Friday, July 31, 2009

What Else But Home- A Great New Book on Race and Class in NYC

What Else But Home: An Inspiring, Disturbing Book that Pulls The Covers Off Race and Class Barriers in Gentrifying New York

What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey From the Projects to the Penthouse by Michael Rosen, is a tough minded, unsparingly honest, brilliantly written book about one family’s efforts to bridge race and class barriers that have grown to unprecedented proportions in Michael Bloomberg’s New York, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. The story line is deceptively simple. The author and his wife, wealthy professionals living in a penthouse apartment overlooking Tompkins Square Park, decide to take in, and informally adopt five black and latino boys, all of whom live in neighborhood housing projects, who their son Ripton meets in pick up baseball games in the Park. Given the results, that all five boys end up staying of jail , getting GED’s and high school diplomas, and attending college or community college, you might think this is a feel good story. But what the Rosens, their two children ( both adopted) and the five boys have to do to get there is so painful, so difficult, and so beyond the range of what most people would be willing to do that it makes the barriers they crossed seem almost unbridgeable. Although the challenge this family took on inspired love and trust and generosity, it also produced levels of conflict and misunderstanding that almost broke every person who participated. Michael Rosen, a man of uncommon honesty and literary skill, puts all of this before us without pretence or embarrassment, forcing every reader to ask- could I do what this family has done, could I live with this level of tension, could I come up with the heroism needed to deal with crisis after crisis without saying enough is enough, especially in the light of some extraordinary words of wisdom a friend shared with them when boys started staying at their house

“If you’re going to let them be here, it has to be unconditional. They’ll test it because disadvantaged kids are always screwed over. Teachers start nice, social workers, their mom’s new boyfriends all start nice, get tired and walk away. These kids don’t know it, but they are fighting for their lives. It is a matter of life and death. . . . If you let them into your family, it has to be forever.”

What does forever mean when you have seven boys, two middle class, but adopted and five who have grown up in incredible poverty, violence and chaos, living with a married couple with ample resources and wonderful intentions but all kinds of baggage and a marriage that is falling apart ( the Rosens actually separate for a time when they are taking care of the five boys) First of all, it means constant misunderstanding. One of the best features of this book is the author’s ability to capture the two different languages spoken in his home- the urban, working class youth dialect the boys speak and the middle class conversational English spoken by Michael and his wife Leslie. Not only to the boys routinely use terms that are racist, sexist and homophobic , but it is difficult to explain to them why they shouldn’t use those terms when few people have ever talked to them in a calm and conversational tone about their own behavior, much less social justice issues. Living in makeshift families with rotating adult caretakers, going to chaotic, overcrowded schools, and communicating on the street other young people in hip hop influenced code words, the boys are unaccustomed to people trying to correct their behavior by appealing to their political consciousness or a higher moral sense. The Rosens attempt to impose politically correct language on them seems like it is coming from outer space. They know that the Rosens are providing them with a safe zone, free from the violence and instability they have experienced in the households where they have resided, and the housing project hallways, schoolyards and park areas where they often congregate, but the Rosens also make demands on them in terms of speech, dress, behavior that no one has imposed on them before and they are torn as to whether reinventing themselves this way is worth it

