the racialization of the electoral college

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Today (and the past few weeks), millions are casting a ballot for President of the United States, and nearly as many will be asking one simple question: Does my vote count?

For many of us, the answer is probably, “No.” It’s not that our votes won’t be counted—in lieu of hanging chads, malfunctioning voting machines, and good old fashioned election fraud, our vote will tabulated and tallied in precincts across the country—but what we really want to know is, “Does my vote matter?”

Civics lessons across the country proudly push the mantra that every vote counts, that “one person, one vote” is the basis of a democratic society, but from New York to California, Texas to the Dakotas, nearly every state is already classified red or blue, its outcome a “foregone conclusion.” In the electoral college we seemingly have a voting process that is truly Orwellian, where some votes truly“are more equal than others.” (And I won’t even get into the issue of money in politics.)

Though he made some changes based on recent polls, a week ago Nate Silver’s 538 blog (published by the New York Times) classified only 9 states as “competitive”: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. These are the “states that matter”, and even the candidates have no qualms about focusing their time and money in the swing states; in fact, according to, of the 252 campaign visits by the presidential and vice presidential candidates since the Democratic National Convention, 251 have taken place in one of these nine states, including 72 in Ohio alone. (The lone outlier was a stop by Congressman Ryan in Michigan.)

This sense of voter disenfranchisement isn’t anything new. While the swing states shift from election to election, many have probably lived their whole lives in states considered a “sure thing” for one political party or the other and felt like they really had no say in who was elected President.

However, examining the effect of the electoral college on the impact of one’s vote in relation to a person’s race leads one to discover a hidden world of voter disenfranchisement of people of color.

One obvious examination would be to look at the racial makeup of the “competitive” states. Based on the 2010 Census, there were approximately 237 million people in the United States 18 and over (the age necessary to vote), approximately 67.2% white. But the population of the 9 competitive states is approximately 71.9% white, a difference of nearly 5%—a significant difference, especially if the race ends up being as close as many predict it will be

However, looking at only these swing states unnecessarily skews the data. This is because, of the 110 electoral votes “in play” in these states, it is predicted President Obama would need only 33 (about a third) of them. So while these are the states in which candidates are still vying for individual votes to win electoral votes, these states will not decide the president in the normal sense of “receiving the greatest number” and thus brings about some mathematical ambiguity.

The true way to see the effect of the electoral college on people of color is to look at the electoral college on a national scale. As noted, the US 18 and over population is approximately 67.2% white; however, based on state populations in relation to their electoral college weight, the electoral college votes are distributed to a population that is the equivalent of 68.1% white. And while this may not seem like a significant difference, it is equivalent to adding 6.6 million whites age 18 and over to the population.

It is not simply the electoral college that cause the voices of people of color to be diluted in elections. Because most states have some form of voting restrictions for convicted felons (a population disproportionately made up of people of color), the number of people of color eligible to vote is reduced, increasing the distribution of white voters.

Also, some ambiguity comes into play because the census counts citizens and non-citizens (green card holds, those here on visas, undocumented residents) alike, with congressional districts and electoral college votes distributed not by the number of citizens but by the population. Thus, the voices of non-citizens—many who pay taxes—are repressed, again disproportionately affecting people of color living in this country.

There is much to be done in regards to election reform in this country to create a system where every vote bears the same weight and every citizen feels they are truly heard. Such reform includes the elimination of the current electoral college structure, a system that continues to disenfranchise millions of people every four years—whether they are aware of it or not.

Visit the National Popular Vote website to see one campaign to end the electoral college.

college football playoff, now what?

Saturday 7 July 2012

It’s summertime everybody, and we all know what the means: college football! I don’t mean ACTUAL college football games, with running and hitting and scantily clad women with pompoms or anything like that – no, college football opening weekend isn’t for another 8 weeks, but just like everyone being unable to stop talking about Mad Men even when it’s on hiatus, conversations about college football seem to spring up in the heat of the summer, whether you want them to or not.

Now, to be clear, I don’t mean the gave the rest of the world calls football, the one where people actually spend most of their time kicking a ball with their feet, no, this is American football, the sport that has taken over for baseball as America’s pastime, with that weirdly shaped ball slangly called a pigskin, which, for a vegetarian like myself, is already an initial turnoff, but I digress.

And last month held big news for the college football nation. First it was the end of the saga of the Penn State Michael Jackson, AKA Jerry Sandusky, as he was convicted on 45 of 48 counts related to child sexual abuse, including 17 1st degree felonies, and will be sentenced to a minimum of 60 years in prison, effectively a life sentence for a 68-year-old man, unless something changes during the appeal phase of things.

