Saturday, July 31, 2010

Meet the New Discrete and Insular Minority

Last week, in reference to columns by Ross Douthat and Senator Jim Webb, I wondered why poor whites are now at the center of our collective concerns (as maybe they should be).  I think that it came to me while staring at a beautiful rock, running away from a bear, or maybe going up a fourteener.  This is a story about Grover Norquist, our derision for paying taxes, and the Roberts Court.

Be warned: the air was quite thin.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Teaching Moment: Shirley Sherrod, Narratives and Lawyering

I am a law professor who specializes in clinical legal education. My students, under my supervision, are authorized to represent clients, all of whom are indigent, all of whom have criminal records, and the vast majority of whom have been stigmatized throughout their lives. As numerous commentators, pundits and scholars have explained over the past week or so, there are many lessons to be learned from Shirley Sherrod’s ousting from the U.S Department of Agriculture; although, as expected, there is significant disagreement on what these lessons should be.

Ms. Sherrod’s ousting conveys powerful lessons for the legal profession. These lessons should resonate particularly for lawyers who work on behalf of indigent clients, whether the clients are applying for public benefits, fighting an eviction proceeding, accused of a crime or facing a deportation proceeding. The voices of these clients are often muted by systems that are conditioned to cycle them through expeditiously rather than learning who they are, and whose stories are heard only in fragments, if at all. Rather, these individuals often have to react to narratives that have been thrust upon them; narratives that are often incomplete, and therefore inaccurate or worse. Also, these narratives are both narrow and broad. They are narrow because they reduce the client’s situation, and sometimes their lives, to snippets or sound bites. They are broad because these snippets are often constructed within a context that has nothing or little to do with these individuals.

While not completely analogous, there are striking similarities between the ways in which Ms. Sherrod and my clients have been treated. The narrative that was thrust upon Ms. Sherrod–her racial animus towards whites caused her to slight a white farmer who sought assistance–was forced upon her by Andrew Breitbart. As a result, Mr. Breitbart constructed and controlled the story, which powerful decision makers–the Administration, the NAACP and much of the media, among others–reacted to. These decision makers fell right into the trap. As in many situations in which decision makers or other actors feel the need to make a point publicly, they rushed to judgment reflexively and unreflectively. Although Ms. Sherrod wanted to tell her story, initially she was not allowed to do so. She was muted and, as a result, voiceless. Even worse, she was forced to resign, which implied guilt even though, as it turned out, she was guilty of nothing. Fortunately for Ms. Sherrod, she was soon able to tell her story, one that she had conveyed beautifully in the speech she gave to the NAACP. She had strong advocates, such as Donna Brazile, who helped her access the television networks that soon aired her narrative, and various members of the civil rights community, who vouched for Ms. Sherrod’s integrity and lifelong commitment to helping farmers throughout the U.S. In the end, the truth unfolded and those who rushed to judgment expressed genuine remorse.

The lessons that I hope to convey to my students, many of whom are working in communities that are completely unfamiliar to them and with individuals whose overall life and daily experiences are vastly different than theirs, are manifold. First, they have to gather the complete story–they have to find the facts–before they decide how to react to the narrative that has been constructed. Second, they have to understand the broader context within which these narratives were created. The context is often steeped in history, the communities in which the clients reside, and the machinations of the various systems that are often involved in the clients’ lives. Third, they can never judge their clients. As Ms. Sherrod’s episode teaches, other actors and institutions impose their judgments. The lawyer has to advocate for and support the client. Fourth, the lawyer must counter the narrative that has been imposed upon the client. Last, lawyers must work for broader change. It is simply not enough that Ms. Sherrod was able to tell her story, that various decision makers apologized, and that she was offered a new position with the Department of Agriculture. These actions do not contemplate the broader reforms that are necessary to ensure that the distortions, lies and mistakes that she has been forced to endure do not repeat themselves.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Longer History of Race & Conservatism in America