What makes the resulting conflict even more poignant, and the class and race gap the book explores all the more poignant is that the five boys the Rosens adopted-Carlos, Kendu, Phil, Will and Juan-bring considerable cultural capital to the table. They are bright, street smart, athletic ( several end up playing college baseball), good looking and have experienced enough love in their life to respond positively to the love and attention the Rosens give them. Nevertheless, they are totally unprepared, in dress and speech and affect, to adapt comfortably to the middle class milieu life with the Rosens exposes them to, whether it is eating at a sit down restaurant, going to a museum, or entertaining guests at a dinner party and totally unable to sustain the minimum behavior necessary- such as gong to class and doing homework- that would get them to graduate from high school, much less than attend college. Once the Rosens made the decision that the boys were part of their family for life, and that they would be subject to the same expectations that were imposed on the Rosen’s two children, Ripton and Morgan, their lives were going to be childcare, crisis management and chauferring 24/7 and they were going to have to spend incredible amounts of money on clothing, athletic equipment, tutoring, counseling and special school programs to get these boys through their adolescent years without getting incarcerated, injured or diverted by early parenthood. I am not sure this is an accurate figure, but I would guess that the Rosens spent well over $200,000 on clothing travel tuition and other expenses for the five boys they adopted during the six or so years covered in the book. If they had not spent that money, it is not clear this would have been a success story. The public high schools and junior high schools the boys attended gave them neither care nor attention; the local economy of the neighborhood offered no legal ways of making money; the new middle class in their neighborhoods looked upon them with fear and contempt and their home living situations were filled with violence, stress and the dangers and temptations of a local drug trade which was thrivingjust a few blocks from Yuppiedom. The Rosens MONEY, as much as their love and attention, made this a success story.
But before we confer sainthood on the Rosens- though in my judgment they are damn near close-let us give Carlos, Kendu, Phil Will and Juan their share of the credit. It took incredible courage, and resilience to leave everything they grew up around to become part of this white middle class family, especially since they had to endure more than their share of insult and humiliation to become part of the Rosens world. Some of this came from the restaurant owners, hotel and apartment managers, neighbors and friends of the Rosens in the hip, wealthy community the Lower East Side was becoming, a place where project boys were seen as objects of pity, or unwelcome intruders. Some of it came in motels and coffee shops when the boys piled into the Rosens station wagon or van to take out of town trips, most of which seemed to involve visits to historic sites. But some of it came from the Rosen’s attempt to have the boys conform to a regular schedule, keep a curfew, perform household chores, do their homework and not squander the resources the Rosens gave them, whether it was a cell phone contract or a credit card. If it took a tremendous effort on the part of the Rosens to micromanage the boys lives, it took a lot of patience on the boys part to be micromanaged, especially given the freedom they had in households where the adult presence was weak, or stretched to the limit by lack of resources
What can we learn from this experience?. First, that given the right kind of attention and resources, amply sprinkled with love, young people growing up in poverty , even those living in chaotic and dangerous households, can become skilled, educated and productive citizens. What the Rosens accomplished as a family can be replicated by institutions if they are given sufficient resources and have the right people staffing them Secondly, that the race and class divide that the Rosens sought to bridge, is growing larger almost daily because our tax structure maximizes the gap between the haves and the have nots and the market forces that allocate housing in New York city are driving poor people out of mixed neighborhoods. And third, that no family should be forced to take on the burden that the Rosens did because by all rights it is the whole society’s responsibiity. The Rosens heroism, which deserves all the respect in the world, would be best rewarded by giving young people like Carlos, Kendu, Will, Phil and Juan the same quality education, health care and recreational opportunities their middle class counterparts have
Let’s move this agenda quickly while Barack Obama is still president.
The Rosens could use a little rest!

Mark Naison
July 31. 2009

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Response to a Former Student Who Thinks Henry Louis Gates was "Trippin"

Since when is yelling at a police officer, and asking for his identification, grounds for arrest? Especially when you are 5'8" tall, 58 years old, and walk with a cane!

While you can question the wisdom, as well as the consistency, of Professor Gates actions, as well as his sudden emergence after years of silence, as advocate for victims of racial profiling, it is hard to justify his arrest as good police work

While it is entirely predictable that a police officer would arrest a citizen who questions his competence, asks for his badge number. and accuses him of racism, that doesn't make it legal and it doesn't make it right!

To me, freedom of speech is a more important value than the reflexive defense of police authority. Mark Smith's comment about Sgt Crowley motivations "he didn't want to be 'punked' in front a fellow officer", unfortunately is a tellingly accurate analysis of the police officer's motivation. The Sgt was not going to allow a civilian to disrespect him on the streets of his city and get away with it! If that meant arresting a sixty year old man with a disability who broke no law- and who also happened to be one of the most respected professors in the nation, so be it. What is true in the Bronx- just ask Rebel Diaz- is apparently true in Cambridge MAss- "asking a police officer for his badge number is an automatic trip to central booking."

So Dr Gates, welcome to the United States of America, where police officers have their own ways of dealing with people who question their authority.

At least you weren't beaten up in the station house,as I was 40 years ago,or in a back alley as has happened to some of my friends.

When you grow up a working class neighborhood, whether its black, latino or white, you learn very quickly that the police make up their own laws. And you don't expect it to change any time soon. Most people seem willing to give the police this kind of leeway on the grounds that they need to maintain respect on the street to keep criminals under control

If freedom of speech is a casualty, that's the price they are willing to pay.

I for one am tired of paying that price.

So thank you Henry Louis Gates for putting the issue of racial profiling and police misconduct before the nation more vividly than it has anytime since the beating of Rodney King.

I am not sure anything will come of it, but at least some people who didn't grow up in "the hood" are getting a much clearer picture of how the police really work,and how little "the law" -and the Constitution- serve as a guide to their actions!

