Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

  • Of Baguettes and Black Families

    Origins.png
     
    I don't like to reward threadjacking, but I was asked the following question the other day in the thread about French food:
    I have a question from a previous post where the comments closed on me. You made a claim that you held slavery/racism as responsible for the breakdown of the black family. How do you reconcile that with data showing that the the black out of wedlock birth rate only started surging in the 1960's and that the black marriage rate was on par with the white marriage rate well into the 20th century?

    In other words how do you make the claim that racism is linked to the destruction of the black family when the black family was in fact strongest during time periods when racism was substantially more prevalent than today?
    So I was annoyed by this. First because I've never claimed that "slavery is responsible for the breakdown of the black family." I don't consider the black family to be "broken down." I'm not even sure what that means. Moreover, if by "black" we mean "African-American," the "black" family was invented in slavery. There is no African-American family before slavery. We were born there, and proceed accordingly. But I was more annoyed because I'm really interested in baguettes right now. I was on my break--and now I am called to pick up the sword again.

    But as much as I'd like to blame white folks, the fact is I love this stuff. I answered the question, but I wasn't totally satisfied with my own answer. The root of all of this is not really the fight against racism and white supremacy. My expectation is that racism and white supremacy will win--and take this country down with it. Indeed I expect the worst of everyone to win--and take humanity down with them. I get sad about that sometimes, but I am mostly resolved. So the root of this, for me, isn't altruism but curiosity. Even if you know how the story ends, you still want to know how we got there.

    So here's some math for you. Before we get to it, let's look at some historiography courtesy of University of Minnesota professor Steven Ruggles and his article "The Origins of the African-American Family Structure." Ruggles alludes to some of the earlier data and what I suspect were Thomas Sowell's sources:
    The controversy over the Moynihan report stimulated a spate of revisionist historical investigations into African-American family structure. These studies asserted that black families in the late nineteenth century were overwhelmingly male-headed and nuclear in structure. Although some authors acknowledged minor differences in family structure between blacks and whites, they all maintained that in practical terms black families were essentially similar to white families (Agresti 1978; Bigham 1981; Carlson 1988; Furstenberg, Hershberg, and Modell 1975; Gutman 1975, 1976; Harris 1976; Krech 1982; Lammermeir 1973; Pleck 1972; Riley 1975; Shifflett 1975). The revisionists thus implied that the distinctive African-American family pattern is of recent origin, and this reinforced the now widespread view that economic disadvantages faced by blacks in the recent past are responsible (Brewer 1988; Wilson 1987).
    This actually helps me because I've long wondered why sociological work on black families seemed so ahistorical. There's a strong bias toward looking at black people through the lens of the 1960s--as though black America begins with the Long Hot Summers. I suspect part of that is that we just didn't have great data on black families, and the data we had indicated that something had gone drastically "wrong" around 1960. 
     
    But while it's true that you see a dramatic increase in single-family homes in 1960, the gap is about as old as our data. Ruggles was able to get ahold of census micro-data and basically concluded as much. If you look at the report you can see on Table 2 that as early as 1880 there were roughly double the percentage of black children born to single mothers as to whites (13.1 to 5.9.) Ruggles concludes:
    ...[T]he finding of recent studies that the high incidence of single parenthood and children residing without parents among blacks is not new. The pattern is clearly evident as far back as 1850 among free blacks. From 1880 through 1960, the percentage of black children with at least one absent parent was fairly stable and about two-and-one-half times greater than the percentage among whites. Recently, the percentages of both black children and white children with absent parents have risen dramatically...

    Race differences in family structure have expanded throughout the twentieth century, especially over the past three decades. But the fundamental differences in the percentage of children residing without parents began well over a century ago. The critical question remains: What is the source of this distinctive African-American pattern of single parenthood? Recent economic changes can be invoked to explain the growing differential between black family structure and white family structure, but they cannot explain why blacks started from a higher base.
    Again, you see a big shift in 1960. But that's true for both black and white families, and it's a shift that has been oft-commented upon. The change in marriage is not a "black" problem, and I am not even convinced that it is a "problem." People who want us to go back to 1880 should have the intellectual courage to advocate for the entirety of their vision, not just the parts they like. It is not simply a question of "Is marriage good for kids?" It's "Are shotgun marriages good for kids?" "Should marriage be valued at all costs, including enduring abuse or ill-treatment?" "Should women marry men regardless of their employment prospects and their contact with the correctional system?"

