September 28, 2008

Wash Post OpEd: Obama's Subtle Hurdle

Just 46 years ago, riots erupted at the prospect of an African American man enrolling at the University of Mississippi. The progress our country has made on race was brought into focus Friday night when Barack Obama, the first African American presidential nominee, arrived at Ole Miss, where James Meredith's matriculation sparked clashes in 1962. Unfortunately, instead of frank considerations of the racial issues that persist in America, the discussions that have accompanied Obama's candidacy have frequently unfolded in ways unlikely to foster progress on interracial dialogue.

 Undoubtedly, Obama's race is playing a role in this election. It has helped him generate enthusiasm among African American and white voters. Conversely, some people simply will not vote for him because he is black. Precise numbers will be known only within the voting booth, but social science research on racial attitudes in job candidate evaluations sheds some light on how race may be affecting our collective judgment.

Selecting a candidate to vote for, after all, is like making a hiring decision for the country's top job. Studies of " aversive racism" have shown that when reviewers compare identical résumés of black and white job applicants, white candidates are rated more highly than black candidates. Paradoxically, this discrepancy becomes more significant the more qualified the candidates are. While modestly qualified candidates of different races may be evaluated relatively equally, higher-qualified African American candidates are, on average, subjectively judged to be inferior to white candidates whose credentials are objectively identical. The discrepancy is exaggerated when the job to be filled is superior to the job held by the evaluator. Part of the reason is that while white candidates were considered "highly skilled," black candidates were considered "fortunate," the implication being that results based on skill are likely to be repeated, whereas those based on luck are not.
In the majority of these evaluations, individual racism or racial prejudice is not driving the evaluators -- each evaluator is earnestly attempting to select the best applicant. Yet, the research pioneered by Jack Dovidio and Sam Gaertner, among others, suggests that African American job candidates must be objectively more qualified than white applicants to be subjectively perceived as the best candidate. It seems reasonable, then, that the same type of earnest but biased evaluation could be affecting Obama's campaign.

Commentators have not shied from citing the influence of race on Obama's prospects. Recently, some have argued that only racism is to blame when trying to explain why the Democratic nominee had not pulled further ahead in national polls. Others have called cries of racism an excuse for Obama's inability to assuage voters' genuine questions about his readiness for the job. But ignoring or minimizing the effect of race -- pretending that criticisms of Obama's readiness or elitism or good fortune are entirely independent of the color of his skin -- is to minimize the lasting impact of our nation's history of race relations.

The effect that race has on Obama's campaign is far more subtle, and powerful, than the ballots of those who reveal their closeted bigotries only inside the voting booth. Millions of Americans have been breathing the smog of racial stereotyping their entire lives; their decisions, like those of the evaluators in the studies, are unsurprisingly affected.

In Oxford, we could see how much progress our country has made. Rather than continuing accusatory conversations on race that only serve to thicken the smog, let's move forward recognizing both how far we've come and how far we have yet to go toward perfecting our union.

See the Washington Post version here.

August 01, 2008

Exploded Dream: Desegregation in the Memphis City Schools

Abstract: This article is a comprehensive look at the story of school desegregation in the Memphis City Schools. Beginning with the Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended segregation in schooling, the article traces the steps taken in Memphis to put the Brown decision into practice. Following a period of inaction and delay, the Memphis City Schools experienced a relatively peaceful transition as token desegregation took place in the early part of the 1960s. However, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis in 1968, the community's polarization was globally exposed and further progress on school desegregation was limited. After federal courts ordered busing to implement the Brown mandate, a quarter of the district's white students departed for the nearby Shelby County Schools or for a growing, and uniquely successful, system of private schools. Since the busing order, the white population in the Memphis City Schools has steadily declined so that by the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, a district that had been 58% white and 42% black in 1954 was 86% black and 9% white in 2004. Using the Northcross v. Board of Education of the Memphis City Schools litigation as a guide, this article traces that history, putting Memphis in the context of the larger desegregation story.

This article appears in the journal Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, published at the University of Minnesota School of Law.  

The full article is available here.

June 20, 2008

Message to City School Students: Buzz Off

Dear Students of the Memphis City Schools:

I hope you have not been watching too much of the news these days. Your collective future is being used as a pawn in a shortsighted game of "pass the buck," with new developments by the day. I am writing this letter to you because you and your interests have been wholly absent from this conversation. It is imperative that we, the adults of Memphis, remember that what is happening right now is happening to you.

