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It used to be easy. The label of racist, sexist, or homophobic was a silencer on the weapon of the tongue. When a person stated views that were out of the politically correct spectrum, they paid a price professionally and publicly. However, with the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, there no longer appears to be a price for publicly embracing racist language and ideals.

Many have suggested the real problem, White Supremacy–that overt hatred for any non-white people–was institutionalized and invisible. White supremacy was lumped into the institutional mix with discrimination, prejudice, and inequality. Our policies, beginning with the civil rights act of 1964, set a precedent for addressing the institutional barriers to minorities. By 1988, the United States was addressing the individual white supremacist with censorship. But, silencing a sentiment has only resulted in the search for a new voice.

It has long been the recruitment tactic of white supremacist groups to focus on fears spawned by whatever “other” was present in a certain region. On the frontier west, the other was the Native American. In the cities, the other was the Blacks. In the southern-western border, the other was the Mexicans. But, something happened on a Tuesday night in November 2008, the worst fear came into the homes of many who had previously been silenced. It was no longer just a generalized fear of the other. It was the removal of an iconic White institution handed to a non-white. The fear moved from being offensive (in both ways) to being defensive, even despairing. Recruitment was no longer to mobilize. It was to defend against the further collapse of the Real America. Fear of the other became fear for the loss of a (White) way of life.

Empathy & Choice Architecture
The co-opting of fear changes the White Supremacist into the White Nationalist. The White Nationalist is not an institutionally-supported purveyor of hatred toward another race or creed. The white nationalist is a genuinely concerned individual who desires the best for his children and his people. Even if you are shouting for rights against the establishment, you are now the only one shouting. The rhetorical technique of the white nationalist is to claim victimization. And guess what, empathy demands that we listen.

This could be one reason for the inadequacy of our categorizations these days. The simple determination of whether a person is racist, sexist, or homophobic was never adequate as a basis for tolerance and appreciation of diversity. But, it worked in an institutional context to describe policies that systematically discriminated against specific groups based on some ethnocentric ideal.

As the unit of analysis moves to the level of the individual, categorizations will not be useful. Each individual is unique which comes with a unique set of concerns. Having children or not, levels of education, life goals, family connectedness, and a host of other characteristics form the profile of each person. Their choice architecture is built from this individualized profile, in the context of their immediate and social environment, impacted by the interactive effects that form their perception of self and the reality in which they live.

The good news is that we can mathematically map this complexity in operational research. Those may be two words that you are not comfortable applying to social science issues or social activism, but math and research are critical to interventions that promote dignity and worth of each person. It is more evident now that labeling the oppressor and demonizing the group runs counter to progress. What we have missed is that the need has shifted from the institutional level to individual level in the co-opting of fear.

The Empathy Standard
Let us first begin with a clear understanding of empathy. Empathy is defined as an ability to feel as the other feels. It is often distinguished from sympathy, which is to feel for a person. Empathy is more holistically to be distinguished from prejudices. Prejudices are characteristic means of self-protection or self-defense. More holistically, empathy is the ability to see the choices of the other as reasonable.

This definition allows social workers to work with clients whose behaviors have proven reprehensible while valuing the dignity and worth of each person. Even more importantly, this definition of empathy enables social workers to track the mechanism employed in the choice behavior. Once the mechanism is understood, the decision points can be disrupted with new information, intervention, influence, or insight. The disruption offers an expanded choice set and may result in new behaviors.

Without empathy-inspired dialogue on a topic, prejudices turn to anger and an insistence on being heard. Without empathy expect violence, disrespect, and self-promotion over others as less-than.

The Co-Opting of Fear
Which is more powerful, hatred or fear? Hatred can motivate many intentional destruction of things that are disliked. But, fear creates more things to rail against from imagined visions of even unreasonable things that may be. Supremacy groups have long used fear as a way to recruit new members. This was more of an institutional approach that reached out to individuals. It provided a target for the generalized sense of despair and hopelessness felt by the impoverished. It galvanized and educated that generalized sense into a frenzy of hate. That was the utilization of fear.

