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A Reminder of the Power of Art: raceAhead

The House is scheduled to vote on whether to consider articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, another in a series of reactions to Trump’s racist tweets targeting four Democratic House members.

The move is unlikely to amount to much, the product of a procedural mechanism that seems easy to countermand. But, Rep. Al Green, the Texas Democrat who instigated the vote, said from the House floor this morning: "It is time for us to send the president a clear message that he is not above the law." Politico has all sausage-making here.

The impeachment news joins a three-day-long, full-metal media swirl of sort of talking about race, all of it pegged to the president’s remarks. Tweets; racist tweets; were they racist tweets?; what is racism?; are you calling me racist?; is calling out racism really racist? and so on. 

Much of it feels unproductive, the result of a culture which is unprepared to talk about race.

It’s excruciating to watch an already difficult conversation devolve further in the public sphere, after finding a home in the people’s house. 

That’s partly why it was such a balm to see how richly rewarded Ava DuVernay and the When They See Us family were in the 2019 Emmy nominations, announced yesterday.

The four part-series was the most watched show on Netflix for weeks after it was released on May 31, and earned the streaming platform sixteen Emmy nominations, including outstanding limited series, outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie for Jharrel Jerome, outstanding lead actress for Niecy Nash and Aunjanue Ellis, and directing and co-writing nominations for DuVernay herself. (She shares the latter with Michael Starrbury.)

When They See Us tells the story of Antron McCray, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Yusef Salaam, all black or Hispanic boys who were wrongly convicted of crimes related to the brutal rape of a 28-year-old white woman who had been jogging in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. 

DuVernay’s deft storytelling reframed the infamous “The Central Park Five” to “The Exonerated Five.” It helped return the five boys, now men, to the center of their own stories and shed light on the deeply racist systems that robbed them of justice. 

“It’s one thing to be recognized for a general role, but for me to be recognized for playing Korey Wise, that’s what’s hitting me,” Jharrel Jerome told Deadline. “Just understanding the fact that Korey Wise is his own person, his own inspiration. He’s somebody who the world looks up to now. For me to be the only person on this planet who got the chance to bring that to life, that’s the nomination and the award right there.”

The series has renewed criticism of the media and the entire criminal justice apparatus. The ripple effect has been profound. One example: Linda Fairstein, the once celebrated sex crimes prosecutor who led the case, has been dropped by her publisher and forced off of several prominent boards.  

Unfortunately, Emmy nominations for black, brown, and Asian talent were down significantly this year—only 26 actors or reality hosts were nominated, a major dip from last year’s record number of 38. It feels like a setback, and Varietyhas the whole breakdown here.

But the recognition afforded DuVernay and her team is hard proof that art is essential and that difficult conversations about race can be had and complex stories about society can be told. It just takes work.

With hate speech in the air and bad news around every corner, it’s a hopeful reminder.

On Point

After racist tweets, the president’s approval rating rises among Republicans, falls among independents In a national survey conducted Monday and Tuesday, Reuters found that President Trump’s net approval among Republican Party members rose by 5 percentage points to 72%, week over week. Some three in ten people who identify as politically independent said they approved of the president, down from four last week. His approval rating also dropped among Democrats after his tweet. Overall, his disapproval rating remains unchanged at 55%. Reuters

Stanford is investigating a noose found on campus The noose was first discovered hanging from a tree near a dorm by two summer program counselors. The summer camp includes local high school students, many of whom are students of color. Cheron Perkins, a med student who works with the high schoolers in the summer camp thought the noose was sending a message. Another counselor, who preferred not to be identified agreed. “I was terrified for my life,” they told NBC Bay Area news. “I called my mom, and she was ready to put me on a plane back home. You don’t know who is hanging around and what their actions might be, and we had the most minorities of all the summer camps.” NBC Bay Area News

Goodwill to lay off disabled workers The central Illinois Goodwill has announced plans to layoff dozens of disabled workers ahead of a new minimum wage increase in the state. The Land of Lincoln Goodwill runs fifteen retail outlets and employs some 450 people. The move is a profound disappointment to the employees, many of whom live in group homes. It’s also a violation of their central mission of  “train[ing] and support[ing] over 1,000 people with developmental disabilities.” WCIA reporter Mark Maxwell lays the facts bare. “[T]he 501(c)(3) organization pays no taxes, collects state funding, was awarded state contracts, and has special permission from the federal government to pay disabled workers well below the minimum wage floor.” WCIA News

On Background

Black families are losing their land ProPublica co-published this story with The New Yorker, which explores the loss of black-owned land in the U.S. It’s a poorly understood component of the black-white wealth gap. It begins with the tale of the Reels family who owned a marshy yet idyllic 65 acres on the North Carolina coast which had been in the family for generations but had been sold without their knowledge to white developers. They’re not alone. Black families with good reason to distrust the court system and who tend to avoid wills have been losing their land to white investors at an alarming rate. Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. It’s become an issue in talks of reparations, but the problem persists in the here and now. A third of Southern black-owned land—3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion, is now vulnerable due to legal loopholes exploited by savvy, predatory speculators. ProPublica

A new gender divide emerges in China New limitations are being placed on women in the workplace, as the Communist Party attempts to trigger a baby boom by forcing women back into the home. Professional women are losing basic workplace protections like maternity coverage, losing jobs and promotions to men, and are seeing an erosion in their rights during divorce. “When the state policymakers needed women’s hands, they sent them to do labor,” Wang Zheng, professor of women’s studies tells The New York Times. “Now they want to push women into marriage and have a bunch of babies.” New York Times

The truth about our melting pot nation Check out The Chinese Exclusion act on PBS, by documentary filmmakers Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu. Using a mostly Asian cast of historians, they tell the little known, true story of Chinese immigration from 1840 to the present, and offer a thoughtful answer to the myth of the benign melting pot. Together they provide, as one reviewer says, “a well-documented but not well-known alternate history—a corrective to the national myth of the melting pot.” PBS


Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead.


“I had a very hard time shaking off a lot of the scenes after cut. They’d call cut and I would be crying uncontrollably… The most challenging thing I have ever had to do was play Korey Wise and to portray him was to go back to the acting class, back to the fundamentals and the technique. I had to find the difference between who he was as a young person, before incarceration, and who he was after. The hardest part was finding who he was before; the young part. Then playing older Korey was an extreme challenge. Simple things like not opening my eyes as wide as I did as young Korey. Those bright eyes show youth and fear and worry. Over time those eyes got lower and lower… and they’re tired now. Those eyes are extremely tired.”

Jharrel Jerome