Monday, March 30, 2015
In recent years, shows like Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Empire – all featuring African Americans in prominent roles in front of and behind the cameras – have become favorites of viewers of all races. Many African Americans (and others) have cheered this development as long overdue in an industry where people of color fight for roles and recognition. Others assert that the shows do more harm than good, as the African American protagonists serve to reinforce negative stereotypes of African Americans. Who’s right?
Before that question can be satisfactorily answered, the conditions that give rise to the question must be confronted. In his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Translation: It is nearly impossible to be a person of color without being acutely aware of what the majority culture thinks of you.
When the question is framed in this manner, it should be apparent that neither side of this debate is entirely right or wrong. Those who assert that watching Scandal, Empire, or any other show will make a white person believe stereotypes are overlooking the fact that believing stereotypes is a choice. It’s basically a confirmation bias. Worded in a less academic fashion, you will always find what you are looking for. For instance, those who bash rap music never talk about “Fight the Power,” but will enthusiastically recite the lyrics to any rap song that fits the negative view of Black culture they are looking to present. You find what you're looking for.
On the other hand, those who opine that the new crop of shows are “just entertainment” are overlooking an unfortunate reality. In light of the stark racial segregation that remains in American elementary schools, universities, and neighborhoods - segregation that has been aided and abetted by the Supreme Court in cases such as Milliken v. Bradley, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, Parents Involved, and many others - people of color and whites do not interact on a regular basis as friends. In fact, one study indicates that the average white person only has one black friend. Just one. Of course, this lack of exposure doesn’t absolve white people from the obligation to be anti-racist. However, this lack of interaction is a real issue. Do we really want television to fill the void?
In sum, I will admit that I enjoy every (drip, drop, drip-drippety) drop of drama on Empire. I also emphatically believe that it is the duty of whites not to be racist, as people of color should not have to alter their lives to “earn” the right to be treated with respect or dignity. However, until we right the wrongs of Milliken, San Antonio, and other cases, we will continue to live in a segregated society. As long as that segregated society exists, African Americans and other people of color will continue to be of two minds about any depiction of our culture in the mass media.
Friday, March 27, 2015
The U.S. Census Bureau is currently contemplating a standalone Middle-Eastern American box that may appear on the forthcoming 2020 U.S. Census application. The new classification would allow Americans with ties to the Middle East and North Africa, currently classified as white under Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to identify as Middle-Eastern American. The proposed reform, and shape and language of the classification, have not been finalized, and are currently undergoing internal testing and discussion.
If adopted, the new classification will undo the longstanding position that Arab-Americans, Iranian-Americans, and an array of other groups with ties to the region are white by law. For Arab-Americans specifically, the proposed box – if implemented – would overrule decisions from two seminal cases that found Syrian Christians to be white in 1915, and Arab Muslims white 29 years later. These prerequisite cases seeded the modern classification of Arab-Americans as white, despite escalating state and societal suspicion of Arab-Americans through the 1990’s. Which unraveled into broad surveillance, racial and religious profiling, and violence following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Fourteen years after 9/11, Arab and Middle Eastern Americans still find themselves interlocked between an existential and legal paradox: per se classification as white, but pervasive recognition as non-white and policing as other. While grassroots and organizational efforts pushing for reform of the status quo long precede the 9/11 attacks, the proposed Middle Eastern American box also poses concerns. Particularly during the revved up “War on Terror” Era, whereby novel policing programs are being introduced and standing initiatives enhanced.
Why Now? Is a question that arises with regard to the timing of the proposed reform. One possibility is that more precise Middle-Eastern American data would enhance the effectiveness of state surveillance and policing programs. This state interest, particularly with growing fear of domestic radicalization and (countering) violent extremism, makes the present an optimal juncture for reform. Therefore, a moment of perceived racial progress for Arab and Middle-Eastern Americans converges with the broader national security interests of the state.
Closer inspection of Middle-Eastern American communities also reveals that many elements within it are opposed to the reform. In other words, many are content with, or embrace the benefits, associated with being classified as white. Therefore, Middle-Eastern American communities that differ with regard to politics, socioeconomic standing, and most saliently, religion, will likely identify differently. The demonization of Islam and its conflation with terrorism, in particular, has enhanced the sense of minority status among Muslim Middle-Eastern Americans; while Christianity functions as a clear point of distinction from "Middle Eastern terrorism" for Christian Middle-Eastern Americans. In turn, highlighting that faith may very well be a principal point of racial division.
With five years before the decennial Census, the proposed Middle-Eastern American box will certainly generate much debate within impacted communities and stakeholders. A critical conversation that, for communities boxed in by surveillance and suspicion, must weigh the looming risks with the beneficial consequences.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, sided with black legislators and reversed and remanded a decision upholding Alabama’s 2012 redistricting plan against a racial gerrymandering challenge. This was a victory for the plaintiffs, the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference, who had argued that the State of Alabama had violated Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by packing black voters into certain districts, thus allegedly limiting their voting strength. Alabama claimed that they were required to undertake the plan they chose to avoid violating Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The lower court sided with the state in deciding that race “was not the predominant motivating factor” in Alabama’s redistricting decisions as an undifferentiated whole. The lower court went further and said that even if race were the predominant factor, the state’s use of race was narrowly tailored to serve the compelling state interest of complying with Section 5's non retrogression standard (which requires that covered jurisdictions not create a disadvantage for minority voters in any voting law changes). The district court also found that one of the parties, the Democratic Caucus, lacked standing to bring this lawsuit.
