Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a JD from Harvard Law School.
She was a fellow in the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth College and has been an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School Law School and its department of women's studies. Williams also worked as a consumer advocate in the office of the City Attorney in Los Angeles.
A member of the State Bar of California and the Federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Williams has served on the advisory council for the Medgar Evers Center for Law and Social Justice of the City University of New York and on the board of governors for the Society of American Law Teachers, among others.
Her publications include Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave, On Being the Object of Property, The Electronic Transformation of Law and And We Are Not Married: A Journal of Musings on Legal Language and the Ideology of Style. In 1993, Harvard University Press published Williams's The Alchemy of Race & Rights to widespread critical acclaim. She is also author of The Rooster's Egg (Harvard, 1995), Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (Reith Lectures, 1997) (Noonday Press, 1998) and, most recently, Open House: On Family Food, Friends, Piano Lessons and The Search for a Room of My Own (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004.)
It's a scary little world right now. Such wars of careless words. Such
panic on every breeze. If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, we have
let bloom a thousand words for fear.
I saw a puzzling banner on the door of a restaurant the other day. It
was a flag flanked by two aphorisms: God bless America and America bless
There are perfectly respectable reasons to disagree with, dislike or
distrust Jesse Jackson. His flaws as a human being are pretty well-known
at this point. Some feel his politics are driven by ego. He certainly is
prone to poetic puffery, as much disposed to allegorical tales in which
he plays Good Shepherd as was Ronald Reagan. He's cheated on his wife.
Most notoriously, Jesse Jackson's credibility as leader of anything like
a rainbow coalition was profoundly shaken by his "Hymietown" remark. I
am among those who distrust him as a result of that one statement,
profuse apologies notwithstanding. But if I distrust him, I distrust him
no more or less than the legions of other politicians who have made
racist, sexist or anti-Semitic comments and then apologized as though
they were children playing "words can never hurt you." I distrust Jesse
Jackson no more than I distrust Jesse Helms or Robert Byrd or Pat
Robertson. I distrust him no more than George Bush or John Ashcroft for
being so cozy with the anti-miscegenist, anti-Catholic Bob Jones
University (even as I also distrust the Catholic Church for its own
history of anti-Semitism). I worry about him exactly to the same extent
that I worry about those members of Congress who have spent their long,
complacent lives as members of country clubs that discriminate against
Jews and blacks and women.
In other words, while Jesse Jackson may have his problems, they can
probably be summed up in a paragraph. Kenneth Timmerman's book
Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson takes that one
paragraph and reworks it for well over 400 pages. While it is important
to document and acknowledge the shortcomings of public figures, it is
also important to maintain a sense of proportion. In reality, Jackson is
imperfect. In Timmerman's rendition, he is a bloated monster of evil
impulses and global appetites, a "dangerous fool," "a David Duke in
black skin" who "drifts off into mumbo-jumbo" "like a Halloween ghoul"
while "mau-mauing" corporations that "think it is cheaper to buy
protection" from the "race industry" he has purportedly milked dry.
The distance between the real Jackson and Timmerman's gargoyle is
inhabited by myth, stereotype, unsubstantiated accusation, illogic and
careless innuendo. It is a world in which the least mundanity of Jackson's existence is milled into
malevolent disguise. Even Martin Luther King Jr.'s death is described as
an event that "set him free. With King dead, Jackson could become his
own boss." If Jackson is an opportunist, he is not this heinous a one,
and nothing in the substance rather than the innuendo of this book says
otherwise. Yet the innuendo playsagainst a backdrop of slapdash
thinking, angry talk-show hosts, thoughtless prejudice. It plays to what
many in the majority of this society think they already know--how else
could such a carelessly contentious book make it onto the New York
Times bestseller list for more than a month?
In the real world, Jackson is paid for his advocacy, for his attempts at
conflict resolution and for his speaking. He is a skilled fundraiser for
a variety of nonprofit organizations. His salary, fees and contributions
are paid, quite straightforwardly, by constituents and supporters. One
may honestly disagree with what he advocates or about whether he's an
effective negotiator or is wise in his beliefs. To resent that he is
paid at all is a tendentious and indirect way of expressing that
disagreement, but that's the essence of what Timmerman seems to mean
when he uses the word "shakedown." In Timmerman's world, Jackson's
entire relation to money is one of "profiting,"
"profiting-at-the-expense-of" and "profiteering."
Yes, Jackson has been investigated a number of times for mishandling
funds, particularly during the setup years of Operation PUSH and
Operation Breadbasket. But despite numerous FBI investigations, despite
frequent IRS audits and despite intense media scrutiny, none of his
enterprises have ever been implicated in anything beyond the usual
scope--promptly corrected--of what all businesses, including nonprofits,
face in the course of accounting for their poor investment decisions,
particularly when those decisions are made by inexperienced and
disorganized administrators like Jackson. Nevertheless, even after
Jackson hires good accountants and smart financial counselors, Timmerman
refers to him as "still just a street hustler" who benefited from the
"most friendly of audits" and whose "scandalous" accounting practices
would surely have resulted in some sort of criminal action had not the
FBI's investigation of him been "shut down during the early months of
the Carter administration." That Timmerman is referring to the notorious
COINTELPRO operation, which disparaged the reputations and disrupted the
lives of so many civil rights leaders, is never made explicit.
To Timmerman, Jackson's every last tic is a deceit. Jesse Jackson is
wrong when he wears shorts and sandals--too déclassé and
inappropriate. He's wrong when he wears suits--too expensive and
self-indulgent. He's a fraud because his "black buddies" give him a
nice, large house in which to raise his family--a "fifteen room Tudor,"
mentioned so many times that to say Timmerman is obsessed with it might
be too kind. The house is in a nice neighborhood--how inauthentic! His
children go to private schools, graduate from college and turn out
well--how hypocritical of him to complain about opportunity for blacks!
His son is elected to Congress--what "dynastic" pretension!
There is a deep streak of class resentment running through this book.
Jackson is disparaged in the classic language of resentment toward the
bourgeoisie or the nouveau riche: He is demeaned for his grammar, for
his manners, for his conspicuous consumption. I think this class bias
accounts for Timmerman's irrational anger whenever Jackson moves beyond
what Timmerman deems his place in the social order. Jackson is painted
as too ignorant and lower class to play with the big boys; yet too
flashy and profligate to make political claims on behalf of the poor.
When Newsweek praises his children as "poised, proud and living
antidotes to inner-city despair," Timmerman snorts that "Jesse Jackson
with his three houses, his flush bank accounts, his first-class travel,
his lucrative friendships with foreign dictators...was as close to inner
city despair as the Beverly Hillbillies were to poverty."
