Race & Ethnicity

Pardon Me, Mr. President?

Flickr/Salticidae
Flickr/Victoria Pickering T his week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the start of a new initiative on clemency, encouraging thousands of inmates—particularly those convicted during the Drug War crackdown of the 1990s—to send in petitions to have their sentences commuted. The new initiative offers six new criteria by which petitioners will be judged, including the following: prisoners must have served 10 years of their sentence, must not have lengthy criminal records or gang convictions, and show that they would have gotten off with a lighter sentence had they been tried today. In his more than five years in office, Obama has been the stingiest president in history when it comes to granting pardons; the new program could make him one of the most generous. But the biggest news for criminal-justice reformers has been the administration’s appointment of a new pardon attorney to oversee the program: Deborah Leff , who spent her years at DOJ working on the Access to Justice...

With Cliven Bundy, the Right Is Reaping What It Sows

One of the Bundys' many interviews on Fox News.
Some great causes achieve their goals and transform the world, while others fizzle out when it's discovered that their leaders are unadorned racists who think black people were in much better shape when they were slaves. Isn't that how it goes? At least that's what some conservatives must have thought today as they learned of the New York Times report on Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has been grazing his cows on federal land and refusing to pay grazing fees, what you or I might consider "stealing," but what the folks at Fox News, who have given Bundy hour after hour of glowing coverage, consider a principled stand against federal overreach in the finest American traditions. Prior to this morning, Bundy's fans were a limited but influential group, including senators Rand Paul and Dean Heller, the entire Fox network (but especially Sean Hannity), and the National Review , where one writer compared him to Gandhi . Now that Bundy's fascinating ideas about "the Negro" have come to...

Daily Meme: The Court's Faux Colorblindness

"A blinkered view of race in America won out in the Supreme Court on Tuesday when six justices agreed, for various reasons, to allow Michigan voters to ban race-conscious admissions policies in higher education ... " So starts the New York Times 's righteous take-down of today's Supreme Court ruling in Schuette v. BAMN , in which the Justices upheld a Michigan law banning the consideration of race in admissions. The plurality's justification—six Justices in total agreed with the ruling, but differed in their reasons for doing so—for reversing the lower-court decision? As long as the voters want it, they get it . But the real news has been Justice Sonia Sotomayor's dissent, which the New York Times 's Adam Liptak called "the most passionate and most significant of her career." It is the first time Sotomayor—whose nomination conservatives bitterly opposed—has spoken up about race. "In my colleagues' view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination...

Justice Sotomayor's Powerful Defense of Equality

AP Photo/Steven Senne
AP Photo/Steven Senne Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor Y esterday, the Supreme Court upheld a provision of Michigan's constitution that bans the state or any of its subdivisions from "grant[ing] preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." The Court was fractured; the six justices who voted to uphold the amendment did so for three independent reasons. Written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the plurality decision—to which Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito signed on—was narrow: It upheld the amendment without disturbing any precedent. Far more interesting was Justice Sonia Sotomayor's dissent, which makes a strong case for a robust interpretation of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment and represents perhaps her most compelling work in her tenure on the Court so far. The case for upholding...

How Big Data Could Undo Our Civil-Rights Laws

iStockPhoto
iStockPhoto B ig Data will eradicate extreme world poverty by 2028, according to Bono , front man for the band U2. But it also allows unscrupulous marketers and financial institutions to prey on the poor . Big Data, collected from the neonatal monitors of premature babies , can detect subtle warning signs of infection, allowing doctors to intervene earlier and save lives. But it can also help a big-box store identify a pregnant teenager —and carelessly inform her parents by sending coupons for baby items to her home. News-mining algorithms might have been able to predict the Arab Spring . But Big Data was certainly used to spy on American Muslims when the New York City Police Department collected license plate numbers of cars parked near mosques, and aimed surveillance cameras at Arab-American community and religious institutions. Until recently, debate about the role of metadata and algorithms in American politics focused narrowly on consumer privacy protections and Edward Snowden’s...

Race-Blind Admissions Are Affirmative Action for Whites

L-R: Brooke Kimbrough, Coach Sharon Hopkins and Rayvon Dean of the University Prep Debate team.
B rooke Kimbrough always dreamed of becoming a University of Michigan Wolverine. Her score on the ACT—a college-readiness test—dwarfs the scores of most of her classmates. Earlier this month, she was part of a winning team at the National Urban League Debate Championship in Washington, D.C. Last week, she became a powerful symbol for exactly how Michigan's race-blind college admissions policies have failed. In December, the University of Michigan informed Kimbrough that her application for admission had been wait-listed. Two months later, she received the letter that she had not been accepted. But instead of conceding defeat, Kimbrough decided to fight. Today she hopes that her story will highlight how Michigan's current approach to race in admissions fails exceptional students of color. Black students comprise just 4.6 percent of the 2012 freshman class; in 2008, the number was 6.8 percent. Over the course of this year, I had the honor of working with University Preparatory Academy...

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...

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