There have been thousands of words written about Stockett’s skills, her portrayal of the black women versus the white women, her right to tell this story at all. I won’t rehash those arguments, except to say that I found the novel fast-paced but highly problematic. Even more troubling, though, is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.
The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American. Many white Americans stood beside them, and some even died beside them, but it was not their fight — and more important, it was not their idea.
This isn’t the first time the civil rights movement has been framed this way fictionally, especially on film. Most Hollywood civil rights movies feature white characters in central, sometimes nearly solo, roles. My favorite (not!) is Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, which gives us two white FBI agents as heroes of the movement. FBI agents! Given that J. Edgar Hoover did everything short of shoot Martin Luther King Jr. himself in order to damage or discredit the movement, that goes from troubling to appalling.
Why is it ever thus? Suffice it to say that these stories are more likely to get the green light and to have more popular appeal (and often acclaim) if they have white characters up front. That’s a shame. The continued impulse to reduce the black women and men of the civil rights movement to bit players in the most extraordinary step toward justice that this nation has ever known is infuriating, to say the least. Minny and Aibileen are heroines, but they didn’t need Skeeter to guide them to the light. They fought their way out of the darkness on their own — and they brought the nation with them.
Before it even took place, the irony of the Atlanta Braves hosting a civil rights celebration Sunday had been pointed out, not just because of the team’s name, but because of Georgia’s recent enactment of House Bill 87.
The bill, modeled after Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, targets undocumented immigrants and their employers, and had set off a controversy even before Carlos Santana, being honored by Major League Baseball at the game, took the opportunity to speak out against both laws. But as it turns out, the Mexican-born singer wasn’t the first pop-culture figure to do so. Continue reading →
I guess I’m not the only one who found the solemnity-yet-randomness of the Black History Month Minutes in my youth a tad ridiculous. I understood why the segments were needed and learned a lot from them–and still found my hand in front of my giggling mouth. The comic troupe Elite Delta Force 3 may have felt the same way.
Last Thursday, standing underneath the hot noon day sun, I yelled out to the large crowd waiting in line for the monthly food aid provided by the mayor’s office. The crowd stretched for blocks, and my team and I set out with bottled water, candy, and bags full of surveys. We had hoped to harness the 200+ person food line for the Public Media Corps survey of the digital environment in DC. The crowd was composed of people who are generally overlooked when talking about online innovation – many of the people there were low-income, most speak Spanish as a primary language, and many did not have internet access at home.
Everyone was willing to help with the survey, particularly honing in on key words like “free,” “courses,” “training,” “jobs,” and “media.” But we soon realized we had a much bigger hurdle to jump – between the four of us, there was only one fluent Spanish speaker (as well as one “fluent in Spanglish”), and our survey was not designed for people with low literacy rates. In English, administering the survey was difficult enough – as one of the fellows surveying Ward 8 noted, what took fully literate people about 5 minutes to blow through took about 20 for those with lower rates of reading comprehension. In Spanish, with the difficulties translating technical terms and low levels of Spanish fluency among the team, that task was damn near impossible.
A sweet-faced tween girl volunteered to help translate, freeing up the other fellows to try to piece together the survey. I asked the girl the questions, she shouted back to her parents, and other people on the line chimed in when they could to help translate. In the end, we had about fifteen people all collaborating with bits of English and snatches of Spanish to get the questions answered. But it still wasn’t enough to capture as many people as were moving through the food line. Ultimately, we left frustrated – out of more than 200 people, we only got 30 surveys answered between us. Those surveys were illuminating, and spoke to the needs of having a variety of community access points and more Spanish language programming, but it also spoke to a gnawing fear that had been growing in all of us tasked with working in ward one – can we really capture the essence of the community in Columbia Heights – Shaw – Mount Pleasant – U Street – Adams Morgan from our tiny, language-limited viewpoints?
We have a reason to be concerned. The Washington DC council’s official website states:
Ward One is diversity – From the majestic Victorians of upper Columbia Heights, to Adams Morgan’s renowned entertainment district, to Howard University, historic U Street and LeDroit Park, the ward is home to some extraordinary places—and some extraordinary people. The neighborhoods of Ward One have a familiar ring to many people – LeDroit Park, U Street, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Shaw, Park View, and Pleasant Plains.
