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March 13, 2018

Elite hypocrisy about working class white and rural folks? The case of the West Virginia teachers strike

I've been keeping an eye on elite bashing of working class and rural whites for years now, and I published my first article about it as long ago as 2011.  But the election of 2016 brought the disdainful badmouthing by the chattering classes to a fever pitch, and I've occasionally blogged about the phenomenon, including here and here.  


One "series" I see on Twitter begins:  "And in today's episode of:  I Bet I Know Who You Voted For..." That is the common  preface to re-Tweets of headlines that could previously have appeared in the "Darwin Awards" or perhaps the petty crime pages of a local paper.  I'm pasting one below.  It re-Tweets a Fox News Tweet that reads "Substitute allegedly brought boxed wine to school, vomited in class."


Another re-Tweets this Fox News Tweet:  "Woman charged with choking teen for blocking view at Disney fireworks show."


On a related note, here's an item from Instagram just a few days ago, from the account called guerrillafeminism that reads "happy international women's day except the 53% of white women who voted for trump."


Pat Bagley, the cartoonist for the Salt Lake City Tribune (whose work I greatly admire, by the way--both cartoonist and paper), has referred to Trump's "idiot followers."  I could provide many more illustrations of this phenomenon.  


With that background, you can imagine my surprise--but also delight--when I saw this Tweet from Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, which bills itself as an

independent nonpartisan policy institute that is dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas, as well as strong leadership and concerted action. Our aim is not just to change the conversation, but to change the country.

Despite the "nonpartisan" billing, I see Center for American Progress as clearly left leaning (a good thing in my book!).  Tanden's Tweet reads:

The teachers of West Virginia are heroes.  They deserve good pay and a real raise.  I stand with them. 


Now, I don't recall any past Tweets by Tanden blasting Trump supporters, though I do recall some highly critical of Trump.  That's fine by me.  It's a line I've drawn myself--at least in the last year or so (I was a bit less discriminating--a bit more knee jerk--as I reeled in the wake of election of 2016, and I sent off some angry, pejorative Tweets about Trump supporters as a monolithic group).  I now readily take aim at Trump but try to be more thoughtful and circumspect re: Trump supporters.  I'm looking to understand them, trying to listen empathically. (I've got a whole law review article forthcoming about female Trump supporters, delivered as the key note address at the Toledo Law Review symposium in October, 2017,  The Women Feminism Forgot:  Rural and Working Class White Women in the Era of Trump.  I hope to have the text posted soon on my page).


But the bottom line is that some things I saw on Twitter about the West Virginia teachers--many sympathetic comments of the sort Tanden shared--had me wondering if the lefties doing this Tweeting realized that many of the folks they were lauding and advocating for had no doubt voted for Trump.  That is, these newfound labor heroes with their wild-cat strike were one and the same with (many) reviled Trump voters.  Some 68% of West Virginians voted for Trump!  Could I possibly be seeing praise for these women--praise from the left?   These are the same women that many lefties on Twitter have said "get what they deserve" if they lose their healthcare (thanks to Trump's effort to dismantle Obamacare) or face further economic decline (thanks, for example, to the long-term consequences of Trump's tax reform law).


(Btw, I was at an Appalachian Justice symposium at West Virginia University College of Law in Morgantown from Thursday Feb. 22 'til Saturday Feb. 24th, and I got to see the teachers picketing--and hear the honking in support--first-hand, which was pretty cool.  One of my favorite signs, this published in the Washington Post, is here) 


Michelle Goldberg, a relatively new columnist at the New York Times who is writing a lot about gender issues, offered up this column under the headline, "The Teachers Revolt in West Virginia."  She called the strike "thrilling," noting that strikes by teachers are unlawful in West Virginia, which became a right-to-work state a few years ago, and where unions do not have collective bargaining rights. Yet, Goldberg writes,

teachers and some other school employees in all of the state’s 55 counties are refusing to return to work until lawmakers give them a 5 percent raise, and commit to addressing their rapidly rising health insurance premiums.

