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August 26, 2010

"Winter's Bone" and the Limits of White Privilege (Part II)

In a recent post, I commented on what the film “Winter’s Bone” might reveal about white privilege.  There I discussed Ree Dolly, the film’s heroine, in the overwhelmingly white context of Taney County, Missouri, where the median household income is about 75% of the national median.  (In neighboring persistent poverty Ozark County, which seems more reflective of Ree’s milieu as depicted in the film, the median household income is about 65% of the national figure).  Now I want to discuss Ree’s whiteness and socioeconomic disadvantage in a broader context.

What if Ree goes off to Southwest Missouri State in nearby Springfield, Missouri?  or even the University of Missouri?  First, should she be the beneficiary of affirmative action in getting there?  In my opinion, absolutely.  (Read a recent discussion regarding the lack of white, lower class and rural privilege in college admissions here and here).  She would bring diversity of life experience to the student body, and she represents extreme socioeconomic disadvantage.

Second, would she enjoy white privilege in a more racially and ethnically diverse university setting?  Yes, and it would presumably be more apparent there.  I daresay, however, that her peers’ and professors’ responses to her—whether and to what extent she experienced discrimination or benefit in a range of settings—would be greatly influenced by how effectively she practiced class passing.  Can and does she "clean up well" in appearance and accent?  And let’s not forget that class passing requires money—for clothes and other accoutrement.

In her new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate:  Why Men and Class Matter (2010), Joan Williams quotes from memoirs of “class migrants,” those “born and raised working class, who join the upper-middle class through access to elite education.”  One said, “It is striking to me and many other working-class academics that faculty who would never utter a racial slur will casually refer to ‘trailer trash’ or ‘white trash.’”   Observing that “academia barely acknowledges working-class existence,” another wrote:  “Where I live and work, white Southern working-class culture is known only as a caricature.”  Yet another reported condescension from his professors, who resented having to teach the likes of him at lower-status institutions, where the relatively few working-class students who get to college typically wind up.

All of this is to say that people of color may over-estimate the ease with which working-class whites assimilate and are supported at colleges and universities as they attempt to transcend class boundaries.  In my own observation, no one is more judgmental of lower class whites than more privileged whites.

Bearing in mind the recent reminder that “anyone who even tries to talk about race risks public outrage and humiliation,” I want to suggest that we lose something by being (too) oppositional when it comes to race and ethnicity.  If we see disadvantage and hardship as being so thoroughly grounded in color, we build walls instead of bridges between the wide range of folks who are socioeconomically disadvantaged or otherwise “lower class.”  I am reminded of Angela Harris’ comment regarding racial differences among feminists:  “wholeness and commonality are acts of will and creativity, not passive discovery.”  It takes such acts to build bridges, and this is true in the context of class, too.  To do so, we may have to look past the differences between “us” and a poor, rural white population who are—Ree Dolly and her exceptional, noble ilk aside—generally unsympathetic, a population whose politics often seem contrary to their own interests, as well as to ours.  (Read more here and here).

I am also reminded of this point from Barack Obama's famous race speech of March 18, 2008:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives.

This perception by whites—partial as it is—is shared by the poorest, most disadvantaged whites.  They are not feeling the privilege because their lives are so lacking the trappings associated it.  Imagine someone telling Ree:  “You’re white, you’ll be alright.”  What a slap in the face—which might be what Ree would literally give back to the speaker.  White privilege isn’t feeding the kids.

I don’t see progressive law professors writing or talking much about socioeconomic or geographic disadvantage except when it is linked to racial/ethnic disadvantage.  This leaves poor whites out of the conversation, and beyond apparent consideration.  Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres are notable exceptions, doing in The Miner’s Canary:  Enlisting Race, Resisting Power and Transforming Democracy just what Harris urges.  They identify commonalities between rural whites and racial/ethnic minorities in relation to educational disadvantage.  More scholars should follow their lead.

In his New York Times column about the Shirley Sherrod debacle, Bob Herbert similarly calls us to seek commonalities across race lines, writing:

“The point that Ms. Sherrod was making as she talked in her speech about the white farmer who had come to her for help was that we are all being sold a tragic bill of goods by the powerful forces that insist on pitting blacks, whites and other ethnic groups against one another.

Ms. Sherrod came to the realization, as she witnessed the plight of poverty-stricken white farmers in the South more than two decades ago, that the essential issue in this country “is really about those who have versus those who don’t.”

She explained how the wealthier classes have benefited from whites and blacks constantly being at each other’s throats, and how rampant racism has insidiously kept so many struggling whites from recognizing those many things they and their families have in common with economically struggling blacks, Hispanics and so on.”