Ward One is the smallest, most densely populated ward in the District of Columbia. It’s also the only ward where you’ll find no population group with a majority. Thousands of African Americans, whites, Latinos, Vietnamese, Ethiopians and others make their home here. In just one of our ZIP codes, 20009, 136 countries are represented. The Brookings Institution says that’s the most diverse ZIP code in the entire region. And more than 40% of the public school students in Ward One do not speak English as their primary language. Indeed, according to an Urban Institute study in 2003, DC’s most diverse neighborhoods are within Ward One.
This diversity brings a lot of amazing things to the neighborhood, but poses a particular challenge to inclusion – namely, how can we meet the needs of so many different people, particularly when the needs are so great?
That question weighed heavily on my mind into the weekend, which was enough to push out all the noise about the coming events. Thinking about Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally invading Washington, DC made me feel a bit ill. Luckily, it was easily avoided, especially since I live near the ever-so-dangerous yellow/green line. In the interest of my own sanity, I chose to stay close to home.
Friday night, after another day of survey gathering and site visits, I headed over to the 9:30 club for DJ Dredd’s dance party to celebrate Michael Jackson’s birthday. As we swayed with the crowd rocking along to Michael’s (and Janet’s!) greatest hits, an observation kept pushing to the forefront of my mind, one I had wanted to write about last year when he passed. While much was written about the racial politics of Michael Jackson, particularly in reference to his skin color/plastic surgeries, there was little discussion of the most striking part of Michael’s racial politics: the worlds he created in his music videos. Most folks are familiar with two of his most political hits, “Black or White” and “Man in the Mirror.”
But what always stood out to me was the populations of Michael’s created worlds – which were overwhelmingly multicultural, featuring a lot of different types of people all rolling with the King of Pop. Continue reading →
Along with his fellow Republicans, Jeff Sessions spent much of the first day of Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings weirdly taking aim at the storied judicial career ofThurgood Marshall. Why? Because Marshall was an enemy of originalists, and the senators wanted to portray Kagan, who clerked for him, as cut from the same ideological cloth.
Later in the day, though, Sessions compared the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which granted corporations the right to make unlimited political donations, toBrown v. Board of Education, the landmark civil-rights case that declared de jure racial segregation unconstitutional. In the Citizen’s United case, he said, the court went back to the principles of the Constitution to apply equal protection of the laws.
“Is it treating people equally to say you can go to this school because of the color of your skin and you can’t?” Sessions asked rhetorically. “We’ve now honestly concluded and fairly concluded that it violates the equal protection clause.”
How is that like Citizens United? “I think this Court, when they said ‘Wait a minute! If you’re talking about a precedent that says the government can deny the right to publish pamphlets, then we’ve got get rid of this one outlier case Austin — 100 years of precedent — and go back to what the Constitution [says].’ I don’t think that’s activism.”
Buried in this tortured analogy is a pretty illustrative example of how amorphous originalism actually is. The decision in Brown, arguably the most famous case taken on by the legendarily activist Warren Court, was (and still is) decried by many conservatives as judicial overreach. Yet as Sherilyn Ifillpoints out, Chief Justice Roberts actually invoked Brown in the Citizens United ruling precisely because it eschewed precedent; “if the court never departed from precedent, ‘segregation would be legal.’”
Because Brown is one of those moments that affirms the goodness of American character, and because its fundamental rightness is taken as a given now (in a way that certainly was not true when it was decided), it’s often brought up this way by conservatives, as a cover for expansive readings of the Constitution that bring about results favorable to their ends.
So they want to give corporations new ways to involve themselves in the political process but are bound by campaign finance laws from doing so? No worries! Just sprinkle some Brown on it.
…a reasonable attempt to be made to determine the immigration status of a person during any legitimate contact made by an official or agency of the state or a county, city, town or political subdivision (political subdivision) if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the U.S.
