Palaces For The People

I’m two-thirds through Eric Klinenberg’s excellent book Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, And The Decline Of Civic Life. The book jacket explains what Klinenberg means by “social infrastructure” and why it matters:

“Klinenberg believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks in which crucial sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. These are places where people gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community. Klinenberg calls this the ‘social infrastructure.’ When it is strong, neighborhoods flourish; when it is neglected, as it has been in recent years, families and individuals must fend for themselves.”

Klinenberg makes a particularly strong case for public libraries. If I was Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Jeff Bezos, that’s where I’d focus a significant portion of my philanthropy.

Where I’m at currently in the book, Klinenberg is drawing on Jeff Wiltse’s social history of municipal swimming pools in the United States which I may have to read next. Wiltse offers searing reminders of our longstanding struggles with racism. For example, he recounts the story of a Little League Baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, that celebrated its city championship in 1951 at a beautiful municipal pool in South Side Park.

The team had one African American player, Al Bright, and lifeguards refused to let him past the perimeter fence while the other players swam. When several parents protested, the supervisor agreed to let Al ‘enter’ the pool for a few minutes, but only if everyone else got out and Al agreed to sit inside a rubber raft. While everyone watched, a lifeguard pushed Al around the pool shouting, ‘whatever you do, don’t touch the water!”

Wiltse adds:

“This was not an isolated incident, nor was it restricted to certain parts of the United States. Two years later, in 1953, the great African American film star Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toes in the swimming pool at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, which welcomed her as a performer but banned her, and all other blacks, from the water. The hotel responded by draining the entire pool.”

These mind-numbing historical anecdotes aside, Palaces For The People is a hopeful work.

In the United States, there are two fundamental problems with implementing the convincing road maps that Klinenberg and other social scientists outline for safer, healthier, more vibrant communities. Everyone’s ingrained individualism coupled with many people’s refusal to acknowledge that publicly funded government programs often make significant contributions to the common good.

 

 

How Does a Racist Become School Superintendent?

I really do not understand.

Given United States history, after the National Football League Houston Texans’ loss Sunday, it’s no surprise at all that a white fan said, “You can’t count on a black quarterback.”

But it’s surprising and sad that the fan is a school superintendent of a Texas school district with 1,020 children. Also, that when criticized, one of his first instincts was to rationalize his racist thought by saying he was referring to the statistical success of black NFL quarterbacks. “Over the history of the NFL,” the superintendent said, “they have had limited success.”

Oh, okay then, you’re just making an objective statement of fact. If there’s no problem though, why did the superintendent add that he hopes none of the district’s students saw the post?

Is it because the brown and black students and their families might view it as further evidence that equal educational opportunity is a mirage when the top educational official, the one responsible for hiring principals, determining curriculum, and setting the overall tone, doesn’t truly trust them or their guardians?

Educational leadership requires school janitors, office staff, teacher aides, teachers, principals, and superintendents to understand that. . .

  • the history of the United States has resulted in a still lingering institutional racism which makes it more difficult for students/people of color to succeed
  • people routinely succumb to negative assumptions about people of color, including students, based upon woefully, inadequate firsthand experience in diverse communities
  • educators have to be extra conscious of holding historically marginalized students in unconditional positive regard trusting they are en route to becoming young adults that will powerfully defy people’s negative, and too often, racist assumptions
  • students are equals in every way, including intellectually, some just require more support than others to achieve their particular academic and personal objectives

How the hell does a person who doesn’t think you can trust quarterbacks with particular skin pigmentation ever succeed in becoming a teacher, let alone a school building leader and then superintendent? Time after time he was vetted and deemed the best candidate for the job. What does that say about the quality of public schooling in Texas?

Also important to note, the superintendent said that he has not faced any repercussions from the post as of Monday afternoon. No public rebuke. No suspension. No diversity training.

What are the odds the School Board provides the necessary leadership to right this wrong? My guess. About the same as The Texans tapping the superintendent to take over at quarterback.

Yes he’s old, pudgy, and slower than molasses, but very trustworthy.

Update.

Is Racism Curable?

What do we do with the Roseanne Barrs, Michael Richards, Donald Sterlings of the world? The race to condemn them and the impulse to ostracize them is understandable, but we shouldn’t expect either of those responses to help racists overcome racism.

Another way of asking the question is how do we create less racist communities? More specifically, can the obviously racist—the Roseanne Barrs, the Michael Richards, the Donald Sterlings of the world—be rehabilitated? Can they learn to tolerate cultural diversity, let alone appreciate, value, embrace it?

The educator in me believes so. An integral part of anti-racism work is found three-fourths of the way through yesterday’s New York Times essay, “Sex and Gender on the Christian Campus”.

Molly Worten explains that an increasing number of evangelical Christian college students are beginning to question their conservative parents’ and professors’ theological and political assumptions. For example, Ashley Brimmage at Biola University. Worten writes:

“Ms. Brimmage is not a typical Biola student, but she is not unusual either. There is a small but increasingly vocal progressive community on campus, including L.G.B.T. organizations. When Biola applied for an exemption from the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX in 2016, students protested.

