America is in denial about race relations

The US urgently needs to address the widely varying ways people of different races experience life in the country. Otherwise it has no business calling itself the greatest nation on earth, writes DW’s Spencer Kimball.

Segregation officially ended half a century ago, but in many parts of the United States, black and white Americans are still living in two separate and unequal countries. We cross paths in public and sometimes in the work place. We’re polite, kind to each other, as strangers should be. But at the end of the day, we too often come from and return home to very different realities.

Take me for example. I grew up in a small Kentucky town, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, a mid-size city that’s about half white and half black. But in my town, you would have never known the population was split almost evenly between whites and blacks. There were only a few black kids at my high school. To this day, they live in other neighborhoods and attend other schools – where the opportunities are not the same.

I am from an ethnic enclave, a wealthy and privileged one. Even now as an adult, I have far too little exposure to blacks and their experience in America. It’s not like this everywhere in the country, but it’s still the case in too many places. It’s lack of contact with people of other races that plays a major role in explaining the widely varying views of race and the police that are visible across the nation – most recently in the case of Sandra Bland.

A 28-year-old black woman, Bland was pulled over in Texas for failing to use her turn signal. She was upset that she’d been pulled over, refused to leave her car, was threatened with being “lit up” by a Taser, forcibly removed and arrested. It’s on videotape. Bland was later found dead in her jail cell, an apparent suicide, according to authorities. There are reports that she suffered from depression and may have attempted suicide in the past. That information is still coming to light.

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Obama’s foreign policy: ‘Put yourself in their shoes’

US President Obama has normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba and concluded a nuclear agreement with Iran. Is engaging adversaries the new normal in Washington? Spencer Kimball reports.

It was a surprisingly candid admission for a sitting American president: The US has, in fact, done wrong to other nations.

“Even with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran,” President Obama told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, hours after a historic nuclear deal was concluded with Tehran.

Obama was referencing the 1953 CIA coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh, a secular democratic leader who nationalized Iran’s oil industry, ending decades of British control. But the president’s history lesson didn’t end there.

“We have had (sic) in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative,” the president said.

The Reagan administration re-established diplomatic relations with the Iraqi dictator in 1980s, providing intelligence that facilitated Iraq’s invasion of Iran. This part of the historical record is rarely brought up in the US domestic discourse on Iran and the Middle East.

Instead, the US tends to focus on their own grievances: The 52 Americans held hostage during the Islamic revolution, the antagonism toward Israel and the anti-Semitic rhetoric of some Iranian leaders.

But it’s not just Iran. For decades, the United States faced off with another revolutionary regime – the communist government in Cuba. This summer, things have changed. The normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic promise to end two long-standing international confrontations.

“A willingness to empathize – not sympathize, but to empathize, to see ourselves as other countries see us – is a sea change in US attitude,” Philip Brenner, an expert on US foreign policy and Cuba at American University, told DW.

“It’s very hard for us to do it, because we’re so large and others countries are so small,” Brenner said. “We have a capacity to affect them much more than they can affect us.”

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US officials target social media, encryption after Chattanooga shooting

Did “IS” propaganda inspire the Chattanooga shooter? There’s no evidence to back the claim, but some officials are already calling for access to encrypted messages and social media monitoring. Spencer Kimball reports.

It’s not an unusual story in America: A man in his 20s with an unstable family life, mental health issues and access to firearms goes on a shooting spree, shattering the peace of middle class life.

This time, the shooter’s name was Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a Kuwaiti-born naturalized US citizen, the son of Jordanian parents of Palestinian descent. And he targeted the military.

Abdulazeez opened fire on a recruiting center and naval reserve facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee last Thursday. Four marines and a sailor died in the attack.

But the picture that’s emerged from Chattanooga over the past several days is complicated, raising questions about mental health, substance abuse, firearms, religion and modernity.

Yet elected officials have been quick to suggest that events in Chattanooga were directly inspired by “Islamic State” (also known as ISIL or ISIS) Internet propaganda, though there’s still no concrete evidence to back up that claim.

“This is a classic lone wolf terrorist attack,” Senator Dianne Feinstein told US broadcaster CBS. “Last year, 2014, ISIL put out a call for people to kill military people, police officers, government officials and do so on their own, not wait for direction.”

And according to Feinstein, part of the solution is to provide the government with greater access to digital communications.

“It is now possible for people, if they’re going to talk from Syria to the United States or anywhere else, to get on an encrypted app which cannot be decrypted by the government with a court order,” Feinstein said.

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A dream deferred? Race relations in the Obama era

Amid racial tension and violence, US President Barack Obama has addressed the oldest African-American civil rights organization in the US. For some, his increasingly frank talk about race is too little, too late.  Spencer Kimball reports.

