Friday, July 31, 2009
The first has to with the apparent Africanism in the first segment but also its place in larger society. Although highlighting the work of Malaak Compton-Rock giving to the community, they presented Journey for Change as a program not to expose inner-city youth to a different way of life per se, but rather to a poorer, more destitute way of life so that they can appreciate what (little) they have back home in Bushwick. I am sorry but if that is not a variation of Edward Said’s Orientalism I do not know what is. One point Said makes of the harmful effects of orientatlism is how “the Occident” began to see “the Orient” and conduct themselves toward the region itself and also those from that region.
I must stop here and say that I am an unapologetic Americanist, though one with humanist tendencies. Nevertheless, maybe because I am an Americanist, I do not jump on the bandwagon of those who go outside the United States to help those in need. If two houses are burning, which one do you put out first: your’s or your neighbor’s? I know that framing it this way makes it an either/or question without moral implications and as one that ignores present day politics and the history of colonialism and the like. However, the question remains that if there is a cancer threatening to destroy your body from the inside from the same mechanisms, through the same actions, and that of someone else, what do you do first?
The way in which it was framed also obscures the plight of blacks, Latinos, and some whites here in the United States. I am sorry, if you wanted to show them more extreme poverty than what they are used to, there are pockets here in the United States that are just as or even worse off economically. Both urban and rural. Let us not forget the work of Amartya Sen who found that even though one may live in a richer nation, one’s life expectancy and quality might be quite lower than those in poorer nations. If you wanted to show them the detrimental effects the AIDS virus has on communities, there are pockets in many Chocolate Cities that have as high or higher concentration of AIDS than many parts of Africa. I mean to speak honestly, the way in which they first introduced Journey for Change overshadowed the positive cultural, educational, and political aspects of the program. It was almost as if they used Africa—since there was so little (i.e. none) conversation about how Africa is more than just South Africa and that it was a heterogeneous place (another form of Africansim with roots in the theme of orientalism)—as a tool to shock, awe, and inspire. I am sorry, but this is both amoral and wrong. As those over at The Retort noted, Compton-Rock spoke as if this trip was to act as a panacea of social and academic ills. I am sorry, it doesn’t work like that.
Before I continue, I must say that I appreciate programs like this and those who invest time into them, the organizers, family, and students themselves. However, I stand with my previous criticism of this program.
The second aspect of the first segment that stuck with me was the lack of parallel between the ages of the low income black students from Connecticut and New York and middle class blacks. This may seem like a minor point but I do not believe it is; in fact, I think it highlights both some of the assumptions and prejudiced thoughts about blacks in America. If you notice, the poor blacks were middle and high school aged individuals. The middle class blacks were college aged or above. Remember, we only saw low-income older adults as parents with medical, mental health, or financial issues. Even though I too appreciated the awareness of racial issues of this year’s cohort of middle class interviewees, I was troubled by this age divide.
I think that parallel would have been stronger if they would have went to Exeter, Andover, St. Paul, Deerfield, and the other prep, day, and boarding school in the Northeast to see the experience of same aged middle class blacks at these predominately white institutions. Or, to flip it the other way, found some low-income college black college students to parallel those middle class blacks that spoke of their experiences. Believe it or not, poor blacks (and minorities for that matter) make it to both the Ivy and non-Ivy halls as well. Instead of a smorgasbord of black people and education, CNN, NOT SOLEDAD O’BRIEN ALONE, missed an opportunity for a richer and deeper glimpse inside Black America.
We missed another opportunity to access what it means to be black in America. Though I have to admit this year was a step forward rather than backward (though I admit that would have been hard even for Black In America). I do not know if what I have presented here is more of me responding more to what was in the show or the way it was presented. I am happy if it is both.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
A while back, I wrote about the racial privilege associated with speaking forcefully and having your message heard. I argued—and continue to believe—that folks of color are more susceptible to racially charged interpretations of their tone of voice. In other words, a black guy offering the same message as me would, more often than not, be painted as “angry” or “militant,” while I would, more often than not, be seen as “passionate” or “engaging.” When I get into an impassioned rant, my audience—particularly white audiences—may think I’m a bit over the top; I’ll concede that. But my words and tone aren’t going to trigger the racialized stereotype of black male hyper-masculinity and irrational anger, since, of course, I’m a white guy.
A few of our thoughtful (and sharp) readers suggested that the racial privilege I wrote about was also gendered—meaning that women are not afforded the same privilege to speak forcefully without fear of negative stereotyping.
I have to admit, this was a pretty egregious oversight on my part. Given the current political climate—from Hilary Clinton to Sonia Sotomayor to Michelle Obama—it's clear that strong, prominent women haven’t exactly received the most positive national news coverage. Clinton’s been called “shrill,” Sotomayor’s been called a “bully,” and conservative blogger Michelle Malkin begins each post on Michelle Obama with a picture of the First Lady scowling or frowning—a racially charged attempt to depict her as excessively scary and militant.
Such instances are not simply relegated to high profile women; it’s a safe bet that most of our (assertive, thoughtful, vocal) female readers can relate to this pervasive stereotype. Moreover, this isn’t simply an example of a “double standard;” rather, it’s male privilege in action. If I bang my finger on the table during a rant in a seminar here at Harvard, no one’s going to call me “shrill” or “domineering.” These are words used to describe folks that defy stereotypes and resist domination or subservience. These are words used to put them in their place, to remind them they’re not white; they’re not men. These are words that evoke, employ, and perpetuate privilege.
While I can't really speak from personal experience, dating a woman in corporate America has helped make these gendered stereotypes salient. Big business—a male dominated field predicated on assertiveness and team-based problem solving—is probably one of the better examples to illustrate male privilege and the gendered interpretation of tone. Consider a corporate team planning a company’s new investment strategy. The team leader is, statistically speaking, most likely a white man. He’s leading the group in a brainstorming session, and invites input from the team. The majority of the team is, statistically speaking, most likely white and male. Everyone is generally cordial and polite considering they're working together toward a common goal. But when male and female team members assert their respective dominance, they prompt two very different responses.
See, when a male team member speaks out of turn, interrupting the flow of conversation to interject his brilliant idea, he’s a valuable asset to the company. He’s being a good team member. He’s assertive. But when a female team member tries to compete, simply asserting her equality and intellectual evenness with her male counterparts, she’s excessively domineering. She’s overstepping authority, displaying improper professional etiquette. She’s a bitch.
Ultimately, these stereotypes may—perhaps, obviously—fall most severely on the shoulders of black women. Black women that forcefully assert intellectual or physical equality with men are doubly susceptible to negative stereotyping as “ghetto,” “shrill,” or a combination of the two. Privilege isn’t an either/or phenomenon; multiple social identities create multiple structures of privilege, and black women find themselves at the bottom of this stratified order.
Look, this (admittedly oversimplified) example is not meant as an indictment of corporate America, nor is it indicative of every woman’s professional or personal experience. But it most certainly reflects decades of social science research on the perceptions of women in positions of power. And, more importantly, it most certainly underscores an underappreciated mechanism influencing social inequality.
The problem here is when privilege translates into material winners and losers; when privilege affords job promotions, favorable peer evaluations, and wage premiums, and lack thereof results in economic, political, or social ceilings. Privilege is a very real—and pernicious—component of inequality. The measures needed to correct these racist, sexist, and generally misguided notions are, of course, debatable. But the privilege is real, and it carries a material impact. Exposing and recognizing it is a necessary first step toward greater equality.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Eat your heart out, Monica Lewinsky. Move over, Kenneth Starr. There’s a new group of political truth-seekers out there, and they just uncovered a bombshell that’s going to shock the world. Were you irate when Clinton lied about his infidelity? Or when Bush lied about the weapons of mass destruction? Well these minor scandals pale in comparison to The Greatest Political Conspiracy in the History of the World: President Obama is not a United States citizen!