Utilization of fear was defined by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960:
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” LYNDON B. JOHNSON, 1960, remark to Bill Moyers, “What a Real President Was Like,” Washington Post, 13 November 1988

We see the results in a speech by Hillary Clinton. It typically takes some version of the following form:

Let’s be honest, for a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear. And news reports that poverty, crime, and discrimination evoke sympathy, even empathy, but too rarely do they spur us to action or prompt us to question our own assumptions and privilege (June 20, 2015 speech to US Conference of Mayors).

The problem is that we, as social activists or individual citizens, have not fully understood the fallacy of that “twinge of fear.” This lack of understanding is what Jeb Bush is saying he wants to work against, “I don’t think Barack Obama has bad motives,” He said on the debut of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “We have to restore a degree of civility.” Bush should have stopped there.

The co-opting of fear means that you are no longer dealing with institutional “other sides” of any argument or system failings. The interactions are now personal. Many in the Colbert audience noted the shift. Immediately after Jeb Bush uttered “I don’t think Barack Obama has bad motives,” a few in the audience began applause. Bush continued before the applause took hold finishing with, “I just think he’s wrong on a lot of issues.” The applause stifled. Bush turned what sounded like a conciliatory, constructive tone into a personal attack almost immediately. He could have talked about “his policies,” or better “I disagree with the Affordable Care Act,” or even better, “The Affordable Care Act has 12 provisions that limit patient choice.” In a policy discussion, the policy should reasonably be central, not the individual discussants.

Over years of political correctness, hidden resentment, and what Elisabeth Young-Bruehl calls psychologizing-sociology rhetoric has moved to individual characterization. Fear generalized at the institutional level has moved and morphed into fear personified at the individual level. The co-opting of fear has reduced policy failures to personal failures. Governance has been reduced from a sociological construct to the “liking” of one personality over another. Speaking your mind and refusing the politically-correct response is heralded as honesty and courage however ignorant and erroneous. A quick example can be shown in polls. According to a CNN poll back in 2013, 46% of people asked were against Obamacare. Only 37% were opposed to the Affordable Care Act. Same law. But, reducing policy to a “do you like this person” question creates different choice behavior.

This causes a fundamental shift in the way we work to support tolerance and move toward the celebration of difference. No longer are people simply misinformed and their generalized sense manipulated by the institution. Many are now genuinely, and individually fearful for their livelihoods, their children’s opportunity, and their freedom. Imagined or not, this new reality does not respond to institutional changes. In fact, the institutional actions to level the playing field and erase the majority advantage are seen as further disenfranchising the individual.

The Empathetic Solution

Now, that reality is individual rather than institutional, the only solution is empathy. It is to see the complaints of each individual as valid and worthy of our attention. The empathy solution ensures that each individual is heard. It maps their process of reason, and compares their experience to what our policies intended. Without this empathetic analysis, by denying the voice of those who perceive themselves to be eventual minorities, we others become oppressors. People who feel silenced and who fear extinction will revolt in discontent.

They will rally behind someone successful who speaks the fear, gloom, and despair that they feel. And, others will support this movement. Their support is not because they know the origins of supremacy and ethnocentrism that birth the movement. They support because they are empathetic to–they see as reasonable–the cries of people who have been silenced and hushed because their views were not politically correct. They support because they are tired of having to clean up their language to express overreaches and erroneous implementations of laws meant to create equality. Empathy, my fellow social workers, is not based on our agreement with the other. It is our ability to see their reason and continue the often uncomfortable conversation toward a comfortable resolution.

Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV.

          
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Paradise Lost – or Have We Forgotten?

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For over a year now the UK has been wracked with a host of political scandals which rival the most intricate episodes of Yes, Prime Minister.

Yes, Britain is apparently leaving the European Union (a matter knife-edge enough). Yes, there are questions about the tenability of the Prime Minister’s position, and who will usurp her. Yes, the Paradise Papers have long ago told us what we already knew: the rich aren’t paying tax. Yes, our government is regularly implementing and justifying racist policies. But the hottest of the hot topics was, at least for a time, this:

Why has the sexual harassment and abuse of (mostly) women been prevalent in British parliament for decades?”

