Race Relations in Wake of George Zimmerman’s Acquittal

Some days I wonder if I am the only person who recognizes ‘white privilege’ is more than real; it’s a burden I need to shed. I am a white male. That means I am already leaps and bounds ahead of others. In 2013 America, this breaks my heart.

White privilege comes with easier access to better education, higher paying jobs, better choices in housing. These sound like good things, right? I find it disgusting that because of something I have no control over — the color of my caucasian skin — I have more choices to better my life. I don’t want special treatment. I want to know my hard work is what got me to where I am, not because of something I had no control over. I want to walk in the rain wearing a hoodie (because, let’s face it, we all wear our hoods when it’s raining and we don’t have an umbrella) knowing I look just as suspicious as a black teenager.

Today, President Obama spoke about his experience as a black man. Experiences I have never had nor ever will have. Experiences like being followed while shopping in a department store, hearing car doors lock while walking by and seeing women clutch their purses when I enter an elevator.

I attended both a PWI (predominately white institution) and an HBCU (historically black college or university). It’s no doubt thanks to this experience I have arrived at the conclusions I have about race in America. And I’ll tell you, folks: we have a very long road ahead of us.

At this point I need to mention I am a Floridian, and I am currently ashamed of my state. Just days ago, a jury in Sanford, Fla. acquitted George Zimmerman, a 29-year-old hispanic man, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black adolescent.

A facebook post by a friend

Now, based on the evidence before the jury, I believe they came to the right conclusion, much like my friend John explained in his Facebook status here. Based on Florida’s wide-reaching and poorly written self-defense law, George Zimmerman was well within his right to defend himself with deadly force.

The problem is George Zimmerman never should have confronted Trayvon Martin.

After I tweeted this one, 127-character tweet, I got serious backlash from the twitter trolls. I call them twitter trolls because none of them followed me and all of their timelines were filled with falsely “correcting” people about the 911 call. The saddest part of these trolls? They were all white. All of them. Every single one. The people who retweeted my tweet were primarily black.

Now, did police tell Zimmerman to stay in his vehicle? No, and I admit I incorrectly said they did. But:

Dispatcher: Are you following him?
Zimmerman: Yeah.
Dispatcher: Okay, we don’t need you to do that.
Zimmerman: Okay.

A police dispatcher, who may not be a sworn police officer but still has some authority, told Zimmerman not to follow Martin. Had Zimmerman listened to that simple instruction, Trayvon Martin, who had nothing on him but a can of Arizona Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles, would have made it home to watch basketball. For almost 20 seconds, it sounds like Zimmerman continued to run after Martin.

When it comes to strict, racial definitions of the actors in this story, neither is “white,” so neither really enjoyed white privilege. Zimmerman is hispanic, but his name sounds white, which qualified him for society’s white privilege.

Were there racial undertones to this crime? Yes. According to Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, George Zimmerman tutored young, black kids in his past, suggesting Zimmerman was not racist. But, as was pointed out to me after the original posting of this blog, one act of tutoring black children is not enough to prove someone is not a racist. No matter how you look at this, Zimmerman called the police because he saw a black teenager in his neighborhood acting “suspicious.” Hell, his call to the Sanford Police had several racial undertones with statements like “these assholes, they always get away” and “f**king punks?” Some argue Zimmerman didn’t say “punks,” instead believing him to have said “coons,” a racial slur. The audio is not of a high enough quality for me to easily make that distinction, so I won’t guess which he said.

16 months passed from the time Trayvon Martin was shot until the day George Zimmerman was acquitted. That was plenty of time for the mainstream media to dig into the case, to decipher what was said on that 911 tape, but it seemed few media outlets wanted to spend the time digging until Zimmerman’s trial started. CNN experts say Zimmerman said punks, not coons. But in the time before the trial, why was no one examining and digitally enhancing the 911 call?

