Last week we saw quite a few African-American bloggers and writers offering critiques of birtherism and race. The salient point is that the tradition of attacking the citizenship rights of African-Americans extends from slave codes to state-wide bans on black residence to black codes to debt peonage to literacy tests to felon disenfranchisement. You literally can trace attacks on black citizenship from the very origins of American citizenship itself right up to the present day.
Birtherism is an alloy of that unfortunate American thread and the anti-elitist, white populism of Andrew Jackson. Calling it an alloy is imperfect, as it implies that American anti-elitism has no relation to racism, which is false. (See our conversations on Howe's What God Hath Wrought, or more appropriately, read the book. Sorry for lecturing, but it's your history. And it's listed on Amazon for roughly the same price as a good burger.)
But there are deeper reasons for why African-Americans find requests for Obama's birth certificate, college transcript, SAT scores, high school grades etc. deeply unsettling. A reader captured this in the following note. He'd just finished watching the video above of Michelle Obama dancing with a group of kids:
I planned on sending you an email today that offered my thoughts on why people my age ran into the streets to celebrate on Sunday night. I was going to write about how the prevalence of social networking normalized and made it easier for people in their early 20's to congregate during important moments. Then, I ran across this clip of Michelle Obama dancing with a group of middle school students in Washington today.
After getting over my initial shock that the First Lady was at least vaguely familiar with a dance that I might sloppily attempt in a nightclub, I thought about how familiar the image was to me. She reminded me of my aunts at our family cook outs, where they get up and try to do the new dance, but then school all of us with the Electric Slide (or in this case, the Running Man).
That thought brought me back to your comments about why Donald Trump's comments feel so offensive, how his comments undercut all of the things that Black parents say to children about how they will be respected if they study and work hard.
Maybe it's unfair, but I now realize why I am more offended by comments about the President and First Lady than I was about comments about President and Mrs. Clinton. It's not just that they are Black and I am too. I think it has more to do with the fact that they are so familiar, they remind me of people I know, which causes a more personal reaction.
One of things that always amazed me about the reaction to the Poundcake Speech was the assumption among pundits that Cosby was somehow bravely stating truths that the black community didn't want to address. This is the sort of thing that happens when you have a pundit class more interested in abstract thought experiments, than actually going into black neighborhoods, or really, any neighborhood that might be unfamiliar.
In point of fact, every black parent I know is at war with their children in a way that white parents are not. I grew up in house where the history of race and racism was the air. But concurrent to that history was the deeply held belief that American racism was never an excuse for cynicism, anti-intellectualism, thuggism or nihilism. My parents were conscious. But when I was failing my way through school, I don't recall them ever raising their clenched fists and exclaiming, "Damn the white man."
To the contrary, there was a deep-seated belief that educating yourself was essential, and that hard work ultimately prevails. Whatever their broader critiques, it was that essential faith that united them with the rest of the country. Preaching that faith is a lot easier when you have actual examples to point to. In terms of external examples (outside of the family) there are no better models, right now, than Barack and Michelle Obama.
What many white people fail to realize is that though Barack Obama and his family are unique to them, they are deeply familiar to black people. Put differently, they are from our particular neighborhood. I think back to Michelle Obama's own words:
"People have never met a Michelle Obama," the soon-to-be first lady said toward the end of our interview. "But what they'll come to learn is that there are thousands and thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas across America. You just don't live next door to them, or there isn't a TV show about them."
But we do live next door to them, and the TV show is our lives. We went to church and played in summer leagues with people like them. I went to college with people like them. This is not to slight Barack Obama's truly remarkable story, nor the indispensable labor of the people who raised him. But there were biracial black people with wild stories all across my college campus. The first girl I ever really loved was raised by her Jewish mother, in all-white small town in Pennsylvania. She was unique, but not because of her background. The strictures of segregation gifted black people with the particular beauty of being a deeply interwoven diaspora on to ourselves, rendering "Black" into a broad country.
