The Seahawks 12th Man: Africa

In the Ken Burns Documentary, Jazz, the saxophonist Branford Marsalis recalls a meeting between several young musicians and Elvin Jones who was the drummer for the transcendent John Coltrane quintets of the mid-1960s.

 

“How do you play with that kind of intensity?” Marsalis recalls one of the younger musicians asking the older Jones. “And Elvin looks at him and says, “You gotta be willing to die with the mothafucka.” In Marsalis’ retelling, the room initially erupted in laughter but quickly “realized he was serious. How many people do you know that are willing to die — period? Die with anybody! And when you listen to those records, that’s exactly what they sound like. I mean, that they would die for each other.”

 

Jazz, of course, is widely recognized as the first—some say the only—art form born in the US. But it’s seminal influence is the West African music that survived the Middle Passage: the primacy of the drumbeat; the call-and-response of the slaves working tediously in the sprawling fields; the exaltation of community, collaboration and improvisation, and the conjuring of the rawest truths—sorrow, love, hate, joy, jealousy, and faith—as if a séance of ancestral spirits.

 

If Coltrane’s quintet doubled down on this African ethos to create their transcendent sound, was Africa also the 12th man in the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl drubbing of the favored Denver Broncos?

 

There’s no question that the Seahawks were the most physically gifted team on the field Sunday night and that’s the principal reason they won the game. To the layman’s eye, it appeared that virtually every Seahawk who took the field Sunday was quicker, faster and more aggressive than his Bronco counterpart on the other side of the ball. But can talent alone account for a five touchdown margin of victory in the biggest game of the year?

 

In the massacre’s aftermath, the sports punditry widely credited the Seahawks’ camaraderie,—unusual even by locker-room standards—their almost tribal reliance on each other, and the ritualistic role that music played in their practices.

 

In a Super Bowl postmortem, longtime NFL beat writer Peter King described the Seahawks final Super Bowl practice as fast, loose, and accompanied by a mostly funk and hip-hop—a descendant of the West African Blues–soundtrack, played at deafening decibels:  

 

 “Fast Lane,” by Bad Meets Evil, “More Bounce to the Ounce,” by Zapp, “We Own It,” by 2 Chainz, “Last of a Dying Breed,” by Ludacris, “We Ready,” by Archie Eversole, “Ambitionz Az a Ridah,” by Tupac, and “Hold Me Back,” by Rick Ross. When “Hold Me Back” came on, the team was practicing red zone plays. Important tuneup for the biggest game of their lives, and the last time they’d go full speed before the game. Between snaps, the entire defensive line was dancing on the field. Quarterback coach Carl Smith, 65 and with a bum hip, was even swaying. Carroll saw that, and smiled. Then the ball was snapped, and backup running back Christine Michael pivoted left out of the backfield and went down. A couple of defenders, Clinton McDonald and Bobby Wagner, hustled over to Michael, who was slow getting up, and each took a hand as all three laughed about something. This is what I saw during the week: a team having fun at practice, like it was some dance party, and a team that really gets along. And works at a fast pace.

 

“I’m glad you saw that,” Carroll said. “That’s real. That’s who we are.”

 

For those who think music is counterproductive, that you need to have teaching moments at a football practice without having to shout over music, and that players switching jerseys for no good reason (Marshawn Lynch was swimming in tackle Breno Giacomini’s shirt on Friday) is a distraction, I have one score to point out:

 

Seattle 43, Denver 8.

 

At presumably the same time that the Seahawks were holding their jam session in shoulder pads, Denver Broncos executive Vice President of Football Operations was explaining to Fox News his support for the GOP, and its emphasis on individual initiative rather than collective action.

 

“I don’t believe in safety nets,” he said bluntly.  “Obviously, we’ve got to have some kind of safety nets. But I think my philosophy is when given the opportunity to go take advantage of that, I think that’s when you get the best out of people.”

 

The former NFL quarterback went on to espouse an entrepreneurial approach to government.

 

Central to the historic conflict between indigenous people and European settlers has always been the question of private property, pitting what’s in the best interest of the individual against what’s best for the community as a whole. As blacks have increasingly begun to join the ranks of professional coaches and executive in the US, African values and even language has begun to remake the American locker room, and impact the scoreboard as well.