The Supreme Court vacated these findings. Justice Breyer, writing for Justice Kennedy and the liberal wing of the Court, determined that the district court erred in its conclusion that racial criteria had not dominated the state as a whole. The Court stressed that redistricting claims must be analyzed on the basis of individual districts and that the plaintiffs had brought such district-specific claims. The Court also determined that the Caucus should be provided an opportunity to demonstrate it’s standing rather than the lower court dismissing the Caucus sua sponte.
The Court also disagreed with the district court’s determination that race was not a predominant factor in the creation of any individual district. The lower court held that the state’s goal of reaching equal population in districts – a requirement of the redistricting process under the “one person, one vote” doctrine – was the main factor that predominated the redistricting process. The Court found that this consideration was more appropriately categorized as a background consideration against redistricting takes place rather than an indicator of whether race improperly predominated this redistricting process.
Finally, the Court found that the district court erred in finding alternatively that the use of race here satisfied strict scrutiny. The district court focused too narrowly on Alabama’s goal of maintaining a particular percentage of minority voting strength in particular districts. The Court held that the appropriate standard under Section 5 is that the covered jurisdiction must “maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice” without regard to any specific number or percentage.
Justice Scalia dissented for the remainder of the conservative wing of the Court. Justice Scalia argued the plaintiffs incorrectly alleged a statewide racial vote dilution claim and that this decision effectively gave plaintiffs a second chance for their lawsuit. While joining Scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately to stress that this case was just the latest in the Court’s error-riddled voting rights jurisprudence.
These consolidated cases are yet another installment in the “disastrous misadventure” of this Court’s voting rights jurisprudence. We have somehow arrived at a place where the parties agree that Alabama’s legislative districts should be fine-tuned to achieve some “optimal” result with respect to black voting power; the only disagreement is about what percentage of blacks should be placed in those optimized districts. This is nothing more than a fight over the “best” racial quota.
This opinion provides both a useful (if not groundbreaking) clarification on this area of law and, more importantly, a rare voting rights victory for plaintiffs—though the victory may very well be short lived in the face of the retrial and possible re-redistricting by the legislature.
Yet this case turned the tables on the Court’s “racial gerrymandering” doctrine. Unlike prior lawsuits in this vein, where Republican partisans complained about constitutionally inappropriate use of race to forestall changes in the creation of majority-minority districts that benefitted Democrats, we have here black Democratic politicians arguing the inappropriateness of Republicans use of racial gerrymander. Moreover, the state’s ultimate claim that its efforts to comply with Section 5 are a defense to the racial gerrymandering charge provides another twist. This state of affairs is exacerbated by the fact that this litigation takes place in the shadow of Shelby County, AL v Holder where the Court championed the idea that racial politics had changed—for the better—in the South.
In a sense, this case puts into relief the paradox of how to view race in redistricting – whether these cases should be perceived as politicians using race as a factor to achieve political ends or whether politicians are using politics as a means to achieve racial dominance. While the line between the two is difficult to parse (and may ultimately be a distinction without a difference), I would suggest that it is helpful to think of these cases from a perspective related to the long history of long-standing white-dominated political structures that exist in states like Alabama.
Though formal de jure segregation is long dead, this case reminds us that we nonetheless confront present segregated realities that were created by those past practices of discrimination. These patterns coupled with conflicting conceptions of the appropriate role of race in redistricting ultimately drive this sort of litigation. Yet, unlike Justice Thomas, who would see any race-conscious remedy provided in response to this problem as an illegitimate and unconstitutional “quota,” I believe that the use of the racial gerrymandering claim by the plaintiffs here represent an appropriate shield against the majoritarian dominance they claim to suffer. This use of racial gerrymander doctrine may well be the best alternative to the (limited) doctrinal tools currently provided in voting rights law to prevent majoritarian domination.
Monday, March 23, 2015
Two weeks after New York City announced that its schools would observe the principal Muslim holidays, another school district in the State of New York signaled that Islamophobia in America, and its classrooms, was hardly on the decline.
On Wednesday March 18th, a student at Pine Bush High School recited the American Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic. The exercise was part of the School’s “National Foreign Language Week,” an event held to celebrate the “many races, cultures and religions that make up [the U.S. and the Pine Bush] School District."
However, an event celebrating American multiculturalism and pledging patriotism was immediately met with anger and offense - driven by the conflation of the Arabic language with Islam, and in turn, inassimilability, violence and terrorism. The controversy sparked by the “Arabic pledge” highlights, very vividly, how different dimensions of Arab or Muslim identity – even language – are conflated with threat. And more audibly, how even reverent attempts to reconcile Arab or Muslim culture with American identity incites zeal and scorn.