To see that country manifested in the White House is the sort of boon that you can't really attach to statistics. But for those of us who are waging the fight against a crippling cynicism, who are urging our children on, who visit schools and begin our addresses with, "I remember when I just like you," the First Family is perhaps the greatest weapon in our arsenal.
From the perspective of race, we don't object to people trying to defeat Obama. We don't object to Hillary claiming he's soft. We don't object to McCain claiming he's a celebrity. We don't object to the GOP calling him a tax-and-spend liberal. We don't even object to Mitt Romney aspiring to hang him. (We know what you meant, Mitt.)
But when broad sections of this country foolishly follow a carnival barker in the ugly tradition of attacking black citizenship rights, when pundits shriek that Obama's successes are simply the result of the misguided largess of white people, they undermine our most intimate war. They undermine the notion that someone familiar to that kid on the corner could legitimately reach the highest levels of the country, that someone like that kid's Aunt could be the First Lady. They undermine this country's social contract, and the "hard work pays" message of my parents. And to that we object.
For if they will not take as legitimate a magna cum laude from their highest institutions, if they will not accept a man who tells black kids to cut off the video games and study, who accedes to their absurd requests one week, and slays their demons the next, who will they accept? Who among us would they ever believe?
Black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty—and so cannot be addressed without grappling with racism.
There have been a number of useful entries in the weeks since Senator Bernie Sanders declared himself against reparations. Perhaps the most clarifying comes from Cedric Johnson in a piece entitled, “An Open Letter To Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Liberals Who Love Him.” Johnson’s essay offers those of us interested in the problem of white supremacy and the question of economic class the chance to tease out how, and where, these two problems intersect. In Johnson’s rendition, racism, in and of itself, holds limited explanatory power when looking at the socio-economic problems which beset African Americans. “We continue to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world,” writes Johnson. “One where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.”
As Coldplay blandly strained for the universal, she and Bruno Mars pulled off something more specific and more daring.
What a perfect Beyoncésong name: “Formation.” All great pop involves people acting in formation. So does all great change. And while fans scream that Beyoncé’s a “queen” and “goddess,” her core appeal really is as a drill sergeant. With Beyoncé in command, greatness is scalable, achievable, for the collective. Everyone waves their hands to the same beat. Everyone walks around like they have hot sauce in their bag.
But in pop and in politics, “everyone” is a loaded term. Stars as ubiquitous as Beyoncé have haters, the “albino alligators” who “Formation” informs us she twirls upon. And in a more general historical sense, “everyone” can be a dangerous illusion that elevates one point of view as universal while minimizing others. Beyoncé gets all of this, it seems. As a pop star, she surely wants to have as broad a reach as possible. But as an artist, she has a specific message, born of a specific experience, meaningful to specific people. Rather than pretend otherwise, she’s going to make art about the tension implied by this dynamic. She’s going to show up to Super Bowl with a phalanx of women dressed as Black Panthers.
Will the Democratic Party nominate a candidate who hasn’t been a member of their party, and who has long denounced it?
When a party chooses its presidential candidate, it also chooses its party leader in the election. This year the Democrats face an unusual situation. Bernie Sanders isn’t just an outsider to the party establishment; he’s not even been a member of the party, and has long excoriated it in unsparing language. Although the media haven’t much focused on this history, the early signs suggest it could become a problem for Sanders in getting the nomination—and a problem for the party if he does get it.
According to the entrance polls at the Iowa caucuses, there was a 30-percentage-point split between self-identified Democrats and independents in their support for Sanders. Hillary Clinton won 56 percent of self-identified Democrats but only 26 percent of independents, while Sanders won only 39 percent of Democrats but 69 percent of independents.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
The insects are miniature transformers that can compress to half their size and still run really fast. The creepy little buggers might even inspire a new generation of search and rescue robots.