I asked Ms. Brimmage how she came to her views on gender and racial justice. Did she encounter a new theological argument in a book or a class? ‘The biggest answer is relationships with others, not working through these things on paper,’ she said. Female mentors and friendships with gay and nonwhite students compelled her to revise her theology (almost half of Biola’s students are now nonwhite or international).

Ashley’s “biggest answer” jives with my experience of learning to embrace cultural pluralism and with my helping young adults learn to interact smartly and sensitively with diverse people. It’s about close, interpersonal relationships with people different than oneself. Only then do negative preconceived notions that are a byproduct of implicit biases begin fading away.

Yes, let’s take away racists’ public platforms which are privileges—whether television shows, comedy club gigs, or professional sports teams—but let’s not completely ostracize them; instead, let’s surround them with diverse people whose life stories are our best hope to begin changing their hearts and expanding their minds.

Conscience Has No Color

A flag in Vermont reminds us conscience has no color

Originally published February 4, 2018 by Leonard Pitts Jr., Syndicated columnist.

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

Except it’s not really failure. It’s actually unwillingness to communicate, fear of what communication might mean. After all, if you communicate, you might understand some painful truths — and then where would you be?

That’s why discussing race with a white person is often one of the most vexing things an African-American person can do. You quickly come to understand that understanding is the last thing they want.

Take “Black Lives Matter.” Those words, if you are black, are both an assertion of self-evident truth and a way of saying you are sick of unarmed people like you being killed under color of authority while juries and judges shrug and look away.

That message would seem to be clear as mountain air, which, for many white Americans, is precisely what’s wrong with it. So they do everything they can not to comprehend.

They pretend confusion: “Black lives matter? Don’t all lives matter? Are you saying black lives are more important?”

They rationalize: “It’s not the cop’s fault. If the man had stopped moving/talking/breathing hard, he wouldn’t have been shot!”

They feign outrage: “Black Lives Matter is an anti-police terrorist group. They’re the black Ku Klux Klan.”

At some point, you begin wondering if the words you hear in your head are coming out in English. How is it you’re both speaking the same language, but you’re doing such a miserable job of being understood?

It’s a frustrating, exhausting experience. If you’ve ever had it, you’ll likely be touched by a recent story out of Vermont. It seems that, with the unanimous support of the school board, the Racial Justice Alliance, a student-led anti-racism group at Montpelier High, is commemorating Black History Month by flying a flag on campus. A flag that says, “Black Lives Matter.”

Lord, have mercy. Just when you think you’ve seen it all.

It’s stunning, you see, because there are no black people in Vermont.

OK, so that’s not quite true. There are some, but so few — 1.3 percent out of a population of 623,000 — that Vermont didn’t muster its first NAACP chapter until 2015. For the record, the student who founded the Racial Justice Alliance is a black senior named Joelyn Mensah. Still, we’re talking about one of the whitest states in the Union. So this flag flying at one of its schools is no small thing.

Not that everyone is pleased. State lawmaker Thomas Terenzini — you’ll be shocked to learn that he’s a Republican — told the local NBC affiliate that Black Lives Matter is “a national anti-police organization.”

That isn’t surprising. But the moral courage of these students and administrators is, pleasantly so.

We are indebted to them for a message that couldn’t be more timely. As appeals to our lowest selves flow down like sewage from the nation’s capital, they remind us that conscience has no color. It is a point proven in the past by white people like Elijah Lovejoy, William Lloyd Garrison, Andrew Goodman, James Zwerg, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and Viola Liuzzo who fought — and sometimes died — for black freedom.

One hopes white people of today will take note. And black ones, too.

Because, for as much as that flag flying in that place speaks to the broad sweep of conscience, it also rebukes excesses of cynicism, shows what can still happen just when you think you’ve seen it all. To be black talking to white people about race is never easy. You’ll be frequently frustrated, often exhausted. But once in a while, you will also be something you never expected:

Heard.

 

 

The Whitest City in America

Portland, Oregon. Thought of by most as especially hip and progressive. We’re indebted to Alana Semuels for scratching well below the surface. She starts strong in her piece about the city’s racist history:

Victor Pierce has worked on the assembly line of a Daimler Trucks North America plant here since 1994. But he says that in recent years he’s experienced things that seem straight out of another time. White co-workers have challenged him to fights, mounted “hangman’s nooses” around the factory, referred to him as “boy” on a daily basis, sabotaged his work station by hiding his tools, carved swastikas in the bathroom, and written the word “nigger” on walls in the factory, according to allegations filed in a complaint to the Multnomah County Circuit Court in February of 2015.

Pierce is one of six African Americans working in the Portland plant whom the lawyer Mark Morrell is representing in a series of lawsuits against Daimler Trucks North America. The cases have been combined and a trial is scheduled for January of 2017.

“They have all complained about being treated poorly because of their race,” Morrell told me. “It’s a sad story—it’s pretty ugly on the floor there.” (Daimler said it could not comment on pending litigation, but spokesman David Giroux said that the company prohibits discrimination and investigates any allegations of harassment.)

