Black Eyes

Is segregation such a bad thing?

It’s no secret that Slate has actively cultivated a reputation for contrarianism. Our headline piece over the weekend, in which Jack Shafer took down the clichés of Slate’s “green journalism,” raises our institutional antagonism to Whitmanesque dimensions. Labels aside, however, there is no shortage of received liberal pieties before which Slate habitually genuflects. Take, for example, the case of racial desegregation in America’s public schools.

On June 28th, the Supreme Court handed down a mammoth decision striking down the use of race as a factor in programs designed to counteract racial discrimination. This decision provoked a blistering dissent from Walter Dellinger in our Supreme Court Breakfast Table, a critical introspection of Brown’s intellectual weakness by Risa Goluboff, and a plan of attack for “integration at any cost” by Richard Kahlenberg. Even our designated contrarian, Stuart Taylor, fizzled on the big question: Is racial segregation of America’s public schools necessarily a bad thing?

This is hardly a flippant question. It has vexed liberals for more than half a century. Writing from 1958, in her Reflections on Little Rock, Hannah Arendt thought that Brown was an act of political immaturity which would “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve.” More than one prominent black intellectual has openly challenged the assumption that Brown was a boon for black Americans. Even the famous decision itself seems more than a little racist, striking down de jure segregation because it “generates a feeling of inferiority” in blacks. It may have been 1954, but there were obvious moral and Constitutional critiques of legally enforced segregation available. The use of state power to enforce a racial caste system and to tyrannize a vulnerable minority is a self-evident violation of equality before the law, as well as a moral abomination. Given the context, Brown comes off as a rather tepid exercise in judicial psychotherapy, notwithstanding the real power of its implicit critique of white Americans.

First-time Frayster, soulgroove07, brings this question into sharp focus with his post “Blacks do not need racial harmony or white Americans:”

As someone who was bused for 8 of his 12 years in school there was no integration amongst the races outside of Football, Basketball and Track and maybe the creative arts. As an African- American what I saw was only 5-10 percent actually making an olive branch effort across racial lines. The only thing that busing taught me was that whites could be devious in their dealings with African- Americans either through school administrations or white students acting like they were God’s little angels and they weren’t as bright and slick as they thought they were. So I think the Civil Rights leaders believed too much in the goodness of white Americans when they should have never allowed our children to be educated by our white enemies. White Americans believed in racial equality in theory—not in practice—and that has not changed in the 53 years since that moment. This society will never accept African- Americans as its fellow citizens.African- Americans do not need to live, sleep, have sex or get along with the white population to live in this country. African- Americans need to be racial atheists when it comes to the white population—Justice John Roberts and the white posters’ phony “colorblind” mantra notwithstanding.I think getting away from each other would ease the racial conflicts amongst black males and white teachers and give us as African- Americans a chance to develop our infrastructure in educating our children. There is a big world and we as Black Americans should embrace other cultures, educational ideas and those whites around the world who respect us as human beings and not as problem citizens. White Americans are corrupt with privilege and dealing with them will only give you mental and physical problems.

As one would expect, there are accusations by white posters of “reverse racism” in the ensuing discussion. Another first-time Frayster, indigo, jumps in to add to the point:

