Saturday, February 23, 2019

Dreams From My Father, Dreams From My Mother: Tracing the Multiple Identities of Barack Obama and Kamala Harris

Last month, California Senator Kamala Harris confirmed much speculation and announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020.  Senator Harris has been a rising star for some time now.  A decade ago, the late journalist Gwen Ifill said of Harris, “they call her the female Barack Obama.”  Such comparisons are always oversimplified, as critics have noted.  Nevertheless, one set of experiences that President Obama and Senator Harris have in common is that they have both lived and embraced multiple racial, cultural, and national identities. [1]

Obama was raised mainly in Hawaii, the son of a White mother, Ann Dunham, and a Kenyan father, Barack Obama, Sr.  During his childhood, he also lived in Indonesia, and he later attended Occidental College, Columbia University, and Harvard Law School.  Obama’s father, who died in a 1982 car accident, was rarely present during his childhood: Obama last saw him at the age of 10.  During his adult life, Chicago, Illinois became Obama’s home.  Obama’s autobiographical memoir, Dreams From My Father, recounts his search for identity as he navigated different worlds.  He has described his family as a “mini-United Nations.”

While he is known primarily as the first Black president, Obama has framed his own identity in a variety of ways.  At times, he emphasized this to connect with African Americans and bring light to salient issues in Black communities.  For example, in response to Trayon Martin’s killing, Obama humanized young Black males by noting that “[i]f I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.”  Conversely however, his comments critiquing young Black men play right into the narrative of respectability politics

In other settings, when seeking to relate to White audiences, Obama has also spoken of his White grandmother.  This occurred most notably in his speech, “A More Perfect Union.”  Obama has referred to himself as a “mutt” to highlight his biracial identity.  When he visited Kenya in 2015, Obama noted that he was “the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States.” And when he spoke in Northern Ireland in 2013, he jokingly referred to himself as “O’Bama,” bringing to light his Irish roots.  Although it certainly did not stop him from facing racial animus, Obama was adept at framing his own racial identity in various ways, depending on the circumstances.

Harris was born in Oakland, California—for many years the hub of activism for the Black Panther Party and other organizations.  Her mother, the late Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was from Tamil Nadu, India.  Her father Donald Harris, immigrated from Jamaica.  Both were civil rights activists in the 1960s.  Kamala Harris lived first in Berkeley, California, and after her parents divorced, she moved with her mother and sister Maya [2] to Montreal, Canada, where she attended high school.  Growing up, Harris attended both a Hindu temple and a Black Baptist church.  She recounts her childhood visits to Tamil Nadu, and her father notes that before their parents’ divorce, Kamala and Maya visited Jamaica frequently and experienced their Jamaican heritage.  Harris’ college-age experiences exemplified her identity as a Black women: she attended Howard University and became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., before attending UC Hastings College of Law. 

When she took office in 2017, Kamala Harris was touted as the first South Asian American Senator, the second Black woman Senator, and the first Jamaican American Senator.  Different outlets highlighted each of these identities, and Harris’ connection to Canada has also garnered interest.  During the upcoming presidential nomination season, observers will carefully scrutinize Kamala Harris’ presentation of her various identities.  She has had to deal with critics who have questioned her “Blackness.” Also, Harris recently drew the ire of her own father when she was asked if she had smoked marijuana in the past and responded jokingly: “Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?” [3] 

What I find to be most interesting about Kamala Harris’ racial identity is the influence of her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris [4].  In her memoir, The Truths We Hold, Senator Harris notes on page 10 that: "My mother … instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots … [o]ur classic Indian names harked back to our heritage, and we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture [.]"

On the same page, she avows that: "My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters … [s]he knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women."

Inheriting these “dreams from her mother,” Kamala Harris seemed to grow up with a level of comfort in her multiple worlds.  By crediting her mother for both her South Asian pride and strong Black identity, Harris’ story, perhaps even more than Obama’s, illustrates the full potential of cross-racial understanding.  Shyamala Gopalan Harris raised her children not only to appreciate her Tamil heritage; according to her daughter, she also came to learn and identify with the struggles of another group closely enough to teach Kamala and her sister to navigate the world successfully as Black women.  This is the type of awareness that we should all strive for.

