Archive for the ‘Race’ Category


Thursday, July 20th, 2006

I had an interesting conversation with an acquaintance the other day.  She was talking about how she had prepped her daughter for the first day of camp, explaining that her daughter doesn’t cope well with loud, chaotic settings, and is also quite short.  So, they’ve been going over strategies, such as bringing a quiet toy to play with, and telling the other kids how old she is when they meet.  I commented that my son, D, is also short for his age, but that I don’t think he’s noticed.

It’s hard for me to know whether it would be helpful to try to give D some social skills advice before he starts kindergarten  — try to learn the other kids’ names, don’t sit there waving your hand every single time the teacher asks a question.  As a parent, there’s a desire to protect your child from obvious traps.  And yet, it’s not clear that such warnings would be helpful.  D’s much more of an extrovert than I ever was, and makes friends easily with kids on the playground.  He’s convinced that everyone he meets wants to be his friend, and his belief often makes it true.

There’s also the complicating factor that, based on the school’s demographics, D is likely to be either the only white kid in his class, or one of just a couple.  And he may well be the only Jewish kid in the school.  So, he’s going to stick out.  I can’t help but worry that it’s going to make any social sins he commits much more obvious.

Any thoughts, stories, suggestions?

TBR: I’m Every Woman

Tuesday, March 14th, 2006

This week’s book is I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood and Work, by Lonnae O’Neal Parker. It’s the book about a black woman’s perspective on the whole work-family thing that was mentioned in the Times article I discussed last month.

It’s an interesting book.  At times it delivers exactly what it promises — insight into the ways that work and family issues play out differently for black women.  Parker says that she never realized that some women feel guilt for working outside the home until she was in her twenties, as all the women in her families had worked for pay.  She writes about the extra time that she needs to carve out of her day to comb and braid her daughters’ hair, and illustrates her stories with quotes from the blues, R&B, and hip hop.

Parker also offers insights that cut across racial lines:

"I no longer ask the people around me to give me time.  I do not know if it is fair to ask them to go against their most basic nature, which is to want me there, available for everything they need me for, for as long as they can have me.  Instead I do the hard work of being completely clear about what I need.  Then they don’t have to give me anything.  They just have to respect the boundaries I insist on maintaining.  It can still be a tough sell, but at least I’ve got half the battle won."

But at other points the book wanders and loses focus.  The long discussion of 1960s television shows left me cold.  One chapter simply reprints Parker’s Post magazine article about her "white" cousin who lives with her.  It was interesting — I remember finding it interesting when it was first published — but doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the book.  Another chapter includes a random paragraph about Michelle Obama that seems to be a left-over remnant from a section that got edited out.  At times Parker can’t resist including every tangential bit of history that she knows about a subject.

In several places, Parker discusses the slave history of black women in the United States, and points out that her burden is light compared to what her foremothers endured.  How can she complain about juggling the demands of writing for the Post and caring for her family when women worked from sunup to dark in the fields, and stole moments with their children at night?  When women routinely lost their children to the slave trade and death?

It’s a brutal standard.  Given the horrors of history, and the suffering of millions worldwide today, who of us has any right to complain?  Certainly not me.  And such comparisons are often used as a silencing maneuver.  But Parker uses these stories as a source of strength, telling herself that she can handle whatever fate brings to her.  And I’m sure she can.

Race, class, and opting out

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

Moxie more or less tagged me to respond to this New York Times article, about upper-income black mothers, and their reactions to the whole work-family debate.

Jill at Feministe gives the Times credit for talking about race, but complains that once again, the discussion is limited to upper-income college-educated professionals.  She’s right, but the article is clearly framed in the context of the Times’ obsession with "the opt-out revolution" which is all about upper-income women with lots of choices.  So I’m willing to cut them some slack on that.

Overall, I do think that class probably matters more than race in determining who stays home.  I know Lareau deliberately studied a racially diverse population and found that parenting styles didn’t vary much across racial groups, holding class constant.  Edin and Kefales also didn’t find much racial differences.  (I think ethnicity/immigration status probably does matter; there are definitely ethnic groups where there’s still great cultural pressure against moms of young children working.)

Of course, "holding class constant" is a heck of an assumption.  As I’ve discussed before, stay-at-home parents are concentrated at the very high and very low income ranges.  And there are relatively few African-American families with a single wage-earner making over $100,000 a year.  And even holding income constant, African-Americans have significantly lower assets, making relying on a single income more risky.

