Hundreds Attend African American Cultural Arts Festival in Charlottesville

Vendor selling African clothingVendor selling African clothing

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) -

Hundreds of people came out to Booker T. Washington Park Saturday to learn about and celebrate West African culture for Chihamba’s 29th African American Cultural Arts Festival.

“We are honored that the community comes out to celebrate and be uplifted by the contributions of our ancestors to the community, our world, and to the nation,” said co-chair Ruby Stradford Boston.

The event was a place for people from around the area to come together, something Charlottesville needs after the  tragic events last August. 

“We’ve gone through so many trials and tribulations, especially from the event that happened last year August the 12th, and so this is maybe a good step forward than what’s going to happen and what’s things to come, just everyone getting together in peace like we should be,” said attendee Von Parrish.

Vendors sold handcrafted jewelry, food, and bright African clothing. In addition to the opportunity to shop, the event provided a music for dancing.

“We have everything you can just ask for, always in a family setting. Everyone knows each other, when you talk about it takes a village, it takes a village.” said co-chair Lilly Williams.

For festival attendees, like Kem Spaulding, the festival brings something more. “Joy, just you know, it’s a different venue than all the rest of them held in Charlottesville, and I just feel, I don’t know, more part of the whole community.” 

We Need A Governor That Will Stand Up To Trump

By Larry S. Gibson

It is outrageous that Gov. Larry Hogan has not spoken out against the race-baiting commercials being run by the Republican Governor’s Association which are directed at Ben Jealous in Maryland and Stacey Abrams, the African American candidate for governor in Georgia.

In Maryland, we Democrats, who outnumber Republicans two to one, will determine whether Democrat Ben Jealous or Larry Hogan will be elected governor.  I occasionally hear a Democrat ask why it matters, since Hogan is likable and “not that bad.”

The issue isn’t whether we find Larry Hogan likeable. He seems pleasant, and Marylanders were understandably sympathetic and supportive during his health struggles. But the fact remains that Hogan believes in and supports the right-wing Republican philosophy and agenda that most Marylanders reject.

Larry S. Gibson

Hogan has been passive, and often supportive, as Donald Trump’s policies have damaged our state. And make no mistake: Trump has hurt Maryland. Trump’s immigration policies have harmed our agricultural and sea food processing industries (as well as our sense of decency).  His budgets have threatened aerospace programs at Goddard Space Flight Center, caused deep cuts to EPA programs that protect the Chesapeake Bay, reduced grants for redevelopment and low-income housing in Baltimore, compromised our health care and harmed our schools. Trump’s trade policies are hurting Maryland farmers and manufacturers.

Hogan’s Republican party has worked hard to pass trillion-dollar tax cuts for the wealthy, while cutting support for education, health, housing, environmental protection and other programs important to the people of Maryland.

Has Larry Hogan been challenging his party on these issues?  No. Has he been a strong advocate for this state, as its governor should be?  No.  Hogan has embraced his Republican Party, while occasionally offering a few words of mild objection from time to time.

Larry Hogan may seem mild, compared to the extremists of his party, but mildness is not enough.  Maryland needs a fighter.

That is why we need a Democratic governor.  Maryland needs a leader who will forcefully resist the harm that Trump and the Republicans are doing to our state. We need a governor who will build on our state’s innovative character and who will fight for the rights of all its people..

That’s why I support Democrat Ben Jealous for governor. After more than fifty years in politics, I know a leader when I see one. Ben Jealous is a leader in the best Democratic Party tradition.  He is not that “angry black man” extremist portrayed by the images in the ads by the Republican Governor’s Association.

But there is good news. Democrats in Maryland have the numerical power to reject the politics of Trump and his party, by electing a Democrat as governor. The best way to say “no” to Trumpism is to vote it out of office.

Larry S. Gibson is a University of Maryland law professor, internationally recognized political strategist and author of the book, Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice.

‘They’re making decisions about us without us’: Omarosa says there are no African-American senior staffers left in the White House

Omarosa Manigualt newman
Former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman appears on MSNBC’s “Velshi & Ruhle” on August 13, 2018.
MSNBC


Former White House adviser and “Apprentice” contestant Omarosa Manigault Newman said no African-American senior staffers have been employed at the White House since her departure in January.

