Friday, December 8, 2017

The Neo-Liberal Paradox

Race Counts is a great project.  Its goal is to bring awareness of racial disparities across the state of California.

"Through cutting-edge, rigorous research and analysis, RACE COUNTS will rank all 58 counties by these issue areas and provide a roadmap of how we can unwind generations of racial oppression.My package was marked delivered today, however I was at home all day.  It was marked left beside door, however I have an enclosed courtyard, and there are no packages there."
It was established by The Advancement Project, which calls itself

 "a next generation, multiracial civil rights organization working on systems change. The staff in the California offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento work to expand opportunities in our educational systems, create healthy built environments and communities, develop the connective tissue of an inclusive democracy, and shift public investments towards equity."
The website is smartly laid out,  and provides handy tools to examine data on economic opportunity,
health care access, education, housing, democracy, crime and justice and healthy built environments.  Information is broken down by ethnic group, population and county.

For instance, a chart filtered by poverty shows Fresno as having the highest levels of income disparity and lowest performance (overall prosperity, including income, graduation rates, etc.).  In a population of around 100k, nearly 30% of people live in poverty.  Clicking on the Fresno link takes you to a county overview.  Some key facts:

  • It is 50% hispanic and 30% white.
  • Highest employment levels are among Latinos.
  • Highest graduation rate is Pacific Islander at 97%, lowest is black, at 72%.
  • Whites on average had $30k income left over after housing costs, Latinos had only $23k
  • Other figures broken down by race included included: truancy arrests, curfew arrests, incarceration, food access, proximity to hazard
So, most of it is what you'd expect, with Black and HIspanic minorities generally bringing up the bottom of the disparity gap.  Some surprises, however.  White kids are actually arrested for truancy at rate more than doubling Black and Hispanic kids.  However, while curfew arrest rates are roughly equal for Blacks and Hispanics, rates for Hispanic kids are more than two thirds lower.

All well and good, but two things stood out to me.  First, the rates across ethnicities aren't broken down by SES.  For instance, how would high-SES blacks compare with high-SES whites?  My guess is we'd still see disparities, but they would be vastly smaller.  When you have a good paying job, a stable family, an education, and live in a nice neighborhood, things are kind of going well by definition.  

So this presents a problem.  Emphasizing disparity by race is important in understanding historical context of racism, legacy of Jim Crow, immigration, redlining, etc.  It makes a profound case for the present disparities being unfair and immoral.  It thus demands action as a moral imperative.

However, the danger in racial analysis is that, by emphasizing racial disparity, an easy narrative can form that racism is the problem.  That is, if we simply ended racism, things would all get better and we would have equality.  If teachers treated kids fairly, if employers looked past race, if lenders gave out loans without regard to skin color, these disparities would somehow end.

But this misses a crucial element of how we have chosen to structure our society: the setting of wages in free market capitalism.  You can treat people as fair as you want, but we will still have millions of low-skill occupations that need to be filled.  In a free-market system, these jobs will pay poverty wages.  If you look at pay scales historically for jobs in which repetitive, relatively simple and manually intensive labor is required - picking, scrubbing, folding, stacking, carrying, checking - you will find wages at the very bottom of the pay scale.  The people who will take these jobs will be the most desperate, those with the least available options - the least education, the most difficult childhoods, the most mental and physical health issues, the most unfortunate family crises, etc.  And when you require someone like this to spend 40 hours a week performing difficult, exhausting and depressing labor, and then only pay them a poverty wage, you create a perfect recipe for intergenerational poverty.  

To make matters worse, in a system of free-market housing, they can only afford to live in the cheapest homes.  Voila!  Ghettos are born.  Apartment complexes,  trailer parks, housing developments filled to capacity with poverty and struggle.  

But why stop there?  Tie basic government services to a neighborhood income tax base, and things like roads, postal offices and libraries are barely funded.  

What about the children?  Public schools in these neighborhoods will be filled with children who come from homes with vastly fewer resources.  Lower education, higher stress, more dysfunction, and likely generations of disadvantage.  Even the best teacher will struggle to make up for the cognitive, and emotional needs of their pupils.  Federal programs like Title I try to make up for these disadvantages in small ways, like providing free and reduced lunches, counseling or maybe social workers to try and support the families.  But they are for the most part band-aids that, while crucial and greatly needed, only serve to stem some of the bleeding.  

