Julia Pierson makes history.
(The Root) -- The man who made history by becoming America's first black president just made history again by appointing the first woman to head the Secret Service in the agency's 147-year history. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama swore in Julia Pierson, a 30-year Secret Service veteran, as head of the agency.
Pierson's selection is both monumental and significant for a number of reasons. The agency weathered one of the biggest scandals since its inception, with agents accused of cavorting with prostitutes during official trips. The scandal raised questions about whether or not the agency is a boys' club, and also sparked questions about gender diversity. The agency is not the only government institution grappling with such questions.
President Obama has faced ongoing criticism regarding a lack of both racial and gender diversity in his second-term Cabinet and among his senior advisers. Though director of the Secret Service is not a Cabinet-level position, it is one of the most important law-enforcement roles in the country. With this appointment the president has shattered one of America's oldest glass ceilings, something that feminists and all Americans must give him credit for, and something that will likely become a significant credit to his legacy long after he has left office.
Coverage of the issue may be overshadowing another important civil rights cause.
(The Root) -- Quick question: Who is the latest Democratic senator to come out in support of affirmative action?
OK, another question: Who is the latest Republican senator to come out in support of affirmative action?
How about this one: Do any Republican senators support affirmative action?
Last question: Do you know the answer to any of the above questions?
Chances are you don't. Most of us don't. But I bet you know that Republican Sen. Rob Portman now supports same-sex marriage, spurred by his love and compassion for his openly gay son. I bet you also know that 10 Democratic senators oppose gay marriage.
The reason you know both of these facts is that same-sex marriage has become the mainstream media's civil rights cause célèbre -- even though it ultimately affects just under 4 percent of the population. To be clear, this population deserves rights and protections regardless of how few of them there may be, but not at the expense of other groups.
Though I have sensed a disparity in civil rights coverage for months in print, online and on television, I only recently tried multiple online searches to see if I was being paranoid.
A search of "Affirmative action before the Supreme Court" produced just over 100 million results. (This number came up whether I tried including the year 2013 or used parentheses.) "Voting rights before the Supreme Court" netted more than 400 million results. But "Gay marriage before the Supreme Court" produced article after article after TV clip after TV clip, with just over 800 million results. "Same sex marriage before the Supreme Court" produced even more: just under 900 million results.
I have been baffled by the fact that while the Supreme Court's upcoming rulings on voting rights and affirmative action were relegated to a couple of days of nonintensive media coverage, coverage of the court's upcoming rulings on same-sex marriage has been treated as the second coming of the Brown v. Board of Education case, which literally changed America for all Americans, as opposed to the second coming of Loving v. Virginia, which the gay-marriage case more closely resembles, and which ultimately changed the lives of some Americans: those pursuing interracial relationships.
While the Loving case has been the subject of a TV movie and documentary, if you ask the average black American (even those of us who have been in interracial relationships) which case had a defining impact on our entire community and country, most of us are not going to name that case. After all, dating someone of a different race would probably be the last thing on your mind if you can't even attend school with or work alongside your partner or are still worried about exercising your right to vote. (Speaking of work, one can still be fired for being gay in dozens of states. I still don't understand why changing those laws hasn't been deemed more of an immediate priority than marriage.)
Which brings me to why I, and other black Americans, including some African-American members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community I recently discussed this subject with, find the wall-to-wall coverage of the marriage issue so frustrating.
Yet again, wealthy white males are driving the agenda, and everyone else is expected to follow, including the media and the president.
What do I mean? Well, Republicans have finally begun to say on the record what many of us who cover politics have long known is part of the calculus involved in the political "evolution" of some leaders on gay marriage. Many of those leading the charge on the marriage issue within the LGBT community are white, wealthy and privileged.
Their checkbooks can influence elections, and their voices subsequently get amplified in a way that those of other people -- people whom the affirmative action and voting rights cases would affect -- might not, such as a working-class African-American student for whom affirmative action may play an important role in helping him or her pursue higher education to climb out of poverty, or an elderly Latina who may face voter disenfranchisement.