“Right now, there is no African-American senior staffer in the White House,” Manigault Newman said in an interview with MSNBC on Monday. “And there are issues that face this community that can’t be ignored. They’re making decisions about us without us. And I knew that if I left, that this community would suffer.”

Manigault Newman continued by noting that every administration in recent history has had an African-American serve in an assistant role to a sitting president. Manigault Newman also said President Donald Trump’s administration does not care and has not tried to fill her position since she was fired in December 2017.

Monday’s comments were not the first that Manigault Newman has made about the lack of African-Americans in the West Wing. After she was fired from the White House, Manigault Newman said the “lack of diversity” made her feel “very lonely” in the administration.

“It has been very, very challenging being the only African-American woman in the senior staff,” Manigault Newman told ABC News in December.

She has been on a media tear promoting her new book, “Unhinged,” which makes many claims about her time in the White House.

The White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the memoir was “riddled with lies and false accusations.” Trump called Manigault Newman a “lowlife” in a series of tweets attacking his former director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison.

Kellyanne Conway struggles to name top African-American White House staffers

On Sunday, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway dismissed the claims Omarosa Manigault Newman makes in her new book.
Screenshot via ABC

Manigault Newman’s interview came just one day after counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway struggled to name prominent African-American staffers who work in Trump’s White House in an interview with ABC News.

Host Jon Karl asked Conway for the name of any top African-American staffer since Manigault Newman’s departure.

Conway pointed to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson, but Karl pressed her to name someone who works in the White House.

Former White House aide Marc Short appeared on ABC after Conway and identified the staffer as Ja’Ron Smith, who he said works in the East Wing. Smith’s LinkedIn profile lists his title as Director of Urban Affairs and Revitalization.

“(He’s) done a fabulous job and … he’s been very involved with Jared Kushner and President Trump on prison reform. He’s been there from the beginning,” Conway said, adding that he works in an office in the Executive Office Building.

“But not in the West Wing,” Karl said. “What does that say to have not a single senior advisor in the West Wing who’s African American?”

“I didn’t say that there wasn’t, but hold on,” Conway said, as Karl pressed again for a name. “There are plenty of people.”

Conway then shifted focus, saying the administration’s valuing of minorities can be seen in “the actions of the president,” and that the staff has “a number of different minorities.”

Manigault Newman’s memoir on her time as an adviser in the Trump White House, “Unhinged“, is set to be released Tuesday.

Omarosa says there are no African-American senior staffers left in the White House


Omarosa Manigualt newmanMSNBC

  • Former White House senior staffer and “Apprentice” contestant Omarosa Manigault Newman said no African-American senior staffers have been employed at the White House since her departure.
  • “They’re making decisions about us without us,” she said in an interview with MSNBC on Monday.
  • Manigault Newman’s memoir on her time as an adviser for President Donald Trump, “Unhinged”, is set to be released this week.


Former White House adviser and “Apprentice” contestant Omarosa Manigault Newman said no African-American senior staffers have been employed at the White House since her departure in January.

“Right now, there is no African-American senior staffer in the White House,” Manigault Newman said in an interview with MSNBC on Monday. “And there are issues that face this community that can’t be ignored. They’re making decisions about us without us. And I knew that if I left, that this community would suffer.”

Manigault Newman continued by noting that every administration in recent history has had an African-American serve in an assistant role to a sitting president. Manigault Newman also said President Donald Trump’s administration does not care and has not tried to fill her position since she was fired in December 2017.

Monday’s comments were not the first that Manigault Newman has made about the lack of African-Americans in the West Wing. After she was fired from the White House, Manigault Newman said the “lack of diversity” made her feel “very lonely” in the administration.

MORE FROM BUSINESS INSDER

“It has been very, very challenging being the only African-American woman in the senior staff,” Manigault Newman told ABC News in December.

She has been on a media tear promoting her new book, “Unhinged,” which makes many claims about her time in the White House.

The White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the memoir was “riddled with lies and false accusations.” Trump called Manigault Newman a “lowlife” in a series of tweets attacking his former director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison.

Kellyanne Conway struggles to name top African-American White House staffers

Kellyanne ABCScreenshot via ABC

Manigault Newman’s interview came just one day after counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway struggled to name prominent African-American staffers who work in Trump’s White House in an interview with ABC News.

Host Jon Karl asked Conway for the name of any top African-American staffer since Manigault Newman’s departure.