But that wasn’t the biggest of the big news in college football this summer. No, that story really got cooking a few weeks ago as commissioners of the athletic conferences representing the biggest football schools along with the Notre Dame athletic director (because in case you weren’t aware, Catholics are just that special) all met here in Chicago to discuss the future of big time college football.

What came out of that meeting was monumental: The 11 commissioners and the honorary Catholic reached consensus agreement to have a 4-team college football playoff starting in 2014. Fans have been clamoring for a playoff for a while, especially since the dawn in 1998 of the BCS, which used a combination of human knowhow and computer programming to select two teams worthy of competing in a single game to decide the sport’s champion. As one commentator put it, a playoff would be a truly historical event for a sport that has successfully existed for a 143 years without one. Then last week, in what many consider only a formality, the NCAA presidential oversight committee approved the 4-team playoff plan, which, at least for now, is scheduled to remain in place starting in the 2014 season and continuing through the 2025 college football season.

Even if you don’t follow college football, I’m sure you know what bowl games are: those special games that used to be few and far between but now last from early December to early January with names that range from the well-known Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl to the much more tacky Chik-fil-A Bowl, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, and yes, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (not to mention my personal favorite, the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl). Last year, there were 35 such bowl games, meaning 70 of the possible 127 bowl-level schools—more than half—participated in a bowl game, including for the first time one school—UCLA—that had a losing record. Is it really much of an honor when more than half the teams, including some with more loses than wins, are able to make the post season? Let’s ask the NBA, shall we?

And while most college football fans, and sports fans, for that matter, have been calling for a college football playoff for a while now, they also love the bowl games, a highly profitable endeavor for television providers, the NCAA, and the schools that participate. So the plan for the playoff is to leave the bowl games in place but to have two different bowl games each year set aside for the semi-finals with the winners of those two games then playing a championship game in whatever stadium and city will pay the most to host the game.

As for the four teams that get to participate in the playoff, a selection committee—much like that used to create the NCAA bracket you’re all familiar with from those illegal office pools held in March every year—will decide who is worth to make the final four. Many commentators see this 4-team playoff as a first step that will likely lead to an 8- or even 16-team playoff at some point, probably even before most of you reading this have died of cancer for all the non-organic food you’ve been eating.

So while many fans are cheering in delight, I really couldn’t give a rats ass, or anyone’s ass, for that matter, because in the past few years, I’ve really stopped caring about college football—and college basketball, and most of the professional sports, too, actually. I still follow sports, though, mostly by reading, because sports, like the weather, are often one of those go-to conversational topics with family and friends and work colleagues and people I’ve just met who I still don’t know enough about for either of us to talk about anything that we actually do care about, like the over-production of meat and factory farming, for example. But I don’t want to be left out of those kinds of conversations either, so I stay up to date on the news in sports, if one really even constitutes it news, but that’s a debate for another day.

No, the reason I’ve stopped giving time to college sports was buried in one of the numerous articles written about the impending college football playoff. The line went like this: “Industry sources have indicated a four-team playoff might be worth as much as $400 million to $500 million annually.”

In case you haven’t heard, when it comes to college sports, It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby.

Last March, Turner Sports and CBS agreed to pay the NCAA $10.8 billion, with a B, to broadcast the NCAA basketball tournament for the next 14 years. The NCAA and its schools get all this money, and CBS and Turner get all the ad revenue that comes with so many people watching these young, amateur, “student athletes,” as they’re called, giving it their all to win a national championship.

And that’s where it all falls apart for me. These men and boys—and let’s be honest with ourselves here, because, like it or not, no one is packing sports bars to watch women’s sports, or even most other men’s college sports—young men and boys in their late teens and early 20s playing college football and college basketball, these big money sports, sports that generate millions and millions and millions of dollars for their universities in the form of ticket sales, merchandise sales, and television revenue, with nothing to show of it but a scholarship to take classes and have a place to live, a scholarship that some studies estimate still falls about $3500 short of the true price of attending college each year.

(Joe Nocera has written extensively on the NCAA for the NY Times, including this insightful article: Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.)

There was actually a plan for a month or so last winter to allow for a $2,000 stipend for some players, hoping to close that gap, but after over 100 college athletic directors and commissions signed letters of protest, the plan was rescinded.