It is telling that while President Obama has recently done interview after interview in which he has weighed in with his support on same-sex marriage, by comparison, his support of affirmative action in recent years has seemed perfunctory at best. (A Google search of "Obama on affirmative action" yields 44.4 million results, while a search of "Obama on same sex marriage" yields 506 million.)
I am glad that LGBT Americans are finally on their way to being accepted fully as Americans who have just as much right to the American dream as the rest of us. But I think it is unfortunate that a year from now, it is very possible that white, gay Americans will talk about their status as minorities with nostalgia, if they talk about it at all.
Meanwhile, their brown and black LGBT brothers and sisters will still struggle daily for economic equality -- in part because politicians, media and the Supreme Court were too busy focusing on making one already privileged group happy while forgetting that the struggles of the others still exist.
Sen. Rand Paul's liberal stance draws sharp contrast with the White House.
(The Root) -- To the extent that he is known to minority audiences at all, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is likely best known for his controversial criticism of the Civil Rights Act. But he may soon emerge with a much higher profile among black Americans, and a much more positive one, thanks in large part to his equally controversial comments on another issue: drug policy.
In an interview with Fox News, the Tea Party favorite had this to say about marijuana use: "I don't want to promote that, but I also don't want to put people in jail who make a mistake. There are a lot of young people who do this and then later on, in their 20s, they grow up and get married and they quit doing things like this. I don't want to put them in jail and ruin their lives." Ultimately, Paul feels it should be left to the states to determine drug laws.
During the interview, Paul and interviewer Chris Wallace also noted that based on existing laws, our current and most recent presidents could have ended up in jail, as opposed to the White House, because of alleged drug use. President Barack Obama wrote about experimenting with drugs in his memoir Dreams From My Father. President Bill Clinton became infamous for saying of his experience with marijuana, "but I didn't inhale," while President George W. Bush refused to admit having tried drugs when pressed about the matter during his campaign for the presidency. Bush would often say, "When I was young and irresponsible, I behaved young and irresponsibly," which led to wide speculation that he did, in fact, try drugs in his youth.
Despite President Obama's youthful flirtation with drugs, the Obama administration has repeatedly refused to acknowledge America's turning tide in the so-called war on drugs. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that a majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana use. This has become a more mainstream position in recent years as states began to decriminalize the drug, despite federal statute, and as more members of the medical community have affirmed the drug's medicinal benefits, particularly for those battling chronic or terminal ailments.
But while the president did sign a law to decrease the crack-versus-cocaine sentencing gap (which disproportionately affected minority drug offenders), the White House official position on any drugs has not been swayed. According to the White House website, "Recently, there have been increasing efforts to legalize marijuana. The Obama Administration has consistently reiterated its firm opposition to any form of drug legalization." The website goes on to explain, "Legalization would further burden the criminal justice system."
The site also argues that the number of people who actually wind up in prison solely because of marijuana possession is fairly minuscule. In other words, the argument is that keeping marijuana criminalized does not really hurt anyone. But tell that to those who have had their lives disrupted because they made the same choice the president once made.
In a 2010 column titled "Smoke and Horrors," New York Times columnist Charles Blow revealed just how devastating marijuana criminalization has been on communities of color. Blow writes, "According to a report ... by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project for the Drug Policy Alliance and the N.A.A.C.P. and led by Prof. Harry Levine, a sociologist at the City University of New York: 'In the last 20 years, California made 850,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and half-a-million arrests in the last 10 years. The people arrested were disproportionately African-Americans and Latinos, overwhelmingly young people, especially men.' For instance, the report says that the City of Los Angeles "arrested blacks for marijuana possession at seven times the rate of whites."
But those details just scratch the surface regarding how these laws hurt minority communities. For instance, because of a law signed during the Clinton administration, federal financial aid for college can be canceled (pdf) because of an arrest or conviction for drug possession, meaning that a young student -- like President Obama was when he once experimented with drugs -- could face having his or her life doubly ruined: first by having a record and second by being unable to afford to pursue an education to get his or her life back on track.
