Faith-based attempts to upend public accommodation laws are nothing new

By Patricia J. Williams

This article appears in the May 1, 2015 print edition of The Washington Spectator

Posted on May 1, 2015 in Culture, Legal Affairs, Politics,

As Republican presidential hopefuls race to embrace the “religious freedom” of businesses to refuse to serve the LGBT community, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the ideological history behind the laws that focused the nation’s attention on Indiana and Arkansas, and, of course, the glibly homophobic management of Memories Pizza.

Faith-based attempts to upend public accommodation laws based on the inherent sinfulness of certain others are nothing new. The civil-rights movement is underwritten by its successful refutation of the “right” of religiously premised belief systems to trump national interests in preserving equal access to civic spaces and publicly offered services. Today, we tend to think of Jim Crow’s legal barriers as merely the expression of secular prejudice. But de jure segregation reflected pervasive religious beliefs in the inequality of races and divinely commanded social order.

The case of Bob Jones University v. United States is perhaps the best-known example of the effort to assert First Amendment religious freedom of expression (in addition to freedom of association) as justification for exclusion. Until 1971, BJU had barred admission to African Americans, and offered only limited admission to other minorities. Then, in 1971, under pressure from the civil-rights movement, it began to admit only married African Americans.

In 1975, after further pressure, it allowed entrance of unmarried African Americans but still forbade interracial dating, and denied entry to “applicants engaged in an interracial marriage or known to advocate interracial marriage or dating.” In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court revoked BJU’s tax-exempt status based on its racially discriminatory policies. Despite this, BJU resisted, based on assertions that God commanded separation of the races. And so it paid several million in back taxes and continued its exclusionary practices based on its freedom of expression under the First Amendment. It continued that policy until 2000, when George W. Bush kicked off his presidential campaign at BJU. The media uproar prompted its president, Bob Jones III, to nullify the ban on interracial dating, not on religious grounds, but so as not to haunt Bush’s campaign.

A second example is the 1925 case of State of Tennessee v. John Scopes. Scopes was a high school teacher prosecuted for violating the state’s Butler Act, which banned teaching human evolution in any public school. The law’s rationale was premised on fundamentalist dogma that Biblical literalism transcended all human knowledge.

That trial, best known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” is mostly remembered as a battle between science and pseudoscience. But it was also a battle between theological and secular justifications for notions of racial superiority. William Jennings Bryan, arguing for the creationist state law, resisted evolutionary theories that purported to teach children that mankind was descended “not even from American monkeys, but old world monkeys.” Not coincidentally, Bryan was a good friend of Bob Jones, the eponymous evangelist who founded BJU in 1927, in part because of Bryan’s urging.

While Clarence Darrow is remembered arguing on the more “liberal” side against the Butler Act, the deeper truth is that the secular beliefs of the time were not a lot better than the religious doctrine. The particular theory of evolution Scopes was accused of teaching came from Civic Biology, a textbook written by George William Hunter. Hunter believed, as many do to this day, that there were five distinct human races, representing an ascending order of evolution and civilization: Ethiopian, Malay, American Indian, Mongolian, and Caucasian. He was an enthusiastic defender of segregating each of the five, consistent with the tenets of the then-burgeoning American Eugenics Society and the theories of the infamous eugenicist Charles Davenport. Here’s an excerpt from Hunter’s textbook:

“Improvement of Man. – If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part. These are personal hygiene, selection of healthy mates, and the betterment of the environment.

Eugenics. – When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness criminal to hand down to posterity.

Parasitism and its Cost to Society. – Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist.

The Remedy. – If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.”

Darrow lost the case, and today we are still fighting about whether creationism may be taught in public schools.

Bob Jones University lost its case in the Supreme Court, but continued the battle until secular as well as religious public opinion had so shifted that it was forced to abandon its racialist policies. Perhaps Americans have reached a similar turning point regarding secular as well as religious intolerance toward LGBT communities: Indiana’s governor and Legislature met with such vehement resistance to the religious freedom law that they have been backtracking even after revising the law.

