Apr 27, 2011

It's 'cause he's black.

There's no longer any doubt. The reason people oppose Obama on such unreasonable grounds is his race. He's black, and people just can't wrap their minds around a black man being the president of the United States.

Those screams you hear are my Facebook friends from the South, where I spent most of my adult life. They aren't reading this sentence, as they just switched to Facebook to defriend me. Whatev. For those of you willing to read on, here's what makes me certain:

When I was earning a master's degree in communication, I had to write a paper about framing, priming and schema. These are topics in mass comm studies about the relationship between media presentation of stories and our interpretation of them.

While doing research for the paper, I ran across a 2008 study in the journal Political Psychology by Dr. Kimberly Gross of George Washington University on the effects of media framing on emotion and public opinion (you can read it here if you wish).

The study conducted an experiment. One group of students received a packet of materials about mandatory minimum sentencing that included an initial 550-word article about a "single, white mother in her 20s" sentenced to a 25-year, no-parole, mandatory minimum sentence for conspiring to assist her abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend in his cocaine trade.

A second group received a packet identical to the first with one exception: The initial article described the woman in the story as a "single, black mother in her 20s."

One word out of thousands. Only the initial article in each packet referred to race and only in the one sentence.

The result?

Students in the first group felt sympathy for the white woman. Because her circumstances were so harsh, they felt she was treated unjustly. So much so that their opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing significantly increased.

Students in the second group felt no sympathy for the black woman. She was responsible for her circumstances, so justice was served. Their views on mandatory minimum sentencing remained unchanged.

Wow. This study was published in 2008, not 1958. And these were college students — hardly a group of ultra-right crypto-racists. Clearly, some storyline way, way deep in our mental "schema" — to use the positivist parlance of quantitative communication studies — tells us that blacks get what they deserve. And they don't deserve a break.

Enter the birthers. Obama doesn't deserve one jot or tittle of trust. Born in Hawaii? Prove it. Released your birth certificate? Probably a fake. Your social security number? It's a problem. You went to Harvard? You didn't deserve it. You get no break from us, buster. You're black.

Rings true to me, unfortunately. And you?

Apr 26, 2011

Taxpayers vs. public workers — a bogus conflict.

Sometimes a storyline is communicated by a single word. Like taxpayers — a word that Governor Walker and other Republicans seem especially fond of lately.

"[Protesters'] voices cannot drown out the voices of the countless taxpayers who want us to balance our budgets," wrote Gov. Walker in the Wall Street Journal (emphasis mine, here and throughout).

"The system is broken. It costs taxpayers serious money," he said in his Feb. 22 TV address — the so-called fireside chat.

Also from that address: "As more and more protesters come in from Nevada, Chicago and elsewhere, I am not going to allow their voices to overwhelm the voices of the millions of taxpayers from across the state who think we're doing the right thing."

Embedded in Walker's remarks is a narrative of sector conflict. Private and public sectors are against each other, and the private needs protection.

The private sector produces, this story goes. It's made up of heroic entrepreneurs, who create jobs and drive the economy forward. It's independent from the public sector. It's the real world, the sphere where free people freely take the risks that advance progress and enhance the quality of life. It comes first.

In contrast, the public sector doesn't produce. It doesn't create a single job. It exists solely to serve the private sector and is therefore secondary, even subservient.

But public-sector unions have thrown the relationship out of whack, the story continues. Through collective bargaining, they've wielded power not befitting their position, securing bloated benefits and inordinate job security for public workers. So now it's time to protect taxpayers and put public servants back in their rightful place.

Ugh. Though frequently referenced by today's Republican leaders, this sector-conflict storyline is totally bogus. The truth is that the two sectors are equally essential, mutually dependent and beautifully complementary when allowed to be so.

The public sector provides the context enabling private action to take place. Without the public sector, there would be no consumers sufficiently educated to read about or pay for the private sectors' goods and services. No courts to adjudicate contract disputes. No laws or law enforcers to ensure commercial transport by land, sea, or air. No firefighters to save commercial buildings and equipment. No environmental protections to ensure safe drinking water and clean air. No military force to protect our borders and way of life from invaders.

Without those things, the private sector as we know it would not, could not exist. The impulse to succeed, to compete, to win would be unchecked by rules ensuring fairness and mitigating against harm.

Such a world exists. And not just in the fantasies of Ayn Rand and her current influential followers. You can watch it nightly on NatGeo. It's the world of the animal kingdom, where only the strongest and luckiest win, and it's winner take all. The jungle, the Serengeti and the deep blue sea are free from bureaucrats and their pesky rules.

I prefer civilization. And that's what the public sector provides. Public workers depend on taxpayers as much as taxpayers depend on public workers. No more, no less.

Away with this bogus conflict! We in both sectors are in this drama together, playing different but equal roles in the struggle to create the best world and live the best lives we can.

Rings true to me. And you?