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Tom Finneran: The Minefields of Race

Friday, March 28, 2014


Our mothers told us not to play in traffic. Why then run out into traffic to go play in a minefield, particularly the minefield of race? I must be nuts. Six years into President Barack Obama’s administration, the issues of race in America are as ugly and as volatile as ever.

Two episodes have caught my attention. One, a recent speech by Paul Ryan, and the other, continuing reports about astonishingly high black unemployment.

Episode one – You remember Paul Ryan. He’s the Republican Congressman from Wisconsin, an influential budget writer in the Congress and Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate in 2012... he’s an interesting guy, a guy I can listen to and learn from.

In a recent speech he raised the high-voltage subject matter of the “inner city” and its “culture”. He spoke of inter-generational dependency, illegitimacy, missing fathers, and high school dropouts, raising the issue of what I call permanent poverty. Poor Congressman Ryan. The reaction to his remarks, particularly from liberal Democrats, would make one think that he was riding shotgun with the lynchmen of the Klan.

He even seems to have provoked America’s greatest fraud, the repellent Al Sharpton, who questioned Congressman Ryan’s right to speak about the rights and responsibilities of black Americans. Can you imagine getting lectured by Al Sharpton about anything under the sun? He is an acute embarrassment and an example of an America gone off the rails.
But forget Sharpton. Ryan’s other critics are accusing him of outright racism, playing to white bigots while attacking the urban poor. Talk about missing the elephant in the room.

I find it ironic that when Barack Obama speaks about illegitimacy rates in the inner city, missing fathers, high school dropouts, and other inner city pathologies, he is widely praised. As he should be. These are huge and growing patterns of social dysfunction and they should not be swept under the rug. They must be thought about and talked about from the bully pulpits of America.

Why then the assault and accusation of racism upon Congressman Ryan for saying the same thing as President Obama? Is it because he is white? A Republican? From the rural Mid-West? Why are these subjects verboten, off-limits to all but a chosen few? Do Congressman Ryan’s critics want no one but themselves allowed to think or speak of the problems of persistent poverty? Do they claim to have solutions to the grim reality of thirty-year old grandmothers with no education, no skills, no job, and no father figure in their households?

Both Congressman Ryan and President Obama deserve praise for raising these issues. Given his own mixed race and therefore heightened credibility, the critical observations of “inner city culture” are perhaps more meaningful when they come from the President. Nonetheless, Congressional Republicans should not be scorned for offering ideas about solving persistent problems which grow worse with each passing day. Is there nothing to be gained by the addition of another heart and soul to the urgently needed debate?

There was a compelling statistic which floated out of the presidential primary debates of 2012 and which I believe has been cited by President Obama himself. The statistic indicates that if a young person a) finishes school, b) lands a job, and c) waits to get married before having any children, then there is negligible chance that that person will end up poor. On the other hand if a young person drops out of school, can’t or won’t get a job, or has babies before marriage, their chances of ending up poor are sky high. Don’t blame Paul Ryan for looking at hard facts and wondering whether America will step up to the carnage in its midst. His voice and his ideas should be welcomed.

Episode two involves the political war over immigration and the coalition of Republicans and Democrats who seek enhanced and accelerated immigration. I cannot imagine how this debate develops in isolation from the nightmare of black unemployment. Unless and until our immigration laws are strikingly changed to favor the educated, the skilled, and the entrepreneurial, then enhanced immigration will only worsen the job market for unemployed minorities. Why would we want to expand the supply of low-skilled labor when there are millions of unemployed black Americans who desperately need work?
How is it that the anxieties and desperation of unemployed American citizens are given such short shrift while we exalt to the point of absurdity the attributes of low-skilled immigrants? There is a disconnect here that is amazing. The Congressional Black Caucus should be all over this issue, speaking up for a neglected constituency of Americans who simply want and need a fair shot at economic opportunity.

Those stirring words chiseled on the Statue of Liberty can move anyone to tears. But the “tired, poor, and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” of today are our very own American neighbors. Who will speak for them?


Related Slideshow: 16 Questions for President Obama

With the announcement that President Barack Obama will be giving the commencement address at Worcester Technical High School's graduation in June, GoLocal asked elected officials and community leaders in Worcester if they had the opportunity to ask the President one question -- what would it be, and why?  

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Tim Murray

"Mr. President, you're here to highlight a successful vocational tech high school -- what can you do as President to lead to more voc-tech opportunities for students across the country, and help bring the resources to help make that happen?"

