Purpose and Overview
This document lays out an experimental strategy for public officials to maximize the chance that the health care town halls embody at least a minimal level of order and civility. The core idea is to provide a structure that calls upon a basic sense of order, but also effectively responses to the reality that many people who attend the meetings are motivated by a chance to vent frustrations about the current health care plan.
•Many people come to the town halls with the expectation they will not be heard. It is also the case that some of them intend to shut down discussion by others under the claim that they are not being heard.
•Now that activists groups have mobilized, many people come to the town halls with their positions staked out, and are merely using the “Questions Period” to challenge representatives on their positions.
•Some people come to the town halls not having a position, and actually want to ask questions.
•Most adults understand that people can come to meetings with different purposes.
•Most over the age of four understand the concept of taking turns.
Establishing Tone and Structure for the Town Hall
The representative should acknowledge the diverse views and meeting purposes at the beginning of the meeting. Suggested language:
•I know that many people come to these meetings with their minds made up about health care reform and want to tell me, their elected representative, about their opinion. That is an important and legitimate purpose of these meetings.
•Others are not sure how they feel about health reform, and came here to ask me questions about my position so they can figure out how they feel. That is also a legitimate purpose of these meetings.
•My intention is to run this meeting in a way that, as much as possible, responds to these different purposes. So first, I am going to find out how many people came here tonight pretty much knowing they are opposed the current plan being discussed, how many people came here pretty much knowing they support the current plan, and how many are still forming their opinion.
•Let’s do a show of hands, I will have my assistants count how many are in each group. (Have the assistant write the number down on a publicly visible piece of easel paper)
•Here is what I want to do: For the first XX minutes, I want to hear questions/comments from folks who oppose my position on health care. I will try to keep my answers as brief as possible, so I can address as many people from this group as possible. (Potential additional option to add: If I don’t get to your question/comment in the first round, you can write down your comment and my staff will bring all of those comments forward so I can potentially get to them later.)
•Then I will take XX minutes to take questions/comments from folks who think they support my position on health care. I will respond to comments if people want, and again will be as brief as possible in order to get to more people from this group. (Additional option: Again, folks who have comments I have not gotten to should write them down.)
•Finally, I will take XX minutes to take questions/comments from folks who are unsure where they are.
•There will still be time left after that, and I will try to allocate the remaining time in rough proportion to number of people in each group.
•I would also add that the more time we spend shouting and chanting, the less time we have for real debate and dialogue about the issues.
Additional Suggestions and Possible Modifications
Have a staff person write down the core concerns of each comment on large piece of easel paper.
Tape these notes in a public place that is visible to all. Separate the comments/concerns of the different groups on separate sets of visible notes.
One option is to handle the comments/questions “round robin” style by alternating between the three groups. This may be valuable during after the initial part of the meeting, which is designed to let the crowds on each side blow off steam. Going to round robin format early is likely to cause frustration and disruption.
It may be important to propose a minimal set of ground rules. These rules should be written down in advance on a large sheet of paper and prominently displayed.
•Each person is allowed two minutes for their question, and 30 seconds for a follow up question. Everyone here deserves respect, even if we have contempt for their opinion.
•We will let people finish their comment and not shout them down, even if what they say is factually wrong or we disagree with it.
•The representative will take no more than 3 minutes to address each comment/question.
•Remember that no matter where we are on this issue, our children are learning from us about how we handle disagreements with each other.
