Category Archives: Divided America

Beautiful Game, Ugly Undercurrents

Image result for soccer legs and ball

Racial hostility on the pitch–all too real, or just my imagination?

At halftime, I asked the head referee to keep an eye on No. 23 from the other team. I assume most refs aren’t crazy about whiny coaches trying to influence their calls, so I tried to explain that 23 had done several flagrantly dirty things to our players in the first half (most of which the refs had missed), and I just didn’t want our boys’ anger and frustration to escalate into a fight.

But that is exactly what happened. In the middle of the second half, No. 23 went hard into a tackle with one of our players, who gave back a little aggression of his own. (If you’re not familiar with soccer terminology, a “tackle” refers to a challenge in which a defender tries to take the ball away from the opponent with his foot, possibly with some body contact involved.) At that point, No. 23 raised the stakes with a hard two-handed shove that almost knocked our player to the ground. So our guy, a usually mild-mannered 14-year-old boy who happens to be from the Middle East, shoved back in kind. Other players swarmed toward the two boys as the refs quickly intervened, separating them and showing both of them yellow cards (which puts players on notice that next time they’ll get thrown out).

For the next 20 minutes or so, I had other things to think about as the team I coach, the Albany Soccer Club under-16 boys, fought their opponent to the wire in a close game. But afterward, as I thought about the game and the actions of No. 23, it dawned on me that his aggression might not have been general, but rather, targeted toward our foreign-born players.

Almost half of our players were born in other countries, including Afghanistan, Senegal, Yemen, and Myanmar (Burma). Many of them are refugees who fled political strife and repression at home; the Albany chapter of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants welcomed them to the city and helped assimilate them into American life. The refugee influx has fed Albany’s soccer programs for some years now with very talented players who grew up with the sport, and then, quite likely, played it constantly during the long months in refugee camps while they awaited transferral. In 2013, when Albany High School advanced to the Class AA sectional soccer final for the first time ever, they were led by two brothers who, as babies, had been carried out of Rwanda on their father’s back during the genocide.

Before the modern era that began in the late ’60s with the formation of the North American Soccer League, the history of American soccer had its roots mainly in clubs formed by immigrants from countries like Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Scotland. In the ’70s and ’80s, youth and adult participation took off: In 1967 there were 100,000 people playing soccer in America, compared with more than 4 million by 1984. But for some reason, perhaps its late start, American soccer came of age as a relatively affluent, suburban sport, unlike most countries of the world where there is heavy participation among the poor and working class. The Capital Region reflected this demographic, with club and high-school soccer participation and success concentrated in suburbs like Guilderland, Bethlehem, and Clifton Park. And the rise of “premier” clubs, whose players and parents travel farther afield to play in high-level tournaments and expose the players to college coaches, underscores the competitive disadvantage faced by poorer and immigrant families, most of whom can afford neither the money or the time it would take to join these clubs and travel to the tournaments.

In recent years, the influx of foreign players in Albany added to what already was a racially and ethnically diverse soccer population, and the mix helped, over time, make the city’s programs more competitive with the once-dominant suburbs. But this shift toward a level playing field has not come without growing pains.

As my sons began playing with the Albany club more than a decade ago, I began to notice a common occurrence at games: An African or African-American player would be whistled for a questionable foul, and parents would turn to each other as if to say, “What was that for?” The answer, we eventually agreed–and occasionally spoke out loud–was that the player had been charged with “tackling while black.” I didn’t want to believe it at first, but as the evidence mounted, it was hard to ignore. And it could happen with any nonwhite player; Albany parents became almost resigned to the fact that the darker the skin, the more likely certain referees would reach for their whistles.

I also have overheard suburban parents react angrily to fouls (real or perceived) committed by black or foreign players, sometimes screaming at the ref as though a routine challenge for the ball actually carried criminal intent. Again, I like to give the opposing parents the benefit of the doubt–every perception of the game they are watching is colored by the fact that their son is on the field (and that goes for me too)–but sometimes their outbursts are hard to ignore.

And when you have foreign players on your team, the current political climate is hard to ignore.

