About US: What shoes and wedding cakes tell us about citizenship and rights in America

Candid conversations about identity in 21st-century America
The Washington Post

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Candid conversations about identity in 21st-century America
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Puerto Ricans respond silently and loudlyto anew study on hurricane deaths

Supreme Court ruling in wedding cake case left some LGBTQ people feeling unsettled

An Indianapolis detective balances the demands of being black and blue


Hurricane Maria swept away the illusion of Puerto Ricans’ citizenship

Ed Morales
adjunct professor, Columbia University

Protesters in San Juan left more than 100 pairs of shoes outside the Capitolio, home to Puerto Rico’s legislature, as a silent rebuke to the government for undercounting the number of residents who died last year from the effects of Hurricane Maria. A Harvard University study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated the toll was 4,645, rather than the official figure of 64.

At a rally held in New York the same day, speakers captured the disappointment of the crowd. “If it were 5,000 kittens, there would be outrage,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of Uprose, a Brooklyn-based community organization. “If it was 5,000 dogs, there would be outrage. If it was 5,000 blond-haired, blue-eyed women, there would be outrage.”

Yet, as Media Matters noted last week, cable news gave more coverage to the fallout over Roseanne Barr’s exit from network television than to the revelations about the undercount of Puerto Rico’s death toll.

In the 1990s, my parents returned to Puerto Rico for retirement, a move that strengthened my ties to the island and allowed me to re-connect to its people and culture in a way many of us raised in places like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia find it hard to do. When Hurricane Maria hit, I saw firsthand the trauma islanders felt when their access to electricity, water, and gasoline was cut off. Two weeks after the storm I went with members of my family to retrieve my mother and aunt from their homes and witnessed how friends and neighbors struggled to keep their lives together. I remember the ache and concern of my cousin, who had to move her mother from her home to a hospital as she became increasingly disoriented.


A woman places one of the hundreds of shoes left in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rico Capitol in San Juan. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Many on the island had grown skeptical of their relationship with the United States two years ago, when Congress approved the Puerto Rican Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, which was intended to help restructure the island’s $72 billion debt. It not only created a fiscal oversight and management board that would render the island’s government largely powerless, but would also impose painful austerity measures. But after Maria, that skepticism morphed into a real feeling of disenfranchisement.

The frustration has been building because damning evidence of the Trump administration’s neglect has stubbornly emerged. In March, Politico reported significant shortfalls in Washington’s commitment to efforts in Puerto Rico, compared with efforts in Texas and Florida. From the deployment of military helicopters to the funds approved by FEMA for individuals, food and water provided, and the amount of military personnel deployed, Puerto Rico was clearly underserved. Frontline reported on how FEMA’s inability to deliver tarps for temporary roofing left many Puerto Ricans unnecessarily exposed to the elements for months.

“Are we receiving equal government resources for aid in crisis? No; for infrastructure repair, no,” said Efraín Molina, a senior computer network engineer at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “Definitely feels like second-class citizenship to me.” Molina and I became friends after frequently running into each other at performances of traditional Puerto Rican plena music in New York and on the island.

Molina, like myself is a “Nuyorican,” a Puerto Rican born and raised in New York, able to take advantage of rights and privileges that those who reside in the 50 states do—vote for president in the general elections, elect congressional representatives who vote in the legislature—that unincorporated territories like Puerto Rico do not. In some ways the full rights that mainland Puerto Ricans had seemed to be symbolically transferred to those on the island, who were free to relocate to the mainland as citizens, and not go through the legal process that immigrants do.


President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd at Calvary Chapel while touring hurricane damage last year in Puerto Rico. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

But that phrase — unincorporated territory — always carried with it a nagging doubt, a sense of incompleteness when it came to citizenship. As I studied more about what it meant, it became more obvious that it was couched in the language of exclusion, one that could ultimately be employed to justify neglect. In fact, Puerto Rico’s current debt crisis was exacerbated because of its status, since, as an unincorporated territory, it was able to issue bonds with a triple-tax exemption, feeding a bond-market speculation frenzy.

