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As Halle Berry elegantly strode to the podium to accept her best actress Oscar, the first for a black woman, she wept uncontrollably and gasped, "This moment is so much bigger than me." Just as revealing was Denzel Washington's resolute dispassion as he accepted his best actor Oscar, only the second for a black man, by glancing at the trophy and uttering through a half-smile, "Two birds in one night, huh?" Their contrasting styles--one explicit, the other implied--say a great deal about the burdens of representing the race in Hollywood.
Berry electrified her audience, speaking with splendid intelligence and rousing emotion of how her Oscar was made possible by the legendary likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. And in a stunning display of sorority in a profession riven by infighting and narcissism, Berry acknowledged the efforts of contemporary black actresses Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox. But it was when Berry moved from ancestors and peers to the future that she spoke directly to her award's symbolic meaning. She gave the millions who watched around the globe not only a sorely needed history lesson but a lesson in courageous identification with the masses. Berry tearfully declared that her award was for "every nameless, faceless woman of color" who now has a chance, since "this door has been opened."
Berry's remarkable courage and candor are depressingly rare among famed blacks with a lot on the line: money, prestige, reputation and work. Many covet the limelight's payoffs but cower at its demands. Even fewer speak up about the experiences their ordinary brothers and sisters endure--and if they are honest, that they themselves too often confront--on a daily basis. To be sure, there is an unspoken tariff on honesty among the black privileged: If they dare go against the grain, they may be curtailed in their efforts to succeed or cut off from the rewards they deserve. Or they may endure stigma. Think of the huge controversy over basketball great Charles Barkley's recent comments--that racism haunts golf, that everyday black folk still fight bigotry and that black athletes are too scared to speak up--that are the common banter of most blacks. What Berry did was every bit as brave: On the night she was being singled out for greatness, she cast her lot with anonymous women of color who hungered for her spot, and who might be denied a chance for no other reason than that they are yellow, brown, red or black. Her achievement, she insisted, was now their hope.
At first blush, it may seem that Denzel Washington failed to stand up and "represent." But that would be a severe misreading of the politics of signifying that thread through black culture. Looking up to the balcony where Sidney Poitier sat--having received an honorary Oscar earlier and delivered a stately speech of bone-crushing beauty--Washington said, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney...." He joked with Poitier, and the academy, by playfully lamenting his being awarded an Oscar on the same night that his idol was feted. Washington, for a fleeting but telling moment, transformed the arena of his award into an intimate platform of conversation between himself and his progenitor that suggested, "This belongs to us, we are not interlopers, nobody else matters more than we do." Thus, Washington never let us see him sweat, behaving as if it was natural, if delayed, that he should receive the highest recognition of his profession. His style, the complete opposite of Berry's, was political in the way that only black cool can be when the stakes are high and its temperature must remain low, sometimes beneath the detection of the powers that be that can stamp it out. This is not to be confused with spineless selling out. Nor is it to be seen as yielding to the cowardly imperative to keep one's mouth shut in order to hang on to one's privilege. Rather, it is the strategy of those who break down barriers and allow the chroniclers of their brokenness to note their fall.
Both approaches--we can call them conscience and cool--are vital, especially if Hollywood is to change. Conscience informs and inspires. It tells the film industry we need more producers, directors and writers, and executives who can greenlight projects by people of color. It also reminds the black blessed of their obligation to struggle onscreen and off for justice. Cool prepares and performs. It pays attention to the details of great art and exercises its craft vigorously as opportunity allows, thus paving the way for more opportunities. The fusion of both approaches is nicely summed up in a lyric by James Brown: "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'/Just open up the door, I'll get it myself."
Was it lack of space or was it lack of time that made Katha Pollitt so bland and lenient about the current state of religious leadership in our country and our culture ["God Changes Everything," April 1]? She mentioned the obvious degeneration of the Roman Catholic Church into a protection racket for child rapists, true. She also instanced the way in which Judaism has become prostituted to the uses of messianic colonialism in Palestine. But this is merely to tinker with the problem. What about Billy Graham, who has been Protestant father-confessor to every President from Eisenhower to Clinton, and who has achieved the status of America's mainstream cleric?
Black filmmakers seize the moment.
He ain't heavy, Father, he's my brother.
I can take him by myself from here.
Also, after what we've all been reading,
We don't like to have you priests too near.
Let's say there was a school system or a chain of clinics on whose professional staff were a certain number of men who molested the children in their care and who, whenever this behavior came to the attention of their superiors, were shifted to another school or clinic, with parents and colleagues, not to mention the justice system, kept in the dark whenever possible. Imagine that this practice continued for thirty years through a combination of out-of-court settlements, sympathetic judges and politicians, stonewalling lawyers, suppression of information, fulminations against the media. Don't you think that when the story finally broke, the men who had made and implemented the policy would be held legally responsible--for something? Certainly they would lose their jobs.