 

Former Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers introduced the Bantu word Ubuntu to his team at the first practice for the 2008 season. The word, which was popularized by black South Africans during their long struggle against white-minority rule, is difficult to translate, but Rivers explanation to his team that autumn morning is consistent with most translations: “I can’t be all I can be unless you’re all you can be.”

 

With a defense as vaunted as the Seahawks, the Celtics went on to win the NBA championship that season. Their Eastern Conference rivals, the Miami Heat would win it four years later. In an ESPN interview following the Heat’s 2011 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals, guard Dwyane Wade said he told his teammate and friend LeBron James that they’d lost because their primary motivation was their hatred of the many critics who excoriated James for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers. If they were to win the title, he said he told James, they would have to play for love, not hate. 

 

“For us what it was about was the Miami community,” he said in another ESPN interview. “A lot of people think of palm trees and South Beach but Miami is a very poor community. It was about uplifting our community. If us coming together can help our community, then we’re going to do it.”

 

In an interview after the Super Bowl, cornerback Richard Sherman attributed the Seahawks victory to his teammates and the denizens of Seattle, one of the more left-leaning cities in the US, in large part because of the radical politics of the longshoreman’s union, which played a pivotal role in integrating organized labor during the New Deal, and went on to become an avid supporter of the global campaign against South African apartheid.  

 

In his article, King described the scene in the Seahawks locker room following their Super Bowl triumph, and it made me think of Elvin Jones, John Coltrane’s quintet, and the call-and-response that has seen the African through so very much:   

 

 

“We all we got!”

 

“We all we need.”

 

 

 

HOW TALLULAH GOT HER GROOVE

The Rise and Fall of the World’s Greatest Racial Democracy

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Google the name Tallulah Bankhead and you will be regaled (or mortified if your mores tend to the Victorian) by tales of the actor’s libertine appetites, her breakout performance in the Hitchcock classic Lifeboat, or her half-camp, half vamp villainess in the 1960s Batman television series. Wikipedia references her patrician mien —dahling not darling– her crusade to get to know Gary Cooper (Biblically if not especially well) and her elegantly debauched repartee with Chico Marx.

What you are unlikely to locate on any search engine, however, is an account of Bankhead’s star turn in the insurgency that produced the twin miracles of the industrial age, one celebrated, the other decidedly not: the American middle class and the racial democracy which birthed it.

The rebellious daughter of an aristocratic Southern Family, Bankhead made a point of appearing on stage and screen with African Americans such as Canada Lee, helped raise cash for exploited sharecroppers and championed anti-lynching legislation.  It was her outspokenness that led organizers to recruit her for a 1947 Chicago rally to support James Hickman, a black steelworker charged with fatally shooting the slumlord who set the apartment fire that killed four of his children. Concluding the remarks that were prepared for her that autumn afternoon, she said:

“So long, however, as there exists anywhere on Earth one minority that is treated with contempt, that is herded into black slum areas, that is abused and insulted, so long will we have violence, hate, brutality, savagery. So long as there exists a Jewish problem, or a Mexican problem—or a problem of any minority—so long will one form of violence beget another. I am proud to be one of the humble gladiators in this struggle against narrow prejudice and stupidity.”

In his excellent retelling of the case, People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Housing and Murder in Chicago, the author Joe Allen writes that the mostly black audience of 1,200 people responded to Bankhead’s remarks with tears and raucous applause, causing her to ad lib for an encore:  “I love the Negro race.”

This brought the house down and the rainbow coalition of African Americans, Trotskyites and trade unionists went on to win Hickman’s release and a crackdown on abusive landlords, adding another trophy to the mantel of a multicultural mutiny, that at its apogee, fueled the American century with the broad-based buying power it needed for takeoff.

If history is any guide, the American middle class could well catch its second wind if Occupy Wall Street ever discovers the Nation of Islam.

