Tuesday, February 26, 2013 2:24 PM
Most of us think of dolls as children's playthings, but they have a story to tell about race, culture, heritage, and history.
This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at Collectors Weekly.
As a little girl, Samantha Knowles didn’t stop to consider why
most of her dolls—her American Girl dolls, her Cabbage Patch Kids, her Barbie
dolls—were black like her. But black dolls were not common in her upstate New York hometown, whose
population remains overwhelmingly white. So when Knowles was 8 years old, one
of her friends innocently asked “Why do you have black dolls?” And she didn’t
know quite what to say.
But that question stuck with her, and in college, she started to consider
how she would answer as an adult. Finally, as an undergraduate film student at
Dartmouth, she connected with a small but passionate group of black doll
enthusiasts who gather at black doll shows around the country, and for her
senior honors thesis, Knowles, now 22, completed a documentary called Why Do You Have Black Dolls? to articulate the answer.
What the Brooklyn filmmaker didn’t know was that her mother felt so strongly
that her daughters, Samantha and Jillian, have dolls of
their own race, that she would stand in line at stores or make special
orders to make sure they got one of the few black versions. “My parents
made sure to get us a lot of black dolls in a wide variety of hues and shapes,”
Samantha Knowles says. “We didn’t have exclusively black dolls, but we had
mostly black dolls. After I started working on the film, I had a lot of
conversations with my mom, and she would say, ‘Oh, you don’t know what I had to
go through to get some of those dolls!’”
Many black doll enthusiasts, like Debbie Behan Garrett, the
author of “Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and
Experiencing the Passion,” feels the same way as Knowles’ mother.
“I’m emphatic about a black child having a doll that reflects who she is,”
Garrett says. “When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking
being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to
understand that there’s nothing wrong with being black. If black children are
force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then
they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”
Why Do You Have Black Dolls? debuted in October at the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival
in New York City,
where it won the Reel Sisters Spirit Award. It has also been selected for
the Martha’s Vineyard African-American
Film Festival and the Hollywood Black Film
Festival in Beverly Hills.
In the film, doll maker Debra Wright says when little girls see her dolls,
they’ll exclaim happily, “Look at her hair! It’s just like mine.”
In fact, Knowles says that Wright gave a quote that best sums up her answer
to the question posed by the film: “I think women know that they’re beautiful,”
Wright says. “But when you see a doll, it’s such a wonderful reminder of that
beauty—because somebody took the time to make a doll in your likeness.”
Among Knowles interviewees were Barbara Whiteman, a longtime black doll
collector who runs the 25-year-old Philadelphia
Doll Museum where she has a rotating display of 300 of her collection of
1,000 black dolls. On Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, Knowles’ documentary screens as
a part of the Black History Month programming at the National Black Doll Museum in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
Five black-doll collecting sisters Debra Britt, Felicia Walker, Celeste Cotton,
Tamara Mattison, and Kareema Thomas opened that museum in the summer of 2012 to
teach black history and showcase their collection of 6,200 dolls.
The only black girl at her school in 1950s Dorchester, Massachusetts,
Debra Britt grew up carrying the vinyl white Baby Bye-Lo doll. “I didn’t have a
lot of self-esteem with it.” Britt says. “I had big issues because I was black
and fat, and kids were teasing me. And I had to ride a bus with nobody on it.
When I would get to school, the other kids shook my bus every day and called me
Britt’s grandmother stepped in and started dip-dying store-bought dolls
brown for her granddaughter, and she also taught Britt how to make African wrap
dolls from a gourd, an apple, and vines. These dolls were also made by slaves
on plantations in the South, who would have their children put in a pebble to
represent each fear or worry and relieve them of the burdens. “My grandmother
kept saying, ‘You don’t know where you’re coming from and you need to.’” Britt
says. “And so she made this African wrap doll and gave me the history.”
Read the rest of this article and see more photos of black dolls through history at Collectors Weekly.
Image (top): Jillian Knowles, Samantha’s younger sister, sits with their doll collection from childhood in a still from Why Do You Have Black Dolls?
