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The Nomination of an African American Woman to SCOTUS Is More Than a Promise

photograph of Supreme Court facade "equal justice under law"

Now that Justice Breyer has announced his retirement, President Biden has decided to fulfill his promise to nominate an African American woman for the Supreme Court of the U.S. (a.k.a. SCOTUS). Many Republicans and conservatives have criticized his decision, offering one or more of the following reasons. For example, libertarian scholar Ilya Shapiro contends that the president is not committed to nominating the “objectively best person” for the job but rather a less qualified African American woman. Others criticize the president’s decision by focusing on a poll indicating that about 76% of Americans wish the president considers “all possible nominees,” and only 23% prefer that he follows through on his promise. Still, others, be they liberal or conservative, might claim that by committing himself to nominating an African American woman, he is discriminating against better qualified candidates.

I will argue that President Biden has not only the right to nominate an African American woman for SCOTUS, but, if he chooses a suitable candidate, he will be doing a great service to our country. The appointment of an African American woman to SCOTUS will offer a neglected but important perspective to help our nation grapple with present and forthcoming challenging decisions. Since Supreme Court Justices address highly controversial and politically sensitive issues that affect everyone, I maintain that a suitable candidate must possess, above all, moral integrity and good judgment for doing the job right.

Unlike our elected officials whose moral integrity, while desirable, is not necessary for performing well in office, we expect Supreme Court Justices to transcend their personal biases and prejudices in rendering impartial and fair decisions. Regrettably, oftentimes they fail to do so. Despite these failures, the justices abhor being perceived as politicians because presumably they do not aim at promoting policy outcomes to benefit most citizens or the interests of some. Instead, they justify their decisions by recognizing people’s political rights as found in the letter and/or the spirit of the constitutional text.

How can the president, his advisers and the Senate ascertain whether a nominee possesses moral integrity and good judgment? If the nominee be a judge, which in fact she need not be, those doing the vetting can look into her past judicial record. Also, they might go about querying those who have known the nominee in her different social roles to ascertain her moral character. Given the polarized nature of the Senate, lawmakers – especially Republicans – will try to find fault with a candidate’s moral standing, question her judicial decisions, and scrutinize her judicial philosophy. Despite its shortcomings, I can think of no better approach because, like our adversarial legal system, more often than not it works. For some, such a partisan and inquisitorial approach might not live up to their ideal for selecting “the objectively best candidate,” but we are not living in an ideal republic. We are living in an imperfect, but still perfectible democracy.

Some insist on what they conceive of as “the objectively best Supreme Court candidate.” Their conception, however, is just a sham. There are only better or worse candidates. In what sense could we claim that a person is a better candidate than another? In the sense of someone having a superior educational pedigree, for example, by having graduated summa cum laude from a prestigious law school. Or she might have clerked for a reputable judge. Or she is a prolific legal scholar. Or she possesses an envious intellectual IQ. But “better” could also mean having an exceptional emotional intelligence evidenced by exercising good judgment in her legal decisions and/or in her legal scholarship. Or she might have shown exemplary moral integrity in her different roles in society. Or she has demonstrated commitment to living up to the ideals expressed not only in the Constitution but also in the Declaration of Independence to make this a better world for all.

Of course, some might argue that the above is a false dilemma. The president could nominate a person who meets all of the already-mentioned conditions: better credentials, exceptional moral judgment, and integrity. Perhaps, but our moral judgments and integrity are conditioned, in part, by who we are and by our lived experiences. And the unique voice of African American women has been conspicuously absent from SCOTUS.

Suppose that we need to select between two candidates for SCOTUS. One has an extraordinary intellectual IQ with an exceptional educational pedigree. However, one candidate has shown substantive moral failures, such as having engaged in ubiquitous plagiarism while in law school, or having expressed racist, misogynist, or xenophobic views, or having supported special interest groups at the expense of the greater good. The other candidate has an average intellectual IQ with a solid, but not necessarily extraordinary educational pedigree. Yet she is known for having impeccable moral integrity and good judgment in her public and private life. Whom should we choose for SCOTUS? I would choose the latter because extraordinary intellectual virtues do not guarantee having moral integrity and sound moral judgment.

Next, I argue that those who prefer that the president listens to how most Americans feel about considering “all possible nominees” rather than an African American woman are not offering a compelling argument. First, they could be mistaken about their beliefs, or they might be biased against selecting an African American woman. The president’s advisers and members of the Senate are in a better position to determine who the suitable candidate would be for the greater good of the nation. Since the president has the right to nominate any candidate for SCOTUS that he thinks would be best for all, he can reasonably use race and gender, among other criteria, to narrow the pool of suitable candidates. He can justifiably do so by offering the following two reasons. He might argue that by selecting an African American woman for SCOTUS he is remedying past wrongdoings, and that by having a diverse composition of SCOTUS that mirrors our cultural milieu he is promoting the greater good of an inclusive society. 

To those who argue that, by having made such a promise, the president is politicizing and discriminating against other better qualified candidates, I will offer the following two responses. First, nominating a Supreme Court candidate has always been political. And second, in approving any nominee, one would be discriminating against other potential nominees who were not considered or selected. Discrimination is unavoidable. The issue is whether such a discrimination is justified for our greater good. Part of the greater good is to try to correct past injustices against members of excluded groups, such as African American women, who have been substantively harmed. The president and members of the Senate have not only the legal right to try to overcome past wrongs against any unfairly treated groups but, more importantly, they have the moral duty to do so. 