The article suggests that there’s more support/pressure for African-American women, especially those who have higher education, to work outside the home.  That may well be true.  But it’s also true that, as Cashin argues, even well-off African-Americans are more likely to live places with higher crime rates, and worse public schools.  So that may provide an incentive to have a parent at home to keep an eye on things.  I don’t know what the net effect is.

Dreams from My Father

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

Today’s book is Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.  He wrote it shortly after he graduated from law school, when he attracted attention as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and it was reprinted in 2004 after his stunning keynote address at the Democratic Convention. 

I was a big fan of Obama before reading this book (see here and here), and it confirmed my enthusiasm for him.  He writes eloquently of the contradictions of his life — a black man whose only family as a child was white (he only met his father once, when he was 10, and didn’t meet the Kenyan side of his family until he was an adult), a community organizer who had instant credibility in inner city Chicago because of the color of his skin, but who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia.  And he recognizes the contradictions of others’ lives, but points them out without judgement.  He’s capable of both acknowledging how important Harold Washington’s election as Mayor of Chicago was to many African-Americans and of pointing out how little business as usual changed as a result.

The American Prospect has a cover story on Obama this month.  It notes that he has been — deliberately — low profile in the Senate over the past year, but that he clearly dreams big.  The part I found most interesting was about his ability to disagree with people, to vote against them, and still leave them feeling respected and listened to.  That’s a rare, and powerful, talent.  I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Obama does when he’s no longer worrying about stepping on his colleagues’ toes.

TBR: The Shame of the Nation

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005

This week, I’m writing about Jonathan Kozol’s latest book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.  I guess I should begin by saying that I agree with probably 90 percent of what Kozol says in this book.  I agree that the inadequate education offered to the vast majority of inner-city students is a national embarassment and should be a source of outrage to all Americans, not just those whose kids are stuck attending those schools.  I think it is absurd to take the kids who come to school with the least family resources, put them in overcrowded underfunded classrooms with the least experienced teachers, and then blame them for their failure to pass standardized tests.   I share Kozol’s deep skepticism about the "scripted" teaching programs that are being offered as panaceas to lift up those test scores. 

And yet, I found myself repeatedly arguing with Kozol as I read the book.  He pushes his argument to such extremes that I couldn’t follow him all the way.  Yes, it’s terrible that kids are attending schools with asbestos coming out of the walls and stopped up toilets.  But Kozol seems to be equally outraged over kids going to classes in trailer classrooms — which aren’t ideal, but aren’t terrible, and are common in a good number of solidly middle class school districts too.  He talks about the beautiful and expensive new building provided for Stuyvesant High School in New York, while other schools in the city were falling apart, and points out that only about 3 percent of the students at Stuyvesant are black or Hispanic.  But he doesn’t acknowledge, even in passing, that about half of Stuyvesant students are Asian, many from low-income families.

I was also frustrated that Kozol never made a clear case for why he thinks that it’s so important for black and Hispanic students to have white classmates.  He devotes a lot of effort to proving how segregated many urban classrooms are — most notably, observing that if you want to find a segregated school in America, you should look for one named after Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King.  But is the problem that the schools are (largely) segregated, or that they’re lousy schools?  Is integration worth fighting for in its own right, or only as a means to improving schools for poor minority kids?  Kozol clearly believes the former, but he doesn’t provide an argument for it that will convince anyone who doesn’t already share his views.

I’m actually scared that Shame of the Nation will set back Kozol’s goal of integration.  If you want to convince middle-class parents to send their kids to integrated schools, publicizing the worst case scenarios of dreadful inner-city schools isn’t the way to do it.  I’m not saying we should give up on Brown v Board of Education, but if we somehow managed to provide truly excellent public schools to all students, I think a good bit of educational and residential segregation would fade away without a massive government intervention. 

TBR: The Anatomy of Racial Inequality

Tuesday, October 18th, 2005

Do you remember the song from A Chorus Line, "Dance 10, Looks 3"?  Today’s book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, by Glenn Loury, gets a rating of "Content 9, Writing 3."  Loury makes some very important arguments, but they’re buried in some of the most inpenetrable writing I’ve ever encountered.  And it’s especially frustrating since I’ve read some essays by Loury that I found both lucid and eloquent.

Loury uses the language and mathematics of classical economics to address the question of why racial disparities aren’t fading away in American society now that formal discrimination ("discrimination in contract") has largely been eliminated.  (Paul Krugman writes that there was a MIT joke that Loury’s thesis began: "This dissertation is concerned with the economics of racism. I define racism as a single-valued, continuous mapping…") Specifically, Loury argues that even if you begin with the assumptions that race is a social convention with no underlying biological reality, and that there are not overall differences in the innate capacities of the different races, it can still be rational for people to treat members of different races differently. 