Quotations for Signage
It may be useful to post some quotations about free speech in prominent places in the room and in the entrance ways to the room. Some examples that might be helpful:
“Free speech carries with it some freedom to listen.” Supreme Court Justice Warren E. Burger
“Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” [Colossians 4:6]
“There is nothing wrong with America that faith, love of freedom, intelligence, and energy of her citizens cannot cure.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower
“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.” - President John Fitzgerald Kennedy
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” —Voltaire
"We have nothing to fear from the demoralizing reasonings of some, if others are left free to demonstrate their errors. These are safer correctives than the conscience of a judge." – Thomas Jefferson
To: Michael Steele, Chairman Republican Party
From: The RaceDoctor
Date: February 19, 2009
Re: Let’s Keep it Real, Bruh
I guess the Republican Party was listening. Barely a few weeks after my blog entry about the Republican Party being too white, the GOP done gone an elected you, a black man as chairman of the party. And not just any black man! Brotha Steele, you are so hep, so cool, so “down”, that even though you look like a cuddly balding uncle, you are so mighty conversant in the current generation’s lingo. You labeled the Obama stimulus package “bling bling”; you said that you were going to give the Grand Old Party “hip-hop makeover”; you even promised an “off the hook” public relations offensive to urban/suburban America. Dude, you are so, so dang cool. Forget Bobby Jindal! I think you should deliver the Republican response to Obama’s joint address, and do so by spittin’ some freestyle. That would really be truly fa-shizzle, my nizzle!
I don’t know if you caught my blog entry about the challenge to the Repubs, so I will quickly summarize. The core message is that the disconnect with blacks (and browns too) is not so much about policies, it’s about worldview. Particularly about racism. As long as the Republican party’s knee jerk reaction is to deny the existence of past and present racism as forces that have real consequences – and then to so overemphasize notions of “responsibility” as to obliterate other equally true realties – the party will NEVER gain any significant traction with black folks and other folks with a normal racial consciousness.
Mike, my dawg, a few times in the past – not usually though - I have seen you demonstrate a willingness to inhabit the reality of the bases of historic and contemporary black grievance. Sometimes, I have seen you willing to stand in that space for just long enough to make me believe you are not in complete denial. Now you don’t like staying to linger in anger very long, since you appear to shares the common Republican world view that that many black folks and other left-leaning people like to lounge or even pitch their tents in Camp Greivance and never leave. But if you are trying to foster better dialogue, the best way to get people to move forward is to acknowledge that those grievances are based in reality, not simply a misreading of history driven by folks’ inherent laziness. On occasion in public settings I have seen, you have done that. Your job, son, is to teach your party how to do this.
So yo Mike, listen up. Maybe conducting your lessons to your fellew Repubs in a rap style is the best way make them think you have street cred. But when it’s time to come back to black folks to unveil his transformed party, your best strategy for, as they say, keepin’ it real, my brotha, might be to stick to the standard English that helped you get to where you are. By the way, using standard English seemed to work well enough to get our peeps to fall in line behind the black guy that leads the other party.
Last week, I was in quaint and friendly Whitefish, Montana, a small town that was full of advertisements all over town for a local January 20th Inauguration event. The celebration was to combine singing, poetry, reflections of some town leaders. The advertisement featured an image that melded Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Above MLK was “I have a dream, and below, Obama was “Someday a Change is Gonna Come.” My first reaction was, “I can’t believe they confused Barack Obama with Sam Cooke!" But after my amusement wore off, I was moved by the genuine excitement for turning a racial corner in a town where I only saw 5 black people in an entire week.
As I look at the formats of events from Whitefish (which I think should be renamed “White People”, but I digress) to my home in Washington, I cannot help by notice that we are America is commemorating this unique milestone in largely the same way we celebrate other events: we will have public events focused on performances of many types where we can all sit back and observe polished performances. It is great that people even in overwhelmingly white parts of the country are consciously linking the quadrennial celebration to national pride on turning an important milestone in the 400 year project toward racial equality. But I think we are missing a great opportunity to advance the often vaunted “national conversation on race”. Here we finally have a collective racial incident that is not something to be lamented. Can’t we do better than just watch performances?
If we really want to fully leverage this moment, we need to create mobilize ourselves to actually engage in other in real conversation, not just watch artists and intellectuals perform. We need to mobilize ourselves to authentically engage each other, not merely to attend celebrations where the vast majority watch other folks talk, instead of engaging each other across the lines that have divided Americans since the nation was founded.