What I don’t understand is how someone can justify using a gun in a fist fight. When someone has a gun, fight or flight doesn’t enter into the equation any more. I know a gun can end any confrontation, so why would I choose to run? In 2005, Florida’s legislature expanded the Stand Your Ground law to include someone like Zimmerman — someone who pursued a fight. I’m not saying George Zimmerman chased Trayvon Martin with the intent to kill him, but an aggressor should have a much steeper climb to prove self defense. Was George Zimmerman beat up? Yes. Was he bruised and bloody? Yes. However, he never needed to fear for his life had he left justice to those sworn to uphold the law.

In President Obama’s address today, he raised the best question: “if Trayvon Martin were of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” That answer, I would hope a jury would find, is yes. What person in their right mind wouldn’t fear great bodily harm or death if someone they had never met before started running after them? I know I would. I was taught to defend myself; if someone starts a fight, you can bet your ass I’ll be the one to end it. In this case, I can’t see how Trayvon Martin could have been the one to start a confrontation. Zimmerman pursued him; it really is that simple. The fact is, the color of Trayvon Martin’s skin played a role in George Zimmerman’s call to the police.

The saddest part is knowing the Martin family will never see Trayvon go to college, get married or start a family. Their baby boy will always be 17 years old. They will always deal with the scar of a family ripped apart senselessly. Trayvon Martin, if it is up to me, your death was not in vain. We will fix this country one day, and I pray it happens soon.

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Defending Marriage

So the Supreme Court again made history. The court paved the way to re-allow gay marriage in California, and it ruled section three of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

Windsor v. United States, the case fighting against DOMA, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case against California’s Prop 8, are definitely landmark decisions, but they leave a lot of life-improvement work to be done in dozens of states around the country. Teenagers are still taking their own lives because who they are doesn’t fit in with who society thinks they should be; one life taken is one too many.

The high court did not strike DOMA down in its entirety; section two is still in place. Section two is the section that allows one state’s government to pick and choose which official marriage records from another state will be valid and legal. This goes against the simple, 22-word sentence in the U.S. Constitution known as the full faith and credit clause.

“Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.”

A marriage license is listed as a public record in every state, so by federal law, a marriage license issued to Adam and Steve from New York must be recognized in Florida. That’s not the case.

“No state […] shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State […] respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State […] or a right or claim arising from such relationship.”

There’s no way around it, that’s unconstitutional. To its very core, section two of DOMA goes against the constitution of the United States. Couple this ruling with changing American opinion, and suddenly LGBT rights seem mainstream and inevitable.

“55% of Americans support same sex marriage,” claims an ABC News, Washington Post poll from May 9, 2013. The problem is same sex marriage is not an American issue; it is one of many issues delegated from the federal government down to state legislatures.

There’s no question opinion on gay marriage is shifting over time in this country, but like most big things, it moves slowly. In the last eight years, people in every state have become more accepting of LGBT people getting married.

Gay Marriage Opinion ShiftThose were the numbers from last year; take a look at state support for same-sex marriage at its most recent polling:

States with black borders around their bars already allow same-sex marriage. (Data from FreedomToMarry.org) * Percent of Nevadans who support a repeal of the state's same-sex marriage ban ** Percent of Indianans who oppose barring same-sex marriage with a constitutional amendment
States with black borders around their bars already allow same-sex marriage. (Data from FreedomToMarry.org)
* Percent of Nevadans who support a repeal of the state’s same-sex marriage ban
** Percent of Indianans who oppose barring same-sex marriage with a constitutional amendment

So, looking at this bar graph, gay rights are advancing in the nation, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to gay marriage. 10 states want to improve standing for their LGBT citizens, but they are wary of the word “marriage.” Arizona, Florida, Alaska, Kansas, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Nebraska and Louisiana all have more than 50% support for some kind of recognition for same-sex couples, but they don’t want to use the word marriage.

The troubling part is the number of states that have constitutionally banned same-sex marriage: 30. Even states with some of the highest polled support for same-sex marriage, like North Carolina, have passed amendments to their constitutions that will require several years and state congressional bipartisanship to undo. There is one act that could sweepingly change that: a ruling by the Supreme Court that declares it unconstitutional, and Hollingsworth v. Perry is likely not the last gay marriage case to be decided by the high court. However, the court’s more conservative judges, even the swing voting Anthony Kennedy, seem unconvinced this is the right action now.

