Monday, January 14, 2008

Appalachia Ho!

Whenever I talk about racism as a structural phenomenon that disadvantages Black people regardless of class, Appalachia is brought up. Presumably, the point is that White people can struggle too. I'm not sure what that's supposed to prove -- that A --> X doesn't mean that B -/-> X. There are poor White people in Appalachia. They face many disadvantages, most of which would be defended to the death as capitalism-in-motion if the point wasn't to discredit Black people. And some of those same Appalachians have lived their lives and can still conceptualize that, their own disadvantage notwithstanding, racism still operates in America in ways wholly distinct from their own problems.

Appalachia also is trotted out because (to risk the ire of Ambrose Bierce), it is the exception that proves the rule. I am reminded of an SNL skit summarized by Tim Wise:
The lack of symmetry between a word like honky and a slur such as “nigger” was made apparent in an old Saturday Night Live skit, with Chevy Chase and guest, Richard Pryor.

In the skit, Chase and Pryor face one another and trade off racial epithets during a segment of Weekend Update. Chase calls Pryor a “porch monkey.” Pryor responds with “honky.” Chase ups the ante with “jungle bunny.” Pryor, unable to counter with a more vicious slur against whites, responds with “honky, honky.” Chase then trumps all previous slurs with “nigger,” to which Pryor responds: “dead honky.”

The line elicits laughs all around, but also makes clear, at least implicitly that when it comes to racial antilocution, people of color are limited in the repertoire of slurs they can use against whites, and even the ones of which they can avail themselves sound more comic than hateful. The impact of hearing the antiblack slurs in the skit was of a magnitude unparalleled by hearing Pryor say “honky” over and over again.

I could list off all manner of places and locales where Black Americans struggle under the weight of disadvantage. Indeed, I could list any place in America where Black people live (which, it bears mentioning, includes Appalachia), but to be more specific, Anacostia, DC and South Bronx, NY (Urban), Prince George's County, MD (Suburban), and Wilkinson County, MS (Rural). If I mention disadvantage in PG County, it's met with the cry of "Appalachia!" Anacostia? Appalachia! Rural Mississippi? Appalachia! It's a one trick pony, and one that presumes that social scientists are morons to boot. Do these people really think that researchers simply forget the existence of Appalachia when documenting continued racial disparity and discrimination? Indeed, in some ways Appalachia proves the opposite point -- I've seen no indication that the 10% or so Black population in Appalachia is any better off than their White peers. Even in the paradigmatic case of White deprivation, odds are Blacks have them beat on their own turf. Compare that to, say, how Blacks and Whites match-up in New York City, or the DC metro area, or the Mississippi delta.

Wise continues to note that, even when comparing Appalachia to Black people who are nominally "better off", poor Whites still hold advantages:
Poor whites are rarely typified as pathological, dangerous, lazy or shiftless the way poor blacks are, for example. Nor are they demonized the way poor Latino/a immigrants tend to be.

When politicians want to scapegoat welfare recipients they don’t pick Bubba and Crystal from some Appalachian trailer park; they choose Shawonda Jefferson from the Robert Taylor Homes, with her seven children.

And according to reports from a number of states, ever since so-called welfare reform, white recipients have been treated far better by caseworkers, are less likely to be bumped off the rolls for presumed failure to comply with new regulations, and have been given far more assistance at finding new jobs than their black or brown counterparts.

Poor whites are more likely to have a job, tend to earn more than poor people of color, and are even more likely to own their own home. Indeed, whites with incomes under $13,000 annually are more likely to own their own home than blacks with incomes that are three times higher due to having inherited property.

None of this is to say that poor whites aren’t being screwed eight ways to Sunday by an economic system that relies on their immiseration: they are. But they nonetheless retain a certain “one-up” on equally poor or even somewhat better off people of color thanks to racism.

This isn't to say that race always trumps class. No amount of money can buy off racism, but it can mitigate its effects to the point that they're not as severe a burden as extreme economic deprivation. But race always is in play, no matter how rich or poor you are, and White people are its beneficiaries, no matter how poor they are. Ronald Reagan's "Welfare Queen" was explicit racial imagery. It didn't attack poor people, it attacked poor Black people. Poor Whites (in Appalachia) simply never were attached with the same scorn and opprobrium that their Black classmates took on. The drug war doesn't target meth abuse among White Appalachians. It buries Black crack users in Mott Haven. Appalachians do get screwed in America. But they don't get screwed on account of race. Insofar as race plays into their treatment and social perception, they're advantaged. Which is why shouting "Appalachia!" doesn't cut it as a response to race-based disparity in America today.


