Category Archives: Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading coming at you in its new, even more infrequent manner. Surprise readings:

The video is not “about” colonialism (or about Africa); it’s about the desire for “classic Hollywood iconography,” for the glamour of that period…. Because Swift’s video is “based on classic Hollywood romances,” it cannot be about colonialism. Because it uses “classic Hollywood iconography,” there can be “no political agenda in the video.” Because it’s a tragic love story, it is absolved of nostalgia for white supremacy.

But if the word “classic” is a load-bearing piece of rhetoric, the argument here is a load of crap. Another “classic” Hollywood film is 1915’s Birth of a Nation—an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan—and the film’s success played a direct and decisive role in reviving the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that occasionally dabbled in politics. For decades, as black people struggled against Jim Crow repression and law-by-lynching, Hollywood films like Gone With the Wind (1939) produced very effective and powerful propaganda for a white supremacist vision of American society; Hollywood in the 1930s was, in everything but name, a public relations office for Jim Crow. But, and here is the point, Hollywood sold white supremacy by foregrounding white romance. Gone With the Wind is not about slavery, ostensibly; it’s about white people in love who just happen to own slaves. And it’s no coincidence that Birth of the Nation literally ends with voter suppression and white people getting married. The romance—the marriage between North and South—is there to make white supremacy look good, to make you forget little things like the fact that Black Lives Matter.

Like Gone With the Wind, Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” is not explicitly nostalgic for white supremacy. But it’s nostalgic for a time when you could be nostalgic for white supremacy, when having a wedding at a former slave plantation raised no eyebrows.

Academics of color experience an enervating visibility, but it’s not simply that we’re part of a very small minority. We are also a desired minority, at least for appearance’s sake. University life demands that academics of color commodify themselves as symbols of diversity—in fact, as diversity itself, since diversity, in this context, is located entirely in the realm of the symbolic. There’s a wound in the rupture between the diversity manifested in the body of the professor of color and the realities affecting that person’s community or communities. I, for example, am a black professor in the era of mass incarceration of black people through the War on Drugs; I am a Somali American professor in the era of surveillance and drone strikes perpetuated through the War on Terror.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander taps into that wound: “Highly visible examples of black success are critical to the maintenance of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness.” It’s not that we’re too few, nor is it that we suffer survivor guilt for having escaped the fate of so many in our communities. It’s that our visibility is consumed in a way that legitimizes the structures of exclusion.

Weekend Reading

Giving education away for free is easy, especially if you’ve been doing it for 150-plus years: you just accept students and then start teaching them. But charging tuition is expensive because it requires a huge bureaucracy, all of which Cooper needed to build from scratch. And so, in order to be able to charge tuition, Cooper Union had to borrow evenmore money, partly just to build up that bureaucracy. In August 2014, it borrowed another $50 million. The debts were piling up, while the revenues were still nowhere to be seen.

There is a global refugee crisis–today, it is on Europe’s shores; two months ago, it was on Malaysia’s; one year ago, it was on the southern border of the United States. This is a crisis of no specific moment: it is persistent, because the violence whence it came is persistent. The refugees that violence creates occupy a worldly purgatory. In camps, the ramshackle residence that becomes their home is impermanent by definition, and their new society is governed at once by the formal legal codes of domestic and international humanitarian governance, and an informal assortment of evolutionary bodies. Even when these refugees are resettled–given permanent visas, permanent homes–the societies that host them place them at their margins.

[W]hat Hudson is doing [by using a Chinese pseudonym] isn’t anything that white male writers haven’t already been doing since the first recorded instance of our culture embracing any kind of excellence that did not include them: scramble to come up with ways to keep the playing field uneven, to keep the odds stacked in their favor. The scandal of Hudson performing the laziest act of yellowface (co-opting a Chinese name) to get his poem published and accepted into the Best American Poetry anthology is lurid fodder for our cultural conversation because of its explicitness, but it should not be strange or unbelievable. White people have always slipped in and out of the experiences of people of color and been praised extravagantly for it. After all, 50 years ago, when black voices were fighting to be heard, when their stories of trauma and abuse were struggling for legitimacy, it took John Howard Griffin, a white man who dyed his skin black and wrote about his experiences as a “black” man in his book, Black Like Me, for white Americans to believe that yes, black people were telling the truth about their lived experiences in the Jim Crow South. He was hailed a singular hero. Studs Terkel once said, “Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.” It may seem totally nuts now, but as far as who gets credit for simply being affected by black pain, it doesn’t seem very removed from our current world where we heap lavish praise on someone like Jon Stewart for announcing on the Daily Show that he was too heartbroken to make jokes after the Charleston church shooting, as if all throughout this country’s present and past, black people and people of color have not been so heartbroken and so violated that we were left humorless, or worse, dead. To praise Stewart as excessively as he was praised is to say to black people: Your pain is unexceptional and does not matter until a white man feels it too.