Mark Naison

Saturday, July 25, 2009

President of All The People? President Obama Reaches Out to Working Class Whites

President of All The People? President Obama Reaches Out to Working Class Whites

Professor Mark Naison
Fordham University

At a critical point in his presidency, Barack Obama is quietly taking up steps to show white working class Americans, even those skeptical of or hostile to his Presidency, that he is President of all the people

Having a country music performance at the White House was one such step; calling the police officer who arrested Professor Henry Louis Gages, and inviting him to the White house for a beer, was another.

At a time when President Obama is staking his credibiity on putting through comprehensive health care legislation, such actions are designed to win points with a constituency that he desperately needs in his corner to pass such legislation

But it is also a response to a campaign by Republicans and conservatives- launched right after the Sonia Sotomayor appoinment- to paint President Obama as someone willing to sacrifice the interests of working class and middle class whites to advance minority interests

Seizing on Judge Sotomayor's "Wise Latina" remarks, and her rejection of a reverse discirmination lawsuit by a white firefighter in New Haven, Republicans have stoked fears among working class whites that President Obama's real agenda- the classic "liberal" agenda- is to pull them down so minorities can rise up,

Given the historic effectiveness of such attacks on Affirmative Action- made by leaders from George Wallace to Rudy Guiliani- and the visceral hatred of racial preferences among large sections of the white population, it is not surprising that the Republican campaign to portray Obama as biased against whites
has begun to gain traction.

When you add to that the controversy over President Obama's comment that the arrest of Professor Gates was "stupid," ( which it WAS!) you can easily imagine the content of the appeal to white racial fears that conservatives are launching on the airwaves and in the halls of Congress.

" First President Obama shows contempt for our firefighters, now he insults our police? What kind of president is it that is willing to ignore the sacrifices of the bravest of Americans, those who put their lives on the line for us every day, just because they are white? "

Could these arguments work? You bet they could!!

As someone who coached baseball and basketball in Brooklyn with cops and firemen for more than
fifteen years in the 80's and 90's, and who has taught a course on Affirmative Action for more than ten, I can tell you first hand, that incredible numbers of blue collar whites are convinced that liberal and minority politicians are trying to take what they earned through hard work and sacrifice and give it away to less deserving people. No one should underestimate the power of these feelings. The white sense of "victimization" when it comes to affirmative action, is every bit as powerful as what blacks and latinos expersss about their continued vulnerability to racism, and when you put the two groups in the same room
in open and honest discussion, the results can be explosive.

The long and short of it is that President Obama cannot afford to be seen, among a key portion of the American public, especially a portion that will benefit from his health care reforms, his labor legislation,
and many other Presidential initiatives, as the second coming of Al Shapton and Jesse Jackson.

This is why he had to move so fast to defuse the controversy over the Gates arrest, and reach out to the police officer who made the arrest.

This is why he had a country music event at the White House

And this is why I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he showed up at an event on the NASCAR circuit.

Some might call this pandering to racists and reactionaries, but I see it as something much more subtle and powerful- steps towards reinventing an American community which crosses racial boundaries and creates new definitions of the public interest

And what give it credibility is the substance of the Presidents reforms. No one who looks closely at his health care proposals can suggest that these are programs which benefit the minority poor at the expense of working class and middle class whites. They are proposals which benefit working class people of all races and nationalities, in large part by shifting the tax burden to finance health care to the wealthiest people in the society.

The steotypical conservative attack on liberals- they give to the have nots by taking from the have littles-
does not remotely describe any component of President Obama's health care proposals, or any other part of his programs.

But the emotional reasonance such attacks have- even when they are innaccurate- are still enormous

That is why President Obama has reached out- and must keep reaching out- to the people who believe that they have always been the victims of liberal policies.

He needs their support to pass his health care proposals, and he needs them at the table for any
real conversation about race

When all is said and done, it this kind of inclusiveness that may best define his Presidency

Mark Naison
July 25, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dying While Black

Dying While Black: The Toll Race Related Stress Takes on the Life Expectancy of Black Men and Women

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

I am lucky enough to have two best friends, people I talk to almost daily and with whom I share the triumphs, tragedies and absurdities of life. On the surface, they have a lot in common- both are in their early sixties, both are professors, both grew up in middle class families and went to New York City public schools,, and both are still married to the same woman they met at fell in love with when they were in their early twenties. Their political views are also quite comparable- they are both liberal Democrats, deeply committed to social justice struggles at home and abroad, and they are incredibly kind, caring and considerate people

However, there is one difference between them that, despite these commonalities, has great significance – one is white and one is Black.