Credit: Talking Points Memo
Credit: Talking Points Memo

With today’s decision, it might be decades before same-sex marriage is an American right, now just a New England, Iowa and Washington right. North Carolina voters just passed an amendment to their constitution to ban same-sex marriage. That was in May 2012, when  51% of Americans supported gay marriage. That’s the trouble with polls and elections are similar: not everyone takes part. If North Carolina wants to vote to allow gay marriage, it would need 60 percent of all legislators vote in favor of putting it on a statewide ballot. That’ll take loads of time and money.

North Carolina’s way to equality is easy compared to some states. Nevada won’t have a chance at allowing same-sex marriage until 2016 because it’ll take two consecutive legislatures (so two votes in the state senate and two votes in the state house, before and after an election cycle) to put the ban-repealing amendment on a statewide ballot.

That’s in Nevada, a state on the border between majority support and majority opposition of same-sex marriage. The likelihood of Nevada coming together — when two polls, only a few months apart, said Nevada supports gay marriage by 47% and 54% — is almost nonexistent. The same goes for Wisconsin.

The other 27 states with constitutional bans on gay marriage have to go through a long process to repeal the bans, though none as brutally difficult as Nevada and Wisconsin.

(Thanks to buzzfeed for prompting this post)

Race and Education

There needs to be a national conversation about education and race. Black poverty is still more common than white poverty, and black income is still far below white income. In these yet-to-be-United States, as James Baldwin calls it, a black household’s income is roughly 30 percent below the median while a white household’s income is just above median income. Black children are more than twice as likely and hispanic children are three times as likely to drop out of high school as their white peers. America will never be truly equal until something changes to make education accessible to everyone.

Education is a very reliable determination of wealth potential. The 2012 unemployment rate for people holding a bachelor’s degree was 4.5 percent, and 3.5 percent for master’s degree holders. Someone who holds a master’s degree earns, on average, double what someone with only a high school diploma earns.

Education pays in higher earnings and lower unemployment rates (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Education pays in higher earnings and lower unemployment rates, when calculated for those 25 and older, working full-time or in salaried positions. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

It has been clear for a long time education is becoming more necessary. An American with a master’s degree, per the 2012 census, earns more than double the $34,000 median income of a high school graduate. I don’t know what the solution is, but I know the education gap is an issue that affects all of us—particularly as we advance into a further technology-filled world.

What are your thoughts?

NYPD

Scene: a car accident on Manhattan Ave and 109th Street. A white Infiniti sports coupe turned left too quickly and rear-ended a parked, empty SUV. There was little damage to the SUV but severe front-end damage to the Infiniti.

This Infiniti took the turn too quickly and rear-ended the parked Toyota.

The issue: I, as a reporter, grabbed my camera because it was my instinct. When I see more than one police car with its lights on accompanied by several ambulances, I go find out what’s up. I walk up, start snapping photos. My angle isn’t that great, so I switched to the other side of the road to get a better view of the car. As soon as I did that, the white-shirt NYPD investigator said to two of the other officers there “who’s that taking pictures?” while pointing at me. The two other officer—in plain clothes—came up to me and started harassing and belittling me with questions. “Who are you? Why are you here?”

I gave the standard reply; I’m Turner Cowles, and I’m a journalist. “Well where are your credentials? We need to see them.” Dude, I’m in a baseball cap, flip-flops and jeans. Do I look like I have my credentials on me? “I don’t have them, my apartment is right there; I just came out here to see what was going on.” “Well, go get your credentials!” he barked.

Now, I’ll admit I’m a little argumentative; that’s what makes me such a good reporter. I didn’t leave immediately, and they got uppity. Really uppity. Now, let me reiterate the scene. I’m on a public sidewalk of a public street. I am a private citizen; whether I work for media has nothing to do with my right to take photographs in public.

