On Feminism, Liberals, Black Folks and Antione Dodson

For those who do not know, Antione Dodson is the brother of a potential rape victim. He, his sister [whose name I will not use in this post], her daughter, and his mother lived in low income housing, Lincoln Park,  in Huntsville Alabama until recently. According to Dodson a rapist was targeting Lincoln Park because no one was doing anything about it. He said several young women and girls had been raped, and had either received no assistance or not asked for help because they knew the police were not going to do anything. Dodson also says the same thing happened to his family.

In late July, a rapist broke into their small home through a window and attempted to rape his sister. Dodson managed to scare the assailant and force him out of the apartment. He then called several of his friends in the area to look for the person because, like everyone else, he did not believe the police were going to do anything about an assault in low income housing. Later Dodson called both the Housing Authority Office that runs Lincoln Park and the Police. Hours went by before the police arrived and according to Dodson and others no major search was mounted by them. Also according to Dodson and others, the Housing Authority issued a statement but has made no improvements to security or safety in Lincoln Park to help protect them from being targeted. In fact, an attempted rape following a similar m.o. (rapist came through bedroom window, advanced on girl inside) occurred the following evening.

This story of systematic rape of young black women and girls left to fend for themselves because they are poor and the failure of the police or tax-payed for housing programs to protect them has been totally eclipsed by the spectacle made of Dodson. Dodson’s interview outlining the attempted rape of his sister and the sexual violence and rape other women and girls endured was put on youtube, not to highlight the problem but rather to highlight how “ghetto” and “effiminate” Dodson was. While youtubers across the racial spectrum showed up to laugh, police failed to capture a serial rapist. A white hipster-nerd comedy troupe known as the Gregory Brothers, made up of 3 white men and 1 white woman, recut Dodson’s interview to make “the Bed Intruder Song” which was played on black and alternative radio stations and sold on itunes. The song appeared on Billboard’s hot 100 list and made a considerable amount of money for the Gregory Brothers. As far as I know, none of their proceeds were used to help track down the Lincoln Park rapist. None of the attention the song garnered sparked national outcry about rape, the unchecked rape of low income women, or national feminist rallying around changes in policing and housing options for poor women of color. Nor did many make connections between these erasures and the latent homophobia and gender policing embedded in many of the comments.

In fact, many people have counted the Dodsons as lucky. The attention allowed Dodson to become an internet star and make enough money on interviews and fought for profits from the autotune song to get his family out of low income housing. His sister will not be targeted by the Lincoln Park rapist again. But what about everybody else’s sister? And does moving out of low income housing on an unstable economic source negate the fear and trauma related to the attempted rape of Dodson’s sister that both she and her mother, who witnessed the attack, are now experiencing? To me it seems kind of like the politicians who say “in a way Katrina was a good thing” because of all the services and new construction people received. The idea is predicated on the assumption that black people’s, especially poor black people’s, lives are so worthless that if several of them are tortured, murdered, sexually assaulted, or traumatized, so that 1 or 2 of them can live better lives that is acceptable because those 1 or 2 were never meant to live better lives anyway. Only people who imagine they will never be abandoned by their government to die in a un/natural disaster or be raped or have their children raped in a government funded housing project would imagine that these things are trumped by a few months-1 year of free housing (much of which was contaminated) or a few short months of internet fame.

In the midst of this institutional racism are the actions of three groups that cannot be ignored:

  1. the viewers and listeners who openly mocked Dodson, completely ignoring the rape survivor narrative embedded in his story
  2. the white middle class hipster-nerd comedy troupe that made money off of the rape and attempted rape of poor black women and girls and the one man willing to stand up for them
  3. the mainstream feminist blogs and feminist communities who have remained largely silent on Dodson’s sister despite the core issue of rape

The multi-racial viewers and listeners spent their time laughing at Dodson and mocking him and his sister in print in the youtube comments for days. The video received some of the largest hits of the week when it first went up. The auto-tune version played black radio stations and a black marching band even did their own rendition, laughing at the “ghetto” in ways that I personally cannot excuse as “black humor as survival”. Instead, I would argue for many it represented black humor as classism, homophobia, and internalized hate though some of it was certainly mixed with the understanding of our “throwaway lives” in the United States. Amongst the 100,000s of people commenting on Dodson or the autotune song, very few talked about the heinous act of rape, the existence of a serial rapist in the area that had gone unchecked for an unspecified amount of time, or the engineered tragedy of the state’s willingness to abandon poor women and girls to predators. In other words, the chance to mock an uneducated black man was more enticing than the fact of violence against women and girls. The very thing that allowed systemic racism, classism, and sexism to do nothing about a serial rapist in state owned low income housing was manifesting in individual viewers of Dodson’s story.

