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Naked Racism, or Naked Partisanship?

Upon the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby ruling that invalidated long-standing preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, a number of states that had been subject to those provisions immediately began to impose new restrictions on voting and voter registration. Many believe these to have a disproportionate effect on African American voters, and thus many also and understandably believe these restrictions to be racially motivated. But what if it's not racism that generated opposition to the VRA and spurred the move toward the new, stricter requirements their backers say are aimed at reducing vote fraud? What if it instead is "naked partisanship"?
 
That's a possibility Randall Kennedy floats in his Harper's review (subscription) of Ari Berman's new book, Give Us the Ballot. After several pages spent on the history of voting rights since Reconstruction -- including the 1965 passage of the VRA and the political hostility toward it, as seen only in part by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan's expressed preference for not signing reauthorization -- Kennedy toward the end of the piece cites recent legal scholarship in reconsidering the significance of race in the Shelby decision and subsequent implementation of voting rights restrictions.
 
Samuel Issacharoff, for instance, writing in the Harvard Review, "compared Section 5 of the VRA to an aging athlete, 'one step too slow to carry the team.'" Its forced retirement may be a good thing, prompting voting rights advocates to to consider "new mechanisms to a new era" that should no longer focus on "'the historically central question of racial exclusion.... [T]he category of race increasingly fails to capture the primary motivation for what has become a battlefield in partisan wars.'" Similarly, Guy-Uriel E. Charles and Luis Fuentes Rohwer in the Yale Law Journal--though skeptical of the Shelby decision--"do not see the end of preclearance as the disaster" that some bemoan: "'[I]n the current era we cannot say without any amount of certainty that the central problem of voting is race.'" Kennedy himself comes down on this side: "The VRA has completed the main task it was designed to address. Societal changes have made inconceivable the recrudescence of wholesale, unambiguous racial disenfranchisement" (italics his). 
 
The reaction to this of those alarmed by the spate of recorded deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement; by the racially motivated attack on Charleston's Emanuel AME Church; and by the edgy resentment of those opposed to the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces might be: Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?  A return to unambiguous racial disenfranchisement may not seem so inconceivable in the midst of all of this. Then add in what this weekend's New York Times Magazine lengthy cover story characterizes as a five-decade effort by Republican activists at systematically dismantling the protections of the VRA: Is there anything so ambiguous about that campaign?
 
And yet: what if Kennedy is on to something?
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Hillary and capitalism

Last April 24, I noted here a letter from Laurence D. Fink to the chief executives of Fortune 500 firms.  Fink, Chairman of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager (approximately $5 trillion), expressed alarm at how “short-termism” was skewing the economy. A low capital gains tax (20 percent) on any stock held more than a year provided an incentive for shareholders, investors, and executives to value quick returns rather than long-term growth in productivity, work force skills, and innovation. 

Fink had a remedy.  He proposed taxing gains on investments held less than three years as ordinary income (around 40 percent) and investments held for less than six months at an even higher rate.  The rates on capital gains would then tail off, even dropping to zero after ten years of ownership. 

Now Hillary Clinton has taken up the idea, proposing a different schedule of rates—ordinary income rates for the first two years, then declining not to zero but the present rate over six years—but using the same principle. “Since when was one year considered a long-term investment?” Mr. Fink wrote last spring.  Hillary improved on that line by pointing out that one year “may count as ‘long-term’ for my baby granddaughter, but not for the American economy.”

This sort of proposal, as I wrote here in April, does not address a lot of questions about the capital gains tax, either its fairness or its effectiveness.  I simply quoted William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck, who wrote on a Brookings Institution blog that “Fink has opened up a crucial debate, and it’s time for Congress and presidential aspirants to join it.”

Hillary has. 

Right-wing denunciations were immediate. 

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And that Iranian money?

What will the Iranians do with all of that money when sanctions are lifted. Some opponents of the nuclear agreement have argued that they will buy conventional weapons and carry on with their terrorism, etc.

Questions: How much money are we talking about? Whose money is it? This helpful rundown from Al-Monitor may not be definitive, but it lays out some of the amounts, the owners, and the entanglements that come with international finance. The phrase, "usable funds" figures in the analysis, "Will Iran Get Its Billions Back."

In Defense of Germans

Can I say a few words in defense of Germans? The Euro crisis that’s been building for years now, with Greece as its molten core, is hard to comprehend. I mean, I get the general idea. Two dozen nations (give or take) are united by one currency but lack a governing entity that can set fiscal policies. It’s like trying to run an orchestra without a conductor. But is it in fact true, as Paul Krugman has been repeating for years, that Brussels and its technocrats are “trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics”? For an untrained person, the fine points (or any points) of macroeconomics and international finance can get pretty murky.