The allegations may seem at odds with the reputation of this city known for its progressivism. But many African Americans in Portland say they’re not surprised when they hear about racial incidents in this city and state. That’s because racism has been entrenched in Oregon, maybe more than any state in the north, for nearly two centuries. When the state entered the union in 1859, for example, Oregon explicitly forbade black people from living in its borders, the only state to do so. In more recent times, the city repeatedly undertook “urban renewal” projects (such as the construction of Legacy Emanuel Hospital) that decimated the small black community that existed here. And racism persists today. A 2011 audit found that landlords and leasing agents here discriminated against black and Latino renters 64 percent of the time, citing them higher rents or deposits and adding on additional fees. In area schools, African American students are suspended and expelled at a rate four to five times higher than that of their white peers.

All in all, historians and residents say, Oregon has never been particularly welcoming to minorities. Perhaps that’s why there have never been very many. Portland is the whitest big city in America, with a population that is 72.2 percent white and only 6.3 percent African American.

Why the Donald Sterling Fiasco Won’t Initiate a Dialogue on Race

The headline read, “Hall of Famers expect league to support Sam”. Of course the league will support Michael Sam, the all All-American defense lineman at Missouri who is the first openly gay active player in the history of the NFL.

But not because NFL locker rooms are especially progressive places. Some players are sensitive to people’s differing sexual orientations, others are decidedly not. As the Donald Sterling illustrates, social media will silence the Decidedly Nots. Sterling went from owner of the Los Angeles Clippers to a pariah in 72 hours. Similarly, any player caught communicating homophobic things about Sam will immediately feel the full weight of instantaneous social media. And any hope for commercial endorsements will be dashed.

One thread of the Sterling coverage has been “If anything positive comes of this, we need to initiate a discussion on race”. There’s little chance of that because social media tends to create a mob mentality with everyone racing to tar and feather the offending homophobe or racist. That creates a chilling effect on what would help initiate a discussion on race—each of us reflecting honestly on how we pre-judge people different than us. Instead of introspection, we pile on the offending person like an unthinking football player ignoring the official’s whistle.

Unlike social media, education depends upon dialogue and dialogue requires that people trust their point of view will be respectfully listened to. The key is to distinguish between racist or homophobic thoughts, words, and actions. Excellent teachers learn to work sensitively with homophobic thoughts and words, but when it comes to hateful actions, of course people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Excellent teachers learn to work with racist or homophobic thoughts and words by exploring their underlying root causes by asking students questions such as “Why do you believe that?” They know that seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. They expand students’ worldviews by introducing them to unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and sometimes travel. And by teaching students to substitute curiosity for negative preconceived notions, so that they too learn to ask others, “Why do you believe what you do?”

African-American PerspectiveS on Obama’s Trayvon Martin Comments

Once, while I was teaching at a Southern college, African-American student leaders attended a faculty meeting to explain some of their frustrations with us, including some faculty’s expectations that individual black students speak on behalf of African-Americans more generally. Ten years later, in the coffee obsessed upper left-hand corner of the country, a student of mine pressed a classmate to explain the black perspective on the topic at hand. I intervened and explained why “She doesn’t have to answer that.” After class she thanked me for the time out.

Following the release of Do the Right Thing, I remember watching an interviewer pressing Spike Lee to explain the meaning of contrasting MLK Jr. and Malcolm X quotes at the film’s conclusion. He sidestepped the question, saying that film is art, and therefore open to different interpretations. I could tell he resented the question, probably thinking most filmmakers wouldn’t have been asked it.

Three refreshingly different African-American opinion leaders’ reactions to Obama’s recent comments about Trayvon Martin serve as an excellent reminder that there’s more diversity within ethnic groups as there is between them. Seems like a simple point, but it’s often lost on people. Consider each.

1) Tavis Smiley, Sunday on Meet the Press, after previously tweeting, “Obama’s speech was weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid.”

I appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up. But … he did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium. A week of protests outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House, pushed him to that podium.

2) Charles Ogletree, National Public Radio:

It was the most refreshing, startling and amazing comment I’ve ever heard him make in the 25 years I’ve known him on the issue of race; very poignant, very personal . . .

3) Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post:

The designation ‘first black (fill in the blank)’ always brings with it unfair burdens, and one of Obama’s. . . is that almost anything he says about race will be seen by some as favoring the interests of black Americans over white Americans.

At this point in his presidency, Obama could ignore this absurd reality and say whatever he wants. He must be sorely tempted. But the unfortunate fact is that if his aim is to promote dialogue about race, speaking his mind is demonstrably counterproductive.

Obama does more to change racial attitudes and challenge prejudices simply by performing his functions as head of state and commander in chief. A dozen speeches about the long struggle for racial equality and justice would not have the impact of one picture of the first family — the proud, African-American first family — walking across the White House lawn. No caption necessary.

Near the end of his comments, Obama encouraged people to think about whether they are “wringing as much bias out” of themselves as possible. Borrowing from King, he suggested asking, “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”

One element of “content of character” thinking is acknowledging, if not embracing, intellectual diversity within ethnic groups.