As the mayor and City Council and school board and state argue over who is responsible for your education, the fact remains: We are all responsible. We, the parents. We, the teachers. We, the principals and administrators. And we, the elected officials. We are all responsible because it is not just your future that is at stake, but ours as well. Unfortunately, many of us refuse to acknowledge this.

Take our City Council's decision earlier this month to cut funding to your schools. Now, we could have had an adult discussion about how best to address mismanagement and inefficiency in the district while also making absolutely certain that your education would not be affected. But we never had that discussion. Instead, the City Council made the unilateral decision to drastically reduce your funding.

The damage done by the City Council's action is not limited to the short-term budgetary mess that has been created or the lawsuit the school board filed this week in an attempt to rescind the budget cuts -- though both of those will be huge distractions from the district's primary mission of education. The most significant damage comes from the signal the action sends: The Memphis City Schools are not worth supporting. While the technical substance of the council's action may have been fiscal, there can be no mistaking the message that supporting the city schools is not a high priority.

That signal was sent to you, with likely consequences for your engagement in school. It was sent to your parents, who have entrusted your future to public education and now know precisely where public education sits on the city leadership's priority list. And it was sent to the larger community, upon whom you depend for support, and ultimately, funding.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time you have been pawns while the adults argue. In the 1970s, the City Council threatened to withhold funds to the district and actually sued the Board of Education for complying with a federal order to institute busing. In that instance, as here, the students' future was second to political gain as adults chose shortsighted confrontation over collaborative discussion about students' best interests. After all, it is the best interests of students such as you that ought to be foremost in our minds when deciding these issues.

The most significant lasting impact from that era in civic history was the erosion of public support for the Memphis City Schools, a district that educates the vast majority of the Mid-South's future work force. That erosion can be directly linked to the recent City Council cuts. There is apparently no more political consequence for condemning the city schools.

That does not mean that your future does not matter. Indeed, we all have a stake in your future whether we know you or not. If you are not prepared to work in a 21st century economy, then our community will be stuck economically, or will move backwards. All of the problems that plague us today -- crime, poverty, stagnant development -- become more intractable with every single dip in public support for the Memphis City Schools, whether individual (a Memphian who disparages the schools with glee) or institutional (a City Council that cuts funding because there is no legal obligation to support the schools financially).

Missing during the community confrontations over busing were honest and credible adults with the courage to push students' interests to the fore of the conversation, regardless of the political or social consequences. Those adults remain few and far between today.

To protect your future and ours, those of us who are discouraged when your education is deemed unworthy of our support (and dollars) should do our part. We must hold leaders who contribute to the erosion of public support for your schools accountable by filling their in-boxes and mailboxes with letters of dissatisfaction, and when necessary, using our power at ballot boxes. We must confront our friends who seem to take pride in disparaging the city schools with the fact that our future as a city rests on your shoulders. We must push those friends and ourselves to contribute to solutions rather than to the problem. If we are parents, we must push you to your potential and hold both you and your teachers accountable for taking education seriously.

There already was much to be done to provide you the tools you need to make our city maximize its capabilities. Now, there is the added burden of undoing the damage done over the last several months. But if we are to move forward as a community, we'd better be up to the task.

[NOTE: Originally published in Commercial Appeal, June 20, 2008. I had nothing to do with the title and might have chosen something a bit less sensational, like "Interests of Students Lost Amidst Funding Debate" - oh well!]

April 17, 2008

Book Review - Enrique's Journey

There are 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today, give or take a couple million. That’s 10 million stories of individual human beings fleeing their homes, often leaving families behind, for the chance of a better life, even a life lived in constant fear of deportation, in the United States.

The American immigration debate can be overwhelming, but the individuals most affected by immigration policy are largely invisible – undocumented immigrants are, by definition, absent from public forums. In the absence of tangible people that represent the complexities of immigration to the United States, many of us are left with a very impersonal sense of what is a very personal issue.

Enrique’s Journey makes the impersonal personal. Author and journalist Sonia Nazario, spurred by a surprising conversation with her nanny, set out to shed light on the individuals at the center of American immigration debates. What follows is a book that tells the story of immigration in 21st century America in a way that illuminates the motivations and struggles of immigrants and the impact their decisions to come to America have both on our country and on the countries and families they leave behind.

