aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Picking on scabs. And authors’ quandry.
Mark Evanier in the New Republic tells us all about scabs:
Jack London once wrote, “Judas was a traitor to his God, Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country, a scab is a traitor to his God, his country, his family and his class.” That is among the nicer things that some have said about those who opt to work in defiance of a strike. As the Writers Guild strike enters its third month, with no future negotiations between the studios and the guild scheduled, and events like the Golden Globes’ awards show freshly cancelled, these ignoble souls have been given more opportunities to cross picket lines. But who are they? From beneath what rock do they scuttle? And what, if any, impact will they have on the strike? [READ ON]
For authors it’s a question of solidarity or sales. Andrew Sullivan went on to flack an article. Michael Pollan cancelled.
For authors, this week’s return of the Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a case of good news/bad news. The good news is that authors once again have a shot at appearing on two of the most effective book publicity outlets on TV. The bad news-especially for the kind of left-leaning nonfiction authors likely to find a receptive audience on these shows-is that they’d have to cross a picket line of fellow writers.
Authors are split on whether to go on the shows, which started airing new shows on Monday without their writers after a two-month hiatus because of the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike. The striking writers have been picketing outside the Comedy Central studios in Manhattan since Nov. 5.
Michael Pollan cancelled a long-planned appearance on Colbert Tuesday to discuss In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, “because he didn’t want to cross the picket line,” said Penguin publicist, Sarah Hutson.
And Al Franken? “I would never cross that picket line. Not even for Colbert.”
Poverty in the South
According to new figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau, our country still has a poverty problem: over 38 million U.S. Americans live below the poverty line, 13.3% of the population.
What’s striking is how completely the South dominates the list of states ravaged by poverty. Despite all those banks in Charlotte and all that Coke in Atlanta, eleven of the 15 states with the highest poverty rates are in the South:
STATE & PERCENT LIVING IN POVERTY
1 - Mississippi, 21%
2 - Louisiana, 20.2%
3 - New Mexico, 18.4%
4 - District of Columbia, 18.3%
5 - West Virginia, 18%
6 - Texas, 17.5%
7 - Arkansas, 17.2%
8 - Alabama, 16.9%
8 - Kentucky, 16.9%
10 - Oklahoma, 16.4%
11 - Tennessee, 15.6%
11 - South Carolina, 15.6%
13 - North Carolina, 14.9%
14 - Montana, 14.6%
15 - Georgia, 14.5%
Or another way to look at it: every Southern state except Florida and Virginia fall in the bottom 15.
On Obama fatalism
Speaking of Richard Thompson Ford, Tuesday in Slate he looked at liberals who say Obama can’t win because he’s black. He suspects three reasons for Obama fatalism among liberals of all races: false realism, once-bitten timidity, and investment-in-oppression.
He explains why each in invalid and concludes:
An Obama victory would hardly signal the end of racism in America. But Obama’s recent and dramatic success does suggest that simple color prejudice is not always the decisive factor in the lives of racial minorities that it was 20 or 30 years ago. No doubt some Obama supporters do their unwitting parts to perpetuate such racial inequalities, such as neighborhood segregation, subtle job discrimination, overzealous law enforcement, and punitive criminal sentencing. But it’s unlikely that such an Obama supporter is a “racist” in any meaningful sense of that word. She may simply be living in a world shaped by race, even when her politics are not. If we’re now living in a society where many racial injustices are not caused by racism strictly speaking but by subtler social hierarchies, economic inequalities, and the present-day effects of decades-old racial policies, we may need to rethink approaches to racial justice that inevitably presume that racial injustice is to racism as smoke is to fire.
A boycott or civil demonstration makes sense when the goal is to pressure, shame, or discredit a bigot, but it may well be misplaced when problems of racial injustice involve factual ambiguities, close judgment calls, sins of omission, and problems of inertia. The fracturing of American racism is reason for optimism, but the new opportunities and challenges it creates also may be disconcerting and threatening to many long-suffering racial minorities and racial-justice activists, who are as comfortable with the known enemy of old-school racism as a Cold War general was with the Soviet Union. Learning to navigate a world in which racism is less of an impediment to success that we had once thought is a burden we all should be happy to accept.
I agree with Ford’s conclusion, but I am more cautious of his Investment-in-Oppression argument that “some people are simply too invested in the idea that American racism is monolithic and implacableâ€¦ a lot of professional racial activists will need to hastily revise their speeches.”
Maybe so. But my experience finds it way too easy and facile of liberals, most especially white liberals, to criticize the black Civil Rights establishment.