Monday, October 24, 2011 11:43 AM
Racial segregation literally breaks a city into separate, isolated chunks. In the worst cases, neighborhoods are wholly delimited by the descent of its denizens, rather than its topography or history. This is how a metro area comes to resemble an archipelago—a series of homogeneous islands connected by proximity and late-night bus routes. Even still, it’s often hard to imagine the extent of segregation in a city when you weave between its neighborhoods on a day-to-day basis. Though they may be in the heart of the hustle and bustle, smaller inner city communities can be staggeringly isolated from each other.
Sensing the urgency of this lingering social issue, software developer Jim Vallandingham programmed a data visualization that shows many of the top 10 most segregated cities breaking apart along racial lines. Take, for example, St. Louis, Missouri (pictured above). In Vallandingham’s animation, the mostly black core of St. Louis is abandoned by the first-ring suburbs, leaving a vast cultural moat between neighborhoods. Exurbia, for all of its sprawl, remains a tightly knit (or at least similarly skin-colored) community. (Pro Tip: The program runs much better on the Google Chrome web browser.) On his website, Vallandingham explains the math behind his data visualization:
[I]f a ‘mostly white’ tract is connected to another ‘mostly white’ tract, then the connection is short. If a city had uniform proportions of races in each tract, the map would not move much. However, longer connections occur where there is a sharp change in the proportions of white and black populations between neighboring tracts. These longer connections create rifts in the map and force areas apart, in some ways mimicking the real-world effects of these racial lines.
To some extent, Vallandingham’s program rehashes some foregone conclusions about race, demographics, and urban life, but it does so in a more visceral way than your average infographic. Not that static images can’t be powerful—for evidence, check out the segregation maps by Eric Fischer, Remapping Debate, and the University of Michigan Social Science Data Analysis Network.
Images courtesy of Jim Vallandingham.
Wednesday, June 08, 2011 11:01 AM
Criticizing any aspect of hip-hop culture is a task fraught with danger. If you’re white, you might be called a racist. If you’re black, you might be called Bill Cosby. And if you’re over 30, you might just be called old.
Author Thomas Chatterton Williams—30 years old, black, and a fan of hip-hop music—is unafraid to enter the fray. His book Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, recently released in paperback, lays down a strong critique of the disturbing messages behind the beats. Marc Smirnoff of the Oxford American interviewed Williams in a Q&A with the baiting title “Is Hip-Hop Evil?”
Williams contends that thug-life fantasies are sold because they are profitable commodities—follow the money, follow the money—not because they capture the totality of the black experience. These fantasies distort reality in order to confuse children and get their money—in so doing, hip-hop is toying with heavy consequences.
Here are some of Williams’ most provocative lines from the interview:
• “[In hip-hop] the material side of life has been so overemphasized, so glorified over the intangible, over the intellectual, over the spiritual, even over the artistic. This is a shame. This is why Jay-Z can say, ‘I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars’ and his listeners, far from being offended, actually respect him all the more for it!”
• “So many have been taught to define themselves and one another as niggas and bitches, thugs, goons, hustlers, pimps, dealers, gangstas, hoodlums … If you believe, as I do, that how you describe and present yourself has any correlation with how you feel about yourself, then it’s hard not to see some self-hatred going on here.”
• “Even in the upper-middle classes, it’s amazing the degree to which blacks buy into an idea that intellectual development is not cool. … And that is why Barack Obama said we must ‘eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.’ It was incredible that the president had the bravery to address the issue, but he can’t do it alone. Too many of our black academics—and white academics—today are content to spend their time making the case on television that rappers are really our modern-day philosophers and bards. What I wish they would do instead is make the case that all of us should be reading more philosophy and literature.”
Source: Oxford American
Image by Luke Abiol, courtesy of The Penguin Press.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010 3:31 PM
This Sunday, Minneapolis (home to Utne Reader HQ) will play host to the traveling circus that is the Urban Assault Ride, an event that annually graces 13 cities across the country by pitting pairs of cyclists against bizarre obstacles in a manner reminiscent of a scavenger hunt.
It's an event with an eye towards environmental responsibility. All sponsors organize their businesses around sustainable practices, they compost or recycle 95% of the junk left over after the race, and as much as possible they use biodeisel fuel to power the vehicles that take their gear from city to city. Have a look:
Source: Urban Assault Ride
Friday, May 28, 2010 2:58 PM
Back in March, the Insight Center for Community Economic Development published a startling report on the wealth gap: “Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth, and America’s Future” (pdf), reveals that black women have a median wealth of $100 and Hispanic women $120—a staggering disparity stacked up alongside the median wealth of white men ($43,800), white women ($41,500), and black men ($7,900).
