Race Archives

March 9, 2012

Johnny Depp as Tonto

The Lone Ranger

Have you seen this still image from Gore Verbinski's new action movie and probable first installment in an inevitable trilogy, The Lone Ranger? We've got Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger, and Johnny Depp as that embarrassing reminder of bad cultural stereotypes in entertainment, and genocide, Tonto.

So, what's with that look, Johnny? If Captain Jack Sparrow was the flamboyant union of Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew, Tonto appears to be a mishmash of Captain Jack Sparrow, a Victorian milliner, the Village People Indian, and either Peter Criss from KISS or a Juggalo. As to how that will play out in his characterization, I can't wait, but considering that Depp is doing this role in part to reinvent how Native Americans have been represented "throughout the history of cinema", I wonder what bizarre vision of cultural sensitivity and reimagining of post-racial frontier male bonding we're going to get.

My favorite imagined caption for the photo above comes from the AV Club: "So who's got the most distracting hat now?"

October 19, 2010

Bumping rails and stealing TVs with Dottie from Gone Baby Gone

Dottie from Gone Baby Gone

I've been on the road for most of the past month, so it's been pretty quiet around here. Now I'm back, so let's peer into the murky world of marginal fame, moral turpitude, and racist Boston lowlifes!

I've said before how, despite his shortcomings as an actor, Ben Affleck really knows how to cast a movie. His latest, The Town, centers on an unconvincing love story and has a few too many pointless scenes, but the supporting cast is so outstanding that Affleck seemed to actually run out of meaningful roles for all those fantastic actors.

He did a good job with his first movie, Gone Baby Gone, too, giving the wonderful Amy Ryan one of her first big roles, and dredging up some really impenetrable accents from the South Boston neighborhoods where the movie was shot.

The most memorable parts of that movie for me were the scenes with Amy Ryan as an irresponsible mother, Helene, and her hahhd-pahhtyin' best friend Dottie. Those ladies were phenomenal. Watching them sleaze around Boston in their jean skirts and sweatsuits, looking for a good time and free drugs, was my favorite part of the movie. I remember Emily saying she couldn't wait to see the sequel, Helene and Dottie Bump Rails.

Maybe Ben Affleck's casting skills are even better than we realized: today we hear (tx Em!) that Jill Quigg, the woman he hand-picked to play Dottie, got busted for breaking into a neighbor's apartment, stealing a TV and a printer, then telling cops she had seen "a black man" break into the apartment.

Cops said they became suspicious of what Jill Quigg, 35, and her alleged accomplice Georgios Keskinidis, 28, told them about an unidentified black man breaking into the South Street apartment ... Quigg and Keskinidis told cops they saw an unidentified black male run from the crime scene with a 32-inch television and a computer printer. Quigg also told cops the break-in was "drug-related," but could not explain how she knew that.

They also told police they took the stolen goods to Quigg’s apartment located across the street from the crime scene for safe keeping.

Oh, Dottie!

Maybe she took her inspiration from Charles Stuart, the Boston guy who shot his pregnant wife in the head, then told cops that "a black man" had done it. Everyone believed him and a random black guy was actually arrested for the crime, until Stuart's brother confessed to the cops what had really happened. Then Stuart jumped from the Tobin Bridge into Mystic River and killed himself.

It's a Boston Gothic story William Faulkner could have written if he was from Quincy.

Even if she made up the part about the black man, Jill Quigg probably had one part of her story right. In her IMDb bio, one of her quotes is: "I'd love to do more acting, absolutely, but right now I'm working on staying sober."

April 29, 2010

Tanning is a bigger deal than I thought

Kardashian with tanlines

When the healthcare reform bill finally passed, one of the odd things to get thrown in at the last minute was a 10% tax on tanning salon sessions. In an earlier version of the bill, it was only a 5% tax on tanning, with another 5% tax on cosmetic surgery. But in the end, they kept facelifts tax-free and doubled the tanning tax for an estimated 30 million people per year.

This decision made more sense today after I read about a recent, crazy study that Sloan-Kettering did on tanning, which suggests that something like 20% of college students surveyed are actually addicted to tanning. Over half of the kids surveyed have done indoor tanning. Even if you look only at the ones who have tanned, 40% of them are out-of-control tanners.

Somehow I'd never noticed this, but tanning is hugely popular. So clearly, this 10% tax was a wise legislative move. If you tax the hell out of cigarettes and alcohol, and we all keep paying higher and higher prices for them, why not tax something else people are powerless to resist?

Salon owners in the $6 billion industry aren't happy about the tax, of course. Sessions only cost about $7 on average, and I can't see a hardcore tanning addict fussing over 70 cents.

Rick Kueber, founder of Indiana salon Sun Tan City, explains why he thinks the tax is unfair because of its disproportionate effect on one segment of the population: white ladies. "Let's call this what it is. It's a tax on working, white women," he says. He points out that wealthy people enjoy their plastic surgery tax-free, and I think is also strangely implying that those lucky Americans with naturally non-pasty skin are getting a free ride through some sort of melanin tax shelter.

I don't understand tanning at all, but apparently there are other studies out there that suggest the UV rays give tanners an endorphin boost, so maybe the appeal is more psychological than aesthetic. I used to work with a woman who displayed a weird tanning obsession, calling furtively to book sessions whenever she was having a bad day, and she really loved tanning even though her 26 year-old skin had all the suppleness of a Slim Jim.

January 11, 2010

Farmers use the wrong agricultural metaphor

40 Acres and a Mule t-shirt

Industrial farmers have been getting more scrutiny lately, now that anyone concerned about animal welfare, pollution, climate change, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or their own health has started looking at factory farms as the cause of a lot of big problems. Some states are considering new laws regulating things like the size of cages animals are kept in and other agricultural operations in order to protect animals and the people who eat them.

Which, of course, farmers don't like one bit. At this year's meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the president, Bob Stallman, said in a speech yesterday denouncing their perceived opponents, "A line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and how we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule."

Um, oops. I think what Bob Stallman was trying to say is that we're no longer living in an age of small farms, and large-scale corporate factories that produce massive volumes of food must resist efforts to treat their industry as if it's made up of independent, pastoral family farmers with their livestock eating clover out in the pasture (even though that's exactly the image food producers use in their marketing.)

But "40 acres and a mule" is a reference with a very specific meaning that isn't really about agriculture. For a brief period after the Civil War, under Special Field Order No. 15 from General Sherman, former slave families were to be given 40 acres and a mule, in order to start their own farms. According to the Wikipedia entry, about 10,000 former slaves were settled on 400,000 acres of land in GA and SC, but after Lincoln's assassination, the policy was revoked, and the land was given back to the former white landowners.

"40 acres and a mule" has become shorthand for the need for reparations for slavery in an effort to reconcile the incalculable advantages that the beneficiaries of a few centuries of slavery had and continue to have. During his anti-agricultural legislation speech, the American Farm Bureau president accidentally (I hope) equated proposed farming regulations with making reparations for slavery, which he later referred to as an "elitist power grab." Need to get your metaphors straight, there. Unless he's trying to make some ill-founded connection between beleaguered factory farmers and slaves, which I really hope is not the case.

Wikipedia has a list of pop culture references to 40 acres and a mule, the best known being Spike Lee's film production company. My favorite on the list is some lines from Nelly's "Nellyville": "40 acres and a mule, fuck that, Nellyville, 40 acres and a pool."

The Yippies' website outlines their own 40 acres and a mule demand as follows: "Since it is illegal to grow pot in the United States the YOUTH INTERNATIONAL PARTY demands 40 acres of prime pot growing land in Northern Mexico for every former Prisoner of Weed (POW) and a mule to bring it back into the States."

I really hope Spike Lee never sees that.

December 7, 2009

Holiday gifts for kids

Mr. Squiggles and Chunk

Like a lot of people out there, I have a growing number of small children in my life, and all those children need presents. When you don't spend a whole lot of time around kids, it can be hard to keep up with their interests and obsessions. For example, I only recently found out about Bakugan and its vast universe of Battle Brawler merchandise that any self-respecting 6 year-old is required to possess. You could randomly select a few toys from this product line, but how do you know if you're choosing the coolest action figure, video game, or, God help you, activity book?

And now that this year's insanely popular Zhu Zhu hamsters have turned out to have too much of the toxic fire-resisting agent antimony in them (surprise!), you've got to find some alternatives.

If you're playing the role of the cool but untrustworthy aunt/uncle/family friend, you could just give all the kids on your list a carton of Kool cigarettes and a handle of whiskey. Or if you really want to ensure that you'll never be invited to a Christmas celebration again, give them a new book for families that I received an email about today, just in time for the holidays. It's called Why He Hates You!, and it's a book that invites mothers and sons to explore all the ways they hate each other.

The targeted audience of the book is black women who raised their children alone and black boys raised by single moms, but why not share the hate? Author Janks Morton uses his own experiences as the basis for uncovering "angst-creating parental techniques such as negotiation, manipulation, and castigation"--techniques that, let's be honest, span all races and backgrounds, and lead to deep-rooted parent-hating. Actually, mother-hating.

(Not surprisingly, Janks is a big conservative who is very unhappy about Obama's stimulus efforts and thinks making a case for reparations is "a waste of energy." His hero is his dad, Janks Morton, Sr., and in case you were unclear on this, he hates his mom.)

Give out a few copies of Why He Hates You! to the boys and mothers in your life, and watch the magic of the Christmas season unfold.

July 15, 2009

Pomo Sotomayor

Sotomayor hearings

I sure wish I could listen to my college Postmodern Lit professor talk about these Sotomayor hearings.

Please excuse this diversion into shoddy undergrad English-major analysis, but has anyone else noticed the weird refusal to acknowledge that a justice's gender or ethnicity could play a role on the Supreme Court, unless that justice is not male or not white? The kerfuffle over Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment has gone further than subtly racist partisan pouncing on whatever makes her nomination questionable, and has moved into a strange realm where we all pretend that subjectivity doesn't exist.

When you're a judge, your job is to interpret the law with impartiality and not let your personal viewpoints color your judgment. The law is the law and we as individuals are supposed to fade into an undifferentiated mass of equality and non-discriminatory humanoids before it.

But come on. Even if we all agree that the law should strive for perfect objectivity based on a higher, absolute justice, we all know that's not ever going to be possible. Don't members of Congress know any basic postmodern critical theory?

I'm only half kidding, here. The pomo critics taught us that all the basic tenets that our society is built on--science, religion, the nuclear family, political parties, gender roles, law--are all human constructions that we made up. They don't possess any kind of innate righteousness. The only reason we have the law is that we made it up, if by "we" you mean "white men".

(The postmodernists also say that just like there's no real objective truth, there's also no subjective truth either because the idea of "selfhood" is just another construction, but then you're getting into sophomore-level cultural studies, and I didn't take that class. Here's a pretty good summary of all this stuff.)

I don't expect that we would find much Derrida on Jeff Session's nightstand, but it would be so great if someone in these hearings spoke up and pointed out that if Sotomayor has personal beliefs based on her life experiences that could have some kind of influence on her work as an interpreter of the law, then John Roberts and Clarence Thomas and Scalia and Ginsberg all do too. As justices their job is to strive to see beyond their personal beliefs, though they are still there. Sotomayor spoke about her life experiences as being positive contributions to her legal career, but every judge's experiences somehow influence the way they do their work. How could they not?

We only seem to notice or be suspicious of this when a person other than a white man talks about it, because we have a legal system that was created by white men, and has therefore historically directed more benefits to them than to anyone else. During his congressional hearing, Justice Roberts didn't have to talk about how a wise white guy might add value to a court of law because our courts are already pretty much of, by, and for white guys. Those biases are already there.

At least Sotomayor has admitted this, though now she seems to be backpedaling, playing the objectivity game with Congress. Still, I love that she said this: "Life experiences have to influence you. We’re not robots who listen to evidence and don't have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings, and put them aside. That’s what my speech was saying."

