October 28, 2015

Campus Community Book Project and Addressing "The Divide"

Is this the "Age of the Wealth Gap?"

Investigative reporter and Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi says yes. His New York Times bestselling book, "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap," is the featured work in this year's UC Davis Campus Community Book Project.

It was my pleasure last week to take part in the first of three book events at the School of Law: a panel discussion titled "Addressing 'The Divide' - 'If You Cannot Afford One...': Access to Legal Counsel in the Age of Inequality." Speakers included Yolo County Deputy Public Defender Ronald Johnson '04, Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC) Executive Director Gary Smith, and LSNC Deputy Director Julie Aguilar-Rogado.  As lawyers and professors involved in serving, researching and/or teaching about low-income populations and access to justice issues, we all agreed that little about Taibbi's book surprised us, even though Taibbi wrote as if he were shocked by his findings.  


Ron Johnson '04, Gary Smith, Julie Aguilar-Rogado, and me

Among the topics we discussed were the civil justice gap between wealthy folks and those who qualify for legal assistance from legal aid organizations such as LSNC, which is funded in part by the Legal Services Corporation.  Smith and Aguilar-Rogado described how LSNC is not only providing direct services to low-income populations in the 23-county area they serve in Northern California, but how they are also pro-actively seeking enforcement of many laws that can assist the poor.  In a sense, LSNC is acting as a private attorney general in advocacy to compel counties to live up to statutory mandates that would benefit low-income populations.  I talked about the rural-urban justice gap, including the shortage of lawyers serving rural counties generally, and low-income rural residents in particular.  Our talented alum Ron Johnson spoke about his decade of experience as a public defender.  In particular, he talked about some of the particular struggles facing many who are caught up in the criminal justice system, problems including joblessness, poverty, and mental illness.  Johnson observed that we need to devote more attention to such root causes of crime and mentioned that his office has social workers -- and not only lawyers -- to assist the clients.  

Two more Campus and Community Book events will be held at King Hall. On November 2, the clinical faculty will discuss the human impact of criminal and immigration detention. Then, on February 1, Professors Elizabeth Joh and Thomas Joo will discuss structural inequality in American policing and prosecution. 

For a full list of the book events across campus, visit http://occr.ucdavis.edu/ccbp2015/events/index.html. The events will conclude with an appearance by author Matt Taibbi at the Mondavi Center on February 3, a talk I am very much looking forward to hearing.

June 18, 2015

Premiere of Film on the Historic Trial that Made Rape a War Crime

This week, I am in Rwanda for the premiere of the documentary film The Uncondemned.

The Uncondemned documents the legal and political path to the 1998 conviction of Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of Taba Commune, Rwanda, in the first-ever conviction of rape as an act of genocide and as a crime against humanity.  The prosecution and conviction were at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). a forerunner to the International Criminal Court.  The Rwandan Genocide occurred over about 3 months, beginning in April 1994, after the plane carrying the president of Rwanda, a moderate Hutu, was shot down. 

I was a gender consultant to ICTR in 1996 where I did the initial legal analysis of the sexual assault case against Akayesu, arguing that the indictment (for killings as acts of genocide and as crimes against humanity) against him should be amended to include charges of rape and other sexual assaults that occurred at the Taba Bureau Communale, which was under his control.  I appear in the film, along with the two American lawyers who tried the case, Pierre-Richard Prosper and Sara Darehshori. Also featured are other officials of ICTR, journalists who covered the genocide, and human rights advocates. 

Most exciting is that the three women who were the key witnesses against Akayesu are in the film, along with the Taba commune social worker who encouraged them to testify and helped to facilitate their doing so.  Those four women attended the premiere.  Their statements were the ones I was analyzing back in 1996. 

The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, hosted the screening of The Uncondemned in the capital city, Kigali. Also among those in attendance were the Minister of Justice, the Foreign Minister and a number of women parliamentarians. Official photos from the event are posted to the President's  Flickr album.  I am in a couple of the photos there, and my son William is one, too, near the bottom of the page.  

