My Family’s Life Inside and Outside America’s Racial Categories

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Family/Parenting, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, United States on 2019-09-18 00:39Z by Steven

My Family’s Life Inside and Outside America’s Racial Categories

The New York Times Magazine
2019-09-17

Thomas Chatterton Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams at home in Paris this summer with his wife and children, from left, Marlow, Valentine and Saul.
Thomas Chatterton Williams at home in Paris this summer with his wife and children, from left, Marlow, Valentine and Saul.
Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times

My father was raised under Jim Crow. My children could pass for white. Where does that leave me?

I left the cafeteria where my brother, Clarence, was racing the wooden kit car he built with the older Boy Scouts, and made my way down the long corridor to the restroom. The building was virtually empty on a Saturday and charged with that faint lawlessness of school not in session. When I finished, I fixed myself in the mirror and, on the way out, ran and leapt to swing from the high bar joining the metal stalls to the tiled wall. In third grade, this was hard to do, a feat of superior athleticism that I savored even in the absence of a witness. The bounce in my legs linked me with my favorite athletes. I wore my hair like them, too, shaved low on the sides and back and slightly higher on top with a laser-sharp part engraved on the left. As my feet thrust forward, the door shot open and B. stepped in. An eighth grader, the eldest of three freckled, blond, almost farcically preppy brothers — Irish Catholic but still WASPier than the sons of Italians, Poles and Ukrainians who formed the backbone of the student body at our parochial school — he watched me dismount. In his costume of boat shoes and Dockers, B. was far from an intimidating sight, but he was bigger than me, and he smiled at me strangely.

I made to pass him on the way out, but he blocked me, his smile turning menacing. “What?” I managed, confused. We’d been in school together for years without ever having exchanged a word. “Monkey,” he whispered, still smiling, and my whole body froze: I was being insulted — in an ugly way, I could sense from his expression more than from what was said — but I couldn’t fully grasp why. I’d been swinging like a monkey, it was true, but this was something else. I tried again to step around him, at a loss for words; he blocked my way again, looming over me, still with that smirk. “You little [expletive] monkey,” he repeated with deliberate calm, and to my astonishment I realized that, although I could not understand why, there was, however vague and out of place, suddenly the possibility of violence. Out of nothing more than instinct, I shoved past him with all the determination an 8-year-old can gather.

He let me go, but I could hear his laughter behind me as I made my way back to the cafeteria, my heart pumping staccato, my face singed with the heat of self-awareness, my inexperienced mind fumbling for the meaning behind what had just transpired. But I knew enough to know that I could not tell my father what happened. I could see his reaction — see him shoot from his leather desk chair where he spent a majority of weekends as well as weekdays bent over a book. “Let’s go,” he would say in a clipped tone, with that distant expression, as if he were looking at something else, not at me, and by that time he would already be at the hall closet throwing his dark gray overcoat around his broad shoulders, keys jangling in his strong hand.

If I had told him what that white boy said to me in the restroom, Pappy — as we called my father, in a nod to his Southern roots — would have descended into an indescribable fury, the memory of which can tense me up to this day. He would have lost a week of work and concentration — that was as certain as two and two is four. But I also knew that he would be shot through with pain, unable to sleep, up at his desk in the dark, transported to his past, agonizing over this awful proof of what he’d always suspected: that no matter how strong he was, he was not strong enough to shield — not fully — his sons from the psychological warfare of American racism that whispers obscenities at little boys when they find themselves alone…

Read the entire article here.

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Sigrid Johnson Was Black. A DNA Test Said She Wasn’t.

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, United States on 2018-11-20 21:41Z by Steven

Sigrid Johnson Was Black. A DNA Test Said She Wasn’t.

The New York Times Magazine
2018-11-19

Ruth Padawer


Sigrid E. Johnson this year. Illustration by Jules Julien

The surge in popularity of services like 23andMe and Ancestry means that more and more people are unearthing long-buried connections and surprises in their ancestry.