Weekend Reading

Semester starts tomorrow, so get some links while you can:

If stopped by the police, I thought to myself, I would set my phone to record audio and put it on the passenger seat. I would send a tweet that I was being stopped and had every intention of complying with the police officer. I would turn on Periscope and livestream the stop, crowdsourcing witnesses. I would text my family and tell them that I was not feeling angry or suicidal, that I was looking forward to seeing them soon. There would not be time to do all of these things, but maybe if I prepared in advance I could pull off one or two of them. What all of these plans had in common were that none of them were meant to secure my safety, but rather to ensure that my death looked suspicious enough to question.

I was figuring out how to enter evidence into the inquiry of my own death.


Most of us will not be killed by police officers. White supremacy will not kill us so directly, so flagrantly. Instead it dogs our steps, wages niggling wars on our peace itself. Its power is in the daily theft of our joy, our dignity, our sanity. It is in the way we always have to weigh and calculate, how we can never assume good intentions and honest mistakes. Because it is always there, in swirling eddies around our ankles, waiting to drag us under.

White Americans saw the storm and its aftermath as a case of bad luck and unprecedented incompetence that spread its pain across the Gulf Coast regardless of race. This is the narrative you see in Landrieu’s words and, to some extent, Obama’s as well. To black Americans, however, this wasn’t an equal opportunity disaster. To them, it was confirmation of America’s indifference to black life. “We have an amazing tolerance for black pain,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson in an interview after the storm. Rev. Al Sharpton, also echoed the mood among many black Americans: “I feel that, if it was in another area, with another economic strata and racial makeup, that President Bush would have run out of Crawford a lot quicker and FEMA would have found its way in a lot sooner.” Even more blunt was rapper Kanye West, who famously told a live national television audience that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”


When we look at the first 15 years of the 21st century, the most defining moment in black America’s relationship to its country isn’t Election Day 2008; it’s Hurricane Katrina. The events of the storm and its aftermath sparked a profound shift among black Americans toward racial pessimism that persists to today, even with Barack Obama in the White House. Black collective memory of Hurricane Katrina, as much as anything else, informs the present movement against police violence, “Black Lives Matter.”

Weekend Reading

The move to more flexible scheduling has come alongside a shift from full-time to part-time work. One industry analyst reported that the retail sector went from being about 70 to 80 percent full-time jobs several decades ago to approximately 70 percent part-time jobs today. Retail employees comprise 11 percent of the US workforce, but 18 percent of those who are involuntarily part-time.

While erratic scheduling makes it difficult for someone not working a forty-hour week to find and hold a second job, relying on part-time work benefits employers — who can more easily vary hours and schedules, avoid overtime pay, and offer fewer benefits. Many companies have store policies that provide benefits only to full-time workers, and the Affordable Care Act applies only to workers employed thirty or more hours per week.

The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.


[T]rigger warnings are, in practice, just one of a set of tools that professors use with varying degrees of formality to negotiate the give-and-take of classroom interactions. If you take away the media hysteria surrounding trigger warnings, you’re left with a mode of conversational priming that we all use: “You might want to sit down for this”; “I’m not sure how to say this, but…” It’s hardly anti-intellectual or emotionally damaging to anticipate that other people may react to traumatic material with negative emotions, particularly if they suffer from PTSD; it’s human to engage others with empathy. It’s also human to have emotional responses to life and literature, responses that may come before, but in no way preclude, a dispassionate analysis of a text or situation.