 


Photo: Professor Lisa Pruitt with two of the rape survivors, Serrafina and Victoire, who testified against Akayesu.

The Uncondemned is expected to be in distribution across the U.S. and worldwide in 2016.

 

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.    

May 5, 2012

Overlooking (even seemingly high profile) rural crimes

Americans are often said to have a love-hate relationship with rural America. On the one hand, many wax nostalgic about the good old days, simpler times, the bond of "rural community" that many of our grandparents once lived, even if most of "us" grew up in the city. Plus, most everyone enjoys a bit of time spent in "nature," and some even realize--the urban ag craze aside--that most of our food is grown "in the country." On the other hand, urbanites often hold rural people in disdain, mocking them for their attachment to place, their regressive politics and culture and, yes, even for their nostalgia.

One particular aspect of the "love" (more precisely, nostalgia) with which we may regard rural America is the tendency to think that bad things associated with cities--most notably crime--are largely absent in smaller towns, in nonmetropolitan areas. That's hardly accurate, as I've discussed here and here. I wonder, though, if these rural myths are the reason that even more shocking crimes in rural settings--crimes involving, for example, racial or ethnic animus--don't get national attention. For crimes like these, I would think that urban Americans might be anxious to publicize the crimes, to hold these acts up as justification for the "hate" (that is, disdain, contempt) part of the relationship.

I was reminded of all this last week when the New York Times ran a story headlined, "Black Man's Killing in Georgia Eludes Spotlight," dateline Lyons, Georgia, population 4,169. Kim Severson's story tells of a white man, Norman Neesmith, killing a black man, Justin Patterson, in Lyons last year "on a rural farm road, here in in onion country." Neesmith was arrested and charged with seven crimes, but he is expected to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct, for which he might be sentenced to just a year in "special detention," which means no jail time. Severson goes on to compare the rural Georgia case to that of Trayvon Martin, which has attracted national and international attention:

In both cases, an unarmed young black man died at the hands of someone of a different race.

And [Justin Patterson's parents] began to wonder why no one was marching for their son, why people like Rev. Al Sharpton had not booked a ticket to Toombs County. The local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P has not gotten involved, although Mr. Patterson's farther approached them.

* * *

Why some cases with perceived racial implications catch the national consciousness and others do not is as much about the combined power of social and traditional media as it is about happenstance, said Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic who writes about racial issues.

Several events coalesced to push the Martin case forward: an apparently incomplete police investigation, no immediate arrest and Florida's expansive self-defense law.

The New York Times' highlighting the overlooked Patterson case reminded me of another pair of cases last year that received grossly disparate media attention.

I learned quite by accident last summer of a federal conviction based on a 2010 hate crime in Carroll County, Arkansas. It was especially odd to learn of the conviction by coincidence (from a UC Davis colleague whose distant relative in Arkansas sat on the jury!) because this was the first ever conviction ever under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal law passed in 2009. Here's what happened: After encountering each other at a gas station in Alpena, Arkansas (population 371) in the early morning hours in June 2010, three white men allegedly hurled racial epithets at five Latinos and then chased the Latinos in their car, while the white driver of the truck chasing them waved a tire wrench out his vehicle's window. The truck driven by the white men eventually ran the Latinos' car off the road, where it rolled over and burst into flames. All of the Latinos were injured, one very seriously, but all survived. Less than a year later, a jury in a federal courthouse in Harrison, Arkansas--(population 12,943, about 20 miles from the events, and with a reputation as a long-time bastion of KKK activity) took less than an hour (!) to convict the driver of the truck, 20-year-old Frankie Maybee, of "five counts of committing a federal hate crime and one count of conspiring to commit a federal hate crime." One of his companions, 19-year-old Sean Popejoy, had already pleaded guilty to a single hate crime and a conspiracy count; he turned state's witness. The third man was not charged, apparently because of a lack of evidence that he was part of the conspiracy. (In an effort to learn more about Carroll County matter last summer, I interviewed the Arkansas State Trooper who had helped investigate it, as well as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette journalist who reported on it. They provided some back story, which I'll take up in a subsequent post.)

