“American Inequality” in a time of crisis

It’s a sad “truism” of the U.S. past:

  • In the decades following the conclusion of the Civil War, as the South struggled to regain its economic footing and the expansion of industrial capitalism forever changed the way the American public related to work, the rise of new systems of racial segregation emerged to regulate the advancement of blacks in Southern society [source].
  • In the 1930s, amid the economic turmoil and uncertainty of the Great Depression, an estimated 1 million ethnic Mexicans were “repatriated” to Mexico. Rounded up into cattle cars, they left the U.S. with what they could carry, leaving behind their once vibrant dreams of prosperity for hard work. Shockingly, one in every four of those relocated were legal U.S. citizens, either by birth or naturalization [source].
  • A decade later, as the U.S. responded to the bombing of Pearl Harbor with its full participation in the Second World War, more than 110,000 ethnic Japanese were forcibly relocated to camps in remote spots throughout the nation. They were called many things, but they were “concentration camps,” where people found themselves imprisoned for nothing other than the “color of their skin.” A majority of those imprisoned were U.S. citizens; almost two-thirds were under the age of 18 years [source].

As the above examples—and the historical record—substantiate, in moments of profound crisis American society has used “race” to stabilize itself.  For centuries, whether during wars, economic downturns, or social upheaval, varied forms of “white supremacy” have represented a fallback position for the nation.

Of course, that is not to suggest, conversely, that eras of prosperity are times of racial equality.  A racism based on white supremacy has been the political and cultural default of U.S. society for most of its two centuries.  The process of reinvigoration taking place in times of crisis has also served to sustain the broader schema of racial advantage and disadvantage by creating new ways of sustaining inequality.

That is also not to say there aren’t exceptions.  Last November, when Americans chose Barack Obama to serve as President of the United States, many celebrated the “historic” election as evidence this history was, finally, “behind us.” “It’s the second Emancipation Proclamation,” said one scholar, in reference to the 1863 document in which President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves [source], while a CNN political analyst declared it “the passing of an old order” [source]. Speaking for many in her generation, a 50-year old woman proclaimed “It’s like Martin Luther King’s dream coming true” [source].  Even supporters of the opposition party expressed an optimistic tone.  Said one, “My sincere prayer is that we can finally all live together without the heavy baggage of the past weighing us down” [source].

Less than a year later, what do we have?  A groundswell of people in fear of losing their jobs.  Already, 9.7% of Americans are out of work (15.9% of black Americans; 12.5% of Latinos) [sources].  Two wars continue to be waged in the name of this country, with more and more men and women returning to the front lines, a sanctioned trauma we are choosing to ignore.  And a growing number of people now owe more on their home than it is worth on the open market.

And people showing up at Presidential rallies with guns, characterizing Obama as Hitler, labeling him everything from a fascist to a socialist—all for proposing to give health insurance the poorest of Americans.  Others questioning his legal birth in this country, even though mountains of evidence prove it beyond any measure of rational thought.

Americans move to their “comfort zone” in times of crisis.  We put on our sweats, make a big bowl of mac ‘n cheese, and sit in the big chair in the living room.  And then we’re afraid.  And then we’re angry.  And then…

Well, you get the picture.


A Wake Up Call for “White Americans”

Earlier this month, I came across the article “What happened to post-racial America?” by Politico’s Roger Simon. You can find it here.

I’ve been reading the article a bit here and a bit there for the past week or so, finding it useful to a small project I’m writing for a foreign audience. At first read, I found it to be reflective of the kinds of thinking that (I feel) predominate in mainstream, liberal, political discourse. It was naïve, but clear about how some of that naïveté was constituted. It was focused on a simplistic measure of “racial reconciliation,” but also a simplistic measure of the facts of its nonexistence.

It wasn’t until tonight that I thought it might also be read as a small step for one political Liberal in his course of individual liberation from what was famously termed by one author as “personal whiteness.” Roger Simon writes the following in reference to the famous July 2008 cover of the New Yorker:

The cover succeeded (at least to me) in being so absurd that it poked fun of the people who believed the Obamas were dangerous, traitorous or foreign. As David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, said at that time, the cover “combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are.”

Today, those “obvious distortions” plus new ones get serious hearings on talk radio and cable TV. Today, posters mysteriously appear on the streets of Los Angeles depicting Obama as the white-faced Joker from Batman with the single word “socialism” beneath his face.

