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President Barack Obama, speaking here in the Rose Garden of the White House on Thursday, March 29, 2012, is caught in an election bind on gay marriage, wedged between the pressure of supporters who want him to back same-sex marriage and the political peril of igniting an explosive social issue at the onset of his reelection campaign. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Barack Obama has arguably done more than any other president for the gay community. He was proactive on repealing prohibitions on gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed forces, and last year his administration announced it wouldn’t defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law banning the recognition of same-sex marriages. These actions make his reluctance to lead on marriage equality and an executive order on workplace protections for gay and transgender Americans all the more frustrating for activists. Pollsters think he’s worried what voters will think if he comes out fully in support of marriage equality, but it’s questionable whether this would really hurt his re-election chances.

Marriage equality reappeared last weekend (did it ever go away?) after Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he supported gay marriage. “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual—men and women marrying—are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Biden said.

Biden’s comments were followed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan stating on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he supported gay marriage.

Yet another political backdrop to all this palaver over gay marriage is today’s (Tuesday’s) ballot initiative in North Carolina that could ban gay marriage in the Tar Heel state. President Obama opposes the initiative, arguing it’s unfair to enact state constitutional provisions that enshrine discrimination into law. Still, the president has avoided offering a full-throated support of gay marriage.

Would it threaten Obama’s re-election if he did so? Continue Reading »

President Barack Obama "slow jammed" the news on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" during an April 23, 2012 taping of the show at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By appearing on the youth-oriented show, the president effectively merged the political world with the pop culture world, suggesting he understands how race isn't an impenetrable barrier to connecting and communicating with young people.

My friend Ernie told me recently about a phone conversation that left him amazed at how powerfully and pervasively pop culture meanders willy-nilly across what he once imagined as impermeable racial boundaries.

Ernie, an African American, lives happily and leisurely in retirement at his suburban Atlanta home, where he loves gardening and watching baseball on television. On all-too-rare occasions, he escapes his house for another lifelong passion: listening to classical music at the Atlanta Symphony. But he hasn’t done this in more than five years.

A week or so ago, however, he received a call from a man trying sell him a subscription to the Atlanta Symphony.

(Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge a set of risky assumptions here. My friend’s last name is Holsendolph; a fair guess is that a phone solicitor might never imagine an African-American household would have that surname on the roster of the symphony’s erstwhile patrons. Similarly, Ernie didn’t know for sure, but presumed the man on the other end of the line was white. “Well, he sounded white to me,” he said.)

“The guy said that in the past I’d been a subscriber but ‘we haven’t seen you in a minute,’” Ernie said. “In a minute! Here was a white guy who surely thinks I’m a white guy, talking about having not seen me in a minute.” Continue Reading »

Even though a black family lives in the White House, hardly anyone seriously argues that we live in a postracial society. That aspirational description of 21st century America came into vogue about four years ago, as President Barack Obama raced to victory in the 2008 presidential election, and a great number of black and white Americans wanted to believe the nation was finally closing the books on its discriminatory history.

But no. President Obama’s election didn’t suddenly sweep away all the accumulated consequences of past racism in our society. The preexisting racial disparities, so engrained in the fabric of our economy and culture, didn’t erase themselves in the wake of his victory.

As my Progress 2050 colleagues Christian E. Weller, Julie Ajinkya, and Jane Farrell make regrettably clear in their recently released report, “The State of Communities of Color in the U.S. Economy: Still Feeling the Pain Three Years Into Recovery,” racial and ethnic minority groups aren’t living in a paradise free of racial disadvantage. Quite the contrary, their research demonstrates that people of color aren’t benefiting apace with white Americans as our nation gradually rebounds from the financial collapse and economic recession that gripped us all when President Obama took office Continue Reading »

I believed writer John Derbyshire’s racist screed published recently in Taki’s Magazine—a right-wing website that I’d never heard of before—was a belated April Fool’s joke.

Titled “The Talk: Nonblack Version,” Derbyshire pens a reactionary piece to the cyberchatter about the talk that most—maybe all—black parents give to their offspring about navigating a white-dominated society. The talk gained social media cred in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, as black parents have noted the unfairness of having to tell their children, especially young boys, how to behave when in predominantly white environments.

John Derbyshire

Derbyshire, on the other hand, serves up a 15-point alternative that nonblack parents should provide for their children. His suggestions are a rogue’s list of racist stereotyping and codified prejudices that even he admits his own daughter rejected as racist and offensive.