Similarly, any use of economic leverage, including boycotts, is seen as
nothing more than "bullying," the surest sign of someone who'd rather be
staging a riot. Jackson's attempts to convince businesses to "provide
jobs and award contracts" to minorities is redescribed as making them
"pony up." Peaceful boycotts become racial extortion--as though
African-Americans have an obligation to shop till they drop, as though
free enterprise did not include the choice of taking one's business
elsewhere. It is an oddly unbalanced insistence, particularly since
Timmerman seems to feel that free enterprise includes the right of
businesses not to hire or serve any of those supposedly extortionist
When Jackson joins the board of General Motors, he's not working within
the system, heaven forbid, he's just "working" it. Indeed, General
Motors itself is indicted for putting him on its board, for being in
craven complicity with his "plundering." "For the scare-muffins who
still dominate many Fortune 500 companies, it has become cheaper to toss
bones to Jesse than to contest him in the court of public opinion,"
writes Timmerman, and quotes T.J. Rogers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor,
who refused to "pony up" to Jackson's concerns about hiring patterns:
"My advice to other CEO's? Why don't you grow a pair of balls? Or if
you're a female, whatever is the female equivalent."
Shakedown is flawed even more by racialized animus than by class
bias, however. "Uncle Jessie," as Timmerman calls him on several
occasions, wants "not just equal opportunity, but equal results."
Shakedown purports to be filled with proof that Jackson and his
"cohorts" have "more than." They are described not merely as lying,
cheating and stealing but as possessing much more than they deserve,
however they came by it. Every last car any member of the Jackson family
ever owned--his son's wife's BMW, for heaven's sake--is listed and
ridiculed, every last exotic make, size of engine, price paid, with a
rundown of features including vanity plates and whether the tires were
radial or whitewall.
There is nowhere offered in this book a chance that Jackson has a
humanitarian bone in his body, no chance that he adheres to principles
or beliefs. Jackson is not even a real minister, according to
Shakedown, but a "seminary drop-out" whose "church" (always in
quotes) is nothing more than a front for his "poverty pimping."
Anything Jackson is associated with becomes just too stupid or too
dangerous to respond to or take seriously. And so Jackson is described
as drawing up a "hit list" of corporations. In a passage astonishing for
its old-style Confederate paranoia, Timmerman worries that Jackson's
"inflammatory words" protesting the outcome of the 2000 election "were
dangerously close to a call for insurrection." Even Al Gore is depicted
as plotting with Jackson in hopes of "unleashing a massive outpouring of
'rage' in black communities across America." (Rage, too, is always in
Whether one likes Jackson or not, reading Shakedown one gets the
sense that Timmerman dislikes him for much more than his bad traits--and
that's where the popularity of this book becomes truly troubling.
Timmerman can't stand anyone who's ever shaken Jackson's hand. He
despises the civil rights "establishment." He hates Bill Clinton, the
Chicago Theological Seminary, African and African-American leaders of
every political stripe, hippies, bleeding hearts and the NAACP. Just for
extra wallop, every chapter or so he lumps them all together with Lenin,
Castro, Hitler, Stalin, socialist "plants," radical "functionaries,"
card-carrying members of the Communist party as well as motley others
"who are, unquestionably, enemies of the United States."
Jackson's closest friends are, according to Timmerman, members of the
Arab League, Louis Farrakhan, Yasir Arafat and Chicago street-gang
members. No matter that some of those gang members bullied Jackson,
engaging in true extortionary tactics; or, more poignantly, were kids to
whom Jackson tried to extend his ministry of social action. The fact
that some gang members were neighbors and family members, or the fact
that numbers of them ended up in jail, including Jackson's own
half-brother, is never evidence of the stresses, the sad scripts, the
human loss of ghetto life; in this book, they're all just part of
"Jesse's World." Based on association alone, street toughs become his
accomplices, his cohorts, his henchmen. Timmerman writes that Jackson
"boasted of his ties to the gangs: 'I get a lot of them to go to
church.'" Boast it may be, but it is not the ordinary or fair
understanding of "ties" to gangs. To describe it so implies something
more sinister, suggests much more.
Indeed, Jackson's mere family relation to Noah Robinson, his
half-brother and a gang member doing hard time, is like a bone that
Timmerman can't stop gnawing. It gets told and retold every few pages.
His no-good, murderous, jailed gang member of a brother. Ten paragraphs
later, Robinson is resurrected, still murderous, still jailed and still
working overtime as Jackson's "link" to gang life.
Similarly troubling is Timmerman's description of Jackson's association
with Jeff Fort, the jailed head of the Blackstone Rangers--none other
than the same Jeff Fort who recently made news as leader of the gang
with which the FBI says José Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomb"
conspirator, once hung. Indeed, Shakedown's appendix contains a
1983 wanted poster of Fort, then on the run from a narcotics charge. The
sarcastic caption reads: "The 'Reverend' Jackson's Best Pupil." Beneath
Fort's picture is the following legend: "Jackson--a seminarian dropout
who never even had his own church or congregation--" (perhaps the
twentieth time Timmerman repeats that) "claims to have 'baptized' Jeff
Fort in their early days together. Perhaps Fort should have sought the
services of a real 'Reverend.'"
This kind of indictment by suggestion occurs in almost every sentence of
the book. In one particularly troubling chapter, Timmerman tries to
implicate Jackson in funding Al Qaeda by something resembling "six
degrees of separation": In early 1999 Jackson negotiated a settlement
between Deutsche Bank and Kevin Ingram, one of the bank's top five
executives, who claimed he'd been fired because of his race. Ingram, who
never saw Jackson again, was arrested two years later for brokering a
sale of weapons on behalf of an Egyptian neighbor of his. The would-be
buyer was a Pakistani national, who, Timmerman implies, represented the
Pakistani military. Since September 11, "federal investigators have been
interrogating Ingram...about possible ties between the ultimate buyers
of the weapons in Pakistan and renegade Saudi terrorist Osama bin
Laden." Why? Apparently Ingram was once spotted in Sierra Leone by a
Florida diamond dealer who said as much while he was being questioned by
federal investigators regarding unrelated fraud charges. What's that got
to do with anything? Well, Libyan, Hezbollah and bin Laden operatives
are known to have traded diamonds in Liberia. Liberia, you ask? Hey,
Sierra Leone and Liberia are right next door to each other... What has
this got to do with Jesse Jackson? Ah. That goes back to President
Clinton (who, as the spawn of Satan and first American President ever to
have traveled to any part of sub-Saharan Africa, is dismissed by
Timmerman as having gone "on safari"). Clinton sent Jackson along as
part of a State Department team that tried and ultimately failed to
negotiate a peace in the diamond wars between Liberia and Sierra Leone.
As Timmerman leads readers down this tortured trail, Jackson's
"race-baiting tactics" in Ingram's case against Deutsche Bank give the
illusion of him being directly tied to Al Qaeda's illicit trade in
diamonds, a trade that has "flourished under the Lomé Accord
Jackson negotiated on behalf of the State Department."
