Category Archives: Human Landscape

On “Show Me a Hero” and Suburban New York Poverty

show me a hero 2Via HBO, white people arguing about where non-white people should live.

At times it is unsubtle, but I generally like “Show Me a Hero,” the HBO miniseries from David Simon and Paul Haggis about the 1980s battle to integrate housing in the Westchester city of Yonkers.

Like Brentin Mock, I wish the NAACP, which sued Yonkers to locate affordable housing in traditionally white neighborhoods, was a bigger part of the story arc. Critics have also complained that the compassionately drawn public housing residents, many of them single mothers, are divorced from much of the political intrigue. Yet the absence of people of color in the scenes that depict local electoral politics rings true to me. I grew up in a nearby Westchester town called Ossining, with demographics similar to Yonkers. White ethnics were a slim majority, with public and affordable housing clustered close to the railroad tracks and Sing Sing prison. Though about 40 percent of Ossining was black and Latino when I was growing up, there were no black council members at the time I was paying attention, as a student journalist and stringer for a local paper in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mayors were white. There were big debates about how to redevelop the village’s post-industrial waterfront, but there was limited, organized social justice activism on development questions, even though the black, Latino, and poor communities lived closest to the area slated for luxury apartmentsHundreds of families were on waiting lists for affordable housing while existing voucher housing was being transitioned to market-rate. Still, at one point the town’s NAACP chapter was decommissioned by the national organization for focusing more on national issues, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, than on local ones. So to my eye, “Show Me a Hero” sketches many of the challenges around the suburbanization of poverty, especially the way in which outside of major cities, the infrastructure for progressive activism may not exist.

The show also reveals class tensions among whites. I particularly liked the recent scene where the Alfred Molina character, the anti-integration politician, talks smack to a youngish New York Times reporter who’s bugging him for an interview in a diner (and yes, diners are actually where important things happen in these Westchester towns). “Where do you live,” Molina asks him, “I bet on the Upper West Side or in Park Slope.” He lectures the reporter about how the judge who ordered housing desegregation and other affluent, liberal whites are more insulated from the problems of poverty than working class white people are in Yonkers. This reminded me of some of the folks I grew up around, who were civil servants, nurses, teachers, and owned small businesses. They were not eager to be exposed to what they saw as social dysfunction that they couldn’t afford to buy their way out of through private schooling. Note that when young Mayor Nick Wasicsko, the show’s accidental hero, is booted from office after belatedly supporting integration, he packs up his copy of Common Ground,  Anthony Lukas’ classic narrative of working class white opposition to school busing in Boston.

The show is making the point that the intergenerational poverty that white anti-integrationists feared living near was, in fact, a direct result of the geographic concentration of poverty that they fought to maintain. As I write in my book, desegregating neighborhoods and schools is an effective way of helping poor children become upwardly mobile, and does not tend to negatively affect the achievement of middle-class kids who come into contact with poor peers. If some of these social scientific facts are getting across to viewers of “Show Me a Hero,” I think the show is making a powerful contribution. The most important dialogue comes from the housing expert who wants to build townhomes at many different sites in Yonkers, instead of apartment complexes clustered together. He explains that the architecture of high-rise public housing fosters crime, because it is isolated from street retail and includes many internal no-man’s-lands that criminal organizations are able to exploit.

Separately, I think Oscar Isaac is wonderful as Nick Wasicsko, and totally transformed from his equally impressive portrayal of the folk singer Llewyn Davis. He captures both the self-involvement and charisma of a young, rising politician. My major pet peeves are that his wife is so sketchily drawn and that Winona Ryder, as another town politician, isn’t given more to do. I’m looking forward to the final two episodes.

Class Warfare at the Beach?