Luis's comments on Ross Douthat's New York Times complaints about "white grievance" and innocent conservatives got me thinking about the connection between today's racial politics and a longer history of race, law and conservatism in America. In recent years, there has been an outpouring of historical writing on the rise of the right wing in American politics. Historians have explored the rise of anti-Communism, the John Birch Society, Presidential politics, the Goldwater campaign, the religious Right, the old and the New Right, and Ronald Reagan in California. Likewise, legal scholars like Ann Southworth have begun to write the history of the rise of legal conservatism, focusing on right-wing public interest lawyers, the Federalist Society, and the Olin Foundation’s sponsorship of the law-and-economics movement at law schools. But these histories of conservative movements have had surprisingly little to say about race, except as a “wedge issue” in electoral politics.

Of course, the backlash against the civil rights movement is a standard part of the story of post-war America. But it’s a remarkably regionalized – even segregated – literature on “massive resistance” in the South. According to the standard story, a Southern backlash to the civil rights movement fueled the electoral shift from a solid white South for the Democrats to the Republican Party, as well as the “Southernization” of American politics, as race has been a reliable “wedge issue” for the Republicans to pry white working-class voters away from the Democratic Party.

Yet, as a new generation of historians of racial politics in the South as well as the urban North have shown, the South is not “another country.” The politics of nonviolent – and legal – backlash against African Americans moving into white neighborhoods and public spaces was a national phenomenon, tied centrally to the rise of the “New Right” and the conservative legal movement. Moreover, conservatives in law and in politics successfully drew on historical narratives about race that tell reassuring stories about the path from slavery to freedom, what Nancy McLean has called “Neoconfederate” stories.

“Color-blind constitutionalism,” which has been identified and critiqued by a generation of critical race theorists, has a history in post-War America. Conservatives appropriated this once-liberal ideology not only through legal opinion-writing, but drawing on the narratives generated by grass-roots movements of opposition to integration, especially in housing and schools – narratives about “freedom of choice,” meritocratic individualism, and religious freedom.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’m in the early stages of a research project on the history of race, law and conservatism in the United States from the 1960s through the 1990s, bringing together the legal history of color-blind constitutionalism with the social history of grass-roots conservative movements that organized to oppose the integration of African Americans in housing, schools, and public life in American cities. Please send me your ideas! I am curious what the readers of this blog think about the current politics of race and its connections to a longer post-civil rights era history.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jim Webb on Race, Preferences, and -- Surprise, Surprise -- Poor Whites

This is a good week to be a poor white.  Elites are coming to their defense in the pages not only of the New York Times, but the Wall Street Journal as well. The latest salvo came from Senator Jim Webb, who argues that racial preferences might be appropriate for blacks and their descendants, but not all persons of color, many of whom have not suffered through the same history of discrimination.  He argues that this is particularly unfair when you consider that these advantages exact a cost on whites, who are not a "fungible monolith.".  In essence, and parroting Ross Douthat's earlier column in the Times, Senator Webb argues that poor whites are the ones who end up shouldering the costs of granting special preferences for undeserving non-whites.

A picture speaks a thousand words:

This makes me very curious.  None of the things the Senator writes about are new.  Not one.  Why then, does he felt compelled to have a staffer -- after reading the piece, I can only hope it was a staffer who wrote it, and not a sitting U.S. Senator -- write such a piece?  Was it the Shirley Sherrod debacle, coupled with the Skip Gates's controversy and the recent accusations of racism by the NAACP against the Tea Party?  Was it Matt Bai's contention in the Times that race is "still too hot to touch"? I don't have an answer.

I only have more questions.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Why is it that we get stupid when we talk about race?

I was in O’Brien County earlier week, a piece of the heartland tucked away in the northwest corner of Iowa.  This county is in the fifth congressional district, home to none other than congressman Steve King.   While there, I read with great interest Ross Douthat’s comments on “the root of white anxiety.”   I also had a great conversation with an old farmer, now retired, about economics, politics, and even a little political theory.  Whatever is the matter with Kansas, if my conversation with this one farmer is a true reflection of the fifth congressional, is also the matter with Iowa.