Over the next year or so, we will see how effectively Harris can translate her multifaceted identity into a politically effective persona.  Critics of identity politics abound in the American political landscape, and Harris will probably face challenges akin to the birtherism that constantly surrounded Obama.  Nevertheless, diverse experiences also breed resilience.  Watching Kamala Harris over the next year may provide many lessons not only on racial identity politics, but also on success and progress in an increasingly diverse America.

[1] Both Obama and Harris remind me of “double-consciousness”—that “sense of always  looking at one’s self through the eyes of others[] … two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals … [.]” Renowned African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois developed this idea, first in an 1897 Atlantic Monthly essay entitled “Strivings of Negro People” and then in his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk.  Today is W.E.B. Du Bois’ 151st birthday.

[2] Barack Obama also has a sister named Maya.

[3] During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Barack Obama also made a joke that referenced racial stereotypes.  When asked if Bill Clinton was the first Black President, Obama quipped that he would “have to investigate … Bill’s dancing abilities.”  Obama did not seem to face any criticism in response.

[4]  Sunil Adam also examines Kamala Harris’ mother’s influence in a recent India Abroad article entitled “Dreams from her mother.

February 23, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 22, 2019

Christian Legislative Prayers and Christian Nationalism: Guest Post by Caroline Mala Corbin

This post comes from Professor Caroline Mala Corbin, University of Miami School of Law.


Asked whether the United States is a Christian nation, about half of Americans surveyed answer yes.[1] The conclusion that America is a Christian nation is not descriptive but aspirational: over half of Americans believe that being Christian is either “very” or “somewhat” important to being a good American.[2] 

Throughout the United States, many sessions of local government start with “legislative prayers.” That is, in addition to a call to order, or a recitation of the national pledge, local political gatherings from state legislatures to town commissions to school boards begin their meetings with a prayer to God. With some frequency, these prayers have been overwhelmingly or exclusively Christian.

The proliferation of Christian legislative prayers at local governments around the country both reflects and strengthens Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism posits that the United States has always been, and should always remain, a Christian nation in both its culture and government. If a true America is Christian, it follows that true Americans are Christian. The corollary is that non-Christians are not real Americans. In short, Christian nationalism necessarily implies a hierarchy based on religion, with religious insiders who truly belong and religious outsiders who do not. 

Notably, this hierarchy is not solely a religious one. Christian nationalism has a racial dimension to it, so that the mythical Christian America pictured is actually a white Christian America.[3] As one historian noted, “Christian nationalism has always been connected with whiteness. It has always been about [the idea of] America’s founding by white Christians.”[4] That is, “Christian nationalism contains a distinct ethno-racial component and suggests that white Christian nationalists desire to either ‘protect’ or ‘restore’ America’s ‘Christian heritage’ is laced with an implicit desire to maintain white supremacy and white racial purity.”[5] Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Christian nationalists are white.[6]

Studies show that Americans who strongly identify with Christian nationalism have more hostile attitudes towards outgroups, religious and otherwise. In other words, Christian nationalists are not only more antagonistic to non-Christians, they are more antagonistic to outgroups such as LGBT couples,[7]  racial minorities,[8]  and immigrants.[9] For example, Christian nationalism is correlated with unwillingness to have one’s daughter marry someone who is non-white.[10] This hostility paves the way for hostile public policy, whether it be allowing discrimination against non-Christians by foster care agencies[11] or implementing a Muslim ban. Consequently, Christian nationalism does not simply lead to symbolic exclusion from the community and nation, it may lead to actual exclusion.

The Supreme Court has rejected an Establishment Clause challenges to Christian legislative prayers. This is a mistake. Even if not specifically motivated by Christian nationalism, Christian legislative prayers nonetheless advance a Christian nationalist agenda. Consequently, government prayers that are mostly or entirely Christian violate the Establishment Clause and should be automatically unconstitutional, full stop. After all, one of the goals of the Establishment Clause is to stave off developments like Christian nationalism and its religious (and racial) hierarchies.

For more, please check out my essay: Christian Legislative Prayers and Christian Nationalism, Comments welcome! 