An example Loury offers is of the cabbie who must decide whether to pick up a potential fare.  Loury suggests the following scenario:

  • Criminals are distributed equally often among members of two groups.
  • Criminals are less sensitive to how long they have to wait for a cab than law-abiding citizens (who can turn to alternatives like taking the bus or asking a friend for a lift — these are not good substitutes for someone planning a holdup).
  • Cabbies believe that members of group A are more likely to be criminal than members of group B, and therefore are less likely to stop for them.
  • Therefore, members of group A have to wait longer for cabs that members of group B.
  • Therefore, the law-abiding members of group A are less likely to take cabs.
  • Therefore, the subpopulation of group A who takes cabs is in fact more likely to be criminal than the subpopulation of group B.

Loury argues that similar logic could apply to various other scenarios, such as hiring workers. He then offers the question: "If the association between payoff-irrelevant markers [such as race] and payoff-relevant traits [such as criminality or work ethic] is not intrinsic, but is engendered by the nature of agent-subject interaction, then shouldn’t somebody learn what is going on and intervene to short-circuit the feedback loop producing this inequality?"  (And yes, the whole book is in this sort of awkward language.)

Loury’s answer is yes, somebody should figure out what is going on, especially governments and other large entities.  (He writes: "Consider a traffic cop sitting in a $50,000 cruiser, who has received $100,000 worth of training, is backed by a big bureaucracy, and has a computer at his fingertips that allows him, by simply reading a license plate, to instantly generate reams of information.  This is an observer with no excuse for allowing his behavior to be driven by racial generalizations.")

So why *don’t* we study these sorts of interaction more closely and figure out the intervention points that could break the cycle?  Loury argues that it’s because of persistent racial stigma.  He claims that when girls are laggging behind boys in school, people think "something must be wrong with the schools" but when blacks are lagging behind whites, people think "something must be wrong with the blacks." 

Loury is a somewhat controversial figure.  In the 1980s, he was considered a prominent black conservative, known for opposing affirmative action and arguing that self-destructive behavior was responsible for many of the problems of the black underclass.  He’s moved away from his former allies on the right, but is still far from a classical liberal — in this book he argues that the self-destructive behavior is in part a result of the distorted incentives and limited opportunities offered by a racially unequal society.  I think his ideas are worth grappling with, but the dense language of this book makes it hard to get a grip on them.

Segregation and self-reflection

Wednesday, October 5th, 2005

I wanted to thank Jody for her comment on yesterday’s post in which she talks about how Wake County’s desegregation scheme affected her choice of where to live.  I think it’s incredibly hard for people to talk about these issues, especially white people who don’t want to be labelled racist.

It made me want to talk a bit about where I live.  I just looked it up, and as of 2000, the census tract where I live was almost exactly 50/50 black/white.  But I wouldn’t call it a stable integrated community either — almost 2/3 of the population lived in a different house in 1995.  Forty years ago, it was the historic heart of black Alexandria.  Today it’s gentrifying and getting whiter, but slowly.  The change is slow both because there’s a good chunk of public housing in it, and because there are a significant number of older residents who own their own homes and aren’t moving.  But the housing prices have appreciated so much that when the older generation dies, their children are mostly taking the money and running.

We knew very little of this history when we moved here.  Our primary search strategy was that we wanted to be walking distance to the metro, and I wanted to feel safe doing so by myself at night.  We started looking along the Red line, then the Orange line, but didn’t find anything that we liked and could afford.  (And yes, everything was ludicrously cheap compared to what it’s going for now — but it still seemed like a lot of money to us.)  Our realtor convinced us to extend our search to the Blue/Yellow lines, and this was the first house we saw in Alexandria.

So, we weren’t looking at race directly when we looked for a house, but it was only a step removed.  If you look at a metro map of DC, the racial politics of transportation becomes glaringly obvious.  African-American neighborhoods are underserved by metrorail, and the disparity was even worse before the last parts of the Green line were finally opened a few years ago.  There are a few majority-black neighborhoods with metro stations (especially along the eastern branch of the Red Line), but I woudn’t feel comfortable walking alone in them at night. 

Cashin talks a little about "accidental integrationists" in her book.  She focuses on South Arlington, which is the next community over. It has a similar class mix as Alexandria, although it has less public housing and has more of a Latino population, and less of an African-American one.  I saw a lot of myself in the white parents that Cashin talked to and I found it reassuring to hear their stories.

