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History > 2009 > USA > African-Americans (I)




David Fitzsimmons

Arizona Daily Star, Tucson AZ


21 January 2009















Meet the New Elite,

Not Like the Old


July 26, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — They are the children of 1969 — the year that America’s most prestigious universities began aggressively recruiting blacks and Latinos to their nearly all-white campuses.

No longer would Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia be the domain of the privileged. Instead, in response to the national soul-searching prompted by the civil rights movement, America’s premier colleges would try to become more representative of the population as a whole.

Forty years later, America is being led, to a striking extent, by a new elite, a cohort of the best and the brightest whose advancement was formed, at least in part, by affirmative action policies. From Barack and Michelle Obama (Columbia, Princeton, Harvard) to Eric Holder (Columbia) to Sonia Sotomayor (Princeton, Yale) to Valerie Jarrett (Michigan, Stanford), the country is now seeing, in full flower, the fruition of this wooing of minorities to institutions that for much of the nation’s history have groomed America’s leaders.

And yet the consequences of that change remain unresolved, as became clear on Friday, when Mr. Obama grappled a second time with the arrest of the Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home.

The incident, the president said, offered the potential to soothe longstanding distrust between minorities and police officers. But it also laid bare another reality, that the children of 1969, even those who now occupy niches at the top of society, regard their status as complicated, ambiguous and vulnerable.

“Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive — as opposed to negative — understandings about the issue, is part of my portfolio,” Mr. Obama said.

It was a reminder that Mr. Obama, in addition to being the most powerful American, is also the fulfillment of the ideals embraced by Ivy League minority recruiters in 1969. Mr. Gates entered Yale that year, as one of 96 black freshmen. Today that number seems small. But there had been only six black students just three years before.

Mr. Gates belonged to the first affirmative action wave at top universities — a wave that continued into the 1970s and the 1980s. I was one of its beneficiaries. A black 17-year-old from Monrovia, Liberia, I was one of some 200 black freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1983.

My first roommate was a white student from Seagrove, N.C., whose SAT scores and grade-point average were higher than mine. Privately, I consoled myself that I had qualifications that she didn’t: I could name the capital of every country in Africa; countries she had never heard of. I knew where the Zambezi River emptied into the Indian Ocean. None of that had been on the SAT.

But every now and then I feared I was faking it, that my white classmates had something I didn’t. There were things they seemed to know instinctively, that I had to look up. I remember getting laughed at during a game of Pictionary when I couldn’t come up with the word for a giant bird landing on a lawn with a baby in its mouth.

My feelings of inadequacy were not unusual, said David L. Evans, the Saturn/Apollo electrical engineer hired by Harvard in 1969 to help lead its affirmative action program. When Mr. Evans visited public high schools in Arkansas in search of promising black students, he was met with skepticism. “Even people who didn’t have any mean-spiritedness would say to the students, ‘You going to be up there with the Kennedys?’ ” he recalled. “ ‘How do you think you can make it there?’ ”

There was anxiety, too, among the originators of race-based affirmative action programs. “The idealistic version of why these universities embraced racial affirmative action is that they said, ‘Hey, we’re in the business of training elites, it would be better for America if there were a diverse elite,’ ” said Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and author of “The Big Test,” a history of the SAT and the rise of America’s meritocracy. To its architects, the minority recruitment was the next phase for universities that for years had paved the way for whites, particularly the offspring of upper-class alumni, Mr. Lemann said.

“The cynical version of why they did this is they said, ‘We can’t control this country, it’s becoming too diverse, we need to socialize the brighter minorities and make them more like us.’ ”

In many ways, being molded into people “more like us” gave the children of 1969 an advantage denied most of their white counterparts. They learned to navigate within a second world. They also absorbed some of its ideas and values. And they paved the way for the next generation.

“We had to go through this phase of larger integration for Barack Obama to be possible,” Mr. Gates said in an interview a few days after his arrest. “It would have been impossible for Barack Obama to go from a historic black school to become president, at this time. The whole point is that a broad swath of America had to be able to identify with him.”

It also enabled Mr. Obama to run “the most race-blind campaign” of any black presidential candidate, said Gwen Ifill, the PBS news reporter whose book “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” examines the rise of African-Americans in politics.

Perhaps. But the children of 1969 dwell in a complex world. They retain an ethnic identity that includes its own complement of cultural, historical and psychological issues and considerations. This emerged at Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. And it emerged again last week, when Mr. Obama joked in the White House East Room that if he ran afoul of the police, “I’d get shot.” In saying this, he seemed to draw on the fears of black men across the United States, including those within the new power elite.

What Mr. Obama seemed to be demonstrating was what Mr. Lemann of Columbia calls a “double consciousness” that allows the children of 1969 to flow more easily between the world which their skin color bequeathed them and the world which their college degree opened up for them.

It’s the same double consciousness I acquired at U.N.C., though I didn’t think about it that way as a student. Sure, my white friends were learning a little more about black (and African) culture from me. But I was absorbing much more from them, since they surrounded me in such great number. At the time it seemed I had the advantage; I would leave college having gotten much more from my interactions with my white friends than they could possibly have gotten from me. And the principal thing I learned was how to make them feel at ease around me.

Except, of course, on those occasions when one can’t. Life outside the university doesn’t duplicate the conditions of university life.

“I can’t wear my Harvard gown everywhere I go,” Professor Gates said. “We — all of us in the crossover generation — have multiple identities, and being black trumps all of those other identities.”

On Friday Mr. Obama said he hoped Mr. Gates’s incident might become a “teachable moment.” It is a daunting task for the children of 1969: finding out whether the double consciousness they honed in the Ivy League can actually get this country to listen — and react — to race in a different way.


Helene Cooper, a White House correspondent for The Times, is the author of “The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood.”

    Meet the New Elite, Not Like the Old, NYT, 26.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/weekinreview/26cooper.html






Sergeant Who Arrested Professor

Defends Actions


July 24, 2009
The New York Times


BOSTON — The police sergeant whom President Obama accused of acting “stupidly” in arresting a prominent black Harvard professor offered his own account of the incident on Thursday, adding a new dimension to a drama that has transfixed the nation.

The arrest of the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., was dominating talk shows and dinner conversations even before Mr. Obama discussed it on Wednesday at his news conference. But the president’s comments seemed to further polarize the national debate over whether the sergeant, James Crowley, who is white, was right to arrest Professor Gates for disorderly conduct while investigating a possible break-in at the professor’s home in Cambridge, Mass.

Police unions and other law enforcement groups lined up behind Sergeant Crowley on Thursday, calling his actions justified, while the Congressional Black Caucus defended Mr. Obama’s remarks and called on Congress to address the issue of racial profiling.

Commissioner Robert C. Haas of the Cambridge Police Department said he would convene a panel to investigate the incident, but added that his officers were “deeply pained” by Mr. Obama’s comments and that Sergeant Crowley had followed protocol.

At heart, the dispute between Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley centers on two things: which one of them treated the other rudely and whether they properly identified themselves. Professor Gates, 58, says the sergeant repeatedly refused to reveal his name or badge number; Sergeant Crowley, 42, says the professor initially refused to provide identification, then produced only his Harvard ID card, which included no address, to prove he lived in the house.

Sergeant Crowley, a native of Cambridge, told a local sports radio station on Thursday that Mr. Obama “didn’t know all the facts” and that Professor Gates — a prolific scholar of African-American history and one of the nation’s leading black intellectuals — had been oddly belligerent from the start of their encounter on July 16.

“From the time he opened the door it seemed that he was very upset, very put off that I was there in the first place,” Sergeant Crowley told the station, WEEI. “Not just what he said, but the tone in which he said it, just seemed very peculiar — even more so now that I know how educated he is.”

Sergeant Crowley’s visit to the professor’s yellow wood frame home near Harvard Square was prompted by a 911 call from a passer-by who reported two black men trying to force open the front door. The men were in fact Professor Gates, just home from a trip to China, and his cab driver; Professor Gates said earlier this week that his door was jammed and he had asked the driver for help shoving it open.

After getting in and calling Harvard’s maintenance department to come fix the door, Professor Gates said, he saw Sergeant Crowley on his porch. The sergeant was disrespectful from the beginning, the professor said, asking him to step outside without explanation and demanding identification while refusing to provide his own.

But Sergeant Crowley said Thursday that he was only protecting himself when he asked Professor Gates, whom he did not recognize, to come out and identify himself. Daytime break-ins are not unheard of in the neighborhood, he said.

Sergeant Crowley described the woman who reported the possible break-in — who works at Harvard Magazine, on Professor Gates’s street — as “reliable,” and said that while the professor did not “look like somebody who would break into a house,” his tone was troubling.

In the police report he filed, Sergeant Crowley said Professor Gates had refused to step outside and, when told the sergeant was investigating a possible break-in, said, “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” According to the report, Professor Gates also accused the sergeant of being racist and yelled that he “wasn’t someone to mess with.”

Sergeant Crowley said he tried to identify himself several times but the professor was shouting too loudly to hear.

“He was arrested after following me outside the house,” Sergeant Crowley said on the radio, “continuing the tirade even after being warned multiple times — probably a few more times than the average person would have gotten. He was cautioned in the house, ‘Calm down, lower your voice.’ ” He added, “The professor at any point in time could have resolved the issue by quieting down and/or by going back in the house.”

But in an e-mail message on Thursday, Professor Gates rebutted the sergeant’s description of his behavior and said he had “used no racial slurs,” “employed no profanity” and “made no threats.”

“I most certainly don’t consider myself above the law, and am profoundly grateful for all of the services performed by the police,” he wrote. ”But I do not believe that standing up for my rights as a citizen should be against the law.”

Asked about the sergeant’s repeated refusal to apologize for the arrest, Professor Gates wrote: “I think that Sergeant Crowley has backed himself in a very tight corner, and I think that is most unfortunate. My offer to listen to a heartfelt and credible apology is a sincere one, and continues to stand.”

The president commented on the matter again Thursday. In an interview with ABC News that was to be broadcast on “Nightline,” Mr. Obama said he was “surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home.”

He said that he had heard Sergeant Crowley was an “outstanding police officer,” but added that with all that is going on in the country, “it doesn’t make sense to arrest a guy in his own home if he’s not causing a serious disturbance.”

The police dropped disorderly conduct charges against Professor Gates on Tuesday.

Joseph Johnson, the investigator for the Cambridge Police Review and Advisory Board, said the board’s members would meet next week to decide whether to investigate the incident. Mr. Johnson said the board had not received any complaints about Sergeant Crowley in the last year, and that it was still trying to determine whether he had been the subject of earlier complaints.

Commissioner Haas said the panel he planned to convene would perhaps “figure out how we can do things in a better way so we can de-escalate situations.”

But he described Sergeant Crowley, who joined the department in 1998, as “a stalwart member” of the police force.

“I don’t consider him a rogue cop in any way,” he said, later adding, “I don’t believe that Sergeant Crowley acted with any racial motivation at all.”

Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard professor who is acting as Professor Gates’s lawyer, said he had looked into Sergeant Crowley’s professional record but would not say whether he had found anything troubling.

Mr. Ogletree added that Professor Gates had not ruled out a lawsuit, but that for now, he was focusing on how to keep the country talking about issues of race and law enforcement.


Reporting was contributed by Liz Robbins from New York, Ariana Green from Cambridge, Mass., and Jeff Zeleny and Helene Cooper from Washington.

    Sergeant Who Arrested Professor Defends Actions, NYT, 24.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/us/24gates.html






Professor’s Arrest

Tests Beliefs on Racial Progress


July 24, 2009
The New York Times


CHICAGO — Ralph Medley, a retired professor of philosophy and English who is black, remembers the day he was arrested on his own property, a rental building here in Hyde Park where he was doing some repair work for tenants.

A concerned neighbor had called the police to report a suspicious character. And that was not the first time Mr. Medley said he had been wrongly apprehended. A call Mr. Medley placed to 911 several years ago about a burglary resulted with the police showing up to frisk him.

“But I’m the one who called you!” he said he remembers pleading with the officers.

Like countless other blacks around the country, Mr. Medley was revisiting his encounters with the police as a national discussion about race and law enforcement unfolded after the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard’s prominent scholar of African-American history. Professor Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct July 16 at his home in Cambridge, Mass., as the police investigated a report of a possible break-in there. The charge was later dropped, and the Cambridge Police Department said the incident was “regrettable and unfortunate.”

In interviews here and in Atlanta, in Web postings and on television talk shows, blacks and others said that what happened to Professor Gates was a common, if unacknowledged, reality for many people of color. They also said that beyond race, the ego of the police officer probably played a role.

But more deeply, many said that the incident was a disappointing reminder that for all the racial progress the country seemed to have made with the election of President Obama, little had changed in the everyday lives of most people in terms of race relations.

“No matter how much education you have as a person of color, you still can’t escape institutional racism,” said Keith E. Horton, a sports and entertainment lawyer in Chicago who is black. “That’s what the issue is to me.”

To be sure, people have found fault with how Professor Gates responded to the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, who said he was simply fulfilling his duty in investigating the report of a burglary in progress.

The police and Professor Gates offered differing accounts of what happened after officers arrived. The police said Professor Gates initially refused to show identification and repeatedly shouted at officers. Professor Gates said that he had shown photo identification to Sergeant Crowley but that the sergeant had not appeared to believe that he lived there. He also said he had brought up race during the confrontation but was not disorderly.

Many comments posted online suggested that Professor Gates, 58, had made a tricky situation worse by not easily cooperating. Even some blacks acknowledged that he did not help himself by refusing to show deference to a police officer.

“It is unwise for anyone of any race to raise their voice to a law enforcement officer,” said Al Vivian, a diversity consultant in Atlanta who is black. “But the result at the end of the day is this was a man who violated no law, was in his own house, who is the top academic star at the top academic school in the nation, and he was still taken away and arrested.”

At a news conference on Wednesday night, President Obama said he thought the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” in the arrest of Professor Gates.

“I think it’s worse than stupid,” said Mr. Medley, 65, the retired Chicago professor. “I think it was mean-spirited and ill-intended.”

In interviews, blacks and whites of various ages and experiences with law enforcement showed a tendency to give a benefit of the doubt to Professor Gates over the police.

“It seems to me that Dr. Gates was simply arrested for being upset, and he was arrested for being upset because he’s a black man,” said Wayne Martin, 25, an official at the Atlanta Housing Authority, who is also black.

The way Mr. Martin described himself, he could be the very definition of a “post-racial” American. “I have children I’m trying to raise not to see race,” he said. “I’m beyond the whole black-white thing. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Yet Mr. Martin could not think of any other way than racism to explain what had happened to Professor Gates. He is fascinated by the story. On Wednesday, he changed his Facebook status to: “Wayne Martin is wondering when it became illegal to be angry at a law enforcement official.”