Several months after the convictions in this case, it had not yet been discussed anywhere except in local media. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran about half a dozen stories, starting in April, 2011, when the men were indicted, running through the trial itself, and ending with Maybee's sentencing to 11 years in prison, in September, 2011. Television stations in nearby Springfield, Missouri covered only the sentencing, and Reuters, too, had finally found the story by then. In that way, the Arkansas case is similar to another Shepard/Byrd Act indictment that preceded the Arkansas conviction, this one in Farmington, New Mexico involving the torture of a developmentally disabled Native American by white men. That case resulted in a guilty plea and was mentioned, along with other Shepard/Byrd cases, in this NPR story a few days ago. (Other NPR coverage of the Shepard/Byrd law, which also mentions the New Mexico case post-guilty plea, is here and here).

Contrast that with the Shepard/Byrd charges against the three young white men who recently pleaded guilty in the death of James C. Anderson, a black man in Jackson, Mississippi. New York Times coverage of that crime is here, here, here and here. The Mississippi story is, of course, a huge one and deserves all the attention it got. But the Carroll County story seems like a pretty big one, too (did I mention that it was the first Shepard/Byrd conviction!?!), as does the case out of Farmington, New Mexico.

What explains the disparate and decidedly after-the-fact media attention to these cases? Perhaps coincidence. Perhaps differences in the Department of Justice's efforts to publicize the charges. Perhaps the fact that the Mississippi crime resulted in death whereas the Arkansas and New Mexico crimes did not. But as a ruralist, I can help wonder if the rural-ish settings of these crimes also obscured them from the national media?

Carroll County has a population of just 27,446, of which 12.7% are of Latino or Hispanic origin. I know the area quite well because I grew up in a contiguous county, and I wrote a lot about Carroll County's three-decade history of Latina/o migration in my 2009 article, Latina/os, Locality and Law in the Rural South. In 2003, MALDEF entered into a settlement with the Rogers, Arkansas Police Department, in neighboring Benton County, to prevent racial profiling.

Farmington, New Mexico has a population of just over 45,000, but surrounding San Juan county is technically metropolitan, with a population of just over 130,000. Indian reservations comprise more than 60% of San Juan County's land area, and 36.6% of its populace are Native American. Farmington has been the subject of major civil rights investigations over the course of four decades.

Like the relations between blacks and whites in Mississippi, then, both Carroll County, Arkansas and San Juan County, New Mexico have histories of racial and ethnic tensions. I would think the racial/ethnic contexts of these two incidents would make them interesting to a national audience--as would they way they illustrate widely held perceptions of the "best" and "worst" of rural America. The "worst" is that the hate crimes occurred--which confirms the image of rural folks as small-minded and bigoted. The "best"--at least in the Arkansas case--is that a local jury of the defendant's peers convicted the small-minded bigot--and they did so in no time flat.

Cross posted to Legal Ruralism and SALTLaw Blog.

March 24, 2012

Rural Women and the Limits of Law: Reflections on CSW 56

The United Nations 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 56) featured as its priority theme this year "the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges."  This focus on rural women is long overdue, given that rural women comprise a quarter of the world's population.  Further, women provide 43% of the world's agricultural labor, and they produce half of the world's food for direct consumption.  In fact, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) discovered some time ago that women--referred to by many as the "architects of food security"--are key agents of development.  One reason for this is that when women and girls receive income, they reinvest 90% of it in their families.  In spite of their transformative potential to reduce hunger and poverty, women own less than 2% of land worldwide and they receive less than 10% of available credit.