The Limits of American Multiculturalism
The Pine Bush pledge of allegiance controversy has also revitalized discussion of the tolerable scope of multiculturalism within American schools. Namely, which languages or cultures are deemed acceptable for students to celebrate at school – and which ones are considered pariahs?
This controversy, juxtaposed with NYC’s plans to observe the Muslim holidays, illustrates that the answers to this question are more complex than clear. Indeed, languages – like Arabic and English – are more than merely systems of communication. They are symbols, expressions of membership, and perhaps most saliently, religious and racial proxies.
Arabic, in past and present in America, does not only signal foreignness, but also an inextricable nexus to Islam, the Middle East, and the Orient. Spheres positioned as America’s geopolitical and normative rival.
Several languages – primarily European ones such as French or Italian, for instance – are deemed assimilable with English. And therefore, American culture and its classrooms. However, other languages such as Chinese or Spanish are frequently branded as alien, inferior, and menacing. The former associated with long-embedded tropes of Asian hostility and subversion, and the latter linked to intense xenophobia and nativism.
However, Arabic – and the maligned entities and ideas it is associated with – stands heads and shoulders above (other foreign languages) as linguistic pariah. While the pledge recited in Chinese or Spanish may have caused a minor stir, its’ reading in Arabic – as illustrated this past week at Pine Bush High School – rose to the level of national alarm and outrage.
A degree of zeal that matches the still climbing heights of Islamophobia on America’s streets. Which, unfortunately, is still being taught within the vast majority of its schools. While NYC’s decision to observe the Muslim holidays offers a much heartening exception, Pine Bush – exactly two weeks after that unprecedented step forward – still stands as the unequivocal rule.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
At the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Obama, along with other luminaries, reflected on history and legacy of the civil rights movement. Mr. Obama's speech (full text here) raised once again the question about how race affects the right to vote and suggests consideration of these questions from a structural viewpoint.
The President's remarks praised the people, protests, and political achievements of civil rights legacy. Mr. Obama argued that America has transformed from the days of the Jim Crow apartheid. Yet he recognized that "this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us." He discussed this long shadow by invoking current events in Ferguson, mass incarceration, social inequality, and continued poverty. In particular, Mr. Obama spent a significant amount of time on the right to vote:
And with effort, we can protect the foundation stone of our democracy for which so many marched across this bridge –- and that is the right to vote. Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.
How can that be? The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic efforts. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President George W. Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it. If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year. That’s how we honor those on this bridge.
As Ruthann Robson pointed out over at ConLaw Prof Blog, President Obama's comments reflect upon the impact that the decision in Shelby Co. v. Holder had in limiting the efficacy of the Voting Rights Act. I have argued that in transforming the right to vote by crippling Section Five, we are directly transforming the legacy of civil rights.
More importantly, as someone who has written and blogged about the right to vote and modern-day voter suppression, I find interesting how Mr. Obama's located his call for action on voting rights in the history of Jim Crow voter suppression. While not directly drawing the connection, he juxtaposes modern-day voter suppression with mass incarceration, poverty, and the "long shadow" of racism. To do so is to lay side-by-side the ingredients of a more powerful narrative about the continuing history of American racism. It is to suggest that structural inequality pervades the American political structure at its most basic levels. It is also to imply that we cannot see voting in isolation from police violence, economic oppression, or racial domination.
This narrative about the structural racism of democracy certainly was not the main (or intended) subject of the President's speech. (Indeed, it directly disagrees with the account of racial progress the majority in Shelby County offered.) The President sought more to commemorate and inspire than to critique and argue policy. He stated no specifics about how Congress should address Shelby County, Ferguson, or the other issues. But the juxtaposition of race, democracy, mass incarceration, and poverty is to imply the need for a dialogue about structural racism that will ultimately spur legal reform.
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Here's news about a lawsuit in Missouri:
Shanta Wheeler claims the school district in Laddonia, Mo., acknowledged the racism from "the parents, the community, and the [school] district," and asked her to resign because "the parents, community, and Community School District had such a problem" with race.
At this point this is only one side of the story, of course, but I was struck by how the complaint implies that school district officials acknowledged racism on the part of parents, but did nothing to protect her. That sounds plausible to me. It's not so different from restaurant owners during Jim Crow claiming that it was the White customers who insisted on segregation, not them.
Any administrator of a school or owner of a business is in a tough spot when their customers or constituents want something they should not get. Sometimes it's hard to do the right thing. Even more importantly, sometimes it's not sustainable. It might well be that a school superintendent that stood up for a teacher against a racist community would not last for long.
I read and think a lot (and write a little) about race, and I think one of the biggest misconceptions about race is that colorblind markets will solve racial inequality. Sometimes--perhaps often--colorblind markets create or worsen racial inequality. Rational self-interest often supports practices that increase racial inequality. That's why looking for the intentional racist is often a distraction. As this blog gets off the ground, this is a theme I will revisit often.