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April 14, 2013

Commenting on the commentary about "Accidental Racist"

I don't watch TV or follow much pop culture, and most of the country music I occasionally listen to is from old albums by the likes of Sara Evans, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Alison Krauss.  But this was apparently a big week in country music thanks to Brad Paisley and his new album Wheelhouse.  I was on the road on Tuesday, but by the time I was catching up on email early Wednesday morning, I had lots of messages from friends giving me a heads up on the furor associated with Paisley's new song, "Accidental Racist," which includes a cameo from LL Cool J.  Commentators have varyingly discussed Paisley and his new song thusly:

In short, as one commentator put it, the song has attracted "an unusual amount of ... sneering."  Another called the response "overpowering vitriol." 

 

Eric Weisbard did not sneer in his piece for NPR. His headline references the history of white southern musical identity, and Weisbard touches on biases against the South, as well as white-on-white biases:

As you may have heard, Paisley is sifting through some rubble of his own right now, having been declared a national laughingstock by virtually all commentators coming from outside mainstream country. But then, this condescending dismissal is nothing new. There is a history to "Accidental Racist," the history of how white Southern musicians — heatedly, implicitly, at times self-servingly and not always successfully — try to talk about who they are in answer to what others dismissively assume they are. 

After all, while the Jim Crow South was Anglo supremacist politically, American culture offered a very different dynamic. Ever since white Northerners started putting out their records, Southern whites have represented a backward rural mindset in a national culture of jazzy modernity.  ... Variety loved jazz but scorned the hillbilly in 1926 as " 'poor white trash' genera. The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English. Theirs is a community all to themselves. [They are] illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons."

This reminds me of some of the points I made in The Geography of the Class Culture Wars about contemporary bias against Southerners, rural denizens, and the ever burgeoning group of people who get labeled "white trash." I note that various commentators of this Paisley/Cool J duet speak ill of the South in a broad-brush way that is not so different to what Variety had to say nearly a century ago.  This has me wondering if Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory," to which many commentators are comparing "Accidental Racist", elicited such ridicule when it was released?

 

Let me be clear:  I do not defend slavery, the historical South, nor the Confederate flag, which I see as necessarily signaling racism.  Further, I offer no comments on the artistic merits of "Accidental Racist," the song, though I will admit that this media frenzy about it led to my first country music download ever just so I could have the full musical experience, first hand.

 

Mark Kemp, too, puts "Accidental Racist" in historical musical perspective and notes regionalism's role in this kerfuffle.  Kemp observes that this is "hardly the first time a song by a Southerner dealing with white blue-collar issues has produced strong reactions among the Northeastern-based media."  

 

Weisbard's piece goes on to comment on the "choices" available to southern white musicians in the 1960s and 1970s, choices that may not have changed much:

They could embrace black music and contemporary life and cross over, like former Texan Janis Joplin. They could go bluegrass singing the Carter Family's now revived "Can the Circle Be Unbroken." Or they could join the notion of regional separatism to new concepts of identity: In songs by Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn, that great euphemism, country, became something you could be proud of like James Brownwas proud to be black.

I find this recognition of "country" (rurality?) as identity interesting, encouraging--and authentic.  (Describing "country" as euphemistic is similarly insightful).  

 

Which brings to my single favorite commentary on "Accidental Racist," from NYT's "Room for Debate" series about the song.  (Yep, that's right, this little ol' country song was the topic of Room for Debate forum a few days ago, which might be seen as progress for both shunned rural whites and for blacks).  One of the commentators, novelist Will Shetterly, makes the point that Paisley and Cool J didn't write or perform this song for the liberal elites who have responded to it in mostly sneering ways.  In a contribution headlined, "Why Elites Hate this Duet," Shetterly writes of the song's many failings--from the perspective of elites/elitists, that is:  

The song’s first sin is it’s earnest. There’s no irony to please hipsters. 

Its second sin is it’s about members of the U.S.’s racially and regionally divided working class, a southern white Lynyrd Skynyrd fan in a Confederate battle flag T-shirt and a northern black rapper in a do-rag, gold chains and sagging pants. This song wasn’t made for, by or about people who consider themselves the cultural elite, and elitists hate the idea of being irrelevant, especially in a discussion of an issue as important as race. 

Its third sin is featuring a rap artist. Many elitists hate rap as much as they hate country, though they don’t like to admit it for fear of appearing racially insensitive. 

