99 Problems, but Gay Marriage Ain’t One

The ham-fisted view that African Americans oppose gay marriage is narrow-minded and fails to capture a dynamic cultural evolution.

For the longest time we have been told that the Black community strongly opposes marriage equality, aka “gay marriage”. Since President Obama’s announcement  of his support nearly three weeks ago, a surprising number of prominent members of the Black community have come forward with similar sentiments.

On May 19, the NAACP (perhaps the most prominent civil rights organization in the country) endorsed marriage equality. On May 23rd, Colin Powell did the same. But the most powerful and bravest (by far) comments came from the hip-hop world, in which homophobia and blatant anti-gay hatred is rampant and often celebrated. Here’s the biggest man in the industry.

This fits into Jay-Z’s effort to clean up his image following his marriage to the nontarnishable Beyoncé and the birth of their daughter Blue Ivy. The following, I did not see coming. 

50’s views on the issue aren’t perfect (like many straight men, he is afraid of the legions of gay men that desire him), but hey, it’s a sign of progress and a testament to how far the country has come. So how did we get to our current view of the Black community and gay rights anyway? Surely, the polls contain at least a grain of truth, but it misses the larger picture.

A major reason is that so many of the country’s Black leaders are members of the clergy, who are disproportionately against same sex marriage. Until the President’s feelings were made public, there has been a great deal of silence on the issue, except among the pastors – and we assumed that the rest of the community felt the same way. Consider the Catholic Church for instance – whereas the clergy are among the most vocal opponents, the laity are, among Christians at least, among the most tolerant and supportive. Just wait until more prominent Blacks come out in support, just as Catholics have.

The Black community, like the President, will evolve its stance on LGBT rights and acceptance. Until now, no one has had an honest discussion with them about it.


Citizens United Explained

This week’s post is a bit longer than usual but bear with me – it deals with the most important Supreme Court decision in at least a generation. This is a review of a truly epic essay written by legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin in this month’s New Yorker, entitled “Money Unlimited, How Chief Justice John Roberts orchestrated the Citizens United Decision“. The essay will be relevant for years to come, and although it’s a bit long (just under 10,000 words), I highly recommend a full read of the original.

The Citizens United ruling is the latest in a back-and-forth struggle over campaign finance laws that has been waging for over a hundred year. For decades, the Supreme Court has been accused by conservatives of judicial activism – legislating from the bench by overturning laws created by democratically elected legislatures. According to Toobin, the tables completely turned in 2010 when a more conservative Court went out of its way to overturn nearly a century of Court precedent and federal law. But first, a little background.

McCain Feingold

In 2002, with bi-partisan support, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws which prohibited corporations and unions from funding campaign ads in the leadup to an election. The justification was that candidate ads (in support of an individual or party for an election) were different from issue ads (in support of an idea in general). The latter was still permitted under the law. Essentially, a corporation could run as many adds as it want on a specific issue (abortion rights for example), but the minute it endorses or opposes a candidate just before an election, it is breaking the law.

In 2003, the law was challenged in the Supreme Court (McConnell v. FEC) and was upheld. In 2007, it was challenged again (FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life), and survived again, but suffered a few wounds that watered down its mandate. McCain Feingold was to be the main target of the Citizens United case.

Citizens United

Inspired by the success of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization attempted to air a documentary, Hillary: The Movie, just before the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. The FEC found the documentary to be “electioneering communication” and forbade it. To the Supreme Court they went.

The argument offered by Citizens United was very clever. They saw no problem with the McCain-Feingold law but instead argued that Hillary: the Movie was merely a documentary, protected as free speech, and was not, a campaign ad. What was at question, supposedly, was not the constitutionality of an existing law, but the nature of a small and obscure documentary. The decision came down to two points:

  • Corporations and individuals have the same 1st Amendment right to free speech. If the government can ban a documentary, then what’s stopping it from banning a book? A documentary is basically a form of free speech, just like a book, and we would never prohibit a corporation or group from publishing a book.
  • Money is speech. In the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo, the Court equated free speech with spending money because “every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money”.

In spring 2009, the Court ruled 5-4 that the law does not apply to the documentary…almost. In June of that year, the Court announced that it would hear the case again, but this time, to decide whether or not to overturn previous decisions. The Court does not announce that it is “considering” overturning precedent unless it has already made up its mind. Without being asked to do so, the 5 Justices were determined to rule not just on the small and obscure documentary, but on the constitutionality of the entire law and campaign finance regulation as a whole. In January 2010, to nobody’s surprise, the Court ruled 5-4 that McCain Feingold was unconstitutional.

In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote, “If the First Amendment has any force…it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

The Aftermath

Corporations and unions can spend as much money as they want on political campaigns. More money in politics – that’s what was missing!

For the sake of brevity, I’ll let Justice Stevens, who retired from the Court before the final decision on Citizens United was handed down, speak for me:

“Five Justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law…The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare…Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings.”

What’s a Hispanic?

