Category Archives: racism

Zero Shame Game

At the Washington Post, Patrick Welsh wrings his hands over the more supportive treatment pregnant teens and teen moms are receiving from some school districts. He is dismayed that teen moms are openly flaunting their motherhood.

The somber statistics about teen motherhood are the reason the day-care center, run by the local nonprofit Campagna Center, was opened in T.C. Williams two years ago. The idea is to keep the girls in school, let them get their diplomas and help them avoid the kind of fate described earlier. I’ve been a teacher for more than 30 years, and I want the best for my students and to help them succeed in every way possible. I know that these girls need support. But I can’t help thinking we’re going at this all wrong.

On the surface, Alexandria seems to be striving to stem teen pregnancy. Every high school student is required to take a “family life” course that teaches about birth control, sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy. The Adolescent Health Center, a clinic providing birth control, was built a few blocks from the school. The city-run Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy sponsors workshops for parents and teens. But none of this coalesces to hit the teens with the message that getting pregnant is a disaster. And within the school, apart from the family life class, the attitude is laissez-faire, as if teachers and administrators are afraid to address the issue for fear of offending the students who have children.

Once a girl gets pregnant, though, the school leaps in to do everything for her. But I wonder: Is it possible that all this assistance — with little or no comment about the kids’ actions — has the unintended effect of actually encouraging them to get pregnant? Are we making it easier for girls to make a bad choice and helping them avoid the truth about the consequences? 

Heavens! Helping people without censuring them? As one nurse observes, “There is zero shame.” Zero shame! Ooooh God, Nooooo! How can we expect people to act more like us responsible middle class types if we don’t instill them with self-loathing?

In fact, as you no doubt suspected, these people are bringing it on themselves. (Aren’t they always, those lazy, shiftless people?) Our anguished writer cites the same school nurse to dredge up the “pregnancy pact” myth spread last Summer by a high school principal in Massachusetts. Say, whatever happened to that story? Oh, that’s right — two weeks after fomented another reason for adults to fear their irrational teens, it was refuted. By the mayor. So whatcha bet that the school nurse in this article has no direct knowledge of such a pact among her students; that she overheard some “buzz” somewhere (conservative talk radio? news headlines next to her email? an opinionated colleague?); and that she parroted this bit of conventional wisdom for the benefit of our gullible writer?

And if you detect a slight trace of racial privilege mingled with the classist overtones, your nose will soon get out of joint. Welsh notes that overall teen pregnancies have dropped significantly:

The birth rate among teens, after falling 36 percent since 1990, went up 3 percent in 2006, the first increase in 15 years. And most of the rise is due to pregnancies among Hispanic girls.

Sensitive liberal guy that he is, Welsh hastens to note that white teens get pregnant, too, but it’s a class thing, and where he lives, class translates into ethnicity. Fair enough. Poverty and disadvantage hit people of color a lot harder than people of, um, non-color. But this is the point where Welsh starts dredging up the “pregnancy pact” myth and quoting high school students of, um, non-color whose disapproval is hard to conceal. These Hispanic teen moms “are living in a dream world” so says a girl in AP English. I was relieved (surprised, too) that Welsh got around to talking to at least one of the young women he spends so much time discussing with other people.

I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit that I’m torn about T.C’s teen moms and the Tiny Titans center. As upset as I get at the recklessness I see in some of the girls and their boyfriends, I can’t begrudge someone like Cynthia Quinteros the help she needs to raise her one-year-old son. “If it wasn’t for the day-care center, I would have to quit school to take care of Angel,” says the 16-year-old. “My mother is a single mom, and my brother is 11. My mom has to work.”

Cynthia’s days are grueling. She gets up at 6 a.m., feeds and dresses Angel and is at school by 7:50. She drops Angel off at the center, eats breakfast in the cafeteria and heads for class. Her mom picks her and the baby up at 3:15 p.m. At home, Cynthia eats, plays with Angel, starts homework and then leaves at 4:50 for her supermarket cashier’s job. She gets home at 10:10, does a little homework and goes to bed.

See? He’s a nice guy! He’s “torn”! He doesn’t “begrudge” Cynthia. He’ll even go into details about her “grueling” day — and, indeed, he chose the right word. But it doesn’t take him long to revert to ethnic stereotypes — and with Cynthia’s corroboration: a lot of her friends “actively tried to get pregnant” (but not Cynthia; she missed a Depo shot one day.) And according to a medical director, “most of these girls and their families see no problem with being unmarried and having a child at 16 or 17.”

Waiting for the “drain on public services” argument? Here it co-oo-omes!