Bring God into the picture, though, and everything changes. The bishops who presided over the priestly pedophilia in the Catholic Church's ever-expanding scandal are not likely to follow Boston's Father Geoghan, convicted and sentenced to nine to ten years and facing more charges, into the dock, much less the cellblock. After all, they are men of God. Thanks to God, the Catholic Church can run a healthcare system--10 percent of private hospitals in the United States--that refuses to practice modern medicine where women are concerned: not just no abortion but also no birth control, no emergency contraception for rape victims, no sterilization, no in vitro fertilization. The church can agitate against the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, even in desperate Africa, a position as insane as South African President Thabo Mbeki's stance against antiretroviral AIDS drugs, but that generates a lot less outrage in the West. It can lobby in Ireland against allowing suicidal women to have abortions and intimidate a 14-year-old rape victim in Mexico into carrying to term; it can practice total sex discrimination, barring women from the priesthood and therefore from sharing in the political life of the church, and still demand to be taken seriously when it speaks of human rights or ethics--rather like the Philadelphia parochial school recently reported as giving academic extra credit to students who march in antiabortion-rights demonstrations even as the church goes after public funding through vouchers. No secular institution could get away with any of this, any more than a secular psychotherapist or family counselor could get away with telling poor mad Andrea Yates what the Protestant evangelist Michael Peter Woroniecki did: that Eve was a witch whose sin required atonement in the form of perfect motherhood and that working mothers are "wicked."
Another example: Let's say a group of Americans decide that they would like to live where they believe their ancestors lived 2,000 years ago, even though other people have been living there for centuries and don't like the idea one bit. If these people were Cajuns who wanted to park themselves in the Bois de Boulogne, everyone would think they were out of their minds. If they were American blacks taking over swatches of Ghana, people--including many black people--would laugh at their historical pretensions and militaristic grandiosity. It would certainly be a relevant point that these settlers are not displaced persons or refugees--they have perfectly good homes already. But once again, God changes everything: The former Brooklynites, Philadelphians and Baltimoreans now camping out in "Judea" and "Samaria" (the West Bank to you) wave the Bible and the Israeli government lavishes on them all sorts of privileges--cheaper mortgages, income tax breaks, business development and housing grants--with results that are disastrous for Israel and Palestinians alike and that now threaten the peace of the entire world. In a recent front-page story, the New York Times treated the longing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to return to their homes in Israel proper as a psychological obstacle to their forging any kind of rational future, individual or collective, and maybe it is-- maybe it would be better for them to forget the old homestead and demand reparations. But at least the old woman mourning a sewing machine left behind when she fled Beersheba fifty years ago really, personally owned that sewing machine; the family picnicking year after year in the ruins of its former property has living memories of farming that plot of land. It is not a notional "ancestral" possession supposedly guaranteed in perpetuity by God. In this case, the religious fanaticism is not coming from the Muslims.
Elsewhere, of course, it is. God has been particularly busy in the Islamic world, building madrassahs, issuing fatwas, bringing in Sharia with its bloody stumps and beheadings and floggings and stonings--seventeen people have been stoned to death so far under the "progressive" Khatami regime in Iran--and underwriting a wide variety of dictators and monarchs and warlords. When gods start multiplying, matters don't improve: Polytheistic Hindu zealots have slaughtered 700 people, including many children, in revenge for the torching by Muslims of a train carrying Hindus from the site of the Ayodhya mosque, destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992 because it supposedly occupied the site where the god-king Ram was supposedly born. As I write, Hindu fanatics are threatening to fight Muslims for a strand of beard hair preserved in a Muslim shrine in Srinagar, which they claim belongs not to Mohammed but to Hindu religious leader Nimnath Baba. How many children will be burned to death over the proper attribution of that holy facial hair?
Think of all the ongoing conflicts involving religion: India versus Pakistan, Russia versus Chechnya, Protestants versus Catholics in Northern Ireland, Muslim guerrillas in the Philippines, bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia and Nigeria, civil war in Sudan and Uganda and Sri Lanka, in which last the Buddhist Sinhalese show a capacity for inflicting harm on the admittedly ferocious Hindu Tamils that doesn't get written up in Tricycle. It's enough to make one nostalgic for the cold war--as if the thin film of twentieth-century political ideology has been stripped away like the ozone layer to reveal a world reverting to seventeenth-century-style religious warfare, fought with twenty-first-century weapons. God changes everything.