Once again, liberal, middle class, white hipster-nerds also failed to act on the tenets they claim to be central to their very beings, ie social justice, in the face of the opportunity to be “clever.” Thus three white men, and one white woman, cut and remixed Dodson’s interview in order to point and laugh at the uneducated black man in crisis. His crisis at not being able to get help for his sister, his sister’s attempted rape, and the targeting of poor black women and girls were either edited out or remixed in order to highlight the “hilarity” of blackness and poverty and for some, gender transgression. Dodson and his sister’s story were pimped out by white liberals for a few bucks a pop on itunes precisely because they fit all of the stereotypes of blackness that liberals are quick to criticize in the mouths of conservatives but embrace as “clever” in their own. (It should be noted that Dodson did eventually receive 50% of the profit after advocating for himself and saying in a radio interview that his words and experience were being used to profit everyone else and it was “time he got paid”. Without this advocacy Dodson, like the Katrina victims whose words were taken without permission to by poet/adjunct Professor Raymond McDaniels for his book Saltwater Empire, would have simply been a cash cow for white male “poets” and “artists”.) Once again, like the systemic racism, classism, and sexism allowing the state to do nothing about a serial rapist, these white liberal hipster-nerds, who no doubt think racism and sexism are wrong and probably volunteer in low income neighborhoods or women’s crisis lines, let the reinforcing image of poor blakness whip them up into such a frenzy of hilarity that it never occurred to them that rape is not funny, that serial rapists targeting black women and girls because the police are doing nothing should not be the subject of comedy but rather social action, and that the real clever thing to do would have been to cut a song that actually highlighted oppression and gave the proceeds back to the impacted community.

Finally, the mainstream feminist blogosphere and national level activists also remained largely silent on the plight of women and girls in Lincoln Park. A quick search of the top feminist blogs and magazines, with blogs, showed that at most, they linked to black women bloggers talking about the situation. At the least, they said nothing or openly laughed at the Dodson video themselves, commenting solely on his patriarchal attempt to recenter himself and his boys protecting his sister rather than her story of rape. And while this critique is important, ie that male rage about rape taking center stage to women’s attacks is a function of patriarchy, I do not think that was the point of Dodson’s larger story. Nor does that critique have the same meaning in the face of complete and total lack of action on the part of the people charged with preventing rape and tracking down/stopping rapists. They did however, contribute some of the most salient critique about gender policing and homophobia when they weighed in. When the critique of masculinity and patriarchy supersede any discussion of state inaction to catch a serial rapist then it seems all the more suspect. Once again, the failure to recognize the humanity of black women and poor women, and especially poor black women, allowed mainstream feminists to miss another opportunity to call attention to violence against women and demand action to make women’s lives safe(r) in this nation by rejecting a culture of violence, oppression, and inequality based on gender. That failure not only colludes with the white male establishment that runs and fails to address rape in low income housing but also looks the other way when middle and upper class white women are beaten, raped, or otherwise abused or treated unfairly or unequally in their workplace, home, or lives.

So what is the lesson of Antione Dodson and his sister. For many people, it will always be that poor “black people are funny”, “white people are clever”, ” ‘girlie men’ are funny”, and the spectacle of blackness is really a benefit in disguise because after all the Dodsons are out of the projects.  Some will even use Antione’s comment that he was happy with the song because the proceeds he received actually helped move his family out of the projects to justify not discussing the intersecting oppressions that puts women and girls in Lincoln Park in danger. Not only does this stance ignore rape and the realities still enduring it but it shows little regard for how earlier interviews underscore Dodson’s hurt and anger about people not taking the situation seriously and making money off of him or the reaction the song itself elicited outlined in this post. (ie people laughing at a story of attempted rape, and a serial rapist that the police and housing authority have made seemingly little effort to track down and stop, is ok because Antione ultimately decided he liked the song for getting him out of low income housing). This narrative will always mask how sexism, racism, and classism allows women, especially poor women of color, to be targets of unchecked violence by both individuals and the state. It will always excuse away liberals who not only do nothing but laugh along with everyone else because “its funny” or “clever” but also helps perpetuate the myth that liberals can’t be racist or sexists or classist. Except, these moments prove that they can be and often are as racist and classist as neo-conservatives. And it will stand as a shining example about how intersecting oppressions and the ongoing failure of the feminist movement(s) to fully and radically address them makes all women’s lives less safe.

And yes, for each of the groups I have singled out here, from black radio to white mainstream feminists, there are people who did stand up against rape, did talk about the intersections of poverty, gender, and state level or state sanctioned violence. My point is not that everyone is evil but that collectively, these particular groups failed to discuss violence against women in favor of laughing at the spectacle of poor blackness that reinforces existing stereotypes and allows state level, systemic, inaction and violence. Nor does the existence of black people behaving in sexist and classist ways negate the existence of white people behaving in racist, sexist, and classist ways.