It was the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that gave renewed life to Indiana’s arguments that religious belief can thwart principles of public accommodation. There, a narrow majority of the court allowed a family-owned corporation to refuse to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act, holding that to do so would violate the owners’ religious belief that contraception is a sin. It was, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor observed, “a decision of startling breadth,” reopening a century-old debate about the rights of businesses or collectives to discriminate against citizens by cherry-picking among the laws they intend to respect.

The First Amendment protects both secular expression and religious belief in very broad ways. But that protection is not absolute. When belief carries over into action that disrupts either civil order or public safety, then public interest will outweigh even religious interests. We constrain, by law, expressions that communicate fraud, threats, conspiracy, treason, or second-class citizenship—even when those expressions are underwritten by religious beliefs. It is never an easy balance, but one we need to negotiate endlessly as an part of our political process: We are entitled to our beliefs no matter how wild or unsubstantiated, but not to impose them as obstacles or dangers to the constitutional rights of others. This much is a foundational value of public accommodation. We abandon that project at our peril.

Patricia J. Williams is a law professor at Columbia University and a regular columnist for The Nation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Published on The Nation (
The American Ritual of Racial Killings

Patricia J. Williams | April 29, 2015

What strikes me most about the recent videos of black men dying and dying and dying is the repetition. They all seem familiar—as in: We’ve heard it before, and before, and then well before even that. The scenes splashed across the news have become almost ritualistic, prayerful; they have a narrative potency that seems to move of its own accord, an agency exceeding that of the humans involved, whether police or suspects, victims or bystanders. We all know the words, we all sing along. In North Charleston, South Carolina, the death of Walter Scott began with a litany like so many before it: He reached for my weapon, a struggle ensued, I feared for my life, the weapon discharged. Amen.

The counternarrative, the recall and response, was provided by a passerby who captured the now-viral video of the killing on his cellphone. That, too, was a memory remembered, a chorus we knew before we knew: He was running away. He was shot in the back. He was unarmed. The weapon was planted. Repeat con affetto.

As Baltimore is rocked in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, our collective riot-song has been cranked up to full volume: They’re out of control! They’re wild animals! They’re burning down their own neighborhood! No wonder the police have to kill them! And in complex counterpoint, the dirge of mysterious-death-while-in-custody: No justice, no peace! interlaced with the percussive bass line of A thorough investigation will be undertaken.

Sigmund Freud thought of repetition as a source of the uncanny—something repressed that, when revealed, violates some affective order. As he used the word, “uncanny” meant the feeling of looking at something that is familiar or intimate yet simultaneously new or estranged. He related it to being “robbed of one’s eyes.”

Freddie Gray was arrested, according to police, because they “made eye contact” with him in the suggestive territory of “a known drug area.” Eyes thus caught, he ran. Police gave hot pursuit.

In some instances, the uncanny familiarity may not be lurking too far beneath the surface. In Baltimore, necks have been broken before by the police “rough-riding” arrestees: hog-tying them, putting them in the back of a van with no restraints, then intentionally veering at high speed. At one point it was called screen testing, because it would cause shackled prisoners to smash into the screen dividing the front and back of the van. In 2005, Dondi Johnson Sr. died after such a ride, suffering a catastrophic spinal-cord injury much like Freddie Gray’s. And in 2004, Jeffrey Alston was left paralyzed from the neck down, an injury also sustained in the back of a police van.

Freud’s image of stolen eyes haunts me: The circular looping of belated recognition and regret seems a shared impairment, a kind of socio-visual agnosia.

I made up that term, “socio-visual agnosia.” There is an actual neurological condition called visual agnosia. The patient in Oliver Sacks’ famous essay “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” suffered from it. It’s not a really a vision problem at all, but a neural disorder of perception that produces an inability to recognize objects or faces, or to identify a thing by its shape. So I’m taking a bit of a liberty here, deploying it as a metaphor for our collective hermeneutic disorder. Consider the man who mistook his gun for a Taser.