Mr. Martin said that he was heartened to see Mr. Obama — who said he was a friend of Professor Gates — address the issue, and that while he agreed with Mr. Obama’s interpretation of the incident, he thought the word “stupidly” had been poorly chosen.

“That choice of the word was something that I don’t agree with,” Mr. Martin said. “To use such a common offensive term, it almost lowers him down to the level of the folks he’s wagging his finger at.”

Sabine Charles, 37, a white cardiologist who lives in Hyde Park, is married to a black man and said that she could not count how many times people had interrupted the two over the years to ask her, quietly, “Is this man bothering you?”

“I say, ‘Guess what? He’s not! We’re actually on a romantic date, can’t you tell?’ ” she said. “Even here in this diverse area I’ve heard people say, ‘Look at those black guys coming toward us.’ I say, ‘Yes, but they’re wearing lacrosse shorts and Calvin Klein jeans. They’re probably the kids of the professor down the street.’ ”

“You have to be able to discern differences between people,” she said, criticizing the practice of racial profiling. “It’s very frustrating.”

Mr. Vivian, the diversity trainer in Atlanta, said that what happened to Professor Gates was “age old” in America, but that what was different this time was that it happened in a so-called post-racial America.

Mr. Vivian, 47, said that he had been unfairly stopped by the police in the past, but that he lived by “an unwritten code” for dealing with these incidents. And Dr. Gates certainly did not obey the code, he said.

Quiet politeness is Rule No. 1 in surviving an incident of racial profiling, he said. So is the frequent use of the word “sir.”

“People used to say, ‘Look, there’s a Colin Powell. There’s an Oprah Winfrey.’ Now they say, ‘There’s a black president.’ I say, I’m happy to see the exceptions. There’s always an exception. But I’m interested in how society treats the average person.”

That there is a well-known code of behavior familiar to most minorities who are stopped by the police, Mr. Vivian said, is testament enough of a problem.

“It clearly says that we have a lot of work to do,” he said.


Susan Saulny reported from Chicago, and Robbie Brown from Atlanta.

    Professor’s Arrest Tests Beliefs on Racial Progress, NYT, 24.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/us/24blacks.html






With Vigor,

Obama Wades

Into a Volatile Racial Issue


July 23, 2009
The New York Times


Americans got a rare glimpse Wednesday night of what it means to have a black president in the Oval Office.

In response to a question at his prime-time news conference about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the black Harvard professor, in his own home over the weekend, Mr. Obama declared that the Cambridge, Mass., police had “acted stupidly.”

Mr. Obama’s response was his most animated performance of the hourlong news conference, and represented an extraordinary plunge by a president into a local law-enforcement dispute. And it opened a window into a world from which Mr. Obama is now largely shielded, suggesting the incident had struck a raw nerve with the president.

In the public spotlight, Mr. Obama has sought to transcend, if not avoid, the issue of race. As a candidate, he tried to confine his racial references to the difficulty of catching a cab in New York, although he was forced to confront it directly during the Pennsylvania primary when his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, became an issue. And last week, at the 100th convention of the NAACP in New York, he spoke in uncharacteristically personal terms about his rise to power as a black man, while warning black Americans not to make excuses for their failure to achieve.

Wednesday night’s press conference seemed to be a different deal as the president leaped into a highly charged controversy that has ignited passions across talk radio, the blogosphere and the old-fashioned water cooler.

But in fact, racial profiling was a major issue for Mr. Obama when he was in the Illinois legislature. He was the chief sponsor of a bill, which became law, that requires police to record the race, age and gender of all drivers they stop for traffic violations and for those records to be analyzed for evidence of racial profiling.

And so the substance of his response was not as surprising as the fact that a president so quickly joined the fray.

The police were called to Mr. Gates’s house after a report of a robbery in progress. Mr. Gates, saying he was jimmying open a damaged front door, said he told the police he lived in the house. Still, the police report said he e was arrested for “loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space.” He was held in police custody for four hours, after which disorderly conduct charges against him were dropped. Mr. Gates said he was the victim of racial profiling and has demanded an apology but the police officer involved has said he has nothing to apologize for.

Mr. Obama, asked Wednesday what the incident said about race relations in America, noted up front that Mr. Gates is a friend and that his comments might be biased. He said “words” had been exchanged and added:

“Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.” He added later that the incident was “a sign of how race remains a factor in this society.”

He also used biting humor, grinning broadly as he imagined being in Mr. Gates’s seemingly preposterous circumstance of being arrested after trying to get into his own home.

“Here, I’d get shot,” Mr. Obama said, referring to his new address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The statement was a bit of political jujitsu that acknowledged the intense security that surrounds any president while letting sink in the image of what would happen to a black man who might seem to be breaking into the White House.

Mr. Obama’s response lit up the blogosphere immediately after the press conference. The debate developing overnight was whether Mr. Obama had gone too far in his response.

On nytimes.com, one commenter had this to say:

“I agree that there was probably some stupidity involved here, but I just don’t think him weighing in on it benefits anyone. ... by the end of the week this will be spun so ridiculously that you’d swear he called the Cambridge police pigs while eating brie and sipping pinot noir.”

Another commenter posted this: “Why should the president remain neutral about anything? He’s the PRESIDENT, for god’s sake. The last thing anyone wants is a president who refuses to take a stand.”

It could not be determined how well Mr. Obama knows Mr. Gates. But the professor, a widely respected expert in the field of race relations, had very kind words for Mr. Obama’s pivotal speech on race relations after the Wright affair threatened to sink his candidacy.

“I think it was brilliant,” Mr. Gates said of the speech in an interview with Tavis Smiley at the time. “It is a great speech about race, and race relations, particularly between black people and white people at the beginning of the 21st Century.”

    With Vigor, Obama Wades Into a Volatile Racial Issue, NYT, 23.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/23/us/23race.html






Obama Tells Fellow Blacks:

‘No Excuses’ for Any Failure


July 17, 2009
The New York Times


President Obama delivered a fiery sermon to black America on Thursday night, warning black parents that they must accept their own responsibilities by “putting away the Xbox and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour,” and telling black children that growing up poor is no reason to get bad grades.

“No one has written your destiny for you,” he said, directing his remarks to “all the other Barack Obamas out there” who might one day grow up to be president. “Your destiny is in your hands, and don’t you forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children! No excuses! No excuses!”

Mr. Obama spoke for 45 minutes to an audience of several thousand people, most of them black, , clad in tuxedos and ball gowns, who had gathered in a ballroom of the Hilton New York to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s largest civil rights organization.

He was one part politician and one part black preacher as he spoke in lilting cadences, his voice quiet at times, thundering at others, in unusually personal terms. At one point, when his audience shouted back at him, repeating his words, he threw back his head and laughed, saying, “I’ve got an amen corner back there.”

Mr. Obama spoke directly about his own upbringing, crediting his mother (who was white) with setting him straight, and departing from his prepared text to talk about how his life might have turned out had she not. “When I drive through Harlem and I drive through the South Side of Chicago and I see young men on the corners,” he said, “I say there but for the grace of God go I.”

It was an unusual moment for a president who has sought to transcend race and has only reluctantly embraced his unique place in history. Six months into his presidency, Mr. Obama has seemed more comfortable embracing his identity as the first black American president overseas than at home, as was the case during his trip to Ghana last week, when he declared, “I have the blood of Africa within me.”

At home, though, Mr. Obama has largely avoided talking about himself in racial terms. As a candidate, he jumped into the issue of race relations when his campaign was threatened by the controversial remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and delivered a pointed speech to black fathers on Father’s Day in 2008.

But the White House was low-key in preparations for the N.A.A.C.P. event. When a reporter tried to cast the speech as Mr. Obama’s first to the black community, the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, demurred, saying, “I think the first speech to black America and the first speech to white America, the first speech to America was the Inaugural Address.”

But there was no mistaking Thursday night that Mr. Obama was speaking directly to black America. In part, it was a policy speech.

Mr. Obama told his audience what it wanted to hear on housing, the criminal justice system, education, health care, and jobs — all issues central to the N.A.A.C.P.’s agenda.

Even as he urged blacks to take responsibility for themselves, he spoke of the societal ills — high unemployment, the housing and energy crisis — that have created the conditions for black joblessness. And he said the legacy of the Jim Crow era is still felt, albeit in different ways today.

“Make no mistake, no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” Mr. Obama said, by African-American women who are paid less for the same work as white men, by Latinos “made to feel unwelcome,” by Muslim Americans “viewed with suspicion” and by “our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.”

Mr. Obama paid particular attention to education, declaring that more than 50 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, “the dream of a world-class education is still being deferred all across this country” as African-American students lag behind white classmates in reading and math.

The organization’s president, Benjamin T. Jealous, said afterward that the address “was the most forthright speech on the racial disparities still plaguing our nation” Mr. Obama has given since moving into the White House.

But as much as a policy speech, it was a personal one. Details of the address were closely held, partly because Mr. Obama was still working on it through the afternoon.

Aides said he intended to make the case for personal responsibility — a frequent theme of his presidency — in the context of the civil rights movement and how it has shaped his own life. But he also wanted to send a message to black parents, and especially to black children.

“They might think they’ve got a pretty jump shot or a pretty good flow,” Mr. Obama said, “but our kids can’t all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne. I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States of America.”

    Obama Tells Fellow Blacks: ‘No Excuses’ for Any Failure, NYT, 17.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/17/us/politics/17obama.html






Black Reverence for Jackson

Is Now Unreserved


June 29, 2009
The New York Times


Jamie Foxx, the host of the Black Entertainment Television music awards, was unequivocal on Sunday night.

“We want to celebrate this black man,” Mr. Foxx said of Michael Jackson. “He belongs to us and we shared him with everybody else.”

Around the world, Mr. Jackson was celebrated Sunday, but there was a special fervor in black neighborhoods and churches.

At the First African Methodist Episcopal church in South Los Angeles, the 10 a.m. service opened with the strains of “I’ll be There” by the Jackson 5, over a video tribute to Mr. Jackson. The congregation clapped and cheered.

“He may not be the king of kings,” the Rev. Carolyn Herron said, “but he’s the King of Pop.” He was, Ms. Herron said, “a gift from God.”

Mr. Jackson was to music what Michael Jordan was to sports and Barack Obama to politics — a towering figure with crossover appeal, even if in life some of Mr. Jackson’s black fans wondered if he was as proud of his race as his race was of him.

But since his death on Thursday, many African-Americans have embraced Mr. Jackson without ambivalence. In scores of interviews across the country over the weekend, few expressed the kind of resentment some once had for his strangeness, his changing appearance, his distance from the cherubic Michael of the Jackson 5.

Darrell Smith, 40, a filmmaker in Brooklyn, recalled that “when his skin started getting lighter,” many black people said Mr. Jackson did not want to be black.

Now, he said: “I honestly feel like I lost a brother. It’s a pain inside me.”

Some African-Americans said those most determined to discuss Mr. Jackson’s failings were white.

“The system likes to take black men down,” said Stan Jamison, a 61-year-old house painter, leaning against a fence on Sunday outside the old Jackson home in Gary, Ind. “They did it to Ali. They did it to Tyson.”

When Mr. Jackson was accused of child molesting, many African-Americans leaped to his defense because they felt he was being persecuted.

But even some blacks acknowledged that Mr. Jackson, like many African-Americans, had issues with his identity.

Gerald L. Early, a professor of African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, pointed to Mr. Jackson’s self-image as an adolescent who hated the fact that he had a broad nose. In some reports, his father was said to have told Mr. Jackson he was ugly.

“If blacks were not, in some degree, emotionally and psychologically scarred from their oppression,” Professor Early said in an e-mail message, “they would hardly have needed the Black Power and the Black is Beautiful movements of the 1960s, efforts to restore their mental health.”

“Jackson reminds me of Sammy Davis, Jr.,” he added. “Davis was a singer and dancer, like Jackson, and a man who felt inferior about his looks and who wanted to fit in with the white Hollywood environment in which he found himself.”

Still, it was Mr. Jackson’s changeability that, in part, allowed him to resonate with millions of people around the world.

“His race was very blurry,” said Ning Liu, 28, an electrical engineer who moved to the Chicago suburbs from China four years ago.

Mr. Liu, who went to Gary to place flowers outside Mr. Jackson’s childhood home, said: “His voice, his look, the way he did things — it didn’t fit the stereotype people had of black people. People were not afraid of him.”

Amy Whitlock, 38, and her husband, Dave, 42, who are white, drove 100 miles to Gary to pay their respects to the pop star. They described how a young Mr. Jackson had transformed the way white children saw race.

“I was from a small town in Illinois where there weren’t any black people,” Ms. Whitlock said, tears splashing down her cheeks. “There was prejudice in our town.

“The older people, they saw just some black guy dancing. But we saw someone who was extraordinary, someone who made us want to dance. Michael was for unity. And he made people my age want to be for unity.”

Meighan Maheffey, 27, who is white and grew up in North Carolina, said the Jackson 5 was the only black group her grandmother allowed her mother to listen to. “It was very nonthreatening to her,” Ms. Maheffey said.

But Mr. Jackson also staked out new terrain for black performers.

“He dubbed himself the King of Pop, which was a pretty daring act,” Professor Early said. “Previously in our culture, the King of Jazz was Paul Whiteman and the King of Swing Benny Goodman and the King of Rock and Roll was Elvis Presley, all white men.

“This, in a way, radically redefined the black performer’s relation to music, made Jackson an auteur. In this way, Jackson may have paved the way for Obama in the sense of black man as auteur and self-mythmaker.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been acting as a family spokesman in the past few days, said Mr. Jackson — like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, James Brown and Josephine Baker — had redrawn the boundaries of black possibility by showing whites, and blacks, that the race was capable of more than had been previously acknowledged.

“The light cast by these luminaries was great and shined on the whole race, even when they did not intend to be ‘political,’ ” Mr. Jackson said.

The Black Entertainment Television music awards were not originally intended to be a tribute to Michael Jackson, whose hits dried up long ago. But plans were rushed through to change the program once he died. Over the course of the evening, Mr. Foxx wore different costumes from Mr. Jackson’s long career.

On Saturday, at the Malcolm X Blvd Pizzeria in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York, an impromptu dance party and memorial service for Mr. Jackson was set up. Just steps away from the oven, two dozen or so people danced to the blaring Michael Jackson marathon on the sidewalk outside, holding black, white and red balloons, some clutching candles and wiping away tears. Some wore T-shirts with Mr. Jackson’s face.

Eric Smith, 50, a social worker, snapped his fingers and stepped back and forth to the beat. “He was more than a musician,” Mr. Smith said. “He was a worldwide ambassador for love and peace.”

But Mr. Jackson may have helped bring about a world of multiracial acceptance that no longer understands his own obsession with his skin color.

