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June 30th, 2009
11:59 PM ET

Michael Jackson on race – his race

Carmen Van Kerckhove | BIO
Race and Diversity Consultant
President, New Demographic

I got a call yesterday morning from a radio show producer asking if I thought it hypocritical for African-Americans to celebrate Michael Jackson as a black man, since it seems to many people that he spent most of his life turning himself white.

She stopped short of calling Jackson a race traitor, but the implication was clear. And it did get me thinking about the strange role that race played - and didn't play - in Jackson’s life and career.

Race is never simple, especially when it comes to a complex artist like Michael Jackson.

Jackson often expressed in his music a hopefulness - “It don’t matter if you’re black or white” - about race relations that many found naïve. And yet had no qualms about using anti-Semitic lyrics in his song “They Don’t Care About Us” - "Jew me/Sue me/Everybody do me/Kick me/Kike me."

We will never know what drove Jackson to alter his appearance so drastically during his adult life. Jackson said that he suffered from vitiligo, a condition that eliminates pigment from skin leaving white blotches. His dermatologist and others close to Jackson, including Deepak Chopra, have also said he had vitiligo, even though many people have expressed doubt about it, fueling debate over whether Jackson was "trying to be white."

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April 2nd, 2009
05:41 PM ET

Madonna and adoption: what's race got to do with it?

Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic

Madonna’s present attempt to adopt a second child from the African nation of Malawi has reopened a discussion on the question of why so many Americans choose to adopt internationally instead of domestically.

Unfortunately, this conversation rarely gets beyond complaints about the red tape involved in domestic adoption on the one hand, and sweeping statements about how international adoptive parents are saving the lives of helpless children in impoverished countries on the other.

What’s missing from the discussion is a clear-eyed look at how race impacts the adoption and child welfare system in America.

Here’s one sobering fact: adopting a black child can cost half the amount of adopting a white child. And although every state has its own rules and regulations regarding adoption, many adoption agencies have separate programs that provide fee reductions for parents willing to adopt children with special needs or those of African descent.

Anyone who has taken a basic economics course can draw conclusions about what this price structure reveals regarding the relative supply and demand of black children versus white ones, as distasteful as it is to think about the lives of children in terms of market dynamics.

And it’s no secret that black children are over-represented in the child welfare system. For example, 21.4% of the children in foster care in the state of Minnesota in 2003 were African-American - even though African-American children made up only 5% of Minnesota’s overall population at that time.

Right-wing pundits enamored with the idea of “welfare queens” and “crack babies” may blame the over-representation on some flavor of inherent dysfunction among blacks, but the reality is that racial bias greatly influences the ways in which child welfare laws are interpreted and enforced.

Contrary to popular belief, most children who end up in the foster care system are put there due to neglect, not abuse by their parents, according to adoption expert Jae Ran Kim:

Neglect covers a wide berth of issues including a lack of or inadequate shelter, supervision, nutrition, and education. The standards for these differ from state to state. In Minnesota, for example, a child 12 or over is considered responsible enough to get themselves to school. A child who misses 25 days of school in a semester would be considered truant if the child is 12, but the parents would be charged with educational neglect if the child is 11.

Racial discrepancies in the ways cases are handled suggest that social workers are far more likely to place children of color in foster care than they are white children:

A 1997 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that social workers were more likely to place African American and American Indian children in foster care [rather than] in-home services when compared to white children with the same family issues. Once in foster care, African American children typically stay there twice the length of white children. Often this is a result of bias all the way from the social worker to the judge, says Jae Ran Kim.

We’ll never be able to carry on a rational, honest conversation about adoption - its challenges and solutions - until we take a hard look at how it is impacted by race.

March 17th, 2009
03:50 PM ET

How the recession is affecting racial diversity in the workplace

Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic

A good friend of mine is an associate at a white-shoe law firm that just went through a major round of layoffs.

Workplace diversity is very much on her mind now because during the job cuts at her firm, it became glaringly apparent that people of color were massively over-represented in the pink slips department. If there are additional personnel cuts, she now wonders if she - a woman of color herself - will be among the next to go.

The current recession is already dealing a severe blow to the scant progress that has been made regarding racial diversity in the workplace.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, blacks and Hispanics were twice as likely as whites to have reported being laid off or fired in the previous 12 months, about two-in-ten blacks (21%) and Hispanics (19%) versus one-in-ten (11%) among whites.

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February 25th, 2009
06:45 PM ET

“Slumdog”: A lesson for Hollywood?

Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic

“Slumdog Millionare” won eight Oscars on Sunday night, including Best Picture, in addition to the four Golden Globes it won earlier this year. Its commercial success and critical success contradicts the long-held conventional wisdom about what does and doesn’t sell at the box office.

So, will the success of this film - a story about an orphan growing up in the slums of Mumbai - translate in Hollywood to an era of increased diversity of characters on the big screen? If the past is prologue, it’s probably best not to hold our breath.

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February 20th, 2009
11:49 AM ET

If not a nation of cowards, then certainly a nation in denial

Attorney General Eric Holder helps celebrate Black History Month at an event Wednesday at the Justice Department.

Attorney General Eric Holder helps celebrate Black History Month at an event Wednesday at the Justice Department.

Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic

In a speech at the Department of Justice on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that when it comes to dealing with the issue of race, we are "essentially a nation of cowards."

While his choice of words was harsh, he was absolutely right in pointing out the fact that honest, authentic, and productive conversations about race rarely happen in this country.

Following his historic speech on race last spring, Barack Obama was castigated by some cable channel talking heads for "throwing his white grandmother under the bus" because he had the audacity to point out that his own flesh and blood - the grandmother who had helped to rear him and loved him like a son –- had herself been guilty of internalizing and reflecting racist stereotypes.

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