The place where this difference matters, however is not where most people would expect to find it- it is not in food, music, political ideology, or response to racial issues
Rather, it is in health, life expectancy and the cumulative effects of stress that I see the experience of my two friends diverge the most.

And here the indicator is a rather grisly one- attendance at funerals

My friend Robert ( the white one) regularly attends the funerals of relatives in his parents generation, but only on rare occasions, once a year at most, attends the funeral of a friend..

In contrast, my friend Bill , who is Black, attends the funeral of a different friend or relative –in his own age group ALMOST ONCE A MONTH. The causes are diverse, heart disease, strokes, cancer, but it is chilling to see how many people in his cohort, all of them black, are dying of “natural causes” in their late 50’s or early 60’s.

What makes it more unsettling is that Bill’s friends and relatives, for the most part, are not people suffering from the injuries of poverty- they are college educated professionals who have been middle class their entire adult lives, and who have health insurance, access to a healthy food, and the opportunity to take vacations.

But they are Black and in this society, being Black and middle class means being exposed to all kinds of stresses their white middle class counterparts barely can imagine.

What happened to Henry Louis Gates- being arrested at his own home in a white middle class neighborhood because police and neighbors thought he was breaking in- is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stress inducers on African Americans. Every traffic stop has the same potential to escalate into a humiliating or even life threatening incident

Even activities seemingly as innocent as shopping, staying in a hotel or eating in a restaurant can turn into the emotional equivalent of walking through a minefield. Most black Americans have had some experience of being followed in stores, offered reluctant or inferior service in restaurants, or being patronized and slighted by personnel at resorts.
Even though such experiences are episodic, rather than routine, the fear of their occurrence casts a pall over activities that should be relaxing, adding a layer of tension to Black people’s lives that most whites don’t have to cope with.

A final, and perhaps most devastating source of stress on Black professionals is the fact that they cannot get angry at work without being marginalized and written off as “an angry Black person.” The Barack Obama persona that took him to the Presidency- cool and collected under pressure, unwilling to respond in kind to the most extreme provocation- is one that has a long history of working for Black professionals in high profile occupations, but which extracts a terrible emotional price. Having to internalize feelings of rage and disappointment in ways that white colleagues would never have to translates into a wide variety of medical conditions which become life threatening when one enters middle age.

To those who think I am exaggerating, take a close look at US life expectancy statistics, aggregated by race and then do a little research of your own. --- ask your Black friends over 60 how many funerals they have attended in the last two years, and then ask your white friends over 60 the same question.

I suspect the results will be the same as what I discovered when comparing Robert and Bill.

Mark Naison

Friday, July 10, 2009

Why Serena Williams is the Best Player in the History Of Women's Tennis And Jason Whitlock is a Jerk

As a former college tennis player who has competed ( though always lost) against male and female professional players, and as the pround parent of a daughter who was once ranked 37th in the country in 16 and under junior tennis, I want to express my OUTRAGE and DISGUST with Jason Whitlock's remarks about Serena Williams

Serena Williams, in my judgment, is the single most talented player in the history of Women's Tennis. She has a great first serve, the best second serve of any woman who has ever played the game, can hit with power and touch from both sides, has a terrific net game and overhead, is incredibly fast and agile and is a relentless competitor. Yes she is thick, but her thickness gives her incredible explosiveness and power, without sacrificing speed.

There is only one other player in the history of the woman's game who had the same combination of power, speed and explosiveness as Serena Williams does and that was Martina Navratilova. And guess what? Martina was also thick!

It is absurd to think that there is a single body type associated with superior athleticism and that slimness necessarily produces excellence. You can have big thighs, a big butt, a big chest-whether you are male or female-- and still move incredibly fast.

And one other thing. I think Serena Williams is beautiful. I think she is HOT! I think she has courage and charisma and talent and beauty and strength and bulldog determination.

She should be embraced as a symbol of Woman's Power, Confidence and Achievement and as a Wonderful Reminder that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL!!

I love Serena! I love Tennis! I Love History! And I think Jason Whitlock should worry more about his weight than Serena's.