Lastly, one would be ill-informed to suggest that there is an insufficiently large pool of African American women from which to choose a suitable candidate for SCOTUS. I have reason to believe that such a pool exists. Also, I am sure that there are other potentially well deserving nominees who could represent the rich and diverse cultural experience of our nation, such as Native or Asian Americans, Latinx, or members of the LGTBQ+ community, to mention only a few.

An African American woman will bring a unique experience to SCOTUS to address many of our pressing legal and political issues for generations to come. To those who are skeptical about considering race or gender for membership in SCOTUS I can only say that, given our racist and misogynistic history, race and gender have mattered for the wrong reasons in the past. I can only hope that both might matter for the right reasons nowadays: to bring an important and neglected voice to SCOTUS for the benefit of all. Even if we were to accept that our Constitution is race- and gender-blind, those who have the power to interpret it are not.

‘Bon Appetit’ and the Politics of Food

photograph of halved fruits and vegetables arranged around yellow plate in the center

In the same way that the #MeToo movement encouraged women to speak out about sexism in their workplaces, the return of the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of mainstream consciousness has given BIPOC a platform to start a conversation about racism in their fields. Notably, one such conversation is currently unfolding in the food industry. In early June of 2020, Adam Rapoport stepped down from his position as the editor-and-chief of Bon Appétit magazine when a photo of Rapoport wearing brownface at a party surfaced on Twitter. In the last few years, Bon Appétit has been steadily amassing an online following through its YouTube channel, which has helped the magazine present itself as an inclusive and diverse brand to its massive twenty-something audience. In an article for Vox, Alex Abad-Santos describes how

“A dramatic part of Rapoport’s resignation was watching the wall tumble between what he was presenting to the outside world—socially conscious, thoughtful, empathetic—and his real-life actions, which according to staffers included microaggressions, underpaying staff, and taking advantage of his assistant. The ousting of a man who wrote about the killing of George Floyd and standing in solidarity with immigrants and minorities while he was, at the same time, treating his black and brown staffers inequitably, feels a lot like justice.”

However, many former employees have pointed out that Bon Appétit’s problems cannot be solved merely by firing Rapoport. The magazine (and the food industry at large) are still built on a foundation of structural racism, a foundation which is obfuscated by gestures towards multiculturalism. Despite these hollow gestures, BIPOC within the industry have been undermined by their editors in insidious ways. Assistant editor Sohla El-Waylly, for example, claimed in an Instagram post that she would be “pushed in front of video as a display of diversity,” and that only white editors were paid for their video appearances on the magazine’s YouTube channel. Former employees like Alex Lau felt pressured to only make food from their culture, and were told by their editors that “ethnic” food would not be interesting enough to the magazine’s audience. Nikita Richardson, a former black employee, struggled with the emotional toll of working in such a toxic work culture, explaining how “You see your coworkers every day of your life, and to go into work every day and feel isolated is misery-inducing . . . Nowhere have I ever felt more isolated than at Bon Appétit.

It is especially important that this interrogation of white hegemony is happening within the food industry. We tend to think of food as apolitical, one of the few neutral grounds where all people can meet without cultural or ideological baggage. There’s a reason that cooking shows are a safe bet for major networks hoping to attract the largest possible audience. Cooking shows are generally innocuous and uncontroversial, and because food makes up such a large part of our daily lives, it’s impossible for all viewers not to relate on some level. However, food is a deeply moral and political subject. The foundational story of Christian moral philosophy, the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis, is, after all, a story about eating, which indicates that food is a central symbol within philosophical discourse.

Food is political chiefly because it connects us to the world and reveals our place within larger structures of power. As scientist Louise Fresco explains in her book Hamburgers in Paradise,

“Every mouthful we eat connects us with those who long ago started to domesticate plants and animals, with the migrants and traders who spread them across the world . . . with the farmers who are proud of their land and their work, and with the laborers who pick beans and mangoes and pack them and in some cases endure appalling working conditions.”

Food is such a potent way of conceptualizing how social networks function under capitalism that in the 2017 play Young Marx, a fictionalized version of Marx uses the ingredients of his breakfast to explain how capitalism (and the things produced by it) alienate us from other people. He says, “Before capitalism I could see my brother’s hand in the labor content of my breakfast,” pointing out the division between factories that produce food and the tables those items eventually end up on. “A sausage could explain my life,” Marx exclaims, because food (as a young Engels chimes in) “maps your social relations.”

This relationship between food and consumer becomes even more muddled when we consider the online cooking-as-entertainment industry, which Bon Appétit participates in. Even when produced for the sake of entertainment and not consumption, food doesn’t lose its ability to map social relations. Media critic Dan Olson points out in a video released shortly before Rapoport’s resignation that

“Cooking entertainment can’t avoid [food politics] . . . any show is going to inherit those meanings and symbols purely by virtue of the kinds of food the show considers normal, what it considers exotic, and what it assumes the viewer is familiar with or has access to.”

Olson explains that spectacle is generally the main element of online cooking shows. The spectacle can be the chef’s outrageous or charismatic personality (popular celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has built his entire brand on this) or outlandish ingredients (donuts draped in gold-leaf or five hundred-dollar steak dinners, to name a few examples). Bon Appétit’s most popular series, Gourmet Makes, is about a pastry chef who attempts to recreate processed snack foods like Twinkies using high-quality ingredients, a spectacle which draws in millions of views per video.