[1]University of Minnesota—The American Mosaic Project, Boundaries in the American Mosaic: Preliminary Findings Report 8 (2014),

[2] Penny Edgell, An Agenda for Research on American Religion in Light of the 2016 Election, 78 Soc. of  Relig.: Q. Rev. 1, 6 (2017).

[3] Rhys Williams, Civil Religion and the Cultural Politics of National Identity in Obama’s America, 52 J. for the Sci. Stud. of Relig. 239, 243 (2013) (“[T]here has long been a sub rosa association that made ‘white Christian American’ as the baseline, default cultural understanding of this nation.”).

[4] Tara Isabella Burton, What One Pastor’s anti-Nike protest Says about Religion and Nationalism in America, Vox (quoting historian Joe Fea).

[5] Samuel L. Perry & Andrew L. Whitehead, Christian Nationalism and White Racial Boundaries: Examines Whites’ Opposition to Interracial Marriage, 38 Ethnic & Racial Stud. 1671, 1685 (2015).

[6] Id. at 1685.

[7] Andrew L. Whitehead & Samuel L. Perry, A More Perfect Union? Christian Nationalism and Support for Same-sex Unions, 58 Soc. Persp. 422, 423 (2015).

[8] Perry & Whitehead, supra note 5, at 1683.

[9] Eric Leon McDaniel, Irfan Nooruddin, & Allyson Faith Shortle, Divine Boundaries: How Religion Shapes Citizens Attitudes Towards Immigrants, 39 Am. Pol. Res. 205, 205 (2011).

[10] Perry & Whitehead, supra note 5, at 1683.

[11] Tim Fitzsimons & AP, S.C. Group Can Reject Gays and Jews as Foster Parents, Trump Admin Says, (Jan. 24, 2019, 12:00 PM),

February 22, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Social Loafing on Law Faculties


At the 2019 AALS Conference, I had the pleasure of participating in a Discussion Group entitled Building Bridges Across Curricular and Status Lines: Gender Inequity throughout the Legal Academy.


One of the participants suggested attendees read the article Addressing Social Loafing on Faculty Committees published in the Journal of Legal Education by Professors Mary Lynch and Andrea Curcio, as part of the broader conversation about gender inequity in the legal academy.  The article offers some important insights and recommendations that affect academic freedom and career development.  


The introduction, in part, reads as follows:


"Law faculty self-governance occurs largely through faculty committees, and that self-governance plays an integral role in academic freedom. While most law faculty members vigorously defend their right to academic freedom and self-governance, for some that defense fails to translate into a willingness to fully engage in the committee work necessary to ensure meaningful self-governance. This is problematic on two fronts. First, by withdrawing from governance activities, we participate in the demise of academic freedom— freedom sustained by faculty activism, agreement and disagreement over institutional policies, initiative, and directions. Second, the failure of some to do their fair share of committee work creates workload equity and social responsibility problems. 


Because faculty self-governance is integral to the effective functioning of law schools, and because that self-governance requires productive committees, the “reward” for efficient and strong faculty service work performance is often more service work. The opposite is also true. Faculty members who demonstrate lack of competence or responsibility when engaging in committee work are not called upon to serve. How this plays out in our experience, and that of our colleagues at other law schools, is that some faculty members do significantly more than others when it comes to the labor necessary to sustain and build their institutions.


The tendency of some to sit back and let others do the work when working in groups such as committees has a name: “social loafing.” Often called the “free-rider” problem, social loafing can lead to inequitable workloads, and, according to social cognition theorists, unchecked social loafing can have a spillover effect on those who do carry their fair share of the workload, as well as on those who traditionally pick up the slack for the loafers. We suspect that social loafing is a well-recognized, if unnamed, phenomenon at many law schools. This phenomenon is particularly vexing because it has tangible career consequences.

While the institution benefits from both committee workers and productive scholars, financial, institutional, and career rewards rest largely on scholarly productivity. Socially responsible faculty members who fully engage in committee work help sustain a robust system of faculty governance. However, they do so at the expense of time available for their own scholarly pursuits. By ensuring the work gets done, they also provide some colleagues the freedom to disengage and focus on individual career enhancing scholarly endeavors with no penalty and potentially significant individual rewards. This can create significant institutional inequities."