In an era when our vast, unspecified war against terror has been used to
justify detaining José Padilla, an American citizen arrested on
American soil, in a military brig with no charges and no lawyer, one
does begin to worry about what those vague Al Qaeda and Blackstone
Ranger "links" will bring down upon inner-city Chicago and other
communities already so beleaguered by careless suspect profiling. At a
time when due process is fast being shelved as quaint and improvident,
one only hopes that criminality and political heresy will be measured in
some other forum than Timmerman's overwrought court of public opinion.
In an era when politicians and talk-show hosts speak openly of
assassinating a broad range of America's enemies by way of "pre-emptive"
strategy, one worries about Timmerman's recurring theme of Jackson's
alignment with those enemies; of Jackson's affairs being a matter of
national security; of Jackson as threat to the stability of America's
political and corporate culture. Indeed, Timmerman notes ominously, "No
flags or patriotic banners are found at Jackson's PUSH meeting held
September 15, 2001, just four days after the terrorist attack on the
United States. But there was room for a gigantic portrait of himself."
John Ashcroft recently asked us to trust that the days of J. Edgar
Hoover are gone forever; I would like to imagine that he means it. But
who needs Hoover if Timmerman's book reflects a national backlash
rushing to fill the breach? If Shakedown represents anything like
a popular or dominant view not just in the country but specifically in
the intelligence community (and Timmerman does thank "many" in academia,
law enforcement and intelligence "who have asked not to be named"), we
are in deep, deep trouble. This is a paranoid book, an ignorant book, a
book that posits aggressive disrespect for an immense spectrum of
African-American concerns as some sort of brave moral stance. It is a
book that takes us right back to the 1950s and argues, in effect, that
the South was right about that Negro problem. Indeed, I suppose there's
really no need to read this book at all--one could just go see Birth
of a Nation and wallow in all that panic about insurrection and
uppity, overdressed black politicians who, as D.W. Griffith put it,
"know nothing of the incidents of power."
Call me a Nervous Nellie, but will FBI and CIA agents, with their
expansive new powers, be as subject to mocking and stereotyping black
people as the careless Mr. Kenneth R. Timmerman? To put it another way,
if the FBI and CIA see each other as enemies, do testy, overdressed,
big-spending people of African descent even stand a chance against a
popular culture so racially freighted?
If this book were not selling like hotcakes and if we were not at war, I
might just feel sorry for Timmerman. I'd tell him to get out and make a
few more black friends, maybe take a Democrat to lunch. Let him find out
for himself that we're not as scary as all that. I'd urge that course, I
guess, even for those white Americans whose sympathies are ostensibly
closer to my own--perhaps people like Ward Just, a novelist who in
reviewing Stephen Carter's new book, The Emperor of Ocean Park,
in The New York Times Book Review wrote about his discomfort in
attending a birthday party that Vernon Jordan gave for President Clinton
on Martha's Vineyard:
More than half were African-American, not one of them known to me by
sight; I mean to say, no entertainers or sports figures. They were
lawyers and business supremos and academics, and many of them had houses
on the island.... Introductions were made, but the names flew by. I had
never been in an American living room where the paler nation was in the
minority, but that did not seem to matter on this occasion, everyone
jolly and conversational, very much at ease. But I was inhibited, in the
way a civilian is inhibited in a room full of professional soldiers,
listening instead of talking, trying to see beneath the skin of
This fear of black social life, the perceived unknowability of it, has,
I worry, become one more blind spot that endangers our national
security, to say nothing of our national unity. There are so many white
people who have still never been to a black home and have never had a
black person to theirs. Of course, there are lots of black people who
have never been much beyond the ghetto. But in general, I think black
people have an overwhelmingly better sense of white people as just plain
old human beings than the reverse. It's impossible not to: Black people
work in white homes, white stores, white offices. If we are
professionals, we can go days without even seeing another black person.
I'd never be able to say at a cocktail party, "Who's that wonderful
white entertainer? Oh, you know the one." And everyone there would have
such a narrow range of reference that they'd all answer in unison, "Oh
yeah, Steve Martin. He's great."
And so I keep wondering about who is reading Shakedown in such
energetic numbers. Who finds it necessary to buy into the frisson
of such hyperbole? Is it possible that the ability to maintain such a
fevered sense of besiegement about Jesse Jackson, of all people, is
related to the gibberishly panicked response of the police officers who
shot Amadou Diallo in that frenzy of bullets in 1999? Are Timmerman's
readers challenged to reflect upon the blind righteousness of the
officers who assaulted Abner Louima two years before that--do they
wonder where Louima would be if he were assaulted now? It should be
remembered that Louima, a noncitizen, was initially mistaken for someone
who had committed a minor crime. Would we ever have known of his plight
if he'd been whisked into a detention center with no trial, no charge
and no lawyer?
Do Timmerman's readers really write off all the disparities of black and
brown life in America--from housing to healthcare, from schooling to
employment--as simple market choices? Do they have a clue of the social
resentment so many blacks endure--yes, even well-educated and wealthy
black people? Sometimes it is in the little things: I do not fully
understand, for example, why Vanity Fair felt it necessary, in a
recent interview, to describe black philosopher Cornel West as not just
extremely knowledgeable but rather "besotted" with knowledge. Sometimes
it's in the large things. When Bill Cosby's son Ennis was murdered while
changing a flat tire on his Mercedes some years ago, Camille Cosby
wondered aloud where his killer, a vehemently racist young Ukranian
immigrant, had learned to so hate the sight of a black man driving an
Does Timmerman's book bring us any closer to acknowledging how many
times more dangerous those traditions of resentment have become when
political approval ratings soar with talk of ultimate control, of
official secrecy, of necessity, of accident and of disappearance?
How terrifying for black and brown people when a highly dangerous but
nevertheless very small network of terrorists are to be hunted down
based not only on specific information but by employing broadly
inaccurate assumptions about our race, our religion, our national
origin. Who betrays whom when sweepingly invasive surveillance
guidelines are embraced by commentators across the political
spectrum--from Alan Dershowitz to George Will, from Charles Krauthammer
to Nicholas Kristof. Who betrays whom when Timmerman's brand of vulgar
overgeneralization spreads like a poison across the globe, insuring that
whatever the final shape of our brave new world, some of us are doomed
to catch hell from all sides, consigned to a parallel universe, figured
as the enemy within--indeed, the enemy "wherever."
There is a fable about the lion that eats the lamb because the lamb has
offended him with some imagined trespass. "But I didn't do it," protests
the lamb. "Well," sighs the lion, "it must have been your brother"--and
digs into his dinner.