It’s that gap that causes players, many who come from financially challenged families, and many who are students of color playing at schools ruled by white men, to seek out other ways to make the money they need to get by, doing things like selling gear and autographs and championship rings, all on the black market, since the NCAA has prohibited these actions in order to preserve the integrity of the students’ amateur label status. One such scandal happened just a few years ago, in 2010, where 8 students at THE Ohio State University were caught accepting $14,000 in cash and tattoos. While penalties for Ohio State included losing the ability to play in a bowl game this season, it didn’t stop Ohio State from reaping the benefits (monetary and otherwise) they received by playing in one of the most prominent bowl games during the 2010 season, the Sugar Bowl.

And while the scandal did cost Ohio State’s coach his job, the players are really the ones who are punished in this ridiculous system. The players, working in what some have called a system of indentured servitude, receive next to nothing, while everyone else higher up on the food chair is rewarded mightily. Notable details of the contract for Ohio State’s new coach, Urban Meyer, were revealed a few weeks ago and include a $700,000 base salary, $1.85 million a year for media responsibilities, S1.4 million as part of Ohio State’s contract with Nike, a $1200 monthly stipend for two cars, and access to a private jet for personal use up to 35 hours a year. This is before any employment bonuses that include $1.2 million if he stays through the end of the contract and yearly incentives based on the team’s success. In all, the coach is guaranteed at least $4 million annually, more than the combined value of the athletic scholarships for the entire football team he will be coaching.

In an age where income inequality and economic oppression are hot topics of the day, it’s important for sports fans everywhere to recognize their own place in the problem and to think twice—or four, or eight, or sixteen times—before they go supporting such an inequitable system with their time and money. And if you just love the game too much to give it up, why not check out your local youth sports leagues or even join a league of your own?. You might even save some money that you could use to help you pay down the college debt you incurred attending your exploitive alma mater in the first place.

In Defense of 64

Thursday 15 March 2012

Today’s the first day of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship! Hooray!

No, well, actually today’s not the first day. You might think it was today, because that’s when your brackets were due to the office pool manager or on the website you’ve created 5 or 10 or more brackets on. No, since 2001 there has been at least one game played prior to the Thursday start everyone is used to, when 16 games are played by 32 teams and office efficiency slumps significantly.

Thursday isn’t even the “first round” of games any more. Since last year, when the tournament expanded to 68 teams, the 4 “play-in” games (affectionately called the First Four, officially) are now the first round, with Thursday/Friday games deemed the second round and Saturday/Sunday games the third round. Apparently it’s one of those crazy tournaments where almost everyone gets a first round bye because the number of entrants was uneven, something I’d expect to see in a local horseshoe tournament, not a multi-million dollar industry like college basketball.

I am often told I am too nostalgic for the days of my youth, and seeing as there were 64 teams from 1985-2000, my formative years of sport (age 3-18), it’s understandable I would beckon those days to return again. For a 7 or 8 year stretch in the 90s, I would spend the 3 days between Sunday and Thursday meticulously measuring and drawing a 64-team bracket on a large poster board so I could keep up with the games throughout the tournament. (I’m pretty sure those old poster boards still live under the bed at my parents’ house.) The commitment faded out before the 65th team was added, but I wonder now, “What would I have done on my poster board with those extra teams?”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s really no need for all these extra teams. Every Division I men’s basketball team, except those in the Ivy League, play in a conference tournament, where they have the ability to earn–and this is the USA, after all, and we’re all about earning things–earn their way in to the tournament. Every team has the opportunity–again, a very USA, USA kind of word–the opportunity to make it. So why did they have to mess with the perfection that was the 64-team bracket?

It’s all about money and sports (a common rant of mine). More games means more money for TV stations and the NCAA. Even though the First Four games were on some TV station called truTV, it must be good for someone. And not only is there the NCAA Championship tournament, you have the NCAA NIT–this year celebrating it’s 75th anniversary– and two tournaments you’ve probably never heard of, the CBI and CIT, both created in the past 5 years. In total, 148 of the 345 Div. 1 men’s basketball teams make the “post season.” That’s 43% of all the teams. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much, though, because in the money-hungry NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), a whopping 57% of teams (70 of 122) last year found themselves playing in a bowl game (including UCLA, who finished the season 6-8). Only 2 “bowl eligible” teams didn’t find themselves in a bowl. (And UCLA had to actually get a waiver to play in their bowl game.)

We talk about corruption by money and greed of so many of our institutions these days. Sports, in many ways, are getting there for me (if not all the way there already). The public funding of sports complexes has already gotten its backlash. If you have a satellite or cable subscription, you’re already paying over $100 for sports programming, whether you watch or not. And ticket prices to live sporting events (professional and college alike) have risen astronomically, such that it’s been a few years now since I paid to see one in person.