Most of the mothers are in free and reduced school-lunch programs, and few have insurance. So when they get pregnant, a whole tax-supported industry kicks into action: The Health Department assigns a nurse to the girl, a group called Resource Mothers is notified to pick girls up at school or home and drive them to doctor’s appointments, and the Campagna Center plans day care for the child. The school dietitian plans nutritious meals for the mothers. The federally funded WIC program provides free formula, milk, cheese, peanut butter and the like to the teens and their babies. In Virginia, girls from 13 on up are eligible for free reproductive services — prenatal care, hospital visits and delivery.

According to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teen childbearing nationwide cost taxpayers $9.1 billion in 2004. Teens 17 and under — the ages of most of the girls at T.C. — account for $8.6 billion of that total, or an average of $4,080 per teen mother annually.

Welsh repeatedly singles out Latina teens and “the rising birth rate among Hispanics” as sources of trouble for befuddled and overworked social workers, educators and health officials. Get it? They are a burden. They’re a drain on tax dollars that should be going to bailing out the financial industry or failing to reconstruct countries we’ve bombed into chaos and desperation. Damn these poor people and their grubby demands!

Look, no matter what age a woman becomes a mom, our society is not prepared to support the needs of children. Period. If “shame” needs to be directed at anyone, it’s the opponents of universal health care, education and a living wage. It’s the unthinking voters who have consistently clamored for tax cuts and psuedo-patriotic war-mongering. We’re momentarily in a “season of Hope/Change/Transformation/Whatever” but all along there have been these undercurrents of resentment against Hispanics and of frustration with our broken social safety nets. An article like this only feeds the fire.

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Within Glamorous Extremes

Last Tuesday I posted “No Excuses“, a cartoon juxtaposing the post-election meme about African-American possibilities with the realities of systemic racism. Documentarian Byron Hurt recently released “Barack and Curtis: Manhood, Power and Respect”, a ten-minute film making a similar juxtaposition between the success of Barack Obama and the life of another popular black figure, 50 Cent, who has led a more difficult life plagued by crime, drugs and violence. As quoted by Reuters, Hurt recognizes both the difficulties confronting young black men and the hope that Obama’s example inspires among them:

“The only way that he (Obama) can make a substantial change is if he addresses things like poverty and joblessness and those deep pervasive factors that affect black boys and men,” said film maker Byron Hurt.

Even though Obama’s election was not a panacea for black men, the importance of the example he sets could not be underestimated, Hurt said in an interview.

“The boost that he has given black men is more symbolic than anything else,” said Hurt. “But I don’t want to undervalue symbolism and image. When I see images of Barack Obama in a baseball hat taking his daughters to school … that is a powerful image.”

In his film, Hurt shows a wide range of analytic voices commenting on the racist culture that has shaped black male identity, and how everyday black men, poor and middle class, straight and gay, educated and robbed of education, create their identities in response to it. There are more nuances presented here than at first suggested by the dramatic contrast between Obama and 50 Cent, and if you haven’t viewed the film, do so.

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Election Day at Elementary School

To celebrate our democratic ritual, my daughter’s class had cupcakes: chocolate for Obama and, yes, vanilla for McCain. She reports that there were a lot of vanilla cupcakes left untouched.

Not red and blue. Chocolate and vanilla. Even here in über-librul Portland, shit is fucked up.

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In Contempt (8/7/2008): Cards and Whistles

Cards and Whistles reduced image
Click the image to explode it to a massive size.

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The New Yorker Cover — Because Nothing More Important is Going On!

Matt is ranting, Barry is patiently explaining a joke, Ruben is making a fair criticism (though I disagree), and me? I’m with Gary Kamiya:

After 9/11, some pious nitwits, suffering from an America-centrism akin to the medieval belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, intoned that “irony was dead.” Seven years later, they’ve been proven right — but not in the way they intended. Irony may have been killed, but not by sincerity — it’s been killed by cynicism. Vast swaths of the left have apparently been so traumatized by the Big Lie techniques employed by the Bush administration, its media lickspittles like Fox News, and the right-wing attack machine, that they have come to regard all images or texts that contain negative stereotypes as too politically dangerous to run. If you satirically depict Obama as an Islamist terrorist, in this view, you are only reinforcing and giving broader currency to right-wing smears.

Since the essence of satire is exaggerating negative stereotypes, this means that satire itself is off limits. Or, at least, all satire except that which the cowering — but oh so semiotically sophisticated — left-wing commentariat deems to be sufficiently broad-brush and polemical to pass its funny test. There’s no arguing taste in humor, of course, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that those who find Barry Blitt’s drawing completely unfunny have traded their appreciation of subtlety and nuance for an instrumental, ends-obsessed, political-unto-death worldview.

I’m pissed that my copy of the New Yorker bearing the provocative Blitt cover hasn’t showed up in my mailbox yet.

