Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Health care reform and PR challenges

It does not seem as though there will be much progress on the healthcare reform before the fall. I am not going to enter into the “Washington insider” part of the story, how the Administration has worked with moderate Democrats and with Republicans, and what needs to happen for that reform bill to pass – I don’t know much about this. The thing that has struck me so far is how little we in the public know about what this reform will consist of in detail. I have heard about a government-managed insurance option that would compete with the private insurance solutions. I have heard about incentives that would hopefully encourage people to have a healthier lifestyle, in exchange for lower premiums – things here and there but really not a clear or thorough picture of what the new system would entail.

The Obama Administration that has done very few communication faux-pas so far has surprised me here in its failure to explain simply to the general public what they have in mind. Maybe I missed it but I went on the New York Times and Boston Globe web sites and did not find any simple and accessible articles presenting the reform in detail.

That lack of clarity makes it easier for opponents of the reform to take any one bit of it that they don’t like and make a huge deal out of it. Case in point is the argument that supposedly with the new system the public won’t be able to make decisions regarding their care any longer and everything will be decided by the government. I understand that this could not be farther from the truth – but the lack of details and transparency about the Obama Administration’s intentions create a fertile ground for that kind of questionable debates to happen. No wonder that the public opinion is only moderately in favor of a major healthcare system overhaul…

Gates Incident (Ctd) – Maybe I am the one who doesn’t get it…

So alright, just one more post about the Skip Gates affair. Yesterday the 911 call details of the concerned neighbor / passer-by were released and the main comment I heard in the media was that the woman who called did not specify that the two men she saw (Gates and the cab driver who helped him open his door) were black. She said, “maybe Latino for one of them, I am not sure”. Then, the comments generally went, you see, this was not a call motivated by those guys’ skin color – and thus, implicitly, what are you complaining about? Race has nothing to do with this, we live in a wonderful country…

Well, the whole thing about bias (and I speak in general, not specifically about this woman) is that it is really powerful when it gets internalized. You see black kids together and you may want to cross the street, you see two black guys getting into a house by forcing the door, it has to be suspicious - they attract your attention more than two white folks would. That is what bias is about. At some point, you don’t even realize you have a bias – it becomes part of your intuition.

I am going to share a quick anecdote that helped me understand how bias can play out even in the most mundane situations. I like walking around and exploring cities by foot. I did plenty of these walks in Boston the first few years I was back from DC and one day, I found myself in an exquisite part of Newton by the river – it was kind of a peninsula (not exactly sure how to call it). It was a narrow strip of land and there was basically one main street lined up with trees, just very nice. It was during the day – very quiet - and there was no way that as a non-resident I could go unnoticed. And I did not – I saw two or three folks, some closer than others, who were looking in my direction. I nodded and smiled and said hi when people were close enough. Two things that struck me that day: good manners matter – smiling and being polite make you much less threatening. And the very fact that I looked white and was dressed rather conservatively did not raise any eye-brows – I managed to be pretty much transparent, which is what I wanted. Good thing that I am not wearing on my face that I have an Arabic name and I am 50% North African…

Everyone has to hear black folks in this county when they talk about what it is to be black in America (and African-American in particular). A friend told me one day, being black is a 24/7 thing. You are never anonymous. Try to go to a developing country with your Western looks – you’ll see what it is to not be anonymous – the 24/7 thing… It may disturb a lot of folks when they hear what it is to be black in America today, but what everyone should do is listen and appreciate what they will hear. Maybe that is the main “learning opportunity” of this whole thing.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Skip Gates affair

It is just mind-boggling how the Skip Gates incident has escalated in the past week – since Tuesday really after it was disclosed and the DA did his best to diffuse the incident. Everyone seems to have had a point of view since then, so that of course kept fueling the debate. But this tells me two things:

1) We still have serious issues with racism in this country - the very fact that some folks reacted so strongly, complaining that the race card was being played or uttering that they could not fathom how race was an issue in the first place is evidence enough that racism is alive and well;

2) There is a silent majority (mostly white lower middle class / blue collar) – or hopefully minority from a pure number standpoint – that sort of woke up with that incident and expressed discontent and frustration with the way the police officer was being portrayed in some media outlets. This is an intuition on my part based on many comments I read on the Boston Globe web site that were frankly pretty scary. Essentially, it seems as though a lot of folks in that group feel disfranchised and resent people like Gates who they see as elitist (which he may very well be). They probably have the same resentment towards wealthy and influential white folks – and for some good reason as socio-economic disparities have dangerously widened in this country in the past 15-20 years.
But the ugly part of the story here is that above and beyond that resentment towards those who have means and power, there may be frustration also against minorities, namely Blacks and Latinos, who according to those folks have received preferential treatments for quite a while. Moreover, since it has become increasingly politically incorrect and certainly slippery to address race issues, t hose guys who would like to denounce what they see as preferential treatments are just stuck saying nothing – and only being able to express themselves when elections come.
The combination of resentment and frustration towards elites and about preferential treatments / double standards produces that hostility against the Gates, Obamas, or Patricks of the world.

Obama with his usual political shrewdness has been the first one to back down and try to have everyone come to his/her senses. Those guys – the protagonists - will have a beer at the White House – or whatever – and we won’t see any riots as no poor black man was shot and killed by police this time. But it does not mean that we as a country can look ourselves proudly in the mirror and think that we’ve done such a great job of putting racism behind us.

Back in town

I was in Europe for a while and stopped writing… Sorry!! That shows that I have not yet fully comprehended what the concept of a blog is about. Remaining silent for a number of weeks – hmmm, not the point!! I’ll try to get better at this. I’ve actually been back for over two weeks but I always seem to find things to do that take precedence over writing a blog entry –though it is not exactly as if there has not been any interesting news to comment on lately…