Enrique is a Honduran teenager whose mother left for the United States when he was 6, promising to return within a year or two after making enough money to build a moderately prosperous life in Honduras. After years of promises that his mother will soon return, Enrique tires of waiting and sets out on a dangerous journey through Mexico, often atop freight trains and never more than one wrong decision away from deportation or death.

The journey itself is certainly mythic, but Nazario is careful not to mythologize her characters. Enrique and his mother are both human (and by human, I mean imperfect) and are attempting to struggle through a life that has presented them with difficult circumstances. In Honduras, they are poor. Enrique’s parents are separated and the Honduran economy provides little opportunity for women older than 25. Faced with the likelihood of an impossible life, Enrique’s mother opts to flee to the land of opportunity. From the United States, she is able to send money to her family that helps provide an education for Enrique and his sister, clothes, and food that would be impossible to afford otherwise. But the land of opportunity has its limits. Her savings are never enough to return to Honduras. When Enrique decides to attempt to follow his mother to America, it is clear that she has given up on returning.

It is incredible the lengths people go to reach our country for even the small opportunities Enrique’s mother is afforded. That millions of people flee their homes, often leaving family behind, for those opportunities says a great deal both about the allure of the American dream and the desperation felt by the impoverished in their home countries. These are not easy decisions and the life of an undocumented immigrant is consumed with the ambiguities and consequences of such decisions – consequences that affect families and nations alike.

Would Enrique’s family have been better off had his mother remained in Honduras or is the economic benefit they receive worth a life without a mother? This is not just a question for Enrique’s family. Immigrants send $30 billion a year back home – a not insubstantial portion of home country’s economies. Yet, in Honduras, huge numbers of parentless children, like Enrique, have fueled rampant growth in juvenile delinquency and gangs. These are impossible choices.

And obviously, undocumented immigrants make an impact on the United States as well. There is certainly room for debate on immigration policy and I don’t intend to tackle that here. However, in considering the questions raised by the presence of large numbers of undocumented immigrants, Enrique’s Journey provides readers with one family’s story, warts and all, to make that debate more personal. Even if Nazario didn’t provide a fascinating narrative (which she does), that humanization of the invisible makes the book worthwhile.

April 01, 2008

Supreme Court Notebook - Snyder v. Louisiana

In 1879, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding the murder trial of a former slave. The jury for that trial was, predictably and by law, made up entirely of white men. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court was charged with interpreting the constitutional amendments adopted in the wake of the Civil War to determine whether American citizens, including emancipated slaves, had a right to a trial with a jury untainted by racial discrimination.

Justice William Strong answered with a rhetorical question: “How can it be maintained that compelling a colored man to submit to a trial for his life by a jury drawn from a panel from which the State has expressly excluded every man of his race, because of color alone, however well qualified in other respects, is not a denial to him of equal protection?”

On the grounds that the state had impermissibly excluded black citizens from serving on juries, the Court vacated the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case.

Fast forward nearly 130 years from that step forward for civil rights – a time period that has included many steps forward in American race relations. Last week, the Supreme Court offered up evidence that steps forward in American race relations are small and often followed by steps back. See if this sounds familiar.

In 2008, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding the murder trial of an AfricanAmerican. The jury for that trial – in Louisiana, a state that is more than 30% African American – did not include any African Americans, the prosecutor having eliminated through peremptory challenge all African Americans in the final jury pool. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court was charged with determining whether the prosecutor’s conduct showed impermissible discriminatory intent.

Obviously, the two cases are different – one is a challenge to a deliberately discriminatory state law, the other a challenge to an arguably discriminatory state prosecutor – but there were sufficient echoes in the contemporary case to give even today’s conservative Supreme Court pause.

Writing for a 7-2 majority, Justice Samuel Alito described the prosecutor’s allegedly non-racial reasons for dismissing one of the potential African American jurors as “suspicious.” The prosecutor’s non-racial explanation for the dismissal of that juror, a college student concerned about missing too much school, was that he looked nervous and might be eager to end the deliberations quickly by pushing for the defendant’s acquittal or conviction for a lesser crime so that he could back to school. To ease the prosecutor’s – and the juror’s – concern, the trial court contacted the juror’s dean who assured them that if the student were away only a week – as anticipated by the prosecutor himself – then jury service would not be a problem. The prosecutor was unconvinced and struck the juror.