Simon’s reflection here is a good sign of progress. While he doesn’t demonstrate any profound measure of empathy—a form of critical thought that would have initially necessitated understanding, first, how others might have objected to the cover back in July 2008—he does show the same consequence. Here, as in other sections, he portrays race and racism in the U.S. as more complex than simple.

While his final measure of equality still revolves around the seductive “representation” (the problem that constitutes the very question he asks in the title to his piece) the fact of the limits of racial justice in the present moment could have a positive result was satisfying.

It’s sad people have to see what people of color have known for a long time; but it’s nice more people are once again seeing it.

What is the “truth” about teen pregnancy and Latinas?

A couple of years ago, I started seeing some online news articles reporting on the rate of teenage pregnancy among Latinas.  What jumped out at me were the figures: over 50% of teenage Latinas, these articles claimed, had unplanned pregnancies.

Why did I find this startling? Well, as a Latino who knows lots of Latinas (many of whom are teens and many more who were) I just didn’t see this number playing out in real life.  Even in the grocery stores and shopping centers of East L.A., I never saw anywhere close to half of the teenage population of Latinas having babies.  Having family members who work in inner-city, Latino dominant schools, I also knew they didn’t see these kinds of figures playing out before them either.

The lesson here is, if the figures seem unbelievable, they probably are.

I am a historian, not a demographer or a public health official, but here is what I know.

1. The article I first saw, and ALL of the rest who cited this outrageous figures, got that figure from an organization called the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.  This organization seems to be good and interested in promoting both meaningful solutions to major social conditions and the creation of sound public policy, but that’s all I know about them.  That, and they have a board made up of high profile, though largely non-scholarly, figures.

2. The organization does not make it easy to find their facts and figures, but when I find similar numbers in their reports it is not accompanied by a methodology of a) what data they collected; b) how they collected it, and; c) how they analyzed it.  For other documents they produce, their data is collected by extrapolating from phone surveys and the like.

3. When you go the “Hispanic” data provided by the Office of Minority Health & Health Disparities, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control of the federal government, and you look at their most recent reports (like table 5 on this page) you do NOT get anywhere close to the same figures as are reported by the above “campaign.”

The OMHD reports that, in 2005, for every 1000 “Hispanic” women between the ages of 15 and 19 there were 183.1 births (statistically).  That’s made up of a the combined rate of births for 15-17 year olds (48.5 per 1000) and 18-19 year olds (134.6 per 1000).  That’s 18.31%.

So What Does This Tell Us?
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy said only that 51% of Latinas will be pregnant—at least once—before they turn 20 years old.

The official government data don’t suggest this is true, but they don’t outright disprove it.  The government (at least in the data I quoted above) only compiles the number of “live births” to “Hispanic” teenagers.  But, unless you think that about 30% of those Latinas resort to abortion, or think that there has been a huge spike in the rates for Latina teen pregnancy on the order of 100% in the last three years, then you have to conclude the figure of 51% is bad.

It’s 18.31% according to official figures for live births, and likely 20-25% or thereabouts for pregnancies overall.

The question then becomes, how can this organization be so off?  Well, there is the possibility they are not.  As I said, I don’t know and can’t seem to find out how they came up with their figure.  The figure may have been misunderstood by some news agency and then promoted virally in news articles over the years.  It may be from some study I don’t know or can’t find.  It can even be from the data I have found, but that I misread.

Or the organization may be wrong of may have been duped.  They frequently cite a study conducted for them, based on the data from a scholarly article published in 2006, “Disparities in Rates of Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, 1994 and 2001” (by Lawrence B. Finer and Stanley K. Henshaw and from Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jun., 2006), pp. 90-96).  I read that article, and it provides figures similar to the above ones from OMHD (although it doesn’t not provide the data for unplanned pregnancies by age and by ethnicity together).  It does not prove the 51% figure. The study they commissioned from this sound scholarly article may have been flawed or, worse, intentionally fabricated.

There could be flaws in my own analysis, too.  As I said, I am just a historian (a damn good one) and not a statistician or public health demographer.

Let me suggest, another possibility: they might think they’re right but just can’t see they aren’t.  When presented with these figures, they might have run with them as a good tool to employ in fighting teen pregnancy overall, and especially within the Latina population.  That is their crusade and purpose.

They never questioned the data because, like many in institutions of power or representative of those institutions, they naturally assumed Latinas are more fertile and experiencing these high rates of teen pregnancy.

I don’t know.  But I’d welcome any suggestions, criticisms, or further information.

Les Paul: the man you didn’t known you had to thank

Les Paul–the man who played the most influential role in the invention and innovation of the electric guitar–died today.  He was 94 years old.