It was the dream of the civil rights movement: a multiracial democracy where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many Americans were electrified. Had the dream come true?

The country has been sobered as the president nears the end of his eight-year tenure. More than 60 percent of Americans – black and white – believe race relations are generally bad, according to a recent CBS/New York Times opinion poll.

Police killings of unarmed African-American men have touched off a wave of social unrest. Peaceful protesters have taken to the streets with the rallying cry “Black lives matter!” Tensions have boiled over into riots and confrontations with a police force that often looks more like a military.

On Tuesday, Obama addressed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for the second time since taking office. He proposed reforms to the American criminal justice system, such as reducing long mandatory sentences for non-violent drug crimes, which disproportionately impact people of color.

But many African-Americans believe the president has responded slowly to calls for reform and has not gone far enough, fast enough.

“The president has primarily only addressed or dealt with racial issues when he was absolutely forced to,” Ronnie Dunn, an urban studies professor at Cleveland State University, told DW. “There was a reluctance to candidly address such issues.”

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America’s Syria dilemma: Enemy of the enemy now a friend?

(By Deutsche Welle) US efforts to recruit moderate rebels are not going well. With “Islamic State” now enemy number one, the White House has tacitly forged an alliance with its old adversary: Bashar al-Assad. Spencer Kimball reports.

America’s rebel army in Syria has instructions not to attack the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The main enemy is the “Islamic State” (IS). Not that the pro-Western militia poses a threat to either. So far, Washington has only trained 60 fighters.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged as much this week, telling Congress that the number falls far below the Pentagon’s original expectations. The secretary’s admission triggered consternation among President Barack Obama’s opponents and damage control by his supporters.

“Our means and our current level of effort are not aligned with our ends,” Senator John McCain said during a committee hearing. “That suggests we are not winning, and when you are not winning in war, you are losing.”

Why has the US trained so few rebels? There’s a strict vetting process, which according to Carter ensures that recruits are committed to fighting IS as their first priority and will obey the laws of armed conflict.

According to Syria expert David Lesch, the Obama administration has been cautious because it fears US arms could fall into the hands of Islamist radicals: “which has happened on a consistent basis, including US aligned rebel groups’ weapons depots being overrun by Islamist groups.”

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American socialist: Bernie Sanders’ long shot presidential campaign gains steam

(By Deutsche Welle) Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination is uncontested no longer. Senator Bernie Sanders is drawing huge crowds and gaining in the polls. But can a democratic socialist win over America? Spencer Kimball reports.

It’s a dirty word in American politics. But Bernie Sanders embraces it.

“I wouldn’t deny it, not for one second, ” Sanders told the Washington Post when he was running for Vermont’s senate seat back in 2006. “I’m a democratic socialist.”

Sanders is not a conventional American politician. He’s the longest serving independent in the history of the US Congress. Though he’s long worked with Democrats, Sanders officially joined the party just this year to challenge Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.

Initially considered a fringe candidate, he’s defying expectations. In May, Sanders trailed Clinton by 45 percent in Iowa, a key early primary state. He’s reduced the margin to 19 percent. In New Hampshire, the Vermont senator is behind by only eight points.

Sanders drew a crowd of some 10,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin earlier this month. It was easily one of the largest rallies of the 2016 campaign to date – in either party. And he’s no one-hit wonder. On Monday, he drew more than 7,000 people in Portland, Maine.

“No one in the White House will have the power to take on Wall Street alone, corporate America alone, the billionaire classes alone,” Sanders told his supporters in Maine.

“The only way that change takes place is when we develop that strong grassroots movement, make that political revolution, stand together, and then we bring about change,” he said.

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Why Greece won’t trigger a global crisis

(By Deutsche Welle) Limited private sector exposure and massive public sector intervention means little risk of financial contagion spreading from Greece. But there is one area of uncertainty: European politics, says DW’s Spencer Kimball.

Financial contagion is normally preceded by a surprise.

Take the 2008 Wall Street meltdown as an example. The US housing market had experienced a boom. Seeking to profit from the bonanza, private financial institutions the world over purchased securities issued by the mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Fannie and Freddie are government-sponsored enterprises. As a consequence, investors implicitly assumed that securities issued by the two mortgage lenders were backed by Uncle Sam. But their assumption was wrong, at least initially.

Fannie and Freddie’s securities did not have the same backing as US Treasury bills and when the boom went bust, financial institutions were exposed to more risk than they had anticipated. As the crisis spread through the US and global financial systems, the federal government was ultimately forced to intervene and bail out Fannie and Freddie.

“Financial institutions had wildly underestimated the riskiness of these assets, which made for really fast and furious contagion,” Carmen Reinhart, an economist who researches financial contagion at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told DW.