A generation before Brazil emancipated its slaves, and more than a century before South Africans of all races went to the polls, freedmen collaborated with poor whites, fortune-seeking carpetbaggers, careerist bureaucrats, and women suffragists to extend free education to all youths, expand the nation’s transportation grid, modernize a feudal tax system, build hospitals and universities, begin to untangle the byzantine relationship between labor and management, and reverse the budget-cutting measures that severs the economy’s jugular vein.

In 1879, 55,000 working class white Virginians joined 110,000 freed slaves in open revolt, casting ballots for a newly-formed, populist third party that opposed the bone-deep spending cuts endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, who had closed half the state’s fledgling public schools to repay principal and interest to wealthy Wall Street speculators.

The Readjusters campaigned to renegotiate state debts and reopen the schools that ordinary Virginians viewed as integral to their children’s’ futures, openly embracing “liberalism,” courting African American voters, challenging poll taxes and inveighing against the “power of wealth and privilege.” Between 1879 and 1883, the Readjusters ran the table, electing a governor, 6 of the state’s 10 Congressional delegates, and two U.S. senators, including the colorfully ironic General William “Billy” Mahone, a diminutive, tobacco-spitting ex-slaveholder and Confederate war hero.

Offering a cautionary tale for President Obama, Mahone was so cowed by conservatives’ depiction of a dark-skinned criminal—and sexual– menace that he effectively compromised the party to death, voting increasingly in lockstep with moderates, and watering down the party’s most popular reforms, leaving their political base unenthused. When white mobs murdered 7 blacks during an 1883 race riot in Danville, it provided the pretext for whites to patrol black neighborhoods with shotguns days later. Only 31 of the 1300 registered blacks turned out to vote; the Democrats won handily, finishing off the most potent interracial coalition in the antebellum era.

There is an almost seamless historical continuity between the class warfare that produced the Readjuster Party, the racism that destroyed it, and the policies of austerity that characterizes our politics today. What is typically left unsaid in discussions of Jim Crow is that it was principally a political campaign, no different from Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Regan’s cryptic racial appeals to suburban Democrats, Lee Atwater’s infamous Willie Horton ad, or Mitt Romney’s demagogic condemnation of an apocryphal “47 percent” of the electorate who are on the dole, and ensconced in Obama’s camp. By repeatedly asking white employees—especially men—to choose between their coworkers and their tribe, the nation’s wealthiest one percent unspools class solidarity to maintain a steady supply of cheap, exploited labor.

When longshoremen in California’s Bay area went on strike in 1934, blacks who had consistently been rebuffed in their efforts to integrate the docks, jumped at the chance to work, albeit for smaller paychecks than their white peers. Confronted with a failing strike, the head of the longshoremen’s union, an Australian émigré named Harry Bridges, began appearing in African American churches across the Bay Area, acknowledging the union’s mistreatment of blacks, but promising skeptical parishioners a new deal: if they respected the pickets, blacks would be admitted into the union and treated the same as white dockworkers.

They did, and the strike’s subsequent success triggered a wave of labor militancy that not only re-imagined bad jobs as good ones, but also connected workers’ discontent with broader political struggles, such as the Hickman case in Chicago, and at the RJ Reynolds tobacco plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

In 1943, 10,000 employees—two-thirds black and half women—staged a sit-down strike to protest unsafe working conditions and low wages at the cigarette maker. Winning wage hikes and unprecedented concessions, the workers formed Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers union, then promptly proceeded to register thousands of African American voters, who in turn helped elect a black minister to the City Council, the first since Reconstruction to win an election in the Deep South against a white candidate. Local 22 pressured City Hall to build public housing, adopt price controls, improve schools, expand bus service and jobless benefits, and in 1948, endorsed the Progressive Party’s candidate for president, former FDR Vice President Henry Wallace, who often appeared with blacks at campaign rallies.