What made this conduct “suspicious” to Justice Alito was that the prosecutor did not show similar concern for potential white jurors who likewise expressed the desire to avoid prolonged absence from employment or other responsibilities. The prosecutor’s “pretextual explanation naturally gives rise to an inference of discriminatory intent,” Alito wrote, concluding that the trial court committed a clear error in allowing the student to be dismissed.

Comparing these two cases, there are signs both of the significant progress that has been made on the race front and of the often subtle ways the race problem continues to manifest itself today. No longer are there state laws that exclude entire classes of citizens from the full benefits of citizenship, yet there remain juries without black members that convict black defendants. No longer must the Supreme Court deem obviously discriminatory conduct to be against the Constitution, yet the Court continues to confront cases of less blatant, though no less pernicious, discrimination.

In 2008, no less so than in 1879, courts and citizens alike continue the project of, as Justice Strong wrote in the 19th century, “securing to a race recently emancipated, a race that through many generations had been held in slavery, all the civil rights that the superior race enjoy.”

Don't take my word for it - read the cases yourself.....

Strauder v. West Virginia – 100 U.S. 303 (1879)

Snyder v. Louisiana – 552 U.S. ___ (2008)

March 20, 2008

UnevenKiel Classic - Cinderella Nation

Cinderella Nation

With the NCAA Tournament upon us once again, I turned to the UnevenKiel archives for this column. This was originally posted on March 21, 2006, and was published in USA Today. And if this isn't enough, click here for the 2007 NCAA tournament column.

February 20, 2008

Stumbling Into Democracy

A year ago, no one thought we would be here today – in a place where our democracy is being invigorated on a weekly basis by a still undecided presidential primary between two incredible, barrier-shattering candidates. For people of my generation, this is our first real glimpse of national democracy in America.

Beginning in 2000, it has been clear that only the votes of a handful of voters in a handful of states really matter in determining the president of all of the United States. In 2000 and 2004, we had a presumptive nominee for both parties after no more than five states had voted. The rest of the country would get to choose between those nominees at least.

Not exactly. In both 2000 and 2004, the election was not fought in California or Alabama or Massachusetts or Texas. It was fought in a handful of “battleground” or “swing” states. Ninety percent of the election was decided before the campaign even started.

Faced with these realities, it was perfectly reasonable for a citizen to become cynical about the value of voting and the likelihood that there voice could make any difference. In Texas in 2004, what was the point of a vote for John Kerry when all of that state’s electoral votes had already been tallied in permanent ink for George Bush?

Which brings us to the beauty of the primaries this year. Our democracy has been given a shot of Red Bull by a combination of three unexpected characteristics of the campaign that we ought to try to replicate in the future.

First, margins matter. The most intriguing thing about the Democratic delegate dash is that it does not just matter who wins a state, but by how much. The idea, solidified by the electoral college system, that a state that is decided 51% to 49% ought to apportion its influence (winner takes all) the same way that a state decided 80% to 20% is ridiculous and makes a mockery of the very concept of democracy.

Second, politics is local. The delegate rush has also forced the candidates to look not too closely at statewide numbers, but instead to focus on district-by-district results. Because there may be delegates to gain even in a state that is certain to be lost (and even more so because the number of delegates may depend upon margin of victory), candidates are wise to campaign everywhere. Sure, battleground states (or districts) will get more attention, but a system where a Republican candidate has no reason to campaign in California is surely a broken one. I witnessed this first hand in Memphis – although Barack Obama trailed significantly in statewide polls, he opened a Memphis campaign office, carried the county with 70% of the vote and picked up delegates.

Finally, democracy requires participation. The system we all know and loathe discourages participation. Because only votes in early primary and battleground states truly matter, what is the incentive for citizens to invest their votes and more importantly, their mental energy in a campaign? What is the point of even following politics or considering different positions on important issues when the direction of our leadership will be determined primarily by Iowans and Floridians? What the surprising length of the nominating contests has shown is that people will participate and will invest their minds in the political process when they perceive that their votes matter.