I’ll set aside the latter conversation for a future post.  For now, I am far more interested in what Douthat is trying to tell us, and why I think he’s not even close to the mark.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Willie Nelson Speaks About Shirley Sherrod

Shirley Sherrod has made a very positive impression on many folks during her long work on behalf of family farmers (including, of course, the Spooners) . Willie Nelson now rises to her defense.
Shirley Sherrod has been a great friend to me, Farm Aid and family farmers for 25 years. She has always worked to improve economic opportunities for family farmers in the South, going back to when I first met her as the director of the Georgia Field Office for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. Like Ms. Sherrod herself has said, she's always tried to help those who don't have so that they can have a little more.
The real story of Shirley Sherrod deserved to be told a long time ago. She has had an amazing impact on the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of families and communities throughout the South. 

Willie Nelson Speaks About Shirley Sherrod

Shirley Sherrod has made a very positive impression on many folks during her long work on behalf of family farmers (including, of course, the Spooners) . Willie Nelson now rises to her defense.
Shirley Sherrod has been a great friend to me, Farm Aid and family farmers for 25 years. She has always worked to improve economic opportunities for family farmers in the South, going back to when I first met her as the director of the Georgia Field Office for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. Like Ms. Sherrod herself has said, she's always tried to help those who don't have so that they can have a little more.
The real story of Shirley Sherrod deserved to be told a long time ago. She has had an amazing impact on the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of families and communities throughout the South. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

From the Left: What the Shirley Sherrod Controversy Portends for the Obama Administration on Race

I have nothing to add to the Shirley Sherrod controversy--the African American woman who was unjustly fired from her USDA job and condemned by almost everyone as a consequence of right-wing race-baiting. This courageous and innocent woman has been offered her job back.  Though I don't know that she can ever be made whole for what we have put her through in the last 24 hours.  I do want to explore very briefly what this controversy could mean for the Obama Administration's relationship with black voters, who as everyone knows are stalwarts in this Administration.

If you have not read The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates's strong rebuke of the Administration for its alleged role in bringing about the firing of Ms. Sherrod, you should do so here.  The Obama Administration is increasingly getting push back from black leaders and black intellectuals on the way the Administration handles race and racial equality issues.  I think some of that push back has been unfair because the Administration is in a difficult position and has done a lot, particularly behind the scenes, to promote policies and hire individuals that racial progressives should support.  But sometimes that push back has been warranted as the Administration sometimes appears to be deaf to the needs of communities of color.

So far, I think criticism of the Administration on race from the left has been politically ineffectual. Specifically, the average black person remains a fierce supporter of the President and could not be bothered by the chatter of black elites.  Knowing this, the White House can afford to ignore the critics.  Nevertheless, events such as the Shirley Sherrod controversy, are precisely the types of narratives that will resonate with the black electorate.  If black people feel that innocent hardworking black folks are being sold down the river aided and abetted by the White House they will revolt.  If the President loses the black electorate, the Administration is lost.

I'm sure the White House understands this, which is why we saw that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs apologized to Ms. Sherrod and Ag Sec Vilsack rescinded her firing.  Moreover, they will keep the President as far away from this controversy as possible.  But this story represents a leak in the dam; it may be a small leak, but it is a leak.  It will make it that much harder for the White House to ignore the concerns of racial progressives and it will make the criticisms of black elites that much more effective.

The Status of Puerto Rico, H.R. 2499, and Luis Fortuño

Last Sunday, George Will offered the Republican Party a way out of its present conundrum with respect to the growing Latino population. This is a population that cares deeply about the immigration issue, both as a matter of self-interest and as a symbolic issue. The conundrum is this: how to address the immigration debate without at the same time alienating Latinos? For an answer, Will looked to Luis Fortuño, governor of Puerto Rico and a member of the Republican Party.