To read the full article, click here.



February 20, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

"Due Process” Dog Whistles (Professor Nancy Chi Cantalupo)


Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration’s Department of Education (ED) have turned “due process” into a dog whistle. While these officials are loudly spinning their recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on Title IX as increasing students’ “due process” rights, they are quietly dismantling real due process for students of color, especially Black students, having rescinded the Obama-era guidance that sought to reduce discriminatory discipline in school late on the Friday before the Christmas holiday, with a government shutdown pending.

As I detail in my forthcoming piece in Wake Forest Law Review’s symposium issue on “The Trump Administration and the War on Diversity,” this dog whistle is correctly understood by DeVos’s allies among “Men’s Rights” and other groups with similar agendas as a way to silence sexual harassment and assault victims but looks to those outside her inside circle as a laudable effort to increase fair treatment. This ploy counts on most of the general public failing to notice that ED has long signaled plans to eliminate these due process protections, despite wide acknowledgement of discriminatory discipline’s involvement in the harmful “school to prison pipeline.”  Thus, only those in the administration’s inner circle understand what ED is really promising: that ED will give special rights to named sexual harassers and assailants, as their Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Title IX (NPRM) in fact does.

We can see ED’s dog-whistling in DeVos’s statements about Title IX, where she has repeatedly used “due process” to suggest that Title IX treats students unfairly, a bizarre claim about a civil rights law. In a speech announcing her intention to issue this NPRM, she discussed “due process” ten times, but never once mentioned “equality,” and the only “discrimination” she denounced was so-called reverse discrimination against accused harassers (a claim repeatedly rejected by courts). Likewise, in a recent op-ed, her only reference to equality was in praising herself for restoring “equal” appeal rights in the NPRM—while failing to mention that DeVos herself rescinded this right in her 2017 Title IX guidance and that her current NPRM actually allows only those found responsible for harassment—but not the person they abused—the right to appeal the disciplinary sanctions, which is simply not “equal”.

ED’s due process dog whistle tries to obscure the ugly truth that this NPRM actually demolishes the fair process Title IX has historically guaranteed, by inappropriately criminalizing a civil rights statute. No clearer showing of such criminalization can be found than DeVos’s recent claims, like a host of similar ones regarding Brett Kavanaugh, that students accused of sexual harassment should be given a “presumption of innocence,” a synonym for a criminal standard of proof.  Just as the presumption of innocence is the wrong standard for a job interview or conduct at work, it is also the wrong standard for conduct in school, especially when schools cannot imprison wrongdoers as criminal courts can. 

Research shows that dog whistle politics has been used quite effectively to divide Americans along racial lines, but there is hope that it will not work this time. Research shows that the American public very clearly expressed to ED its overwhelming support for Title IX and the balance ED had struck between the rights of victims and reported harassers in previous administrations, regardless of the party in power. This support was expressed before #MeToo and reactions to the multiple allegations leveled against Brett Kavanaugh exposed the depth and breadth of our nation’s sexual abuse problems, including for men and boys, who are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault than to be falsely accused of it. Midway through the NPRM’s comment period, a flood similar to #MeToo was already occurring.

Before the NPRM’s 60-day comment period ends on January 30, 2019, every member of the public—those whose research is connected to inequality, civil and human rights, especially—who care about safety and equality in our schools should file a comment refusing to allow “due process” dog whistles to divide us.

-- Professor Nancy Chi Cantalupo, Barry University School of Law



February 13, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

What’s Implicit about Implicit Bias (Professor SpearIt)


In recent years, the term “implicit bias” has entered public discussions in a number of arenas. In criminal justice circles, the concept enjoys growing recognition as a way of explaining conduct and decision making in the justice system. From police and prosecutors to judges, juries, and other actors in the system, implicit biases impact all areas of government and society. In the 2016 Presidential Debate, Hillary Clinton invoked this concept to help account for police killing of minority suspects, explaining that police may sometimes act in ways that are motivated by unseen forces. Despite the popularity and growing acceptance of this concept, less is known about what implicit bias teaches implicitly, including about the depths of oppression in society.

