Race & Ethnicity

The Seven Stages of Important Black Film Fatigue

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If you live outside of major film markets like New York or Los Angeles, this weekend marked your first opportunity to see Steve McQueen's much-lauded 12 Years a Slave. But it's probable that you've already heard early buzz, either from fawning reviewers or from friends who've caught advance screenings. Perhaps you've heard that its commitment to historical accuracy has resulted in graphic depictions of violence and torture. Maybe your best friend still can't shake the cracking urgency in Chiewetel Ejiofor's voice or a haunting expression on Lupita Nyong’o's face.

The Inevitable Elimination of Affirmative Action in Michigan

Yesterday, the Court heard oral arguments in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. The case involves a decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down a Michigan constitutional amendment banning the use of racial preferences in higher education. The oral argument did nothing to dispel the nearly universal assumption of court-watchers that the decision will be reversed, although the argument against the amendment has a stronger basis in precedent than it's sometimes been given credit for.

In Catalonia, a Warning on One-State Solutions

AP Images/Paco Serinelli

From the balconies above the narrow stone-paved streets of Girona hung gold-and-red striped flags. A blue triangle and white star adorned most of them, transforming the banner of the autonomous region of Catalonia into the standard of Catalonian independence. Here and there a legend emblazoned a flag: Catalunya, Nou Estat D'Europa—"Catalonia, A New State in Europe."

Why Liberals Love TV's Fictional Conservatives

AP Images/ABC/Eric McCandless

When the third season of Scandal premieres tonight you can bet I’m going to be glued to my set (and Twitter feed), like millions of other Americans. Shonda Rhimes creates mighty good, sexy, nail-biting, oh-my-sweet-God-that-didn’t-just-happen TV. But, good liberal that I am, I can’t help feeling that my love of ABC’s hit show should be attended by some guilt. No, not because what Rhimes calls “fluffier” entertainment is inherently inferior; I don’t feel guilty about it in that sense. But instead because beneath plotlines like that of black political fixer Olivia Pope’s interracial love with the white president and a gay White House Chief of Staff raising a baby with his husband, Scandal is, in essence, the story of an allegedly apolitical (amoral?) woman who routinely abets an illegitimate conservative administration, complete with a radical Evangelical vice-president a heartbeat away from being president. Rhimes and Co. actually have me rooting for these people.

Eric Holder's Big Voting-Rights Gamble

AP Images/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Just about everyone who goes through a musical theater phase at some point falls in love with Sky Masterson of Guys and Dolls. In the movie version, Marlon Brando plays the gambler who will wager “sky high” stakes and finds himself singing “Luck Be a Lady” while rolling the dice to see if he gets the girl.

Going all in may be what you’d expect in a fictional-singing crapshooter, but it’s a bit more surprising in a U.S. attorney general.

A Long Way from the End of Men

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Though we’ve technically been recovering from the Great Recession since late 2009, the poverty rate in the United States has been stuck at about 15 percent since 2010. New data released yesterday from the Census Bureau showed that last year wasn’t much better. Poverty rates are stuck at the highest levels in a generation. Median incomes have fallen in the last ten years by more than 11 percent. Coupled with recent studies showing that most of the recovery’s gains have gone to the top 1 percent of income earners, the data on poverty confirms what many already knew: Inequality is growing, and the middle class is dying. That’s especially true when you examine the status of women and racial minorities.

Proof the Left Coast Is the Best Coast?

AP Images/Reed Saxon

The AFL-CIO held its national convention in California last week, and it turns out it couldn’t have picked a better time to be there. For it was last week that California really began to deliver on the promise of the labor-Latino alliance.

A Twerk Too Far

AP Images/Charles Sykes

At last week’s MTV Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus continued her journey to adulthood, aided by proximity to popping black female asses. The former Hannah Montana star sparked a national dialogue about rich white girls borrowing empowerment from "low" black culture. The conversation we need to have about cultural appropriation is thorny and complicated—and necessary. But in the heat of a pop-culture moment, the significance is trivialized, reduced to the mere shock of a wiggling, latex-clad derriere pressed against Robin Thicke’s manhood. And ideas that support useful dialogue get lost in the scrum. It is impossible to have a meaningful discussion about cultural appropriation without first understanding the difference between inspiration and minstrelsy, the diversity of American racial experiences, and what we have a right to expect from white artists influenced by other cultures.

Going Beyond Protest

In 1963, America was overtly racist and needed a massive March on Washington. Today, racial bias is more subtle but just as insidious—we must learn to fight it differently.

