Monday, March 31, 2008

Mixed race

I'm sticking with the race theme, at least as long as the media do. Over the weekend I read Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down a Virginia anti-miscegenation statute. A white man and a black woman from Virginia went to Washington D.C. to get married, and when they came back to Virginia they were arrested on criminal charges, simply because they were of different races. This was only 40 years ago! What's especially appalling about the law is that black people were still allowed to marry Asians, or any other ethnicity — only whites could not enter interracial marriages. The idea was to protect white supremacy. The Supreme Court decision was the death knell for anti-miscegenation statutes across the country. According to this NY Times story below, today there are 3.1 million couples in America who identify their marriages as interracial ones, or 6 percent of all U.S. marriages. The 2000 census was the first time that Americans were allowed to identify themselves as having more than one race.

Here's a great piece from the NY Times this morning, on the difficulties of growing up in America with a mixed-race heritage. (Any story that mentions Tiger Woods and Barack Obama has to be cool.) Also, watch the video, of an interracial student group at Rutgers University called "Fusion."

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A moment of admission

This weekend, W&M Law hosted about 100 the admitted students of the Class of 2011 — next year's 1Ls. I had the pleasure of serving on a couple of student-led Q&A sessions with David Bules, a 3L who sits on the other end of the political spectrum from me. During the Q&A, with about 200 people in the room, an admitted student asked about the political composition of the student body here. Bules and I looked at each other and laughed.

I said that as a liberal-leaning person, I see the composition as about 60-40 conservative. Bules said that as a conservative-leaning person, he sees the composition as about 90-10 liberal.

What can I say? We're a vocal minority.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Race and the Constitution

It's certainly no secret to anyone who asks me about classes which is my favorite this semester. Of Contracts, Property and Constitutional Law, there can be only one: the least practical and most political, of course. Con Law it is.

A week after Obama's race speech, my Con Law class has delved into the Equal Protection Clause cases, some of the most famous in all of constitutional law. I just finished reading Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. United States. Up next are Brown v. Board of Education, Brown v. Board of Education II and a lesser-known case called Loving v. Virginia, which struck down an antimiscegenation statute in 1967.

Here's the relevant portion of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868: "No state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Obama spoke last week about our nation's "original sin of slavery." While it's true that slavery ended more than 140 years ago, we too often forget how deeply racism had become embedded in the American culture. To illustrate the point, here is an excerpt from Dred Scott, the 1857 case which denied freedom to a slave who had made his way to the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin. The opinion was written by Roger Taney, the Chief Justice of the United States at the time.

"[Negroes] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion."

Yikes. Those, my friends, are the roots of white privilege.

You'd think that by 1896, we'd have made some progress on the High Court. Not much. Here is Justice Henry Brown in Plessy, which put a man in jail for refusing to give a white man his seat on the bus. The case established the infamous "separate but equal" doctrine, that survived for nearly 60 years, until Brown v. Board.

Justice Brown: "The object of the [14th] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either."

Later in the same opinion: "We consider the underlying fallacy of [Plessy's] argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."

Finally, Justice Brown concludes, "If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane."

Why do I trouble you with all this? Because the conversation about race will not be easy. Over the weekend, on his blog "Right from the Beginning," Pat Buchanan wrote this:

"Barack says we need to have a conversation about race in America.

"Fair enough. But this time, it has to be a two-way conversation. White America needs to be heard from, not just lectured to.

"This time, the Silent Majority needs to have its convictions, grievances and demands heard. And among them are these:

"First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known."

See the above link for the whole post, if you must. I could hardly stomach it.

It would be easier for all of us, Buchanan believes, if we put this silly conversation to rest, instead of acknowledging that for hundreds of years, one race regarded the other as property; that, for the purpose of ratifying the Constitution, slaves were counted as 3-5ths of a person so that Southern states could get more representation in Congress; that for nearly a hundred years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, black children were not legally entitled to attend the same schools as white children; that exactly 100 years after the end of the Civil War did the Civil Rights Act actually give black people the right to vote in some states; and that only three blacks have been elected to the U.S. Senate in the last 130 years, among numerous other injustices.

But Buchanan does not mention any of this. Instead, he says, "We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?"

Can we, as a nation, go back on this despicable history? Of course not. But white people need not ask for gratitude. We should look for ways to heal the divide, not widen it. Obama says it best:

"In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama's race speech

Barack Obama gave a profoundly meaningful speech on Tuesday, a speech he wrote himself over the weekend and into the early morning on Tuesday. For nearly an hour, he did what few politicians in the modern era — certainly no political figures of his caliber in my lifetime — have done: he addressed the issue of race in America. In so doing, he gave yet another reason why he is the best person to lead this country. But even more important than that, he opened the door to a national conversation about race.

