Monday, April 28, 2014

Who Says You Can't Be Confessional in Academia?

"Americans live in a political and social milieu fundamentally shaped by the White countermovement. They talk about rights, race, and citizenship in ways that echo, recall, and affirm the countermovement, but rarely realize they are doing so. They live in a society the countermovement helped to create, but shunt any but the most caricatured memory of it to the side. Studying John Stennis compels us to confront these uncomfortable connections. He is not easily marginalized as a vanquished bigot. He lingers in the historical record, a quiet witness to a story of change and retrenchment that is not as triumphant as Americans often imagine. For me, his most basic relevance is found in the sobering awareness that the patterns and structures of my life frequently reproduce racial privilege rather than weaken it. To see oneself in Stennis is not to diminish his culpability. It is to embrace ours."

From my thesis, now available online.

(Click the link and scroll to the bottom of the page for a pdf download)

A Conservative Blogger Makes My Point For Me

Over the weekend I tried to explain why making a big deal out of incidents like the comments of Cliven Bundy or Donald Sterling without carefully putting them in context, in a perverse way actually reinforces racial inequality. Conservative blogger John Hinderaker shows us the dark underbelly of this thought process more clearly than I could have hoped:
A billionaire asks his African-American mistress not to post certain pictures on Instagram: is that what the “legacy of race and slavery and segregation” has come down to? Are the “vestiges of discrimination” so slight that this lovers’ spat is the subject of a presidential news conference? ... 
Which is another way of saying, we don’t have much in the way of actual racism or discrimination to talk about (not against African-Americans, anyway), so we have to make do with this kind of petty, personal revelation... 
This sad domestic drama has become the best evidence the Left can come up with of the ongoing legacy of slavery and discrimination. It merits denunciation by the President of the United States, who locates the old man’s sad story in the grand sweep of history.
Now, it is easy enough to say that Mr. Hinderaker is a bad guy. But we don't know him and it is quite possible that he is just ignorant. And the point is, we are making it very easy for him to be ignorant! Yesterday the president of the Center for American Progress was on Meet the Press and when asked about racism in contemporary America she babbled incoherently about how "there is still racism in America." She said literally nothing of substance. It makes me think that many liberals are just as ignorant as conservatives but know the party line is to say "racism," so they say it. Any fair-minded person watching Meet the Press yesterday would reasonably conclude that when the person claiming there is racism can't actually think of any racism, then it must not be real.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why You and I Are More Dangerous Than Cliven Bundy

(If you're not familiar with Cliven Bundy, a Google search will quickly give you the back-story.)

As political theater, the spectacular implosion of erstwhile conservative darling and welfare rancher Cliven Bundy was exquisite. But it is important to understand the limitations--indeed, the dangers--of using instances of outrageous racism as cheap entertainment. It is notable that Bundy's words immediately rendered him a toxic laughingstock. He surely remembers a time when this was not the case. Words that used to be deployed to gain power over others now only weaken their author. This is a real achievement, and it ought not be overlooked. But the strength of this taboo--don't say racist stuff--is enforced by giving it an outsized importance. Simply put, the taboo against acting racist is much stronger than the taboo against being racist. And it is the latter that has the greatest effects on the lives of real people.

Let's think about what Bundy represents to liberals and conservatives, and then explore why the media spectacle is so problematic.

The appeal of the Bundy implosion for liberals is obvious enough. He seems to represent the very id of a certain sort of right-wing conservative, and delivers the standard critique of the welfare state in its most concentrated and unvarnished form. The fact is, most conservatives do believe the Great Society and its descendents have wrecked the black family, even if this belief doesn't lead them to embrace Bundy's absurdities about slavery. The chance to tie mainstream conservatives to a blatant racist is too good for liberals to pass up. And, after all, conservatives embraced Bundy aggressively and of their own volition. As political games go, it hasn't been unfair for liberals to have a little fun about it as conservatives disavow their former hero.

It is less understood that Bundy would, were it not for the now embarrassed embrace of many mainstream conservatives, serve as a perfect embodiment of what conservatives believe racism in the United States looks like. He's old. He's eccentric. He even said "Negro" just like Harry Reid. And if Harry Reid said it...