Robert Bates is the 73-year-old insurance agent whose longtime friend, Stanley Glanz, is the sheriff of Tulsa County, Oklahoma. Bates has paid for vacations for the top brass, as well as equipment for the police department. It seemed only polite to invite him along to test those goodies out. So when an unarmed black man named Eric Harris tried to make a run for it during a thoroughly bungled sting, Robert Bates—thrill-seeking insurance agent, volunteer hanger-on—reached for his Taser and pulled out his gun.

It was an accident, he said. According to the libretto, he was then supposed to sing about it being the worst day of his life. But Bates broke the rhythm of the score by describing it as the second-worst thing that had happened in his life, after suffering cancer. “I’m sorry,” he was recorded saying as he stood over the dying Harris. It was not the worst day of his life.

Pay-to-play has quite a genealogy, from fugitive slave hunts to more recent expeditions. As recently as the 1990s, Jerry Hodge, then vice chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, would invite his pals down to the prison and engage in a longstanding tradition among officials: to wit, a staged hunt of inmates, ostensibly as part of an exercise to train tracking dogs. Hodge and friends would enjoy a nice leisurely lunch, while an inmate, called a “dog boy,” was given a head start of a few hours to crisscross eight square miles of the prison compound. Then the party of official guests “mounted horses, assembled eight or nine dogs and rode off after the designated ‘escapee.’” After the exercise, there was a sumptuous barbecue, and participants received jackets embroidered with the words “The Ultimate Hunt.”

The Ultimate Hunt. It anticipates, it hungers for, it so wants a reality show that should have been. It is as though to fill in that subjunctive mood, perhaps, that, more recently, Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio infamously offered the actor Steven Seagal a tank with which to break up a coven of animal cruelty, a conspiracy of cockfighters, a dangerous den of rioting roosters, the original cage-fighters—right there in Maricopa County. Sheriff Arpaio needed good publicity, it seems. And Seagal had a reality show and a TV crew at hand, which filmed him driving said tank, along with a SWAT team and a bomb-disposal robot, through the front wall of the poultry-harboring residence, crushing the family’s new puppy. The warrior birds were taken into custody and killed.

If you’ve heard about this incident, it was probably because there was much discussion about whether killing the puppy was absolutely necessary. Killing the cocks to save them from cruelty lent a touch of irony to the endeavor.

It is a quandary sometimes, how to save the animals from themselves.

The front page of The New York Times’s April 21, 2015, edition featured a story estimating that approximately 1.5 million black men are absent from daily life in the United States, mostly through incarceration or early death. This has created a lifelong gender gap that is not found among white Americans. These men are “missing,” said the article, invisible and unmourned. This plague of disappearing is a long-term ritual, in a song cycle of eternal return. We know the words. But this perpetual erasure “robs the eyes” of all of us. It blinds our polity. It sacrifices worlds.

Source URL:

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Precision Medicine

The scientific race toward “precision medicine” is shifting the ethical foundations of public health.

Patricia J. Williams April 3, 2015  

For those unaware of how much biotechnology is changing the very nature of human identity, now is the time for a quick game of catch-up.  A good place to start might be Bregtke van der Haak’s documentary film, “DNA Dreams,” at ; It’s about the material resources being expended, globally, upon utopian visions of “curing” just about every social misery through genetic manipulation.   Disease, hunger, stupidity, will be edited out of the genome according to the soaring ambition of some techno-ideologues; whilst harmony, musicality and soaring intellectualism will become the new norm, just by transplanting our mitochondria, editing our nuclei, enhancing our chemistry.  The visuals of the film alone speak volumes:  set mainly against the dystopic, concrete jungle that is Beijing, China, the landscape in and out of the lab is grey with bureaucratic heaviness and the ash of atmospheric pollution, testament to the anthropocene era’s other crises of ecological short-sightedness, of hubris, and of overweening human error.