Today, John Cornyn went back to the wise Latina thing again, "asking whether she would regret if her audience of students understood her to be saying that the quality of a judge depended on race, gender or ethnicity." "I would regret that," she said.

I would love to hear John Roberts laboriously explain over and over again how he has explored his own feelings and biases as a white man, then put them aside for the fair application of the law.

April 3, 2009

Anil Kapoor pretends to be Middle Eastern on 24

Anil Kapoor and Danny Boyle at the Oscars

A lot of us saw Anil Kapoor for the first time when he played the devious game show host in Slumdog Millionaire. He was one of my favorite characters in the movie while he was being subtle and mysteriously sneaky, but when he suddenly made that ham-handed outburst toward the end, like "I call the shots around here! That slumdog will never become a millionaire on MY SHOW!" or whatever, the whole movie sort of lost me.

Anyway: Kapoor is already a mega-star in India, and has been in about 100 movies over the last 25 years. He's alerady on the next step to fame in America by signing up to be a regular character on the next season of 24.

Luckily for him, he doesn't have to play a terrorist. Sort of unluckily for him, he does have to pretend to be from the Middle East, coming to the US as part of an anti-terrorism mission.

24 is good at recruiting Indian actors to play Middle Eastern terrorists. We've already had Kal Penn, who played a terrorist Ahmed Amar last season in one of the few storylines of that season that was good, and Anil Kumar, who played a villain named Kalil Hasan, the operative who stopped at the gas station that Kiefer then absurdly pretended to hold up in Season 4.

24 also casts Latino-Americans and Italians who all convincingly played Middle Eastern terrorists, so they don't get too hung up on ethnic specificity: if you have brown skin, you're in.

Anil Kapoor is a lot of fun to watch onscreen, so I think he'll be a good, scenery-chewing addition to the show.

January 14, 2009

Times determines America pretty much just as racist as ever

Obama surrounded by other, white Senators

What will race relations look like in Obama's America? The Times explores this eternally tricky issue by asking a bunch of people if they have noticed any change in how people of different races deal with each other in the Age of Obama. And by "different races" they apparently mean "black or white", because that's all that gets mentioned.

A few good passages:

"All this exposure to this very counterstereotypical African-American has actually changed — at least temporarily — what is on the tip of the tongue," said E. Ashby Plant, a psychologist at Florida State University and an author of a new study examining the impact of Mr. Obama on the attitudes of whites. "It may have very important implications."

In Dr. Plant's study, 400 white college students in Wisconsin and Florida were asked, between Mr. Obama’s nomination and his election, questions like, "What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of African-Americans?"

The unpublished study found that the answers revealed little evidence of antiblack bias, in sharp contrast to many earlier studies (including one by Dr. Plant) showing that roughly 80 percent of whites have some degree of bias.

Sounds pretty good, but white college students learning not to come out with an obviously racist remark when asked to think about African-Americans doesn't necessarily mean that perceptions are changing.

As one black women interviewed for the article says, "I remember people saying Michael Jordan's 'not really black,' " said Gilda Squire, 39. "It's like Obama supersedes race." And not in a good way. Other people in the article note that white people often deal with their discomfort about race by just ignoring it or pretending that they "don't see color," like Colbert does as a joke.

Some of those interviewed for the article are hopeful that race is becoming an easier topic to talk about, which is a good sign. For white people, anyway. Most white people seem to think things aren't so bad to begin with. The article refers to a survey from July: "Nearly 60 percent of black respondents said race relations were generally bad, while only 34 percent of whites agreed."

The article ends with the weirdest story I've seen all day:

On the morning after the election, Kristin Rothballer, 36, who lives in San Francisco, kissed her female partner goodbye on the train while commuting to work. A black woman who sat down next to her turned and said she was sorry that Proposition 8, the amendment to ban gay marriage in the state, looked like it was going to pass.

"We grabbed hands," Ms. Rothballer recalled. "And I said, 'Well, I really want to congratulate you because we have a black president and that's amazing.' "

"Our conversation then almost became about the fact that we were having the conversation," she said.

Something moved her to apologize to the black woman for slavery.


So here's the upshot of the article:

  • You will experience more open and comfortable race relations, but only if you actually are Barack Obama,
  • Watch out for white-guilt-afflicted ladies on the BART.

December 30, 2008

Roland Burris graciously accepts pretend Senate seat

Roland Burris and Rod Blagojevich

Look at the smile on Roland Burris's face. That is one brave and gracious man. Getting appointed to the Senate by an indicted governor who is in process of being formally stripped of his appointing powers -- it must be sort of like when you're playing with a small child who, feeling generous, starts handing you random objects she picks up, like other people's wallets or her mom's thing of lipgloss. You know it's not really yours, but you smile and say "thank you!" anyway to keep up the illusion.

Poor guy. He has to stand there pretending this sham is for real, and then Bobby Rush points out to everyone that once Obama is inaugurated there will actually be zero black people in the Senate. Good point! But let's be honest here: everyone knows that Blagojevich can nominate a really exceptional and worthy person to the Senate right now, even someone who he couldn't squeeze for any cushy jobs for the delightful Mrs. Patti Blagojevich, and it doesn't mean squat.

I would have no problem hearing an outburst from Mr. Burris sometime in the next few weeks about how he got used in this silly charade by a greedy, meaty-fisted charlatan trying lamely to make himself look honorable as he crashed and burned. Potential upside: at least his name is out there now, so he could very likely get appointed by some less tainted Illinois person, or even elected through a legitimate process.

Also: Gawker points out that on his way out of the press conference, Blagojevich demonstrated spectacularly poor word choice by asking the press not to "lynch" Burris over the ongoing corruption scandal. Dude, it's all over.

October 10, 2008

How to turn an ugly crowd into a scary crowd

McCain Palin puppets

McCain is in a tough spot. The Dow is down 40% since last year (20% just in the last 10 days!) and he's losing in states like Florida by a lot. His own desperation is starting to show in his supporters, and his latest strategy is riling up voters' illogical fear and anger. And talking about William Ayers, a topic I thought had already been played out last winter.

It's hard to see how Bill Ayers is relevant to anything in this election, especially now with the whole world falling apart, but a new McCain ad coming out today is largely about this guy.

Slate tries to set the record straight with an article by a guy who knew both Ayers and Obama in the 90's. These days Ayers, Chicago's Citizen of the Year in 1997, is best known for his work in education and juvenile justice reform. He's also worked on an approach to dealing with juvenile offenders that George W. Bush adopted as part of his 2000 campaign.

Reporters have noticed how riled up the crowds have been getting at McCain-Palin rallies this week. In Wisconsin yesterday, Slate quotes a man who probably expressed the anger and frustration that a lot of campaign staff is feeling these days: "I'm mad, and I'm really mad. It's not the economy. It's the socialists taking over our country." McCain started to respond, and the man shot back sternly. "Let me finish please. When you have an Obama, Pelosi, and the rest of the hooligans up there gonna run this country, we've got to have our head examined."

McCain decided this wasn't the best moment to bring up his socialist idea of the government buying people's mortgages. The Slate reporter also says that McCain's supporters gave members of the press the finger on their way out of the event (which he interprets as a "You're Number 1!" salute.)

At a rally in Florida earlier this week, Sarah Palin whipped the crowd into actual frenzy. From the Washington Post:

In Clearwater, arriving reporters were greeted with shouts and taunts by the crowd of about 3,000. Palin then went on to blame Katie Couric's questions for her "less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media." At that, Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. Others hurled obscenities at a camera crew. One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man for a network and told him, "Sit down, boy."

Wow. It's desperate and ugly and sinister, and I doubt McCain himself supports this stuff. But his campaign is encouraging this behavior from the people whose votes he needs, so he's still responsible.

September 19, 2008

A new kind of Obama heckler

Hecklers at Obama rally

Obama may currently have the support of an impressive 84% of African-American voters, but what about those that he hasn't won over? Who are they?

A bunch of them showed up at today's rally in Miami to protest. CNN has a video of Obama's speech getting interrupted by lots of guys with homemade white signs saying things like "Blacks AGAINST Obama" and "Jesse Jackson Hates Obama For Federal Child Support Act" who started shouting stuff about the KKK.

The URL at the bottom of their signs points to the not quite developed site of Michael Warn, who wants you to "learn the truth about the current issues of the world politically and religiously."

It seems that Mr. Warn's main problem is not actually with Obama, but with women. Specifically, the 33% of black women who he claims are Lilith, "the devil", who are trying to lead black men into evil.

[Lilith is an ancient Jewish and Sumerian female demon mythological figure, who has come to be thought of as Adam's first wife in Jewish and Christian thinking, and later for the Victorians was a sort of femme fatale temptress, as evidenced by the sexy nude Pre-Raphaelite painting of her in the Wikipedia entry.]

Anyway, there are lots of wacky claims in Michael Warn's book, "Satan Revealed, Her Name Is Lilith, She is 33% Of the Black Women Of America", a title which pretty much explains the whole premise of the book right there. The book's cover also identifies Oprah as what he means by 33% of black women.

Some excerpts that he has up on his site:

WOMEN TOOK OVER IN AMERICA when America gave women the right to vote. How? Because they out number men 40 to 1, women have the voting power in numbers, the majority. There are two hundred and sixty million people in America. Black LILITH has a thirty million person block vote ... She takes her numbers and vote her men in who will do her will, and make the laws in her favor. One woman can say you said something sexually negative to her eight years ago and destroy you.

Dizzying logic, there.

I'm not sure how today's protest in Miami ties in with evil demon women, but it sounds like this guy's main problem with Obama is that he is pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and that he and Evan Bayh co-sponsored a bill to enforce child support laws.

So I guess Michael Warn wants to fight that 30 million Black Lilith voting block by requiring pregnant women to have children they don't want, but not requiring fathers to help support them. Actually, maybe this guy does make sense: that sounds like a great way to keep women from taking over America. Especially with there being 40 times more of them and all.

July 1, 2008

My new favorite New Yorker: Randy Credico

The many faces of Randy Credico

The greatest guy in NYC* might be renegade drug-policy activist and stand-up comedian Randy Credico. Today's Times has a feature about him and his strategy of protesting small-time marijuana arrests. He sits on his stoop on Gay Street in the West Village, a quiet block where pot-smokers like to go, and warns people not to smoke there because the cops will likely bust them.

A pretty harmless campaign, and as Mr. Credico puts it, "Listen, I don’t want people committing crimes on my street and I tell them not to." But he also spent a night in the Tombs a few weeks ago after yelling at officers and telling them "that that they should be 'solving murders,' not making marijuana arrests."

He may claim that his warnings to pot smokers are just a crime-fighting strategy, but Credico is a much cooler and stranger guy that. He's the same one who randomly offered Shawn Kovell $25,000 for bail when she was arrested along with "preppy killer" Robert Chambers--one of my favorite stories from last year. She ended up turning down his offer for unclear reasons (she said she would have preferred rent money), but Credico's generosity seemed to stem from his desire to decriminalize drugs and get people in trouble like Shawn Kovell out of jail and into treatment.

Turns out the Times has been covering Credico's one-man crusade for some time now. Three years ago, they did another profile of him, which reveals the origins of his activism: trying to quit cocaine and happening to hear about the large number of black and Latino people in prison due to New York state's Rockefeller laws:

"I felt like I had dodged a bullet, because I'd violated those laws a million times but never came close to being arrested," he says. He was insulated, he claims, by his milieu: white, privileged and connected. "If I were black or Latino I'd be in prison right now. I feel like a lot of these guys are doing my time. Fighting these laws, which are unjust and racist, was a perfect platform for me: the antiwar movement is 0 for 50, you can't stop a war, but a movement to repeal the Rockefeller laws is something local. You can put a face on it."

When he's not on the comedy circuit, he works at the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, a legal aid service that fights the racially-based structure of our drug laws, and also hangs outside 100 Centre St taking pictures of judges in drug cases and undercover cops bringing in drug arrests--"Pretty easy to spot," he said. "The cops are usually white and the perps are almost always people of color." In his stand-up routine, he jokes that "Bloomberg" is Yiddish for "Giuliani".