Mark said...

The point being made, is not that A->X <> B->X it's a question of why not install programs that help the disadvantaged irregardless of skin color not just one particular group of disadvantaged. For example in the case of aid, wouldn't it be better to tailor your aid to help specific ethnic and regional groups which need the aid? That way you would both be helping the poor White, poor Native American, and poor Black, and poor Hispanic, and so on.

Your argument fails to meet the reason for the objection.

David Schraub said...

The minute you can show me that me (or my party) has opposed assistance to poor Whites, that might be a compelling objection (indeed, the main sources of aid to Appalachians -- which cut the amount of economically distressed counties in the region in half -- came from LBJ's much maligned [by conservatives, anyway] "Great Society" program).

But where my position does include yours, your position is badly under-inclusive to my argument. The whole point of this entire exposition was that it's not just poor Blacks who are disadvantaged. Giving economic assistance to, say, the residents of PG county (with more Black millionaires than anywhere else in the country) would be beyond silly. But targeting programs so that companies actually build a business infrastructure in a majority-Black county (which they've been avoiding in PG despite its relatively high buying power) would be very useful. Plus, all my usual points about drug wars targeting Blacks of all classes, racial profiling targeting Blacks of all classes, employment discrimination targeting Blacks of all classes, etc., really doesn't make sense along an economic axis.

PG said...

Tim Wise is teh awesome.

The Appalachia objection confuses me because it implies that Appalachia-ness is not actually a region but a characteristic. That is, someone from Appalachia trails his Appalachia-ness with him regardless of where he goes. Most of the people I knew from Appalachia were people I met at UVa (which has some geographic affirmative action that requires it to ensure some students from southwest Virginia get in and not just a wholesale importation of Northern Virginia), and I didn't know that they were until they specifically told me. Being Appalachian isn't a marker the way race is. You can leave Appalachia and most of the kids I knew did just that. You can't leave Black.

Mark said...

It seems PG offers the same suggestion as I do, that is local action to local circumstances as his WVa assistance to those in need is best ... "race" however defined is not helpful (unlike "need" which is).

As far as the "badly under-inclusive" part of my argument. That's because, as noted recently by me, we seem to have a different idea of the role of government.

You know, just as you seem to find the "Appalachian argument" unpersuasive or the notion of Union casualties essentially dishonest, I'll note that your pleas for "diversity" likewise are essentially dishonest. For if you were actually pleading on behalf of diversity and not just being an advocate for a particular special interest then where is the outcry for even stronger and more important sources of diversity in your affirmative action programs for smaller more recent immigrant groups. For after all, the Black youths from the southwest side are far less diverse (from an American standpoint) than those recently arrived those from Lviv, Brasov, or Tbilisi (even if you might, although apparently PG would not, nominally call them "White" for although being "of pallor" they are neither Protestant nor Catholic). This is of course not to speak of Asian or other smaller far more ethnically diverse yet often impoverished groups, e.g., Filipino.

David Schraub said...

I'm not sure what grounds the belief that Black youth from the south side of Chicago are "less diverse" than, say, Filipinos or Ukrainians, and likewise I'm not sure what grounds the belief that a college wouldn't or shouldn't look favorably upon a recent Filipino or Ukrainian immigrant's application compared to yet another White WASP with "the III" appended to his name (or that I would advocate anything approaching such a position).

Filipino immigrants are, of course, a particularly bad example because -- in addition to the hardships every immigrant faces, Filipinos also face race-based hardships that White Americans (even of the Ukrainian variety) do not. But in any case, we're back to the same old terrain. The fact that I believe racial hardship exists does not mean I exclude other sources of hardship. The fact that I believe racial diversity is important does not mean I exclude other sources of diversity. This is unbelievably basic.

Also, PG is a she.

And finally, I am genuinely confused why, in a virtue-ethics paradigm, encouraging people to treat their peers in a respectful and egalitarian manner is not a "virtue". Certainly I'd consider it an important virtue to cultivate in the people, and I'd suspect many would agree. Why is it outside the frame of a virtue-promoting government?

Mark said...

I guess I don't know what you mean by diversity. I thought it meant roughly "less like you." The culture, worldview and experiences of a Ukrainian, Romanian, or Georgian is more foreign to Americans (such as yourself) than the inner-city Black youth. More or less diversity seems pretty straightforward to me. It also seems likely that if you value diversity you'd have to value more those who have more diversity to offer. My question is that the affirmative action program should look more favorably, in your view, on a Ukrainian, Filipino, or Romanian application than a Black applicant, which it seems to me is not something you (or your party) advocate, but which would if your diversity plea was honest.