In New York, where the police department's aggressive stop-and-frisk program has been shown to disproportionately target minorities, in particular young men, few guns (in comparison with how many men are stopped) have been confiscated as a result of the program. But a number of young men of color have ended up having their lives upended because of marijuana possession. To be clear, possession of marijuana is not a misdemeanor in New York; it's a violation. But publicly displaying marijuana is a misdemeanor -- something that many of these young men have been coerced into doing upon being stopped by police.
Who knows how many of these young men had the same potential as the youthful President Obama, but will now find it virtually impossible to fulfill such potential because of misguided judgment on their part, as well as on the part of our leaders for criminalizing them in the first place?
After the Trayvon Martin tragedy, President Obama famously remarked that if he had a son, "he'd look like Trayvon." Yet there are millions of young men of color, who could also be his son, who are having their lives ruined daily for behavior no different from the president's own.
The question now becomes whether or not President Obama has the courage to become a voice for those young men in his second term or if he is going to continue to allow a Tea Partier who questions the Civil Rights Act to become a more credible voice for young men of color than the first black president.
The ouster of the commissioner's son for tweeting about Jews, blacks and "Obama lovers" highlights diversity issues.
(The Root) -- Late Monday, news broke that an aspiring New York firefighter would resign from the city's fire department, where he was working as an EMT, because of racially inflammatory tweets. Making the matter even more newsworthy and shocking is that the author of the offensive tweets is the son of the city's fire commissioner, Salvatore Cassano.
Joe Cassano's targets included Jews, blacks and "Obama lovers." His missives include the statement, "I like jews about as much as hitler," and during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday he tweeted, "MLK could go kick rocks for all I care, but thanks for the time and a half today."
He also tweeted the term "shwoog," which is a slang term for the n-word, according to the Urban Dictionary. In addition to his father's prominent role leading the Fire Department of New York, Cassano's tweets drew attention because the FDNY has struggled with diversity for years.
Though the NYPD has been the subject of countless tragedies, controversies and lawsuits related to accusations of racial discrimination -- from the Abner Louima case to the Amadou Diallo shooting -- the FDNY has struggled in a less high-profile but significant manner as well.
According to a 2010 Village Voice cover story, "New York's fire department may, in fact, be the whitest large institution run by a major city in the United States. Your chance of becoming a firefighter in New York if you aren't white, Irish, or Italian, and come from a family of firefighters has traditionally been very slim."
Just last year the city was ordered to pay $128 million to black and Latino applicants who alleged the city had used a special entrance exam to intentionally exclude them from the FDNY. Quoting from the lawsuit at the time, CNN reported, "According to the most recent census data, black residents make up 25.6 percent of New York City's population; when this case was filed in 2007, black firefighters accounted for only 3.4 percent of the department's force. In other words, in a city of over eight million people, and out of a force with 8,998 firefighters, there were only 303 black firefighters. This pattern of underrepresentation has remained essentially unchanged since at least the 1960s."
The U.S. District Court judge also ruled that the city was to hire 239 black and Latinos.
The Village Voice noted that in a city in which 35 percent of the population is white, 90 percent of the fire department is white. By comparison, the NYPD is more than 16 percent black and 18 percent Latino.
The FDNY is far from alone in grappling with diversity issues. As of 2000, while just over 8 percent of the nation's firefighters were black, and just over 8 percent were Latino, blacks made up more than 12 percent of the U.S. population, and Latinos 16 percent.
During her nomination process before she was confirmed for the Supreme Court, one of the most heavily scrutinized lower-court cases of Justice Sonia Sotomayor was a 2009 case involving allegations of reverse discrimination at the New Haven Fire Department in Connecticut. In Ricci v. DeStefano, a white firefighter sued after the results for the exams necessary for promotions within the department -- an exam he passed -- were thrown out. The department did so in an effort to adhere to Title VII of civil rights law, which strives to prevent conscious and calculated discrimination, as well as unintentional discrimination, and therefore requires employers to take into account the racial impact of promotion and hiring decisions. No black firefighters passed the exam.