Of course if you believe that complex traits like intelligence or sociality or political disposition are entirely reducible to immutable genetic functions of memory and executive function, I won’t be able to dissuade you here. So go ahead, find the golden “genetic button” for x, y, or z trait and flip that switch to perfect health, self-control and immortality.  Welcome to Oz.

But if you worry that epigenetics factors like education or diet or or stress or starvation or race or stress in the womb or other environmental factors—like kindness or cruelty–have at least equal claim upon our life prospects, then take a look at a few recent bioethical happenings begging for our collective attention.  The first is the National Institutes of Health’s “precision medicine” initiative “to leverage genomics, informatics, and health information technology to accelerate biomedical discoveries.”   The panel overseeing the project include not only academic researchers but representatives of insurance companies, corporations like Intel and Google, the Defense Department, and a healthy array of venture investment. The goal is to create a “national research cohort of about 1 million people, whose biological data, as well as environmental, lifestyle and behavioral information” is to be shared with researchers.

One obvious question is where they find a million samples. Most of those will come from the data of anyone who’s ever sent in a spit sample to direct-to-consumer kits or ancestry-tracking kits to companies like 23andMe, particularly those who’ve participated in the chat-room conversations hosted by such companies in order to mine your lifestyle choices. If so, you agreed to having your data used for research and development, whether you remember providing specific consent or not. Not that anyone reads the intricate online terms of service for much of anything anymore, but building data sets for experimentation and pharmaceutical development has always been the wealth generator for such companies. (Here’s the link to an earlier column I did on this topic:; and to another in Genewatch magazine, co-authored with Columbia University biologist Robert Pollack: .)

A recent, even more momentous technological development is CRISPR(Cas9), standing for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a technology that can delete as well as add heritable genetic variants. Worried about Alzheimer’s? Breast cancer? Parkinson’s?  Simply edit it out of your body and/or that of your children’s children.  Don’t like red hair? Short stature? Big nose? Ditto.  Want strong bones? Resistance to heart disease? Oh snap. The process is so simple and low-cost, that, according to Harvard geneticist George Church, it’s “going to get to the point where it’s like you are doing the equivalent of cosmetic surgery.” [1]

There has been little political attention to this. But within the last few weeks, there have been calls from an impressive array of scientists—including even Church and a number of those involved in the discovery of CRISPR, in both Nature and Science Magazines for a moratorium on its use in humans. Some of them have called only for a public conversation; others have called for a global ban, because it effectively allows non-consensual experimentation on future human generations.  But many more see it as an irrefutably good thing.  Says bioethicist John Harris, of Manchester University in the UK, “The human genome is not perfect…It’s ethically imperative to positively support this technology.” While much of the quest for so-called “precision medicine” is being framed as inevitably beneficial, it signals a shift in ethical guidelines that is breathtakingly broad.   As philosopher Nikolas Rose has observed, the very project of medicine seem to have shifted from a metric of health versus disease to one of ever-expanding “perfectibility” of the species itself.

A related concern is that that public health organizations like the NIH, the FDA and the FTC seem increasingly aligned with organizations whose ethics are driven by proprietary interests rather than public health. The structure of labs in today’s world means that individual researchers stand to make billions, through assays and patents.  This is not to blame scientists:  that’s their job, their passion, as well as their profit. They will of course adhere to a model that renders “science” their god, and the mysteries of its unraveling as the highest good.  Knowledge will be pure and will yearn to be “free” as well as “freed.” Nothing will go wrong because their intentions are pure. Don’t you want to cure all human disease! We are not Nazis! We’ll be careful!