Here are some links to people discussing what we should all have been discussing these past few months, ie violence against women and the intersections that mask it:

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Color of Change Save Net Neutrality Email Campaign

Worried that the end of net neutrality is the beginning of the official sanctioning of class, race, and location (as in rural vs urban, inner city vs gated community) inequality on the internet? Worried that this will in turn translate to large inequalities in the real world as even the most basic job now requires a large degree of internet savvy? I am. Most of the people who I know, read, or follow on the internet are as well. And if you are, here is your chance to tell Google how much it will cost them to join hands with the oppressor (you know, for those of you who don’t think they already have):

Dear friends,

If you value the free, fair, and open Internet, then you need to act now, before two corporate giants deal it away.

Several news outlets have just reported that Google and Verizon are about to cut a deal that would allow giant corporations to control which websites load slowly, quickly, or not at all. Google used to oppose this kind of corporate control over the Internet, but now it looks like they’re changing their tune. Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil,” but it looks like their pursuit of profit might be getting in the way of living up to that ideal.

Thankfully, it’s not a done deal yet. If enough of us speak out now, we can create enough pressure to get Google to back off this corporate takeover of the Internet. Will you join me in adding your voice, and then ask your friends and family to do the same?

sign petition here

The basic promise of the Internet lies in the guarantee that information you put online is treated the same as anyone else’s information in terms of its basic ability to travel across the Internet. Your own personal website or blog can compete on equal footing with the biggest companies. It’s the reason the Internet is so diverse — and so powerful. Anyone with a good idea can find their audience online, whether or not there’s money to promote the idea or money to be made from it.

This is critical for Black communities and others that have had our voices compromised by corporate-controlled media. For the first time in history we can communicate with a broad audience, educate, politically organize, and create new businesses — without prohibitive costs or mediation by gatekeepers in government or industry. It’s the strength of your ideas, not the size of your budget, that largely determines your success. In television, radio, and print this can’t happen on a large scale because access is determined by big media corporations seeking to turn a profit.

This deal could take the Internet in a different direction. It could end the Internet’s level playing field by allowing rich corporations like Google to pay for faster-loading websites and services. It could destroy the potential for independent voices to compete with giant corporations for an audience — big corporations who can pay for preferential access to Internet users would drown out the smaller voices online. And it could mean that you’ll start getting less Internet service at a higher cost.

We expect the big telecommunications companies to try to stifle freedom and equality on the Internet — they’ve hired an army of lobbyists to do just that. But Google has always said it supports a free and open Internet. Google likes to portray itself as a corporation with principles that go beyond profit, and it would be disappointing to see Google abandon them.

Google has tried to downplay this story. They issued a short, carefully worded statement that says they’re still committed to an open Internet, but they haven’t denied that they are in talks with Verizon to cut a deal that would give corporations more control over Internet traffic.

By speaking out, you can pressure Google to walk away from this deal. But time is running out — please join me in signing ColorOfChange.org’s petition to Google today:

Sign Petition click here

Thanks.

Key Links:

1. “NYT: Google Just Killed Net Neutrality (UPDATING: Google and Verizon Deny Internet Traffic Deal),” Gizmodo, 8-5-2010
http://gizmodo.com/5605310/google-just-killed-net-neutrality

2. “Google and Verizon Near Deal on Web Pay Tiers,” The New York Times, 8-5-2010
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/05/technology/05secret.html

3. “Google, Verizon Try to Shape Net-Neutrality Law,” Wall Street Journal, 8-5-2010
http://bit.ly/bivjd6

4. “Google, Verizon Said to Strike Deal on Web Traffic Rules,” Bloomberg, 8-5-2009
http://bit.ly/diIrZP

One of These Women is Apparently Not Like The Other: Conspicuous Consumption @ the White House

Take a moment to consider the bulk of the news coverage last week. What were some of the top stories that you can remember? It should not take too long for both the name and the image of Chelsea Clinton to float across your memory.

Whether you were one of the people who did not care about the Clinton wedding or one of those who gloried in its every detail, you could not possibly have gotten through last week or even the week before without hearing about the millions of dollars pouring into the former President and Presidential hopeful’s daughter’s wedding. Estimates from legitimate news sources place the wedding cost at between $2 and $5 million.

AP Photo

While Joy Behar stood out for criticizing the conspicuous consumption of politicians and celebrities, while being attacked by her co-hosts, the media party line was that:

  1. the Clinton wedding “created jobs”
  2. the Clintons are “the last of N. American royalty”
  3. the Clintons have money and therefore “every right to spend it however they see fit”

Embedded in these depictions is the celebration of conspicuous consumption during a recession because (1) it’s a wedding, and as long as you are heterosexual the mythos of this country is that you should spare no expense and (2) despite often being the center of much criticism, the Clintons are still white and what rich white people do with their money in this country has largely been off limits for critique unless they are British and go yachting while ruining two nation’s delicate ecosystems with oil. And even then, some people will defend them.

