Ellis Cose

Stories by Ellis Cose

  • The Solidarity Of Self-Interest

    For nearly a decade, U.S. congressman John Conyers Jr. has led a lonely crusade, pressing Congress to consider the case for reparations for black Americans. For most of that time his efforts have been utterly dismissible--as quixotic as the exertions of a delusional soldier re-fighting a long lost war. But suddenly the reparations issue, once considered DOA, has risen from the ashes of inconsequence, touching off a frenzy of activity--both domestically and abroad.At a regional meeting in Senegal in January, African delegates to the upcoming United Nations World Conference Against Racism demanded "adequate reparation" for slavery and colonialism. (Delegates were significantly less eager, it must be pointed out, to condemn African involvement in both current and historical slavery.) Earlier this month a U.N. subcommission on human rights adopted a resolution urging recognition and "reparation" for "massive and flagrant violations of human rights" committed during slavery and the...
  • Durban Bound

    For months Mary Robinson has talked of a "breakthrough," a global "coming together," a hope that has always hinged on a rather extraordinary presumption: that the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which opens in Durban this week, would defy the normal rules of political engagement; that delegates would put aside parochialism for the higher cause of social justice.The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (and secretary-general of the conference) may be disappointed. The Durban conference is the most ambitious United Nations antiracism colloquium ever, and it is the first since the age of apartheid (held, with full awareness of the symbolism, in the now-democratic South Africa). But it already has stumbled into a minefield of recrimination and distrust. And it has yet to officially begin.Two issues have all but hijacked the agenda: Israel's treatment of Palestinians and whether the countries of the North owe an apology and...
  • The Solidarity Of Self-Interest

    History cannot be rewritten, but some of its more egregious errors can be corrected--at least in part, at least symbolically, even unto the fifth and sixth generation. Or so assume a growing number of human-rights advocates. And their efforts to square the circle of history have created a climate favorable to arguments for reparations. The evolution of a human-rights culture, however, is not enough to explain why calls for compensation for slavery are suddenly being heard around the globe. Another factor is that groups other than African-Americans have lately seen some benefits in making the case. African governments in particular are drawn to the idea of restitution. At a regional meeting in Senegal in January, African delegates to the upcoming United Nations World Conference Against Racism demanded "adequate reparation" for slavery and colonialism. (Delegates were significantly less eager, it must be pointed out, to condemn African involvement in both current and historical...
  • Shining A Light On Our 'Dark Corners'

    There is something of the apostle in Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. So when she talks of "difficulty on the road to Durban," it puts one in mind of a more famous road, the one taken by Saul on his way to Damascus, en route to changing from persecutor to saver of souls. But unlike Saul, the unbeliever, Robinson passionately believes--in the need for confession, the importance of repentance and the healing power of sincere expressions of remorse. She has brought that faith to her present task-convening the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The meeting, scheduled for the end of August in Durban, South Africa, is supposed to do for racial and ethnic minorities what the 1995 Beijing women's conference did for women. That conference put women's issues squarely on the international agenda and energized reform efforts around the globe.Robinson hopes for "a breakthrough" in Durban that ushers in new era in...
  • A Brownout In Los Angeles

    Having done without a Latino mayor since 1872, Angelenos saw no reason to elect one last Tuesday. Many L.A. Latinos were disappointed, but they were not despairing. For though Antonio Villaraigosa lost, if demography is destiny, their time will come--not today, but soon, and inevitably. "What Antonio did is to open the doors... The next time you're going to see a lot more Latino faces, not only in city politics, but in state politics," said Antonia Hernandez, head of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.Only 8 percentage points separated the winner from the loser in a race that Villaraigosa--until the last few weeks--seemed poised to win. But for all his efforts to present himself as the face of the future, he fell victim to campaign tactics rooted in the past. His opponent, James Hahn, effectively portrayed him as untrustworthy and soft on crime--a task made easier by Villaraigosa's 1996 letter requesting presidential clemency for a convicted drug dealer. With an...
  • The Lessons Of Birmingham