As one whose scholarship focuses on rural livelihoods in both the United States and abroad, I was pleased to attend three days of the two-week CSW 56 event (February 27-March 9) as an observer for the American Society of International Law. As a former gender consultant for the United Nations, I was prepared for some of what I saw (e.g., bureaucracy), but the experience also held a few surprises. One thing that intrigued me about the “Session”—which is not a session at all but a dizzying array of “high-level round tables” and other meetings, panel discussions, “side events,” and “parallel events”—is that discussion of law was relatively absent. Furthermore, relatively little of the substance of these gatherings focused on rural women in a way that went beyond adding the modifier “rural” to whatever issue was being discussed. Rather than engaging with the circumstances that often distinguish rural women’s lives from those of their urban counterparts, many of the sessions seemed merely to “add rural women and stir” in relation to a well-recognized (and admittedly very important) women’s issue (e.g., female genital mutilation, child marriage). Other sessions did take up issues more central to rural livelihoods, including spatial removal from services and agents of the state, and women’s roles in agricultural production. The lack of significant engagement with the particular challenges facing rural women is reflected in the fact that none of the resolutions adopted by the Commission was about rural women. Nor did the Commission adopt any agreed conclusions on the priority theme of the 56th Session.

In contrast to CSW’s somewhat anemic approach to the priority theme, Article 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) addresses the rights of rural women as a group. Indeed, CEDAW is the first human rights treaty to recognize rural difference, to acknowledge rural populations. While Article 14 guarantees to rural women all the rights enumerated elsewhere in CEDAW, the article also addresses rights specific to rural women. These include the right:

  • to be involved in “development planning at all levels”;
  • to benefit from “all community and extension services” among other types of education;
  • to “organize self-help groups and cooperatives in order to obtain equal access to economic opportunities”;
  • “to have access to agricultural credit and loans, marketing facilities, appropriate technology and equal treatment in land and agrarian reform, as well as in land resettlement schemes”; and
  • “to enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply, transport and communications.”

Read more about Article 14, its history, and its implementation herehere, and here. Given the particular attention paid to rural women in this germinal women’s rights treaty, one might have anticipated considerable attention to the provision and its potential at CSW 56. Not so at the sessions I attended. I heard Article 14 mentioned only a couple of times.

It is a common bias among lawyers to presume law can solve problems and should be used to do so. Lawyers may be more skeptical about whether international law is effective at solving problems, attributing failures to the lack of enforceability of international law and the lack of respect for the rule of law, particularly in the developing world. As a ruralist, I have asserted that law is less effective at addressing problems in rural locales for some similar reasons. That is, when legal institutions and legal actors (including lawyers) are literally less present, laws on the books are less potent and the rule of law withers. All of these issues related to the relevance, authority, and efficacy of law were in play—sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly—in the attention CSW 56 gave to rural women.

Many of the participants in CSW 56 were not lawyers—nor were they UN or national officials. Rather, the vast majority of participants were associated with NGOs that have consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council. Indeed, on each morning of CSW 56, officials with UN Women held a briefing for NGO representatives (also referred to as “civil society”). By the middle of the first week, UN Women announced that 1,598 NGO representatives from 358 NGOs were engaged in the annual gathering.

At these daily briefings, UN Women officials offered affirmations to NGO representatives, assuring them of the importance of their efforts. The UN officials also offered updates on what was happening at the “high-level meetings” that few NGO representatives had permission to attend. In spite of their exclusion from many of the events where member states were in direct talks, NGOs presented a robust and varied array of panel discussions. A tiny sampling of the topics and their sponsors follows:

  • Women and Corruption: Grassroots Experiences and Strategies, Huairou Commission, UN Development Program
  • Empowering Caregivers to Build Healthy Sustainable Communities, Huairou Commission, GROOTS International, International Council of Women
  • Rural Women's Groups and Key Stakeholders Frame Joint Actions, Government of Norway, Huairou Commission, GROOTS International, UN Women, UN-Non Governmental Liaison Service, Baha'i International Community, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Food Program, Landesa
  • Rural Women Speak: Land, Health and Rights in Africa, FEMNET
  • Rural Girls and Urban Migration: The Role of Communications for Development in Bridging the Divide, UN-HABITAT, Plan International, UNESCO, Women in Cities International
  • Measuring Change for Rural Women in Sub-Saharan Africa, Global Fund for Women

Here is a link to the official programming, and a full listing of the NGO programming is here.