* * *  

Elitists are too smug to consider the possibility that a person from a culture may know it better than they do, so they make easy jokes about “Accidental Racist” being “accidentally racist”.

I like this affirming comment on Shetterly's post, from one who identifies himself as a "liberal elitist":

As a private-school-educated, deep blue liberal elitist, I find I agree with Mr. Shetterly, and in fact said a similar thing about Mr. Coates's piece just the other day. Let's be frank: this song isn't for me and mine. It's for a totally different audience. The problem with people like me is that we want important issues like race and poverty discussed, but only in the way we think is appropriate. We want to set the tone of every conversation. Then we laugh at or scorn guys like these, who take on the same subject in a different way. There are an awful lot of people out there who didn't go to Harvard, yet could greatly benefit from being party to a real conversation about race. However ham-handed it may be, I think there is real good intent behind this song, on the parts of both Paisley and L.L. Cool J, and I hope it does reach their intended audiences.

This, from NPR's Code Switch bloggers, is more typical of the (quasi-)scorn being heaped on Paisley, Cool J and their single:

Most folks, though, seemed to agree that it was at least a well-intentioned, if cringeworthy, gesture. Which we see a lot of in conversations about race, right? 

* * * 

Luis Clemens, our editor, was pretty adamant that this was some kind of elaborate joke. "This is all an elaborate and knowing gag meant to provoke a real conversation about race unlike the pseudo-discussion in the song," he said. "Think of it as a Derridean act of derring-do." 

But nope — Paisley and LL insist that it's the real thing. So if it's a well-intentioned mess, aren't their intentions a little dubious? 

MT: There's probably a mix of intentions, at work, right? I mean, Mr. Paisley and Mr. Cool James had to know that there was going to be a reaction. A lot of reaction. You don't tread into 'Solve Racism' Land lightly. Paisley's tweet yesterday indicated as much. 

So you can take it at face value, and many folks did: this is a serious effort to bridge cultures, to extend a hand and try to embrace someone else's humanity.

I can't resist coming back to this conclusion of Shetterly's piece: 

[I]f you think “Accidental Racist” is racist, accidentally or intentionally, read a few comments at a white supremacy site like Stormfront. So long as they call Paisley a race traitor, he and LL Cool J are doing exactly what the elitists claim they want: furthering the conversation about race in the U.S.A.

For a commentator calling Cool J a race traitor, look no further than this Room for Debate contribution by M.K. Asante.  

 

Mark Kemp asserts that Paisley's accidental racist in the Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt is not necessarily Paisley himself.  No, that man is arguably just a persona that Paisley (who, according to some commentators, is known for his "left-wing" views), has adopted for purposes of prompting a discussion about race.  If Kemp is right, maybe there's a bit of irony or something akin to it in this song after all.  Or maybe the irony is in the knee jerk responses of those who have missed this point.    

 

I can't help think of the firestorm "Accidental Racist" has wrought this week in relation to Shirley Sherrod, the former USDA official who was unceremoniously fired in 2010 after Andrew Brietbart publicized an out-of-context video excerpt in which she hinted at having failed to assist a poor white farmer. (That was, in fact, not the case.)  Matt Bai observed then the "depressingly familiar pattern in American life, in which anyone who even tries to talk about race risks public outrage and humiliation."  Paisley and Cool J seem to be providing another example of that sad phenomenon.  

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism, SALTLaw Blog, and ClassCrits
March 30, 2013

Imploring the Ivy League to Attend to Rural Strivers

One of the most e-mailed items in the New York Times for the past day or so has been Claire Vaye Watkins "The Ivy League Was Another Planet." (The alternative headline is "Elite Colleges Are As Foreign as Mars.") In her op-ed, Watkins recounts her journey from nonmetropolitan Pahrump, Nevada to college at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her story is that of a kid from a working class family in "rural" Nevada (her description; technically, Pahrump is not rural because, though unincorporated, its 2010 population is more than 35,000) who didn't know about colleges or how to pick one.  Lucky for her, Watkins went on to get an MFA from Ohio State and is now an assistant professor of English at Bucknell.