    My sense is democratic. I think that human beings are pretty logical and generally savvy about identifying their interests. Despite what we've heard, women tend to be human beings and if they are less likely to marry today, it is probable that they have decided that marriage doesn't advance their interests as much as it once did. It's worth noting that it is not simply women with children who aren't marrying, but women period. Indeed, black women today who are unmarried are having fewer kids than at any point in our recorded history. Mouthing platitudes about culture is fun if you want to be right. But if you really want to know, it's a little harder.

    And on that note I'll say peace to Dalton Conley and Andrew Cherlin for the assistance. And keeping it 100, I will add that I had an excellent Côte Du Rhone with my lunch today. And to keep it hood I'll note that the Camembert from Whole Foods is really incredible. (I almost felt like I was home.) And finally, to make it extra hood I'll say I'm looking forward to going out with my wife, my homegirl Chana, and her dude tonight. We plan to drink some wine and do all we can to ruin the good name of the black family and further discredit the entire race. 

    Holler if you so happen to hear me.
  • How to Become a Foodie

    So I've been missing Paris a lot. My current playlist is pitiful—I alternate Distant Lover and Cette Année-la. I keep waiting to walk out my door and see the women in the long dresses and big hats riding the Velib. No dice. I've had some small victories. Kenyatta found us a cheap, decent Sauvignon-Blanc. I found some good, stinky Camembert. I've been walking a lot more, and running a lot less. I like how much you see when you take it slow. Prenez le temps, mon fils. Don't let it all pass you by. Think about your life.

    All of that's been nice, but I've been frustrated by my inability to find a good baguette.  I'd tried the local bakery nearby, which was reputed to have one of the best baguettes in New York. It was too big, too dense, too bland, and (ultimately) too expensive.
     
    What I remember about the baguettes in Paris is that they were cheap and I never had a desire to put anything on them. They are a meal onto themselves. And I also suspect they were laced with narcotics. I get high off the plainest things. I joke a lot about oatmeal here, but a good bowl of rolled oats, with a little brown sugar, cranberries and raisins really smooths me out. It's a different feeling than eating something really sweet or salty. There's a kind of evenness that just takes over you. I just feel mellow.
     
    But yesterday I took my walk and on the loop back stopped at Whole Foods to buy some oatmeal. They were selling baguettes for two bucks. I figured I'd take the gamble. It's fashionable to talk shit about Whole Foods. But the baguette I got there was almost—almost—as good as my daily special from Eric Kayser. I brought it home, sat up with my wife and my kid and we all got high.
     
    When I was leaving Paris, I wrote about how the things I valued seemed to be valued over there. High on that list are things you stuff into your body. And when I thought about what I stuffed into my body, while in Paris, I didn't feel like a foodie. I didn't feel special. I felt like I was learning French. But I guess I am a foodie now. I'll take that. There aren't many moments of peace and bliss. I can't drink like I did when I was young. My life doesn't really allow for marijuana. But I need a separate space. Dinner seems like a good place to draw the line.
     
    Now for the saucisson and boudin noir...
  • In Defense of Pedophilia (Again)

    Over the past few years, I've gotten a real education in how, and why, the sexual assault of children continues to be tolerated. On one side we have people who think forcing sex offenders to live under bridges is an awesome idea. And then on the other side we have people who don't really think sexually assaulting children is that bad. Cue Richard Dawkins:

    While he told the Times that an unidentified schoolmaster "pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts" when he was a child, he argued that he did not think the abuse -- which he referred to as a "mild touching up" -- against himself and other children in his class "did any of us lasting harm."

    "I am very conscious that you can't condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours," Dawkins was quoted as saying. "Just as we don't look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can't find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today."

    No, this is very wrong. It's very convenient to believe that racism is a relic of an unenlightened, barbaric past. But a good body of historical scholarship shows that modernism and racism go hand in hand. Indeed, you can find people condemning racism in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and the 19th century. For a sliver of the 15th century, the city of Florence was ruled by a black man.* Early 17th century Virginia was less racist than early 19th century Virginia. The myth of racism as a failure of manners is convenient because it conceals what lies at the heart of any system of exploitation--power.
     