There's also a great video of Credico in today's piece where we see him talking to cops, complaining about the drug laws, and smoking a big cigar.

*besides Christopher X. Brodeur, that is

June 4, 2008

"Assassination" political art show shut down

Assassination art show getting papered over

The Democratic primary may be over, but it looks like we're still, on some level, freaking out about having a woman or a black man as our next president.

A Boston-based artist named Yazmany Arboleda was installing an art exhibit in a gallery today called "The Assassination of Hillary Clinton / The Assassination of Barack Obama". But don't worry, says the artist--he means the character assassination of the two candidates, as perpetrated by the media.

Well, the NYPD didn't care what kind of assassination he meant, and by 9:30 this morning had papered over the title on the gallery doorway. The artist, who just hit the free publicity jackpot, says he still plans to open the show on Thursday, but it sounds like it will run for only two days.

The NY Times post on the exhibit links to two websites that show its pieces, which mostly consist of doctored campaign photos, book jackets, and print ads about each of the candidates. The exhibit looks "edgy" to the point of being stomach-turning.

In case you're interested in learning more racist and sexist jokes and references about these two people, there's a whole bunch of them at the Obama exhibit site and the Clinton exhibit site. The artist says his exhibit is a "metaphorical"critique of the media, presumably the media's sexism and racism in how it covered the candidates during primary season. Critical analysis of sexism and racism is one thing, but when your art consists exclusively of cruel, belittling material, you could end up just looking like a jerk.

But it's not the content of the show that concerned the cops, or the Times, just the title. The cops took the artist in for questioning, then released him. The Times points out that the subject of assassination has come up in many cultural works, but--you know what's coming next--"in the post-9/11 context, recent comments touching on assassination during this political season — including references by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton — have hit a nerve, and have been followed by apologies."

Both candidates are protected by the Secret Service, and Obama has had Secret Service coverage for over a year, which is apparently the earliest that any candidate has been given protection.

February 28, 2008

America's weird orange jumpsuit fetish

America's Prisons

In a study by Pew, we learn that America has more people in prison or jail than any other country in the world. "Is that a higher percentage of the population in prison, or more actual prisoners?" you ask. Smarty pants. Both!

We started 2008 off with 2.3 million people in prison or jail, compared to 1.5 million in China, a country with nasty human rights practices and a population 4 times bigger than ours.

That's 1% of the adult population overall. 1 in 100 American adults is in prison or jail. Among young black men, it's 1 in 9. That's right, 11% of young black men are incarcerated. That's ten times more than the rest of the population.

Why do we lock up so many of our citizens? Because we can. Or rather, we can when our economy is doing well. A director at Pew says, "We tend to be a country in which incarceration is an easy response to crime. Being tough on crime is an easy position to take, particularly if you have the money. And we did have the money in the '80s and '90s." Now that we're broke, we're thinking that violating parole or driving drunk maybe isn't worth $45,000/year per prisoner.

Recently, the states with the most people in prison have reconsidered locking up so many of their citizens--but not because it's a terrible system that doesn't work. Mostly because it's so expensive.

So our country has swung from the "tough on crime" era of the '80's to the "let's spend our money on more important things, like the war on terror and tax rebates" philosophy of the current decade.

The Voice did an article a few years back about so-called million dollar blocks, or individual city blocks where the state is spending at least $1 million per year to incarcerate some of its residents. It was a great piece about all the creative and wonderful things you could do for one city block with a million dollar investment every year, apart from the tempting option of locking up a the same group of people over and over again.

February 20, 2008

Big mess at Columbia

Protests at Columbia

Today the Columbia Spectator reported that the professor who found a noose on her office door last fall has been cited for plagiarism. The professor, Madonna Constantine (best name in the Ivy League), allegedly used the work of one of her colleagues and of two students without attribution.

There's no clear connection between the noose incident and the plagiarism thing, but Times readers wasted no time in slamming Prof. Constantine in a textbook example of an ad hominem argument:

I was very suspicious of Professor Constantine during the noose case. As an African-American woman and graduate of Columbia University, I had doubts about the validity of her claims. I had a sick feeling that she put the noose there herself. Of course that would far worse than plagiarism, but news that she would do something as dishonorable as using the work of her students makes me wonder.

Ugh. You can look at other reader comments for some really disgusting references to "lowering of standards" at elite universities and openly racist remarks about Prof. Constantine's education at a historically black university in New Orleans.

Plagiarism is a serious offense for an academic, but it has nothing to do with the noose situation, or race, or anything other than plagiarism.

Unfortunately, as soon as the allegations were made, Prof. Constantine started in with the crazy logic herself. She called the inquiry into her writings, which has been going on for a year and a half, a "witch hunt", and wrote to faculty and students:

"I am left to wonder whether a white faculty member would have been treated in such a publicly disrespectful and disparaging manner. As one of only two tenured Black women full professors at Teachers College, it pains me to conclude that I have been specifically and systematically targeted."

What?! You're not helping yourself, Professor. Even if Columbia doesn't put much value in diversity in its faculty, that has nothing to do with whether or not you stole other people's work.

First, Columbia and NYPD should try harder to figure out who put the noose on her door--the investigation is still going on, apparently. Then if there is substantial evidence that the professor plagiarized others' work, she should get fired.

Ironically, Constantine's work focuses on how race influences people in educational and counseling settings.

There are loads of examples of plagiarism in academia, literature, and politics: Stephen Ambrose, Joe Biden, Martin Luther King, Jr, Mike Barnicle, Harvard undergrads.

December 6, 2007

GOP screws up its sneaky Latino seduction ploy

Latino marchers

For a minute there, it was looking like the Republican strategy to win over Latino voters was working. They went on about family values and religion and being against abortion, hoping to appeal to the millions of Latinos who might agree with them on those issues. In the 2000 election, Bush got 35% of the Latino vote, and in 2004, he got 44%.

But somewhere along the way, probably around the time all the Republican presidential candidates started arguing loudly about who could keep more Mexicans out of the country, they wised up. A recent poll of Latino registered voters finds that after a brief shift, they're back to favoring Democrats over Republicans at the same rate they did in 1999 (57% to 23%.)

There are expected to be 8.6 million Latino voters in the next election, 1 million more than in 2004. And a lot of them are in big, important swing states like Florida and Nevada. It was a clever idea for the Republicans to try to win them over, but it looks like they blew it. If all those "Hoy Marchamos, Mañana Votamos" marches last year didn't make it obvious enough, Latinos are noticing that the Republican party doesn't even bother to pretend that it wants them anymore. If you side with the "build a fence!" morons instead of the fastest growing population in the country, you lose elections.

November 27, 2007

Young Kenyan men enjoy same gifts-for-sex benefits young women have had for centuries

Charlotte Rampling in Heading South

Reuters had an article yesterday on the trend of older white English women going on vacation in Kenya, and while there, taking out hot young men, buying them clothes and expensive dinners, and having sex with them.

The white beaches of the Indian Ocean coast stretched before the friends as they both walked arm-in-arm with young African men, Allie resting her white haired-head on the shoulder of her companion, a six-foot-four 23-year-old from the Maasai tribe.

He wore new sunglasses he said were a gift from her.

"We both get something we want -- where's the negative?" Allie asked in a bar later.

Apparently the negative is that a lot of hotel managers and members of the Kenya tourism board are lumping these women in with other sex tourists who come to Kenya to pay 12 year-old girls or boys for sex.

Which is nuts. Old, wealthy sugar daddies everywhere have long enjoyed taking much younger women out, showering them with gifts, and having sex with them. Some might go so far as to marry them (Billy Joel, Donald Trump, Fred Thompson, Ben Kingsley, Les Moonves, I could go on all day) but plenty more just enjoy the arm candy for a while then drop them (George Soros).

At last, young men from poor countries with little opportunity for living in economic security get to enjoy the same temporary access to nice clothes and fancy dinners that young American women have been hustling to get their hands on forever! Why should sex-for-goods be exclusively a rich man/poor woman transaction? I'm so glad to see these enterprising young African men are finally able to exploit their youthful hotness with all the savvy of a midwestern high school dropout draping herself over aging producers at Hollywood parties.

22 year-old Joseph, a Kenyan man who says he has slept with over 100 white women, says:

"When I go into the clubs, those are the only women I look for now," he told Reuters. "I get to live like the rich mzungus (white people) who come here from rich countries, staying in the best hotels and just having my fun."

He could be half the girls in their early 20's who hang out at expensive Tribeca bars hoping to snag free drinks from an investment manager.

The movie Heading South came out in 2006 and featured Charlotte Rampling (in the photo above) traveling to Haiti to have sex with young men in the 1970's. A long article about the movie goes into all these complicated arguments about sex, economics, political power, gender roles, exploitation, and on and on.

Seems like the only new or interesting thing happening here is that the older, richer person in the dynamic is female and they have to go to other countries to find young men willing to do what many young women in rich countries have done basically forever. Yawn.

November 26, 2007

France's race problems not magically resolved yet +

Paris Riots, 2007

Over the weekend in the suburbs of Paris, two Arab boys riding a motorbike were hit and killed by a cop car. Less than an hour later, crowds of people had set fire to four buildings, torched 28 cars, and started throwing rocks at riot police. Today, they were still going, setting gas tanks on fire while cops fired rubber bullets and threw tear gas.

This is pretty much exactly what happened two years ago. Those clashes lasted for three weeks and resulted in thousands of cars and buildings getting destroyed [details on Wikipedia]. Not may people got hurt, though. This time, 25 cops have already been injured, one with a punctured lung.

Here's another difference: the interior minister who in 2005 referred to the rioters, mostly the children of Arab or African immigrants, as "scum" is now the President. The unemployment rate for young black men is still about 40%.

It's looking like the boys that were killed this weekend were mostly at fault for the accident: they weren't wearing helmets, the bike was stolen, and they cut off the car while traveling at full speed. So the violence of the last two days seems to be more in response to ongoing discrimination against immigrants and pretty much anyone who isn't white in France, not so much this particular incident. The chief of the Paris police union says, "We’ve been saying for eons that we’re sitting on a powder keg."

UPDATE: Sounds like the violence got worse last night: 82 cops injured, some with buckshot fired from hunting shotguns (kids in the French ghetto have hunting shotguns?!), more buildings set on fire, and over 60 cars torched. This is looking bad. I think the people in charge over there need to realize that they have major problems on their hands: several generations of pissed off poor young people who are technically citizens, but are systematically treated like they have no right to live there.

Here's a quote from a local resident, Boniface Gabo, talking about the housing project he lives in: "This is no place for human beings to live. Make no mistake, every hundred kids who grow up here are a hundred lost kids."

October 25, 2007

Eat at Applebee's or Wanda Sykes will yell at you

Applebee's apple ad

The Times reports today that the casual dining industry is suffering this year, possibly because of shrinking discretionary budgets and better, healthier options available at cheaper places like McDonald's. Or maybe Americans have finally realized that paying $16.49 for a microwaved plate of soggy chicken cutlet topped with salsa from a jar and a blend of "American and Mexican cheeses" (aka Friday's "Sizzling Chicken & Cheese" entree) is a rip-off.

Time for a new ad campaign! Restaurants like Applebee's, Chili's, IHOP, and Outback Steakhouse have all hired new agencies, and a new Applebee's campaign launches this Sunday.

The new Applebee's ads feature Wanda Sykes as a sassy-talking apple that bitches at people eating alone at their desks to get their asses over to Applebee's with their friends. Sounds like a great formula for people who love getting told what to do by bossy black women! The Times had a great article last year about the probably offensive caricature of feisty, overweight black women being overused in ads, so maybe Applebee's wanted to recast the feisty black woman as an apple as a new, fresh expression of a tired old stereotype.