Conway pointed to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson, but Karl pressed her to name someone who works in the White House.

Former White House aide Marc Short appeared on ABC after Conway and identified the staffer as Ja’Ron Smith, who he said works in the East Wing. Smith’s LinkedIn profile lists his title as Director of Urban Affairs and Revitalization.

“(He’s) done a fabulous job and … he’s been very involved with Jared Kushner and President Trump on prison reform. He’s been there from the beginning,” Conway said, adding that he works in an office in the Executive Office Building.

“But not in the West Wing,” Karl said. “What does that say to have not a single senior advisor in the West Wing who’s African American?”

“I didn’t say that there wasn’t, but hold on,” Conway said, as Karl pressed again for a name. “There are plenty of people.”

Conway then shifted focus, saying the administration’s valuing of minorities can be seen in “the actions of the president,” and that the staff has “a number of different minorities.”

Manigault Newman’s memoir on her time as an adviser in the Trump White House, “Unhinged“, is set to be released Tuesday.

Join the conversation about this story »

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SEE ALSO: Omarosa Manigault says it was ‘very lonely’ working with White House staffers who ‘had never worked with minorities’

DON’T MISS: Kellyanne Conway struggles to name top African-American White House aides

A former opera singer fuses African-American and Yiddish music

Anthony Russell started studying to perform in Yiddish in 2011. (Max Eicke)

(JTA) — Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell has performed Yiddish music around the world. He is part of a musical duo that creates new interpretations of classic Yiddish songs. In 2017, he even won the Yiddish version of “American Idol.”

Still, the singer gets one request consistently that has nothing to do with Yiddish or klezmer music: to perform traditionally African-American music.

“I always got a little defensive about that because if I’m going to literally perform my blackness for an audience, I want it to be on my terms. I don’t want the terms dictated to me,” the 37-year-old former opera singer, who is black and Jewish, told JTA.

In “Convergence,” Russell aims to do just that, melding Jewish songs, mostly in Yiddish, with traditional African-American ones. The album, released last week, is a collaboration between Russell and the klezmer band Veretski Pass.

“The whole ethos of the project, at least for me was, if there was a historic African-American Jewish music, if that was a real thing, what would it sound like?” he said in a phone interview Monday.

An example of how he imagines that musical culture can be heard on “Rosie,” a work song written by African-American prisoners at a Mississippi State Penitentiary work camp in the 1940s.

Eventually it bridges into the sorrowful instrumental part from “Es Iz Shoyn Shpet” (It is Already Late), a Yiddish song meant for newlyweds. The sorrowful melodies are mixed together skillfully aided by Russell’s smooth bass voice.

Toward the end of the track, the voice of a newscaster is heard announcing the high incarceration rate of black men in the U.S. today, reminding the listener of slavery’s legacy.

Russell was inspired to write the track after the news broke that George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, was acquitted of charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unnarmed black teenager.

Russell said the two musical traditions were a natural fit. One thing that helped, he said, is that many Jewish and African-American songs are written in pentatonic scale, with five notes per octave.

“When it came to melodies, and when it came to the text, they flowed together very well,” he said.

The two traditions have blended together well in his life, too. Russell, who grew up in a Christian family, said his childhood Bible studies helped him on his journey to becoming Jewish.

“I have a very strong connection to narratives of the Bible, the Jewish scriptures, and I think this informed my decision to become Jewish because I was familiar with so many of the important narratives that make up Judaism,” he said.

Russell converted to Judaism in 2011, and four years later he married his longtime boyfriend Rabbi Michael Rothbaum.

The couple live in Maynard, Massachusetts, a suburb about 22 miles west of Boston, near the synagogue where Rothbaum works, Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton.

After graduating from college, Russell worked as an opera singer for more than a decade, but never got his big break. Rothbaum suggested that he explore Jewish music, but Russell dismissed the idea. But that initial response didn’t last long, and in 2011 Russell started teaching himself to sing in Yiddish.

He has traveled around the world performing Yiddish songs at cultural festivals, synagogues and academic events. He is also a member of the musical duo Tsvey Brider, in which he and musician Dmitri Gaskin create new music in Yiddish, including in the styles of cabaret, disco and pop.

