2009 04 07
Recently read: More Than Just Race

William Julius Wilson. More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City

At the heart of this book is a distinction between structural and cultural causes of enduring inter-generational poverty and social marginalization. Structural causes include our institutions and our social and economic policies, in so far as they impact the life prospects of the less advantaged. Cultural causes include those collective understandings and behavioural scripts shared by members of some group which arguably play a role in perpetuating the lower status and achievements of that group.

Liberal and conservative opinion in American political cultural has tended to put practical and rhetorical emphasis on one or the other of these causes of poverty, with liberals favouring structural explanations for enduring, inter-generational poverty and conservatives favouring cultural ones. Liberals tend to argue that conservatives’ preference for cultural explanations end up “blaming the victim,” with conservatives responding that liberals miss an important dimension of the dynamics of poverty. These debates have been particularly sharp when they focus on the fate of black Americans in American society, and the reasons for the continued marginalization and poverty of significant numbers of them.

Wilson wants to reintroduce culture as a respectable explanatory factor in the story of poverty and marginalization in black communities, albeit only one among a complex and interacting set of causes. But as a black liberal scholar and a veteran of these debates, he’s well aware of the rhetorical and substantive risks of doing so. So in spite of his stated aim of reintroducing culture as part of the explanation for poverty, much of his book reads as a sharp rebuke to the many attempts to use cultural explanations to explain the social and economic marginalization of black men.

When Wilson finally gets around explaining how cultural causes might play a role in comprehensive explanations of poverty, it’s clear that it’s often by mediating the impact of structural causes of poverty, and that the best social science available suggests that culture is of much less importance than structural causes. Some of the most interesting passages in the book debunk popular attempts to draw a connection between culture and poverty in the black community. In the end, however, Wilson sees real value—substantive and rhetorical—in acknowledging the limited ways in which culture matters in the perpetuation of poverty and marginalization. In Obama’s rhetoric about race, especially in his remarkable March 2008 speech (“A More Perfect Union”), Wilson finds these two themes of culture and social structure brought together in an analytically effective and rhetorically persuasive combination.

This is a good and worthwhile book. There are a number of points in the book at which Wilson might have signaled his main themes more clearly, since they sometimes get lost in the blizzard of qualifications, counterarguments and on-the-other-hands. Wilson’s prose style is also a bit dryly academic, which may unfortunately get in the way of the wide readership his book deserves. Although Wilson is very interested in reintroducing cultural explanations for poverty, in the American context the most valuable thing about this book will be its vigorous and cogent defence of the relevance of structural causes and its equally effective rebuttal of lazy cultural explanations.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 12 01
Recently read

Posted by in: Books, Food, History, Psychology, Race

Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an ethically and scientifically informed meditation on food, the modern food chain, and the ways in which the latter has distorted our relationship with the former. Pollan provides a fascinating overview of the highly dysfunctional system of agricultural subsidies that spur the overproduction of corn and a few other staples, and traces the effects of the corn glut through the rest of the food economy. He then explores alternatives to the modern agricultural system, beginning with mainstream organic farming, and moving on to much more radical departures from the mainstream. I thought that the passages on the killing and eating of animals were especially thoughtful.

E.R. Chamberlin. The Bad Popes

I’m not in a position to judge the reliability of the book, but I can say that it has a few entertaining moments, if Popes behaving badly is your thing. In style and tone, this book reminded me a bit, for better or worse, of John Julius Norwich‘s books.

Douglas A. Blackmon. Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

If the North won the American Civil War, the South surely won the reconstruction. In the years following the Civil War, African Americans did not find themselves suddenly free to enjoy the fruits of the victory over their slave holders. Rather, whites developed a system that permitted them to hold blacks down with the threat of terrible violence, and which allowed them to make use of their forced labour under conditions that were, very often, worse than those endured by many slaves under the old regime of slavery.

