The racism on display at the University of Oklahoma’s SAE chapter wasn’t simply about exclusion from a fraternity. It was about exclusion from a community of opportunity. (More)

Polar Economy, Part I: Communities of Opportunity

This week Morning Feature looks at our increasingly polar economy. Today we begin with communities of opportunity that open doors to wealth and privilege. Tomorrow we’ll see communities of deprivation that are difficult for the working poor to escape. Saturday we’ll conclude with how to bridge these gaps, and why we must.

SAE had to turn their racism all the way up to 11, and get caught on camera

The public condemnation of the University of Oklahoma’s SAE chapter, after video emerged of them singing an explicitly racist chant, was almost universal. Yes, hardline libertarians jumped in to defend the students’ free speech rights. For them, the First Amendment is sacrosanct, sort of. (The same blog thought protesters in Ferguson should wait until the grand jury heard all the facts.) But even hardline libertarians began with the obligatory condemnation of SAE’s chants.

That’s because SAE made it easy, as Above the Law’s Elie Mystal explains:

What does a person have to do these days to prove that he is racist? It’s not enough to show massive disrespect to the black President. Congress and the Supreme Court get away with that every State of the Union, and they can’t be called racist. It’s not enough to shoot unarmed black people, the cops do that all the time, and they can’t be called racist.

Anymore, the only way you can call somebody a racist without racist people defending the racists is if the racist actually shouts the N-word in public and the utterance is caught on camera. Bonus points if you shout the N-word while singing and dancing about hanging black people.
SAE didn’t start being racist this weekend. But if I had suggested that a fraternity chapter in Oklahoma with a Confederate founding might be racist in its admissions policies towards black people, I’d have been accused of “playing the race card.” Or “race baiting.” Or some other stupid term made up by white people who don’t like to think about racism. SAE had to turn their racism all the way up to 11, and get it caught on camera, before achieving something approaching universal condemnation.

“They embed themselves in our psyche and masquerade as the natural order”

Vox’s Jenée Desmond-Harris argues that focusing on that chant misses the structural racism in our society:

But it’s important to remember that things like this don’t represent the kinds of racism that make life hard for African-Americans on a daily basis. The much more common issues faced by colleges students and people of color all throughout America have to do with structural inequality – which is maintained through deeply held prejudices against black people. Hateful tunes sung on buses by probably drunken frat boys reflect this prejudice, but they certainly don’t cause it. And although the SAE members deserved the discipline they got, individual punishments certainly don’t fix America’s racism problem.

And Policy Mic’s Zak Cheney-Rice emphasizes the distinction between “racists” and “racism”:

Americans have no idea what to do about racism. But “racists”? We can handle those.

Racists are loud and obvious. Racists can’t hide; they trip and reveal themselves. Their emails leak. Videos of them circulate. Racists lose jobs and favor, because racists have bosses, and bosses know the best way to show they’re not racist is to point at racists and say, “That’s the bad guy.”

Racism is a different matter entirely. Racism doesn’t pop up in bold letters, or in outraged headlines on cable news. Racism doesn’t have a boss. To find it, you have to look past the racists, beyond the ranting bigots and their stomach-churning words. Racism thrives in systems and practices. Racism is hard at work in America, whether people see it clearly or not.
We’ve gotten pretty good at spotting racists in America, and we’re okay at punishing them too. But the structures and systems that produce the racists still elude us. Instead, they embed themselves in our psyche and masquerade as the natural order. It’s why incidents like the SAE debacle seem to come out of nowhere and shock us out of our post-racial revery. It’s why the police in Ferguson, Missouri, can spend years brutalizing and killing black citizens, but only lose their jobs when we discover the offensive jokes they make over email.

“Even though no more than 3 percent of the U.S. population has ever been a WGLO member”

The racism at that SAE chapter isn’t just about access to a campus fraternity. It’s about access to a community of opportunity:

Even though no more than 3 percent of the U.S. population has ever been a WGLO [White Greek Letter Organization] member, from 1900 to 2005, 63 percent of U.S. president cabinets have been fraternity or sorority members, over 85 percent of supreme court justices appointed since 1910 have been fraternity or sorority members, over 75 percent of U.S. senators are fraternity or sorority members, and all but two U.S. presidents since 1825 have been fraternity members. Also, of the nation’s 50 largest corporations, 43 of the CEOs are fraternity members. [Citations omitted]

Those data are from a 2010 article by Mississippi State University sociology professor Matthew Hughley titled “A Paradox of Participation: Nonwhites in White Sororities and Fraternities.” He found that even WGLOs that admit members of color do so without fully acknowledging what that means, for the WGLO or for the member. The result is an ‘inclusion’ that is more appearance than reality. For example, Dr. Hughley found that members of color were more likely to be asked to participate in their WGLOs’ “community service” projects, such as mentoring children in poor neighborhoods. But members of color were less likely to be mentored by and brought into the WGLO’s post-graduation networks. He concludes:

Many scholars and popular commentators assume that racial boundary crossing – such as nonwhite membership in traditionally hostile and historically discriminatory organizations such as the white Greek-letter system – signifies a burgeoning racial egalitarianism. For example, Dinesh D’Souza asserts, “the country is entering a new era in which old racial categories are rapidly becoming obsolete, mostly because of intermarriage,” and Orlando Patterson argues “by the middle of the twenty-first century, America will have problems aplenty. But no racial problems whatsoever … the social virus of race will have gone the way of smallpox.” In contrast, by relying on the data presented, I demonstrate that when evaluating instances of racial “integration,” we must not only examine one’s access to resources or what one exchanges for that access. Rather, we must examine how robust white supremacist schema constrain and enable the interpretation of that access and those resources. [Citations omitted]

“I don’t want to be identified with that just because my parents can afford things”

Yes, some bastions of privilege do talk about privilege:

On a recent morning, 20 or so high school students, most of them white, milled about the meetinghouse at Friends Seminary, a private school in Manhattan. They were trying to unload on their classmates slips of paper on which they had jotted down words related to the topic “Things I don’t want to be called.”

