Lois Lane can never have that moment where she clutches her purse on an elevator because a black dude got on. Being a bigot isn’t in the cool guy repertoire any more. We’re past that, even though there are plenty of good, moral people who are also secretly afraid of black people or occasionally slip and say something untoward about Asian people. Sometimes it’s unconscious, sometimes it’s learned behavior, and sometimes it’s just a slip, but we view good and bad as a binary, not a spectrum, so just one drop of bad taints you. As a result, we avoid and eschew it.
Funnily enough, this extends to the stories we tell about real people, too. The prevailing narrative around the Founding Fathers is that they were saints looking out for truth, justice, and the soon-to-be American Way. In reality, Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slaves and Benjamin Franklin, upon being asked for sex advice from a young friend, told that friend to go after older women and provided a list of eight reasons why, ending on “They are so grateful!”
So you get Edward Kenways and Ichabod Cranes, men who came from a time when you could rape and murder people at your leisure, as long as they were inferior to you, being colored or of the fairer sex, but instead choose to be accepting and cool about everything. No awkward slip-ups, no uncomfortable conversations about why you can’t say things, just a lot of truth and justice. It doesn’t feel very true to me, exactly, it doesn’t feel very real, but I do know that if it were more real, I’d hate the characters for being human garbage.
Reporters approach weary runners, either politely or idiotically request interviews, and get rejected, only to beg for forgiveness. That’s clearly how it should be; while our jobs as news hunters and disseminators is to first gather info–often amidst pandemonium–it’s also important to swallow our pride sometimes, and to acknowledge the feelings of whoever has our pens, pads, and microphones jammed in their face. But the more of these civil exchanges that I witness, the more I cringe at the double-standard in practice.
Imagine, for a moment, that instead of a bombing on Marathon Monday, the media swarm was over a multiple homicide in one of Boston’s neighborhoods of color. The reporting process would have likely gone down differently. Whether gun violence or terrorism deserve more or less attention than the other is a debate all in itself; relatedly, there’s been some healthy chatter in the past few days–particularly by international outlets like the BBC–about the amount of Boston bombing coverage relative to larger tragedies that regularly shatter nations elsewhere. What’s also important, however, is the way in which reporters treat subjects in these moments of despair.
Unlike in Back Bay, where marathoners and their families have been hanging out since Monday, reporters tend to take a harsher tone in black, Latino, and Cape Verdean neighborhoods. One instance that comes to mind was immediately following the horrific earthquake in Haiti two years ago. Journalists flooded Caribbean enclaves in and around Blue Hill Avenue, scraping whatever heartfelt quotes they could out of people in anguish. Yet little sympathy was shown. Rather, as all too often happens in disparate communities everywhere, journalists pushed past acceptable limits, and in the face of reluctance, backed off swiftly and unapologetically.
It doesn’t take a Harvard sociologist to see what’s happening here. Generally speaking, most folks who have the time and resources to train, travel, and compete in a marathon are at least middle class, if not upwardly mobile or quite fortunate. In other words: unlike so many families that are devastated by routine urban violence, the people in track jackets around Back Bay this week are in many ways peers of the college-educated reporters interviewing them. In my observation, while a great many journalists are well-spirited deep-down, they’re also condescending asses for whom stories trump sensitivity in the event that subjects exist on a lower socio-economic rung.
Academia may not be a traditional bureaucracy but we forget that public colleges are embedded in state governments, making them more like the public sector is some ways than the private sector. That is particularly true when you account for the fact that many black PhDs end up working in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, many of which are part of state college systems. It is not totally beyond the realm of possibility then that black students should engage with some sectors of higher education similarly to how we have engaged the Post Office. That is to say, credentialism is rewarded and, thus, we should pursue it.
The nature of the rewards, however, seems to be what trips up a lot of this advice.
And that is rooted in some fundamental, unexamined privilege.