And, even better--Lori Senecal, the general manager of the ad agency, says, "We’re going to be the advocate for people 'togetherizing.'" The Times points out that this is "a made-up word".

October 24, 2007

San Diego and New Orleans now have at least one thing in common

Big fancy burned houses

Once the fires stop burning, San Diego and surrounding areas will be left with a lot of charred houses and a lot of displaced people. Reports are talking about 1,500 homes destroyed as of right now. A lot of them were probably very big houses, like this photo of the remains of a multi-million dollar house in Rancho Santa Fe.

Comparisons are already being drawn between this disaster and the hurricanes of 2005. The Times has put together a simple chart comparing the populations of New Orleans and the areas around San Diego that were evacuated, and as you can probably guess, the people in San Diego are a whole lot richer, whiter, and have more cars to evacuate in. The Red Cross estimates that 350,000 homes were destroyed in Katrina and Rita.

But there are some things that these two very different regions of our country share: a take-no-prisoners approach to defending one's home against the perceived threat of looters.

In a article that compiles comments posted by San Diego-area readers, the Times quotes Jason S., whose family members made their way back into their evacuated neighborhood in Poway:

"Last night, my brother snuck past police barricades to check on our family home and watch for looters," he wrote. "Despite the risk, I think everyone is really proud of him for doing this."

After he returned from the home, his brother reported that a neighbor was camped out on another lawn with a shotgun and a sign that read "Looters will be shot."

"Looters will be shot"... where have we seen that before? Oh, hey! It's that guy! From New Orleans!

New Orleans looters beware

He must have moved to Southern California to get away from natural disasters and find a prettier woman.

August 31, 2007

Niche dating

Yesterday we noticed that the usual JDate billboard on the corner of Broadway and 47th had been replaced by a new ad for


JDate billboard


Black Singles billboard

Hm! Did JDate's lease on the space run out, and another dating service, eager to attract the attention of single tourists waiting in line at the Olive Garden who have some very culturally-specific dating preferences, snapped it up?

Or could the same company operate both services?

Yep, it's Spark Networks, a provider of online personals for, as they put it, "likeminded" singles to connect. Now that and Craig's List have been totally overrun by hookers and phone sex lines, this company covers the spectrum of identity politics in dating.

They've got religiously oriented sites, like JDate, Catholic Mingle, Christian Mingle, Baptist Singles Connection, Adventist Singles Connection and both the Mormon MySpace-y LDS Mingle and the somewhat more cut-to-the-chase LDS Singles.

You can screen your future sexual partners by race and ethnicity with sites for people of Asian, Greek, Italian, and Latino descent, and the all-American Interracial Singles. Some sites make some culture assumptions about the purpose of dating, like the Indian site called Indian Matrimonial Network which "facilitates Indian dating and marriage". There are sites for deaf people, college students, military personnel, old people, single parents, and people who want to get busy within the next 15 minutes. And of course, a site for people who admire big beautiful women (BBW Personals Plus).

With one company representing all these different kinds of people, how culturally sensitive can each site really be? It seems like they've tried in most cases to use language on each site that will appeal to each niche, with the Catholic dating service sort of confusingly described as "clean, safe, and fun" but not surprisingly with nothing in there about God, while Christian Mingle offers the chance to meet "singles that share your values and love for God in Christ." And the College Luv site's tagline-- "Sign up, Look up, Hook up!"-- shows an intimate understanding of its target demographic.

What about sites for gay people? This is interesting. There is no gay dating site on Spark Networks, and almost all the sites only include searches for heterosexual dating. The exceptions are College Luv (young people aren't as uptight maybe?), Hurry Date (because people who want to get laid ASAP are of all persuasions), American Singles (for people who are so bland they don't have any niche identity), and JDate! Good old non-homophobic JDate. The gay Christians out there can stick to the Minneapolis airport men's room, I guess.

June 6, 2007

Tyler Perry's media juggernaut keeps on rolling

House of Payne

Tonight is the TBS premiere of Tyler Perry's first TV show "House of Payne", which like his other productions is about a southern black family and their various troubles and successes. There aren't many other people working in entertainment today like Tyler Perry, who has become enormously popular and rich working outside mainstream media channels.

"House of Payne" aired for 10 episodes last spring in New York, Philly, Chicago, Houston, DC, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Baltimore and Raleigh, and was popular enough to incite a bidding war among networks. TBS bought an unprecedented 100 episodes of the show, which start airing tonight, and Fox also got in on the deal to air episodes starting next fall.

Not bad for a show totally created by one man (Tyler Perry is director, producer, executive producer and writer) who paid for the production of the first 10 episodes himself at his own studio, then sold those into syndication, then got a network to buy 100 episodes at once. As the New York Times points out in an article about the phenomenal success of every single thing Tyler Perry does, this is backwards from the usual process of getting a network show made, and has allowed him to continue making the kinds of productions that studios may not be quick to recognize as promising: "I went to LA and pitched to a room full of studio execs," Mr. Perry said. "They told me I couldn’t say 'Jesus' on television and nobody would watch it."

Just like his 2005 movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman generated a lot of terrible reviews from critics, some angry statements from black cultural theorists and writers, and gigantic ticket sales (and even led to an exchange between us and Roger Ebert,) how you react to "House of Payne" seems to depend a lot on who you are and what you expect from a sitcom. If you're Jill Nelson, African-American cultural critic who wrote about Perry in Essence, you think it's insulting to women and not funny. If you're the kind of person who writes on the IMDb discussion boards, you either think it's a shameless exploitation of offensive black stereotypes, or you think it depicts important truths about black American families. Or you're just mad that it replaced "Girlfriends" in its time slot.

Either way, enough people who watch TV and buy movie and theater tickets love Tyler Perry, and helped him move off the "chitlin' circuit" to reach a national audience. A lot of people (maybe especially a lot of white people) may not like or understand his style, but he's already shooting a second comedy series called "Meet the Browns", shooting a talk show, two new movies, and is making plans for his own TV network.

Personally, I think the mainstream critical responses to Tyler Perry's productions really demonstrate how far removed those critics are from his core audience. The Times article refers to Niyi Coker Jr., a professor of theater and media studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis:

Perry’s work was filling a void in many mediums. "It’s not sophisticated or theatrical in the Western context," he said, but it strikes a deep chord with Mr. Perry’s audience, which does not see their stories in many places.

It's also interesting to see the creative ways a TV network like TBS markets to an audience that they know is out there and that they want a piece of: they're running a contest on the "House of Payne" website where you can win $25,000 for your church and a trip on a Sheridan Gospel Network cruise. Mm-hmm. How often do you see mainstream secular TV networks offering a donation to a church as an incentive to viewers?

April 9, 2007

How to apologize without apologizing

Don Imus not apologizing

Today's statement from Don Imus about last week's racist comments is a perfect lesson in how to explain your own bad behavior in a way that sounds sort of like an apology, without actually saying that you were in the wrong.

Here's what he said:

"Here's what I've learned: that you can't make fun of everybody, because some people don't deserve it. And because the climate on this program has been what it's been for 30 years doesn't mean it's going to be what it's been for the next five years or whatever."

Then he goes on to say that he knows actual real live black people:

He pointed to his involvement with the Imus Ranch, a cattle farm for children with cancer and blood disorders in Ribera, N.M. Ten percent of the children who come to the ranch are black, he added. "I'm not a white man who doesn't know any African-Americans," he said.

So here's a translation: It's OK to "make fun" of most people, but black female basketball players do not deserve to be made fun of. And calling them "nappy-headed hos" amounts to a "fun" jab, not a racist slur. Also, times have changed, and while it used to be OK to make comments like that on the air, I guess now I have to censor myself and my fun banter. Plus, fewer black children than are accurately representative of the US population come to my cattle ranch.

Unbelievable. Imus seems to have learned from the great non-apologizers like Cynthia McKinney ("There should not have been any physical contact in this incident. I am sorry that this misunderstanding happened at all"), Tom Delay ("I said something in an inartful way, and I shouldn't have said it that way, and I apologize for saying it that way. It was taken wrong." and Rosie O'Donnell ("So apparently 'ching-chong,' unbeknownst to me, is a very offensive way to make fun, quote-unquote, or mock, Asian accents. Some people have told me it's as bad as the n-word. I was like, really? I didn't know that.")

All this fake apologizing makes me almost appreciate someone like Dick Cheney, who just doesn't even bother pretending.

August 21, 2006

OBL: saving all his love for Whitney

To demonstrate just how pervasive celebrity worship has become in our world, Page Six today has quotes from a new book by Kola Boof, Osama bin Laden's alleged mistress/slave, in which she describes Osama's obsession with Whitney Houston.

Boof writes in Diary of a Lost Girl, "[He would say] how beautiful she is, what a nice smile she has, how truly Islamic she is but is just brainwashed by American culture and by her husband - Bobby Brown, whom Osama talked about having killed, as if it were normal to have womens' husbands killed." Sounds like love!

Perhaps his devotion to Whtney is tied to her (ongoing?) affiliation with the Black Hebrews and her visit to Israel in 2003 during which she repeatedly stated, "This is MY land!"

It seems that Whitney's coquettish looks and unconventionally Zionist tendencies may have been enough to make Osama want to overcome his racism and become a giving, generous lover: "He said he wanted to give [her] a mansion that he owned in a suburb of Khartoum." Though he told Boof that "African women are only good for a man's lower pleasures," he said "he would be willing to break his color rule and make [Whitney] one of his wives."

Hey, CIA: now is the time to secretly reopen Alec Station and get over to Pakistan with some copies of the unrated version of The Bodyguard!

May 10, 2006

Katrina horror stories just keep coming

Michael Brown's hair mousse

In case you've started to forget the jaw-dropping political failure of responsibility we witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, a couple of stories today should freshen up those memories.

First up: what happened to the teenagers in New Orleans' juvenile detention center. The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which was working to improve the conditions that incarcerated juveniles lived in even before the hurricane, held a press conference yesterday. 15 year-old Eddie Fenceroy said he spent three days without anything to eat or drink, standing in sewage-filled water that reached past his hips. 150 kids under 17 years old were housed with adult prisoners at the parish prison (minors aren't supposed to have contact with adult convicts,) and were later evacuated with the adults to a highway overpass, where police held them at gunpoint. Which I suppose is arguably a step up from standing in sewage up to your hips.

Next is a report from the Center for Public Integrity, which includes even more embarrassing emails from Michael Brown to various colleagues in the days after the storm. On the day the storm hit, the always immaculately-groomed Brown was getting ready for a TV interview and emailing with his then-deputy, Patrick Rhode:

"Yea, sitting in the chair, putting mousse in my hair," Brown e-mailed Rhode.

"Me too!" Rhode replied.

Of course, FEMA and the rest of the government soon started getting attacked in the press as an inept, racist institution. On September 7, around the time that Eddie Fenceroy was being held at gunpoint on a highway overpass as part of his prison's evacuation, Brown wrote to his press aide: "I am tired, no, angered by charges of racism. You know that neither me nor anyone associated with me is a racist. Grrrr.

"How was that Sonic burger?"

April 26, 2006

What Does it Take to be a U.S. Citizen?

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue sure loves the Lord - last week, he signed a few bills allowing Georgia's schools to teach Bible classes, and their courthouses to display the Ten Commandments. But his love of God and man doesn't extend to those born outside our borders. While he had his pen out, he also took the opportunity to sign the harshest immigration law of any state, denying most state services to undocumented immigrants. And other states are looking to get in on the anti-immigrant action, too.

Luckily, our President understands the plight of our lowest-paid workers, admitting on Monday that it's just not "realistic" to deport 11 million people back to their countries of origin - especially when we have crappy jobs that need doing right here. Instead, he's hoping Congress can find a way for these folks to work their way toward becoming proud U.S. citizens.