The night that news of Mr. Jackson’s death came, Ingrid Deabreu, 49, a patient care and dialysis technician from Guyana who lives in Brooklyn, stayed up watching a marathon of his videos with her 7-year-old daughter Kimberly.

When the video of Mr. Jackson’s “Black and White” came on, her daughter turned to Ms. Deabreu and asked: “Mommy, he said it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. So why’s he trying to make his skin white?”


Reporting was contributed by Ana Facio Contreras from Los Angeles; Jon Caramanica and Karen Zraick from New York; Malcolm Gay from St. Louis; Dirk Johnson from Gary, Ind.; and Janie Lorber and Ariel Sabar from Washington.

    Black Reverence for Jackson Is Now Unreserved, NYT, 29.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/29/us/29race.html






G.M., Detroit

and the Fall

of the Black Middle Class


June 28, 2009
The New York Times


The Pontiac Assembly Center in Pontiac, Mich., is a massive, low-slung structure of concrete and corrugated green steel that squats conspicuously among the many strip malls that line one of the city’s main thoroughfares, South Opdyke Road. Locals refer to the three-million-square-foot factory, which makes Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks, as Plant 6, because when it opened in 1972, it was the sixth General Motors manufacturing facility in this city, 25 miles north of downtown Detroit. At the time, General Motors was the world’s largest automaker. It dominated the American market, manufacturing half of the vehicles sold in the U.S. As recently as 2003, Plant 6 was running three consecutive eight-hour shifts, employing 3,000 people and making 1,300 trucks a day.

Today, Pontiac Assembly is the city’s last working auto-assembly plant, and like many of America’s car factories, it is operating at a greatly diminished capacity. By last summer, the plant was running just one shift — from 6 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon — having shed nearly two-thirds of its workers through a combination of layoffs, buyouts and early retirements. A few months ago, Plant 6 slowed down its assembly line and laid off another 600 employees, bringing the total number of remaining workers to fewer than 600. The factory now produces only about 230 vehicles a day.

On a clear, mild Thursday afternoon in April, I stood among the smattering of cars, mostly American-made pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles, clustered together in a small section of Pontiac Assembly’s vast parking lot as the plant’s single shift ended and its employees trickled out. Among them was Marvin Powell, a tall, heavyset, African-American man in blue jeans, a green sweatshirt and a baseball cap that read “All-Star Dad.” We were going to throw horseshoes with some of his co-workers in a park next to their union hall, Local 594, but as Powell climbed into his Chevy Equinox, he told me he wanted to grab something to eat first.

“You didn’t have lunch?” I asked.

“I did, but that was at 10 o’clock,” Powell said.

Powell wakes up every morning at 4, showers, eats breakfast and watches SportsCenter before setting out for the plant at 5:30. He is stationed at the very end of what’s known as the final line, the last stage of the vehicle-assembly process. By the time a truck arrives at his position, its frame has been attached to the chassis and the engine is in place. Powell has 1 minute 40 seconds to perform his routine on each vehicle, a series of tasks that includes attaching cables to batteries, tightening nuts and bolts and installing a transmission dipstick.

Barack Obama has called the dying U.S. auto industry “an emblem of the American spirit,” but Powell speaks about what he does without romance or nostalgia. “It’s not a glamorous job, to say the least,” he told me as we settled into a booth at a nearby Arby’s. Still, Powell derives at least a little satisfaction from his work. “Do I feel a sense of pride when I spot a Silverado or Sierra on the road?” he said. “Yeah. I do.”

More to the point, he is grateful for the life the job has afforded him. There are the little things — the Saturday-night takeout, the flat-screen TV, the Caribbean cruise he and his wife took before they had kids, the trip to Disney World after, the high-end educational toys for his precocious 5-year-old son, Marvin II — and the bigger ones. Most notably, Powell was able to leave the city of Detroit, where he was born and raised, for Kingsley Estates, a quiet subdivision in Southfield, a racially integrated suburb of modest middle-class homes just north of the city. And his wife, Shirese, was able to quit her job to spend more time with their children and start a small day-care center in their house.

When Powell and I met outside Pontiac Assembly, the mood inside the plant was especially tense. Just a day before, the line was stopped early for a plantwide meeting on the factory floor. A G.M. executive had recently spent a day touring the plant to determine its future, and the guys wanted to know if any decisions had been made. Would they be bringing back any of the laid-off workers? Were there going to be more layoffs? Was the plant going to close?

The plant manager did his best to reassure everybody but offered no definitive answers. By the time most of the plant’s employees got home, however, local news outlets were reporting that General Motors would be shutting down all of its factories for as many as 10 weeks this summer.

“People are worried about everything right now,” one of Powell’s co-workers, Stanley Hutcheson, told me at the horseshoe pit. Hutcheson was born and raised in Newark and came to Pontiac in 2002, when there were more than 900 layoffs at his plant in Linden, N.J. Given all of the uncertainty surrounding Detroit and the Big Three, I asked him if he thought about moving back home and looking for another job. “Nah,” he said. “There’s no money out there for me. G.M. is here.”

Later that night, I asked Powell how he was going to manage while Pontiac Assembly was idle. “It’s going to be extremely tight,” he said. Powell earns more than $900 a week. Between his government unemployment and his supplemental G.M. unemployment benefits — or SUB-pay — guaranteed under the company’s contract with the U.A.W., he’ll make $700 a week while Pontiac Assembly is quiet, not quite enough to cover his family’s bills. He was hoping that the write-offs for his wife’s home-based business would yield a large enough tax refund to make up for the shortfall.

The idling of its plants was part of G.M.’s scramble to make a case for its continued viability by cutting costs in advance of a government-imposed deadline. The company, which is considerably larger than Ford and Chrysler, has since filed for bankruptcy. Because of G.M.’s size, the government-orchestrated restructuring is going to be particularly painful. It remains to be seen what, exactly, the future of General Motors will hold, but it’s unlikely to include many $28-an-hour assembly-line jobs like Marvin Powell’s.

When we talk about what the end of the U.S. auto industry will mean to thousands of autoworkers, we tend to have a specific image of that worker in mind: He’s a conservative white Democrat who lives in suburban Detroit, hangs out in his local union hall, belongs to a bowling league and owns a hunting cabin in the Upper Peninsula. This is the iconic American autoworker. In fact, as much as a fifth of the industry’s work force is African-American.

The story of the rise of America’s black working and middle classes is inextricably bound up with that of Detroit and the Big Three. It is not a story with a simple upward trajectory. For a long time, blacks were relegated to the least desirable jobs in the plants and initially confined to a small ghetto on the East Side of the city. But slowly, haltingly, over the course of the 1950s and early ’60s, the plants became fully integrated and black workers spread across Detroit block by block, moving the city’s de facto color line as they went. “It wasn’t that long ago that Detroit was the home of the nation’s most affluent African-American population with the largest percentage of black homeowners and the highest comparative wages,” David Goldberg, an African-American Studies professor at Wayne State University, told me.

Autoworkers still make up much of what is left of Detroit’s black middle class, but their numbers are shrinking fast. Last year, 20,000 black autoworkers nationwide were either laid off or took buyouts from the Big Three. A disproportionate number of those workers were from Detroit and its environs. When those who remain lose their jobs, have their homes foreclosed — Detroit has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation — and have to move elsewhere in search of work, when they accept an early-retirement package and no longer have any reason to stick around, that will truly spell the end of the city.

We’ve been hearing this phrase — “the death of Detroit” — for years now, but this is what it’s going to look like, how it’s going to play out. There’s a perverse paradox here, one that I was reminded of every time I met a black autoworker in an Obama T-shirt or with an Obama bumper sticker adorning his or her car. We have just elected our first African-American president, and yet, at the same moment, a city and industry that together played a central role in the rise of the black middle class — that made possible lives like Marvin Powell’s — is being destroyed.

A generation ago, it was a given that if you were a black man in Detroit, you worked in an auto plant. A job on the line was a birthright, reporting to the employment office of one of the Big Three a rite of passage. “We called it ‘getting baptized,’ ” a retired African-American autoworker, General Baker, told me.

By the mid-1990s, though, with the Big Three losing market share and staggering under the weight of their union contracts, it became difficult to find assembly-line work in a plant, particularly if you didn’t have a personal connection to the company. Hiring was governed almost exclusively by nepotism. If an automaker was looking to add workers, it invited existing employees to pass along a referral sheet — essentially a one-page job application — to a friend or relative. Nearly all of the autoworkers under the age of 40 whom I met in Detroit found their jobs through a family member.

This is how Marvin Powell got his start. When his father, a longtime G.M. line worker, first offered to refer him to the company, Powell said he felt conflicted. Like many second-generation autoworkers, he had never envisioned working in a plant. “I was going to make my money off my mind,” Powell told me one night. We were sitting in a crowded sports bar in suburban Detroit, watching the Cleveland Cavaliers make short work of the Pistons in the first round of the N.B.A. playoffs. “You figure when you’re young, before you know anything about life, you’ll go to college, get a degree and get a good job,” he said. “I wanted to be a TV anchor.” Powell laughed. “Working in a plant was a long way from being a TV anchor.”

After high school, Powell enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit and was planning to major in mass communications and broadcasting, but he dropped out halfway toward his degree. He wasn’t the most focused student. What’s more, he had a weakness for trendy clothes and racked up about $800 in credit-card debt. His father was already covering his tuition; Powell didn’t want to ask him to pay off his credit cards too. And he was pretty sure his father wouldn’t be willing to anyway.

Out of college, Powell cycled through a series of jobs. He went to work for Foot Locker, first as a stock clerk and then in sales, made debt-collection calls for a finance company and did a stint in the mailroom of a bank. When the opportunity at G.M. arose in 1996, he was 26, already married and making $13 an hour as an office temp for I.B.M. The starting wage at General Motors was $13.65, and he would get a raise every six months. “As I thought more about it, it became a no-brainer,” he says. Powell submitted his referral sheet, and after a few simple tests — math, reading comprehension, manual dexterity — followed by a team-building exercise, a formal interview and a physical, he started working at Pontiac Assembly.

Powell had no idea what to expect. He had been inside an auto factory only once, as a 10-year-old on family day at his father’s plant, and his father had almost never talked about his job. After a weeklong orientation, he trained up and down the assembly line before being placed in a job attaching brake-fluid reservoirs. It was stressful at first. The line moved faster than he anticipated, and as a new hire who could be let go without cause during his first 90 days, he didn’t want to be the one to slow it down. Adjusting to the culture of the factory was a challenge, too. A practicing Christian, Powell was taken aback by what he saw taking place around him. The plant was a world of temptations unto itself, with drugs, alcohol, numbers runners, bookies and even “parking-lot girls” who would come to the plant during lunch breaks to service male workers. “Anything you can find outside the plant, you can find inside the plant,” Powell says. “You either get caught up in it, or stay apart from it.”

Powell gradually settled in at Pontiac Assembly and was soon piling on as much overtime as he could. In a good week, he worked four 12-hour days and a 16-hour day. Overtime was especially abundant between the beginning of November and Christmas, when hunting season caused rampant absenteeism at the plant. Within two years, he was making $18 an hour, and he and his wife soon saved up enough to put 3 percent down on their $150,000 three-bedroom house in Southfield.

Powell has tried periodically to get off the assembly line. Not long after he started at the plant, his foreman recommended him for management. Powell took the test, which uses hypothetical questions to gauge how you would respond to particular situations, but failed. “I guess I could have given them the answers they wanted, but that’s just not me,” he told me. “I’m going to be me — I’m going to be honest — I’m going to put down how I would do the job, and if that doesn’t line up with what you like, then that’s cool, I don’t take offense at that. I’m just not what you like.” A few years later, at his father’s urging, Powell tried to become a skilled tradesman, which would at least have given him a more transferable skill. He failed that test as well.

In the past few years, Powell watched a lot of people he knew leave the line at G.M. and elsewhere, courtesy of a variety of buyout packages. (Since 2007, G.M. has bought out nearly half of its workers in the U.S.; a total of more than 50,000 people.) For the most part, those who have opted to take these payouts were either nearing retirement age or were young enough to start a new career. A couple of years ago, Tim Slaughter, a friend of Powell’s who recently turned 30, took an education buyout from Ford. The company paid $30,000 toward his tuition at a computer-training center, while continuing to provide benefits and 70 percent of his salary for two years. “I could see the handwriting on the wall,” Slaughter told me.

Slaughter now works as a computer technician at a school in Detroit. Even though he makes $20,000 less than he did on the line at Ford, he feels fortunate that he got out when he did. The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington research group, predicts that African-American unemployment in Michigan, which is already at 23 percent, may reach 28 percent by mid-2010. The Detroit-area job market is flooded with ex-autoworkers recently laid off or bought out by the Big Three. One 38-year-old former Chrysler employee I met, who accepted a buyout package last fall — $50,000 and a $25,000 car voucher — had burned through all of the cash by May and still hadn’t been on a single job interview. I wondered how much longer he would be able to afford to put gas in the brand-new Aspen S.U.V. he bought with his voucher.

Earlier this year Powell was offered $20,000 and a $25,000 car voucher to “separate” — meaning no pension or benefits — from G.M. Powell quickly did the math. Both the cash and the voucher were taxable, so he would actually only be getting $14,000, enough to cover some bills and his mortgage for a few months, but not much more than that. Plus, he would have to pay out of pocket for his family’s medical coverage. The car voucher would only be worth $16,000 after taxes, not enough to buy a new vehicle without additional financing. Powell turned down the offer, essentially gambling that he wouldn’t wind up being laid off and leaving G.M. with little more than his last paycheck.

He now finds himself approaching 40 with a large mortgage and two small children. The job he didn’t really want to begin with is one that he desperately needs but may very well not be able to hang onto. Yet he remains cheerful, even optimistic, convinced that whatever happens to G.M., he will be O.K. and eventually find a more satisfying career. “I’ve always said I’m not a G.M. lifer,” he says. “I still aspire to do something more than work on an assembly line for 30 years.” In fact, Powell already has something in mind: to become a chef and start his own catering company. “I can cook just about anything,” he told me. “If it’s written down, I can cook it.”

Powell’s positive outlook is largely a product of the life he leads outside the plant at the Greater Grace Temple, one of Detroit’s largest, best-known churches. Among its claims to fame is that in the fall of 2005, more than 4,000 people, including former President Clinton, Aretha Franklin and an Illinois senator named Barack Obama, packed its pews for the funeral for the transplanted Detroiter Rosa Parks. (Parks came to Detroit in 1957, not long after famously refusing to vacate her bus seat, joining her brother, an auto-assembly-line worker who migrated North years earlier.)