Watkins writes of getting her wake-up call about dramatic variations in educational resources when she was a high school senior, vying for a prestigious state-funded scholarship. That's when she met a peer from a Las Vegas high school who attended a magnet school, took college prep courses, had a tutor, and had spent time abroad.  The variations in resources, she realized, were based on geography:  he was an urban kid and she was a rural one.  But they were also based on class.  She doesn't specify the background of the Vegas teen, but she mentions that her mother and step-father had not gone to college.  I note that Pahrump's poverty rate is a fairly steep 21.1%.  Just 10.1% of residents there have a bachelor's degree or better, compared to about 30% nationwide.

Even after meeting the privileged teen from Vegas, however, Watkins didn't know what she didn't know.  She remained ignorant of the world of elite colleges, a sector that represented the "other planet" or "Mars" of the headline.  Instead, Watkins applied to UN Reno, she explains, because she had once taken a Greyhound bus to visit friends there. As Watkins expresses it, when poor rural kids apply to college (which, I might add, is altogether too rare), they typically apply to those institutions to which they have been "incidentally exposed."

Commenting on what admissions deans at elite schools might do to reach out to high-achieving, poor rural kids--whom they purport to be interested in for reasons of diversity and excellence--Watkins suggests, tongue in cheek, that they do "anything." More specifically, Watkins cleverly contrasts Ivy League efforts to recruit rural kids, which might be characterized by the terms "zip" and "nada," with military efforts to recruit the same kids, which might be characterized as "fulsome" and "robust." Guess who's winning that contest? The military, of course.  Here are just a few of the points Watkins makes:

  • No college rep ever showed up at Pahrump Valley High school, while the military brought a stream of alums through there on a regular basis.
  • The school devoted half a day each year to ensuring that every junior took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB); that test was free, while taking the ACT and SAT was  not.  
  • "But the most important thing the military did was walk kids and their families through the enlistment process."

Watkins closes by noting that elite colleges need to do more to reach those she calls "the rural poor," concluding that, until they do, "is it any wonder that students in Pahrump and throughout rural America are more likely to end up in Afghanistan than at N.Y.U.?"

The jumping off point for Watkins' op-ed is a recent paper by two profs (from Harvard and Stanford, no less), Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, "The Missing 'One-Offs':  The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students."  That paper was publicized in the Times last week-end in David Leonhardt's story, "Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor."  The summary and conclusions of the Hoxby and Avery paper do not talk in terms of rural-urban difference in relation to these missing "one-offs."  (They do, however, employ a tiny bit of geographical nuance in Table 9, listing two categories of "rural" students, those near an urban area and those far from one). Instead, Hoxby and Avery focus on the benefits to students of being in "geographic concentrations of high achievers."  They write in their abstract, for example, that these high-achieving students who fail to apply to elite schools

come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college.  

And where might those students be?  mostly in rural schools.  For folks like Watkins, it isn't hard to read between the lines and see that the high achievers most likely to slip between the cracks are kids in rural schools.    

All of this brings to me my own experience.  Like Watkins, I can see that many of the "missing" students Hoxby and Avery are talking about are rural.  My own K-12 school in rural Arkansas had an enrollment of about 400--and no counselor whatsoever to advise on college admissions. The first Ivy League graduates I ever met were professors at the University of Arkansas. I was there because, like many who Hoxby and Avery studied, I assumed it was the best bargain for me.  I didn't apply elsewhere.

I have to trust that the numerous people reading Watkins' tale will believe her revelations of her naiveté regarding college.  I certainly hope so, though I have been struck over the years at how many people are incredulous at my similar tale.  How, they marvel, disbelief in their voices, could you not have known to go to a "good school"?  People of privilege can find it remarkably difficult to believe that other people could really not know the things that are the very intellectual and emotional wall-paper of a life of privilege.

But there is another, related problem:  poor rural kids and the diversity they represent often go unvalued by educational decision makers.  Because these rural kids Watkins is talking about are often white, they don't appear, at first blush, to represent diversity.  Plus, I find privileged whites are just as uncomfortable around working class whites as they are around people of color--maybe more so in this day and age.  That discomfort--unmitigated by the need be politically correct because no PC imperative exists regarding poor whites--may deter the privileged from reaching out to recruit poor whites.  After all, as Watkins points out, it's not like these elite colleges are hurting for applicants.

