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Rapper Educates the Oxford Union on Global History

The last time I heard Taylor Branch, the author of the three volume biography of Martin Luther King, speak, his theme was the erasure of the the Civil Rights Movement from modern consciousness and the sanitization of a small revolutionary movement into a cuddly, generalized and comfortable lovefest in which children of all colors play together. This is history as fairy tale.

In this hour and a quarter address to the Oxford Union, Akala, also known as the Shakespeare Rapper and founder of the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, addresses the Oxford Union on the erasure of Africa from global history. (Somehow I could not help but notice that he appears to be one of only two people of African/Caribbean ancestry in the rooom.)

His wide ranging discourse includes discussions of African contributions to science and mathematics, the sprawling medieval empires of Mali and the Almoravids, the brilliant 800 year history of El Andalus (now Spain), and the tantalizing possibility that Africans arrived in the New World centuries before Columbus, perhaps even by the legendary fleet of Abu Bakr.

While African discovery of the Americas may be speculative based on available evidence, Akala's larger point is that a historical assumption of African inferiority by the majority of European historians in modern times has been strongly influenced by confirmation bias. For example, "scholars" have reasononed along the lines that the pyramids are an extraordinary achievement, black people are not capable of extraordinary achivement, therefore the pyramids must not have been built by black people, despite descriptions of the Egyptians to the contary by such authors as Aristotle and Herodotus.

Akala's most telling illustration of modern historical bias is the common British attribution of the singlehanded abolition of slavery to William Wilberforce with little or no mention of the seminal role of the Haiti's successful slave rebellion against their French masters. His most shocking anecdotes are the "barbequeing" of African Americans as a spectacle for public enjoyment throughout most of America's history.

All of which is to say that there is much more to global history than the narrow Eurocentric version we are commonly taught in high school. Akala articulates a much more inclusive and nuanced version of history than that with which we are familiar, in which Africans and their descendants are edited out except when they are portrayed as slaves.

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Principles Professional and Personal

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Principles Professional and Personal

Any civil rights law practice requires lawyers to embrace what we have in common and to reconcile our differences.  No civil rights practice can operate without a recognition of certain fundamental principles of freedom and equality, and every lawyer must be willing to put aside, to the extent possible, his or her own prejudices, biases, and predilections, and yet remain true to his or her convictions.

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Kids' Clocks and Presidential Priorities

In a classic case of false equivalence, the Washington Post writes that in a recent viral video, an African American youth named CJ Pearson “shredded” the president over the decision to invite Ahmed Mohammed to the White House. Mohammed brought a clock to school and was arrested on the pretext that it was a “hoax bomb.” Pearson went on to criticize the president for lighting up the White House in rainbow colors after the Supreme Court issued its decision upholding the right for gays to marry and alleged that the president had encouraged the shooting of police officers. Pearson concludes by accusing the president of being “incompetent.” Bold words for a thirteen-year-old.

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Trust Us, We're Lawyers

As Gallup attests, it is a well-known fact that lawyers are among the least trusted occupations in America. Part of this no doubt results from a toxic combination of stress and temptation. By some estimates, lawyers have some of the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide in the country. The business model in both large firms and small firms is unstable. Couple these facts with normal human frailty and management of a lot of other people's money, and it is not hard to see why lawyers are susceptible.

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Law Firms Don't Get to Discriminate . . .

There is an old lawyer joke that labs have decided to experiment on lawyers rather than rats because lawyers are more common, the lab assistants won't become attached to them, and there are some things that even a rat will not do. Contrary to this little bit of folklore, however, the law and the Bar do set limits on what lawyers are allowed to do, whether the client wants them to do it or not.

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Are Racists Crazy?

"Race" is an idea so deeply ingrained that we must confront our prejudices based upon it, but we can also recognize and embrace it as not simply a source of division, but also a paradoxical source of cultural richness through diversity.