Powell teaches a Sunday-school class to young men and women at Greater Grace and is also one of the church’s “armor bearers.” In the Bible, the term refers to men chosen for their loyalty and bravery to carry weapons for the king, but it has been repurposed by some black churches as a title for special assistants to their pastors. The job entails more than its share of grunt work — moving furniture, pressing the pastor’s pants, picking up the church’s guests at the airport — but the main task is spiritual. “Our job is to cover the pastor in prayer,” Powell says.

On Sundays, Powell is at the church by 6:30 a.m. so that he and another armor bearer, a line worker at Ford, can be sure all of the pastor’s needs have been met for the 7:30 service. Powell also spends one or two evenings a week at the church, either for Bible study or for one of Greater Grace’s numerous other Christian-themed classes. Recently I went with him to a workshop, “The Seven Seasons of a Man’s Life,” designed to help men cope with the emotional adversity they will invariably encounter in life. The seminar was part of the church’s ongoing effort to beef up its men’s ministry in response to the economic crisis affecting so many of its male members. “What happens most of the time with men is that we don’t really talk about stuff,” James Edwards, an associate pastor of the church, told the group, by way of introduction. “We don’t have that ability to go into an environment and really open up as men, and because we don’t we kind of go into a cave. This program is about trying to keep us from going into that cave.”

He proceeded to lead the assembled men through the first “season”: reflection. “The key of it is, in dealing with what we have to deal with, and contending with what we have to contend with as men — particularly now — is that we have to learn how to be O.K. with whatever we have done well and whatever we have not done well,” he said. “We have two choices. We can embrace our lives or we can live a life of disappointment and really miss the whole thing. I mean, who has done everything right? Only Jesus has done everything right. The rest of us have missed somewhere along the way.”

When the workshop was over, Powell and I stood in the church’s parking lot and talked for a few minutes. He told me he had been struck in particular by something Edwards said about the importance of having someone in your life who will help you see your own shortcomings. “I’ve always been that brutally honest friend to everybody else, but it’s been difficult for me to find that person who can be brutally honest with me,” Powell said. “It just seems that everybody who comes to me comes to glean, not to give.”

In a sense, Powell has brought this on himself. He advertises the fact that he is a person of faith — his personalized license plate reads “SHOWLUV” — and has embraced the role of spiritual leader, not only at Greater Grace but at Pontiac Assembly, where he runs a lunch-hour Bible study group three days a week.

Powell is a popular figure at Pontiac Assembly. Some of his co-workers have encouraged him to run for office at their local, and people often ask him what he thinks is going to happen to the plant and what he intends to do if it closes. “No. 1, I tell them that I can’t worry about what I can’t control; no matter what I say or do, I can’t keep the plant open,” Powell says. “And No. 2, I tell them that God provides for his own, and I am one of his own.”

Powell delivers the same message in his Bible class at the plant. Recently he has returned repeatedly to Isaiah 6:1, in which Isaiah recounts how the death of King Uzziah inspired him to join the prophetic ministry: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” Powell tells his co-workers that G.M. is just like King Uzziah, an earthly entity whom people put their trust in but who ultimately failed them. “In the year King Uzziah died I saw the Lord — my focus shifted to the Lord,” Powell says. “In the year G.M. became a bankrupt company, my focus shifted to the Lord.”

In the aftermath of Detroit’s polarizing 1967 riots, the steady stream of white residents who were already leaving the city turned into a torrent. Yet many middle-class blacks opted to stay behind. Most of the suburbs remained off limits to African-Americans; what’s more, the 1973 election of Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young — himself a former Ford line worker — seemed like cause for renewed optimism. But in the 1980s, as crime rates soared, the quality of schools and services plummeted and the number of crack houses multiplied, more and more middle-class blacks abandoned the city for the suburbs, or in some cases, left the Detroit area altogether.

For now at least, Powell’s mother and father remain in the city; they still live in the house on Curtis Street that Powell grew up in. One recent Friday afternoon, not long after Powell’s shift at the plant ended, I went with him to drop off his children — Marvin, now 5, and Victoria, who is 18 months — at his parents’ for the night.

Unlike most major metropolitan areas in the Northeast, which were designed for maximum density, Detroit rose in the age of the automobile. This helped create a sprawling city of detached, single-family homes. As Powell and I drove through it, I saw the images of the post­apocalyptic city to which we’ve all become accustomed: the deserted streets, overgrown lots and empty storefronts with boarded-up windows and faded signs for long-closed stores and restaurants like Pick ’n Party, Jet King Chop Suey and African hair braiding. As familiar as these images have become (just punch “Detroit” and “urban decay” into YouTube to see them), it’s only when you’re actually riding around Detroit and can see that this goes on for block after block, mile after mile, that the profundity of this idea — the death of a city — really sets in.

Powell’s parents live on a residential street of redbrick homes fronted by small lawns. As we approached the house, Powell spotted his father, Augustine, a trim, fit man of 70, leaning on their fence in a dark T-shirt, blue jeans and a black U.A.W. baseball cap. “I feel very fortunate,” Powell told me, pulling into his parents’ narrow driveway. “I could have had the same situation that a lot of young men have out here. I could have a father who was a deadbeat, who had babies and left. But I had parents who sacrificed a lot for me and gave me good examples of how I should treat my family.”

Augustine and I went inside and talked while Powell went out to pick up a pizza. Powell’s mother, Marva, soon joined us, while his son drew pictures of the animals from “Madagascar.”

Augustine and Marva met in the early 1960s at Tuskegee University, a historically black college in Alabama. Marva came from rural Georgia, the only one of six sisters to finish college; Augustine lived near the school and worked in its cafeteria. Each of their families, like many in the South, farmed. Not long after they started dating, Augustine was drafted into the military. He and Marva corresponded by mail while he was in the service and were married in 1964 after he returned to Alabama.

At the time, opportunities were limited for African-Americans in the South: Marva hadn’t been able to keep a job at a dry cleaner because too many customers complained about having a black woman handle their clothing. They moved briefly to Brooklyn before making their way to Detroit in 1966.

They were among some six and a half million African-Americans who left the South from 1910 to 1970 in what became known as the Great Migration. They were drawn to the North by the promise of equal treatment but also by the hope of finding work: the mechanization of agriculture, in particular the advent of the cotton picker, decimated black employment in the South. As Nicholas Lemann wrote in his 1991 book, “The Promised Land,” what in fact awaited most blacks was a more subtle form of discrimination. But in Detroit at least, there were the auto plants. Ford started hiring African-Americans in 1914, offering them the same $5-a-day wage it paid its white employees, even as it limited them to sweeping the floors and pouring hot steel in sweltering foundries. To discourage African-American employees from improving their lot by unionizing, the company offered free coal to ministers of black churches who preached the Ford gospel.

Black migration surged during World War II, when Detroit’s auto plants were transformed into F.D.R.’s so-called arsenal of democracy. The sudden influx of African-Americans dovetailed with the birth of the modern civil rights movement. The nascent United Auto Workers and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People made common cause, conducting sit-ins, condemning hate strikes — the practice of workers walking off the job to protest the hiring of a black employee for a traditionally white job — and ensuring that black workers would be protected by the same contracts that covered white employees. The bond between the labor and civil rights movements was solidified in 1961, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to speak at the annual A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention. “Negroes are almost entirely a working people,” he said. “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow and have education for their children and respect in the community.”

Augustine was making bearings for an auto-parts supplier within days of the Powells’ arrival in Detroit. He eventually moved on to General Motors, where he would stay for nearly 34 years until accepting a buyout package in 2006.

He and Marva, a dietitian, bought their house in a racially mixed neighborhood in northwest Detroit in 1968. In a matter of years, the neighborhood was predominantly black. Even as the city around them continued to spiral downward, theirs remained a stable, working-class neighborhood. By the 1980s, abandoned houses were being torched less than two miles south of them, but their neighbors kept up their homes, mowed their lawns and washed their cars. In the late ’90s, though, their neighborhood also became overrun with drugs and crime. Recently its problems have been compounded by the epidemic of bank foreclosures spreading through the city. In the past few months alone, several of their neighbors, including a laid-off Ford employee, have lost their homes. More will doubtless follow as the auto industry continues to contract.

In a sense, Powell’s father spent his life on the assembly line so his children wouldn’t have to. On his G.M. salary, he was able to send both Powell and his older brother to Catholic school and to put away money for their college funds. (Powell’s brother, Aaron, attended Winston-Salem State University on a basketball scholarship, but never graduated and now works at a Pepsi bottling plant in Detroit.)

When I asked Powell’s parents if they ever imagined that Powell would one day end up on an assembly line like his father, Marva answered instantly: “No.” Powell was back now, feeding Victoria in a bouncy seat in the living room. His mother gestured toward him. “He’s sitting right there, and I don’t mind if he hears this — I had desires for him to finish school,” she said.

I asked Marva what sort of career she imagined him pursuing. “Marvin had a gift of gab — still does,” she said. “I thought he could probably do some English teaching, maybe even become a lawyer.” She paused. “Of course, he’s making more than most college grads. They’re trying to take it from him, though.”

Powell’s faith may be helping him weather the G.M. storm, but his parents are plainly worried about him and his family. Augustine and Marva are planning to move back to the South soon, probably to Dublin, Ga., the small town where Marva was born and raised. They are going to hold on to their house, though. It’s unlikely they could find a buyer, and even if they could it would hardly be worth it: the last house that sold in their neighborhood went for $5,000, which is $10,000 less than what they paid for theirs in 1968. But Powell’s parents want to make sure he and his family will have a place to live if he is laid off. “I’m hoping they won’t need it,” Marva told me. “But you do what you’ve got to do.”

One afternoon in Detroit, I went to meet Greater Grace’s pastor, Charles H. Ellis III, in his office. The church sprawls across the 19-acre site of an abandoned amusement park on the city’s West Side. With its well-tended lawn and freshly painted playground — part of “God’s Graceland Park” — Greater Grace’s $35 million campus beckons like an oasis on an otherwise barren strip of Seven Mile Road.

I found Ellis, a young-looking 50, in a mock turtleneck and slacks, sitting in an unusual black leather desk chair. It took me a moment to place it: it was a driver’s seat from the interior of a Cadillac Escalade that had been refashioned into an office chair. “It was a 50th-birthday present from one of my congregants who works for an auto supplier,” Ellis told me. “The seat heater works and everything.”

Ellis grew up in Detroit, the son of a popular minister. He remembers numerous families coming from the South and staying in his parents’ basement until they were hired at an auto plant and could afford a place of their own. “This was the land of milk and honey,” he said. “Once you get on that phone with someone who says, ‘Man, you can make $250 a week up here!’ who wasn’t coming?”

Ellis now lives in Bloomfield Hills, a posh, predominantly white suburban enclave historically popular among Big Three executives. His church remains deeply committed to Detroit, though. It hosts an annual back-to-school rally, at which children are given free school supplies and haircuts, and every Easter thousands of Detroiters flock to Greater Grace for its free Passion play, which features live animals and elaborate special effects for Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion.

In December of last year, as Congress was debating whether to bail out the car companies, Greater Grace conducted a special service for autoworkers. As a kind of warm-up act, two African-American U.A.W. senior vice presidents urged the audience to join the union’s prayers for deliverance. Ellis followed with a sermon titled “A Hybrid Hope,” delivered against the backdrop of three U.S.-made hybrid S.U.V.’s. “For those who do not believe that this is a spiritual message,” he began, the S.U.V.’s looming behind him on the altar, “I would suggest to you that it was the automobile industry that proved to be a catalyst for an underprivileged man, unlearned not due to his intellect but in large part due to the inequities of an educational system in a segregated society.”

As he spoke, Ellis grew increasingly emotional, occasionally pausing to mop his forehead with a blue towel. “We’re saying to America and to the government and to the leaders . . . ‘These are the faces of our fathers and our mothers and our grandfathers who sweat and bled and died trying to make an honest living, and we will not let you turn your back and pretend that we don’t exist!’ ”

Ellis’s cadence gradually became more rhythmic as he built toward his climax. Half-singing, half-preaching, he told worshipers that it was not enough just to hope that the government would help them; they needed a hybrid hope, one that was equal parts hope and faith. The entire congregation — it was a cold, snowy Sunday in Detroit, but the church was packed — was on its feet, arms raised as people shouted out “amens” at Ellis. “When you see me dancing, it’s not because everything is like I want it to be,” he said, the choir now giving him a beat to sway to. “I’m dancing with a hybrid hope, because I’ve got a faith beyond this world.” When he was finished, he called the hundreds of autoworkers and retirees in attendance to the altar and anointed them with holy oil.

As with so many things connected to Detroit — the 0-16 Lions; the spectacle of auto executives flying to Washington in private jets to beg Congress for a taxpayer-financed bailout; the “Wire”-worthy tale of its recently deposed mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick (who pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and resigned his office after a sex scandal involving the woman who had been his chief of staff) — the “Hybrid Hope” service likely came across to anyone reading about it or seeing coverage of it on TV as another spectacularly misguided, comically desperate and, at bottom, self-serving gesture. After all, nearly half of the church’s 6,000 members work either for an American carmaker or for a company whose fate is directly linked to the Big Three. As goes the U.S. auto industry, so goes Greater Grace, which depends on its members to tithe, or donate 10 percent of their earnings to the church.

But Ellis is a skillful preacher, and his message clearly resonated with those for whom it was intended. “When I was a kid, you heard you could get a job at the plant,” Powell told me when I asked him about the service. “It’s a good job, it’s secure, people are always going to buy cars. People who never saw this coming, who do they look to now? For Pastor Ellis to really feel that sense of despair and to act on it in what some people would think of as a grand way, I think it inspired a lot of hope.”

There is a long history of Detroit’s black ministers joining forces with the U.A.W. to advance the interests of African-American autoworkers. During the 1930s and ’40s, two of Detroit’s black religious leaders, Rev. Charles Hill and Rev. Horace White, were instrumental in persuading the city’s black autoworkers to embrace an integrated U.A.W. as the surest route to dignity and economic security.

Ellis is now watching this historic experiment come unraveled one laid-off parishioner at a time. “The problem that I have is that most people, because of pride, don’t want to tell me they’re in trouble,” Ellis told me. “They come here on Sunday morning in a suit, and I say, ‘How you doing?’ ‘I’m blessed and I’m highly favored of God,’ they answer. I don’t know they’re 30 days from being evicted. If I know early enough, I can help them make the most out of a bad situation. Now there’s nothing I can do except help them get a U-Haul truck and find a place to store their stuff.”

On a practical level, Ellis has been trying to set an example for his parishioners — he recently downsized from his Escalade to a Chrysler Sebring — as well as add more relevant programs for struggling congregants. An accounting major at Wayne State, he gives regular seminars, or “fireside chats,” on how to avoid going into debt. The church has also beefed up its entrepreneur’s ministry, which encourages laid-off congregants to avoid the job market altogether and instead start businesses of their own.