They’ve done their duty. They’re steeped in the past but they’re putting themselves out there and they continue to speak for those whose stories are too messy for the media and the establishment to fathom.
I am a yankee who now lives in the South. I see that the South has become an easy place to put racism in this country and be done with it. Race is not a Southern problem. It’s a big national problem and pointing South has a not-my-problem ring to it. It does nothing to help solve the problem.
Similarly, blaming the Civil Rights establishment for not coming up with new answers doesn’t solve the problem. Yes, we need something new. No, they’re not likely to find it. But I like to think we can come up with the new we need without belittling the old.
The truth about Jena?
The headline over Amy Waldman’s Atlantic piece promises to explain “why America’s black-and-white narratives about race don’t reflect reality.”
I agree they don’t. But I didn’t see any real analysis or insights that even begin to explain why:
In the fall of 2006, Mychal Bell was a football hero, and his hometown, Jena, Louisiana, loved him for it. As his high-school team posted its best season in six years, Bell scored 21 touchdowns, rushed for 1,006 yards, and was named player of the week three times by The Jena Times. The paper celebrated his triumphs in articles and photographs, including a dramatic one in which Bell, who’s black, stiff-arms a white defender by clutching his face guard. But within weeks after the season’s end, Bell was transformed into a villain, accused of knocking out a white student, Justin Barker, who was then beaten by a group of black students. The parish’s white district attorney charged Bell and five others with attempted second-degree murder. Six months later-after the DA had reduced the charges against Bellâ€”a white jury convicted him, as an adult, of aggravated second-degree battery, a crime that carried a possible 22-year prison sentence. By then, he, along with his co-defendants, had been transformed yet again: together, they’d been dubbed the Jena Six and had become icons of a 21st-century civil-rights movement.
When Bell began to get into trouble, his football hero status apparently helped folks look the other way:
No wonder he didn’t see that punching a white boy at school could change the rules. “This is Jena,” Anlynne Hart says. “You had the judge and DA at those ball games Friday night, clapping them on-you see what I’m saying? And all this is going through the courts while they’re clapping him on, running up and down the football field, and then the minute this happened to the white boy-it’s like, uh-oh-click-click-he going to jail.”
Everything I read about the DA, J. Reed Walters, suggested he was a big problem. That’s affirmed here:
Walters remained convinced that everything he did in the case of the Jena Six was “absolutely 100 percent correct-without question.” Never mind that even some of Walters’s white friends say he charged too severely, not least because the victim was able to attend a school function that night. Walters believed his decision to charge Bell as an adult with attempted murder reflects both the facts of the case, including Bell’s history, and the values that his community holds dearâ€”"conservative," “help-oriented,” and “Christian.” (I spotted a photocopy of the Ten Commandments hanging on the courthouse bulletin board, next to the bail-bondsman and paternity-testing ads.)
Walters says he does not look at race in his prosecutions. But that does not mean the racial boundaries of his community do not influence him. Whites outnumber blacks by 7-to-1 in the parish; beyond one black member apiece on the 10-member school board and on the 10-member police juryâ€”both from a racially gerrymandered ward-no black has a position of power. There are four black teachers on a parish staff of 196. Black-owned businesses? Sammy Franklin could think of two: a car-detailer and a funeral home.
As for Walters himself, his world-like that of many white Americansâ€”is white, as is most of his neighborhood. The restaurants he frequents rarely have black employees or black patrons. The worshippers at his church are white, as are the small-town-elite circles in which he moves. In 17 years, he says, he has never had a black employee, beyond some who helped him “privately.” He offered as evidence of Jena’s “perfect” race relations that the high school’s white quarterback throws to both black and white players. The white kids who hung the nooses were of Walters’s worldâ€”indeed, one of their families attends his church. Mychal Bell was, in essence, a stranger.
Read the entire piece. It’s interesting in that it both confirms and refutes the press narrative prevalent at the time. What it doesn’t do, what I’m looking for, is someone to change the frame.
Yes, it’s clear that we need a new language, a new paradigm, to depict the challenges of contemporary race relations. Yes, white and black and press and activists all place these stories in the old template.
Who’s going to build a new one? Two people I have found so far who might help:
Melissa Harris Lacewell. She calls the traditional civil rights movement a hammer but says, “Contemporary racial inequality is a screw, and if you take a hammer and start pounding on a screw, you just end up with a mess.” We need to build a screwdriver.
Richard Thomspn Ford. He says, “the racial problems facing this town-and many others-are more complex than simple prejudice, and finding solutions will necessarily require more nuance than a mass protest can offer...” I’m wondering if his forthcoming book, The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, will offer something new.