Finally, privileged metropolitan and cosmopolitan types tend to hold the limitations of rural education against those who are products of it, discounting what these kids have achieved because of the absence of AP classes, the right extracurricular activities, and such.  (Read more here and here).  I recall being on the selection committee for the first round of elite Sturgis Fellows at the University of Arkansas in the late 1980s.  When I spoke up for a candidate with what I considered to have stellar credentials, a professor on the selection committee quickly countered by noting that the student was from a rural school, suggesting that the student's achievements had to be kept in proper perspective--namely that s/he had not been subjected to true intellectual rigor.  I recall meekly pointing out that I, too (then the University of Arkansas's undergraduate valedictorian) was the product of a rural school.  What was I?  chopped liver?  or just an anomaly?  I'll never know how the selection committee saw me.  But perhaps because I protested so meekly, my comment--and the outstanding rural candidate--got no traction.  All of that inaugural group of Sturgis Fellows, as I recall it, were from sizable high schools.    

Cross-posted to ClassCrits, UC Davis Faculty Blog, and SALTLaw Blog.    

June 12, 2011

Downsides to Class Privilege? Hardly a Trend

Two recent news reports from very different parts of the world shared this theme: Affluence can have its drawbacks.

The first story was Michael Wines, “Execution in a Killing that Fanned Class Rancor,” which reports the execution of the son of an affluent Chinese businessman and military official. The son, Yoa Jiaxin, stabbed to death a “peasant” woman last fall. Jiaxin had struck the woman, who was cycling, with his vehicle, but she suffered only minor injuries. When Jiaxin realized that she was memorizing his license plate number, however, he attacked her with a knife.

Wines provides some class context for what happened next:

The crime had fanned deep public resentment against the “fu er dai,” the “rich second generation” of privileged families who are widely believed to commit misdeeds with impunity because of their wealth or connections.

Jiaxin later said that he “feared the woman, a poor peasant, would ‘be hard to deal with’ should she seek compensation for her injuries.”

But the victim’s husband fought back, refusing to accept the $6,900 a court ordered in compensation, “calling it ‘money stained with blood.’ He pledged to delay [his wife’s] burial until her killer was executed. A Shanghai lawyer later donated 540,000 renminbi, about $83,300, to her survivors after pledging to pay one renminbi for each message sent to the husband over Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.”

Of course, these events, which some are calling “Internet-style mob rule,” raise serious concerns about the rule of law in China. One well-known blogger went as far as to invoke the Cultural Revolution, asserting that it was started in response to “this kind of leftist behavior.”

The second story illustrating the negative consequences of being a silver-spoon kid is more uplifting.  That's because the privileged kid in question, Chris Romer, son of former three-term Colorado governor Roy Romer, lost only a political race and not his life. Kirk Johnson reported this week on Michael B. Hancock’s victory over Romer in the Denver mayoral race. The story’s headline, "Message of Survival Won Denver Race for Mayor," suggests the role of class in the election’s outcome.  Here’s an excerpt detailing Hancock's background:

In running for mayor of Denver, a position he won overwhelmingly on Tuesday, Mr. Hancock told a family story so powerful, almost Dickensian in its poverty and hope — he and his twin sister were the youngest of 10 children raised by a single mother in Denver, part of that time in public housing — that the theme of adversity overcome became the heart of the campaign.

“We’ve come from difficult situations, we’ve faced serious challenges, but yet we’re still here,” said Mr. Hancock, 41, in an interview on Wednesday, talking about his seven surviving siblings, all of whom, he said, got involved as volunteers on his behalf, along with their mother, Scharlyne Hancock, 72, who made calls to voters for weeks.

Mr. Hancock will become Denver’s second African-American mayor (the first was Wellington Webb, elected in 1991), but supporters of both Hancock and Romer suggest that class played a greater role than race in the election’s outcome.  Johnson writes:

[B]ecause Mr. Romer and Mr. Hancock had few policy disagreements, supporters in both camps said the race inevitably turned on style, likeability and the power of a compelling story.

* * *

So, the Chinese story smacks of class warfare, while the  Denver story may simply affirm our attachment to the American Dream, rags-to-riches storyline.  Aspects of both stories are heartening in that working class and poor folks found access to power of different sorts.  I daresay, however, that “affluence as liability” is hardly a trend.  Nor do stories like Hancock’s election or “justice” for the Chinese peasant’s family suggest any real mitigation of the day-to-day hardship of deprivation and insecurity endured by the world’s working class and poor.

Cross-posted to SALTLaw.blog and ClassCrits.

