Three unexpected Yankees have real shots to be All-Stars

There are rarely a shortage of pinstripes in the All-Star Game. There were four Yankees last year and five the season before that. They have had fewer than three representatives just once since 1994. That won’t change this year, and that’s no surprise. It’s the players who may be in Cleveland representing the AL East...
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Val Demings’s tenure as Orlando’s police chief complicates her consideration for VP
Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) questions witnesses at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on police brutality and racial profiling on June 10, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Greg Nash/Getty Images Activists raise concerns about Demings’s police past: “Why would you put a cop on the ticket?” Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), one of several lawmakers being considered as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s vice president, is facing increasing scrutiny of a specific part of her record: Prior to joining Congress, Demings served as Orlando’s chief of police — heading up a department that’s been called out for its excessive use of force. Demings’s background in law enforcement, which includes more than three years as chief and 27 on the force in total, has received new attention as protests against police violence and systemic racism continue across the country. While some see Demings’s experience as an asset that enables her to connect with more moderate voters, activists argue that her presence on the ticket would send a concerning message about Democrats’ position on policing — particularly as the party grapples with defining its own approach to reforms. “We really need to read the room on this one,” says Vanessa Keverenge, an organizer in Orange County, Florida. “Symbolically, it’s a slap in the face to the thousands of protesters who are protesting in the state.” Critics say Demings was part of a broader culture of violence in policing that’s present in Orlando and beyond. According to an investigation of use of force incidents by the Orlando Sentinel that was published in 2015, the Orlando Police Department in 2010 engaged in 20 percent more use of force incidents than Baton Rouge, a city of comparable size and population. Demings was the city’s police chief from 2007 to 2011. “At the times that Val has had power to do things and transform the system, she’s failed to,” says Stephanie Porta, an executive director of Organize Florida who had previously backed Demings during a run she made for Orange County Mayor in 2014. Demings, meanwhile, has said that she focused on reforming policing from within and can now use her experience to legislate authoritatively on policy changes. “I served as a social worker, I served as a career law-enforcement officer, and I serve now as a member of Congress,” Demings told the Wall Street Journal. “I would not change any of those positions or desires, because in each one I had an opportunity to improve the quality of life for persons who were forgotten and left behind, and I would do it all over again.” This past May, Demings also published an op-ed in the Washington Post in the wake of protests of George Floyd’s death, which many cities’ law enforcement officers have responded to with violence. “As a former woman in blue, let me begin with my brothers and sisters in blue: What in the hell are you doing?” she wrote. Demings’s spokesperson declined to provide additional comment regarding her record. For some Democrats, it’s this record that complicates her possible nomination for the party’s vice presidential ticket. Demings’s background and policing experience, briefly explained Demings, 63, currently represents Florida’s 10th, a Central Florida district that includes Orlando. She was first elected to Congress in 2016 when she defeated Republican entrepreneur Thuy Lowe. Earlier this year, Demings was one of seven impeachment managers who represented House Democrats’ case against President Donald Trump at the Senate impeachment trial, a role that helped raise her national profile. She currently sits on the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees and has been a strong supporter of gun control laws, including a ban on assault weapons, during her time in Congress. Prior to her congressional run, Demings served in the Orlando police force for nearly three decades and was the first Black woman to become its chief. She is originally from Jacksonville, Florida, and was the first person in her family to graduate from college. After graduating from Florida State University in 1979, she worked as a social worker for two years before joining the police force. Her husband, Jerry Demings, has also previously served as Orlando police chief and is now the Mayor of Orange County, Florida. “I quickly realized that we cannot arrest our way out of some of the challenges in our communities, that we had a direct obligation as law enforcement to address some of the social ills that cause decay in communities in the first place,” Demings has said while describing her approach to policing, in a June interview with ABC’s This Week. During her time as chief, Demings oversaw a marked decrease in violent crime in Orlando: According to a 2015 National Journal article by Jack Fitzpatrick, violent crime in the city dipped 43.6 percent between 2007 to 2011. Porta credits her with a project that notably reduced violent crime at the Palms Apartments housing complex in Orlando. The program included establishing a community park, setting up after-school programs for children in the complex, and