Here’s how the system worked, as explained in considerable detail by Douglas A. Blackmon in his Slavery By Another Name: blacks would be arrested on bogus or trumped up charges. These often included “vagrancy,” an all-purpose charge to which any unemployed black man (in an era of massive unemployment) was vulnerable. Sometimes the charge was even forgotten by the time the victim had been brought to court. It hardly mattered. A sheriff or local judge could always be found to find the victim guilty, regardless of the merits of the case — especially because he could expect to profit himself from the proceedings. The victim was then assessed a fine, along with fees associated with the costs of the proceedings. Unable to pay, the victim would be coerced into signing an agreement to work off the sum in the service of a white who would pay in his stead. Entirely deprived of rights, blacks could then be locked up, beaten, tortured, fed next to nothing, traded, sold, and worked under conditions that accounted for the extremely high mortality rates among prisoners.

Every aspect of this twisted system is sickening. Arrest rates rose and fell according to the labour required in an area. The constant threat of arrest served as a reliable way of keeping blacks who weren’t prisoners in line. Any African American not directly under the protection of a white was vulnerable to arrest on trumped up charges. This power also helped perpetuate the widespread rape of African American women by white men. This is the bleak picture of American American life in this period that emerges from Blackmon’s account. If there is one figure that captures all this in a book filled with anecdotes, figures and arguments, it is surely this: that between the years 1877 and 1966 in the state of Georgia, only one white man was found guilty of murdering a black man.

The system also helped wealthier whites to crush attempts to unionize their industries. It’s hardly surprising that these attempts failed when management could always resort of cut-rate prisoner labour in the face of a threat to strike.

Blackmon makes a very strong case that this era of American history is best described as the Era of Neoslavery. It wasn’t until the second World War had begun that the Federal Government moved to begin enforcing laws in the South that it had long chosen to ignore.

This is a superb book, as angry as it is methodical. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand U.S. history. But because Blackmon does such a good job reflecting on the consequences of that history, it’s also essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the present.

Susan Blackmore. Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction

The title says it all. It was indeed very short, and the length of the text made it impossible for the author to do anything more than introduce a few topics in the study of consciousness. But as introductions go, this one struck me as pretty good: clear, readable, and interesting. Lots of good stuff on everything from the latest in philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and more.

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2008 04 30
Reverend Jeremiah Wright

I haven’t been following the Wright thing very closely, but last night I got curious enough to watch a few minutes of his recent press conference on youtube, and just now I skimmed through the transcript.

My impression is: That dude is awesome! What a performance! And he says lots of things very well. True, he’s a little nutty. The AIDS thing is almost a stupid as believing that Iraq was behind 9/11. But you can sort of see how spending a life watching the mainstream deny pretty obvious facts would make you suspicious of mainstream narratives. (I had a (white) relative of mine tell me something similar not that long ago. I was . . . dismissive.) If you want to be angry that someone is so suspicious of the government that he thinks that it might be behind AIDS, I suggest that you spare some of your anger for the government that warranted the suspicion (and boy, has it ever). But as for the rest, unless I’m missing something (and if I am, please tell me in the comments) I think the media is just blowing a fuse because he’s a black man who won’t eat their shit.

I applaud this strange, proud man who doesn’t want to eat shit.

Howls of outrage (9)

2007 07 07
David Brooks on race

I made the mistake of reading a David Brooks column (“The End of Integration”) the other day. I can’t link to it properly, and you probably don’t care to read it anyway. But I can’t help making two points about it.

But first the column. Watch as Brooks bemoans the failure of integration, as part of a larger narrative in which the world is coming apart:

Over the course of the 20th century, the civil rights movement promised to heal the nation�s oldest wound. Racism and discrimination would diminish. Blacks and whites could live together, go to school together and gradually integrate their lives.

. . .

The progress in civil rights has not produced racial integration. Amid all the hubbub about last week�s Supreme Court decision, we were reminded that five decades after Brown, blacks and whites do not live side by side, even when they share the same income levels. They do not go to the same schools. And when they do go to the same schools, they do not lead shared lives. As several people noted last week, many educators are giving up on the dream of integration so they can focus on quality.