I.

Three years ago, when Sigrid E. Johnson was 62, she got a call from a researcher seeking volunteers for a study on DNA ancestry tests and ethnic identity. Johnson agreed to help. After all, she and the researcher, Anita Foeman, had been pals for half a century, ever since they attended the same elementary school in their integrated Philadelphia neighborhood, where they and other black children were mostly protected from the racism beyond its borders. Foeman, a professor of communication at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, asked Johnson to swab the inside of her cheek and share her thoughts about her ethnic and racial identity before and after the results came back.

Johnson’s father, a chauffeur who later became a superintendent at a housing project in North Philadelphia, had a golden-brown complexion. Her mother, who said her own father was a white Brit and her mother was half African-American and half Native American, was light-skinned. People sometimes mistook Johnson’s mother for white, and when she applied for seamstress jobs at department stores in the 1920s and ’30s, she chose not to correct them.

Sigrid, who had light caramel skin, was their only child, and her parents, Martha and Frank Gilchrist, doted on her. In grade school, she prayed each night for an older brother, someone who would be fun to play with and would look after her, as her friends’ brothers did with their siblings. When she wasn’t busy with ballet and piano lessons, she caught lightning bugs and played dolls, hopscotch and jump rope with nearby friends. The neighborhood, West Mount Airy, was a tree-lined community, one of the first in the nation to integrate successfully. It was populated mostly by middle- and upper-class people, including many African-American professional men who had fair-skinned wives and children whose complexions matched their mothers’.

Johnson doesn’t remember her parents talking much about race, except when her father made it clear that he expected her to marry a black man. But even without that explicit talk, she was immersed in the highs and lows of black life. Her cousin, a surgeon named William Gilchrist Anderson, lived in Albany, Ga., where he led a large coalition of activists in the early 1960s to desegregate public facilities. A friend and classmate of Ralph Abernathy, Anderson persuaded the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to participate in the city’s demonstrations, which Johnson remembers she and her parents sometimes joined. During the family’s trips to visit her cousin in Georgia, Johnson saw water fountains that said “Whites Only.” And she still remembers the night that a giant cross burned near her cousin’s front yard and how he swept her and everyone else out of the house and put them all up in a hotel…

As a young teenager, Johnson pestered her mother about what it was like to give birth to her — a query her mother always dodged. But when Johnson was 16, her mother broke down and said through tears that they adopted her when she was an infant. Her mother explained that Johnson’s biological father was black and that her biological mother was a white Italian woman who said she couldn’t keep the baby, who by then was 2 or 3 months old. The woman, who lived in South Philadelphia, had explained that she already had several children, all of whom were blond, and that her white husband didn’t want another man’s child raised in his home, not least of all one whose color so boldly announced that fact. Johnson’s mother said the woman came to see the baby for about a year, until she asked the woman to stop visiting because she didn’t want Sigrid to find out she was adopted. Johnson teared up as she recounted the conversation with her mother that took place 49 years ago. “The news — all of it — was crushing,” Johnson told me. “To this day, I honestly wish she had never told me. I wanted my mom to be my mom.” Neither one ever broached the subject with the other again.

So when Anita Foeman requested that she take a DNA test, Johnson figured it was no big deal: She was half African and half Italian. “I knew what the results would show when they came back — that is, until the results actually came back.”…

Read the entire article here.