Obviously, in these uncertain times™, we don't let just anyone become a citizen of our United States. So, what kind of people would we welcome as fellow citizens? A quick trip over to the Citizenship and Immigration website - now under the Department of Homeland Security - proved quite instructional. In order to apply for naturalization, you must be over 18 and have lived in the country for five years (or three, if married to a citizen). Fair enough. You must love the Constitution. Well, sure - who doesn't? Then we come to the sticky part....exhibiting " good moral character."

And what constitutes "good moral character"? Obviously, you can't have been convicted of a crime recently - including gambling or drug related offenses, prostitution, or other "moral turpitude." (sorry, GOP!) You also can't be a polygamist (sorry, Bill Paxton!) or a habitual drunkard (sorry, Amy's Robot!).

Good so far? You'll also need to demonstrate that you can comprehend and write English. At your interview, an immigration official will ask you to demonstrate this by writing a sample sentence of his or her choice. But don't worry - USCIS helpfully offers some samples to practice, such as:

All people want to be free.

America is the land of freedom.

Many people come to America for freedom.

People in America have the right to freedom.

Many people have died for freedom.

Prefer something more related to everyday life? How about writing 100 times:

The man wanted to get a job.

It is a good job to start with.

I go to work everyday.

The children wanted a television.

She needs to buy some new clothes.

They are very happy with their car.

They buy many things at the store.

Of course, why limit our future citizens? Amy and I came up with a few other suggestions, including:

How will he pay for the doctor?

Three dollars an hour is a fair wage.

They enlist their sons in the Army.

Any other suggestions to help our nation's undocumented workers become full participants in our great society?

February 9, 2006

Vamos Army!

What's the U.S. Army to do when its go-to population for new recruits becomes disillusioned and stops enlisting? African-Americans represented 22% of new Army recruits 4 years ago, and now make up only 14%. How about moving on to another population of young people that are poorer, less educated, and have fewer job opportunities than average?

Yes, the Army is recruiting hard among Latino teens. As the NY Times reports, in cities with high Latino populations, those young people have become a top priority for the military. Latinos make up the fastest growing pool of military-age people, and as Lt. Col. Jeffrey Brodeur, commanding officer at the recruitment office for several western states says, "They are extremely patriotic."

However patriotic they may be, these kids also have parents, many of whom are wary of the recruiters that don't speak their language. And, you know, are trying to convince their kids to go off to war. "My parents think I'm going to go in the Army and die, but I wanted to do it," said an 18 year-old who has already enlisted and will go to boot camp once he graduates from high school.

The military can be an effective way to get out of poverty, but poor people who aren't white have historically been better represented on the front lines than among officers. The Times says, "Critics say that Latinos often wind up as cannon fodder on the casualty-prone front lines. African-Americans saw the same thing happen during the 1970's and 1980's, an accusation that still reverberates. Hispanics make up only 4.7 percent of the military's officer corps."

Let's just call this new initiative Operation: Escudo Humano.

December 9, 2005

Lieberman grills whitewasher

Remember that story from a few months ago about a Bureau of Justice Statistics report which showed that, while drivers of different races get pulled over at the same rates, black and Latino drivers are much more often searched and handcuffed? The woman was who overseeing the statistics bureau, Tracy Henke, wanted that bit of information to be deleted from the press release about the report, and the then-director who kicked up a fuss about it got demoted, then resigned.

Well, now Tracy Henke is being considered for a position in the Dept. of Homeland Security, where she would be assistant secretary for state and local disaster preparedness. Given the recent performance of our nation's disaster preparedness forces, I don't think we need any more people in charge who like to pretend that racial discrimination doesn't exist in this country.

Anyway, good old Joe Lieberman is asking Henke some questions about her editing skills as a part of her confirmation hearing. He said he feared that Henke's actions "may have undermined the office's reputation for objectivity and independence."

Yeah! Fight that promotion, Lieberman! And if anyone asks you, please don't agree to run the Dept. of Defense. You would never stop throwing up.

November 10, 2005

A brief note on the riots in France

Riots in France

Now that the riots in France are starting to quiet down, let's take a look at the larger history of French agitation.

In the late 18th century, groups of poor French people were fed up with years of oppression and social and economic injustice. They took to the streets in a variety of attacks on the upper classes and the structures that supported them. From the Wikipedia entry on the French Revolution:

"A number of factors led to the revolution; to some extent the old order succumbed to its own rigidity in the face of a changing world; to some extent, it fell to the ambitions of a rising bourgeoisie, allied with aggrieved peasants and wage-earners."

For the past two weeks, groups of young French people, mainly immigrants and the children of immigrants from North Africa, have taken to the streets to burn cars and break things out of frustration at years of oppression and social and economic injustice. Specifically, unemployment, police harrassment, racism, poverty, and an interior minister who refers to them as "scum" and pledges to clean out the public housing projects where many rioters live.

The main differences between the events over 200 years ago and those happening now seem to be that 1) white French people don't seem to understand that they themselves are the oppressive force of injustice to be toppled this time, and 2) the rioters of today are far less violent than during the first revolution. Cars have been burned, sure, but hardly any people have been hurt or killed in two weeks of widespread rioting.

I have yet to talk to anyone who isn't at least a little bit pleased that France is finally being exposed as a discriminatory and racist country that has been totally indifferent to its unequal treatment of its citizens. Especially when French people are often pretty condescending about issues of race in America and everywhere else. Time to wake up, people! Sorry about your cars.

By the way, I can't wait to see The Economist bitch-slap France for its handling of all this in tomorrow's issue.

September 23, 2005

Botched evacuation, take 2

Wilma Skinner and Dageneral Bellard in Houston

How have our nation's emergency preparation systems learned from the failure to effectively evacuate the Gulf coast in advance of Hurricane Katrina, resulting in needless loss of life? Let's look at an AP piece on what's happening in Houston.

Wilma Skinner would like to scream at the officials of this city. If only they would pick up their phones. "I done called for a shelter, I done called for help. There ain't none. No one answers," she said, standing in blistering heat outside a check-cashing store that had just run out of its main commodity. "Everyone just says, 'Get out, get out.' I've got no way of getting out. And now I've got no money."

"All the banks are closed and I just got off work," said Thomas Visor, holding his sweaty paycheck as he, too, tried to get inside the store, where more than 100 people, all of them black or Hispanic, fretted in line. "This is crazy. How are you supposed to evacuate a hurricane if you don't have money? Answer me that?"

Some of those who did have money, and did try to get out, didn't get very far.

Judie Anderson of La Porte, Texas, covered just 45 miles in 12 hours. She had been on the road since 10 p.m. Wednesday, headed toward Oklahoma, which by Thursday was still very far away.

"This is the worst planning I've ever seen," she said. "They say, 'We've learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina.' Well, you couldn't prove it by me."

On Bellaire Boulevard in southwest Houston, a weeping woman and her young daughter stood on the sidewalk, surrounded by plastic bags full of clothes and blankets. "I'd like to go, but nobody come get me," the woman said in broken English. When asked her name, she looked frightened. "No se, no se," she said: Spanish for "I don't know."

Her daughter, who appeared to be about 9, whispered in English, "We're from Mexico."

Skinner, accompanied by her 6-year-old grandson, Dageneral Bellard [Ed. note: This kid has an awesome name], would settle for a bus.

"They got them for the outlying areas, for the Gulf and Galveston, but they ain't made no preparations for us in the city, for the poor people here. There ain't no (evacuation) buses here. I got nowhere to go."

OK, so there are still people stranded in Houston. What about those who have cars and followed orders to evacuate? The NY Times reports:

Heeding days of dire warnings about Hurricane Rita, as many as 2.5 million people jammed evacuation routes on Thursday, creating colossal 100-mile-long traffic jams that left many people stranded and out of gas.

"The question is how many people will be gravely ill and die sitting on the side of the freeway," said State Representative Garnet Coleman, Democrat of Houston. "Dying not from the storm, but from the evacuation."

Timothy Adcock, 48, a Houston landscaper who was in the 15th hour of inching to Tyler in a companion's pickup truck after his car broke down under the grueling conditions, said, "I never saw anything so disorganized."

"We did everything we were supposed to do," Mr. Adcock said, "secure our house, left early, checked routes, checked on our neighbors." But he said, "when we got out there we were totally on our own."

A high-occupancy vehicle lane went unused, he said, and they saw no police officers. At one point, Mr. Adcock said, he called the Texas Department of Transportation for an alternate route, but the woman who answered could not find a map.

Officials in Texas also said they recognized a serious situation had arisen in the evacuation, with many people stranded on traffic-choked highways, without gas and without water. The state had promised to send gas trucks to relieve the problem, Houston Mayor Bill White said, but he could not say how long it would be before those trucks arrived.

Mayor White deflected questions from reporters asking him to assess who was to blame for what happened Thursday, specifically the lack of gasoline where needed.

"This is not the time to look at who should have done what on the emergency," the mayor said. "This is not the time we're going to get into who should've done what."

Yeah, this is not the time for the blame game! That was three weeks ago! I know it's almost impossible to tell the difference between the two, but come on, people, get your disasters straight.

Somebody get Anderson Cooper down there to start laying into some officials.

September 1, 2005

What the fuck is going on down there? +

Waiting for help in New Orleans

What the fuck is going on down there?

You mean to tell me the United States cannot get it together to save these people, feed these people, and have some semblance of law and order? We need to have dead people in the parking lot of the Convention Center, with no one around to tend to them? People need to break into the food stores in the Superdome?

Jesus. What is wrong with us. -ADM

A few selections from an AP article about what's going on in New Orleans:

"'Hospitals are trying to evacuate," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan, spokesman at the city emergency operations center. 'At every one of them, there are reports that as the helicopters come in people are shooting at them. There are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them, `You better come get my family.'"

This because there IS NO ONE coming to get these families. FEMA has been in New Orleans for three days, and this shit is still going on. Why is this happening in our own country, in a city that everybody knew was going to be hit by a massively destructive storm? Why is no one in charge?

"Mayor Nagin called for a total evacuation of New Orleans, saying the city had become uninhabitable for the 50,000 to 100,000 who remained behind after the city of nearly a half-million people was ordered cleared out over the weekend."

So there is still 10-20% of the city's population in the city? An effective emergency evacuation operated by the National Guard would not have left 100,000 people behind.

"Some Federal Emergency Management rescue operations were suspended in areas where gunfire has broken out, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said in Washington. 'In areas where our employees have been determined to potentially be in danger, we have pulled back,' he said."

If FEMA staff get to leave areas where there is gunfire, then where is Homeland Security? Isn't it their job to work in the problem areas? Where is the National Guard?

"Outside the Convention Center, the sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement. Thousands of storm refugees had been assembling outside for days, waiting for buses that did not come.

"47-year-old Daniel Edwards said, 'You can do everything for other countries but you can't do nothing for your own people. You can go overseas with the military but you can't get them down here.'"

Guess what? The Navy is finally sending an aircraft carrier to the Gulf of Mexico. Like NOW they send an aircraft carrier.

Cities like New York have learned to have a coordinated response to disaster. Maybe one problem is New Orleans' bad infrastructure and bad city management. But the national response has been disgraceful. The message to U.S. cities from the federal government seems to be "You're on your own."

And what do you want to bet that after it's all over, Bush comes out and says all this feel-good garbage about how inspiring it is that regular American citizens reached out to help their neighbors, all because all our public services completely fucked up?

Here's what Bush is saying about the looting and violence going on now: "I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this — whether it be looting, or price gouging at the gasoline pump, or taking advantage of charitable giving or insurance fraud. And I've made that clear to our attorney general. The citizens ought to be working together."

Right. How about zero tolerance of leaving a large sector of a poor and largely non-mobile population behind to fend for themselves in a destroyed city? -Amy

According to our friend Mike: at the Bush-Bush-Clinton press conference right now, Bush is spending a lot of time talking about oil. Meanwhile, a sniper is shooting at the hospital. -ADM

August 24, 2005

Numbers don't lie, unless you delete them

When you're trying to eradicate any sense of objective truth in this country, a good government office to influence is the supposedly independent Bureau of Justice Statistics, whose impartial studies about crime patterns and police actions help inform policy.