A few brave fellow patriots are joining the venerable Ken Starr in the courageous struggle against lying, deceitful politicians. Thank goodness for Real Americans. They (uh, awkwardly) call themselves the “birthers,” and their ranks range from good ol’ normal folks like this lady in Delaware to high-ranking political leaders like California Republican Congressman John Campbell. Some outwardly question President Obama’s citizenship, while others admirably “just want to see these question put to rest.” Turns out, these inquisitive folks have uncovered President Obama’s true citizenship: He’s not American—he’s African.
Of course, these (incorrect) rumors have been around since the election. Snopes sufficiently debunked them, but folks are still clinging to the pervasive notion that there’s just something not right about this Obama guy. As Liz Cheney noted on Larry King Live Tuesday night—validating and legitimizing the birthers’ invalid and illegitimate claims—Americans are “fundamentally uncomfortable” with Barack Obama. He just doesn’t seem like one of “us.” He’s, well, he’s something other than us.
The process of “othering” minorities remains a fundamental component of our nation’s history. That it is so shocking for folks to associate a black man in power with American citizenship is not wholly surprising. Princeton scholar Mellissa Harris-Lacewell offered a fascinating discussion on this very topic after Obama’s election, detailing the innovative steps his campaign took to overcome racial cognitive dissonance. See, we’ve been so used to a certain style of person (read: white, male) in positions of power that our brains had difficulty making the shift toward accepting a different looking First Family. This cognitive shift—a significant racial barrier, to be sure—was integral to Obama’s success last November.
Yet some folks haven’t fully made that cognitive shift. They’re still pretty reticent to accept that a smart black guy can actually be an American, and, even worse, be their Commander in Chief. But it’s far too easy to condemn their racist ignorance without offering any critical analysis. In the social sciences, we delve into every possible explanation for the behaviors of poor, predominantly minority populations and communities. We untangle their social networks, carefully scrutinize their positions within the economy and polity, and go out of our way to talk to them personally in our research, often letting their own words drive our analysis.
Yet we rarely place that same critical eye on the lives of poor white folks—particularly poor racist white folks. We (correctly) note the lack of mainstream models of success in many urban neighborhoods. We talk about the role of social structure in shaping a group’s worldviews, but rarely apply that same analysis to folks outside the so-called ghetto. It’s unfortunate; in our knee jerk reactions to overt racism, we neglect comprehensive social research and, more importantly, comprehensive pursuits of social justice.
These folks—crazy as we may think they are—are expressing real feelings and real fear. Calling them foolish isn’t productive. Telling them they should know better is ineffective. And, apparently, showing them Obama’s actual birth certificate doesn’t do much either.
But that doesn’t mean we should write these folks off. In Black Picket Fences, sociologist Mary Pattillo writes about black gang members in a Chicago neighborhood. She discusses how these kids have multiple identities; they’re gang members, sure, but they’re also someone’s brother, son, or neighbor. As a white guy from upstate New York, these racist white folks—lawn jockeys and all—could easily be one of my neighbors, friends, or relatives. Well, maybe not one of my friends—but you get the idea. They’re human beings with little access to quality information, born to a world that has taught them to fear blacks.
Questioning their intelligence does little to expand their worldview and educate them on the complicated contours of race and racial inequality. No, Obama’s not a Kenyan citizen. And no, this isn’t the Greatest Political Conspiracy in the History of the World. Sure, these “birthers” are woefully misguided, and yes, their ideological underpinnings are exceedingly racist. But this is an opportunity—an opportunity to tackle racism and inequality head on through careful analysis and education. Who knows, it just might bring us closer to the ever-elusive "post racial America" everyone keeps talking about.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Gay is not the new black. Black is the new black; gay is the new gay.
Earlier this week, sportswriter LZ Granderson published a piece in CNN entitled “Gay is not the new black.” I one-hundred-percent agree with his basic premise, but totally disagree in the way he argues it. According to Granderson, gay black men identify more with their racial self than they do with their sexuality, a situation exacerbated by powerful white LGBT persons who exclude blacks and criticize Obama.
Apparently, the LGBT movement is dealing with it own issues of racial preference and exclusion. As someone who is not entrenched in this community, I cannot speak to how true or not true this is. But it does appear that the very visible spokespeople for the LGBT community rarely tend to be black (Anthony Woods – the gay, black, Harvard-educated Iraq veteran running for Congress – seems to be an exception).
Granderson uses these racial divisions as the crux of his argument. He notes, “When Proposition 8 passed in California, white gays were quick to blame the black community despite blacks making up less than 10 percent of total voters and whites being close to 60 percent .” I think his language is a little strong, but he makes a fair point. The arguments that black people somehow caused Proposition 8 to pass are demonstrably and demographically false. Even among another minority community fighting for its civil rights, race still matters. Therefore, gay cannot be the new black if black is still black as ever.
Unfortunately, his argument seems to rest on the premise that only race matters, or at least it matters more than sexuality and other identity factors. Race is so important that LGBT-led criticism of President Obama alienates members of the black community – gay or not. “The parade of gay people calling Obama a "disappointment" on television is counterproductive in gaining acceptance, to say the least. And the fact that the loudest critics are mostly white doesn't help matters either.” It is possible to critique the President, and still be supportive. Granderson himself does both in the article. It is possible to inhabit both spaces, to acknowledge multiple aspects of one’s identity.
To make matters even worse, he very distastefully says that blacks have had it worse than gays in the struggle for civil rights, calls the LGBT community leaders “petulant child[ren],” and effectively tells the community they should wait their turn.
“The 40th anniversary of Stonewall dominated Gay Pride celebrations around the country, and while that is certainly a significant moment that should be recognized, 40 years is nothing compared with the 400 blood-soaked years black people have been through in this country. There are stories some blacks lived through, stories others were told by their parents and stories that never had a chance to be told.”
Making comparisons as to which minority group had is worse is NEVER useful (see Holocaust vs. slavery), both because it is pointless and reduces all minority struggles to being one-in-the-same. There is no special prize for being the “most oppressed” group between “competing minorities.” We can acknowledge that the LBGT community, blacks, Jews, Asians, Native Americans (etc, etc) have all struggled at the hands of a more powerful regime and that each group’s struggle is different and complex in its own way. We can and should learn from each other’s histories, not reduce them to slight variations of one another. That only leads to in-fighting, which helps no one’s cause. An extension of this is the idea that whichever minority group cries foul the loudest is the one that will get the most attention. The idea that these issues are relegated to just being special interest issues speaks to a continued belief that these issues don’t concern everyone. I personally long for the day when all these voices can be heard equally and simultaneously – not just one at a time.
While there are obviously similarities in the civil rights movements of the 1910s-1920s, the 1950s-1960s, the LGBT community faces different social pressures (religion and ideas of sexual normativity) and seeks different outcomes (all-inclusive marriage rights, adoption rights, the ability to serve the military openly, and more job discrimination protection more broadly).
But what isn’t different or distinct are the people involved in these different movements. A friend of mine found it interesting that Granderson assumed that gay black men privilege their racial identity. He queried: why does it have to be either-or…why not both? Anthony Jack, one of Social Science Lite's bloggers, has discussed on previous occasions the problematic assumption that people can divvy-up their being into race, gender, sexual orientation, ableness, etc. Indeed, this line of thinking is often decried in womanist literature. Gay black men could be actively involved in both black communities and gay communities equally, or maybe neither if they so choose. On a personal level, to say that gay is not the new black makes sense. If it were, then LBGT blacks would supposedly be forced to supplant one aspect of their identity to the dominant other.