To write about poor white people—especially the nearly invisible ones in rural places—is not to say that racism is not a problem in this country (or, for that matter, “in the country”).  It is not to ignore white privilege.  But while whiteness has value in many settings, it's not a magic bullet.

I'm sad to report that there's more than enough social injustice and socioeconomic disadvantage to go around.  Plenty of groups—even poor white folks, a lot of them rural—are getting a piece of that bitter pie.  Ree Dolly reminds us of this.

Film critics have touted Ree as brilliant, a feminist heroine, a modern-day Antigone.  Like many film goers to whom I have spoken, they look past her trappings and her kin, and they see her value.  This is progress—but then, Ree’s character and courageous acts are exceptional.

Last year's winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Drama, “Precious,” also featured a resilient and courageous female lead.  Both Precious and Ree represent opportunities for us to see profound disadvantage in the context of communities with which few of us have first-hand experience.  Thinking about what these young women share, and not only how their experiences diverge, should remind us to see beyond color—to shared vulnerability and humanity.

Cross-posted to SALTLaw Blog and Legal Ruralism.

August 22, 2010

Elitism and Education (Part II): Rethinking the Wisdom of an Elite Undergrduate Education

Written by Lisa R. Pruitt

This story, "Placing the Blame as Students are Buried in Debt," caught my attention when it appeared in the New York Times in May.   The report features Cortney Munna, a 26-year-old NYU grad who is buried under $100,000 of student debt.  Journalist Ron Lieber tells us that Ms. Munna would "struggle" to make her student loan payments if she had to, but she's been deferring them since her 2005 graduation, in part by taking night classes.  Lieber writes:

"This is not a long-term solution, because the interest on the loans continues to pile up. So in an eerie echo of the mortgage crisis, tens of thousands of people like Ms. Munna are facing a reckoning. They and their families made borrowing decisions based more on emotion than reason, much as subprime borrowers assumed the value of their houses would always go up."

This story, which also appears under the headline, "Another Debt Crisis is Looming, This One in Student Loans," discusses the range of stakeholders who could be blamed for the situation in which Ms. Munna and many others find themselves:  the universities, the parents, and--of course--the lenders.  At one point Lieber suggests a "shared failure of parenting and underwriting."  He continues:

"How could her mother have let her run up that debt, and why didn’t she try to make her daughter transfer to, say, the best school in the much cheaper state university system in New York? 'All I could see was college, and a good college and how proud I was of her,' [her mother] said. 'All we needed to do was get this education and get the good job. This is the thing that eats away at me, the naïveté on my part.'”

For me, one of the most striking aspects of this cautionary tale is the emotional component driving the decision for Cortney to attend an elite university like NYU rather than a state school.  How common is this, I wonder?  Cortney's family is described as middle class, but the story's details indicate quite a bit of financial insecurity (Cortney's  farther died when she was 13, and Cortney's mom was going back to college to finish her degree at the same time Cortney was at NYU).  It seems that Cortney and her mom may have picked NYU for what they thought it offered in possible class mobility and security.  Ironically, at this point they have neither.

All this got me thinking (again) about the attraction of elite tertiary educational institutions.  They enjoy enormous cachet, and conventional wisdom suggests that attending them opens up opportunities that not all college (or law school) graduates enjoy.  (But see this recent study in the context of law school admissions).   In fact, two studies suggest that the eliteness of one's undergraduate degree has relatively little effect on future earnings.

But salary is only one measure of success.  Another is what a degree from an elite college does, both short-term and long-term, to open doors via alumni networks, public perception, and so forth.  One such door is that to graduate and professional school admission.  As progressive law professors, we are supposed to be sensitive to privilege and at least somewhat intentional about not re-creating it.  Yet if  we give too much weight to elite undergraduate degrees in the law school admissions process we are very often doing just that.

Admissions at any given law school is, in fact, a zero sum game, so we may close doors to graduates of less elite schools, often public colleges and universities (the eliteness of which varies greatly from state to state), if we uncritically favor graduates of their elite counterparts.  In the context of grad and professional school admissions, we should bear in mind that it is often the graduates of public institutions of higher education--where annual tuition may be just a couple thousand dollars, in contrast to an elite school's $50,000--who most need the boost grad or professional school would confer in terms of class mobility.  Further, while the tendency may be to see state school grads as lacking vision and ambition, we could instead view them as models of prudence and sound financial judgment.  Particularly when a student is from a lower socioeconomic stratum and/or is first generation to get to college, s/he may have grown up with enormous financial insecurity.  We should appreciate the courage and drive it has taken for him/her to make the investment of time and money just to get that degree, to take that initial step up the mobility ladder.  We should appreciate this even more, of course, if the student has performed well.  Expecting such students to have the added "confidence" to have spent tens (even hundreds) of thousands of extra dollars to get a degree from an elite institution--and to judge the student unfavorably against those who have--overlooks critical context and invites folly.