Schools try to innovate, but results are messy, and what appear to be effective interventions are often fleeting as success often requires a lot of luck and everything to be just right (above average leadership and staff, above average culture, above average... something).  But by definition, above average is not scaleable.  

Charter schools have proven to be a mixed bag - well intentioned, but more often than not merely representing a selection bias, attracting only the most motivated families: by definition the very families in these communities whose children are going to be the most prepared.  One feels for their plight - who doesn't want the best for their child, and every family deserves a good school for their child.  But if the reason your school is not "good" is that it is populated by poor kids, and you live in a poor neighborhood, requesting a selective school is helping certain families but not solving the larger issue.

Which, again, is poverty.  Even in the best scenario - the one you hear again and again from those interested in "education reform", is that all these kids go to college.  Great.  But we still have millions of jobs that pay poverty wages.  This is the great neo-liberal paradox: you spend/organize the perfect government intervention to get everyone an education and great jobs, yet millions of low-skill, low wage jobs remain.  

And OK, education is hard, not everyone is cut out for college. Maybe the answer is trade school.  A plumber, carpenter or electrician can make a solid middle class wage.  But you still haven't dealt with the problem.

What if we really used our imaginations and somehow schools were able to get all kids graduated and into trade schools or college?  So there then becomes this massive glut of highly educated/trained workers who can't find work.  Yet there still exist millions of low-skill, low wage jobs.  Are they going to all demand higher wages because of their fancy degrees and certifications?  The maid, the fieldworker, the cashier is still going to be competing for a job, and will need to work... or starve.  Degrees are poor leverage when everyone has one, jobs are scarce, and there's a line of willing workers lined up behind you.

The sad reality is that unless we find a way to raise pay for the massive numbers of low-skill jobs that our society demands, we are going to have massive numbers of people living in poverty, necessarily in poor neighborhoods, with their kids going to poor schools.

All you have to do is sprinkle a touch of historical racism and marginalization into the mix and racial disparity is guaranteed.

The Race Counts website has a list of current campaigns it is working on, including:

  • Incarceration and racial profiling
  • Investment in poor neighborhoods
  • Affordable housing
  • Better schools
  • Taxing corporations
  • Gentrification



These are all great ideas.  But notice anything missing?  How are any of them going to help raise wages for low-skill occupations?

Your guess is as good as mine.












Saturday, November 25, 2017

We Must Go Deeper

Writing in the Root, Michael Harriot discusses finding that minority and poor students received harsher discipline than whites and well-off students. Glossing over the very real issue that lower-SES students are indeed at higher risk for behavioral problems, he writes  that “the problems of racial inequality in the criminal justice system begin in the educations [sic] system.”
I would say they continue, but do not begin there. They begin in our embracing an economic system in which low-skill work is paid a poverty wage. This creates ghettos, destroys families and depletes capital (financial, emotional, cognitive, safety, health, transportation, modeling, etc.). Historically marginalized, low-capital ethnic groups will get caught in the trap of being forced into working these jobs, and thus sucked into a generational system of oppression as an underclass, as geographic isolation concentrates the effects of poverty, nowhere more so than in neighborhood schools. Dominant ethnic groups will find racism a convenient rationalization for the structural economic system which requires the dehumanization of fellow citizens in order to excuse their continued exploitation. Politicians and pundits will find that demogoguery is an effective tool to gin up support for their personal or political ambition.

The way out is simple in theory, yet difficult in practice: raising wages for this type of work, thus detaching it from ethnic marginalization and geographic segregation.  To truly dig out racism from society, we must go deeper, indeed to the root.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Brain of Kool Keith

In 1988, The Bronx-based rap group The Ultramagnetic MCs released "Critical Beatdown", a landmark in hip hop, setting a new bar both in production as well as lyrical complexity and imagination.