Why:  "As Lieutenant Governor, I focused on these issues.  Oftentimes, vocational schools are overlooked.  I visited all 64 of the schools, and was able to convince the Governor to reestablish an Associate Commissioner position for vocational tech and workforce development.  It's an important issue to me."
Tim Murray, Greater Worcester Chamber of Commerce President
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Tom Finneran

"Mr. President, Democratic and Republican Senators and Congressman describe you as aloof and dis-engaged, more interested in "The View" than in their views. Are you aloof and disengaged?

Why: "The reason for the question is to challenge the President to become more engaged with the legislative branch. If he did so, he could forestall his inevitable slide toward lame-duck status."

Tom Finneran, Former Massachusetts Speaker of the House of Representatives 

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Jim McGovern

“I would ask the President how we can work as a community and a nation to replicate the success of Worcester Technical High School across our region, our state, and the country."

Congressman Jim McGovern

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Tim McGourthy

“What is the role of the Federal government in building an educated citizenry?” 

Why: "As states and school districts debate the adoption of national standards in K-12 education, the responsibilities, resources, and powers of the Federal government in the field of education have been challenged.  While restricted from direct involvement in student curriculum since the 1960s, the Federal government includes a U.S. Department of Education and plays a critical role in coordinating and funding educational policy.  In the President of the United States’ view, what are, and what should be, the limits of Federal jurisdiction in public education?"

Tim McGourthy, Greater Worcester Research Bureau Executive Director

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Chris Pinto

"Ask him why he is allowing the EPA to destroy the upper blackstone economy with ridiculous fines. He should reign them in, as they are behaving like jackbooted thugs."

Chris Pinto, Worcester Republican City Committee

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Tony Economou

"I don't have an ask, it's more of a statement, and it goes towards creating policy for our public schools.  If the President is asking cities and states having to do whatever to conform to education standards, see how it will be funded first, then create policy.  I would broach that respectfully."

Tony Economou, Worcester City Councilor

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Morris Bergman

"I would ask the President why there is no effort being made to look into the skyrocketing cost of private colleges and the lack of commensurate financial aid, particularly for the middle class."

Morris Bergman, Worcester City Councilor

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Gary Rosen

"What actions can the President take to restore the reputation and respect that the USA once commanded across the world?"

Gary Rosen, Worcester City Councilor

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Kate Toomey

"I would ask why he isn't doing more to create jobs."

Kate Toomey, Worcester City Councilor

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Michael Graham

“Dear Mr. President, which of your foreign policy successes makes you most proud?”

Why: "Do you really have to ask?"

Michael Graham, New England Talk Network

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John Giangregorio

"I would ask what he's doing about the economy, and jobs, especially for our inner city youth."

Why: "I don't think the unemployment numbers are a true reflection of what's going on.  There's not a lot of opportunity.  People are giving up."

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Paul Giorgio

"I would ask him the same question I asked President Clinton, which is -- can you change the height and weight charts so that I can be "thin"?

Why:  "Everyone would be asking super serious questions, I'm sure."  

Paul Giorgio, President of Pagio, Inc. 

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Carol Claros

"I would want to ask him why is he supporting Common Core and National standards, doesn't he think the local school boards know whats best for our children and their schools?"

Why:  "As a single mom whose daughter is enrolled in WPS, I am very concerned about common core and the deviation from local control into federal hands."

Carol Claros, Nurse, Former Republican Candidate for State Representative

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Jordan Berg Powers

"Why are your pushing the same failed education policies of the Bush Administration with a focus on privatization and meaningless bubble tests instead of focusing on the skills that will enable our kids to create their job of the future?"

Why: "Worcester Tech is both the best and worst parts of our education system. It shows that providing quality education is not rocket science, schools need to be well resourced, they need to be fun, relevant to what the kids themselves believe will be their future plans.  And Worcester Tech is an elitist institution that fails the promise of universal quality public education that should be available to all."

Jordan Berg Powers, Worcester activist

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David Le Boeuf

"After you leave the White House, what is the primary issue that you will continue to advocate for?""

David Le Boeuf, Initiative for Engaged Citizenship, Democratic State Committee member

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Victoria Waterman

The Girls' Inc CEO, one of GoLocal's "14 to Watch in 2014," opted to let girls in the program ask their own quetions instead.  Here is what Waterman reported for what they wanted to know:

Why is the United States in so much debt?

Do you ever wake up scared that something will happen to your family because you’re the President of the USA?

Why are you sending troops across the sea if it has nothing to do with us or is going to affect our country?

Why are people in debt and what will you do to help them?

What is your life like? Is it fun? Is it tiring?

Is being a president stressful?

Who inspired you to be what you are now?

What inspired you to be the president of the United States?

What middle school did you go to?

What do you like to do in the White House?

How do you sleep at night with everything you have to worry about?

Why did you run for President?

Do you like classical music?

Who do you want your pastry chef to be?

Can you convince my mom to give me an Ipod or a Pandora bracelet?


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