But the spectacle can also be an “exotic” dish or regional cuisine unfamiliar to American viewers. Travel food shows, both on television and on the internet, often participate in this not-so-subtle racism. A white foodie will visit a non-Western culture and “discover” dishes unfamiliar to Westerners, emphasizing how new or outlandish such dishes are. So-called “superfoods” often rely on the same racist assumptions. Labeling goji berries or acai a superfood gives those products a veneer of the unfamiliar, even imbuing them with magical properties. Bon Appétit has specifically come under fire for this practice. An apology released by the magazine on June 10 in the wake of Rapoport’s resignation acknowledges that “Our mastheads have been far too white for far too long. As a result, the recipes, stories, and people we’ve highlighted have too often come from a white-centric viewpoint. At times we have treated non-white stories as ‘not newsworthy’ or ‘trendy.’” Non-white labor has historically been invisible in white kitchens and restaurants, which is why the tokenization of non-white food and culture for the sake of a magazine spread is especially wrong.

It’s difficult to say if Bon Appétit will actually follow through on its promise to be better. Matt Hunziker, a white video editor who has vocally challenged the racism his colleagues experienced at Bon Appétit, was suspended from the company on June 25, supposedly because of his willingness to speak out against the company. If Bon Appétit is unable to change its ways, one possible response would be to decenter massive media conglomerates like Condé Nast (the company that owns Bon Appétit, as well as Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and GQ) by investing more material resources in BIPOC chefs and food writers working outside of mainstream food discourse. Only paying lip-service to non-white food without giving chefs the material advantages will only perpetuate an unequal and immoral system.

Is Biden Trapped by Identity Politics?

photograph of Biden at rally pointing to the crowd

As anticipation continues to build over Joe Biden’s choice of running mate, he’s announced  that his preference is for a candidate of a different race and gender than himself and followed this up with a commitment to selecting a candidate of a different gender. This rankles many people, even some with otherwise liberal leanings. The thought, it seems to them, is that candidates for office should be selected entirely on the basis of their qualifications, without consideration of their sex or race. To think otherwise, now, has come to be pejoratively called “identity politics”, and as more Democrats push for Biden to choose a Black woman, right-wing voices delight in the insistence that Biden is being held hostage by identity politics. What’s so bad about that?

Identity politics is often treated as a term of abuse. This is not surprising, as the concept now so often stands for politicians using their racial or gender identity — or proximity to such — as a means to achieve political aims such as winning an election or silencing critics. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, has seemingly attempted to counter the growing number of criticisms from African-American former allies by increasing public appearances with his African-American wife, Chirlane McCray.

Such uses of identity politics appear cynically calculated to influence voters’ decisions not through sound argument or policy, but by appealing to a desire to support one’s group. In the worst-case scenario, identity politics in this sense is meant to deceive voters: it tells them that a candidate is one of them, or on their side, while endorsing policies that harm them. Identity politics can, of course, be abused in this way, in what Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò has called “elite capture”: the process by which a movement is exploited by elites to serve their own purposes rather than those of the people it is supposed to help. But abuse of this kind is not unique to identity politics, and so not a reason to dismiss it as harmful in itself.

It would be objectionable if Biden or those pressuring him were using identity politics in order to manipulate voters into acting in ways that harm them while helping Biden or his party. But for that to be the case, it would have to be true that he is actively pushing for policies that would harm the voters such a stratagem is designed to win over, and it’s unclear that he is — at least compared to his opponent. Moreover, for him to be using identity politics in this way, it would need to be the case that distracting voters from their real interests were his main reason for leaning toward a Black woman as a running mate. But there is no evidence of this, and it seems unlikely considering the chorus of his supporters pushing him to make this choice. It’s true, of course, that Biden is trying to win the election, and any running mate he chooses will be someone calculated to help him do that. But presumably he does a lot of things with that aim, most of them unobjectionable. If his purported reliance on identity politics is a problem, then, there must be a further reason.

One common objection to identity politics holds that voters have “been presented with a narrative and arguments convincing them to rely on identity politics, or in other words, shallow stereotypes,” as Tammy Bruce puts it. On this uncharitable view of identity politics, it functions primarily by reducing people to representatives of particular identities rather than recognizing them as individuals. Perhaps, then, the critics mean that in having to choose a Black woman candidate, Biden is ensuring that whoever he eventually chooses is not chosen for her qualifications, but for her gender and race alone. This is a popular take on identity politics, but it comes with its own set of problems.

First, to think that the pressure on Biden forces him to choose not a person but a stereotype seems to itself reduce Black women to stereotypes, since simply committing to a Black woman candidate does not imply either that anyone who meets that description is equally qualified nor that everyone who meets that description is qualified. The thought, instead, could be that although a number of Black women are perfectly qualified to be vice president, no one from that demographic has ever been chosen for the role due to a social depreciation of their race and sex. Seen in this light, a commitment to choosing a Black woman need not appear as a commitment to choosing a stereotype, but to choosing from a typically overlooked pool of excellent candidates.

Second, there is an underlying assumption that one’s sex or race is irrelevant to one’s qualification for a job. But clearly this is not always the case. It makes good sense, for example, to choose a Black spokesperson for the NAACP or a woman to consult women on reproductive issues. In these cases, a candidate’s race or sex is a qualification for the position, though it is not the only qualification and may not even be a necessary one. If, for example, a reproductive counselor is needed but no women with the requisite training can be found, it would make sense to choose a man. Still, to strongly prefer a woman for that position is not in itself problematic. There is no reason that the same might not be true of a candidate for vice president, especially if we consider that what qualifies one for that role is not some fixed set of laws, but an interplay of the historical and cultural context with the presidential candidate’s and their party’s strategy and priorities.

