Kicked While Down: Unemployed and Uninsured

While America is fixated on the BP oil spill, another crisis has been brewing under the radar: the denial of insurance coverage to the unemployed. Talk about being kicked when you’re down.

According to a June 12 Associated Press article: “Congress allowed emergency health care assistance for unemployed workers to expire May 31, and seems unwilling to renew it despite pleas from President Barack Obama.”

If you talk to most unemployed people, you will find that they do not want to be unemployed. In fact, they want jobs. Unless you’ve been living in an alternate reality (like some of our wealthier citizens), jobs have been few and far in between since before the government and free world admitted that we were in an actual recession.

Speaking of that recession, which was caused by the economic policies of the Bush administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, it’s repulsive for them to now say that they do not want to extend this benefit because it will add to the deficit. And I am disgusted with Democrats who won’t press the issue for fear of not being re-elected. The same politicians who spent countless months trying to get health care reform passed in order to be elected are now turning away from extending this benefit. With representatives like this, who needs enemies?

Lawmakers want to pretend that this deficit and this recession came out of thin air, but it didn’t, and it has impacted North Carolina in a horrible way. Last year, North Carolina’s unemployment rate was the highest it had ever been in 30 years. We won’t even mention the thousands who actually managed to keep jobs, but had to let go of insurance because they couldn’t afford it — or their small businesses couldn’t afford to offer it.

For the unemployed, insurance premiums are more of an issue because they are cost-prohibitive for anyone without a trust fund. The North Carolina/South Carolina jobless rate was at its highest level in 20 years, hitting 12.8 just in January. The unemployment rate remained above 12 percent for some time in Charlotte, prompting President Obama to make a visit in March to discuss job creation, small businesses and a green economy. As of this printing, the unemployment rate has actually been dropping for the last three months, which is good news; however, even though unemployment has dropped to 10.3 percent, 472,614 people are still currently unemployed in the Queen City. So, what happens when these folks and their families get sick?

Under President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, the government provided a 65 percent COBRA subsidy to ensure that those newly unemployed would have health insurance coverage while they looked for a job. It’s one thing to be unemployed, but unemployed and uninsured? Crazy things happen when people are under that type of stress.

Take for example Kathy Myers, the unemployed and uninsured Michigan woman who shot herself in the shoulder in order to get medical attention that she needed for a shoulder injury. It is illegal to deny emergency medical treatment to someone because they lack health insurance. Myers took advantage of that law so that she could get medical attention. That’s extreme (and hopefully Myers got some psychiatric help, too), but this incident is an example of what people should not have to do to get medical care.

Charlotte hasn’t had a “Kathy Myers” yet, but — with almost half a million people out of work and presumably uninsured — how long will it be before we have one? How much can people take? Myers reached her breaking point. What will be ours?

Not all of our elected officials have turned their backs on the uninsured unemployed. According to the AP report, “Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio have introduced a measure that would allow the program to continue helping people who get laid off through Nov. 30.” Now if only Congress would entertain it.

May 31 has come and gone, and millions of people don’t know whether they will have subsidized insurance coverage. Some people are calling it welfare. Call it what you want, but when people are desperate, they do desperate things — to themselves and to others. It’s not rocket science. Most people obtain insurance through their jobs. When they’re jobless, they don’t have insurance and this measure helped them to have something to offer their families.

I once met an Australian man who told me that he didn’t understand why Americans were up in arms over universal health care. He said that society is only as strong as its weakest members, so it is imperative that you take care of them or your country will not thrive. With more than 10 percent of Charlotteans out of work and even more without health care coverage, it’s a sure bet that we are not thriving.

This article originally appeared on Creative Loafing, where Nsenga serves as cultural critic. She also serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com where she writes the Buzz section and contributes features.

