esse quam videri

Why calling Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas’ is a slur against all mixed-race Americans

For years I’d followed the saga related to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s one-time claim to Native American ancestry. This case demands rigorous thinking about the multi-faceted construction of race in North America and Native thought leaders, including those belonging to the Cherokee Nation, importantly point up how Native sovereignty may be compromised when outsiders such as Senator Warren and President Trump attempt to define the their borders of belonging. Such belonging cannot be reduced to blood quantum or family stories because political and kinship-based are also foundations of Native identities. For my part, I heard in President Trump’s slur echoes of doubt about the legitimacy of mixed-race Americans to define themselves as such. Washington Post, November 29, 2017.

President Trump’s assault on Sen. Elizabeth Warren descended to a new low Monday. Calling the Massachusetts leader “Pocahontas” during a ceremony honoring Native American code-talker veterans, Trump not only slurred Warren — he slurred all American families whose histories include ancestors of differing races. Read more.

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Truth (My Truth) About Sex, Power and Unwelcome Encounters

I wrote this essay in response to the thousands of #MeToo posts I encountered on social media. From friends and strangers, women’s experiences have poured out over the course of just a few days. The origins of @MeToo is in the work of Tarana Burke. You can find an interview with Burke from DemocracyNow, here.

I hear truth in recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Just as I had in those against Bill Cosby. This sort of truth we know from experience. Were I broaching this subject in my law school classroom, I would talk burden of proof, reasonable doubt, and preponderance of evidence. At home, among friends, I know another sort of truth, that embedded in the stories women tell.

That truth is also my own. [continue here.]

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What Mark Lila Gets Wrong About Students

The Chronicle of Higher Education asked me to respond to historians Mark Lila’s ideas about students and political consciousness. Lila and I disagree about a lot of things, not the least of which is how identity politics is related to students capacity to engage in democratic processes.

I had to wonder where Mark Lilla was on November 9, 2016, as I read his new essay in The Chronicle Review, “How Colleges Are Strangling Liberalism.” Early that morning, Donald Trump was declared president of the United States. Perhaps, like me, Lilla woke up all too aware that his next class would be especially demanding. Students would have one thing on their minds: How to make sense of an outcome that few predicted, many feared, and the consequences of which no one could wholly anticipate.

[Continue here.]

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The 14th Amendment Solved One Citizenship Crisis, But it Created a New One

My research into early 19th century citizenship debates has long resonated for me with today’s wrangling over the status of unauthorized immigrants. Here, for the Washington Post’s “Made By History” series, I tell the long story of how the 14th Amendment’s birthright provision, has worked for and against those claiming a place in the United States.

An excerpt:

There is much to admire in the work of Reconstruction-era lawmakers who took this step toward a more complete democracy. But today, their definition of what makes an American falls short of resolving our citizenship crisis. Unauthorized immigrants and their communities find too little recourse in the birthright principle. Despite building families and institutions across generations, they are, not unlike former slaves, excluded from the nation’s borders of belonging.

[Continue reading here.]

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Before Frederick Douglass: William Watkins Speaks for Black Americans on Independence Day. July 4, 1831.

On the 4th of July, Independence Day in the United States, Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the 4th of July” circulates widely. In my own research, I’d come across a similar oration by Baltimore’s William Watkins. I wrote about it briefly here.

Twenty one years before Frederick Douglass delivered his timeless address, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?,” teacher and activist William Watkins, writing as “A Colored Baltimorean,” penned his own bitter reflections on the “Anniversary of American Independence.”

[Continue here.]

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Belle-mère Means Mother-in-Law: Managing Loss and Love Across a Jagged Color Line

Sometimes my essays are as much person reflection as they are commentary. Here, in a tribute to my mother-in-law, I think out loud about race and language as I’ve encountered it while living in France. The occasion was Mother’s Day. Here’s an excerpt:

I labored to explain who I was and from where I came. I slowly unpacked my family past, peeling back layers that showed how mine was hardly the first generation to cross lines of culture and more. Those essential chapters, such as the history of slavery and African American culture in the United States, Mimi had never encountered up close. Add to that my parents’ mixed-race union and me, their ambiguous looking child, and there was a lot to talk about. Perhaps I lingered here because on such topics my vocabulary was best. I am a historian of race and slavery and so these words came more easily than most.

