"Where are you really from?"

On Friday, this story went viral—and for good reason. An lawmaker mistaking two senior government officials for foreigners is never a good situation for anyone involved. For the rest of us, it’s comical but in that cringe-worthy, face-palm-y, “OMG, I can’t believe this is happening” way.

I am sad to report that this is not uncommon, even in 21st century America.

Like many fellow first-generation Americans, I am prone to the question: “Where are you really from?” After rolling my eyes, I always answer the question the same way: “My parents are from China.” I make sure to point out that it’s my parents who are from China, not me. 

On occasion, I get asked why I speak English so well, which, when you think about it, is actually kind of a hilarious question. It would reflect pretty poorly on the American education system if I, a person born and raised in an English-speaking country, spoke poor English! 

A relevant video that hopefully belabors the point:

Fortunately, these scenarios don’t happen to me all the time, but the fact that they do happen is alarming. The way some people instinctively categorize people based on whether they do or do not belong here is endlessly troublesome. And the connection this has to race and ethnicity is equally concerning. Whiteness somehow implies Americanness.

As this piece in The Atlantic points out, this phenomenon extends to far too many immigrant groups, from Muslim-Americans post 9/11, to Hispanics (apparently a third of Americans think most Hispanics are undocumented immigrants), to our very own Kenyan socialist president. (Aside: that video might be one of my favorite Obama moments.)

Women Are Underrepresented In Politics, But It’s Not For The Reason You Think

The Huffington Post - July 22, 2014

WASHINGTON — Thirty years ago, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman named to a major party’s presidential ticket when the then-New York congresswoman won the Democratic vice presidential nomination on July 19, 1984.

Since then, women have made many strides in the political arena. The current Congress contains a record number of women: 20 serve in the Senate, and 82 serve in the House of Representatives.

Nevertheless, women are still underrepresented in and less likely to run for political office at all levels of government, from local to national.

But it’s not for the reason you may think. New research from the Brookings Institution, published this month, debunks the common claim that fewer women run for political office because of family concerns and responsibilities.

Jennifer Lawless, a Brookings senior fellow who also directs the Women and Politics Institute at American University, analyzed data from a 2011 study that surveyed a national random sample of “equally credentialed” women and men working in law, business, education and politics — four fields from which political candidates commonly emerge. According to Lawless’ paper, there were “no remarkable socio-demographic or professional differences” between the men and the women.

Sixty-two percent of male respondents answered that they had considered running for office, while only 45 percent of female respondents said they had. But family structure and family roles did not account for the 17 percent gap. The gap is virtually the same across differing family structures and levels of family responsibility. In other words, women with children under the age of 7 or women who shoulder the majority of household tasks were basically no more or less likely than other women or than men in the same situation to consider running for office.

"Family roles and responsibilities exert no impact on potential candidates’ decisions to run for office — and that is the case for both women and men," Lawless concluded in her paper.Yet the perception persists that family is the deciding factor for women. Lawless begins her paper by noting how Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy announcement this April set off speculation that being a grandmother would affect Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions. Vice President Joe Biden, another potential 2016 candidate, has faced no such questions, even though he has five grandchildren.

Female candidates generally are asked far more questions about family issues than their male counterparts, which reinforces the public assumption that women weigh family concerns more heavily when deciding to run.

But the burden of family is not why women are less likely to run, according to Lawless. The critical factor, she argues, is that women are less likely to be encouraged to run and less likely to be considered as a potential candidate when a position opens up.

"Political gatekeepers tend to recruit from their own networks, and those are men who tend to operate in pretty male-dominated networks," Lawless said in an interview. "So there’s not much evidence to suggest there’s any overt bias against potential female candidates. It’s just that they are not the ones that the electoral gatekeepers are surrounding themselves with. They’re not the immediate names that come to mind."

It is also a matter of negative self-perception and self-doubt among women.

"Women are very likely to believe that when they run for office, they don’t do as well as men. There’s no empirical evidence to support that," said Lawless. "When women run, they actually perform just as well on Election Day, they’re able to raise just as much money, and generally speaking, their media coverage looks very much the same. But what we found was that women who are well-situated to run for office don’t know that and don’t think that. So they believe they’re not qualified because they think women have to be twice as good to get half as far."

Those who recruit political candidates often share this misperception, Lawless said, and are thus less likely to consider women for political races.

She understands why many people still assume that existing gender roles undermine women’s political ambitions.

"Women are still disproportionately responsible for shouldering the majority of the household tasks and the child care, and so as long as that’s still the reality, I think it’s an easy place for people to go and assume that because there’s not equality or equity on that dimension, it translates into politics," Lawless said. "We’re all familiar with a woman who does more than her spouse at home, so it’s a very easy reference point."