Cross-posted at SALTLaw.Blog

August 17, 2010

"Winter's Bone" and the Limits of White Privilege (Part I)

Progressive law professors talk a lot about privilege, including white privilege.  If we're white (like I am), we try to be aware of it and not re-create it.  Law professors of color remind us that we benefit from it.

Writing about rural people in relation to the law, which I have been doing for a few years now, has put me in an awkward position in relation to white privilege.  A lot of my work is about rural disadvantage and class, and I've been told my work is "very white."  The presumption about whiteness in my work is probably because rural places are popularly associated with stasis and homogeneity—and with white people in particular.  But I’ve written a lot about the sort of entrenched, inter-generational poverty that defines what the U.S. government labels persistent poverty, and the reality is that most persistent poverty counties are dominated by a cluster of a single racial/ethnic group:  Latina/o (Rio Grande Valley), African American (the Mississippi Delta and Black belt), American Indian (the Great Plains and Southwest) and, yes, white (Appalachia, the Ozarks plateau, the Texas panhandle).  A few of my articles have discussed racial and ethnic minorities in rural and/or persistent poverty contexts; examples are here, here and here.

Winter's Bone poster
Winter's Bone movie poster (source)

I have also written about impoverished rural white communities, and I do admit to being concerned about them, too.  Which brings me to Ree Dolly, 17-year-old heroine of “Winter's Bone,” the critically acclaimed indie film that won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance this year.  The film is set in the Missouri Ozarks, about 50 miles from where I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, so when it began to garner media attention in the run up to its national release, I found myself holding my breath.  Who and what would it show—and how authentic would the depiction be?  Was “Winter’s Bone” going to be the 21st century “Deliverance”?  In fact, “Winter’s Bone” is pretty ugly, a very difficult film to watch.  It is also, I must admit, quite authentic in its depiction of a certain milieu.

Indeed, one of the very interesting things about reading NYT readers' responses to "Winter's Bone" and its review is the extent to which those from major metro areas—say New York and Toronto—criticized the film maker for the lack of reality and the way she maligned the place by showing junk cars and dogs in people's yards.  Film goers and readers from the Ozarks, however, generally agreed that the film was quite authentic in its depiction of people and place, though several of them pointed out that it showed only a particular stratum of that society.  These differing views make me wonder if urbanites want to believe that rural life couldn’t be that bad?  If they are clinging nostalgically to bucolic rural myths?

I could offer many other observations about "Winter's Bone," but I want to focus here on how little benefit Ree experiences by virtue of her whiteness. White privilege looks pretty anemic for this young woman trying to save her family home after her meth-cooking father does a runner from the law, having put the house up for security with the bail bondsman.  Ree’s mother checked out long ago, so Ree is responsible for her young siblings.  They sometimes go hungry, and they live in what most would consider squalor.  They survive off $20 a relative hands to Ree here or there, occasional help from a neighbor, and the squirrels they hunt.  There is no sign of a government safety net.  At one point, Ree considers joining the military because it is her only apparent option for saving the family homestead—thanks to the $40K bonus she could get for enlisting.  That plan is dashed when the recruiter tells her she can't take her siblings with her.  College is nowhere on Ree's horizon—if, that is, she is able to finish high school given the weight of her many responsibilities.

White privilege is, of course, notoriously invisible, but maybe it is especially difficult to discern in Ree's world because everyone around her is white—and those in her circle of family and friends are all poor.  Ree attends Forsyth High School (by far the most salubrious locale depicted in the film) in Forsyth, Missouri, population 1,686.  Forsyth is the county seat of Taney County (embarrassingly named for Justice Roger Taney, author of Dred Scott!), population 39,703.  Forsyth is 98.6% white, while Taney County is 96.2% white.  Taney County is not a persistent poverty county, although neighboring Ozark County is.  (These stats are from the 2000 Census; the 2006-2008 ACS estimates show greater racial diversity and considerable population growth for Taney County; its largest city is Branson, the popular tourist destination).