    I don't have the intellectual chops to extend that out to the history of children, and childhood, but I have my suspicions. At any rate I am very skeptical that if, say, Harry Truman was found to enjoy giving children a "mild touching up" the country would have cheered him on. On perhaps they would have. The "Pedophilia isn't so bad" caucus is significantly larger than I'd once thought. 
     
    *Bonus question for the Horde. I've been going back over my early modern Europe lectures with Margaret Anderson. Was Florence, technically, a city-state?
     
  • Michael Bloomberg Is Not a Scientist, Man

    The technocratic image the mayor cultivates isn't just an affront to democracy -- it's also dishonest, since many of his signature moves lack empirical support.

    Brendan McDermid/Reuters

    There's a lot to like about this Jonathan Chait retrospective on Michael Bloomberg. Chait's main target is the insane idea that Bloomberg could ever have run for president and won. This notion rests on the idea that Bloomberg is a "centrist" when, in fact, his politics are basically the politics of the Democratic Party. If you can articulate the difference between Michael Bloomberg's politics and, say, Chuck Schumer's or Cory Booker's, I'd love to hear it. The idea of Bloomberg as a "centrist" savior rests on the premise that somewhere in the Senate there is liberal version of Ted Cruz.

    But there's something else here that's more telling. Chait quotes David Broder asserting that Bloomberg should run because:
    ... there is a palpable hunger among the public for someone who will attack the problems facing the country -- the war in Iraq, immigration, energy, health care -- and not worry about the politics.
    This is an amazing statement, but it's of a piece with Bloomberg's contention that "people aren't good at describing what is in their own interest." There's obviously something to be said for not consulting a poll for every single decision an executive makes. I think when people vote for a president, mayor, or governor, my hope are not simply electing someone who will agree with me 95 percent of the time, but that I am electing someone who reflects their baseline values.
     
    And there are obviously some choices that simply cannot be submitted to popular opinion. Even that sort of prohibition is complicated. We might assume that in 1860, a majority of the public would have supported slavery. But how do we reconcile that with the fact that South Carolina, which initiated the Civil War, was the least democratic state in the old union As early as 1917, a majority of the House and Senate was prepared to pass an anti-lynching bill. Democracy didn't kill the anti-lynching bill, the filibuster did.
     
    When I started writing this post I was going to point out that George W. Bush had plenty of public support for Iraq invasion. The reality is more complicated, and had the truth been known about WMD, public support would have likely plummeted. The idea that "politics" and "public opinion" are nuisances to be trampled upon by the philosopher-kings proceeds from the basic belief that the people are stupid (or easily duped by "powerful interests") and that the obviously correct solution should immediately prevail. You see this kind of anti-democratic instinct in school reform -- Michelle Rhee's contention that she wasn't in the business of "politics," or Bloomberg's appointment of Cathie Black as schools chancellor.
     
    There's something else here also -- there's no real track record. Anti-democrats -- despite their insistence on empiricism -- are often just as addled as the public. For every smoking ban, there's a Cathie Black. Black's appointment was not the result of an infallible algorithm designed to compute the best interest of New York students. It was the result, by Bloomberg's own account, of a desire find someone who "came from out of left field." The appointment was a disaster. But, according to Bloomberg, it's not because he foolishly appointed someone who had no history in education, it's because she was "dumped on in the newspaper from day one." (Powerful interests!) There's always an available excuse for the technocrat.
     
    Likewise, there is no empirical proof that stop and frisk is responsible for New York's drop in crime. But this does not stop Bloomberg from claiming it anyway, then fuming because "nobody" is talking about crime in minority neighborhoods. In fact, minorities have been talking about since the days of "Self-Destruction" (the song is literally called "Self-Destruction.") Disagree? By Bloomberg's lights you are a "racist" who's attempting to divide the city.
     
    Last week in class we read Elizabeth Alexander's wonderful poem "The Venus Hottentot." Reading that piece got me thinking about how tempting it is to adopt the mask of science and empiricism to conceal less noble motivations. Such as ego. When Bloomberg calls Bill De Blasio's campaign "racist" or claims that he should be frisking more black people, I'm not convinced his making a real claim. The content of the words are beside the point. Even as Bloomberg has full-throatedly defended stop and frisk, he's scaled it back. But he can't bear to say that publicly and thus concede a point to those whom he feels are besieging him. Michael Bloomberg's feelings are hurt and he wants to hurt back.
     