helping adult residents enroll in GED and job training programs. Throughout Demings’s tenure, however, Orlando police also dealt with multiple use of force incidents and settlements, including one in September 2010 involving an 84-year-old man whose neck was broken by a police officer during a confrontation. In another incident, this one in February 2011, a police officer shoved a woman into the sidewalk and broke her teeth while he was responding to an alleged disturbance. And in another, a man sued police officers after allegedly being attacked by a police dog when he ran from police following a traffic stop in December 2008. Use of force by the OPD has also been skewed by race, according to data that covers part of Demings’s tenure. The 2015 Sentinel report determined that, between 2010 to 2014, force was more likely to be used by police on Black individuals: “OPD officers used force more frequently on black suspects: 55 percent in a city where 28 percent of the population is black.” And a 2008 investigation by Jeffrey Billman at the Orlando Weekly, which examined the systems that hold police accountable, concluded that OPD “is a place where rogue cops operate with impunity, and there’s nothing anybody who finds himself at the wrong end of their short fuse can do about it.” Following the publication of the Orlando Weekly article, Demings noted that “looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer at church,” a response that critics see as dismissively underscoring how pervasive problems in policing are. A report from the Atlantic has highlighted the unique challenges that Black police leaders have faced while grappling with police brutality and racism on their own forces — and the limitations they’ve run up against while trying to implement reforms. The entrenched protections offered by police unions can make it tough to address police misconduct, for example, and Black leaders face different scrutiny, expectations, and racism compared to their white counterparts. Demings emphasizes that she engaged in reforms while she was chief, including improvements to the officer training program. “I instituted what we called an early warning system, which gave us a better way of tracking officers who were possibly exhibiting behavior that caused us concern,” she told NPR. “We would pull them out of assignments, send them to counseling if they needed it, reassign them, give them additional training.” Demings has also backed House Democrats’ police reform bill, which would establish a national registry for police misconduct and impose a federal ban on chokeholds. Broadly, though, activists say Demings didn’t do enough to alter the culture of Orlando policing while she was in charge. “She exists as part of this tradition of policing in Orlando that has been harmful to Black people and poor people,” Jonathan Alingu, a co-director of Central Florida Jobs With Justice, told Vox. After leaving her position as OPD chief in 2011, Demings pursued a House run in the 10th District in 2012 and an Orange County mayoral run in 2014. She ultimately lost the first House race to Republican Daniel Webster and withdrew from the mayoral run. After getting elected to the House in 2016 following a redistricting change that made the 10th more Democratic, she’s continued to have strong support in her district, running unopposed in 2018. As a lawmaker, her legislative agenda has been influenced by her professional history, sometimes in a manner that’s caused activists to raise concerns mirroring those they have about her police record. One example is activists questioning her decision to back what they’ve called a “Blue Lives Matter” bill, 2018 legislation on which she was the sole Democratic sponsor. That bill, called The Protect and Serve Act, would charge individuals that have knowingly inflicted bodily harm on a police officer with a federal crime, punishable by a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. The legislation ultimately proved to be a way for many Democrats to demonstrate their support for police. In the end, as the American Prospect points out, more than 160 Democrats voted in favor of it once it was on the floor — a move that demonstrates how the party has only more recently advanced in favor of sweeping reform. The presidential election is taking place as Democrats face pressure on policing Systemic racism and police bias are poised to be major issues in the presidential election — and against this backdrop, Demings’s experience could pose a notable challenge during the general election, particularly as the Democratic party looks to unite its more progressive and establishment wings. Activists emphasize that her nomination would suggest that the party isn’t taking the energy in these protests seriously. “[Protesters are] marching against cops — why would you put a cop on the ticket?” asked Porta. There are questions, too, about whether Demings’s nomination would further compound critiques that Biden himself has faced on his own criminal justice record. As part of his presidential platform, Biden has backed reforms including establishing a national use of force standard and expanding the presence of body cameras, though he’s shied away from calls to defund the police and shift more money toward other social service programs. He’s received extensive pushback as well for his role in writing the 1994 crime bill, which included provisions that gave states funding to build more prisons. There are political experts, however, who believe that Demings’s experience could be appealing to some voters who value her expertise in policing. “I see her background and record in law enforcement as both an advantage and a