Goldberg further explains that the "obvious impetus" for action is West Virginia's awful pay of teachers, which ranks 48th in the nation (read more analysis here).  She also discusses the critical role that health care/health insurance plays in the labor dispute:

 In the past, solid health care benefits helped make up for low wages, but because West Virginia hasn’t been putting enough money into the state agency that insures public employees, premiums and co-payments have been increasing significantly.  

Ah, there's that health care problem again, by which I mean you should read this and this, among other sources cited and discussed in that forthcoming Toledo Law Review article. 


Having pored over many, many mainstream media reports of white working class Trump supporters in places like Appalachia (you guessed it, all discussed in that Toledo Law Review article!), I was struck that the women Goldberg identified and interviewed did not appear to be Trump supporters.  Quite to the contrary, these women are held out as having responded to Trump's election by becoming part of what is popularly known as "the resistance." I was delighted to learn about and hear from these women, but was Goldberg unable to find any Trump supporters among the striking teachers?  I would very much have liked to have heard their attitudes about the strike, also in relation to their support for Trump.  Did they reconcile the two?


Here are excerpts/quotes about the two women Goldberg did feature, Jenny Craig, a special education teacher from Triadelphia (population 811, northern panhandle) and Amanda Howard Garvin, an elementary art teacher in Morgantown (third largest city in the state, home of WVU):

Craig described the anti-Trump Women’s March, as well as the explosion of local political organizing that followed it, as a “catalyst” for at least some striking teachers.

Goldberg quotes Craig:  

You have women now taking leadership roles in unionizing, in standing up, in leading initiatives for fairness and equality and justice for everyone.

Goldberg also quotes Garvin:

As a profession, we’re largely made up of women. ... There are a bunch of men sitting in an office right now telling us that we don’t deserve anything better. 

Oh how I LOVE that quote, not least because it evinces a feminist consciousness.  In the wake of Trump’s election, Garvin added, women are standing up to say: 

No. We’re equal here.

I sure hope Garvin is right that the sentiment and movement are as widespread as she suggests--and as Goldberg implies.  If this is accurate, liberal elites--including feminists--will have to give Craig, Garvin and so many more like them their due.  (Indeed, teacher strikes may be in the works in the equally "red" states of Oklahoma and Kentucky, too).  That will challenge deeply entrenched stereotypes about folks from this region (read more here and here), which will in turn serve all of us quite well.  


By the way, the strike succeeded, with the teachers getting what they held out for.  You can find more exciting coverage of the West Virginia teachers strike herehere and here.  And don't miss this by WVU Law Professor and education law expert, Joshua Weishart.  


The question that all of this leaves me with is this:  What can the WV teachers strike teach us about how to build and sustain cross-class coalitions, including among whites?  How can these intra-racial coalitions interface with cross-race coalitions for even stronger pacts among progressives? And what role will gender play in that coalition building?  


Other hopeful news of change in relation to women and the national political landscape is herehere and here.  


March 4, 2016

Outcome of FBI fight with Apple will affect your privacy

Cross-posted from the Sacramento Bee.

The legal dispute between the FBI and Apple over a locked iPhone is clouded in technical details that are hard for many to understand, an unclear area of law, and a terrible tragedy in San Bernardino that provokes unease and fear.

To make matters worse, the FBI and Apple are engaged in a very public battle using open letters, blog posts and hearings before Congress with terms like patriotism, marketability and backdoors.

The outcome of the case will affect everyone's ability to keep their personal information safe on their smartphones and all their electronic devices. And it will test what limits exist on the government's ability to force unwilling and innocent third parties to help it investigate crime.

A federal judge has issued an order forcing Apple to help the FBI "unlock" the iPhone used by Syed Farook, who with his wife Tashfeen Malik, shot and killed 14 people and seriously wounded 22 in the December attack in San Bernardino.

The issue is not whether Apple should help the government in its criminal investigations; the Cupertino-based company has assisted the government many times in the past, and even in this particular investigation. Instead, Apple objects to the order issued by the judge because of the unusual nature of the request.

The government is asking Apple to create something that does not now exist: a custom-built version of Apple's operating system that would sidestep security features on the iPhone.