Its founder, Kool Keith, went on to create the album he is maybe best known for, as Dr. Octagon in Dr. Octagonecologyst, a concept album starring a "time-traveling gynecologist and surgeon from the planet jupiter".  The wikipedia entry summarizing the epic space-narrative is quite brilliant:

"Octagon specifies a few of the services he offers, such as treatment of chimpanzee acne and moosebumps, and performs rectal rebuilding surgery and relocates saliva glands.[2] Octagon also performs medical experiments at night when the moon is out. Proclaiming that his hammer is dull and his drill is broken, Dr. Octagon tells patients that he doesn't have tools. Instead, he states that he'll rip out a stomach, dissect open rectums, put needles in kneecaps, apply Clorox to vocal boxes, and watch his patients vomit green. Dr. Octagon's office number is 1-800-pp51-doodoo, and his patients often wait in a waiting room for long periods of time before he dismisses the ones that have been waiting since morning. Octagon's hospital also houses mental patients that dance in the halls. Octagon has fed green fly soup to his patients on occasion, and has given patients a mixture of Pepsi cola, Pepto-Bismol, bugs, and pop rocks to watch them cough until they turn blue. One of Octagon's patients dies in room number 105 with cirrhosis of the eye while there is a horse loose in the hospital. Another patient is taken by Dr. Octagon out of the bathroom into water to touch the submerged electric wires. Octagon claims to hide the dead bodies of his patients in Beverly Hills, CA. Octagon's uncle, Mr. Gerbik, is described as being half shark, having the skin of an alligator, and is 208 years old."

Revisting Critical Beatdown this morning, I was struck by Keith's frequent reference to brains.  So I made a wordcloud of his nearly 4000 word contribution to the lyrics of the album.

Indeed.  Brain actually occurs 26 times throughout the album.  As opposed to Spongee, which only occurs twice.


Friday, October 6, 2017

The Noble Savages Across the Tracks

The Death of General Wolfe,
Benjamin West,1770
The iconoclastic Thomas Chatterton Williams goes after Ta-nehesi coates in today's NY Times.  His main beef is the racial essentialism he feels Coates embraces, and which mirrors that of explicit racists.

This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice.

My beef with Coates has always been something else.  He's a great writer.  There is a lyricism in his words, and a brash, unapologetic embrace of colloquial manners, albeit never sacrificed for imprecision.  But his passion and craft are hamstrung by a lack of nuance in the larger project of deconstructing the system he rails against.  

Much of the heft of his words lazily harkens back to civil-rights era tropes that just don't fit the times.  Racism is alive and well today, but it is of a much different sort.  Whereas before, the question of racial equality was actually on the table, and people took explicit positions against it.  This isn't true today.  Right wing leaders publicly praise Martin Luther King.  They talk about "not seeing color", and in a belief that everyone should live together as equals.

So what to make of the present, then, when inequality obviously persists, and white people behave in ways in which they seem to value minorities less?  

For black liberals like Coates, the easy answer is racism.  White people are discriminating against blacks in employment, in school, in policing.  Sure, blacks may be misbehaving more often that whites - but this is because of how racist whites are.

The problem with this critique is that it is superficial and naive.  It skips over the deeper questions about how our social and economic system is organized in ways that limit historically marginalized groups' access to and development of societal capital.  Instead, it chooses to focus in on explicit acts of white racism, as if once white people stopped acting racist, that the problems of the black community would be solved.  If only whites became more "woke" and no longer engaged in microaggressions like assuming light-skinned people are white, or wanting to touch black hair.  Or supposed macroaggressions such as moving into black neighborhoods.  Or moving to neighborhoods where the schools are "good" (read: non-minority).

The focus is always on the personal, the individual - the conscious-raising.  But as much as microaggressions are certainly real, and workplace discrimination, teacher prejudice and police brutality exist, they are not the cause of black disadvantage.  They are ugly, obvious issues.  But they aren't close to the source of the problem.

In white liberals' prostration before Coates, there is something of a Noble Savage act. Our deep guilt and uncomfortableness drive us to embrace a ritualistic display, in which, by allying ourselves with a black authority, we no longer have to be uncomfortable or guilty.
Instead of seeing native peoples as complex - even flawed at times, white anthropology sought to absolve itself from dealing with the foreign other on equal terms. It was an overcorrection, a way to make-believe that cultural understanding could happen in a sort of historical and value-free vacuum.
So too with the black "other". My hunch is that minority critics of the Coates variety find themselves torn between enjoying the attention that their broadsides against "White Supremacy", "Intersectionality" and "Privilege" enjoy among white liberals, and the suspicion that their critiques aren't actually understood all that well - that their harsh speaking of truths is a sort of Kabuki that whites are attending as a form of cheap penance that absolves quickly rather than requiring an advanced interrogation of both sides.
I've always felt that this style of white guilt is dangerous, as a vapid understanding ultimately hurts those who would benefit most from a true discourse. Poor minorities who suffer the actual disadvantage in all this become mere shadow puppets in a theater of faux-deconstruction. All the while, the actual gears of oppression churn on. 