Dusting off their old divide-and-conquer playbook, the oligarchs managed to derail Local 22’s momentum by re-purposing naïve and meddling carpetbaggers as communists who failed to grasp the subversive intent of un-American blacks, (even going so far as to suggest that work stoppages handicapped the country’s military effort in War World II by denying soldiers their  favorite smokes).  In 1949, RJ Reynolds management convinced collaborationist union leaders to cynically run a moderate black FTA executive against the local’s popular, Marxist black president, Moranda Smith, then carpet-bombed local radio airwaves, newspapers and factory bulletin boards with ads suggesting that it was white employees’ patriotic duty to vote against Smith. Smith won, but Local 22 was so deeply split that it was a spent force. Smith told a 1947 CIO assembly that the communist witch-hunt was misguided. “I do not think you have ever read or have ever heard of a Negro man or a Negro woman who has ever been a traitor to the United States.”

The 1947 Taft Hartley act sought to depoliticize organized labor by banning, as one example, general or “sympathy” strikes like the biracial bacchanal in December 1946 in which thousands of black, white and Latino workers shut down Oakland, California to show their support of striking women department store clerks. Taft-Hartley required labor unions to identify and weed out communist insurgents with questions like these: “Have you ever danced with a white woman?” or “Have you ever entertained colored guests in your home?”

Just as it did during Reconstruction, pluralism energized both American democracy, and the backlash against it with a zeal that bordered on evangelism, or psychosis. If Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo seemed divinely inspired in 1965 to help register blacks in Alabama to vote–this “is everybody’s fight” she explained to her puzzled husband—FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover’s characterization of Liuzzo as a whore following her murder, suggests he suffered froas iridiphobia, or an irrational fear of rainbows.

But Hoover’s slander was nothing more than a distraction. Then as now, the elites’ main objection is not that blacks and whites, if left to their own devices, will fuck.

But that they’ll talk.

handybankhead

 

 

 

CLASS WAR

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“If you find yourself in a jam, ladies, one thing you can do is try to flirt with your attackers.”

Approaching the end of the spring semester, the 16 students in my Intro to International Reporting class at the City University of New York’s Graduate Journalism School were just weeks away from scattering across the globe for summer internships, and my co-instructor and boss, Lonnie Isabel, insisted on this personal safety lecture from the two security experts whose thick Northeastern accents sounded curiously like the Car Guys on National Public Radio.

I was sitting on a window ledge in the rear of the classroom while they spoke, hypnotized by the Times Square midday streetscape below when. . .wait, did this fool just tell my students to. . .

“Yeah, I know it sounds awful,” the beefier of the two men said to the students, 12 of them women, “in fact if my wife was here right now she would probably throw a shoe at me but really, try to show some leg or something if you’re in a tough situation.”

Most of the students enrolled in this class have borrowed money to pay $9,600 per semester in tuition and fees– and God only knows how much in New York City rents– to prepare for careers in an industry in steep decline.

What they got, more often than not, was this:

“And if you’re really desperate and the situation seems like its deteriorating, I tell people all the time to wet your pants.”

The students stare blankly, incredulously.

“Yeah, pee your pants and while everyone is distracted, you can run away.”

Aside from sounding cartoonish–like a plan hatched by Bugs Bunny to escape the clutches of Yosemite Sam—the Security Guys’ advice is more likely to escalate a violent situation than defuse it. Violence, as I’ve come to understand it after 25 years as a journalist, is, on its most atomic level, an assertion of naked power; the last thing you want is to deepen a mob’s identification of you as an object, sexual or otherwise. You’re likely better off telling your would-be assailant about your parents or a pet, anything to be recognized in that moment as a flesh-and-blood human being.

When it became clear that Lonnie wasn’t going to issue a corrective, I waited politely for our guests to leave before offering my own, using the example of Amy Biehl, a white American aid worker who was set upon by a mob in the convulsions leading up to South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. Biehl had made such an impression on the township youths she worked with that they nearly saved her, first pleading with her killers to spare her life, then rushing her to the hospital after she’d been fatally stabbed. No strategy is fail-proof, I told the students, but it helps to have skin in the game.

“And whatever you do” I said emphatically, “you are never to pee your pants. If I hear that any of you wet your pants, no matter where you are in the world, I will find you.”

The class chuckled, knowingly.