But Ellis is focused, foremost, on lifting spirits and bolstering faith. Even when his sermons don’t overtly address the economic crisis affecting his congregation, the subject is never far away. One recent Sunday morning, I heard him deliver a sermon called “Peace in the Midst of Uncertainty.” (“If your faith were brakes right now they’d be worn down to the nubs.”) Afterward, Ellis told the congregation he just returned from guest-lecturing at Harvard Divinity School. “I was talking to a professor there, trying to get my son in, I asked him, ‘What do you have to do; how much does it cost?’ He said, ‘$40,000,’ ” Ellis said. “I was like, $40,000? $40,000? . . . But you come out of there, you can write your own ticket. Barack done opened the door: You can be the president of the free world!” The audience erupted in “amens.”

As bad as things may be outside the doors of Greater Grace, the mood inside the church was relentlessly upbeat. The sense of optimism, of possibility, conveyed by Ellis and powerfully reinforced by a huge tapestry that was on display in the hallway outside the sanctuary depicting Obama, King and Harriet Tubman — “From Slavery to the White House” — is infectious. But nourishing this hope, at this moment and in this city, can mean keeping reality at bay.

After the service, I drifted into a workshop for aspiring entrepreneurs called “Financial Crisis 2009: Birthing Your Dream.” The woman running the session, Deborah Glass, retired several years ago from Ford Motor’s credit company and now operates her own marketing company, selling body garments intended to reshape women’s figures. Glass told the group that the key to success was to stop thinking negative thoughts.

A woman in the audience raised her hand. “I work for a supplier for G.M.,” she said. “Every day they’re talking about G.M. on the news, how they’re closing this plant or that plant.”

Glass cut her off. “You cannot listen to that. Whatever you keep hearing, you keep believing. You’ve got to protect your eyes and ears from that. I don’t care what G.M. says or what Chrysler or Ford say.”

Glass held up a Christian self-help book called “Spiritual Desire.” “This would have been much more helpful to you than listening to that,” she said.

During his early years at Pontiac Assembly, Powell bowled regularly with a group of his co-workers at a seedy alley a mile or so from the plant called Fiero Bowl (infelicitously named after a short-lived G.M. sports car, the Pontiac Fiero). At $2 each, the games were cheap, and Powell always had a good time; he had a knack for leaving right before a fight invariably broke out. But he hasn’t gone much recently. He prefers not to be around so much drinking and smoking, and he usually has to pick up his son at school anyway.

Powell now does most of his bowling in a Saturday-morning church league. (His ball is engraved with the word “prophetic.”) There’s no drinking allowed, and every match begins with both teams joining hands in prayer, but it’s otherwise just like any other bowling league, with good-natured trash talk and even some low-stakes betting.

After one of his recent matches, Powell and I picked up a Slurpee for his son and a coffee for his wife and drove back to his house in Southfield. Detroit is now 85 percent black, and most of the suburbs I visited during my weeks there were either largely white or largely black, which made the diverse mix of people that we encountered as we made our way through Powell’s subdivision all the more striking.

Powell and his wife, Shirese, met at a church function when he was 18 and she was 22, and fell in love a year later. “At the time, I was about 100 pounds lighter, I had a full head of curly hair — I was good-looking, thin, I could wear the mess out of a suit,” Powell told me as we arrived at their home, a modest ranch house with a well-tended front lawn. “I had a lot of women approaching me, but the way they were approaching me let me know that’s not what I wanted. But she was different. There was just so much more substance to her character.”

Shirese and I sat down in their small living room, beside a box of overflowing toys, and talked. She told me that she was raised by a single mother, a home-health-care aide in Detroit. After graduating from a magnet high school in the city, Shirese said, she took out loans to attend Northwood University and soon transferred to Eastern Michigan University. During her sophomore year, she dropped out after souring on the party scene. She moved back home and started going to church. “I remember sitting there thinking, There’s something different about these people,” she told me. “I was like: Whatever it is that they have, I want it. I need it.”

Shirese never went back to college. She worked at a credit-reporting company, first as a customer-service representative and then in sales before eventually becoming a mortgage broker. Several years ago, during the height of the mortgage boom, she was making close to six figures, she told me, but she wanted to spend more time with her son and start her own day-care center, Safe Haven. “Nobody’s taking the time to teach this younger generation to be well mannered and respectful,” she said. “I decided that instead of just complaining about it, I needed to be part of the solution. I needed to help groom the next generation.”

At the moment, Safe Haven operates out of the Powells’ basement, a small, dark space crowded with highchairs and plastic play tables that Shirese has done her best to spruce up with some colorful posters designed to teach the children their shapes and the days of the week. But she has visions of moving her center into a separate building and expanding, eventually becoming a full-fledged elementary school that would be based in Southfield but draw children from inner-city Detroit. “I don’t need to get the kids in Southfield; they have decent schools,” she said. “I want the ones who don’t have any options, who are being crowded into classrooms like a herd of cattle.”

Her motivation isn’t solely philanthropic; Shirese has every intention of building a profitable business. “I don’t want my kids to have to struggle like me — being raised by a single mother who didn’t have a dime to send me to college,” she told me. “I want them to be able to enjoy their college life without having to worry about expenses and finances. And I want to buy them their first homes.”

Shirese speaks as if she has no doubt that all of this — and much more — is about to happen. She is confident that Obama, in whom she recognizes a kindred spirit in faith, will help save Detroit. And she fully expects that she and Powell and the rest of “God’s people” will all have their roles to play in the city’s salvation. “We’re supposed to be part of the change that’s taking place,” she told me.

Maybe the Powells are right. Maybe General Motors — and Chrysler, for that matter — will emerge from bankruptcy and once again become viable companies. Maybe Safe Haven will become, as Shirese puts it, “a pillar of our community.” Maybe Powell will one day have his own catering company. Maybe there is still hope for Detroit.

But for the moment, the bad news just keeps coming. Two hours after Powell’s shift started on the first Monday in June, the line was stopped for another plantwide meeting: Plant 6 would be shutting down for good on or before Oct. 1.

Powell’s only option now will be to put in for a transfer to one of the Detroit area’s remaining G.M. plants and hope for an opening before his unemployment benefits and SUB-pay expire. “They finally had enough integrity to tell us before they let the media know,” he told me when his shift ended that afternoon, an uncharacteristic trace of bitterness in his voice. “Nobody really knows what to think right now.”

Within a matter of minutes, though, Powell recovered his more familiar optimism. There were a few factories that wouldn’t be too bad a drive from Southfield, including Detroit/Hamtramck — the plant where his father spent most of his career — which is in a neighborhood once known as Poletown because of the large Polish population that lived there. “Over time, I think I’ll be O.K.,” Powell said. “The bottom line is that they still need people to run.”

They do, but G.M. also needs to cut 20,000 jobs before emerging from bankruptcy. The number of plants in the Detroit area is dwindling; Pontiac Assembly is one of seven factories that G.M. expects to close in Michigan by the end of next year. Even Hamtramck is down to a single shift. There and elsewhere, there will be a deluge of applicants for a rapidly shrinking pool of line jobs.

Talking to Powell, I was constantly torn between marveling at his faith, his stubborn belief that everything was going to work out, and the urge to tell him to look around, to read the paper on any given day, to see the train that’s heading straight for him and so many others and try to make a viable plan for his future before it’s too late. But what would that plan be? What if you were 38 and had spent the last 12 years doing one thing for a company and an industry that allowed your predecessors to escape the Jim Crow South, that gave generations of black workers a shot at dignity and their rightful place in the American middle class, that allowed you to buy a decent home in a neighborhood right next door to white families who had fled your city years before? Maybe it wasn’t the job you dreamed of when you were 20, but it was what you did and what your father did and what you and almost everyone around you knew, and it had never failed you before. What would you do? How would you prepare for the loss of all that? It’s a paralyzing notion. “You’ve got to have the mind-set that you can achieve greatness,” he told me once when we were talking about what sort of future he felt it possible to imagine for himself and Detroit. It would be nice to believe that will be enough.


Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight Over Presidential Power.”

    G.M., Detroit and the Fall of the Black Middle Class, NYT, 28.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/magazine/28detroit-t.html






Editorial Observer

Even Now,

There’s Risk in ‘Driving While Black’


June 15, 2009
The New York Times


The experience of being mistaken for a criminal is almost a rite of passage for African-American men. Security guards shadow us in stores. Troopers pull us over for the crime of “driving while black.” Nighttime pedestrians cower by us on the streets.

We have often been seen as paranoid for attributing these things to bias. But the racial stereotypes that link blackness and crime have recently become a hot topic in social science.

These pervasive and often unconscious biases affect social transactions of all kinds. They drive voting behavior. They make it likely that black defendants will receive longer sentences than whites for comparable crimes. They wreak havoc with the job possibilities of young black men. And they give the lie to the idea that the Unites States is becoming a “postracial” country.

The psychologists Gordon Allport and Leo Postman showed more than half a century ago that preconceptions about race distorted human judgment and sometimes caused people to recall things that had never happened. Their best-known study mimicked the parlor game “telephone.”

In this version, subjects who often included students were shown a now-famous slide depicting typical passengers in a New York City subway car. At the center of the image stand two figures: a black man dressed in a natty suit and a white man in shirtsleeves holding a straight razor.

After being shown the slide, subjects were asked to describe it to others who had not seen it. These people then described it to others, who then passed on their descriptions as well. Those who had heard the story secondhand were then asked to recount it. More than half the time, the razor was said to be held not by the white man but by the well-dressed black man, who was sometimes described as brandishing it wildly.

This country has changed considerably in the more than 60 years since these data were published. But the mental calculus that shifted the razor into the black man’s hand is still very much a part of the American scene. It comes into play every day in courtrooms, in city streets and especially in job interviews.

People who believed that racism was on the wane were mightily shocked by the research into the effect of race on hiring policies that appeared in the 2007 book “Marked: Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration,” by the Princeton sociologist Devah Pager. After sending carefully selected test applicants to apply for low-level jobs with hundreds of employers, Ms. Pager found that criminal convictions for black men seeking employment were, in many contexts, “virtually impossible to overcome,” partly because those convictions reinforced powerful, longstanding stereotypes.

The stigma of conviction turned out to be less damaging for whites. Indeed, white men who claimed to be fresh out of prison were just as likely to be called back for second interviews as black men with no history of criminal involvement. The young black men were best-case applicants — bright, well-spoken college students posing as high school graduates. But racial stereotypes prevented employers from seeing their virtues.

“Being black in America today,” Ms. Pager writes, “is just about the same as having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chances of finding a job.”

People who believe that blunt-force racism is a thing of the past tend to gasp when they see this data. But the findings are consistent with what black job seekers and community organizations have been saying about their experiences for a long time.

All of this should come as sobering news to people who believe that the election of an African-American president moved the country into a new phase beyond racism. We may yet reach that goal. But we won’t do it by pretending that centuries-old biases were magically swept away in a single election. We can do it only by exorcising poisonous preconceptions that go to the very heart of who we are.

    Even Now, There’s Risk in ‘Driving While Black’, NYT, 15.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/15/opinion/15mon4.html






Bank Accused

of Pushing Subprime Deals on Blacks


June 7, 2009
The New York Times


As she describes it, Beth Jacobson and her fellow loan officers at Wells Fargo Bank “rode the stagecoach from hell” for a decade, systematically singling out blacks in Baltimore and suburban Maryland for high-interest subprime mortgages.

These loans, Baltimore officials have claimed in a federal lawsuit against Wells Fargo, tipped hundreds of homeowners into foreclosure and cost the city tens of millions of dollars in taxes and city services.

Wells Fargo, Ms. Jacobson said in an interview, saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania. Loan officers, she said, pushed customers who could have qualified for prime loans into subprime mortgages. Another loan officer stated in an affidavit filed last week that employees had referred to blacks as “mud people” and to subprime lending as “ghetto loans.”

“We just went right after them,” said Ms. Jacobson, who is white and said she was once the bank’s top-producing subprime loan officer nationally. “Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches, because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”

Ms. Jacobson’s account and that of the other loan officer who gave an affidavit, Tony Paschal, both of whom have left Wells Fargo, provide the first detailed accusations of deliberate racial steering into subprimes by one of the nation’s top banks.

The toll taken by such policies, Baltimore officials argue, is terrible. Data released by the city as part of the suit last week show that more than half the properties subject to foreclosure on a Wells Fargo loan from 2005 to 2008 now stand vacant. And 71 percent of those are in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Judge Benson E. Legg of Federal District Court had asked the city to file the additional paperwork and has not decided whether the lawsuit can go forward.

Wells Fargo officials have declined detailed interviews since Baltimore filed suit in January 2008. In an e-mail statement on Friday, a spokesman said that only 1 percent of the city’s 33,000 foreclosures have come on Wells Fargo mortgages.

“We have worked extremely hard to make homeownership possible for more African-American borrowers,” wrote Kevin Waetke, a spokesman for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. “We absolutely do not tolerate team members treating our customers or others disrespectfully or unfairly, or who violate our ethics and lending practices.”

City and state officials across the nation have investigated and sometimes sued Wells Fargo over its practices. The Illinois attorney general has investigated whether Wells Fargo Financial violated fair lending and civil rights laws by steering black and Latino homeowners into high-interest loans. New York’s attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, raised similar questions about the lending practices of Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, among other banks.

The N.A.A.C.P. has filed a class-action lawsuit charging systematic racial discrimination by more than a dozen banks, including Wells Fargo.

At the heart of such charges is reverse redlining, specifically marketing the most expensive and onerous loan products to black customers.

The New York Times, in a recent analysis of mortgage lending in New York City, found that black households making more than $68,000 a year were nearly five times as likely to hold high-interest subprime mortgages as whites of similar or even lower incomes. (The disparity was greater for Wells Fargo borrowers, as 2 percent of whites in that income group hold subprime loans and 16.1 percent of blacks.)

“We’ve known that African-Americans and Latinos are getting subprime loans while whites of the same credit profile are getting the lower-cost loans,” said Eric Halperin, director of the Washington office of the Center for Responsible Lending. “The question has been why, and the gory details of this complaint may provide an answer.”

The affidavits of the two loan officers seem to bolster Baltimore’s lawsuit. Mr. Paschal, who is black and worked as a loan officer in Wells Fargo’s office in Annandale, Va., from 1997 to 2007, offers a sort of primer on Wells Fargo’s subprime marketing strategy by race.

In 2001, he states in his affidavit, Wells Fargo created a unit in the mid-Atlantic region to push expensive refinancing loans on black customers, particularly those living in Baltimore, southeast Washington and Prince George’s County, Md.

“They referred to subprime loans made in minority communities as ghetto loans and minority customers as ‘those people have bad credit’, ‘those people don’t pay their bills’ and ‘mud people,’ ” Mr. Paschal said in his affidavit.