Ward Connerly, figurehead for California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, is up to more mischief. This time
it's a push to prevent California's public agencies from classifying
"any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the
operation of public education, public contracting or public employment."
Classification is defined as any "act of separating, sorting or
organizing by race, ethnicity, color or national origin including, but
not limited to, inquiring, profiling, or collecting such data on
Shrewdly titled the Racial Privacy Initiative, it sounds like a plan to
protect us from the manipulative purview of Big Brother, or perhaps an
act to prohibit police profiling or to protect medical records from
being misused or to prevent consumer credit and employment histories
from being revealed in ways that discriminate against minorities.
"Racial privacy" beguiles with the promise of removing race and all its
contentiousness from public view, keeping its secrets in a vault for
only the rightful owner to know. A kind of "don't ask, don't tell"
stance of racial revelation.
In fact, the proposed enactment contains a series of crucial exceptions
that quickly turn such rosily "color-blind" expectations completely
upside down. First, in a blatant concession to Big Brother writ large,
there is an exemption for police. Sociologists Troy Duster and Andy
Barlow have worried that this exemption will allow police alone to
collect racial data: "What about the concern of many citizens that
police practices need to be monitored for racial profiling? The racial
privacy initiative would not allow such data to be kept."
Similarly, while permitting racial and ethnic classification of "medical
research subjects and patients," the initiative bars the collection of
data for population-based surveys that are the cornerstone of public
health administration. And while there is a superficially charitable
exemption for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, that much
of a given is rather severely constrained in that the department "shall
not impute a race, color, ethnicity or national origin to any
individual." In any event, this particular exemption "shall expire ten
years after the effective date of this measure."
In fact, the Racial Privacy Initiative is not about protecting data from
being misused; instead it effectively eliminates data collection at all.
If enacted, it would continue a trend begun by Ronald Reagan and pursued
by every Republican administration since: limiting the accountability of
public institutions by making vital public information unavailable. In
such a world, there can be no easy way to know whether Native American
women are being sterilized at higher rates in public hospitals than
other groups. One would not be able to determine whether public schools
were tracking black students into remedial classes and white students
into advanced placement. Documentation of ghettoization and other
patterns of residential segregation would be magically wiped from census
With no impartial public archive of such data, the burden of compiling
such statistics would fall either upon independent academics who would
have to find funding for their studies on a project-by-project basis; or
upon a cacophony of competing interest groups--a competition that no
doubt will be more than skewed by better-funded conservative think tanks
like the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.
Indeed, this initiative is not about "privacy" as most laypeople think
of it. It is actually about privatizing racially based behavior. And
privatized racism has been a dream of the far right since the first
whites-only private schools sprang up in the wake of Brown v. Board
of Education. Segregation is "private choice," a "social" problem,
not a legal one, according to this logic. You can't force people to love
you. Suing over discrimination is victimology. As long as the government
doesn't force you to drink out of a separate water fountain or go to a
separate school, then that is the limit of equal opportunity.
Eliminating official knowledge of race and ethnicity in the public
sphere at first sounds like part of the same enterprise as eliminating
Jim Crow laws. (Indeed, many California voters seem as confused about
the meaning of the initiative as they were about Prop 209, which sounded
to many as though it would lead to more inclusion rather than less.) In
fact, however, "racial privacy" accomplishes little more than
institutionalizing an official stance of denial and, in the process,
eviscerates essential civil rights enforcement mechanisms. Californians
may as well put those three little moral idiots, Hear-no-evil,
See-no-evil and Speak-no-evil, in charge of remediation for
In what has been one of the most effective manuevers of the right in
recent years, defenders of the initiative have co-opted a good deal of
the vocabulary of the civil rights community in a blizzard of
definitional inversions. Ward Connerly insists that this measure will
keep the state from "profiling" its citizens. If one accepts that to
most Americans "profiling" connotes the unethical use of data to
discriminate (as in Driving While Black), this conflation with the
neutral act of data collection itself is tremendously misleading. By the
same token, the name of Connerly's group, the American Civil Rights
Coalition, would seem to imply a greater measure of protection for civil
rights rather than lesser. I do worry that such studied reversals of
terms will come to overtake the discourse as much as the term "quota"
has displaced any public understanding of the actual meaning of
The publicly collected statistics we take for granted today show
undisputed racial and ethnic disparities in every realm of American
life. Any proposition that this gap is either not worth documenting--or,
even more insidiously, is aggravated by the gathering of such
knowledge--consigns us to a world in which "intelligence" is the
exclusive preserve of unrestrained police surveillance. The collective
ignorance with which we will be left will quite literally keep us from
ever speaking truth to power.
A recent front-page story in the Boston Globe proclaimed that New
England leads the nation in Ritalin prescription levels. Somewhat to my
surprise, the prevalence of Ritalin ingestion was generally hailed as a
good thing--as indeed it may be in cases of children with ADHD. But to
me the most startling aspect of the Globe's analysis was the
seeming embrace in many places of Ritalin as a "performance enhancer."
Prescription rates are highest in wealthy suburbs.
While the reasons for such a statistical skewing need more exploration
than this article revealed, what I found particularly interesting was
the speculation that New Englanders have a greater investment in
academic achievement: "'Our income is higher than in other states, and
we value education,' said Gene E. Harkless, director of the family
nurse-practitioner program at the University of New Hampshire. 'We have
families that are seeking above-average children.'"
Aren't we all. (And by "all," I mean all--wouldn't it be nice if
everyone understood that those decades of lawsuits over affirmative
action and school integration meant that poor and inner-city families
also "value education" and are "seeking above- average children"?) But
Ritalin, after all, works on the body as the pharmacological equivalent
of cocaine or amphetamines. It does seem a little ironic that poor
inner-city African-Americans, who from time to time do tend to get a
little down about the mouth despite the joys of welfare reform, are so
much more likely than richer suburban whites to be incarcerated for
self-medicating with home-brewed, nonprescription cocaine derivatives.
If in white neighborhoods Ritalin is being prescribed as a psychological
"fix" no different from reading glasses or hearing aids, it's no wonder
the property values are higher. Clearly the way up for ghettos is to
sweep those drugs off the street and into the hands of drug companies
that can scientifically ladle the stuff into underprivileged young black
children. I'll bet that within a single generation, the number of
African-Americans taking Ritalin--to say nothing of Prozac and
Viagra--will equal rates among whites. Income and property values will
rise accordingly. Dopamine for the masses!
Another potential reason for the disparity is, of course, the matter of
access to medical care. Prescriptions for just about anything are likely
to be higher where people can afford to see doctors on a regular
basis--or where access to doctors is relatively greater: New England has
one of the highest concentrations of doctors in the country. But access
isn't everything. Dr. Sally Satel, a fellow at the American Enterprise
Institute, says that when she prescribes Prozac to her lucky
African-American patients, "I start at a lower dose, 5 or 10 milligrams
instead of the usual 10-to-20-milligram dose" because "blacks metabolize
antidepressants more slowly than Caucasians and Asians." Her bottom line
is that the practice of medicine should not be "colorblind" and that
race is a rough guide to "the reality" of biological differences.