But there is an even more widespread, and perhaps slightly more highbrow criticism of identity politics, leveled by pundits from the liberal middle to the far right of the spectrum, such as Mark Lilla, Francis Fukuyama, Jonah Goldberg, and the Heritage Foundation. The spirit of this criticism isn’t so much that identity politics encourages us to see each other — and ourselves — as stereotypes. Instead, while such critics sometimes express sympathy for identity politics, they argue that by focusing on group identities it undermines the communal ties that bind us together. On this view, identity politics weakens our shared values by encouraging us to view ourselves primarily as members of sub-national groups and to focus on the interests of our group rather than those of the country. From this perspective, in expressing a preference for a running mate of a particular race and sex, Biden is sending a signal to some social groups that he is on their side but simultaneously telling other groups that he is not on theirs, and that he represents a fundamentally different culture from their own: one that prizes diversity over their interests.

But the view of identity politics as essentially divisive only works if we assume the divisions aren’t there to start with, or that they are minor enough that drawing attention to them causes more harm than good. If the divisions are already there, however, the options are to ignore them or to work to repair them, which cannot be done without recognizing that they exist. Now suppose that an electorate overwhelmingly votes for white men, regardless of the qualifications of others in the running. We might think that such an electorate is flawed. Waiting for the political landscape to improve on its own might work, but it also might not, since the electorate reproduces its biases with every election, choosing the person who “looks right” for the job, and thereby ensuring that that’s the kind of person who looks right for the job. In the meantime, an entire field of highly qualified candidates is left out. Another alternative, then, is to change the landscape by providing extra support for the candidates who don’t fit that type.

Identity politics — or at least the term itself — began life with the statement composed by the Combahee River Collective in 1977. The Black lesbian activists who comprised the collective did not take the concept to mean that they should get special treatment simply because they were Black, women, and lesbians. Instead, the thought was that insofar as society is structured in a way that does not treat all equally, they have a better insight into the inequalities that affect them than Black men, or straight women, might have. But the goal is not to splinter into ever-smaller groups, each demanding different treatment. The goal, rather, is for each group to lay out the ways in which it is not treated equally, so that different groups can come together in solidarity to help right each other’s injustices. Identity politics is the means; solidarity is the end. Elizabeth Drew asks, “But why does a woman necessarily merit a head start on the next presidential nomination?” The answer, perhaps, is that it’s time that women — and especially Black women — have the platform from which to present their own solutions to injustice.

Prejudice in the NFL?

painting of lamar jackson in NFL game

The NFL is over for the next six months. The Superbowl has been won, all the player and coach accolades have been handed out, and teams are busy looking to build on the 2020-2021 season in free agency and the upcoming draft. But in today’s contemporary media environment, the NFL can’t be just about football. Over the past few seasons, the NFL has endured a series of serious media crisis–player safety, television ratings, and scandalous players (mostly Antonio Brown). But an issue that continues to linger is about diversity and the impact of racial issues on the game. This is no surprise to anyone, as the diversity issues were the subject of host Steve Harvey’s monologue at this year’s NFL 100 Awards ceremony. Indeed, the small pool of minorities that sit in front offices and on coaching staffs, as well as recent decisions regarding players of color raise the question of who’s to blame for the NFL’s diversity issues as well as who’s responsible for finding solutions for them.

70% of NFL players are black–the lineman, the runningbacks, the defense, the receiving core. But if you look at one position in particular, it’s not reflective of the majority demographic–the quarterback. Per The New York Times, 12 black quarterbacks started for the NFL 2019-2020 season, but it’s one QB short for tying the record of most black quarterback starts in a single season. There’s even been a bit of controversy regarding black quarterbacks in the last few seasons. The most recent being about the NFL 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson. The Ravens quarterback was unanimously voted the league’s most valuable player, but his talents weren’t always recognized. Many sports analysts, league owners, and coaches considered Jackson a running back disguised as a quarterback. Some even suggested that he move to the wide receiver position. On one hand, comments about Jackson’s game could be purely based on what he demonstrated at the combine. But on the other hand, a black man being judged predominantly by white males hints at something deeper. Maybe it wasn’t just Jackson’s performance at the combine, it was that he didn’t fit the traditional image of a NFL quarterback–Joe Montana, Dan Marino, or Tom Brady (who Jackson happened to beat last season). However, in the same token, Superbowl champ Patrick Mahomes and Texans QB Deshaun Watson are also impacting the traditional image of a quarterback through their style of play.

Lamar Jackson isn’t the only black quarterback that has received pushback for what he does on the field. There’s Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers QB who exited the league after kneeling on the sidelines during the national anthem in protest of police brutality of African Americans. Team GM’s, owners, and even the President of the United States condemned Kaepernick for his actions. Now, are the comments from NFL GM’s and owners indicative of prejudice? Like Lamar Jackson, Kaepernick’s critics were mostly white men. The fact that they were against speaking out against police brutality, no matter how controversial the topic might be for the league, is questionable. But at the same time, once Kaepernick left the league and couldn’t sign with a team, the main reason he couldn’t get a job was because he was considered a PR nightmare. Regardless if teams agreed with Kaep’s kneeling or not, no team wanted the news stories that would come from signing him. If so, then the issue of prejudice would be about the fans’ bias if they condemned Kaepernick for kneeling. To complicate matters even further, Dak Prescott, QB of the Dallas Cowboys, said that Kaepernick’s protests had no place in the league despite being a black man himself. Either way, some sentiment surrounding Jackson and Kaepernick might go beyond what they do on the field.

Jackson and Kaep are only the most recent cases though. Since black men were allowed to play quarterback in the league, they were often considered not smart enough to run offenses or read defenses. Marlin Briscoe, the first ever black quarterback to start in the league, threw 14 touchdowns during his rookie season with the Denver Broncos. John Elway, a legend Broncos QB, only threw half as many touchdowns as Briscoe during his rookie season. Despite the performance, Briscoe never played quarterback again. Warren Moon, the only black quarterback in the NFL Hall of Fame made MVP for the 1977 Rose Bowl and still wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine. He didn’t play in the NFL for six seasons after he left college. Like Jackson, Moon was also told to switch to running back or wide receiver.