May 23, 2011

False Dichotomies of Class (Part II): Material versus Cultural

I responded last month to Martha McCluskey’s ClassCrits post, “Class as a Category of Vulnerability and Inequality.” In that initial response, I asserted that progressives need not choose between advocating mobility (the upward variety!) and advocating mobilization (collective action, labor rights) when it comes to class. I called the tension between mobilization and advocating class mobility a false dichotomy. This post takes up another issue that arose from the initial conversation: is class material or is it cultural? More precisely, will attending too much to the cultural aspects of class cause us to lose sight of its material aspects and consequences?

Of course, class has both material and cultural components—no doubt one of the reasons we increasingly refer to it as “socioeconomic status” or “SES.” I believe we must take both seriously in our efforts to empower the working class and poor. As with my prior post, I take the white working class as my starting point for several reasons. One is that I don’t hear socially conscious progressives pushing for a bifurcation that separates the material from the cultural with respect to minority groups. The other is that focusing on working class and poor whites permits us to see class more clearly. If we are looking at the group which enjoys the greatest racial privilege, we will not be tempted to collapse the class problem into the racism problem. We thus have a distinct opportunity to see just how powerful class disadvantage is. This tack it is not intended to discount the ways in which racial disadvantage exacerbates class disadvantage.

Thinking about class as culture implicates identity, and some have challenged class as a basis for identity, especially among “lower classes.” John Guillory wrote in 1993:

Acknowledging the existence of admirable and even heroic elements of working-class culture, the affirmation of lower-class identity is hardly compatible with a program for the abolition of want.

First, note that even Guillory implicitly links culture (“lower-class identity”) to the material (“abolition of want”). Second, while Guillory’s assertion may be somewhat true regarding those most materially deprived—the poorest among us—it overlooks the fact that many working-class whites are proud of that status. Jim Webb has observed, for example, that rednecks “don’t particularly care what others think of them. To them, the joke has always been on those who utter the insult.” If they suddenly got rich, they would not necessarily shed their cultural trappings. Nor would they shrug off all of the socialization and habits of their childhood and youth. Consider the “Beverly Hillbillies” as a vivid (if imperfect) illustration of the point. As many scholars have observed, class is inextricably linked to consumption, and consumption implicates not only money, but also spending priorities and taste.

Significantly, scholars have observed that culture varies more along racial and ethnic lines among the “lower” classes, while culture becomes more homogeneous as you work your way up the class hierarchy. In other words, the upper classes—regardless of race or ethnicity—tend to be more culturally like each other than they are like those of their same race or ethnicity who fall below them in the class hierarchy. This, too, is evidence of the symbiotic relationship between the cultural and the material. Given the link between being lower class on the one hand and manifesting cultural differences attributable to race/ethnicity on the other, denying cultural aspects of class for working class and poor whites seems tantamount to denying their personhood. It also overlooks a whole lot of sociological literature that sees cultural and material aspects of class as entangled.

In fact, a feedback loop exists between the material and the cultural in a range of contexts. June Carbone illustrates this in relation to family types in a forthcoming article.  Education is another context in which the two are intertwined: the working class are less likely to seek higher education and may scoff at its value in part because they know (or believe) they cannot afford it; they see it as beyond their reach.  Young people from working class families are thus far less likely than the children of professionals/the managerial class to get college degrees, which contributes to the financial insecurity of the former and keeps them in the working class.

Martha McCluskey’s post about cultural and material aspects of class arose from my discussion of Joan Williams’s new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.  The book is the subject of a colloquy in the Seattle University Law Review, in which Laura Kessler suggests that Williams pays too little attention to the material aspects and consequences of class by virtue of attending too much to its cultural aspects. To this, Williams responded as part of the colloquy:

Does a focus on how class is manifested as cultural difference entail overlooking the structuralist-materialist dimensions of class? Not at all: I am a material girl. But here’s the fascinating thing. Since 1970, Republicans have adopted policies that have radically increased inequality of incomes and eviscerated the economic stability of Americans who are neither rich nor poor with those very Americans’ political support.

* * *

All this is to say that, although I am a material girl, I recognize that we do not live by bread alone. Dignity and meaning-creation are equally important. So it is possible to connect with people whose economic interests do not in sync with yours if you connect with the symbols and the values that give dignity and meaning to their lives. That’s what the Republicans have done, and I propose that Democrats follow the same path.