Of course, there are a lot more people who think a “national conversation” is needed than who want to roll up their sleeves and get involved in it. All across the country, there are dialogue facilitators like me who are skilled in helping people have important but difficult conversations across lines of difficulty. Why are churches, civic groups, media outlets, businesses, and governments not mobilizing these folks and creating thousands or tens of thousands of settings for real conversation between regular folks. I love poetry and singing too, but we are unlikely to really advance to racial ball very far if our only engagement with each other is smiling in the lobby at each other before we head back to our separate neighborhoods.
If we were to really make an effort to engage each other, we would need to have a discussion that was designed truly build upon on shared pride and produce new connectedness and mutual insight. How might we do that?
First, we have to talk about how race and racism have affected us personally, to openly discuss the story we have told ourselves about it, and examine how this story needs to be adjusted. Racially liberal people – by this I mean primarily blacks, other folks of color, and who tend to think about racism a lot - are going to have to wrestle honestly with the a obvious and hard to acknowledge fact: White folks are not only a lot less racist than used to be, they are less racist than we thought they were on November 3. I have not talked to one black person who truly thought that regardless of the polling data that something - The Bradley Effect, an assassination, or something else from The Man’s Infinitely large Trick Bag - would emerge to prevent Obama’s election.
Given that Barack got more white votes than any recent democrat (still less than 50 percent, we must all note), and that he will take that oath of office, black folks and other racial liberals need to update our notion of what racism is and how it functions. For a long time, the fact that the nation would never elect one of us to lead it served the as important reminder about the many contradictions of this nation. It was a sign of some of the hypocrisy embedded in this nation, for all its admirable ideals. We just knew that no matter how lofty the national ideals were, there was so much prejudice in the nation’s people that there was still much racial work to be done. We now must wrestle with how Obama’s election changes are narrative about what the nation is, and how white folks think about us.
A second major part of this discussion would be more challenging for racial conservatives. Put simply, we need to talk about what the election doesn’t mean. The Obama’s election does not and will not on its own alter the numerous racial disparities that show America is far from a place where racism has no impact on how well groups do. (Examples abound: average black wealth one 10th that of average white wealth; numerous experiments consistently show that minority housing applicants are more likely than not to face discrimination when looking for housing; black, Latino, and native American are all poverty rates approximately 3 times that of whites.) To really wrestle with realities like these would likely be more challenging for racial conservatives, who tend to see group disparities as being the fault of the groups, not the our collective systems.
While the election may prove that anybody can make it, we need to have a conversation about how to move toward a society where everybody can make it. Seems an appropriate topic at a time of national “economic reset,” but still a difficult one.
The third and final major theme of our discussion concerns the way that issues of race and racism have affected relationships between people and groups. Apart from the disparities, we still live remarkably divided society in every sphere except the workplace – in our neighborhoods, churches, clubs, even our freely chosen friendship circles. When are we going to start dealing with that?
Maybe this can’t ever be really addressed. Certainly, one thing the current moment could allow us to look at is the way that issues of race and racism have affected relationships between people from different groups. Can engaging each other authentically around this historic moment lead to diminishing the gaps in trust – or even just contact – between groups? Potentially yes, if we really do have a national conversation about how issues of race have affected. The Obama campaign produced what one might call a truly multi-racial coalition around change. But that was a short term coalition focused on the election. Of course, a real coalition is more than millions of people from different groups voting for the same person; a real coalition involves people and groups committing a shared goal and to improving their relationships with each other. My fear is that we will all be so busy celebrating – perhaps in racially separate events save for the actual swearing in – that we won’t turn our attention to the impediments within ourselves, our institutions, and our social structures that keep our relationships distant and strained.
Obama has promised to more deeply engage the American public, unless we find room to grapple with the impediments to contact and trust that have kept us apart for a long time, such efforts are likely to have limited effectiveness.
Having a national conversation about any of this means not leaving this to exchanges by experts on television. We can have 10 times the number of expert panels probing these issues as we can muster and create a new C-SPAN network just to cover these events, but until our local institutions create settings where each of us are actually engaged in real conversations with other people who look different than we do, the fullness of this opportunity to advance the cause of racial reconciliation will not be leveraged.