I still filled out a bracket this year, and I visit pretty much every day, though more so because I feel it’s my duty to keep up with the news everyone is thinking and talking about. But if greed and money continue to push the sports agenda, how long will it take until that becomes the topic of conversation instead of who won last night’s game? 

(On a related note, the NY Times ran a great Room for Debate piece this week about the connection (or disconnect) of the NCAA, money, and “student” athletes. Take a look.)

education reform ain’t easy

Sunday 21 August 2011

As with everything that’s “broken,” we want a quick, easy fix.  We elect a new president and expect things to all be better in a few months, and if not, we ask, “What’s the problem?”

Often, even if it’s only a temporary fix, if you can do it fast, that’s alright.  I think this is one reason duct tape is so popular.

However, as I think some of us know and others of us are beginning to realize, a lot of the “big” problems out there won’t be changed overnight.  This is especially true about education and education inequality.

I encourage you to read a review of “Class Warfare,” an upcoming book by Steven Brill, about the prospects of education reform.  The review itself, written by Sara Mosle, does a great job of discussing Brill’s book but, more importantly, expounding education reform as a process that is multifaceted without one easy, quick solution.  The review gives a great overview of what’s out there in the education world and what we need to think about as we move forward.  Take a look and let me know what you think!

Not letting the fundamentalists win

Tuesday 5 July 2011

fundamentalism (Webster’s dictionary) n. 2: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles

In case you hadn’t noticed, the “war on terror” is based on the idea that fundamentalism is bad.  There’s this group of people who believe a certain thing about religion or the U.S. or the west, which drives them to choose killing other people as the best way to go.  There is no room for growth or negotiation because they know what they believe and they’re right — everyone else be damned.  If maybe we could just talk to them and have some room for figuring out how we can all get along, things would be OK, but because of an unwavering belief, there’s no room to do anything but “slug it out.”

I believe this is why fundamentalism is bad.  Fundamentalists live in a world where their is no compromise, no ability to see that they might only hold part of the truth, no willingness to bend a little bit to allow for other opinions and ideas.

Isn’t the idea that more ideas are better than one, that solving problems in groups leads to greater success than individually, the reason why teamwork and cooperation are stressed in school and prioritized in job hiring?  And in order to work together, you must bring your ideas to the table but also be willing to listen to the others who are there with you and figure out the BEST option: it may not be one particular idea (in fact, it rarely is) but it is usually a combination of the input of many people that will create the best outcome.

Unfortunately, fundamentalism is at work  in DC these days (and has been for a while now), and it goes by the name “Republican.” I’m not usually into party bashing, as I think the top two we have here in the U.S. are both pretty ruined, but as the U.S. gets closer and closer to defaulting on it’s massive debt obligations (can you count to $14 trillion?), Republicans speak together with one new mantra: no new taxes.  This is not George Bush (the first) circa 1988, which perhaps would be a better state to be in, as he later went on — wait for it — to raise taxes as a way to reduce the national budget deficit. (Deficit creates debt for those playing at home.)

No, unfortunately we have a group of fundamentalist Republicans who will not waver in their belief that any increase of taxes is horrible.  They have dug in their heals and will not budge, and citizens must take notice.  We must all ask “who is being protected by this aversion to taxes?”  People with money and corporations would be the ones paying taxes, certainly not the 9+% unemployed that corporations won’t use their excess cash to employ or the millions more making minimum wage or barely enough to scrape by.  And even if you look an “middle income” (if there still exists such a descriptor) earners, event hey wouldn’t be affected as all/most suggestions of new taxes would be on very high income earners.  Were you aware that since 1960, the tax level for the top 1% of earners has dropped monumentally from about 45% to 30%?  Why not let the rich get and stay richer (I refer you to yesterday’s post).

It’s high time for everyone — everyone – to recognize the ludicrousness of a political party that will not negotiate or compromise.  David Brooks had some good words to say in Tuesday’s NYTimes that I think bear sharing:

“… the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative. The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise …

“The struggles of the next few weeks are about what sort of party the G.O.P. is — a normal conservative party or an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation.

“If the debt ceiling talks fail, independents voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.”

A group that cannot and will not compromise is not fit to govern in a democracy, plain and simple.  We’ll see if the Republicans ever get the picture.  If not, I sure hope the voters do.

apparently there is money to be made in Afghanistan…

Monday 14 June 2010

As if the U.S. needs any more reasons to continue it’s colonialist/imperialist/empire building ways, I read the following headline this morning:

U.S. Identifies Vasts Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan

It gave me a good laugh.