It's not a conversation that many of us want to have. Yet, we have conversations about race everyday, which was one of the many themes in Obama's speech. He talked about his white grandmother, and how she has used ethnic and racial stereotypes that made her mixed heritage grandson cringe. For most of us, especially in middle American where I grew up, these are the ways in which we talk about race.

"Look at those black kids with their hats on backwards, playing that rap music."
"They sure can play basketball, those niggers."
"I don't understand why they aren't required to learn English as soon as they get here."

It's been almost 150 years since the Civil War, and more than 40 since the Civil Rights era, but we aren't even close to solving "the race issue." But unlike health care, or immigration, or the war in Iraq, the most important part of dealing with race will not be found in economic charts, or in a specified number of security agents, or in the swiftness with which we can remove our presence from the Middle East. Progress on the race issue will be far more difficult to quantify. The most important part of dealing with it — or at least starting to deal with it — will be in having a national conversation, a meaningful conversation about our stereotypes and prejudices. That's what Obama got rolling on Tuesday.

The reaction to the videos of Rev. Jeremiah Wright demonstrated our country's inadequacies in dealing with race issues. YouTube videos of Wright's sermons were replayed again and again on news networks, and white commentators and politicians expressed outrage. How could a person say such things?!? Yet as the doors to Trinity United Church of Christ have opened to the world, we find that Jeremiah Wright, like most folks, is a complex figure that cannot be reduced to a couple of video snippets, no matter how compelling they are to watch. Wright has done near saint-like work on HIV/AIDS in the black community. He has a loyal following of Christian worshippers who have not budged one inch, despite the media's call to denounce and reject Wright. No, of course I don't believe the government imports crack to kill black people, as Wright has suggested. But perhaps Wright's statements can be put in a larger context, such as his belief that God is more important than country. It's not a belief that I hold, certainly, but it is one that many Americans share with Wright. So if Wright believes that his country has done black people wrong, and that God will look unfavorably on America for such actions, who am I to question that? And when he says such things with conviction in a forceful, angry tone (which is, I think, what truly upset the white commentators), does that make them worse? What does most of white America know about what goes on in black churches? My sense is, not much.

We fear what we do not understand. In this country, many black people fear white people and vice versa. If we can begin a dialogue with one another, we can chip away at that lack of understanding. Less fear is a good thing. Thank you, Barack.

Mike Huckabee, the Republican preacher and politician (and John McCain supporter), expressed his support for Obama on the Rev. Wright issue on MSNBC yesterday:

"[Y]ou can't hold the candidate responsible for everything that people around him may say or do," Huckabee says. "It's interesting to me that there are some people on the left who are having to be very uncomfortable with what ... Wright said, when they all were all over a Jerry Falwell, or anyone on the right who said things that they found very awkward and uncomfortable, years ago. Many times those were statements lifted out of the context of a larger sermon. Sermons, after all, are rarely written word for word by pastors like Rev. Wright, who are delivering them extemporaneously, and caught up in the emotion of the moment. There are things that sometimes get said, that if you put them on paper and looked at them in print, you'd say 'Well, I didn't mean to say it quite like that.'"

Later, he defended Wright's anger, too:

"As easy as it is for those of us who are white to look back and say 'That's a terrible statement!' ... I grew up in a very segregated South. And I think that you have to cut some slack — and I'm gonna be probably the only conservative in America who's gonna say something like this, but I'm just tellin' you — we've gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names..."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Uphill both ways

Alright, one more short blog today and I should be caught up. On a beautiful Saturday morning in the Burg, I ran my first-ever 5K (roughly 3.2 miles) in 26:50. Granted, it's not a record-setting time but it felt pretty good, considering that: A.) I'd never run a 5K before, and 2.) I couldn't walk five months ago.

This morning's 5K was the 4th Annual Ali's Run, in honor of Ali Kaplan, the late daughter of Rob Kaplan, the Career Services dean at the law school. Ali died in 1997 at age 12 of aplastic anemia. Registration fees for the race go toward the W&M Bone Marrow Drive.

The race was ridiculously hilly, but it felt great crossing the finish line.

A summer job!

One of the many exciting moments of my week in New Orleans was a phone call I got on Thursday morning, March 6, while working in a house in the Ninth Ward. The call came from the Northern Virginia Capital Defender's Office, a branch of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. They offered me a 10-week summer internship! Because the opportunity was my top choice and because I have enough to think about, I immediately accepted, rather than take the customary time to think about it.