There’s been plenty of ink spilled over recession and recovery, but this report, the first measurement to probe the intersection of the gender and racial wealth gaps, barely registered with mainstream media, Extra! reports. And this type of information is critical to understanding the nature of and effectively responding to our present economic troubles. As Julie Hollar writes:
While income is the most common measurement for inequality, wealth—an individual’s assets minus their debts—reveals even greater disparities in the United States. While the top 1 percent received 21 percent of the income in 2006, it held over 34 percent of the wealth (UCSC.edu, 2/10). And racial disparities are drastically greater in terms of wealth than in terms of income.
Wealth can be more relevant to people’s lives, too, particularly in a time of economic crisis. Not only does wealth have a lot to do with the ability to retire or support yourself in old age, people of all ages are much more likely to lose their homes or otherwise find themselves unable to support themselves or their families without savings or assets to fall back on during economic hardship. And, indeed, women of color have had the highest foreclosure rates of any group during the current recession—both as a result of their lack of wealth and their being targeted for subprime mortgages, regardless of their income level (National Council of Negro Women, 6/09).
Wealth also helps people get ahead: Home equity can be borrowed against to send children to college, for example, and wealth can be passed down through the generations to provide them with more stability, access and options. Research has found that family wealth is the biggest predictor of the future economic status of a child, giving lie to the old American “bootstraps” mythology.
Sources: Insight Center for Community Economic Development, Extra!
kevindooley, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, February 12, 2010 4:02 PM
From 1940 to 2001, only six African Americans won an Academy Award for acting. Only one of those actors, Sidney Poitier, won the award for best actor, and all the rest won for supporting roles. The academy has gotten better at recognizing African American actors in recent years, Todd Boyd writes for The Root, but the awards are plagued by its troubled history. Though Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Forest Whitaker, and Jennifer Hudson have won awards since then, Boyd writes, “any improvement over the way things were before 2002 must be considered relative to a previously dismal history.”
The movies nominated for this year’s Oscars shouldn’t be considered a step forward, according to John Pilger in the New Statesman. He writes, “This year's Oscar nominations are a parade of propaganda, stereotypes and downright dishonesty. The dominant theme is as old as Hollywood: America's divine right to invade other societies, steal their history and occupy our memory” Pilger takes down most of the Oscar favorites, including The Hurt Locker, Avatar, and Invictus, asking the question, “Why are so many films so bad?”
Sources: The Root, The New Statesman
, licensed under
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 3:40 PM
Conservatism may be fueled in part by fear and uncertainty, according to a psychological study covered in Miller-McCune. Three researchers “have found evidence that both general feelings of threat and specific anxiety about other ethnic groups sometimes do lead individuals to embrace two tenets of political conservativism—support for the status quo and a belief that there is a natural hierarchy to society.”
Which is to say that a common liberal perception might be rooted in reality. Before your conservative brother-in-law can dismiss the research as the sketchy work of lefty social scientists, he should consider that the study was carefully constructed to track shifting attitudes over time, surveying almost 1,000 undergraduates as they went through four years of college. It went further toward establishing a causal connection than previous studies, which had found that people who were more uncomfortable with complexity and ambiguity tended to lean to the right.
The results surprised even the researchers. As one tells Miller-McCune:
“What makes it really interesting is that using very conservative methods, and looking at processes over time, we still found that there was a conservative shift in response to threat perceptions. A lot of people just treat conservatism as a personality variable that doesn’t change, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems to be influenced by the situation, and it can be affected by threat perceptions.”
The magazine notes that this might be part of the psychology at work behind the recent anti-government, anti-Obama right-wing movement: “With unemployment now topping 10 percent, economic uncertainty is probably weighing more heavily.” Also, “America now has its first African American president. And as the research described here suggests, there seems to be a direct link from ‘intergroup anxiety’ [about people of different ethnicities] to political conservatism.”
