Race & Ethnicity

Last Day of a Young Black Man

Fruitvale Station's intimate portrait of Oscar Grant promises better days ahead for black film.

AP Images/Ron Koberer

Three hours before the advance screening of Fruitvale Station I attended in Chicago, a line of eager fans snaked through the Cineplex. Many were dressed up, hair done right, faces beat. Writer and director Ryan Coogler and stars Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan were on hand for a talkback after the screening. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, introducing the actors and the drama, which won the 2013 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, referred to the movie’s subject matter as “Trayvon Martin in real time” and led a vigorous call-and-response.

The Privilege of Whiteness

flickr/shaire productions

As a biracial child who spent part of his youth abroad, Barack Obama learned the feeling of otherness and became attuned to how he was perceived by those around him. As a politician, he knew well that many white people saw him as a vehicle for their hopes for a post-racial society. Even if those hopes were somewhat naïve, they came from a sincere and admirable desire, and he was happy to let those sentiments carry him along. Part of the bargain, though, was that he had to be extremely careful about how he talked about race, and then only on the rarest of occasions. His race had to be a source of hope and pride—for everybody—but not of displeasure, discontent, or worst of all, a grievance that would demand redress. No one knew better than him that everything was fine only as long as we all could feel good about Barack Obama being black.

So when he made his unexpected remarks about Trayvon Martin on Friday, Obama was stepping into some dangerous territory. By talking about his own experience as a black man, he was trying to foster both understanding and empathy, to explain to white Americans why the Martin case has caused so much consternation and pain among black Americans. The petty (and not so petty) daily suspicion and indignities and mistreatment black people are talking about? Even I, the most powerful human being on the planet, know it well.

In doing so—and by saying "it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching"—he may have implicitly encouraged white people to think about their own privilege, the privilege of whiteness. Privilege is a dangerous word, one that raises lots of hackles, and one Obama himself would never, ever use. But it's inescapable.

Discussing Trayvon Martin, Obama Embraces his Blackness

White House

When President Obama issued a pro forma statement following last week’s verdict in the Zimmerman trial, there was some disappointment—“Why didn’t he say more?” It only takes a small step back to see the answer; not only would it have been inappropriate for the president to question the decision of the jury, but given wide outrage at the ruling, it could have inflamed passions on both sides.

The Great Detroit Betrayal

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Detroit has filed for bankruptcy. Most of the spot-news coverage has focused on the immediate fiscal crisis of the city, but the immediate fiscal crisis really isn’t what got the city into such deep trouble. Certainly, Detroit’s contracts with its employees and its debts to its retirees don’t really explain anything about how and why this once-great city has come to such grief. Those contracts and retirement benefits are par for the course for major American cities—certainly, no more generous than those in cities of comparable size.

Any remotely accurate autopsy of the city will find that the cancer that killed Detroit was the decline of the American auto industry.

Why "Black-on-Black Crime" is a Dangerous Idea

Flickr Creative Commons

In writing about the myth “black-on-black crime” this week, I’ve gotten a huge number of responses, from both sides.

Chart of the Day

It can hardly be said too often that the George Zimmerman trial, or any one trial for that matter, only tells us a tiny bit about what happens when one person kills another and how they're treated by the justice system. Before the verdict, I predicted that Zimmerman would be acquitted, not because I'm some kind of genius, but based on two factors: There was no one alive who could contradict Zimmerman's account of what happened, and Florida law permits you to chase someone down, start a fight with them, and then shoot them if you start losing the fight. But what if we broaden our view a bit, and look not just at one case, but at thousands of cases? Does race matter?

You may be saying, of course it matters, but let's look at some data. John Roman of the Urban Institute took data from 53,000 homicides over the last few years gathered by the FBI, and produced this stunning chart (h/t Richard Florida):

Trayvon Martin, Blackness, and America's Fear of Crime

Flickr

I’ve written here, and elsewhere, that “black-on-black crime” as a specific phenomena isn’t a thing. Yes, the vast majority of crimes against African Americans are committed by other African Americans, and yes, black men face a higher murder rate than any other group in the country. But those facts are easily explained by residential segregation and proximity—people commit crimes against those closest to them—and the particular circumstances of many black communities, which are marred by concentrated poverty and nonexistent economic opportunities.

When Tea Partiers Try to Show Their "Diversity"

Jamelle Bouie / The American Prospect

Judging from the matching red t-shirts, bottled water, snack stands, and cover band playing a passable version of Marvin Gaye’s classic, “What’s Going On?”, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume there was a large and elaborate family yesterday, held on the Capitol. But, in fact, it was a rally—organized by the Black American Leadership Alliance, a right-wing group with ties to white nationalists—to oppose the comprehensive immigration bill that has passed the Senate, and is fighting to survive in the House of Representatives.