disadvantage,” says University of Florida political science professor Sharon Austin. “Her law enforcement background can benefit the Biden campaign if she’s chosen because of her knowledge of policing practices and the types of reforms that are needed.” And Rep. Lois Frankel, another member of Florida’s congressional delegation, has argued that Demings’ combination of experience in Congress and the police force make her an ideal choice for the vice presidency. “She was a sheriff in a big municipality for years so she knows the domestic issues very well, and as a member of Homeland Security and Intelligence committees, she’s got her foreign-policy chops,” Frankel told The Hill. Demings also hails from Florida, a swing state that will be important again this cycle: In 2016, former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton lost to Trump by just over 1 percentage point there. Some, including Florida attorney and Biden fundraiser John Morgan, have suggested that having the lawmaker as a running mate could help Biden’s chances in the state. “Val gets the vice president 1 to 2 extra points in Florida. That will be the difference,” Morgan told Vox. According to Florida State University political science professor Brad Gomez, however, she’s not well-known statewide, so it’s unclear just how much of a boost her presence on the ticket would provide. The vice presidential pick will send a message As Vox’s Ella Nilsen has written, presidential nominees rely on vice presidential picks less to deliver their home states or be surrogates than to make a statement about their priorities and judgment, and to send “an early signal about what a future administration might look like.” And this is why many activists worry about Demings being chosen. Throughout the presidential nomination process — and increasingly amid the protests of police brutality and systemic racism — there’s been a push for Biden to select a Black woman as his running mate, a decision that could increase the diversity in perspectives that’s on the ticket. Some lawmakers who have been floated for the role, including Demings and Sen. Kamala Harris, however, have garnered progressive pushback for their work in law enforcement and prosecution. And this pressure has some activists worried. They fear the selection of someone like Demings or Harris would signal Biden is not overly interested in pursuing progressive reforms. Were Demings chosen without a more concerted effort to engage with the Orlando community about the detrimental effects of policing, Alingu says he’d be disappointed. “I see it as a message that it’s about representation at the end of the day and not really about policy change,” he noted. “If that happens and there’s no level of outreach, true reconciliation, I see it as about representation.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Protesters against the name of NFL football team the Washington Redskins march before a 2014 game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. On July 3, 2020, the team announced it would review its name “in light of recent events around our country.” | Adam Bettcher/Getty Images As the longtime brands are joined by Lady Antebellum, Washington and Lee University, and others in confronting the racist roots of their monikers, it’s fair to ask: Will changing their names make a difference? As tens of millions of people worldwide have taken to the streets over the past six weeks to pronounce that Black lives matter, corporate America has been nudged into action. But instead of marching alongside protesters, it’s eyeing its own shelves. Quaker Oats spoke up first, announcing in June that Aunt Jemima, the name and face of the brand’s syrup and pancake mix for more than 130 years, would be no more. The company said in a statement that “while work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.” In quick succession, Grammy-winning country music group Lady Antebellum shed the “Antebellum” — and its glamorization of the pre-Civil War South — to become Lady A. The Dixie Chicks did the same two weeks later when it dropped “Dixie.” Plantation Rum apologized for using the word “plantation” in its name and branding. Unilever agreed to stop equating light skin with beauty by removing the “fair” from South Asian skin-lightening cream Fair and Lovely. And on Monday, the trustees of Virginia’s Washington and Lee University (WLU) announced they would rename the 271-year-old institution to exclude its homage to Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Perhaps most surprising of all is that, after years of efforts by Indigenous activists, the Washington Redskins football team said June 3 that it would review the team’s name for a possible rebranding “in light of recent events around our country.” This spring’s spate of brutal police killings of unarmed people of color — Black people in particular — has renewed activists’ calls to address, and erase, all kinds of public depictions of racism. Companies, sports teams, universities, and even musical acts have been forced to reckon with the images and messages they put forth, in some cases for generations. Demands for these changes aren’t new, but companies’ acquiescence to them are. So, when a well-known brand changes its name to shirk racist or offensive historical connotations in the wake of social unrest, is it done in earnest? And what does it really accomplish? Historians and scholars differ on how sincere and effectual these name changes can be.A simple rebrandingisn’t the systemic change that America really needs, experts say, but it is a remarkable step toward the larger mission of taking to task and dismantling everyday racism. What’s also