By attempting to tie Republican politicians to the outlandish racism of an elderly rancher, liberals win a tactical victory but unwittingly play into the larger conservative narrative about what racism is in the modern United States. Rather than a set of deeply embedded and largely impersonal social and economic forces, racism becomes the product a few isolated and backward individuals. After all, we rarely seem to see racism, do we? If racism is as rampant as people like me say it is, then why do the irrelevant ramblings of an old man become a cause celebre? That's the best we've got? If Cliven Bundy is in any sense important, then racism really is essentially gone.

But of course it's not gone. The racism that permeates our lives and devastates so many Americans is too amorphous to fit in a sexy news story. When another minority student embarks on an inferior primary school education, it's not news; it's just the way things are. When a black couple with excellent credit gets turned down for a housing loan, they can't even know for sure they've been discriminated against. It only emerges years later when you glance over an obscure headline at the bottom of the business page saying that Bank ABC paid out 100 million dollars in a discrimination settlement. When the HR professional glances past that resume with the foreign-sounding name, she makes a split-second decision without becoming aware of her unconscious bias. When black children grow up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty at 20-30x the rate of white children, it is a fact too astonishing and diffused to be reported on the evening news. These and other issues are clearly revealed in rarely-read academic books and journals and depressing newspaper pieces that no one wants to wade through. It's a lot easier to talk about Cliven Bundy.

The fact is, I am dramatically more invested in securing the best for my own children than I am for the children of others. This is only natural. But when the incumbent power brokers and holders of wealth are overwhelmingly white, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what this only natural behavior accomplishes on a collective scale. It is easy to talk about trying to expand opportunity, but it is more than a semantic quibble to point out that expanding opportunity necessarily involves redistributing opportunity. There are a finite number of selective enrollment high schools, elite college openings, graduate fellowships, CEO's, and senators. In a society in which the wealthy and white possess pervasive unearned privileges, expanding opportunity for others implies trade-offs that we're reluctant to admit.

We must move away from obsessing over the racist things people say, and call ourselves to account for the actions we take. Cliven Bundy is suddenly beyond the pale by virtue of his words, but I can purposely take advantage of my white skin by securing for myself and my family a good neighborhood and good schools, and yet I remain fully respectable. We must move past the day when we who have done little or nothing to try to tear down our privileges are granted the presumption of innocence. The majority of white Americans are invested in racism. And if we're going to give it up, we want a pay-out, thank you very much.

You see this in our politics if you look closely enough. The apparently large divide between the two major parties on the national level is in some respects superficial. On the local level, there is a deep and abiding bipartisan consensus in favor of a politics that favors the wealthy and white over the poor and brown. It goes without saying that conservatism opposes efforts to achieve racial equality. But show me the wealthy liberal community that voluntarily rezoned to allow low-income housing into the neighborhood. Show me the wealthy liberal community that voluntarily redrew school district lines so it could share its resources with a poorer neighboring community. Liberalism in the United States is not just hypocritical; it is itself a defender of racial inequality.

If Americans in any broad and tangible way valued racial justice these ideas would be common-sense. Back here in the real world, they sound hopelessly utopian.

It's easy enough to see why these things don't happen. It's because of people like you and me. We just want the best for our kids. We've worked hard for what we have. These feelings are as natural as they are anti-Christian. And for me, as a Christian, the real scandal is not that we find it hard to live up to our faith. It is that we often embrace a false faith that baptizes our selfishness and encourages us to indulge in our privilege.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Achieving the Segregation We Desire

Yesterday the Atlantic published a deeply reported piece by Nikole Hannah-Jones that puts a human face on the reality of the resegregation of American schools. Her article focuses on the South, but it's a process happening nationwide. It's gotten worse since 2007, when John Roberts, writing for a Supreme Court majority, ruled that even municipalities that wanted to take race into account to achieve integration of their own volition weren't allowed to do so. Conservatives love local control, until they don't.

