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A New Version of THE DREAM: Martin Luther King and the Public Employees’ Unions April 5, 2011

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Education, Labor Issues, Law, Ethics & Society, Racial Discrimination, U.S. Constitution.
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Irony, progress or backward motion?  Perhaps a bit of all three…Labor unions and civil rights groups organized sit-ins and teach-ins all across the country yesterday to protest the assault on the rights of public employees’ unions to engage in meaningful collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio. The sponsors of the “We Are One” rallies noted Dr. King’s tie to the rights of public employees and his plans to march with striking sanitation workers–his plans were foiled by his tragic death.

“What we are witnessing is nothing but an ideological assault on Dr. King’s vision for a more economically just nation,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Yes, irony, progress and backward motion….

Irony– Because some of the same folks against whom he marched no doubt have descendants that are now employing Dr. King’s philosophy and methodology to fight for their rights.

Progress– Because  although Dr. King would no doubt be troubled by the states’ strategy to solve  their financial crisis by denying public employees’ unions the right to meaningful bargaining, he probably would be gratified to see that this new rally and call for equality is composed of individuals reflecting a rainbow of ethnicity, race and gender.

Backward motion–Because although we have become a nation in which there is greater opportunity for minorities, arguably the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown even larger.

Regardless of ones view on the rights of public employees, it is a testament to our democracy that Dr. Martin Luther King lives on not only in our memories, but  as a contemporary guide to employ the First Amendment to voice our opinions, to assemble and to petition the government with our grievances.


Raising Arizona: Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies Program Under Attack January 9, 2011

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Education, Law, Ethics & Society, Racial Discrimination, U.S. Constitution.
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Dueling perceptions of the reality of Tucson’s ethnic studies’ programs have caused the state legislature to pass a bill directed at Tucson’s ethnic studies program.  No, wait a moment…Did I say ethnic studies? Seems that the African-American and Native-American studies program are safe, but the Mexican-American program is so controversial that it resulted in its own “private” legislation.

The bill, known as HB2281, was actually passed last fall, but just became effective.  Tom Horne, Arizona’s Superintendent for Schools who has just become  Arizona’s Attorney General, is a proponent of the law that “authorizes the state superintendent to stop any ethnic studies classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” In fact, Horne has conceded that Tucson’s program is the target of this law. His successor, John Huppenthal, supports Horne’s findings against Tucson’s Mexican-American Program.

Shortly after this law was passed last fall, a group of Tucson’s teachers filed suit to have the law overturned, alleging constitutional violations including First Amendment free speech claims and a lack of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.  While Horne and Huppenthal have alleged that the Mexican-American program teaches anti-American precepts such as Ben Franklin was a racist and promotes undesirable “ethnic chauvinism”, both student and teacher testimonials applaud the inclusion of history from a “Mexican-American” perspective and assert that the program “has been effective in reducing dropout rates among Latino students, as well as discipline problems, poor attendance and failure rates.”

The controversy in general and the lawsuit specifically could serve as another great opportunity for a sociological, legal and cultural debate on both free speech and the educational system in a diverse democratic setting except for one serious constraint.  HB2281 comes equipped with some serious financial teeth; if Tucson does not dismantle its program within 60 days then the state can devastate the entire Tucson educational system by imposing a 15 million dollar penalty upon Tucson. The lawsuit requests an injunction to prevent the law from being imposed prior to the lawsuit being resolve and apparently the Tucson School Board has already submitted a letter to the state detailing the current program’s compliance with the law.

Arizona’s battle is one worth watching as it represents cultural and educational issues that impact our children and the future of our country.  Besides….after seeing the copy cat immigration legislation popping up in campaigns last November, it won’t be surprising if other states’ legislatures start debating and attempting to legislate ethnic studies programs in our own backyards.

Mark Twain Revisited: The Ethics of Revisionist History January 6, 2011

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society, Racial Discrimination, U.S. Constitution.
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Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are about to live in a world in which the words “nigger” and “injun” have been retrospectively deleted from their vocabularies….they will now be speaking in terms of “slaves” and “indians.”  Just as Twain noted that he worked “painstakingly” to reproduce the dialects of the time, apparently Professor Alan Gribben has  worked diligently to remove and replace the authentic language. While presumably Mark Twain endeavored to author entertaining and meaningful fiction, Professor Gribben’s intentions are to render Twain’s works less “painful” and more acceptable to modern audiences who have been hurt, offended or out right banned the works.

(Leaving the First Amendment issue of banning books for another day…..) Professor’s Gribben’s new publication begs the question: Does a sanitized Huck and Tom enlighten today’s readers or deny the history of our society and undermine Mark Twain’s literary contributions? Some say that we must all change to reflect what is acceptable in our time and that includes a deceased and legendary Mark Twain. Others view Huck and Tom not only as endearing characters, but also as invaluable reminders of life as it was in their America—two boys whose adventures are set in a sociological time period that is truthful and poignant even as it may be painful or unpleasant to confront.

Rather than being offended by the language of Twain’s works, perhaps there is a lesson in studying the story not only for the fictional writing style, but also as a slice of history, In fact, my son who is currently reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his 10th grade english class, responded to the news of the new version by explaining to me that,”the language of the book is a large part of the point of the book.” Simply stated …and clear that he didn’t see much point in reading about Huck and Tom if the context in which their adventure occurs is altered and rendered less authentic.

