Her fashion legacy will leave a more indelible mark than "Let's Move."
(The Root) -- Every presidential administration has one or two moments it is best remembered for -- some good, some bad. President Nixon will always be better-remembered for Watergate and his final farewell wave following his resignation than for any of his policies. President Obama will always be remembered for the night he made history by becoming our country's first black president. But he will also be remembered for his wife.
While other presidential first ladies are largely forgotten, or remembered for advocacy on a singular issue, like Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" campaign, Michelle Obama will rival her husband in America's collective memory. Her "Let's Move" fitness campaign may be her official issue platform as first lady, but it will not be her greatest legacy. Her greatest legacy will be permanently redefining the American ideal for femininity, beauty and womanhood, and her appearances in Vogue magazine will be remembered as central to this.
The fashion industry as a whole has faced growing criticism in recent years -- from feminists, health experts, nonanorexic readers and even successful models -- for its increasing use of models who seem to be shrinking more with each passing year. In addition, the industry has faced criticism for its lack of diversity.
In 2010, when actress Halle Berry landed the September cover of American Vogue, considered the most important of the year, she was only the second black woman to do so in 20 years. And yet as excited as I was to see a beautiful woman of color make the cover, Berry's selection highlighted one of the fashion industry's other dirty little secrets behind sizism and racism: colorism.
Contrary to folklore, the first black woman to appear on a Vogue cover was not brown-skinned Beverly Johnson but ethnically ambiguous-looking, although African-American, Donyale Luna, who graced the magazine's British cover eight years before Johnson became the first black cover model for American Vogue in 1974. The use of models of color who don't exhibit all that much color has been a constant throughout the industry for decades, with darker models like Alek Wek and Kiara Kabukuru being exceptions more than the norm. Fairer-skinned beauties, like Veronica Webb and Lana Ogilvie, ruled the '90s.
Even those brown-skinned beauties who broke through with a vengeance, like Naomi Campbell, were celebrated for their multiracial backgrounds and features. Campbell's eyes have been credited to her Chinese ancestry, while her successor Chanel Iman's beauty has been credited in part to her Korean heritage. I once heard a fashion expert remark about Beverly Johnson's nose helping her "make it" in the industry. I had never noticed her nose but did after this. It is arguably thinner than the features traditionally associated with African Americans.
But unlike a model who may be hot today and gone tomorrow, Michelle Obama has emerged as American fashion's most bankable face of the last half decade. Few models enjoy one Vogue cover, let alone two. Even fewer black women who aren't models land two covers -- with A-list stars such as Beyoncé and Berry, both of whom are light-skinned, being notable exceptions.
Years from now, few will remember what President Obama said in his most recent State of the Union address, or the critiques of his Republican opponents. But some little girl will come across a copy of Michelle Obama's Vogue magazine covers, presenting her in all of her dark-brown-skinned, full-lipped glory, and see herself and know that she is as beautiful as an American first lady. Almost as important, some people who don't look like that little girl will have learned to appreciate her brown beauty, too, thanks to Michelle Obama.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets it right with teen-pregnancy ads.
(The Root) -- There's a scene in the wildly popular TV show Downton Abbey in which a single mother working as a prostitute to support her son is torn between giving him up for adoption by his wealthy grandparents or raising him herself. A well-heeled, well-meaning social activist encourages her to keep the child, saying that while he might not have the same opportunities with his biological mother that he would with the other family, he would have a decent life with her all the same.
Of course, then the child's mother makes the kind of observation that makes most limousine liberals uncomfortable, whether on a television show set in England or in real-life American politics. The mother acknowledges that, yes, her son would have a life with her -- but not the kind of life the nosy social activist's son had growing up, filled with a quality education and plentiful professional opportunities. (Spoiler coming if you watch the show.) The mother decides that her son deserves the same quality of life that this rich woman's son enjoyed, and she is selfless enough to give him to a family who can give that life to him.
I was reminded of this scene as I read the ridiculous criticism being lobbed by a bunch of well-meaning privileged people at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his support of an ad campaign aimed at curbing teen pregnancy in that city. The campaign pulls no punches, featuring infant children surrounded by quotes about how their lives, and the lives of their families, are likely to turn out in households headed by teen parents. One poster reads, "If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty." Another reads, "I'm twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen."
Apparently some liberal critics publicly object to the campaign (including a few of my well-intentioned but misguided friends in media and politics, who won't care for this piece and will probably tell me so). But they don't object to the campaign on the basis of fact, because, of course, the campaign is factually accurate. A child is statistically more likely to have access to greater financial and academic opportunity if not raised by a teen mother. So just what is it about the campaign that has critics so riled up?