Black is the new black. Gay is the new gay. I could say that being a heterosexual, black man is the new heterosexual, black man, but it would be easier to say that I’m Steven. I am black. I am heterosexual. I am male. I am all of these things, all the time, even in those occasions when I choose to highlight only one part of my identity.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
(Administrator's Note: The following piece was written by SSL Guest Contributor Steven Brown, an incoming graduate student in Harvard's department of sociology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the mid-60s, large numbers of African-Americans began working for manufacturers like GM and Ford – jobs that did not require college education, but still paid strong living wages. Because of these companies, with their ever-growing workforce and strong unions, the black middle class of the day grew rapidly.
But now, forty years later, that same demographic segment is struggling, according to a piece published in the New York Times magazine in late June – "G.M., Detroit, and the Fall of the Black Middle Class". The article follows one man facing potential layoffs from a G.M. plant closing, highlighting him as representative of the large black middle class supported by Detroit car manufacturers. Marvin Powell is almost 40, married with two kids, with a mortgage, and making about $50,000 a year. He started working for G.M. at age 26, a few years after dropping out of college.
Two things strike me about this article. The first is the claim that Mr. Powell and others like him are middle class, and the second is the argument that the faltering auto industry is causing the black middle class to suffer. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that black auto workers were not at the forefront of upwardly mobile African-Americans. What I am saying is that what defined middle class a generation ago doesn’t hold up so well now.
Back then, earning a living wage and being able to mortgage a home of your own was a pretty reliable way of measuring middle class. Nowadays, being part of the middle class seems to be more about education and occupational prestige than about income. (Think about popular notions of white-collar vs. blue-collar.) Keeping in mind those who discuss the importance of wealth, being middle class today seems more about creating opportunities and weathering storms than about how much you take home every month. Just last year, then-Senator Obama was getting large amounts of press over his inability to court the “white, working-class voter.” A Pew Report described “white, working-class” as those without college degrees, making under $50,000 a year, and were often popularized in the media as living as union-members living and working in the Rust Belt and Texas. In other words, if Marvin Powell were white, he’d be working class. But since he’s black, he’s middle class.
To show my hand, I’ve long suspected the idea that there were different popular and empirical standards for what constitutes a “black” versus a “white” or mainstream middle class. There are indeed grounds for differentiation, like the fact that blacks were only very recently integrated into the middle rungs of the American workforce in any meaningful way. Also, the median household income for blacks in 2000 was only $29,530, compared to a national median of $46,000. By that standard, the auto worker’s salary looks quite substantial. But this differentiation is problematic. Different race-based standards under the umbrella of “middle class” obscure the distance between relatively well off blacks and non-blacks. To use a crude metaphor, if most of the people in your neighborhood are 5 feet tall, just because you’re 5’6”doesn’t mean that you’re actually tall. You’re not that short, but you’re not that tall either.
I mentioned earlier that a generation ago, being a unionized auto-worker would make you middle class, but not anymore. What changed? The explosion of the service economy (along with service economy wages) that required more sophisticated skills and higher levels of education is one reason. The simultaneous fall of manufacturing during the 70s and 80s is another. Think about how difficult it would be to transition to a non-industrial job after 20-years on a factory floor without a bachelor’s degree or technical certificate – a hard task made harder if you happen to be a black man looking for a job.
In addition to employment trends, social scientists developed more sophisicated ways of understanding class mobilty and security, putting more emphasis on education and considering wealth and assets, “last hired, first fired,” and continued job discrimination (not to mention numerous residence-based issues). A revisionist take by today’s methods of measuring class could show that black auto workers were never securely middle class. My guess is that black workers were disproportionately hit when foreign competition ate into the market share and caused layoffs. I would also assume that black workers would have a harder time moving if one plant closed in Flint and another opened in Mississippi.
Furthermore, the “cost” of being middle-class has also risen substantially. The cost of owning and buying a home, the cost of re-locating for work (as many in the service sector do), and the costs of sending children to school have all gone up quite a bit. And then there are the issues that affect the black middle class disproportionately, like owning homes in areas where values rise slowly, if not eventually decline.
My argument is not that the current failures of the auto industry are causing “the fall” of better-off black folks, but that the grounds have been shifting underneath their feet for decades. This segment of the black middle class has been falling for years, first out of the middle class, and now possibly and tragically out of their way of life.
Monday, July 20, 2009
The old adage goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” What is missing, or rather, what is taken for granted in this old phrase is that each picture means a different thousand words to each individual. Though there will surely be overlap, a plethora of internal conversations between picture and individual are held even when only a few of us come across a single image (Look at the vitriolic comments launched against Malia Obama for wearing a peace sign on her shirt in her last trip overseas with the rest of the First Family).
I am of two minds with respect to t-shirts that claim to be “racial and radical” for a purpose on either continuum of the color spectrum. A host of questions immediately come to mind. Are the shirts just for shock value? Are these shirts made for getting a reaction out of passersby? Or are they to inform? Are they to force us to connect the picture or message—effectively, the representation of reality—to one’s reality? I am not sure. In fact, in writing this post I battled over including the following question as the opening so as to move the question beyond my own limited perspective: are there temporal or contextual constraints or expiration dates (if you will) for different modes of celebrating one’s history, the good and the bad? I changed my viewpoint as soon as the words were on screen because I realized that I was singling out African Americans for implicit in that question is that people should leave history in the past and only worry about the present and future, a perspective I do not subscribe to.
The fact remains that we are forever communicating with a larger audience. The body itself is always in dialogue with others. Taking off of sociologist Erving Goffman, the body both communicates and is communicated in the sense that one is always projecting and receiving social information simply by being copresent. The clothes we wear have cultural roots but they are also an expression of one’s individual and/or collective identity. So, when we wear certain shirts like the one pictured above, what exactly are we communicating?
*The picture headlining this post was taken on someone's person and is not one of Cox's design.
**This particular shirt is one of Cox's design.
Friday, July 17, 2009
“No Excuses”—a simple phrase scrawled across the front pages of the Huffington Post and the New York Times politics section this morning—has proven to be the salient takeaway from President Obama’s speech to the NAACP last night. Unfortunately, the most salient takeaway is not always the intended takeaway, nor is it always the most important takeaway.
Yes, Obama urged black parents to take responsibility for their children. He told them to “[put] away the Xbox and [put] our kids to bed at a reasonable hour.” He noted that every black kid can’t become the next Lebron James, or the next Lil Wayne—“even if they might think they’ve got a pretty jump shot or a pretty good flow.” And yes, he did deride excessive excuses for black underachievement.
But Obama’s message--grounded in sound analysis of racial inequality--was much more profound than these simple sound bites suggest.
Obama correctly noted that there is less discrimination in America today than ever before. Sure, black and brown folks are still getting kicked out of swimming pools—but they aren’t being told to sit in the back of the bus anymore. A new racism built on euphemisms and proxies persists, but overt discrimination is becoming less and less socially acceptable.
Obama went on to detail the extent of structural inequalities that have emerged from past discrimination, specifically citing their pernicious effects on the racial achievement gap. While discrimination remains omnipresent, it is structural inequalities that matter most in determining the life chances and opportunities for folks of color. It almost seems lost in the headlines that Obama’s discussion of personal responsibility occurred only after laying out the root of inequality: unequal access to healthcare, unequal schools, unequal access to quality housing, and unequal rates of incarceration.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates and G.D. at Postbourgie point out, the rhetoric of “no excuses” is common banter heard in black churches, dinner tables and barbershops across the country. The idea is not to absolve racism, discrimination, or structural inequities from blame; rather, it’s a battle cry to work that much harder in the face of profound disadvantage. It's a declaration, a statement of perseverance—a “We Shall Overcome” for the 21st Century. Structural forces are responsible for inequality, but we are culpable for our reactions as we confront this disadvantage. As Adam Serwer notes, Obama's speech was “far more nuanced…than media narratives about race ever seem to acknowledge.”