To be clear, acknowledging culture does not let the state off the hook. In my earlier post, I discussed the role of the state regarding the increasing immobility of the working class. The state also plays roles in relation to a conception of class that attends to culture. One such role should be to prevent discrimination. Mitu Gulati and Devon Carbado have argued that anti-discrimination law should protect the "fifth black woman," the one with dreadlocks and African garb. They have asserted that whites are not faced with her dilemma—to pass or not—but they are wrong. Whites, too, must behave and dress in certain ways in order to "pass" successfully in settings where power (and wealth!) resides, e.g., elite universities, graduate and professional schools, large law firms, corporate America, middle and upper echelons of government.

Williams’s survey of ethnographic studies of the white working class suggests that turning away from working class habits, manners, and attitudes is necessary for class migrants to, well, migrate—to ascend the class ladder. They must do this in order to succeed and thereby to enhance their material well-being. Williams reports some comments made by class migrants during her book tour, noting that “they expressed anxiety that their migration in to the elite would leave them alienated from the values they grew up with and still hold dear.” At the same time, they worried that the working-class values engrained in them would inhibit “their ability to move up” and “attain professional success.” Williams was reporting there about class migrants of color, but it is high time we acknowledge that white class migrants are similarly hamstrung.

All of this points to the wrongheadedness of trying to bifurcate the cultural and material when we think about class. Clearly, each has a significant influence on the other, and we should reject a dichotomy between the two as false.

Cross posted to SALTLaw Blog and ClassCrits.

April 17, 2011

Elitism and Education (Part III): Working Class Whites and Elite College Admissions

(Parts I and II of this series appeared in August, 2010 here and here.)

Ever since Ross Douthat discussed No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life in a July 2010 column, I’ve been fretting about some of the book’s findings.  This 2009 book discusses the authors' exhaustive study of college admissions, with particular attention to elite colleges.  Among the conclusions of Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford is that whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to gain admission, while blacks and Hispanics were favored in the admissions process.  Stated thusly, I am not troubled by the finding.  But then Douthat makes a related point, about the consequences of this fact on “lower-class” whites:

For minority applicants, the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.

Douthat goes on to explain that this failure to admit more working- and other “lower-class” whites may be “a money-saving tactic.”  Specifically, “Espenshade and Radford suggest that these institutions, conscious of their mandate to be multiethnic, may reserve their financial aid dollars ‘for students who will help them look good on their numbers of minority students,’ leaving little room to admit financially strapped whites.”

Douthat characterized this as “unsurprising,” noting also that the “downscale, the rural and the working-class” whites were most disadvantaged in the admissions process.  I will discuss the “rural” part of his assertion in a future post, but for now I want to focus on the working-class white part, geography aside.

I initially blogged last summer about Douthat’s column on my Legal Ruralism Blog here, but I was a bit skeptical of his summary so I ordered the Espenshade and Radford book.  By the time it got to me, the NYT had published Espenshade’s response to the Douthat column.  An excerpt follows:

We find that applicants who demonstrate a strong commitment to career-oriented extracurricular activities while in high school have a slightly lower chance of being admitted to a top school.  This outcome affects only students who have won awards or assumed leadership positions in these activities, not those known for their extensive involvement.

I do not understand the distinction Espenshade is making between leadership and awards on the one hand and extensive involvement on the other.  I would expect the two to go together, and I am unclear as to why winning awards and being a leader would be looked on less favorably than extensive involvement. In any event, Espenshade continues:

These extracurriculars might include 4-H clubs or Future Farmers of America, as Douthat mentions, but they could also include junior ROTC, co-op work programs, and many other types of career-oriented endeavors.

Espenshade thus challenges Douthat’s association of these activities with rurality.  Espenshade asserts instead that such activities “could just as well suggest that these students are somewhat ambivalent about their academic futures.”

This is consistent with what Espenshade and Radford say in their book, presenting the “bias,” if you will, as one against students whose interests run to what they characterize as “career-oriented.”  In a somewhat similar vein, they find that holding a part-time job during high school also hurts one’s admissions prospects.

In response to Espenshade’s clarification, Douthat points out the difference between admissions and acceptances, stating:

It’s a question of admissions offices looking at students who went to the effort of applying to elite schools (an act that already suggests a strong interest in an academic future of some sort) and downgrading their chances, for whatever reason, because they excelled in ROTC or the 4-H club or a co-op work program.