Public interest internships such as this one rarely come with a paycheck; I will not be getting paid — at least not by the NoVA CDO. Instead, William & Mary offers stipends to law students working at unpaid summer jobs through the Public Service Fund. I will complete the elaborate PSF application this weekend, with hopes of getting an award of up to $3,600, which would average to about $9 an hour for the 10-week internship.

I'm extremely excited about the job. The CDO was established a few years ago to provide lawyers to indigent defendants in capital cases. If the defendant cannot afford a lawyer to provide for his/her defense, the Capital Defender's Office provides a team of lawyers, paid for by the Commonwealth. In Virginia, when a prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty against a defendant, there are two phases to the trial. First, there is the murder trial, and a jury returns a verdict of guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found guilty, then there is a second phase for sentencing.

The goal of the Capital Defender's Office is to ensure a proper defense for defendants with their backs against the wall. If there is a sentencing phase, the CDO offers what's called "mitigating evidence," such as a history of poverty, abuse and neglect, to show that the defendant's life circumstances played more than a supporting role in the crime that was committed. If a court finds the mitigating evidence compelling, the convicted defendant may receive a prison sentence, rather than the death penalty.

I have many more thoughts on the death penalty, which of course is a big reason why I applied for this job. I imagine I will have plenty of opportunity to elaborate on these issues this summer. My job, as I understand it, will be about two-thirds legal research and writing, and about one-third interviews. I will not have contact with any clients, but I will do interviews with people who know the clients well, to obtain the mitigating evidence needed at trial. I'm aiming to start on May 27, which would make my last day August 1.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

New Orleans

For nearly five days now, I have thought about how to summarize this trip. I have journaled about it privately and talked about it to friends, family and staff at W&M. Each time I tell a different piece of the story; there is so much to tell.

First, the city. For those who've been to New Orleans pre-Katrina (I hadn't), there is an awareness that this is one funky city, in so many senses of the word. New Orleans has such good food and music that even the locals can't help but talk about it; they ditch work, many of them, at 2 or 3 p.m. every Friday to go downtown or to the French Quarter. There is no shame in indulging in the good life, they recognize, when it's literally around the corner. The other side of New Orleans' funkiness, though, is that this is — and has been since well before the storm, I gather — quite a dysfunctional place. The government, the school system, housing, public health ... the list goes sadly on. Katrina only shone a 1,000-watt spotlight on problems that had consumed this place for decades.

But Katrina also made them worse. The Ninth Ward, once a segregated, destitute home for many unlucky and impoverished souls, is now a Military Police-ridden, segregated, destitute home for a lot fewer unlucky and impoverished souls. More MPs patrol the Ninth Ward than NOLA police. They pat down residents as they walk into businesses, with an assuredness that some law is probably being broken. Last Wednesday, my friend Myron and I sat in the van while this happened to one of our co-workers, Mildred, a N.O. native and a black woman who, it turned out, had violated the terms of her probation. She was trying to sell some electrical wire for cash, legally, and the MPs sent her to jail instead.

A student from Virginia Tech, who I worked with throughout the week, tearing out nails and knocking down dry wall, said that the MPs were right to do what they did. After all, they probably wouldn't be searching people if laws weren't regularly being broken. That's one way of looking at it, I suppose. And if Mildred hadn't done anything wrong, then she could have gone on about her day. Another way of looking at it, as I pointed out, is that this Virginia Tech student may feel differently about such searches if she were black. I didn't see many white people in the Ninth Ward. The ones I did see were mostly volunteers, like myself, or MPs.

The point of all this is not to say that all MPs are bad, or that people who break their probation shouldn't go to jail. The point is that while we worry about how many hundreds of millions we should spend on our embassy in Baghdad, there is a city within our own borders, a city that suffers every single day. The Ninth Ward was leveled by Katrina, absolutely leveled. The people there say that the place looks so much better than it did two years ago, but I think many Americans would have a hard time telling today's Ninth Ward from a poor African village.

Of course, there is reason to hope. The contractor we worked with, through Desire Street Ministries and C.U.R.E. (Churches United for Revitalization and Evangelism), is a reverend, Joseph Merrill, an amazing man whom I would trust to lead any project. Men and women like him, blessed with non-profit boards that have donated millions to the cause, are the ones rebuilding the Ninth Ward. The process is slow, painstakingly slow. The City cannot use eminent domain, cannot take control over most of the property, because some homeowners cannot be located or say they will return, someday. If you're the City of New Orleans, the State of Louisiana, the U.S. government, you can't take a person's home away from them after your levee collapsed under the weight of water from a barge, and the person had to flee for their life, carrying only the shirt on their back, riding a bus if there was one available, to a faraway city.