Above my desk I have a small computer printout of the phrase “Just Shut Up and Do It.” These were the wise words of encouragement my high school football coaches gave me anytime I felt the need to complain about, well, anything: when I broke my finger during a pre-season scrimmage, when I got illegally chop-blocked in pursuit of a tailback, when I threw up after a particularly intense conditioning session, or when I was convinced there was no possible way I could squat 250 pounds. Each excuse I gave was met with a simple rebuttal: “Shut up, and do it.” It didn’t matter if our rival’s tight end kept holding me each time the ball came to my side of the field, nor did it matter that I was the most undersized outside linebacker to ever grace New York State Class AA football. I had to rise up against my disadvantage. I had to shut my mouth, and do it.
After a tough practice or a long game, when my eyes were bloodshot from yelling and my head pounded from throwing my body into players three times my size, the coaches often pulled me aside to praise my determination and willpower. Their tone would be noticeably different; less expletives, more words of encouragement. They knew I was undersized. They knew how much punishment my body could take. But they also knew the formidable foes I would have to face. Excuses mattered little on Friday nights, under the stadium lights and in the eyes of the community.
The rhetoric of “no excuses” has dominated the coverage of Obama’s speech to the NAACP. But there was more to the speech—and more to the rhetoric itself—that shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. Obama exhibited a tremendous grasp of the causes of inequality, a refreshing departure from our past President’s woeful ignorance. Our task now is to listen to the whole message, and resist getting caught up in the sound bites.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
A few weeks back, hip hop blogger Jay Smooth offered a fascinating analysis of rapper Charles Hamilton on Illdoctrine.com. Hamilton is a newly famous, up-and-coming rapper—so respected, in fact, that XXL profiled him as one of their top ten rappers to watch out for in ‘09. He doesn’t even have a record out yet, but he’s been able to generate quite a bit of buzz from his exploitation of free Internet promotion.
Yet, Hamilton has found himself in a bit of a media backlash as of late. First, he lied about stealing another producer’s beat—a big no-no in the music business. He lost a few rap battles (badly) to some no-name fans, and was clowned pretty hard for it across the Internets. But nothing hurt his reputation worse than a video showing Mary J. Blige’s stepdaughter punch him in the face after he made a few insensitive remarks about her promiscuity. If things couldn’t get worse, Hamilton recently claimed that J.Dilla would be the executive producer of his forthcoming album (Dilla is dead), and embarrassed himself further after countless journalists and bloggers exposed his lie. Recent rumors suggest that his record label, Interscope, has released him from his contract as a result of these damaging blunders.
Jay’s take on the Hamilton’s repeated missteps is smart, astute, and grounded in his own personal experiences. See, Jay used to work with kids a lot like Hamilton—kids with tough exteriors, disadvantaged backgrounds, and limited views of the wider world. These kids would seek out negative attention, in large part a response to the negative attention they received growing up—be it from parents, teachers, or law enforcement. In short, these kids’ worldviews were shaped by the structure of their neighborhoods and family life.
Later that week, Jay applied this same analysis to the rapper C-Murder. A security surveillance tape recently surfaced showing C-Murder (ironically? predictably?) attempting to murder a room full of employees at a Baton Rouge, LA club. On his Saturday night radio show, Jay lamented the frustration he felt watching rappers devolve to petty street thugs, even after they had achieved widespread stardom. But, he understood where those behaviors came from: cultures of distrust that emerge from profound poverty and isolation.
Jay’s comments on Charles Hamilton and C-Murder point to a hot topic in the social sciences: the interplay between structural and cultural forces in shaping behavioral and material outcomes. Social scientists have long debated which social factors best explain income, incarceration, and health inequalities, and the debate has largely boiled down to two distinctive camps: those that rely on structural explanations—referring to an individual’s social position in institutions such as the economy, polity, and education—and those that prefer cultural explanations—referring to the effects of shared worldviews, outlooks, and behaviors among individuals that occupy the same neighborhoods or social networks. In other words, “structural” explanations relate inequality to an individual’s position in the economy, education system, or electorate, whereas “cultural” explanations relate inequality to the behaviors and worldviews an individual shares with his or her family, friends, and neighbors.
As Jay argues, Hamilton and C-Murder may come from cultures of distrust and dishonesty, but that’s in large part a symptom of the structural conditions of inner-city poverty. A group’s culture is tempered by their employment opportunities and access to mainstream models of success. And when everyone around you is also socially isolated from employment and other opportunities, a mutually reinforcing system of distrust persists, prompting folks to adopt certain behaviors frowned upon by so-called “mainstream” society. Moreover, in the absence of formal mechanisms of social control—you know, like police—residents are forced to develop alternative methods of social organization. Often, respect is gained through violence, as sociologist Elijah Anderson has argued with his concept “code of the street.” In short, cultural adaptations emerge from the conditions of poverty and racial segregation.
Yet, culture can also have a mind of its own, so to speak. Even when certain structural conditions are lifted—like when C-Murder finds himself out of the ghetto and with some cash in his pocket—his learned worldviews may remain. Sociologist William Julius Wilson addresses this idea with great clarity in his new book More than Just Race. Here, he discusses where “codes of the street” come from, and how they persist:
Even though these codes emerge under conditions of poverty and racial segregation, once developed they display a degree of autonomy in the regulation of behavior. The behavior generated by these autonomous cultural forces often reinforces the very conditions that have emerged from structural inequities.In many respects, Hamilton’s antics are an adaptation, or response to the conditions of his childhood. But his behavior is also an autonomous force that limits his future opportunities. The same goes for C-Murder. His decision to shoot up a room full of people comes from a lifetime of experiences that taught him to equate violence with highly coveted respect in the streets. But such actions have shifted both Hamilton and C-Murder’s structural positions: Hamilton got dropped from his record label, and C-Murder is looking at serious jail time.
The cases of Charles Hamilton and C-Murder are illustrative of the long-lasting effects of structural inequities—the durable, longitudinal, and cumulative nature of inequality. The ramifications of under-funded schools, inadequate social services, decrepit housing and pervasive violence lasts generations. Accumulated disadvantage, as a result, may affect individual-level behavior long after structural barriers are lifted. But that doesn’t suggest we should blame individuals for “dysfunctional” culture; it simply means that inequality is nested in the structural arrangements of stratified American institutions.
Most Americans might be quick to blame black, “ghetto” culture for Hamilton’s missteps and C-Murder’s violent behavior. You can take the rapper out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the rapper. It’s an easy answer, but an overly simple one. In reality, there’s a complex and complicated interaction between structural and cultural forces in shaping individual-level behaviors, worldviews, and life chances. The effects of poverty and inequality don’t just disappear when a rapper gets his first paycheck, nor do they dissolve once he buys a new house in a new neighborhood. Taking the rapper out of the ghetto leaves the physical ghetto intact. And it is this structural reality—not the resulting cultural responses—that represents the root of the problem.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
B.o.B. can best be described as “Andre 3000 Lite.” He’s got Dre’s swagger minus the eccentric style, the flow minus the lyrical proficiency. And that’s not so much a dig at B.o.B. as it is a testament to Andre 3K’s prolific lyrical genius; B.o.B. has real musical talent, no doubt about it. His sound straddles the line between vapid hipster rapper and introspective conscious rapper, with a little bit of southern twang and carefree drug references thrown in for flavor. He was most notably featured in XXL’s “Freshman Ten” issue, a list of the hottest, buzz-worthy rappers to watch out for in 2009.
Yet B.o.B. is a cut above the rest, particularly in regard to his fascinating engagement with issues of feminism. I know, I was a bit shocked when I first heard it too. What’s especially unique here is that B.o.B. embraces themes of feminism, rather than adopting the full “feminist rapper” label. It’s refreshing to listen to a thoughtful guy rap about issues that matter to him—be they feminism, the unforgiving hip hop blogs, or, sometimes, getting high—without the excessive grandstanding usually associated with so-called “conscious” hip hop.