Our government has been dealing with everything from rape to groping and sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual or inappropriate comments. Women set up a WhatsApp group specifically to share information about whom to be cautious of.

The Secretary of State For Defence (that’s right, the person responsible for defending the United Kingdom against attacks) resigned on November 1st, 2017 before the full range of allegations was even made public.

The media has, of course, sought answers, ranging from It was the culture to Women need to toughen up to a disappointingly modest mainstream smattering of power, privilege and toxic masculinity.

Some outlets have linked this (to some, unsurprising) spurt of public revelations to the infamous Harvey Weinstein allegations. This is a man whom, for decades, sexually harassed and abused (mostly) women in Hollywood. His behaviour was known-yet-unknown, referenced in public but never revealed.

Given this, Hollywood responded with the full spectrum of shock, anger, feeling ‘sad’ and ‘bad for’ Weinstein, expressing renewed curiosity about women’s dress codes and naïveté of ‘the culture we live in’. This British Bank Holiday, on the 25th May 2018, he was finally charged, with rape, sex abuse, and sexual misconduct pertaining to two women. Two.

However, we now know about comedian Louis CK, actor Steven Segal, and the once-beloved Kevin Spacey. Morgan Freeman is on the list of those accused. Heartbreakingly, there will be others to come.

To what extent can we continue to suggest it’s women’s responsibility and women’s fault – when it’s happening to a whole spectrum of people? Let’s be clear: every single accused person is a man. And we are all – no matter our personal gender – at risk of the violence of male power.

As Judith Hermann writes in her seminal work Trauma and Recovery, “It is now apparent that the traumas of one are the traumas of the other. The hysteria of woman and the combat neurosis of men are one. Recognising the commonality of affliction may even make it possible at times to transcend the immense gulf that separates the public sphere of war and politics – the world of men – and the sphere of private domestic life – of women” (p. 32).

It should be noted here that Hermann’s usage of ‘hysteria’ was of hysteria a debunked and oppressive conceptualisation of women. She discusses  how a range of traumas, apparently so different, are linked  by the political – they are characterised by fear and threat, power and violence.

Her words ring true, except now the traumatic event is the same for both men and women. The personal world of child sexual abuse – largely perpetrated by men – has become political. And, unfortunately, that is meant both metaphorically and literally.

For Britain, however, this does not follow the Hollywood accusations as some have suggested. Its cultural foundations more likely rest on the ‘watershed moment’ of the British Jimmy Savile story.

Between 2011-2013 Jimmy Savile –  an English radio, TV, and media personality who was an avid charity fundraiser – was posthumously exposed as having perpetrated prolific sexual abuse.

Some of the abuse happened live on air, with cameras rolling. Some was with unconscious and disabled children. He was buried as Sir Jimmy Saville, just two months before the truth of his abuse was unearthed to the public.

This case was unprecedented; ghastly, shocking, unspeakable and yet the country could speak of little else. The grim reality of the tale started to unravel with one small thread: a ‘handful of cases’ in the 1960s.

At first, people couldn’t believe it.

Then, eventually, nobody could question it.

His final victim count – following a snowball effect of increased confidence in reporting, public attention, support and helplines – was around 500. At least, that we know of.

It is to the shame of Britain this happened. It is to the shame of Britain nobody listened until it was too late.

Consider now the current political mess. Consider the heated discussions about everything from consensual flirting to discomfort to harassment to rape. At once point, these discussions consumed the media as much as the media is consumed by its audience. Now, the attention has cooled in light of the scandal-machine that is our current government.

However, the sexual consent movement has been built upon the backs of those who were brave enough to stand up and say: this happened. It was real. It is also built upon the humiliation and isolation we heaped upon so many hundreds of thousands of others, by not believing them in the first place.

Arguably, such open discussions about child sexual abuse could not have happened before. They repeat an age-old story, except this time people are compelled and able to hear it.

The personal is political and the political is personal. The social and cultural context for victims, survivors and survivor-victims to finally unburdening their stories is ripe. And abuse is rife.