Most of the traffic that comes to this blog is the result of targeted searches. This post won’t rank within the top one million for “les paul” searches today.  The rest of my regular readership are primarily friends and a few former students.  I suspect my friends already know who the man was, as well as his passing, so this is just a quick encouragement to my other readers to go find out more.

This biography from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of which Les Paul was an inductee (1988), is a great start.  This thoughtful and comprehensive obituary by Gibson–the company who popularized the Les Paul model guitar–is also a must read.

Les Paul was one of those people who just about everybody you’ve ever admired in popular music had heard of, even if you hadn’t. The only thing that diminished that trait was the fact that he lived so long, longer than most of the pioneers of modern American music who knew, first hand, the debt they owed to this talented and inquisitive man.

The Manson Murders and a Lawn Jockey

August 9th and 10th mark the anniversary of the killing spree conducted by a bunch of crazies and Charles Manson.  I wasn’t alive at the time, and didn’t really care too much for the re-telling of the story in my youth, and so have little to offer by way of commemoration.

I do have a strange and kitschy connection to the whole thing, though.

A little while after the murders took place, some “unnamed relatives” were doing some drinking in LA, as was typical in those and these days.  While, shall we say, “lit,” they decided to go down to the mansion of Roman Polanski, where Sharon Tate was murdered. They hopped the fence and did nothing of note, except they did leave with a small “lawn jockey” from the property.

The small statue–a racial caricature of a black man dressed as a jockey–had an extended hand on which one could tie the reins of their horse.  After it’s “liberation” from the Polanski-Tate estate, it lived in Lincoln Heights, in Los Angeles, for the next 20 some odd years.  My departed grandpa painted it a few times to give it a less than racially-offensive look.  My fondest memories of the small man are his time guarding his yerba buena garden.

I know where the little guy is today, but I ain’t saying.  Needless to say, what with time and the utter lack of interest within my family, I suspect it will one day find its way to my home.  Until then, just know that he is safe and well-cared for, in southern California, and seemingly unaware of the events of 40 years ago today.

Paul Wasn’t Dead But The Beatles Were Finished

Forty years ago this Saturday, on August 8, 1969, this photograph was taken.


The image served as the cover for the last recorded studio album by The Beatles, Abbey Road, released in the U.S. on October 1, 1969. It is arguably (but closer to indisputably) the most famous album cover photograph in rock history.

The shot was taken by photographer Iain MacMillan, the result of a 10 minute photo shoot session with the band.  They would finish their studio work on the album less than two weeks later.  The four would only be together a few more times in their lives.  Before Abbey Road hit the shelves, Lennon was already touring with the Plastic Ono Band.  When their final album Let It Be was released in spring 1970, McCartney had a solo album released and at least two of the members had suggested the band was done.  They dissolved their business relationship later that year.

I’ll have more to say about the album in October, when the 40th anniversary of the release arrives. Needless to say, it remains one of their most successful, and iconic. As an album, it is my hands-down favorite. In unique and unexpected ways it showcases the talents of each of the four, and that’s not even talking about George Martin, who was behind the controls. The album is something of a disputed artifact within fan and critical circles, seen by some as symbolic of the wave of “overproduction” taking hold of popular music and emblematic of the emerging “progressive rock” movement.

Most famously, of course, the above photograph inspired the “Paul is dead” rumors in late 1969.  The “rumor” began largely after the publication of a joke article written by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour.  LaBour read into every aspect of the photograph, leading others to do the same. The band crossing the street became a funeral procession, with Lennon the clergy, Starr the undertaker, McCartney the deceased, and Harrison the grave digger.  McCartney is carrying a cigarette, and is stepping out of synch with the others.  There’s even more that was said about the license plate of the VW, the cop car, and the back of the album.

When I studied abroad in England in 1992, I bought three posters to hang on my dorm room wall.  One was the picture of Cindy Crawford holding her breasts and looking lovingly into the camera, obligatory for my generation’s adherence to heterosexual norms. One was of Bob Marley’s pained face smoking marijuana, obligatory for being in college.  The other was of the cover of  Abbey Road.

Check out the recently re-released CD of Abbey Road (remastered edition); as for the poster, you can find it here.

A GenX Chicano Reflects on John Hughes

There are flurry of John Hughes remembrances floating around in cyberspace today. I suspect few are surprised. Hughes had a hand in most of the movies GenX folks associate with themselves. Some of his films are the cinematic outlet to our generational struggles, even the voice that helped give them shape and clarity. And we are all over the place on the internet. Between blog posts and tweets, who needs to read a “real” obituary today?