Whether or not the original poster was a bit extreme, this does not negate his/her reality. Those of us who were bussed were all individuals; children of the same age, heirs to the same promise, yet we have had individual experiences. This person’s experience rings true with me, and yet the white person’s experience who was bused with his/her black neighbors rings true as well. As a black child growing up in “integrated” schools, I learned many lessons, reaped many benefits, and suffered many pains. I learned what the original poster learned: that being educated by “the enemy” was, in some cases, simply putting a band-aid on a geyser; there were plenty of smiling faces from parents, but the understanding was often that you will be a “nice black” and go to school with my kids, but you will not come to my house for dinner. You get my drift. We’ll put a happy face on this and act like integration is really happening, but in reality, by the time we got to high school in the ‘80s, most social circles were fairly well segregated, even though the college prep classes I attended were integrated. Yet of course, the reality is that, as a child of integration, just like that white person who was also bused, I have grown up, been educated, and operated in mostly interracial/cultural circles of people. This makes me feel wonderful, but it does not erase the reality that Black people, in this country, will always need to have our own communities to return “home” to, even if only in symbolic ways. Black people from the diaspora have always had to be bilingual and bicultural, and I see that as a strength rather than a weakness. The children of integration have a unique battle: We must remember that our “segregated” communities had a strength and love that cannot be matched, and we must work to maintain what remains of that, mostly, our family and social connections, while continuing to work with those of other races and cultures who remain open to us, and continuing to mingle and thrive in the multicultural domains in which many of us live and work. We must reach one hand backwards, towards home, which may be a homogenous community and one hand forward, toward communities of diversity. We must find and multiply love and growth in both places. It is not an easy task.

It doesn’t sound like one. As a (very) white American, I’ve always had the nagging the suspicion that white support for integration has more to do with assuaging the conscience of white Americans than with the manifest injustices regularly visited upon black Americans. At a minimum, assigning black children to minority status in schools stocked with the racist white children of racist white parents seems a dubious favor. Is compulsory integration good for black Americans?

Hannah Arendt once asked of compulsory integration, “do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?” The answer, back then, was clearly “yes.” After fifty years of Brown, and thirty years of bussing, many of us have seen first-hand how the decision turned out. Others still experience the problems of integration and diversity as an abstract question. If you’ve come of age in the last fifty-three years, we’d appreciate hearing your perspective in The Fray .   GA … 5:20am PDT

Friday, July 6, 2007

If education is the great equalizer in American society, nothing is perhaps more offensive to our national identity than an admissions process that rewards the children of wealthy donors and reinforces the class system it is supposed to loosen up.

This ugly underside of higher education, exposed in Joel Waldfogel’s recap of a new study on alumni giving, struck some as obvious.

For morganja, however, the study signals the demise of meritocracy and the emergence of a “system built on corruption, nepotism and false pretenses” with ominous moral implications for the nation. DKenner views the admission of legacies as a more nuanced calculation on the part of universities, given the social cache added by the presence of the ruling classes on their campuses: “after all, rubbing elbows with The Next Generation of America’s Leaders has always been one of the great attractions of attending an Ivy League university.”

Of course, whatever the intentions behind giving, money is still money once stashed away in university coffers. Those generous bequests from the well-off may unintentionally level the economic playing field for the very students on financial aid otherwise unable to attend the college of their choice.

BenK cites other, less cynical reasons for charitable giving to higher education: “a forward looking attitude, more interest in tradition, more concern about future generations,” values more prevalent in his estimation among “conservatives [who] donate a vastly higher proportion of their income” to charity and “are more likely to be raising children. They are also probably more likely to encourage them to go to the school they themselves attended, especially if it is a good school.”

A self-proclaimed Midwesterner and active donor to his state university, aircap also defends the altruistic motivations of “people out here on the prairie” who consider alumni gifts “a positive force in the community … giving back to the system that provided them with the building blocks of their own careers.” Alabama Al reminds us not to underestimate the value of one particular perk for generous alumni, especially in these prairies towns: priority ticket sales to college sporting events.

Finally, SkullStevePSU pokes a hole in the study’s methodology by pointing out that increased parental giving may naturally coincide with having college-bound children in the household for reasons other than self-interest:

As a graduate student pursuing two terminal degrees (MD and PhD), I clearly lack the income to donate significantly to my alma mater. By the time I finish residency, pay off my loans, and have the salary to afford greater charity, my kids will be in their teen years. Thus, my charity may appear to be for my children’s admissions benefits. I am not alone in this late-peaking career trajectory, especially among the graduates of more prestigious schools, so without proper controls, this could greatly skew the results.