Bastille Day Blues in the Big Easy

A walk through New Orleans the day after the Zimmerman verdict. 

AP Images/Mel Evans

Like, I imagine, a whole lot of people, I spent last Saturday night online, venting about the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial and taking what solace I could in everybody else’s equally futile vents. But I knew I couldn’t keep at it forever, and not only for my blood pressure’s sake. I wanted to make sure I’d be up in time for Sunday morning’s wreath-laying.

Is "Justice for Trayvon" Even Possible?

Elvert Barnes / Flickr

For all the anger and disappointment that’s come with George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, it’s important to recognize that simply having this trial—regardless of the outcome—was a victory. Remember, the Martin saga began with outrage over the conduct of the Sanford, Florida police department. Zimmerman killed Martin, claimed self-defense, and was released after a night of questioning from Sanford detectives, who never challenged the claim. If not for six weeks of protests and demonstrations, which pressured Sanford police into bringing charges, Zimmerman would have walked away without having to account for his actions.

When Justice Is Blind and Deaf

AP Images/Matt Smith

If justice is a conspiracy between moral logic and the law, then the revelation of the 36 hours following the George Zimmerman verdict is just how complete justice’s failure has been. The shambling closing statement at the trial last Thursday by attorney Bernie de la Rionda was a testament to how fully the state was seduced—with only occasional bulletins from some larger perspective by fellow prosecutor John Guy—into allowing the terms of the contest to be defined by Zimmerman’s counsel, Second City-wannabe Don West and Mark O’Mara, who was his own greatest competition in the sweepstakes for who could make the proceedings’ most flabbergasting comment. After telling the apparently beguiled jury that his client wasn’t accountable for a single moment of the events of February 26, 2012, that led to the death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, O’Mara declared at Saturday night’s press conference that had the ethnicities of defendant and victim been reversed, there would have been no trial at all.

It's Not All Bad News with the GOP and Latinos

pamhule/Flickr

If comprehensive immigration reform were guaranteed to give votes to Republican politicians—and presidential candidates in particular—there would be no argument about passing it in the House of Representatives. It would be a done deal. But there’s a real question as to whether Republicans will reap any gains from passing the bill, or at least enough to outweigh their skepticism for some of its provisions. David Brooks is on the side of those who want a bill, and in his column this morning, he warns that Republicans are dooming themselves to irrelevance by opposing reform:

Affirmative Action's Ominous Future

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

One thing the three most anticipated cases of the recently completed Supreme Court term have in common is the questions they didn't answer. Hollingsworth v. Perry, by ducking the question on jurisdictional grounds, left the constitutional status of state bans on same-sex marriage an open question. Shelby County v. Holder theoretically permitted Congress to update the preclearance formula to put the teeth back into the Voting Rights Act. However, the Court gave lower courts future Supreme Courts no useful guideline for how Congress could proceed. (Admittedly, the answer for how Congress can constitutionally proceed, at least for the Roberts Court, is almost certainly "it can't.") But the term's clearest passing of the buck was the decision in the potentially major affirmative-action case, UT Austin v. Fisher. While many people (including me) expected the Court to use the case as a vehicle to declare virtually all affirmative action in public higher education unconstitutional, after eight long months the Court issued a brief opinion that merely sent the issue back to the lower courts without a definitive ruling. What then, does Fisher suggest about the future of affirmative action?

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Gay Equality 1, Civil Rights 0 – join us in wondering how to celebrate this Fourth of July. (Hint: not by seeing Johnny Depp’s new movie, that’s for sure.)

AP Photo/The Omaha World-Herald, Brynn Anderson

Call it coincidence, but my bedside reading for the past couple of weeks has been the new two-volume boxed set of the Library of America’s Reporting Civil Rights. Awe-inducing and frequently thrilling, this monumental anthology of on-the-scene coverage of the fight for black equality features contributions by scores of writers, some rightly renowned—James Baldwin, Garry Wills, et. al.—and some unjustly obscure. Part One deals with the years 1941-1963; Part Two tackles the pressure-cooker decade that followed King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Each volume also includes a sheaf of photographs, primarily of the writers themselves at the time. They’re often evocative ones, even if the era’s great photojournalism—no less worthy of commemoration—gets short shrift as a result.

Anyway, I won’t pretend I’ve made much more than a dent in the set’s almost 2,000 pages. But that’s not the point, since Reporting Civil Rights could easily keep my idle hours occupied until Christmas. (Not only was I kidding myself that I could somehow plow through it in time to write a full-fledged review this month, but yes, Monsieur Proust, you’ve lost out—again.) The point is that the Supreme Court sure does know how to cure me of any illusions that I’m reading about settled history.

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