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For anyone who is doubtful of the sheer absurdity of racial categorization and the porousness of our supposed boundaries, the Piper family history can be instructive.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2018-06-30 03:08Z by Steven

For anyone who is doubtful of the sheer absurdity of racial categorization and the porousness of our supposed boundaries, the Piper family history can be instructive. Adrian Margaret Smith Piper was born in 1948 in Washington Heights, and raised there and on Riverside Drive. On her paternal side, she is the product of a long line of whites and extremely light-skinned, straight-haired black property owners and, on her mother Olive’s side, mixed-race, planter-class Jamaican immigrants. Her father, Daniel, received two separate and contradictory birth certificates. The first one labeled him as “white,” while the second, which his mother demanded as a corrective, put him down as “octoroon.” (At MoMA, they are hung on the wall, as part of the installation of “Cornered.”) Piper’s paternal grandfather, also Daniel, went the opposite route after the birth of his second, slightly darker son, Billy, abandoning his wife and children and moving out West to start a new “white” family in Washington State. Daniel Sr.’s brother, Piper’s great-uncle, William, lived his life as a Caucasian man of distinction, founding the Piper Aircraft Corporation and making his name as “the Henry Ford of Aviation.” He ended up with his face on a postage stamp and a fortune big enough to endow a building at his alma mater, Harvard.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, “Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?The New York Times Magazine, June 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/27/magazine/adrian-pipers-self-imposed-exile-from-america-and-from-race-itself.html.

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Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2018-06-30 01:10Z by Steven

Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?

The New York Times Magazine
2018-06-27

Thomas Chatterton Williams


Illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng

The conceptual artist’s life and work push against the boundaries

Adrian Piper, the conceptual artist and analytic philosopher, is almost as well known for what she has stopped doing as for what she has done. By 1985, she had given up alcohol, meat and sex. In 2005, she took a leave of absence from her job at Wellesley, sold her home on Cape Cod and shipped all of her belongings to Germany. On a lecture tour in the United States the next year, she discovered a mark on her plane ticket that suggested, to her, that she’d been placed on a watch list; she has not set foot in America since. Then, in 2012, on her 64th birthday, she “retired from being black.” She did this by uploading a digitally altered self-portrait to her website, in which she had darkened her skin — normally café très-au-lait — to the color of elephant hide. It was accompanied by a news bulletin announcing her retirement. The pithy text superimposed at the bottom of the photo elaborated: “Henceforth, my new racial designation will be neither black nor white but rather 6.25% grey, honoring my 1/16th African heritage,” she wrote. “Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control!” (Through extensive genealogical work, she later determined that her African heritage is closer to one-eighth.)

The piece was, like much of Piper’s art and writing, absurdly comical in no small part because it was so brutally honest. It was inspired by Piper’s dawning realization that she was unable to fulfill other people’s expectations through the lens of race; since the early 2000s, she had stopped allowing any of her artwork to be exhibited in all-black shows, which she came to see as ghettoizing. In 2015, she announced that she would no longer talk to the press about her work.

Such inflexibility has done little to damage her standing in the art world. On a drizzly evening in March, a well-turned-out crowd of several hundred alighted upon the Museum of Modern Art to sip prosecco, schmooze and Instagram snippets of Piper’s immense body of work. The occasion was the opening of the enormous, and enormously demanding for the casual viewer, 50-year career retrospective, “Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016,” on display through July 22. The exhibition draws its title from Kant’sCritique of Pure Reason,” a lifelong touchstone for Piper, and marks the first time in MoMA’s history that the work of any living artist has earned the entirety of its sprawling sixth-floor special-exhibitions gallery. Alongside a Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale, which Piper won in 2015, this is among the very highest honors the art world can proffer…


‘‘Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features’’ (1981)
The Eileen Harris Norton Collection. Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

I’d flown from Paris to see the opening of “Synthesis” after having struck up a polite but formal email correspondence with Piper. In the last message she had sent me, about three weeks earlier, she refused to speak to me on the record unless she or her archivist could independently fact-check the article before publication. “I decided a long time ago that I would prefer no representation to misrepresentation,” she wrote, and it seemed that, with this impossible condition, she would not grant an exemption from her indefinite moratorium. She suggested, as an alternative, that I consult her website and extensive body of published writing, an incalculable number of academic articles, essays and books. But I had already read many of those, and they had left me convinced that she has been quietly conducting, from that vexed and ever-expanding blot on the American fabric where white and black bleed into each other, one of the smartest, funniest and most profound interrogations of the racial madness that governs and stifles our national life that I had ever encountered…

Read the entire article here.