You'll have to explain how advantaging one group over another encourages egalitarian behavior, not the reverse.

David Schraub said...

I have all sorts of reasons why differential treatment can promote egalitarianism, ranging from "affirmative action is meritocratic and thus is no more offense to egalitarianism than using GPA" to Ronald Dworkin's distinction between "equal treatment" and "treatment as an equal." But that doesn't answer the basic question: is treating others in an egalitarian fashion part of your conception of virtue ethics and why/why not?

I'm not sure that a Ukrainian can objectively be said to "more diverse" (with me as the reference point) than a Black kid from the south side. On some axes sure -- we grew up speaking English, she grew up speaking Ukrainian. We live in a democracy, she lives in a "democracy" (this point doesn't apply if my Black pal lives in DC, though). On the other hand, if she lived a relatively middle class lifestyle in Ukraine, then she's probably closer to me in terms of lived class experience (lived class experience = class in relation to those around you) than my south side pal. If she's lived in America for any length of time, we share all the various sundries of American White privilege that my Black friend doesn't have (we are far less likely to be profiled, scapegoated, be seen as "representative", be seen as "race men", "credits" or "detriments" to the race, etc.). And of course, we likely share a very important historical commonality of descending from (or being) folks who came to America voluntarily.

So really, "diversity" is a dynamic system. Weighing "different diversities" becomes, IMO, a question of saliency. In terms of pure remoteness from my experience, someone who has lived their entire life as an underwater basket weaver on Lake Superior probably trumps both the Ukrainian and the Chicagoan. But her difference is not along a particularly relevant axis. By contrast, the Black Chicagoan's difference raises extremely important questions impacting our notions of citizenship, community, solidarity, equal treatment, American values, American culture, and political policy (to name a few). The Ukrainian, too, is implicated in some of these concerns, but less directly and saliently -- the axis of diversity, to be blunt, might not be as important -- White WASP/Ukrainian relations do not seem to challenge deeply held American presumptions and values to the same degree that White/Black relations do.

Mark said...

Uhm, if you really (really?) think that

I'm not sure that a Ukrainian can objectively be said to "more diverse" (with me as the reference point) than a Black kid from the south side.

You need to get out more. You didn't just grow up not speaking the same language, every cultural referent and item was different. Different folk tales (narrative), food, music, TV, dress, religion, assumptions about the future, and so on. However, you have in common with the kid from urban America, by comparison you share almost everything. Middle class in the Ukraine in the 90s compared to here is probably economically below the level of the Black kid from the south side. His parents have likely dealt far more recent and more open vicious ethnic oppression than your south-sider with the 45 years of ungentle Russian occupation, from which they have fled.

So, it seems on the plain notion of diversity in the ordinary sense you have no leg to stand on. However, you want to claim a more ephemeral notion "saliency". That challenges (or affirmation?) of things like "our notions of citizenship, community, solidarity, equal treatment, American values, American culture, and political policy" are far different because of skin color? I'd argue you're still just arguing your advocacy position, not one based on honest diversity. How can not such question arise, you have the opportunity to interact with someone who has (or his parents have) lived through a society completely lacking these things. Who has older relatives who recall the Terror. How can that not fail to put into perspective American culture and values? Is your saliency just rhetorical flourish to cover naked advocacy?

I'll work on crafting a more substantive response to your egalitarianism as virtue, but in part we've covered it. I don't see value as implicit with hierarchy, unlike yourself.

David Schraub said...

"Different folk tales (narrative), food, music, TV, dress, religion, assumptions about the future, and so on."

This distinguishes them from poor South Black Americans have different folk tales, different food, different music, often have different TV (BET, UPN), different dress, different religion, and different assumptions about the future than I do. With the possible exception of TV, they're on a totally different plane from me. I don't instinctively understand Black comedians like I do White ones -- and guess what! Blacks, particularly those who've grown up in segregated communities like many inner cities, don't get White comics. Same with remembering horrifying state sponsored oppression -- do you think the Black kid's grandfather has memories of some sort of racial paradise? What do you think he's remembering? And media entertainment in general is probably where you can claim the least difference from Ukrainians -- the spread of globalization has made American entertainment available and popular across the world, especially in former Soviet Bloc states.

And in some ways, the bare surprise that Black inner cities might even compete with Ukrainians in "difference" is the point. I won't say it doesn't matter from community-standpoint that a person who hails from a continent and a half away, in a totally different country with a different history and a different political system and a different culture, would live a life substantially different from mine; but I wouldn't say it's surprising.