Several girls tried get to rid of “ditsy.” A sophomore in jeans and a gray hoodie who identifies as Asian-American was seeking to unload “minority.” And several white students, including a long-limbed girl in a checkered lumberjack shirt, wanted to get rid of “privileged.” Under the rules of the exercise, no other student was obligated to accept it.

“It’s just a very strong word to use,” the last girl said. “I don’t want to be identified with that just because my parents can afford things. I think it has a negative connotation.”

But as Salon’s Corey Robin notes, these (expensive) workshops at tony schools are less than they seem:

You’d think that if the parents and teachers of these masters of the universe were truly concerned about racial and class privilege they’d simply abolish private schools. Or lobby for better state and federal laws, and more liberal courts, to reintegrate the public schools: after all, in 1988, even after two terms of Ronald Reagan, even after two decades of a Republican near-monopoly on the White House, racial integration was at an all-time high. That’s how strong the laws and court orders were.

Or schools could organize workshops to teach students how to lead a mass movement that would divest private schools of federal tax benefits, such as the Coverdell Education Savings Account, or state-level tax benefits, which are even more generous to the wealthy.

The advantages of such a movement would be many. Students would learn, firsthand, that race or race privilege is indeed constructed – a term often bandied about but not always understood – not merely by words and symbols but by laws, taxes, wealth and institutions. In confronting the defenders of these privileges, which might include their parents, teachers, principals and even themselves, students would see, in a concrete way, just how invested people can be in their privilege. And, who knows, they might even win.

But that, of course, is what private school leaders don’t want. They want a conversation, not a confrontation, about privilege. They want to change words, not worlds. So why talk about privilege at all? Because privilege talk is good for business.

“The single most dangerous constituency to anger”

President Obama discussed those tax breaks in this year’s State of the Union, and he was quickly forced to back away from ending them:

The Obama administration has given up on its plan to remove the tax benefits of 529 college investment accounts, which under current law allow parents to put money away, then withdraw it to pay for their children’s education without paying any taxes on the profits. Republicans not only basked in what looked like a White House defeat, but were emphatic in their defense of the 529 tax break: John Boehner called the proposal “a tax hike on middle-class families.”
If you want to know whether an idea like this has any chance of getting support in Congress, the first question to ask is, who is going to be harmed? The 529 proposal was targeted at what may be the single most dangerous constituency to anger: the upper middle class. That’s because they’re wealthy enough to have influence, and numerous enough to be a significant voting block.

Slate’s Reihan Salam, a conservative, argues the upper middle class is “ruining America”:

I’ve had a lot of time to observe and think about the upper middle class, and though many of the upper-middle-class individuals I’ve come to know are good, decent people, I’ve come to the conclusion that upper-middle-class Americans threaten to destroy everything that is best in our country. And I want them to stop.

Salam explains that the upper-middle-class – roughly, families with $200,000 annual incomes or higher – are often hypocrites:

Well, part of my objection is that upper-middle-income voters only oppose tax hikes on themselves. They are generally fine with raising taxes on people richer than themselves, including taxes on the investments that rich people make in new products, services, and businesses. I find that both annoyingly self-serving and destructive. The bigger reason, however, is that upper-middle-class people don’t just use their political muscle to keep their taxes low. They also use it to make life more expensive for everyone else.

He offers examples – from occupational licensing to immigration to gentrification – that both protect their own incomes and drive up prices for working class families. Having created communities of opportunity for themselves, they wall off those same communities to others:

Closer to my home in New York, I’ve found that upper-middle-class people are the chief culprits behind the gentrification wave that is driving many poor families out of close-in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, my hometown. Stephen Smith has done an excellent job of explaining the dynamic. Most affluent people would be just fine with living in condos in Manhattan if they could afford to do so. But rich Manhattanites fight new development with every fiber of their being, which forces slightly less rich people to move to Brooklyn. Here is where things get interesting. Early on, as gentrification first takes root, these new upper-middle-class arrivals root for development, particularly when it means things like a new Whole Foods and other amenities that make their neighborhoods seem less “sketchy.” Once they have their fancy grocery stores and their Pilates studios and whatever else it is that floats their boat, however, they sharply shift toward absolutely hating new development, as new development means having to share their new amenities with more newcomers. These new restrictions on supply mean that homeowners who arrived at the right time, before the drawbridge was raised, see their homes get more and more valuable. Landlords can charge higher and higher rents. The neighborhood gets less and less “sketchy,” which is to say less diverse and less inclusive. How convenient.

At a individual evolutionary level, of course parents want to hoard opportunities and advantages for their own children. But as we’ll see tomorrow, that leaves huge communities of deprivation that stifle and isolate the working poor.


Happy Thursday!