Proof that not everything uttered in the Dismal Science Fray is so bleak. AC … 4:05pm PDT

Friday, June 29, 2007

One of yesterday’s headlines asked Slate readers, “If You Like 300, Are You Gay?” Judging from the first page of Matt Feeney’s article, one could fairly wonder why 300 was used to spotlight a piece focused on surf movies. But, the “meat” of the argument —as it were—is indeed dangling on the final page: “Shouldn’t [straight men] be able to [project onto [heroic figures they themselves would like to be]] not just excellence but physical beauty] without being called gay?” According to Feeney, envy of heroic narcissism—the admiring of one’s own reflection in another’s excellence—is unfairly characterized as “homoeroticism.” Judging from responses in the Fray, this assertion is more provocative than it is persuasive.

In describing the mutual attraction between classic hero characters, Feeney writes: “it isn’t homosexual desire. It’s narcissism.” This is a strange dichotomy, given that Narcissus famously drowned himself trying to make-out with his own reflection. As BenK astutely points out, self-love is the apotheosis of the homoerotic: “Homo means ‘same.’ The recognition of self and the love of it would be, in fact, homo-love.”

Recognition of this point hardly ends the discussion, however. To morphicresident, gay vibes in a buddy flick are as unremarkable as acne on a teenager: “When you take an idea [like male bonding] and blow it up on a gigantic screen, you’re always going to end up somewhat over the top.” It may just be an expression of my own gay genes, but I’m sympathetic to badapple’s argument that critics can fail in style even when they’re right in substance. In the view of Systemz, “it seems entirely possible for a work of art to be both homoerotic and, like, totally awesome:”

The reaction of Achilles to Patroclus’ death, that otherworldly combination of grief and rage that transforms him into the demigod among men is so profound precisely because the loss is so acute. Who cares if he was gay or not? The important part is his reaction. The ruthless killing machine that Achilles becomes upon hearing of Patroclus’ death has been mirrored in so many action movies. I remember reading the section when Achilles gets his new armor from Hephaestus and thinking This is the “Oh, its ON” Montage. The point of the moment is about the purity of Achilles’ fury, and what it turns him into. That’s the part of it that is awesome.

Establishing categories of critical thought is important, but ultimately an exercise in line drawing. The critics Feeney takes to task argue whether a given film seems gay. In rejecting the contention that male theatergoers constitute “20 million closet cases,” Feeney expresses more concern that its audience not seem gay. For myself—a gay man—his closing question hits me in reverse. Shouldn’t a guy be able to admire a heroic ideal of masculinity and still be called gay?

If attending a summer blockbuster leads to such crises of identity, maybe we’d all be better off waiting for the DVD. The whole mess elicits some  feminine sympathy from eiruduais:

What a predicament for men (gay or heterosexual) to be in–friendship and the male body is either sexualized or a vehicle for egoism. That’s a rather narrow worldview to project on manhood. Not being male myself, I certainly hope that men don’t take this out of the theaters and view friendships and their bodies as solely vehicles for self-interest and sexuality–that would strike me as incredibly myopic and sad.

In critical circles, a powerful barrier to masculine introspection is known as the “male gaze.” Diablevert accomplishes a rare feat, summarizing this concept without burying it under layers of academic jargon:

Traditionally speaking, straight guys gaze at hotness, they don’t worry about looking hot. Both grooming their own bodies for the purpose of another’s aesthetic pleasure/sexual desire and appreciating the physical beauty of another man are coded as gay. To be a proper straight guy you’re not supposed to notice other guys’ hotness nor to effectively be able to beautify yourself. Because the straight guy is always the looker and never the [looked at].

This explanation can seem like a classic case of overanalyzing. Straight men, however, feel a real pressure to “look straight.” Convention doesn’t quit, even when the ladies, the queers and the film critics aren’t around to judge.

The bigotry known as “homophobia” is a crude weapon, raining fire upon the field of masculinity like a howitzer, rather than honing in on specific targets with the precision of a cruise missile. Straight sissies still get stomped, without ever sucking a man’s dick. The butchest of frat-boys joins the most flamboyant of queens in keeping up his appearances. Maintaining sexual identity is a round-the-clock chore.