When Lonnie offered me this position just weeks before the semester began, I was in the midst of a profound crisis of faith, not only in journalism but in all of America’s democratizing institutions —higher ed included— which, as far as I could see, served no purpose other than to reproduce the already yawning chasm between rich and poor, black and white and brown. The students I’d be helping to teach, I was sure, would be spoiled, robotic, annoyingly sunny, suburban white kids who saw college as an apprenticeship for a career as an establishment mouthpiece. Unable to get into the Ivy League, they pressed ahead because Katie Couric’s wardrobe wasto die for. On the other hand, I figured Lonnie as a comrade since we were both middle-aged African Americans who had been purged in the industry’s decade-long campaign of ethnic cleansing, he from Long Island Newsday and me from the Washington Post.

And what’s more, I was broke; trying to write a book, I couldn’t afford to turn down even the paltry $6000 adjunct salary.

It didn’t take long, however, to discover that I’d had it all wrong. Three-quarters of the class was indeed white, but the kids– as I took to thinking of them even though the oldest was 32– were all right. Each one impressed me as a critical thinker, rejecting out of hand, for example, the tired trope of journalistic objectivity, and seeing it instead as a lame excuse for cynicism. Nearly half the class attended a Union Square rally for Trayvon Martin. An Arab woman from Westchester County told me that she had registered as a Republican to vote for Ron Paul in the state primary, because she vastly preferred his Middle East foreign policy to Obama’s. Another woman confessed that nothing made her prouder than when a middle-aged Asian nanny she was interviewing referred to her as “daughter.”

Several women in the class acknowledged that they chose careers in media because they saw it as a tool for challenging patriarchy. One student confided in me that she decided to return to school when she could not bear another day at her last job in admissions for a fly-by-night for-profit online college swindling gullible applicants out of money they didn’t have. She was especially haunted, she said, by the memory of an American Indian woman who was giddy to learn a marketable skill, only to take out thousands of dollars in loans for a degree that never materialized.

Moreover, the students’ story ideas tended toward the spectacular, interrogating the credibility of an International Criminal Court which has prosecuted only Africans, or wafting through the haze of a New Jersey crash pad to cleverly shine a spotlight on Tibetan youths’ political disillusionment. And the semester’s only fashion story was a finely- wrought profile of a local Muslim designer and her effort to aesthetically bridge modern sex appeal with traditional Islamic values.

But just as the students refused to play to type, so too did Lonnie. With his didactic style and sophomoric current events quizzes, his classroom was a graveyard for creativity, leaving students disengaged, sometimes even dozing off or reading emails during class. Once, while  lecturing the class on the global economy, he began reading from a list of decontextualized statistics—“Gross Domestic Product in the Unites States was 13 trillion dollars in 2010”—reminding me of the charmless teacher from Ferris Buehler’s Day Off (“Anyone? Anyone?”) Like the Security Guys, his handpicked guests repeatedly encouraged the kind of lazy chauvinism that poisons good reportage, particularly at a time when the mainstream media is struggling to distinguish itself from a blogosphere that traffics mostly in rumor and opinion. One speaker dismissed Russian diplomats as “crazy” for vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing NATO’s intervention in Syria’s internecine conflict. Another attributed Greece’s economic crisis to a Hellenic character flaw, seemingly unaware that sovereign debt crises have bedeviled world finance for at least 30 years.

Lonnie never led a class discussion on how students could repackage their stories for multiple mediums, an absolute necessity for young free-lancers in this era of austere newsroom budgets. Indeed, what seemed to preoccupy Lonnie more than anything were the quotidian bourgeois obsessions of sex and money. In meetings in his office to game-plan the upcoming  class he often fixated on adolescent, towel-snapping locker room banter, and on what the university paid other journalism faculty, especially Peter Beinart, whose nearly $170,000 annual salary, apparently, was quite a bit more than Lonnie’s.

As the semester went on, I began to avoid meetings with him, and tried to step into the breach by tripling my office hours and redoubling my efforts in the classroom, once playing Eric B and Rakim’s Reagan-era hip hop classic Paid in Full to illustrate that the best financial journalism combines macroeconomic concepts like unemployment, inflation and monetary policy, with their impact on ordinary people, or the Blues.