According to Fortuño, the solution is simple: Republicans must couple their insistence on border control with support for statehood for Puerto Rico. Doing this would soften the Republican message of immigration reform. Interestingly, as Fortuño well knows, not all Latinos are the same, nor do they care about the same issues. Crucial to his argument is his belief that Latinos now share a common consciousness, thanks to many factors, including Spanish network television such as Telemundo and Univisión.*

* This makes no sense to me. I can’t see how an immigrant living illegally in Phoenix will find any comfort within a party that closed down the border and wishes to send him back across the border yet granted full citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico for politically expedient reasons. Does Fortuño really think Latinos are that stupid? 

The debate over the status of Puerto Rico presents very difficult questions about democratic citizenship, sovereignty, and American constitutionalism. Unfortunately, Fortuño does not engage these questions. Instead, Will and Fortuño focus their attention on the practical and political realities of Puerto Rican statehood. This is unfortunate because the status question, and the future of millions of American citizens living on the island, devolves into a question of political expediency.

Nobody said colonialism would be easy.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

More on the NAACP and the Tea Party

In a previous post I was critical of the NAACP's recent resolution to condemn racist elements within the Tea Party movement. I was skeptical of the move on speech/associational grounds and also on political grounds. I remain skeptical particularly upon further reflection (though for a more balanced analysis than mine please see Sherrilyn Ifill's characteristically thoughtful piece on the The

Upon further reflection, one of the more troubling aspect of the NAACP's move here is that it feeds into a classical narrative about racism that is not reflective of the modal manifestation of race in the 21st Century.  Most of us quintessentially understand racism as a belief that communicates animus against someone of a different race.  For example, if someone said, "I don't like black people," we would easily classify that person as a racist, not least because the assertion of animus is the classical understanding of racism.  The classical response to classical racism is colorblindness: if everyone would be blind to color (not pay attention to or notice race), we would be rid of racism and racial inequality.

Racial conservatives assert, rightly in my opinion, that classical racism has declined significantly.  By almost all measures, white racial animus against blacks has waned significantly.  Manifestations of racial animus, of the type that the NAACP singles out from the Tea Party, are rare.  It does not mean that they don't exist, but they are not the modal expression of racial inequality.  From this evidence of decline of racial animus, racial conservatives conclude, wrongly in my view, that we no longer have a race problem.  Moreover, they conclude, again wrongly in my view, that the answer to racial animus is colorblindness.

Racial progressives are less concerned with racial animus, we're concerned with racial inequality. When the black unemployment rate is almost twice that the white unemployment rate (8.6% compared to 15.4%) we have a racial inequality and thus a race problem. Racial inequality can be the result of animus, but in the 21st century it does not have to be.  I previously referenced on this blog a paper by Samuel Bowles, Glenn Loury, and Rajiv Sethi entitled Group Inequality.  The arresting part of this paper is the rigorous demonstration by the authors that racial inequality can persist infinitely in the absence of racial animus.  That is, if you got rid of all instances of racial animus right now and you enforced vigilantly anti-discrimination laws, without other intervention, we would experience racial inequality well into the foreseeable future.  Thus for racial progressives a focus on racism, especially as understood as animus, is significantly short-sighted, distracting, and passe.  What we need is to begin talking about and providing solutions to resolve racial inequality.  We need a paradigm shift and the NAACP should be leading this paradigm shift.  (See this column by DeWayne Wickham).

When the NAACP focuses its (and our) limited energies on fleeting instances of classical racism in the Tea Party movement, the NAACP reinforces the classical racism model.  It tells people that what we should really be concerned about are white people who do not like black people (especially the black President) and wish to do us harm.  But racial animus is not the threat to people of color today, racial inequality is the threat.  By focusing on arguable instances of racial animus, the NAACP reinforces the classical racism model and prevents us from shifting the racism paradigm.  Thus, delaying the attainment of true racial equality.

The NAACP's move is short-sighted for another reason.  As I mentioned above, the classical answer to classical racism is colorblindness.  The problem with colorblindness is that colorblind policies are at best of limited utility in combating racial inequality.  However, racial conservatives are winning the colorblindness rhetoric because the debate is being waged on their terms.