In his new mixtape, B.o.B. vs. Bobby Ray, B.o.B. delivers one of the more poignant depictions of female exploitation on his aptly titled track “Camera.” Verse one profiles an aspiring model that sleeps with photographers and producers in the hopes of making it big in the entertainment industry. She’s used and abused, objectified and exploited, promised stardom but ultimately dropped like a bad habit. Verse two turns to a small-town girl that moves to Atlanta to become a dual threat actress/singer. She tries her best to keep up with the speed of the city, hoping one day to bask in fame’s limelight. Using music videos as her breakthrough medium, she falls victim to the darkest sexual exploitation of the music industry:
She from a town far away,Kinda makes you view hip hop videos in a different light, no?
Then she moved to the A to go to Georgia State
Then she got turned out, yeah she dropped out
Now she’s an actress that wants to sing,
But aint nothing pretty,
She’s just tryin to mimick the life in the city,
Trying to keep up with the limelight-livin
Just wishin, for one audition, the video position
But that aint how she used to be,
At 2 or 3, now she’s a hoochie freak,
So, that aint what the viewers see, just another cutie with a booty, booty.
Verse three discusses a high school dropout with a young child, struggling to support her family. Much like her own father, her son’s Dad is (all too predictably) absent. After working at Wendy’s for two years, she turns to stripping to make quick cash: “Twerking that bunn-ay/ Just to make her some daycare mon-ay/ And to pay for the rent bill month-lay.” Fifteen years later, she’s past her prime and unable to find work in the entertainment industry. Literally stripped of her innocence, she’s ashamed to look her son in the eyes.
The chorus, taken out of context, could have been lifted from any misogynistic rap song on the radio today: “Watch, her take of her bra/ Posing like star/ Smiling for the camera, camera/ Aw, she’s a movie star/ With that runway walk/ Just smiling for that camera, camera.” But in the context of the three young women B.o.B. vividly portrays, the hook paints a depressing picture of exploitation and despair. It’s a tragic picture, to be sure, but one that captures female martyrdom beautifully and respectfully.
These feminist undertones are not uncommon in B.o.B.’s music. In another mixtape, Hi! My Name is B.o.B., the rapper puts a Lifetime movie to song—and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. In “Room 34,” B.o.B. offers a compelling story about a young high school girl, wooed by an older classmate. The young man charms her with his smile, offering her a ride home from school. His flirting makes her feel special, obscuring his nefarious intentions. What happens next is heartbreaking: He invites himself into her home, only to overpower her and repeatedly rape her. Beaten and battered, she blames herself for the vicious attack. With the grief too difficult to bear, she ultimately commits suicide by jumping from her bedroom window.
These tracks are certainly explicit, but not in a gratuitously sexual sense. Rather, the words B.o.B. puts to song are explicitly emotional. They convey a feeling of empathy for women that, surprisingly, doesn’t feel contrived or suffocating. To delve into the raw exploitation and degradation associated with being a woman in the entertainment industry—or simply being a woman, period—is nothing short of remarkable. And it’s all the more impressive when it comes from the mouth of one of hip-hop’s most talented up-and-coming rappers. Every now and then your favorite rapper probably cuts a lone “conscious” track buried in a sea of nonsense. It might be a song about his mother, or an ode to a past love. But, more often than not, it’s a distraction from the artist’s overall message rather than a central theme. With B.o.B., feminism appears to be a dominant topic, carefully discussed and artfully analyzed.
B.o.B. may never reach widespread stardom. He may never be your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. But, with these strong themes, he just might be your favorite feminist’s favorite rapper.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
A few friends and readers have asked me to comment on the Sonia Sotomayor hearings. I’d love to offer some keen insights, but two things are holding me back: 1) Lindsay Graham’s comment that she’ll get the nomination, barring “a complete meltdown;” and 2) the subtle, yet increasingly salient fact that these hearings are excruciatingly boring.
To be honest, I don’t know much about Sotomayor beyond her general life story and the conservative backlash over the now infamous “wise Latina” comment. I don’t know many specifics about her record beyond the Ricci case, and I’ve never read any of her writings or heard any of her speeches in full.
That said, two things struck me as I watched the hearings: First, Sotomayor has a deft knowledge of the law. My lawyer readers might disagree, but in the eyes of the common social scientist, she obviously knows her stuff. She seemed to have a clear, pointed answer for every question. She didn’t let any senator challenge her expertise, nor did she let anyone bully her into a corner. She let her legal competence speak for itself.
Second, she has a remarkable grasp of the English language—and I don’t mean that in reference to her immigrant background. As the senators fumbled over their prepared questions, speaking in shoddy grammar, Sotomayor spoke with elegant clarity. Look, I have trouble ordering a pizza without half a dozen “um’s” and “uh’s” thrown into my broken sentences. Yet Sotomayor never once—in over two hours of testimony that I watched—sounded garbled or incoherent. She also never spoke with her hands, an unfortunate habit many of us in academia share. She looked cool, calm, and collected; strong, authoritative and poised. She looked—and sounded—like a Supreme Court Justice.
At no point did Sotomayor’s testimony elude to any biases. Yet that seems to be the very point of contention in the weeks leading up to these hearing. Critics on the right—perhaps captured best in Pat Buchanan’s racist, asinine, factually dishonest op-ed—have called her integrity (and intelligence) into question, worried that she’ll ruin the Supreme Court’s long run of impartiality. We wouldn’t want Sotomayor to sully the Supreme Court’s magnanimous, upstanding record with her reckless impartiality, now would we?
Jamelle offers a particularly insightful take on this logic:
What pisses me off is this completely ahistorical sense on part of Republicans that the Supreme Court is and always has been a perfectly just, perfectly impartial institution. For most of this country’s history, the default perspective on the nation’s highest court has been that of wealthy white men, and accordingly, the court’s rulings have reflected the biases and prejudices of its members. The court’s Dred Scott ruling, for instance, clearly reflects the fact that a majority of the Court’s members at the time were slaveholders. Likewise, the Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson clearly reflects a group of men who had – like most of their peers – internalized a narrative of black inferiority and black “difference.”The problem here is not (necessarily) that Sotomayor’s impartiality is being questioned and scrutinized. I honestly think any candidate for this position would receive similar treatment, though maybe not to the same extent. That said, the real problem with throwing around this concept of “impartiality” is the ahistorical assumption that the Court was ever, in fact, impartial. There’s nothing wrong with wanting an impartial Court, but romanticizing the integrity of past decisions is woefully naive.
The notion that the Supreme Court has always been fair and balanced fails to adequately problematize the decisions of past Courts, which just so happen to be comprised solely of white males. Whitewashing the past takes the impartiality of previous (white male) Justices for granted, a re-reading of history that obscures the reality of gross bias in past Courts. In fact, with the Court's new gender, ethnic, and racial makeup, there's a strong argument that they're more impartial today, identity politics notwithstanding. But as new faces enter the Court, challenging racial and gender hegemony, “impartiality” all of a sudden becomes a pressing concern. And with Sotomayor, the concern isn't necessarily ideological; rather, folks on the Right are worried that her ethnic and gender identity will somehow cloud her judicial vision and influence her sense of justice. Spare me. There's no white male monopoly on impartiality.
Amherst College has been one of the front runners in admission and financial aid policies for the last decade. It was the first and/or one of the firsts to go need blind for students whose families make below certain income levels and to offer “no loan” packages to students who come from families who earn less than certain amounts of money. Amherst made history yet again the past two years with two major announcements: No loans to all students and need-blind admissions for international students. It does all this with (before the crisis) an almost two billion dollar endowment. Again, Amherst has been a front-runner in admissions and financial aid. Harvard, with the largest endowment (fifteen times larger than Amherst’s) Yale coming in “close” behind, do not operate under the same principles though their packages are substantially better than other institutions. In fact, only Princeton, Davidson, and now Williams are, I think, the only schools that are now true “no loan institutions.”