What does this tell us? It tells us we have a problem with how we teach our men. And it tells us we have a problem with power.

Judith Hermann predicts every few decades, society can acknowledge traumas and set the stage for action and reparation. However, the unspeakable nature of trauma begs that we push it back into our collective unconscious.

And we can’t. We simply can’t let that happen. Not in my country.

The original meaning of ‘watershed’ is an area of land which separates rivers which flow in two different directions. Politically, culturally, socially, morally, we need to make sure things flow in the right direction.

Crucially, we can’t let this stop with perpetrators who are famous, who have pockets of accusers sharing their stories together for their own safety. We need to support ordinary people (ordinary women, particularly), to share their stories outside of the limelight where the public’s support is less tangible. We need to support the poor, the less ‘credible’, the young, those of ethnic, gender and sexual minorities, those already in sex work, those with ‘bad reputations’.

Let’s continue to bring those in power to task.

Let’s support and donate to groups like Refuge and Broken Rainbow, the NSPCC, and other local charities in your area. Let’s protest the closure of women’s shelters. Let’s give our gratitude to groups like Sisters Uncut. And for goodness’ sake, for all that is healthy in this world…

Stop blaming women. Stop blaming victims. Start listening. Don’t let us forget what it felt like when these allegations and stories were fresh. Let’s turn the political back personal again.

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Governor Northam Appoints Social Worker Dr. Angela Henderson to the Board of Conversation and Recreation

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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (L)

On October 19, 2018, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced Angela S. Henderson, PhD of Glen Allen, as his appointment to the Board of Conversation and Recreation. Dr. Henderson is an Assistant Professor and Research Assessment Coordinator for the Department of Social Work at Virginia State University.

She specializes in human behavior, the social environment and social welfare policy. Dr. Henderson received a B.S.W. from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 2003 and an M.S.W from Howard University in 2004. She earned her Ph.D. in social work from Howard University in May 2013.

Dr. Angela Henderson

Dr. Henderson has been recognized in the social work community as a “social justice warrior” and has dedicated her life as an advocate for social, environmental, and education justice. In addition, Dr. Henderson is committed in protecting the human rights of individuals, children, and families.

While she attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University as an undergrad she and her mentor, Professor Ernest Morant, Sr., established “The Princeville North Carolina Project” in 1999 with the support of the Department of Social Work and Sociology for Hurricane Floyd relief efforts. The department adopted the town’s elementary school to support the educational achievement and health care of the students.

Dr. Henderson is branded as the “Fixer” and she is known for her ability to accomplish complex tasks under high-pressure conditions.

She served as the Assessment Task Force Lead for Virginia State University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges Accreditation process. In addition, Dr. Henderson is the Principal Investigator for the Police Minority Recruitment Project funded by the Virginia Office of the Attorney General.

In 2012, Dr. Henderson created Congressional Research Institute for Social Work (CRISP) on behalf of Dr. Charles E. Lewis, Jr. and Former Congressman Edolphus Towns. The purpose of CRISP was to recognize the importance of the Congressional Social Work Caucus and expand the participation of social workers in federal legislative and policy processes. Dr. Henderson served as the Chief Operating Officer and her tasks included: establishing and managing the daily operations, regulatory compliances, accounting, and legal processes. In addition, she served as the social media marketing strategist.

Dr. Henderson participated in a call to action discussion with the Obama Administration and the United States Department of Health and Human Services regarding the leadership of the Social Work Community in preserving the Affordable Care Act.

Dr. Henderson will join Patricia A. (“Patti”) Jackson* of Hanover, American Heart Association and Clayton L. Spruill of Chesapeake on the Board of Conversation and Recreation.

*denotes reappointment

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#WhenWeAllVote Wants You to Vote and Check Your Registration Status

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The upcoming midterm election may be one of the most consequential elections ever for women and minorities. Record numbers of women, LGBTQ, and people of color are running for office in this election cycle.

According to the website blackwomeninpolitics.com, a record 397 black women are running for office in 2018. In places like Harris County, Texas the number of Latino candidates has gone up by more than 40% since the 2014 midterms. There is such an increase in LGBTQ candidates that it has been labeled the “Rainbow Wave.” While the diversity of candidates has gone up, there still remain many obstacles to voting.