clear is that consumers are in a unique position right now to weaponize social media to get results. Online, anyone can protest societal ills and direct those complaints directly at their sources, while finding a chorus of voices that agree. “In a process where you see a lot of movement centered around the kind of changes people want to see, one of the most visible ways you can demand change is by literally turning brands to say things you think are important,” said Sonia Katyal, a legal scholar and the distinguished chair of the Haas Institute’s LGBTQ Citizenship research cluster who has written extensively on racism in branding. “So when Quaker Oats says they’re going to retire their image of Aunt Jemima ... that’s a really dramatic statement, not just of the desire to insulate the company from criticism but also of recognition that we are in a new era of racial branding.” Consumers, particularly consumers of color, have argued for decades that symbols such as Aunt Jemima and the Washington Redskins continue to perpetuate age-old racial stereotypes about Black and Indigenous people. But these criticisms have largely been ignored or inadequately addressed. Aunt Jemima received incremental redesigns without fully being distanced from the stereotype’s post-Reconstruction past, for example, while various owners of the Redskins have defended the team’s name as a crucial part of its legacy. Aunt Jemima is perhaps the oldest and most enduring example of a brand built on a Black stereotype, “an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia and romance grounded in an idea about the ‘mammy,’ a devoted and submissive servant who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own,” Riché Richardson, an associate professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center, wrote in a 2015 New York Times op-ed calling for the brand’s retirement. That explicitly mammy-inspired branding has rankled Black consumers practically since the brand hit the market in 1889. In the early 20th century, they pushed back against Aunt Jemima’s design. In Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, author Marilyn Kern-Foxworth cited a 1932 study in which Black men and women were asked their opinion of Aunt Jemima’s advertising. Most takes were negative: “I am prejudiced intensely against any picture of [a] former slave mammy,” one man responded. “I made my opinion about slave advertisements a long time ago, and the picture of Aunt Jemima would make me pass it by,” a female participant said. Brand owner Quaker Oats addressed some concerns about Aunt Jemima’s image in the late 1980s when it gave her more of a modern housewife look, sans do-rag. The name, however, has remained a pain point. “The image had been evolving, but not the title,” said Theodore Carter DeLaney, professor of history emeritus at WLU and co-founder of the school’s Africana Studies program. The name, he said, maintains the idea that “she would be referred to as an aunt even by white families because she had somehow been more than a cook, but a nanny.” Although Aunt Jemima’s updated, uncovered hair revealed a stylish perm, DeLaney added, her modernized look made her outdated name stand out that much more. Recognizing that America’s threshold for Black representation has changed dramatically, Quaker Oats announced in June that it would scrap the Aunt Jemima branding entirely. Matt Jelonek/WireImage Natalie Maines of the band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks performs in Perth, Australia, in 2017. The band quietly dropped the “Dixie” from its name in late June. Other groups publicly disavowed their names soon thereafter: Country act Lady Antebellum became Lady A, with the members writing on Instagram that they were “regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word [Antebellum] referring to the period of history before The Civil War, which includes slavery.” (Just as regrettable and embarrassing, though, is that the group has since filed a copyright claim against a Black artist who has performed as Lady A for more than 20 years.) Two weeks later, the Dixie Chicks dropped “Dixie,” a reference to the land south of the Mason-Dixon line — or the heart of the Confederacy during the Civil War. “We wanted to meet the moment,” the Chicks said of its new name. Fair and Lovely, a hugely successful skin-lightening product marketed in South Asia, is now called Glow and Lovely. And petitions to change the names of southern towns named after plantations have gathered traction online. Other plainly racist branding, like that of the Washington Redskins, remains steadfast. The Washington, DC-based football team has been known by the slur — a term that gained prominence among white people in the 19th century and is even recognized in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “usually offensive” — since 1933. Although some Indigenous folks have said they’re unbothered by the name, the term “redskin” was conceived as, and has always been, a pejorative. “By the turn of the 20th century [redskins] had evolved to become a term meant to disparage and denote inferiority and savagery in American culture,” the National Congress of American Indians explained in a 2013 report on the deleterious effects of Indigenous stereotypes in sports. Since the 1960s, activists have protested offensive team names and logos, including the Redskins and the Cleveland Indians baseball team. In 1972, the Washington Post reported, advocates from the Indian Legal Information Development Service and elsewhere met with Edward Bennett Williams, part owner of the Redskins at the time, to ask that the teams drop the name, replace it with one that was epithet-free, and encourage other NFL teams to do the same. What they instead walked away with was a rewrite of the team cheer, “Hail to the Redskins,” and a promise that the cheerleaders would no longer wear “Indian-style” wigs — effectively brownface. Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images Radio broadcaster Jay Winter Nightwolf (second from right) and a coalition of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans gathered in Maryland to protest the Redskins’ name in 2013. The battle over the name has dragged on since the 1970s. Twenty years later, the first of several lawsuits filed against the Redskins by Indigenous people sought to remove the team’s trademark, citing it as disparaging, but the Redskins inevitably managed to maintain rights to the name. Another lawsuit, decided in 2014, pitted a younger group of Indigenous activists against the Redskins organization. When, amid the trial, USA Today asked majority owner Dan Snyder whether he would consider renaming the Redskins, his response was plain: The Redskins, he said, “will never change the name of the team.” “We’ll never change the name,” Snyder reiterated when prodded. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” Katyal cites Snyder as the roadblock that is preventing the Redskins from achieving any level of Aunt Jemima-like evolution. “I cannot think of another team that has been so steadfast in its refusal to change,” she said. “Most other teams at least try to rebrand or seek a partnership with a Native American tribe. That’s not always a perfect solution either, but most brands are much more responsive.” In 2017, Snyder and the team prevailed in the legal battle to maintain the Redskins’ trademark after the Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that banning “disparaging” trademarks violated the First Amendment. But now, nearly 90 years after the Redskins first adopted the moniker, the team appears to finally be considering what kind of message it is sending by blatantly using a slur in its name. It seems like a very belated hallelujah, just like Aunt Jemima’s — but one perhaps possible only right now, during the new momentum gained by the Black Lives Matter movement. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, the Redskins, Lady Antebellum, the Dixie Chicks, and so on — their names are reminders of the worst aspects of US history. So why did it take until 2020 for owners and artists to take action? Recent protests have advocated for racial equity of every kind, including in the marketing of consumer products, Katyal said. Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images Demonstrators march during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 13, 2020, in Boston. The recent nationwide protests, attended by millions, have resulted in a broad reckoning for purveyors of an array of racist and stereotypical names and symbols. “One of the big tenets of the Black Lives Matter protests, which has not happened before on such a wide scale, is that the symbols of enslavement and colonization are being literally pulled off of their pedestals,” Katyal, referencing statues of Confederate soldiers that activists have beheaded or knocked down across the country, told me. “So what you have is this mood where anything ... that might be construed as a symbolic form of respect for discrimination or oppression has basically literally been lifted by these crowds and disposed of.” Symbols of the Confederacy are an obvious place to start when dismantling paeans to a more oppressive era. The state of Mississippi in June said it would redesign its flag, which currently features the Confederate battle flag. Around the same time, Nascar banned racers from using any Confederate symbols in another win against American racism. But brands can serve as symbols glorifying a racist history, too, if less obviously. The police killing of George Floyd in May helped Americans see the racial biases inherent everywhere, said Shirley Staples Carter, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of South Carolina. “People are beginning to see these [brand names as] stereotypes, these emblems of slavery and black oppression that’s been part of the cause of systemic racism that would lead to police brutality, treating people like they’re not human,” Carter told Vox. “George Floyd’s death did that for many people — it resonated.” DeLaney suggested that the movement’s ability to capture such a wide set of eyes, however, is thanks to another big phenomenon in 2020. “What is different about this conversation [about race] is, I think, not so much Black Lives Matter, but it’s largely a result of what’s been going on in the US in the last few weeks ... the pandemic,” said DeLaney. “One of the things that has happened is that people have been sheltered at home to a large extent. ... As a result, you are seeing things that you might not have seen, had you not been hunkered down at home.” In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter have given the owners of stereotypical brand names less cover to hide behind. In response, brands, bands, sports teams, and more appear to be instituting long-sought changes to their products as damage control — namely, out of fear of the economic effects a consumer revolt could have if they’re canceled before they’ve had a chance to address the wrongs. The Redskins make a compelling case for this interpretation: Snyder’s decision to even consider changing the name came after FedEx, Nike, and PepsiCo threatened to pull their sponsorships, with each asking the franchise to rename itself, and minority owners reportedly looking to sell their stakes. But it feels disheartening and