Indeed, her book, PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting
Medicine, is filled with broad assertions like "Asians tend to have
a greater sensitivity to narcotics" and "Caucasians are far more likely
to carry the gene mutations that cause multiple sclerosis and cystic
fibrosis." Unfortunately for her patients, Dr. Satel confuses a shifting
political designation with a biological one. Take, for example, her
statement that "many human genetic variations tend to cluster by racial
groups--that is, by people whose ancestors came from a particular
geographic region." But what we call race does not reflect geographic
ancestry with any kind of medical accuracy. While "black" or "white" may
have sociological, economic and political consequence as reflected in
how someone "looks" in the job market or "appears" while driving or
"seems" when trying to rent an apartment, race is not a biological
category. Color may have very real social significance, in other words,
but it is not the same as demographic epidemiology.
It is one thing to acknowledge that people from certain regions of
Central Europe may have a predisposition to Tay-Sachs, particularly
Ashkenazi (but not Sephardic or Middle Eastern) Jews. This is a reality
that reflects extended kinship resulting from geographic or social
isolation, not racial difference. It reflects a difference at the
mitochondrial level, yes, but certainly not a difference that can be
detected by looking at someone when they come into the examining room.
For that matter, the very term "Caucasian"--at least as Americans use
it, i.e., to mean "white"--is ridiculously unscientific. Any given one
of Dr. Satel's "Asian" patients could probably more reliably claim
affinity with the peoples of the Caucasus mountains than the English-,
Irish- and Scandinavian-descended population of which the gene pool of
"white" Americans is largely composed. In any event, a group's
predisposition to a given disease or lack of it can mislead in making
individual diagnoses--as a black friend of mine found out to his
detriment when his doctor put off doing a biopsy on a mole because
"blacks aren't prone to skin cancer."
To be fair, Dr. Satel admits that "a black American may have dark
skin--but her genes may well be a complex mix of ancestors from West
Africa, Europe and Asia." Still, she insists that racial profiling is of
use because "an imprecise clue is better than no clue at all." But let
us consider a parallel truth: A white American may have light skin, but
her genes may well be a complex mix of ancestors from West Africa,
Europe and Asia. Given the complexly libidinous history of the United
States of America, I worry that unless doctors take the time to talk to
their patients, to ask, to develop nuanced family histories or, if
circumstances warrant, to perform detailed genomic analyses, it would be
safer if they assumed that, as a matter of fact, they haven't a clue.
We live in a world where race is so buried in our language and habits of
thought that unconscious prejudgments too easily channel us into
empirical inconsistency; it is time we ceased allowing anyone, even
scientists, to rationalize that consistent inconsistency as
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has been traveling around the
country recently as part of a nationwide post-9/11 effort to promote
debate about civic values in schools and colleges. According to the
Boston Globe, Kennedy spent a day in that city's top public school,
Boston Latin Academy, and proposed a scenario in which "students
accidentally end up on a three-day layover in a very poor (imaginary)
nation called Quest, where Drummer, a young charismatic man, preaches
that the decadent United States should be destroyed. Quest citizens say
Drummer offers hope for change and that America is corrupt." Quest is
described as pervasively corrupt; although it has a written
constitution, "promises are not kept." The students were challenged to
defend American democracy.
The idea of getting students to excavate and examine the values they
hold most dear is an excellent one, although I must say I'm suspicious
of such a flatly simplistic scenario. I'd want to know a lot more about
the politics, history and economy of Quest. What's driving the
resentment--is it poverty? If so, is the anti-American sentiment merely
due to the abstract symbolic wealth of the United States, or is there
some specific industrial business presence in Quest--say an Enron--whose
unethical exploits have, by exacerbating living conditions, been
mistaken for the people and values of the United States? Does
anti-American resentment in Quest cut across all socioeconomic
spectra--hinting at some more ideological or religious discontent? Or is
it the result of some specific trauma, like Bhopal? Has the United
States supported oppressive regimes in the region? Is Quest an ally,
like Iran or China?
I suppose Justice Kennedy would not appreciate a devil's advocate like
me; I suppose he wants students to imagine Quest along the lines of
Zimbabwe or Iraq. I suppose the "right" answer would be that I'd spend
my three days proselytizing, as I do right here at home, about the
salutary effects of due process, free and honest elections, the Bill of
Rights and equal opportunity for all. But any good player in strategic
games knows that studying the motives and designs of the opposition
makes all the difference.
So I question what was accomplished by the vagueness of this exercise.
Indeed, its open-endedness made me think of an essay I read recently by
Harvard law professor Richard Parker, in the spring issue of the Harvard
Journal of Law and Public Policy. Parker urges the "making" of
patriotism as a mobilization of emotion--"a political equivalent of
love"--that must be "grounded like electricity." He poses a set of
questions to test those sensibilities: "Recall your own early reactions
to the September 11 attack. (1) Did you feel that it was, in fact, an
attack 'on the United States'? (2) Did you believe that the United
States should defend itself--including preemptive self-defense to the
extent necessary? (3) Did you focus mostly on the past misdeeds of our
country. (4) Did you adopt a 'pragmatic' stance and argue that we ought
to govern ourselves by attending to 'the way we and our actions are
perceived' abroad? those who love our country are more likely than not
to give one set of answers: yes, yes, no and no."
Much of this essay struck me as romantic, murky nonsense; but what
troubled me most was its source. Like Justice Kennedy, Professor Parker
is powerfully positioned to be advancing a Rorschach test no more
reliable than a mood ring--patriotism reduced to "which side of the line
did you see yourself on if I flash this picture of September 11." And it
is irresponsible if one is then prepared to fashion a set of
consequences for being on the wrong side--as could well be under the USA
Patriot Act, which authorizes increased surveillance and interference in
the activities of those deemed unpatriotic.
What I thought on September 11 was considerably more tangled than
Parker's test. Lots of people were confused--people whom it would be
quite foolish to characterize as unpatriotic. When I first heard of the
hijackings, for example, I feared that it was retribution for Timothy
McVeigh's execution only a few months before. That gut reaction might
place me on the wrong side of Parker's test--my fears didn't
"privileg[e] insiders" more than "hostile outside forces." Moreover, in
my conviction that our civil rights are on a continuum with human
rights, I might run afoul of his assertion that "strict commitment to
universal values," including the notion of human rights, tends to
"stretch and break the bonds of patriotism, as their enthusiasts
proclaim themselves 'citizens' of nothing less than 'the world.'"
