EssaysLiberal Democracy in QuestionRaceRace/isms

Reflections on Ferguson

I have spent much of my academic career researching and writing about the Civil Rights Movement. Today, I am heartbroken, and I believe my greatest heroes would be too — Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., are all collectively turning in their graves. My heart breaks for America because it feels like the struggle, and sacrifice of countless civil rights activists have in part been futile. …

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EssaysRaceRace/isms

Ferguson and Fatherhood: My Turn to Give The Talk

Recently, I took my son to the doctor for his 13-year old checkup. “He’s 5’8”, she told me, “and he hasn’t even begun his growth spurt yet.” I was also a late bloomer. 6’1” now, at his age, I was 5’2”. Looking at the chart, I could see there was an even chance he’d hit 6’4” in the next few years.

I knew it was time for The Talk.

My son doesn’t get out so much. Like most middle-class kids his age, the problem isn’t getting him off the corner, it is getting him off the computer. My son, however, is African-American. …

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EducationEssaysRaceRace/isms

How My Social Justice Failed My Family

I’ve never felt more helpless than when I heard my dad tell me that he was selling the house where I was raised. After using my student loans to help cover the overdue mortgage payments, we were still unable to stave off the inevitable. Facing the prospect of the bank foreclosing on the house, my father was forced to sell my childhood home. And despite my knowledge of the precarious position of middle and working class black people and the enduring nature of poverty, particularly in an area like the Mississippi Delta, I still feel like it’s at least partially my fault.

The sociologist in me says that divorce often plunges black families into poverty. My parents divorced in 2009. The sociologist in me says that the economic downturn disproportionately damaged black people. My dad lost his job soon after the divorce. …

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EssaysRace/ismsSex & GenderThe Left

The Women Did It?

A reply to Eli Zaretsky

We are living through dark times. Many lament the decline of a vibrant Left in American politics; why the right has been ascendant for the past quarter century is a matter worth extensive exploration. Zaretsky’s “Rethinking the Split Between Feminists and the Left,” however, both underestimates the deep roots of the American right and overestimates the power of feminism (Perlstein, Lowndes). In doing so, Zaretsky makes it difficult to rethink the possibilities and obstacles for the Left now. Zaretsky’s account of feminist politics runs amuck because of the ways in which he links feminism with madness and distances it from radicalism and race. Let us untangle the ways in which Zaretsky puts these elements in play in ways that distort past, present, and future.

Let us begin at the beginning — with madness. Zaretsky starts with a fine recognition of Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012), and her work as a radical feminist thinker (The Dialectic of Sex) and activist. …

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EssaysRaceRace/isms

Thanksgiving, Kugel, and Cornbread Stuffing

A secular celebration in our diversity

Thanksgiving is a special holiday, the great American secular celebration: a common ritual, eating of a turkey dinner, almost universally practiced, in all the nooks and crannies of the social landscape. Indians may not be very enthusiastic. The return on their historic hospitality was not very good. And those who are concerned about the Native American place in the national story may have their critical doubts, but still just about everyone takes part, or at least is expected to take part, including me. A conversation I had with a good friend earlier in the week reveals what it’s all about.

My pool at the Theodore Young Community Center will be closed from Thursday through Sunday. Knowing the pool would be closed, I made sure I went today and earlier in the week. I chatted with Beverly McCoy, the receptionist and social center of gravity there, about the upcoming holiday. She explained her preparations…

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EssaysRaceRace/isms

Black Faces, Red Skins and White Celebrations

In the country where I grew up, the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ yearly visit is a hugely popular celebration, rich in rituals and designed to make children happy. Three years ago, the celebration came to New York, where I now live. It seemed only logical to expose my half-Dutch children to this cherished tradition.

A large group of Dutch parents and children gathered at New York’s The Netherland Club. While awaiting the arrival of “the holy man,” they all happily sang the traditional songs about “the bishop,” who, as it is told, hails from Spain and makes his yearly trek to the Netherlands on his white horse with his servants. The lyrics: “His servant stood laughing and told us,” “Those who are sweet will get candy, the others will get spanked.” And: “Even though I am black as soot, I mean pretty well.”

All had been peaceful at the Netherland Club until a number of black-faced minstrels came out of nowhere, ramming on doors and throwing candy into the room. My three year old ran out of the room in utter fear, settling in a hiding spot, somewhere under a table in a closet with the doors closed. The show of well-intentioned fun by a bunch of guys in funny suits, donning afro-wigs and red painted lips was completely lost on my son, forcing me to reconsider the meaning and symbols of the tradition.

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EssaysMedia & PublicsRaceRace/isms

Public Shaming? On the NYC Teen Pregnancy Prevention Campaign

Unexpected or amusing experiences on the NYC subway are all but infrequent for those who travel every day, in jam-packed trains, from one corner to the other of the city. But, the biggest shock I have had in my three years of using NYC public transit was a few months ago when, jumping onto a train at the last second, I saw the most incredible poster: It was a picture of a crying toddler of color with the words, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year.” While I was still recovering from the shock, my eyes fell upon a similar poster of a little Black girl that read, “Honestly Mom… chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” As I soon found out, these two posters were part of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention campaign organized by the Human Resources Administration of the New York City Department of Social Services and strongly supported and defended by the mayor Bloomberg.

This advertising campaign is a perfect example of the entrenchment of inequalities around class, race, and gender, and on the way they are covered up by a discourse appealing to personal responsibility. Indeed, the message conveyed by the campaign is, firstly, that you need to have money in order to have the right to have a child. If you are poor and nonetheless have a child, you are responsible for his or her future unhappiness, poverty, and social failure. Moreover, poverty is presented as the outcome of teenagers’ individual reproductive choices rather than being presented as the concrete material condition in which they are already living and are compelled to make their choices. Secondly, in the posters there is no mention of social services or of abortion rights. The whole problem of teen pregnancy is reduced to a matter of individual choice, where girls are to be considered responsible for their sexual behavior. As a consequence, the communicative tactics of public shaming is consistently resorted to.

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