Accusing the Tea Party of racism gets the headlines, but solving racial inequality actually helps people of color. If the NAACP is truly serious about the advancement of the colored people, it needs to focus on contemporary racial inequality and lead a paradigm shift.  Otherwise, it's not clear why a bunch of people are paying dues.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Power of One

A financial reform bill is finally coming to President Obama's desk for his signature.  Yet, according to a recent article by the New York Times, the bill lacks protections against three notorious lending practices from auto dealers that should have been addressed by the new law. For my purposes, the actual exemptions themselves are irrelevant.  The obvious question is why the bill exempted these practices. The answer is an abject lesson in the power of one, and centers on one of our most undemocratic of institutions.

I am not referring to the Supreme Court and the power of judicial review.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Are We Witnessing the End of Justice Kennedy's Role as "Super Median"?

It is an article of faith that Justice Kennedy is the Supreme Court's swing voter, the one justice who controls the Court's important decisions.  Some go as far as to label him a Super Median, because his position on the Court allows him to "exercise significant control over the outcome and content of the Court’s decisions."  On every decision that matters, his vote controls the outcome.  He is "the court's true compass."

Decisions from this past term confuse this conventional picture.  According to Linda Greenhouse, Kennedy is no longer at the center of the Court.  In order to be a true swing vote, Kennedy's vote must be truly available to liberals and conservatives on the Court alike.  This was true on 2007, she writes, a term when Kennedy was in the majority in all 24 decision decided by a 5-4 vote.  Yet this was no longer true this past term.  Concededly, her data set is quite small; all the same, the picture that emerges is one where Kennedy is now part and parcel of the Court's conservative bloc, rather than the Court's enigmatic rudder.  For example, in the 18 cases decided by a 5-4 vote, Kennedy dissented in 5 of them.   The Chief Justice also dissented in five of these cases, while Alito dissented four times, and Scalia and Thomas dissented in three.  This trend leads Greenhouse to conclude that Kennedy is no longer the Court's "center of gravity."

I have three reactions.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

NAACP v. the Tea Party: Has the NAACP Jumped the Shark

The NAACP has made the news in the last few days after adopting a resolution that criticized racist elements in the Tea Party movement.  Predictably, the Tea Party has responded by trotting out the dark-skinned folks who are members of the Tea Party to rebut the NAACP's claims.  The NAACP has retreated a bit on its resolution.

I have two reactions.  First, I'm always leery when a group is characterized by its worst elements.  I don't know whether there are racists in the Tea Party movement.  It would surprise me if there were not. See for example these pictures that the NAACP has posted on its website. I don't know whether Tea Party members shouted racist statements at black congresspeople and spit at them, I was not there.  One side said this happened, the other side said it did not.  Given my predispositions, I believe Congressmen John Lewis and Emmanuel Cleaver. Assume that these events happened, what follows?  The leadership of the Tea Party has consistently proclaimed that they abhor racists and racists are not welcomed into their ranks.  The NAACP has not maintained that the Tea Party's platforms and beliefs are racist.  They've mainly pointed to the behavior of individuals at rallies and isolated incidents. I think we should all be careful not to use descriptions that would characterize a movement as racist on the basis of isolated incidents and the behavior of fringe members.  This type of characterization has a silencing effect.  None of us would want to be defined by the fringe elements in our groups.

In the NAACP's defense, its latter clarification explicitly stated that it did not wish to characterize the Tea Party as racist, it simply wanted the Tea Party to address its racist elements.  I'm not sure if this defense is an improvement. It reminds me of the times (the good old days of  yore?) when black people and black leaders were asked to speak for the race.  As an aside, I've said this before and I continue to believe that we must be very careful not to racialize every debate.  We should call out racism and racist behavior where it exists, but we must be very careful not to silence debate with cries of racism.  Sometimes this is a fine line and the line is not often clearly marked.  Because there is so much work to be done, I think organizations such as the NAACP must err on the side of restraint in these circumstances.