But the trouble with profit motive as an ethical framework for human health and heredity is that it deploys a risk-benefit analysis.  It directs our gaze to the brand new! miraculous! happy making! potential of product rather than patient. Corporations are responsible to their stakeholders not to public interest. And if there are risks, they will be downplayed as the lessons of lead or tobacco or coal companies should have taught us. Negative or unintended consequences are more likely to be passed over.  And even where there are “miracle cures,” the benefits of that research will not necessarily be available without price.  Where there is no plan for distributed benefit, we will have what we have:  a system where “perfected” or socially preferred traits will be available only to the highest bidder—to narrow classes of stakeholder, defined by wealth or other privileged access.

The narrowing of ethical concern from human health to products that “fix” or “perfect” means that other aspects of market value drive the pursuit.  What’s going on now is also a rat race to “beat out” others in the charge to the patent office, a lunge to own all parts of the genome, to close down the public commons in the bio-territory of the genome.   Hence, much of this has an urgency to its framing that exploits our anxiety about mortality itself. Hurry up or you’ll die of an ugly disease! And do it so that “we” win the race—for everything’s a race.  A race against time. A race to file patents. A race to market. A race to better babies, better boobs. There is never enough glory or gain, there is always the moving goal post.

Let me be clear:  I am not against research in principle.  I do not even believe that there are necessarily clear boundaries between what we call “natural” artifice, or even human and non-human.  But the human body is a complex system, a biome within biomes.  We are at the very beginning of our appreciation of its genetic as well as cellular, bacterial and viral complexity. We are still only beginning to understand the cascading effect that the stresses, starvations or traumas of one generation can transmit epigenetically to future generations.

From thalidomide to global warming, short-term risk-benefit analyses rather than long-term disinterested methodologies and controlled study have led us down paths of irretrievable harm.  What we have failed to imagine becomes “inconsequential,” swept under the rug as “side” effects, collateral damage, lessons learned rather than lives ruined.  The post-war aversion to eugenics–that despite great variability from one human to another, no one life is worth more than another in the scheme of things–has eroded.  Never have we more needed thoughtful, unrushed and thoroughly democratic models of transparency, public discussion, and distributive justice.

[1] “Engineering the Perfect Baby,” MIT Technology Review, March 5, 2015.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Meet the Politicians Trying to Bury America’s Past

Published on The Nation (
Patricia J. Williams | March 4, 2015

The planet is aflame with the killing of messengers. We can barely keep score of the assaults on memory: from Mosul to Moscow to Dresden to Dhaka, the destruction proceeds apace—of ancient monuments, scientific archives and schools, of journalists as well as journalism itself. We, the witnesses, expend a great deal of breath and ink promising to “never forget.” Yet both globally and locally, in ways large and small, there is huge resistance to even the smallest reminders of injury: no one wants to talk about trauma or privilege as the invisible distributors of public costs and private benefits today. No one wants to bring it home.

In the United States, there has emerged an alarming trend of officially sanctioned oblivion. The most jaw-dropping example was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempted removal of the words “search for truth” from the 100-year-old mission statement of the state university system. Walker also made news when a BBC moderator asked him if he believed in evolution. “I’ll punt on that one,” he said. “I am going to leave that up to you.” Leaving it “up to you” is also what Rand Paul would do with public-health programs like measles vaccinations: “Parents own the children,” he un-reasoned. The board of governors of the University of North Carolina recently eliminated the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity; the Center for Biodiversity; and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. (Also targeted, but hanging on for now, are the Carolina Women’s Center, the UNC Center for Civil Rights and the UNC Institute on Aging.) Legislators in Arizona have actually banned outright Latin American studies from public-school curriculums. And the Kansas Board of Regents has “reserved the right” to fire any employee in the system, including tenured professors, if they publish anything on social media that is “improper,” “impairs harmony….among co-workers” or is “contrary to the best interests of the employer.” In Oklahoma, State Representative Dan Fisher pushed a bill through the legislature to slash public funding for Advanced Placement history classes, fearing that they are neither “positive” nor Christian enough. His objection was not that the curriculum was inaccurate, but that the facts were such a drag. (He wants AP history to be inspiring—all about American exceptionalism! And the Ten Commandments! Or, as Rudolph Giuliani instructed President Obama: “I’m happy for him to give a speech where he talks about what’s good about America and doesn’t include all the criticism.”)