Moreover, she said that family roles and responsibilities still play some role in political decision-making because they “make it far more complex and complicated for women to navigate the political arena.”

"It just doesn’t make them less interested in doing it," Lawless said, adding, "It’s not precluding them from being politically ambitious, but it is to say they probably still have three jobs to juggle instead of two when they throw their hats into the ring."

Lawless herself ran for a congressional seat in Rhode Island in 2006 and noted that she felt she was treated the same as male candidates in her race.

"I did not lose because I was a woman. I lost because I was challenging a popular incumbent in the primary," she said. "It’s important that we separate out political conditions from the sex of the candidate because otherwise we’re just perpetuating this myth that women can’t get elected."

"It was an incredibly challenging thing to do, but I don’t think it was because I was a female candidate," she added.

The ridiculous suggestion that Hillary Clinton might not run for president because she is about to become a grandmother would imply that being a woman does make some kind of difference, but Lawless said presidential races operate under fundamentally different dynamics than state and local races and even other national contests.

Case in point: the endless speculation more than two years before the election as to whether the former secretary of state is mounting a presidential run in 2016.

"We’ve been obsessed with reading tea leaves where there is probably very little to read," said Lawless. "And Chelsea’s pregnancy was just one more example of something we could glom onto and figure out how it was going to matter."

"The point of the paper was to suggest that not only is it not going to matter to her, but more broadly, let’s think about how families should or should not matter. We’ve now reached a point where women have achieved success at the highest levels of very male-dominated professions. Is it that surprising that [family] is not really going to affect the political decisions that they make?" said Lawless.

In a Gallup poll published Monday, 63 percent of respondents said the U.S. would be governed better if there were more women in political office, but getting women there remains a challenge. Lawless thinks the role of advocacy organizations like EMILY’s List in encouraging more women to pursue politics is important, particularly on the state and local level, but that the push could start even earlier.

"Most of these organizations are trying to encourage women who have already thought about running to enter particular races as opposed to plant the seed that running for office is something that maybe a woman should consider doing," said Lawless. "Get on to college campuses and say, ‘Look, when you’re thinking about your careers moving forward, you should be thinking that politics is an option.’"

Unless you’ve been living under a rock over the last few days, you’ve probably read this piece, which is both fascinating and disgusting. It’s a hilarious read (I shared it with one of my co-interns, and I knew he was reading it when I heard fits of laughter every few minutes). Just what we all needed after this grim news week. And it might be a worthy candidate for my list of the best things I’ve read all year (last year’s list here).

Elizabeth Warren Slams Mitch McConnell: He Wants ‘Students To Dream A Little Smaller’

The Huffington Post - July 16, 2014

WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) lambasted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Wednesday for his refusal to help students carrying heavy debts, criticizing McConnell’s suggestion that students should just consider cheaper colleges if they’re not wealthy enough to go to the most expensive schools.

At a town hall event in Buckner, Kentucky last week, an attendee asked McConnell how he believes the government can help alleviate student debt. McConnell replied that it is not the government’s role to forgive “obligations that have been voluntarily incurred.”

"Not everybody needs to go to Yale," McConnell said, before going on to tout the benefits of for-profit education, which often leaves students mired in even more debt and unable to find decent jobs.

Speaking at Make Progress, an annual gathering of young progressive activists and student leaders held on Wednesday, Warren hit back.

"Mitch McConnell believes that when it comes to a choice between protecting tax loopholes for billionaires or reducing student loan interest rates, he will work to protect every last dollar of every last tax loophole," said Warren. "And then he tells students to dream a little smaller, to do with less and give up a little sooner."

"His vision for America is that no one reaches higher than they can already afford," she added.

Warren has made student debt her signature issue, part of her larger emphasis on income inequality. Earlier this year, she introduced a bill that would have enabled millions of people to refinance their student debt, and would have raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans to offset that cost. McConnell, who mocked the bill as “a show vote,” led a filibuster that ultimately torpedoed the bill in the Senate.

The failure of that bill appears to have fueled Warren’s antagonism toward McConnell. As political retribution, she recently campaigned for Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), McConnell’s challenger in the November midterm elections. At an event at the University of Louisville on June 29, Warren and Grimes both attacked McConnell for being out of touch with the needs of Kentucky students.

Grimes has since announced that her team broke a state record for fundraising in the second quarter of 2014, taking in more than $4 million in the April-June period alone.

On Wednesday, Warren urged students to tell McConnell and the 37 other senators who voted against her bill to prioritize students’ concerns, arguing that lawmakers are pitting America’s wealthiest citizens against young people seeking an education.

"This one really does boil down to three words: billionaires or students," said Warren. "Which way is this country going?"