A year after starting to pursue Yiddish music, Russell decided to combine it with African-American music. He juxtaposed the Yiddish song “Der Gemore Nign,” in which a young homesick boy recites Talmud, with the African-American spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

“My idea initially was to have it as a dialogue,” he said. “Here are these two children — one black, one Ashkenazi Jewish in the world of the 19th century — both singing about their loneliness and alienation from their families.”

Russell performed the song at events, and it was well-received. Two years later he performed it with Veretski Pass, a klezmer instrumental trio, and the collaboration that eventually led to “Convergence” was born.

Russell said the collaboration allows him to honor all the parts that make up his identity.

“When I made a decision to become a Jew, it wasn’t a decision to completely leave entire parts of myself behind. Of course it was a decision to leave the bacon- and shrimp-eating parts of myself behind, which is very hard because it’s in my ‘yerusha,’” he joked, using the Hebrew term for inheritance.

“But I still wanted to be very much myself as a black man, as somebody who is responsive to black culture and black history, that’s somebody who I wanted to be while I was also being Jewish. So it’s almost like the project as an outgrowth of that need to stay true to myself while making that very conscious decision to be Jewish.”

The post A former opera singer fuses African-American and Yiddish music appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Assemblymember Holden Recognizes Pasadena Tournament of Roses’ First African American President, Gerald Freeny

Gerald Freeny

Today, on the California State Assembly Floor, Assemblymember Chris Holden recognized Gerald Freeny for his confirmation as the first African American president of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Board of Directors. Freeny will provide leadership for the 130th Rose Parade on Tuesday, January 1, 2019.

“Gerald Freeny’s confi rmation as President of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses is a significant milestone in Black History,” said Assemblymember Chris Holden. “Freeny is an example of the Black excellence that occurs every day and exemplifies the progress Tournament of Roses has made to further diversity and inclusiveness within their ranks.”

Gerald Freeny rose through the ranks of hundreds of “white suit volunteers” to become the 130th president of the Association. He previously worked as the chairman of parade operations, and has been a volunteer member of the Tournament of Roses Association since 1988.

Gerald Freeny announced “the Melody of Life” as this year’s theme for the Tournament of Roses to encourage creativity and music as a way to bring people together.

“Many in the Pasadena community have waited and fought for this moment, and we are all excited about the leadership Gerald Freeny will bring to the Tournament of Roses,” said Holden.

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People are talking about whether Trump used the N-word. A Breitbart writer wants to talk about hip-hop.

Joel Pollak at Politicon at the Pasadena Convention Center in Pasadena, California, July 30, 2017. (John Sciulli/Getty Images for Politicon)

(JTA) — On a day that the home page of Breitbart News included no fewer than four stories on speculation over whether President Donald Trump used the N-word, one of its contributors wanted to talk about — hip-hop.

In a tweet Wednesday, Joel Pollak, Breitbart’s editor-at-large, tweeted about his visit to a local boxing gym “owned by a terrific black guy.”

Having heard the word used repeatedly in the rap music played over the gym’s sound system, Pollak suggested that the country is “overdue for a real national conversation about the word and its public use.”

Twitter quickly pointed out that such a “national conversation” has been going on for years. (I just googled “should black people use the n-word,” and literally got 691 million results. That includes articles in mainstream, liberal and conservative media for every year since 2000. In 2003, Randall Kennedy wrote an entire book on what he called “the nuclear bomb of racial epithets,” sparking, well, a national conversation. In 2015, after President Obama used the word to make a point about racism, media coverage focused mainly on his use of the taboo word.)

Many commenting on Pollak’s tweet noted that a consensus on the question has become pretty clear.

“I am white. You are white,” one Quincy Wheeler wrote in response to Pollak. “We do not use this word. We do not decide how black people can or cannot use this word. Good conversation. Thanks.”

The grounds for this debate, for anyone who needs reminding, is the prevalence of the N-word in black culture, from rap lyrics to the way black men and women have co-opted the toxic word as a term mostly of endearment. African-Americans don’t necessarily agree that its use in black slang is benign. Many black leaders say its frequent use is a form of self-hatred, or that it gives license for whites to use the word.

A few years ago, on a segment on the question on the ESPN show “Outside the Lines,”  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was adamant that the word should be retired from everyday use.

“I think your generation should understand that that word was used to beat people down,” the author and basketball legend told young viewers.