cynical to call the actions of such companies wholly preemptive or fearful, Carter said. He echoed Katyal’s contention that brands are going through the same sort of racial awakening as consumers. “I think it’s more than just reactive,” he said. “I think it’s the beginning of some real changes.” The real changes that Black Lives Matter and its supporters seek, however, are social, economic, and political — wide-ranging systemic shake-ups to permanently rework the system that allowed such names to be marketable in the first place. “We can begin with retitling Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben and renaming buildings and removing Confederate statues, all these emblems of slavery and oppression, but we also need to deal with the larger and more difficult issue,” said Carter. “The systemic racism that needs to change in our society.” But branding, like all media, wields an important power in culture. Media is where many people see their identity reflected back at them. Regardless of whether they like football or pancakes or country music, people can be deeply affected by the messages those products implicitly or explicitly send. “Someone asked me, ‘do you really think it’s racist?’” Carter said of Aunt Jemima, which was inspired by a tune called “Old Aunt Jemima,” composed by Black comedian and performer Billy Kersands and later popularized as a minstrel song. “And it has to do with its origin, of course. It has that very racist origin, and the fact that it’s so stereotypical of how people perceive the role of Black women in society, I think [the name change] is important, and it will be impactful.” It can be traumatizing for people of color to encounter brands that perpetuate prejudices against them, Katyal said. Indeed, studies have shown that experiencing racism and discrimination can negatively affect one’s mental health. But acknowledging and then removing these racist images can be empowering and inspiring, no matter how minor that image may seem to the wider public. “The sheer emotion that happens for people who are people of color when they see these symbols being taken down is a recognition that these individuals are being seen,” Katyal said. “I totally get why one would be cynical about that, but I also think that it’s so important for young people to have that feeling that seeing our movement made these changes happen.” Katyal has a much simpler retort to the naysayers who find these changes insubstantial or irrelevant. “It’s so much easier to retire an image or change a brand than it is to dismantle the very structures of economic and political injustice,” she said. But it’s definitely a start. Allegra Frank is an associate culture editor at Vox. She covers music, the internet, and video games. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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The Woman Who Made the Best Action Movie of 2020
Gina Prince-Bythewood has never been afraid of tackling new genres. The writer and director has made three excellent films set in very different spheres: the coming-of-age masterpiece Love & Basketball, the 1960s-set drama The Secret Life of Bees, and the glittery superstar romance Beyond the Lights. But for years she’s craved the scope of a blockbuster action film, the type that studios and audiences gravitate toward in this franchise-stuffed era. She was attached to a Sony/Marvel project called Silver & Black that took place in the Spider-Man universe, but after that fell apart, she moved on to another comic-book property, a grittier series created by Greg Rucka called The Old Guard.The resulting film, which hits Netflix tomorrow, is the best action movie of the year so far—a crisply made, globe-trotting adventure about a group of immortals who recruit a new member to their team while doing battle with someone trying to steal their powers. The Old Guard focuses on Andy (played by Charlize Theron), a 6,000-year-old warrior, but it’s an ensemble piece that digs into the strange family dynamics of a team that’s been fighting together for centuries. The new recruit, Nile (KiKi Layne), is a U.S. marine who’s wounded in battle and discovers that she has fantastical healing abilities—in addition to being functionally unkillable (though there are a few exceptions to that rule).Prince-Bythewood is known for her exceptional attention to detail, but her prior films were smaller-scale and focused on just a few characters in great depth. The Old Guard loses nothing by painting on a wider canvas. The director’s deep affection for every member of the ensemble helps the film stand out, as does the impressively intense and gory action, which delights in the magical healing powers of the group. I spoke with Prince-Bythewood about seeking out action projects, the dearth of female and Black filmmakers in the blockbuster space, and doing post-production at home. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.David Sims: How’s it going?Gina Prince-Bythewood: Oh, you know, the combination of a global pandemic and a national reckoning takes an emotional toll! But I think important things are finally happening, both in the country and in Hollywood. I know a lot of artists are struggling with what to do in this moment. I had the benefit of having to finish this film, so that gave me something to focus on, creatively.Sims: Have you been doing a lot of the post-production remotely?Prince-Bythewood: We were ready to lock the film when [COVID-19] hit. We ended up having everyone put their equipment in their homes literally on a Monday, and by the end of the week we were in full shutdown. So it was figuring out looping, color-timing, and mixing; all of that is such an intimate process! Our score was going to have to be electronic, which was horrifying to me. But then [the composers] Dustin [O’Halloran] and Hauschka created a beautiful score—it just so happened [that team was] was in Iceland, [one of the only countries] in the world that had an orchestra that was allowed to play. So we were up at three in the morning to listen to it live.Sims: Usually you write your films, but this is the first you aren’t a credited screenwriter on. Did you come to Greg Rucka’s comic book first, or the script?Prince-Bythewood: I love action films. And I love the direction they’ve taken in the last few years—Black Panther, Logan, where they were more action-dramas, with all the elements you love in an action film, yet I cried at the end of both. They said something to the world, and I loved that we could do that with the genre. I thought [my next movie would be] Silver & Black with Marvel and Sony, but that didn’t work out. And as that wasn’t working out, I got sent this script by [the production company] Skydance.I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make [action movies], given the way that Hollywood is. But all praise to Patty Jenkins, who killed Wonder Woman and opened the door a crack for some of us to squeak through. Skydance was intentional on wanting to find a female director. They loved Beyond the Lights and Love & Basketball. They wanted the feel of those, what I do with characters, so that The Old Guard could feel like an action-drama.Sims: Did you read the book then?Prince-Bythewood: I hadn’t been familiar with the graphic novel, so I was reading it completely fresh. I was moved by the characters’ search for purpose. And then it was two women at the head of it, one of them a young Black female hero, something that has been desperately needed.Sims: Does it really feel like there’s been a sea change post–Wonder Woman? Some kind of atmospheric shift, producers realizing there’s an audience for more than just the same story?Prince-Bythewood: It’s funny, I use the word sea change often and then I catch myself, because the bar was at zero. But I was so excited about this year because there were five other female-directed blockbusters. Obviously Patty [with Wonder Woman 1984], there’s Cate Shortland doing Black Widow, Mulan with Niki Caro, The Eternals with Chloé Zhao, and Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. So in one year, all of us were getting this opportunity. And that is a sea change—that has never happened in the history of Hollywood. Now we have to wait on a number of those movies, but I hope we can destroy this narrative that women don’t love action, because we do. And also that women don’t want to shoot action, because some of us do.Sims: The narrative was that female filmmakers don’t want to make these kinds of movies.Prince-Bythewood: I think it’s absolutely time for new blood and new perspectives to disrupt the genre. Because there are so many of [these movies], and there’s been a bit of a sameness.Sims: In terms of that sameness, coming to The Old Guard, what do you want to do to put your stamp on it?Prince-Bythewood: There were a couple of things I wanted to bring to the script; I wanted to expand Nile [the character played by Layne], give her more agency in terms of the plot, give her more heroic moments and a backstory so she felt as full as the other characters, and Greg was all on board with that.The other big thing I wanted to add came from a great book I read in my research for this, called On Killing. It’s a definitive book for soldiers that talks about how the act of taking a life is as emotionally and psychologically damaging as your fear of losing your life on the battlefield. It felt like we hadn’t seen that in an action film before, and it was so perfect for these characters, especially Andy [played by Theron], who has to take a life to save many. What would that toll be after 6,000 years? It is a violent film, and I’m unapologetic about that, but I never wanted it to feel like a celebration.Sims: The characters are immortal, so they’re mostly invincible, but the violence is still painful, and you feel the toll it’s taking on them.Prince-Bythewood: When I read the script, I knew immediately that I wanted the film to feel grounded and real despite the fantastical elements. That’s the most important thing for a film, regardless of size or budget: You’ve got to connect with the characters.Sims: Was Charlize Theron already on board when you came to the project?Prince-Bythewood: No. Skydance had developed it with Greg for about a year, then I came on and continued to develop. Thinking of who could embody Andy, Charlize is such a good actress, but also she’s done it before. Knowing what I wanted to do with the action, to see the actors doing it rather than their stunt doubles, she’s proven that she can do it.Sims: She has that action-movie gravitas from films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde. That kind of informs this character, who’s supposed to have so much experience.Kiki Layne (left) and Charlize Theron (right) doing their own stunts in a fight scene from The Old Guard. (Aimee Spinks / Netflix)Prince-Bythewood: Doing action is really hard! I love watching the training videos that every actor puts out, and they’re always cool and set to music and they look sexy, but the reality is, it is months of hard training. KiKi had never done a film like this before, and when I cast her, I trusted her because she had this desire to do it and be great. She did two-a-day training sessions, five days a week, for a couple months. I told her, “This training process is your rehearsal,” because she’s building the character, a