As MarkEHaag points out in his truly excellent post, queers are seldom better than straights at lessening this pressure. Those of us gays who could scale the ramparts of masculine conformity, will win a Pyrrhic victory if we pull up the ladder behind. It seems such an obvious point, yet MarkEHaag’s words call for endorsement:

Gay men (and straight men, for that matter) won’t be truly liberated from slavish puerility until they get over the fear of what other men think of their manhood. Feeney and the rest of us need to quit cowering in terror at the stupid label, the mere phoneme “gay.”

Whether gay or straight, our society could use a lot more men of heroic stature. I’d agree with Feeney that admiration of role models is a necessary step for making such men of ourselves.  If you must make a choice between appearing masculine and engaging in some unabashed hero-worship, I say flip your onlookers the bird and follow your heart.  GA … 3:30am PDT

Monday, June 24, 2007

Ordinary sexual activity belongs to the most private and intimate domain of our lives. In American law, it now enjoys a privilege against intrusion only slightly below freedom of conscience and thought. Rape shatters the wall of privacy around sexuality. This crime doesn’t merely penetrate the body of its victims. It has a political dimension, which has existed longer than recorded history. According to Roman tradition, the rape of Lucretia led directly to the foundation of the Republic. In the Bible, the rape of Dinah provoked the slaughter of an entire town. Stories beginning with one man’s lust and one woman’s reluctance can lead to the foundation or destruction of entire cities.

Our age is no different. Rape remains a vexed political question, as shown by discussion of Dahlia Lithwick’s article Gag Order. The controversy in question arises from a ruling by a state judge barring the witness in a criminal trial from using the words “rape” or “sexual assault” to describe her sense of victimization. Lithwick believes this decision goes too far, denuding our language of needed terminology:

Trials exist to ferret out facts, and papering over those ugly facts with pretty—or even ‘neutral’—words doesn’t just do violence to abstractions like language and meaning. When it’s done in a courtroom, the real victim—if I may still use that word—may well be the truth.

Left to my own devices, I would probably quibble that truth is an abstraction in its own right. The sophisticated discussion in the Fray, however, develops and challenges Lithwick’s arguments in many thought-provoking ways.

The case against the ruling is quite strong. As TonyAdragna points out, compelling rape victims to turn verbal pirouettes could impose new traumas upon them. To IMKessel, these restrictions inflict as much psychic violence as ripping out their tongues. Tina Trent reinforces this perspective with her personal account of a post-rape police interview:

This very subject emerged in the first police interview: I was trying (through a badly bruised throat, hours after escaping) to provide the details of the [rape]. At one point, I said something like: “then he made me give him a blow job.” The detective turned off the tape recorder. He told me that I couldn’t use words like “blow job” because the defense attorney would use my language to make me look like a slut. We then haggled a little over the term “suck it,” which, as a direct quote, I felt should be included in the original. After all, wouldn’t the [rapist’s] own language make him look like a slut, too? The police felt that the mere act of accurately reporting the [rapist’s] own words would reflect badly on me. So the tape recorder went back on, and I said something idiotic and grotesquely untrue, like: “then he asked me to perform fellatio on him.” And then, for the first time, I felt dirty. Non-clean, as you would say.

Isonomist worries that not all victims will possess the verbal skills to explain their experience without resorting to simple and direct language. Degsme wonders whether victims with low IQs would be barred from describing the act as “doing nasty things to me down there” on the grounds that “nasty” is potentially inflammatory.