    This is not about numbers. There are no numbers that support branding random mosques as "terror enterprises." But for Bloomberg technocracy means the right to tell us that the numbers mean what he says they mean.
  • On the Shameful, Obvious, Self-Evident Racism of Bill de Blasio

    Michael Bloomberg tries to criticize a would-be successor -- and ends up writing one long Bill de Blasio love note.

    I'm not really sure what you get the mayor who has everything, but if Bill de Blasio becomes mayor of New York he should immediately thank Michael Bloomberg:

    Then there's Bill de Blasio, who's become the Democratic front-runner. He has in some ways been running a class-warfare campaign -- 
     
    Class-warfare and racist.
     
    Racist? 
     
    Well, no, no, I mean* he's making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it's pretty obvious to anyone watching what he's been doing. I do not think he himself is racist. It's comparable to me pointing out I'm Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.
    You should read the whole interview. It's just one long Bill de Blasio love note. At one point, Bloomberg asserts that the presence of air-conditioning on the subways means that no one in New York is poor. At another he blames Cathie Black's failure as schools chancellor on the press. The whole piece reads like a caricature of the 99 percent. I think there is a credible argument to be made that Bloomberg is playing 12-dimensional chess and intentionally trying to destroy Christine Quinn. 
     
    What a total and complete meltdown.
  • Dumb Into Damascus

    Is this any way to go to war?

    There's some powerful video coming out of Senator John McCain engaging with his constituents. From what I can tell there were a number of citizens in the audience with Syrian roots, many of whom were not convinced by the case for war. They have company:

    By a 48% to 29% margin, more Americans oppose than support conducting military airstrikes against Syria in response to reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

    The new national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Aug. 29-Sept. 1 among 1,000 adults, finds that Obama has significant ground to make up in his own party. Just 29% of Democrats favor conducting airstrikes against Syria while 48% are opposed. Opinion among independents is similar (29% favor, 50% oppose). Republicans are more divided, with 35% favoring airstrikes and 40% opposed
    Polls can never be the end-all, be-all of any policy. But when you have majorities in your own country opposing a war, when the president can't convince his own party, when alleged allies in the region and your strongest ally in the world oppose war, then it's time to rethink. A coalition isn't something you assemble just for show. It demonstrates a broad range of concerns and interests have come to the same conclusion. This cuts both ways. And so it's worth considering why a broad range of concerns and interests are now united in opposition. 
     
    Put simply -- is this any way to go to war? I don't think Senator Obama would have been convinced.

  • The Lost Battalion

    I'm sorry I've left you all. I'm still crashing a piece for the magazine, hoping to be out of print-hell by Monday. There's a lot on my mind. I miss Paris more than anything. I'm waking up at two in the morning. I have not reset my watch, and don't ever plan to. I've been playing a lot of Babyface. There's air conditioning everywhere--whether it's actually hot or not. I had to come out the subway yesterday just to feel the city. This is all very ridiculous. I feel like Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets"--Over a dog. Over an ugly dog

    Thinking about Syria too. Reading Daniel Larison, who's making a lot of sense. Thinking this can't end well. 

    Started teaching yesterday. Carrying two classes this semester instead of one. Back to back. I was on fire for three hours. And then I was exhausted. But I told my kids I missed them all summer. And I didn't even know them yet. It's true.

    But I've gotta go. Need to make it happen. Gotta get it in. Or whatever the old folks are saying these days. How about this: Ma maison est votre maison. Soyez gentil. Vous possedez ça. 

    Corrigez-moi, s'il vous plaît.

  • The Case for Tracy McGrady's Hall of Fame Bid

    The 16-year NBA veteran wasn't a natural leader--but so what?



    Bill Simmons' retrospective on McGrady is really good. There's a subtle point in here about how we view we manage to view team accomplishments through the lens of the individual. Basketball is actually more sensible about this than football. 