    Nearly 40 years after the act, an unrepentant former Ku Klux Klansman was finally convicted of murdering four black girls in a Birmingham, Ala., church. Instead of spending his retirement in a nursing home, or in the care of overburdened relatives, Thomas E. Blanton Jr. becomes a ward of the state. Does this represent justice? Prosecutor Doug Jones seems to believe so. "Justice delayed is still justice; and we got it right here in Birmingham," he proudly declared. But for many sons and daughters of Birmingham, the judgment is not so easy. ...
  • The American Dream In Living Color

    Colin Powell's status as Secretary of State, the designated representative of the most powerful nation on earth, totally supersedes his color--at least outside the United States.In America, the view is not only more parochial but considerably more convoluted. Among blacks he is an esteemed role model. As Eddie Williams, head of the Washington-based think tank Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, observed, "Our history causes us to take special pride in those who have made it."But it is not just black Americans who take pride in Powell; 83 percent of Americans see him in a favorable light, according to a Gallup poll taken in December, shortly after he was appointed secretary of State. When his predecessor, Madeleine Albright, got the job, only 36 percent of Americans approved of her. Warren Christopher, who preceded Albright, didn't do much better; only 41 percent approved of him.Why is Powell so admired? His military record, while admirable, hardly accounts for the scope...
  • BEING A 'BLACK LEADER' IN AMERICA

    Jesse Jackson's bounteous gifts and abundant weaknesses have always been on full display: his soul-stirring rhetoric, his irrepressible passion, along with an unquenchable hunger for attention--from the camera, the crowd and, notcoincidentally, the countless women who find him irresistible. Those aware of his need for adoration had long assumed that, sooner or later, it would get him into trouble. So when news of his so-called love child exploded in the tabloids, no one who knows Jackson was shocked; indeed, rumors of the child had been circulating for months. The civil-rights community was both annoyed and sympathetic: saddened about the affair and subsequent birth, concerned about the effect on the Jackson family and angry at the timing. For the news erupted in the midst of a bitter battle against some of George W. Bush's cabinet nominees and just before an Inauguration Day protest rally in Tallahassee that Jackson was scheduled to help lead.But once one gets beyond some...
  • GETTING READY FOR THE FIRE THIS TIME

    No one expected George W. Bush to connect with blacks as easily as Bill Clinton. Something about Clinton arouses excessive emotions--something having to do with his own outsize appetites and his unapologetically roguish charm. In many blacks, he inspired feelings somewhere between affection and adoration. Author Toni Morrison, apparently in the throes of literary rapture, pronounced him "our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime." No way was Bush going to evoke that kind of inexplicable passion--certainly not among those who composed Clinton's most loyal constituency. But there was an expectation among liberal black activists that, even if he wasn't their man, Bush might at least invite them to the dance. "We hoped for a period in which there would have been healing gestures," said Wade Henderson, of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "Instead we got an in-your-face repudiation of that very concept."...
  • The Prison Paradox

    While America Puts More And More Young Blacks And Hispanics In Jail, The Neighborhoods They Leave Behind Grow Even More Unstable. Inside The Tangled Culture Of The Prison Generation--And What Can Be Done To Try To Reclaim Lost Lives.
  • What's White, Anyway?

