Archive for the ‘Race’ Category


Stable Integration: how our assumptions shape reality

May 26, 2011

I just finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s incredible book about the Great Migration.  It deserves its own post (or three), but I’ll highlight one overlap here.  (Also, please don’t go back through the archives to see how long it has taken me to finish it.  And if you do, you should blame my semester and not the book).

In tracing the journey of one of her three main characters, Wilkerson writes about white flight from neighborhoods in the cities of the North.  She writes that while the arrival of black families was associated with decreases in housing prices, the decline worked almost exclusively through a mechanism of fear.  A whisper of black integration put neighborhoods into “real estate purgatory” that set off a downward cycle of anticipation in which no one would buy, rent prices fell in an attempt to attract poorer whites, homeowners sold for less than their home was worth to avoid getting “stuck,” and those who remained had no incentive to invest in or improve their properties.

Thus many white neighborhoods began declining before colored residents even arrived.  There emerged a perfect storm of nervous owners, falling prices, vacancies unfillable with white tenants or buyers, and a market of colored buyers who may not have been able to afford the neighborhood at first but now could with prices within their reach.  The arrival of colored home buyers was often the final verdict on a neighborhood’s falling property value rather than the cause of it” (376-7).

I recently read an article by Philip Nyden, Michael Maly, and John Lukehart from 1997 asking whether or not stable racially integrated neighborhoods exist in the United States.  In short, they do, and the article is worth reading if you have access to it.  But what really struck me was the slightly-updated-but-still-the-same-as-the-1950’s summary of the ways in which our assumptions shape reality:

…the persistent…misconception [is] that economically, racially, and ethnically mixed neighborhoods are inherently unstable and not viable.  For middle-income white homeowners and renters, racial or economic diversity is interpreted as a signal of neighborhood decline and imminent declines in housing values.  For lower-income groups, such diversity often flags the possibility of gentrification, increasing housing costs, and the concomitant displacement of low-income renters.

In both cases, those expectations shape what happens next.  On one hand, expecting decline, those who can get out.  On the other, expecting gentrification, potential buyers looking to make an investment start considering a neighborhood they wouldn’t have before—their very consideration inching prices up.

For me, there’s no doubt that personal prejudice still plays a significant role in perpetuating housing segregation.  But if we could get the market hysteria out of the equation, it’d certainly help.



The Racism Matrix

March 30, 2011

This particular post was supposed to be Flying Whale’s task, but unfortunately I need it to exist now, so that someone else can use it now.

But before we get to the racism matrix, we need to talk briefly about structure and agency.  Structure and agency are just fancy sociologist words to describe the fact that people make choices in their lives (agency), but that those choices are constrained by the rules and systems that govern society (structure).

The most helpful metaphor for this that I know is that society is like a river, flowing downstream.  Individuals are like a swimmer in that river.  They can choose to swim with the current or against the current, but ultimately, their movement is within the context of the current’s flow.

Enter the racism matrix:

Racist Anti-racist

Pretty straight-forward.  Two columns by two rows.  And so we begin trying to fill it in.

What’s active and racist?  Being a member of the KKK.  Calling someone a racist slur.  Refusing to hire someone because of their race.

What’s passive and racist?  Letting an employee at a car dealership serve you first, even though an African American was in line before you.     Being a member of an association that doesn’t allow membership for people of color.  Staying silent when a friend tells a racist joke.

Then what’s actively anti-racist?  Participating in the Civil Rights Movement.  Signing a petition that demands an investigation when a white police officer kills a person of color under suspicious circumstances.  Supporting affirmative action for people of color.

Which leaves the passively anti-racist cell.

The point of the Racism Matrix is that the passive anti-racism cell doesn’t exist, that it’s impossible to be passively anti-racist.  Which is to say, in a racist society, being passive and doing nothing will support the momentum of the status quo and will therefore have a racist effect.

Think back to the swimmer and the river.  You can swim with the current (active racism) or you can swim against the current (active anti-racism).  But if you just float on your back, you’re going to be pulled along with the current (passive racism).

There’s no way to float against the current.

At a conceptual level, this means that one of the ways in which structure intervenes into our lives is that it removes one of our cells of action (or inaction, as the case may be).  But as a teaching tool, the Racism Matrix says this: if you don’t like a system you see playing out in your society, you have to DO something to counter it.  Otherwise, you are supporting it.



Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 17, 2011

I was planning to write a post about how the man we celebrate today was a true radical activist whose image has been thoroughly sanitized for mass consumption. After all, it’s “Martin Luther King Day of Service,” not “Martin Luther King Day of Action.” But my friend over at Banalogies, as someone who has studied the black freedom struggle in depth, has done it (twice, sort of) far better than I can. So I’ll just leave off with an MLK quote I once used as an epigraph to a series of essays:

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

I wonder what those conservatives claiming some ideological affiliation with MLK would make of this statement.