    Nevertheless, Simmons lines up the forces that influenced McGrady's career--the era he entered the league, Grant Hill's injury, his amazing basketball skills being at odds with the temperament you want from a team leader:

    His personality never matched his talents, Morey believed, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. For his first three Houston seasons, it fell upon coach Jeff Van Gundy to supply that leadership -- by default -- and as Morey accurately points out, you never want your team drawing its entire personality and toughness from someone wearing a suit. (Even in Chicago, where the Bulls assumed Tom Thibodeau's rugged personality over these last three years, that wouldn't work if lunch-pail guys like Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler weren't involved.) 
    After Morey fired Van Gundy before the 2007-08 season, new hire Rick Adelman was hoping McGrady would take on a bigger leadership role. Adelman was a more laid-back coach, Morey explains, someone who'd rather delegate to his players. So they met with McGrady to tell him that they needed his help.

    What happened? McGrady politely turned them down. He just wasn't wired that way, he told them.

    "So who did everyone consider the team's leader during your 22-game winning streak?" I asked Daryl.

    "Probably Chuck Hayes," Daryl said

    There's a tendency when you hear these stories to go in on the player for not remaking their entire self for their sport. But at the same time, I wonder if--outside of basketball--people like McGrady are ultimately healthier. It's easy to forget that Tracy McGrady is a person, not a basketball career. But he was great. And I think Simmons case is air-tight.

  • Slowing Down The War Train

    I like to think my colleague James Fallows has some sort of neural interface with the president. OK, so probably not. Nevertheless, it's worth checking out the series of posts he's written on Syria, culminating with this post where he praises the president's wisdom. I'm hoping we'll get to see the reconstituted version. Nevertheless, I think Jim was dead on this week, and is dead on now. I never believed Obama's thoughts on war were going to match my thoughts on war. But like Jim, I've always thought the president was wise. A lesser man would have stood on ego. 

    Let's see where we go from here.
     
     
  • Departures

    The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #16

    Departures.jpg

    So we are leaving tomorrow and I am more scared going than I am coming. I am not just a romantic, I am a committed one. That is to say, I believe in the importance, not just in feeling things, but in following those feelings through. Should that following lead you to disaster, it can never make you wrong. It can only make you a traveler. 

    It was the smallest things that got me--restaurants that served food, not sex, and never tried to confuse you. The people smiling at you like a lost puppy as you bumble through their language. The range of folks out on the block, on a night like tonight, all of them trying to get in; 70-year olds floating past with  Ohio Players on the brain

     

    I'm too young child and you're too old
    That don't mean that you got no soul.

     

    It's a beautiful thing. I hope you caught some sliver of that. 

  • Hey Everybody, an Old Man Is Talking

    Old Man.jpg

    I used Nicole Cliffe's piece "Getting the Body You've Always Wanted" from The Hairpin in my essay class last year. It was something of a hit. There were only women in the class. I recommended they read The 'Pin because I'm totally up with what all the anti-racist, sex-positive kids are doing these days. I'm hip. I'm with it. I'm intersectional. I'm an ally. I've got privilege, man.

    And I love The 'Pin, but I loved it a little less after Cliffe made a getaway. She got with a homegirl and started The Toast, which I've been enjoying a little too much for a man my age. Whatever. I told you I was intersectional. This piece, for instance, "A Day in The Life of a Troubled Male Antihero," was basically written for me. I don't think I should excerpt it here since its full of not-nice language. (We can talk in comments.) But I want to say that after reading that piece, I felt a little less lonely in the world.

    And I felt that way after perusing the site. The Toast is so ratchet, as the kids would say. Wait, isn't that what the kids would say? Is that a compliment? My son told me to say that. How about "The Toast is so twerking?" "The Toast is so HAM?" No? Hmm. This is not working out like I planned. 

    Eff it. 

    Real Americans eat oatmeal, but they read The Toast. You should too. 
  • On the Death of Dreams

    If we are honest with ourselves we will see a president who believes in particular black morality, but eschews particular black policy.

    Watching Barack Obama's speech yesterday, I thought of a young W.E.B. Du Bois who in 1897 authored the original Poundcake Speech:
    We believe that the first and greatest step toward the settlement of the present friction between the races—commonly called the Negro Problem—lies in the correction of the immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes themselves, which still remains as a heritage from slavery. We believe that only earnest and long continued efforts on our own part can cure these social ills.

    Du Bois styled himself as a speaker of bold truths, arguing that black people "must be honest" and fearless in "criticizing their own faults." Those faults included a disturbing number of black boys succumbing to "loafing, gambling and crime," and a "vast army of black prostitutes that is today marching to hell."