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Delia Graff Fara Explored a Philosophical Concept With a Heap of Sand

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States, Women on 2018-02-11 03:29Z by Steven

Delia Graff Fara Explored a Philosophical Concept With a Heap of Sand

The Lives They Lived
The New York Times Magazine
2017-12-28

James Ryerson, Senior Story Editor


Tackling a paradox: Fara in 2004. Credit Steve Pyke

She philosophized about vagueness — and lived with it too

The “paradox of the heap” seems at first like a trick, a brainteaser that must have some clever catch. But it reveals itself, as it defies easy understanding, to be a philosophical problem. You might approach it as a puzzle, only to end up devising a solution so deep that it would challenge our thinking about language, knowledge and the nature of reality. By the time of her death from brain cancer in July at 48, Delia Graff Fara, a philosopher at Princeton, had done just that.

Start with a heap of sand. If you remove a single grain, it remains a heap. Repeat this process enough times, however, and you have a heap of sand that contains, say, one grain. This is absurd: One grain is not a heap. Something has gone wrong, but it is not obvious what. Either there is a precise number of grains at which point a heap becomes a nonheap, or there is no such thing as a heap, or classical logic is flawed (perhaps it is only ever sort of true that something is a heap). Which bullet to bite?…

…When it came to racial diversity, an area in which philosophy is similarly lopsided, Fara was also a champion, if more circumspect. Her mother, who raised Fara as a single parent in New York, was African-American; her father, who died when she was a child, was of Irish and Jewish descent. Because of her appearance, Fara was often assumed to be white or queried clumsily about where she was “from.” She told her husband she hoped to avoid being defined by her race. But as much as she let misperceptions slide, or answered politely that she was “born in Queens,” it was an issue she could never fully escape…

Read the entire article here.

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Elaine Welteroth, Teen Vogue’s Refashionista

Posted in Articles, Arts, Media Archive, United States on 2017-09-05 00:20Z by Steven

Elaine Welteroth, Teen Vogue’s Refashionista

The New York Times Magazine
2017-08-31

Jazmine Hughes


Elaine Welteroth
Credit Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times

The editor in chief has taken on a seemingly impossible task: reinventing the glossy magazine for a hyperempathetic generation.

If you are, like me, a person with no sense of style and a stomach paunch, you might understand why dressing for a fashion show would be a psychological challenge. The day before my first one, I begged my best-dressed co-worker to chaperone my visit to a fast-fashion outlet. I’d coveted a pleated gold-foil skirt I’d seen on the store’s website. My co-worker had approved the skirt on the model. I tried it on. She did not approve it on me. In person, the gold foil looked cheap, the waistband of the skirt unflattering. Instead, she picked out a rose-colored accordion skirt that I would never have thought to buy. I put it on the next morning. Four hours later, I spilled steak juice all down my front.

Maybe another person would have given up at that point, but I was on my way to meet Elaine Welteroth, the editor in chief of Teen Vogue. Hired at 29, she is the youngest-ever editor in chief of a Condé Nast publication, and only the second black woman to hold the title there. Since taking over the magazine last year, she has become a personality of sorts, appearing as herself on ABC’s ‘‘black-ish’’ and being photographed cuddled up to celebrities: the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, the actors Gabrielle Union and Aja Naomi King. As I headed to the Coach fall show this February, I found myself growing increasingly nervous to meet her. It wasn’t that she was famous, really. But I spent a significant portion of my adolescence fantasizing about running my own teen magazine, and, like her, I am a young, black New York-based editor with curly hair and myopia. She was famous to me…

Read the entire article here.