AP Photo/Sergio Torres

The First Lady and youngest daughter, Sasha Obama, went on vacation in Spain this week.  While her trip has certainly received way less fanfare than the Clinton wedding, the people reporting on it have taken an entirely different track than they did with the Clinton’s 2-5 million dollar event.

While the people in Spain celebrated the arrival of the First Lady and her friends, and looked forward to how their visit would likely boost the economy there no similar discussion happened in the U.S. Instead discussion has focused on:

  1. First Lady Obama’s “extravagant wardrobe”
  2. First Lady Obama’s “glitzy” and “extravagant vacation while N. Americans suffer”

While the cost of the trip is unknown it is estimated that the room Michelle and Sasha are staying in costs $2500 a night, or roughly $10,000 total for the 4 days they have been there. Secret Service agents are likely staying in rooms that cost between $500 and $2500 a night.

While the Clintons were praised for generating jobs, The NY Daily News went so far as to refer to the First Lady as “the Material Girl” and “Marie Antionette” who you may recall partied while France descended into abject poverty. The same article implies that the First Lady is “traveling by Air Force 2” as if she takes the plane from the hotel to the shops, hotel to the beach, etc. and not just flew from DC to Spain. Yet the NY Daily News ran no similar article questioning the gas guzzling SUVs that actually did transport the Clinton’s and their Secret Service entourage to the Clinton wedding. (Unlike other vehicles transporting people to the wedding, these cars would have been paid for by tax dollars.) In fact, there was no discussion of how tax payer money went into the Clinton wedding whatsoever because it was understood that the people running our nation need protection, at least as long as they aren’t the Obamas that is. Thus the costs of the Secret Service in Spain is referred to as part of the larger cost in the Obama trip, while the same cost of Secret Service at the Clinton wedding which included protection for the former President, the current Secretary of State, and the Chelsea Clinton herself were not included in the estimates of the Clinton wedding. (The same can be said for the costs associated with guests at the two events. The Clinton wedding paid for food, drink, hotel rooms, and parties said to last until 2 or 3 in the morning for guests but no one counted or repeatedly referred to the number of attendees as a sign of extravagance. The Obama vacation includes 40 guests and each has been counted and recounted with flabbergasted disgust about how much cost they are assumed to be generating. In both cases, the tax payers are not footing the bill but in the latter the media would like you to think so.)

For those keeping up with the coverage of the White House, these disparities are not new. The Obamas are the first, First Family, to have to account for whose money is being spent every time they leave the country. After complaints condemning their first trip, the White House Press Secretary began routinely announcing that the Obamas were spending their own money on all their vacation related expenses for every trip they took. No similar standard was applied to George Bush who not only vacationed often but did so during both internal and external crisis in the country.  Nor was his wife, former First Lady Bush, questioned about her trips with their two daughters. In fact, while First Lady Obama’s trip has been criticized as a “private affair on tax payer’s dime”, something partially caused by the White House Press secretary’s attempts to fend off invasive and condemning reports by saying she has a right to take private vacations with her children, a similar Safari taken by Laura Bush received limited criticism because she made some official visits at the same time. The First Lady also has an official visit on her agenda, but the press are either ignoring this or referring to it as an excuse to deflect her propensity to vacay.

The disparity then stems not from who is spending what but from the perception of legitimacy. First Lady Obama’s official events with Spanish leaders do not count because she is not seen as legitimate by the people doing the counting. The Obamas’ repeated statements that they pay their own way, even while other Presidential families have not, does not count because they are not seen as a legitimate presidential family. Even the reference to the Clintons as “the last N. American royalty” speaks to the lack of legitimacy of the Obamas in the eyes of white supremacist and white hegemony in the U.S.

And what about those jobs? Anyone who has ever put on an event knows that the bulk of jobs created during those events are akin to day labor. Low paid, low skilled workers are hired to do the bulk of the jobs and only for the hours they actually need to be done. In other words, an event creates a single day or less of work for most of the employees in question. It pays these employees minimum wage or in some cases, depending on how much they work and whether they are charged for uniforms, less than minimum wage. They receive no health care benefits. They often get no breaks unless they take them at the risk of getting caught and fired without pay for the work they have already done. They have no job security during the day, simply bumping into the wrong guest can get a person fired without pay.

But what about those seamstresses and catering companies and flower shops everyone mentioned? Seamstresses are skilled piece workers. They are paid by the garment. When the garment is finished, their work is finished. Like the catering company and the flower shop, the seamstresses chosen for “celebrity” weddings are well-established workers who have a large and important client list. While the economy has likely cut into their salaries considerably, they are not part of the millions of unemployed workers desperate for any job they can get. Instead, they are people who work for billionaires and get their jobs through a network of similarly rich people talking amongst themselves.

In other words, the Clinton wedding generated revenue but not jobs in the sense that the media would like you to believe.