Coincidentally, I was speaking to a class of Kent State freshman yesterday about Stokely Carmichael's (he's the guy who coined the phrase "Black Power") critique of integration way back in 1966. Carmichael argued that what was happening in the 1960s was mere tokenism and that the burden of integration was falling on black people. Rather than a deep process that uprooted established patterns and leveled the playing field, in his view, integration actually reinforced the supremacy of whiteness by requiring blacks to integrate into white institutions. It so rarely went the other way around. As pathetic as Carmichael's end was, the potency of his critique remains to present day. I will tell you what I told the students in class yesterday: by most measures our schools are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago. I think that surprised them, and it probably surprises you too, unless you're a regular reader.

The important thing to understand is that there is nothing benign about this process. This is about the building and maintenance of white supremacy here and now, in our own time. Hannah-Jones's peice focuses on Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and what has happened there since a federal judge removed the city from a decades-old court integration order in 2000:
Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time. The citywide integrated high school is gone, replaced by three smaller schools. Central retains the name of the old powerhouse, but nothing more. A struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black. D’Leisha, an honors student since middle school, has only marginal college prospects. Predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to Central have been gerrymandered into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools.
Notice that the resegregration of the schools required specific, proactive steps to achieve these outcomes. Yet we don't recognize it for what it is because we're fed a diet of magical thinking about race that blinds us to the forces that buttress white supremacy. This is why history is so important. Our view of the past is so superficial and mythical that we can't recognize racism in the present. We embrace a mythical history that sensationalizes and localizes racism, situating its perpetrators and its effects at an exaggerated distance from ourselves. Even excellent scholars indulge in this moralizing of the past. Open an academic book on the civil rights era and you can read of "rabid" racists visiting all kinds of evil upon their victims. Such language absolves us and thereby reinforces white supremacy in the present. We're not "rabid." We're better than that. Hooray for us.

At back of this is a pervasive double standard that systematically favors the maintenance of white supremacy. When actions are taken to reduce segregation they immediately become highly visible to the public and are invariably controversial. When similar actions are taken to reinforce segregation they are not acknowledged as governmental action at all, but are seen as natural features of the landscape, as if people just want to congregate among people who are like them and enjoy poorly resourced schools. This was clearly in evidence during busing's heyday, as areas that had bused students for the purposes of segregation for decades without controversy suddenly erupted in anger when busing was used for the opposite purpose.

Segregation is not natural. It is constructed by public policy. It is being constructed right now. Do not believe that segregation is a minor problem or an academic concern. The real-world effects are devastating: concentrated poverty, constant teacher turnover, inadequate resources. Most of us support school segregation. It is important to state this clearly and stop playing the game that lets us white folks absolve ourselves by a verbal declaration. If this seems too strong for you, what do you think should be done about school segregation? Do you support busing? If not, then what about school funding equalization (which would involve a big transfer of wealth from rich to poor)? If not, then what about district consolidation across segregated municipalities to achieve more integrated schools? If not, then what about making peace with segregation but funding the minority schools at a higher rate than the white schools? If not, then what is your solution? If every potential solution seems too costly to you, stop pretending you care about racism or have any real interest in eradicating white supremacy. Ta-Nehisi Coates has it right:
There doesn't seem to be much of a political solution here. It's fairly clear that integration simply isn't much of a priority to white people, and sometimes not even to black people. And Tuscaloosa is not alone. I suspect if you polled most white people in these towns they would honestly say that racism is awful, and many (if not most) would be sincere. At the same time they would generally be lukewarm to the idea of having to "do something" in order to end white supremacy.
Ending white supremacy isn't really in the American vocabulary. That is because ending white supremacy does not merely require a passive sense that racism is awful, but an active commitment to undoing its generational effects. Ending white supremacy requires the ability to do math—350 years of murderous plunder are not undone by 50 years of uneasy ceasefire. 
A latent commitment to anti-racism just isn't enough. But that's what we have right now. With that in mind, there is no reason to believe that a total vanquishing of white supremacy is necessarily in the American future.
Injustice will always be with us, but the Christian's responsibility here is clear. We must be a prophetic voice advocating for changes in public policy, while living counter-cultural personal lives that offer islands of integration, humility, and mutual respect amid a society of white supremacy.