This Ginia Bellafante column railing against the new gourmet food court at Jacob Riis beach is, in my view, wrongheaded. So what if affluent people enjoy taking the ferry to this public park and purchasing oysters when they get there? The beach is also accessible by subway, public bus, and car. And as Bellafante notes, there is a large area for grilling and picnicking, which is typically filled with black and Latino families. She claims that the split between the food court and the grill area makes this a “segregated” beach, and somehow also manages to blame helicopter parenting: “the constant prodding of children toward achievement, the endless roundelay of enrichments that begins at conception, the eviscerating process of admission to a suitable college when, really, it will all end here, in a hangover on a boat to the beach where the only corrective is more to drink.”

When I was a kid growing up in the New York area, my middle class white family never went to city beaches. We drove out to Long Island or Connecticut and were surrounded by people much like ourselves. I’m glad New York beach culture has evolved. It would be one thing to call for a Nathan’s hot dog stand at the new food court. Come to think of it, that’s a great idea. But the worst thing for a city is when its more privileged residents abandon its public places: its beaches, its parks, its schools. That is segregation. In 2015 at Jacob Riis park, New Yorkers of every type are enjoying the scenery, sunbathing, and swimming together. That leads to investment in our public sphere. And if quality, fresh food helps draw people, that’s a good thing.

What Is Justice For Kids Who Kill?

My new feature story is a partnership between The Marshall Project and Slate. It’s a longread about a 14-year old boy, Kahton Anderson, charged with murder as an adult. You may remember him from last year’s tabloid coverage: He was a middle school kid who got involved in street crews and shot an innocent man on a Brooklyn bus. This spring, he went on trial. A bill currently in front of the New York legislature would reform the legal landscape for kids charged as adults in criminal court, so this heartbreaking story is especially timely.

In 2012, Kahton Anderson found a gun.

The .357 Magnum, a revolver with a silver barrel, was hidden inside the radiator in the kitchen of the apartment Kahton shared with his mother and two siblings in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Kahton said he had watched his older brother, Lakim, hide the gun there.

At first, Kahton, who was 12 at the time, only looked at the gun in its hiding place. But he quickly got to know the weapon better, removing it from the radiator, toying with it, and taking pictures of himself holding it. “If I could get some bullets for this mag, we would clear a lot of shit out,” he boasted to a friend on Facebook. By March 2013, Kahton was writing, “When beef come, we ready!”

A year later, this boy, with this gun, would take an innocent man’s life on a New York City bus. The case was easy fodder for the tabloids, which quickly dubbed Kahton a “fiend” and “thug.” It also raised some of the most difficult and pressing questions in criminal justice.

Read the whole piece.

The Rural School-to-Prison Pipeline

I’m excited to share my first piece with The Marshall Project, called “No Country for Young Men.” It is a story about Junior Smith, a teenager in West Virginia who made a lot of mistakes, but who ultimately became ensnared in a tough, rural version of the school-to-prison pipeline. In Junior’s Appalachian county, strict policing of school-based and low-level juvenile offenses is entirely unmatched by any commitment to providing troubled kids with the social services they need to avoid crime and finish their educations (and which are cheaper than juvie, too).

The article was produced in partnership with Slate, which is also publishing the piece.

What We Know About Michael Brown’s High School

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Normandy High is deeply racially segregated. It has a staggeringly high suspension rate. The school’s curriculum has little rigor. And Michael Brown was one of just 58 percent of his classmates who graduated.

After Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri on Saturday, his mother, Lesley McSpadden, said: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many.”

We know Brown’s alma mater, Normandy High, has struggled to remain accredited, and that Brown was enrolled in a special program there to help at-risk kids finish their coursework. I was curious about the school’s curriculum and disciplinary strategies, so this morning, I checked out the federal Department of Education’s civil rights database.

In 2011, the last year for which data is available, Normandy had 1,064 students. Ninety-eight percent were black and 74 were percent low-income. Those deeply segregated demographics aren’t surprising. According to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, while less than a third of the population of the St. Louis region is black, 73 percent of black children there attend schools that are 50 to 100 percent black, and more than half of black children are in schools that are over 90 percent black. Nationwide, only Pittsburgh has deeper black-white school segregation than St. Louis.