Weekend Reading

No doubt many liberals have grown increasingly sensitive to the uses and abuses of language. This might be a consequence of previously marginalized groups demanding respect, or it might have something to do with technological change, as the atomized Internet age gives way to the non-stop commentary of the social-media age. And it may be the case that this focus on language will prove, in the long run, unhelpful to the progressive movement. But it is hard to see how, as Powers argues, “the left is killing free speech” merely by paying too much attention to it. Last month, speaking about criminal-justice reform, President Obama issued twin exhortations. “We should not be tolerating rape in prison,” he said. “And we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture.” To someone like Powers, this might have sounded faintly oppressive: the President telling citizens what jokes not to tell. Yet our discourse is shaped by innumerable taboos. (Just think of all the things one shouldn’t say about members of the military.) Certainly, some new taboos are emerging, even as some older ones fade away, but no one with Internet access will find it easy to claim that, in general, our speech is more inhibited than it used to be. Taboos discourage some speech, but the system of taboos is also maintained through speech. If you say the unsayable, you might well be shamed—and that shaming can have consequences—but you will not be arrested. Mostly, what inhibits speech is the fear of being spoken about.

Earlier this year, Powers took part in a debate over the proposition that “liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus.” One of the people on the other side was Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism. He cited the case of Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, who was invited to deliver the commencement address at Haverford College last year, but declined in the face of protests; students had demanded that he apologize for the actions of U.C.B. police officers who arrested seven students during a 2011 demonstration. Powers considers Birgeneau the victim of a “campaign of intolerance,” but Johnston sees him as a perpetrator. “Birgeneau, an administrator who presided over the beating and arrest of student protesters, is portrayed as a free-speech martyr,” he said. “The students who just wanted to talk to him about that are portrayed as his oppressors.” Johnston conceded that “stifling” was worrisome, but insisted that the true culprits were administrators—liberal, perhaps, in political outlook, but motivated merely by “opposition to disruptiveness and clamor.” These days, just about everyone claims to be on the side of free speech.

All the good stuff we grow — tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce — has gotten continually more bland. This has been measured. They have become diluted of nutrients, as well. As we selected crops for agronomic traits like yield, shelf life and disease resistant, we never selected for flavor. And we lost flavor as a result. It’s reverse evolutionary pressure.

Simultaneously, while those flavors were being lost at the farm level, we started producing them in factories and adding them to all sorts of things. We created flavors that were out of context. For tens of thousands of years, the only place we could get the taste of orange was from an orange. Then we created orange flavoring and suddenly we had orange pops, ice cream, candy. These flavored foods deliver deliciousness and calories, but they don’t deliver a diversity of nutrients.

Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading wine pairings.


Weekend Reading

[I]n a 1996 article in Nature, a seismologist named Kenji Satake and three colleagues, drawing on the work of Atwater and Yamaguchi, matched that orphan [tsunami] to its parent—and thereby filled in the blanks in the Cascadia story with uncanny specificity. At approximately nine o’ clock at night on January 26, 1700, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck the Pacific Northwest, causing sudden land subsidence, drowning coastal forests, and, out in the ocean, lifting up a wave half the length of a continent. It took roughly fifteen minutes for the Eastern half of that wave to strike the Northwest coast. It took ten hours for the other half to cross the ocean. It reached Japan on January 27, 1700: by the local calendar, the eighth day of the twelfth month of the twelfth year of Genroku.

Once scientists had reconstructed the 1700 earthquake, certain previously overlooked accounts also came to seem like clues. In 1964, Chief Louis Nookmis, of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation, in British Columbia, told a story, passed down through seven generations, about the eradication of Vancouver Island’s Pachena Bay people. “I think it was at nighttime that the land shook,” Nookmis recalled. According to another tribal history, “They sank at once, were all drowned; not one survived.” A hundred years earlier, Billy Balch, a leader of the Makah tribe, recounted a similar story. Before his own time, he said, all the water had receded from Washington State’s Neah Bay, then suddenly poured back in, inundating the entire region. Those who survived later found canoes hanging from the trees. In a 2005 study, Ruth Ludwin, then a seismologist at the University of Washington, together with nine colleagues, collected and analyzed Native American reports of earthquakes and saltwater floods. Some of those reports contained enough information to estimate a date range for the events they described. On average, the midpoint of that range was 1701.

It does not speak well of European-Americans that such stories counted as evidence for a proposition only after that proposition had been proved.

there were already innumerable levers at our disposal to alter Facebook’s algorithm and its interpretation of us. Like this post, view that profile, visit this third-party site while logged into Facebook, etc. We didn’t know what the exact effects of these would be, and we still don’t know what the exact effects of the new “controls” will have on our News Feeds. You don’t control an algorithm by feeding more information to it; you teach it to control you better.