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Felton is in many ways a historical hiccup, a throwback to a bygone racial trope: the “tragic mulatto” of books like Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson” and William Faulkner’s “Light in August.” Like so many terrorists, he was a man at war not just with the government but with history itself.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2017-08-16 02:10Z by Steven

[Leo] Felton’s subterranean journey into whiteness came during a historical moment in which many Americans, particularly those of his generation, were redefining their races in a very different way from the way Felton did: identifying themselves, in growing numbers, as multiracial. Multiracial activism flourished during the 90’s, with marches in Washington, magazines dedicated to interracial couples and a successful lobbying effort to include more complicated definitions of race on the 2000 Census form. (Seven million Americans ultimately chose to identify themselves by more than one race in that census.) Felton is in many ways a historical hiccup, a throwback to a bygone racial trope: the “tragic mulatto” of books like Mark Twain’sPudd’nhead Wilson” and William Faulkner’sLight in August.” Like so many terrorists, he was a man at war not just with the government but with history itself.

Paul Tough, “The Black Supremacist,” The New York Times Magazine, May 25, 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/25/magazine/the-black-supremacist.html.

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The Black Supremacist

Posted in Articles, Law, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-08-16 01:49Z by Steven

The Black Supremacist

The New York Times Magazine
2003-05-25

Paul Tough

Leo Felton walked out of prison on Jan. 28, 2001, looking like a man ready to take his place in American society. He had spent 11 years in the custody of the state, but now, at 30, he had served his time and seemed ready to settle down. He moved into the apartment that his wife, Lisa, had found for them in Ipswich, an old-fashioned New England town north of Boston. He got a decent job doing construction. It was a cold winter, but Lisa and Leo took walks in the woods together and rode their bicycles all over town.

Felton managed to stay free for only three months. He is back in prison now, beginning a 21-year sentence for crimes he committed after his release. The prosecutor in the case said in court that Felton was a racial terrorist, that he had been “plotting to use violent terrorist actions, like blowing up the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in the hope and belief that such actions would spark and ignite a racial war, a racial holy war, that would bring about this new, all-white nation.” In a letter that Felton wrote to the judge, after he was found guilty, he confirmed that his ultimate goal was to establish “a politically and territorially autonomous White nation somewhere in North America.” He wrote that given the way things had looked to him at the time he got out of prison, he wasn’t able to see any path that seemed like “an honorable alternative to armed revolt.”…

I recently went to visit Felton in prison in Massachusetts (the only time we met face to face over the course of several months of conversation by phone), and we talked for half an hour through an inch-thick slice of Plexiglas, each of us with a phone held up to an ear. Felton is a lean, tall, imposing man with tattoos up and down each arm and the word “skinhead” inked into his shaved scalp in inch-high Gothic letters. His gaze was intent, and his vivid, expressive face shifted rapidly from humor to anger and back again; his voice was loud and deep, and his speech carried within it all the contradictions of the jailhouse autodidact. He swore frequently, turning venomous when talking about the “maggots” guarding the maximum-security wing of the prison where he was being held. But when our conversation shifted to politics or books or an article he had enjoyed in the latest New Yorker, his vocabulary blossomed with words like “aegis” and “Weltanschauung” and references to Dostoevsky.

If you know Leo Felton’s story, it is difficult, when you first meet him, to concentrate on anything other than his appearance. It’s not just the tattoos. He has spent many years devoted to the idea of racial separation, to the belief that Americans should be divided by the color of their skin. But his own appearance is hard to define. His skin is olive-colored. His features are angular. It’s not hard to believe what he wrote in a letter to a racist friend just before he got out of prison, that he is “¼ English and ¾ Italian.”

But, in fact, he is the product of a short-lived and idealistic late-60’s marriage between a white former nun named Corinne Vincelette and a black architect named Calvin Felton. That is Leo Felton’s biological reality, despite his elaborate attempt, over the last decade, to rebel against it. It is a reality that he blames for many of the wrong turns that his life has taken, a reality that he successfully shielded from his brothers in the movement for years, a reality that only now, back in prison, is he trying to understand in a new way…

Read the entire article here.

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Should I Get a Pet From a No-Kill Shelter?

Posted in Articles, Latino Studies, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2017-05-04 02:54Z by Steven

Should I Get a Pet From a No-Kill Shelter?

The Ethicist
The New York Times Magazine
2017-04-26

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy, Law
New York University

…My mother is from Central America. She came to the United States for college and met my American father. I am, therefore, 50 percent Latino genetically, but I don’t identify as Latino. There were (to my regret) no Central American influences in my upbringing — no Spanish language, no Latino relatives, no foods from “the old country.” There was also no discrimination directed at me or my mother (we look “white”). Is it ethical to identify as Latino in social situations and on the census? Name Withheld

Our ethnic and racial categories drape loosely around the realities of our complex lives. I am the son of an English woman and a Ghanaian man. I am an American citizen. Am I a black American? African-American? Anglo-American? Anglo-African? “Latino” is a word that hovers uneasily between a category defined by culture and one defined by descent. The latter conception makes you Latino. The former doesn’t quite. There’s also a notion that ethnicity should be defined by your own sense of identity — by whether you think of yourself as Latino. But whether you think of yourself as Latino is shaped by ideas about culture and descent. There isn’t a single correct view about that. Still, here’s a solution: In cases in which you don’t have the time or space to explain your situation, probably the least confusing thing to say to people in the United States is that your mother is Latina. (As far as forms go, if they permit you to check two boxes, I’d do that. If they don’t, I don’t believe it matters much what you do.).

Read the entire article here.

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The End of the Postracial Myth

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2016-11-20 00:57Z by Steven

The End of the Postracial Myth

The New York Times Magazine
2016-11-15

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Pundits are quick to say that it couldn’t be about prejudice in states like Iowa, where Obama voters went for Trump. But racial anxiety is always close to the surface — and can easily be stoked.

On a cold, clear night in January 2008, when Iowa Democrats selected Barack Obama over a white woman and a white man in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, the moment felt transformative. If voters in this overwhelmingly white, rural state could cast their ballots for a black man as president, then perhaps it was possible for the entire nation to do what had never been done; perhaps America had turned far enough away from its racist past that skin color was no longer a barrier to the highest office of the land. In the months that followed, as Obama racked up primary victories, not just in the expected cities but also in largely white Rust Belt towns and farming communities, it seemed evidence for many Americans that the nation had finally become “post-racial.”

Of course, that post-racial dream did not last long, and nothing epitomizes the naïveté of that belief more than the election last week of Donald J. Trump. As I watched my home state of Iowa join the red flood that overtook the electoral map last Tuesday, I asked myself the same questions that so many others did: What happened? Why had states that reliably backed Obama — states like Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — flipped Republican?

I was struck by how quickly white pundits sought to tamp down assertions that race had anything to do with it. It was, it seemed to me, almost a relief to many white Americans that Trump’s victory encompassed so many of the heavily white places that voted for a black man just years before. It was an absolution that let them reassure themselves that Donald Trump’s raucous campaign hadn’t revealed an ugly racist rift after all, that in the end, the discontent that propelled the reality-TV star into the White House was one of class and economic anxiety, not racism.

But this analysis reveals less about the electorate than it does about the consistent inability of many white Americans to think about and understand the complex and often contradictory workings of race in this country, and to discuss and elucidate race in a sophisticated, nuanced way.

While we tend to talk about racism in absolute terms — you’re either racist or you’re not — racism and racial anxiety have always existed on a spectrum. For historians who have studied race in the United States, the change from blue to red in heavily white areas is not surprising. In fact, it was entirely predictable. “There are times when working-class whites, whether rural or urban, will join an interracial alliance to get the short-term gains they want,” Robin Kelley, a history professor at U.C.L.A., told me. “They don’t ever do it without kicking and screaming.”…

Read the entire article here.

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