Let me conclude this post by saying that I was among those who criticized the extravagance of the Clinton wedding. I did think it was in poor taste to spend millions of dollars while people are losing their homes, their jobs, their unemployment benefits, and enslaved to school and poverty related credit card debt. I think the same thing about the First Lady’s trip to Spain. While it is nowhere near the same scale of expense, it is still an expensive vacation during a recession in which need our leaders, both current and former, to set the tone.

What I am critiquing in this post then is not the expense but rather the perception and depiction of it. While one woman was celebrated for spending more money on a single event, that many in this country are denied access to, the other was disparaged for what will ultimately a working vacation. If we look just at the money spent by tax payers on both events and compare it to the need, ie threats to the Obamas safety and their role as current First Family vs. no threats to the Clintons and their role as former First Family, the disparity becomes all the more trasnsparent. If we add in the fact that one family is being held accountable for personal spending and the spending of their guests while the others are being praised for it and asked about who designed what, there is no escaping the double standard.

Ultimately, from the smallest event to the largest, N. Americans continue to see the world through race and its intersections with class, gender, sexuality, etc. Until we confront this issue head on and learn new ways to understand our world and our nation, there is no way to move forward.

A Full Cupboard for $8.95

I went to the market yesterday, and I bought:

  • 2 heads of lettuce

  • 3 purple onions

  • berries

  • kale

  • cabbage

  • 3 zucchinis

  • 1 bushel of carrots

  • 1 yellow cauliflower

The grand total of my purchases: $8.95

As I told people on twitter yesterday, this trip to the Farmer’s Market brought with it an adventure in yuppie entitlement.

I chose the Farmer’s Market I shop at very carefully as I have a choice of two, neither of which is conveniently located from our house. One is frequented by my colleagues and is located in what the gf and I refer to as “no man’s land” ie the gated community area on the outskirts of the city, the other is located in what many refer to as the other side of “the war zone”, ie you have to drive through some of the poorest parts of the city to get to there. I chose the latter because what it lacks in bright lightening, arts and crafts, and outdoor cafe options, it gains in diversity, straightforward and cheap pricing, and friendly people.

I also chose this market because it is centrally located to many of my students. While many of them who work as day laborers, or have family members who do, get their produce straight from the source, many others do not. Often they are relegated to shopping in the one grocery store serving their area which, as you may recall from previous posts, often sells spoiled milk and eggs, and dry goods years past their expiration date. The store is also unsafe after dark; often, you cannot even get into the parking lot because of the police tape. So choosing a Farmer’s Market in their area and familiarizing myself with it is not just for me but also so that I can encourage students who want to eat healthy and want to get their kids off processed food to use a cheap and accessible place that also benefits local farmers. In my social justice classes, I always include a trip to both Farmer’s Markets with a list of questions they have to get answered. (We’ll get back to those questions in the second part of this two part series.) Along with my gf’s work to help low income people cultivate family sustaining gardens and hook up with local experts in their own neighborhoods, the trips to the Farmer’s Market are part of a larger vision we have for encouraging sustainable veg based lives that center working class people of color rather than upper class “good people” consumption.

When I looked at my bill yesterday, even I was in shock at how cheap it was. And honestly, I turned right back around and bought even more food to take to the local health clinic/last chance food box giveaway that is between my house and the Farmer’s Market.

Not everything about my trip to the market was progressive:

Yesterday, while shopping amidst the largely immigrant communities that call the Farmer’s Market their mainstay, I witnessed a woman who had clearly not been told there were two markets. She wore designer heels and white jeans, both of which will get you a sprained angle at beyond war zone market because there are no paved, wide, brightly lit aisles here, just human packed down dirt and clods of crab grass; no beautiful bins with matching artisan designed labels given to everyone who pays the vendor fee, just big, cardboard, crates with the clumps of earth from the hard working hands that pried the produce from it and then packed in the crates for sale. Like a dear in the headlights, she stared wide-eyed at both people and food, finally settling on huge crates of fruit. Despite the fact that there was a large sign next to the crates saying “by the crate area”, she proceeded to pick over the food and place individual fruit in her bag.

When one of the farmers noticed her, she simply pointed to the sign and said “This is the by the crate area. You’ll need to buy a whole crate.”

The woman glared at the farmer as if to say “You don’t get to talk to me.” She looked around for someone to back her up, but most people were too busy shopping to care what she was up to. Finding no one, she finally said, in her best indignant yuppie voice “But isn’t it better to pick out your own fruit? Isn’t that the point?!”

The farmer, an older woman with long silvery hair, brushed her calloused hands on her overalls, and said “It’s $15 a crate. That’s a really good deal.” Not waiting for the woman to respond, she walked away, considering the matter settled.

The yuppie on the other hand, hugged the bag of fruit to her chest as if it was the stuff of life and looked around the dusty aisles to see if the farmer had gone to get security. Not noticing anyone coming her way, she took her bag of pilfered goodies over to the “buy the bag” section. It seems, despite all her doe-eyed confusion, she knew full well she was in the wrong section.