As always, the test of time will determine whether Huck and Tom will remain more popular in their “native” language or whether society will embrace Professor’s Gribben’s “translation.”  Regardless, our history remains…

Lean to the Left, Lean to the Right…Stand Up, Sit Down, Is It Really a First Amendment Fight? — NPR v Juan Williams October 24, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society, Mindfulness, Racial Discrimination, Religion, U.S. Constitution.
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The U.S. Constitution provides freedom of speech and press….that is found in the First Amendment.  Our freedoms to feel and think, regardless of whether we speak, are innate and have been described by philosophers as aspects of our natural rights as human beings. Juan Williams, a self described Black journalist and civil rights advocate, shared his feelings of a “moment of  anxiety” when boarding an airplane, post 9/11, along side Muslim individuals who are dressed in traditional Muslim clothing.  Williams expressed these views on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News where Williams is a paid contributor.  Williams has also warned about the potential of this type of fear to create unwarranted bigotry against Muslims.  National Public Radio, (NPR), who employed Williams as a news analyst, promptly fired Williams stating that there is no place in analyzing the news for  a reporter’s opinion as it undermines credibility.

Williams was immediately offered a large contract by Fox News as the backlash against NPR for the firing continues….Interesting to ponder whether if the situation had been reversed–if Williams had made the comment on NPR as a guest contributor while an employee of Fox–whether this would even be much of  a news item. Williams was not reporting a news event.  He was expressing a personal anxiety that  has become especially inflammatory in light of recent controversies in the news concerning the building of a mosque near ground zero and the threatened burning of the Koran on 9/11.

Whether his statement, which he has since explained was made to highlight the need to pause and become aware of ones feelings to achieve a rational tolerance for others and avoid bigotry, is inappropriate journalism, an overreaction by a hypersensitive left-wing news organization or just a reflection of the reality of post 9/11 tension in society is the subject of the current debate.  It begs the question of what is the responsibility  and appropriate role of those participating in the 24 hour cable news cycle phenomena?

Clearly, the First Amendment allows Williams to share his anxiety and permits everyone else to criticize his decision to make his feelings public.  NPR’s termination of Williams and Fox’s offer of a new contract are likewise permissible expressions of disapproval and support.

The question remains what is the most appropriate manner and forum in which to discuss the realities of undeniable post 9/11 tensions that linger in our country?  Do we talk “around” the underlying reality of these tensions in debating the ground zero mosque?  Do we remove irrational prejudice and bigotry in our society by  claiming that it is illegal, socially unacceptable and ignoring an analysis of its roots?  The answers to these questions vary based upon to whom the questions are posed.  Juan Williams believes that in revealing his own visceral fear and identifying it as a cause for concern, he was contributing to a discussion in which he hoped acknowledgement and exposure of human nature might alert us to the potential for unwarranted discrimination arising from this type of fear. Others believe that as a high-profile figure, his statement reinforced and condoned anti-Muslim sentiment in our country.  The answers depend upon a person’s particular orientation and perspective.  However, more important than the answers, is the debate concerning the questions and the freedom of speech that permits the conversation to continue.

Backward Progress? The Shirley Sherrod Attack: Racism & Redemption July 22, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society, Racial Discrimination.
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WOW—That’s the first word that comes to mind when reviewing the recent events surrounding Shirley Sherrod’s speech, firing, and White House apology with an offer of a new job.  If you are wondering why you have never heard of Shirley Sherrod before, there is a good reason.  Until about a week ago, she was a midlevel employee at the Department of Agriculture with no particular notoriety.  Her inadvertant fame is the result of her forty-five minute speech to the N.A.A.C.P. in which she described how her father was murdered, in 1965, by white men who were never indicted and her initial feelings of reluctance when she was later called upon to assist some struggling white farmers who were trying to keep their farm.

Understandable right?  Sure, especially since she ultimately did assist the farmers, the Spooners, who have spoken out in her support and indicated that all would have been lost without her support.  It was an experience of enlightenment that Ms Sherrod was describing—The problem is that her comments of initial reluctance were taken out of context and posted by a blogger– Two and one half minutes of a forty-five minute speech were taken out of context and created a firestorm on the internet and cable news networks that  resulted in even the national office of the N.A.A.C.P. calling for Ms. Sherrod’s  resignation.

 Not only that, but the Secretary of Agriculture, Mr Vilsack, actually demanded her resignation stating that the Department of Agriculture does not tolerate any type of racism.  WOW is the operative word here…..Because now that everyone has access to the entire speech, Ms Sherrod has received an apology from Mr. Vilsack and the White House and has been offered a new position that will allow her to contribute to erasing the Agriculture Department’s “checkered civil rights history.”   

One has to ask whether in our fast paced, technologically advanced world, we need to call for a moment of pause, reflection and investigation of the facts of an event before reacting.  The answer seems clear: adopting an approach of mindfulness so that we can respond thoughtfully, rather than react emotionally based  upon an incomplete picture, ought to be the way to go. A healthy dose of skepticism with a sprinkle of mindful reflection may have avoided this entire event.

Jesse Jackson concluded that there remains a ” redemptive story book ending.”    He further stated,  “I wish that Shirley Sherrod and the Spooner family could be invited to the White House and give them the credit that they’re due, because it is a great American story. A rural white family in Georgia and a black woman, overcoming years of segregation. It would be great if the president were to seize this moment.”

Just seems that an awfully backwards process ultimately shed light on Ms. Sherrod’s and the Spooner’s civil rights progress.  Whether it is a “story book” ending for Ms. Sherrod remains to be seen as certainly it appears that she has been caught in an unimaginable nightmare of late.

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