The problem now is that now that the financial belt has to be squeezed a little tighter because of the economic climate, people are, if I may use a phrase from home, showing their true colors. As with other schools, Amherst has enacted a number of financial restrictions to save money. For instance, they are in a pseudo-hiring freeze and there will be no raises for faculty or staff this year. These latter two actions are actually quite common for institutions today. I leaned that both President Tony Marx and Dean of Faculty Greg Call reduced their personal salaries until better financial times. The negative side, however, does not come from draconian, top down measures to save money like cutting departments or laying off large number of workers, rather the worst response has been that of a group of faculty members.
To save their money they want to, one may say, roll back time. More specifically, instead of exploring more options, according to some, they want to reduce the moneys dedicated to admission and financial aid, the two departments that make Amherst what it is today, the two departments that keeps Amherst in the news more so than any other, the two departments that uphold the alma mater, terras irradient, more so than any other. This group of faculty wants to restructure how financial aid is done, not universally, but in a targeted manner.
I quote a student who alerted the student body to these suggestions and who has rallied other students to stand against, not this group of faculty, but their recommendations and suggestions:
“In response to the ABC report, which recommended only small changes to financial aid targets, a group of faculty members have circulated [a] letter [sic] amongst themselves to suggest to the Trustees that we end need-blind financial aid for international students, stop recruiting in areas with high aid-eligible students (a.k.a. poor students), and start giving out loans. Although they preach sharing the sacrifice throughout the Amherst community, they don't voice any sacrifice they are willing to make."
Some may consider the latter move racist. I do not necessarily (but reserve the right to revisit this). However, I would be mistaken if I do no state explicitly that such a policy change would have disproportionate effects on minority students who are, just like the rest of the population, disproportionately from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than their white peers, and low-income white students who seem always to be left out of these conversations. With respect to minority students, blacks in particular, this is not mere posturing as in thier book Black Wealth/White Wealth, Sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, studying the sociology of wealth, has shown that even blacks and whites with comparable levels of education and incomes have different levels of wealth with blacks being disadvantaged because of historical and current racial policies. Naturally, this disparity is even more evident the lower one goes down the socioeconomic ladder. Latinos face similar obstacles as well and low-income whites, again, are absent from many of these discusions though both groups do slighlty better than low-income blacks. What I argue, as has been done before, is that such a “nonracial,” economic policy change would surely decrease the number of minority student you attract to your school. To not send admissions officers to disadvantaged areas, to those areas where students, despite being socially isolated, manage to make it, but still host information sessions at Choate, Exeter, Andover and the like will have racial ramifications. Of this, I have no doubt. Again, the intent, I believe, is not racist but the effect will be, with the blunt of the impact being absorbed by those economically disadvantaged minority and white students.
The faculty should ask themselves would Amherst still lead the country in being home to students from Questbridge, arguably the best enrichment program in the nation that helps students get into top colleges without having them leave thier neighborhoods? Would Amherst still lead the nation in Pell Grant recipients? Although focusing on Amherst and recruiting students from disadvantaged populations, this is a much larger problem. We have seen how, because of budget cuts, schools seem to be the most affected. I wrote about the financial times and the changing role of summer schools. But that spoke elementary, middle, and high school education. This related issue is that of the next step: acquiring the credentials needed to acquire middle class jobs (those this is not guaranteed anymore given that the BA is the new high school diploma). Amherst is less than 2000 students but it has the endowment of a much larger institution. The question this raises is what are other, less endowed schools doing whose financial aid and admission policies are not as generous?
With respect to the reversal of the need-blind admission for international students, (as above with respect to the issue of class and race) I am hesitant to come down on either side of labeling such a claim xenophobic. “Xenophobic,” like racist, is a loaded term and labeling this suggestion as xenophobic is complicated. I withhold judgment until conversations, discussions, or debates are held. My lack of familiarity with international issues and tensions with respect to international students and colleges are restraining my judgment. Thoughts are welcome.
Nevertheless, this matter brings up an interesting question. Should many of these elite institutions with very large endowments, that are need-blind for U.S. citizens and residents, remain need-aware for international students? Although this would cost slightly more, it is possible. Unfortunately, this was not even on the table before many of these institutions suffered due to the crisis. In this shrinking and increasingly globalized world, can we afford to keep international students at bay, especially when we preach attaining global perspectives and send students abroad? Should these institutions really show favoritism for U.S. citizens and residents? These are questions that most schools will probably not wrestle with for some time.
I write this post not to bash Amherst or the thoughts of this group of faculty members. Amherst is my alma mater and has opened many doors for me. As I was quoted saying before, it allowed me to rewrite the narrative of my life. However, during these times I propose that we all pay closer attention to the ways in which our alma maters—and colleges more generally—are slimming down their expenditures from their endowments and speak out against policies that will disproportionately disadvantage (in this case in admissions and financial aid) already disadvantaged populations.
Friday, July 10, 2009
It may not be overtly apparent, but I can be a pretty romantic guy. I like to surprise my girlfriend with little gifts, and every now and then I even like to take her out for a nice dinner. And, if the mood strikes, I might even lean over the table and give her a light kiss, expressing my affection. Nothing gratuitous at all. As innocent as holding hands.
Apparently this brazen sign of affection is frowned upon in El Paso, Texas. Well, that is, if you’re gay.
Yesterday, the El Paso Times reported that five gay men were kicked out of Chico's Tacos restaurant when two members of their party embraced with a peck on the lips. The restaurant’s security staff informed the men that their fine establishment didn’t allow “that faggot stuff,” and promptly escorted them off the premises. Well, one member of the group, Carlos Diaz de Leon, called the police to file a report of discrimination.
Surely El Paso’s finest would step in and rectify the situation—or so you’d hope.
Well, apparently not. When the El Paso police showed up, they sided with the restaurant, informing the five men that it’s illegal for two men to kiss in public. According to De Leon, the men were told they could have been cited for “homosexual conduct.” The cops let them off easy by only kicking them out of the restaurant, you see. I mean, they could have been criminally charged for their public display of affection. That is, their gay public display of affection.
Unbeknownst to the El Paso police officer on the scene—a man clearly well versed in the law—the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Texas’s asinine, archaic, despicable sodomy laws unconstitutional six years ago in Lawrence v. Texas. I guess these minor changes—you know, Supreme Court cases—take a while to filter down to local police districts. Even so, Lawrence v. Texas merely upheld the right to sexual privacy—thus it might be reasonable to assume that “homosexual conduct” (whatever that is) might be illegal in public settings in Texas. This is Texas, after all. That might be a reasonable argument, if in fact the city of El Paso hadn’t passed an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation by businesses open to the public in 2003. Somebody must have forgotten to give the El Paso Police Department the memo.
As the facts stand today, no official report was filed, one of the security guards has contacted a lawyer, and the ACLU of Texas released an official statement condemning the incident. The assistant manager of the restaurant refused to comment, and the El Paso Police Department responded to press inquiries by noting that a more appropriate charge for what happened would “probably be criminal trespass.”
There’s a real tension here between a private business open to the public, state and local anti-discrimination legislation, and individual-level homophobia. Blatant refusal of services based on sexual orientation is supposedly barred in most states, yet private businesses have the supposed right to refuse those very same services for any reason they choose. Yet the business’s openness to the public makes any such refusal suspicious, if not outright discriminatory. The compromise in most states seems to be relatively straightforward: You can’t adopt a policy that explicitly discriminates against individuals based on race, sex, or orientation, and any policy you do adopt must be applied uniformly and equally to individuals regardless of race, sex or orientation.