The main idea of implicit bias is that people harbor certain, often negative, attitudes or stereotypes about others, which can influence behavior. All people harbor biases, albeit in different degrees. The implicit aspect refers to the notion that some attitudes are not consciously held by an individual, but instead arise through subconscious impulses that result from conditioning. The conditioning can be so forceful that an individual with self-professed allegiances to racial equality might be swayed to act in contrast to these ideals. In Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, implicit bias was undoubtedly an ingredient that may have cost her the election. Of course, some denounced her womanhood explicitly, but even among 2016 voters who fancied themselves as egalitarian, she lost votes simply because she is a woman. Some in the country believed deep down that only a man can lead the country, and for these people, neither Clinton nor any other woman could have ever measured up to the task.

Implicit bias manifests in multiple forms. In policing, for example, conditioning to the notion that blacks are prone to crime and violence may ultimately play a role in determining whom police stop, question, arrest, or charge with a crime. The process is riddled with discretionary decision making on behalf of police and prosecutors, which provide all sorts of spaces for discrimination to dwell. Understanding implicit bias in this context helps to illustrate how a system—guided by ideals of procedural justice—could be so skewed against certain segments of society. Implicit bias teaches that even if the vast majority of police might consciously disavow racism, their behavior may be influenced in ways that betray their own understanding.

Implicit bias derives from deeply engrained ideas. At the individual level, this may not seem like much to bother about, but when the individuals aggregate, it can manifest as systematic oppression. In the police setting, the point is evident: there are police with explicit racist attitudes, who also hold implicit biases, as do the rest of the officers on the force. Taken wholly, the skewing amounts to more than merely individual conduct, but practically produces two systems of justice: one for whites and one for others. A quick glance at drug offences shows some of the contradiction; despite that racial groups use illegal drugs in close proportion to their size of the population, indigent ethnic minorities bear the brunt of prosecution and punishment. Some of these outcomes are driven by police who are guided by their own implicit biases.

Students of implicit bias theory recognize it as more than merely a conceptual counterpart of explicit bias. After all, a central premise of implicit bias is that individuals are conditioned to certain beliefs and attitudes. Implicit bias is not created ex ni hilo, but instead embodies the tacit expression of preexisting impressions. That is, the stereotypical thinking is already there for the taking. Understood this way, the notion of implicit bias appears as a tempered way of explaining why otherwise good people behave in despicable ways. It acts to excuse culpability by asserting the subconscious mind’s influence on a person’s behavior.

The point to emphasize here is not whether implicit bias strikes a more conciliatory tone or provides a pass for discriminatory behavior. Rather, it’s the fact of implicit bias that’s telling. This phenomenon asserts that individuals are inundated with explicit, indelible impressions, reiterated and reinforced, which ultimately and unwittingly taint the consciousness. Implicit biases build from this baseline of oppression, the cache of explicit representations that have been individually internalized. How millions of children across the country are impressed by the television “reality” show, COPS, illustrates the possibilities. Even though the episodes empirically feature a disproportionate number of minority suspects, the syndicated airings of black and brown bodies being scuffled, pummeled, and cuffed, embeds a particular message. At minimum, the images emblazon the psyche with the notion that blacks are suspects and whites are white knights and upholders of the law.

Such explicit biases influence society at all levels of being. The messaging in a show like COPS not only conditions whites to harbor certain beliefs about crime and punishment, but also leaves deep impressions on minorities too. Viewers internalize the episodes to their own detriment and absorb skewed ideas about color and criminality. What’s implicit about implicit bias, then, is that the concept depends on impressions wrought by a world of discrimination. Accounting these realities reveals the problem of invidious discrimination to be far more ominous than the sum of all implicit discrimination. Rather, these biases owe their very existence to greater oppressive forces. This unseen baseline of implicit bias provides a fuller account of modern discrimination. More critically, the influence of implicit bias in other areas like employment, education, health care, and housing, give a sense of the systemic nature of the problem.

-- Professor SpearIt, Professor of Law, Thurgood Marshall School of Law

February 6, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)