Second, to me this dispute is a sign of the increasingly irrelevancy of the NAACP.  Of all of the issues that are critical to communities of color, of all the ways that the NAACP can use its political capital, this is where the NAACP deploys its political capital?  It is clear that national NAACP no longer plays a critical role in the lives of communities of color.  My guess is that unless there is a radical course correction, the NAACP will soon be an organization that our kids read about in the history book as opposed to one that matters to lives.  I'm not sure how the NAACP fulfills its fundamental mission by getting into a you're-a-racist-no-I'm-not debate with the tea partiers.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reflections on Haiti Trip

I've recently returned from Port-au-Prince, Haiti and have had a chance to reflect a bit.  It has been six months since the earthquake, which has prompted some press assessments of the current state of affairs. Some of my favorites are here, here (an extremely informative article by Washington Post's Jonathan M. Katz), and here (this great piece in the New York Times article by Deborah Sontag).  (I hope that Sontag and Katz win awards for their Haiti reporting).  My experiences were consistent with the reporting in these articles.

Harry Reid's Use of the old Angle Website

Sonia Katyal and I have an article up at Slate on the dispute between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle over his campaign's republication of her old website. Here's a taste:

Angle's lawyers sent Reid's campaign a "cease and desist" letter, asserting that Angle's prior Web site was her intellectual property and that Reid's campaign was violating her copyright. Reid's campaign initially appeared to capitulate. It took down the Web site for a few days. But then it reposted the old Web site with some minor changes. (The online forms that might have collected information about potential Angle supporters are gone.) In a radio interview, Angle responded by declaring her intention to sue to force Reid to take down the site. "Your Web site is like you," she said, "it's your intellectual property. So they can't use something that's yours, intellectual property, unless they pay you for it or get your permission." Reid's campaign asserted a First Amendment right to use the Angle Web site. "It's called free speech," a campaign press release said, "and it's nearly absolute under the First Amendment."

Unsurprisingly, the legal landscape is more complicated than either side has admitted.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Senator McCain will vote "no" on Kagan -- Is he serious?

Just yesterday, Senator McCain announced his intention to vote "no" on General Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court.  Clearly, that is his prerogative.  What I find far more amusing are his stated reasons for his vote.  Does he think we are that stupid?

The Senator began with a very serious -- and promising -- charge: "In 1987, I had my first opportunity to provide 'advice and consent' on a Supreme Court nominee. At that time, I stated that the qualifications essential for evaluating a nominee for the bench included 'integrity, character, legal competence and ability, experience, and philosophy and judicial temperament.' On that test, Elena Kagan fails." These are all good reasons for voting down a judicial nominee.  The better question is how Senator McCain reached the conclusion that Kagan failed on any of these metrics.  What exactly persuaded him that she was not fit to join the Supreme Court?

Turns out, she failed McCain's fuzzy test on one piece of evidence alone: her approach to military recruitment while dean at Harvard law.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Looking for Justice Marshall

A recent survey conducted by the Kellogg Foundation, due out today, reveals startling conclusions about the available opportunities for children of color in their communities.  In general, these children have fewer opportunities to gain access to good health care and education, and their communities are less safe and fail to provide them with adequate support.  According to Gail Christopher, a Kellogg Foundation vice president, "you have major, major pockets of poverty in this country, many of which are tied to race."

These findings remind me of the work of Robert Coles, Jonathan Kozol and Alex Kotlowitz, among others.  These are not new findings.  Coles and Kozol, for example, have documented the destabilizing effects of race and poverty on the children of this country for well over forty years.   Yet we still find ourselves in the same place.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Time Magazine Finds Humor in "Dot Head"; Forgets Navroze Mody

The most read and the most emailed piece on the Time Magazine site right now is Joel Stein's "My Own Private India." In it Stein says that the increasing presence of Indian-Americans in his hometown of Edison, New Jersey "bothers[] me so much."

Faced with a flurry of criticism, Time Magazine has now posted the following non-apology apology:
TIME responds: We sincerely regret that any of our readers were upset by Joel Stein’s recent humor column “My Own Private India.” It was in no way intended to cause offense.