Image by MeetTheCrazies, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, June 15, 2009 1:19 PM
For many middle class, white American parents, the decision to send their children to private, predominately white, well-funded schools is a no brainer. Confronting or even thinking about race and class barriers is easily avoided and life continues smoothly and comfortably.
Writing in Geez, Dee Dee Risher laments the “massive desertion of the public school system by middle-class whites” and defends her choice to send her children to an urban, poorly funded public school.
“I seek experiences that would not infect my children with a sense of privilege, entitlement or racial superiority. I want to give them a truer sense of all the diversity and inequality in the world and help them develop their own sensibility for justice. I want my children to move through the world able to relate to and understand very different people. I want them to be safe and to grow up feeling strong.”
Even as her father wonders if Risher is using her children in “an ideological experiment,” Risher finds a “richness” in her decisions that is not “rooted in elitist and stratified social choices.”
Image by calculat0r, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009 1:08 PM
How do people relate across racial and economic boundaries in post-apartheid South Africa? Cape Town artist Bryan Little designed a temporary public installation that broaches the question, based, he says, on “the names we call each other in the new South Africa.” Culled from the country’s 11 official languages, the names are both epithets and endearments, reflecting the divisions that persist as well as the connections being forged. Kees Jan Husselman used the installation as a backdrop for a poignant short film that gathers South Africans’ views on race, class, and the future of their country:
(Thanks, Wooster Collective.)
Friday, February 20, 2009 2:49 PM
Slumdog Millionaire may be the darling of this year’s Golden Globe and Academy Awards, but the film has Carmen Van Kerckhove and Thea Lim wondering how a story that features poverty, violence, abuse, and torture gets sold as the feel-good movie of the year. In Addicted to Race, a podcast for New Demographic, they discuss how race may have impacted public reception to the film (as an added bonus, they also analyze how race plays out in He’s Just Not That Into You). Listen and weigh in.
Sources: New Demographic, Addicted to Race
Image by A y A n, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, January 22, 2009 1:49 PM
This Tuesday, we witnessed a milestone in U.S. race relations as Barack Obama was sworn in as this country’s first black president. His inauguration rightly gave us occasion to celebrate our progress, but when the glow from the day wears off, we’re still left with a racial reality that’s far from perfect. Writing for Colorlines, Andrew Grant-Thomas cautions against rosy declarations of a ‘post-racial’ America and offers some well penned advice for (what he hopes will be) a continuing dialogue on race and justice.
Claims that Obama’s election proves we’re beyond race, Grant-Thomas argues, stem from some problematic understandings of race and racism:
The post-racialism claim builds on the all-or-nothing approach Americans often take to making racial judgments. So President Bush’s tepid response to Hurricane Katrina revealed him to be a “racist,” but then his selection of several people of color to prominent cabinet posts proved that he is “not a racist.” Either Obama’s unprecedented achievement affirms what the Wall Street Journal calls the “myth of racism” or it is completely anomalous. Too often, we insist that race mean everything or nothing.
Such pronouncements also assume that racism is only perpetuated by individuals.
Because Americans generally take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we often fail to appreciate the work done by institutions and structures that are racially inequitable. But, in fact, all societies feature institutional arrangements that create and distribute benefits, burdens and interests in society. This often has nothing to do with our conscious intentions.
Consider the example of college admissions. Grades earned by high school students in Advanced Placement (AP) and other college-prep courses may be the single most influential factor in admissions decisions (often more important than overall GPA, class rank, or test scores, and far more important than “diversity” considerations). In a society where white students are much more likely than Black and Latino students to attend high schools that offer such courses, and offer more of them, weighing AP performance heavily in admissions decisions is racially inequitable.
We don’t need to conjure up racist admissions officers to get this outcome.
Grant-Thomas hopes we might take these insights into account in crafting more complex ways of talking about race. To do so, he maintains, we’ll need to acknowledge that it isn’t all or nothing, but more often, “something, but not everything.” We’ll also need to recognize that racial justice means more than treating each other well; it also means addressing systems that favor certain groups over others. These are commitments best made together, because, as he writes in closing, “Barack Obama may prove willing and able to lead the way on the next stage of the journey, but he can’t get us there by himself.”