In this setting, class is the primary axis of disadvantage/privilege.  And I'm not talking about the difference between upper middle class and lower middle class.  I'm talking about the range that runs from lower middle class to poor to dirt poor—down to what some call “white trash,” those Matt Wray has labeled “not quite white.”  If the sheriff is going to harass someone, for example, it’s going to be on the basis of class and who the “usual suspects” are.  Racial profiling isn't the issue in homogeneous rural communities, where law enforcement officers are socially integrated with those whom they police; far more influential factors are who you and your kin are.

So what can we take away from Winter’s Bone regarding white privilege?  I see Ree’s life as a reminder that when you get “down” to a certain socioeconomic stratum, there is precious little privilege or material benefit associated with being white.  (I’m thinking the film “Monster” also illustrates this point). Another way of stating this is that disadvantages associated with class (e.g., bias against “white trash”) and geography (e.g., scarcity of jobs and opportunities) seriously undermine the white privilege that Ree might enjoy in other settings.

When the relevant universe of people are all white (Ree Dolly in the context of Forsyth, Missouri—and I acknowledge that it’s difficult to truly isolate the “local” for these purposes), whiteness presumably takes a backseat to class (and I’m actually talking here about more than just money), which looms much larger.  Unfortunately, “Winter's Bone” fails to depict class difference in Forsyth in any explicit way.  For all we know from the film, everyone in Forsyth lives like Ree and the Dolly clan.  (Oh, and according to the film, the sun literally never shines in an Ozarks winter—overkill on the part of the filmmaker if you ask me; further, absolutely nothing in the film has the moderately pleasant glow of the image in the movie's poster, but I digress).

In my next installment, I will discuss how Ree might fare outside Forsyth and Taney County, in a more diverse setting, such as a college or university.

Cross-posted to SALTLaw Blog and Legal Ruralism.

August 11, 2010

ACRONYM Act (A Crazy Really On-point Nice Yearning Message Act)

President Obama signed into law this week the “SPEECH Act.” That is the short form title for the ‘‘Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act.”

The Act itself garnered unanimous approval in both the House and the Senate--which I presume to be relatively rare. The Act has obvious merit because it prevents the enforcement of a foreign defamation award if the defamation claim would not have passed First Amendment scrutiny were it to be adjudicated here. 


One bit of the act that might be slightly controversial is its extension of the CDA section 230 immunity to protect against foreign attempts to enforce defamation actions against Internet service providers. Section 230 has drawn criticism even in the United States for its preferential treatment of Internet publishers.

But I want to comment on a much lighter aspect of the statute.

The “Speech Act” is much nicer than an awkward set of consonants and vowels that might be generated without any concern for the acronym, even if the double-e in “speech” necessitates the mild infelicity of the slightly repetitive formulation “Enduring and Established.” (Maybe “Enduring and Enlightened” might have been preferable, though some might suggest that that would cast aspersions on other states without our free speech heritage, including our closest allies.)

In recent years, we have seen the “PATRIOT Act” and “E-Sign,” both acronym statutes. I'm sure there are legions of others, though to my ears this seems like a relatively recent development.

Do you have any statute that you would like to see enacted not principally because of its merit because of the nice acronym it would generate? I'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments.

August 9, 2010

Elitism and Education (Part I): Class and the Legal Profession

I've been contemplating a series on "Elitism in Education," but the posting of a new paper by Richard Sander and Jane Yakowitz  prompted me to change the title to "Elitism and Education."  That's because their new study, "The Secret of My Success:  How Status, Prestige and School Performance Shape Legal Careers," suggests that an elite law school education is not as important to a successful legal career as conventional wisdom suggests.  The draft paper is not yet peer reviewed, but here's a summarizing excerpt:

The consistent theme we find throughout this analysis is that performance in law school--as measured by law school grades--is the most important predictor of career success.  It is decisively more important than law school 'eliteness.'  Socioeconomic factors play a critical role in shaping the pool from which law students are drawn, but little or no discernible role in shaping post-graduate careers.  Since the dominant conventional wisdom says that law school prestige is all important, and since students who 'trade up' in school prestige generally take a hit to their school performance, we think prospective students are getting the wrong message.

Sander is, of course, well known for arguing that black law students are not well served by affirmative action when it places them in law schools where their numerical entering credentials (LSAT and UGPA) are significantly poorer than those of their classmates.   He has also asserted that affirmative action hurts blacks in the context of hiring by large law firms when blacks have lower law school GPAs than their white counterparts.  He maintains that this "handicaps" them "substantially in the the big law 'tournament,' plausibly leading to much higher attrition and lower rates of partnership attainment."  Sander and Yakowitz explain that one purpose of this new study is to respond in part to skepticism that Sander's prior article generated regarding the link between law school grades and career success.