He said a bank office in Silver Spring, Md., had an “affinity group marketing” section, which hired blacks to call on African-American churches.

“The company put ‘bounties’ on minority borrowers,” Mr. Paschal said. “By this I mean that loan officers received cash incentives to aggressively market subprime loans in minority communities.”

Both loan officers said the bank had given bonuses to loan officers who referred borrowers who should have qualified for a prime loan to the subprime division. Ms. Jacobson said that she made $700,000 one year and that the company flew her and other subprime officers to resorts across the country.

“I used to joke that ‘I’ll pay for your kids to go to private school if you give me clients,’ ” Ms. Jacobson said in the interview.

Loan officers employed other methods to steer clients into subprime loans, according to the affidavits. Some officers told the underwriting department that their clients, even those with good credit scores, had not wanted to provide income documentation.

“By doing this, the loan flipped from prime to subprime,” Ms. Jacobson said. “But there was no need for that; many of these clients had W2 forms.”

Other times, she said, loan officers cut and pasted credit reports from one applicant onto the application of another customer.

These practices took a great toll on customers. For a homeowner taking out a $165,000 mortgage, a difference of three percentage points in the loan rate — a typical spread between conventional and subprime loans — adds more than $100,000 in interest payments.

The accusations contained in the affidavits, which were given to Relman & Dane, a civil rights law firm working with the City of Baltimore, have not drawn a specific response from Wells Fargo. But city officials say the conclusion is clear.

“They confirm our worst fears: that this is not just a case based on a review of numbers and a statistical analysis,” said the city solicitor, George Nilson. “You don’t have to scratch your head and wonder if maybe this was just an accident. The behavior is pretty explicit.”

Both sides expect to appear in court at a hearing in the case in late June.


Janet Roberts contributed reporting.

    Bank Accused of Pushing Subprime Deals on Blacks, NYT, 7.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/us/07baltimore.html?hp






Forgotten Battalion’s

Last Returns to Beachhead


June 6, 2009
The New York Times


William G. Dabney could hardly have expected to be spending that ferocious June day in 1944 hunkered on Omaha Beach, struggling to keep aloft one of the tethered silver balloons intended to confound German pilots trying to bomb or strafe exposed Allied invaders in Normandy.

As a member of the only all-black unit in the D-Day landings on Omaha and Utah, the two beachheads assigned to American forces, Corporal Dabney was a rarity in a European war that in its early days was fought almost entirely by whites.

The contributions of his unit, the 320th Antiaircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, have been largely forgotten over the years. But on Saturday, Mr. Dabney, now 84, will join President Obama near Omaha Beach to mark the 65th anniversary of the invasion. On Friday, he received the Legion of Honor from the French government. Officials of the White House Commission on Remembrance, which organizes services at American war memorials, say he is the only survivor of the 320th they have been able to track down.

At 17, Mr. Dabney, of Roanoke, Va., had chafed to join older friends already at war, and had to persuade his grandmother to let him enlist. Most black soldiers were being given support roles in the United States, but like many young men, Mr. Dabney craved action at the front. He volunteered for “special service,” which he thought would have him loading artillery weapons.

“I didn’t know that it involved flying balloons,” he said in a telephone interview from Roanoke.

He was sent to Tennessee to train with the 320th, a unit intended mainly to deploy blimplike balloons for coastal defense. But he soon found himself bound for England and a role in the invasion of France.

In retrospect, Corporal Dabney and his contemporaries can be seen as pioneers. As late as the mid-1930s, the Army had been less than 2 percent black. The Coast Guard used blacks only as stewards, the Navy mainly for kitchen help. The Marines and the Army Air Forces barred blacks outright. The discriminatory treatment was defended by an Army War College report in 1925 concluding that blacks lacked intellect and courage.

“Blacks wanted to participate” in World War II, “but the position of the military was that wartime is not a time for social experimentation,” said William A. De Shields, a retired Army colonel and founder of the Black Military History Institute of America.

Blacks who did join the services were often assigned to thankless jobs as stevedores, stewards or ammunition handlers. (A single catastrophic explosion of ammunition at Port Chicago, Calif., in July 1944 claimed the lives of 202 black sailors, among a total of 320 people killed.)

Some seeds of change had already been planted, however. In June 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, wary of backlash from whites but pressured not only by groups like the predominantly black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters but also by his wife, Eleanor, ordered an end to discrimination in war industry employment.

And that March, the Army Air Forces created a unit of black fliers now well known as the Tuskegee airmen. Their achievements, along with those of other black units, helped discredit the War College report.

Still, before the invasion of France, most black soldiers, whose numbers had risen to 700,000, were stationed in the United States. By 1944, however, manpower shortages were acute, and by the end of that year more than two-thirds of black troops were overseas. Corporal Dabney was part of that wave.

So was George A. Davison, another member of the 320th, who died in 2002. In a letter home after D-Day, Sergeant Davison recalled crossing the English Channel on the morning of the invasion, in a landing craft shared with Army rangers. “It was our turn,” he wrote.

Once the landing craft approached shore, the troops had to wade through chest-high waves, then dig in on the beach under extreme fire. That done, the men of the 320th deployed their balloons by filling them with helium.

The balloons, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported, “provided a screen of rubber several miles long on the two main beachheads.” Three German planes were downed when they struck balloons, which carried explosives, or hit their cables.

The balloons came in various sizes. Corporal Dabney headed a three-man crew responsible for one balloon, of a type classified as V.L.A., for very low altitude.

Sergeant Davison also worked with V.L.A.’s. “These weren’t the big barrage balloons,” which could be 60 feet long, his son Bill said in an interview. “They were about the size of a Volkswagen.”

“They had only 2,000 feet of line, as opposed to bigger balloons with 10,000 feet,” Bill Davison said. “But 2,000 would keep enemy planes from strafing the beaches.”

Mr. Dabney recalled the intensity of the Germans’ fire. “We thought at one time me and my crew might get pushed back into the English Channel,” he said, “because they were fighting so furiously.”

Sergeant Davison saw a ranger near him blown apart. It was a day, he wrote home, “of ducking bullets and anything that would kill a man.” He was “too afraid to be afraid,” he wrote.

Four members of the 320th died. One who lived showed particular courage. Waverly B. Woodson Jr., a medic, was injured by a mine explosion but went on to work for 30 straight hours treating other wounded men. He received a Bronze Star.

The younger Mr. Davison, who has pledged to keep his father’s story alive, recently sent President Obama a letter about it.

“I hope he reads it,” Mr. Davison said, “and hope he has some sense of the African-Americans who were there.”

So does Colonel De Shields, of the Black Military History Institute. “Obama is a young man,” Colonel De Shields said. “We hope he’ll have an appreciation for the contribution that African-Americans made in World War II, when we were fighting two enemies: the enemy abroad and racism at home.”

    Forgotten Battalion’s Last Returns to Beachhead, NYT, 6.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/06/world/europe/06iht-troops.html?hp






SC Slave Cabins

Were Home to Family Through '60s


June 3, 2009
Filed at 7:19 a.m. ET
The New York Times


CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- Eighty-six-year-old Johnnie Leach leans on his cane as he sits in warm sunshine on the steps of the old slave cabin where he raised 13 children four decades ago.

Despite the humble setting and the terrible history of the place, living there is a time he and his family remember fondly.

''The good Lord blessed me. I sent three of them to college from here,'' he says, reminiscing about his old home.

The building is one of four former slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens that have been restored to show visitors the path of blacks from slavery to freedom.

''The time has come to tell this story,'' says Preston Cooley, a tour guide who helped with the cabin project. ''All this beauty you look around and see at this plantation was created by the people who lived on the slave street.''

The cabins at the plantation, which attracts tens of thousands each year to the banks of the Ashley River, have been restored to reflect different eras of the black experience. One appears as it would have during slavery in 1850 with limewashed walls and a loft where sleeping mats were stored. A second shows how freedmen lived after the Civil War, some of their furnishings cast off from the plantation house.

The poverty of blacks in the Jim Crow South of the 1920s, walls lined with newspapers for insulation, can be seen in the third. The Leach cabin is restored to how it looked during the civil rights era.

Visitors with cameras and knapsacks pass through the cabins with their wooden shutters and old brick fireplaces. The buildings say only so much. The real stories belong to those who lived in them.

The Leach family worked on the plantation for four generations, staying on the street until 1969, nearly three centuries after the plantation was built. They were the last to live in a cabin without modern conveniences, only a single electric line powering a couple of light bulbs. They got water from a pump, cooked on a wood stove that heated the house and used an outhouse. Leach added two small rooms as the family grew.

Their cabin and two others were used into the late 1900s by others but electricity, running water and toilets were added. Those conveniences were removed as part of the $500,000 restoration.

''It's very good to have it the old way so some of the young ones can see what they didn't see,'' said Leach, a combat engineer during World War II who later moved into the cabin to work as a gardener at Magnolia. Leach speaks with the lilting accent of the Gullah, the culture of slave descendants who live on the sea islands and the coast of the Carolinas.

''To me it don't have the old looks. It looks like a brand new place,'' said Leach, who was married and widowed twice, as he looked along the restored slave street.

Now more open, the street used to be wooded with trees and bushes, ideal for playing hide-and-seek at night.

''Everybody loved the place and it was real good for kids. We played in the dark in the moonshine. I loved the place,'' recalled Hector Maxwell, 61, Leach's brother-in-law, who lived here for several years in the 1960s.

The hardships weren't really hard, or at least they didn't feel that way, said Leach's 52-year-old son Isaac, who also works at Magnolia. ''With me it didn't matter because this was my home and my father had made the best of it for the kids and the family.''

Indeed, he misses some things about the cabin.

''We had the wood-burning stove with the oven and the thing to me was everything tasted better,'' Isaac Leach said. ''You would cook your meat and then you would put your potatoes on the coals when the fire dies.''

As the family grew, the older children moved in with relatives or struck out on their own.

''When it got too crowded the way it was, some were large enough to go out,'' said Johnnie Leach, whose children range in age from 37 to 53.

Although no one lives on the slave street anymore, it will always conjure home for the Leach family.

''I have a son who just turned 12 and we were approaching the plantation the other day and just getting ready to turn in,'' Isaac Leach said. ''He said 'Dad, I can't get enough of this place.'''


On the Net:

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens: www.magnoliaplantation.com

    SC Slave Cabins Were Home to Family Through '60s, NYT, 3.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/06/03/us/AP-US-Slavery-to-Freedom.html






On Diverse Force,

Blacks Still Face Special Peril


May 31, 2009
The New York Times


Two black police officers stand outside the 70th Precinct station in Brooklyn and consider the disastrous turn of events the night before: an off-duty black officer dead in a Harlem street, felled by the bullets of a white officer who mistook him for a threat.

One runs his hand across his corn-rowed scalp; he is disgusted. “Same deal always,” he says of the deadly encounter between colleagues on Thursday night. “They’ll say it’s about training.”

A block away, a Latino officer with six years on the force acknowledges being conflicted. “Tell you the truth, I feel bad for the shooter. It happens so fast, and now he has got to live with this.” His voice trails off.

At the Newkirk Avenue subway station, a black officer of many years’ experience stares straight ahead. “There’s your training and there’s your reaction,” he says quietly of such split-second tragedies. “That’s two different things.”

Its serried ranks are more diverse than ever, its training and rules on the use of force more rigorous than in the past, yet the New York New YorkPolice Department still struggles with the problem of fraternal shootings across the color line. Beginning with the first such shooting in 1940, when white officers in Harlem mistook a black officer, John A. Holt Jr., for a burglar and shot him dead in his own apartment building, these relatively rare shootings come attended by an air of political ritual: protesters march, panels are appointed and reforms are most often accepted by police commissioners.

After a white officer shot and killed an undercover detective, William Capers, in 1972, the department drew up guidelines intended to prevent fraternal fire and undercover officers began wearing their badges on strings around their necks.

In 1994, after a white officer fired shots into the back of a black undercover transit officer, Desmond Robinson, the police commissioner, William J. Bratton, acknowledged what seemed painfully obvious to black undercover officers — the department needed to appoint a panel to examine the racial assumptions of their white colleagues.

“It’s a reality,” Mr. Bratton said. “Minority officers are at risk.”

New York City has fewer fatal police shootings per officer than any other large police department in the nation, according to a department official. Since 1990, fewer than a half-dozen police officers have been shot by other officers in New York. And the Police Department has consistently tightened rules governing when and how officers should use firearms. But a 25-year-old police officer, Omar J. Edwards, now lies in a city morgue, and his death imposes its own reality. Anguish and tears come accompanied by questions about whether too many officers harbor too many assumptions and fire too quickly.

“This is the most Shakespearean aspect of policing,” said State Senator Eric Adams of Brooklyn, who is black and a former police captain. “Your greatest fear is to be shot and slain on duty, and that’s only matched by your fear of shooting another officer.”

He added, “If you speak with nine out of 10 officers of color they would tell you that when they hear sirens, in their head they are thinking: ‘I hope these cops know that I’m one of the good guys.’ ”

That worry comes embedded in a paradox: The New York New Yorkepartment never has been so diverse. A majority of the cadets in the last rookie police class were members of ethnic and racial minorities, offering a rainbow cross-section of the city itself. Over all, 47.8 percent of the city’s officers are white, 28.7 percent Hispanic, 17.9 percent black and 5.4 percent Asian.

But, replenished although this department is, its very youth and diversity present a challenge. Officer Edwards had been on the force for two years; the officer who shot him, Andrew P. Dunton, had been for 4 ½ years. Younger officers, say their instructors, are more likely to experience surges of judgment-blurring testosterone and adrenaline.

In Officer Edwards’s case, the young, off-duty officer apparently had drawn his weapon and was chasing a man who had tried to break into his car when he encountered his on-duty colleagues, who according to their initial testimony saw his gun, shouted “Police!” and fired when he turned to face them. Such actions might have been in violation of departmental protocols.

“The department has very good training on use of force and firearm simulators,” said Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a specialist in the use of force. “The physiological impact on the officer is great. It’s very detrimental to solid judgment. Your adrenaline is pumping, and your visual skills are impaired.

“It’s not a situation you can replicate in a classroom.”

The city is a measurably safer place than it was two decades ago, when the number of homicides hovered around 2,000 each year. Last year, the city recorded 516 homicides. When former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani folded the transit and housing police forces into the New York New Yorkepartment in the mid-1990s, he eliminated much of the confusion that came with balkanized forces. But particularly for young officers, whose training comes in high-crime precincts, New York City can cast a confusing, even threatening shadow.

Officers, many of whom grew up in segregated neighborhoods, find themselves challenged to remember daily that their own come in every shape and color.