By contrast it should be both surprising and disturbing that less than an hour south east of my house, the amount of distinction is staggering -- beyond the visceral issue that the pigmentation switches from nearly all White to nearly all Black. We have fantastic public schools, theirs are awful and falling apart. We are largely free of crime, they're ravaged by it. We have Congressional representation and undeniable local sovereignty, their home rule is at the pleasure of outsiders and they have no voting representation in the legislature. This despite that we're all "Americans." That's a salient challenge to our whole self-image and value system that no amount of Yakov Smirnoff politics can compare to.

That Ukrainians in Ukraine don't share the American bounty and Americana in general might put our cultural narrative into perspective, but it doesn't challenge its basic coherency. That Black Americans in Anacostia don't share the American bounty or Americana does both.

Mark said...

You know, I think you are a Jew, and have on had occasion to call out people who minimize the holocaust by inappropriate comparison or misusing it in rhetoric. I'd have to say, that remark of yours, comparing the Black American/White American experience to the Ukrainian/Soviet subjugation is a comparable error.

For it ... means either you have no clue what you are talking about or you are arguing (in your words) in bad faith. Have you seen the recent film Lives of Others (which isn't Ukraine but does show life behind the Iron Curtain). How about Holodomor? Then google "Ukraine Gulag" and visit a few links. Read some Solzhenitsyn or others like him reporting on life behind the curtain. There is absolutely no comparison between the 20th century American racial oppression, which was real and which you made(!), and the evil done by the Soviet regime to their subject nations (and their own people).

And if you want to continue to argue that the southside Black represents more diversity or "salient" diversity ... I'm not going to continue belaboring the point. I don't think you have a leg to stand on, but it is clear that you truly believe it, so it is clear that inasmuch as your beliefs are concerned you really are arguing that "more diversity" means the Blacks come first even though the evidence clearly doesn't support it.

Actually, arguing for "salient diversity" instead of actual cultural or real diversity is exactly the point I was making. For by arguing for "salient" diversity, you've conceded the point that you are seeking actual diversity, instead you are being an advocate for a particular cause for which diversity is a convenient cover story.

Mark said...


Oh, this

For by arguing for "salient" diversity, you've conceded the point that you are seeking actual diversity, instead you are being an advocate for a particular cause for which diversity is a convenient cover story.

Should read "you are not seeking" ...

David Schraub said...

I feel like it's utterly ridiculous to assert that Soviet oppression was so far beyond American racial oppression as to say I've made an error in even passingly comparing them (the only indirect comparison I made was that Black Americans today remember horrifying racial atrocities committed by the American people and government) akin to Holocaust trivialization. I have no idea what motivates you to believe that other than a desperate desire to minimize Black oppression (particularly in display here, as "Ukrainians had it worse in Ukraine" is barely related to any of the points thus far made in the thread).

I'm cool with my preferring saliency in my diversity being a "cause". I don't think it's a particularly bad cause to have, and I'm not sure what being "causeless" would even look like.

Mark said...

You had written, "Same with remembering horrifying state sponsored oppression -- do you think the Black kid's grandfather has memories of some sort of racial paradise?"

And I objected. I'm wondering, if someone compared American racial oppression as being essentially equivalent to the Jewish/Nazi Holocaust would you object? I'd hope you would.

The point is, that the Holodomor, the Terror, and decades of secret police and grinding oppression are directly comparable to the Holocast (we are talking genocide and almost a half century of vicious oppression). I'm not calloused or wise enough to have a metric to weigh these things, but ... my sense is that the Ukrainian complaint is perhaps even more warranted than the Jewish one (however of course the Jews don't have the Left acting penning regular apologetics for the villain).

I'd also be a little surprised at your defense. That the allusion was a OK because it wasn't central to your argument. And further, you cast aspersions and accuse the person who objects to the allusion that really their motivation is not to object to the trivialization of genocide but that their motive was to "minimize Black oppression." See how that plays for you as a Jew, the next time the Holocaust is trivialized consider if "it wasn't central to the argument" and a personal attack on the motives of your objection is just a peachy way to respond.

And your are right, it isn't central to our discussion. I just couldn't let it pass unremarked just as you wouldn't (and rightly so) in the Jewish/Nazi/Holocaust case.

And "causeless" is not what I want you to be. However claiming "diversity" is the goal and the sought after good, is basically "spin" or rhetorical dishonesty which is unfortunate.

David Schraub said...

