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
T hree 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. There was a charge in the air, like the one I felt a month earlier at a crowded screening of the romantic comedy Peeples, written and directed by Tina Gordon Chism. During both screenings, attended by predominantly black audiences, the crowd laughed, nodded in the darkness, and, when each movie finished, offered sighs of contentment and effusive praise. At the end of Fruitvale Station, there were also tears. Contemporary black film is something of a...

The Privilege of Whiteness

flickr/shaire productions
A s 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 of 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...

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. But it isn’t out of bounds for Obama to speak on the meaning of Trayvon Martin, which he did this afternoon, during a White House press briefing. And unlike his earlier statement, this was a frank and heartfelt take on the racial issues surrounding the shooting and the trial. Which, to be honest, came as a surprise. Barack Obama’s entire political career has been about de-racializing his personal identity. Yes, he was a black senator from Illinois, but for white audiences at least, he wasn’t a black one. It’s why the Jeremiah Wright controversy was so dangerous for his candidacy—it emphasized his...

The Great Detroit Betrayal

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
AP Photo/Duane Burleson D etroit 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 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 the cancer that killed Detroit was the decline of the American auto industry. The failure of U.S. automakers in the '70s, '80s and '90s to make better cars at a time when foreign-made autos were beginning to enter the U.S. market was surely one factor. Another was the trade deals that made it easy for Detroit automakers to relocate to cheaper climes—most particularly, NAFTA, which...

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

Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons In writing about the myth of “black-on-black crime” this week, I’ve gotten a huge number of responses, from both sides. The disagreement, in particular, has taken the form of incredulousness. For example , here’s Rod Dreher of the The American Conservative , who says that the Zimmerman verdict has caused me to “lose my mind”: Jamelle Bouie today wrote a Daily Beast post tied to the Trayvon Martin situation, claiming that the fact that nearly all black murder victims in America are killed by blacks just goes to show that there is no such thing as black-on-black crime, and that the concept is ginned up by white people to justify their fear of black masculinity and black criminality. Bouie also says that NYC’s stop-and-frisk program is racist, and not justified by statistics — this, even though NYPD stats show that 96 percent of all shooting victims are black or Hispanic, and 97 percent of all shooters were black or Hispanic. These statistics are so clear, so...

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 ): In case you're having trouble seeing the lines, the combination least likely to be...

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. “But what’s the big deal?”, you might ask. “Why can’t we use ‘black-on-black crime’ as a shorthand for these particular problems?” The answer isn’t difficult. Violent crime in hyper-segregated neighborhoods doesn’t happen because the residents are black. Their race isn’t incidental—the whole reason these neighborhoods exist is racial policymaking by white lawmakers—but there is nothing about blackness that makes violence more likely...

When Tea Partiers Try to Show Their "Diversity"

Jamelle Bouie / The American Prospect
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 reunion 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. Two things stood out about the event. First, even in the shade—and even with fans placed strategically around the area—it was hot. I would say it was too hot to be outside in the first place, but obviously, several hundred people disagreed with me. Or at least, opposed immigration reform enough to tolerate the conditions. And second, despite its organizers and its speakers—who were predominantly African American—the large...

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. No, not in Trayvon Martin’s memory. This one was at Joanie on The Pony’s statue in honor of Bastille Day. Summoning Decatur Street’s T-shirt shops to battle from her gilded mount at the French Market’s upper tip, she’s better known to history as Joan of Arc, and her statue has a special meaning for me. Partly thanks to George Bernard Shaw, who wrote a not-bad play about her, Joanie on The Pony is my favorite saint -- a category, I suspect, especially dear to atheists – and my first sight of her more or less sealed the deal on my wife and I moving here. Admittedly, my Francophilia is a form of Stockholm syndrome. Due to my...

Is "Justice for Trayvon" Even Possible?

Elvert Barnes / Flickr
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. If police had immediately arrested Zimmerman, there never would have been a national movement around Trayvon. It was the lack of action, as well as the circumstances—a young black man, killed by a young white one, in a small Southern town—that sparked comparisons to the long history of unpunished violence against African...

When Justice Is Blind and Deaf

AP Images/Matt Smith
AP Images/Matt Smith I f 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...

The Zimmerman Acquittal Isn't about "Stand Your Ground"

AP Photo/Mike Brown
AP Photo/Bay Area News Group, Anda Chu Y esteday, a jury in Sanford, Florida acquitted George Zimmerman, who had been charged with second-degree murder (with a lesser-included charge of mansluaghter) for shooting and killing the unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. That Zimmerman was not punished for kiling Martin is certainly disturbing. But it is disturbing for somewhat different reasons than much of the case's media coverage posits. The problem with the Zimmerman acquittal was not Florida's ill-conceived "stand your ground" law. The problem with the acquittal was not a racist and unreasonable jury, either. Rather, the acquittal of Zimmerman reflects something else equally serious and unsettling: the failure of the law in many states to keep up with the realities of America's gun culture. In a society in which many African-Americans are presumed to be criminals and large numbers of people carry concealed deadly weapons, some ways of defining self-defense (even if they do not entail...

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: Before Asians, Hispanics and all the other groups can be won with economic plans, they need to feel respected and understood by the G.O.P. They need to feel that Republicans respect their ethnic and cultural identity. If Republicans reject immigration reform, that will be a giant sign of disrespect, and nothing else Republicans say will even be heard. Whether this bill passes or not, this country is heading toward a...

Affirmative Action's Ominous Future

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak O ne thing the three most anticipated cases of the recently completed Supreme Court had in common: They left the big questions unanswered. Hollingsworth v. Perry , by ducking the question on jurisdictional grounds, left the constitutional status of state bans on same-sex marriage unresolved. 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 and 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.") The term's clearest passing of the buck was the decision in the affirmative-action case, Fisher v. University of Texas . 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...

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
AP Photo C all 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...

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