Drip, Drip, Drip

Any public relations professional worth her salt will tell you: when you are dealing with an unfavorable news story — one that you know is going to have a negative impact — the best approach is to get ahead of the story, get all of the information out, and at least avoid the possibility that the story becomes a running, multi-day issue.  Lance the boil, drain the pus, and move on.

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign must not employ a public relations person.  If it does, she isn’t very good at her job — because the story of Warren’s alleged Cherokee ancestry has become a never-ending story in Warren’s campaign for election to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts.  Every day, seemingly, there is some new revelation that puts Warren on the defensive, interferes with her intended “message,” and distracts from the issues she thinks are important.

On Wednesday, for example, Warren acknowledged for the first time that two law schools that identified her as Native American did so because she identified herself as such, based on her understanding of “family lore.”  Her admission is just the latest in a series of statements about the issue — some of which arguably are inconsistent — that have just encouraged the press to dig ever deeper into the history of Warren’s employment, whether she identified herself as Native American, and whether there is any proof of actual Cherokee ancestry in her family tree.

I don’t think a candidate’s race, or self-reported minority status, has anything to do with fitness to serve as a U.S. Senator.  On the other hand, I think a candidate’s truthfulness, credibility, and ability to deal with a crisis are relevant — and Warren seems to be falling short in all of those categories.  The Native American story has  dominated the headlines for a month now, and for that Warren has only herself to blame.  Her statements and partial disclosures have a whiff of embarrassed shiftiness about them that have made a minor issue into a major one and, at the same time, made her look evasive and inept.  Although her race shouldn’t affect a voter’s decision about her, her apparent inability to give a satisfactory explanation of her actions reasonably could.

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The Uncomfortable, Untenable Weirdness of Discussing A Candidate’s Self-Identified Minority Status

The race for U.S. Senate has taken a weird turn in Massachusetts.  It’s making me very uncomfortable, and I bet I’m not alone in my reaction.

The Democratic candidate is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor.  At times in the past, she identified herself as a minority in a directory of law school professors, and Harvard identified her as native American when it responded to claims that its faculty was non-diverse.  Those matters have now been raised as a campaign issue — had she used her ancestry claim to gain an unfair advantage over other job applicants? — and Warren has been scrambling to substantiate her “family lore” of a native American ancestor.  Genealogists now have concluded that her great-great-great-grandmother, who is therefore responsible for 1/32nd of her genetic makeup, was listed on an Oklahoma marriage certificate as a Cherokee.

I realize that all’s fair in love and political campaigns.  Moreover, I can understand that if a candidate made a bogus claim about her background — by, say, falsely claiming to have served in the military or received a degree from a prestigious school — it would be fair game.  Warren’s story also might cause you to ask what reported diversity statistics really mean, and it might be a topic of conversation in the native American community, as one of the articles linked above suggests.

Still, this story is unsettling.  Whenever people start talking about someone’s “blood” it raises the specter of Nazi racial purity laws or the racial identity statutes enacted long ago in some southern states.  Those are awful, unforgivable chapters in human history, and it’s painful to think about them.

I’ve never thought about my great-great-great-grandmother — whoever she was — but if Warren’s pride in a distant ancestor’s native American heritage caused her to self-identify as native American, too, what difference should that make to a voter?  And if she listed herself as a native American for some other, less salutary reason, can’t we just allow her conscience to do its work without making the matter a political issue?  Can’t we just judge her quality as a candidate based on her positions on the issues, her experience, and other relevant qualities?

Casey Anthony And Anthony Sowell

I didn’t pay any attention to the Casey Anthony trial, although I was dimly aware that cable news shows were paying huge amounts of attention to the trial of a young woman accused of killing her two-year-old daughter.

In the wake of the jury verdict declaring Anthony not guilty of the crime, the media focus has become even more intense, and stories about the case seem to be unavoidable.  Jurors are talking about how they reached their verdict.  One of Anthony’s lawyers makes a vulgar gesture at members of the news media, whom Anthony’s counsel believe have engaged in character assassination.  Other observers criticize the jury for what they consider to be a bad decision.

Murder trials happen every day in this country.  Why do some trials — like the Casey Anthony trial, or the Menendez brothers trial, or any of the other criminal trials that people have obsessed about in this era of cable-TV sensationalism — command so much attention, whereas others don’t?