The White House’s Gender Pay Disparities Have Barely Changed In 20 Years

My latest for HuffPost: a deep dive into gender pay equity at the White House over 3 administrations—featuring number crunching.

The Huffington Post - July 8, 2014

WASHINGTON — Wage and hiring disparities between men and women appear to be bipartisan problems that aren’t really improving.

The gender pay gap among White House staffers has changed very little through the past three presidential administrations, even though Democrats tend to prioritize the issue more than Republicans. This is true even at the senior staff level where there has been only a slight improvement since the last Republican-controlled White House.

Last Tuesday, the White House released its annual list of staff salaries, which it has been required to do every year since 1995.

The numbers reveal a gender pay gap, but not because men were paid more than women for the same jobs performed. Rather, it was because men occupied upper-level (higher-paying) positions more often than women and, according to the Obama administration, because the administration was trying to bring in more women at the junior level — in lesser-paying jobs — to help them move up eventually.

At Wednesday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest admitted that “the White House has some improvement to make” on the gender equity front.

"I wouldn’t hold up the White House as the perfect example here," he said.

The implication left by the briefing was that while the president has made progress on the pay equality front, he has more work to do. Left unanswered was how much progress the president has actually made.

The answer, according to a review of White House salary data, is not that much. In prior administrations, the gap between the number of women and men in senior-level positions was similar to what it is today.

The Huffington Post examined the top 25 percent of earners in each administration to see how men and women fared at the top of the White House pyramid.

For 2014, the top 25 percent of earners within the White House have been compensated above $110,500 annually. That group includes 70 men and 38 women, or 65 percent who are men and 35 percent who are women.

The gender pay gap at the upper level was actually narrower at the start of the Obama administration in 2009. Back then, the upper quartile salary was $113,000 a year. Of the employees making that or above, 67 were men and 50 were women, or 57 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

This was only a slight improvement from 1993, when The Washington Post obtained a list of White House salaries and published them. In President Bill Clinton’s first year in office, 40 men and 25 women, or 62 percent and 38 percent, respectively, earned over the upper quartile salary of $85,000.

Due to a lack of available data in the intervening years, it’s difficult to tell if anything changed during Clinton’s two terms in office. The gap initially spiked during the first years of the Bush administration. In 2001, 71 percent of the top 25 percent of earners in the White House were men and only 29 percent were women (70 men vs. 28 women). In 2003, 72 percent were men and 28 percent were women. By the end of Bush’s first term, however, the gap had shrunk to 65 men and 37 women earning in the top 25 percent — percentages that are virtually identical to today’s White House.

The gap shrunk more in 2005, when the upper quarter was 60 percent men and 40 percent women. But in the last part of Bush’s second term, the gap widened again, from 65 percent men and 35 percent women in 2006, to 72 percent men and 28 percent women in 2007, and 73 percent men and 27 percent women in 2008.

Overall, Obama has done better at elevating women to senior-level positions. He began his presidency with 57 percent men and 43 percent women. The gap was at its narrowest in 2010 with 55 percent men and 45 percent women. But over the past few years, the gap has widened again: In 2011, it was 59 percent men and 41 percent women; in 2012, it was 62 percent men and 38 percent women.

When reached for comment, a White House official directed The Huffington Post to Earnest’s comments and noted that more than half of its departments are directed by women. Also, in April, Obama took executive action to enforce equal pay for federal contractors.

Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, acknowledged the problem on MSNBC’s “All In” with Chris Hayes in April. But she also said that part of the pay gap problem at the White House was because “we’re over-represented among the entry-level positions.” In other words: A large number of lower-paid female employees has been bringing down the overall average. Munoz explained that one of the White House’s goals is “to make sure that people move up the chain, that women are moving up and that they’re getting qualified to move up the ladder and to earn higher salaries.”

However, looking at the data, it appears the current administration isn’t hiring more women in lower-level positions compared with its predecessors. In 2006, the second year of Bush’s second term, 59 percent of staffers earning below the median salary in the White House were women. This year, at the same point in Obama’s presidency, 55 percent were women.

The numbers released last week caused Obama’s critics to pounce, noting that he has been urging businesses to reduce gender pay disparity throughout his time in office and chastising lawmakers to pass legislation that would facilitate this. The first piece of legislation the president signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which expands the amount of time someone can sue an employer for pay discrimination on the basis of gender, race, nationality, age, disability or religion. And in June, the issue of pay disparity came up at the White House Summit on Working Families; one of the proposals announced at the summit would hold employers more accountable for providing equal pay. Senate Republicans have repeatedly blocked one effort to impose this, the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, herself one of the highest-paid staffers at the White House, told HuffPost Live that the wage disparity between men and women is “ridiculous.”