The same negative sentiment didn’t only apply to players either. Although 70% of the players in the NFL are black, only 9% of the managers in league’s front offices are and 0% are CEO’s or team presidents. There is only one black general manager and out of the 32 NFL teams, 3 of the league’s head coaches are black. Back in 2003, the league introduced the Rooney Rule, a policy aimed at addressing the lack of diversity at the head coaching level. Per the Rooney Rule, teams are required to interview at least one minority for head-coaching positions and front office jobs. But per a study by the Global Sport and Education Lab at Arizona State University, the Rooney Rule didn’t improve minorities’ chances of being hired. According to The Atlantic, in the past three years 19 head coaching positions were made available and only 2 black coaches filled the openings. Some black coaches are rarely given a chance to make an impact on a team either. Former Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell was fired after back to back 9-7 records for the 2017 and 2018 season. Bob Quinn, the Lions’ GM, said that Caldwell wasn’t meeting expectations. But Quinn then went on to hire former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who went 9-22 in his first two seasons as head coach. Last season, the Lions record was 3-12-1.

It could be argued that rather than prejudice, the NFL’s diversity issues are purely “best man for the job” decisions. Teams look for the best quarterbacks that fit their offense and can lead a team. Team owners and GMs bring in coaches that can draw up plays accustomed to their team’s culture. But simultaneously, race is the driving force behind many if not all of the United States’ issues. Politics, advertising, music, fashion, literature, and every other medium that can be thought of is influenced by race is some form or fashion. Is it so farfetched to think that sports isn’t any different? Perhaps some personnel decisions are purely based on skill and compatibility. But at the same time, the league has been around for decades, and maybe some of the racist sentiment of the past century has seeped into the present.

Banned Books: Why the Restricted Section Is Where Learning Happens

photograph of caution tape around library book shelves

The books included on high school reading lists have not been discussed nearly as widely as the books not included on those very lists. For years teachers and parents have debated which texts students should be able to read, and what parameters should be utilized to determine whether a text is appropriate for a certain age group. However, this debate has moved far beyond whether books are appropriate and has begun to explore how this form of censorship affects students. An article published in The New York Times discusses the banned books of 2016 and how their banned status reveals important facets of the current American psyche. In fact, the author states that the most prominent themes associated with the banned books of 2016 related to gender, LGBTQIA+ issues, and religious diversity, all of which were themes heavily discussed during the election year.

James LaRue, the director of the Office for International Freedom, illustrates his experience receiving reports from concerned parents who worry about the appropriateness of certain texts in their children’s school libraries. However, LaRue does not agree with this method of parenting and states, “They are completely attached to the skull of the child and it goes all the way up through high school, just trying to preserve enough innocence, even though one year later they will be old enough to marry or serve in the military.” This point is echoed by author Mario Tamaki who expresses that deeming books as inappropriate marginalizes groups of individuals and can adversely hurt students who relate to their characters. He states, “We worry about what it means to define certain content, such as LGBTQ content, as being inappropriate for young readers, which implicitly defines readers who do relate to this content, who share these experiences, as not normal, when really they are part of the diversity of young people’s lives.”

Both of these individuals relay their concern for the influence of banning books on young readers and this point is reiterated by Common Sense Media a non-profit organization which seeks to provide education to families concerning the promotion of safe media for children. Despite their specialization in appropriate media for children they encourage parents with the article, “Why Your Kid Should Read Banned Books,” which outlines how the most highly regarded pieces of literature were at some point banned in mainstream society. However, their banned status says nothing of the important messages held between those pages. They make the statement, “At Common Sense Media, we think reading banned books offers families a chance to celebrate reading and promote open access to ideas, both which are key to raising a lifelong reader.” This organization’s support for encouraging  a conversation regarding censorship and the importance of standing up for principles of freedom and choice is a critical facet of this continued debate.

On the other side of this debate are concerns of not only violence, language, and substance abuse, but questions about how explicit stories of suicide and self harm may influence young readers who are depressed or suicidal themselves. This concern was heightened due to literature such as the popular young adult book Thirteen Reasons Why, which revolves around a teenage girl’s suicide. Author Jay Asher has been outspoken regarding why censorship of his book specifically is harmful to teenagers. In an interview he describes knowing that his book would be controversial: “I knew it was going to be pulled from libraries and contested at schools. But the thing about my book is that a lot of people stumble upon it, but when it’s not on shelves, people can’t do that. Libraries, to me, are safe spaces, and if young readers can’t explore the themes in my book there, where can they?” Asher acknowledges that it is nearly impossible to create a book which will be appropriate for all readers. He outlines his experience talking to a student who was overwhelmed by the contents of the story. The student decided to refrain from finishing the remainder of the book until she felt completely comfortable, effectively self-censoring.

These attitudes towards censorship reveal troubling social implications when considering which books are chosen for exemption from libraries, as an article published in The Atlantic describes. There is a clear separation themes of violence and fantasy in comparison to the highly-censored themes referencing race or sexuality, which reveals a larger issue of the struggles of minority authors getting children’s books published. According to The Atlantic, “this means the industry serves those who benefit from the status quo, which is why most scholars see children’s literature as a conservative force in American society.” The author reinforces the ideas discussed by adults concerned about the limited access to a broad range of ideas in children’s literature, and concludes by stating,“This shared sensibility is grounded in respect for young readers, which doesn’t mean providing them with unfettered access to everything on the library shelves. Instead it means that librarians, teachers, and parents curate children’s choices with the goals of inspiring rather than obscuring new ideas.”