On the other hand, there are many strong counter-arguments supporting the wisdom of this judge’s decision. PubliusToo thinks the ruling’s detractors are exaggerating the need for the word ‘rape’ to accurately and clearly describe the criminal act. Many observe, with KellyS, that the word ‘rape’ offers a legal conclusion rather than a simple description. Eigenvector detects more than a whiff of disingenuousness in the prosecution’s claim that the term isn’t unfairly loaded against the defendant. Sbrak isn’t prepared to lightly dismiss the inherent prejudice carried by the term:

As a society I feel we have more sympathy for murderers than rapists. Hell, Tony Soprano is a hero. As sickened as we might be by someone who can be deemed a “murderer,” we’re often willing to hear him out on the circumstances of the situation. But call someone a rapist, and they don’t stand a chance at being heard out. Maybe it’s our own disgust of this word that causes us not to consider the variables: it’s either rape or it’s not rape. Once the word is said, so many of us turn away. Whatever the reason, this man is on trial, and if his verdict could depend on the use of the word “rape,” than I would say there’s a problem with the evidence.

As often happens on the Fray, much of the debate seems to scrape against half-submerged assumptions. For example, morganb—a supporter of the decision—posits a scenario in which the defendant awakens from a drunken black-out to find a stranger lying next to him, and innocently “tries to wake her with sex.” By contrast, Melvyl—a detractor of the decision—reasonably asks, “what kind of pervert would screw a comatose woman anyway?”

One interesting divide between the camps raises the question of the jury’s proper role in our trial system. Many of the ruling’s supporters are self-identified lawyers (here, here, and here) while many of the nonlawyers evince a strong faith in the competence of juries to reach a fair conclusion (here, here, and here). As a law student myself, I can testify to a widespread suspicion of juries among legal professionals. Apparently, the feeling is mutual. LuxLawyer points out “double jeopardy means that appeal is a one way street—prosecutors generally cannot appeal acquittals, but defendants can of course appeal convictions.” If you’re inclined to think this set-up invites injustice, securing righteous verdicts will often depend upon micromanagement of the jury’s input. If, however, you support the inviolable right of juries to judge the entirety of the case—both the facts under contention and the legitimacy of the law itself—then you must prepare yourself to accept a large number of manifestly unjust verdicts.

Legal scholars call this sacrosanct power of acquittal “jury nullification.” While the legal profession frankly acknowledges the legitimacy of nullification, strict rules prevent attorneys or judges from informing juries that they wield such awesome power. This power can sound like a high-minded populist check against tyrannical laws when it’s brought to bear against legislation like the Fugitive Slave Act. Its virtue is harder to defend when deployed against legislation like the Anti-Lynching Bill. Many Americans are still seething over the acquittal of O.J. Simpson. The routine acquittal of police officers in the face of manifest guilt seems to draw much less popular outrage.

Debates such as this are merely wordplay if we lack answers to a more fundamental question: Can we expect more justice from American law than we can reasonably expect from the American people?

For me, the jury’s still out on that question. If you’ve already reached a verdict, please deliver your convictions to the Jurisprudence FrayGA … 3:30am PDT

Saturday, June 23, 2007

With the official arrival of summer, the staff here at Fraywatch is finding it hard to keep our focus trained on the heavy topics of recent headlines. In our last several items, we’ve offered hard-hitting coverage of such hot-button issues as Paris Hilton, marijuana, and Angelina Jolie. All this high-minded punditry creates a very real risk of burn-out in lesser lights such as ourselves.

So, while we cool our temples in Pacific coastal waters, we’ll be phoning it in this first weekend of summer. According to the yellow pages, there are only two critical steps to phoning in a column: (1) rip off an idea from one of the Fraysters; and (2) talk about animals. Today’s victim of idea theft is topazz, long-time author of a delightful semiregular game entitled “Overheard on the Fray“—a cute little smorgasbord of out-of-context quotes culled from hither and thither. Today’s theme is, of course, animals:

Monkey see, monkey do: “I once worked with a signing chimp who had a fetish for hats. He would demand that you put one on as soon as you entered his environment and start masturbating while looking at you.”—Ciarda tells a workplace story in the Human Nature Fray.