    In Argentina, where he was born, my acquaintance had always been on solid taxonomic ground. His race was no more a mystery than the color of the clouds. It was a fact, presumably rooted in biology, that he was as white as a man could be. But his move to the United States had left him confused. So he turned to me and sheepishly asked in Spanish, "Am I white or am I Latino?"Given his fair complexion and overall appearance, most Americans would deem him white, I replied--that is, until he opened his mouth, at which point his inability to converse in English would become his most salient feature. He would still be considered white, I explained, but his primary identity would be as a Latino. For his U.S.-raised children, the relevant order will likely be reversed: in most circles they will simply be white Americans, albeit of Argentine ancestry, unless they decide to be Latino. At any rate, I pointed out, the categories are not exclusive--although in the United States we often act as if...
  • Cracks In The Thin Blue Line

    To question police practices in America is to plunge into a debate distorted by caricatures. Police defenders generally see critics as cop-hating bleeding hearts, while police critics often see cops as trigger-happy killers. Yet with major police controversies roiling the nation, it's important to get beyond the cartoons and to ask whether something has gone wrong in the very notion of what policing should be.During the past month, Louisville has been torn apart by a brouhaha sparked by police killing an unarmed black youth. In early March, the police chief was fired for awarding medals to two officers who shot the 18-year-old they claimed was trying to run them down in a truck. The dismissal touched off massive police-led protests and so polarized the community that the Rev. Jesse Jackson flew into town last week to promote police-community "healing." In Los Angeles members of an elite anti-gang unit have been implicated in everything from bank robbery and drug dealing to shooting...
  • The Long Shadow Of Amadou Diallo

    Laws, sausage and criminal justice. If you value them, don't watch them being made; you are doomed to disenchantment. Last week, in the aftermath of the Amadou Diallo case, disillusionment bubbled over, fueling angry outbursts and demonstrations in Washington and New York. How, mystified citizens asked, could four policemen fire 41 bullets, kill an innocent man and be judged not guilty of anything? (The question became even more urgent Wednesday night, when yet another unarmed man was killed by a policeman in the same Bronx neighborhood where Diallo went down.) The public's reaction, if more muted, mirrors that to the O. J. Simpson verdict, only this time those expressing outrage are more likely to be black than white.Still, in some respects, the cases are similar. Like Simpson, the cops who killed Diallo got some lucky breaks. They were lucky in the judge; they were lucky in the jury. And, most crucial of all, they were lucky that the defense version of events was ultimately the...
  • Locked Away And Forgotten

    With vigils, rallies and teach-ins across America, a ragtag coalition of activists last Tuesday marked the moment when the nation's prison population theoretically rose above 2 million for the first time ever. Spirited though they were, the efforts rated little more than a yawn on the nation's attention meter. They certainly didn't create enough of a stir to overshadow the day's other groundbreaking event: television's first-ever win-a-multimillionaire pageant. In fact, the inmate projections (made by the Justice Policy Institute, a progressive criminal-justice think tank) may have outpaced reality. More conservative statisticians believe we are approaching, but not yet at, the 2 million milestone. Whatever the actual current number, it is clearly going up and almost certainly will reach 2 million before the year is out. Such high incarceration rates may seem a reasonable price to pay to keep America safe. But a number of thoughtful people are concluding it is doing nothing of the...
  • A Cause That Crosses The Color Line

    No one (at least no single human being) is to blame for the existence of a plague. Yet ultimately people must accept the task of dealing with its consequences. And when it comes to AIDS in Africa, the question of black Americans' role, and black leadership's responsibility, becomes unavoidable. To what extent are the burdens of Africa also the burdens of African-Americans? Do American black elites have a particular duty to lead the battle for assistance to the AIDS-ravaged souls of the sub-Sahara?No one has been more outspoken than Eugene Rivers in arguing that they do. Indeed, the Boston-based minister and activist goes much further, accusing black American leaders of collectively turning their backs on those suffering in Africa.Prominent African-Americans, as might be expected, are not greeting Rivers's words with a hale-and-hearty amen. They are more likely to argue that the fault lies not with them but elsewhere. Randall Robinson, head of TransAfrica, a Washington-based...
  • Our New Look: The Colors Of Race