Suddenly, the silver-haired woman re-appeared and the woman with the fruit jumped. She glowered at the farmer and dumped her bag in the bin of fruit in the by the bag section. The silver-haired woman, who was talking to another farmer, only then noticed her and simply raised a single brow. The woman responded by running her hand over through the fruit to mix it in with the rest in the bin. She then crossed her arms defiantly and lifted her chin.

The farmer who was helping me with my purchases, sighed. He was an older, heavy set, African, who had given up his booth to his daughters because he could no longer lift the big crates that some of the local restaurants bought from his stand. Instead, he rung up members like me who were allowed to come to the market and shop freely paying at one convenient location with a card that showed which farmers needed to be reimbursed. It’s a system that makes it convenient for families, elders, and impatient folks such as myself to get through the market quickly while still ensuring all of the vendors have a chance to sell their stuff. No haggling, no burn out.

As he handed me my bag and asked for the $8.95 I owed, he glanced at the sign above the register. In a big huge chalkboard above the register it said “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone without explanation.” I’d noticed the sign on the way in and I’d also noticed that they seemed to have proliferated all over the market. Originally, I had felt sort of unwelcomed by them but in light of the woman in the white pants who had finally stopped standing like a 2 year-old mid tantrum by the fruit bin when she realized no one had the time, energy, or even felt her important enough to take on her behavior, made the signs welcome friends.

It occurred to me that it is that time of year when new faculty start moving into the area to start their jobs as bonafide Professors and when the new core group of students for the snotty private colleges in our area also arrive with their parents and their credit cards in tow. And for the next few weeks, locals who have settled into a basic system of class segregated lives and easy going quiet, are disrupted by the gazelles who don’t realize the fence is meant to keep them in as much as to keep us out. And everyone will have to deal with their temper tantrums and their disdain until equilibrium is reached mid-September.

Yet it seems to me that if people simply followed the rules instead of thinking that by nature of being X they get a free pass and no one who is Y gets to say different, this could all be avoided. The signs were clearly marked. The prices cheap and the people friendly. Yet Miss White Pants was bent and determine to have drama even if it was a drama of one. She let her anxiety about not wearing sensible clothes for the area and being surrounded by poor people, immigrants, and people of color (sometimes overlapping identities, sometimes not), translate into entitlement and defensiveness and expected all of us to care. Even when acting out, she was still the center of her universe and unclear that she was not the center of ours. Watching her reminded me of so many other conflicts in this town and in this nation around race, class, and gender in which the targets are always expected to center the snipers and where often the snipers don’t even realize they are traipsing about with a loaded gun. These little interpersonal moments illustrate the larger costs of identity wars, for while I was getting a week’s worth of groceries for the price of 2 gallons of gas, she was on the verge of being refused service over a couple of pieces of fruit she felt entitled to because she comes from where she comes from and she found them here. Watching her drama play out, also made me question just how little we have actually changed when it comes to individual thoughts and feelings about identity and how much farther we will have to go to really be safe as a people in this nation.

(this is part one of a two part piece on the Farmer’s Market and class relations)

Stats Only Measure What You Ask

The one where I interrogate un/employment statistics

——————————-

Every other year when I teach the required methods course for one of my departments, I start the quantitative section by explaining “Stats only measure what you ask.” This is why we spend so much time on qualitative methods first, not just because I prefer them or because, as my students fear, quantitative methods are “so hard” I’m trying to “spare them as long as I can”. The fact is: if you don’t know how to ask questions then you will never know how to measure the answers with raw data nor how to interpret someone else’s data sets.

cafe press product for ywearclothing.com

While it may seem that this information is the exclusive domain of advanced undergraduates or graduate students in certain disciplines and everyone else can simply be thankful they never had to take stats, the fact is we are surrounded by statistical information all the time. (I know I sound like you high school math teacher justifying Geometry, bare with me.) Almost every time you watch national news, several times throughout the year on your local news broadcast, and almost daily on both pop culture shows like The View and news commentary shows like those that run on both Fox and MSNBC, stats play a key part in discussion of our lives. When you don’t know how to ask questions to interpret the data given, you find yourself quoting opinion poll numbers as if they are indisputable or angry later because you find out the information does not measure what you were told it did.

Case in point: The National Un/Employment Statistics

The [U.S.] president has come under fire this week for Bureau of Labor employment data that claimed to have decreased overall unemployment in the U.S. but was actually counting mostly temporary census jobs. THe BLS reported the creation of 431,000 in the last quarter. Both the government and pundits used this number to argue that the economy was getting better and that jobs were on the rise.

No one asked how the BLS measures those jobs, ie what questions it asks to generate its numbers.