Recently, the Equal Justice Initiative issued a real downer of a report. The EJI has documented lynchings around the country from 1877 through the 1950s, revealing a higher number of these murders (nearly 4,000) than have been counted before now, even with the study limited to only twelve states. (The study focused on the Deep South, in other words, and did not extend to areas like Arizona, Ohio, New Mexico, Michigan and California, where African-Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, Jews and Indians were also lynched without consequence.)

The EJI accompanied the publication of its report with a call to affix memorial markers at the spots where lynchings took place, ritualizing what political philosopher Nancy Fraser has called a “politics of recognition.” Perhaps we might think of it as a project akin to German artist Gunter Demnig’s placement of Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones.” Demnig has laid over 27,000 small stones into sidewalks around Europe, each inscribed with the words “Here lived…” and the name of someone murdered during World War II because of that person’s religion, politics, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Demnig says he began the project after encountering a woman living near his home in Cologne who insisted that there had been no Roma in that area: “She just didn’t know that they had been her neighbors.” Demnig decided to bring the names of those dead home. His efforts to fulfill what the French call the “duty of memory” represent a small, powerfully transformative linkage of the horrors of the Holocaust to presently lurking potentialities, as new waves of fascism and neo-Nazism erupt across Europe.

At home in the United States, there is similar forgetfulness about important aspects of our own history. Despite current popular conceptions, for example, most lynchings did not involve anonymous perpetrators and anonymous victims melting into the “Southern Gothic” obscurity of moonless midnight swamps. As the EJI report reminds us, lynchings were more often horrific spectacles—extralegal yet entirely public—with photographers, refreshment vendors and children drinking lemonade, with illustrated postcards made and sent openly in the mail and triumphal distributions to the onlookers of ears, penises and other charred body parts. (My 99-year-old father still feels the terror that shook him when his parents read the newspapers aloud. “There was one almost every week,” he recalls.) Our American stumbling stones might well be labeled “Here died…” to remind us that this history is real, is part of us, whether we’re white, black, a recent immigrant or indigenous. It lives among our families and in our neighborhoods; we will be haunted by its shape until we stop to name it, see it and bring it home at last.

One of the women interviewed by the EJI described her grandfather’s deathbed confession that he had been part of a mob that had lynched an innocent black man. “My grandfather carried this guilt all of his life…. Of course he never had to answer for what he did…. I wish I knew the name of that lynched man, if only so I could find out what happened to the family that he left behind. The ignorance among white people of my generation (I’m 48)…is near total. Nobody talks about it. Ever.” But knowing the traumatic landscape from which we arise does not make our polity weaker or less loved. To the contrary, reminding ourselves of collective sorrow is a gesture of respect. We pause for the blood spilled here… and here… and here. We account and ask forgiveness. We see.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Spectacular Incoherence of Race Goes Global

Patricia J. Williams January 28, 2015 | This article appeared in the February 16, 2015 edition of The Nation.

While anchoring the coverage of the terrorist attacks in Paris a few weeks ago, CNN’s Chris Cuomo made a revealing gaffe: “Three hostage-takers dead, [including] the two brothers who were taken out…and the African-American man who’d been pictured as a suspect in a separate shooting yesterday.” “Not American,” Anderson Cooper corrected. “The man of African descent.”

Amedy Coulibaly, the man in question, was in fact French. He was born and bred in France, if at the conceptual distance of the miserable banlieues to which the French have confined so many of their darker-skinned residents. While it is true in some general sense that Coulibaly was “African-descended,” that literally whitewashes the degree to which his murderousness seems to have erupted against a very particular colonial backdrop. Coulibaly’s parents were born in Mali (although the press widely referred to his background as “Senegalese”). His wife, Hayat Boumeddiene (seen by many in the United States as “white”), and his co-conspirators, the Kouachi brothers (honestly, I was waiting for someone to call them “Hispanic”), were all of Algerian descent. Coulibaly and the Kouachis spent some of their childhood in French orphanages or foster care. Therefore, it is probably a little bit useful to wonder if the attractions of ISIS for disaffected French youth lie not in perverse teachings about Islam alone, but in the blowback from France’s failed policies of racial and ethnic integration and the scars of its wars in Africa.