On a slightly different but related note, I recently finished Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union, which is what seems to me a fairly radical reading of the history of the U.S. labor movement since the Great Depression. While there are many things to say about this book (for now, I’ll just say that much of what Frances Fox Piven had to say a few months ago seems to line up perfectly with Lichtenstein’s viewpoint), one thing that struck me peripherally was how backwards and obstructionist the South, or at least Southern Democrats, were in preventing any social change that undermined existing structures of racial oppression.

Why did this strike me? Only because I grew up, and received my K-12 education, in the South. I had an excellent AP U.S. History teacher – possibly the best teacher I had in high school and one of the best I’ve had in my entire academic career – yet I don’t remember really, viscerally, learning about the role of the South in U.S. race relations. There wasn’t an outright denial of the South’s racist legacy or anything so obvious as that; we learned plenty about the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement (though, of course, only in the context of civil rights), and no one respectable called the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression. But I have the sneaking suspicion that things were generally sanitized. The clearest example is that the only thing I remember from my education about Reconstruction is that there were “Northern carpetbaggers.” I had no sense that the failure of Reconstruction meant ongoing oppression of African-Americans at the hands of an obdurate South.

All of which is to say, while I think I have a decent grasp on U.S. history, there are some things I should probably revisit in light of where I received my primary education. Perhaps I’ll start with Eric Foner’s book. Any other suggestions?

Flying Whale


Unemployment and privilege, take 2

February 15, 2010

Regarding the unemployment levels of the working, service, and so-called creative classes, a commenter writes:

The working-service-creative class distinction. Is this fully an aspect of privilege? Why–because of connection to educational opportunities?

I stumbled across this graph earlier today.  Though Yglesias uses it to make a different point, I was struck by how closely the unemployment line of the creative class mirrors that of college graduates.

I know putting two graphs side-by-side doesn’t mean anything about their relationship, but it doesn’t make me take back my assertion that you can trace job class back to educational attainment back to socioeconomic status.

UPDATE: since most of you are seeing this in Google Reader and not on the actual blog, I’m comparing the graph above with the one below (not the two graphs above with each other).  Sorry, team.



Yet another category of privilege

February 11, 2010

I follow the unemployment numbers–in general, but also by race and gender–pretty closely.  And they’re not good.  Overall unemployment is disheartening, but the racial breakdown is another reminder that we’ve got a long way to go.

In January 2010, White unemployment was 8.7%.  For African Americans, it was 16.5%.  For African American men, the percentage climbs to 17.6.

And scroll back to this summer.  White youth unemployment hovered around 25% but African American youth unemployment nudged 50%.  No matter what time boundaries you draw, African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as Whites.  The disparity is incredible.

But it wasn’t until stumbling into Roger Martin’s work at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management that I realized a huge part of why I haven’t felt the high unemployment levels in my peer group–even across race.  By his definition, we’re all in the creative class.  And even now, unemployment in the creative class is just crossing the 4% threshold.

Once you commit to naming your privilege, the list never ends.



The Atlantic 50

September 20, 2009

Based on influence, reach, and web engagement, they are the “all-star team.”

These are the most influential commentators in the nation, the columnists and bloggers and broadcast pundits who shape the national debates.

We conducted surveys of more than 250 insiders – members of Congress, national media figures, and political players – asking respondents to rank-order the commentators who most influence their own thinking.

I clicked on the link.  I was curious to see how mainstream my sources of information and commentray are.  As I skimmed through I found it to be more or less the list you’d expect.

But by the time I got to twenty, I was paying attention to something else.  You have to scroll down to number thirteen before you find someone who isn’t a white man.  Among the fifty, there are only nine women to be found, and only two men of color.  There isn’t a single woman of color in the list.  Not a single one.

I don’t mean to overstate the importance of this list.  And demographics certainly aren’t everything.  But to those who think equal opportunity has been achieved, I’d ask what the chances are that the overwhelming whiteness of the group is merely coincidental.



Two things to read

September 3, 2009

One short, one long.

Short: Ezra Klein on how the media covered only the health-care town hall meetings that turned into shouting matches. This goes hand-in-hand with the things we’ve posted here critiquing journalism strategies in general. Here’s one of the money quotes:

Ohio Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy said, “I think the media coverage has done a disservice by falling for a trick that you’d think experienced media hands wouldn’t fall for: allowing loud voices to distort the debate.”

On the contrary, Rep. Kilroy… doesn’t the media do that all the time?

Long: A Chicago Magazine article in which the author, a white victim of a violent crime committed by black juveniles, discusses with heartfelt nuance how race colored his thoughts and actions after the assault. Really think we live in a “post-racial” society? Read this.

I’ve wondered what argument I’d be making if the situation were reversed, if a group of white kids had done the same to a black man without uttering a word. I doubt I’d be stepping into the public melee to say, “Wait a minute—maybe these kids were race neutral and they just happened to choose a black guy today.” And that’s clearly racism on my part, an unwillingness to see everyone as equal.

And what if I’d been attacked by whites? I think I’d have been more outraged, more quick to judge, less likely to look for some meaning in the act. I’d have desired stiffer punishment than Larry got, assuming, perhaps wrongly, that my assailants had had more advantages to start with and so had traveled a greater distance across the moral scale. Is that fair? No.

Flying Whale