Without Apple's assistance, the FBI claims that it is unable to access information that exists only in the phone itself. In addition, because the iPhone would not accept this customized software update without Apple's digital signature - which would otherwise vouch for the software's trustworthiness - the court order compels Apple to do this, too.

How does this affect you? If Apple is forced to create the means to hack into its own products, the issue does not end with this case. As FBI Director James Comey confirmed in his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, there are other phones that the government would like Apple to unlock.

Local police departments are also eager to seek similar orders from Apple if it loses the San Bernardino case. Indeed, the prospect of forcing Apple to create a permanent in-house hacking department for police purposes was one of the reasons a federal magistrate judge in New York on Monday denied the government's request to compel Apple to unlock an iPhone in a different criminal case involving a drug investigation.

Once Apple creates the means to bypass the security features it has created to ensure the security of the information on its phones, that software will be prized not only by law enforcement officials, but also by organized crime rings, identity thieves and foreign intelligence agencies. That's where all of our interests come in.

As the U.S. Supreme Court described them recently, smartphones could easily be described as "cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers" - all at the same time.

That leads to the second issue: the extent to which the government can force an innocent third party to create something for law enforcement purposes.

In the San Bernardino case, the government relied upon the All Writs Act of 1789, a federal law intended to provide courts with the power to issue orders to carry out their duties. The act allows a court to issue orders that are "necessary or appropriate" when "agreeable to the usages and principles of law." No one is quite sure what the outer limits of the act may be, but the Apple case is testing those limits.

Does this include the power to force Apple to create an iPhone hack?

Comey, the FBI director, argues that the San Bernardino tragedy demands it. The problem is that we don't think of law enforcement power simply in terms of its objectives or the gravity of the crime in question. In our legal system, we take the reasonability of the means into account. If Apple is compelled to do this in a terrorism investigation, must it also do so in a drug case? A prostitution case? A delinquent property tax case? What the government seeks, in the words of one friend-of-the-court brief filed by a group of technology companies Thursday, is a demand "unbound by legal limits."

The extraordinary law enforcement means of today, if left unchecked, become the routine methods of tomorrow. And if the government is permitted to compel a technology company to create deliberate vulnerabilities in a phone today, very soon it may apply that power to the growing Internet of Things: the world of Internet-connected "smart" thermostats, televisions, toothbrushes and even Barbie dolls.

Apple's loss may mean that the FBI could one day force a company to deliver malicious security updates to one of the many smart devices you will own. These are products of convenience, not general consent to government surveillance. Do we want this case to pave the way for routine compulsion of private companies to watch us through our connected devices?

We should expect that the FBI and every other law enforcement agency would want to try every means necessary to prevent and investigate crime. But when those means exact a heavy cost upon our information security and privacy, we've struck the wrong bargain.


April 2, 2014

From Anti-drone Burqas to Face Cages: What Artists Are Showing Us about Surveillance and the Law

Cross-posted from The Life of the Law.

Remember pagers? As outdated as they seem now, these were once seen as the technological tool of choice for drug dealers (to say nothing of doctors). The police also used to rely on “bumper-beepers” to track suspects in criminal investigations. There has always been an arms race of technology in crime and policing.

Today, most people have some passing familiarity with the rapidly changing world of surveillance: the revelations about the NSA’s bulk phone metadata collection, the emergence of unmanned drones, and the growing sophistication of biometric technology.

The problem is that most people aren’t well-versed in the Fourth Amendment’s third party doctrine, or the “business records” provision of the Patriot Act. The complexity of the law in these areas–and the fact that the concepts aren’t that intuitive–makes public debate about the appropriate scope of government surveillance difficult.

That’s where the artists come in.

There are a small but growing number of visual artists and designers who have raised questions about the tools of government surveillance in direct, provocative, and accessible ways.

Case #1: Brooklyn-based designer Adam Harvey has created a series of wearable objects that draw attention to the tools of mass surveillance. His Stealth Wear line of “anti-drone” clothing is made of a special fabric intended to thwart thermal imaging devices that could be mounted on unmanned police surveillance drones. (The FAA is in the midst of crafting regulations for a future in which unmanned drones will occupy our public airspace.) The state of the law on drones is changing. Although the Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment cases probably don’t require the police to obtain a warrant for their use, many state legislatures are considering statutory limits. What Harvey’s work highlights in a direct and arresting way, however, is that the prospect of sophisticated eyes in the skies might force us to change our public habits, even our clothing, if we wish to retain some anonymity or privacy.