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Why We Can't Have a Conversation About Race in America

A very interesting article on the defensiveness of white people in discussions about race, which inevitably devolves into "I, personally, am not a racist," without taking into account the benefits our society confers on whites, in which we all share, and the disadvantages imposed on African Americans.

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A Thought for the Day

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A Thought for the Day

There is a certain tendency in this day and age to see King as a kind of insipid do-gooder, diffusing a general air of benevolence as he invites us to sit together and sing a national round of kumbaya.

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Point of Privilege

Our ongoing search for a better society — fair, productive, and efficient — demands both individual justice and social change.

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Race and Inequality

Nick Kristof may not be the best spokesman for racial inequality in America (and maybe neither am I), but he has had the courage and decency to speak out.  The fourth installment in his series "When Whites Just Don't Get It" points out that the ongoing legacy of slavery  — which persisted in the form of convict labor well after the Civil War — segregation, and discrimination perpetuates significant disparities in wealth and opportunity between whites and African Americans to this day.  As Kristof also points out, this disparity is something that white America is loath either to confront or acknowledge.  We cannot do the work that is necessary to create equal opportunity in America until we recognize that there is work to be done.  That recognition continues to be well overdue.

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Notorious R.B.G.

In a lighthearted interview with Katie Couric, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg makes the serious point that discrimination  based on pregnancy is discrimination against women, an idea that eluded the Supreme Court in the 70's.


More R.B.G pop culture goodness is at Notorious R.B.G.

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Recommended Reading: The Gender Pay Gap

The Washington Post's "Five Myths" column has run a story on the gender pay gap. Worth reading in its entirety, the story concludes that the changes that would help women most would be more transparency in personnel actions, more focus on quality rather than quantity of work, and more flexible work schedules. One success story: Google.

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The Rights of Women and the Wrongs of WaPo

The Washington Post Opinion page has launched a combined assault on women's rights with two savage pieces blaming women for rape. Conservative columnist George Will claims that being a rape victim is a "coveted status" on college campuses, while an "analytical" piece written a day later explains that if women get married they will escape getting raped, except when they don't.

There is a level at which this is so viscerally offensive as to defy description. Will and the Post have clearly bought into an ideology in which women are expected to be subordinated, exploited, and victimized and to accept their victimization with cheerful gratitude for the few privileges they are vouchsafed by the men in their lives. And if for a moment they protest, they are ungrateful bitches. It is bad enough how we treat women in this country, but pretending they are at fault is the ultimate insult added to injury.

For what it is worth, the law, however crude and slow its workings, has gradually been evolving away from this contempt for women.

Rapists Are the Ones Responsible for Rape

In Federal Rule of Evidence 412, the law recognizes that in cases ranging from sexual assault to sexual harassment, the defense is generally not allowed to turn the tables on the victim by attempting to impeach her with evidence about her sexual history. The law recognizes, even if George Will and the Washington Post do not, that the conduct of the (alleged) rapist or harasser is at issue, not the conduct of the victim. Upon reflection, this only makes sense. If someone robs me of my wallet, we don't ask why I was carrying a wallet or why I had money in it. We prosecute the person who took it.

The Law Prohibits Sexual Misconduct

Whether it is rape or harassment, the law has evolved in the direction of greater protection of people from sexual assault or sexual misconduct. In some ways, the landmark Supreme Court case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in 1986, in which the Court recognized that a hostile work environment is an actionable form of sex discrimination after Mechelle Vinson was raped 50 times in the bank vault, seems terribly recent and somewhat inadequate. (The Court defined the concept of a "hostile work environment" based on Ms. Vinson's horrific experience.) But the line of cases that has followed Vinson have at least provided some avenue for redress to women (and men) subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. The idea, however, that a claim of sexual harassment conveys some kind of "coveted status" is ludicrous in light of the long line of cases arising from retaliation against people who bring claims. Despite legal protection, it takes a great deal of courage for a victim to come forward and challenge her assailant and her employer over such a private matter.