“There was a time if you were a cop you could grab your gun and go into the streets and count on a stereotype to protect you,” said Eugene J. O’Donnell, professor of law and police studies at John Jay and a former officer. “Now the cops look like everybody, and everybody looks like a cop.

“So stereotypes,” he said, “offer no protection at all.”

Sorting out the shooting of one officer by another, not least the role played by race, is complicated. In a few cases, gunman and victim share an ethnicity. In 2006, a gang brawled with an off-duty police officer, Eric Hernandez, at a White Castle restaurant in the Bronx. Officer Alfredo Toro responded to a 911 call and shot Officer Hernandez, not realizing he was a colleague. Officer Hernandez later died.

It “is naïve to assume that our department is driven by racism,” Dr. Haberfeld says. “Your experience will be based on what you encounter, and it’s natural to build up a profile.”

But some black officers and academics counter that this is too easy. “If it was just a mistake, we would see more of these mistakes with officers of different colors,” said Prof. Delores Jones-Brown, director of John Jay’s Center on Race, Crime and Justice.

Instinctual judgments about race and crime are woven into the culture of the streets. “We tend to pretend in the police force that we don’t see race, we don’t see ethnicity, but we do,” said Senator Adams, the former police captain. “One of my cops once said that if he sees a non-uniformed black man with a gun, he takes precautions for himself; if he sees a white guy with a gun, he takes precautions for both because he knows it could be a fellow cop.”

Desmond Robinson lived this experience. In 1994, in the confusion of the 53rd Street subway station, he chased a teenager with a gun. Another undercover officer, Peter Del-Debbio, who is white, came from the other direction and fired at Officer Robinson, the last few shots pumped into his back at close range.

Officer Del-Debbio was convicted of second-degree assault and sentenced to five years’ probation. Officer Robinson recovered and left the force.

“Everyone carries baggage subconsciously and retraining the mind takes lots of work,” said Mr. Robinson, who lives in Florida. “There are a lot of black undercovers out there, and officers need to understand that not every black man with a gun is a criminal.”




Amid Mourning, Circumspection

As New York City prepared for the funeral of Officer Omar J. Edwards, who was fatally shot by another officer in East Harlem on Thursday, his relatives and elected and civic leaders called for consideration of the split-second decisions officers must make. Article, nytimes.com/nyregion.

    On Diverse Force, Blacks Still Face Special Peril, NYT, 30.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/nyregion/31friendly.html?hp






Her Prince Has Come. Critics, Too.


May 31, 2009
The New York Times



“THE Princess and the Frog” does not open nationwide until December, but the buzz is already breathless: For the first time in Walt Disney animation history, the fairest of them all is black.

Princess Tiana, a hand-drawn throwback to classic Disney characters like Cinderella and Snow White, has a dazzling green gown, a classy upsweep hairdo and a diamond tiara. Like her predecessors, she is a strong-willed songbird (courtesy of the Tony-winning actress Anika Noni Rose) who finds her muscle-bound boyfriend against all odds.

“Finally, here is something that all little girls, especially young black girls, can embrace,” Cori Murray, an entertainment director at Essence magazine, recently told CNN.

To the dismay of Disney executives — along with the African-American bloggers and others who side with the company — the film is also attracting chatter of an uglier nature. Is “The Princess and the Frog,” set in New Orleans in the 1920s, about to vaporize stereotypes or promote them?

The film, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, two of the men behind “The Little Mermaid,” unfolds against a raucous backdrop of voodoo and jazz. Tiana, a waitress and budding chef who dreams of owning a restaurant, is persuaded to kiss a frog who is really a prince.

The spell backfires and — poof! — she is also an amphibian. Accompanied by a Cajun firefly and a folksy alligator, the couple search for a cure.

After viewing some photographs of merchandise tied to the movie, which is still unfinished, Black Voices, a Web site on AOL dedicated to African-American culture, faulted the prince’s relatively light skin color. Prince Naveen hails from the fictional land of Maldonia and is voiced by a Brazilian actor; Disney says that he is not white.

“Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince,” Angela Bronner Helm wrote March 19 on the site. “His hair and features are decidedly non-black. This has left many in the community shaking their head in befuddlement and even rage.”

Others see insensitivity in the locale.

“Disney should be ashamed,” William Blackburn, a former columnist at The Charlotte Observer, told London’s Daily Telegraph. “This princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community.”

ALSO under scrutiny is Ray the firefly, performed by Jim Cummings (the voice of Winnie the Pooh and Yosemite Sam). Some people think Ray sounds too much like the stereotype of an uneducated Southerner in an early trailer.

Of course, armchair critics have also been complaining about the princess. Disney originally called her Maddy (short for Madeleine). Too much like Mammy and thus racist. A rumor surfaced on the Internet that an early script called for her to be a chambermaid to a white woman, a historically correct profession. Too much like slavery.

And wait: We finally get a black princess and she spends the majority of her time on screen as a frog?

“Because of Disney’s history of stereotyping,” said Michael D. Baran, a cognitive psychologist and anthropologist who teaches at Harvard and specializes in how children learn about race, “people are really excited to see how Disney will handle her language, her culture, her physical attributes.”

Mr. Baran is reserving judgment and encourages others to do the same. But he added that the issue warrants scrutiny because of Disney’s outsize impact on children.

“People think that kids don’t catch subtle messages about race and gender in movies, but it’s quite the opposite,” he said.

Donna Farmer, a Los Angeles Web designer who is African-American and has two children, applauded Disney’s efforts to add diversity.

“I don’t know how important having a black princess is to little girls — my daughter loves Ariel and I see nothing wrong with that — but I think it’s important to moms,” she said.

“Who knows if Disney will get it right,” she added. “They haven’t always in the past, but the idea that Disney is not bending over backward to be sensitive is laughable. It wants to sell a whole lot of Tiana dolls and some Tiana paper plates and make people line up to see Tiana at Disney World.”

Few people outside the company have seen footage of the movie. Among them are consultants like Oprah Winfrey, whom Disney asked for input on the racial aspects of the film and was cast as Tiana’s mother. (Movie theater owners and members of the N.A.A.C.P. have also been shown scenes, and the reactions, according to a Disney spokeswoman, were “extremely positive.”)

Rather, fueling the debate are photos of related merchandise taken from a toy industry event, a one-minute teaser trailer and Disney’s enormous cultural impact.

The company wants to vanquish once and for all the whispers of racism that linger from stumbles in the past. Yes, “Dumbo” traded in black stereotypes in 1941 with its band of uneducated, pimp-hat-wearing crows. All the animals in “The Jungle Book” from 1967 speak in proper British accents except for the jive-talking monkeys who desperately want to become “real people.”

More recently, “Aladdin” ran into trouble in 1993. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee labeled certain song lyrics defamatory (“Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home”).

The company responds that criticism of such well-worn examples — particularly of films from the ’60s and earlier — applies a 21st-century morality to movies made in sharply different times. The United States barely had a Civil Rights Act in 1967, much less a black president.

Disney executives think people should stop jumping to conclusions about “The Princess and the Frog.”

A producer of the film, Peter Del Vecho, said: “We feel a great responsibility to get this right. Every artistic decision is being carefully thought out.”

Ms. Rose, familiar to movie audiences for her role in “Dreamgirls,” has also defended Disney.

“There is no reason to get up in arms,” she told reporters at a recent Los Angeles Urban League dinner. “If there was something that I thought was disrespectful to me or to my heritage, I would certainly not be a part of it.”

Ms. Winfrey declined to comment. A spokesman for the N.A.A.C.P. said the organization had no immediate comment.

Disney often gets criticized no matter how carefully it strives to put together its television shows, theme-park attractions and movies. For years, Disney has been lambasted by some parents for not having a black princess. Now, some of those same voices are taking aim at the company without seeing the finished product. (Officially, the princesses are Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel of “The Little Mermaid,” Belle of “Beauty and the Beast” and Jasmine of “Aladdin” — all white except for Jasmine, who is Arabian. The leads from “Mulan” and “Pocahontas” are sometimes sold with the Princess merchandising line.)

Mr. Del Vecho said the idea for a black princess came about organically. The producers wanted to create a fairy tale set in the United States and centered on New Orleans, with its colorful past and deep musical history.

“As we spent time in New Orleans, we realized how truly it is a melting pot, which is how the idea of strongly multicultural characters came about,” Mr. Del Vecho said.

He described Tiana as “a resourceful and talented person” and the rare fairy tale heroine “who is not saved by a prince.” Once the decision was made to make the lead black, he added, “We wanted her to bear the traits of African-American women and be truly beautiful.”

Getting “The Princess and the Frog” right is of enormous importance to Disney. The company needs hits, as evidenced by a recently announced 97 percent drop in quarterly profit. The Disney Princess merchandising line is a $4 billion annual business and the company has plans for Tiana to be everywhere. Get ready for Tiana dresses, elaborate dolls and Halloween costumes.

The movie also marks a return by Disney to traditional hand-drawn animation. A failure could be the final nail in the coffin of an art form pioneered by Walt Disney himself.

In the last 20 years, Disney has made huge strides in depicting race. In 1997, the company’s television division presented a live-action version of “Cinderella” with a black actress, the singer Brandy, playing the lead. In 1998, “Mulan” was celebrated as a rare animated feature that depicted Chinese characters with realistic-looking slanted eyes; most animated films (even those from Japan) had Westernized versions of Asian people until that time.

THE debate surrounding “The Princess and the Frog” illustrates how difficult it is to deal with race in animation, experts say. Cartoons by their nature trade in caricatures.

Mainstream producers have largely avoided characters of color for fear of offending minority groups, although black producers have been creating cartoons featuring stereotyped characters since the days of “Fat Albert.”

Disney can take some comfort in a backlash to the backlash.

“This is one of those situations where I am ashamed of the black community,” Levi Roberts said in a YouTube video. “Are we being racist ourselves by saying this movie shouldn’t have a white prince?”

Perhaps the final word — for now — should come from somebody who is African-American and a former Disney animator.

“Overly sensitive people see racial or ethnic slights in every image,” wrote Floyd Norman, whose credits span from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Mulan,” in a 2007 essay on the Web site Jim Hill Media. “And in their zeal to sanitize and pasteurize everything, they’ve taken all the fun out of cartoon making.”

    Her Prince Has Come. Critics, Too., NYT, 29.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/fashion/31disney.html?hp






First Black Mayor in City

Known for Klan Killings


May 22, 2009
The New York Times


The city of Philadelphia, Miss., where members of the Ku Klux Klan killed three civil rights workers in 1964 in one of the era’s most infamous acts, on Tuesday elected its first black mayor.

James A. Young, a Pentecostal minister and former county supervisor, narrowly beat the incumbent, Rayburn Waddell, in the Democratic primary. There is no Republican challenger.

The results, announced Wednesday night, were a turning point for a mostly white city of 7,300 people in east-central Mississippi still haunted by the killings, which captured front-page headlines across the nation and were featured in the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning.”

“This shows a complete change of attitude and a desire to move forward,” said Mr. Young, 53, a Philadelphia native who integrated the local elementary school as the only black student in his sixth-grade class in the mid-1960s. “When I campaigned, the signs on the doors said, ‘Welcome,’ and I actually felt welcome.”

Mississippi has the largest number of black elected officials in the country, but they rarely come from majority-white electorates, said Joseph Crespino, an expert in Mississippi history at Emory University. Mr. Crespino called Mr. Young’s victory “remarkable.”

“I think this speaks well to the town of Philadelphia,” he said. “Residents there have lived with the memory and the trauma of the killings for many decades.”

The city is 56 percent white, 40 percent black and 2 percent American Indian, according to the Census Bureau.

On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers who were registering voters in Philadelphia — James Chaney, who was black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were white — were murdered.

In a 1967 trial, seven of 18 defendants were convicted of conspiracy. Then in 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old former Klansman, was convicted of manslaughter for the killings and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Like so many other Southern cities in the civil rights era, Philadelphia had its national image cemented permanently by one infamous event. But this week, residents saw an opportunity for redefinition.

“It will erase the thought that we’re just a Southern racist town,” said Dorothy Webb, 72, a white retired school principal who said she had voted for Mr. Young.

Mr. Young said that he recalled the cold stares of his all-white classmates at Neshoba Central Elementary School, but that in recent years, racial tensions had abated.

“There was no real negativism in this campaign,” he said, adding, “There was no door slammed in my face.”

Mr. Young campaigned on a shoestring budget, with a dozen workers and volunteers, no yard signs, buttons or T-shirts. His campaign staff credits the Obama campaign with increasing the registration of black and young voters in Philadelphia.

But Mr. Young said the main advantage was his willingness to campaign in all neighborhoods, white and black, adding, “I even talked to my opponent’s mother.”

    First Black Mayor in City Known for Klan Killings, NYT, 22.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/22/us/22mayor.html






Nobel Laureate Morrison

Dedicates Bench in Ohio


April 24, 2009
Filed at 8:03 a.m. ET
The New York Times


OBERLIN, Ohio (AP) -- Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison says her campaign to commemorate African-American historical sites has brought her home.

Morrison was in Ohio on Thursday to dedicate a memorial bench in Oberlin, a stop on the Underground Railroad. The 78-year-old author grew up in Lorain, 11 miles away in the region west of Cleveland, and says her books such as ''Beloved'' grew out of the stories shared around her mother's kitchen table.

The bench is one of 10 planned across the country as part of Morrison's ''A Bench by the Road Project'' marking key locations in African-American history.

She said Oberlin is an ideal spot for a bench, because it was a town where slaves on the run found assistance from both blacks and whites.


Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com

    Nobel Laureate Morrison Dedicates Bench in Ohio, NYT, 24.4.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/04/24/us/AP-US-People-Toni-Morrison.html






On Politics

New Face of G.O.P.

Brings a Brash Style


February 4, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The election last week of Michael Steele to be chairman of the Republican National Committee drew considerable notice, not surprisingly: he is the first African-American to hold that position in the party’s 155-year history.

Yet there are other ways that the selection of Mr. Steele, a former lieutenant governor from Maryland who lost a bid for the Senate in 2006, represents a break from the Republican past. And those could prove to be more significant than race, as the Republicans debate in the weeks ahead how much “opposition” they should put in the phrase “loyal opposition.” They face a president who is extraordinarily popular and a nation that appears weary of partisan politics as it confronts an economic crisis.

With Mr. Steele, the Republican Party has turned to someone who is markedly different from his recent predecessors in style and temperament. He is brash and brawny, takes chances that occasionally get him in trouble, and clearly relishes the idea of being portrayed as the fighting counterpoint to President Obama and the Democratic Party. This is not someone who is going to be spending a lot of time talking about microtargeting and the other mechanical aspects of politics.

The new face of the Republican Party does not seem to share the hunger for bipartisanship that Mr. Obama has made one of the stylistic touchstones of his first weeks in office. That became clear from the moment Mr. Steele took the job on Friday, as he all but invited the president of the United States to join him in the boxing ring.