What has been clear is the role increasingly assigned to Germany, at least here in the United States: villain. A recent article from the New York Times, ominously titled “Germany’s Destructive Anger,”  faults the Germans not merely for being selfishly shortsighted in their economic policies, but for being rigid, vindictive, self-righteous and dyspeptic. The article is by an economist, and that’s significant. Most “average” Americans may only vaguely know that a Euro crisis is happening (“you mean, the soccer thing?”), but if you sketch for them the outlines of the current situation, most will say that the Greeks need to clean up their act and pay their debts. Why should the Germans be blamed?  But the opposite opinion prevails among economists, almost all of whom see Germany at fault. The main points:

1) Austerity in Europe has been a mistaken policy. When financial crisis hit here in 2008, our government responded with bailouts, government spending, and cheap money to inflate the economy. Europe should do the same.

2) Germany fails to grasp its own self-interest. If lesser countries are allowed to leave the Euro zone—or forced out—it will over time almost certainly damage Germany’s powerful export machine. But Germans are choosing to punish Greece, rather than taking a coolly systemic view of the situation.

3) Germans are conveniently forgetting the role debt and debt forgiveness played at critical moments in their own history: after World War I, when massive debt destabilized governments and led to fascism; and after World War II, when the victorious allies chose the Marshall Plan (another proposal, the Morgenthau Plan, which sought to keep Germany perpetually under-developed, was rejected), forgave war debts, and laid the foundation for the postwar “economic miracle” in West Germany.

Increasingly, though, the critique rests on the idea that Germans are mean and vindictive.

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What's the problem? (Cont.)

(Continuation): A California Superior Court judge has issued a temporary restraining order barring further releases of videos surreptiously made by David Daleiden and the guerrilla film maker, Center for Medical Progress. This ABCnews story seems to imply that the company StemExpress is featured in those videos. (StemExpress was featured in the science section of the NYTimes story previously posted).

The legal grounds for the judge's action are unclear; a hearing is scheduled for August 19. Any legal beagles here able to clarify the grounds for the restraining order? [UPDATE: The Washington Post offers this legal analysis, which may turn on a California law requiring both parties to agree to a taping of a conversation.]

This story has legs and I can't help observing that taking it to court gives it very long legs. (Are there bachelor degress in film-making that teach students how to keep a story going?)

What's the problem? II

Don't want to prolong this discussion, but the Science section of the NYTimes (July 28) tells us some more about fetal research, fetal tissues, and fetal parts pricing. I'm guessing Mr. Daleiden's video prompted the story. The First Post...

Talk about wasting your money!

AIPAC, Sheldon Adelson, and some other members of the U.S. Jewish establishment have announced their intention to spend millions (maybe billions!) to defeat the Iran nuclear deal.

And Yet...the dependable J.J. Goldberg of The Forward tells us that much of the Israeli military and intelligence establishment thinks Israel should support its passage. Instead of being obstructionists, they argue, Israel should work with the Obama Administration to insure its implementation. What a great idea!

P.S. Saudi Arabia appears to be on board with the agreement.

What's the problem? UPDATE

July 26 Update: Douthat is on the case.

Today's (July 21) NYTimes has a sort-of interview with the man who made the "fetal parts available" video. "Sort- of" because as David Daleiden says, "I don't think I'm the story." Distributing organs from aborted fetuses in a non-profit way seems to be legal as Planned Parenthood claims. So I suppose the view of the media is that this isn't about Planned Parenthood, but about Daleiden: "What's his problem."

Daleiden has posted a second video and promises more. He has strategically released these to churn the Republican presidential race. At the moment, the Democrats are saying that Planned Parenthood is doing a good job of defending itself (they don't need our help!).... We'll see how that goes.

If Planned Parenthood's charging for processing, handling, and postage is not illegal (I don't actually know that), than what about the moral status of this practice?

1. Giving the woman having the abortion the right to informed consent to this practice seems wobbly. She doesn't want the baby. What claims does she have in distributing its parts?

2. Who actually buys the parts. Daleiden, in order to give his inquiries legitimacy, set up a dummy corporation that appears to do research but doesn't. Does Planned Parenthood (or others) practice due dilligence in distributing the organs. Who do they actually distribute them to? Is there a list?

3. Is the research done on these organs being done ethically? There are established federal regulations about the use of fetuses and/or their organs in medical and scientific research. Are these being observed?

4. I'm sure you can think of more!

Daleiden has an interesting bio included in the interview.

Kasich Enters the Race, Which Makes... How Many?