“Why are you still standing in front of me arguing?” “This isn’t a debate,” the other one chimed in. That’s where he was wrong, but I decided that, at 10p.m. on a Friday night, I had better things to do than wind up in jail for upsetting a lowly NYPD officer. I went home, but I wasn’t done for the night. I looked for my press pass; I couldn’t find it—how typical? So, instead I left my big camera at home and went back with only my iPhone. I wasn’t going to let these cops infringe my first amendment right. The reason they gave when I asked them why I couldn’t take pictures was “this is an official investigation.”

In no way was I impeding their investigation. I was well outside the crime tape. My camera wasn’t flashing. They just didn’t like that I was there taking pictures of them working. Well guess what: too damn bad.

This is my job. I’m not going to let you violate my rights. Sorry I’m not sorry officers, but you were wrong and I was right. I was standing as a private citizen, with my private camera, on a public street documenting a public occurrence. That’s. My. Job. I know NYPD is horrible about local media; even New York Times reporters say NYPD is notorious for their stubborn lack of transparency. Same response: too damn bad. That’s our job. All of you officers decided to work as public figures. That was your own decision, not mine. You chose a profession in which you knew you’d deal with reporters.

Several police cruisers and two ambulances arrived on scene as I got there.

On top of all this, a few weeks ago a classmate got an email from NYPD about a story we were working on. It said, “writing anything good about NYPD anytime soon?”

NYPD, if you’re reading this, I want to let you in on a little secret. We don’t write badly about you because we hate you. We don’t not write good things about you because we hate you. It’s impossible to include you in our stories when you blatantly refuse to speak to us about anything. These stories are too important to just not run because the police won’t talk to us about them. Here’s a piece of advice—we’re going to run out stories with or without your input. We’d rather have your input to make our story seem fuller, and I promise you’d rather have your input because without it there’s no way for us to tell your “side of the story.”

As for the impeding on my journalistic duty? Shame on you.

All the photos I took before I was shooed:
(Note I’m well outside the crime tape)

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Liberal Media v. Liberal Academia

I noticed something this morning. My grandfather watches Fox News, and something one of their contributors said stuck out to me this morning.

They said something along the lines of “the liberal media and the liberal academia…” I was in the other room, so I don’t really know what the entire segment was about. But that phrase stuck out to me as peculiar. Media and Academia are the two biggest sources of information transfer in our lives. The best way, overall, according to innumerable studies, sources and academics, to make a better life for yourself and your family is to get a college degree. Study after study prove that college degrees can improve annual income by 200%; the source I’ve pulled that from is the United States Census Bureau.

Now, wait a minute. The liberal academia is a place where Americans can go to improve their own lives, but it will make them liberal? Is that a chance Americans are willing to take? Sacrifice their conservatism to attend college and double their annual income—I’m pretty sure most Americans will say yes. But it makes me wonder, does information lead to liberalism? If academia and media are two of the most concerning liberal strongholds in this country, the strongest conservative strongholds must be the opposite of those, right? So does that mean ignorance and social seclusion are the conservative strongholds?

While I clearly don’t think conservatives are ignorant and secluded, I do think their constant berating of media and academia are misplaced. Do most conservative politicians believe Americans should go to school? Of course. But if they want you to go to school, why are they putting down your institution all the while? It just doesn’t add up.

Here’s my question: if academia and media are the leftest of the liberal, then does that mean information equals liberalism? Does the smarter someone become make them become more liberal too?

I only ask this because I’ve attended college. I have my own opinions, and they’re not liberal or conservative. Quite frankly, one party vows for this kind of regulation while the other wants that kind of regulation. Republicans argue for social regulation—abortion control, marriage sanctity and ultra tight immigration controls; Democrats vie for fiscal regulation—banking reforms, healthcare overhauls and taxation. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with any of the aforementioned, but let’s call a spade a spade. Republicans saying they’re against regulation is like an academic telling people not to attend college. It just doesn’t make sense—it’s not the real world. Regulation is regulation, whether it’s fiscal or social.

Will Globalization Affect American Media?