But Cuomo’s disturbing mistake reflected not just his own provincialism, but how sloppily race is thought of, both here and abroad. Many conservative bloggers labeled his slip as “political correctness,” musing that if Cuomo had just called Coulibaly “black,” he’d have somehow been “right” and thereby captured his essential being. Meanwhile, Brian Carey of—“Because that’s the direction of our freedoms”—ended his commentary on this note: “The beautiful white actress Charlize Theron is from South Africa but now lives in the United States. Technically, she’s African-American.” The malleable stereotyping of Coulibaly reflects an uneasy vision of “blacks” (as well as “Africans”) as noncitizens of any nation—and always the same wherever they are. We are so fond of using the broad brush when it comes to anyone with dark skin. Yet it’s also a world where, “technically,” African-Americans include Charlize Theron, because we are so committed to exactitude when it comes to “the beautiful white actress.”

Furthermore, racialized American policing strategies are increasingly global exports. In France, debates rage about whether to adopt a version of the USA Patriot Act. Technologies of surveillance now deploy algorithms based on American demographic taxonomies that are deeply contentious. Rudolph Giuliani, Bernard Kerik, William Bratton and Ray Kelly have made millions traveling the globe to dispense advice about controlling unruly populations, from London to Mexico City. The European Union surely has its own problems with race and immigration, but I fear they won’t be improved by having the morning lineup of Fox News as its security advisers.

In fact, one glimmer of hope in this messy moment was the pushback after Fox News’s “terrorism experts,” Steven Emerson and Nolan Peterson, asserted that the entire city of Birmingham, plus large parts of Paris and London, were “totally Muslim,” including “no-go” zones where even the police dare not visit. British Prime Minister David Cameron called Emerson an “idiot.” The mayor of Paris threatened to sue.

In many parts of the world, the Charlie Hebdo massacre has led to thoughtful discussions about freedom of expression, the power of caricature and the provocations of symbolic language. But we Americans tend to use the concept of freedom of expression as an excuse to say anything at all, no matter how false or threatening, even as we clamp down thoughtlessly (and mercilessly) when it suits us.

So, on the one hand, we have Pennsylvania’s recent “revictimization” law, which allows the prior restraint of speech if it might cause victims of personal-injury crimes to experience “continuing effects,” including temporary “mental anguish.” On the other hand, some have used the First Amendment to defend the actions of the North Miami Beach Police Department, whose sharpshooters were discovered using photos of black arrestees for target practice. A National Guardswoman visiting the range recognized her brother among the images; fifteen years ago, he’d been arrested for drag-racing. His photo had two bullet holes—one in the forehead, the other in the eye. The department responded that it has to train officers with pictures of real faces—and that it’s useful if they share similar characteristics. After a bit of reflection, the department apologized and added that the officers also take aim at mug shots of Anglos and Hispanics. Online commentary bubbled about whether it was a big deal or nothing at all. It was just a bunch of images, like the Danish cartoons! Don’t be so politically correct! No actual humans were harmed in the making of these bull’s-eyes.

What perverse iconography. How does this not break the heart, those head shots of real black men—whatever they have done—posed for figurative execution? In a very moving response, a largely white group of local clergy flooded the police with their own photos, launching a Twitter campaign, #UseMeInstead. The tag #BlackLivesMatter has resonance, from Ferguson to France, precisely because it has an ironic edge: lives designated as “black” too often don’t seem to matter at all. I hope that the simple, eloquent appeal of #UseMeInstead becomes an invitation to think about who is included or excluded in the deadly yet pliable ways that we mark the boundaries of citizenship and statelessness, of friend and foe, of human and other, of the unremittingly feared and the eternally forgiven.