There are about 470 days left until the 2016 presidential election, almost as many as the number of candidates there are for the Republican nomination, a group that grows one larger today with the entrance of Ohio governor John Kasich. For a primer on Kasich--whose nickname in childhood was "Pope" and who once considered the priesthood--you could do worse than read E. J. Dionne Jr.'s latest column, which we're featuring here. He assesses Kasich mainly in contrast to another midwestern governor, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, contending that the former deserves a fuller hearing given, among other things, his support for the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion in his state--a case he made on moral grounds, "arguing that at heaven’s door, St. Peter is 'probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.'” Kasich, too, though undeniably a conservative, sensibly "recalibrated" after Ohio voters rejected his bid to end collective bargaining for public union employees, then reached out to "his previous enemies" so successfully he won the endorsement of the Carpenters' Union last year.
 
Just where this sensible approach will help him wedge into the clown car is questionable, especially with the manspreading Donald Trump taking up more than his fair share of space. Trump is at the top of the most recent polls at 24 percent, double the support of the second-place Jeb Bush, although most of the survey was taken before his comments denigrating Sen. John McCain's war record and imprisonment, and now the DesMoines Register has called for him to drop out. But Rush Limbaugh says Trump can survive it. Voters, he told his listeners Monday, "have not seen an embattled public figure stand up for himself, double down and tell everybody to go to hell ... Trump is not following the rules that targets are supposed to follow. Targets are supposed to immediately grovel, apologize." It's hard to think that there are American voters who are so disaffected that Limbaugh will prove right.
 
Donald Trump.... Is there another public figure aside from maybe Al Sharpton who has so conclusively disproved the adage that if you ignore something long enough it will go away? Nearly thirty years ago, in my first job out of college, my colleagues and I were already following his skewering by the old satirical magazine Spy--which unfailingly referred to him, at every mention, as "short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump." I'll risk speaking on behalf of New Yorkers in saying we've been especially oppressed by his presence these many decades since.
 
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Can President Obama convince Tom Friedman

Today's New York Times is full of news and analysis about the P5+1 agreement with Iran. Much of the coverage quotes critics of the agreement (or so it seemed to me). That's what makes Tom Friedman's interview with President Obama a breath of fresh air. Friedman on this issue has been critical with a somewhat open mind. He appears to remain so, but in this interview, he gives the president a chance to defend the agreement.

Obama begins with what the agreements does not do: “We are not measuring this deal by whether it is changing the regime inside of Iran,” said the president. “We’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe. We are measuring this deal—and that was the original premise of this conversation, including by Prime Minister Netanyahu—Iran could not get a nuclear weapon. That was always the discussion."

And what it can do: "And what I’m going to be able to say, and I think we will be able to prove, is that this by a wide margin is the most definitive path by which Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, and we will be able to achieve that with the full cooperation of the world community and without having to engage in another war in the Middle East.”

It is always possible that the agreement will fall apart, espcially if the U.S. Congress overcomes the president's veto in the 60 plus days that lie ahead. Critics of the agreement need to say, as Dennis Ross, of all people, said on the Newshour, "What is the alternative?" 

Iran Nuclear Agreement...so far, so good

President Obama announces that the P5+1 have reached an agreement with Iran to limits its nuclear production capacity. New York Times

Congress wil get its say. It will be lobbied. The Forward: "Israel Hopes to Scuttle Iran Deal."

Blessed are the Negotiators.

Where were you when the flag came down?

"You should remember where you were when this happened," said CNN's Don Lemon this morning as he awaited the lowering of the Confederate battle flag at the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina.
 
I was alone in my kitchen, fixated on a small television screen, wishing mightily that I could be there on the grounds, standing and cheering with the thousands, black and white, joined together to witness the lowering of a symbol of racism and divisiveness. If there were any dissenters in the crowd, they were drowned out.
 
After the flag was respectfully folded, the crowd gave a boisterous rendition of the pop song refrain "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." It wasn't "Amazing Grace" or "We Shall Overcome," and I was a bit let down by the musical choice. But the removal of the flag to a military museum was a moving and historic moment.
 
Will it be a transformational one? For that, we'll have to work hard and see.
 
Two weeks before a white racist murdered nine black parishioners at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I was in South Carolina in part to research my deep family roots in the state. Some roots I want to hang onto, and some I'd like to sever. But they are all mine, and I must live with them.
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Think again

U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East presents one of the most complex and convoluted set of issues the country faces. Yet very little changes in how we (or our leaders) think about it. Paul Pillar -- retired CIA officer, visiting scholar at Georgetown and Brookings (also served in Vietnam) -- writes regularly and intelligently about U.S. policy.

In a current essay, he asks what prevents us from conducting a "zero-based" review of MIddle East policy. His premise is that "historical baggage" weighs down politicians and policy makers who resist looking again at why we are doing what we are doing. 

MIddle East policy began with FDR's visit to Saudi King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud; in effect, stepping in for the British in the Middle East. "The oil bargain" they struck needs rethinking. Seventy years later, Pillar observes: "In any other historical context it would be bizarre for the United States to treat as a coddled ally a state that not only is a family-ruled authoritarian enterprise with zero freedom of religion and based on an intolerant ideology that is a basis for violent jihadi extremism but also more recently has been a destabilizing factor as the family pursues its own vendettas and narrow interests in other Middle Eastern states."

Other baggage includes the Iranian hostage crisis, 9/11, the Iraq War (the last one!), and our relationship with Israel. On the latter: "The evolution [of the U.S.-Israeli relation]...has been one from a plucky little Jewish state, created in the shadow of the Holocaust and besieged by neighbors, to the militarily dominant power of the Middle East, which repeatedly throws its weight around with disregard for the sovereignty and security of others. It is a state that has moved ever farther from any commonality with laudable American values...."

Pillar recognizes, certainly in the case of Saudi Arabia and Israel, how hard it would be to rethink our policies. In enumerating the barriers to shifting historical baggage, he points to democracy itself. "With limits to policy being set by deeply entrenched popular attitudes and beliefs that democratically elected politicians continually recite, the history that gave rise to those attitudes and beliefs is a heavy restraint on any leader who might see the wisdom of following a different path."

If I could vote in Greece/ Update: Greeks say NO!

The referendum called for by the Greek Government allows citizens to vote Yea (for more austerity and remaining in the Eurozone) or Nay (default and perhaps depart the Eurozone). It is a momentous decision for the Greeks, the EU, and in various forms for the rest of us. Story here.

Paul Krugman in Friday's column seems to support a "No" vote to show the creditors that they should push no further and it was time to cut their losses. But the creditors won't be the only, or perhaps primary losers, in this war of nerves.

How would you vote?

UPDATE: Reuters: "Greeks defy Europe with 'NO'"   What next?

Knew or Should Have Known

Two events dedicated to issues of justice and human rights in Central America took place in New York City this week: A screening of the documentary Justice and the Generals at the Open Society Foundation, and a discussion of U.S. response to Latin American immigration called “Forced to Flee” hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Both used the history of U.S. entanglement in Central American conflicts as a call for greater responsibility in addressing the violence and injustice still afflicting the region.

The story of Justice and the Generals begins with the December 1980 rape and murder of the four North American churchwomen in El Salvador. Though the five Salvadoran National Guardsmen who committed the acts were sentenced to a maximum of thirty years in prison, the victims’ families and their legal team at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights continued searching for evidence that the orders came from higher up in the chain of command. In 1998, their hunch was confirmed, despite years of insistence by the U.S. State Department to the contrary. In fact, they learned that the generals who may have given the orders, José Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova, had since been enjoying a comfortable retirement in Florida.

The trial that ensued took place not in an international tribunal, but in a civil court in West Palm Beach. Ford v. Garcia hinged upon the principle of command responsibility—did the generals know or should they have known about the crime? Did they fail to prevent it, renounce it, or punish those who were most directly responsible? Surprising nearly everyone involved, the jury ultimately decided that the generals could not be found guilty, since, according to the defense, the chaos in El Salvador at the time prevented military leaders from having effective command of their subordinates. The plaintiffs found this to be erroneous—the generals had been the most powerful figures in the Salvadoran military, which was the most powerful institution in the country at the time. Garcia himself had even testified that there were never acts of insubordination to his orders. Despite the verdict in Ford v. Garcia, the same generals were found guilty under the doctrine of command responsibility in a subsequent case. The ultimate conclusion: Garcia and Vides Casanova knew or should have known about the torture of at least three million Salvadorans committed by those responsible to them.

However, the chain of accountability may not necessarily end with the generals.

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Roberts’s Pragmatism, Scalia’s Precedent

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has for the second time helped preserve the Affordable Care Act, again by seeing sensibly through to what the intent of the law is. Not persuaded by plaintiffs’ contention that the four words “established by the state” forbid the federal government from providing subsidies in states that do not have their own exchanges, he also noted the consequences of cutting subsidies for millions of people:

The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State’s individual insurance market into a death spiral. … Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them … If at all possible, we must interpret the act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.

Antonin Scalia again has put himself at the center of a decision with the petulant language he has chosen – this time precedent-setting – in siding with Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in the minority: “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare,” he wrote, which apparently is the first time the term “SCOTUS” has appeared in a SCOTUS decision. There was also this: “The cases [concerning the ACA] will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.” Finally, Scalia departed from custom by concluding his dissent with a concise “I dissent,” forgoing the adverb that typically divides the declarative: “respectfully.” Though it could be argued his use of it in previous dissents may have implied its absence.

Stop the Glock

John Cassidy makes a good point on his New Yorker blog: 

"Evidently, the American political system still has the capacity to rouse itself and restrict the display of offensive flags. Unfortunately, doing anything about guns, which kill more than thirty thousand people a year in the U.S., is still beyond the nation."

Illusions Here and Abroad

Earlier this month, I happened to turn on the PBS NewsHour and caught a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s decision to send another 450 military “advisers” to help train the Iraqi army in its fitful fight against ISIS. One of the panelists was Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, among other books. Also on the panel were Ret. General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of policy at the Department of Defense, and Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense. Zinni, Flournoy, and Panetta were all supportive of sending more advisers and even expanding the scope of the rules of engagement. Not surprisingly, Bacevich was skeptical. As he saw it, whatever skills the U.S. military might instill in Iraqi forces, they will not “be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem.”

Panetta was hawkish and optimistic about an expanded U.S. military mission. He seemed to think that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be pressured into arming its Sunni and Kurdish partners in the north. “We’ve got to push the Iraqis,” he said. No one asked why we would have more leverage with the Shiites now than we did when we had a hundred thousand troops in Iraq. Panetta insisted that ISIS posed a grave threat not just to U.S. interests abroad, but to our domestic security. Bacevich responded that Panetta was “vastly exaggerating” any threat ISIS might pose to the United States. Given the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we “ought to be a little bit humble” about thinking that U.S. military can fix problems in that part of the world. Bacevich observed that we had in fact created many of those problems by invading Iraq in 2003. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “U.S. military intervention in this region creates greater instability, not stability.” 

Isn’t that a simple statement of fact? Evidently not to Panetta. He reads recent history quite differently. “The fact is, we’re good at counterterrorism,” he said. “The reality is that we know how to do this without deploying the 101st Airborne or a large number of brigades.”

I confess to being nonplussed by that statement. Does Panetta honestly think Iraq and Afghanistan have been rousing counterterrorism success stories? I suppose that might be true if the goal was to occupy both countries indefinitely. But there are limits to American dominance, and limits to what we should ask of our men and women in the armed forces.

To his credit, Bacevich was having none of what Panetta was selling. “With all due respect,” he answered the former secretary of defense, “we don’t know how to do this.”

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Forgiveness & the Flag

Hearing the names of the nine victims in Charleston read at Mass on Sunday, it was hard not to hear as well the statements of forgiveness from their survivors made at last Friday’s bond hearing for the shooter, Dylann Roof. “I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you” – the words of Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance – became the headline of Saturday’s print edition of The New York Times, but it’s the clips of Collier and others in court that truly convey the power of the moment, the grace of those whose loved ones were taken. It’s impossible not to be moved, or even awed—as a number of pundits admitted to being when the footage was aired.

Inevitably, much has been written and said about “forgiveness” in the days since, some of it by Cornell West. In an appearance Monday on New York public radio he called the survivors’ statements of forgiveness, and the favorable response to them, “bad theology.” The forgiveness, he said, “is premature… We have to put love at the center of this but forgiveness is something that comes further down the line… [This] has remnants of the niggerized Christianity that has been operating in the history of the black church….” Of course, provocation is West’s main mode. But his co-guest on the segment, Amy Butler of Riverside Church, allowed that he was getting at something important. The survivors’ words of forgiveness, she said, “are deeply moving but they call us to something deeper, and they remind us of a sin in our country that cannot be ignored anymore… [A] voice of remorse also needs to come from a system and a nation….”

The possibility of forgiveness from family members is one issue; the possibility (if not the likelihood) of its appropriation and use as absolution from any further responsibility for or concern with the underlying causes of the attack is another.

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Race of the absurd

The murders in Charleston have summoned all the cliches about race, racism, black, white, etc., that are part of summertime news. The parishioners at Emanuel AME Church mourn the people they knew and loved and their relatives and friends weep and forgive. The rest of us should be sorting through cause and effect. It might actually sober everyone up.

This morning's NYTimes looks at the organization that inspired Roof to murder and it looks at who is the beneficiary of its political contributions.

"What is Whitness" in the NYTimes Sunday Review reminded us that once upon a time scientists divined many more races, Celts, Saxons, Southern Italians, etc, than they divine today.

And we have had a couple go-rounds here at dotCommonweal about the social construction of race. When Did You Become White?     How White is White? And Who is White?