At the risk of drawing too much attention to it, suffice to say, his points 10 through 10(i) are the most openly offensive racism I’ve read since being forced 35 years ago in college to endure Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s trilogy of novels that defends the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan.

But unlike a history professor’s required reading lists, Derbyshire’s article crossed my computer screen via social media, which nowadays is the way such things (both news and nonsense) typically get started. (Thank you and damn you, Facebook and Twitter!) Still, I read what Derbyshire wrote with open-mouth amazement. He’s someone I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to in the past, so I assumed this was some sort of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert-like send up. Nobody would seriously say this, I thought.

I was wrong. Continue Reading »

For all intents and purposes, affirmative action is dead.

One could argue, as television pundit Juan Williams has, that affirmative action died three years ago with the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Ricci v. DeStefano, a ruling that affirmed white firefighters’ claims that they were victims of reverse discrimination in the city of New Haven, Connecticut. After these firefighters passed a promotions test, city officials invalidated the test results because no black applicants passed, allowing the white applicants legal standing to claim they were mistreated. With that ruling, the conservative Court, under Chief Justice John Roberts, signed affirmative action’s death certificate.

Of course, some believe there’s life still in the corpse. Later this year, the Supreme Court will take up Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that challenges whether applicants’ race can be used as a factor in granting admission in an effort to diversify the student body. But it’s entirely possible the Court will rule against Texas, effectively sealing the coffin shut.

Even if that happens, however, affirmative action could live on as colleges and employers find ways to continue promoting diversity. In fact, that’s exactly what’s beginning to happen, and it’s absolutely necessary given our nation’s demographic changes. Continue Reading »

Trayvon Martin, who was shot to death last month, posed for the undated family photo. George Zimmerman, 28, remains out of police custody despite admitting to the shooting of the 17-year-old, unarmed high school student. Authorities haven't arrested Zimmerman, citing a Florida state law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force. Such an argument has prompted some community leaders to bemoan "white privilege" when a black life is taken. (AP Photo/Martin Family)

When a young American teenager, Trayvon Martin, was gunned down for walking while being black in a diverse suburban community, the first thing many of us wanted to know was the race of the guy who pulled the trigger. That man, George Zimmerman, was described as white by the media and Latino by his father. But why does it matter?

Far from the crime scene in Sanford, Florida, two Boston-area educators offered an explanation last weekend during a workshop on “Transforming Whiteness” at the Kirwan Institute conference on race in Columbus, Ohio. Susan Naimark and Paul Madden didn’t mention the Martin case but instead posed a broad and open-ended question to the interracial audience of progressive academics, social activists, and community organizers that could well resonate in the coming federal investigation of the shooting: “What comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘white culture?’”

Dare, if you will, to engage in a conversation about race in most places in our country and the issue at hand will likely revolve around the status of black Americans. Perhaps in the fastest-growing parts of the nation, the topic may include concern about the increasing presence and plight of Latinos. Almost instinctively, Americans know and recognize “other” cultures, which are typically described with dark and foreboding adjectives.

But what is “white culture?” Continue Reading »

Class stratification on college campuses may well be an immutable barrier that increasingly divides affluent students from their less-well off classmates, threatening the long-cherished ideal that a college education serves as the great equalizer of society. (Photo: AP/Reed Saxon)

Jourdan Shepard, a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, created a lively blogosphere debate with his online post decrying elitism and “classism” at his historically black and male college. His insights speak volumes about the changing nature of student divisions on college campuses, from racial divides to income divides—though of course it isn’t as tidy a division since we’re speaking, after all, about American college campuses.

“Every August, a new freshman class walks through the gates of the school and into the campus gymnasium only to have their older brothers try to transform them into Black elitists,” Shepard wrote late in 2011 as the Morehouse correspondent for newsone.com, an online aggregator of news targeted at black Americans. “Yes, Morehouse does tell their freshmen what is expected, but the bravado has seemed to overshadow the greater good. This is a problem.”

What drew Shepard’s ire is the sense of elitism and entitlement among a certain group of students strutting across his campus green. According to a growing body of scholarly literature, class stratification on college campuses may well be an immutable barrier that increasingly divides affluent students from their less well-off classmates, threatening the long-cherished ideal that a college education is the great equalizer of society.

Even as college campuses herald their efforts to lower racial barriers—especially at the most elite, predominantly white colleges—some observers note that economic disparities among college students is creating a situation where affluent students have one experience and poor students have an entirely different one. As Shepard noted, income disparities among students undermine the purpose of a college degree, which he defines as a tool “to develop the individual and help the community, rather than embracing a superficial identity that degrades one another.” Continue Reading »

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