    Du Bois was writing at a time in which such views were current in the world of white sociology. The way to defeat them was not to attack them at their root, but to be better, to be twice as good—"There is no power under God's high heaven," asserted Du Bois. "That can stop the advance of eight thousand thousand honest, earnest, inspired and united people."

    Much like Du Bois more than a century ago, Obama positioned himself as an airer of laundry and speaker of bold, necessary truths:

    And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support—as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.

    It goes without saying that the president is using a tank to bravely plow through an army of straw men. George Will could not have done better. I have met a lot of trifling human beings who happened to be black, and from them, I have heard a lot of trifling excuses for not parenting. I have never met one who cited racism as an excuse for not parenting or for giving up on oneself. I doubt that Barack Obama has either.*

    The president's comments regarding the riots are particularly illuminating. The black community in 1968 had born the brunt of roughly a hundred years of lynchings, beatings, rapes, firebombs and racist policy. The American state which Barack Obama represents regarded Apartheid not as an unfortunate side-effect  but as one of its necessary premises. Nothing was immune—not postbellum reunion, not Prohibition, not the New Deal, not the G.I. Bill, nothing. In the main, the black community responded to this campaign of white terrorism and racist policy with stoic protests, hypermorality and nonviolence. Bloody Sunday was not original. It just happened to be televised.

    There is the rub: In the 1960s, black men and women who carried the pain of living in a white terrorist state, who carried the pain of redlining, of job discrimination, of being cheated out of land, put on the television and saw black women and children getting the shit kicked out of them. No one was being punished. Sometimes the police were doing the kicking. They saw this, and they stewed. They'd seen it before. And as they had in the face of racial pogroms, and in the face of slavery itself, they closed their mouths, swallowed the daggers, and got dressed for work.

    Martin Luther King turned this stoic tradition into high art. It was a kind of jujitsu by which our pain could be made redemptive. The price was high. If that imagery cut black folks to the core, one wonders how far it went in normalizing the idea of the black body as the rightful field for violence. If you accept that being twice as good is the price of the ticket, then you accept a double standard, and thus necessarily accept the precepts of racism.

    The response to this bargain was to bug King's phones, to send lewd tapes of his affairs to his wife, to plant informants in his inner circle. The heads of the American state signed off on this bugging. Jackie Kennedy held him in contempt. John F. Kennedy liked to demean him as "Martin Luther Queen." The response of the white public was considerably more vicious. And so for daring to oppose Vietnam, for challenging Apartheid, for claiming that garbage workers are people, they murdered him. 

    None of us in this generation can truly know how it must have felt to be black, to have come out of the long night of slavery, into the clutches of revanchists, to have survived only to see your great ambassador slaughtered like a dog. Barack Obama doesn't know anything about this. None of us know anything about this. None of us can really know how deep that pain must have cut. Anger is human. It is fantastic to see the head of the same American state that created the ghettos (which predictably exploded) attack the people imprisoned there for being self-defeating. 

    Like Du Bois, Barack Obama has taken the stage at a moment when it is popular to assert that black people are the agents of their own doom. The response to Trayvon Martin, indeed the response to Barack Obama himself, has been to attack black morality, to highlight black criminality and thus change the conversation from what the American state has done to black people to what black people have done to themselves. Like Du Bois, Barack Obama believes that these people have a point. Du Bois's biographer, David Levering Lewis, says that Du Bois came to look back back on that speech with some embarrassment. I don't know that Barack Obama will ever reach such a conclusion.
     
    Indeed, if we are—as the president asks us to be—honest with ourselves, we will see that we have elected a president who claims to oppose racial profiling one minute, and then flirts with inaugurating the country's greatest racial profiler the next. If we are honest with ourselves we will see that we have a president who can condemn the riots as "self-defeating," but can't see his way clear to enforce the fair housing law that came out of them. If we are honest with ourselves we will see a president who believes in particular black morality, but eschews particular black policy.
     
    It is heartbreaking to see this. But it is also clarifying.
     

    *This sentence was changed and clarified in response to this comment
  • The Security State of Ray Kelly

    Oh hey look, the police commissioner of the largest department in America is profiling. Again:

    The New York Police Department has secretly labeled entire mosques as terrorist organizations, a designation that allows police to use informants to record sermons and spy on imams, often without specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

    Designating an entire mosque as a terrorism enterprise means that anyone who attends prayer services there is a potential subject of an investigation and fair game for surveillance.