Well, according to Planned Parenthood, "The latest NYC ad campaign creates stigma, hostility and negative public opinions about teen pregnancy and parenthood rather than offering alternative aspirations for young people." I'm not sure where to start with this lunacy. First off, I thought that as one of the nation's leading sexual-health organizations, Planned Parenthood would focus on decreasing the number of unplanned pregnancies, not celebrating and encouraging them. Did I miss something?
Second, I'm much less concerned about the stigma teen parents may face than about the lifetime stigma their children face as they miss out on one opportunity after another because their parents weren't ready to realize their full potential as parents while raising them. (As I've mentioned in previous pieces, one of my parents was once a teen parent -- and attests to the challenges it brings and therefore applauds the campaign.)
Considering that one of the most widely covered reality-TV trainwrecks -- second only to the Kardashians -- was the star of a show called Teen Mom, I would think that Planned Parenthood has more pressing media concerns than stopping an anti-teen-pregnancy campaign, but apparently not. The show Teen Mom and other reality shows, such as 16 and Pregnant, are perfect examples of why this campaign is needed.
Studies show that becoming famous is a greater priority to the millennial generation than to preceding generations. So when you have teenagers becoming famous on reality shows just for becoming pregnant, and the most famous reality-TV family in history shows the glamour of having multiple "baby daddies" in the family (here's looking at you, Kim and Kourtney Kardashian), where exactly is the average teen supposed to get the memo that his kid is unlikely to enjoy the upbringing that Kanye West's kid will? And that they are unlikely to enjoy 15 minutes of fame like the Teen Mom stars?
For anyone who thinks shame is not an effective motivator, ask any smokers if that's true. For the record, Attorney General Eric Holder once argued that if we shamed gun owners the way we've shamed smokers, we'd have less crime. No, I'm not comparing teen moms to criminals, but I am comparing them to those with questionable judgment, like smokers.
While we're on the subject, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg's aggressive campaign of shaming, blaming and taxing smokers, the number of smokers in New York has decreased by 27 percent since he took office.
There are many reasons to give Mayor Bloomberg a hard time. The fact that he essentially bullied his way into a third term of his reign is one of them. His administration's questionable response to the city's homeless problem is another. But his genuine effort to address teen pregnancy and its relationship to poverty is not one.
I just wonder if the women of privilege running Planned Parenthood, which has struggled with diversity in the past, realize that children born in poor communities deserve the same opportunities their kids do -- which means not just randomly distributing birth control but actually giving poor women the same information, incentives and life goals that women who grow up in privilege often take for granted. That includes providing accurate information about why when you choose to become a parent matters.
After losing out on secretary of state, is she up for another big post?
(The Root) -- There have been plenty of second acts in politics, from former President Bill Clinton surviving a sex-turned-impeachment scandal, to former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry returning to public life from a crack-and-prostitute scandal. But rarely do political comebacks happen in the span of a few short months.
And yet that appears to be the case for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice (not that anyone is comparing her Benghazi troubles to the very real transgressions of the aforementioned politicians). After her humiliating withdrawal from contention as a secretary of state nominee, Rice is said to be the Obama administration's front-runner for national security adviser.
For those wondering how a woman who had little chance of being confirmed as secretary of state can be confirmed as national security adviser, the answer is, she doesn't have to be. National security adviser is not an official cabinet post and therefore does not require Senate confirmation; however, the post is one of the most influential within a presidential administration in terms of shaping high-level foreign policy.
Condoleezza Rice used the role as a stepping-stone to secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. Her tenure as national security adviser is remembered as one of the most influential in recent memory -- but not necessarily in a good way. It was in that role that Rice is credited (or, rather, blamed by many) with helping to justify the costly, and now largely viewed as misguided, war in Iraq.
While not a cabinet post, national security adviser is quite an admirable consolation prize for Susan Rice, who would be only the second woman to serve in the position, should all go according to rumored plan. It could be a redemptive opportunity for Rice, who was thwarted by her perceived weaknesses in answering questions related to the Benghazi, Libya, tragedy, and ultimately became collateral damage in the ongoing post-2008 presidential-election grudge-fest between Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the man who beat him.
This twist of fate could also serve as a moment of redemption for President Obama. His administration has struggled with criticism regarding the lack of gender and racial diversity among both his cabinet and high-level advisers. He faced particular criticism from black Americans who wondered why the president seemed so committed to fighting for white male nominees like former Sen. Chuck Hagel, now secretary of defense, and yet seemed quick to waver on Rice.