I’m also a bit taken aback by the notion being swung around in some blog comments that only people of color are capable of correctly measuring offensiveness. Certainly white assholes too easily dismiss black folks’ claims of racism when they deserve to be heard. But let’s not overcompensate by granting some magical offensiveness divining power to people from historically oppressed groups. It is possible that a person of color, by virtue of being first and foremost a person —fallible, limited, subjective, feet of clay, etc.— could be wrong. Or that person of color (or not of color, whatever that really means) who are not offended could reasonably disagree.

For the record, irony ain’t dead. It’s been thriving well enough, and this latest sandbox kerfuffle is but a small instance of its vitality.

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Bad Choice of Words

In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News, Ralph Nader criticized Senator Barack Obama for being a typical centrist Democrat, but put his criticism in racially coded terms.

“There’s only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He’s half African-American,” Nader said. “Whether that will make any difference, I don’t know. I haven’t heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What’s keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn’t want to appear like Jesse Jackson? We’ll see all that play out in the next few months and if he gets elected afterwards.”
[… snip … ]
Asked to clarify whether he thought Obama does try to “talk white,” Nader said: “Of course.

“I mean, first of all, the number one thing that a black American politician aspiring to the presidency should be is to candidly describe the plight of the poor, especially in the inner cities and the rural areas, and have a very detailed platform about how the poor is going to be defended by the law, is going to be protected by the law, and is going to be liberated by the law,” Nader said. “Haven’t heard a thing.”

The gist of Nader’s criticism is not off the mark. Like most his fellow Democrats running for the Presidency, Obama has appealled to “middle class” concerns, leaving issues that directly affect the poor out of his speeches. Indeed, for me, my initial preference for John Edwards was based upon his consistent and impassioned discussion of poverty issues. Should Obama win the Presidency, I would like to see him make a cabinet position for Edwards —a “poverty czar” if you will— to implement the reforms necessary to bring Americans out of poverty.

The problem with Nader’s criticism of Obama is in the wording. Does Ralph even know what “talking white” means? Does he not realize that it implies that Obama is merely imitating white speech, and not, say, speaking and writing as the accomplished academic, wordsmith and politician that he actually is?

There are, in fact, two ways one can go with the “talking white” description. The first occurs most often within the urban African American community as an accusation that questions the authenticity of an individual’s blackness, typically in response to either a person’s academic achievement or “biracial” identity. Last year in my daughter’s third grade class a troubled young African American girl who had a tendency to disparage her classmates in racial and ethnic terms accused my “biracial” daughter of “talking white” and “acting white.” This bothered Katie immensely, of course; as a “biracial” kid raised by “whites” she already feels insecure about her identity.*

The second application of “talking white” derives from racist propaganda against the end of slavery and the political participation of African Americans. Basically, racists accuse accomplished African Americans of being “trained monkeys” who have learned how to “imitate” the speech and mannerisms of educated, civilized “whites.”

I have a feeling that Nader was trying to imply the former, but being “white” himself (really, he’s partly of Lebanese origin), he comes off sounding like the latter. Like a surburban “white” boy saying “fo shizzle, my nizzle” Nader sloppily, irresponsibly employs phrases from a culture to which he does not belong and that he really doesn’t understand, and thereby unconsciously reaffirms the racist character of our culture.

Which is unfortunate, because Nader has legitimate criticisms of Obama. But no one is going to listen if he sounds like a clown.

UPDATE: My wife raised another annoying aspect of Nader’s comments that I didn’t grasp right away. Why should Obama’s African American identity automatically require him to address poverty issues? True, poverty and its attendant problems disproportionately affect people of color. But as plenty of conservative African American pundits prove, there is nothing genetic about class issues. As a former community organizer in Chicago’s hard hit working class neighborhoods, Obama could do much more to speak out on issues affecting them. That’s where Obama’s obligations lay.

* If you’re wondering why I am putting terms like “whites” and “biracial” in quotes, it is because I do not accept the premise underlying such concepts. They have no basis in biology, in reality. There is only one race, the human race. “Whites” and “blacks” can breed fertile offspring, for crying out loud. Whitness and blackness are socially constructed cultural norms created to reinforce institutional racism, whereby the ruling class maintains exploitation of the working classes through legal, structural and cultural divisions.

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You Mean, Like Gwen Ifill?

FoxNews commentator (I think it’s Cal Thomas sans mustache) includes Maxine Waters, Cynthia McKinney and news anchors among a list of “angry black women.” Not that I think such a description applies to any of these women (nor, for that matter, Michelle Obama, the subject Thomas discusses), but at least they would have had opportunities to express anger or outrage in a political forum. That’s what politicians do, after all. But when the hell do any news anchors express anger?

Oh, here we go!

Thomas video found via TerrenceDC at Pam’s House Blend, who has some smart observations on this “angry black woman” meme.