While most commentators in these parallel and side events presumed developing world contexts, a few offered reminders that biases against women persist in the developed world, too, including in relation to agriculture. In other words, Australia, Canada, the United States (just to name a few) all have work to do to empower women, including those in rural areas. (To be clear, unlike these other nations, the U.S. has never ratified CEDAW and is not bound by it).

This sampling of events demonstrates my earlier points about both the relative absence of attention to law’s role in solving the problems of rural women (and perhaps, by implication, all women), and also the shortage of programming regarding issues unique to rural women. To the extent that the particular concerns and circumstances of rural women were center stage, the focus typically related to agriculture. Among these were issues such as access to credit and means of marketing their products, the relative merits of “sustainable” agriculture versus intensive production agriculture, and an issue that more squarely implicates law: women’s right to own land. Officials from UN Women reported that diplomats participating in CSW 56 were sharing examples of legislation that would achieve land reform and improve land distribution schemes, but in the next breath they acknowledged the challenge of getting these laws implemented and enforced.

The need for legal reform arose in other contexts, too, but so did law’s limitations. For every comment I heard about the utility of Article 14 of CEDAW (or some other progressive national or international law) and the importance of legal and policy environments that were conducive to women’s empowerment, I also heard words of caution about the limits of law. Government and UN officials were more likely to tout the power of law, while NGOs were more likely to focus on village realities that often undermine the rule of law. Among those offering caveats regarding the potency of law were those who noted that many will be reluctant to invoke it—including criminal laws—in relation, for example, to forced child marriage. One African NGO representative stated,

Face reality ... be honest. Even in America, who tells the law? Maybe [the victims and their families] are illiterate ... [child marriage] is their custom. Who goes to tell the law except the child? And how can the child go tell the law?

This is where all of us come in ... if your NGO is interested in solving these problems. You go [to the village], watch the ways things are done and then talk to the educated locals [so that they begin to see the social and economic costs of the practice, e.g., child marriage]. And they will know they must do something.

This woman, like many others I heard over three days, extolled the importance of grassroots efforts to achieve the empowerment of women.

Wherever one might strike the balance between formal law on the one hand and local, grassroots efforts to educate and achieve cultural change on the other, few coming out of CSW 56 would dispute that both have significant roles in empowering not only rural women, but indeed all women.

Originally posted to Jurist.org; cross-posted to Legal RuralismIntLawGrrls and Agricultural Law.

 

 

February 14, 2012

The Devastating Disconnect between Rich and Poor

The Occupy Wall Street movement has drawn national attention to economic inequality, and several new studies and a book just published also invite us to consider the acuteness of this inequality, as well as its causes and/or consequences.   These publications all highlight education, to one degree or another, as a key indicator of class and class mobility.

The New York TimesNPR and the Los Angeles Times all ran features this week on Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart:  The State of White America, 1960-2010.  Murray, labeled "a libertarian social scientist" by NPR (and worse things by other liberal pundits), is a controversial figure due in large part to his co-authorship of The Bell Curve.  In that 1994 book, Murray described  a "cognitive elite" who, he argued, get ahead in large part because of their superior IQs.  The controversy was understandable given his assertion that whites tend to have higher IQs than African Americans and some other minorities.

I want to focus here, however, on some of the less controversial information featured in Coming Apart. By this, I mean to steer clear of the book's commentary on values and related suggestions for remedying the problem.  (I do, however, recommend Paul Krugman's op-ed and Nicholas Confessore's review, both of which offer incisive observations regarding those aspects of the book).  Also, to be clear, I have yet to read the book and so rely here on characterizations from media reports.