The non-Hispanic White population is declining whereas that of White Hispanics is increasing. The difference between the two, or lack thereof, will hold the key to determining mainstream American identity over the coming generations.

As with any conversation on race, last week’s post on the relative decline in the population of White America sparked some interesting questions. What does it mean to be White anyway? And most importantly, in the American context of racial and ethnic demography, what exactly is a Hispanic or a Latino?

The boundaries between racial and ethnic categories are always fuzzy and it doesn’t get much fuzzier than the American invention of the word Hispanic. To get the heart of the matter, one must discern the difference between the American conceptions of race and ethnicity.

Let’s lay out at the outset that race is a construct and that the categories are fluid and not based in genetic classification. Race is, however, seen as having to do with geographic origin, phenotype and identity. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is almost entirely based on culture and identity. The US Census uses the following racial categories:

  • White: having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa
  • Black or African American: having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa
  • Asian: having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent
  • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander
  • American Indian and Alaska Native
  • Other
  • Two or more races

Notice, there is no category for Hispanic or Latino. That is because the US Government considers these to be ethnic categories (not racial) and includes people of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race. For example, check out the following Hispanic Americans.

Most folks may not realize that Carlton Banks’ real name is Alfonso Ribeiro and that Charlie Sheen was born Carlos Irwin Esteves. Black and White, but both Hispanic.

I know many of you are already saying, but Charlie Sheen isn’t Hispanic – that he’s just a really weird White guy. That is just the point, White and Hispanic (just like Black and Hispanic) are not mutually exclusive terms. Let’s not forget that Latin America also received millions of European immigrants over the past few centuries. Argentina is arguably the Whitest country in the world. In fact, a majority of Hispanics and Latinos in the US are considered White by the government (but then again so are Arabs).

This begs the question, is it useful to have a Hispanic category if it includes the likes of Martin Sheen, Christina Aguilera and Andy Garcia? When demographers say that the US is going to be a majority minority nation in about three decades, they mean that the non-Hispanic White population will dip below 50%.

There is a possibility, however, that many Hispanics will assimilate into mainstream White and Black culture, as many have already done. This is why most Americans don’t consider Christina Aguilera and Charlie Sheen to be Hispanic in any real sense. By 2050, the US may be less than 50% non-Hispanic White, but since so many Hispanics are already White, this milestone may have little, if any real impact on American identity – it will depend largely on whether in the coming decades, White Hispanics see themselves as being primarily Hispanic or White. Let’s keep in mind that throughout American history, many European immigrants were not initially considered White – the term has been constantly evolving/expanding.

Also, there are already four majority minority states, including Texas and California, where the Hispanic and non-Hispanic White populations are almost equal. The non-Hispanic White community in these states still maintains an overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of political and economic power and cultural capital. So perhaps things might not be that different after all.

White Baby Population Falls Below 50%

White babies are now a minority. White people will soon be one too. Will these changes affect the way we interact among one another?

In the year leading up to July 2011, about 4 million babies were born in the United States, of which less than 2 million were non-Hispanic White. This is the first time in American history that there is no racial/ethnic majority among newborns.

The baby numbers came as no surprise to most demographers who had expected this moment for years, but it’s only the beginning of an even larger demographic shift.

In most parts of the world, the thought of an American congers up the image of a White person. This is understandable given that the White population has always represented a large majority of the country, but this majority is shrinking fast. In 2010, the non-Hispanic White population accounted for 63.7% of the total population – the lowest it’s been in our nation’s history.

By the 2040s, the overall non-Hispanic White population in the country will likely fall below 50% for the first time ever. This may have dramatic implications in terms of what it means to be an American. In many ways,  it can already be felt. In a few decades, the US will be the only major Western country to not have a White majority.

I see two potential scenarios. On the one hand, this may be the dawn of an age in which the organizing principle of societal categories will be based on something other than race – perhaps class, religion, geography, ideology. The possibilities to divide are endless, but for the first time, race may not be at the forefront. Another possibility is that the White population, having lost their majority, will grow increasingly insular and fearful of other communities. Let me know what you think will happen when the US become a majority minority country.

Hyundai – from Ashy to Classy

American manufacturing has been in decline for decades. The rise of Hyundai is indicative of who has been succeeding.

For those of you who lived in the US during the 80s and 90s, you may recall the embarrassment that went along with driving the a Hyundai. If not, allow me to refresh your memory.

  1. How do you make a Hyundai go faster? A towtruck.
  2. What’s on pages 4-5 of the Hyundai owner’s manual? A bus schedule.

Even praise of the vehicle highlighted its affordability rather than quality. $5,000 was cheap, even in 1986.

A lot has changed since then. Hyundai was able to replicate the success of Japanese car makers decades earlier. When Toyota, Honda and Nissan began exporting cars to the US in large number in the post WW2 period, they too were ridiculed for being small, weak and cheap. Now, there is more or less a consensus that the Japanese make better cars than Americans. This is not to say that American consumers suddenly decided to change their minds and prefer foreign cars. Rather, the foreign cars got better, and foreign manufacturers learned a lot more about American consumer mentality.