Is All Comedy Ethical? The Office’s Irresponsible Use of Satire

Photograph of the cast of the TV show The Office all sitting for a press conference on set

Before I start, I have a disclosure to make: I am a huge comedy fan; stand-up, sketch comedy, sitcoms, dry humor, dark humor, you name it and I’ll probably watch it. In high school I would stay in most Saturday nights waiting for the newest episode of Saturday Night Live, and I became so intrigued by the way the show was simultaneously political and funny. However, SNL was very blatant about their liberal political views, while I noticed other shows were not. Other shows like, Portlandia, seemed more invested in providing social commentary through sketch comedy.

Moreover, comedy is often used to make critiques of our social world, and comedy writers play around with various forms of comedic critique. Shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah rely on witty jokes with emphasized punch lines, while shows like SNL use exaggeration, imitation, and parody. Nevertheless, both of these shows, and many other shows containing political and social commentary, utilize satire to convey their critique (they might also be how you prefer to intake current events). Satire can be defined as humor that utilizes exaggeration, ridicule, and irony to expose someone’s flaws and shortcomings. Satire is meant to criticize and convey an opinion; however, it is important to analyze whether writers are able to convey their messages clearly, even when these messages are conveyed through irony or exaggeration.  

While seemingly unrelated to ethical issues, satire and comedy have epistemic power. Since society often learns through media, and comedy is a kind of media many intake on a daily basis, comedy has the power to influence knowledge about a particular topic or society at large. This is particularly poignant considering satirical comedy promotes a particular perspective. When I started watching SNL, I was not fully aware how excitedly I internalized many of the political opinions conveyed through cold open skits, where politicians were freely questioned, imitated and made fun of. This reflexivity led me to ask, what could be the risks of consuming satire simply for its face value, its ability to make people laugh? Can a comedy show be considered harmful, when a satirical critique is not legible or understood by everyone? As I began to develop a critical lens, I realized that I did not always understand certain references, or know exactly why I was laughing. Other times, I understood how brilliant seemingly nonsensical comedy could be.

I became inspired to ask these questions after watching the episode “Diversity Day” from The Office. “Diversity Day” is the second episode of the first season of The Office, and a salient portrayal of satirical comedy. In the episode, Dunder Mifflin corporate headquarters calls in a diversity training specialist after Michael Scott, the office manager, recreates a Chris Rock stand up act. While Michael does not see a problem with his imitation, his actions make the entire office very uncomfortable. At one point, Michael decides to lead Diversity Day by making everyone put a notecard with a particular racial or ethnic group written on it on their foreheads. His game consists of having people guess what group is written on their notecards by talking to others who are supposed to give them clues of who they are. Michael goes on to promote the use of problematic stereotypes as clues and eggs people to “stir the pot.”

This episode can easily be called controversial and problematic by many; however, writing off the social critique within the episode as simply “problematic” might mean missing some of what the writers hid in irony and exaggeration. One could argue that the writers utilized exaggeration to convey the problematic and hurtful nature of racial tropes and stereotypes. As Michael promotes “stirring the pot” it becomes evident that even those who do not mean to be insensitive are fully aware of how to be so. The overtly problematic content is mean to shock viewers into acknowledging how hurtful these common assumptions are, because the writers purposefully make Michael appear misinformed and ignorant. Additionally, one can see how Michael’s intent of “stirring the pot” might point to society’s need to talk about race in blunt and honest ways, instead of pretending no one knows what prejudice looks and sounds like.  Nevertheless, viewers are meant to understand that at the end of the day, Michael’s way of going about this conversation is not nuanced, sensitive, or productive.

Some might not understand this use of satire and choose to dismiss the show as problematic; however, what might be worse is an audience that laughs at Michael’s racially insensitive jokes and does not consider them hurtful and disgusting. This is where the danger of satire lies: when a show like The Office purposefully uses stereotypes as a form of exaggeration meant to highlight normative opinions, it is not a guarantee that everyone will “get it.” Viewers might watch “Diversity Day” and impersonate Michael impersonating Indian people. Jokes meant to convey a point, jokes that are not meant to be repeated, might become popular shared knowledge and the punch line of many conversations.

As I watched “Diversity Day,” I acknowledged that this episode might be very irresponsible. While I could see what the writers had sought out to do, I also realize that my understanding of racism and power combined with my interest in comedy put me in a particularly advantageous position. I know I am among those most likely to “get it.” Sadly, I am not too confident about the magnitude of that group. My background facilitates my understanding of the episode, something not everyone can rely on when watching comedy shows. I began to wonder, is it ethical to utilize hard-to-understand satire when discussing topics related to power? Does the epistemic harm that this representation might cause outweigh the benefits?

It is imperative to remember that comedy shows are a form of media, and one might consider media a form of speech. Arguably, then, a creator’s or artist’s ability to express their speech freely through comedic portrayals is a constitutional right. However, what is legally permissible is not always what is most ethical. Additionally, one could say that paying too much attention to the possible harms of any given satirical show could result in over policing of speech. Nevertheless, writers must assess the possible impact their shows might have on audiences. As epistemic influencers, they are responsible for asking, does this have the potential to do more harm than good? The answer to that question has the potential to influence the next Netflix pick.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

In the Boy Scouts, Making Room for More than Just Boys

Photo of Boy Scouts saluting.

In October of last year, the Boy Scouts of America announced that the organization would begin admitting girls.  Cub Scouts, the organization for youths 7-10 years old, will begin welcoming girls this summer.  The program for youth 11-17—The Boy Scouts—will change its name to Scouts BSA and will begin accepting girls, providing a pathway for young women to become Eagle Scouts.

