws?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Notorious A.I.G.

"Uhh, it's the ten jack commandments
What, uhh, uhh
Liddy can't tell me nothin bout this stock, uh-huh
Can't tell me nothin bout this robbery, this greed
To my hustlin' brokers
Traders on wall street, I ain't forget you traders
My triple stock brokers, word up

"One two three four five six seven eight nine..."

I been in this game for years, it made me a animal
There's rules to this shit, I wrote me a manual
A step by step booklet for AIG to get
their stock on track, not their bonus pushed back

Rule nombre uno: never let no one know
how much, dough you hold, cause you know
The bonuses breed jealousy 'specially
if the economy fucked up, get your ass stuck up

Number two: never let em know your next move
Don't you know Wall Street move in silence and violence
Take it from your boy Madoff (uh-huh)
He done squeezed mad loot from these cats for they bricks and chips

Number three: never trust no-bo-dy
Chris Dodd'lll set that ass up, properly gassed up
Geitner to mask up, shit, for that fast buck
Bernie Fank'll be layin in the bushes to light that ass up

Number four: know you heard this before
Never trade high, on your own sub-prime

Number five: never sell insurance where you rest at
I don't care if they want a ounce, tell em bounce

Number six: that god damn credit, dead it
You think them bonus cats payin you back, shit forget it

Seven: this rule is so underrated
Keep your Financial Products and Insurance completely seperated
Sup-primes and insurance don't mix like two dicks and no bitch
Find yourself in serious shit

Number eight: never say the contracts got you
Them cats that get bonuses can find new jobs too

Number nine shoulda been number one to me
If you ain't gettin bagged stay the fuck from TV (uh-huh)
If the public think you ballin they ain't tryin listen
They be sittin in your building, waitin to start hittin

Number ten: a strong word called recession
Strictly for rich men, not for poor men
If you ain't got the insurance then say hell no
Cause America want they money rain sleet hail snow
Follow these rules you'll have mad bailouts to break up
If not, Madoff life sentence, on the wake up
Congress hit your temple, watch your CEO shake up
The Fed did your makeup...when you pass,
Your girl Pelosi fucked the Republican brain up,
Heard in three weeks they bailed a whole bank up,
Heard they make a good bailout, and hooked Bernie Frank up
Gotta go gotta go, more Banks to bailout, word up, uhh"

OK so we kinda talked about this a little bit earlier in the week before AIG's CEO testified in front of Congress last week, but this is still something that is emblematic of the entire problem of late. AIG is an insurance company like Prudential or Allstate. Now take Allstate for example...they insure automobiles right? You buy a car, the state makes you get insurance on that car, and the insurance company looks at your car and says, ok your car is worth $20,000, we have $20,000 so we will insure your car if something should happen to it. AIG decided that it would be a GREAT idea if it jumped into this whole sub-prime mortgage backed securities circus and started providing insurance policies to financial banks like JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Bro's, etc. for all the tons of money that they were sucking out of the American public.

Just one problem...

Unlike Allstate that had $20 G's on hand to insure your Ford Focus, AIG had NOW WAY IN HELL to back up the level of money that was needed in order to insure the Lehman Bro's of the world. And they KNEW THIS before they issued these policies. But they did it anyway. Why? Because they assumed that the worst case scenario would be maybe one or two financial giants coming to them for money at the same time. Instead, ALL of the financial firms came to them at the same time. Thus, AIG goes broke and crawls on their hands and knees to the Federal Government who allowed them to get too big in the first place.

The Federal Government decides that AIG is too important to allow them to fail, and thus kicks them down with a 170 Billion (with a "B") dollars. *pinky finger to mouth like Austin Powers*

Now since the Federal Government seems to be in the business of bailing out every company that goes broke anyway, this didn't seem to be out of the ordinary. Only one problem...

...AIG decides to take a piece of this pie and give $165 million of it (million with an "M") to the very friggin geniuses who came up with the ideas that got them into this trouble in the first place.

Congress decides to RE-act (as opposed to being pro-active) and decides to pose a special tax on the people who got the bonuses. Problem with that is, that is the classic definition of what is known as a "Bill of Attainder" which is unconstitutional. Not to mention it's a tax that is taking place after-the-fact which is also unconstitutional because it is "Ex Post Facto."

A lot of issues here:

1. Will we ever get the bonus money back from these cats?

2. Should we even try?

3. Does the fact that this entire mess happened in the first place finally put the nail in the coffin to the entire concept that the unfettered capitalist market is in the best interest for America?

4. Should AIG even paid out the bonuses in the first place?

5. Should Secretary of Treasurer Tim Geitner resign?

6. Is American, in general, OVER-reacting to the way business is done on Wall Street?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Baby Boy Legacy

I was going to jump back into political discussion but I have to get this one off my chest. I wish I was making this story up. I wish.

So yesterday I'm walking through my neighborhood (Harlem) to go to the barber shop. Ah, the barber shop; one of the great bastions of contemporary discussion in the black community. You can always count on an interesting discussion in the barber shop. This day proved to be no exception.

