Tag Archives: Race

Coates on Reparations

The latest issue of The Atlantic features an important piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the issue of reparations for the U.S.’s racist history. It went live on Thursday to a lot of hubbub, but I wanted to dedicate a short post to tell you all to read the whole thing in full.

Coates uses housing as his framework for viewing America’s history, focusing on the long plunder of the 20th century. He spends much of the rest of the article arguing for reparations by showing how the repercussions of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration continue to punish black people. He also criticizes efforts to help the disadvantaged without taking race into account.

Coates also wrote here about tracing his line of thinking from opposing reparations four years ago. It includes links to several interesting pieces, all factors in his thought process. Coates also penned this short footnote to the article, highlighting why it is an important issue to tackle. Both are worth perusing if you’re interested.

In response, Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote this piece about education’s role in inequality and the (lack of) potential it has for being the channel through which we can attain a more equitable future. She brings numbers to the game, for those who like them, from a recent economic policy paper. Summarizing the findings, she states: “No matter what black college grads do, they are more sensitive than non-blacks to every negative macro labor market trend. They are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and hold low quality jobs even when they have STEM degrees.” She closes by arguing that “[w]hen we allow education to be sold as a fix for wealth inequality, we set a public good up to fail and black folks that do everything “right” to take the blame when it goes “wrong”.”

Alyssa Rosenberg also wrote this piece reflecting on how culture would have to change in order for such reparations to occur. She sheds some light on American media and how much attention has been paid to slavery and racism through what we watch. There’s also an interesting piece on the recent Caribbean effort to gain reparations from European countries for 400 years of slavery and colonization, and this piece outlining ways to actually see reparations through.

(If you know of other good pieces on Coates’ article, leave them in the comments.)

MLK Meals

In my senior year of high school, my government class was taught by a teacher that was very involved in local government. On a day near Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (still not sure why it wasn’t on the actual day) the Town of Gilbert had a MLK commemorative breakfast downtown, and she wanted some students to represent our school by attending. Myself and a few friends went, and while we grabbed breakfast we all muttered how uncomfortable we all felt. All of us were white. Breakfast included grits and fried chicken. Snickers about racism prevailed.

Gilbert is about 3% black, and over 80% white. In my earlier years I don’t even remember if there were black kids in my classes, and I remember only a token few from my high school years (Apparently, there are about 150 out of 2700 total students). So, when Gilbert tries to do MLK Day, it comes off as kind of weird. In retrospect, I’m glad that the event happened, and I’m glad it brought quite a few people out to remember Dr. King. There were a few speakers about equality, and some students from Best Buddies at my school did a performance. And there was grits.

This week, the cafeteria at UC Davis honored Dr. King by serving a menu that looked pretty reminiscent of my experience. And I think this sums it up nicely:

On the one hand, the cafeteria is making an effort to mark MLK day and, to be fair, the food choices are traditional “soul food” familiar to (especially Southern) Black populations and the South more generally.  On the other hand, preparing foods associated with Black people is about the shallowest possible way to celebrate such an important man.

The conundrum — do we or don’t we, as a cafeteria, acknowledge Martin Luther King day and, if so how? — is a familiar one.  Can one do so without reproducing stereotypes and appearing on blogs like these?  Or should we just pretend the day doesn’t exist?

The truth is, in a context of ongoing racial inequality in which stereotypes continue to harm, organizations such as these are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  That’s how racism has such staying power: it makes it such that all choices resonate with its ugliness.

What? Russell Pearce is Racist?!

The ever-wonderful ACLU of Arizona has obtained e-mails to and from Russell Pearce, the architect of SB 1070, and have released a number of them. There are lots of racist treasures buried within, but I wanted to give a brief look at the monstrosity of his psyche.

“One look at Los Angeles with its Mexican-American mayor shows you Vincente Fox’s general Varigossa commanding an American city.”

“They create enclaves of separate groups that shall balkanize our nation into fractured nightmares of social unrest and poverty.”

“Corruption is the mechanism by which Mexico operates. Its people spawn more corruption wherever they go because it is their only known way of life.”

“We are much like the Titanic as we inbreed millions of Mexico’s poor, the world’s poor and we watch our country sink.”

“Can we maintain our social fabric as a nation with Spanish fighting English for dominance … It’s like importing leper colonies and hope we don’t catch leprosy. It’s like importing thousands of Islamic jihadists and hope they adapt to the American Dream.”

And these gems are the only things Pearce says that are correct, apparently from an e-mail rant with the subject line “What’s a racist?”

“I’m racist because I don’t want to be taxed to pay for a prison population comprised of mainly Hispanics, Latinos, Mexicans or whatever else you wish to call them.”

“I’m a racist because I object to having to pay higher sales tax and property tax to build more schools for the illegitimate children of illegal aliens.”

“I’m a racist because I dislike having to push one for English and/or listening to a message in Spanish.”

Those are just a taste of Pearce’s racism.