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Obama’s prison: last-ditch push to close Guantanamo

(By Deutsche Welle) US President Barack Obama’s new Guantanamo envoy has 18 months to close the infamous prison. Lee Wolosky will face election-year politics and a deeply skeptical Congress. Mission impossible? Spencer Kimball reports.

He was inaugurated on a Tuesday. The following Thursday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Leading Republicans and Democrats agreed that the prison had become a propaganda tool for America’s enemies and a distraction to her allies. The plan was to shut Guantanamo down within a year.

But a president sets priorities and the candidate of change had more immediate concerns. The economy was a wreck and nearly 50 million Americans had no health insurance. After Republicans took control of Congress in 2010, they refused to allocate money to close Guantanamo.

Six years and two special envoys later, the detention facility remains open. Last Tuesday, the administration appointed Lee Wolosky as the State Department’s Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure. The position had been vacant for six months.

Wolosky, an attorney, was the director of Transnational Threats under the Clinton administration and early in the Bush administration. John Bellinger, who served on President Bush’s National Security Council, has known Wolosky for two decades.

“Lee Wolosky has experience inside Washington with counterterrorism on the White House staff and ought to be able to – if anyone can – persuade a very skeptical Republican Congress that he and the president have a plan to close Guantanamo,” Bellinger told DW.

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US, Cuba announce embassy re-openings

(By Deutsche Welle) The US and Cuba have laid the Cold War to rest. While some see dialogue as a path to reform, Cuban exiles believe the White House has strengthened the Castro regime. Spencer Kimball reports.

Sebastian Arcos Bergnes suffered under two Cuban dictatorships. Bergnes was arrested by the regime of Fulgencio Batista after being discovered with a cache of weapons in 1956. He served three years in prison for participating in Fidel Castro’s revolution. But Bergnes was never a communist.

His son, Sebastian A. Arcos, describes the family as middle class Catholics with “solid democratic credentials.” “They joined the Castro revolution to get back to the constitutional cores established by the 1940 constitution and became disillusioned immediately after Castro turned to the left,” Sebastian told DW.

As Castro consolidated power, Sebastian’s family began documenting the regime’s human rights abuses, particularly in the jails. Political prisoners were often subjected to beatings, deprived of medical attention and had their sentences arbitrarily extended. The reports that Sebastian’s family compiled were smuggled out to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

The family was split up after trying to escape the island in 1981. While Sebastian served a year in prison, his mother and sister fled to Miami. A decade passed before Havana granted Sebastian permission to leave Cuba and join them in Florida. His father was allowed to leave in 1995 for medical reasons. Bergnes died from cancer two years later.

“I left for the US in 1992 as a political refugee and have never been back,” said Sebastian, now the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

‘A political exile does not return’

There are many Cuban-Americans with stories of persecution and flight. Jose Azel joined the anti-Castro underground as a 12-year-old boy, serving as a courier and participating in acts of economic sabotage. After the regime closed Azel’s Catholic school, his father feared that his son would be indoctrinated. He put him on a cargo ship in 1961 bound for Florida where Azel joined his older brother in Miami.

More than 14,000 children left Cuba in the early 1960s. Operation Pedro Pan was the largest recorded migration of unaccompanied minors in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Like Sebastian, Azel has not returned to Cuba. He never saw his father again.

“By definition, a political exile does not return until the conditions that brought about his exile change,” Azel, now a scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, told DW. “An economic immigrant returns when his personal conditions allow him to,” he said. “I would never under any conditions return until there is a change.”

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America’s battle over coal and clean air

(By Deutsche Welle) The US Supreme Court this week ruled against a regulation limiting mercury emissions. The environmental and coal lobbies are gearing up for a battle over the White House’s Clean Power Plan, as Spencer Kimball reports.

Old king coal has seen better days.

Already under pressure from a boom in cheap natural gas, the industry has been pinched by the Obama administration’s push for stricter clean air standards. According to the Sierra Club, 195 coal-fired power plants are scheduled for retirement. That leaves 328 on America’s power grid.

A number of those plants have shut down due to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. In particular, a rule that aims to drastically reduce the 50 tons of mercury that coal-fired power plants emit into America’s air every year.

Some of that mercury ultimately settles in bodies of water, contaminating fish that in turn are consumed by people. All 50 states have bodies of water with advisories warning people against fishing due to mercury contamination. A brain toxin, mercury is particularly dangerous for fetuses and breast-feeding children who can be exposed to the heavy metal through the mother’s body.

According to the US Supreme Court, the goal of reducing these health hazards must be weighed against what it costs for the industry to comply with the regulation. Compliance often requires shelling out $250 million (224 million euros) for clean-up equipment. That’s a death knell for many coal-fired plants older than 40.

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