Case #2: The police and Facebook alike are becoming interested in the capabilities of facial recognition technology. This biometric computer software can scan a picture of a face and compare it to a database of stored information. The computer algorithms in the software typically focus on the areas around the eyes, nose, and mouth. Artist Zach Blas’s Face Cages takes this idea and makes it literal: a painful metal mask that represents the areas targeted by facial recognition technology. Scanning faces in a crowd, like the use of unmanned drones in public spaces, is a murky legal area. The Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment cases probably don’t provide individual protections against these biometric technologies. But Blas’s work suggests how such technologies may be “trapping” us in ways that nevertheless threaten widely held beliefs about privacy.

Case #3: New York based artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Stranger Visions project takes on another cutting edge technology: the growing capacity of government to collect and analyze our genetic information. The art involves extracting DNA from discarded items Dewey-Hagborg finds in public spaces, such as cigarette butts and chewing gum. She then has the DNA extracted from these discarded items analyzed for specific genomic sequences associated with physical traits like hair and eye color, and creates life-size three dimensional masks of the persons she has “identified” from their garbage. Dewey-Hagborg’s faces are a best guess about the source of the DNA (although a recent scientific paper suggests that predictive modeling based on unidentified DNA samples could one day soon be a reality). The point isn’t accuracy, though. The Stranger Visions project asks us to confront directly how we feel about the fact that we are leaving genetic information behind everywhere we go. Should that information be considered as devoid of privacy expectations as the literal trash we throw away? Do we feel comfortable that third parties—both governmental and commercial—might be able to identify who we are from our genetic traces? The law here, too, is unclear at best.

Enormous technological changes are making it possible for us to be identified, watched, and listened to in ways that were once unimaginable. What we should do about these changes is difficult because the surveillance is sometimes surreptitious, often complicated to understand, and undetermined with regard to is regulation.

Art has the power to question, provoke, and reveal new truths to us. These artists are opening up the conversation about the place of surveillance and the law in our lives to anyone willing to watch and to listen.

Feature photo: Anti-drone burqa, Adam Harvey

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
August 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted to SALTLaw Blog and Legal Ruralism.

August 17, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted to SALTLaw Blog and Legal Ruralism.

June 25, 2010

Taking Rural People Seriously. Not.

Parthenon General Store, Parthenon, Arkansas
(not a Census Designated Place and has no Wikipedia entry)
Photo © Lisa R. Pruitt

I started writing about rural people and places in relation to the law a few years ago, motivated in part by their near total absence from legal scholarship.  I grew up in a very rural corner of Arkansas, where most of my family of origin still lives, and it struck me that lives like theirs (and formerly mine) were largely unseen and unacknowledged by legal actors at scales other than the most local (and sometimes even by those, e.g, the Sheriff).  Rural residents comprise nearly 20% of our nation's population, but they are a forgotten fifth whose lives are in many ways different to what has become a presumptive but rarely expressed urban norm in legal scholarship.   (Katie Porter's work on bankruptcy in rural contexts is an important exception).  I started studying the legal relevance of rurality about a decade ago, and I have found so much to say that I have published only within the sub-discipline I call "law and rural livelihoods" since 2006.   I expect to spend the rest of my career exploring rural people as legal subjects and rural places as context, even if it sometimes feels as if I am writing my way into the very obscurity associated with rurality itself.

It is not surprising, then, that as a consumer of legal scholarship I find myself looking for rural people, for acknowledgment of rural difference, rural context, rural society.  Of course, rural-urban difference is not relevant to every legal issue or every piece of legal scholarship, but from time to time I come across a law review article that seems to cry out for some acknowledgment of rurality.   That happened last week when I saw on an essay by Jonas Lerman titled "Food Fights and Food Rights:  Legislating the 'Delicious Revolution.'"  Lerman's abstract states in part:

This Essay explores some of the civil rights and human rights dimensions of American food policy.  In particular, the Essay examines the weaknesses in America’s school lunch programs, and the problem of “food deserts” – the dearth of grocery stores and farmers’ markets in

America’s poor and nonwhite urban neighborhoods. These are complex problems, involving powerful agricultural interests, difficult public health questions, urban planning, and civil rights.