In Florida, it’s estimated that “since the 2000 election, thousands of truly eligible voters have been removed from the state’s voter rolls, and many didn’t find out until election day,” according to Deborah Cupples a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of an Ohio law purging voter rolls. 

In places like New York and Alabama, there is no early voting, absentee voters must provide an explanation as to why they couldn’t vote in person, and there isn’t automatic voter registration. Further, it’s been documented that in places which require photo ID, like Alabama and Texas, it discourages minorities from voting.

When We All Vote is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization with the aim of registering voters and getting them to the poles in the face of such obstacles. The organization seeks to bring together “citizens, institutions, and organizations to spark a conversation about our rights and responsibilities in shaping our democracy.”

The organization’s co-chairs are a diverse collection of celebrities including, most prominently, Michelle Obama. She wants us to understand the importance of the upcoming midterms.

Other co-chairs include Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janelle Monáe, Chris Paul, Faith Hill, and Tim McGraw. Faith Hill recently hosted a When We All Vote Event in Nashville.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “This is a high-stakes mission. You’ll be asked to do big things between now and November. We’ll arm you with the information you need — like candidate scorecards, registration deadlines, your polling locations, as well as ways to take action — so that you’re heard and counted. But you won’t be alone — millions of people across our country will line up side-by-side with us to take back our democracy and vote like our rights depend on it. Together is the only way we’ll win.”

Don’t let the proliferation of fake news create apathy and cynicism. It is possible to make a difference. So don’t sit this one out. Democracy only works When We All Vote.

Contact your local Supervisor of Elections to check your registration status and for poll locations.

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Justice

Brett Kavanaugh’s Hall Pass for Police Misconduct

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Brett Kavanaugh

On July 9, 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was nominated for a lifetime appointment to the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Since Kavanaugh’s nomination, opponents are extremely concerned his addition to the court will skew the court to a conservative majority resulting in the rollback of rights and protections for women and minorities

Although Brett Kavanaugh’s stance on Roe v. Wade has been widely discussed, the latest allegation of sexual assault levied by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has added yet another layer of angst among Democrats and women advocacy groups opposing his confirmation.

Observers can’t help but notice the historical parallels between the Kavanaugh hearings and the installation of Justice Clarence Thomas despite the testimony of Anita Hill in 1991. Thomas is currently the longest serving conservative justice on the current court. Most importantly, it is likely his impact will be felt for decades to come which is why its imperative the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

As the spotlight shifts from Kavanaugh’s stance on Roe to allegations of sexual assault, little attention has been paid to Kavanaugh’s position on the exclusionary rule which may drastically change how law enforcement wield its governmental power. The exclusionary rule is “a law that prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence in a criminal trial” presented by police to prosecutors.

Last year, Kavanaugh gave a speech where he commended the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s view that the exclusionary rule “was beyond the four corners of the Fourth Amendment’s text and imposed tremendous costs on society,” and that it was not “required by the constitution.” Kavanaugh was referring to Rehnquist’s originalist approach to the constitution and his belief that the court should not go beyond its text.

The exclusionary rule was created to deter law enforcement from performing unreasonable searches and seizures as defined by the 4th amendment of the United States Constitution. This limit on law enforcement power is so intrinsic and engrained in our culture that it is almost taken for granted.

The rule simply says that evidence unlawfully obtained by police cannot be used against a suspect at trial. The rule also provides an important check on a criminal justice system that is already skewed against poor people and people of color.

A recent study found that the majority of innocent people who are wrongfully convicted and later exonerated are African American. In regards to murder convictions, African Americans are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white people. The disparity is even more pronounced with regards to drug offenses; African Americans are twelve times more likely to be wrongfully convicted than whites.

The stock argument in opposition to the exclusionary rule is that it inevitably allows guilty persons to go free. According to Judge Benjamin Cardozo, “The criminal is to go free because the constable blundered.” However, those in favor of the exclusionary rule remaining intact believe without it, the protections guaranteed by the Fourth and Fifth Amendments are nothing more than empty promises.