Teaching Students Racism

Last week my wife told me about an insane case in which a Texas high school had an annual tradition of teaching students about Nazism in the stupidest way possible – by having half of the students be Nazis, and half of them Jews. From the article:

The students playing Jews wear red ribbons. “[Red ribbon students] must do everything school faculty or other students tell them to, including picking up other students’ trash, being taken outside and sprayed with water hoses, bear-crawling across the hot track, carrying other students’ books, and even carrying other students,” says the suit, filed in federal court by Andrew Yara, 19. “Engaging in this exercise was compulsory, with it constituting 60 percent of a major test grade for students in their World History Class, and any student who did not do everything they were told were receive a failing grade.”

This is some insane shit. Giving one group of high school students unrestricted power over another group of high school students is ludicrous, and all it does – besides exacerbating bullying and other problems – is teach students to be assholes.

When I first heard about this, my mind went straight to Jane Elliott’s work in Riceville, Iowa in 1968. You might know her as the third grade teacher that split up her students based on eye color and treated them differently. She began by explaining to her students that blue-eyed people were smarter, cleaner, punctual, and more determined than brown-eyed students, and therefore deserved snacks, extra recess, and sitting up front in class. She noted the sudden divide between students as bullying occurred on the playground and grades rose and fell for the two groups. The next day, she reversed the roles and the third graders immediately swapped places, with grades and attitudes rising and falling according to eye color. The result was a particularly telling example of how prejudice can affect people, with a side of controversial treatment of children.

Elliott’s exercise isn’t without criticisms, and rightly so. It’s worth noting that treating children in such a way can lead to some sorts of trauma through emotional abuse (on which I’m no expert). Telling a third grader, “of course your homework is late, you have blue eyes” will probably have some sort of effect. As this paper (pdf) shows, while most of her students remember the two day experiment as beneficial and life-changing, albeit humiliating at the time, some are hesitant when thinking about whether or not to put their children through the same lesson. Whether you agree with her tactics, the strategy is clear: show all students what it’s like to be mistreated, and they will learn what it feels like to be judged based on their appearance, then they should spend the rest of their lives trying not to be racist.

Compared to Elliott’s exercise, the Perryton High School exercise goes farther in demoralizing students and submitting them to abuse, and I’m curious as to what sort of post-exercise lesson the students undergo. Giving students two days to treat peers as slaves is very different from a supervised two tier classroom setting, and Red Ribbon Days seem to not really do much teaching. News articles don’t point to any positives of the lesson whatsoever; there’s little supervision, some actions cause bodily harm (which has led to the current uproar, after a lawsuit was filed when a student was forced to carry another student almost double his weight), students don’t share both experiences, and the actual lesson doesn’t even address the core curriculum of teaching the Holocaust. It’s controversial and it’s dangerous. It’s also bad teaching.

Civil Rights in Mad Men and Beyond

The only black character that has been on Mad Men for more than two episodes is Carla, the Draper housekeeper. That might change this season.

If you didn’t see the season premiere of Mad Men this week, you should know one thing: racism and civil rights have intruded upon Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The show has referenced racism a few times, with Paul and Sheila going to the South to register voters, but it has never been a prominent theme like women’s role in the workplace has. It seems, however, that the fifth season could feature race quite a bit, especially if the office hires a person of color. As Tanner Colby points out, most seasons have included a major historical event (Kennedy’s election, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kennedy’s assassination), and if this season spans about two years it could include Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

In this first episode of the season, race is treated as a problem that nobody wants to fix.  The opening scene of the premiere features a few executives at Young & Rubicam water bomb a Civil Rights protest going on outside their office,* which gets them in the papers. From there, the partners at SCDP decide to take the opportunity to rub salt on Y&R’s wounds by placing an ad in the paper declaring themselves “an equal-opportunity employer.” The boys at Y&R fire back, sending a resume and an African artifact through the door while a number of black applicants sit in the lobby.

While the premiere spends a lot of time showing how SCDP employees struggle with their home lives (with two new children, two new homes, and a new wife), the issue of race is tossed back and forth between SCDP and Y&R throughout the episode, with each agency trying to stick the other with the Civil Rights problem.

During the time in which Mad Men is set, the Civil Rights movement was often treated in the same way.  Politically, both Democrats and Republicans voted against civil rights reforms in Congress, despite Presidents of both parties putting forth piecemeal plans for reform.  Kennedy denounced the Freedom Riders for provoking violence and criticized SNCC for inciting harassment as well.  It would take James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi and Bull Connor’s crackdown in Birmingham to force his hand.

The biggest victories for blacks, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, arguably only came about because Johnson realized that black votes were important. By and large, the rights of America’s blacks were hot potato’d until politicians realized that black votes, not black people, were something to attract and protect.  One of the boys at Y&R shouted for the protesters to get a job, then pranked SCDP into accepting resumes – neither agency actually wanted to address the problem, but in the end one had to. Most politicians during the time didn’t want to deal with the “problem” of civil rights, but were forced to. I’m definitely not an expert on civil rights history, but I think this was a recurring theme until the movement grew enough to demand attention.


* Fun fact: Young & Rubicam was actually the first ad agency to hire a black adman, Roy Eaton, and that was in 1955.