While personal identity politics is interesting, and important, it too often gets in the way of a larger discussion about a system which depends on and reinforces disadvantage.  Solving that problem may in fact raise many more uncomfortable questions about privilege, and how we may need to radically alter some of our social structures going forward so that we can finally end disadvantage once and for all.

Monday, September 25, 2017

It Never Ends

The New York Times has a terrible article today, headlined "When Black Children Are Targeted for Punishment".

God, these articles are so frustrating.  Black students ARE far more likely to misbehave.  But if writers acknowledge this, they feel like they're agreeing with those who would say blacks are inferior.  So, they invent a narrative in which nothing has changed since 1965, and white teachers are to blame.

But these people have either never spent much time in poor minority schools, or they are willfully blind.

Here's a question: when a community inherits hundreds of years of discrimination and abuse, it's culture shunned, and levels of low-education, broken families, crime and neglect are far higher, how well-behaved are its children?

Really, you can leave race out of it (to make things a little more clear).  I've taught kids from low-SES homes who are white, hispanic, asian, black, Native, etc.  They're always the ones who misbehave.  Why, because life has fucked them over.  Their parents - or parent, or grandparent, as often, have a shitty life.  They make crappy pay, live in a crappy neighborhood, with crappy neighbors.  They develop crappy habits.  They are in survival mode, and try to find happiness where they can.  This might mean taking a nap instead of helping their kid with homework.  Or watching TV while letting their kid run around outside with the other little hellions so they can get a moments' peace.  Or handing out a quick smack.  Or forgetting to do the laundry, or pack a lunch.

By refusing to acknowledge the reality of underclass life, with all of its ugly behavioral symptoms and cyclical traps, these would-be do-gooders continue to spin this BS.  But by all means, continue to pay your clerks, cleaners, waiters, washers, diggers, scrapers and pickers a poverty wage, yet wonder why poverty exists.  Then, wonder why we have such high incarceration, violence and ghettos.  Wonder who leaves next to the airports, factories.  Wonder who is going to get high on drugs or corn chips.

I used to blog about this shit, but I gave up because I got sick of living in an intellectual wilderness.  You can either be Charles Murray or Ta-nehisi Coates.  But you can't be both.  The Devil or the Angel.

Is it too difficult to understand?  Does it require too much explanation and prerequisite information?  Do you need a bachelor's of arts to add it all up and grok the thesis?  My guess is no.  My guess is the subject is fraught with danger - for getting on the wrong side of the wrong people.  My guess is that our society reinforces tribalism and punishes free thought. (Even saying the phrase "free thought" irks me because it has become synonymous with literal bigotry - with those who would hide behind it as a hideous shield behind which they lose sight of humanity beyond reach of their cold logic.  In their case, the "freedom" has only landed them in another homogenous group of a-holes).

In the end, I am simply saddened because the real questions aren't being asked.  The real, lived experiences of these kids remains unseen.  Their misbehavior is a cry from the darkness.  The educational system is a relentless beast of order and suppression - for those who cannot navigate it's strict monotony, it acts like a vice.  The harder you squirm, the tighter the grip becomes.  By secondary school, these kids know nothing but to be prey.  The day is spent forever flitting from flimsy branch to branch, one eye on the beast, one eye on more games to play, unconsciously desperate to find some silliness, some cruel joke to distract themselves from the inevitable, crushing reality they one day they too will be laid out, exhausted, children nipping - their little resentful eyes now too growing larger, poor quality, dirty belongings tossed about in some previously dreary rush, bills stacked high, with echoes and visions of self-satisfied mid-managers barking orders and counting beans, being told to smile more.  Being told that, "One more time and you're fired."  Knowing where you live.  Knowing where your parents live.  Knowing where your children live.  Seeing the white people come in, laughing, digesting their fancy sandwiches and laughing easily.

In all of this, horrible, systemic drudgery, this pretty little articles get written.  A self-satisfied separatist religiosity permeates smugly.  Charles Murray's solution to the "achievement gap" is for blacks to start behaving better.  His recommendation is for somewhere, somehow some mysteriously delivered "message" be given to them, such that they'll stop acting like fools.  Murray is a racist idiot.