The exclusionary rule has been chipped away at with various exceptions since the Rehnquist Court. Currently, the Supreme Court has four conservative justices; Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts. With the addition of Kavanaugh our protections under the exclusionary rule, and Roe for that matter, will be in jeopardy.

The public has already witnessed Officer Michael Slager on video attempting to plant evidence on Walter Scott after fatally shooting in him the back while he was running away from a traffic stop for a broken taillight violation in Charleston, South Carolina. Communities of Color already fear and mistrust the police, and unchecked police power will further widen the divide.

If police are allowed to illegally enter into a home or seize property without securing a warrant and are able to present this evidence in court despite being obtained illegally, many fear this move will reward illegal behavior by the police.

The hypocrisy of government benefiting from its own unlawful conduct leads to a lack of trust in it and further diminishes the idea of equal protection under the law. Most importantly, when a court permits the use of illegally obtained evidence, the court not only sanctions the misconduct but also encourages it.

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ICE Subpoenas Local Election Boards for Troves of Information Undermining 2018 Election Administration

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Kielmanovich recently issued subpoenas to Boards of Elections in all 44 counties in North Carolina’s Federal Eastern District on behalf of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  While the exact timing of the issuance of the subpoenas is not clear, they became public knowledge on September 4 after an email was sent to all members of the local boards and redacted subpoena language was posted to Twitter.

The subpoenas seek “all poll books, e-poll books, voting records, and/or voter authorization documents, executed official ballots that were submitted to, filed by, received by, and/or maintained by” the local board of elections “from August 30, 2013 to August 30, 2018.”  

“The timing and scope of these subpoenas from ICE raise very troubling questions about the necessity and wisdom of federal interference with the pending statewide elections,” said Kareem Crayton, Interim Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.  “With so many well-established threats to our election process from abroad, it is odd to see federal resources directed to this particular concern.

We are closely monitoring the handling of these subpoenas and will keep all legal options on the table to ensure that communities in our state enjoy an election process free from meddling and intimidation.”

This is part of a pattern in North Carolina.  On August 17, 2018, the Department of Justice announced federal prosecutions of nineteen individuals in the Eastern District alleged to have voted while ineligible. Both the prosecutions and the new federal subpoenas come after a number of counties in the state decided not to prosecute ineligible voters who voted in the 2016 election.

Most of those instances included voters who were ineligible due to the fact that they were still technically serving an active felony sentence by being on probation or parole, and these voters did not realize they were still ineligible to vote.

Despite most counties declining to prosecute cases because of the lack of nefarious intent on the part of the voters, the State Board of Elections & Ethics enforcement is still referring cases of ineligible voters in the 2016 election to district attorneys for prosecution.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) represented five citizens in Alamance County who were charged with voting while ineligible due to an active felony sentence.  All of those cases resulted in misdemeanor pleas deals that included no admission of guilt and the dismissal of the voting-related charges.  SCSJ is concerned that the efforts in North Carolina to criminalize the ballot box and drum up evidence of “voter fraud” may be replicated on a much larger scale.

“This is clearly a fishing expedition that picks up where the Pence-Kobach Commission stopped.  This administration appears to be outsourcing the Commission’s discredited agenda to U.S. Attorneys, thus wasting our local election administrators’ valuable time and resources, many of which had been focused on ensuring our upcoming elections are free from foreign interference,” said Allison Riggs, Senior Voting Rights Attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

“It’s ironic, and clearly a political exercise, that an administration that has benefited from foreign election interference is now seeking to burden local election administrators in a way that will impede them in their efforts to safeguard against that same interference in the upcoming election.”

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Florida Politicians Court Puerto Ricans, But Will They Vote?

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Nearly a year ago, Hurricane Maria plowed through the Island of Puerto Rico causing $139 billion in damage and killing over 1,400 people. In the storm’s aftermath, it is estimated that as many as 300,000 Puerto Ricans moved to Florida. Less than three weeks after the storm the Times had already run an article headlined “An Exodus From Puerto Could Remake Florida Politics.”