A Belief in Equal Protection

One of our core Constitutional principles is a belief that all persons are subject to equal protection of the laws. This belief largely expreses itself in statutory form in cases of sexual assault or sexual harassment. But in thinking about these problems, we should perhaps return to our core principles. Even if our constitutional tests vary in stringency, we don't say (today) that white people should have more protection than black people or that men should have more protection than women, and we may even get to the point where we acknowledge that straight people should have no more protection than gay people. Unfortunately, the Washington Post has a crabbed understanding of our right to be respected in our persons regardless of whether we are single or married, male or female, sexually active or sexually abstinent. And this crabbed, balkanized view of who we are as a people, islands isolated by privilege rather than a great continent bound together as a whole, is a sad vestige of how we once saw ourselves.

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We Should All Be Feminists

New York Times columnist Charles Blow has written a provocative and insightful column entitled "Yes, All Men" on why we should all be feminists. Blow makes two major points, citing some startling statistical evidence in support of some widely acknowledged truths. The first is that women globally are disproportionately targeted for sexual violence. The second is that women are pervasively disadvantaged by discrimination and harassment. Blow concludes with the observation that fair treatment is everyone's responsibility, not just the responsiblity of those who are denied it. Equal treatment for women is a people's issue, not a women's issue.

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Bread Upon the Waters

The New York Times reaches the unsurprising but surprisingly uncommon conclusion that treating employees better at work boosts morale and fuels productivity. Although it should go without saying, in fact it cannot be said too often that fair and humane treatment are not only instrinsically right but also the foundation to lasting success. Unfortunately, this is a lesson too few employers take to heart.

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No Rights the White Man Is Bound to Respect

The Supreme Court's most (in)famous pronouncement on the issue of race and the rights of African Americans and the one with which any analysis of the role of race in American jurisprudence should begin is that

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an 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.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 407 (1857). This is the starting point in the long, tortuous struggle for greater equality and civil rights in this country, the benchmark against which our progress must be measured, and the backdrop which must never be forgotten.

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor tartly points out in her dissent to the Court's recent opinion in Schuette v. BAMN, in which the Court upheld Michigan's amendment to the state constitution banning race-sensitive university admissions, it is a history to which her colleagues in the plurality are oblivious. See No. 12-682 slip op. at 56 (April 22, 2014) (Sotomayor, J. dissenting) (The view that race-sensitive admissions do more harm than good "ignores the importance of diversity in institutions of higher education and reveals how little my colleagues understand about the reality of race in America.")

In contrast to Justice Sotomayor's understanding of a long, ongoing struggle against a pervasive racism that saturates American life and history, her colleagues seem to view racism in modern life as an occasional aberration which warrants the Court's attention only is its most blatant intentional forms. The general cluelessness of the Chief Justice on this issue is apparent in his conclusion:

To disagree with the dissent’s views on the costs and benefits of racial preferences is not to “wish away, rather than confront” racial inequality. Post, at 46. People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate.*

Schuette v. BAMN No. 12-682 slip. op. at 2 (Roberts, C.J. concurring). The Chief Justice is correct that people can differ in good faith on this issue, but the sad fact is that all too often the openness and candor of the white majority is open to question for very, very good historical reasons. And as a white kid who grew up outside Pontiac and Detroit, I am not prepared to give Michigan's white majority a pass on this issue.

The narrower issue in the case was whether it was appropriate to use the state constitution to override the admissions systems developed by elected college regents because those systems encouraged at least modest representation of minority students in the student bodies of Michigan's public universities. As Justice Sotomayor points out, minority representation has dropped sharply since the passage of the amendment, a result that can hardly be construed as accidental. Justice Sotomayor argues that the majority should not be able to rig the political system to take away political gains of minorities at one level of government by overriding those gains at a higher level explicitly on the issue of race. Doing so clearly deprives minorities of a level political playing field and a chance to have a fair opportunity for political participation in their local communities.

There is more at stake here than the access of minorities to education in the state of Michigan. Ultimately at stake is an understanding of our nation, its history, and what is required to overcome that history.

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© Charles Williamson Day, Jr., 2016. All rights reserved.

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