Now, “reasonable suspicion” is a legal standard that’s been around for over 40 years. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that a stop by law enforcement on the grounds of reasonable suspicion was legal if it met the following criteria:
…when a person possesses many unusual items which would be useful in a crime like a wire hanger and is looking into car windows at 2am, when a person matches a description of a suspect given by another police officer over department radio, or when a person runs away at the sight of police officers who are at common law right of inquiry (founded suspicion). However, reasonable suspicion may not apply merely because a person refuses to answer questions, declines to allow a voluntary search, or is of a suspected race or ethnicity. (Wikipedia)
But unless Arizona law enforcement actually catches someone in the act of crossing the border illegally, there’s no way to really establish reasonable suspicion except by race or ethnicity, which is why SB 1070 is being referred to by some as the “Breathing While Brown” law.
What I find myself wondering though is: How Brown? SB 1070 is racism, to be sure, but is it colorism, too? I can’t help thinking that the browner you are in Arizona, the more “suspicious” you’ll seem. Already, lighter-skinned Latinos in the U.S. make $5,000 more on average than darker-skinned Latinos. And it’s well-documented that dark-skinned African-Americans receive longer prison sentences than their light-skinned peers (not to mention whites). There are examples the world over–in Asia, the Middle East, Brazil–of color prejudice, where light skin is preferred, both interracially and intraracially, and where it equates to improved social standing, economic status, and marriage prospects.
Does this mean that more Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S. will be reaching for the Sammy Sosa-lightening cream in SB 1070’s wake? It appears it’s already happening. From the NY Times op-ed piece, “Shades of Prejudice,” published in January after Harry Reid’s comments surfaced about Obama being an ideal political candidate because he was “light-skinned”:
The Harvard neuroscientist Allen Counter has found that in Arizona, California and Texas, hundreds of Mexican-American women have suffered mercury poisoning as a result of the use of skin-whitening creams.
(Note that Dr. Counter’s findings were clustered in Arizona, California, and Texas, all border states.)
And in a 2003 story for the Boston Globe, “Whitening skin can be deadly,” Dr. Counter wrote of these same women:
Apparently, the patients reporting to clinics with mercury-induced disease believe that the health risks associated with bleaching their skins are outweighed by the rewarding sociocultural return.
With “brown” now equating to “illegal,” this may be truer than we’d like to think.
I was going to point out that Gandhi, who is said to have inspired MLK, did not take a bullet for black Americans. His cause was the oppressed people of India. But the universal truth of his message–resistance to tyranny, nonviolence and the fundamental equality of all people–was as applicable on the North American continent as the Asian one. Bernice King’s father realized that. How small and hateful and contrary to the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi it would have been if, during the height of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, a surviving family member had proclaimed that “down in their souls” they were certain that Gandhi didn’t take a bullet for Negroes to ride on the front of the bus.
To my surprise, while doing a little research on the martyr known as “The Great One,” I discovered that, though time has cemented Gandhi in the public consciousness as a loving but determined champion for world equality. He may well not have supported civil rights for all marginalized people. Continue reading →
By Guest Contributor Angry Asian Man, originally published at Angry Asian Man
If you’re like me, growing up as a student, you heard a lot about civil rights history, but not much about the role of Asian Americans in those struggles. But wait! There’s a new book for you. Untold Civil Rights Stories: Asian Americans Speak Out for Justice is the first educational textbook describing the role of Asian Americans in United States civil rights history.
The book tells the stories of Amric Singh Rathour, Beulah Ong Kwoh, Fred Korematsu, Joseph Ileto, K.W. Lee, Lily Chin, Peping Baclig, Philip Vera Cruz, and the enslaved Thai garment workers — real stories that are often forgotten in history texts. The goal is to fill an educational void and correct the “invisibility” of Asian Americans in United States history.
Untold Civil Rights Stories is edited by APALC’s President & Executive Director, Stewart Kwoh, and UCLA Asian American Studies adjunct professor, Russell C. Leong. Contributors include May Lee Heye, Bill Ong Hing, Dale Minami, Karen Narasaki, Angela Oh, Mary Ellen Kwoh Shu, Julie Su, Casimiro Urbano Tolentino, Kent Wong, Eric Yamamoto, Helen Zia, Esther Taira, and Irene Lee.
The book includes timelines, student commentary and lesson plans geared especially for k-12th grade students learning about United States history, economics, and government. For more information go to the UCLA Asian American Studies Center website here, or download the press packet here.