Realizing there was an opportunity to be had, Politicians began their courtship with the Puerto Rican community.

Senate incumbent Bill Nelson (D) has traveled to the Island at least three times since the storm, and he has released at least one video ad in Spanish. His challenger, Rick Scott (R) has gone at least five times, and Scott has also released a number of video ads in Spanish appealing to Puerto Rican voters. Both candidates’ websites have a Spanish translation option and press releases written in Spanish.

Scott has secured an endorsement from Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, Jenniffer González-Colón (R). However, the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico is a non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Not to be outdone, Nelson has been endorsed by former governors of Puerto Rico Pedro Rosselló and Alejandro Garcia Pedro Rosselló, and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

In a state where a lot of elections are decided by 1% or less, it’s no surprise that Florida Politicians have reached out to the Puerto Rican community ahead of November’s midterm elections.

Although Politicians are paying considerable attention to the Puerto Rican community, there have been reports that fewer Puerto Ricans are registering to vote than predicted.

Jose Luis Rivera, co-founder and former President of the Puerto Rican Student Association at the University of Central Florida, doesn’t think the influx in Puerto Ricans will have much of an impact on the midterm elections. “The election system in Puerto Rico is different than here. They won’t want to spend the time learning about elections,” he said. “Right now people are worried about getting housing, getting a job, getting settled.”

In the nine months before the storm, about 62,000 Hispanics registered to vote in Florida. In the 9 months after Maria, almost 69,000 Hispanics have registered to vote. The State of Florida’s voting statistics do not break down Hispanics into subgroups, so it is unknown how many of the additional 7,000 voters were Puerto Ricans. According to the Pew Research Center, Puerto Ricans accounted for 27% of the Hispanic voters in Florida during the 2016 election.

Jimmy Torres, coordinator for  Boricua Vota in Central Florida, an organization devoted to increasing Puerto Rican participation in the U.S. political process, questions those statistics. “There’s a tendency to exaggerate numbers,” he said. “If you say 200,000 Puerto Ricans came to Florida after Maria, which is non-scientific proof … but if you go and establish the real number and you subtract the people that cannot vote, the number is pretty good.”

Mr. Torres has a point. Some estimate the number of Puerto Ricans that moved to Florida in the storm’s wake at 50,000 instead of 300,000.

Nevertheless, it is unclear what Mr. Torres meant by “pretty good.” When pressed he told me, “I heard from some people that over 200,000 Latinos have registered (since the last election) and out of the 200,000 Latinos, there are probably 80% of them are Puerto Ricans.” He qualified his answer by indicating he was not the best person to ask.

It’s also unclear how Puerto Ricans will vote come November. A recent study of Puerto Ricans living in Florida, conducted by Eduardo A. Gamarra and Jorge Dunay, in conjunction with Florida International University, showed that 57% were registered as Democrats, 17% as independents, 13% as don’t know, and only 10.7% of respondents said they registered as Republicans.

In the same study, however, in response to the question “What is your opinion of Rick Scott,” roughly 80% said they have a good opinion or a very good opinion of him, whereas only 56% said they have a good opinion or a very good opinion of Senator Nelson.

Making things even more complicated, one of Puerto Rico’s two major political parties, The New Progressive Party, was formerly called the Puerto Rican Republican Party. “I think in a lot of sense both parties are considered leaning toward the Democratic part,” said Torres, but “when they come here, they register as Republicans, and then they find out that the reason for them to be stakeholders is completely different from what Republicans stand for in the United States.”

Torres continued, “People in Puerto Rico think that people in need should have food stamps, but when they come here and they find out that Republicans in the United States don’t believe in none of that, they are in shock.”

Gamarra’s study revealed 90% of respondents said they have received some sort of aid or assistance from the government, the majority of which was food assistance, social security and healthcare related.

Pushing economic issues aside, who speaks better Spanish, Rick Scott or Bill Nelson? Torres laughs, ” I commend both of them for trying to speak Spanish. Every American that tries to learn a second language is a hero.” But what’s more important, he explained, is what they’ve done for the people of Puerto Rico.

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