The Week that Was: From Wendy Smith to Rachel Jeantel, and Then Some

When I started college in the fall of 1983, one of my new friends was a self-described WASP from New England.  We weren’t roommates, but her roommate went home many weekends, and I often crashed in her dorm room.  That fact, and my attempt to help her clean that room before her parents showed up on parents’ weekend led me to be wielding a vacuum cleaner when her mom walked in.  They were early, and I — sporting my weekend typical “lived in” t-shirt and sweats — had not planned to be there when they arrived.  I muttered something, and scurried from the room.  She told me later that her mother had observed, “oh, you hired a maid.”  Folks like me who work on diversity issues often point out that many of the benefits that diversity brings manifest themselves  in contexts outside the classroom.   When it comes to challenging beliefs about people and places, you don’t get much better opportunities than that one!  Whether my friend’s mom ever came to think of me differently wasn’t the point.  Her world view about how and where her daughter interacted with people who looked like me shifted subtly that day.  And those subtle shifts are the ones that inexorably bring change with them.  When John Roberts and Dick Cheney discovered that the people seeking marriage equality were not “those people,” and were instead their cousin, and their daughter, respectively,

U.S. Supreme Court building.

U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

things began to shift.  That is the difference that difference makes.  That is also why it’s vital that the Supreme Court preserved the use of affirmative action when it remanded the Fisher case earlier this week.

But, why is it so important that we all — people of color, white people, lgbt  people, immigrants, straight people, poor people — be educated together?  So that we live and work well together, and hopefully understand each other better in an increasingly diverse society to which we all must contribute.  Still skeptical?  Consider this:  it may be unclear what Harvard Law School saw in a single mom who was divorced at 19 and bounced around from school to school.


Press0130 (Photo credit: EqualityTexas)

But, we all saw it Tuesday night when Wendy Davis held the floor  of the Texas Senate for more than 11 hours to protect women’s reproductive choices.  Not convinced, yet?  Listen to the fiery rhetoric of former welfare recipient turned Marquette University grad., and now Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin as she fights for expansion of the Violence Against Women Act to ensure that Native American women abused by non-Native men can see those abusers prosecuted in tribal courts.   Difference matters.  In the classroom, in the courtroom, in the boardroom, in the statehouse and everywhere else you can think of.

And there is no bigger beneficiary of the fruits of affirmative action than the man who condemns it most loudly:  Clarence Thomas.   The man from Pinpoint, GA who famously complains that affirmative action made his Yale Law School degree worth 15 cents nevertheless, with the connections that came with it, managed to parlay that worthless degree into a job in a senator’s office, and stints as Chair of the EEOC, and appointments to the D.C. Circuit Court, and now the U.S. Supreme Court.  And to be sure, the conservative views he voiced in his law school classes challenged his classmates’ stereotypes and preconceptions about “minority views,” or the “black perspective,” (assuming such things exist) on many subjects.   This exchange of ideas and broadening of understanding is what makes it crucial that institutions of higher education continue to consider race as “a” factor (not “THE” factor) in their admissions processes.

Diversity  is even more crucial for this reason:  so that we recognize the basic humanity of “the other.”  If a judge has no exposure to, or understanding of the background, experience and perspective of the people whose cases  s/he is called upon hear, how close to rendering justice can he or she come?  And how much stock should we put in the fairness of courts and competence of schools, legislatures and government offices if the people who work there don’t bear some resemblance to us and our communities?


What the …???

This week, I’m starting a new section in my posts called “what the???”    In this section, I will share a few articles where the actors’ actions make me do a double take … to say the least.

#1 :  Earlier this week, when George Zimmerman’s lawyer made his opening arguments to the jury, he did so with a knock knock joke.  If pressed, I could not imagine a less sensitive way to begin a murder trial.  However, if you, as defense counsel, begin by making jokes, it does two things:  1) conveys a certain level of confidence in your client’s innocence,  and 2) makes clear that you do not value  the life of the person who was killed, and encourages the jury to do the same.  Imagine what it must have been like to be Martin’s mother sitting in the courtroom and having to listen to someone proceed in a way that was so, at best, cavalier. As the week has worn on, the point I make about diversity and humanity has reared its head:  Zimmerman’s defense counsel hasn’t yet figured out how to cross examine Trayvon’s 19 year-old friend, Rachel Jeantel, without condescending to her or putting her on trial.  And this failure has drawn attention from the matter at hand:  that neither Jeantel, nor Trayvon are on trial while Zimmerman is.  Perhaps that’s his strategy, however loathesome.  Jeantel, a Hatian immigrant, has also been the subject of a whole raft of criticism:  about her speech, her self presentation, her demeanor.  Anyone notice that this young woman has suffered an incredible loss, and is holding her head up with one heck of a lot more dignity and sense of self than would be the case for many of her haters??!!  That her critics are largely people who have been similarly objectified is a big problem, but largely for what it says about their low regard for themselves and the communities from whence they come. What that criticism suggests about how the jury, which has a lot less in common with Rachel than her critics, may receive her or discredit her testimony is  a much bigger concern.

#2  The harm done to both the Voting Rights and the Indian Child Welfare Act with bad decisions this week.  Read this piece for some context.

#3 From the Atlantic comes this article that describes Justice Alito’s reaction as Justice Ginsberg read aloud her dissent in two employment cases decided by the Supreme Court on Monday.  The Atlantic describes Justice Alito’s reaction this way (he authored one of the two opinions from which J. Ginsberg dissented):  “Alito pursed his lips, rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and shook his head “no.”   They offered this about the reaction of those in the Court:  “it was clear to all with eyes, and brought gasps from more than one person in the audience.”

#4  From Texas, where the women senators and male senator allies stood tall in the saddle in defense of women’s reproductive rights comes  this analysis: “We had [a] terrorist [sic] in the Texas State Senate opposing SB 5.”  Meanwhile, Governor Perry couldn’t wait to call a second special session because, “Texans value life and want to protect women and the unborn.”  Yet, the valuing of life and women is selective as this week, Texas  also executed its 500th inmate since resuming the death penalty in 1982, Kimberly McCarthy.  Irony, anyone?  Finally, the governor stooped to a new low with this statement on Thursday, “Even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances. … It is just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.”   Unfortunately, it’s the governor who appears not to have learned anything.

#5 I can’t wrap this up without sharing two more articles that highlight how people of African descent continue to be pathologized, or viewed as  less valuable.  From NPR comes this story that is partially about transracial adoption, but centrally about African American babies costing less to adopt.  And finally, from Ohio, we have this story of an Ohio charter school that has had to rescind its new policy that would have taken effect this fall and banned the wearing of  “afro puffs and small twisted braids.”  I take this latter story very personally being an Ohio born black woman who spent a lot of her childhood sporting afro-puffs, twists and braids. I suspect that until it was challenged, the administration of the charter school had not given a thought to the negative message it would send to young black girls about how unacceptable and non-conforming they were for the simple act of pulling their hair back  the way people with straighter hair do with pony tails.


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