    He United States closed the 19th century declaring--in Plessy v. Ferguson--that rigid segregation was the natural order. It was a time when W.E.B. Du Bois despaired that America would ever get beyond its homespun apartheid. "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line--the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men," he famously pronounced in 1903. Americans have not proved Du Bois wrong. Still, the country enters the millennium self-consciously striving to be a more tolerant place. Thenew century will not see the end of race--the dawning of an era when skin color is of no consequence--but it will see a further erosion of racial walls. And it will see America struggling to make sense of shifting racial classifications.Already, Americans are changing--in ways both substantive and superficial--to conform to the new, more egalitarian, ideal. Nazis may still march, but they are inevitably outnumbered by counterprotesters. Aryan Nation kooks may still kill;...
  • Easy Street Looks Like A Dead End

    Apartheid was so much more than some awful nightmare to be shaken off in freedom's first light. Yet in that euphoric moment in 1994 when Nelson Mandela finally came to power, decades of racial inequality seemed negated by the power of good will. Apartheid, which had segregated, subjugated and disfranchised blacks, was dead. And ambitious black South Africans, previously condemned to poverty, dreamt of becoming tycoons. Five-plus years later a harsh new reality has set in.The dream of immense wealth was a reflection of the times. When apartheid ended, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange took off, rising nearly 20 percent in 1994 and continuing to climb in 1995 and 1996. It seemed only fair for blacks to jump on for the ride. Anxious to curry favor with the new majority-black government, investment firms offered well-connected blacks an irresistible deal, the opportunity to buy huge blocks of stocks with no money of their own. Instead of money, the blacks would provide political access...
  • The Casualties Of War

    In search of stories, we sniff the sewer of scandal; and aroused by the scent, we fearless journalists strike. So tell us, George W., did you snort it? Did you smoke it? And assuming that you did, tell us when. Somehow we make of this a test of character. And in some minor sense it is. But in the end it doesn't tell us much about whether a man deserves to be president. Irrespective of what George W. Bush might have done in his wilder, daring days, he and other presidential candidates have a responsibility to reflect on this so-called war on drugs. Largely because of that so-called war, more Americans than ever are behind bars. The federal prison population quintupled in less than two decades, as the number of people sentenced for federal drug offenses multiplied more than 11 times. A huge proportion of those convicted have come from places such as Watts in Los Angeles that are predominantly black and Latino. Part of the reason is that drug dealing in poor inner-city communities is...
  • Deciphering The Code Of The Street

    No group has a monopoly on violent behavior, as this year's homicidal high-schoolers, gun-toting racists and the odd serial killer have made clear. Still, life is cheaper in some places than in others: a truth proved daily in urban communities where a stare, a shove or a disrespectful gesture can sometimes get you shot. Elijah Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist, has made understanding such behavior his life's work. "Code of the Street" (352 pages. Norton. $29.95) is his report from the bleakest part of the urban ghetto--"ground zero," as he calls it--where an almost Biblical battle rages between decency and depravity.In such a setting, Anderson maintains, violence serves a useful purpose. It's a way of demanding the respect that mainstream society withholds. It's the response of isolated, angry people fending for themselves. "Where you've got large numbers of alienated people, and the police are dealing with them in disrespectful ways, street justice is the norm," he...
  • The Trouble With Virtual Grief

    Even cyberspace weeps--megabyte-sized tears. "It's like they are part of my family," confides an America Online subscriber. "I am just one of millions of Americans feeling like I lost a part of myself," writes an MSNBC Web-site guest. Such sentiments permeate the virtual world, solicited in bulk by chat sites mourning the latest Kennedy death.There is something ineffably hollow--almost vulgar--about the exercise, about this merchandising of grief. So I'm hardly surprised that the same site inviting me to pray for John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and his sister-in-law also asks me to "sound off" and speculate, "Did hubris kill? Or just bad luck?" and to vote on the "why behind the decades of tragedies suffered by the Kennedy family."Nonetheless, we are ennobled by the sense that, gathered around computer screens and television sets, we are somehow sharing the families' burden. Real grief, however, is much more profound and infinitely more painful than what so many Americans seem to be...
  • The Good News About Black America