Mark Naison

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Recovery is NOT Around the Corner: The Challenge Facing Today’s College Graduates

Recovery is NOT Around the Corner: The Challenge Facing Today’s College Graduates

I hate to be the bearer of bad news on a 4th of July weekend, but this years college graduates are going to face a really tough job market for at least the next five years

The economic free fall that began last October is starting to ease, but that doesn’t mean the economy is going to start growing rapidly, and generating millions of new jobs, any time soon. The banks are still weak, the housing market is still fragile, and the crisis in the private sector is starting to spread to state and local governments. Only the recently passed stimulus package has prevented massive public sector layoffs across the nation, but the stimulus20is a one shot deal and within the next one or two years, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of jobs in education, health care, corrections and other government functions are going to be lost as state governments have to radically cut programs and payrolls to avert bankruptcy. Unemployment is likely to rise to 11 or 12 percent, keeping consumer confidence, and consumer demand, at very low levels

In the past, the American economy could depend on easy credit to jump start consumer spending when unemployment was high, but that option is no longer there. Many credit card companies are on the edge of bankruptcy, and banks are still too fragile to resume lending to people without strong credit ratings and ample collateral. Businesses which survived the current crisis are finally able to get credit, but new business face an uphill battle convincing banks to invest in them. As for housing, large sections of the market are already glutted with foreclosed and abandoned properties, and until those properties are sold or rented, new construction, on any large scale, is not likely to take place

What this means, for recent college graduates, is that there is no sector of the economy, with the possible exception of health care and federal government employment, to which they can look to as a generator of a substantial number of new jobs. Even education, which produced tremendous job growth in the last ten years is going to be stagnant- bankrupt state governments are already instituting job freezes or laying off teachers.

To survive in this period, college graduates are going to have to take a page from their counterparts in the mid 70’s, who also faced grim economic conditions after a period of rapid growth. They are going to have to radically lower their expectations, as well as their expenses, and learn to live more frugally. What some of us did in the name of “communalism” the current generation can do in the name of “sustainability,” but the key is to create new living units, whether bound by family friendship or shared religious or political values, which radically reduce the costs of food housing and other necessities.

This is something I experienced first hand during those years. When my wife and I first moved to Park Slope in 1976, we formed a living cooperative with the family who lived upstairs from us. We shared house expenses, shared child care and had dinner together three nights a week. Next door to us was a commune, where no families had individual living quarters, and children were brought up collectively. We ate dinner at the commune at least one night a week. We took vacations the same way. For at least ten years, my wife and I spent every summer vacation sharing a house or condominium with another family in our cohort of friends who had young children. Even today, we rarely take vacations by ourselves. The idea of sharing living space, and child care responsibilities is something we view as making life more enjoyable, if we do it with people we like

At a certain point in time, the communal lifestyles we developed went out of fashion, especially as salaries for middle class professionals went up and all kind of new wealth was created in finance, real estate, and information services. But with professional salaries stagnant, and the finance and real estate sectors shredding jobs at a rapid rate, the dream of individual families affording their own private homes or apartments in their late twenties or early thirties is becoming increasingly unrealistic.

College graduates today would be wise to revisit communal and cooperative living arrangements, linking them to environmental sustainability, while developing transportation strategies ( bikes, trains etc) which reduce dependence on private automobiles. And with those strategies in place, young people can live well on a fraction of the income they thought they needed, and avoid the need to find a single professional niche in a time of fierce competition for a shrinking number of stable jobs. At this point in time, any combination of income producing activity, ranging from home or auto repair, to personal fitness, to child care, to home and office cleaning, to music instruction and production, to food preparation, in combination with whatever jobs people can find in health care, education, retail sales and business careers (reception, computer operations, accounting, paralegal etc) can create a sound basis for these experiments in group living

While this may, at first glance seem like a terrible defeat for a generation caught in a dismal economic niche, it may also be viewed as necessary adaptation to a world of finite resources and an important step in saving life on this planet

Whatever else you want to say about communalism, it saves energy as much as it saves space, and encourages cost reduction, and efficiency in areas ranging from home heating, to plumbing, to cooking to food production. I t also turns the living space and the community into a site of cultural and economic innovation as people invent satisfying ways of living and communicating that do not depend on new gadgets and great wealth.

Think about this, if we survive, as a species, people may look back on the era in American and world history, from the mid 1980’s till the Fall of 2008, as a complete aberration, a fantasy brought to life by a society gone made with selfishness and greed. How else will our descendants explain the SUV, the Hummer, the McMansion, the bling bling era in hip hop, the growth of upscale resort communities,, while billions of displaced people around the world live on the verge of starvation and two million people in the world’s wealthiest country live trapped in prison.

Today’s college graduates may still dream of boundless wealth and endless consumption, but those dreams are not a good match for the job market that they face. Rather than longing for a return to an era of rapid economic growth, they would do better to look at their counterparts in the mid 70’s for clues to how to live well in times of scarcity and combine it with their environmental consciousness to map out a blueprint to the future that brings the living conditions of the world’s middle classes more in line with those of the majority of the world’s population.

Mark Naison
July 2, 2009