Globalization is something we can’t avoid. American television is broadcast around the world; when I was in Peru I watched “NCIS” on the television in my hotel room. My computer can access a website hosted in Mumbai or Islamabad, Beijing or Tokyo, Buenos Aires or Sydney. I can have a video chat—for free—with my best friend who is studying in Hiroshima. CNN International is broadcast in more than 200 countries.

This media globalization comes at what cost? Do we forge new relationships and forget our old ones? Do we merge cultures and lose national identities? It comes down to someone’s age—there are digital natives and digital immigrants. Can you tell the difference? Mark Prensky, a speaker and essayist, calls the students of today the Digital Natives. “Our students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet,” he writes in a six-page paper: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. Prensky wrote that paper 11 years ago in 2001. Try to think back to how primitive the internet was then in comparison to now. Media have changed vastly in the last 11 years; hell, the changes in the last two years are astounding. iPhones? Droids? Not the droids you’re looking for. iMacs, MacBooks, netbooks, laptops, iPads and iPods? (Full disclosure—I’m an Apple junkie.)

The Internet made it possible to take live television reporting to the next level. Skype interviews can connect reporters with sources worldwide, and high-speed internet can allow a news program to hook into sources and reporters across the globe at any time of day.

Here’s the trouble I notice though: news organizations from around the world—Japan, China, Russia, Ethiopia, South Korea, Europe, Vietnam, etc.—all have bureaus or broadcast stations with reporters in Washington D.C. How many American news outlets have reporters regularly stationed in Cairo? Cape Town? Budapest? Mexico City? How many American reporters are stationed regularly in Vancouver or Toronto? Those cities are mere miles from the American border. This boils back down to American elitism and a sentiment that so many Americans feel—what happens in the rest of the world doesn’t really affect me here at home.

Of course it affects you at home! What about Ciudad Juarez and the narcotráfico in Mexico? What about the Queen of England meeting with the former Irish Republican Army leader? Americans seem to have a notion that the only kind of international “news” that affects them is the type that may affect their safety—Iran becoming nuclear, Syrian violence, Mexican drug trafficking or Japanese debris coming ashore on America’s west coast. In an age of globalization like this one, every international story affects everyone. Sure, American politics are important to the rest of the world, but why are Americans not as invested in European politics?

Oh, wait—suddenly the Eurozone may collapse and cause a global financial crisis, let’s start getting involved! While there’s virtually nothing the U.S. government can do to affect the Eurozone financial crisis, it’s something that affects everyone. The European Union traded $636 billion with America last year, and it trades $1.5 trillion with the other 19 of its largest trading partners. With its top 20 trading partners, the E.U. trades over $2.005 trillion each year. That’s $2,358,137,000,000 every year—with only 20 nations. The European Union trades roughly the same dollars per year that the United States does. The U.S. trades $2.61 trillion per year. While $600.5 billion is an enormous number difference, the E.U. is still the only entity in the world that can compare   Imagine how much more is traded when you factor in the other ±176 nations in the world. That dollar amount is just in goods; it does not factor in any diplomatic aid, foreign direct investment or service.

Here’s a kicker—can you guess which single country is America’s largest trade partner? Here’s a hint: it’s not Great Britain, Israel, Germany or Japan. To find America’s largest trade partner you need only look north—Canada. America trades more than $500 billion with Canada on an annual basis.

I’d like to know what percentage of Americans can name five political leaders of countries engaged in an alliance with the U.S. United Kingdom? No, the answer is not Queen Elizabeth II; it’s David Cameron. Did you know he is part of the first coalition government the United Kingdom has seen since Winston Churchill? Do you even know what a coalition government means? That’s where more than one political party works together in a cabinet; David Cameron, current British Prime Minister, is a member of the Conservative Party. His Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is part of the Liberal Democrat party.

On another political note, Mexico is having presidential elections in just a few days. Watching CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and reading the online news sites, I have seen virtually nothing suggesting the Mexican election has any importance on American life. With all the drug trafficking in Mexico, it’s imperative Americans pay attention to the politics of Mexico. No, Americans cannot affect who is elected, but it’s still of great consequence to this country.