    It was a stunning vision of racial equality, manifested in a simple yet stirring mantra: "I have a dream." Though Martin Luther King Jr.'s cherished utopia has not arrived, it seems considerably less remote than it did in August 1963 when, from the Washington Mall, King challenged America to make his dream come true. African-Americans are no longer relegated, as he lamented, to "a lonely island of poverty" in the midst of plenty. By a wide array of measures, now is a great time--the best time ever--to be black in America.Black employment and home ownership are up. Murders and other violent crimes are down. Reading and math proficiency are climbing. Out-of-wedlock births are at their lowest rate in four decades. Fewer blacks are on welfare than at any point in recent memory. More are in college than at any point in history. And the percentage of black families living below the poverty line is the lowest it has been since the Census Bureau began keeping separate black poverty...
  • An Easy Sense Of Outrage

    There is something almost ritualistic about it. Some depraved psychopaths commit a shocking atrocity and we collectively rise in condemnation as we try to comprehend. What is the larger meaning? we ask ourselves. What does it say about us and our society? But like many rituals, this process really isn't about self-examination. It's about condemnation, and the reassurance that condemnation provides.What, after all, could we really expect to learn about American society from a pathetic character like John William King, a strutting white supremacist with an appetite for torture, self-aggrandizement, profanity and murder? We knew well before King and his cronies came along that demented, violent individuals existed and that--inevitably, given America's troubled racial history--some of those imbeciles would be racist. Sickening and outrageous as King's actions were, they don't tell us much about the role of race in today's world. Sure, some commentators tried to use them as a sign that a...
  • Memories In Blood

    WRITING IN ESSENCE MAGAZINE, ""AMISTAD'' midwife Debbie Allen described the Joseph Cinque saga as ""a little drop in a big bucket of blood memory we need to share with the world.'' Allen's implicit assumption is that ""Amistad'' is not enough, that we need to reach deeper into that bucket if we are to understand America. ...
  • Promises...Promises

    BY BUS AND TRAIN, BY CHARTERED jet and Harley, even by bicycle they came, by the hundreds of thousands, to bow down before their God. And if their leader's vision is true, their journey is just beginning. It will end, believes Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney, in nothing less than the spiritual revival of America--perhaps of the world. Men, touched by the spirit of God, will re-create society in the image of their faith: "You're going to see them move across the community unlike you've ever seen, and connect in ways in which they have not connected ... I see the churches coming together. And I see jobs coming out of it. I see the poor being fed...'cause God's going deep into the hearts of these men."Maybe it was the spirit of God or perhaps just the spirit of the moment, but something clearly seized the hearts of the endless sea of Promise Keepers gathered on the Mall at Saturday's huge "sacred assembly." Even before the meeting officially opened at noon, a solid mass of men...
  • Dialogue Of Dishonesty

    DIALOGUE, HOWEVER PAINFUL, IS ULTIMATELY HEALING - so believe those who worship at the shrine of Saint Oprah. Yet the truth, as talk TV illustrates daily, is that conversation doesn't necessarily lead to conciliation; it often is just another name for conflict. So when Bill Clinton suggests a national talkfest as a way of lifting ""the heavy burden of race from our children's future,'' skepticism is in order. ...
  • No Labels Need Apply

    Randall Kennedy would deliver us all from the sin of race-based thinking, if only he could get past the conflict in his own brain - the battle between the ethical ideal he cherishes and the moral muddle of the actual world. He abhors the idea of affirmative action, for instance, because it requires treating members of different racial groups differently. But if it is the only way to overcome "white-skin privilege," he will accept the trade-off, albeit reluctantly: "I would like to find some other way," he says. ...
  • The Color Bind

    EVER SINCE A FEDERAL COURT outlawed affirmative action at the University of Texas, Austin, law school last year, promoters of "diversity" have prophesied disaster. Now, as the school admits its first post-affirmative-action class, their nightmare is coming to pass. If the end of affirmative action is not really analogous to the onset of Jim Crow, to many Latino and black students, the distinction seems hardly worth the trouble of making. As Diana Saldana, president of the Chicano-Hispanic Law Students Association put it, "It took us 30 years to get here, and it took them 24 hours to dismantle any progress we have made." ...
  • Forgive And Forget?