Should she become national security adviser, some of that criticism may subside. But as Rice's last public battle reminds us, no one should count any chickens before they hatch -- or, in her case, begin printing up any business cards until the swearing-in is officially over.
A guest of the first lady's at the State of the Union has inspired a push for a new voting-rights law in Florida.
(The Root) -- If there is one woman who has stolen the show from President Obama during his State of the Union addresses, it has been his wife, first lady Michelle Obama. Her attire and arms have previously garnered almost as much attention as his speeches.
But during his most recent State of the Union address in February, the first lady was upstaged by another woman: 102-year-old Desiline Victor. Victor received a standing ovation from the bipartisan audience. The president praised Victor, saying the following:
We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read "I Voted."
Victor not only stole the show; she also stole the hearts of millions of Americans, and now she has inspired a new voting-rights bill in the state of Florida.
Desiline's Free and Fair Democracy Act aims to ensure that future voters don't endure the obstacles to voting that Victor encountered. Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, which specializes in voter-rights litigation, told The Root, "Florida has had a history of making voting harder for Floridians, and the state continues to be a voting disaster. It's not just about the long waits in lines. Florida had the voter purging that happened in 2012. In 2000 we had people being purged from the lists erroneously."
But Dianis highlighted an issue that she believes distinguishes Florida as one of the worst of the worst states when it comes to the issue of voting rights. "It's a state that has over 1 million people who can't vote because of felony convictions. They've paid their debt to society. They've done their time, but they still can't vote," Dianis explained.
The bill, if it becomes law, would primarily address the following:
* Enabling people with felony convictions who have completed their sentences to register to vote
* Allowing automatic voter registration at places like the Department of Motor Vehicles
* Creating online voter-registration systems that make it easier to register and vote.
The bill focuses on administrative measures, with good reason. Many of the delays that voters experience tend to have two primary causes: errors related to a voter's registration, such as the polling site not reflecting where someone has moved; and a lack of proper staffing at polling sites, particularly when it comes to early voting.
Dianis acknowledged that in addition to partisanship, as well as the fear among some that an increasingly brown and diverse electorate threatens their political power, one of the main hurdles to improving the American voting system is funding. It costs money to hire additional staff for polling places and more efficient machines, but Dianis believes that the cost to our democracy is far greater if we don't make the necessary investments. As she explained, Florida is far from the only state with a voting system that any citizen in a first world country should be embarrassed by. "I waited in line seven hours to vote in Maryland," she said.
Why Scalia's "racial entitlements" remark may help the high court in the long run.
(The Root) -- Every now and then someone says something so colossally stupid and offensive that the offended party ends up thanking him. The reason? Because the offending remark ends up costing the offender what remaining credibility he or she had, and ultimately ends up benefiting the offended party. One of the most famous examples of such foot-in-mouth disease was when Houston City Councilman Jim Westmoreland, who is white, made a joke about naming an airport in honor of deceased black Rep. Mickey Leland "N--ger International." The incumbent shortly thereafter lost his seat to an African-American candidate.
I was reminded of Westmoreland when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia set cyberspace on fire with his questions and remarks during oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder to determine the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The section, which civil rights proponents consider essential to preventing voter disenfranchisement among communities of color, particularly in the South, was described by Scalia as constituting "racial entitlements" and creating "black districts by law." Though his comments did not rise to the level of blatant racism that Westmoreland's did, Scalia said dismissively, "Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes." He continued: "Even the name of it is wonderful, the Voting Rights Act. Who's going to vote against that?"
Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's lone black justice, continued in his tradition of saying nothing during oral arguments, thereby reinforcing the opinions of those who question whether he was actually nominated to the court for his intellectual heft or merely as some sort of racial quota (ironic, since he opposes them). However, the court's swing vote was not silent. Justice Anthony Kennedy dimmed the hopes of civil rights activists by questioning the need for such stringent civil rights measures in 2013. But while many supporters of the Voting Rights Act were discouraged or horrified by the latest developments from the court, I couldn't help thinking what a difference these turn of events may make for the better in the long run.
Thanks to this case, and particularly Scalia's insulting and condescending comments and tone, President Obama will feel newfound pressure to ensure that his next nominee to the high court is one with a demonstrated commitment to civil rights. Even more important, the president will be unable to avoid calls from progressives, and particularly black people, to appoint an African American to the court the moment he has the opportunity to do so. (I have written about potential candidates before.)
President Obama won't be able to pretend that such characteristics -- culture, life experience, including racial background -- are completely irrelevant to the process, because Scalia and Kennedy reminded us that they are not. So it's possible that a year from now, regardless of the outcome of Shelby County v. Holder, progressives may find themselves thanking Scalia for opening the door to a more progressive court in the future.