To authors of pieces like this - which do-gooder white liberal types seem to eat up like some kind of periodic penance, which they find distasteful but hope deep down will absolve them from the privilege they can't help but enjoy, but feel an inexplicable yet persistent shame over - the solution is for whites to just stop being so damn racist.  See, if white teachers would just allow little black and hispanic boys to raise their hands and turn in their homework like the rest of the class, all of our problems will be solved.

Then everyone can grow up and some can nicely go to college, and some can nicely go into the trades, and some can do the scrubbing, and cooking and cleaning and digging and fixing and watering and picking, and then return to their nice, dirty little houses with broken screen doors and cats that we can't afford to spay and so piss everywhere.

And when the school bus comes in the morning, the nice little poor boys and girls will nicely get onto the bus without their lunches (or if their lucky, with a can of soda and a bag of chips because dad stopped at AM/PM last night after the bar and was feeling generous).  And they will ever so nicely wave at each other when they come into class, each knowing how their parents were screaming and throwing things early that morning.  And when asked, they will raise their nice little hands, forgetting all about the fact that their older sister got knocked about and how mom didn't have time to help them with their science project because she was taking care of her granddaughter.  And when on the playground, and another kid tells them they're sister is a slut (because their father isn't in prison), they will politely ask them to stop, and then maybe tell a teacher, because hundreds of years of social and political oppression doesn't have consequences.  And kids from poor, broken, disadvantaged homes are no more likely to misbehave.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Only Question

The NY Times has a piece today in its "Fixes" series highlighting The Family Independence Iniative"an organization that is challenging some of the core assumptions that have prevailed in social service work for decades — particularly the assumption that poor families need a great deal of assistance, advice and motivation from professional social workers to improve their lives."  It's premise is that families don't need programs, but rather tools to help them make better decisions, as well as some financial resources to be able to better leverage themselves.

Sounds nice.  I'm all for it.  It's better than nothing.  But here's the problem:

How will we ever eradicate poverty as long as our economy depends on the poverty wages of low-skilled labor?  Who will wash the dishes?  Who will clean the hotel rooms?

This is a crucial element of the "poverty cycle", in which social misfortune drives people into accepting careers of poverty.  This creates property markets that segregate entire neighborhoods of people who make low wages, as well as struggle with social issues.  Their children then go to school together, where their high stress levels and lack of preparedness compound the struggle to get educated.

Some will always make it out.  But they are the outliers, and give lie to the idea that the system is fair or functioning.  Worse, they allow us to ignore the fact that we all depend on poverty wages.  Efforts to enforce minimum wages that would eradicate poverty are met with an argument that jobs will need to be cut.  Even if true, this is an indictment of the economic system.

Truly eradicating poverty and the social ills that it perpetuates requires eradicating our systemic reliance on a low wage underclass.  Do that, and you no longer need the plethora of band-aid interventions we've been trying for over a century - charity, jobs programs, education reform, social work, criminal justice reform, drug prevention, etc.  You can't create a system in which social ills get condensed, enhanced, ingrained and perpetuated, and then expect to be able to come up with solutions to help people "rise out of poverty".

The obvious difficulty is how to do this.  How do we change such a large system?  Raising the minimum wage will indeed limit job growth - at least, as far as I know, and it makes sense.  What would it look like if businesses were all required to raise their wages to $20 an hour, effectively doubling or tripling the labor costs in industries that rely on low wages.  Hotels, fast food, groceries, retail, restaurants - all of these would be severely hit.  They would have to raise prices.  But now the $20 an hour worker has to pay a lot more for everything.  The raised income, in effect, becomes regressive.

Or so goes the argument, and I'm no economist.  But suffice it to say this stuff is really tricky.  But "tricky" is not an excuse for maintaining the status quo, and continuing to relegate millions to lives of poverty, and exploiting a system in which social ills create an underclass of low wage workers.

We need to find a way to make every job a non-poverty job.  Dishwashing.  Picking vegetables.  Cleaning toilets.  Manning cash registers.  Mowing lawns.  Stocking shelves.  Do that, and the problem goes away.  School test scores skyrocket.  Families bounce back from hardship.  Stress levels in families plummet.  Social ills like crime and drug abuse drop.  People can afford to live in nice neighborhoods (actually, most neighborhoods become nice).  Racial resentment ends.

Sounds nice.  But how do you do it?  This is the question that needs to be answered.  It is a hard question.  But it is the only question.