Indeed, by this measure, Timothy McVeigh might have had a greater chance
of passing Parker's test than I, which is distressing, to say the least.
Back in Boston, Justice Kennedy asked "whether it was right to let
people in other nations choose dictatorships." That troubled one senior,
who felt that the Justice was saying it was OK to impose democracy. "I
don't agree...[but] if I was in another country, I wouldn't be able to say
such things to such important people. You probably wouldn't see me
tomorrow." (I do hope the student was a citizen; if not, he could be
subject to President Bush's order allowing indefinite detention of
noncitizens without charge in undisclosed locations, with no recourse to
lawyers of their choice.)
If I were designing such an exercise, I'd use specific examples--like
Argentina under the junta or Turkey under martial law--rather than a
one-size-fits-all fictional foe. I'd have students compare the text of
the Constitution with the text of the USA Patriot Act. I'd have them
studying the right of habeas corpus, to my mind the greatest
contribution of Western jurisprudence. And I'd remind them of playwright
Arthur Miller's concern that we not turn our civic engagement into a
crucible where a "political policy is equated with moral right, and
opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is
effectively made, society becomes a congeries of plots and counterplots,
and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that
of the scourge of God."
A friend and I were sitting around commiserating about the things that get to us: unloading small indignities, comparing thorns. "So there I was," she said, "sitting on the bus and this man across the aisle starts waving a copy of law professor Randall Kennedy's new book Nigger. He's got this mean-looking face with little raisiny eyes, and a pointy head, and he's taking this book in and out of his backpack. He's not reading it, mind you. He's just flashing it at black people."
"Don't be so touchy," I responded. "Professor Kennedy says that the N-word is just another word for 'pal' these days. So your guy was probably one of those muted souls you hear about on Fox cable, one of the ones who's been totally silenced by too much political correctness. I'd assume he was just trying to sign 'Have a nice day.'"
"Maybe so," she said, digging through her purse and pulling out a copy of Michael Moore's bestselling Stupid White Men. "But if I see him again, I'm armed with a 'nice day' of my own."
"That's not nice," I tell her. "Besides, I've decided to get in on the publishing boom myself. My next book will be called Penis. I had been going to title it Civil Claims That Shaped the Evidentiary History of Primogeniture: Paternity and Inheritance Rights in Anglo-American Jurisprudence, 1883-1956, but somehow Penis seems so much more concise. We lawyers love concision."
She raised one eyebrow. "And the mere fact that hordes of sweaty-palmed adolescents might line up to sneak home a copy, or that Howard Stern would pant over it all the way to the top of the bestseller list, or that college kids would make it the one book they take on spring break----"
"...is the last thing on my mind," I assured her. "Really, I'm just trying to engage in a scholarly debate about some of the more nuanced aspects of statutory interpretation under Rule 861, subsection (c), paragraph 2... And besides, now that South Park has made the word so much a part of popular culture, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. When I hear young people singing lyrics that use the P-word, I just hum along. After all, there are no bad words, just ungood hermeneutics."
"No wonder Oprah canceled her book club," she muttered.
Seriously. We do seem to have entered a weird season in which the exercise of First Amendment rights has become a kind of XXX-treme Sport, with people taking the concept of free speech for an Olympic workout, as though to build up that constitutional muscle. People speak not just freely but wantonly, thoughtlessly, mainlined from their hormones. We live in a minefield of scorched-earth, who-me-a-diplomat?, let's-see-if-this-hurts words. As my young son twirls the radio dial in search of whatever pop music his friends are listening to, it is less the lyrics that alarm me than the disc jockeys, all of whom speak as though they were crashing cars. It makes me very grateful to have been part of the "love generation," because for today's youth, the spoken word seems governed by people from whom sticks and stones had to be wrested when they were children--truly unpleasant people who've spent years perfecting their remaining weapon: the words that can supposedly never hurt you.
The flight from the imagined horrors of political correctness seems to have overtaken common sense. Or is it possible that we have come perilously close to a state where hate speech is the common sense? In a bar in Dorchester, Massachusetts, recently, a black man was surrounded by a group of white patrons and taunted with a series of escalatingly hostile racial epithets. The bartender refused to intervene despite being begged to do something by a white friend of the man. The taunting continued until the black man tried to leave, whereupon the crowd followed him outside and beat him severely. In Los Angeles, the head of the police commission publicly called Congresswoman Maxine Waters a "bitch"--to the glee of Log Cabin Republicans, who published an editorial gloating about how good it felt to hear him say that. And in San Jose, California, a judge allowed a white high school student to escape punishment after the student, angry at an African-American teacher who had suspended his best friend, scrawled "Thanks, Nigga" on a school wall. The judge was swayed by an argument that "nigga" is not the same as "nigger" but rather an inoffensive rap music term of endearment common among soul brothers.
Frankly, if Harvard president Lawrence Summers is going to be calling professors to account for generating controversy not befitting that venerable institution, the disingenuous Professor Kennedy would be my first choice. Kennedy's argument that the word "nigger" has lost its sting because black entertainers like Eddie Murphy have popularized it, either dehistoricizes the word to a boneheaded extent or ignores the basic capaciousness of all language. The dictionary is filled with words that have multiple meanings, depending on context. "Obsession" is "the perfume," but it can also be the basis for a harassment suit. Nigger, The Book, is an appeal to pure sensation. It's fine to recognize that ironic reversals of meaning are invaluable survival tools. But what's selling this book is not the hail-fellow-well-met banality of "nigger" but rather the ongoing liveliness of its negativity: It hits in the gut, catches the eye, knots the stomach, jerks the knee, grabs the arm. Kennedy milks this phenomenon only to ask with an entirely straight face: "So what's the big deal?"
The New Yorker recently featured a cartoon by Art Spiegelman that captures my concern: A young skinhead furtively spray-paints a swastika on a wall. In the last panel, someone has put the wall up in a museum and the skinhead is shown sipping champagne with glittery fashionistas and art critics. I do not doubt that hateful or shocking speech can be "mainstreamed" through overuse; I am alarmed that we want to. But my greater concern is whether this gratuitous nonsense should be the most visible test of political speech in an era when government officials tell us to watch our words--even words spoken in confidence to one's lawyer--and leave us to sort out precisely what that means.
As state budgets around the country are slashed to accommodate the expense of the war on terror, the pursuit of educational opportunity for all seems ever more elusive. While standardized tests are supposed to be used to diagnose problems and facilitate individual or institutional improvement, too often they have been used to close or penalize precisely the schools that most need help; or, results have been used to track students into separate programs that benefit the few but not the many. The implementation of gifted classes with better student-teacher ratios and more substantial resources often triggers an unhealthy and quite bitter competition for those unnaturally narrowed windows of opportunity. How much better it would be to have more public debate about why the pickings are so slim to begin with. In any event, it is no wonder there is such intense national anxiety just now, a fantastical hunger for children who speak in complete sentences by the age of six months.