Thursday, September 25, 2008 12:00 PM
We Are Respectable Negroes has a painfully hilarious running tally of euphemisms for “white voters.” Favorites among the 68 so far:
4. Hard-working Americans
10. Regular Americans
38. White Collar Voters
56. Bubba Voters
And, drumroll please...
66. My friends
Friday, August 08, 2008 3:07 PM
Black people in the United States are in dire need of a more versatile narrative, Charles Johnson argues in the American Scholar. “No matter which angle we use to view black people in America today, we find them to be a complex and multifaceted people who defy easy categorization. We challenge, culturally and politically, an old group narrative that fails… to capture even a fraction of our rich diversity and heterogeneity,” he writes.
In challenging the 21st-century usefulness of a “narrative of pervasive victimization,” Johnson calls for “new and better stories, new concepts, and new vocabularies and grammar based not on the past but on the dangerous, exciting, and unexplored present.”
Perhaps Johnson should pick up a copy of Shawn Taylor’s new book Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity. The provocatively titled book seems to have been born from the very same vein of frustration, of a need to break through and tell new (or rarely told) stories. Rachel Swan describes the book’s genesis in the East Bay Express:
[Taylor] was mad. Mad at wiggas; mad at BET and MTV; mad that he grew up in poverty; mad at his father for disappearing; mad at the proliferation of "the N-word" and terms like “bling-bling”—especially when they gained currency in suburban communities; mad at CNN's Black in America (which, he said, imposed a kind of false unifying narrative that was supposed to stand in for the African-American experience); mad at movies like The Best Man (which, he said, made it seem as though adultery had to be the main theme in all black relationships); mad that men "can't just hug, we have to pound the shit out of each other's backs. . . . Pretty soon, Big Black Penis was more than just a provocative title; it was a move to bring authenticity into the discourse around black male sexuality.
Thursday, July 24, 2008 12:49 PM
It’s been an eventful week for the hip-hop artist Nas. Wednesday afternoon, he joined ColorofChange.org and MoveOn.org outside of Fox News Channel’s New York City headquarters to protest the network's coverage of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign—treatment that he and the groups allege is racist. (SOHH and Racewire have photos of the demonstration.)
The rapper then proceeded to an appearance on the Colbert Report with a 620,127-signature petition demanding that network president Roger Ailes "find a solution to address racial stereotyping and hate-mongering before it hits the airwaves." He also performed the anti-Fox track “Sly Fox” from his new album, which debuted at #1 on Tuesday after months of controversy over its title. Nas originally planned to call the LP Nigger, but abandoned the idea amid qualms from music retailers and his label. Ultimately, he released the album eponymously.
Nas' Fox-slamming and Billboard chart–topping comes at a time of heightened racial tensions in the media: not just criticism of Fox’s Obama coverage, but last week’s New Yorker cover brouhaha and ongoing questions about the role that race plays in Obama’s campaign. This week, the Root explores younger generations’ relationship to race, with a series of essays about Generation Y’s post-racist ambitions, its use of the n-word, and its supposed colorblindness.
Image by kokuziu, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 21, 2008 5:04 PM
The chances of a disastrous misdiagnosis run high when doctors use race to prescribe treatments. Drugs designed for specific races, like the highly publicized drug BiDil, work on the assumption that some races require different treatments from other races because of genetics. Science Central News reports that medical experts are questioning that assumption, saying that doctors should focus on individual—rather than racial—genetic variations.
The first drug designed specifically for one racial group and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was BiDil, a medication designed for African Americans to combat congestive heart failure (CHF). Beta-blockers are commonly used to treat CHF, but studies have shown that BiDil is a more effective treatment for many African Americans.
The problem, according to Science Central News, is that “those studies were based on people’s self-described race, rather than their actual genetic makeup.” When doctors put too much faith in those studies, ignoring genetic variations inside the African American community, there’s a strong chance that patients wouldn’t get the medications they need to combat the potentially fatal disease.
The motivation behind racially specific prescriptions may have more to do with business than health, according to Utne Reader’s November-December 2007 issue. The article points out that FDA approval of BiDil gave the drug’s producer, NitroMed, a 20-year patent on the medication, giving them a monopoly over the drug’s market. So whether or not the drug works better for African Americans, NitroMed will retain their monopolistic control until the year 2020.