Still, we can’t exactly legislate against homophobia. Systematic discrimination, yes. But with individual-level prejudices, fears, and disrespect, things get a little fuzzy. A new law helps change public perceptions, sure, but a decree from above doesn’t necessarily change individual-level mentalities on the ground. That's just a reality of prejudice and discrimination. An aggravating and sad reality, to be sure.
But even if we fail to legislate thoughts and beliefs, the least we can do is follow the letter of the law. Apparently the El Paso police missed that memo, too.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
One city is the site of a watershed moment during the Civil Rights Movement. It was in this city that Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney—an interracial group of civil rights activists—died at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer, 1964. Coincidentally, this was also the city where Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 campaign for the White House, embracing a racially charged rhetoric of “states’ rights.” The historical legacy of this city stands as a testament to the violence, tragedy, and racism that epitomized the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1960s.
The other city is home to the Liberty Bell. This city, colloquially referred to as the “city of brotherly love,” gave birth to the American Revolution. It was our nation’s first capital, the site of American Independence. This city carries a rich, celebrated history—a history rooted in patriotism, freedom, and lofty ideals of equality.
In which city did white patrons leave a swimming pool in protest as a group of young black campers entered? In which city were these young black children denied access to the open-membership “private” pool, even after paying the $1,900 membership fee?
I’ll give you a hint—it wasn’t in Mississippi.
This past week, The Valley Swim Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania revoked the membership of 60 black children from The Creative Steps Day Camp. Their reason? "There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club," said John Duesler, Club President. That’s not a paraphrase—it’s a direct quote, from a written statement no less. The racist vitriol of this Freudian slip (I don’t think he intended the literal connotation of “complexion”) goes well beyond the club’s discriminatory membership policy. Indeed, the racist logic of Duesler is emblematic of the prevalent, pernicious, dangerously appealing ideology of laissez-faire racism.
A new political culture has effectively barred the acceptance of 1960s era Jim Crow racism—a racist ideology grounded in biological explanations of black inferiority. However the fall of Jim Crow was accompanied by a more passive, yet equally problematic ideology of black disadvantage. The general public now accepts cultural explanations of black inferiority, citing blacks’ collective lack of mainstream values, norms, and behaviors as the source of their deprivation. This is exactly the rhetoric adopted by Duesler and The Valley Swim Club—a rhetoric rooted in the unfounded fear that these black kids simply won’t know how to act right.
This kind of blind discrimination is nothing new, nor is it uncommon, particularly in Northern cities. Segregation—be it explicitly enforced or implemented through proxies and euphemisms—is an everyday reality. Our neighborhoods are segregated. Our nightlife is segregated. Our schools are segregated. Our public beaches and parks are segregated. Economic enterprise and labor markets are segregated. This is not a new development—in fact segregation and racial inequality have been an ever-present facet of American political, economic, and social institutions since, well, as far back as my historical knowledge goes.
Segregation, racial inequality, and racist social policies are not phenomena relegated to the Deep South, nor are they relics of a distant past. Discrimination is embedded in lending practices, ingrained in residential choices, entrenched in the criminal justice system, and woven into the very fabric of our labor markets. The incident in Philadelphia sheds light on an everyday struggle for communities of color—a struggle that most certainly did not end on November 5, 2008.
Some may argue that we are living in a post-racial society. Some may argue that racial discrimination is a thing of the past. Some may argue that racism is fading.
Try making those arguments to the 60 campers of The Creative Steps Day Camp.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
(Picture is of construction site for new complex to house Costco in East Harlem.)
About a month back, I wrote on Costco’s plans to open up a new store in Harlem. Of course, there was a catch: The store refused to take food stamps, even though nearly 30,000 East Harlem residents receive such assistance. A corporate spokesperson cited the cost of new technology—you know, the same technology that the corner bodegas have installed without a hitch. The same technology that the state provides free of charge.
Unfortunately, I stopped following this case. Fortunately, some of my readers didn’t. It turns out that Costco is beginning to fold under local political pressure, unfavorable media attention, and, well, the recession. Good. In two New York City neighborhoods—Astoria, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn—Costco will being accepting food stamps on a trial basis. If the transition runs smoothly, the Harlem store will adopt the new corporate policy.
Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that a Costco membership remains $50/year. It goes without saying that this price tag might be a bit steep for some food stamp recipients. That said, I definitely know folks that have been on welfare that can very easily swing 50 bucks a year. With the right information, I really think a substantial amount of Harlem residents will benefit from Costco’s services. Either way, the material effect of Costco in Harlem—in the form of employment opportunities and/or services—has yet to be determined.
Still, this is a positive development, if only symbolic. As Tony has written about a couple of times here at Social Science Lite, symbolic gestures are important. They shouldn’t be treated as the end to inequality, but they’re certainly a start.
Monday, July 6, 2009
Harvard economist Edward Glaeser offered one of the more asinine metropolitan policy editorials I’ve ever read in Friday’s Boston Globe. Glaeser argues that federal transportation funding should be focused on places that “need it”—namely, dense localities with congestion problems. The Obama administration’s plans to construct regional transportation systems in the South don’t fit Glaeser’s criteria for necessary transit, since, I guess, they aren’t in the densely populated Northeast.
But the goal of public transit isn’t simply about alleviating congestion—or, at least it shouldn’t be. This is a terribly passive strategy of urban planning, simply following residential patterns and retroactively rigging the structure of transportation to maximize efficient mobility. It denies the reality that some people need better access to transportation because they have no other means to get around. If you don’t live in a densely populated or resource-rich neighborhood, there’s a high probability that you don’t have great access to public transportation. And there’s an equally high probability that your socioeconomic status and social/geographic isolation necessitates sound public transportation options in order to find employment or other social services.
Public transit exists to transport the public, and should therefore reflect the transportation needs of the populace. So, if residents in under-populated urban neighborhoods are without adequate access to public transportation, these are the exact areas where light rail lines need to be built. This really isn’t a difficult concept to grasp. Public transportation should be expanded to areas where the public needs transportation. Glaeser’s analysis, ignorant to this basic definition of mass transit, represents utility maximization gone horribly awry. Something is very clearly—and very noticeably—missing in his writing.
Let me put this bluntly: The economic solutions that Glaser proposes are ethically and morally vacant. They deny actual people humanity beyond the realm of statistical variables. With Glaeser, social realities are made into vague abstractions. Discussions of “housing” somehow lose sight of the fact that, well, “housing” boils down to “people that live in houses.” Similarly, his discussion of “mass transit” in the Globe is without an acknowledgement of who exactly the “masses” that require “mass transit” are.
Glaeser opens with the line “Mass transit needs mass to work,” implying that mass transit construction follows the masses and should simply reflect where the most people are. With the initial growth of suburbia in the 1950s, and the continued pioneerism into exurbia today, we know this to be unequivocally false. Federally subsidized highway construction created a structure that filtered housing and commercial development into certain (racially exclusive) regions. Mass transit didn’t respond to some nascent need for suburban sprawl. No, transit construction manufactured popular demand. Historically, transit has rarely been a response to popular need, and has instead laid the groundwork for residential patterns and determined the geography of opportunity.
As Richard Layman details in his blog Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, metropolitan transportation policy shouldn’t be considered a zero-sum game. We need mass transit to alleviate congestion, sure, but we also need it to connect socially isolated folks to middle class institutions and areas of employment. Glaeser’s proposal would further marginalize communities with already low baselines of collective efficacy and political power. It’s places like Detroit—a city with severe social isolation and a profound disconnect from its neighboring suburbs—that desperately need public transit options and energy efficient light rail systems. But, of course, Glaeser would never support mass transit in Detroit. He doesn’t even understand why anyone still lives there.