He says that what he said about the Jews
(They own and thus manipulate the news)
Is not, of course, reflective of his views.
So what part of the news did those Jews lose?
Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law deserves the Watergate Award for Obfuscatory Declamation: He has characterized his nearly two decades of cover-up of felonies--namely, the rape and molestation of hundreds of Boston-area children by scores of priests--as "tragically incorrect." Records uncovered by the Boston Globe's Spotlight Team disclose the shocking extent to which Law's cold-shouldering of young victims made him an enabler of known recidivist pedophiles, including former priest John Geoghan, whose thirty-six-year spree of child sexual exploitation ended in a prison sentence on February 21.
Over and over, Law sought to pay hush money to victims of known molesters and then moved the predators to new parishes, where they once again had access to children. For years Law counted on the cooperation of several judges who, sharing his belief that the faith of rank-and-file church members might not survive a reckoning with the truth about the priestly criminals in their midst, moved to seal archdiocese files. Even as the child-rape stories were breaking, Law permitted his lawyers to pursue a defense based on "comparative negligence"--the theory that the abuse was partially due to victims' negligence.
Ever since Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney's November ruling forced public release of documents detailing the crimes, the Cardinal's voice has had a from-the-bunker timbre. At his official residence, Law has been hunkered down with wealthy male advisers from Boston's Catholic elite--bankers, executives, university presidents and politicians who together calibrate the spin of each statement that issues from the Chancery. But sometimes a furious Law bursts through the kitchen-cabinet insulation: His Nixonian response to the news that nearly half of polled Boston Catholics want him to resign--including those faithful who keep a Law-Must-Go vigil in front of his residence--was to declare them enemies of the Church. His persistent disparagement of the Globe reporters who sued to unseal those documents is not a response to stress; it's his longstanding M.O. In 1992, after the Globe exposed Father James Porter as a serial rapist, the cosmopolitan Harvard-man Cardinal inveighed, "By all means, we call down God's power upon the media, particularly the Globe."
While the US Catholic Church has so far paid out $1 billion in settlements for clerical molestation cases, the predator priests are less emblems of fatal flaws in doctrine--including the doctrine of celibacy--than they are evidence of the mortal danger posed by any institutional leadership that perpetuates the myth that it is answerable to no laws but its own. (This presumption of immunity has taken an ominous new turn, as bishops across the country fling priests alleged to have molested from their jobs: As one Massachusetts picket sign reads: There Is No Due Process in Cardinal's Law.) Protestants have sustained public-relations catastrophes and paid huge sums for years of cover-ups: In December the Anglican Church of Canada announced that ten of its thirty dioceses are facing bankruptcy as a result of child sexual-abuse claims. Australian Governor General Peter Hollingworth faces mounting cries for his resignation since evidence surfaced that while he was an archbishop, he grossly mishandled cases of pedophilia. The children sexually exploited by Deacon Robert Tardy of Washington's Peace Baptist Church have never heard one word of apology from church authorities. Predators and their protectors are also ensconced within synagogue walls. This past summer Boca Raton's Jerrold Levy, rabbi of the largest Reform congregation in the South, was prosecuted for procuring underage boys in four states via the Internet. After he was convicted on one count, federal prosecutors abruptly reversed their sentencing recommendation from sixty years to six and a half, reportedly because of pressure from influential synagogue members. Several weeks ago Cantor Howard Nevison of Manhattan's famed Temple Emanu-El was arrested for an alleged two-generation-long rampage of child rape; some suspect his low bail is connected to Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau's position as a trustee of Nevison's temple.
As Law's regime wrapped a blanket around criminals in the priesthood, it swung a terrible swift sword in the direction of women aspiring to fuller participation in Catholic liturgy. Two years ago, an organization called Massachusetts Women-Church, made up primarily of lifelong-Catholic mothers and grandmothers advocating the ordination of women, was banned by Law from church-affiliated buildings. When members picketed outside a church, Law shouted at them, "You are in violation of your faith!"
Treating women as contaminants and children as invisible while coddling criminals in Roman collars allowed Boston's imperial bishopric to shore up support for Law's real goal: making a permanent move to Rome as the first American Pope. If Law had been, say, director of a daycare center or a summer camp, he would probably be on his way to jail. But with powerful people at his elbows, Law is as unlikely to serve prison time as he was to let the violated bodies of children get in the way of his career building. When Boston Catholics finally force him out, he'll probably be humming "My Way" as he packs his bags.
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.
Race riot victims still wait for promised reparations.
Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson says it's like this: If judicial nominee Charles Pickering is confirmed by a Democratic Senate, the Bush Administration will have a green light to pack the federal courts with judges openly hostile to basic principles of equal justice under the law. "It amazes me that in 2002 a man who has a questionable record of support for 'one man, one vote' is seriously considered for a federal appeals court judgeship--but that's what we've got with Charles Pickering," Thompson says of the Mississippi federal judge nominated by Bush to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. "If he is confirmed, the message will be that there are no expectations left, no standards for selecting judges."
Harsh words, especially from a judicial nominee's home-state representative. But the Pickering nomination has inspired the sharpest debate yet regarding the President's judicial nominees. Republican Senator Arlen Specter says Pickering displays "a curious ambivalence" about using the court to protect voting rights, while NAACP board chair Julian Bond says "a vote for Pickering is a vote against civil rights." That's a particularly dramatic charge regarding a nominee to the Fifth Circuit, which oversees civil rights protections in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, and has the highest percentage of African-Americans of any circuit.
The Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP and the predominantly black Magnolia Bar Association are working to block Pickering's nomination. "We hope to God that he doesn't make it," explains L.A. Warren, chair of the state NAACP's Legal Redress Committee. "We know his past." As a law student, Pickering penned a 1959 law review article that showed legislators how to tighten Mississippi's ban on interracial marriage. In the 1960s Pickering established a law practice with one of the state's most outspoken segregationists. He joined white business elites in his hometown of Laurel in opposing the worst excesses of the local Ku Klux Klan, but he also signed an open letter declaring he was working along more genteel lines to maintain "our Southern way of life." As a state senator in the 1970s, Pickering repeatedly advocated election "reforms" that the Justice Department knocked down as assaults on African-American empowerment, and he supported funding the notorious Mississippi Sovereignty Commission's efforts to block desegregation. As a federal judge since 1990, Pickering has described the "one person, one vote" principle as "obtrusive," attacked moves to draw legislative districts that could be won by African-American candidates as "polarization" and repeatedly attempted to limit application of Voting Rights Act provisions in Mississippi. In lawsuits before him involving racial discrimination in the workplace, Pickering has griped that courts "are not super personnel managers charged with second-guessing every employment decision regarding minorities."
At least eleven of the two dozen Pickering decisions overturned by the Fifth Circuit were rejected for violating well-settled principles of law involving civil rights, civil liberties, criminal procedures and labor rights. In 1994 Pickering intervened with the Justice Department to try to get the government to soften charges against a man who had burned an eight-foot cross outside the home of an interracial couple, claiming the defendant had merely engaged in a "drunken prank."
After Pickering stumbled badly in Judiciary Committee hearings--which raised ethics concerns about his role in the cross-burning case, his solicitation of letters of recommendation from lawyers and groups that might face his court, and his deceitful testimony about his ties to the Sovereignty Commission--his nomination was in trouble. But it was revived by conservative groups, which recognize that confirmation of such a nominee would ease the way for later Bush picks, and by antiabortion activists who have championed Pickering since he led the fight at the 1976 Republican National Convention for a platform opposing reproductive freedom. Pickering has a powerful ally in Senate minority leader Trent Lott, who says conservative Southern Democrats will help him confirm Pickering if a full Senate vote is scheduled. Lott charges that Pickering is the victim of a "smear" campaign.
That spin was aided by a New York Times article asserting that the African-Americans who know Pickering best "admire his efforts at racial reconciliation" and "overwhelmingly" support his nomination. Based only on interviews with African-American residents of Laurel, the Times article claimed that a disconnect between national groups' opposition to Pickering and Mississippi blacks' support for him "reflects the distance between national liberal groups and many Southern blacks in small towns." Newspapers with a better sense of the South dismissed this view; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized, "US jurisprudence came too far in the late 20th century to allow it to lapse back into a time when Pickering's prejudices reigned." But the claim that critics have focused unfairly on Pickering's record on race was picked up by conservative newspapers. The Wall Street Journal highlighted a pro-Pickering column by Mississippi's most prominent black Republican, Charles Evers, and the Washington Times wrote, "Liberal organizations have tried to label Judge Pickering as a racist, but black leaders in Mississippi are vocally backing the nominee as a friend of their community."
In fact, it was Mississippi blacks who first raised the alarm about Pickering's nomination. "I wish the New York Times would ask people like me what we think of Charles Pickering," says Kathy Egland, who joined the 1960s civil rights movement in Hattiesburg at the age of 10. "I have been involved in civil rights in Mississippi for forty years, and I'll tell you this: No one in the Mississippi NAACP who knows this man's record is saying that he has ever been a supporter of civil rights."
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