Murray asserts that class divides us more than race or ethnicity.  Having expressed my desire to avoid controversy, I acknowledge that this may be seen as a controversial assertion if it is read as claiming that we are in a post-racial era.  Nevertheless,  less controversial sociologists such as UC Berkeley's Claude Fischer and Oberlin's Greggor Mattson made similar assertions in their 2009 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, "Is America Fragmenting?"  Plus, the burgeoning significance of class is a common theme among recent studies.  I do not believe we are in a post-racial era, but I am deeply concerned about the ways in which class divides and the consequences of those divisions.

To continue on the sensitive topic of race for a moment, I note that Murray explains his focus on class divisions among whites in order "to concentrate the minds of my readers" whose "reflexive response" to the discussion of the various social problems discussed in the book might be to assume that these problems exist only within minority communities.  Murray says he wishes to make the point that these are white problems, too.  (I have made a similar argument in asserting that if we want to understand how severe a handicap class can be, we might best look at whites--even white men--those privileged on the basis of race and gender yet struggling for economic security and upward mobility). The final chapter of Murray's book apparently shows how the impact of this class divide  among whites holds true across other racial and ethnic groups.

Murray emphasizes differences between what he calls the "new upper middle class" and the working class.  The way Murray slices and dices class, the former are 20% of white adults, and the latter constitute 30%.  The media coverage I have consumed does not indicate the income levels associated with these groups, nor does it indicate clearly whether Murray is focusing on the top and bottom segments of the white adult population or whether there might be a group below this "working class," such as the 15% or so of Americans living in poverty, or a group above the upper middle class, i.e., the very rich, the 1%.

Murray's depiction of these two groups focuses on educational, cultural and lifestyle differences between them.  (Read more here and here on the link between the cultural  and the material in relation to class).  Here is an illustrative quote from the NPR story:

Over the past 50 years the two groups have branched away from each other culturally and geographically. The "educated class," Murray tells NPR's Robert Siegel, has developed distinctive tastes and preferences in a way that is new in America, evinced in everything from the alcohol they drink and the cars they buy to how they raise their children and take care of themselves physically.

Added to that, spatial segregation has resulted in "ZIP codes that have levels of affluence and education that are so much higher than the rest of the population that they constitute a different kind of world," he says.

The economic and social balkanization is potentially very pernicious.

Murray asserts that even going back to 1923, an era of "great social and religious division," successful people tended to have working-or middle-class roots.   They thus had some shared experiences.  Now, however, many decision makers are "second or third generation affluent," leaving them completely out of touch with the working class experience.

"The people who run the country have enormous influence over the culture, politics, and the economics of the country. And increasingly, they haven't a clue about how most of America lives. They have never experienced it."

Murray contrasts the present situation with Eisenhower's 1952 cabinet, sometimes referred to as "nine millionaires and a plumber."  Murray points out that those millionaires were mostly the sons of farmers and merchants and thus had not grown up in affluence.  Compared to President Obama's cabinet, which is highly diverse in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, Eisenhower's cabinet reflected greater socioeconomic diversity.  (I have written about this here).

I have noted other contexts in which we see this evidence of this disconnect and its harms.  One is in the judiciary, as expressed by Judge Alex Kozinski in his 2010 dissent in Pineda-Moreno:

There’s been much talk about diversity on the bench, but there’s one kind of diversity that doesn’t exist: No truly poor people are appointed as federal judges, or as state judges for that matter. Judges, regardless of race, ethnicity or sex, are selected from the class of people who don’t live in trailers or urban ghettos. The everyday problems of people who live in poverty are not close to our hearts and minds because that’s not how we and our friends live.

617 F.3d 1120, 1123 (9th Cir. 2010).

Another context in which we see evidence of upper middle class obliviousness to the working class (and to their own class privilege) is in elite higher education admissions.  A prominent recent study shows that admissions officers tend to hold against applicants their high school work experiences, labeling working students as "careerist."  Instead, admissions officers look for the sort of enrichment activities, e.g., international travel, music and arts training, associated with affluence. This suggests to me that admissions officers at posh colleges and universities know nothing about and therefore have no appreciation for the working class experience.  Needless to say, those admissions officers are also aggravating the class divide which Murray describes because they exclude those who could bring much needed socio-economic diversity to these career-making institutions.