“I’m a black man. I use the N-word,” replied Charles Barkley, another basketball Hall of Famer and now an outspoken analyst on the sport and other matters.

But both sides agree: Whites shouldn’t use the word, not in jest and certainly not in anger. A double standard? Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic magazine explained why that’s OK.

“It is normal in our culture for some people or groups to use certain words that others can’t,” he said at an event in 2017.  Coates gave the example of a man calling his wife “honey,” women calling each other “bitch,” children referring to their parents as “mom” and “dad” but not by their first names.

“The question one must ask is why so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people,” he said.

The wild anticipation over whether Trump used the word is fed in part by the notion that if he did, he would pay a political price. Having escaped censure for singling out Muslims, the disabled, prisoners of war, women and blacks, the thinking goes, Trump would at last face real consequences if he were heard on tape using the N-word.

“My read is that an n-word tape would hurt Trump, mostly because American political elites and media outlets exclusively understand racism in the most intellectually stunted ways possible and this would finally force them to acknowledge the clear reality of Trump’s racism,” Nation contributor Sean McElwee wrote.

Or perhaps not.

“Y’all do realize that if there is a tape of Trump using the N-word his approval rating among his base is just going to UP, right?!” New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow tweeted.

Writing for the conservative Weekly Standard, Jonathan V. Last worried that America would certainly pay a price if it became clear that Trump used the word.

“As things stand right now there are still a handful of norms left in public life. Not saying the N-word is one of them. It would be nice if we could hold on to that norm,” Last wrote. “If we have a tape of the president of the United States saying it and he suffers no proximate consequences, that norm will be shattered.”

Pollak’s tweet leaves open the question about his own motivations. A cynic would say he was trying to prepare the grounds for a defense of Trump should it emerge that he indeed used the word. A more generous reading would be that he agrees the word should be taboo, and feels black artists and gym owners should take the lead in removing it from everyday use.

Of course, both interpretations could be true.

“Mark my words, when that tape of Trump sayin the N-word drops, expect him to mount the ‘Well, Black people say it’ Defense,” comedian Cyrus McQueen tweeted. “And every troll under the bridge will flood Twitter with ‘It’s a double standard!’”

The post People are talking about whether Trump used the N-word. A Breitbart writer wants to talk about hip-hop. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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WYPR Radio at Sumner Hall

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Tom Hall of WYPR interviews Airlee Ringold Johnson at Sumner Hall

Chestertown was live on WYPR radio at noon Tuesday, July 31 – and the Chestertown Spy was there.

Tom Hall, the host of Midday Live, came to Sumner Hall to interview five local leaders on health care, education, and the upcoming Legacy Day festival. And the town turned out to watch – some 70 residents were on hand to applaud the panelists and to submit written questions.

The theme of the program was “Embracing Change in a Historic Community,” and the three segments – each about 20 minutes – were all related to it. The healthcare segment focused on the future of the Chestertown Hospital, which has seen cutbacks in services that have led to worries about the facility being closed altogether at some future point. The education segment looked at the difficulty of maintaining a top-quality school system in the face of declining enrollment and the reductions in state support that result from that. And the third segment focused on race relations in the community, from the post-Civil War era to the present.

Ken Kozel of Shore Regional Health and Dr. Jerry O’Connor

Answering Hall’s questions on healthcare were Dr. Gerald O’Connor, a surgeon at the hospital and a founder of the “Save Our Hospital” group, and Ken Kozel, CEO of Shore Regional Health, the branch of the University of Maryland Medical System that operates the hospital. Hall began by noting that the hospital has seen a decline in the patient population, leading to Shore Regional Health proposing changes that have met with community resistance. Kozel said that Shore Regional Health serves a five-county area, in which it needs to provide access to high-quality care at an affordable cost. The original vision was to convert the hospital to a “free-standing medical facility,” without inpatient beds. Kozel said that a decline in usage of the hospital, and a policy of reducing “avoidable utilization”  of its facilities, were factors in that plan. But because of the lack of public transportation and the distance involved in the five-county region, it was important to keep Chestertown open so patients could be close to their families.

O’Connor said he was familiar with the hospital’s finances. He said he didn’t understand why the system was anxious to close a hospital when it was operating in the black. He pointed out that Kent County has the second-highest level of cancer in the state, and that a quarter of its population is over age 65. He suggested that surplus dollars from the Chestertown budget are going to Easton and that the hospital foundation is bearing much of the burden of supporting the local hospital.