A study mandated by Congress to investigate patterns in traffic stops and racial profiling by police uncovered some unsavory but not surprising results: while white, Latino, and black drivers are all pulled over at about the same rate (about 9%), black and Latino drivers or their vehicles are searched a lot more often than white drivers are, and force is used more often against non-white drivers. A graphic showing the stats is here.

But when the press release about these findings was being prepared, the political supervisor of the office, Tracy Henke, sent the report back to the head of the Bureau with some suggested edits. "The references in the draft to higher rates of searches and use of force for blacks and Hispanics were crossed out by hand, with a notation in the margin that read, 'Do we need this?' A note affixed to the edited draft, which the officials said was written by Ms. Henke, read 'Make the changes,' and it was signed 'Tracy.'"

The director of the Bureau refused to take out the offending statistics, and six weeks later was told he was being replaced as director after 23 years on the job, and was urged to resign. NY Times story about the study and its controversial editing is here.

The news release was never issued, and the report was posted unannounced on the Justice Department's website along with all their millions of other reports [link sometimes doesn't work--high traffic, or more censorship?] The Times say they did a search of news sources about the study, and found nothing.

So thanks, New York Times, for drawing attention to the statistical evidence that racial profiling goes on in this country. Now we can go back to distrusting our government and all authority figures again.

May 9, 2005

Crash: suspension of disbelief

Crash scenes

Paul Haggis has written a lot of bad TV in his time: he wrote some episodes of Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life, and a few failed series in the '90's. His script for Million Dollar Baby last year was the start of a whole new career that will probably be more successful and award-winning than he ever imagined.

His directorial debut is Crash; maybe you've seen the harrowing-looking posters for this movie that all feature screaming people and generally make the movie look agonizing. The themes of the movie--race, class, money, power, and the violent collisions of people who fall along different points on these spectra--are about as tough as movie themes get. All these difficult issues that are at the center of a lot of America's problems are right up there, in your face. Living in a truly multicultural city (and country) is often a mess, and this movie doesn't pretend that it's anything but. It's like a heavy dramatic version of the ingenious song from Avenue Q, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist".

Whether or not people like this movie seems to depend on how much sentimentalism they can take. Roger Ebert loved it. A.O. Scott didn't. Just like he did in Million Dollar Baby, Haggis loves the big sentimental gestures that sometimes border on the tear-jerker, but I think he mostly pulls it off without getting hokey. There are a whole lot of very sentimental moments, and the intersecting storylines of the ensemble cast rely on wildly implausible coincidences. I think you're better off if you just go with it, like people manage to do without complaining when watching Robert Altman movies, which also center on big coincidences.

A lot of critics are saying that this movie's characters are interesting because they are both good and bad (though A.O. Scott writes, "Mr. Haggis is eager to show the complexities of his many characters, which means that each one will show exactly two sides.") This isn't quite true--all the Latino characters don't really do anything bad, and some of the white characters lean pretty heavily to the all-bad side. What I thought was interesting was all the possibilities that each character goes through in each moment of their big scenes. They might end up doing something heroic or something despicable, but there are many confusing choices that we see them make as they go through these scenes. Some scenes have better outcomes than the audience might have feared, and some end up being much worse. But I was really wrapped in all of it, to the point of mild stomach discomfort, and my very non-wimpy male viewing companion almost cried a few times.

And of course, all the actors are really fantastic. Don Cheadle is so talented and great that, as Norman K. says, I would watch him eating cereal, and I can hardly believe how good Ludacris is. Really.

I don't know anything about L.A., but this was such a good look at how race and class issues play out there that it made me wish Spike Lee would go back to making those kinds of movies about New York again, like Do The Right Thing and Summer of Sam.

April 6, 2005

Bill Cosby continues march toward inexplicability

Bill Cosby keeps it real

If you're Bill Cosby, successful comedian, writer, actor, and speaker beloved by many generations and races of Americans, you would think it would be reasonably easy to maintain a lovable grandfatherly image as you recede from the public eye into your dottage. Instead, he's decided to go the route of constantly blaming poor young black people for the problems they face, and slipping roofies to women so he can grope them.

Yesterday at a ceremony at University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, at which Bill Cosby was awarded a Porter Prize, "in recognition of exemplary performance in health promotion," he took one more little step down the ladder of respectability.

During his speech, he criticized parents who are careless with their children's diets, saying: "children can't make it off Coca-Cola and a bag of chips" for breakfast. "This food is not funny that we're eating."

Perhaps not the best choice of examples for a man with a famous routine entitled Chocolate Cake for Breakfast.

March 7, 2005

Update: Diary of a Mad Black Woman and cultural bias +

The other day, Amy wrote about the dust-up over various professional critics' reviews of the film Diary of a Mad Black Woman. I added a comment to her post, and someone claiming to be Roger Ebert replied to that comment. Whether it was really him or not [Update: It was really him], it seems the issue is complex enough to explore a little further. So, here's the context, followed by my response to Ebert's comment.

My original comment:

it seems to me that there is definitely an element of racism in evaluating a work that aims to be representative of another race against ONLY the standards of the culturally 'dominant' race or whatever. it's like saying brer rabbit sucks because it's hard to understand. i don't know but i'm guessing that's what pissed all those people off...the idea that ebert et al. didn't even bother trying to evaluate it against their standards, something he's actually usually pretty good about.

n.b. i haven't seen the movie or even read the reviews discussed. i'm just reacting to what you [Amy] wrote. sorry if i'm way off base. -ADM

The Ebert reply:

"it seems to me that there is definitely an element of racism in evaluating a work that aims to be representative of another race against ONLY the standards of the culturally 'dominant' race or whatever."

Are you suggesting that African-American films and filmmakers do not have the same standards as those of the dominant culture? That will come as a surprise to Spike Lee, John Singleton, Ernest Dickerson, Carl Franklin and the Hughes Brothers. The standards I applied in that review I would also apply to films from any other culture on earth. -Roger Ebert

Me again:

"Are you suggesting that African-American films and filmmakers do not have the same standards as those of the dominant culture?"

Yes, that's what I'm suggesting, although I might say, "...need not have all the same standards." (By "standard," I mean a measure by which something is determined to be good or right.) I am also suggesting that many female directors do not have all the same standards as male directors and that American directors do not have the same standards as Japanese or French ones. Is this a radical position? Regardless, there are many ways to make this argument:

  • If standards for what constitutes "good" art are not in part culturally specific, then there is only one standard, and everyone should meet that standard, regardless of their culture. And this standard, of course, is created by the "dominant"* culture. Isn't this idea -- that something is bad because it is different -- at the heart of racism?
  • Relatedly, if a race/culture operating within another "dominant" culture did not have different standards, then such things as protest art based on racial/cultural/sexual inequalities would either not exist or be considered worthless, since those within the dominant (i.e., more pervasive) culture reviewing the work would be offended, rather than inspired, and would-be artists would be so content in the dominant culture that they would feel no need to make the art in the first place. This is one of the reasons that we have the "rediscovery" of artists like Zora Neale Hurston and the time these artists were working, the dominant culture was not open to the notion that such stuff was "good." Now, with our different cultural backgrounds, we see that it is.
  • Being part of a different culture affects both the art you produce and your perception of and response to other art. Seinfeld is funny because we (Americans) are familiar with what comes after "Did you ever notice..." If Seinfeld were black and talked all about things that were similarly familiar only to black people, would white people think he was funny? If not, would that make him a bad comedian? Of course not. His jokes aren't funny because they are universally appealing; they are funny because they appeal to a subset of people who share a culture. I believe the same can be true of movies.
  • If you argue that many African-American filmmakers do not have have different standards for their work -- standards derived in part from their racial identity -- it seems to me you're also arguing that their cultural backgrounds do not inform their ideas about what makes a good movie. I think you can surmise from Spike Lee's work that one standard he had when making some of his films is that they should impart a political message (or at least communicate some aspects of an African-American experience). If he didn't believe these things contributed to making a good movie, why would he include them? If that belief didn't come from his experience as an African-American, then where did it come from and why aren't white directors who grew up in the suburbs making movies like Lee's? I don't think you can reasonably suggest that Spike Lee's experience as an African-American has not shaped his standards for what makes a good movie. Can you look at the more political Spike Lee films and say, "A white person from wealthy suburb would have made the same movie"?**

The arguments above mainly deal with the political content of art, but I think you can extend the principles to suggest that "standards" influenced by cultural background involve not just the content of a film, but also its form. (People loved radio shows before there was TV.) I don't know for sure whether cultural differences make certain audiences more receptive to things like dramatic shifts in tone than others, but I do think that the possibility exists, and I certainly think that this receptiveness can be encouraged by favorable responses to the content of the film -- responses I have already said are likely to be influenced by one's background. In the case of Diary, I think Amy's orginal implication is probably correct: the audiences didn't evaluate the movie based on how closely it hewed to genre and narrative conventions; they just thought it was funny and, I guess, emotionally resonant.

Before writing this, I finally read Roger Ebert's review and his follow-up piece. They focus on inconsistencies in tone and the lack of a single character's believability within the context of the other characters. I think Ebert could make a reasonable case that the standard of having consistency among characters is something that is (and should be) almost universally considered a 'standard' for good story-telling. But: plenty of people seemed to enjoy the film (i.e., thought it was "good") despite its violation of this standard. Now, I don't know if the people who feel this way about this particular film are largely black or white or male or female, but -- assuming that they do have something in common culturally/racially (as anecdotal evidence suggests) -- I think the reaction of these audience members, as contrasted with the critics' responses, is evidence that audiences can have different standards based on their cultural backgrounds.

The comment above suggests Ebert would apply the same standards*** he mentioned in his pieces to any movie on Earth. I think that's fair, but I also think it's important to acknowledge that those standards are based in part on cultural background. In his follow-up, Ebert offers consistency of tone as a "standard," and seems to suggest that this is a universal standard of measure, not one based on his cultural background. But, that's what culture is. Your cultural background is made up of things that you often take for granted and assume to be universal, even when they really only apply to you and people like you.**** As such, these "standards" need not necessarily be shared by either filmmakers or audiences.

It's not reasonable to assume that Ebert or any other critic should be able to review films from the perspective of all audiences, but I think the view that one standard should apply to the art of all cultures is not a valid one.

*This word makes me a little uncomfortable. By "dominant," I just mean that the culture is the most pervasive, most supported by economic resources, and garners more attention (academic/critical/msm) than others.

**Let's not forget that the year Do the Right Thing was eligible, Driving Miss Daisy won the Oscar for Best Picture. Was this decision universally acclaimed by African-Americans who must share the same standards as the Academy voters?

***e.g., "a movie should discover the correct tone for its material, and stick to it" [source]

****When I was growing up, I thought everybody had an air conditioner.

ps. Apologies to any CompLit grad students who may be reading this. I only made it through Cultural Relativism 101.

March 4, 2005

White people don't get Diary of a Mad Black Woman +

Update [3/7/05]: Roger Ebert responded to this post.

The reviews of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the recent very successful movie by popular actor/writer/director/performance artist Tyler Perry, have not been good. In the New York Times, Stephen Holden writes, "This movie is so oblivious to genre that it occupies its own special stylistic niche, if you can imagine such a thing as a romantic revenge farce. As the story of a cruelly abandoned wife’s re-ascendance zigzags from soap opera to slapstick to church sermon and back, it goes from A to Z on the all-things-to-all-people meter: Cinderella meets Amos 'n' Andy in Sunday school, so to speak."

Michael O'Sullivan from the Washington Post writes, "To review Diary of a Mad Black Woman is really to review three different movies, none of which is very good... Sure, I laughed. Yes, I cried. But mostly I just wanted to throw up."

O'Sullivan also notes that his viewpoint was apparently not shared by the largely female and black test audience that watched the movie along with him. This audience "whooped and hollered in approval of every bathetic plot turn, growing silent only when I was inwardly howling in outrage at lines like 'I don't even know where to begin to pick up the pieces of my life.'"