CUNY Job Fair/Alvarez/NY Daily News

A huge portion of the jobs created were temporary positions with the Census. The BLS does not exclude part time, temporary, seasonal, etc jobs from its count. Nor do they exclude people who for any reason left (of their own volition, were laid off, or fired) their job and then returned to it. What they count is the number of people reported to be hired in any given quarter.

If you don’t know the questions asked, you cannot understand the data. So because everyone took the numbers released and ran with them, when the 585,729 census workers began to be permanently laid off and the unemployment numbers began to rise again, people who had used the BLS to claim the economy was getting better cried foul. Suddenly there was talk of intentional manipulation of numbers and economic realities to make the President look better.

Enter the next set of misleading numbers released today: Jobless claims at lowest rate since 2008.

According to several agencies charged with measuring unemployment in the U.S., jobless claims have dropped by 3000 people this month. This number measures the number of people either still claiming unemployment or opening new cases for unemployment benefits.

What questions are not being asked?

The decreased number does not include the impact of the 99ers, people for whom all types of extensions have been exhausted and who are therefore kicked off of unemployment. According to HuffPo, the 99ers will likely represent 1 million people this year with no benefits, no incomes, and no statistical representation in the numbers both the government and the media are using to make claims about the health of the economy.

Nor does it count people who have not claimed unemployment because they are steadily burning through their finances or because they have obtained part time, temporary, work that makes them ineligible for benefits but does not constitute actual stable employment. And as always, these numbers only count people in the system not those who for one reason or another have never claimed benefits despite being unemployed.

unemployment office TN/ AP Photo/Josh Anderson

If we ignore these factors, as many of the people reporting on the new numbers have done this am, then we are likely to come to the same erroneous conclusions the BLS numbers caused earlier, ie: the economy is doing better and more people are employed than ever.

The reality is far more bleak. May 2010 saw the start of the 99 week shut off for unemployment benefits across the country (for those states who did not get extensions, these cut offs may have come earlier) and June is predicted to be the largest cut off month in the history of unemployment because of the number of people claiming benefits who have exhausted their allotment.

Add to this the fact that the Labor Department says only 41000 jobs were created in May (AP) and that most Census workers have been or will be permanently laid off and you begin to see a picture that any one of these numbers renders hidden by not asking the right questions.

Presidential Blame?

2004 Unemployment Line Protest outside the RNC held by PFAW/ Dave of BlueJake.com

Many are chomping at the bit to blame the discrepancies in the optimistic way the numbers are being reported and discussed and the realities they hide on the President. On the one hand, they are right to note that these numbers are being used to shape policy as well as perception. On the other, 1.2 million jobs were lost in the waning years of the Bush administration and these losses as well as the economic crisis in general all started on Republican watch. Partisans and the past aside, many of the current policies, like the ongoing decision not to extend unemployment benefits any more, are not made by the President but by Congress. Unlike the N. American people, Congress has much more information about how un/employment stats are kept and a greater access to and impetus to review all of the key stats. When they choose not to do that because of erroneous conclusions like “huge spikes in jobs in April and May mean that the economy is bouncing back” or “unemployment claims are lowest they’ve been since 2008 so people have found jobs”, they are guilty of intentional ignorance that ultimately leads to policy decisions that worse the economic lives of many N. Americans living on the edge.

Media

While Congress chooses to look the other way, the mainstream media is leading N. Americans astray.

In reporting un/employment statistics without breaking them down for the average reader and then proclaiming proof that the depression is finally over, something various outlets have done periodically over the last 2 years, the media creates the false sense that the nation is in recovery.  While in other times this might have created a needed moral boost, those times have long gone. Instead, what these declarations do is lead to a continued or increasing sense that unemployed workers are to blame for their circumstances. From employers who dare to question why people have been unemployed for 3 months to 2 years because the media has told them there are 411,000 new jobs out there or families and friends who have managed to hold on to their jobs or because of a lack of specialized skills have managed to find new jobs (albeit at lower rank or pay) vilify or question people with more specialized skills or larger income to debt needs who not only cannot but likely will not be employed by the local grocery store. The media’s misleading conclusions create a vacuum in which the humanity of the unemployed is staunchly sucked out in favor of the false promise that unemployment is a thing of the past and only losers don’t have jobs.

unattributed

When additional information about the widely reported numbers comes to light, politically motivated pundits jump on it and start a whole new media spin. In this version, the numbers are intentionally manipulated by a corrupt government trying to destroy the [white] working class. Given the kind of mythos the media creates around these numbers, it is not only card carrying supremacists who are inclined to hear this misguided warrior cry. Many people who have sat across the table from a smug employer asking “Well what have you been doing for the last 2 years?” are likely to feel the kind of resentment, dehumanization, and anger that makes blaming the government easy. Filtering those emotions through the lens of race turns that blame into a force similar to those during and immediately after reconstruction or the employment organizing in the 30s that in places like CA, Chicago, and other big cities was predicated on racial supremacy and xenophobia (particularly the vilification of and occasional violence against API immigrants and black people). These sentiments in turn fuel the continued unemployment of people of color which is much higher than that of struggling white communities, while still targeting them as potential threats to the economy.