Chris Henry’s Death Exposes Double Standard

Toxicology reports are back for NFL wide receiver Chris Henry. The results show that Henry died in Charlotte last December from a fractured skull and other head injuries, which occurred when he jumped or fell from a moving truck; his fiancĂ©e Loleini Tonga was behind the wheel. The story made national headlines and kicked off a media frenzy about Tonga’s innocence or guilt.

High-profile domestic disputes, especially those involving NFL players, aren’t new in Charlotte. Former Carolina Panther Ray Carruth murdered the mother of his child more than 10 years ago. And in 2003, Deidra Lane killed Carolina Panthers running back Fred Lane, alleging domestic abuse.

Folks took a particular interest in the Henry case because the athlete, who experienced some problems early in his career, had supposedly turned his life around, winning his spot back on the Cincinnati Bengals — a team that had previously dismissed him for bad behavior.

According to witnesses, Tonga was fleeing a domestic dispute with Henry at the couple’s home. Henry jumped into the back of the pick-up truck when Tonga drove off and, somehow, he was ejected from the vehicle. Authorities ruled the incident an accident, declining to press charges against Tonga.

When the accident first happened, comment threads surfaced on the Web calling Tonga a murderer. Some people said: “Had she just pulled over, he would be alive.” I thought to myself, “Had he been able to control his emotions and not chased her out of the house and jumped on the back of the truck when she left, he would be alive.”

I heard and read that Tonga was driving at breakneck speed, purposely making him fall off of the truck. Investigators found that Tonga was not traveling more than 19 mph. I thought perhaps Henry’s anger, adrenaline or superior physical condition contributed to his “jumping” from the truck. I remember trying to reserve judgment until more facts became available, even though in my mind it was clear that it was a dispute gone wrong.

But when trying to chat about it with friends, male and female, the same tone crept into the conversation: Tonga, who was called every name but a child of God (including “bitch,” “whore” and “gold digger”), was supposedly this venomous woman who plotted to trap Henry and purposely kill him. Really? It’s always interesting that people think athletes are so much better than the women they date. But I digress.

When I asked folks who spoke so harshly about Tonga what was driving their anger, many simply stated that they were giving Henry the benefit of the doubt. I thought to myself: “Why weren’t they willing to give Tonga the benefit of the doubt?” One friend said Tonga left him on the side of the road, which shows that she knew what she was doing. But Henry, who ran out of his house and jumped in the back of her truck, didn’t know what he was doing? Another colleague stated that if Tonga had stayed in the house or not driven off, Henry would be alive. I wondered aloud, “But would Tonga be alive?”

It was clear that very few people cared about this woman because she wasn’t an NFL player. In their minds, she was some “groupie” who bagged a professional athlete and killed him for no reason. Folks were blind to the facts that were coming out about the case. With all of that selective hearing and reading, it was determined that Tonga was a horrible person. I suppose if a woman isn’t a pop superstar, then it doesn’t matter if she’s involved in a volatile or abusive romantic relationship. But that’s another article.

The irony of the situation is that this type of thinking about women informs domestic violence. Women as evil temptresses who lead men to do dubious things is part of the world’s historical narrative in all aspects of society including religion, education and popular culture. It is communicated to us every day that women are objects of desire who cannot be trusted. When women try to escape this way of thinking, they are usually punished … much like Tonga. And it is not just men who think like this — it is also women, many of whom raise batterers.

With the recent findings that Henry was not intoxicated or on drugs during the incident, the hating on Tonga has resumed. The failure to address Henry’s role in the domestic dispute that cost him his life has resumed as well. While domestic violence incidents are present, real conversations about the problem are nonexistent.

This incident made me think about the countless number of domestic disputes that happen in Charlotte that don’t get national news coverage. Last year 617 women were admitted to Charlotte’s Shelter for Battered Women. More than 2,000 were turned away. So what are victims to do if there is nowhere for them to run?

A campaign is currently underway to build a larger battered women’s shelter, which is good and bad for obvious reasons. Unless we get a handle on this epidemic, clearly there will be plenty of high- and no-profile cases. As evidenced by the Henry case, no one wins when it comes to domestic violence.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing. She is also an editor-at-large for TheRoot.com, where she writes the Buzz Section and feature stories.