But I guess having a decent party around racial progress isn’t the worse thing in the world. Can we do better? I would like to say “yes, we can,” but we will see.
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) - To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together
Today I will get right to the point.
To put it bluntly, the Republican Party is too white.
And we should all commit ourselves to doing something about it.
All those who care about the health of American Democracy, black, white, or otherwise, need to make it part of their collective work and responsibility to fix this problem.
Until recently, the problem might have been better phrased as the party is too non-black. But with That [Black] One getting 67% of the Hispanic vote and many of those folks are young first time voters whose initial party affiliations have historically proved rather sticky over lifetimes – we are further down the road toward there being a white (or perhaps whiteness) party, and another party for everyone else.
That is not good for democracy. And it’s not good for people of color. How long have black folks been complaining about being taken for granted by the Democratic party? A few more elections like this last one, and Latinos will be singing the same sad song.
When I say that black and other folks of color need to take responsibility for improving the Republican party, I am not just talking about the give or take 10 percent of us who think Clarence Thomas and Alan Keyes and their racism-minimizing selves are paragons of minority leadership. I am talking about mainstream folks of color, the kind who believe that personal and institutional racism are real forces in folks’ lives (even if sometimes exaggerated in our lesser moments) and who get irritated if not angry at the all too common habit of other folks pretending to us and themselves that those problems are all behind us now. I am talking about the folks who see a connection between the history of slavery and Jim Crow and the fact that black folks are three times as likely to be poor as whites and have on average one tenth the wealth they do.
It is these middle of the road minority folks who will be needed to help the Republican party figure out how to articulate an anti-racist conservatism, one that does not deny or minimize the way that issues of race have and continue to shape the lives of both black and non-black Americans. As long as these types of people of color are not actively engaging Republican thought leaders and regular folks because we find their views and sensibilities on race so irritating, the party will never evolve.
And likely not reclaim the success it has had when the country was whiter. And remember, it’s only getting less so. (The cross-over “whites as minority” point was recently revised down to 2042).
I recently saw a TV talk fest where conservatives were talking about this problem. It was refreshing to see white and black republicans criticizing the decision of the candidates last spring to not accept Tavis Smiley's invitation to a debate. (I think one of them actually called the decision “stupid”).
What was most striking was what they said were the solutions. “School choice” was the policy area they most emphasized. What was remarkable to me was that they missed to facts that are obvious to me. First, with black poverty rates running at 3 times white rates, an anti-poverty agenda would strike me as more galvanizing of black votes than any other policy agenda.
But fundamentally, the disconnect with the Republican Party is not about policy areas. It’s about a deep disconnect of worldview, and secondarily, tone. The disconnect is a reflection of at least 50 years of the party telling black folks that they are wrong in seeing racism is a real, live, actual problem that holds them back. Let’s remember, many republicans thought the civil rights legislation was “moving too fast.” And even if you look past Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan beginning his Presidential Campaign in Philadelphia Georgia, Willie Horton ads, and the like, the fact is the Republicans reflexive response to the idea that racism is real is always to point out the possibility that it can be overstated. Unless the GOP figures out a way to talk about the realities of racism in a way that has resonance with mainstream non-dyed in the wool conservative black (and other) folks, they will always feel like a largely semi-hostile mob that at a minimum, are living in an alternative reality opposed to me and everyone I know.
And candidates for the chairmanship of the RNC distributing songs titled “Barack, The Magic Negro” doesn’t help matters. (Even if a few of us guiltily find it a kinda funny insult to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson).
So my proposed solution is to create settings where Republicans thought leaders and other folks can collaboratively try to craft what might be called an anti-racist conservatism. I think it’s possible to think about racism as real historical and contemporary forces and still lean toward market forces as the primary strategy for making opportunities equitable. But engaging this topic is not easy, and will need to include black folks who are not paid conservative pundits.