    AN INJUSTICE UNRESOLVED AND UNFORGIVEN BURNS A hole in the heart. Although an apology cannot erase the wound, it can serve as a balm. It can "help to heal," says Fred Gray, the attorney for the survivors of the Tuskegee (Ala.) experiment--a study in official turpitude that (from 1952 to 1972) saw the U.S. government perpetrating medical malpractice in the name of syphilis research on African-Americans. ...
  • The House That Jack Built

    IF JACKIE ROBINSON HAD NEVER PICKED UP A BAT, WOULD Americans more readily remember Charles Drew? Would the brilliant surgeon, administrator and blood-plasma researcher (who died three years before Robinson's major-league debut) personify the prevailing positive image of black American manhood? Not a chance. After all, as onetime NBA star and former senator Bill Bradley points out, America and its media simply don't idolize intellectuals the way they worship performers. So Michael Jordan is more celebrated than any black physician, in the same way, notes Bradley, that Madonna shines more brightly than any white, female doctor. In a culture that lionizes entertainers and sees athletes as American heroes, Robinson was destined to be revered. His accomplishments helped to convince millions of young blacks that sports super-stardom is a viable path to success. As Art Taylor of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society puts it, "Education has failed so many that...
  • The Black Gen X Nobody Knows

    IMAGINE A 16-YEAR-OLD Harlem boy whose parents are both dead, and odds are high you won't conjure up Antwan Allen. Yet Antwan--number one in his class, president of the drama club, president of the student council, editor of his school's paper and head of its honor society--insists, with passion and conviction, that he is not an aberration, that he is just as representative of his race and generation as the hip-hop boys of the 'hood. ...
  • Getting Past The Myths

    FOR MORE THAN TWO AND A HALF YEARS, THE O. J. SIMPSON saga was the most important domestic story in many American lives, consuming enough newsprint to sink a fleet of ships. It so skewed news priorities that coverage of any other event was, as publicist Perri Dorset put it, always "subject to an O.J. disaster."Still, for all the coverage and outrage it generated, the enduring lessons of Simpson's never-ending tale are anything but obvious. In fact, much of conventional wisdom concerning that story turns out, upon reflection, to be fiat-out wrong-myths rooted in the desire to find deep significance in a story that, unfortunately, has none; one that, at base, is depressingly banal.The Simpson trials, especially the criminal trial, opened a serious racial breach in American society. In reality, neither the trials nor the verdicts tore the races apart. The breach the trials brought to light existed long before the murders in Brentwood-reflecting, among other things, a black-white gap in...
  • Why Ebonics Is Irrelevant

    IF OAKLAND'S SCHOOL BOARD ACCOMPLISHED NOTHING else, it gave people (at least those who were not howling in dismay) something to laugh at over the holidays. Yet, all the hooting over "Ebonics" notwithstanding, the board's call for change was justified. America's dereliction of its educational duty to black children is a national tragedy. Unfortunately, in lieu of a solution, Oakland, Calif., came up with stale, silly rhetoric.The problem is not that the board embraced Ebonics, but that it put Ebonics at the core of its educational strategy. If schoolteachers want to learn black vernacular, or turn themselves into amateur linguists, that is perfectly fine, perhaps even desirable, but it won't necessarily transform them into better teachers. If Oakland educators truly are incapable of communicating with children from the " 'hood," they have a problem that a crash course in "black English" won't solve. The key to teaching black children (or any children) is not in convincing them that...