The apology does not in fact concede that there is reason for offense. That was not the "intent[]" of this "humor" piece.

Perhaps the most serious error in the piece is that it is an ostensible humor piece lacking any humor. What is most galling, however, is that this ostensibly serious news magazine fails to have any sense of history.

Stein writes:
My town is totally unfamiliar to me. The Pizza Hut where my busboy friends stole pies for our drunken parties is now an Indian sweets shop with a completely inappropriate roof. The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas. The Italian restaurant that my friends stole cash from as waiters is now Moghul, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the country. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime.
Perhaps if magazines like Time had spent more time on better reporting, the editors would have recognized the obvious logical and historical error in this "funny" paragraph. The "white children" in Edison inclined towards crime could now practice their craft on Indian Americans.  Indeed, this was the case in the 1980s suburban New Jersey, the passing of which Stein laments.

Back then, folks like Stein's friends not only harassed Indian Americans as "dot heads," they also physically attacked them.  As the Harvard Pluralism project reminds us:
in 1987, a thirty-year-old Indian immigrant bank manager, Navroze Mody, was beaten to death by a gang chanting "Hindu, Hindu!" A group which called itself the "Dot Busters," which included local teenagers, had been targeting the hard-working community of Indian immigrants with low-level harassment for months. The "dot" referred to the bindi Hindu women wear on their foreheads.

In July of 1987, a month before Mody's death, a local newspaper called attention to the rising number of harassment incidents. In response, it received a letter, signed "Jersey City Dot Busters:"
"I'm writing about your article during July about the abuse of Indian People. Well I'm here to state the other side. I hate them, if you had to live near them you would also. We are an organization called dot busters. We have been around for 2 years. We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I'm walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her. We plan some of our most extreme attacks such as breaking windows, breaking car windows, and crashing family parties. We use the phone books and look up the name Patel. Have you seen how many of them there are? Do you even live in Jersey City? Do you walk down Central avenue and experience what its like to be near them: we have and we just don't want it anymore. You said that they will have to start protecting themselves because the police cannot always be there. They will never do anything. They are a week race Physically and mentally. We are going to continue our way. We will never be stopped."
In Jersey City, a few weeks after Mody's death, a young resident in medicine, Dr. Sharan, was assaulted by three young men with baseball bats as he walked home late one night. One of the young people yelled, "There's a dothead! Let's get him!" as they set out with their bats. Sharan was beaten severely and left unconscious with a fractured skull. He was in a coma for a week, in the hospital for three weeks, and suffered permanent neurological damage.
A search on Time's website of its content in the 1980s and 1990s reveals no mention of the "Dot Busters" or of Navroze Mody--though perhaps the archive is not as comprehensive as it appears (or, more likely, the search engine is not particularly good). A group of thugs terrorized a particular group in the country on account of its race or national origin or religion--even going so far as to kill someone--and the country's major newsmagazine seems to have failed to find it worthy of significant attention.  As a child growing up in a far more gentle environment in 1980s Ohio, I learned of the terror of the "Dot Busters" from Indian-American media.

A review of the last ten columnists published by Time Magazine reveals that 100% of them are white, and only 10% are female. Newsweek can boast the powerful writing of Fareed Zakaria (who was conservative enough to support the invasion of Iraq). Perhaps Time should apologize to the Indian-American community by replacing Stein with an Indian-American columnist. Kal Penn, who has the added virtue of actually being funny, would be ideal (see his punchy putdown of Stein's column here). 

Monday, July 5, 2010

Initial Impressions of Haiti

I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and left a few months before my 9th birthday.  My younger brother and I boarded a flight to join our parents in the United States.  A little more than 30 years later, I return for the first time.  My memories of Haiti as a child were quite specific (house, school, a couple of friends, specific events--I got into a fight from which I still have a visible scar--etc.)  I doubt that I would remember POP pre-earthquake, I certainly did not recognize it post-earthquake.