Conspiracy theorists might say they’ve know about this for years, but even if it is a new discovery, why do we have “a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists” looking for this kind of stuff?

For those who say (this) war has no economic incentives, another blow to you, I believe.

Tea Party thoughts

Friday 16 April 2010

I was going to make today some (likely) pretty controversial and assured remarks, but doing some more reading and thinking, I decided to tone it down a few notches, but hopefully still make my point and jump start some conversation.

15 April was tax day, and it also marks an important anniversary for the current Tea Party movement, as it was the day of the first true and major Tea Party protests.  A recent NY Times/CBS News poll raises some interesting questions and issues about the makeup of those who consider themselves Tea Party supporters.  (You can see the full report, or general trends, in addition to a descriptive NY Times article on the poll.)

A conversation was also held on the NY Times “Room For Debate” page (fast becoming one of my favorite places to read about trends and topics), titling the discussion, “What Tea Party Backers Want.”  Contributors looked at some of the  basic findings of the poll — which include racial and class background — and tried to infer (as we all do) larger ideas going on inside the Tea Party movement.

From the poll itself, I wanted to pull out question #72 for specific examination:

72. In recent years, do you think too much has been made of the problems facing black people, too little has been made, or is it about right?

Too much Too little Just right Don’t Know/NA
All Respondents 28 16 44 11
Tea Party Supporters 52 6 36 6

I also particularly liked a few comments by Alan Brinkley, the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University, is the author of “The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century,” a forthcoming biography:

The other striking finding in this poll is the importance of race and diversity, something that Tea Partiers do not emphasize in their rallies and literature. But they show very clearly the racial anxiety that many of them appear to feel. This is not traditional racism, although there are almost certainly traditional racists within the movement.

The real issue, I believe, is a sense among white males that they are somehow being displaced, that the country is no longer “theirs,” that minorities and immigrants are becoming more and more powerful within society. And, of course, they are right about that. They just fear it more than many other Americans.

In particular, let’s look at a phrase Mr. Brinkley used: “traditional racism.”  I think what he means is bigotry, the overt feelings and declarations that whites are better than others, and certain rights should only be allowed to a particular group.  This “traditional racism” brought us things like separate water fountains, “white’s only” clubs, and the illegality of interracial marriages, to name of a few.  While some great civil rights laws prohibit these kinds of things, there are probably still those around who wouldn’t mind of some of those things were back.

But the larger problem here is the systematic racism that pervades society.  Looking at question #72 from the survey, I’m curious how one could say too much has been made of the problems of any group.  If there are problems, there are problems, and they need to be dealt with.  I guess the argument might come that one believes the amount of attention given to “the other group’s problems” are too large proportionally compared to “my problems.”

And here we get to what’s happening: internalized racial superiority.  As defined on the website for the People’s Institute For Survival and Beyond, IRS is:

The acceptance of and acting out of an superior definition of self, rooted in the historical designation of one’s race. Over many generations, this process of empowerment and access expresses itself as unearned privileges, access to institutional power and invisible advantages based upon race.

As Mr. Brinkley, I think, rightly posits, the Tea Party movement is a largely white movement based on those concerned with losing the privileges they hold based on their white race (and similarly their class status).  This is, however, an issue for all of U.S. society to deal with (while 52% of TP supporters answered “Too much” to question #72, so did 22% of the rest did, too — see below).  Practically, who would want to lose privileges they have?  If you have a company car or extra vacation days, to see them go away would not be enjoyed.  Similarly, many seniors have spoken up about cuts to Medicare — if you have something, you don’t want to lose it.

However, if we desire to be a place where all are treated equal, we must come to terms that the current structure (capitalist as it may be) privileges whites and oppresses black.  Much of this has to do with the economic that favors the haves (generally whites) and oppresses the have-nots (generally people of color).  It’s a cycle that many people are trying to end, but it is also one that isn’t know by many and often not talked about.

If some or all of this is news to you and you’re white (or anyone curious about all this), your next step is to read the article (just click on the title) White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. It will help you recognize the ways you gain privilege in ways that probably go unnoticed to you every day.  When you see how much you get without even realizing it, maybe you’ll think more clearly about the ways we’re oppressing people of color by failing to recognize the problems and issues of others are really the problems of all.

**(The calculation that 22% of non-Tea Party supporters answered “Too much” to question #72 was found by showing 52% of the 19% of TP supports who said “Too much” was about 10% of the total.  That meant 18% of the total who said “Too much” were not TP supporters, and 18% of the whole relating to the 81% of the group remaining leads, by ratio, to 22% of the non-Tea Party supporters responding “Too much.”)**