marine, she’s getting that swagger, that posture. When you walk down the street and know you can kick someone’s ass, can protect yourself, that changes your gait, the way you stand. It’s a great tool.Sims: Did everyone do that kind of training? Because the action feels very authentic.Prince-Bythewood: Every actor I talked to, I made it clear: You are going to be doing your action. They were all in. KiKi and Charlize trained in L.A. before we got to the U.K.; the guys, who were in all different countries, came about two months prior to shooting and trained together. That was a great bonding experience. It was fun for them, and competitive, because nobody wanted to be the weak link.Sims: Are there action films you’re looking at where you’re thinking, This is how I want my action to look? Or is it more, This is how I don’t want my action to look.Prince-Bythewood: [Laughs] I knew I wanted each action sequence to feel different. I’m not going to name names, but there were a couple things where I was like, “I do not want it to be this. I hate the way the action is in this.” On the flip side, our templates were The Raid, Logan, Zero Dark Thirty, Man on Fire. I watched at least 20 Asian action films—there are so many great directors working in that genre. And the last thing was the bathroom fight in the last Mission: Impossible. That fight is perfect. I remember telling [the action choreographer Danny Hernandez] that I wanted that for the plane fight. I wanted that feeling. And he was like, “You know, they had about three weeks to shoot that and we have three days.” And I said, “I don’t care, let’s just go for it.”Sims: In Mission: Impossible—Fallout, both Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill feel indestructible, which is the same sort of vibe here.Prince-Bythewood: But I loved that in The Old Guard—that the characters could be hurt. That they’re immortal mostly. That allows you some jeopardy in the fights. In talking with Danny, it was, “How can we make it believable that the Old Guard can defeat 16 people with automatic weaponry?” We decided, since they’ve been around for centuries, they started fighting hand to hand, doing up-close killing, whereas modern soldiers are learning to kill from miles away sometimes. We realized that hesitation was what the Old Guard could use to their advantage.Sims: As you mentioned, you were attached to Silver & Black in the Spider-Man universe, which didn’t come to fruition. Had you been casting around for an action movie for a while?Prince-Bythewood: I was. Cloak & Dagger, the TV pilot that I did for Marvel, that was very intentional. I specifically wanted to start getting into that world, proving that I could do it. Obviously that was smaller-scale, but it was my first chance to work with visual effects and stunts. But the reason I was in the room for Skydance was because they loved Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, two films that have no stunts.[Read: ‘Beyond the Lights’ and other movie masterpieces to watch in quarantine]Sims: You’ve been making movies for 20 years; they’ve all been well-received. Has your experience changed at all in terms of securing the next project? How much has Hollywood evolved?Prince-Bythewood: I’m extremely particular about what I do. Most of the time, I direct what I’ve written, because it’s 100 percent my vision, and I have these stories gnawing at me. I take a long time to write, which I hate; I wish I could write quicker. But I do get offered a ton of stuff, and really could do a film a year if I wanted. But I have two boys, I have a husband; if I’m going to be away, it has to be something I’m passionate about. What I’m mostly passionate about as a filmmaker, as an artist, and as a Black woman are films that focus on Black women and become universal.For me, growing up and not being able to see myself reflected on-screen, how invisible I felt, now I want the world to see our humanity and enjoy our films. And those are the hardest films to get made, 100 percent. When people look at the gaps in my filmography and ask why it took four or five years to get to the next one … Each project is a fight. I will say, the miraculous thing is that the next two projects I have lined up are both big, both focus on Black women, and were not a fight, for the first time in my career.Sims: I just wanted to beg you for a Love & Basketball sequel. It’s been 20 years, it could be about the [central couple’s] daughter. But it sounds like you’re very particular, so it might be hard to fit that in.Prince-Bythewood: [Laughs] I love that people want another one. It’s humbling. But I feel like everyone would be disappointed. I told the story I wanted to tell. But I will say, the Academy put on a 20-year-anniversary panel for that film and brought us back together. And sitting there with Alfre Woodard, and Sanaa Lathan, and Kyla Pratt … I loved working with those actors, and I’d want to do it again. So I just have to write something different that would bring us all back together.Sims: My only complaint about The Old Guard is that I couldn’t see it with a big audience, to feel them reacting to the crucial moments. But it’ll be on Netflix; it’ll be widely accessible.Prince-Bythewood: In 190 countries! All my films, it’s always a fight, and they never get foreign distribution, because you always hear, “Oh, Black characters don’t travel.” And you want to punch somebody. It’s because they don’t try. I’m so curious for what it’s going to feel like—is it going to be like that Friday where you sneak into a theater and see it with an audience? I have no idea. But 190 countries? It’s stunning.
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