Getty Image of Unemployment Line date unknown

Resentment amongst communities of color are also on the rise. While partially spurred on by the media myth-making and its consequences, it is also tinged with the failure of the President to implement any programs specifically targeted to racial communities most hit by layoffs and lack of rehire. Despite statistics that show people of color were among the first fired and the last hired and that certain groups’ unemployment rates outpace the national average by almost 5 times as much, neither Congress nor the President have made any move to deal with the intersections of race and class, race-class-gender, or even class and gender during this undeclared recession/depression. And those with long memories, still recall how the President avoided the direct question about how he was helping the 50% unemployed African-American males in NYC during his one televised press conference on unemployment. These issues of course also get us back to other missing factors in BLS data which can and does break things down by both race and gender but whose most cited stats do neither.

Conclusions

What is reported about the economy in the dailies is only part of the picture. Neither the people collecting individual statistics nor the people making huge erroneous leaps from them can be trusted without first remembering: stats only measure what you ask. While the blame lies largely on other shoulders than the President’s it is also imperative that he takes leadership in disseminating clearer information and demanding Congress act on it. We too must take responsibility for being informed and cross-checking any information we receive. In order to be informed advocates for economic renewal and equitable job development, we have to start asking what questions were asked to generate the stats we see and whether those questions justify the conclusions people are making. When we do that, we will not only develop a more accurate analysis of the economy but hopefully defuse some of the anger, resentment, and judgment that is currently permeating our nation and fostering conflict.

You can start by signing the Change.org 99er petititon here

Link Luv Sunday

A lot went on in our world while I was sick and/or overworked (yes including all the late diss chapters I had to read during Spring Break, cue violins) so I thought some link love was in order to cover some of the issues I have not here at the blog and to honor some of the voices holding it down across the internet. Since it is still Women’s History Month and yours truly has failed so miserably in doing her own feminist spotlight posts, I have linked to several folks who did use their blogs to honor and highlight specific women throughout the month.

  • Swandiver – Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow highlights a talk by Alexander about her new book and the civil rights inequities that remain in the U.S. through the loopholes provided in the prison-industrial-complex
  • National Center for Transgender Equality – breaks down what the new Health Care Reform Bill means for trans communities trying to meet their health care needs
  • Guerilla Mama – “The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha” – a painfully poetic discussion about the intersections of race, class, gender, nation, love, and family through the eyes of a black immigrant who survives an attempted rape (trigger warning)
  • Alexis – Happy Birthday Toni Cade Bambara – another informative and celebratory contribution from Alexis and her Black Feminist Mind Project
  • Vivir Latino – “19 years without justice” – 19 year old hate crime against a Dominican youth still not solved, yet his mother keeps the pressure on
  • Vegan About Town – Nacho Cheese Dip and Nacho Cheese Nachos because I was sick most of the week and unable to eat much, I got really enthralled by blogs about food (what the comic industry has referred to as food porn blogs b/c they make you drool) and I was particularly excited by how yummy Steph made this recipe sound since I am a picky eater & don’t eat anything with too much melted vegan cheese because of the melt quality (I like almond based cheeses for eating & soy based for melting but the latter only in small amounts)
  • Asian American Lit Fans – much like Feminist Review, this livejournal site offers accessible reviews of new and old fiction by API Americans and should just be a must read in general for anyone who loves books
  • Nezua – “Invisible: Thoughts on Immigration Rally in DC” – not only does Nezua look at the complexities of the reform in succinct text but he also has a powerful slideshow of photos from the event at the bottom of the post.
  • Viva La Feministe – “The Fly Girls are Finally Golden” – learn about the civilian women who helped win world war II but got little back for their service
  • The Green Belt Movement – “GBM Celebrates International Women’s Day” – truthfully I am just sending you to this blog to give you an example of what decolonized grassroots feminist environmentalism looks like.
  • Claire @ Hyphen Magazines – “Women’s History Month Profiles” – spotlights on Asian American feminists and women activists
  • Mark Anthony Neal  – “Women’s History Month Classic: Say My Name” – I happened to love this film and I teach it pretty regularly as a counterpoint to “the video ho” image of hip hop (of course I also like to trot out Tawny Kitaen for that purpose as well) so it was nice to see someone review this classic as part of women’s history month.
  • Annaham “Invisible Illness and Disability Bingo” – this post is old, but I just got sent there by vegans of color blog, and I have to tell you that as a person with “hidden” disabilities, not only have I experienced everything on that list but, like Damali Ayo’s rent-a-negro cards, I wish I had a stack of these to pass out to co-workers and family members whenever they made light of what it is like to be differently-abled

Happy Reading!