Issues surrounding the drug also play into an ongoing argument over the role of genetics in modern racism. Nobel Prize winner James Watson, who helped discover the double helix, set off a firestorm of controversy last year when he claimed in the Sunday Times that black people might not be as genetically predisposed for intelligence as white people. In an interview for the Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. sat down with Watson to express some of his fears about the role of genetic research in the future of racism.
Gates walked away from the conversation with an illuminating and frightening conclusion:
That the last great battle over racism will be fought not over access to a lunch counter, or a hotel room, or to the right to vote, or even the right to occupy the White House; it will be fought in a laboratory, in a test tube, under a microscope, in our genome, on the battleground of our DNA. It is here where we, as a society, will rank and interpret our genetic difference.
Image from the Library of Congress.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008 5:00 PM
The buzzer hit 7:30, the networks called North Carolina for Barack Obama, and the racial rhapsodizing began.
FOX predictably buzzed about Obama’s weaker showing among whites, compared to Hillary Clinton’s, and his windfall backing from blacks. Not-so-subliminal message on repeat: Can this guy really win whites?
Over at CNN, demographic hashing similarly swirled. Thanks, then, to Jeffrey Toobin for pointing out the obvious: Obama couldn’t have won North Carolina without white support (some 36 percent, according to exit polls). Then he offered a crucial reminder that seems to have vanished amidst the Wright wrangling: That’s how Democrats win in the South, with a slice of white voters and the bulk of black ones.
Forget the hand-wringing over whether half of Hillary voters will abandon the Democrats if their gal isn’t topping the ticket. (Those sentiments, gauged as they are in the heat of primary battles, are next to meaningless.) After eight years of Bush, that many of those Democrats aren’t going to vote for a Republican out of spite, let alone one who wants to perpetuate war in Iraq, roll back abortion rights, and take the court farther to the edge of right than it already is. The question is: Will those issues be pressing enough to convince black voters to go to the polls after watching the party they’ve been unceasingly loyal to snatch away the opportunity for the first African American to become president.
Here’s Michael C. Dawson, political science professor at the University of Chicago, over at the Root:
Should that happen, the Democratic Party will face the Herculean task of trying to mobilize its most loyal constituency—black voters—in the face of deep and widespread black bitterness and active campaigns in the black community encouraging black voters to defect or abstain. You can already hear the angry comparisons. Just like in 2000, the protests will go, an election will have been "stolen." But this time from within the party! Malcolm X's quote about how the rules are changed when blacks start to succeed will also, I bet, be prominently displayed.
And here’s a piece from McClatchy last week:
African-Americans have been the Democratic Party's most reliable bloc, giving about 90 percent of their votes to former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in the last two presidential elections.
In a close election this year, an African-American exodus from the voting booth could be costly to Democrats, particularly in the South, where blacks are a large proportion of the electorate.
If Obama isn't the nominee, "there would be a significant number of African-Americans who would stay home. They're not voting for (presumptive Republican nominee) John McCain," predicted David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which researches black voting trends.
Now that North Carolina and Indiana are over, we’ll move quickly to West Virginia and Kentucky, where Clinton promises to soldier on and rack up white-bolstered, lopsided victories. It’s likely that, despite the predominating wisdom that the nomination race is nigh over, we’ll be subjected to more demographic splicing. It’s time to simply acknowledge that both candidates have their demographic battles and bulwarks, and to move onto wrapping things up by nominating the person who’d be the better president.
Friday, May 02, 2008 10:00 AM
At this point, it’s not even worth taking shots at the media over the Rev. Wright affair. It’s too easy. Too obvious. And, most disappointingly, too ineffectual. Put the country’s most uncomfortable topic on the agenda, mix in election season psychosis, and add a controversial black pastor who scorns the press, and reporters’ heads apparently explode. They end up asking questions like: “How do you feel about America and about being an American?” (National Press Club moderator Donna Leinwand to Wright) or “Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?” (George Stephanopoulos to Senator Barack Obama).
There’s intelligent reportage to be done on Wright (brilliant megalomaniacs make for rich profile subjects). But that’s not going to happen any time soon; the press—and the public, too—seem to require a certain amount of distance from racially charged moments in order to make any sense of them. That’s what was truly novel about Obama’s Philadelphia speech: He was able to articulate the present moment, not just rehash the past or rhapsodize about the future.