The basic point I’m trying to point out is that America is not the only country that has power in the world. America does not decide what happens globally, much to the dismay of many Americans. It’s time the American mindset of ‘we are the only place where political decisions matter’ ends. India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons pointed at one another, primed and ready for launch. That remains the world’s single greatest threat of nuclear attack—more than Iran or North Korea. Well… let’s be honest, Wile E. Coyote is head of the North Korean nuclear division.

It’s time American media put more emphasis on overseas politics than the current level. It’s time regularly staffed news bureaus exist outside of London, Rome, Paris, Sydney and Mumbai. It’s time Americans accept the inevitable globalization and move past the stubbornness of their elitism. Still, in 2012, only 30% of Americans have a passport. 60% of Canadians have passports, and 75% of Brits have passports. It’s time America joins the ranks of the global world.

Greatest Country on Earth

I watched the first episode of the new HBO show, The Newsroom, written by Aaron Sorkin. The very first scene—where the news anchor is sitting onstage at a university function—got me thinking.

This post is going to sound cynical, but it needs to be said. In case America isn’t egotistical enough, we’re the only country in the world that calls itself “the greatest country on earth.” Don’t get me wrong, I love this country, but I don’t think we’re the greatest country on the planet any more. I don’t know if I could tell you which country is, but we ain’t it.

When it comes to defense spending, America outspends the next 13 countries combined. America spent $711 billion in 2011, and China—the next country on that list—only spent $143 billion. America spends five times more on defense than the next country. When compared with top 15 countries in defense expenditures, the other 14 all combine to equal the amount America spends, and America is engaged in active alliances with 10 of the top fifteen defense spenders: Great Britain, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Turkey. When all combined, America and her allies spend $1.076 trillion on defense. The other countries in the top 15 only spend $345 billion. Only 38% of Americans have confidence in the national government, and 73% of Americans believe there is corruption in national politics. Among NATO countries, the most US-friendly country (the United Kingdom) only has a 67% approval rating of the US Government. Among all of NATO (where each country is represented equally among each other), America enjoys only 40% approval.

When it comes to education, the United States outspends (at least) 119 countries when it comes to percentage of GDP spent on education (according to the CIA World Factbook). 43 nations outspend the US by percentage of their GDP. America ranks 27th in math, 33rd in reading and 22nd in science scores. Take a look at this infographic:

12 nation’s education spending (Graphic courtesy USC Rossier)

Now, to be fair, America is the world’s third most populated nation, but according to the International Human Development Indicators, America is ranked fourth in the the overall HDI: Education index. This index accounts for enrollment, expected years of schooling, average years of schooling, public expenditure on education and the adult literacy rate. We fall behind New Zealand, Norway, Australia and Ireland. According to Gallup polling, only 62% of Americans are satisfied with the education system. Let’s compare: 72% of New Zealanders, 69% of Australians, 86% of the Irish and 75% of Norwegians are satisfied with their education systems.

Only 79% of Americans have access to high-speed internet. In 25 countries, a higher percent of the population has access to the internet in the home.

Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the kicker. According to Gallup polling data, only 30% of Americans have voiced an opinion to their elected official. Oh, and that “American Dream,” the pick yourself up by your bootstraps thing? Gallup also asks “can people in this country get ahead by working hard?” America, as you might not expect, is not on top of this list. America is not even in the top 50. America isn’t in the top 60, 70 or 80 either. America is 83 in a list of 159 nations when it comes to “getting ahead by working hard.” Of the 27 nations in North, Central and South America, the United State of America is 19th.

So, America, you’re not the greatest country on earth any more.

But I’ll tell you one thing. The American population definitely has the potential. NASA has sent astronauts to the moon with computers far less capable than the majority of cell phones in this country. Other “new” nations have modeled their own national politics after America’s bicameral legislature. American ingenuity led to the invention of the light bulb, the personal computer, the iPhone, the assembly line, the internet and the artificial heart. America definitely has the potential to be the “greatest nation on earth,” it just takes the greatest population on earth to get there.