Nothing compares: “Because apples are red or green with a thin skin and a dense core where the seeds are concentrated and oranges are, well, orange with a thick rind and seeds spread throughout the pulp?”—vnk dares to compare in the Fighting Words Fray.

Ink from the pigpen: “What is hogwash anyway? Do modern factory farms ever bother to wash their hogs?”—bubba_barry wonders aloud in the Press Box Fray.

Dancing the beeline: “I have never kept bees, only been backstage as a musician, and my only sense of dance is that it is a controllable form of vertigo.”—Bratsche confesses to the Poems Fray.

Be very afraid: “Any idiot knows a tiger shark can live in the clouds for weeks if needed for a cold front to make it across from the west coast to Kansas.”—meridiantoo spreads the alarm in the Explainer Fray.

Eye of the beholder: “Living creatures should never be used as ‘art.’ That includes those creepy photos of babies dressed as hedgehogs and bumblebees that my weirdo coworker has all over her office.”—SWR delivers a manifesto to the Medical Examiner Fray.

A rosé by any other name: “My taste buds have elevated the standard wine tasting mantras to an even more intrinsic awareness of the flavor, aroma and body of a good wine: ‘Tastes like chicken.’ “—Sonnaille provides some tasteless criticism in the Drink Fray.

Step one: “Shave your dog and give it a jail-house tattoo in the shape of a Taco Bell logo.”—Instructions from Zeitguy to the Sandbox Fray.

No contest: “The 4th installment in the The Fantasticks franchise, ‘the franchise that never was where they are now,’ pits strength against fiction, love against pain, and lesbians against giant pits of diseased alligators.”—switters the agonist, in the Best of the Fray.

All’s well that ends well: “Eventually , the stable had more cats than horses; but, no one went inappropriately ‘potty’ anymore.”—bubbuh from the barn, in the Explainer Fray.

Truth be told, you should really spend some time this weekend at a barbecue. If that won’t be feasible, pull up a lawn chair and enjoy our virtual alternative. We’ll be serving flame-roasted text all weekend, right here in the Fray (bring your own skewers). GA … 3:30pm PDT

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Tabloid news masquerading as serious journalism—this seems to be the offense committed by Esquire in its recent profile on Angelina Jolie. Ron Rosenbaum’s attack on the all-too-cozy relationship between celebrities and the media finds more than one sympathetic ear in the crowd here and there, but the basic thrust of his argument strikes many as hardly revelatory. From faux expressions of moral outrage against our celebrity worshipping madness to playful speculation that the Esquire piece is nothing more than an entry in the “Marrying Celebrity to Seriousness” Contest, reader sarcasm runs thick as molasses in The Spectator Fray. The Chemist, for his part, finds the object of criticism hard to identify in a “web article about celeb article about an actress in movie about a reporter who was decapitated by planner of 9/11 terrorist attacks while reporter was in country invaded because of 9/11 attacks…”

With her do-gooder résumé and pretension to moral gravitas, Jolie is perhaps not the best case study in celebrity journalism gone amuck, though Eigenvector is unimpressed with her humanitarian credentials. ProudInfidel and Svenkemom ratchet up the polemic a few notches in suggesting that Jolie’s elevation to saint-like status by a compliant media reflects our misplaced priorities as a nation.

Meanwhile, K.N.A. weighs in with a passionate defense of the author in question, “one of the best, most original, innovative glossy mag writers” out there. topazz inveighs against egomaniacal interviewers who interject themselves into the interview. SlateReader smells a whiff of hypocrisy emanating from a magazine that criticizes celebrity journalism while using the alluring Jolie pic as cover art for its own spread. And as Lid points out, is it not counterproductive for a critic to spill four pages of ink complaining about all the attention Jolie gets?

nomdevdt waxes nostalgic for an era when the press took more of a critical distance between itself and its subjects, in contrast to “the current field of sub-prime writing inundating the magazines and … zero-thought value of common celeb profile writing” as lbclbclbc harshly describes the sorry state of the contemporary media. Present company excluded, of course. AC … 4:30pm PDT