The Tradition of Hate Continues

“The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.” — Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman speaking about President Theodore Roosevelt hosting Booker T. Washington at the White House in 1900.

OK, is it just me or does it seem that society is moving backward? The above hate language was spouted by then S.C. Sen. Ben Tillman, who was angered about a black man being invited to the White House. In 2010, folks — like Republican S.C. Sen. Jake Knotts — clearly feel that way about the S.C. governor’s office and the White House.

During a radio show that was taped in a Columbia bar, Knotts called Rep. Nikki Haley, an Indian-American Republican woman running for governor, a “fucking raghead” several times while explaining how he believed she was hiding her true religion from voters.

Haley has been endorsed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, but is under fire from Knotts because she is an Indian woman running against his candidate of choice: Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer. It doesn’t matter that she is a Christian and recognizes Sikh celebrations in deference to her parents. It only matters that she is Indian and was raised in a monotheistic religious household. Is Newt Gingrich, who was raised Baptist and was a practicing Baptist most of his life, less of a Republican because he converted to Catholicism?

During Knotts’ rant, he stated that there was already a “raghead” in the White House. And, not to worry: Like a good Christian, he did apologize for using the “F” word.

Unfortunately, the South Carolina tradition of using political spaces to spout venomous and hateful speech has not evolved even though the state is changing in many ways. People were up in arms over Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” to President Obama, but Knotts’ comments haven’t generated as much of a backlash. It is clear that Knotts’ problem with Haley has nothing to do with her politics, which are very close to his, but everything to do with her race, gender and religious identity. The thought of someone who isn’t male and white winning the governor’s office literally drives Knotts, and people like him, mad. The saddest part about Knotts’ words is that they are hateful and incite more hate speech and hateful behavior in our society.

I was shocked and appalled to learn of the recent alleged shooting and dragging death of a black man in Newberry, S.C. Anthony Hill, 30, of Winnsboro, S.C., was found dead on the side of U.S. Highway 176. According to CBSnews.com, police followed the trail of blood from Hill’s body that stretched over 10 miles to a trailer occupied by 19-year-old Gregory Collins. The coroner stated that Hill died from a gunshot wound and police are trying to determine why Collins dragged the body after Hill was killed. The crime is being investigated possibly as a hate crime because of how the crime was executed, pun intended, and the fact that Collins is white and Hill is black.

The dragging death or lynching of a black man is not new, especially in the Carolinas with its long history of lynching and anti-civil rights rhetoric and legislation. According to John Hammond Moore’s Carnival of Blood: Dueling, Lynching, and Murder in South Carolina 1880-1920, there were 144 verified lynchings in South Carolina between 1880 and 1947. In recent memory, the high-profile dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in June 1998 in Jasper, Texas, generated countless headlines, so it isn’t like South Carolina is breaking ground in the area of hate. What is interesting is how hate crimes intersect with hate rhetoric, which is clearly on the rise. I would argue that the case involving Hill and Collins, co-workers and acquaintances, is a recent example of this.

I don’t understand why folks can get arrested for falsely yelling, “Fire!” in a public place, because it threatens public safety, but can say hateful things, which is also a threat to public safety — particularly those who are on the receiving end of hate.

It was recently reported that a group in Prescott, Arizona, was calling for a mural depicting faces of blacks and Latinos on a public school to be lightened or changed to white … but that’s not even the bad part. While working on the mural, people were driving by, shouting racial epithets at the adults and children painting the mural. With Arizona’s recent frenzy of racist legislation (legalized racial profiling and the elimination of ethnic studies from public school curricula) is it a stretch to imagine that some sort of violence will probably follow?

