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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Some thoughts on an article about ethnicity...

On Facebook, someone posted this link to an article written by a woman about how to inquire about ethinicity without "being an asshole".  I just wanted to share my personal thoughts and reactions to the article because it touches on several different issues.

First, I do not understand (at all) why inquiring about someone's background is at all offensive, unless it is followed by some sort of racist comment, joke, or something similar.  We live in a society where people constantly want to divide themselves up according to their ethnicity, sexual orientation, or some other factor.  Don't believe me?  Look at the clubs, groups, holidays, etc. that spring up based around an identity of some sort.  I have no problem celebrating different groups, but to then turn around and be all offended when people ask about these same groups is *EXTREMELY* hypocritical and nonsensical.  By asking where your family is originally from (ok, maybe not the best phrasing, but still) or a similar question, you are in fact honoring the person's background.  Is there anything wrong with that?  I think not!  Now, I will admit that there are people who ask these sorts of questions in order to make judgments, but it is unwise to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Also, the writer complains about her perception that these questions promote "othering".  I understand this complaint, and in fact am not fond of othering myself.  But, again, I think this complaint is unfounded.  By asking where someone is from, you are seeking to understand them and broaden your horizons.  Does it lead to some overgeneralization?  Yes, but any categorization will do that.  It sucks, but that is human nature.  I do look forward to the day where people won't just judge based on appearance or other external factors, but I do not know if that day will ever come.  Until then, the best way to combat prejudice is to help people see that "the other" is not so different from them which can only promote understanding.

I am definitely annoyed at the implication in the article that only white people ask these sorts of questions and then only of non-white people.  I have had people of many different ethnic and racial background ask me about where my family is from.  It is a good conversation starter, because it is entirely possible that there may be something in the backgrounds of both the questioner and the questionee that can lead to a great conversation.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, this article seems to come from a viewpoint that I find very annoying and problematic.  Basically the viewpoint is of someone who wants to celebrate their ethnic background, but only in their own way and anyone who is white (let's face it that is the only questioner she talks about) who asks these sorts of questions is an asshole.  So basically, whites are supposed to let people of other ethnicities celebrate their ethnicities while not inquiring about the ethnicities themselves.  It is an extreme double standard and, quite frankly, racist insofar as it targets people of a specific race.  Also, the viewpoint lumps all white people together while condemning white people who do the same thing.  Gee, hypocrisy much?

So, do we celebrate different ethnicities and seek to understand them or do we look at everyone the same?  These two goal are, in fact, mutually exclusive.  Either we acknowledge and celebrate the impact that different ethnicities have on us as individuals and as a society while acknowledging that we are all humans and worthy of respect or we act like everyone is the same.  Personally, I choose the first.  While I may not like everything about it, I do see it as having the best overall impact.

Friday, July 5, 2013

On the Voting Rights Act decision

On June 25, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Shelby County v. Holder which turned out to be an incredibly controversial decision.  Within a short time of the issuance of the decision, people were fulminating about how the decision would prove to be a setback for voting rights and implying that discrimination would once again run rampant.

The problem is that the decision is, in fact, a narrowly tailored decision that does make sense.  What the Court held is that Section 4(b) of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (as reauthorized in 2006) was unconstitutional because the section relies on the formula that was enacted during the 1972 reauthorization of the VRA that has not been changed since.  The Court also says that

                    Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions. Such a
                    formula is an initial prerequisite to a determination that exceptional conditions
                    still exist justifying such an “extraordinary departure from the traditional
                    course of relations between the States and the Federal Government.” Presley,
                    502 U. S., at 500–501. Our country has changed, and while any racial
                    discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation
                    it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.

In other words, if Congress were to update the formula to address issues that exist now (as opposed to using the old formula), the new formula could very well pass constitutional muster.

Before I go any further, I want to explain what exactly is at stake here.  Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act contains the formula which determines if a jurisdiction is subject to preclearance.  Any covered jurisdiction (using the now unconstitutional formula) has to submit any changes in voting laws to the Department of Justice or to a three judge panel to be approved prior to that change being enforced.  Preclearance was deemed to be necessary due to a historical pattern of discrimination in these areas against minority voters.  Any law which was deemed to have an adverse impact on minority voters would not be approved.   Basically, this was intended to prevent these jurisdictions from attempting to circumvent the law.

Note that preclearance itself was not declared unconstitutional.  That being said, preclearance cannot be applied at the current time due to the lack of a formula by which to decide which jurisdictions are covered by preclearance.  In other words, Congress must come up with and pass a new way to determine which jurisdictions are still discriminating against minorities in order to have those jurisdictions subject to Section 5 (i.e. preclearance).

Despite all the fulminations and complaints about this decision, it is not the harbinger of a resurgence of discrimination.  Rather, the Court has given Congress a clear path by which to allow section 4(b) to pass constitutional muster, namely rewrite the formula to apply it to today's problems rather than to the problems of 40 years ago.  Given the extensive nature of the hearings as described in the dissent, this should not be difficult to write, although it may be difficult to pass due to the polarized nature of the current Congress.

So, is this decision the horrible decision worthy of all the flak it is getting?  I think not.  It is, in fact, a well reasoned and very reasonable decision.  I just wish that people would actually read these decisions before demonizing them.  Or is that too much to ask?