AP Images/Susan Walsh

The 1963 March on Washington was organized in a time of overt racism. This year's 50th anniversary events commemorating that march were performed in an age of implicit bias. It's difficult to attack a terror that will no longer allow itself to be named by marching one mile around the seat of a government that willingly perpetuates that terror. But organizers and participants did exactly that this week, aiming to regain some of the steam of a generation for which racism was a foghorn not a dog whistle.

Moses of Mississippi

Bob Moses organized for voting rights during the darkest days of the 1960s South. Today, his fight for civil rights continues, with a project to help inner city kids succeed in the classroom.

Bob Moses did not speak at the March on Washington. The Harvard student turned-rural organizer spent the day before picketing outside the Justice Department, with a sign quoting St. Augustine that read: “When There Is No Justice, What Is the State but a Robber Band Enlarged?” Moses wanted the federal government to protect the civil rights of poor black Americans, who were beaten and killed, whose churches were burned, whose fundamental personhood was under assault for trying to vote in Mississippi.

Heroes "Without Rank or Wealth or Title or Fame"

President Obama's speech at the event marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will almost certainly be remembered as one of his most important. Presidents only get so many opportunities to speak at events like this one, laden with the trappings of civil religion and what we might think of as a contested consensus. That's a contradiction, I know, but I think it fits. The civil rights struggle of the 1960s was among the most divisive controversies in American history, yet today there's no more argument about who was right. Even the National Review, at the time a vigorous defender of the privilege of the white South to continue oppressing black people (see here for some details) today claims Martin Luther King as one of their own: "The civil-rights revolution, like the American revolution, was in a crucial sense conservative," they write, and they're not the only ones on the right trying to make the same case.

That's both consensus and contestation right there, the way conservatives want to embrace the civil rights movement, step away from their own past, and simultaneously insist that what they've always supported and still support, in the form of our deeply unequal society and everything that keeps it that way, must be maintained. Add to that their sincere if utterly mad belief that whites are now the true victims of racism, and it's hard to be optimistic that the next Trayvon Martin case will be the one that brings us closer to, and not farther from, some measure of mutual understanding.

But back to Obama. This seemed to me to be a speech written in the hope it would be read fifty years hence. He'll get some criticism for not talking about any specific policy issues, but that's what happens when you swing for the rhetorical fences; you can't get too bogged down in the mundane arguments of the moment. And what struck me most about it was how little he talked about Martin Luther King. He mentioned him only a few times, but spent much more time talking about ordinary people. This was the running theme of the speech and perhaps what was most important about it.

Nikki Giovanni Remembers 1963 with a New Poem

AP Photo/Jim Wells

Nikki Giovanni is one of America’s most famous poets. She is a New York Times bestseller, a one-time Woman of the Year winner from Mademoiselle and Ebony magazines, a recipient of the first Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, and a holder of a Langston Hughes Medal. She wrote that “writing is … what I do to justify the air I breathe.” Below is a poem she penned for the Prospect, reflecting on the March on Washington 50 years later.

The Six Months That Made the Sixties

The March on Washington marked the beginning of a tumultuous half-year whose events would shape the decade's legacy. 

AP Images/Anonymous

Unless you’re tyrannized by the laws of calendars and clocks, the “Sixties” (as opposed to the 1960s) were born not on a day or at a given hour. Rather they emerged from the six months between August 28, 1963, and February 23, 1964, the midway locus falling on November 22—three dates marking episodes as irrevocable as they were momentous.

Freedom Fighters—the Next Generation

AP Images/Phil Sears

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is synonymous with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As a leader of mass movements, King was surpassed by few, and in high school textbooks he is treated as the personification of the civil-rights movement. King and other movement leaders, however, made up only one strand of the 1960s civil-rights struggle. Grassroots organizers—many now forgotten—helping African Americans in the South register to vote even as King spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial, made up the other. The spirit of those people and the groups they belonged to, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC (pronounced “snick”), can be found today in the dozens of grassroots groups across the country, that work to protect voting rights or expand access to a quality public education.

Prison Reform: No Longer Politically Toxic?

AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli

In the two weeks since Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences—and would consider releasing some elderly, nonviolent prisoners early—something remarkable has happened. There’s been no major outcry from the right. While the attorney general certainly has no shortage of outspoken detractors in the Republican ranks, the initiative hasn’t prompted any major voices to decry him as “soft on crime.” In fact, in plenty of conservative circles, he’s earned praise—or something close to it. “Eric Holder gets something marginally right,” wrote the Daily Caller.

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