During a recent indoor game against a premier club with mostly suburban players, one player in particular seemed bent on giving our players an extra shove or elbow when they met in a challenge. And as the game progressed, he seemed particularly hostile toward the foreign players. Finally, after a particularly savage tackle, our player–a refugee–lost his cool and threw a punch. Of course, that is what the ref saw, and he was shown a red card.

I accepted the red card–it was appropriate to the offense. I had a little more trouble with the grilling I received afterward from an official of the facility, asking who exactly this player was, looking him up in the system to make sure he was eligible to play, and threatening to suspend him for more than the required one game.

What bothered me the most, however, was the way the opposing player’s father reacted to the fight (which his own son had started, in my biased but hopefully measured opinion). He screamed from the sideline that my player should be arrested, that he was going to call the police.

Really? You’ve never seen teenage boys get into a fight in the middle of a heated athletic competition?

Then again, maybe that’s not the question that particular parent needs to be asked. Maybe he should be asked if he’s ever had any reason to fear the police. To worry that they might knock on his door and arrest him and take him away from his son. Or to worry that police or government soldiers might come in the middle of the night and burn his family’s house down.

I’d like to think that if he put himself in a refugee’s shoes, he might rethink his reaction.

Then again, maybe he, and his son, and the family of player No. 23 from the beginning of this essay, just don’t think these foreign players belong here. I hope that’s not the case.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Decency Is Not a Dirty Word

Meryl Streep.

Did you have a visceral reaction to that name just now?

If you know why I’m asking that, my guess is that you thought her speech at the Golden Globe awards was either powerful and eloquent and exactly what the country needs to hear as the Bully-in-Chief prepares to take office, or an inappropriate, off-topic, partisan attack on the president-elect by an out-of-touch liberal elite living in her privileged Hollywood bubble.

And if your reaction falls somewhere outside those polar stereotypes, I’d love to hear it. I dream of a society in which every single action and speech of consequence does not drive us to rush to one side of the room or the other to huddle in the comfort and safety of our supposed ideological soulmates.

Or to put it more simply, I dream of a society consumed less with ideology and more with cooperation, tolerance, kindness, and finding common ground. And enlightened enough to realize it is not always necessary or constructive to take sides—or for that matter, to make sides where sides don’t need to be.

In her speech accepting an award for lifetime achievement, Streep wove in a story about what she called one of the most effective acting performances of the year—by Donald Trump, in which he mocked a disabled reporter for calling out Trump’s lies about a story the reporter had written after the 9/11 attacks.

Here’s the portion of the Streep speech that, without naming him, directly referenced Trump: “It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

In 2001, reporter Serge Kovaleski co-wrote a story looking into claims that there were Muslims on New Jersey rooftops celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers. The allegations were never substantiated, but Trump, during his presidential campaign, claimed that he saw “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the attacks, and then cited Kovaleski’s story as backup. Kovaleski correctly countered that his story did nothing to support Trump’s claim. So during a campaign rally, Trump lashed out at Kovaleski—who has a disease that limits the function of his joints—and mocked him by flapping his arms spastically. If you watch this video and still deny that Trump was mocking Kovaleski’s disability, I’m pretty sure your trousers will erupt in flames.

It didn’t take conservatives long to fire up the backlash, on Twitter and elsewhere. Meghan McCain tweeted that “this Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won, and if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how, you will help him get re-elected.” The clumsiness of her logic aside (one must assume she meant Trump voters were rejecting Hollywood-style elitism in general, not having a collective moment of clairvoyance), McCain left us wondering what exactly in the speech she objected to. Other conservative pundits criticized Streep for turning an awards ceremony into a leftist political rally. Former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway asked why Streep didn’t use her platform to address the public (on Facebook) torture of a mentally challenged boy by four young African-American adults in Chicago. Conway’s apples-and-oranges twist of logic might have seemed bizarre had not Fox News been employing the same diversionary tactic for years, blunting necessary discussions about police brutality against blacks by asking why the media weren’t spending more time covering black-on-black crime.

And the Supreme Tweeter himself shot back that Streep was “over-rated,” and repeated the provable lie that he had never mocked a disabled reporter.