Off to Haiti

I leave today for Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  I will be there until Friday.  I am not expecting to have email access.  So, I will blog about my trip when I come back.  I leave you readers in the capable hands of my fellow contributors.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Frank Rich on July 4, Race, and Thurgood Marshall

In today's New York Times, columnist Frank Rich reminds us that while all (wo)men are created equal, "slavery, America’s original sin of inequality, was left unaddressed in the Declaration of Independence signed 234 years ago today." The full column is here.

It's worth remembering that July 4 has not always been a day of celebration for African Americans. On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech entitled, "What to the slave is the Fourth of July?" He addressed his white audience as "you" rather than "we." He spoke of "your fathers" and "your freedom." Then he told his listeners: "The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."

Yet freed slaves reclaimed the Fourth of July just as abolitionists like Douglass had reclaimed the Declaration of Independence for its ideals of universal equality. In the immediate post-Civil War period, African Americans launched large public celebrations not only of Juneteenth (June 19), the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but Independence Day on July 4. Fitzhugh Brundage, in The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory, quotes the Atlanta Constitution's complaint that "Darktown has a sort of idea that the Fourth of July belongs to it [because] . . . every man, woman, and pickaninny believes the abolition of slavery and the Fourth of July are in some way mixed up." Blacks in Nashville in 1868 demanded integration of the streetcars on the Fourth of July.

Rich's column this July 4 reminds us what a travesty it is that Republican Senators used Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings as an excuse to trash the memory of Justice Thurgood Marshall, a genuine American hero, as an "activist judge." Unlike Frederick Douglass, who despite his bitter speech on July 5 insisted that the 1787 Constitution was a "liberty Constitution," Justice Marshall recognized what most historians have concluded, that the Constitution of 1787 authorized and supported slavery. Yet Marshall, in a moving speech at the Bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987, "commemorate[d] the suffering, struggle, and sacrifice that has triumphed over much of what was wrong with the original document, and observe the anniversary with hopes not realized and promises not fulfilled. I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and the other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights."

On this July 4, I'll be commemorating Thurgood Marshall and the ongoing struggle for racial justice.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Race in Japan and the United States compared

I’ve just returned from a month in Japan, sponsored by the Organization of American Historians and the Japanese Association for American Studies, and paid for by the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission. I was a resident scholar at Kyoto University for two weeks and gave lectures there and at other universities in Kyoto and Tokyo. It was a wonderful opportunity for intellectual exchange with Japanese scholars of race, comparative and American studies. My host, Yasuko Takezawa, an anthropologist at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at Kyoto U. (and one of only two female full professors in the arts and sciences there!) is a brilliant scholar of race across cultures and she introduced me to a number of other scholars who are working on comparative race issues.

Of particular interest to me was new research on the burakumin, or untouchable caste of Japan, and other “invisible races” – groups at the bottom rung of Asian societies who are apparently phenotypically indistinguishable from other members of society but are marked in other ways (although often by imagined physical differences as well). Until recently, Japanese scholars denied that the burakumin were a racialized group, and resisted comparisons between the burakumin and racial minorities in other countries. However, Takezawa and other scholars are now calling for a broadly comparative approach to racialization that does not assume either a universal conception of race or racism, nor that race is an exclusively Western phenomenon only recently imported to the East. Archival research suggests that the burakumin were singled out as a race apart, with hereditary difference that justified separation and subordination, as early as the medieval era, and that such discrimination was often accompanied and produced by a racial ideology that figured them as physically different and inferior.

I found a great deal in common between their research on “invisible races” and my own findings about the history of race and racism in U.S. trials of racial identity, in which race did not depend necessarily on appearance or ancestry, but at least as much on racial performance, associations, “character,” and other “invisible” attributes. Even within the black/white paradigm, racial science has developed side by side with these other, equally insidious narratives about difference and subordination. While I don’t think that means racism is necessarily a universal feature of human societies, it does suggest that we can learn a great deal by widening our comparative perspective beyond the Atlantic world to other, less familiar cultures.

(Cross-posted from the Legal History Blog)