One of my friends who is active in the human rights community has told me that it's always a bad idea to directly compare atrocities, because it inevitably leads to lots of trouble for almost no gain. One can criticize immoral Israeli policies, for example, without calling it "Apartheid", and calling it "Apartheid" causes a major mess that distracts us from the actual issues. We can talk about the Holocaust and Slavery and Ukraine and Rwanda without wondering which one is most like the other. To a large extent, it strikes me as foolish to view large scale moral atrocities as reducible to each other anyway, and is usually just a cover for trying to play "the Oppression Olympics" so somebody can claim to be the Ultimate Victim. And that's how it entered this discussion -- you wanted to pit Ukrainians against American Blacks to see who would "win" the battle of most oppression. It's a waste of time.

What's important isn't whether America's treatment of Blacks across its history is better or worse than the USSR's treatment of the Ukrainians (as I said, I'm not even sure what it would look like to pit them against each other). What's important is that we recognize that both people have a legitimate historical claim to being brutally oppressed -- which is the only point I made: American Blacks, like Ukrainians, have memories of horrifying, brutal, immoral, oppression by their current host countries, and that differentiates them from the dominant White American norm (which is true regardless of the relative gravity of the horror, which, past a certain threshold, I think is a borderline meaningless concept anyway).

The point was, as we agree, rather fractional to the overall point of contention, so what am I supposed to think when you duck out of the actual argument to accuse me of genocide trivialization based on, at best, an uncharitable misreading of a side-point?

It's impossible to make any argument absent one or more "causes". All arguments exist and are inescapably interwoven with the nexus of causes, interests, and ideologies we hold dear. I don't think I've hidden that producing a racially egalitarian society is a cause important to me, and that this argument flows (in part) out of that desire. You have a cause in this argument too, and whatever it is it's not securing more admissions spots for the children of Ukraine.

Mark said...

I said I'm not trying to make comparisons, re Holocaust vs Ukraine and I agree that I don't have a metric for measuring and I agree I don't find value in it.

However I think we have a real problem here. I don't think you would characterize the Jewish/Nazi Holocaust as "oppression". That wasn't oppression, brutal or otherwise. It was genocide mixed with enslavement in subhuman conditions in forced labor camps, which it seems to me is a different thing entirely.

You compared 20th century (grandparent's experiences) of genocide and racial oppression (how brutal? I don't know). As I said before, it seems to me you would call someone making inapt comparisons with Holocaust because that trivializes the Holocaust.

Your claim "And that's how it entered this discussion -- you wanted to pit Ukrainians against American Blacks to see who would "win" the battle of most oppression. It's a waste of time." I didn't "pit them". That's your just uncharitable interpretation of my objection.

What I find odd, is your list of horror (Holocaust and Slavery and Ukraine and Rwanda) sneaks Slavery into the picture. That would be more appropriate if you had been talking about slavery! You weren't. You referenced 20th century (grandparents!) of living individuals. To my reading you made an equivalence to riding in the back of the bus, i.e., apartheid, to genocide.

I guess when you write: "which is true regardless of the relative gravity of the horror, which, past a certain threshold ..." If you make that threshold too low, you also make a serious error. To exaggerate, if your grandparent survived Dachau as a child and mine had a puppy who died, to compare those experiences is gross. It is just a matter of threshold, but I don't what MLK fought was on the same side of that threshold as Holodomor, Terror, or Holocaust.

Look, I'm not ducking out on the argument. I don't agree on the cultural diversity thing. You think that the cultural disparity is comparable between the Ukraine or the Philippines vs suburban American and between urban Black and the suburban. I don't. It doesn't jibe with my experience. Furthermore you think "salient" diversity somehow is more actual diversity.

If "diversity" was not a codeword for a particular singular cause, and was actually what was being touted, then economic condition would not be a primary requirement. You'd actually want a culturally diverse academic environment. You'd have to seek out and try to find in your admissions (and grant scholarships and whatnot to attract) foreigners and recent immigrants from, well, everywhere. Rich, poor alike from the thousands of cultures of the world. That however, makes your chief beneficiary of your advocacy (the urban black) just one among many.

How can you know that, say Balinese notions of family or personhood, don't challenge American notions of the same? That diversity and exposure to their (very foreign) experience isn't salient?

And you're right, I'm not arguing for more admissions opportunities for my Ukrainian friends. I'm also not a particular proponent of ethnic affirmative action in general. I just think your claims for "diversity" as such is a dishonest use of language. You don't want multi-cultural exposure. You advocate for bi-cultural perhaps, not multi and to hide your dishonest pay occasional lip service to multi, e.g., your reference to "world music" courses.