I want to focus here on the new study's insights into class (im)mobility, what Sander and Yakowitz refer to as SES (socioeconmic status).  Here's the bad news:

On the one hand, law students come predominantly from upper-middle- and upper-class backgrounds.  This was true fifty years ago and continues to be true today--to almost exactly the same degree.  Whatever is necessary to shape the credentials and desire necessary to end up in law school, it is distributed  in ways that correlate strongly with most conventional measures of social eliteness.

Elsewhere they expand on this (p. 12 of the draft):

[H]alf of all students at elite schools in the 'After the JD' dataset (who generally began law school in 1996 or 1997) had parents with occupational levels that put them in the top 10% of American households; only ten percent had SES backgrounds that put them in the bottom half of the American distribution.  As in the Warkow-Davis analysis [from the 1960s], students at less elite schools are more socially heterogeneous ...  The similarity across time is striking; if anything, it is perhaps fair to infer that the most elite schools have become more SES-elite over time, while the least elite schools in the spectrum are a bit more socially heterogeneous than their 1961 counterparts.

So, if someone is  just breaking into the professional/managerial class by getting a legal education, chances are very good s/he is doing so at a non-elite school.   This is not terribly surprising because, as Sander and Yakowitz point out, getting into law school as a function of  (a) who is in the pool of college graduates; (b) who wants to go to law school and believes they can finance it; and (c) who has sufficiently high LSAT and UGPA credentials.   Those from lower SES strata--especially if they are white--may not "look good on paper" to more elite schools.   Indeed, those from working class families may not even apply to higher ranked schools.  (Hard as it is for people who are in the know to believe, some prospective law students may not have "gotten the memo" about going to the best law school that will accept you.  Here is my own account of being a law school applicant from a working-class family).  They may choose non-elite law schools if and when those schools are less expensive, both in terms of tuition and in terms of requiring a move.   I wonder, for example, how many law students from working-class backgrounds attend local law schools with night programs.

If Sander and Yakowitz are correct that the power of law school eliteness is over-rated as a career maker, this is (somewhat ironically) especially good news for lower SES folks because they are particularly unlikely to get an elite legal education.

Now for the (other) good news:

[T]he role of social eliteness in shaping lawyer careers after law school  has changed dramatically over the past two generations.  Whereas in the 1960s, social class, proper 'connections' and religion all played influential roles in shaping the types of legal careers available to law graduates, those factors do not seem to bear the same significance today.

Sander and Yakowitz go on to depict in Table 2 (based on After the JD data) how factors reflecting family capital (e.g., "lawyers in the family," "one or both parents are supervisors," "family helped with career strategy," "family was very important for obtaining first job") relate to a lawyer's median income.  I was admittedly shocked to see that among  7 such factors, only "lawyers in the family"was a positive indicator for a higher median salary.  Six other factors correlate with lower median salary, while a final one that might suggest a lack of family capital, "both parents are immigrants," had no apparent impact on salary.

But therein lies a serious limitation of the Sander and Yakowitz study:  Salary is their principal measure of success, with some references also to law firm partnership.   Other lower-paid but prestigious and powerful legal career paths are not acknowledged as markers of success.  Also, I would like to see Sander and Yakowitz attempt to assess the influence of aspects of social capital that are not directly related to a lawyer's family of origin.

Here is something else Sander and Yakowitz appear to overlook.  The salaries of lawyers who earn more money in spite of lack of family capital may do so because earning a higher salary is more important to them than other metrics for or manifestations of success.  Even assuming those from SES disadvantaged backgrounds are proportionately represented among those who earn good grades in law school, that number is really very small.  This group in particular may be more highly compensated than some of their counterparts from more privileged backgrounds because the former place a premium on making money, which gets reflected in their career trajectory.  A higher income may be more important to the lawyer who has transcended class boundaries precisely because s/he grew up with less (if any) financial security.   A lawyer from an upper-middle or upper-class background who has always known financial stability (and may enjoy the benefit of family financial reserves) may feel freer to choose the more rewarding or "alternative" law career path, even if the compensation is not so handsome.

So, this study brings some good news regarding class mobility for those in lower SES strata who have an undergraduate degree, "want to go to law school and believe they can finance it" (an increasingly Herculean task given the skyrocketing cost of higher education)--especially if they get good grades.  The devastating news is how few such people actually wind up in law school.  Sander and Yakowitz's study indicates remarkably little SES upward mobility as reflected in actually getting the SES disadvantaged into law schools and therefore out into the legal profession.  The reasons for that are surely worth further study.

Cross-posted to SALTLaw Blog.