It is difficult to be embedded in higher education today, particularly if you study it, and not be acutely aware that academic labor is changing and likely not for the better. Adjunct labor conditions are pretty deplorable: low pay, long hours, little prestige, no mobility, etc. When we are in that we can forget that our crappy jobs can be someone else’s upward mobility.
I suspect part of our not understanding this is ideological. To recognize that crappy is relative is to undermine our own fragile, tenuous class consciousness. It’s an old problem. Unions had similar issues as they tried to bring black, brown and white labors together through their shared position in the class structure. The problems arise when your shared position isn’t exactly shared. Focusing so narrowly on class to the exclusion of structural racial projects can put you in this quagmire. Black poverty is not the same as white poverty. That’s not the fault of white poor people but is a function of a complicated mix of social constructs, organizational processes, politics, history and probably magic. It’s complicated. It is also inconvenient, particularly when you really want and need people to focus on deplorable class conditions. So we like to sometimes ignore it. We do so to our peril.
When we obscure those meaningful differences we end up counseling black students considering graduate school that it is a waste of time and money. We do that because our class consciousness says this whole pyramid hierarchy is a scheme and those at the bottom are losing.
The thing with losing is there’s always some construct of what constitutes “winning”. The dominant construct of winning is rooted in privilege and biases.
Winning is different for different folks. I think of Boudon‘s work which I likely oversimplify when I call it a cross-sectional, longitudinal, empirical analysis that conludes that we’re always from where we’re from. Apologies to the philosopher Rakim but sometimes it ain’t where you’re at but is indeed all about where you’re from. Part of Boudon’s argument for me is about social distance being as important to understanding mobility as status occupational/income/prestige outcomes. Basically, if I get a master’s degree that increases my labor value to $45,000* it can sound like crap to a person who went to graduate school, got a PhD and earns $50,000. However, if my parents didn’t have their GEDs and I grew up helping my mom clean banks after hours for her janitorial freelance business — one of her three jobs — I have actually traveled quite a bit of social distance. That can make the value of my graduate degree different than the value of yours.
Nearly 60 years after that Supreme Court victory, which changed the nation, conservatives freely admit they have stolen that page from the NAACP’s legal playbook as they attempt to roll back many of the civil rights group’s landmark triumphs.
In 23-year-old Abigail Noel Fisher they’ve put forward their version of the perfect plaintiff to challenge the use of race in college admissions decisions.
Publicly, Fisher and her supporters, chief among them the conservative activist who conceived of the case, have worked to make Fisher the symbol of racial victimization in modern America. As their narratives goes, she did everything right. She worked hard, received good grades, and rounded out her high school years with an array of extracurricular activities. But she was cheated, they say, her dream snatched away by a university that closed its doors to her because she had been born the wrong color: White.
The daughter of suburban Sugar Land, Texas, played the cello. Since the second grade, she said, she dreamed of carrying on the family tradition by joining her sister and father among the ranks of University of Texas at Austin alumni.
Journalists and bloggers have written dozens of articles on the case, including profiles of Fisher and Blum. News networks have aired panel after panel about the future of affirmative action. Yet for all the front-page attention, angry debate and exchanges before the justices, some of the more fundamental elements of the case have been little reported.
Race probably had nothing to do with the University of Texas’s decision to deny admission to Abigail Fisher.
In the Fisher case, while the young woman may have lent her name to the lawsuit, the case before the Court has very little to do with her. Her name appears just five times in the thousands of words that make up the body of the complaint. She has already gone on to graduate from Louisiana State University, her second choice, and is working in finance at a firm in Austin.
Asked by a news reporter what harm she had suffered, she cited only her inability to tap into UT’s alumni network and possibly missing out on a better first job. If she wins, Fisher seeks only the return of her application fee and housing deposit — a grand total of $100 in damages.
So while the Fisher case has been billed as a referendum on affirmative action, its backers have significantly grander ambitions: They seek to make the case a referendum on the 14th Amendment itself. At issue is whether the Constitution’s equal protection clause, drafted by Congress during Reconstruction to ensure the rights of black Americans, also prohibits the use of race to help them overcome the nation’s legacy of racism.