Which brings us to Roger Ebert, who last week wrote a one-star review of this movie, then wrote a follow-up piece about the enormous reader response he received about his negative review. Like the other reviewers, Ebert's main problem with the movie is its stylistic inconsistency, veering from a serious drama about a woman whose husband leaves her for another woman and has to put her life back together, to a maniacal, goofball farce in which Grandma Madea (a recurring character in Tyler Perry's theatrical works, whom he plays in drag) takes a chainsaw to the husband's house and waves guns around and is generally vulgar and deranged and totally out of place in the movie. Ebert writes, "She seems like an invasion from another movie. A very bad another movie. I've been reviewing movies for a long time, and I can't think of one that more dramatically shoots itself in the foot."

Well! Ebert's readers, particularly his black female readers, didn't like that one bit. Readers wrote to Ebert in response to this one review more than all the reader responses he received for his reviews for Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the the Christ put together. In his follow-up article about these responses, he writes, "The e-mails I’ve received are direct: As a white man, I’m told, I am clueless to understand that strong older women, who have had to be tough to survive in hard times, are familiar in all African-American families, and do not conform to the genteel manners of the art-house crowd. More than one writer, especially on the Yahoo message boards, calls me and other critics of the film racist."

Are all these film critics racist just because they don't like Diary of a Mad Black Woman? What if a black person doesn't like it? Other responders to the Ebert review who aren't quite so careless with the word "racist", and the film's producer himself, who Ebert spoke with at an Ebony magazine party recently, say that the movie is a mix of styles, and that the crazy Grandma Madea character is supposed to be over the top, and the movie is supposed to defy conventions. It's more of a variety show than a regular movie. Ultimately, differing opinions about this movie seem to be caused by different expectations of consistent style and tone in movies, and different views on what is funny. It's not really about race. I would suggest that when most critics don't like a movie that ends up being very successful at the box office, this is more a demonstration of the divide between critics and the general public of moviegoers, most of whom don't much care if a movie makes any sense or not, as long as it makes them laugh. Film critics and mainstream audiences evaluate movies based on different criteria, but that doesn't automatically make critics racist.

Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, the reviewer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (the movie takes place in Atlanta) seems to understand this divide, and anticipates in her review (login req'd) that some people will hate the chaotic style of the movie and some won't mind it, but she doesn't make assumptions about a viewer's race based on if they like the movie or not. She writes, "Just as Hong Kong martial arts movies operate under their own set of rules and have their own core audience, so does Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Tyler Perry's adaptation of his phenomenally successful play of the same name. Perry has made a fortune ($70 million according to Newsweek) writing for what he himself has called the chitlin' circuit, a genre that is often also referred to as gospel stage plays. For fans of Perry, Diary is precisely what they expect and will enjoy -- a high-minded melodrama joined at the hip with low-comedy, borderline vulgar shenanigans. Those unfamiliar with Perry's work may find the movie's over-the-top style and abrupt transitions from, say, a shooting in a courtroom that leaves one character paralyzed to a broadly played scene about smoking marijuana, well, jarring."

Most of Tyler Perry's fans are likely black people, and many white movie audiences are probably unfamiliar with his work and style. And movies that contain a lot of references that are specific to one culture can either be good movies that even audiences who are not from that culture can appreciate, or they can be terrible. There are many hugely popular styles of movies that mainstream audiences often don't like or understand, such as the Bollywood musical or the Hong Kong martial arts movie. But not liking a poorly-executed example of one of these culturally-specific movies doesn't equal racism.

February 9, 2005

Slavery and America

Another big PBS series: Slavery and the Making of America, which debuts tonight. Four different producers created each of the four parts of the series, which move chronologically from the first slaves brought to the early American colonies to Restoration and the Compromise of 1877. The philosophy of the series seems to be that not only is slavery a central element of our country's history and identity, but much of the wealth and power that America has today have their roots in slavery. The whole series is narrated by (one guess)--Morgan Freeman.

Tonight's first segment about the early days of American slavery includes some interesting elements. The Daily News review says, "In the beginning, Slavery notes, slaves had some rights, leverage and voice. Then gradually they were separated from other workers, including white indentured servants, until they became virtual nonpersons, human farm animals, given none of the rights of 'Americans.'"

The next two segments air next Wednesday.

January 26, 2005

Us Weekly Photo Editors Make an "Ass" out of "u" and "me"

Kelly Ripa and kids

Correction: In Faces & Places "Happy New Year! Bikinis on the Beach..." [January 17, 2005], we misidentified Kelly Ripa's sister-in-law as her nanny.
- US Weekly, January 24, 2005

Hey, guys? Just because a dark-skinned woman is at the beach with Kelly Ripa, it doesn't mean she's the help.

Some of Bush's best friends are black

bush loves black people

"'African-American males have a — have had a shorter life span than other sectors of America,' said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. 'And this will enable them to build a nest egg of their own and be able to pass that nest egg on to their survivors.'" [AP]

See? It's actually good that black men have short life expectancies! Once we privatize social security, you'll be happy that you die young!

"Exit polls showed that Bush received just 11 percent of the black vote in November's election, a slight increase over the 9 percent he received four years earlier."

October 20, 2004

Race and Consumerism

We young urban people are a popular crowd these days, at least among magazine publishers. Radar (remember that, ADM?) is relaunching with funding from new backers (as mentioned on the Link Factory,) and yesterday I received a mailer detailing how Complex magazine can benefit me, or the "young, urban man" that the enclosed letter assumed I am. While Radar sticks to the same kind of sassy celebrity and pop culture "news" that is pretty much the same territory as Us Weekly or Star, Complex is, as its name suggests, more complex. You see, Complex was founded by Marc Ecko, the white guy from New Jersey who has built a hugely successful street clothing and hip-hop-related brand. The really innovative thing about his magazine is that it combines pop culture news and hip-hop feature articles with, get this, a shopping guide! We all know that men are no longer immune from hyper-consumerism, as evidenced by Cargo and Vitals, so where exactly is the innovation in Complex, except that they think I am a man?

It appears that Marc Ecko, in developing his magazine, figured that if he's white, and he likes hip hop, and lots of black men like his clothes, then there must be a lot more white guys out there like him. Guys that want to read about Eve and Mos Def and Beyonce, and also buy jetskis and underwater cameras. Right? AND, he also figured that since a lot of black guys buy his clothes and like his style, they might also want to read about Franz Ferdinand, Zach Braff, and Sheryl Crow, and also buy watches. [See back issues here for more eclectic cover stars]

OK, Sheryl Crow might have been a bad example because nobody is actually interested in reading about her, but still, my point is that I don't think that these black-kids-into-white-culture and white-kids-into-black-culture exist in the numbers that Ecko seems to think they do. Or if they do, it is exclusively in terms of consumerism. The half-lifestyle, half-shopping guide format of the magazine indicates that Ecko is at least somewhat aware of this limitation. Black guys who like hip-hop and and are somewhat into white culture might want read about some of these products, but probably don't really care about The Beta Band. Likewise, tons of white guys listen to rap and wear sneakers and other athletic gear, but are they going to want to read an interview with Kelis? And is anyone who reads a magazine like this actually in the market to buy a Bentley, as featured in the "Ten Best Whips of '04" feature?

People who are interested in the pop-cultural trappings of another race are probably only interested in just that--the trappings, which is why a magazine that integrates the consumer needs of black and white readers will probably do fairly well. Creating a single magazine that brings together the more general interests of white and black young urban men is an admirable goal, but I'm not sure that cultural interests cross racial lines for the typical American man as much as Ecko thinks they do, unless you're only talking about cool sneakers. And of course, that other universal point of interest, pictures of hot girls making out. It's only $6 for a six-issue subscription, so if you're all about multiculturalism and shopping, this may be the magazine for you. As one Amazon reviewer writes, "I like how they do the flip thing, one side is called the 'magazine' and flip it over and it's the 'guide' which gives you some info (prices, websites, where you can buy it, etc.) on a couple hundred products. I think it's worth the price; especially if you're a big-spender like myself." Hey, big spender, I'm surprised you can even tell the difference between the two sides of the magazine. But that's the whole point, isn't it?

October 15, 2004

What if you weren't allowed to vote?

This article about immigrants who will be denied the right to vote in the upcoming election is from earlier in the week, but I'm so surprised at the lack of coverage on this issue that I'm posting it now. Because of an unprecedented backlog in application processing at US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, previously the INS, and now part of the Department of Homeland Security), 678,000 immigration cases are currently pending nationwide. In New York City alone, this means that 60,000 foreign-born people will not be voting on November 2.

Margie McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition states the obvious: “With the margin of victory in the presidential race expected to be razor-thin in many states, the massive loss of votes caused by the immigration service’s failure to process these cases could certainly have an impact on the outcome of the presidential election."

The official explanation is that the backlog is the result of increased post-September 11 security measures. USCIS recognizes that people are starting to get pissed (especially because application fees have increased as well), so they've developed a strategic plan [pdf] to eliminate the backlog – by the end of 2006.

Clearly, people like Ms. McHugh and other advocates who need the support of the next administration don't want to come out and say what they must be thinking. But I will. I think the government doesn't feel any urgency about solving this problem because immigrants vote. And they vote for Democrats*.

According to a study [big pdf] by the National Council of la Raza, the number of registered foreign-born voters grew 20% between 1996 and 2000, compared with 1.5% for the general population. 87% of foreign-born registered voters actually voted in the 2000 election, a higher percentage than white or black voters (86% and 84%, respectively). The study, published in 2002, goes on to say that “If immigrants who are currently in the naturalization pipeline, as well as an additional one-fourth of those already eligible for citizenship, were to naturalize by 2004, the immigrant voting-age population would increase by nearly 20%. At current rates of voter registration and turnout, this would mean roughly one million new immigrant voters in 2004.”

This is an issue I've been hearing about for some time, because many of the people I work with are in the process of applying for citizenship. Most have lived in this country since their teens. Some are homeowners. All have jobs and pay taxes. They're having a rough time, and I can't help thinking it might be in part because they work for an organization that has put millions of dollars into defeating George Bush.

One coworker just received her final swearing-in date after being postponed twice due to DHS "concerns". (She is from the terrorist-harboring nation of Panama, although she has now lived in the U.S. for 20 years). The date, unsurprisingly, is December 2.

Is the timing of this backlog just a coincidence? Maybe. But it’s a coincidence that’s going to keep almost 700,000 people from voting on November 2.

Luckily, one thing it's not going to do is keep my coworker quiet. She's volunteering at the phone bank and going to Philadelphia on election day to get voters to the polls. Because if she can't vote, she's damn well going to make sure everyone else does.

* This is speculation, since there is no comprehensive data on party affiliations of foreign-born voters. But a recent Pew Hispanic Center study on registered Latino voters shows:
"Among registered Latinos, about half identify as Democrats (49%), with one-fifth saying they are Republicans (20%) and another fifth identifying as Independents (19%). Among registered voters, Latinos are twice as likely as whites to self-identify as Democrats (49% and 24%, respectively), but less likely than African Americans (64%)."

August 16, 2004

Do you get it? It's Irony +

Our friend Rungu took notice of a feature piece in today's Times about a group of ladies from San Francisco called Double Dutchess who do double-dutch jump roping. But these girls have a website, on which they sell t-shirts and DVDs. They also perform at hotel parties sponsored by city newspapers. SF Weekly loves them, and they were invited to perform at the Christmas party for Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola's literary magazine. So what has propelled these girls to the art-world A-list, and not the girls who do double-dutch every day at the Stanley Isaacs Playground on 1st and 96th? When black girls do it, it's a non-notable emblem of urban culture. When white girls do it, it's avant-garde and worthy of national press.