[Read more here.]

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Stumbling Blocks: A Pop-Up Art Installation

In April 2017, I conceived and curated a public pop-up art installation titled Stumbling Blocks in connection with the University of Michigan’s 2017 Bicentennial.

Exploring our aspirations for a diverse campus community — a topic that was covered by Justices Sotomayor and Baer during a January 30, 2017, colloquium – means also understanding challenges from U-M’s past. The Future University Community featured some of these moments the week of April 3-8, 2017, with “Stumbling Blocks,” a series of pop-up art installations on the Central, Medical and North campuses. The exhibit was timed to coincide with the Bicentennial Spring Festival.

These seven installations drew attention to various chapters from U-M’s history. The displays were prominent and provocative asking us to redefine our community, recalibrate our goals and set out new aspirations that are informed by the past. Each installation was accompanied by quotes from relevant community members.

You can view the installations and read more about Stumbling Block here.

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Sonia Sotomayor, Susanne Baer, and the Future University Community

In January 2017, I organized a conversation and day-long series of event featuring U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor and German Federal Constitutional Court Justice Susanne Baer on the theme of the future university community.

At the first President’s Bicentennial Colloquium, “The Future University Community,” U.S. Justice Sonia Sotomayor and German Justice Susanne Baer discussed how respect and compromise can create and strengthen community, stressed the importance of developing diversity in higher education and urged students to understand the law.

U-M students, faculty, staff and community members packed Hill Auditorium for the event, moderated by journalist Michele Norris, former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

Before the discussion began, President Mark S. Schlissel presented Sotomayor with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from U-M. Baer and Norris had previously received honorary degrees from U-M in 2014 and 2013, respectively.

You can view the Justices’ conversation and an overview of their visit here.

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Ava DuVernay’s 13th: It’s About Hope, Not History

02-13th-netflix-documentary“The 13th Amendment’s loophole gave license to a system that has brutalized black and brown men and women in the United States. DuVernay’s 13th responds by asserting a fierce, relentless humanity that neither law nor the systems it has set in place can extinguish.”

I watched Ava Duvernay’s stunning 13th with the student-led Criminal Law Society at Michigan Law. Our discussion was so provocative, I penned this review of the film, taking off my historian’s hat and trying to understand what DuVernay hoped to achieve, and why the film is moving so many people.  You can read the entire review here.

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Birthright Citizenship: A Close Look at a Federalist Society Debate

fedsoclogotagrgbgrayThe debate over birthright citizenship is alive, well, and still happening in polite circles. At least this is true in Federalist Society circles, here with Gerald Walpin on one side and David B. Rivkin, Jr. and John C. Yoo on the other. This debate turns on readings of the 14th Amendment, but history undergirds the analyses. And no one gets it quite right. You can read the full exchange here.

I’m sympathetic to the story that Rivkin and Woo tell, one that brands Dred Scott an exception and an error. But they overlook the degree to which in Congress, constitutional conventions, and state high courts, disagreement surrounded the matter of birthright. They posit:

“With the exception of a few years before the Civil War, the United States followed the British rule of jus solis (citizenship defined by birthplace), rather than the rule of jus sanguinis (citizenship defined by that of parents) that prevails in much of continental Europe.37 As the 18th century English jurist William Blackstone explained: “The children of aliens, born here in England, are generally speaking, natural-born subjects, and entitled to all the privileges of such.”After the Civil War, congressional Republicans drafted the 14th Amendment to correct one of slavery’s grave distortions of our law. In Dred Scott v. Sanford, Chief Justice Roger Taney found that slaves, even though born in the United States, could never become citizens.”

This analysis does not get us very far because it mistakenly limits the reach of Taney’s decision in Dred Scott to slaves. The Chief Justice’s primary target was not slaves at all — it was instead free people of color. When we remember that free African Americans were the subjects of Taney’s ruling, it points us to the long and complex debate about whether free black Americans were citizens by virtue of birthright. The story of birthright citizenship is not then a seamless path between the Constitution and the 14th Amendment. Instead, it is a story of mis-steps, conflicts, and dead ends.

I agree with Rivkin and Woo that the 14th Amendment did not invent birthright even as it constitutionalized it. But how the nation arrived there requires a closer examination of how free black Americans troubled the question for the preceding half-century.

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