Facebook has always deferred to users because that deference allows it to gain more information that can be presumed more accurate than what it can merely infer. And it has never wanted to tell us what to find meaningful; it wants only to inscribe Facebook as the best place in which to discover our sense of meaning. The control Facebook’s algorithms impose is not what to think but where to think it.

Weekend Reading

You can read these links anywhere and everywhere.

In a wealthier Michigan county, kids convicted of minor offenses are almost always sentenced to community service, like helping out at the local science center. Doug Mullkoff, a criminal defense attorney in Ann Arbor, told me that prison in such circumstances is “virtually unheard of.” But Jamie is from Detroit, and in January 2012, she was sent to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, a prison that holds inmates convicted of crimes like first-degree homicide. From this point onward, her world was largely governed by codes and practices and assumptions designed for adult criminals.

Jamie is 20 now, but her soft brown eyes make her seem younger. When she first came to prison, women old enough to be her mother told her she was cute and promised to take care of her. “They rub on you and stuff, I can’t stand it,” she said. In the seven months before her 18th birthday, prison records show that Jamie was housed with at least three adult cellmates, including one in her 50s who had a history of cocaine possession. Jamie said she was also around adults in the showers and the yard. She had a bunkmate who did drugs she had never been around before, “something you snort.”

In this environment, Jamie found it hard to stay out of trouble. And when trouble came, she didn’t know how to explain herself to the guards. According to Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), Jamie “failed in every instance” to meet good-behavior standards that under Michigan law allow certain inmates to have their records scrubbed clean after they serve their sentences. In June 2012, Jamie’s special status was revoked and she was resentenced to up to five years in prison for her original crime.

Chilean capitalists were—then as now—gifted at spotting and exploiting opportunities. Many found that setting up shops in San Francisco was more profitable than searching for gold. Some of the richer Chileans who came to California brought theirpeones with them—dependent workers who claimed sites in their own names but worked them for their patrón (often for very little pay). That didn’t sit well with some American prospectors, nor did the fact that foreigners had claimed some of the best sites.

In December 1849, a group of Iowans decided to target and expel foreigners from sites they wanted to work. Intimidation tactics worked in some cases, but Chilean miners proved generally hard to intimidate. The Iowans claimed that the Chilean “peons” were slaves in a free state, and got a Judge Collier to issue an eviction order: The Chileans had eight days to vacate the site or be forcibly evicted. The Chilenos coolly informed the Iowans that they had never voted for Judge Collier and therefore didn’t recognize his authority. And what started out as a conflict in the mines of the Wild West devolved (or escalated) into a battle over paperwork: Finding a judge of their own, the Chileans asked him to issue a warrant for the Americans’ arrest, petitioned for authorization to personally make the arrests, and obtained it. They invaded the American camp, and managed to legally take more than a dozen extremely surprised Americans prisoner.

Africans existed in many different conditions in the colonies. Some Africans were free; there are even instances of Africans bringing lawsuits against Europeans — then called “Christians” — and winning. There are records of Africans adopting Christian babies. It’s only later that language changes from “free” and “slave” (or “African” and “Christian”) to “white” and “black.” Africans were available for enslavement in ways that other people were not.

For the first time in human history, the color of one’s skin had a political significance. It never had a political significance before. Now there was a reason to assign a political significance to dark skin — it’s an ingenious way to brand someone as a slave. It’s a brand that they can never wash off, that they can never erase, that they can never run away from. There’s no way out. That’s the ingeniousness of using skin color as a mark of degradation, as a mark of slavery.

Weekend Reading

While disconnection rates vary from city to city, some of the biggest chasms are found between predominantly black and predominantly white neighborhoods—neighborhoods within the same metro area. In Chicago, for example—a city simultaneously known for its gang violence and its prestigious art museums— only 8 percent of the city’s white youth are disconnected, compared to roughly a quarter of its black youth. Youth and young adults aged 16 to 24 in Chicago who live in mostly black neighborhoods, as well as their counterparts in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, are ten times more likely to be disconnected than their peers living in majority-white neighborhoods in the very same cities.