A stream of students began appearing at my cubicle, sometimes collegially shooing each other away when they wanted to cut in. Once, three of the students shared with me an incident from their broadcast course. A classmate, Ian, pitched three story ideas to the instructor, who casually dismissed them all without explanation. Finally, he barked at Ian: “Just go down to the RNC (Republican National Committee) headquarters here and film whatever’s going on there.” Exasperated, Ian snarled in response: “The RNC? This is New York City.”

In retelling this story, one of Ian’s classmates, Dina, said professors at the school often downplayed the students’ frustrations.

“They like to say: ‘this is just like a real newsroom and often in a real newsroom you don’t always get your way,’” Dina said. But to each other, the students often responded mockingly.  “Yeah, but in a real newsroom, you’d be paying me. Here, I’m paying you. So teach.” She paused, surveilled the room quickly with her eyes, then spat out a single word like gnarled, rancid meat.

Motherfucker.”

New York’s public university system was historically known as the poor people’s Harvard, its free tuition and reputation as a cell for Leftist politics earning it the moniker “the Little Red Schoolhouse” from the African American writer Richard Wright. When white youths joined black and Latinos in the spring of 1969 to demand open enrollment, CUNY’s board relented after a turbulent summer, and began admitting all applicants who graduated from city high schools the following year. As historian Joshua Freeman writes in his book, Working Class New York, bankers exploited the 1975 fiscal crisis to force cuts to city spending, partly to recoup their bad real estate loans, and partly to show organized labor who was boss. This dawning of the global age of austerity led CUNY to require tuition for the first time in 1976, and ended open admissions 23 years later, yielding a 2010 freshman class that was only 6 percent black. Between 1969 and 1972, however, the percentage of black and Latino freshmen tripled, while in absolute numbers, Italian-American enrollment eclipsed all other tribes, doubling from 4,989 to 9,803 in just two years.

The week following spring break, a student named Eric Ragusa stopped by my cubicle to discuss his idea for a 1,200 word story. In the 14-week course, Lonnie only assigned students two stories for a total of 1,800 words, a sum that was more appropriate for a high school journalism class. Those two writing assignments bracketed the students’ interviews with foreign diplomats based in New York City for a “Q and A,” an exercise in stenography, not journalism.

The son of a Long Island attorney, Ragusa was a 25-year old raconteur whose motor revved so fast that I joked he was the class hype man, an Italian Flava Flav. But he was also a serious thinker, who could talk at length about Argentina’s lasting legacy of sexual violence, police harassment of blacks and Latinos, and independent foreign films.

For this assignment he proposed writing about Africans’ reaction to an American video campaign exhorting the U.S. to track down the Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony. “I’m guessing that they have more pressing things to worry about like poverty, food (security) and malaria,” he said plainly. I loved the idea and told him so, and after going over the logistics for assembling such a story, I mentioned the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said’s theory ofOrientalism, which posits that the West qualifies its colonial annexation with manufactured cultural narratives of the “Other.” This sparked a 20- minute dialectic jam session on jingoism, the media, and U.S. military expansion in sub-Saharan Africa, with Rags bringing me up to speed on the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down—about a botched military operation by the Clinton Administration to capture a Somali warlord—which he believed sounded the dog whistle in the run-up to the Iraq war.

The students seemed to appreciate these exchanges, going so far as to suggest to classmates who were not in our International Reporting course to see me for help with vexing stories. I never let on, but the truth is I was getting more than I gave. In recent years, I had grown increasingly distant from my closest friends —many of them black journalists like me—who were unable or unwilling to discuss subjects such as, say, the Obama administration’s torture of Bradley Manning or its record number of deportations. To my astonishment, the kids filled this vacuum with aplomb, loaning me their favorite books, recommending movies to watch, asking my opinions. With my own reserves perilously low, I fed off the students’ energy, curiosity, and keenness to bear witness.

So dependent was I that halfway through the semester, I even sent an email threatening to spread ugly rumors about the three students who had yet to talk to me. I was only half-joking.

Lonnie was another matter. Minutes after Rags had left my cubicle, he emerged from his office, spotted me at my desk, and stopped to chat. I don’t remember how he started the conversation, but he leaned in close as he began to gossip about the Pulitzer-prize winning author Alice Walker, who he’d interviewed years ago when he was a young newspaper reporter in Oakland. With the air still crackling from my electric conversation with Rags, I recall Lonnie’s jarring punch line vividly: “Boy,” he said, grinning broadly, “that pussy was so good she needed two men to handle it.”