Not surprisingly, some people have wondered about race issues when approaching Double Dutchess. The article reports, "The women of Double Dutchess are regularly confronted with questions about their race, often by young black boys at the largely African-American community center in the South of Market neighborhood where the team practices. The women do not treat the issue lightly. "It makes me sad when we get hassled for this race issue," said Ms. Dougherty, a 21-year-old office worker. Ms. Hupp said that the women in Double Dutchess were largely drawn to the sport because it was affordable. "We live in an urban area, and we don't have a lot of money," she said. Ms. Herrera added, "It's just a really, really good friendship thing.""

So they claim to jump rope for the exercise, and for the "friendship thing," but since their earliest days they were performing on stages in front of audiences. And each performance has a theme, usually a sexual theme. Girls, if you wear hot, matching outfits and do your routine on a stage, or if Dave Eggers is in the audience, you are not just exercizing in a way that you and your admin homegirls can afford, you are using someone else's cultural expression to promote yourselves. Just call it what it is.

Well, we'll let Rungu give you his ideas:

The article makes it sound like they are doing some hip, alternate, new-style Double Dutch, but then you look at the videos and it's not. This is regular double-dutch like little girls in black neighborhoods used to do on the streets before children made the lifestyle choice to stay inside and become obese. As far as I can tell, what makes these girls interesting is that:

a) they wear funny clothes,
b) they have bigger breasts than the 9 year-old girls who usually do this stuff (but not substantially, frankly) and,
c) they are white.

And of course, it's c that makes the difference. I hate to sound like a whiny liberal, because I'm not a whiny liberal, but really, if four black girls from Oakland put on a double dutch show, they would not wind up showing it at the McSweeney's/Zoetrope Christmas party. Sure, it's all in who you know, but it really strikes me how blatant an appropriation this is. They're good, but all this hooting and hollering is for run of the mill double-dutch stunts with cool costumes. No wonder the Times talks about some people complaining about their race. I know when straight people get famous for doing things gays see as their turf (disco, fashion, flamboyant magic involving great cats) the gays get pissed, though it's generally more grumbling than anything else. I think black people get more upset about blatant appropriation than gays do, since all we want is to be noticed anyway.

The other aspect of this I thought was fascinating was how superficially European it is. One thing that I find fascinating and bizarre about Europe is the way Europeans appropriate things from other cultures (dreadlocks, Arab music, bhangra, the blues) without any real understanding of where it comes from. Japanese people don't even pretend to care about context, and Americans are so self-absorbed we don't even bother. But Europeans think it's a political statement to wear dreadlocks, when in fact, it makes them look stupid. (Though the Rolling Stones got the blues right, as history has shown, and white Americans who were too racist to perform it were wrong.) Anyway, this Double Dutchess is an obvious case of appropriating an aspect of another culture without paying any attention to where it comes from, but, God love us, Americans do things ironically. So the fun is watching women dressed as criminals, or Catholic school girls, jumping rope. Europeans would just dress as black girls, jump rope, and think it's a statement. Americans dress as Black Sabbath, jump rope, and call it a party.

This all reminds me of those Radical Cheerleader groups that were popular about 4-5 years ago. Except that the RCs use their performance to promote social and political causes rather than promoting themselves and their careers as performance artists; they preach non-ironic respect for actual, non-avant-garde cheerleaders; and they are often recruited from poor neighborhoods, like the squad discussed in this Guardian article.

Outside discussions suggest that people might have some insightful comments to make on this issue. So if you have something to say, feel free to comment.

July 12, 2004

The Rodney King Cops, 13 years later

Interesting but depressing piece in the LA Times about one of the acquitted cops from the Rodney King beating case. Two of the officers involved were convicted in a federal civil rights trial, but the other two were found innocent in both criminal and civil rights court. One of these is Timothy Wind. Wind is legally innocent, but the devasting series of defeats in his post-beating life suggests that he is still somehow paying for his sins.

After the riots, and after remaining in the LA area for an unbelievable 9 years, he and his family moved to Indiana. He went to law school in Indianapolis, where some of the other students questioned why he was admitted. He was rejected for an internship working for Indianapolis' prosecuting attorney. He's yet to take the bar exam, but it would be hard to see how any district attorney's office could hire him without being asked a lot of questions by the public, once they find out who he is. Nevertheless, Wind is determined to continue his career in law enforcement.

Wind has reportedly "lost his motivation to build a new life," he has stomach ulcers, his wife got laid off from her job, they had three miscarriages, and his former Police Academy instructor describes him as being "emotionally disfigured." Dude, it might be better if you just get a job in marketing or real estate or something, and try to get over it. Instead, Wind is still unrepentant about the King beating, and claims he and the other officers were using their training. Apparently, the juries agreed: the two officers charged with civil rights violation served 30 months in prison, but the biggest punishment was given to the city of Los Angeles, which paid $3.8 million to Rodney King.

And whatever became of Rodney? You probably would rather not know. The article states, "King consumed most of his $3.8 million judgment in an attempt at starting a rap record label. He has been arrested repeatedly on charges of domestic violence, drug use and drunken driving."

May 3, 2004

U.S. Losing its Top Position in Sciences +

A post from our friend Jim:

Here's an interesting juxtaposition of articles from recent editions of the New York Times. Today, we learn that the United States is producing fewer PhDs in the sciences than is used to, that we account for a smaller share of world patents and Nobel Prizes than we used to, and that fewer foreign graduate students are choosing to come here. Some of this I think is overrated: if Asian countries produce more PhDs, and European universities encourage their faculty to publish rather than pontificate, it's a good thing for the world, and says nothing about changes in America. But some of this is very bad news: fewer foreigners are coming partially because visa restrictions are getting tougher for foreign students, and green cards are harder to get. Importing the best and brightest from India and China might be bad for India and China, but it's a windfall for us. Why is it so great?

Why, for the reasons laid out in this article. While Singaporeans and Germans are out studying physics and biochemistry, publishing journal articles and starting companies, American high school students are going to Creationist theme parks. Creationism sure is an appealing philosophy. Why bother studying hard classes like biochemistry and genetics when your church says it's all lies? This sort of foolishness didn't matter so much when it was a bunch of bumpkins in Tennessee who weren't going to amount to anything more than textile workers anyway, but now that those textile jobs have moved to other countries, it would be nice to get some warm bodies into science programs. What a shame the only thing that develops slower than the Southern economy is the Southern worldview. -Jim

In other troubling education news, CUNY has included an initiative in its four-year plan to recruit and retain more black men in its colleges. It looks like men in general are seriously in trouble in New York public higher education, representing only 38% of all CUNY students. The largest race group at CUNY schools is black (31%), so it makes sense to target black men specifically to raise enrollments of all men. Interestingly, schools within CUNY that have the highest majorities of black students also have the largest disproportion of female students: Medgar Evers College's students are 92% black and 78% female. Maybe the new breed of affirmative action programs need to focus not only on class, but also on gender. -Amy

April 12, 2004

The confusing mess of politics and religion

Religion has played a central role in the current political landscape, and two Op-Eds published today highlight how the trend will probably continue into the next election. The LA Times has a piece by Susan Jacoby, a historian of American secularism, and she's predictably enraged at the blurring of that old-fashioned church/state division that our country was built on. She recounts a number of examples from history when U.S. Presidents resisted pressure from evangelical religious groups to insert their beliefs into public policy: Jefferson refused to publicly thank God for blessing America; Lincoln ignored ministers' requests to amend the Constitution to "declare Jesus Christ the supreme government authority" (!) But Bush stands alone in his tendency to move in the opposite direction. Jacoby writes, "The Bush administration, by contrast, has consistently taken aggressive measures to favor the most conservative religious elements in American society." What I wonder is why Bush's overt and widely proclaimed religious beliefs are not subject to the same suspicion as were JFK's, our first (and only) Catholic President. I guess Presidential religiosity is OK as long as it is Protestant Christian.

Over at the Washington Post, columnist Jabari Asim questions the assumption that black people are more religious than white people. He makes some interesting points about the assumed connection between race and religion, and quotes a professor from Brown: "What makes me slightly nervous is there's a sort of venerable intellectual tradition that goes back to 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' and beyond that blacks are more spiritual and emotional while whites are rational, cerebral, restrained and civilized. The notion that somehow blacks are these incredibly spiritual people often alarms me because it smacks of familiar racist drivel dressed up in new ways."

What I wonder is whether the Bush administration shares the assumption that black people are more religious. It would certainly be to his party's advantage to appeal to Christians of all races, rather than solely white Southern Christians, which seems to be their strategy. I think the political division of the South along race lines, courtesy the Republican party, points out the flaw in Bush's use of religion as a political strategy. He talks about bringing Christian values to politics, but he seems to mean only those values that benefit wealthy white people. Eventually, everybody else will start to notice that his "Christian" values have little to do with religion, and will hopefully remember that religious beliefs have no place in politics.

February 26, 2004

White Hollywood +

As we approach this year's Oscars ceremony, we recall the awards from two years ago, aka The Year Hollywood Pretended It Wasn't Racist. How are things looking this year for multiculturalism? Not great. There's the odd Iranian and Japanese man and West African among the supporting actor nominees, but these are people from other countries, not Americans whose race is not white. The Times has a piece on the role of black people in Hollywood, which points out: "In the history of the movie studios no African-American has ever had the power to green-light a film." Hollywood still seems to believe that movies about black people might be successfully here in the U.S., but won't do well internationally. But movies like Barbershop have had such massive domestic success that overseas box office doesn't matter. Whether this will result in a shift in power remains to be seen. -Amy
At this point, I would almost settle for someone telling me why Wesley Snipes appears to be the only black movie star who is allowed to kiss white women on screen -- and even he isn't allowed to do it all the time. One of a thousand examples: Did you ever see The Siege? If any white actor had that role, Denzel and Annette Bening would have made out furiously. Instead, they just sit their with their hands folded and harmlessly flirt with each other. This trend is brilliantly spoofed at the end of Steven Soderbergh's under-rated Full Frontal. As Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts fly off into the sunset together, they face each other for what should be the film-ending kiss. Instead, Soderbergh has them face the camera and grin, cheek to cheek, in a final bit of anti-miscegenistic Platonic warmth.

Why are Wesley, Denzel, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, and Morgan Freeman practically the only black men Hollywood allows to headline major films? And why are nearly all of these men always in action films or comedies? Probably because the film industry presumes its white audience's racism, a presumption which leads to actual institutional racism in Hollywood. But as hard as it is to come up with the names of more than maybe five African-American lead actors, it's even more difficult to identify that many black actresses who are given a chance. Take a look at the careers of Andre Braugher, Courtney Vance, Angela Bassett (Courtney's wife, by the way), Mekhi Phifer, Don Cheadle, and Isaiah Washington and see if you can come up with any decent explanation -- besides race -- for why they have not had the number of quality roles given to lesser white actors. Most of the overlooked stars I mention above have been acting since their twenties but are now pushing into their late thirties or beyond, and their potential as leads has been purposely overlooked throughout their careers. I'm not sure to what degree audiences can or will demand more ethnic diversity, but maybe the successes of films like Barbershop, Soul Food, Orginal Kings of Comedy, etc., will get Hollywood to put money behind someone other than the same "bankable" five guys it's been using for the last 10 years. I suppose one way things could change is if as as younger, more open-minded directors and producers start getting authority, they begin insisting on more diverse casting, establishing beyond doubt that audiences will pay to see multi-racially cast films. Interestingly, the force of hip-hop in the record industry has begun to translate into a greater African-American presence in films, as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Latifah, and others (Mos Def, soon?) have successfully crossed over, and it's worth noting that Laurence Fishburne, Samuel Jackson, Ving Rhames, and a few other actors have had good success lately diversifying supporting roles but, again, those are supporting roles, and that's not enough.

It's easy to be dismissive of words like "pioneer" when they get thrown around to describe, say, Halle Berry, but I think it's important to remember that Hollywood is so dominated by white people that for any black person to achieve what she's achieved (even if you don't think she's a great actress) is, by its nature, pioneering and, in a sense, radical. -ADM

About Race

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Amy's Robot in the Race category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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