    Since the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD has opened at least a dozen "terrorism enterprise investigations" into mosques, according to interviews and confidential police documents. The TEI, as it is known, is a police tool intended to help investigate terrorist cells and the like.

    Many TEIs stretch for years, allowing surveillance to continue even though the NYPD has never criminally charged a mosque or Islamic organization with operating as a terrorism enterprise.

    The documents show in detail how, in its hunt for terrorists, the NYPD investigated countless innocent New York Muslims and put information about them in secret police files. As a tactic, opening an enterprise investigation on a mosque is so potentially invasive that while the NYPD conducted at least a dozen, the FBI never did one, according to interviews with federal law enforcement officials... The NYPD did not limit its operations to collecting information on those who attended the mosques or led prayers. The department sought also to put people on the boards of New York's Islamic institutions to fill intelligence gaps.

    One confidential NYPD document shows police wanted to put informants in leadership positions at mosques and other organizations, including the Arab American Association of New York in Brooklyn, a secular social-service organization.

    That Barack Obama, a politician who pushed Illinois racial profiling bill, ever flirted with a Kelly nomination, is evidence of what happens when take you Serious People, seriously.

    From my label-mate Conor Friedersdorf:

    Usually, when I write phrases like, "This is how a secret police force with files on innocent Americans starts," I'm issuing a warning about the future. But the NYPD literally started a secret police unit that began indiscriminately keeping files on innocent Americans. This isn't a warning about a slippery slope. It is an observation about ongoing abuse of civil liberties in America's biggest city.

    Precisely. This is just who we are, now. Make sure to check out New York magazine's piece on Kelly's outfit. Al-Qaeda greatest victory has been in exposing our meek defense of values we claim to cherish. Shame on Ray Kelly. This is disgraceful.

  • The Black Box of Second-Language Acquisition

    The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #15

    There all sorts of theories around how best to acquire a second language. Some people think you should dive right in and speak from day one. Other people think that it is perfectly normal for you to shut up and listen. There are polyglots who swear by translation as an aid for learning. There are others who think translation is the enemy of second-language acquisition. The point here is not that there are no rules. There clearly are--virtually everyone agrees, for instance, that immersion beats everything. (Which is sort of why you see "immersion" labels on products and classes that clearly are not.) And virtually everyone agrees, all things being equal, that it's easier to pick up a third and fourth language, than a second--mostly because having done it before, you have some idea how your brain works.

    I use a product called Fluenz. I also use Anki to increase my vocabulary. There's a theory that holds that if you learn 3,000 words of your target language you will know about 95 percent of all the words used in a regular conversation. Also this summer, I took about four hours of class four to five times a week. Those classes were heavy on grammar. I have reservations about all of this. I'm skeptical of the idea that you can "know" a word without repeated exposure to it in different contexts. I have strong doubts about repetitive grammar exercises, and classes where the students don't talk a lot. But I also think those doubts aren't very important, because I enjoy making flashcards, my classes anchor my day, and Fluenz is a nice change of pace.

    Am I learning at the optimal pace? Beats me. "Learning" is such a black box. We generally know that some people have more aptitude than others. We also generally agree that everyone should regularly practice. But after that there just seems to be a lot of grey area. In talking to people who've tried to learn a language and quit, I've come to believe that nailing the optimal method is not as important as continuing to put one foot in front of the other. In other words, I think, above all, you've got to find some method that keeps you practicing regularly over a long period of time.

    And you've just have to wait. I'm talking to myself, more than I'm talking to you. Peregrin Coates wants "the French" right now and I wants it all. For those of us who can't afford immersion, everything happens so slow and the benchmarks are weird. I know that when I first started I couldn't say anything beyond "Bonjour" or "Merci" and I could not say them right. Now I can generally communicate with someone, who is trying to communicate with me--but they have to be trying and I have to tell myself "OK, we're speaking French right now." Some day I hope for things to be better. But the only way to really do that is to keep walking. You can't much think about the destination. You must focus on walking the path, and try not think about seeing it. 