As a young Chicano kid growing up in the greater LA area of the 1980s, John Hughes–through his films–had an impact on me and my sister as well.  He is being famously remembered today as a filmmaker who made movies for our generation, quite literally.  Yet, even in his most productive time, Hughes was understood to be making movies about a segment of the post-boom generation.  His characters and their struggles were almost always framed by a racially-white, suburban, and wealthy reality.

This isn’t a criticism. It just is. To his credit, the limitations of his characters and their surroundings were hardly equal to the limitations of the meaning and significance of his work.  Even though they might have been rich white kids, their experiences had a kind of transcendence to them.  When Hughes incorporated class into his films–most famously in Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club–it served to help broaden the “truth” of what he portrayed.

As these films resonated with my generation, they gained credibility in the public eye. His ability to create those characters who could speak for “all of us” meant Hughes made movies about a generation that helped define who we were to the world.  Before “GenX” was named, before the media and the marketing industries had a firm hold on who we were as people and consumers, John Hughes helped name us as people.

But that doesn’t mean I “related” to everything I saw in a John Hughes film. It’s a little complicated, but for people like me, people whose experiences growing up were not always identical to the ways people understood the “GenX experience,” Hughes and a handful of others helped bridge the gap.  They didn’t do it by reaching out to make movies that incorporated my realities.  They did it by making artifacts that were so culturally powerful and dominant that they created a target for people like me to move toward.  John Hughes provided cultural products that facilitated my assimilation.

That’s the tricky part with popular culture. Like others of my generation, when I saw Hughes’ films I saw and heard my own fears, struggles, inadequacies, and strengths.  When he crafted teenage characters that thought and acted like adults, that struggled with love and being loved, who were nerds and geeks and wanted to remain true to themselves, when he did all of this and more, I could relate.  But he also created characters that were so powerful and so popular that even when I couldn’t relate I tried. Or is it that I couldn’t resist?

I don’t think the Chicano experience is unique here, just particular. I’m sure Hughes’ films were the same for other Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and even a lot of white kids.  One of the legacies of providing these kinds of “authentic” depictions of a generation that is not fully understood is that you play a role in defining who they are.  Most baby boomers in the Sixites weren’t radical hippies.  But that minority became the archetype for the entire generation because of their place in the popular media.  For the GenXers, this was both more so and less so.  Hughes had his finger on the pulse of our generation in emotionally significant ways.  There was and is something particular about being a teenager at a time of impending nuclear disaster, the birth of AIDS, and commercial ascendancy of the boomers.  Hughes captured it in words and images.  But we also came of age in a time of profound maturity in the marketplace, when your identity as a consumer became your identity as a generation.  And the illusion of reality in a John Hughes film provided one of many shortcuts to defining our generation before we were ready to be fully defined.

Hughes might be the most prominent voice in the popular culture that told me what it was to be a teenager before I was quite there.  In his films I saw myself, and I saw what “they” were like.  In the end, somewhere in the balance between the two, is me.

The Brewers, the Dodgers, and some old school baseball

The Dodgers are likely moving out of their brief post-All Star break slump.  The best indicators of it are threefold: things are breaking their way in games, even when they lose; they kicked Milwaukee’s butt last night, 17 to 4; and, last night, they made one of the Brewers so mad he had to follow the Dodgers back into their clubhouse after the game to try and find somebody to beat up.

Here’s the full story from today’s LA Times.  The Brewer in question–Prince Fielder–was so pissed off because Dodger reliever Guillermo Mota pegged him in the thigh with a pitch–in the ninth inning of this Dodger blowout–apparently in retaliation for the Brewer’s pitcher hitting Manny Ramirez in the seventh.

The part I love about the story most is that, yes, that is why Fielder was hit.

After the game, Russell Martin–who came to meet Fielder at the Dodger locker room door–said to the press, “”It’s protection. It’s just about keeping the team unified and pulling the wagons together.”

Now I don’t condone violence or retribution, outside of baseball, but in the game, well, let’s just say there are “rules” you can read in a book and there are “rules” you learn by doing.  And I believe in following rules.

Russell Martin is right, it is about protection and unification.  It is about being a team, and even being little, petty boys who are emotionally invested in being a team.  And it’s old school Dodger baseball, too.  Don Drysdale was a fan of the policy of retribution from the mound, as were generations of Dodgers before him and after.  Even more, it a good sign that the team is strong and healthy in the ways you can’t really measure, and can’t often control, but that you always need going into the final stretch.

This is going to be a fun ride!