I smiled wanly, hoping he would go away.

America is a colossal wreck. Nothing works. New York City’s network of community colleges stands today as a monument to a pivotal battle in the country’s class war, in which working class insurgents fought fiercely to raise their flag on a steep hill, only to lose the broader war. What was once a smokestack economy is now one run almost entirely on rent-seeking and pyramid schemes; no longer able to produce anything of real value, Americans’ generate wealth by turning on one another, cannibalizing the weak, the young and the poor. Ours is a pitiful Potemkin village: of jobs that don’t pay, hospitals that don’t heal, schools that don’t teach and journalists who ask no questions.

Lonnie’s mediocrity is strategic. Consciously or not, he was complicit in this criminal racket, having accepted what the civil rights activist Michelle Alexander characterizes as a “racial bribe” in her bestselling book “The New Jim Crow.” The smallness of his ideas, his cynicism and coarseness are part of an arsenal to carpet-bomb the students’ political imagination, cut their lines of communication to a truth that is at once terrifying and resplendent. In on the con, it is not in Lonnie’s material interest to encourage his students to search for truth.

Ironically, the students seemed quite clear that they were being conned. Once, I overheard a student discussing a profile with her instructor in the next cubicle.

“If she’s your subject, she can either be a hero or a villain,” the professor said dryly.

“Are those my only choices?” the young woman asked, with an almost professorial tone herself.

“I’m afraid so,” the instructor replied.

“Are you sure?” she prodded.

Despite my doubts about him, I never once directed a cross word at Lonnie, and we typically traded jokes and one- liners in class. When we divided the class to discuss students’ story ideas, he directed me to take my group to the rear of the quadrangle-shaped classroom.   With mock outrage, I retorted: “Aw man, why we got to go the back of the room? You’re the Bull Connor of academia.”

With semester’s end approaching, the students began to ask if I would be returning in the fall. Lonnie and I had never discussed it; I assumed that he would have liked me to return but the decision wasn’t his to make. After class one afternoon, Lonnie and I were consulting two students separately while a third waited in the wings. Abruptly, the student I was working with blurted out: “Jon, why aren’t you going to be teaching here next semester?” I deferred to Lonnie, but then the students did something I hadn’t expected, asking in unison: “Yeah, Lonnie why isn’t Jon coming back next semester?” Lonnie was clearly flustered, and wanting to spare him any embarrassment, I said whimsically: “Lonnie is just jealous cuz I’m better looking than he is.”

The following morning, Lonnie, wearing a dashiki, approached me while I sat at my desk, and accused me of personally attacking him, first with the Bull Conner remark and again with my crack about his envy. Teetering between laughter and rage, I told Lonnie that he was imagining things. “Bro,” I said to him, “we are both two ugly, middle- aged men; you can’t possibly think I was serious.”

Glassy-eyed and indignant, Lonnie straightened his back, stared me in the eye, and declared: “I’m not ugly.”

Later that evening as I prepared to leave for the day, the assistant dean, Judy Watson ambled up to me. A few days later, she would politely ask me not to return for the final two weeks of class because Lonnie had complained that I threatened him. But now she was smiling. “Do you have any interest in teaching next semester?” she asked. “I’ve heard from several of the students that they really enjoyed having you in the classroom.”

WORSE THAN APARTHEID: BLACK IN OBAMA’s AMERICA

For every dollar in assets owned by whites in the United States, blacks own less than a nickel, a racial divide that is wider than South Africa’s at any point during the apartheid era.

The median net worth for black households is $4,955, or about 4.5 percent of whites’ median household wealth, which was $110, 729 in 2010, according to Census data.   Racial inequality in apartheid South Africa reached its zenith in 1970 when black households’ median net worth represented 6.8 percent of whites’, according to an analysis of government data by Sampie Terreblanche, professor emeritus of economics at Stellenbosch University.