While I found Espenshade’s clarification helpful and agree that Douthat initially failed to provide adequate context, I tend to agree with Douthat’s point that the current system is not achieving optimal diversity.  If we really want diversity, shouldn’t we admit proven high school leaders with good grades and such, regardless of the nature of the extra-curricular activities in which they demonstrated their leadership?  I also must admit that I’m not really sure what sort of high school activities do not look “career-oriented.”  (But maybe that comment reflects both my age and my place of origin …)  It is, after all, high school.  Perhaps involvement in the arts or some such seems more impressive and more academic?  But opportunities to participate in the “right” enrichment activities may not be available in all schools or all communities.  Further, working class families may not be able to afford the costs associated with participation of some enrichment activities, just as educational travel may be beyond their reach.

In addition, it seems just plain wrong to me to hold against an applicant the fact s/he held a part-time job.  Where I come from, a part-time job is a reflection of industry, not lack of ambition.  (It is also often a reflection of need.)  I suppose, however, that more affluent parents discourage their children from working for pay because it diminishes the time they would have to invest in their studies and in the “right” extra-curricular and enrichment activities.  (For a fascinating discussion of the different child rearing priorities and practices of the white working class compared to the professional/managerial class, read the “Learning Class at Your Mother’s Knee” section of Joan Williams’ 2010 book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.)

Some aspects of the Espenshade and Radford study fly in the face of the pervasive notion that we are a nation in which social mobility is attainable for everyone, including working-class whites--indeed, maybe especially for them because they enjoy white privilege.  Maybe the lesson is that lower/working class folks are only supposed to ascend the socioeconomic ladder one rung at a time.  It’s OK if working-class whites get to college—maybe we even want them to—but perhaps we think they do not belong at elite colleges.  Maybe an elite education is actually a rung or two farther up the ladder, rungs reserved for a future generation, for the kids or grandkids of the generation that first makes it to college.

It nevertheless saddens me that this thwarting of class mobility for working-class whites is partly a consequence of the absence of admissions officers who actually know something about working-class families, not only their fiscal limitations but also the ethic of industry associated with them.   Otherwise, why would career-oriented activities be held against these students who—by engaging in such activities—may be hedging their bets in the event they don’t “make it” in higher education or, as the case may be, even get admitted to elite colleges.

Must everyone who gets into an elite college be either pre-ordained by (1) circumstances of birth into relative affluence or (2) the all-too-rare and lucky racial or ethnic minority who gets an affirmative action slot?   To my mind, the tunnel vision of elite college admissions officers is one more reason to be concerned about the relative absence of class migrants—including white class migrants (read more here)—from influential positions, including the ranks of college admissions officers.

Cross-Posted to ClassCrits Blog and SALTLAW Blog.

April 12, 2011

False Dichotomies of Class (Part I): Mobility versus Mobilization

Martha McCluskey wrote a couple of weeks ago on the ClassCrits Blog about some questions regarding class that arose at Martha Fineman’s recent workshop, Masking and Manipulating Vulnerabilities, at Emory Law School.  To summarize, McCluskey asked whether it is “problematic to analyze class as a category of inequality without directly engaging questions of labor rights?”

The genesis of that conversation at Emory was my speculation regarding the reasons for resistance to class analysis regarding whites and, by extension, resistance to the vulnerability paradigm.  Like my other recent work on class, my comments at Emory  focused on class mobility and did not engage issues of collective mobilization.  I thus believe the clear answer to McCluskey’s question is “no.”  Class mobility (think class ascension, although the sad trend these days is downward mobility) and class mobilization (as through unionizing and labor rights) seem to me different paths to empowerment of the working class and poor.  I see these as able to reside comfortably, side-by-side, on parallel tracks.  Indeed, now that McCluskey (echoing others at the Emory workshop) has voiced this issue, I find myself surprised that we do not see more law professors writing about class (im)mobility in a way that separates the issue from racism. That is, I am concerned that socially conscious progressives see challenges to upward mobility as stemming primarily, even solely, from bias against minorities.  If this is the case, we are failing to see that whites, too, are increasingly victims of the inequality gap and its attendant barriers to upward class migration.