Cockroaches get everywhere. There they are, somehow, against all odds, in that room that looked to be totally sealed from the outside world, in that cupboard you swore was tightly shut. Now, Kaushik Jayaram and Robert Full from the University of California, Berkeley have discovered the secret behind their feats of infiltration.
By confronting American cockroaches with an ever-narrower series of crevices, the duo found that although this insect typically stands 12 millimeters tall, it can squeeze through gaps of 3 millimeters—the height of two stacked U.S. pennies. It does this by squatting down and then compressing its body by half. It is the world’s worst Transformer: instantly changing shape from a cockroach into a much flatter cockroach. Delightful.
The former president’s heated assault on Bernie Sanders is a reminder of how the Clintons have long reacted to any opposition.
One of my oldest Hillary Clinton memories: Twenty-six years ago, I stood in the second-floor rotunda of the Arkansas Capitol half-listening to a news conference by Tom McRae, an earnest Democrat challenging Governor Bill Clinton for re-election. Then I heard it: Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Click. Clack.
The sound of Hillary Clinton’s low-heeled shoes on a hidden marble hallway jarred McRae, who in 1990 was Bill Clinton’s biggest obstacle to a fifth term and a presidential bid two years later. The first lady of Arkansas rounded the corner and stormed his news conference. “Tom!” she shouted. “I think we oughta get the record straight!”
Waving a sheaf of papers, Hillary Clinton undercut McRae’s criticism of her husband’s record by pointing to McRae’s past praise of the governor. It was a brutal sandbagging. “Many of the reports you issued not only praise the governor on his environmental record,” she said, “but his education and his economic record!”
Tracking them down is a globe-trotting adventure that rivals any jungle expedition.
In the darkness of the Akeley Hall of Mammals, swarms of kids gawk at beautifully staged dioramas of Africa’s wildlife. The stuffed safari, nestled in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, includes taxidermied leopards stalking a bush pig, preserved ostriches strutting in front of warthogs, and long-dead baboons cautiously considering a viper. In one corner, in a display marked “Upper Nile Region,” a lone hippo grazes next to a herd of lechwe, roan antelope, and a comically stern shoebill stork.
“This is my favorite one,” says Evon Hekkala, pointing to the display. “There’s a taxidermied crocodile tucked away down there.”
It takes a while to spot it and I have to crane my head to do so, but yes, there it is—a large crocodile, in the back, mouth agape, next to the hippo. It’s mostly hidden from view, and until recently, it was hidden from science, too.
Immediately, the pings from fellow journalists (and media-adjacent folk) came pouring in, all saying something along the lines of, “Can you actually let me know what you find out? I’m addicted to that stuff.”
They mean “addicted” in the jokey, dark-chocolate-and-Netflix-streaming way, but the habit can border on pathological. For me, rock bottom was a recent, obscenely long workday during which an entire 12-pack of coconut La Croix somehow made it down my throat, can by shining can.
As the discipline began to emerge, a group of passionately religious academics wanted it to become a tool for limiting child labor and fighting poverty.
From its earliest days, the American college was a Protestant enterprise. Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton were all founded to educate Protestant ministers and the men who would sit in the pews of their churches. It was common for public universities in the 19th century, too, to have an explicitly Protestant hue. As late as the early 20th century, elite colleges still discriminated against Catholics and Jews, both as students and faculty members. After 1920, even when Catholics and Jews started to be hired as faculty members, they still could not find work easily teaching American literature or American history because it was thought that only Protestants could properly carry on the lineage that defined the American character.
The trust people tend to feel toward others in the same ethnic, racial, and political groups makes them easy targets for scammers.
Last week’s ABC mini-series chronicled the most famous financial fraud in recent American history: Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme, which devastated elite institutions and families of the American Jewish community. The scale of Madoff’s crimes was breathtaking. There’s much to be said about his crimes—not least about the incompetence of the regulatory apparatus that failed to stop him despite repeated warnings and what researchers Greg Gregoriou and Francois Lhabitant quite appropriately called “a riot of red flags” over many years.