A friend compares the tracking of students to the separation of altos from sopranos in a choir. But academic ability and/or intelligence is both spikier and more malleably constructed than such an analogy allows. Tracking students by separating the high notes from the low only works if the endgame is to teach all children the "Hallelujah Chorus." A system that teaches only the sopranos because no parent wants their child to be less than a diva is a system driven by the shortsightedness of narcissism. I think we make a well-rounded society the same way we make the best music: through the harmonic combination of differently pitched, but uniformly well-trained voices.
A parsimony of spirit haunts education policy, exacerbated by fear of the extremes. Under the stress of threatened budget cuts, people worry much more about providing lifeboats for the very top and containment for the "ineducable" rock bottom than they do about properly training the great masses of children, the vibrant, perfectly able middle who are capable of much more than most school systems offer. In addition, discussions of educational equality are skewed by conflation of behavioral problems with IQ, and learning disabilities with retardation. Repeatedly one hears complaints that you can't put a gifted child in a class full of unruly, noisy misfits and expect anyone to benefit. Most often it's a plea from a parent who desperately wants his or her child removed from a large oversubscribed classroom with a single, stressed teacher in an underfunded district and sent to the sanctuary of a nurturing bubble where peace reigns because there are twelve kids in a class with two specialists and everyone's riding the high of great expectations. But all children respond better in ordered, supportive environments; and all other investments being equal, gifted children are just as prone to behavior problems--and to learning disabilities--as any other part of the population. Nor should we confuse exceptional circumstances with behavior problems. The difficulty of engaging a child who's just spent the night in a homeless shelter, for example, is not productively treated as chiefly an issue of IQ.
The narrowing of access has often resulted in peculiar kinds of hairsplitting. When I was growing up, for example, Boston's Latin School was divided into two separate schools: one for boys and one for girls. Although the curriculum was identical and the admissions exam the same, there were some disparities: The girls' school was smaller and so could admit fewer students; and the science and sports facilities were inferior to those of the boys.
There was a successful lawsuit to integrate the two schools about twenty years ago, but then an odd thing happened. Instead of using the old girls' school for the middle school and the larger boys' school for the new upper school, as was originally suggested, the city decided to sever the two. The old boys' school retained the name Boston Latin, and the old girls' school--smaller, less-equipped--was reborn as Boston Latin Academy. The entrance exam is now administered so that those who score highest go to Boston Latin; the next cut down go to what is now, unnecessarily, known as the "less elite" Latin Academy.
One of the more direct consequences of this is that the new Boston Latin inherited an alumni endowment of $15 million dollars, much of it used to provide college scholarships. Latin Academy, on the other hand, inherited the revenue of the old Girls' Latin alumni association--something under $200,000. It seems odd: Students at both schools are tremendously talented, the cutoff between them based on fairly insignificant scoring differences. But rather than pool the resources of the combined facilities--thus maximizing educational opportunity, in particular funding for college--the resolution of the pre-existing gender inequality almost purposefully reinscribed that inequality as one driven by wealth and class.
There are good models of what is possible. The International Baccalaureate curriculum, which is considered "advanced" by most American standards, is administered to a far wider range of students in Europe than here, with the result that their norm is considerably higher than ours in a number of areas. The University of Chicago's School Mathematics Project, originally developed for gifted students at the Chicago Lab School, is now recommended for all children--all children, as the foreword to its textbooks says, can "learn more and do more than was thought to be possible ten or twenty years ago." And educator Marva Collins's widely praised curriculum for inner-city elementary schools includes reading Shakespeare.
Imparting higher levels of content requires nothing exceptional but rather normal, more-or-less stable children, taught in small classes by well-trained, well-mentored teachers who have a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and literature themselves. It will pay us, I think, to stop configuring education as a battle of the geniuses against the uncivilized. We are a wealthy nation chock-full of those normal, more-or-less stable children. The military should not be the only institution that teaches them to be all that they can be.
It all began with a missing sheet of homework. "Contractions," my son had written very clearly in his assignment log. "What's this?" I asked when he announced he'd finished everything else, noting that there was no book or worksheet to which the reference logically applied. "Don't know," replied my son.
I was off to the races, astride my high horse, afroth with my mission of dutiful motherhood, my son sniveling that he had No Idea what it meant.
"The teacher made you write it down, n'est-ce pas?"
"No buts--I am calling for reinforcements." So we called his best friend. No Idea. Aha, I thought, the two of them must be in league. We called his next best friend. No Idea. Three in league? Better try the girls, girls are sober, reliable, always bright as buttons. But girls were not home, out sick, at gymnastics, No Idea.
I called my mother: How will he ever get to college at this rate, I moaned. "Is this a joke or are you working out for the high blood pressure Olympics?" she asked quietly.
By 6 o'clock, I gave up, took two aspirin and went off to a school board meeting. Most unfortunate for my throbbing temples, gifted and talented programs were the topic of the evening, and the room was packed with parents, 100 percent of whom were banking on the hope that their children were in the ninety-ninth percentile. An expensive array of options was on the table, products and "packages," computer programs and reading lists. It was a veritable Tupperware party of the education industry, but what most people seemed to want most was A Separate Class.
One of the things I get to do in my profession is travel around to schools and talk about the benefits of equal access in all its forms. I find myself increasingly concerned that a kind of triage mentality has settled over schools, a vise of constraint that has led to a bottom-dollar hunt for top students. Triage is a theory that makes a certain sense in extremely dire settings where such a cruel cost-benefit analysis has the remote moral justification of salvage-under-fire. That educational opportunity should at all resemble such a configuration in this, the wealthiest and most technologically developed country on the planet, speaks of a deep and troubling class divide.
I cannot help thinking of this as I read headlines about libraries being shut, public universities shrinking, school music programs disappearing everywhere. I cannot help thinking about this as I sit in yet another roomful of parents desperately touting their children's special attributes, waving credentials about as though clawing their way up from the steerage deck of the Titanic.
The guest expert at this particular meeting defined "gifted" as the top 3 or 4 percent of the population, although that particular cutoff reflected a monetary limit, rather than any rational relation to the potential of a child "only" in the ninety-fifth percentile. In a different district there might be enough money to provide services for only the top 1 percent; in yet another, for the top tenth.
But I can't help believing that in a world of universally well-funded education, schools could provide for almost all their students much of the enrichment that is now reserved only for the most endowed. We seem to have forgotten that there are many successful models in which all levels are accommodated, in which neither gifted nor special education students are segregated but are given materials that both educate and engage; programs where individual differences in ability can be negotiated in small classes, by teachers who are well-educated and well-supported.