Ronaldo Emmanuelli, one of the lawyers who recently filed suit on the behalf of several unions of Puerto Rico’s State Insurance Fund Corporation (CFSE) against the U.S. government to declare null all the proceedings of the fiscal oversight and management board, thinks Puerto Rico’s plight is rooted in its inferior form of citizenship.

“The second-class nature of our citizenship is clear,” Emmanuelli said in a phone interview from San Juan. He felt strongly that the legal basis for PROMESA was providedby the Insular Cases of 1901, which “asserted the racist reasons why Puerto Rico was not sufficiently dignified enough for full citizenship.” One of those cases, Downes vs. Bidwell, famously stated that Puerto Rico was an unincorporated territory “belonging to, but not a part of” the United States. “That case was decided on by some of the same judges who ruled on Plessy vs. Ferguson, which said whites and blacks were separate but equal. It’s a legal justification for different treatment,” Emmanuelli asserted. Plessy vs. Ferguson was overturned in 1954, but unfortunately for Puerto Rico, Downes vs. Bidwell has never been overturned.

Keep reading this essay

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Charlie Craig, right, joined by his partner, Dave Mullins, speaks during a rally in Denver after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a baker who refused to make a cake for their wedding. (Thomas Peipert/Associated Press)

Feeling even more uncertain about LGBTQ rights after the Supreme Court’s wedding cake ruling

Steven Petrow
Post contributing writer

Ten years ago, my partner and I walked into a jewelry store to purchase wedding bands. Jim tried on a handful of yellow-gold rings to start us off, and then — assuming I was the best man, I guess — the clerk asked about the bride’s ring.

Time froze as I realized we needed to come out. Would she scorn us, embarrass us, tell us to leave? I felt my heart pound and a trickle of sweat drip down the back of my neck, as I told her we were a couple. She left the counter and went into the back room … and came back with another pair of yellow-gold rings. Less enthusiastic but ready to sell two rings.

Nearly every same-sex couple I know has a story like this, and not all of them end well. From a humiliating moment at a hotel check-in counter to being turned away by an adoption agency, we’ve all had those moments that made us feel less than fully human, less than fully equal as Americans — or that made us sweat in anticipation of rejection.

I am sick and tired of being drenched in that particular sweat.


Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips decorates a cake inside his store in Lakewood, Colo. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

That’s why I had hoped for more guidance — no, actually, real protection — from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who instead kicked the can down the road this week. Kennedy wrote the majority decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a Supreme Court case that asked whether a baker could refuse, based on his religious beliefs, to provide a wedding cake to a same-sex couple.

Like most LGBTQ people, I wanted Kennedy to be the tiebreaker establishing that businesses cannot discriminate by claiming religious freedom. I wanted the court to affirm the right of Dave Mullins and Charlie Craig to buy the wedding cake of their dreams from the bakery of their choice. I wanted other gay couples not to have to feel that trickle of sweat when they shopped for rings, checked into a hotel or called a wedding-cake maker.

Instead, the court’s ruling was largely based on the “impermissible anti-religious bias” of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which had ruled in the couple’s favor. One commissioner said, “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust,” which seven justices deemed hostile to religion. Call it a technical foul. Still, the decision wasn’t the big win organized religions had hoped for, but that they are loudly claiming nonetheless, nor was it the crushing defeat that many in the LGBTQ community had secretly feared.

But it gives me no comfort.


LGBTQ advocates such as James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and HIV Project, are openly upbeat. He relayed his perspective on a conference call Monday, soon after the decision was announced: “The bakery may have won the battle, but it lost the war.” By that he meant that Jack Phillips and his counsel, the Alliance Defending Freedom, did not get the broad constitutional right to discriminate that they had sought.