The conservative movement has direct self-interest driving it towards doing something about the overwhelming nature of the Republican party. But I think that progressive folks (like the ones reading these words) need to actively help create an updated, anti-racist conservatism that is in fact, still conservative, but that some mainstream folks of color might sometimes find appealing.
Let me know when y’all are ready to have this conversation. I think I know a facilitator who can help.
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) - To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves
At first blush, this most fun to pronounce Kwanza theme sounds not only great, but so, dare I say, so American. I/we do whatever we want; no one determines our destiny but us! In the land of the free, who could be against that?
What you scratch the surface though, this day seems most at odds with the zeitgeist of both contemporary black America, and the nation as a whole.
Let’s start with small but significant concession to the aptness of the concept: certainly, Barack (or That [Black] One, as McCain called him) has a rise to the Presidency represents a rise to prominence like few others in Presidential history. His rise to the verge of the Presidency was not assisted by family connections (like Kennedy), a celebrity career (like Reagan), a long history of collecting favors at the national level (like LBJ), or being plucked from the back bench in an emergency (like Ford). Certainly, TBO benefitted from some fortuitous circumstances (as well as some savvy and hardball decision making) to rise to prominence statewide, but essentially his story is one of a person willing themselves to success through a great deal of moxie, to use a really old-timey word.
And as I have said on the radio, one challenge that his rise creates for black folks is readjusting our definition of how institutional racism functions, given that we can no longer say “The nation would never elect a black president.” (Shoot, I still know some black folks who are waiting to The Man to do something to keep TBO out of office.) It is time that we update our narrative, particularly the one that we tell the next generation.
As the Temptations said about Cloud 9, “You can be what you want to be.” Self-determination, indeed.
All this I will concede, but it seems that the essence of Kujichagulia is about group self-determination. It’s about the independence and agency of a group of people to define their own goals and to achieve them. And here is where the concept seems somewhat out of step with today.
For Black Folks, TBO’s election is about the way that our tremendous efforts at registering voters and turning them out combined with efforts in other communities to create an historic result. It’s all about the coalitions, baby. And it’s not just me saying that.
I recently took the electronic keypads I love to use in speeches to a social event with some prominent black men, and persuaded the organizers to let me engage a group of people around some impromptu questions; one of the questions was about the primary lesson of the election. By a significant margin, the group said the primary lesson was the importance of multi-racial coalitions.
And with all this talk of a post-racial America (a bogus but common concept, I am afraid), black folks doin’ it for themselves does not seem the current focus.
I am certainly not saying that we have ushered in a permanent ere of cooperation across racial lines. I am saying though that this historical moment seems to fundamentally not about black folks gathering in their own private corner and sorting out what they want, separate from everyone else.
The Self Determination ethos seems noticeably off at the national level as well. One could easily argue that the reason that folks around the world were jubilant on November 5 is because we are ushering out the president who has most fetishized American Self-Determination. As Bush 43 told us over and over, the US was going to do what it wanted, regardless of what others thought.
TBO represents a return to a more mindset more about America cooperating with other folks. In Barack’s own words on the Fareed Zakaria GPS show, he said his foreign policy will be more like the approach of Bush 41.
Even at home, with an economic collapse largely created by unfettered greed, government officials siding with workers doing sit ins to collect back pay, and calls for controls on CEO pay in exchange for government bailouts, there is a new wind blowing.
It could be said that “The era of Big Selfishness” is over. Seems fitting that this new time might be brought in by the President who is identified with a group whose history of oppression has meant they have always had to think about welfare of the group.
So with Barack saying “it's all about the coalitions, baby,” the idea of self-determination seems a lot less resonant than the other Kwanza themes.
So with all apologies to Mr. Karenga (inventor of Kwanza), the concept of self-determination seems a little out of step these days.
But I still love saying Kujichagulia.
Even more fun is the private joke to myself when teaching little kids to say it by sounding out “coochie-chocolate-Leah”.
Who would be against that?