As I glanced around the room, I did the math that a lot of people seem to be ignoring: A Separate Class for the top 3 or 4 percent would mean that no more than one or two students in a given grade would have access to the truly wonderful materials being discussed--materials from which any child could profit. There will be a heap of hurt feelings if this plan comes to pass. But more important to the state of our union, it is wasteful of precious human resources. It is inconceivable to me why we Americans can't cough up enough money so that the "bottom" 95 percent are exposed to Shakespeare and calculus and music theory from as young an age as possible. If they can't all write a concerto by the time they're 7, at least a whole lot more of them will be able to enjoy one.
While I think programs and materials for the gifted are fine and good, I worry about meetings like this in which the dominant sentiment is that the only way to educate the gifted is to remove them from the company of mere mortal riff-raff. In a world where public schools are shuddering beneath hatcheted budget cuts, gifted programs have become a kind of status symbol, the equivalent of those new "designer" medical practices where doctors charge exorbitant fees to make themselves available to only a few patients for round-the-clock cell-phone access and midnight consultations.
The board meeting ended with a description of how a special class for the gifted had helped maximize the strengths of one particular child described as "brilliant but unmotivated"--a child of such genius that he was too preoccupied to get to school before the day was half over. His tardiness was so great that the teacher would actually go to his house in the morning and drag him to school herself. Hmm, I thought. What a wonderful world it would be if we put together the resources to push all children with such unyielding solicitude.
When I got home, I checked my e-mail to find a note from my son's teacher explaining that she had simply forgotten to give the children the worksheet on contractions. All the tension drained from me. Education has become such an awfully anxious rat race. I kissed my son--who in the meantime had come up with the inventive theory that contractions are the physical product of any given page of long division--on the tip of his nose. How lucky our worries. How perfect the children.
In my last column, I mentioned that most actual drug users are young white people, even though most of those "profiled" as drug users are people of color. Indeed, according to the Sentencing Project, 72 percent of all illegal drug users are white.
But profiling is further vexed by the eternal question of how one determines who is white and who is not. In today's diasporic world, racial identity or "whiteness" is less determined by lines of "blood" or descent than it once was in certain Southern states. Today, whiteness is more dominantly a matter of appearance, based on malleable aesthetic trends.
This point--the malleability of how we assign "race" to people--is certainly illustrated by the example of Noelle Bush, to whom I referred as white. I received much mail insisting that she is not in fact white but Latina "because her mother is." It's an interesting question, this: the potential tension between "actual" and actuarial determinations of race. But first, let us agree that although there is no biological reality of race, the force of race is a powerful if constantly negotiated sociocultural construction, and has been since colonial times. Second, allow me to sidestep for now the complex anthropology of whether being Latina is determined matrilineally, thus canceling out her conspicuous Puritan patrimony. Third, let us also agree that recent migrations from Latin America have increasingly complicated national demographics as historically inflected by Jim Crow laws. And so, while "Latina" seems to be used as a racial category when it comes to most compilations of criminal justice statistics (meaning brown people from south of the border, of mixed Spanish, African and Native American descent), the reality is that not all Latinos are people of color. Indeed, "Latino" is perhaps more accurately understood as a broad linguistic, regional and cultural category rather than a racial one.
In any event, I called Ms. Bush white because, in photographs, that's what she looked like to me, admittedly through all the filters of my particular geographic and generational prism. At the same time, a number of letters pointed out that Noelle Bush and her brother are the grandchildren whom George Bush the Elder once described as "the little brown ones." This underscores the essential irrationality of profiling by appearance alone: If old George and I (just let your imagination wander here) were working as airport screeners, side by side and in accordance with the logic of most racially based profiling guidelines, he'd have stopped her, and I'd have waved her through. "But she's really..." has no fixed meaning in such profiling. This is not a new aspect of racial scrutiny; in generations past, perhaps, Noelle Bush's status might have been familiar as that of Tragic Mulatta. In today's more global context, I re-examine her picture and note how she resembles supermodel Christy Turlington--herself endlessly exploited for the vaguely "exotic" racial ambiguity that her mother's Ecuadorean "blood" supposedly lends her. But however one may or may not want to classify Ms. Bush, the existence of a confused limbo of those who can "pass" does not alter the fact that once classified as "suspect," as are too many of the unambiguously dark-skinned, the license of heightened investigation significantly colors the fundamental counterpresumption of innocent until proven guilty.
Let me shift topics here. One striking feature of virtually all the letters I received was the application of the word "smug" to my description of "Governor Jeb Bush's poor daughter, Noelle." This attribution was attended by detailed accusations, all starting with the word "impliedly." I impliedly took delight in the Bush family's suffering. I impliedly reveled in her getting what she deserved. I impliedly used the daughter to make fun of the father.
A little clarification is perhaps in order. When I said "poor Noelle," I meant it, with no irony attached. Whether fueled by biological predisposition or depression, substance abuse knows no political, class or ethnic boundary. Poor Prince Harry, poor Betty Ford, poor Robert Downey Jr., poor not-a-few Kennedys. I don't find a single bit of enjoyment in what is clearly a pervasive modern crisis. If one must project, let me provide some guidance. I see our crisis of drug dependency as a medical or mental health issue rather than a criminal cause. This stance obviously places me at odds with the Prohibition-era policies of Jeb and both Georges. It doesn't mean I doubt that Governor Bush is less desperately concerned about the fate of his daughter than any other father. He believes the war on drugs is to the greater good; I think it woefully misguided. Asserting such disagreement about the efficacy of policy is democratic, not inherently disrespectful.
I also agree with those who counsel against publishing the unruly actions of children, whether their parents happen to be in the limelight or not. I believe minors, defendants or witnesses, deserve protection from the media. But Noelle Bush is well over 21, has had five traffic violations, seven speeding tickets and three car crashes and was convicted of impersonating a doctor in order to fraudulently obtain a prescription. The actions of adults who are brought before the criminal justice system are appropriately the subject of public record. Noelle Bush was given probation and referred to a drug treatment center. Who's to say if that's what she "deserved," but most likely it's what she, and so many others like her, needs. Where her example might be of continuing public interest is in contrasting her fate with that of poorer women, who, if convicted of drug offenses, are ineligible for welfare benefits for life. And in a case recently before the Supreme Court, an elderly woman whose retarded granddaughter smoked a joint three blocks away from her house was evicted from public housing based on her "relation" to drug use or sale. If such rules were applied across the socioeconomic spectrum, we'd have to ask Jeb Bush to give up the governor's mansion. It is, after all, public housing. I know--some of you will be affixing meanspirited, giggling gratuity to that image, but my point is rather the sad absurdity of it.
In all this, the bottom-line concern is whether fundamental fairness remains the measure of how we treat anyone--rich or poor, white or Latino, anonymous minor or poor Noelle.