We socially conscious progressives are attuned to the need to achieve higher educational attainment for racial and ethnic minorities.  We understand the need to facilitate their class ascension, to integrate more of them into the professional/managerial class, to bring them to the big table of law- and policy-making, in part so that we can benefit from what they know from personal experience.  Affirmative action programs have long been aimed at this outcome—and rightfully so.  We don’t just talk about unionizing minority populations, which presumes that they will stay working class, albeit in a materially more comfortable way.  We talk about diversifying the pipeline into the upper middle class, a/k/a the professional/managerial class.  We grieve the fate of minority children who could have become our political and business leaders—if only they had enjoyed something approaching equal opportunity.

Why, then, do we pay so little attention to class mobility among poor and working class whites?  Why would we limit ourselves to working for their mobilization—as in unions—rather than their upward mobility? Perhaps we have taken for granted white folks’ ability to transcend class boundaries because whites are not the victims of racism.  To quote Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus:  Dispatches from America’s Class War, we’ve been snookered by the “myth of the power of white skin.”  That is, we may buy into the “unspoken belief that if a white person does not succeed, his or her lack of success can be due only to laziness.”  We recognize racism as among the many factors that impede class mobility for racial minorities, but we don’t credit the structural barriers—or cultural bias against poor whites (see here and here)—when assessing the prospects of working class whites.  Yet many poor and working class whites face the same sorts of structural and cultural obstacles that burden minorities:  crummy schools, inadequate health care, a dearth of educated role models in their communities, and low expectations.

Yes, tragically, racism is alive and well in this country.  But minority status is not the only force that holds back working class young people who have the sheer native ability and ambition to get a college degree—or even go well beyond it.  Socially conscious progressives are smart enough to know this, but I see very few acknowledging it.  Which brings us to the State, hardly an innocent bystander of the “class war” to which so many insist on turning a blind eye.  To pick up Martha McCluskey’s metaphor, of course the different classes are not just layers in a cake with as much do with one another as with the cake pan (a/k/a the State).  No, the inferior education, health care and other dwindling supports to which the working class have access directly implicate the State and its grossly uneven distribution of resources.  Relying on local funding (as opposed to state and federal funding) of myriad services is just one component of this.  As President Obama recognized in his 2010 State of the Union address, “the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.”  Yet sadly it often does.  Read more here and here.    

I admit that I’m interested in class (im)mobility in part because I’m a “class migrant,” one “born and raised working class, who join the upper-middle class through access to ... education” (quoting the definition from Joan Williams’ recent book).  But the struggle for class ascension isn’t only supported by anecdote.  Data indicate that upward mobility for the working class is declining—at least as measured by higher education attainment.  In 1970, 61% of college students were the children of parents whose highest education level was a high school diploma or less—that is, they were “first-generation college.”  By 1990, that figure had fallen to 41%, and in 2000, only 22% of those who attended college were the first generation in their family to do so.  Even taking into account the role played by the rising percentage of people (parents) with college degrees over those three decades (though it remains less than 30%), the data suggest that the working class kid who gets to (let alone through!) college is increasingly rare.  Structural impediments bear a significant part of the blame.  Most obviously and recently, these include dramatically higher tuition for tertiary education, even at state colleges and universities.

In any event, I don’t see how this focus on class (im)mobility—which has both material and cultural aspects (as I shall discuss further in a future post)—precludes attention to organized labor.  I’m all for unionizing those who will remain in the working class, and I would hope that nothing I say be used to naturalize constraints on workers’ power to act collectively.  However much we increase mobility for some, we will always have workers with us, but they need not be poor.  Clearly, collective action is necessary to improve their material circumstances.

But focusing only on organizing the working class is arguably an insult to the extent that it objectifies and distances “them” from “us,” compartmentalizing them below us in the class hierarchy.  To focus exclusively on unionizing the working class overlooks the potential and desire of some to transcend class boundaries (as through higher education) and join the upper middle class.

Surely we want white class migrants among our ranks—just as we want class migrants from minority groups—sitting at the “big table” at which social progressive brainstorm problems, set priorities, and formulate solutions. I am convinced that they (we) could teach us (you) a few things.  Class migrants can remind those in power what generations of them have known:  like the racial privilege enjoyed by those of us who are white, our class privilege causes us to take too much for granted—and it tempts us to take too much individual credit for our own professional and material success.

Cross-posted to ClassCrits, 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