Widely recognized as an expert on inequality, Terreblanche described the racial wealth gap in the U.S. as “shocking,” in an email, and noted that it would exceed apartheid’s by an even larger margin had the white-minority not categorized mixed-race South Africans as “coloured” during the white-minority’s 46-year rule.

Household wealth is the accumulated sum of assets–houses, cars, bank, investment, and retirement accounts– minus the aggregate value of debt, including mortgages, auto loans, and credit card balances. It’s more comprehensive than income, which measures the year-to-year earnings from wages, dividends, and profits. Since the US Census began publishing the figures nearly a quarter century ago, the chasm in wealth between whites and blacks has always yawned far wider than disparities in income, but narrowed to a ratio of 7 to 1 in 1995 before ballooning to 22 to 1 following a housing market collapse five years ago.  African-descended people account for about 14 percent of the population in the US but only 1.4 percent of the wealthiest 1 percent.

Inflated largely by speculators’ frenzied investments in usurious mortgage loans, the real-estate bubble’s inevitable implosion triggered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and, the most profound dispossession of African Americans’ material wealth since the slave trade.

To be sure, virtually no American who works for a living has emerged from the financial crisis unscathed. But for blacks, today’s political and economic climate is tantamount to a perfect storm: persistent unemployment, low wages, and a growing dependency on household debt have conspired with a restructured postwar economy to weaken every rung on the ladder –labor unions, the manufacturing sector, education, public sector employment, homeownership and marriage—that blacks have historically relied on to climb out of the muck of poverty.

What’s most astonishing about America’s yawning racial chasm is that the U.S. has eclipsed apartheid-like levels of inequality within a political economy that is at least nominally democratic, and a generation of black post-civil rights elected officials that includes the sitting head of state. Conversely, apartheid brought the hammer; until voters of all races went to the polls for the first time in 1994, the law of the land prohibited blacks from voting, holding public office, owning property, joining progressive political movements, and miscegenation.

But on a molecular level, apartheid shares with monopoly capital the same genetic markers, cultural narratives, and immutable identity. To annex land coveted by whites, the apartheid state simply razed entire black neighborhoods to the ground, and rebuilt them as sprawling gated communities. Here in the US, redlining, gentrification and foreclosure have been just as potent as South African bulldozers. Fifty-three percent of all black homebuyers in 2006 were saddled with subprime mortgages, compared to 49 percent of Latinos and 26 percent of whites.

Treating black South Africans as essentially guest workers, apartheid “pass laws” required blacks to produce employment documents for any white person—gendarme and 11-year-old white girls alike—who demanded it. You need not be a Marxist to see the clear parallels between that Draconian measure and the stop-and-frisk policies employed by the New York City Police Department, or the wide berth afforded white vigilantes such as George Zimmerman. Similarly, payday loan stores began to materialize in the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and New York at roughly the same time they began to open for business in Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.  The result is that South Africa’s blacks, wanting the good life that was denied to them by apartheid, are today sinking in consumer debt just as are blacks are in this country.

Much like the ubiquitous payday loan shops, racial inequality in the US is so profound that it has become unremarkable, almost banal.

There is seldom a single white passenger on the weekday 295 bus that leaves the Menlo Park train station at 7:32 am, dropping off mostly Latinas who clean million dollar homes in the Silicon Valley neighborhood. At the New Orleans airport, the jazz trio that greets passengers appears phenotypically all white men, while all the employees at the Copeland’s Gourmet Kitchen are African American, save one, the shift manager. Similarly, if you ride the uptown 5 train and get off at 51st and Lexington Avenue in midtown Manhattan during the afternoon rush hour, you will see a study in contrasts:  the mostly black and brown homeless people in tattered clothing huddled, still and silent, in the soup line at St. Bart’s Episcopal Church, while across the street, the chatty white employees pour from the Bank of America office tower, dressed to the nines.

“Our nation is moving toward two societies,” the Kerner Commission concluded in its 1968 report on the causes of the nationwide civil disturbances that had begun three years earlier in Los Angeles, “one black, one white— separate and unequal.”

Forty-five years later, it’s a wrap.

Soweto Day Demonstrations at South African Embassy, New York, Ju