But it was hard to ignore the headlines, which proclaimed the “Christian baker” as the victor. The Washington Post’s front page read: “Justices side with baker who didn’t serve gay couple.” The New York Times wrote, “Justices Favor Baker in Case on Gay Rights.”

I chatted (online and off) with a number of friends and acquaintances to get their takes on the ruling. Cassandra Perry, the executive director of a social service agency in the Bronx, acknowledges that some Christians “are sincere in their beliefs” but wonders just how much latitude they will now have to refuse to serve certain people based on those beliefs. Christina Askounis, a retired professor and novelist, told me she’s “mystified” by the ruling. “How far and to whom does this kind of ‘right of refusal’ extend? Can a Christian Scientist home health care worker refuse to assist in giving someone their medication? Can a postal worker who is a devout Muslim refuse to deliver publications that have an anti-Muslim bias?”

Because of the narrow scope of this ruling, the answer to her questions is “no” — at least for now. Will the triumphant headlines for the Christian baker empower other business owners to say no to LGBTQ customers?

Keep reading this essay


Detective Marcus Kennedy, 58, is seen at the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department on April 12, 2018. (Moe Zoyari /For The Washington Post)

What it means to be black and blue while hunting murder suspects

Marcus Kennedy, 58, has worked 26 years as a homicide detective at the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

Kennedy, who is black, is one of six minorities on a team of 30 homicide detectives in a city where nearly 70 percent of those killed are black. He is a key figure in a new series, “Murder with Impunity,” the Post’s ongoing examination of homicide arrest rates in 50 of the nation’s largest cities. Despite a nationwide drop in violence to historic lows, 34 of the 50 cities have a lower homicide arrest rate now than a decade ago.

We asked Kennedy about how he sees himself as a law enforcement officer and how he is viewed by the communities he serves. And he also shared with us how other aspects of his identity affect how he does his job. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What’s it like being a black detective these days when police conduct has come under greater scrutiny?

A lot of the black community, they know me from TV and working cases and everything else. And they know I’m going to treat them fairly. So, they’ll talk to me. Like I said, it’s certain areas [in some white communities] where you know you kind of feel that they’re not really comfortable with you. But we usually have a white detective and you let him take the lead on the questioning.

Have you encountered racial hostility?

I did one [case] on the South Side and the guy had a Confederate flag flying on his porch … My first reaction was, “I ain’t getting anything here; I’m not getting a thing out of them.” And it kind of shocked me when he said, “Hey, I’m not going to talk to you here, but meet me around the corner and I’ll tell you everything.”


Kennedy looks at homicide maps. (Moe Zoyari/For The Washington Post)

What was one of your most memorable cases?

It was a victim by the name of Dominique Allen. She was a young high school kid that got killed. Found her burnt up in an alley. She was sitting outside of her sister’s house one night, and I believe he came up on her, knocked her out and threw her in the car.

I have nieces the same age, you know. This is a 16-year-old girl. And so what I saw in her I saw in my nieces, you know, her dreams and stuff like that. So, it was very emotional. It was personal.

The family pushed me on this one. When you’re are sitting in your office and you look outside and they’re marching around the building with a coffin, yeah.

How did the case end?

The main sister that I was dealing with, I just showed up at her job and just kind of told her, “Look, I’m not promising anything, when it’s going to happen, but we know who did it.” She was happy and she had to leave work. She was in tears. Like I said, they put a lot of effort into it.

And then a week after we got the conviction on him, then I got another 16-year-old girl that went to school with her.

— Kimbriell Kelly

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Kelly Marie Tran deleted her Instagram posts. Is it tied to harassment of Star Wars actresses? (The Post)

After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican women embrace their natural, curly hair (NPR)

Let’s be real: Asian and black artists aren’t “celebrating” each other through hip hop (Refinery29)

Will a Southern drawl close doors for my son? (NY Times)

Black, white Oakland churches to merge into one (San Francisco Chronicle)

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