The cities with high black-disconnection rates also have deeply segregated school systems. Less than 10 percent of kids enrolled in Chicago Public Schools are white, and the statistics are similar in D.C.(12 percent) and Philadelphia (14 percent). Unsurprisingly, the report parallels similar phenomena in school systems that, despite the six-decade-old Brown v. Board of Education decision,remain segregated to this day—often a byproduct of housing policies and trends.

Most of these early projects were built for whites, and whites of a particular kind: the “barely poor,” as Vale puts it — the upwardly mobile working class, with fathers working in factory jobs. Housing agencies required tenant families to have stable work and married parents. Children out of wedlock were rejected. Housing authority managers visited prospective tenants, often unannounced, to check on the cleanliness of their homes and their housekeeping habits.

“The idea — although people didn’t tend to voice it explicitly — was that you could be too poor for public housing,” Vale says. In many cities, the truly poor remained in the tenements.


By the 1960s, the tenants living in public housing began to grow more deeply poor and, particularly in big cities, much less white, in large part thanks to another set of active housing policies pushed next by the federal government.

In cities like Chicago and Detroit, public housing “became a black program,” says the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein, “because the Federal Housing Administration created a different program for whites, which was a single-family suburban program.”

Weekend Reading

Readings on racism, policing, incarceration, and other forms of violence.

To view someone as a political equal is an act of respect and empathy. The decades-long growth in black incarceration rates represents a failure of empathy. How could rational people committed to liberal ideals allow such an obvious violation of those ideals to persist? How can such manifest social contradictions be so easily tolerated? Those questions have the characteristic feel of philosophical problems.

To understand what’s happened with incarceration in America, you must examine the concepts of propaganda and ideology, especially the kind of propaganda that is most prevalent in liberal democratic societies, which I call undermining propaganda. Undermining propaganda consists of arguments that employ a cherished political ideal in the service of a goal that undermines that very ideal. When it works, we do not even notice the contradiction. Ideology conceals the contradictions of propaganda….

Battles about the putative link between crime and race stretch back more than a century in the sociological literature, to Ida B. Wells and Du Bois. The story is masterfully told in Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s 2010 book, The Condemnation of Blackness (Harvard University Press), in which he shows how white social scientists used race to explain problems among blacks, while appealing to socioeconomic causes to explain the very same problems among whites. Mass incarceration yields many other instances of manipulative expertise.

Readings on higher education, tenure, and student-teacher dynamics.

My students’ discomfort with me is especially clear when I teach “general” courses — courses that are not explicitly about people of color. It is not uncommon for students to accuse me of diminishing the quality of their education when I teach classes like this. For example, when I taught an honors writing class, I included two — just two! — reading assignments by nonwhite authors. At the end of the term, a significant percentage of student evaluations complained that the class was skewed because it unjustifiably prioritized African-American authors.

All of my students, regardless of the identity categories they embraced, had been taught their entire lives that real literature is written by white people. Naturally, they felt they were being cheated by this strange professor’s “agenda.”

Readings on everything else.

More troubling, however, are Kaplan’s claims about supposedly artificial borders and the “order” brought by colonial rule. The artificial bordersargument is a common myth that sadly continues to pervade policy discussions of the Middle East. Kaplan simply regurgitates the claim that theSykes-Picot Agreement was arbitrarily drawn, and did not conform to sectarian or national realities on the ground, implying that the “artificial” borders drawn by the agreement have contributed to the sectarian strife we see today.

Complaints about artificial states imply that borders can ever be natural. While nationalist elites may like to portray borders as natural to their kin groups, around the world, states were formed through social processes involving conflict and negotiation to create the borders we see today. That’s true whether those borders have expanded, contracted, or been drawn by outsiders or insiders, but in all cases they are socially constructed and no more artificial than any other borders. To hold up some imperial divisions (like Ottoman borders) as “natural” while calling more recent colonial borders “artificial” greatly confuses the extent to which all borders are drawn through social processes, politics and violence.

Moreover, supra-national entities, like the United Arab Republic in the Middle East and the Mali Federation in West Africa, fell apart under local and national political constraints. This suggests that, counter to Kaplan’s claims, national distinctions matter, even when colonial powers drew the borders of what became postcolonial states. And Marc Lynch and others have recently demonstrated the ways in which national identity remains highly salient in the Middle East. Kaplan’s “artificial” nations can in fact show a high degree of coherence and nationalist sentiment, even in the face of ongoing political, social and economic turmoil.