TBR: The Failures of Integration

Tuesday, October 4th, 2005

Today’s book is The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining The American Dream, by Sheryll Cashin.  (I had actually requested it from the library, but not started it, when Bitch PhD wrote about itDorcasina is also reading it.)  It’s a very interesting book, but ultimately one that left me somewhat frustrated.

The first section of the book simply reviews the facts about residential segregation in the United States.  Little of this section is new research, but Cashin lays out the facts in a readable conversational tone.  She points out that much of what we consider "integration" consists of small number of well-off minorities living in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, as well as of neighborhoods that are in transition.    Very few whites — and even fewer whites with children — choose to live in neighborhoods that have a significant black presence, let alone that are majority black, even when such neighborhoods are less expensive than comparable majority-white neighborhoods.  (Cashin mostly discusses race in terms of black and white, although she notes that one type of stable integrated neighborhood is the multi-ethnic urban center.)  Cashin also notes that a significant number of blacks who could now afford to live in majority-white neighborhoods have chosen to live in majority-black communities where they are "more comfortable."

In the second section, Cashin makes a case that most of society is worse off because of the persistence of race and class segregation.  The ways in which poor urban minorities suffer have been well documented.  Cashin argues that middle-class whites also suffer because they have to spend more than they can afford and/or put up with horrible commutes in order to guarantee safe neighborhoods and decent schools for their kids.  (These sections echo some of the arguments from Perfect Madness and The Two-Income Trap.)  And for me, the most novel part of the book was Cashin’s discussion of how the problems of urban areas follow middle-class blacks into majority-black suburbs.  She spends a lot of time discussing Prince George’s County, MD, and why it still has mediocre schools and few retail shops, even though it is the most affluent majority-black county in the country. 

I found the third part of the book, in which Cashin discusses her hopes for the future, the weakest.  Cashin doesn’t really have much of a solution to offer to the problems she’s identified.  She calls for better enforcement of housing anti-discrimination laws, which I agree is a necessary, but not sufficient first step.  She supports school choice in the form of charter schools, but not vouchers, and talks approvingly of Raleigh’s busing scheme, but doesn’t directly address the issue that busing was a significant factor in pushing white families out of urban school districts.    She bewails our polarized political environment and the focus on suburban swing voters, but doesn’t discuss how gerrymandering penalizes communities that are geographically scattered. 

I like where Cashin’s aiming at; I just don’t see how we get from here to there.

Update: I really want to encourage anyone who is reading this in a feedreader to click over to the comments on this post and the next one.  If you’re only reading my posts, you’re missing out.

Human Equality is a Contingent Fact of History

Thursday, October 28th, 2004

Human Equality is a Contingent Fact of History” is the title of an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, originally published in Natural History magazine, and later included in his essay collection, The Flamingo’s Smile. Gould was an elegant writer, and the essay is worth reading in its entirety. (To read beyond the page in the link, increment the page number in the URL by one.)
Gould’s argument is, first, in support of human equality as not just a moral principle but a scientific fact — at least with respect to racial differences. He writes:
“Human races are not separate species (the first argument) or ancient divisions within an evolving plexus (the second argument). They are recent, poorly differentiated subpopulations of our modern species, Homo sapiens, products at most of tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and marked by remarkably small genetic separations.”
But then he goes on to point out that there’s no biological reason why this had to be the case. There could conceivably have been more than one human species, both intelligent, but with meaningful biological differences. How we would have treated each other in that case — what rights and obligations we would have — is a fascinating topic for thought.
I was reminded of this essay upon reading in paper today that researchers have found remains on Flores island of a new human species that they think lived about 10,000 years after the Neanderthals had become extinct. And it ties in with my thoughts yesterday about whether it’s a good idea to base our moral arguments on factual premises.
A small request:
Some of you may have heard about the controversy that erupted earlier this year when someone discovered that when you entered the word “Jew” into Google, the top link was to an anti-semetic site. The response, after a flurry of initial accusations, was a campaign to get people to link the word “Jew” to its entry on Wikipedia, as I just did. This is now the top result of a google search.
Well, in searching for this essay on line, I discovered that the top hit on “human equality contingent fact history” is for David Duke’s official website. Ugh. If you find this as horrifying as I do, please consider providing a countervailing link to the actual essay, like this:
Human Equality is a Contingent Fact of History
or to Gould’s page on WikiQuote, like this:
Human Equality is a Contingent Fact of History
November 4 update:
The David Duke site is no longer the first result on Google — now this site is. Not quite what I had in mind, but at least anyone coming here will be pointed to the full article.