So I get there, check with my barber to see how many heads he has in front of me, and then I take my seat and listen to my iPod while I wait. A few minutes later, a 50-something year old man comes and sits down beside me, and another younger brother, who turns out to be his 31 year old son, sits down beside him. The reason why I knew that he was 31 is because he constantly referred back to this fact during their conversation. Even though he said he was 31, his face looked much older, like he was 41...I took this to mean that the brother must have had a rough life.

They sit down and have a long silence until the 31 year old says something to the effect of "now that I got you here there's so many things I wanna ask you but now I can't think of anything." This, coupled with their general awkward body language led me to suspect that this was probably one of the few times in life that they had actually ever met.

So the son breaks the ice and starts off by talking about his "baby mama" who doesn't speak to him anymore, and the dad is chimes in with some random advice on baby mama's that I didn't quite pick up b/c I was trying to block them out. I turn up my iPod, but I can still hear them talking loud and clear right next to me over the music. So finally I say screw it and just turn my iPod off since apparently I was supposed to hear this convo.

So the dad says to the son with a straight face regarding baby mamas "when your mom told me about you I told her don't be coming to me with that kid shit. I ain't got no kids. I was a young single man out there playin the field. I had a nice ride, had all the ladies, I didn't have time for that kid nonsense."

And then the son, hearing this, actually gets excited and says "yeah I bet you had all the ladies, huh pop? You was knockin 'em down right?"

And then the dad, fueled by the son's recognition of his pimp-dom says "Oh yeah I was knockin 'em down. Hell I still got it..." and then proceeds to talk about how he was the man, he had this, he had that, blah blah blah. The son is eating all this up, like he's listening to a prophet or something. And then the son says something that made me look over at the dad sideways...the son says:

"Yeah, when I was 15 I ran in to uncle [name I can't remember] and gave him mom's number and told him to give it to you so you could call me. And then mom said 'don't hold your breathe' but I didn't wanna hear that...and every time the phone rang I would run to see if it was you calling, but then after a while I realized you wasn't trying to call so I quit trippin on that." You would think that for a son to tell his dad this, the son would be really emotional about this, but no so here. He said it nonchalantly as if he were describing what he had for breakfast.

The dad's response to this was some kind of down-playish type comment that showed no real type of remorse or even the faintest hint of recognition that his own son just told him that he waited for a call from him that never came.

Then the son says "so after that is when I started selling crack out on the was trying to told me to quit but I was bigger than her then so she couldn't say much...then I caught my case and got locked up for 7 years and when I came out that's when Tisha (baby mama) was there lookin out for me, takin care of me, cookin for me, doin my clothes, but then after she had my son she picked up weight and I lost interest and started messsin with Tiana (current girlfriend) and she do whatever I need done, took out her 401k to pay for my car, let me stay at her crib when I lost my apartment..."

And the dad then starts chiming in with enormous adulation for his son upon hearing the characteristics of these women and the situations that the son has created for himself with them.

Then the son says "and you know, I'm 31 now, I'm thinking, you know, I'm gettin up there, gotta good clean legal job now, I'm stayin out of trouble with probation, doing my thang, got this young dip now taking care of a brother, so I'm thinking about getting married."

The dad instantly jumps in with an emphatic "nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Don't get married, son. They change on you. Look, she takin care of you now right? Let her keep takin care of you then. You don't wanna mess that up. You put a ring on that finger and she'll start trippin like the rest of 'em."

And then the dad proceeded to tell about his many stories with his many women and how he is dating some lady currently who doesn't trust him (wonder why?) and all this jazz, and continues to give his son life advice on what appears to be a life that he has been absent from for most of his son's 31 years of life.

Maybe 7 or 8 years ago John Singleton made this movie entitled Baby Boy which explores the phenomenon of how young black men grow up today often without the benefit of a father in their lives and wind up becoming apathetic the point of dependency, thereby requiring women to take them in and do all of the things that they could do for themselves if they were so inclined to do so. Singleton aptly named this the "Baby Boy" phenomenon, because a grown man is acting like a baby.

So as I'm sitting there waiting to get my head cut, I am just shaking my head in disgust at the father-son transference of Baby Boy syndrome that will likely be handed down from the 31 year old to his new born son who still lives with the baby mama who he is no longer attracted to or on speaking terms with. This kind of thing gets under my skin to no end. I had the benefit of being raised by my father but I recognize that so many of our brothers our there have not. And it seems like the cycle keeps going. Seeing something like this actually motivates me to be a better big brother to my 17 year old brother who's still at home and also motivates me to make a conscious effort to really be there for my kids should the good Lord see fit to put any in my life at some point in the future.

I don't know if an example of the Obama's will have any more of an effect today than the Cosby's had in the 80's but it seems as if there is a serious disconnect here with our brothers out there and it doesn't seem to be getting any better.

So my questions are:

*Why is this baby boy legacy still being handed down from father to son in record numbers in 2009?

*Do women also play a role in facilitating the baby boy legacy?

*What can we do (if anything) to end it?