Which leads me squarely back to South Carolina, which has a tradition of politicians — Democrat and Republican — using their office as a bully pulpit, pun intended, to incite hateful behavior. Hate speech creates the climate and conditions that are ripe for hate crimes. I just hope that some people come to this realization before someone else loses his/her life.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing. She is an editor-at-large for TheRoot.com, where she writes the Buzz section and a bi-weekly column.

Soccer Fever Rises Worldwide but Dips in Charlotte

World Cup fever is in full effect in South Africa. Everywhere you turn, someone is talking about it. Commercials, music videos, special songs on the radio, official jerseys and soccer balls all sport World Cup-related imagery. TV shows of all genres have written the countdown to the 2010 World Cup into their story lines. South Africa’s Department of Education has even designated Fridays as “Football Fridays,” where teachers, administrators and students, most of whom usually wear uniforms, are allowed to don World Cup jerseys and T-shirts.

As I travel throughout South Africa, it is not lost on me that one of Charlotte‘s most interesting soccer-oriented organizations, Concrete2Green, is in jeopardy. Currently the group is housed at Eastland Mall, which will no longer exist in a couple of weeks — so they will be, for all intents and purposes, homeless. It’s tragically ironic that an organization dedicated to bringing soccer to the inner city is losing its lease during the month of the most anticipated World Cup in recent history.

Concrete2Green teaches kids (among other skills) the art of futsal, which is a variation of soccer that is played indoors on surfaces different from traditional grass fields. The ball used is smaller with less bounce than a regulation soccer ball. There are two teams, with five players each, and one goalkeeper. The team is allowed unlimited substitutions for team players. The game is judged based on improvisation, ball handling and the ability to pass in tight spaces.

The goal of Concrete2Green is to bring soccer to communities that wouldn’t normally have access to traditional soccer fields, mainly those in urban settings. Its “higher calling” was to take abandoned spaces of recreation and revitalize them with sport, creating a community where youth have a space to share, communicate and, of course, play soccer. Through this, the hope was to create players who would then go on and compete in traditional soccer (football) tournaments or become a part of the growing futsal movement across the world.

It is with this in mind that Akbar Majeed and Irvine Smalls Jr. started Concrete2Green, and they accomplished their goals, bringing together black, brown and white communities in Charlotte. On any given day, they would have 200 or more players in and out of the Eastland Mall location with no drama — which was much needed at that troubled mall. It is truly sad thinking about the possible demise of this organization — because of the loss of its primary home — that has managed to accomplish in a short period of time what many have not been able to do in decades, through the lens of sports.

Sports has always been a space where social and political issues are either highly charged or slowly disappear. To give young people who would not ordinarily have the opportunity to explore soccer in any form a chance to develop skills used on and off the field is important and significant. As I watch Bafana Bafana (South Africa’s national soccer team) on every channel, their team is made up of people from their country. The same is true of Brazil, Portugal, Nigeria and Germany, to name a few.

When the United States rolled out its 2010 World Cup roster this week, only four of the 23 players on the team play for American soccer clubs. I thought to myself that organizations like Concrete2Green are necessary if for no other reason than to develop a pool of homegrown soccer players who can represent our country on the world stage. Even though futsal is different, it is based on soccer, so it is not out of the realm of imagination that traditional soccer players may develop from this sport.

As I am surrounded by 2010 World Cup mania, my mind is on Charlotte and thinking about the role that we could have played in creating homegrown talent that could possibly compete on the international level one day. As is the case in our fair city, there’s loads of talent in a number of categories, but our ability to nurture and grow this talent is a challenge for us. Futsal/soccer are not immune to this challenge.

In the United States in general, we get behind so many sports — even extreme sports are wildly popular. It is a mystery to me why soccer doesn’t make the cut, particularly with so many immigrants from countries that live and breathe soccer (aka football). Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have some of these young people from Concrete2Green travel to South Africa to witness the 2010 World Cup in person? (It’s the first time that the World Cup has been hosted by an African country and judging by the growing challenges leading up to the tournament, it may be the last.)