Kozel said UMMS was working to educate the local community to come up with the best solution for maintaining an appropriate level of health care in the county. He said the plans for the hospital had changed in response to community efforts, and that the task now is to “right-size” the hospital.

O’Connor said the community needs to continue supporting the hospital and to keep pressure on UMMS to prevent it from closing.

Panelists for the education portion of the program were Karen Couch, Kent County superintendent of education, and Trish McGee, president of the Board of Education. Couch said that the school population is currently around 2,000 students – down by perhaps 600 over the last two decades. Because of the state funding formulas, based on population, the district has lost about $4 million over the last decade. Couch said the district projects that the student population will continue to decline for a few more years before leveling out.

McGee said the student population has fallen because of the lack of economic opportunity in the county, with few large employers. Students graduate from high school, leave for college or work elsewhere, and don’t return to raise families of their own. While the county’s population has remained steady for nearly 200 years, the demographic balance has shifted away from working families. The population is older, with many retirees who don’t have school-age children. Despite the image of Kent as a “wealthy” county, many of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The “come-heres” — many of whom own second homes in the county — make Kent appear affluent, but the “from-heres,” who make up the vast majority of the school population, are low-income.

Hall asked whether combining with other counties to increase student population was a possible answer to the problems. McGee said that at one point, Queen Anne’s County communities such as Chester Harbor and Kingstown sent their students to Chestertown schools, but that Queen Anne’s was losing revenue because of it, and took those students back. “I don’t see it happening,” she said of a possible consolidation across county lines. Couch said that such a consolidation would also entail loss of decision-making power and community identity on the part of Kent County.

Tom Hall of WYPR, Airlee Ringold Johnson, Trish McGee, and Dr. Karen Couch pose after the broadcast

In the final segment, Airlee Johnson, a board member of the Kent County Historical Society, told listeners about the history of Sumner Hall and on the program for the upcoming Legacy Day, which celebrates the era in the mid-to-late 1960s when Kent County’s schools were desegregated. Sumner Hall, at 206 S. Queen St., was built in 1908 as a meeting place for black Civil War veterans. Following the death of the last of the veterans, it became a community center under the name Centennial Hall. But after the 1960s, it began to fall into disrepair and was scheduled for demolition before a community group took up the cause of restoring it. It is now a museum and a venue for meetings, events, and concerts.

Sumner Hall

Legacy Day, which began as a project of the Historical Society to expand its scope beyond Colonial history, began five years ago with a tribute to Charlie Graves, who ran Chestertown’s legendary Uptown Club – a venue where the stars of rhythm and blues and soul music regularly appeared. The event drew a large and racially diverse crowd to town, with live music and dancing in the streets.

This year’s revival honors the students who were the pioneers of the school integration era – which came a decade later in Kent County than in the country as a whole. Johnson, who was a student at the time, told some of the stories from the interviews with pioneers, as well as giving her perspective on the history of race relations in Kent County in the years since. She said that upon her return to her home county after years of living in other areas, she was surprised at how little the races interacted more than 40 years after formal integration. One of the purposes of Legacy Day has been to present an event where the African-American and white communities can celebrate together.

A video of the complete program can be viewed on the WYPR Facebook page.

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All photos by Jane Jewell

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How conservatives made socialism attractive


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivers her message at a campaign rally in Wichita, on July 20. (J Pat Carter for The Washington Post)

August 15 at 6:00 AM

In the wake of primary victories by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, two avowed socialists are likely to win House races in November. That, along with a new poll that shows Democrats have a more positive image of socialism than capitalism, has pundits and politicians raising alarm bells. In response to the socialist shift, Democratic candidate Ben Jealous, former NAACP head and current gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, has insisted he is a capitalist.

In claiming these labels, politicians are obscuring rather than illuminating the essential political divides of 2018. The problem is that both “capitalism” and “socialism” — familiar relics of the Cold War — are misunderstood today. Modern definitions distort their actual meanings and disconnect us from our nation’s history of democratic reforms.

“Capitalism” is the term that socialists and communists used for a century to denounce profit-oriented economic systems as unstable, unjust and doomed to fail. As late as the 1960s, it was a phrase of derision used mostly by the far left. Those contending for political power preferred to describe the United States as committed to “free enterprise.”