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Assessing the 2017 DePauw Dialogue: Was it Effective?

A photo of the Depauw boulder.

DePauw’s annual Day of Dialogue is a day where classes are cancelled and students congregate in spaces across campus to discuss prevalent racially and socially charged topics that DePauw students encounter. Or at least that’s the goal of Day of Day of Dialogue. In the wake of DePauw’s Day of Dialogue this past week, one question seems to loom over campus like a shadow: was this year’s Day of Dialogue effective? Did students leave the spaces where they had conversations about race as better people? Or at least did they leave more aware? Continue reading “Assessing the 2017 DePauw Dialogue: Was it Effective?”

Lord of the Flies and the Ethics of Genderbending Film Adaptations

A photo of a coconut on a deserted beach

On August 30, Deadline reported on the announcement of an upcoming film adaptation of William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. This would not be the first adaptation of the book—there were versions in 1963 and 1990—but the twenty-first century remake promises at least one peculiarity: this time, it will be girls instead of boys trapped on a desert island.

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Do Harvard’s Final Clubs Undermine Equality and Inclusion?

A recently released report from a Harvard panel of faculty members recommended that Harvard adopt an outright ban on student participation in unrecognized social clubs such as “Final Clubs,” fraternities, and sororities. These organizations have not had official recognition from Harvard since 1984, when such formal recognition was rescinded because these social clubs refused to end membership policies discriminating on the basis of gender. In May 2016, Harvard decided to penalize anyone who joins these single-gender social clubs by banning student members from “holding athletic team captaincies and leadership positions in all recognized student groups. They will also be ineligible for College endorsement for top fellowships like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.” The report from the faculty panel takes the May 2016 policy to its natural conclusion: an outright ban.

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Are Superhero Films Truly Diversifying?

In the coming months, superhero fans of different races and genders are anxious to see new heroes from Marvel and DC that better represent diversity. The wait for diverse superheroes has been long, with the movie production world still dominated by white male production teams cranking out movies with white male leads. For example, out of 22 Marvel superheroes, only 7 are people of color. Out of 10 DC heroes, only 4 are people of color. None of these diverse heroes are playing a primary role, and many lack an authentic and detailed backstory.  

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Hollywood Needs Diverse Directors

Recently, we have seen some upward changes to the Hollywood film industry. For example, six Black actors from four movies were nominated for this year’s Oscar awards, unlike the past two #OscarsSoWhite years. These nominated movies are about, directed by and/or starred by Black people. The 68th Emmy Awards nominees and winners are also a diverse group of actors and actresses. But has the industry really become more inclusive?

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Diversity in Children’s Books: A White Author’s Quandary (Part II)

This post originally appeared September 29, 2015.

In Part One of this two-part post on the moral importance of providing children with diverse books, I concluded that white authors need to write about non-white characters, or else they gravely falsify the “reality” presented in their stories. We don’t live in an all-white world. We don’t have all-white readers. Our non-white readers need to see themselves in our stories; our white readers need not to see themselves, exclusively, in every single story.

But how do we do this? As so often happens, the “how” can be even more ethically challenging than the “what” or the “why.”

Assume I’m creating a classroom scene (my specialty as an author is school stories). How do I let readers know the racial or ethnic identity of my characters? For starters, I need to give my characters names that suggest a wide range of national origins, even as sometimes this feels self-conscious, evidence that I’m trying too hard for cheerful “Sesame Street” multiculturalism. But how else can I convey to readers the racial or ethnic identity of the kids in the class?

Two approaches here seem equally problematic. One is to come right out and label characters by race or ethnicity: “Jenny, an African-American girl in the front row, raised her hand to answer Ms. Singh’s question.” This would work, in my view, only if we called attention to the race and ethnicity of every character in the same way: “Sam, a Caucasian boy of Swedish ancestry, raised his hand. . .” That this falls in such a startling way on our ears makes clear the extent to which authors treat “white” as the default setting, where characters are understood to be white unless otherwise specified.

To avoid this, authors often use other markers for race, such as describing a character’s skin tones as “creamy café au lait” or “rich chocolate mousse.” But this is clearly as racially heavy-handed as the first option. We don’t describe white characters by comparing their complexions to food, remarking that her skin was “like pink lemonade” or “like vanilla pudding.” Sometimes diversity can be suggested in other ways: by mentioning a character’s long blond curls, or tight black braids, or by a cultural reference to a favorite food or family holiday celebrated. Oh, but it can feel so blatantly earnest!

Because my books are often illustrated, I have an easy – or cowardly? – way of avoiding this dilemma: rely on the pictures to do deftly what words can do only clumsily. Illustrators can’t escape depicting characters as having skin tones, facial features, or hair that indicate ethnicity, unless (which many do!) they draw anthropomorphized animals instead. But this means that sometimes I am surprised to find that I have created diverse characters without consciously setting out to do so.

My Franklin School Friends chapter book series presents a trio of best friends. Kelsey stars in Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika stars in Annika Riz, Math Whiz; and Izzy stars in Izzy Barr, Running Star, the third book in the series. The illustrations show Izzy as Black, perhaps triggered by my description of her short tight braids. I’m pleased about this. I like the idea of best-friendship across racial lines that is celebrated in these books. But . . . I’m nervous that my star reader is white, my star math student is white, and my star athlete is Black. Doesn’t this perpetuate stereotypes that whites excel academically while African Americans excel in sports?