Now Streep’s speech did hit one unfortunate sour note, called out by, among others, Trevor Noah and The Washington Post. “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners,” she said. “And if you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” As Noah scolded on The Daily Show Monday, “You don’t have to make your point by shitting on someone else’s thing.” If you want to make people think you are one of those privileged Hollywood elites who doesn’t understand Middle America, go ahead, make fun of “low-rent” entertainments like football. (And by the way, Meryl, like many of us educated East Coast elites, I would have been watching a certain NFL game instead of the opening of the Golden Globes had I not been detained by soccer-coaching duties.)

That said, there is nothing about Streep’s takedown of Trump over the Kovaleski incident that warrants left-vs.-right hostilities. The core of Streep’s message was not about politics—it was about decency, and the abuse of power to encourage similar indecent acts. This is what saddens and disgusts me about the world that Fox News and its ilk have created and perpetuated. As with the obstructionist Republican Congress, nothing that comes from the other side can be validated as correct or even a pretty good idea. There is no common ground. It’s bad enough that the Republican Party rejects science and welcomes racism and homophobia within its ranks. When we cannot agree that the parents of a fallen soldier deserve to be treated with respect, or that language demeaning women and condoning sexual violence is disturbing at best, or that a disabled man who dared to speak truth deserves not to have his disability mocked in public—by the soon-to-be-most-powerful man in America, no less—then we are in deep trouble.

And as long as the right is programmed to avoid these questions by simply lying its way around them, our national discourse is doomed to parallel the obstinate sez-who of an angry Facebook argument. Meryl Streep is asking us to be better than that, and if it takes a “privileged elite” to have the platform, and the gravitas, to say so, I don’t have a problem with that.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Dark Clouds and Silver Linings

The electors have made it official: in January, a schoolyard bully will assume the office of President of the United States.

Those of us who didn’t believe this could happen, who thought that Trump was too crude and scary and unqualified to elected president, have had several weeks to argue over who’s to blame. Racists! Misogynists! Bernie! Jill! The Electoral College! Sleepwalking Democratic Party strategists who ignored flyover country!

I have participated in this to an extent, but I’m done. I’m not going to blame anyone any more. I’m moving on.

(I still don’t trust electronic voting machines and the corporations that own them and the people they hire to program them, but I have no proof, and someone else will have to break that story. I think Greg Palast is still working on it.)

I’ve become more interested in (and concerned about) how divided we are as a nation, how stubbornly partisan we are, and how little that is changing right now in any meaningful way. And trying to figure out the true nature of presidential elections. This much I think I know: as long as we use the electoral-college system, which tilts the playing field toward smaller states and Republicans, elections are not necessarily a case of “may the best candidate win” or even “may the most popular candidate win.” It is more like a football game in which either side can put up numbers, late momentum counts, and a good strategy for winning coveted swing states can pull out a last-minute victory like a trick-play touchdown with the clock running out.

A little more than half of eligible citizens vote; about half of them vote Republican and half vote Democratic. And only a minuscule percentage of the electorate really counts: the people directing the ground game, and the voters they turn out (or turn away), in states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida.

Demographic trends do not appear to favor a Republican future, unless the party figures out how to appeal to more minorities and women, but Republican voters remain doggedly loyal, even when the candidate at the top of the ticket is saying things that make them wince. One of the most revealing things I’ve noticed in conversations—live, on Facebook, and in other media I’ve seen and heard—is that when milder, mainstream Republican voters (not the “alt-right” fringe whose only apparent mode of conversation is to shout crude insults) are asked how they could support such a dangerous and unqualified man for president, they usually respond with some variation on “Nothing could be worse than the last eight years.”

It almost doesn’t matter what actually happened in the last eight years—to most Democrats, it’s been lovely, to most Republicans, it’s been a disaster.