If we take Glaeser’s suggestions at face value—following the masses and easing their mobility—we will undoubtedly reinforce the current ecological structure of stratification and inequality. In other words, such a policy would keep poor, isolated populations poor and isolated.
At the end of his editorial, Glaser succinctly argues, “A rational transportation program would target money to the areas that have the most congestion [emphasis added]." Maybe so. But that certainly isn’t the most equitable policy decision we could make.
Friday, July 3, 2009
Legendary Detroit Tiger Alan Trammell made a career playing baseball at Old Tiger Stadium. But as the stadium’s demolition reached a close last week, the legendary player turned casual spectator, standing by as the stands came crashing down and the field turned to rubble.
There’s something profoundly touching about this photo. Something tragically beautiful about a man peering through the fences, saying goodbye to the structure that once defined his life. Something that is almost too moving for words. Something deeply depressing, yet surprisingly inspiring. Something debilitating, yet invigorating.
A lot of “de-” words epitomize Rust Belt decay: depopulation, decentralization, deindustrialization. Common images include abandoned homes, vacant land, and the jobless. When most of us think of cities like Detroit, we imagine an urban abyss. When many of us envision the post-industrial Midwest, we picture an urban wasteland.
Yet, in a very real sense, this photo captures urban decline better than any other image in the popular imagination could. As policymakers debate urban “shrinkage,” this is the image we need to consider. This is the scene we need to recall as our civic leaders use an army of bulldozers to plow through under-populated urban neighborhoods. This is the moment we need to remember when we debate what to do in America’s cities. This moment, this player turned spectator, captures the gravity and magnitude of urban decline. This photo sets the tone for our discussions, and study, of urban America.
The face of urban decline isn’t really a face. No, it’s an old ball player, watching his former stadium crumble to pieces. The contradictions of this photo—a former star peering through a fence, a historical landmark turned to rubble, a touching moment emerging from decay—define urban decline. The rise and fall of an American city, captured in one brief, fleeting moment. A picture almost too moving for words.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
The article goes on to highlight the fact that many schools are not using the money to keep their doors open. It does not say explicitly what the money is being used for but from the comments of school board officials, the money is being used to keep schools up to snuff for the next full, academic school year. In other words, school budgets have been cut so much that even with the current stimulus package, the moneys must be dedicated to activities during the actual school year with little money left over to run summer school.
One issue that comes to mind is overcrowding. The article does not address the fact that summer school for public schools has went through a transition in the last two decades, irrespective of the economic climate. The article speaks directly to the state of summer school in Florida (but also includes discussion of North Carolina, California, and Cincinnati) so I too will speak to the transition in the state with focus on Miami Dade County as an example. Summer school used to be an option: if you wanted to go, you went. If you didn’t, you didn’t. Now, summer school is conditionally-compulsory. It is compulsory if the student wishes to pass as it is restricted to only those who would be promoted to the next level if they attended passed summer school (moving from elementary to middle, middle to high, high to the “real world”). From the combination of No Child Left Behind (and its emphasis on testing) and the current financial state of our schools, there appears to be a funnel effect at certain points in our schools. There are points in the public school life course where “traffic” slows down, not necessarily to a crawl, but definitely to a slow enough pace to cause problems. With summer school closed, there is no safety net to catch students who fall by the wayside or fall off during the year. Those students unable to attend summer school are then required to repeat the entire year even if they fail just one class.
I am not saying that summer school should be used as only a safety net to “get people along” in school for surely both students and teachers need to get their work done during the year so that the summer is used for advancement, not repetition. There are larger issues at play to be sure: the public/private school divide, teacher qualifications, funding for extracurricular activities and the like. My intentions her are just to add another layer of analysis to what summer school means for some student not highlighted in Dillon’s analysis. I am not sure how representative these rules for promotion are for other school districts. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, however, is the fifth largest district in the country so, even if at a “local” level, the impact of such financial constraints has a large impact.
I would also be if I did not point that Dillon falls into that always troubling language trap:
“But this year Florida’s budget crisis has gutted summer school. Brevard classrooms are shuttered, and students like 11-year-old Uvenka Jean-Baptiste, whose mother works in a nursing home, are spending their summer days at home, surfing television channels or loitering at a mall.”Am I being oversensitive or is this use of loitering colored? Of all the words or phrases that could capture, of all the words or phrases that connotes the connection between being at the mall and one’s age like “hanging out,” “chillin,’” “walking,” “shopping,” or something else, he chose “loitering.” I don’t know why this comment took me back to the coverage of Katrina where certain people scavenged for food while others stole.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
In last week’s New York Times, Jeremy Peters wrote a thought-provoking article about the lack of visible leadership in the gay rights movement. While Peters is generally fast and loose (read: weak) with his historical analysis, his general point seems accurate: there really isn’t any national spokesperson for gay rights. Sure, Harvey Milk has become somewhat of a household name as of late, but we’d be naive to think that he had any national presence before Gus Van Sant’s award-winning biopic. Not to belittle Milk’s achievements, but let’s be real, he was only a city supervisor.
In the Times article, Peters compares the leadership dynamics of the contemporary gay rights movement with those of past movements for civil rights. According to Peters, social movements of yesteryear were generally associated with a single national leader: Frederick Douglass was the face of the abolitionist movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. defined the Civil Rights Movement, and Betty Freidan epitomized the modern women’s movement. The point here is not that social movements were in fact lead by individuals, but that the general American public looked to these leaders as surrogates for their respective constituencies. Put another way, the media knew exactly who to call for soundbites.
There is no such prominent figure in today’s battles for gay rights. No leader to turn to for direction. No individual to call on for an official statement of purpose or a list of goals. But, is this a bad thing? As usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates offered his own insightful commentary, reflecting on the gay rights movement’s lack of visible leadership:
“And for that, I think my gay brethren should be thankful. There's nothing like media anointing someone as your spokesperson. Don't let them Jesse Jackson you. No disrespect to Jesse. But the notion that one person, in these individualized times, should speak for whole populations is crazy. I think, ultimately, this will be for the best.”
Ta-Nehisi makes a really astute point here. It would be problematic, and perhaps detrimental, for the gay community to define themselves through a single national spokesperson. Associating your movement with a single leader means associating yourself with all of his or her faults, inconsistencies, and contradictions. When an individual represents an entire movement, all of their flaws reflect back on the movement, whether movement participants like it or not.
But there’s another layer of concern here that also deserves analysis. Minority populations are particularly susceptible to criticisms that highlight negative aspects of individuals as indicative of the whole group. Single acts of transgression or immaturity become evidence, or proof, of the cultural inferiority of entire populations. When a black man commits murder, he’s making his entire race look bad, contributing to existing stereotypes. But when a white man commits murder, his act is an individual transgression, rather than a group characteristic. Take acts of domestic terrorism, like this past month’s murder of George Tiller. Or Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. No one argued that these actions exemplified a characteristic of an entire racial group, as if domestic terrorism is some sort of a white male trait.
Herein lies the structure of oppression in America. With minority populations, individual-level flaws are interpreted as group-level deficiencies. This common logical fallacy fosters and legitimizes racism and other forms of discrimination. By contrast, when, say, a white male commits some sort of atrocity, his actions are seen as aberrations rather than the norm.
That is not to say that the gay rights movement is better off without formal leadership. Indeed, sustainable social movements require strong leadership and efficient organization. But these leaders don’t need to be the go-to voice when the media is looking for a comment. Sure, a movement needs strong leaders, but maybe they should stay behind the scenes. Maybe the message of the movement would be more powerful if defined by a collective identity, rather than a single national leader.
Still, anointing a national spokesperson may be inevitable. If this happens, the gay rights movement may want to take Ta-Nehisi Coates’ advice, and resist getting Jesse Jackson-ed. No disrespect to Jesse, of course.