Perhaps. But in my Gus and Grandpa easy reader series, while Gus and Grandpa are white, the other child character who appears in almost every book is Ryan Mason: the perfect, high-achieving neighbor boy, the kid who has the fanciest bike and the scientifically dazzling show-and-tell projects. The illustrations show Ryan as Black. So this works against the cultural expectations arguably reinforced by Izzy.

This leads me to conclude that, while we certainly don’t want our stories to perpetuate stereotypes, we also don’t want to be so paralyzed by fear (is my character too stereotypically Asian? or too carefully constructed to refute stereotype?) that white authors give up on including diverse characters at all. What we need is not fewer characters of color in our stories, but more. I have now created a Black kid who loves to run and one who is an enviably perfect next-door neighbor. In other books I have an Asian American girl who knits sweaters for homeless shelter dogs and a Latino kid who is doing a science fair experiment that involves trying to explode a pickle.

No one character in any one book can bear the weight of representing all people of color any more than any character in any one book can bear the weight of representing all white people. We need lots of books about lots of kids, with different skin colors and various cultural backgrounds, doing a whole bunch of cool things and wrestling with a wide range of kidlike problems. We need, desperately, to foster and promote work by authors of color, but white authors can’t just write safely in an all-white bubble. We need to write out of our comfort zones. Or else, fifty years hence, the all-white world of children’s books will continue to be as all white as it is today.

Diversity in Children’s Books: A White Author’s Quandary (Part I)

This post originally appeared September 22, 2015.

For the first time in census history, the majority of children living in the United States are now children of color. But the vast majority of children living within the pages of American children’s books are white. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which releases annual statistics on the number of U.S. children’s books by and about people of color, in 2014 only 8 percent of children’s book authors were nonwhite (African American, Asian American, American Indian, or Latino), and only 11 percent of characters. Little progress has been made in diversifying children’s book publishing since librarian Nancy Larrick published her famous 1965 essay, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” fifty years ago.

Why does this matter? Rudine Sims Bishop uses the following metaphor to explain. For children of color, diverse books serve as mirrors: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” For white children in a white-dominant society, diverse books serve as windows: “They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. . . . If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world.”

As a children’s book author and professor of children’s literature, I’m going to take it as ethically uncontroversial that we – all those who work in some way to produce and disseminate books for children – should strive to remedy the current situation. This means prioritizing the recruitment and retention of diverse editors and the encouraging and fostering of diverse authors. It means supporting organizations such as We Need Diverse Books, “a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature.” It means accepting the challenge posed by Prof. Michelle H. Martin, one of the speakers in last year’s Prindle Institute symposium on Race and Children’s Literature, to buy diverse books as holiday and birthday gifts for the children we love.

As a white children’s author, however, I want to focus on the thorny question of what I can do to make my own books more representative of my readers. First I need to ask the hard question of whether white authors have the ability to write convincingly about characters of color, or the cultural authority to do so.

Can white authors write about non-white characters and “get it right”? It’s hard to know what would even count as “getting it right,” as the experience of any cultural, ethnic, or racial group is not one uniform, monolithic thing, presenting a single clear comparison point against which various representations can be judged. There are as many ways of being Black as there are of being white. It’s somewhat easier, perhaps, to see what would count as getting representation of another group wrong. It would be to write in a way that relies on stereotype and cliché, especially in a way that perpetuates negative assessments and expectations. Here the judges, in my view, can only be members of the non-dominant group themselves (noting that disagreement here is to be expected). Thus, as children’s books can’t be put into the hands of young readers without prior gatekeeping by editors, booksellers, librarians, and teachers, this speaks to the importance of having a significant number of non-white persons serving in these positions.

But are white authors even entitled to write about the experience of non-white people? Do we have, as it were, the right to do so? While surely we need to reject the general principle that nobody can write outside of the confines of his or her own narrow, insular, personal experience, when white people write about people of color, we face the further issue of cultural appropriation: exploitation of members of marginalized groups by privileged members of the dominant group. White authors writing about non-white characters can seem one more example of white people taking what belongs to others: bodies, land, artifacts, and now, stories.

I myself would feel cautious about writing a book about a non-white main character that focuses centrally on that character’s experience of racism. Maybe it’s because I think I’d be bound to get it wrong, because I can’t imagine being able fully to know what it’s like to be a Black person in the United States in 2015. So maybe it’s the previous concern about accuracy of representation that is doing the work here. It just feels hubristic to think that I could tackle that experience, “whitesplain” it to others, with any confidence. Another, more imaginative writer might legitimately feel otherwise.

That said, I’m no longer willing – ethically willing – to write an all-white world into creation in my books. Children need and deserve diverse books. I have to do what I can, within these limits, to provide books that reflect the classrooms and families of the real world in which my readers live.

In the next post, I look at the ethical challenges that arise in trying to do this.

Diversity in Medicine

Issues of race and discrimination transcend social interactions and permeate important institutions in the U.S., and the field of medicine is no exception. Recently, concerns about how patients of color may be receiving treatment differently, and less effectively, than white patients have become more frequently studied. Medical schools have implemented diversity initiatives in cultural sensitivity and awareness of subconscious bias to combat these issues and decrease the prevalence of racism in the medical field. However, according to Jennifer Adaeze, medical school student and writer for Stat News, these initiatives are not enough .

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Workplace Diversity: A Numbers Game

Anyone who has applied for a job is likely familiar with the stress it can bring. Governed by unspoken rules and guidelines that at times seem arbitrary, the hiring process has traditionally been seen as an anxiety-producing but necessary part of starting a career. For some, however, this process is stressful for an entirely different reason: the fear of discrimination by employers. How, then, should the process be reformed to provide a more equitable environment?

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