According to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center, people’s views on the accomplishments and/or failures of the Obama administration vary dramatically along party lines, by a wider statistical margin than with any administration since Eisenhower. As for this year’s two major-party presidential candidates, both Trump and Clinton received historically low “thermometer ratings” from members of the opposition party. Generally, the nation is more divided along partisan lines than at any time since Pew surveys on this subject were first conducted. More than ever, Democrats and Republicans are highly unfavorable toward both the opposition party and its members, and report being “fearful” of each other and view each other’s policies as a “threat” to the nation.

Looking at these numbers only confirms the depressing conclusion many people have already reached: we are a profoundly divided nation, lacking in common ground and shared ideals. We are in the midst of a long-running political civil war that does not appear to be ending any time soon.

There was a time not all that long ago when Americans supposedly shared core values and beliefs that were more important than our disagreements. In the post-World War II era, there were prominent American intellectuals who advanced a theory called “consensus history,” which rejected a class-conflict-based approach and stressed our presumably shared belief in capitalism and economic individualism. And if there was any one media icon the nation looked to for reassurance during the turbulent sixties and seventies, it was Walter Cronkite and his soothing baritone voice. But a consensus of white men in suits could never adequately speak for all of America, which became apparent as more marginalized people began to find their voices. Still, even as more non-mainstream ideas vied for attention, the two major parties seemed more similar than different in their generally capitalist value systems. And whatever party was in power, the rest of us lived with it.

Was Bill Clinton’s presidency the turning point, when Republicans, instead of working with him, tried to undermine him at every turn? I’m not sure, but ever since those years it seems as if our disagreements have shifted from differences over policy to differences over what is truth and what is fiction. The divide is so complete now that many people who identify as liberal or conservative simply don’t believe each other’s preferred media. I’ve heard plenty of criticisms of The New York Times over the years, but only this year did I begin seeing right-wingers refer to it as “fake news.” And this has an echo effect on how public opinion shades other important issues. For example, many on the right not only doubt climate scientists (who, they say, are advancing theories on global warming merely to advance their own careers), but also the media who report on such left-wing “hysteria.”

Are you ready for a silver lining yet? I’ve got one.

The Republican Party has long supported dirty energy and opposed regulation aimed at curbing pollution, and Republican voters tend to listen to the party’s reasoning as filtered through right-leaning media. So Republicans are typically measured to have low trust in the validity of climate science and to be generally anti-regulation. That is the party line, after all.

But ask people a slightly different question, and the silver lining appears. According to Pew, there is now broad, bipartisan support for expanding investment in wind and solar power—more so than for any fossil fuels.

Partisan environmental politics aside, clean energy is making more and more sense to more and more people. The future brightens.

Martin Luther King Jr., borrowing from Theodore Parker, famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Race relations in America have been severely strained in recent years over the many deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police or overzealous vigilantes. But Pew has found a silver lining here too. After the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, American opinion split significantly across racial and partisan lines on police culpability, case outcomes, and whether race played a significant role. There were also smaller but significant differences across age, with younger people being more critical of the killings and more sensitive to the racial issues.

However, while there was and still is a predictable disparity between black and white respondents to the questions of whether blacks’ rights are being violated, and whether racism in society is a significant problem, an interesting thing happened after the percentages remained fairly steady from 2009 to 2014. In 2015, across all races, the numbers of people saying society should give more attention to racial problems spiked significantly.

In dramatizing the need for change and driving public opinion, social movements matter. Occupy Wall Street brought a measurable change to the words media used to describe class issues—it mattered. And what the 2015 survey on race relations tell me is that Black Lives Matter does, in fact, matter. There’s a long way to go, but maybe the arc has begun to bend, however slightly, toward justice.

One more.

In a 2001 Pew survey, 35 percent of respondents supported same-sex marriage, and 57 percent opposed.

In 2016, 55 percent supported, and 37 percent opposed. And while younger people have driven a great deal of this change, the shift in support for same-sex marriage, and LGBT rights, has taken place across all generations.