The greater controversy associated with Murray's book is that he makes culture (a euphemism for laziness, lack of discipline) a culprit in the decline of the working class, while ignoring structural changes that have undermined their economic stability.  On this point, I tend to agree with Frederick Lynch, who reviews the book for the Los Angeles Times.  Lynch points out that Murray's focus on culture obscures something else:  "The destruction of values, economic sectors and entire occupational classes by automation and outsourcing."

But those aspects of globalization aren't all that Murray overlooks, as Lynch observes:

Murray inexplicably ignores a long line of studies showing that 21st century elites are post-American "citizens of the world" and that they're too busily involved with building a new global economy to know — or care about — what happens to less fortunate people in their own or others' nation-states.

The disconnect between rich and poor is not grounded merely in difference, it is grounded in disinterest at best, disdain at worst.

On the heels of this burst of media attention to Murray's book comes a story in Friday's New York Times headlined, "Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say."  In it,  Sabrina Tavernise reports on several recent studies which document and analyze burgeoning education inequality between upper and lower  classes--and also how these inequalities transcend race and ethnicity.  Tavernise describes how the "gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially" in recent decades, while the gap between white and black achievement has narrowed during the same period.  She discusses a number of studies by researchers at Stanford, Michigan, Chicago, UCLA, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.

One study, forthcoming in Demography, found that "in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families" but that gap had widened to nine times as much in 2007.  The comment of one author of that study, Frank Furstenburg, suggests that the divide is cultural as well as material: “The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation.”  (I am reminded of the distinction that Joan Williams describes in her 2010 book between parenting styles of the affluent and the working class, the former fostering self-actualization and the latter self-discipline).

The gap between rich and poor is also reflected in college completion rates.  A University of Michigan study considered two cohorts of students.  Students in the first were born between 1961 and 1964, and students in the other were born between 1979 and 1982.  Among upper income students, college completion rates were high for both generations, but they increased significantly over time.  About a third of the upper income students in the first cohort completed college, but more than half of the latter cohort did so.  Among low-income students, however, the rates of college completion were much, much lower--at 5% for the earlier cohort, 9% for the latter.

Most studies that Tavernise discusses suggest that lower-income children and youth are held back educationally by a combination of the fiscal and cultural consequences of being lower income.

One thing increasingly clear from our nation's newfound attention to class divisions is that the divide is grounded more in educational disparities than in any other single factor, e.g., income, parental occupation.   Educational access is thus critical to class migration--to access to the rarefied upper middle class.  Yet other studies remind us that--contrary to assertions like that of Murray that the cognitive elite get ahead because of their high IQs--"wealth, race and schooling are more important to the inheritance of economic status, but IQ is not a major contributor."  (Bowles & Gintis 2002).  Other studies tell us that income is a better predictor of college completion than are test scores.

These studies highlight another cost of the class divide: precious human capital.  And that loss should concern every American in this highly competitive, global economy.

Here's a provocative piece about the class divide in the particular context of fine dining--the affluent diners on one side of the kitchen door, the working class kitchen staff on the other.  It also features the story of restauranteur Barbara Lynch's class migration; she grew up the daughter of a taxi driver.

Cross-posted to ClassCrits and SALTLaw Blog.

June 15, 2011

Under-educated State Legislatures? (Part I): Do They Explain Funding Cuts to Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education this week released data summarizing the tertiary education (or lack thereof) of state legislators across the country.  An interactive map is available here, permitting you to see the percentage of lawmakers in each state who attended college, completed college, and/or completed a graduate or professional degree.  The map also tracks whether lawmakers attended public schools or private ones, and it features some data about whether they went to college within their state or outside it.