Whatever the case, losing Concrete2Green at this time would be a sad thing — particularly as the rest of the world celebrates what we’ve let go.

Nsenga Burton serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing, where she examines pop culture through the lens of race, class and gender. She is an editor-at-large at TheRoot.com, where she writes the Buzz section and a bi-weekly column.

Film Champion Dennis Darrell Leaves Behind Rich Legacy

Last week, I and many other Charlotteans were shocked to learn of the passing of Dennis Darrell. Dennis was a tireless advocate of independent film, especially black film, here in Charlotte. If you read this column regularly, you may remember a recent piece titled, “Where is Charlotte’s Independent Film Community?” I had the opportunity to interview Dennis for the piece and, as always, he had the most positive outlook on the subject.

He stated: “A community as I see it — as an active network that comes together to view and make independent films — we have that. To demonstrate how much the community is changing, we now have [a number of] groups screening films as opposed to one or two, which is good. The more people, the better.”

While I was pontificating whether we even had an independent film community in Charlotte, Dennis was clear that there was one, albeit small. The fact that it was small and fractured didn’t take away from the existence of an independent film community; rather, it just gave us an opportunity to work harder to close those gaps and work more closely together.

I remember thinking to myself that Dennis has been programming film for a long time (more than 10 years), and he still sees it as a beginning. This was a man comfortable with the fact that change is a process. He was able to see the good in a situation where others, like myself, argued that the local film scene was broken.

Out of the people I interviewed for the piece, he was my last subject. I remember thinking that such optimism is rare and perhaps I should think differently about how “community” is defined. Dennis reminded me in that interview that you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We must understand that the film community in Charlotte is a work in progress and do what we can to become a part of the process that will inevitably create the desired reality.

It is this optimism that I remember most about Dennis, who welcomed me to the Charlotte film scene with open arms in 2001 when I first moved here from Los Angeles. Many know me as a writer, but few know me as a filmmaker, which is my first love. I met Dennis at a screening that he held at the Afro-American Cultural Center (now the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture). We chatted, and like many other filmmakers new to the area, he took me under his wing, introducing me to other filmmakers and programmers. It was Dennis who connected me with the folks at The Light Factory, with whom I developed a great relationship.

It was Dennis who insisted that I screen my short film Wooden Nickels. I didn’t want to show it, because I thought it was too old, having made it in 2000. It was Dennis who told me that it was an important film and needed to be seen, so it was screened. As I was moving closer to academia and writing, and moving further away from film, it was Dennis who asked me to host his annual film festival and field questions from the audience, which reminded passion for film. It was Dennis who said, “You’ve got to get back to filmmaking.”

It was Dennis who organized a dinner to introduce me to other filmmakers like Steve Rutherford and Tre McGriff. It was Dennis who connected me with Beth Petty at the Charlotte Film Office and Robert Crumbine of Charlotte Center City Partners. It was Dennis who let me know that my old friends Christine and Michael Swanson were moving to Charlotte, and of course, we reconnected. Dennis was the king of connecting people. He made so many introductions and wanted nothing in return. That was just the type of person that he was — doing what he could to move film forward in Charlotte. Dennis did this for many filmmakers who moved to the Queen City.

Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail on Monday, May 17, from Tre McGriff and the Swansons that Dennis had passed away. I was stunned and saddened that I would not be able to be there for his homegoing, since I was in South Africa. I knew that he suffered a stroke in the past, but I thought he rebounded. I saw him during CIAA, and during our last e-mail exchange, which was two weeks ago, we discussed screening my documentary on the public servants strike in South Africa this fall in Charlotte. As always he was optimistic that we would get a great venue, have a good turnout and add value to the city.

Dennis was loved and respected in the community at large and, I would argue, the glue of the local independent film community. He will be greatly missed here on earth, but he is in a far better place.

Nsenga serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing and is an editor-at-large for TheRoot.com, where she writes the Buzz section and feature stories.