Brooks goes on to pose a false dilemma, and then chooses the worse of the two options:

Expecting integration, Americans find themselves confronting polarization and fragmentation. Amid all the problems that have made Americans sour and pessimistic, this is the deepest.

It could be that all we need is a change of leadership in order to rediscover the sense that we�re all in this together. That�s what the Obama and Bloomberg boomlets are all about. It could be we just need to work harder to overcome racism and tribalism.

But it could be the dream of integration itself is the problem. It could be that it was like the dream of early communism � a nice dream, but not fit for the way people really are.

And where do we turn to for clues about how people are? Oh man, you just knew he wouldn’t be able to help himself:

For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived in small bands. Surviving meant being able to distinguish between us � the people who will protect you � and them � the people who will kill you. Even today, people have a powerful drive to distinguish between us and them.

As dozens of social-science experiments have made clear, if you separate people into different groups � no matter how arbitrary the basis of the distinction � they will quickly begin discriminating against others they deem unlike themselves. People say they want to live in diverse integrated communities, but what they really want to do is live in homogenous ones, filled with people like themselves.

If that�s the case, maybe integration is not in the cards. Maybe the world will be as it�s always been, a collection of insular compartments whose fractious tendencies are only kept in check by constant maintenance.

There’s more to the column, almost every line of it stupid, but that’s enough for the points I want to make.

First, I haven’t seen actual numbers on this, but I was under the impression that interracial marriages and mixed-race neighbourhoods were increasingly common these days. As it happens, tomorrow Yoon and I will celebrate 6 years of marriage, almost all of it spent in the U.S., and we’re coming up to 11 years together. With the exception of this incident, we’ve had virtually no comment from anyone about the fact that we’re in a mixed-race marriage. And that’s no surprise, given how common white-Asian pairings are these days. Nor would this likely surprise Brooks. Black-white integration lags behind (in both marriages and in housing), if I understand correctly, but I suspect here that Brooks is conflating racial integration in general with the lack of progress in black-white integration in particular. (By the way, we live in Flatbush, and there are, I notice, a ton of black people here, along with the Russians, Pakistanis, Orthodox Jews, and other whites. But perhaps my neighbourhood is atypical.)

So this is my first point: Notice how much this messes up Brooks’ musing about the probable inevitability of it all. If the problem is more specifically lack of progress on black-white integration, then the explanation can’t be an innate and unmalleable tendency to xenophobia in general. Perhaps there are other causes. Perhaps they’re specific to blacks because of an enduring legacy of racism that the Brown decision only began to address. Perhaps these might even be the subject of columns more interesting than the one Brooks actually wrote.

Second, the musing about evolutionary psychology here is a textbook case of what I’ve complained about in the past. The appeal of the evolutionary story that Brooks trots out here is not just that it allows him to reach his alloted word count and go home early. It’s obviously that it ratifies his prejudices. True, Brooks presents his point in the speculative mode. But there is, I submit, a fine line between just tossing out an idea on the Op-Ed page of the NYT and advancing an idea couched in rhetoric that allows you to dodge responsibility for justifying it.

What a fucker. And he has the nerve to pretend that continuing problems in race relations in the US sadden and distress him. They don’t. If a social tendency distresses you, the last thing you do is provide a sloppy analysis of it and then retreat into sociobiological mumbo-jumbo. This is not a column that someone who gives a shit could write.

Howls of outrage (14)

2005 01 22

Posted by in: Political issues, Race

Huh. Wadda ya know? Maybe they really are race-blind over at the National Review.

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2005 01 19
Race and I.Q.

Posted by in: Political issues, Race

An interesting discussion here.

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2004 11 21

Posted by in: Psychology, Race

Are you ageist? Racist? Sexist? How will you know if you don’t take this test?

*Sigh* Turns out I hate old people. But I swear I love the old bags! Really, I do!

I’m not going near the other tests. I’m afraid of what I’ll discover.

Howls of outrage (7)