Right now, in Cleveland, a man accused in the deaths of 11 women is on trial.  How many people in America have even heard of Anthony Sowell, the accused killer, or the poor women he is alleged to have killed, many of whom apparently had substance abuse problems and vanished without much attention being paid to their disappearance?  Has Sowell’s trial received even a tiny fraction of the national attention that was paid to the Casey Anthony trial?

How can the death of one little girl, however tragic, command so much more attention than the horrific stories of the dead women that are being told at the Sowell trial?  Which of the two trials is likely to have more to teach us about our society?  And how much of the enormous disparity in attention paid to these two cases is due to race, class, and the perceived photogenic qualities of the victims and the defendants?

The Jarring Questions On The Census Form

Today we filled out the census form for our household.  The form itself is interesting.  You are asked how many people live in your household and whether you own your own home with or without a mortgage, or rent, or “occupy without payment of rent.”  (I guess the latter category refers to people who live in government housing.)  You are asked your telephone number and your name.  And then you are asked a bunch of demographic questions about the members of your household.  What is their gender?  What is their age?  And, most noticeably, are they of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” and what is their “race” — “white,” “Black, African Am., or Negro,” “Japanese,” or “some other race,” among a number of other options?

The Census Bureau website offers explanations for why each of the questions is asked.  The website states that the Hispanic question (question no. eight) has been asked since 1970 to provide data to federal agencies to use in monitoring compliance with federal anti-discrimination provisions and to state and local agencies to help plan and administer bilingual programs.  With respect to the general “race” question (question no. nine), the website states that “race is key to implementing many federal laws” and that race data are needed to monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, to “assess fairness of employment practices,” to “monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education” and “to plan and obtain funds for public services.”  The website adds that the race-related information also  is used by state and local governments to establish congressional and state voting districts.

The census has a long history of asking demographic and race-related questions.  According to the Census Bureau website, the first U.S. census, which was taken by U.S. marshals in 1790, asked for the name of the head of household and the number of people who fell into various categories — free white males over age 16, free white males under 16, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves.

Nevertheless, you would like to think that by 2010 — decades after our nation’s sordid history of legalized slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws and other forms of legalized bigotry and discrimination, was finally ended by the civil rights movement and the enactment of federal statutes designed to enforce constitutional guarantees of equal protection and to bar discrimination in voting, housing, and employment — we would have gotten past a fixation upon race and counting and categorizing people on racial grounds.  It is jarring, dispiriting, and seemingly inconsistent with the ultimate goal of a color-blind society for a federal government agency to ask people to identify themselves as “black,” “white,” or a member of some other racial group and to say that “race is key to implementing many federal laws.”

Clearly, when it comes to race we haven’t progressed as far or as fast as we might have hoped.  Let’s hope that, when the 2020 census rolls around, the race-related questions are gone and are considered as archaic as the questions asked in 1790.

Not About Race (II)

As the chorus of people claiming that racism is behind the opposition to President Obama’s health care reform proposals grows — including, most recently, former President Carter — it is gratifying to see that the White House is saying that President Obama disagrees with that sentiment. I think the President correctly understands that his proposals, if adopted, would make significant changes to how Americans pay for and use health care and therefore are bound to provoke some strong reactions and disagreements, regardless of the race of the individual who is advocating for those proposals. I very much respect the fact that President Obama is willing to accept the opposition in good faith and at face value and to defend his proposals on their merits, without impugning the opponents as ignorant racists.

As for former President Carter, I think he continues to demonstrate why he was rejected by American voters after serving only one term almost 30 years ago. President Carter was out of touch with the American public when he was President and he has become, if anything, more out of touch in the decades since he left the office. Has President Carter recently spent time with average Americans during breaks in his efforts to mediate various international disputes? What possible factual basis could he have for contending that millions of Americans who now oppose President Obama’s health care reform proposals — including many people who voted for President Obama less than a year ago — are motivated to do so by racial hatred and bigotry?

Comments like those of former President Carter not only harm America’s reputation abroad, they also are terribly destructive of civil political discourse in this country because they demonize, and do not allow for legitimate disagreement on significant issues where there obviously is ample room for legitimate disagreement. Even if President Carter sincerely holds the beliefs he has expressed, and is not merely engaging in cheap political tactics to try to intimidate or embarrass opponents of the President’s health care reforms, he would do the country an enormous service by keeping those beliefs to himself.