There is nothing more troubling to democracy than voter impotence because the (often correct) belief that a vote is meaningless encourages voter apathy and disengagement from governance. Our Constitution is clear that the government serves only at the pleasure of we, the people. Too often that seems to not be the case, but in the last eight weeks, we have gotten a glimpse of several characteristics that can improve our democratic process. Of course, all is not quite perfect – there remains the specter of superdelegates undoing all of the democratic enthusiasm generated by these primaries.

This year, we have stumbled upon a system of national democracy that is maintaining voter engagement across the country and for an extended period of time. As we look beyond November, the country would be well served by building upon this stumbled-upon blueprint to reimagine American democracy for the 21st century.

February 04, 2008

What Is Possible

Four years ago, I slumbered through election season. In one party was the incumbent president, with whom I disagreed about nearly everything. In the other party was a campaign among a group of flawed candidates, the winner of which was apparently going to be among the least inspiring (if well qualified) candidates I could imagine. Regardless of John Kerry’s platform and ideas, he had a profound mobilization problem. I desperately wanted a change in the White House, yet I felt no inspiration to donate or volunteer to the Kerry campaign.

This time around, I am feeling plenty of inspiration. I was inspired first by the choice among three candidates I could get excited about (including the candidate I had supported in the 2004 primaries, John Edwards). I was inspired by the prospects for barriers to be broken. I was inspired by a sense that a real opportunity for a change in our national direction had arrived. But most of all, I was inspired by Barack Obama.

By now, we all know the biography, which is remarkable on its own. But it is the vision in our country born by Obama’s biography that really quickens my pulse. Obama is a walking example of the opportunity our country affords its citizens – as he has said, “in no other country is my story even possible.” Perhaps because of the long odds he has already overcome, Obama is inspiring many others to rethink what is possible. It is this ability to re-imagine what our country is and can be that draws me to Sen. Obama and inspires me to begin re-imagining these things for myself. He seems to have awakened a brand new universe of what is possible.

Ultimately, our president has two important and often contradictory duties. The first is to craft an agenda that can be enacted by public policy. This involves negotiation with parties of divergent values and views and can involve fighting to ensure that your own values and views are not compromised into oblivion. To perform this duty, it is conventional wisdom that you need a fighter who can withstand intense criticism to carry the day, but Barack Obama seems to be imagining a different way of doing business. He is imagining negotiation that is not of attrition, but of coalition.

Obama’s first instinct when confronted with an obstacle is not to fight, but to convert. His experience as a community organizer, concerned with tangible progress rather than loyalty to principle, only sharpened that instinct. History does not look kindly upon those who intentionally stand in the way of progress (George Wallace comes to mind) and Obama’s way of building movements rather than fighting battles has the effect of transforming his fiercest critics into mere impediments in the way of a better community. What Obama has imagined is a kind of nonviolent politics that he hopes will transform the nation’s psyche in the same way that the nonviolence of Martin Luther King once did.

The second duty of our president is to connect with citizens and provide a vision for what our nation can be. Under the fighting model of politics, this duty conflicts with the first. In a world where a policy that attracts support of fifty percent plus one is a success, it is inevitable that large segments of the population will be alienated. It is not possible to inspire a nation when you are fighting with half of it.

Performing this duty is where Barack Obama excels. I have had the opportunity to hear him speak in person on one occasion when he came to Memphis on behalf of a candidate for the Senate in 2006. I expected to be disappointed because there was no way he could be as good as I imagined. The candidate he was appearing on behalf of was about as well-liked as a politician could be in Memphis and is a formidable speaker in his own right. Obama was in another league. In an effortless way, he fed and fed off of the electricity in the room to create a belief that anything really was possible. But rhetorical talent is not enough – the vision that Obama tells us is possible is one that is true to our deepest ideals. It is a vision that rises above difference, whether they be racial, geographic, ideological, or otherwise. It is a vision that appeals to the better angels of our nature. But most of all, it is a vision that refuses to limit what is possible.

Barack Obama imagines the type of country I want to live in even if that country does not yet exist. That is the kind of president I can be inspired by.