Though Sotomayor was one of the justices who rejected the appeal of Ricci, the white firefighter, when the case went before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Ricci won.
But ultimately, testing seems to be merely a symptom of a larger problem when it comes to diversity and the FDNY. It is a career notorious for being one in which fathers help sons get jobs, brothers help brothers and uncles help nephews. Having institutional support can go a long way, in everything from applying to the FDNY to prepping for the notorious exam and simply having the necessary support network to get through it all.
Understanding this, Commissioner Cassano previously met with aspiring African-American firefighters to discuss some of the department's diversity challenges. He didn't know that soon his son, whom he was apparently trying to fast-track into the department like so many fire department-connected fathers before him, would emerge as one of the institution's most high-profile diversity challenges.
To his credit, Commissioner Cassano didn't try to pass the buck, and had this to say of his son:
"I am extremely disappointed in the comments posted online by my son Joseph, which do not reflect the values -- including a respect for all people -- that are held by me, my family and the FDNY. I have worked hard for many years, as have so many people in the agency, to make the FDNY more diverse and inclusive. There is no place -- and I have no tolerance -- for statements that would harm the good reputation we enjoy due to our honorable service to all New Yorkers.
"As a parent, this is very painful for me, but I believe my son has made the right decision [to resign]," Cassano continued. "I love him very much, and with the support and love of our entire family, we will get through this together."
Famed surgeon and Obama critic Ben Carson fires up the Republican base gathered at CPAC.
(The Root) -- While Sarah Palin and her Big Gulp stunt generated the most laughs at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, the event made clear that she is no longer the GOP's rising star. Only five short years after she burst onto the national scene, Palin was overshadowed by those perceived as representing the GOP's best hope at reclaiming the White House. Among them was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But there was another rising star who emerged at this year's gathering. Only he's not a politician -- yet: Dr. Benjamin Carson.
Carson is one of the best-known black doctors ever; so well known, in fact, that his life story was the subject of a film starring Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr., titled Gifted Hands. The title refers to Carson's gifts as a surgeon. He became the youngest division head in the history of Johns Hopkins Hospital when he became director of pediatric neurosurgery at age 33.
He is known for executing some of the most groundbreaking surgeries of the last two decades, among them separating two conjoined twins. His rapid ascension followed his graduation from the University of Michigan Medical School and Yale University as an undergraduate. But what makes his accomplishments particularly impressive and compelling is that he grew up in poverty. Carson is the embodiment of the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mantra that so many conservatives espouse.
A devout Christian, he has made no secret of some of his socially conservative positions, among them opposing abortion. Though Carson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2008, it was not until earlier this year that he first began to be considered a political contender.
Carson controversially condemned some of President Obama's policies in a public speech. While the remarks themselves drew praise in conservative corners, the venue drew criticism. Carson attacked health care reform and other Obama-administration accomplishments at the National Prayer Breakfast, one of Washington's few strictly nonpartisan gatherings. But while some, including some high-profile conservatives, said Carson owed the president an apology for the timing and location of his remarks, others saw a future conservative star emerge.
Carson's speech this past weekend at CPAC, which garnered multiple standing ovations, seemed to affirm that. He is, in many ways, a dream candidate. He has had real-world experience that people admire; is a happily, longtime-married family man; and is handsome, a great speaker, funny and personable. I have both met Carson and watched him captivate an audience -- which is not an easy thing to do.
Neither is getting elected president. But if anyone is capable of defying the odds, it's Carson, who has already done so by reaching and staying at the upper echelons of one of the world's most competitive professions -- a profession that he has announced he will be retiring from later this year.
This leaves the door open for Carson to pursue another career, and many seem to think that politics is a natural fit. If he does decide to throw his hat in the political ring, it will be some welcome good news for the GOP, which just lost one of its African-American rising stars to scandal this week and has struggled to redefine itself in an increasingly brown world, while the party attracts an increasingly white demographic.
Carson has saved countless lives as a doctor, but it remains to be seen if he can save the GOP.