Bending toward justice, indeed. And I don’t believe this one will ever bend back.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon


Before Fox and Fake News, It Was Daddy’s Job to Indoctrinate the Racism


The headmaster of the prep school was a former military man, and the overall atmosphere was conservative to the point where few of the more liberal faculty members dared or bothered to voice their opinions. Instead they went about their business teaching math or English or history, coaching lacrosse or baseball or ice hockey, sitting at the ends of long wooden tables at meals to ensure that the young men seated with them learned the manners they would need later in their lives of privilege, making sure the students on their hall had their noses in their books until lights out, and gathering at one of the local pubs a couple of nights a week to unwind.

I wasn’t much different, but it was the middle of the Reagan presidency, and if I hadn’t realized I leaned left before, it was starting to come out. My students noticed, and soon I was known to them—somewhat affectionately, I think—as “Mr. Liberal.” Some of them seemed conservative, occasionally reciting some right-wing wisdom they had been spoon-fed back home. Others seemed apolitical, concerned more with normal teenage preoccupations like sports and girls and impressing their peers with sarcastic remarks in class. Then there was Paul.

A fairly quiet, serious kid from Memphis, Paul wasn’t shy when it came to expressing his conservative views. And he took a liking to me, singling me out as his sparring partner. I returned the favor, challenging him (not too aggressively, he was only 15 or 16, and I didn’t want to make him angry and earn myself a trip to the headmaster’s office) with ideas and points of view he might not have considered before. It actually was quite fun, sort of a political chess match, and I came to really like Paul. I don’t know what became of him, and I left the school after a year.

One thing that stayed with me is the story he told me one day of his father packing him in the car and driving him around Memphis (cue Springsteen’s “Your Hometown”). As his father drove through African-American neighborhoods, he told Paul to count all the Cadillacs, just in case he ever felt a twinge of compassion, which the memory of all the luxury cars would quickly extinguish—because the blacks in these neighborhoods could never afford Cadillacs unless they were drug dealers or welfare cheats.

I do recall from the ’70s and ’80s the stereotype that blacks were particularly fond of Cadillacs, and observed that there appeared to be some truth to it. (Even the ’70s blaxploitation films acknowledged the place of Cadillacs and other luxury sedans as status symbols in black culture.) And apparently, statistics on car buying during this era do bear out that African-Americans were proportionately more likely to purchase Cadillacs than whites were. Does that mean they were all drug dealers and welfare cheats? Of course not.

And as always, there’s a story behind the stereotype.

General Motors was on the verge of ceasing all Cadillac production in 1932, when a company official named Nicholas Dreystadt made the audacious proposal to market the cars to blacks. Prior to that, corporate policy had been to not sell Cadillacs to blacks at all. But there was a small, growing black bourgeoisie of doctors, small businessmen, boxers and entertainers, and Dreystadt had noticed, while working as Cadillac’s service manager, that a surprising number of blacks were bringing the cars in for service. Unable to purchase the vehicles themselves, they had paid whites to front for them and buy the coveted cars. As Ed Cray wrote in The Chrome Colossus, “Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that the Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other outward signs of worldly success.”

Dreystadt’s foresight turned the Cadillac division around and inspired other businesses to market to minorities. And as more and more blacks earned enough income to afford the cars, the love affair with the Cadillac grew. The Cadillac became the status symbol of choice for many upper- and middle-income blacks, who did not move out of predominately black neighborhoods en masse just because they had taken a few steps up the economic ladder, in part because of the long-persistent barriers to moving into more affluent, white neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, by the late ’60s, white, conservative critics of welfare had created the fictional but enduring stereotype of black “welfare queens” who drove Cadillacs, despite the reality that poor blacks were less likely to even own a car than any other segment of the population (which helped keep them poor, but that’s another story).

So by 1980, what Paul was seeing through his father’s car window seemed consistent with the racist stereotypes now embedded in the nation’s conservative consciousness. The stereotypes were inaccurate, though I’m not sure Paul’s father understood that any more than his son did. They saw what they wanted to see. Today all they’d have to do is troll Facebook to find the sites and stories that line up with their worldview. I’m tempted to give Paul’s father credit for actually driving them through real neighborhoods to observe real scenes. The problem was that they didn’t know what they were looking at. And I tend to doubt they would have believed any information that would have conflicted with the conclusions they had already drawn—which sounds suspiciously like the world we live in today.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon