Race & Ethnicity

The Obscure Heroes Behind Congress’s Great Moment

AP Images
O n Tuesday July 2, 1963, Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall caught an early morning flight to Dayton, Ohio. Six days before, Marshall’s boss, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had appeared before a House Judiciary Subcommittee to present the newly introduced civil-rights bill that his brother, President John F. Kennedy, had committed himself to enacting during a powerful nationwide television address on June 11. The Kennedy brothers’ outspoken attachment to advancing racial equality was entirely newfound. For the first two years of the Kennedy administration, civil-rights activists had been repeatedly disappointed by the brothers’ unwillingness to live up to the promises John Kennedy had voiced during the 1960 presidential campaign. Only the horrific violence visited upon interracial groups of “Freedom Riders” in May 1961, as they sought desegregation of interstate bus stations, and white racists’ attacks upon federal officers during the October 1962 desegregation of the...

A Nasty Piece of Cornbread: Chait, Coates, and White Progressivism

This post originally appeared on the personal website of Tressie McMillan Cottom. I once set out to write a book of southern aphorisms. It was going to be a serious treatment of (mostly) black (uniquely) southern “mother wit” as philosophy. Then, grad school and so on and so on. If I were to undertake a project today I would start with a favorite handed down to me from my Aunt Jean who is fond of saying that someone is a “nasty piece of cornbread.” Cornbread, if made properly, is delicious. Even when it is made poorly it is hard to argue with the beautiful form and function of ground meal, fat, dairy and heat alchemy that sustains, fuels, and serves up sustenance as well as culture and community. Cornbread is, in hip-hop parlance, that good-good. So, when someone is being a nasty piece of cornbread they are combining the ingredients and process of a remarkable foodstuff in ways that poisons its inherent goodness. They are being nice-nasty. They are serving you cornbread that turns to...

Hobby Lobby and the Return of the "Negro Travelers' Green Book"

Jalopnik
V ictor Green loved to travel. Being a mail carrier in the mid-20th century was a good, solid job, and the heyday of the American automobile was just beginning. Americans felt more mobile than ever before, especially once Eisenhower's interstate highway system expanded like a web through the country. The freedom of the open road beckoned. But Victor did not feel particularly free. As an African American, much of the nation was closed off to him and his family. Hotels rented rooms only to whites; restaurants wouldn't take his money; shops and markets kept their doors shut. Jim Crow was everywhere. So he wrote the first travel guide for African Americans, listing restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and even private homes that would aid the “Negro Traveler.” Known as The Green Book, it was an essential part of African American life for more than 20 years. By 1952, it had expanded its listings to include barbershops, bars, and nightclubs. Such a guide was essential, since each particular...

The GOP's Racial Dog Whistling and the Social Safety Net

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
Y ou've no doubt heard the famous quote about race in politics spoken by the late Lee Atwater, the most skilled Republican strategist of his generation. Liberals have cited it for years, seeing in it an explanation, right from the horse's mouth, of how contemporary Republicans use "issues" like welfare to activate racial animus among white voters, particularly in the South. Race may be an eternal force in American politics, but its meaning and operation change as the years pass. It's time we took another look at Atwater's analysis and see how it is relevant to today, because it doesn't mean what it once did. Atwater may have been extraordinarily prescient, though not in the way most people think. If a certain word unsettles you, you might want to read something else with your coffee, but it's important we have Atwater's quote, spoken in 1981 during an interview with a political scientist, in front of us: " You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't...

The Disgraceful Rejection of Debo Adegbile

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
Debo Adegbile, President Obama's nominee to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, was rejected by the Senate earlier this week. This is a dismaying vote, a combination of Republicans increasingly hostile to civil rights and a small but crucial number of Democratic senators too timorous to stand up to Republican smear campaigns. The primary ostensible basis for the rejection of the eminently qualified Adegbile was his small role in the legal defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal was convicted for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer, and as Michael McGough says it's fair to say that Abu-Jamal has been "the beneficiary of uncritical adulation and a form of 'radical chic'" from some activists and celebrities both home and abroad. Certainly, Abu-Jamal is not my idea of a hero, but this is all irrelevant to Adegbile. He wasn't spending his time leading "Free Mumia" rallies or defending the murder of police officers. He simply part of the team at the NAACP...

The Infinite Circle of Black Responsibility

Bill O'Reilly tells Valerie Jarrett what black people need.
In 2006, after being a United States senator for one year, Barack Obama made an appearance on Meet the Press . After talking about the Iraq War for a while, Tim Russert asked Obama this: "I want to talk a little bit about the language people are using in the politics now of 2006, and I refer you to some comments that Harry Belafonte made yesterday. He said that Homeland Security had become the new Gestapo. What do you think of that?" Obama said he never uses Nazi analogies, but people are concerned about striking the balance between privacy and security. Russert pressed on, asking Obama to take a position on whether some insulting things Belafonte had said about George W. Bush were "appropriate." I thought of that interview today as I watched another interview , this one with Bill O'Reilly interviewing White House aide Valerie Jarrett. I bring it up not because it's important to be mad at Bill O'Reilly (it isn't), but because it's yet another demonstration of the rules both prominent...

Roberts Was Wrong on Voter Rights

AP Images/Rex Features
Writing about the Supreme Court's outrageous decision to gut the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder at Talking Points Memo , Amel Amhed of University of Massachusetts Amherst writes that "the court’s decision was correct about one thing: Section 4 — and frankly, Section 5 as well — was obsolete, and it had been rendered inadequate by changing facts on the ground." To be clear, Amhed's intention in making the claim that "Roberts was right" is not that Congress shouldn't protect voting rights—indeed, she advocates going further than the 1965 Act, and I agree with many of her proposals. The problem is that under Shelby County it's not clear what Congress can do to protect voting rights, and liberals shouldn't let the Roberts Court off the hook. And while like most pieces of legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was "obsolete," saying so plays into the hands of conservatives who would prefer that Congress do nothing to protect voting rights. I've outlined the problems with...

We Have Known Black Boys (But None Have Been Bullet-Proof)

After today's verdict in Jordan Davis's murder trial, a writer reacts in verse.

Jordan Davis (1995-2012)
*/ AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack A makeshift memorial to Jordan Davis, who was shot to death after an argument over loud music. I have known black boys, known them in airless classrooms where the scent of their too-strong cologne worked overtime masking the cling of their sweat to skin and hormones. And I have known their scratching, grabbing, tugging at the belt loops of too-big pants, have involuntarily memorized the plaids and imprints on their boxers. I have known boys like underripe fruit, a pit of eventual sweetness at the core of them, encased in a bitter pulp, toughening from too little tending or underexposure to light. I have watched them become principles in death when they were not finished learning what it would mean to be principled in life. I have known them nursing dreams with slimming odds of realization, heard them reasoning with the wardens behind their private walls, scraping at the doors some white man’s stubborn shoulder intended to force closed...

Guns and the Thug Life

AP Images/The Florida Times-Union/Bob Mack
On Saturday night, the jury in the case of Michael Dunn rendered a strange verdict, convicting Dunn of attempting to murder the three teens who survived the hail of fire he sent at their car, but deadlocking on the charge of murdering the one he succeeded in killing. We may never know what went on in the jury room, but if nothing else, Dunn will not be driving into any more parking lots and getting into any more arguments that end in death, at least not for some time. This case is, of course about race, which we'll get to in a moment. But it's also about—to use a word that crops up repeatedly in Michael Dunn's written comments—a culture. It's a culture where manhood must continually be proven, where every disagreement is a test of strength, and where in the end, your fellow human beings are only waiting to kill you, so you'd better draw first. This was the culture of violence that Michael Dunn carried with him to the convenience store, the one that ended the life of 17-year-old Jordan...

Racial Fears, Gun Fantasies, and Another Dead Teenager

Dirty Harry confronts a punk.
Among the arguments I've made about the troubling aspects of American gun culture is the way so many gun owners have in their heads a dangerous fantasy about what the world is like and what role they play in that world. The people I'm talking about, the ones who think it's terribly important that they be able to bring their firearms into any store or coffee shop or church they might visit, believe that every moment of every day in every place they go is nothing more than a violent situation just waiting to happen. Will they be there to stop a mass shooting at the Safeway? Will they be walking down the street and come upon a group of heavily armed thieves taking down an armored truck? Will they encounter an al-Qaeda strike team at the Starbucks, and this 50-year-old insurance salesman with a concealed carry license will be the only thing that stands between America and disaster? They sure seem to think so. Is that all gun owners? Of course not. It's not even most gun owners. But it's...

Michael Sam, "Distraction"

AP Images/Brandon Wade
Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam was the co-winner of the Defensive Player of the Year for the powerhouse Southeastern Conference. While a little undersized for an NFL player at his position, Sam was certainly a decent pro prospect certain to be selected in the upcoming NFL draft. But Sam is no longer just of interest to SEC fans and NFL draft obsessives. On Sunday, Sam came out as gay . If he makes an NFL roster, he would certainly not be the first gay man to play in the NFL, but he would be the first to be out to the public during his playing career. Whether he will get a fair shot to make it as an NFL player, however, is not entirely clear, as multiple NFL decisionmakers have announced their intent to discriminate. Of course, these anonymous executives and coaches who spoke to Sports Illustrated cloaked their bias in various passive-aggressive evasions. A gay player would "chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room" said one. "[D]o you really want to be the top...

A Mighty Shout in North Carolina

Jenny Warburg
*/ Jenny Warburg G eoffrey Zeger didn’t attend last year’s Moral Mondays, the series of civil-disobedience events at which more than 900 people were arrested at the North Carolina legislature. The weekday occupations, coordinated by the North Carolina NAACP to protest the state’s sharp-right policy turn, conflicted with Zeger’s work schedule. But when he learned that tens of thousands of demonstrators planned to descend on Raleigh last weekend, the private-practice social worker from Durham couldn’t stay away. “Every day I work with people whose unemployment benefits have been cut, and who are trying to get food stamps,” he told me at Saturday’s Moral March on Raleigh. “And a mother who’s working three and four jobs, and who has her children being watched by their grandparents. And they’re struggling. Ten hours a day, I’m working with people who are affected by a GOP legislature.” Zeger’s clients battle anxiety and depression, he says, as their family budgets grow ever more precarious...

Why Obama Should Take a Cue from Gerald Ford on Crack Pardons

AP Images/Felipe Dana
I n late December, the Obama administration announced that the president would commute the sentences of eight prisoners serving decades-long sentences for crack-cocaine distribution (or intent to distribute). Last week, at a New York State Bar event, Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced that there may be more—many more. The administration, he said, will seek other drug cases to consider for clemency, working with the Bureau of Prisons to encourage inmates to request commutations and asking that state bar associations help with preparing their petitions. After five years of organizing and lobbying the president to use his pardoning power for thousands still jailed under draconian sentences for crack, you might have expected the news to have clemency advocates jumping for joy. But they responded with well-worn skepticism. On his widely read blog, Sentencing Law and Policy, Ohio State law professor Doug Berman speculated that Obama's actions were more about holiday traditions...

Now It’s Time to Talk About Chicago’s Tale of Two Cities

AP Images/Charles Rex Arbogast
R ahm Emanuel has a favorite four-letter word for members of the labor movement. When Emanuel was White House chief of staff, he was told that tens of thousands of autoworkers could lose their jobs if General Motors and Chrysler didn’t receive a federal bailout. His response: “Fuck the UAW.” As mayor of Chicago, Emanuel became so enraged during negotiations with Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, that he shouted “Fuck you, Lewis.” (The teachers went on strike for seven days, claiming Emanuel had “disrespected” them, as well as tried to force them to work longer hours after reneging on a promised pay raise.) Few political figures contributed more to the Democrats’ realignment from a party of working people to a party of Wall Street than Emanuel. The New Democrats of the 1990s responded to the weakness of the labor movement by shifting their donor base from unions to socially liberal financiers. Emanuel was Bill Clinton’s point man on shepherding the North American...

Stevie Sings for Martin Luther King

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster
I f we ignore 1979’s soundtrack to The Secret Life of Plants (though it featured “Send One Your Love,” 28 on the Billboard R&B chart), when Hotter Than July came out in 1980 it marked Stevie Wonder’s first album of newly recorded music since Songs in the Key of Life in 1976. It was his longest break between albums since he started cutting LPs at age 12. Critics don’t hold Hotter Than July in as high a regard as the classic Songs , though it does include an oddly charming imitation of a country singer (“I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It”) and a reggae number inspired by Bob Marley (“Master Blaster (Jammin’)”). The album is more important for its historical significance: It marked the beginning of Wonder’s three-year campaign to create a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The single “Happy Birthday,” which hit No.2 in the UK, states Wonder’s position: “There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration,” he sings before the chorus,...

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