This changed in the 1970s when conservative intellectuals led by Irving Kristol — himself a former socialist — saw the advantage of co-opting the word “capitalism” to extol the power of an economic system that is unchanging and unchangeable, and whose inner logic must be obeyed.

The idea was best expressed by conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who argued that, when it comes to capitalism, “There is no alternative.” She meant that one must accept all of the defects of capitalism — the inequality, the injustice, the environmental destruction — because the only alternative was some kind of socialist system that could not provide prosperity. Her argument aimed to disqualify virtually any reforms that reduced inequality or that protected citizens from corporate power.

From the 1980s on, conservatives have used this conception of capitalism to block progressive reform proposals with remarkable success. The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the only major domestic reform initiative passed since 1973, and conservatives are working intensely to cripple it. Other efforts at enacting programs like subsidized child care, universal health care or paid parental leave have gone nowhere.

The right has also used this capitalist-socialist dichotomy to claw back previous progressive reforms. They have dramatically reduced the progressive nature of the tax system, made it extremely hard for employees to be represented by unions, undermined the effectiveness of regulatory agencies, slashed spending on programs like public housing and gutted the Voting Rights Act. The result has been a catastrophic increase in income and wealth inequality, with the share of income taken by the top 1 percent of households more than doubling.

This rightward turn goes against the reform trajectory in American history that has increasingly provided people with more benefits and rights. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, government eliminated chattel slavery, extended the franchise to African Americans, passed the Homestead Act to give away Western lands, facilitated the construction of the intercontinental railway and created the Department of Agriculture that provided considerable assistance to farmers — then the largest occupational group.

The Progressive era saw major antitrust action to break up corporate monopolies, the creation of a progressive federal income tax, the establishment of the Federal Reserve System, women’s suffrage and the Farm Credit Act that significantly increased the availability of affordable credit for farmers.

Government initiatives in the 1930s and 1940s helped workers unionize, created the Social Security System, established the framework for a vast expansion of home mortgages, expanded the public sector’s role in providing housing and new hospitals and fueled the growth of colleges and universities with the G.I. bill that gave World War II veterans access to higher education.

The reform era of the 1960s and early ’70s included Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, consumer protection and the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Virtually every one of these reforms was denounced at the time by conservatives as dangerous and socialistic, but most of us now see them as part of our democratic tradition of expanding rights and opportunity. We also recognize that these reform initiatives strengthened the American economic system rather than undermining it.

But in the past 50 years, this reform impulse has been stymied. For a brief moment, it appeared that the Obama administration might be the beginning of another reform era. In 2009 and 2010, there were redistributive measures in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Dodd-Frank legislation created the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and the Affordable Care Act expanded the share of the population with health insurance. But the Republican victory in the 2010 elections dashed any hopes for additional reforms and reinvigorated the defense of capitalism against these alleged “socialist” programs.

This exceptional half-century with very little reform explains a lot about our current politics. It helps make sense of the populist rage that led to Donald Trump’s election; millions of people are angry because the political and economic system is not working for them, and they have given up on establishment politicians.

It also explains why the word socialism has reappeared not as a demonic other feared by conservatives, but as an agenda for reform. Conservatives are reaping the consequences of their redefinition of capitalism. In a moment when many Americans feel that the system isn’t working for them, a system defined as immutable naturally leaves some thinking that we need an alternative system that is not rigged to benefit the millionaires and billionaires.

Nor does socialism mean what it once did. When you look closely at what today’s self-proclaimed democratic socialists are advocating, it is not state ownership of the means of production. They are simply proposing another reform epoch like the New Deal or the Progressive era that would include major legislative steps to reduce inequality of income and wealth, provide citizens with new ways to contain the power of large corporations and expand the services to which all citizens are entitled.

In short, they are calling for a reconnection with our progressive history, one that is not at all a threat to our political and economic institutions.

The right won the rhetorical battle, and market principles have triumphed over the reform tradition. But economically, the citizenry has lost. The economy is now less productive because giant corporations can make bigger profits without bothering to make better products. Today, the fastest route to a stronger economy runs through those “socialists” who want to reduce inequality, constrain the power of corporations and provide people with greater access to quality health care, higher education and affordable housing.