(Click here to see what I had to say about Barack Obama this time last year)

January 21, 2008

In the Words of Dr. King

Although commemorations can be wonderful, there is no better way in my mind to celebrate the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. than to look back at the words of Dr. King, himself. This year, on the 40th anniversary of the sanitation worker strike that led to Dr. King’s fatal visit to Memphis, I’ve selected passages from Dr. King’s final speech, delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the night before his death. The speech was entirely extemporaneous and came while a thunderstorm raged outside. Many people know of the prophetic conclusion to this speech, but the entire speech is valuable. Dr. King invokes the concept of “dangerous unselfishness,” in which people will put the plight of others above their own, taking action rather than being “compassionate by proxy.” Here are some of the portions of the speech I found important. I encourage all of you to spend a few minutes finding your own favorite Dr. King passages (a couple of sites with MLK speeches are here and here).

“Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same – ‘We want to be free...We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

On the choice each of us faces when we find injustice...
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…[Jesus] talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project “I” into the “thou” and to be concerned about his brother.
We use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings…and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting….But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road…It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing…And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question: “If I do not help this man, what will happen to him?”
That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?”
“If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.”

The prophetic conclusion...
"Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do Gd’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I my not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Previous MLK Day posts: 2006 and 2007.

January 09, 2008

Political Notebook - The Victim Olympics

I vividly remember a conversation with my father. I must have been on the cusp of adolescence, beginning to figure out how the world worked -- recognizing that my parents didn't know quite everything and that though my life had been charmed, it really may not be fair for everyone. I had figured out something in my head for the first time and I was about to speak it out loud so that my father could confirm its truth. I said something along the lines of, "I can never be the president, can I?"

"Why not?" my dad must have asked because no good father would allow his son's dreams to start being limited by reality even before reaching high school.

"Because were Jewish," I answered. For the first time in my life I began to understand that the things I had been taught to believe about my country and the world may not be as true as we all wished they were. I was deeply saddened, not because I had a particular interest in being president, but because I recognized for the first time that the American dream seemed to have limits, that sometimes reality got in the way of that dream.

Even as I've gotten older and have sadly grown accustomed to finding limits on the American dream, I retain a healthy sense of disappointment each time I realize that a particular person is being put at a disadvantage. And in our country's history, no traits have been more disadvantageous than being female, black, and/or poor. (my Judaism may have dashed any White House dreams, but it has hardly been a glass ceiling) As I watch the race for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, it is inspiring to me because each candidate is proving that even these most disadvantageous of traits can be overcome.

First, Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses and sent a shockwave of hope through the country. For a moment, Obama reminded us of the possibilities our country can offer. However, as good as Obama's victory made me feel, I was troubled by the rush coronation of him as our national savior (I'm talking to you Chris Matthews) as well as the sense that his victory as an African American was the only way Iowa could have signaled a new page turned in our history. It was as if they had forgotten that an African American had won presidential primaries before (Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988), but a woman had not.

Hillary Clinton is blazing a trail no less important than the one being forged by Barack Obama. I am thrilled as a civil rights advocate to see Obama with a real shot at winning the nomination, but I am also overjoyed as the father of a daughter to see Hillary breaking her own ground. The shame of this primary is that I am being forced to choose between them -- only one page can be turned in 2008. And I am being asked to evaluate whether an African American or a woman in the White House would better represent national progress.

On this question, Hillary Clinton is at a disadvantage, not because she is a woman, but because she is a Clinton. Were Hillary Clinton any other woman, she probably would not be able to mount a viable campaign, for it is her last name and not her resume of decades confronting the status quo that seems to legitimize her candidacy.

In an excellent op-ed in the New York Times, Gloria Steinam wrote that a female with Barack Obama's biography would have no grounds for even running for the Senate, much less the White House. As I see it, the opposite is also true -- a male with Hillary Clintons biography would be so qualified for the White House that he would have run years ago. Looking at it this way, it is hard to dispute Steinam's assertion that, at least when it comes to leadership, the female glass ceiling is lower.

This all boils down to what some call the Victim Olympics -- which group has had it worse? There is no answer to this question and the very fact that two groups that have been historically disenfranchised and extraordinarily underrepresented in American political leadership are competing in this way demonstrates how distant racial and gender equity remains.

With this in mind, I was encouraged to see Hillary triumph in New Hampshire and lengthen the race so that more voters will have the opportunity to make their choice between two ground-breaking, convention-shattering, (insert your own cliche here) candidates that may have once questioned whether they could be barred from serving as president, but are now refusing to accept an American dream with limits.