And so the rebuilding is slow, one house at a time, perhaps, on each block. At the current pace, I imagine it may take 15 or 20 years to return the place to normal, whatever that might look like. The houses are stripped to their foundations and frames. We tore down wet ceilings, ripped up buckled tile from the floors, pulled rusty nails from soggy boards. Then the good Rev. Merrill will go in with his crew and fix the places up so well you couldn't tell the difference between the inside of one of his houses from a new interior display at Home Depot.

So those were the days for three of us — Myron, Kathleen and me, along with a crew of five or six students from Tech, a Christian group that had come to pray and work, like Rev. Merrill does every day. He showed us the churches of the Ninth Ward, including a large church with only a foundation standing. We asked him about it, and he pointed to another smaller church, two doors down, still fully intact. He said that the smaller church, with a congregation of 400, had been preparing to expand. The concrete had been poured for a new, larger church — two months before Katrina. After the storm hit there was no reason to finish it. The church's congregation went from 400 to 75. But Rev. Merrill does not dwell on this, the sadness of it all. He says that Katrina reminded him of that Bible verse which declares that we are all one people before God, that denominations do not matter. I asked him if he was a Baptist, and he said, "Yes, but I am all faiths." I asked him if he was also a Presbyterian, and he said, predictably, "Yes." He cannot be choosy about his congregation, even if he wanted to be. Unlike the rest of the city, only 15% of the Ninth Ward's population has returned.

Others in our group worked for the Center for Racial Justice, helping to organize a walk-out by in southern Mississippi by about 100 Indian immigrants, who had been told by Signal Corporation that they had been granted permanent working status in the U.S., only to get here to discover that they had temporary visas, and would be deported if they reported their poor working conditions. Shortly after we returned from our trip, the NY Times, CNN and the AP reported on the story, another sad example of an overlooked minority group. Still others of us worked at the American Red Cross and the City Attorney's Office.

I should mention that at night, we had a great deal of fun. It has been years since I've been on a trip like this one with peers. We bonded, as people often do on these kinds of trips. We ate crawfish and beignets, gumbo and jumbalaya, walked down Bourbon Street and around Jackson Square, and heard the jazz piano of Ellis Marsalis. We sang on the rooftop of our bed and breakfast in the Garden District, enjoyed the company of good friends. I have so many good memories that I am already thinking about a return trip next Spring Break. The good City of New Orleans will still be there, and it will still need our help.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Big Easy Ain't So to Explain

I'm blogging from New Orleans, where about 20 of us are staying and volunteering this week. We arrived Saturday before around 10:30 a.m. (CST). Following the 18-hour or so van ride, a few of us were more than ready to go for a run, down Prytania and Magazine Streets. In the evening we found our way to Bourbon Street, which is impossible to compare to anything I've ever seen. At least on Saturday night, it is a party that stretches for more than a mile, with a constant flow of pedestrian traffic and, even though Mardi Gras was a few weeks ago, people throwing beads from balconies.

Several times in the last couple of days, I've heard that New Orleans is the most European city in the United States. I hadn't heard that before I came, but I believe it, given the diversity, the food, the music and the laissez-faire attitude about alcohol. (Open container laws? We don't need open container laws in N.O.) In some ways, one could also say it's the most American city. After all, this is where jazz was born, where Jefferson snookered Napoleon en route to manifest destiny, and it's the third-largest port in the country, where the Mighty Mississip' meets the rest of the world.

Of course, we're all here because of Katrina. Today a few of us visited the Ninth Ward, and walked across the foundations where there once stood houses that were swept away by flood waters. We looked at the new levees, which hardly seem built to withstand another Katrina. One could write several books about how complicated New Orleans' problems are; they simply cannot be distilled. Anyone who tries to do so — to dismiss the problems in a sentence or two — is not telling the whole truth. Pre-Katrina poverty, post-Katrina incompetence, mismanagement, geography, limited resources, poor planning, dysfunctional schools — all of these and more have contributed to the scarring of this great American city, but none of them alone explains what has happened here. Driving by the tent village under the bridge at Claiborne Ave., where many of New Orleans' 12,000 homeless people sleep at night, one can't help but be disgusted, repulsed, ashamed that this could happen in the United States of America. I know I was. But then I learned that there were 6,000 homeless people here before Katrina. Suddenly I'm embarrassed that I didn't know that before I came.

In a few hours I will return to the Ninth Ward, to work for Desire Street Ministries. There is much to learn and do this week.