Leave a comment

Filed under charlie hebdo, chris cuomo, images, race, gender, class, ethnicity

150 Years of The Nation Magazine…

A Yearlong Celebration of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary

By Jennifer Schuessler January 12, 2015 12:00 pm

The Nation, America’s oldest weekly magazine, will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a yearlong schedule of events including public discussions, a book release, new online projects and a documentary by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, the magazine announced Monday.

The Nation was founded by abolitionists in 1865, shortly after the Civil War, in what the founding editors declared would be remembered “as one of the most famous years in history.” While the magazine’s contributions to American history will be commemorated, the emphasis will be on highlighting “the important work The Nation is doing today,” the magazine’s current editor and publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, said in a statement.

Every month or so will highlight a different “Nation Ideal” that the progressive weekly has championed, including racial justice, gender equality, environmental sustainability and civil liberties. There will also be live events across the country featuring contributors like Noam Chomsky, Patricia Williams, Katha Pollitt and Sherman Alexie. A new history of the magazine by D.D. Guttenplan will be published in March, followed in April by a 200-page anniversary issue including archival and new articles by Hannah Arendt, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Naomi Klein, Michael Moore and others.

The Nation festivities are just the latest in a number of high-profile magazine anniversaries. The New York Review of Books turned 50 in 2013, with a yearlong celebration that included a new documentary by Martin Scorsese. The New Republic celebrated its 100th birthday in November with a black-tie gala in

A Yearlong Celebration of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary – 13/01/2015 13:22

Washington, a few weeks before its top editors and most of the staff abruptly resigned and the magazine temporarily suspended print publication.

Correction: January 12, 2015

An earlier version of this post referred incorrectly to the book being published by The Nation in conjunction with its anniversary. It is a history of the magazine by D.D. Guttenplan, not an anthology. The post also misstated where some new archival articles will appear, and when they will be published. They will be in the anniversary issue in April; not in an anthology.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

For ye who have not yet given….

This is a post I most certainly plan to update/adjust/expand/review over time, but for now, here’s my last-minute-of-the-year, off-the-top-of-my-head, please-please-please list of suggestions for worthy organizations to whom to donate something, large or small.  Pick one, or two, or three, or more! Feel redeemed!  Share the love! Change the world!

-Alliance for Justice:, or snail mail to AFJ Washington DC HQ, 11 Dupont Circle NW, 2nd Floor, Washington, DC 20036

-Center for Constitutional Rights:, or snail mail to Center for Constitutional Rights, Attention: Development Department, 666 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10012

-Colorlines Magazine:

-Council for Responsible Genetics:, or snail mail to Council for Responsible Genetics, 30 Broad Street, 30th Fl., New York, NY 10004

-Homebase (Advancing Solutions to Homelessness):, or snail mail to HomeBase/The Center for Common Concerns, 870 Market Street, Suite 1228, San Francisco, CA 94102

-The Nation Magazine:, or snail mail to The Nation Builders, 66 Willow Ave. Staten Island, New York 10305

-National Alliance on Mental Illness:, or snail mail to NAMI, 3803 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 100, Arlington, Va 22203

-The New Press:, or snail mail to The New Press, 120 Wall Street, 31st Floor, New York, NY 10005

-Pine Street Inn (Ending Homelessness):, or snail mail to Pine Street Inn, 444 Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA 02118

-Project Row Houses:, or snail mail to P.O. Box 1011 Houston, TX 77251

-Spence-Chapin Adoption Services:, or snail mail to Spence Chapin Services to Families and Children, 410 East 92nd Street, NY 10128

-Yeah! Youth Engagement, Advocacy and Housing:, or snail mail to Yeah!, 1744 University Ave, Berkeley, CA 94703

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized