The Supreme Court Just Agreed with Me on Arizona’s Redistricting Plan

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Yesterday, in Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a lower court’s decision to uphold a legislative map drawn by an independent redistricting commission that ensures representation among voters of color. Republican voters sued on the grounds that they believed the map violated the “one-person, one-vote” principle because it was too favorable to Democrats. Last June, the Court ruled that Arizona voters could make the process of drawing congressional district lines less partisan by creating this very independent redistricting commission through a ballot initiative. In another case about “one-person, one-vote,” earlier this month the Court ruled that states may create equal congressional districts based on a state’s total population as opposed to the number of eligible voters.

Last fall, I took a constitutional law course taught by Robert J. Hume, chair of the political science department at Fordham University and author of Courthouse Democracy and Minority Rights: Same-Sex Marriage in the States. At the end of the semester, we held a moot court based on Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. I played the role of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and wrote a decision for this case as if I were she. What follows is that paper, submitted December 2015, in which I rule in favor of the Commission – just as the Supreme Court did yesterday. 

Voters in the state of Arizona challenge the map drawn for legislative districts by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (AIRC). The plaintiffs argue that the map, which took effect in 2012, violates the “one-person, one-vote” principle – based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause ­– by creating underpopulated Democratic-leaning districts and overpopulated Republican-leaning districts. The AIRC denies the charge that the map was motivated by partisanship, asserting that the population deviations are the result of a good-faith effort to obtain federal preclearance as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. Since then, however, in Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013), the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, making Section 5 completely useless by declaring unconstitutional Section 4(b), the coverage formula based on patterns of historic voting discrimination that determines which districts are required to obtain preclearance under Section 5.

Thus before this Court are three main questions: 1) Does the AIRC’s desire to gain partisan advantage for one political party justify intentionally creating over-populated legislative districts – that result in voters being denied Equal Protection because their individual votes are devalued – violate the one-person, one-vote principle?, 2) Does the AIRC’s desire to obtain favorable preclearance review by the Justice Department permit the creation of legislative districts that deviate from the one-person, one-vote principle after?, and 3) Even if creating unequal districts to obtain preclearance approval was once justified, is this still a legitimate justification after Shelby?

As Mitchell N. Berman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the Texas Law Review, “The core principle of republican government is that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.” This is a founding principle which many of our past decisions have been based on. The one-person, one-vote principle was first established for U.S. congressional districts in Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964), and for state legislative districts in Reynolds v. Simms, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), which Chief Justice Earl Warren later called the most important decisions of his term. “As nearly as is practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.” Wesberry, supra, 7-8. Similarly, in the latter case, the Court ruled, “The Equal Protection Clause requires that the seats in both houses of a bicameral state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis. Simply stated, an individual’s right to vote for state legislators is unconstitutionally impaired when its weight is in a substantial fashion diluted when compared with votes of citizens living in other parts of the State.” Reynolds, supra, 568. Acknowledging that it is impossible to create districts with the exact number of eligible voters, Chief Justice Warren wrote, “a State make an honest and good faith effort to construct districts, in both houses of its legislature, as nearly of equal population as is practicable.” Id., 577. Though the Court ruled that districts must be relatively equal in population, it did not define how great of a deviance from the ideal population is acceptable.

Nearly twenty years later, the Court defined an allowable amount of deviance in Brown v. Thomson, 462 U.S. 835 (1983): “an apportionment plan with a maximum population deviation under 10% falls within this category of minor deviations.” Brown, supra, 842. In the case before us now, according to the AIRC’s data, no district is more than 4.7 percent underpopulated, and no district is more than 4.1 percent overpopulated. Thus, the relative small population deviations themselves do not indicate a violation of the one-person, one-vote principle.

1) Partisan Advantage

The plaintiffs claim that because nearly all of the underpopulated districts elected a Democrat in 2012, and nearly all of the overpopulated districts elected a Republican, the map may have been created with the intention of getting more Democrats elected. The Supreme Court, however, has never explicitly dismissed partisan motivations as a redistricting tool. In Vieth v. Jubelirer, 541 U.S. 267, 306 (2004), the Court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the partisan motivations for redistricting. Justice David Souter’s dissent – which simply offered different reasons for coming to the same conclusion – stated, “the issue is one of how much is too much… Instead of coming up with a verbal formula for too much, then, the Court’s job must be to identify clues, as objective as we can make them, indicating that partisan competition has reached an extremity of unfairness.” Vieth, supra, 345. Although partisan motivations are subject to being declared an invalid justification for a redistricting plan in future cases, we cannot rule in this case whether they are or not mostly because of the primary reason offered by the Commission for creating the map, which we will expand on in the next section.

(It’s also important to point out what Grant M. Hayden, research fellow at Hofstra University and former appeals court law clerk, noted in the California Law Review, namely, that partisan motivations do not always result in an outcome favorable to the creators of congressional districts. “While majority-minority districts reliably increase the number of minority officeholders, they may do so at the cost of electing candidates in surrounding districts with agendas that are at odds with minority interests,” he wrote.)

2) Attempt to Obtain Favorable Preclearance

To determine whether the partisan competition has reached the “extremity of unfairness,” we must examine the AIRC’s primary reason for creating the map as it did and determine if that reason takes precedence to the partisan outcome of its map.

Deviations from the ideal population are constitutional if they are “based on legitimate considerations incident to the effectuation of a rational state policy.” Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 579 (1964). And in Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U.S. 725, 729 (1983), the Court ruled, “Any number of consistently applied legislative policies might justify some variance.” For the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, that “rational state policy” or those “consistently applied legislative policies” is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. And the Court in Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952, 977 (1996), wrote, “we assume without deciding that compliance with the results test, as interpreted by our precedents… can be a compelling state interest.” Thus the Commission claims that its map’s deviations from the ideal population in several districts were a good faith effort to achieve §5’s preclearance. Because the Justice Department does not reveal its requirements to achieve preclearance, the defense claims that due to this “regulatory uncertainty,” it had to “to be cautious and to take extra steps” in terms of overpopulating and underpopulating certain districts.

According to Jason Maschmann in the St. Louis University Law Journal, the Department of Justice “uses a ‘nonretrogression’ standard. That is, a proposed plan will not be cleared if the plan will lead to a retrogression in the voting effectiveness of minorities.” The Court has declared that §5 of the VRA was created “to insure that no voting-procedure changes would be made that would lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise. Beer v. United States, 425 U.S. 130, 141 (1976). One method of retrogression, according to the Court, is when a new voting law hinders the ability to people of color to “elect their candidates of choice.” Id.; 52 U.S.C. § 1973c(b). Later Courts have defined retrogression in terms of these “ability to elect districts”: “there is no retrogression as long as the number of ability districts remains the same” from the old map to the new map. See Reno v. Bossier Parish Sch. Bd., 520 U.S. 471, 478 (1997) and Texas v. United States, 887 F. Supp. 2d 133, 157 (D.D.C. 2012) (citing Abrams v. Johnson, 521 U.S. 74, 97–98 (1997)).

With advice from its counsel, the Commission created 10 ability-to-elect districts (out of 30 total districts in Arizona). While partisan motivations may have played a role in creating these districts, we agree with the lower court’s ruling that the primary motivation was to achieve preclearance under §5, a legitimate justification for the population deviance.

As the lower court stated, “As a practical matter, changes that strengthened minority ability-to-elect districts were also changes that improved the prospects for electing Democratic candidates. Those motivations were not at cross purposes. They were entirely parallel.” Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, 993 F. Supp. 2d 1042, 1061 (2014 U.S. Dist.). If the goal of a new legislative map is to strengthen the vote for people of color, and they happen to vote predominantly for Democrats, that does not mean the map is based on partisan motivations or violates the one-person, one-vote principle. It does not matter what party people of color affiliate with – all that matters is that a district exists such that they get to elect a candidate of their choice. The results of the election, i.e. which party wins, does not matter in determining whether the one-person, one-vote principle has been violated if the redistricting plan was created to pass preclearance.

3) Post Shelby

The final point to decide upon is whether the desire to achieve preclearance is still a valid justification after the Court effectively rendered §5 useless in Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013). The map went into effect in 2012, before Shelby County. Of course, the Commission should not have to predict how the law will change in future court decisions or to base its map on what it thinks will prevail in the courts. Thus, the fact that the Court has since removed the preclearance requirement does not mean that the Commission’s motivation for achieving it should be thrown out. Moreover, it is the duty of this Court to uphold constitutional principles to protect those to whom these principles have so long been denied by a state-sponsored system of racial hierarchy.

The ideals of the Voting Rights Act are enough to justify the Commission’s 2012 legislative map. The Commission made a good faith effort to achieve preclearance. After Shelby effectively removed the preclearance requirement, the rest of the VRA still stands. And so do its ideals. The progress made by the spring 1965 voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama – wherein black people were slaughtered by law enforcement on their first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday – cannot be reversed. That campaign put utterly necessary pressure on Lyndon Johnson to pass the VRA. The Shelby County decision, in its pursuit of a “colorblind society,” in part erased some of that progress. Jason Maschmann’s response more than 20 years ago to Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993), which mandated that redistricting based on race must uphold strict scrutiny, applies quite well to the present: “The idea of a color-blind society which the modern Court hopes for is an attractive one. The reality, unfortunately, is that such a society does not yet exist. Racial discrimination in voting is a well-documented problem which continues through today.”

The judgment of the district court is affirmed. It is so ordered.

Photo: AP/Ross D. Franklin

Q&A with Prof. Christina Greer on the Presidential Election

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A condensed version of the following interview, conducted on April 6, was originally published at the Fordham Observer. Until I can afford to upgrade my website, unfortunately I am unable to upload the audio file of the interview.

Gunar Olsen: This is Gunar Olsen with the Fordham Observer, and I’m speaking with Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University and author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the American Dream. She appears regularly on MSNBC and NY1 to talk politics, and she’ll be on a panel about the election at Lucky Jack’s in the Lower East Side on April 14 ahead of the New York primary on the 19th.

Let’s start with the Democratic field. Compared to other Democratic primaries you’ve followed in your lifetime, where does this one stand in terms of substance, in terms of talking about actual issues, in terms of pursuing a progressive agenda?

Christina Greer: Goodness, that’s a loaded question. Well in the past I have to say, even in 2008, I can’t say the election was this exciting. If you all remember in 2008, John Edwards and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – and of course John Edwards had to bow out – and we were essentially going state by state between Clinton and Obama, and there was sort of a different division obviously in how they wanted to get things done but not necessarily in what they wanted. Yes, there were conversations about war, whether or not Obama supported the war; he did not because he wasn’t even in the Senate at the time of the vote. And so that was sort of the biggest issue there.

This year it seems as though there’s a much larger core of ideas and how to implement them and some real divisions within the larger party about what the direction should be and what a Democratic candidate should look like. Should they be more centrist, like a Hillary Clinton, or should be in some ways, to use Bernie Sanders’ own terms, more radical? And there are many Democrats who don’t feel comfortable with the radical candidate just because they know that bipartisanship is the only way we’ve ever gotten anything done in American democracy, but others feel like this is the time. If not now, then when? She’s someone who’s not going to essentially look like a Republican half the time and really go for what Democratic ideals should be.

So we’re actually at more of a division than many people anticipated largely because many people did not anticipate Bernie Sanders even making the inroads that he has. He showed up, especially as a 74-year-old, pretty obscure senator from a small state. Most people have never heard of him before, and now we see he’s created a national movement in much the way Barack Obama did in 2008.

Gunar Olsen: One of the issues that has come up has been reparations. In an interview with Fusion in January, Bernie Sanders said he doesn’t support reparations for black people. His statement set off – what I found to be – a really important back on forth on the left about reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates quickly criticized Sanders. And then people further to the left pushed back on Coates: Cedric Johnson in Jacobin wrote “An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him,” that got some good attention. Jacobin also ran a pro-reparations piece by Brian Jones. As usual, Adolph Reed said some things that were highly critical of Coates’ work. What did you make of this conversation?

Christina Greer: Well it depends on what you make of the conversation of reparations. I mean I think it’s an important conversation to have, but I think there are more important conversations to have about the institutions in which that money or those resources would be played out. What is the point of reparations in some ways if all the institutions will still be white owned and in some ways white supremacist? So I think that it’s an important question.

The fact that Bernie Sanders is entertaining the question says something about what he’s willing to do. I think a large frustration with people who aren’t supporting Sanders is that he never instigates any of these conversations. He’s always brought into the conversation often times reluctantly, and then he champions it, which is great, but he’s clearly not a leader on anything race related.

Gunar Olsen: One campaign tactic that Hillary Clinton has been using is the exploitation of identity politics, a type politics popular among social justice activists on college campuses, indeed especially here at Fordham. She’s been tweeting about intersectionality and recognizing her privilege. She’s using her gender to make the ‘elect a woman’ argument. Do you think these appeals are genuine? Do you think her policies will benefit the marginalized communities she’s claiming to help, or do you think, as Michelle Alexander wrote in the Nation, that “Hillary Clinton doesn’t deserve the black vote?”

Christina Greer: Well I mean Hillary Clinton is a complicated figure largely because she’s been known for so long. I’m actually still uncertain as to what exactly she believes largely because people are allowed to change, but we also do know that this is something she definitely desires.

When it comes to the black vote, as I talk about in my book Black Ethnics, how can we really define that? Yes, there are large – 90 percent of African Americans vote Democratically in the general election, but that’s for complicated reasons. And the group is not a monolithic group, ethnically, geographically, financially, whatever it may be. Republicans have essentially written off black Americans, and so the choices are limited. But I think black people are very strategic voters, so when they’re looking at someone like Hillary Clinton, who in many ways is the presumed nominee, there’s a reason for many black voters to vote to protect their interests as opposed to take a gamble and vote for a possible candidate that might not make it.

You also can’t assume that just because one is black that they’re also liberal. So they may vote Democratically, but there’s still several conservative Democrats out there. If we think about southerners – not just black Southerners –  but southerners period, we know that a Democratic southerner from say Texas is more conservative than probably a Republican from New York City. So when we have these labels, we also have to recognize that these labels are multifaceted and pretty complex depending on our geographic space and who and what we’re talking about.

Gunar Olsen: Both Michelle Alexander and Shaun King at the New York Daily News said that the problem with Sanders is that he’s running in the Democratic Party, a party dominated by right-of-center neoliberals like Obama and Clinton. When asked whom she is supporting, Angela Davis said that we need a new party. What is your take on Sanders in the Democratic Party or a third-party run?

Christina Greer: I think what this race is really showing us is that the labels we are using are in many ways inaccurate. In the old days, Sanders would be a Democratic, Clinton would be a Republican, and then the Republicans would just be off the pond. We have no idea where they would be because they have shown themselves to be so extremist on the presidential level. Now obviously on the local level it’s a little bit different.

We know that Obama is not a liberal. Lots of people have been disappointed. Unfortunately they weren’t paying attention to anything he said in 2008 because if you were looking beyond his skin color, you would know for a fact that he never said he was going to be a liberal, he never said he would implement liberal policies. His skin color is liberal but that’s pretty much it. And he’s a centrist Democrat, and that’s, in the past, who we’ve tended to elect to be our president, centrist Democrats. So when it comes to the comparisons of the Obama era and today, we also have to be real about why and how we voted for Obama, and for some people, with the excitement of voting for Obama, they weren’t paying attention to some of the rhetoric that was quite clear that they weren’t paying attention.

Gunar Olsen: So what advice would you give to (1) the Sanders campaign to pick up more delegates in the remaining primaries and (2) the Clinton campaign to keep up her pledged delegate lead.

Christina Greer: Well the Sanders campaign so far they’re galvanizing young people and they would just have to keep stressing turn out and that this movement is real and not be discouraged even if the math doesn’t look in their favor. For many people, if Sanders is their first choice, they are making the argument for themselves, saying well, he probably won’t win, so I’ll just vote for my second choice and that’s what happens quite a bit. If he can convince people to vote for their first choice, I think he’s got great momentum.

Similarly though for Hillary Clinton, I think she needs to convince people that she needs to be judged as 21st century Hillary Clinton, and that even though she may have cosigned on her husband’s record, is it a fair assessment for her to be judged a) for things that she said 25 years ago – Biden said some pretty horrendous things, I’m sure if we all look back on ourselves, we aren’t the people we are today, hopefully we’re not, we’ve evolved – and really convince people that she’s the smartest person in the room, which I do think, you know, is usually the case. But lots of people have such a bad feeling about her, and she’s actually not a great candidate. And in governance, that may be a different story, but as far as on the campaign trail, she just doesn’t know how to bring it home. If she can convince people that she has the CV that no one else in the world has, and that we should trust her, even though we’ve known her for so many years, then I think she can make those inroads.

Gunar Olsen: Let’s move to the Republican field. How do you explain the violence inflicted by Trump supporters on nonviolent protesters, particularly black people, at his rallies? What does it signify and what does it say about the United States? Do you think it could get worse?

Christina Greer: Oh I definitely think it could get worse because it’s the fabric of this nation. We have a presidential candidate who’s essentially said, “We no longer have to live in the shadows.” And so the silent majority can now speak, and that means they can say pretty horrendous things about multiple people. These groups have been in existence, they’re not new, many of them though haven’t voted before or they reluctantly voted for a Democrat that didn’t satisfy their – or a Republican that didn’t satisfy their needs. And Trump is essentially saying, “It’s okay to say these inappropriate statements out loud, it’s acceptable because you’re with me now.” And I think a lot of people are feeling really relieved that he’s given them the permission to say and do things that they’ve felt for quite some time.

Gunar Olsen: So a question about the media. Glenn Greenwald wrote that the rise of Trump shows the danger and sham of compelled journalistic ‘neutrality.’ You were recently on a panel at the New School and you talked about the media’s role in the rise of Trump. What’s the connection?

Christina Greer: Well I think the media is complicit, and there are lots of people who disagree on this point. The fact is that he’s gotten $2 billion in free media since he announced. The only person who gets more free media is the president of the United States. So when journalists keep asking, “Why is Trump surging in the polls?” Well because you’ve been talking about him nonstop on air in a 24-hour news cycle, and so if you stopped doing that, we might see that maybe – it sort of depends on [inaudible] the dog. For a lot of people who weren’t paying attention or who didn’t think of him that seriously or they’ve heard every single journalist talking about him consistently, and so then they started to think about him more and more. And he’s already had a 10-year head start on many of the candidates because he’s a celebrity with his reality shows.

Gunar Olsen: What’s all this talk about a contested Republican convention? How could this play out?

Christina Greer: Oh I think it can play out, and if the Democrats aren’t careful, I think it will also play out in Philadelphia as well. So essentially there are lots of different rules in place. I mean I always tell my students, “The beauty and the curse of American democracy is that even though we have something written down, we always have a trap door where we can circumvent it.” So there are rules, the rules for Democrats are somewhat different than the rules for Republicans because Democrats have superdelegates. But Reublianas have to get to a certain number. If Cruz takes his win in Wisconsin and starts surging in the polls, we may see that neither Republican gets the requisite amount to actually win the nomination straight out at the convention. If that’s the case, it could be contested. That also means that Reince Priebus, who the head of the RNC, could exercise certain provisions in their bylaws where they could throw in a third candidate as well, someone obviously with the name like Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney have been thrown around, someone who’s a little bit more palatable to the vast majority of Republicans in the party. Unfortunately in America, we have such low voter turnout for the primary, many times these people are not representative samples of the larger party.

Gunar Olsen: Currently the frontrunners in each party — Clinton and Trump — are very unpopular among the general electorate. In a recent CBS/NYT poll, 57 percent of voters said they have unfavorable views of Trump and 52 percent of Clinton, the highest numbers since the poll began in 1984. (This is in contrast to Sanders, who has 60 percent favorable and 33 percent unfavorable ratings in a CNN poll.) How is this happening? And how strong is the argument that Democrats should elect Sanders because he has a better chance of beating Trump?

Christina Greer: Right, and I don’t necessarily think that Sanders has a better chance of beating Trump. I think Sanders benefits in many ways from what Obama benefited from in 2008, which is that he’s relatively unknown. So yes he’s been in the Senate but his record in the Senate is not terribly impressive. And so there’s not much to stick to him based on what he’s done or hasn’t done because that a) wasn’t his office and b) he’s been living the great life of a senator and been delivering for the state of Vermont as he should as a senator.

With Hillary Clinton, she has a lot more net negative largely because we’ve known her for 25 years, she was secretary of State, she did cosign some of her husband’s most draconian policies in the 90’s, and even some upstate New Yorkers have issues with her from when she was senator obviously and voted for the Iraq War.

So both of these individuals, Clinton and Trump, have large negatives, but we also need to look at the number of people who are actually showing up. So if we think about Washington state, I believe Bernie Sanders got 19,000 votes and won the primary. When Obama won the Democratic state of Washington, he got 1.9 million votes, so we’re seeing a huge percentage of the Democratic primary not showing up for a primary because many people when they about elections, they think about November, they don’t think about early 2016.

Gunar Olsen: What worries you most about a Hillary Clinton presidency, and what worries you most about a Donald Trump presidency?

Christina Greer: A Hillary Clinton presidency, I worry that she’s a hawk. We see that Obama presented himself as a dove, and Hillary Clinton presented herself as a hawk in 2008. We see that Obama has a lot of hawk in him when it comes to foreign policy and also middle of the road policies when it comes to the welfare state and poor Americans. I think Hillary Clinton will be more hawkish than our current president, that does worry me because if obviously we think about interacting, intervening abroad, that does have real economic consequences domestically when it comes to education, infrastructure, and our day to day lives.

With Donald Trump, everything worries me because a) not only does he not have a record but I do think he has narcissistic, megalomania qualities and you can’t really take him at his word. So one day he’ll say he’s for something and the next day he’s against it and the third day he says he’s for it again. So I don’t feel comfortable with a person like that interacting with Putin or Kim Jong Un or our allies at the UN because tough talk and big talk in the boardroom is very different when you’re talking with heads of state where you can just call them pigs, and obviously his gender politics I think are probably the nadir of American politics and we probably haven’t seen someone so [inaudible] ever in our democratic history.

Gunar Olsen: So speaking of foreign policy, while Bernie Sanders was the only candidate to decline to speak at AIPAC, Clinton seemed like she was trying to position herself to the right of Donald Trump on Israel. Although Sanders reaffirmed his support for guaranteeing Israel’s survival, he did call for an end to the blockade of Gaza, criticized Israel for controlling water in the West Bank, and for mounting disproportionate responses to attacks. How does this affect his campaign? And more broadly, do you see Sanders’ speech as the beginning of a trend of national politicians who aren’t afraid to strongly criticize Israel?

CG: I don’t think it’s the beginning of a trend. I think that for people who are progressive in this country, it’s refreshing to hear a candidate not actually cater to this particular group, which Democrat and Republican candidates always cater to this specific group. So he is one in very few that I do not think are this national trend because many Democrats and Republicans alike believe that to get the support of AIPAC financially but even just on paper means a lot, not just in the campaign phase but also in the governance phase. Keep in mind the position of Israel in the Middle East is a very strategic position, and many world leaders want that relationship as strong as possible for all the things that we do in the dark.

Gunar Olsen: Since you teach a course on campaigns and elections, how would you design a primary system to either maximize or minimize the ability of an outsider candidate, like Trump or Sanders, to break through?

CG: I don’t think that democracy is set up to minimize people. I think if the public speaks then we should listen. My issue is that it’s only a small percentage of the public speaking. I really wish we could figure out a way to get more people involved, to actually turn out to vote. We know that there are costs to voting, not just $2.75 to take the subway to your polling station but trying to find childcare and healthcare and get off of work if you’re working two minimum wage jobs and you could lose your job if you leave early to go vote. So we really need to think about the strategies that other countries utilize that are really effective where they have weekend voting on a Saturday and a Sunday, or certain states where you can vote for two weeks or early voting or make it really easy to just mail in your ballot.

Some people argue that it shouldn’t be easy to vote, but we make it pretty difficult for people and it’s a pretty complex system. We’re a highly educated people, and I talk to my students all the time, and they’re even still confused about where they should register. Do they go online? Should they have to show up? There are a lot of intricate processes. They’re really confused about the date in New York: we’re voting in April for the presidential primary in June, for the congressional primary in September, for the state legislature primary, and then in November for the general election. Many people don’t understand what all these dates mean, and so it’s a larger education process that also needs to happen to explain to American voters what all these different levels and layers of American government really mean because they don’t really know who they’re turning out for. And part of the problem is that we have such an incumbency advantage for people who have already been in office. Many people aren’t inspired to turn out for someone who’s already been in office for 20 years and they just assume well they’re gonna be in office anyway and they essentially run pretty much unopposed every single time they’re up for office.

Gunar Olsen: Again, I’ve been speaking to Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University and author of Black Ethnics. She’ll be discussing the election at Lucky Jack’s on April 14th. We will link to your book and the panel at the Observer’s website. Thanks so much for chatting!

CG: Thank you, Gunar!

This Is Not An Album Review: ‘Gore’ by Deftones (aka the Aston Martin of Music)

Dear potential future employers: I have no interest in writing about music professionally. This post is a rare deviation from my devotion to political writing. It’s less an album review and more of a reaction to my favorite band’s new album.

I believe strongly in the notion that you can learn a lot about an album and a band by its song titles and album covers. How do Deftones come up with theirs? They write the instrumentals to a song, Chino listens to those and starts singing over them with words that come to his mind as hears the music, and then picks a title based on the vibe of the combination of the lyrics and instrumentals. On Gore, Deftones’ eighth album, you won’t hear most of the song titles as lyrics in the songs themselves. That might sound a bit pretentious, but it’s so goddamn perfect for Deftones and for this record – because they pull it off so well.

Why Gore’s album cover? While Chino was listening to the album, a bunch of colors came to mind. “I think it sits somewhere between pink, red and purple. Sometimes when I hear music, I see color, and when it came time to work on the artwork for this batch of songs, I knew exactly what I wanted,” he told Kerrang!. The idea was to juxtapose the beauty of nature with a brutal, provocative sounding album title. It worked: The song titles and the album cover and title are perfect representations of the actual music, “to paint what’s inside the songs,” as Chino told Noisey. Although each new Deftones album is always fresh, they do indeed have a loose formula: contrasting between Steph’s fierce guitar riffs and Chino’s alluring vocals that “weave through the chaos” as the Boston Globe put it. Gore accomplishes this form of seduction without seeming repetitive. Cue me referring to Deftones as “the Aston Martin of music” from now on.

A lot of old-school Deftones fans – the alt-metal lovers for whom experimentation, a la 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist, isn’t very inspiring – aren’t digging the new shit. But I’d argue that Gore is the most Deftones thing ever. They always push the boundaries of what can be popular. And that’s precisely why I adore them so much. Sure, as some bands get older, they tend to lose their spark or repeat what they’ve already done. The result is really boring, overproduced (in a bad way), uninspiring music. Deftones has done the opposite. As shown by their last three albums, their seemingly limitless creativity and innovation are still operating at peak levels, now even 21 years after their first album. Their live shows are still fucking amazing. In a genre that many people think is dying, Gore,  described by Pitchfork as “the most texturally luscious Deftones record yet” due to sound manipulator Frank Delgado, is one piece of evidence to the contrary.

The accurately dubbed “Geometic Headdress,” with exciting screams and “bugged out” time signatures, “Pittura Infamante,” whose bridge and “liquid-mercury riffs” are some of my favorite parts of the album,  and “Rubicon,” undoubtedly the strongest finish to a Deftones record and a fun addition to their live sets, are the best representatives of the complexity and depth of Gore. It’s interesting to note – because I would never expect this – that “Rubicon” is the second song in Deftones’ catalogue in which Chino sings, “and the crowd goes wild” (see 2003’s “Hexagram“). One could say that this shows repetition and lack of creativity, but that strikes me as nitpicky considering how well the lyric fits the song.

The straight-to-the-point brutal second single, “Doomed User,” is the only track to which you’ll respond, “This is metal as fuck,” and I fucking love everything about it. Similarly the title track, “Gore,” has the brooding riffs and the ominous sounding verses. The never-ending ending is a real punch. While it took me a while to get into the lead track and first single, “Prayers/Triangles,” I’ve really come to appreciate it as it accurately sets the tone for the record, contrasting between Chino’s deft vocals and Steph’s brooding riffs in the chorus while showcasing Sergio’s “gorey” basslines. Metal Injection‘s solid review put it best: “The piece’s radio rock pandering pace at first appeared lackluster, but with further listens, I found the luminous verse and chorus structure to be catchy and understandable towards why the track was met with open arms.”

Gore is the first Deftones album with a traditional guitar solo, and it’s not even performed by their own guitarist. They had a gap in “Phantom Bride,” so they hit up Alice In Chains legend Jerry Cantrell to fill the void. Frankly the solo is a bit awkward at first simply because it’s Deftones, but Jerry’s work fits really well with the rest of the track and offers a brilliant contrast (see a pattern here?) to Steph’s heavy guitars in the final minute. It’s perhaps the most beautiful track on the album.

The intros to “Hearts/Wires” and “(L)MIRL” are all post-metal dreamy. Sit with ‘em for a while. While the former displays the band’s songwriting ability and its brighter and cleaner tones, the latter delves into the darker, heavier elements with Steph’s deep riffs and Sergio’s shoegazey bass. “Xenon,” a slow, catchy jam, opens with some cool guitar work that sounds like a modern take on a classic metal riff, an influence unheard in previous Deftones albums. For a reason I can’t yet identify, “Acid Hologram,” the second track, has been the most difficult to get into. While its verses don’t do a whole lot for me, I’ve definitely been seduced by the chorus and the techy transition to “Doomer User.” It’s like the Derek Jeter to your Alex Rodriguez. (I actually spend a lot of time thinking about how bands organize songs on a record in a way that’s not too different from how baseball managers create a batting order.)

I spent the first quarter of 2016 awaiting Gore like a dog at the dinner table. After listening to almost nothing else – I like Filter’s new album – since it came out last Friday, Gore has officially sunk in with me. Deftones, perhaps “the most interesting and esoteric thing the radio-festival circuit might dare touch” as Spin put it, does this thing with each new album of challenging your musical interests and ever so seductively pulling you out of your comfort zone of what you like. Gore has stimulated my thoughts and my emotions and my feelings in ways that only better writers than I could articulate. The best example of which is Metal Injection‘s review:

The mid-tempo pace and soft edge that encompasses the almost entirety of Gore provides for a less instant gratification. Instead, we see a focus shift to nuance and detail. In the end, the space rock atmospheres and subtle melodies are evidence of the group’s ongoing admirable evolution.

Or Pitchfork‘s:

Gore captures the inimitable essence of the band: the thing that makes people reference them when discussing Deafheaven, Sigur RosKveikur or basically any heavy rock album that strives to be prettier than its peers or vice versa, a truly new metal that’s sensual without resorting to shoegaze tropes, aggressive and unconventionally freaky in a way that never suggests predation or regressive machismo. Synaesthetically speaking, it’s a smear of pink, purple and black, a kiss that bites down on your lip to draw blood. By no means did Deftones invent the idea of combining brutality and beauty in metal, although they were definitely at least a decade ahead of the curve on covering Sade. Nothing short of a name change will likely convince skeptics at this point, but Gore proves that Deftones can remain vital as they are relevant, if they don’t kill each other first.

Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that none of song titles are lyrics in the songs themselves. Of course, Chino does sing the word “gore” on “Gore” and the words, though separately, “prayers” and “triangles” on “Prayers/Triangles” and the words, though separately, “heart” and “wire” on “Hearts/Wires.” Thanks to commenter d1sposition for the note.

 

The Selective Nature of Performative Politics

It’s now common for online activists to quickly – or, as some of my Facebook friends do, two weeks after the fact without checking an article’s publication date – call attention to atrocities in non-Western countries that mainstream media deem unworthy of attention. Although this style of activism pushes back against the media’s racist obsession with Western victims of terrorism, too often these activists stumble over violence carried out by their own government or fail to recognize their own government’s complicity in the very atrocities they are calling attention to. For some, it’s simply a form of performative politics to prove to everyone that They Care™ about black and brown people.

Most recently this activism has centered on the killing of 14 civilians by AQIM gunmen in the Ivory Coast (which this Washington Post journalist reported on as if he were writing a tragic novel in his sophomore year of college during his free time), an ISIS suicide attack on a soccer stadium in Baghdad that killed 25 people, and the Taliban bombing in Lahore whose death toll surpassed 70. In November 2015, while the establishment media had a context-free field day – several field days, rather – with the Paris attacks, it was ISIS’s other attacks in Beirut and Baghdad that forced online activists to do the work of journalists.

Though these activists deserve credit for bringing attention to the racist nature of corporate media, it’s quite rare to see them condemn the U.S.’s role in Saudi Arabia’s brutal year-long war on Yemen, the nearly unconditional American support of the apartheid government of Israel, or U.S. complicity in the creation of ISIS. Similar to how establishment journalists in the U.S. reflexively exonerate their government, this type of activism is a form of selective, borderline nationalist outrage that fails to criticize the actions of one’s own government. It’s easy to condemn a terrorist group for killing innocent civilians and the media for blatantly ignoring violence against nonwhite people, but it’s a whole other thing to criticize your own team.

One could argue that the very reason these activists fail to point out the wrongdoing of their government is the deferential nature of mainstream media, and thus they deserve some slack. But if they are clearly savvy enough to notice what our malleable media isn’t covering well, shouldn’t they also be able to see how it acts as the government’s PR wing, uncritically filing reports that are essentially the same as press releases from governmental agencies?

But perhaps this is my own form of performative politics: criticizing other people for not seeing what I’m seeing, for not getting angry at what I’m angry at, and positioning myself at the ultimate arbiter of noncontradiction; and if so, I’ll willingly accept that critique.

What inspired this particular post was the lack of outrage at a new report by Human Rights Watch which found, after comprehensive on-site investigations, that U.S.-made bombs were used in one of the deadliest airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in the year-long war on Yemen. The March 15 “double-tap” bombing of a market in the town of Mastaba killed at least 119 people, including 25 children. The report so far has only gotten the attention of the usual lefty journos: Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Ben Norton published write-ups at The Intercept and Salon respectively. Vice, whose Yemen coverage has been fantastic lately, did the same. But this latest news of continued U.S.-sponsored war crimes in Yemen has not yet been signal boosted by the activists who love to point out when the media ignores victims of terrorism in places like Pakistan and the Ivory Coast. Who knows, maybe I’ll see HRW’s report being shared by all my Facebook friends two weeks from now. In this case, much better late than never.