  • George Will Is Not a Scientist, Man

    Last week George Will joined a panel on ABC News to commemorate the March on Washington. Will said the following:

    "A young social scientist from Harvard working in the Labor Department published a report. His name was Daniel Patrick Moynahan. He said, 'There is a crisis in the African-American community, because 24 percent of African-American children are born to unmarried women. Today it's tripled to 72 percent. That, and not an absence of rights, is surely the biggest impediment."

    The report Will is referencing is entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. That second part is particularly important because Moynihan's argument was not that the black community needed to be more moral. On the contrary, Moynihan strongly believed that American racism was central to what he saw as a "tangle of pathologies" afflicting black families. We can debate that terminology all day. I am not a fan, but my point is that Moynihan was not confused about the root causes:

    That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary -- a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have. That the Negro community has not only survived, but in this political generation has entered national affairs as a moderate, humane, and constructive national force is the highest testament to the healing powers of the democratic ideal and the creative vitality of the Negro people.

    But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries. In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

    There is, presumably, no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement. However, it is clearly a disadvantage for a minority group to be operating on one principle, while the great majority of the population, and the one with the most advantages to begin with, is operating on another. This is the present situation of the Negro. Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate such leadership and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage.

    Here an earlier word of caution should be repeated. These is much evidence that a considerable number of Negro families have managed to break out of the tangle of pathology and to establish themselves as stable, effective units, living according to patterns of American society in general. E. Franklin Frazier has suggested that the middle-class Negro American family is, if anything, more patriarchal and protective of its children than the general run of such families.27 Given equal opportunities, the children of these families will perform as well or better than their white peers. They need no help from anyone, and ask none.

    While this phenomenon is not easily measured, one index is that middle class Negroes have even fewer children than middle class whites, indicating a desire to conserve the advances they have made and to insure that their children do as well or better. Negro women who marry early to uneducated laborers have more children than white women in the same situation; Negro women who marry at the common age for the middle class to educated men doing technical or professional work have only four fifths as many children as their white counterparts.

    It might be estimated that as much as half of the Negro community falls into the middle class. However, the remaining half is in desperate and deteriorating circumstances. Moreover, because of housing segregation it is immensely difficult for the stable half to escape from the cultural influences of the unstable one. The children of middle class Negroes often as not must grow up in, or next to the slums, an experience almost unknown to white middle class children. They are therefore constantly exposed to the pathology of the disturbed group and constantly in danger of being drawn into it. It is for this reason that the propositions put forth in this study may be thought of as having a more or less general application.

    In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children may have to run the gauntlet all over again. That is not the least vicious aspect of the world that white America has made for the Negro.

    There's a lot to debate here in terms of Moynihan's analysis. His thoughts on slavery breaking the black family, for instance, were thoroughly rebutted in Herb Gutman's masterful study The Black Family In Slavery And Freedom. I also think it's worth noting that the percentage of white single-parent births is now exactly where black births were in Moynihan's time. But no one thinks this has much to do with "matriarchy." But Moynihan, unlike George Will, believed racism to be at the core of any discussion about what afflicted the black family. Moreover, Moynihan -- unlike Will -- believed that because America had created this problem, it was America's responsibility to actually do something:
     

    The key to arresting the alarming rise in family instability, he felt, was a dedicated federal effort to provide jobs for black men. He was, after all, assistant secretary in the Department of Labor, not in the Department Health, Education, and Welfare; his purview was the workforce and not the family. The crisis in the black family was his justification for a federal jobs program. Along with education, training, and apprenticeship programs that would enhance the employability of black men, he favored a major public works effort that would guarantee jobs to all able-bodied workers. If full employment for black males -- especially young black males -- could be achieved, he thought, then family stability could be restored and government would be in a better position to attack more entrenched problems such as discrimination and segregation.

    With that in mind whenever I see conservatives embracing Moynihan, I wonder whether they've actually read the report. Moynihan wasn't calling for marriage classes, moral hectoring and austerity. He was a big government liberal who believed that a massive jobs program was the antidote to centuries of systemic racism. I have to say this goes for liberals too. I don't agree with parts of The Negro Family -- I think his stuff on slavery is pretty bad, for instance. And I remain skeptical of attempting to address the effects of racism, while changing the subject. But I don't think that the idea that Moynihan was blaming the victim holds up very well, either. People who are blaming the victim rarely call for massive job programs and subsidized childcare on the victim's behalf. The whole point of blaming is to evade responsibility. Whatever Moynihan's problems, he was not doing that.

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