This is a nicely written manuscript about important issues that get surprisingly little attention in legal scholarship:  agricultural policy, food, and child nutrition.  But I was surprised and disappointed that in 51 pages, Lerman does not use the word "rural" a single time.   Nor does he use the word "nonmetropolitan."  The word "urban," on the other hand, appears thirteen times (more if you count the footnotes).  He talks about farmers' markets, farm policy, the Farm Bill, Farmer Barack, and occasionally plain old farmers,  but he doesn't mention the fact that a whole lot of food is grown in rural and/or nonmetropolitan areas.  He talks about what is good for cities and urban children without acknowledging rural children, their families, their nutritional needs or their communities.

On the one hand, Lerman's use of the modifier "urban" can be seen as progress.   That is, by specifying urban people and contexts, he is at least not pretending to refer to all children when his real focus is those who live in cities.  There is precision and honesty in this.  Unlike many legal scholars, he is not merely assuming the urban; he's expressing it.

Now, I do understand that urban ag, slow food, and Alice Waters are hot topics these days.  I also appreciate that even (or especially!) law review articles need a little marketing.  Still, given that food insecurity and child obesity are as much rural problems as urban ones and given agriculture's importance to rural economies, I would expect rurality might play at least a cameo role somewhere in the discussion.  (Read more about rural food insecurity and food deserts here here, and here.)

A few days after seeing Lerman's essay, I came across Katharine Baird Silbaugh's article,  "Sprawl, Family Rhythms and the Four-Day Work Week."   Rural people and places are more visible here, even garnering a mention in the abstract.  Here's an excerpt:

This Article seeks to highlight some of the institutional practices that influence the adoption of a four-day work week, particularly those associated with sprawl. It compares the reform to school districts that operate a four-day school week as a cost-saving measure. School systems choose a four-day week because they are rural and long distances create particularly serious time and transportation costs. This comparison helps to reveal the role sprawl and its impact on commutes plays in the four-day work week reform.

Professor Silbaugh uses "sprawl" as it is most commonly used now, to refer to a metropolitan phenomenon.  Fair enough.  Of course, the word sprawl is also an accurate descriptor of the lay of the land in rural areas.  That is, one defining characteristic of rurality is low population density--residents far flung across often vast spaces.  Kudos to Professor Silbaugh for seeing this link and acknowledging what might be seen as a rural "solution" to dealing with spatially dispersed populations:  the four-day school week.  What Professor Silbaugh doesn't do (presumably because her focus is the role that "urban sprawl plays in generating worker demand for a compressed work week and citizen demand for extended service hours") is acknowledge that the four-day work week (along with the upsides and downsides she identifies) would have similar impacts on rural families.  Not only must rural children traverse great distances to get to school, rural women (and men) must traverse them to get to work.  In fact, the rate at which rural mothers work outside the home is higher than that for their urban counterparts!  Read more here.

Of course, I appreciate (and greatly enjoy myself) the latitude that legal scholars enjoy to define their research agendas and to state the parameters of each article.  It's easy for a reader to say, "but what about ...."   Those "what about" questions can can go on endlessly, and they get in the way of the laudable goal of writing shorter law review articles.  Nevertheless, some legal issues cry out for an acknowledgment of rural difference.   Authors might ask how a given law would affect rural residents?  or whether a law would operate in the same way in rural places?

Taking our nation's rural population seriously is perhaps too much to ask as we move into the second decade of an increasingly metro-centric 21st century.  But we could at least acknowledge the very existence of rural people and places more often than we do.  In the context of legal scholarship, surely the rural experience is worth at least an occasional law review footnote.  Progressive legal scholars, who generally seek to be inclusive, could start with that.

Cross-posted at