The big headline is that about 75% of all state lawmakers have four-year college degrees, compared to 94% of those serving in the U.S. Congress.  The percentage of state legislators with such a degree varies considerably by state, however, from a high of 89.9% in California to a low of 53.4% in New Hampshire (where the Chronicle acknowledges it had greatest difficulty verifying educational attainment of the numerous legislators, who serve part time for just $100/year!).  South Carolina leads states in percentage of lawmakers who attended some college but did not receive degrees (97.7%), while Arkansas makes the poorest showing on this metric, with only 67% of its legislators having completed any college at all.  Stated another way, that means that a full third of Arkansas’s lawmakers have only a high school diploma.

The New York Times reports that the Chronicle’s editor, Jeffrey J. Selingo, explained that the publication decided to gather the data “after hearing complaints from college administrators that they were losing state aid and scholarship money because legislators had never been to college themselves and did not understand higher education.”  What they found, however, is that “even in statehouses with an abundance of college degrees, ‘that doesn’t necessarily translate into higher support for higher institutions.’”

While this Chronicle data may not easily explain recent and often precipitous drops in public funding for higher education, they are interesting for so many reasons—not least because they can provide insights about class, budgeting priorities and law-making.  The significance of state-controlled spending in comparison to federal spending has increased dramatically in this era of devolution, so we should care more about the decisions being made by state legislatures—and about the profiles of those who are making them.  Over the course of several posts, I am going to discuss a few reasons why critical class scholars should be interested in the Chronicle’s  findings.

First, education level is often considered the single best proxy for class.  In particular, having earned at least a bachelor’s degree is generally seen as the broad and fuzzy dividing line between the upper/professional/managerial class on the one hand, and the lower middle class/working class on the other.  To the extent that more than a handful of legislators in a given state do not have college degrees, then, critical masses of lawmakers of different classes are serving together.  We well-educated folks might initially shudder that so few legislators have college degrees, especially in states where the less educated comprise a significant minority.  But if a critical mass of working-class folks are present in statehouses, this is surely a good thing in the sense that it makes these legislatures more truly diverse and representative of the state’s populace.   After all, just about 28% of U.S. residents have a bachelor’s degree or better, which means that people without four-year degrees represent a much larger faction of each and every state’s population than do those with college degrees.  So, if each state’s better educated lawmakers must rub elbows, negotiate and compromise with some less-educated colleagues—colleagues who in many instances are also sure to be less affluent—this cannot be all bad. It seems more likely that a range of views and life experiences are represented.   Indeed, this related Chronicle story features an interview with Maine lawmaker, Emily Ann Cain, a part-time administrator at the University of Maine who holds a Masters from Harvard.  Cain explains the opportunity represented by such cross-class interaction:

 Ms. Cain, 30, says her background gives her insight into a world too often misunderstood by other legislators. … ‘The stereotype is that faculty members are aloof, ivory-tower people who work on problems that don't concern average people in Maine,' she says.

But she doesn't have a bias against representatives without degrees. In fact, she says, state legislatures ought to comprise members with a wide array of backgrounds—small-business owners, millworkers, union leaders—including people from fields or career paths that may not require education beyond high school.

Ms. Cain provided an example of her efforts to bridge the divide between her legislative colleagues and her academic ones:  Last year, when a Maine legislator was pushing for legislation to eliminate gender studies programs from public universities, she changed his mind by sending him information on the importance of these programs.  Ms. Cain calls for legislators with expertise in education to reach out to "education skeptics."

A number of state legislators interviewed for the same piece reiterate the value of diversity of viewpoints and experiences.  But then, it would not be politic for well-educated legislators to suggest that their less educated colleagues add no value, which would highlight the ivory tower phenomenon.  Perhaps more persuasive for intellectuals are the views of four highly educated academic types interviewed for this related Chronicle story.  Most acknowledge that a college degree is hardly indispensable for serving a legislature and that many skills learned outside college contribute to lawmakers’ effectiveness.

In future posts, I plan to discuss elitism in education as related to state law-makers; rural-urban differences and education levels among state legislatures; and some unanswered questions these data raise.

Cross-posted to ClassCrits 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.