This is the dream of most manufacturers in emerging markets – gain a foothold in rich countries with cheap alternatives and gradually improve quality and marketing until you can offer a better product than the domestic competition. It took the Japanese a couple of generations to overcome the initial stigma. It took Hyundai less than two decades. Hyundai (along with its partner Kia) is currently the 4th largest automobile manufacturer in the world, and the fastest growing.

20 years ago, nobody would have guessed that a Hyundai would soon look like this.
The question for me now is, which improved first, vehicle quality or marketing? If better marketing leads to better sales, then that profit can be invested in better quality. But then again, can you sell lemons with good commercials? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.  Either way, Hyundai has enough money to regularly invest in Superbowl ads (which now cost about $3 million for 30 seconds) that focus on performance rather than affordability.

At first glance, this might not seem significant – there was a company that wasn’t that good, and then it became good. So what? Does the Hyundai experience signify a larger trend? Yes – especially among Korean companies.

Samsung is now the largest IT company in the world in terms of revenue – not bad for a company that worked mostly in ship-building and construction a few decades ago. LG is even more similar to Hyundai in that it entered the US markets with cheap consumer electronics (remember Goldstar?) and invested heavily in R&D and marketing. On the list of largest IT companies by revenue, LG is currently just behind Intel.

This does not spell doom for the American economy. The rise of knowledge industries is real, and even Detroit has witnessed a remarkable turnaround in the past couple of years. But companies like Hyundai, as indicative of the Korean economy, will continue to emerge. Fareed Zakaria said it best when describing his book, The Post-American World, as being “not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else”.

In 2009, the Hyundai Genesis was named the North American Car of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Earlier this year, the Hyundai Elantra was given the same honor for 2012. It won’t be long before Hyundai joins in on the chorus of mockery directed at Chinese and Indian cars when they start entering the US market.

Smokers Need not Apply

I recently came across the following “recruitment restriction” at the bottom a World Health Organizations (WHO) employment website.

  • Policy on Non-Recruitment of Smokers: WHO has a smoke-free environment and does not recruit smokers or other tobacco users who do not indicate a willingness to stop smoking. This policy underscores the Organization’s commitment to promoting a tobacco-free environment.

Immediately after the clause is a link to frequently asked questions on WHO’s smoking policy. All candidates who fill out the online application must answer two smoking related questions:

  • “Do you smoke or use tobacco products?”
  • “If you currently smoke or use tobacco products, would you continue to do so if employed by WHO?”

An affirmative answer to either of these questions will mean that the applicant will not be considered for selection. Keep in mind that this applies to newly recruited staff. If you were already a smoker by the time the policy was implemented, you can still smoke. The consequences for smoking following recruitment are vague, however. Violators will be treated as having falsified information on their application form and be subject to “disciplinary action”. No clue what that means.

So here’s the question. Is it OK for the WHO to restrict employment to non-smokers? After all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that cigarette smoking accounts for 443,000 deaths in the US alone – that’s 20% of all deaths. But then what about alcohol? Surely, excessive drinking leads to many deaths as well – should the WHO ban heavy drinkers? Is it fair that healthy employees have to subsidize the health insurance policies of their unhealthy (by choice) colleagues? Is it your employer’s business what you do outside of the workplace? Where do we draw the line?

Obama Endorses Marriage Equality

After years of evolving his position on the issue, Obama has become the first sitting President to support same-sex marriage.

For many this is an announcement that has been years in the making. When Obama stated during the 2008 campaign that he believed in traditional marriage, but that gay and lesbian couples should be treated fairly and equally, most of his supporters thought of it as a wink wink campaign tactic to win over those Americans who were opposed to or unsure about gay marriage. At the same time, his detractors thought of this as a wink wink campaign tactic to win over those Americans who were opposed to or unsure about gay marriage.

Almost four years later, the expectations of his supporters and the fears of his detractors have been actualized. Last night’s announcement came on the heels of Vice President Biden’s blunt (as always) statement supporting gay marriage last Sunday.

Many were quick to attribute the Veep’s comments as yet another gaffe. Now, however, it seems as if it was all part of some tactical plan to publicize the matter in advance of the big announcement. Well, here it is.

2012 has seen the issue of same-sex marriage rise to the forefront of political discourse and legislation. In February, Washington and Maryland became the 7th and 8th state, respectively, (in addition to D.C.) to legally recognize marriage equality. And yet, earlier this week, North Carolina became the 30th state in the country to explicitly ban gay marriage. It might seem like a losing battle for marriage equality supporters, but a slew of polls (here, here, here, here and here) have shown that, for the first time in history, more Americans support same-sex marriages than oppose it.

I give no major props to the President because I think he feigned confusion and adopted his evolving position to avoid taking a firm position earlier. But then again, had he taken a stand in 2008, he might not have been here to make this one in 2012.