So, given the current media blackout on reason, I’d recommend checking out a pair of recent pieces that give me hope that once the dust settles, we might learn something from this ruckus.
The first is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s profile of Bill Cosby in the May issue of the Atlantic. The controversy surrounding Cosby’s campaign for black responsibility is well-known but not necessarily well-understood. Coates sifts through the fallout to trace the divergent liberal and conservative intellectual traditions of black America, from their origins to their manifestations today. Along the way, he offers one of the more nuanced and original pieces of analysis on race in America that I’ve seen in print of late.
Part of what drives Cosby’s activism, and reinforces his message, is the rage that lives in all African Americans, a collective feeling of disgrace that borders on self-hatred. As the comedian Chris Rock put it in one of his infamous routines, “Everything white people don’t like about black people, black people really don’t like about black people … It’s like a civil war going on with black people, and it’s two sides—there’s black people and there’s niggas, and niggas have got to go … Boy, I wish they’d let me join the Ku Klux Klan. Shit, I’d do a drive-by from here to Brooklyn.” (Rock stopped performing the routine when he noticed that his white fans were laughing a little too hard.) Liberalism, with its pat logic and focus on structural inequities, offers no balm for this sort of raw pain. Like the people he preaches to, Cosby has grown tired of hanging his head.
Cosby is fond of saying that sacrifices of the ’60s weren’t made so that rappers and young people could repeatedly use the word nigger. But that’s exactly why they were made. After all, chief among all individual rights awarded Americans is the right to be mediocre, crass, and juvenile—in other words, the right to be human. But Cosby is aiming for something superhuman—twice as good, as the elders used to say—and his homily to a hazy black past seems like an effort to redeem something more than the present.
The other article comes from the Chronicle Review and looks back at a controversy more distant: the 1968 Ocean Hill–Brownsville teacher strikes unleashed after white New York City school teachers were delivered pink slips by a newly empowered black school board. What’s interesting here is writer Richard D. Kahlenberg’s diagnosis of the embattled alliances involved and how those fault lines still pervade liberalism today. The Black Power activists on the school board, who were determined to have black teachers teaching black children in a school system dominated by whites, were bolstered by support from the city’s Anglo-Saxon patricians. Meanwhile, unionized teachers (many of them Jewish) drew support from pro-labor whites and a few of Martin Luther King’s black allies. The strikes eventually ended and the union prevailed, but the rift between working class blacks and whites—between civil rights and labor advocates—that was blasted open by the politics of racial preference continues to plague Democrats today, preventing what Dr. King and others saw as a natural and immensely powerful alliance.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007 1:36 PM
Last week the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced that incarceration remains a thriving growth industry in the United States. According to the agency (pdf), by the end of 2006, 1 in 31 American adults were under penal supervision—either in prisons or jails, or on probation or parole. Then, this week, the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Sentencing Commission took aim at the disproportionately harsh sentences meted out for crack-cocaine offenses, suggesting that Americans and their democratic institutions might finally be waking up to the gross racial disparities haunting our prison system.
That’s all good news, but there’s still much work to be done, especially on the state level, where most of the country’s inmates originate. As Glenn C. Loury reports in “America Incarcerated” (reprinted from the Boston Review in our Nov.-Dec. issue):
One-third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. The other two-thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.
If our criminal justice system is to resurrect its credibility, states will have to take the feds’ cue and shed their status as warehousers of low-level offenders of color.
Tuesday, December 04, 2007 3:43 PM
The web’s capacity as a melting pot has, perhaps, been overstated. A recent study by Northwestern University suggests that college students’ race and ethnicity, as well as their parents’ level of education, are related to which social networking sites they choose. Though conventional wisdom paints the Internet as a democratic utopia, and online communities as places where users go to recreate their identities, the Northwestern study shows that users gravitate toward people with similar backgrounds and interests—in much the same way kids pick a table in their high school cafeteria. Facebook, for example, is favored by white students, and Hispanic students are more likely to use MySpace. This demographic splintering is most evident on social networking sites that actively court users from specific groups: NiggaSpace.com (young African Americans), Eons.com (people older than 50), and Xianz.com (Christians), among many others.
(Thanks, Mother Jones!)
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