“It’s going to be an honor to spar with him,” he said, before throwing down the gauntlet to Mr. Obama with a quotation from, apparently, an in-your-face late-1980’s rap song by Kool Moe Dee: “How ya like me now?” (Confession: A certain reporter initially suggested that Mr. Steele was invoking the country star Toby Keith, a reference that was convincingly challenged in a barrage of e-mail messages from readers.)

The stylistic and philosophical implications of the choice became even clearer when Mr. Steele appeared before House Republicans at a retreat on Saturday. Mr. Steele celebrated their refusal to give Mr. Obama a single vote for his economic recovery plan — albeit in language that was perhaps a tad eyebrow-raising, given the soberness of the country’s economic problems and the concern of some Republicans that the party was skating on thin ice.

“The goose egg you laid on the president’s desk was just beautiful,” he said.

(It is difficult to imagine Ken Mehlman, the buttoned-down lawyer who led the party during much happier days from 2005 to 2007, saying anything quite that colorful.)

This was the same Mr. Steele who, if he didn’t invent what became the signature chant of the Republican presidential campaign, certainly popularized it when he spoke at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota. “Drill, baby, drill,” he said, grinning broadly as the crowd picked up the slogan and repeated it for nearly 30 seconds.

This free-spirited way has gotten him in trouble. He ruffled Republican feathers in 2006 when he had a lunch with reporters at a fancy Washington D.C. restaurant in which he systematically disparaged President George W. Bush and his administration. The single condition he imposed on reporters at the lunch was that his remarks be attributed only to a “Republican Senate candidate” — though within 12 hours the world knew which Republican Senate candidate was trash-talking his president.

For a party as dispirited as his, Mr. Steele is certainly something of a tonic. The enthusiastic reception that greeted his elbows-out acceptance speech was a marked contrast to days of meetings that until that point had bordered between morose and laconic.

Yet while there are benefits to having a party leader who is given to a bit of showmanship — he will have little trouble getting bookings on the Sunday talk shows — there are arguably some risks here. When he spoke to Republicans on Saturday, he did something that some of his more cautious predecessors might have avoided: He set down out three markers to judge him by this year.

His three big targets, he announced, were the upstate New York Congressional district left vacant when Representative Kristen Gillibrand was tapped to replace Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. “I’m in the business of winning elections,” he said.

That New York Congressional seat, a relatively conservative district that had only recently gone Democratic, seems like a prime target for the Republican Party. Virginia and New Jersey are more problematic, and Mr. Steele could find himself wishing he had not bet on a trifecta come November.

Most significant, though, is where Mr. Steele placed himself in the debate about how aggressively the Republicans should resist Mr. Obama and his financial stimulus plan. Mr. Obama’s aides, who have conspicuously resisted getting drawn into the fight Mr. Steele is trying to pick, described the remarks as an attempt by Mr. Steele — who is viewed by some conservatives as not being conservative enough — to shore up his standing with his base.

Mr. Steele is taking over his party at what could prove to be an historically pivotal moment. A Gallup Poll released last week found that 36 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrats, compared with 28 percent who said they were Republicans. That is the largest lead Democrats have enjoyed in that poll since 1983. And Mr. Obama’s popularity cuts across party lines.

“The American people are patient to turn this thing around,” said David Plouffe, who was Mr. Obama’s campaign manager. “What they are not patient for is more of the same Washington politics. The real danger here — particularly for those who supported the economic policies responsible for getting us here — is to not be part of doing all you can to dig this country out of this economic hole. You seem to be sailing directly into the headwinds of where the American people are.”

If the economic plan passes Congress without significant Republican support and then does little to help the economy over the next two years, Mr. Steele’s combative style could help conservatives build a case for a return to power. If the economic plan pays off, though, many Democrats suggest that he may find himself sharing blame for a miscalculation that could set the Republican Party back for a long while to come.

    New Face of G.O.P. Brings a Brash Style, NYT, 4.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/us/politics/03web-nagourney.html







Uphold the Voting Rights Act


January 25, 2009
The New York Times

Some people claim that Barack Obama’s election has ushered in a “postracial” America, but the truth is that race, and racial discrimination, are still very much with us. The Supreme Court should keep this reality in mind when it considers a challenge to an important part of the Voting Rights Act that it recently agreed to hear. The act is constitutional — and clearly still needed.

Section 5, often called the heart of the Voting Rights Act, requires some states and smaller jurisdictions to “preclear” new voting rules with the Justice Department or a federal court. When they do, they have to show that the proposed change does not have the purpose or effect of discriminating against minority voters.

When Congress enacted Section 5 in 1965, officials in the South were creating all kinds of rules to stop blacks from voting or being elected to office. Discrimination against minority voters may not be as blatant as it was then, but it still exists. District lines are drawn to prevent minorities from winning; polling places are located in places hard for minority voters to get to; voter ID requirements are imposed with the purpose of suppressing the minority vote.

After holding lengthy hearings to document why the Voting Rights Act was still needed, Congress reauthorized it in 2006 with votes of 98 to 0 in the Senate and 390 to 33 in the House. Now, a municipal utility district in Texas that is covered by Section 5 is arguing that it is unconstitutional, and that it imposes too many burdens on jurisdictions covered by it.

If the Supreme Court — which is expected to hear arguments in the case this spring — strikes down Section 5, it would be breaking radically with its own precedents. The court has repeatedly upheld the Voting Rights Act against challenges, and as recently as 2006 it ruled that complying with Section 5 is a compelling state interest. It would also be an extreme case of conservative judicial activism, since the 14th and 15th Amendments expressly authorize Congress to enact laws of this sort to prevent discrimination in voting.

A perennial criticism of Section 5 is that it covers jurisdictions it should not, or fails to cover ones it should. There is no way to construct a perfect list, but Congress has done a reasonable job of drawing up the criteria, and it has built flexibility into the act. Jurisdictions are allowed to “bail out” if they can show that they no longer need to be covered, and courts can add new jurisdictions if they need to be covered.

In last fall’s election, despite his strong national margin of victory — and hefty campaign chest — Mr. Obama got only about one in five white votes in the Southern states wholly or partly covered by Section 5. And there is every reason to believe that minority voters will continue to face obstacles at the polls.

If Section 5 is struck down, states and localities would have far more freedom to erect barriers for minority voters — and there is little doubt that some would do just that. We have not arrived at the day when special protections like the Voting Rights Act are not needed.

    Uphold the Voting Rights Act, NYT, 25.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/opinion/25sun1.html






A 44-Year Journey Ends on a Bus to D.C.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Washington Post
Staff Writer
By Robert E. Pierre

The charter bus rolled all night, through the cities of Montgomery, Atlanta and Richmond, stopping only for bathroom breaks and an IHOP breakfast. A few riders watched movies and listened to music. Most slept the entire way.

But yesterday afternoon, as the weary travelers rolled onto 14th Street, past the Holocaust Museum, the Washington Monument and the Mall, 18-year-old Darianne Allen began to cry.

She stared at all the buses, cars and people in the streets as her classmates pulled out cameras and pressed their faces to the glass.

"The moment just hit me," Allen said, looking at her mother and wiping away tears. "It's really real."

It was the culmination of a 16-hour journey, a grinding two-year campaign and at least four decades of struggle to turn the voting rights earned 44 years ago into something few thought imaginable. Fittingly, the journey for the students, parents and educators began with this simple prayer: "Jesus, we thank you for having the 44th president of the United States as a black African American."

Theirs was one of thousands of buses that have converged on Washington from across the nation to mark the start of Barack Obama's presidency. They all came for their own reasons, bringing their stories and their hopes to the nation's capital.

Selma, Ala., sent at least three buses. The city's name is seared in the American psyche because of what happened when peaceful marchers were brutally attacked on Bloody Sunday in 1965. The head wounds of John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, are still visible today.

It was Lewis who led more than 600 protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965. The marchers were headed to Montgomery, the state capital, in their campaign for voting rights. Footage of Alabama state troopers attacking the peaceful march helped quicken the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Today in Selma, the inauguration of Obama stands as a testament to what's possible when little people stand up. Locals contend that without the struggle for voting rights centered in their small city, there would be no Barack Obama.

The 40 students, parents and educators who left Selma High on the bus Sunday night carried with them the soaring hopes from Obama's election and the hard realities of their lives. Selma still wrestles with issues of equality, education and jobs. So much unfinished business remains from the civil rights years.

Denise Roy, who works at Alabama State University in Montgomery, says progress at home has been stalled by a lack of unity of purpose among black residents, who make up 70 percent of Selma's population.

"We are too easy to get complacent with the little bit we have," said Roy, 43, who is planning an anti-violence campaign in Selma.

Selma High's bookkeeper, Nadine Sturdivant, understands Roy's frustration. She was 2 years old on Bloody Sunday when mounted police stormed into her parents' back yard chasing protesters. But now her concerns are black-on-black violence in her home town. A school dance last weekend ended in a brawl, and six students were suspended. Some of the kids on the bus had felt the sting of pepper spray when police were subduing the other students.

She and her daughter, the homecoming queen, got on the bus to be a part of this historical moment.

It's not just violence locally that concerns her; it's what's going on in Iraq. "People want to see us come out of this war," she said. "What are we fighting for? Why are all these people getting killed? We need change."

A friend of hers, Lesia James, a Selma High administrator, planned the Washington trip. Last summer, the two were on different sides in the city's mayoral race -- itself a symbol of progress: Both candidates were black. Sturdivant's pick came out on top, defeating James Perkins Jr., who became the city's first black mayor in 2000.

"I beat her," Sturdivant said, playfully.

"She got me this time," James said, brushing off the loss.

It's good to be able to fight about electoral politics and not have to worry -- as their parents did -- about just having the right to vote, the women acknowledge.

Whatever political differences they have, the women are dedicated to the students. Both want them to have a sense of history and a foundation for success. But the challenges are significant.

Selma High has until recently struggled to meet statewide academic standards, and the school is nearly as segregated now as it was 50 years ago.

"I don't really have white friends," said 11th-grader Roneika Deloach. "I do have one white friend at Selma High. I think she is the only" white student.

"It's two at the school," a classmate chimed in.

Deloach is a member of the National Honor Society and student government. She's looking for a way out of Selma.

"Selma is a good place to live if you are retired, but for the children, it's not a lot to do," said Deloach, who plans to move to Huntsville.

Maya Rudolph, 16, agreed.

"It's not a good city for youth. It's a good city for the old people."

The chaperons, most in their 40s, cringed at being thought of as old but did not protest her basic point.

The sour economy is shuttering Selma's businesses and forcing furloughs, and African Americans make up the majority of those who live in entrenched poverty.

Obama's populist message, however, trumped Selma's problems for mothers such as Donna Allen, 39, who trekked to Washington with her daughter, Darianne.

Donna Allen has two younger sons, ages 12 and 7, and works for a youth development program. She often meets students with serious problems inflicted by adults: bad marriages, situations of abuse.

But hers is a journey of hope.

"He gave us something different to look forward to," she said of Obama. "I want my daughter to have a sense of feeling that even though people struggle, there is always a chance that you could be someone great."

    A 44-Year Journey Ends on a Bus to D.C., WP, 20.1.2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/19/AR2009011903243.html?hpid%3Dtopnews&sub=new






King Day in Atlanta:

Protests Mix With Prayer


January 20, 2009
The New York Times


ATLANTA — The Rev. Rick Warren made an important stop here Monday on his way to Washington to deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration: he gave the keynote address at the annual birthday service for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the church Dr. King called home, Ebenezer Baptist.

And just as Mr. Warren’s part in the inauguration ceremony has been criticized because of his stands against same-sex marriage and abortion rights, demonstrators here denounced his prominent place on Monday’s program.

Still, the sanctuary was filled to capacity and an overflow crowd watched on a giant screen outside as the church once again served as a de facto town hall for this largely African-American city celebrating Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency. Nearly every one of more than a dozen speakers mentioned Mr. Obama, to loud applause.

“It’s definitely something in the air,” said Erika Nalls, a railroad company employee. “I couldn’t make it to Washington, so I wanted to be here.”

Mr. Warren has declined to give interviews about either of his appearances.

For his address Monday, he borrowed a theme from an anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” saying humility, integrity, generosity and community were the means of overcoming adversity.

“Martin Luther King was a mighty tool in the hand of God, but God isn’t through,” he said. “Justice is a journey, and we’re getting further and further along.”

He did not mention homosexuality or abortion.

About 100 protesters gathered outside with signs that read, “No bigotry in MLK’s church” and “We still have a dream.”

Craig Washington, who manages an AIDS prevention program, said, “We can agree to disagree, but we cannot build bridges by rewarding those who build walls to lock people out.”

Several protesters said Mr. Warren’s invitation to the inauguration, where the president-elect is striving for an image of national unity, was more palatable than his appearance at a service honoring Dr. King, whose message centered on tolerance.

But Isaac Newton Farris Jr., president of the King Center, which organizes the annual service on the King holiday, defended the choice of Mr. Warren. Introducing him, Mr. Farris said from the pulpit that the “beloved community” that Dr. King tried to build had room for liberals and conservatives alike, as well as gay men and lesbians.

“It’s appropriate that we give a fair and courteous hearing to those we may disagree with as we search for common ground to resolve the great conflicts of our times,” said Mr. Farris, Dr. King’s nephew. “Certainly Pastor Warren is on a spiritual journey, like us, and perhaps he can learn from those he disagrees with.”

Mr. Warren was booked for the service before the election and long before he was invited to participate in the inauguration, King Center officials said.

Before he began speaking, a woman in the audience yelled, “Rick Warren is a bigot!” She and her companions were quickly escorted out. Others in the audience yelled, “We love you, Pastor Warren!”

Without losing composure, Mr. Warren told the audience that a photograph of Dr. King hung on the wall in his office.

“I am going, as you know, to give the invocation tomorrow,” he said. “But this means more to me personally.”

    King Day in Atlanta: Protests Mix With Prayer, NYT, 20.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/us/20king.html






King Service Under Way

at His Atlanta Church


January 19, 2009
Filed at 11:22 a.m. ET
The New York Times


ATLANTA (AP) -- A service marking what would have been civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s 80th birthday is under way at the Atlanta church where he preached from 1960 until his death in 1968.

This year's keynote speaker at Ebenezer Baptist Church is the Rev. Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist who opposes gay marriage. Afterward, Warren heads to Washington to give the invocation at Tuesday's presidential inauguration, expected to draw more than 3 million people.

Only one of King's three living children, the Rev. Bernice King, attended the Atlanta event. Martin Luther King III was already in Washington. Another son, Dexter King, who lives in California, did not attend.

The large sanctuary in Atlanta was packed, with dozens of people left outside.

King Service Under Way at His Atlanta Church,