28 February 2011


STRANGE FRUIT. On this last day of Black History Month, it is important to face the fact that racism is still with us. During my lifetime, American society has gone from public lynchings to the civil rights movement to the election of our first black President, and yet no one can reasonably claim that blacks in America endure no discrimination or prejudice, or that blacks enjoy equal economic and social status with whites. Ours is an inherently racist society -- blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans have felt the oppressive and sometimes fatal sting of bigotry. How ironic, then, that white Americans are already a numerical minority in some cities and a few states, and will be a minority nationally before too long. It's about damn time.

Strange Fruit is a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, possibly after having seen Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana (see image above). The poem was set to music, and you can hear Billie Holiday's sublime rendition here.

Clearly discrimination and racial violence are not limited to the American South. Nor are they limited to the past. Mike Sager notes in the introduction to The Someone You're Not that "Our packed prisons are starting to disgorge hundreds of mostly African-American men who, over the past few decades, were wrongly convicted of violent crimes. This is what it's like to spend nearly thirty years in prison for something you didn't do. This is what it's like to spend nearly thirty years as someone you aren't. And for Ray Towler, this is what it's like to be free." Ray Towler was 24 when, in 1981, he was arrested, tried and convicted for child molestation -- a crime he did not commit. He lost a huge chunk of his life appealing, writing letters, talking to anyone who would listen, trying to tell his story. Even though wrongfully convicted, Towler was a model prisoner -- taking classes, staying in shape, never getting into trouble. It was only after science caught up with society that DNA evidence proved Towler had been innocent all along.

Sager's description of Towler's life is harrowing, and redemptive. It is a cautionary tale for all of us who make assumptions based on the color of someone's skin.

SEA RISE. One segment on a recent PBS Need to Know episode presented a stunning visual image of the effects of climate change -- not as something abstract to be debated, but as something that is already happening, and accelerating. William Brangman notes in his introduction to the video that "In any debate over federal funding priorities, the underlying argument is over policy. For example, defunding Planned Parenthood is a way to further limit abortion. If you defund environmental legislation, you've effectively crippled the government's response to climate change. And that's what's going on in the Republican-controlled House. The Republican majority is seeking to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, cutting the EPA's budget by $3 billion, and they've proposed defunding the White House's Office of Energy and Climate Policy.

"Many of these lawmakers do not believe climate change is endangering our future, if they believe in climate change at all. But for those who want proof that sea levels are rising as the planet warms, they need look no further than Norfolk, Virginia."

Here is a link to the eleven and a half minute segment. Guaranteed, when you watch an American coastal city already being inundated by the ocean, it will get your attention. And this is only the beginning. This should be required viewing for every politician, every citizen, who doubts that climate change, global warming, and the rise in sea level is already upon us. Mean sea level has risen 1.8 mm per year over the past century, and the rise has accelerated to 2.9-3.4 mm per year since 1993. That may not sound like much, until you consider that 2.54 mm equals one inch. So if sea level is rising one inch per year, that's one foot every twelve years, and the pace is picking up as global warming intentifies. Here is a very useful global map -- you can click on the tabs across the top or simply click-and-drag to position the map to the location of your choice. You can then select from a range of sea level rises, to see how much land would become submerged.

During the next century or two, we face the imminent flooding of many major cities around the globe. Just imagine not only Norfolk, but New York City (see image above, click to enlarge), San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Saigon, Venice, all of Bangladesh .... under water. Do you still want to continue spewing carbon dioxide into the air, using fossil fuels, avoiding pushing for alternative energy sources? Are your feet wet yet?

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