At Normandy in 2011, just four students took calculus, while 33 took physics. There was only one AP class offered, which 12 students enrolled in — but zero actually sat for an AP exam. And there were 476 students who received out-of-school suspensions, most of whom were suspended more than once. That means 45 percent of Normandy students were suspended in 2011; indeed, the school has the highest discipline rate in the St. Louis region.  We know schools that aggressively suspend have higher dropout rates and more students involved in the criminal justice system than schools that suspend less often, even when demographic traits are held constant.

Lastly, the graduation rate at Normandy High School is 58 percent, compared to an average of 80 percent in the state of Missouri.

 

Is School Desegregation a Failed Movement?

I turned in the revisions of my book to my publisher yesterday (!), so my plan for the next few weeks is to get back into the swing of daily journalism. So. 

Over at Slate, Tanner Colby is writing a series on "The Massive Liberal Failure on Race." His first entry was "how the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration." 

Colby is right to point out that the progressive meme of "resegregation" of the nation's schools is flawed, because controversies over busing in the 1960s and 1970s meant the nation never fully implemented desegregation in the first place. He then concludes, "So far, nobody seems to have a solution that works" in terms of educating children of different races and classes together. That, however, is not really true. Here are some of the things that have worked: 

Recognizing that housing policy is schools policy. When neighborhoods integrate with mixed-income housing, schools integrate and test scores go up. Because more and more Americans in their 30s are choosing to put down roots in diverse urban neighborhoods, this presents an amazing policy opportunity to foster integrated schools. Charter schools like the Larchmont network in Los Angeles, Community Roots in Brooklyn, and Charles Drew in Atlanta are embracing integration as part of their missions, and are popular with families across lines of race and class. Last month President Obama  signed an executive order to allow charter schools that receive federal funding to weight their admissions lotteries in order to create diverse student bodies. 

Where busing is used, make it a matter of choice. Colby writes about an urban-suburban busing program that didn't work in Kansas City. But such programs are often quite popular: In Boston, Hartford, Milwaukee, and other regions, there are tens of thousands of children on waiting lists for voluntary inter-district transfers. 

When I began reporting on education in 2006, desegregation was seen as hopelessly outdated. Today there is actually growing consensus around the wisdom of integrating schools at the classroom level. (That means not using "gifted" or AP tracks as de facto tracking programs for affluent kids). So while it's important to acknowledge busing's flawed history, we need to bring this conversation into the present, too, and explore creative policy solutions to the problem of American children growing up without enough meaningful contact with children from backgrounds different than their own. 

Jacob Riis, School Reformer

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Essex Market School, the East Side. By Jacob Riis, ca. 1888-1895.

I just caught this poignant essay at the New York Times about How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis' 1890 exposé of day-to-day life in New York City tenements. Bill de Blasio mentioned Riis during his inaugural address, and the book — which depicted urban squalor through vivid, flash photography (a new technology at the time) — is credited with sparking the movement toward modern sanitation laws and housing regulations. 

What's less well known is that Riis' exploration of poverty in New York City turned him into an education reformer — one who sounded a whole lot like today's teacher accountability hawks. His follow-up to How the Other Half Lives was a volume called The Children of the Poor. Here's a litte excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Teacher Wars (Doubleday, Sept. 2014), about the familiar arguent Riis made in that book:

Riis acknowledged the systemic constraints on immigrant children’s lives. The United States lacked strong anti-child labor laws and relied mostly on overextended local charities, many with a proselytizing religious mission, to provide the poor with health care and jobs training. There was no public support for sanitary affordable housing and far too little government funding for truant officers who were supposed to encourage child workers to enroll in school. (In New York City, Riis found that a paltry 12 officers were responsible for tracking 50,000 absent children between the ages of 5 and 14, many of them homeless.) Nevertheless, like today’s accountably reformers, Riis considered teachers the determining factor in whether a child escaped poverty. He wrote that schools are “our chief defense against the tenement and the flood of ignorance with which it would swamp us. … it is the personal influence of the teacher that counts for most in dealing with the child. It follows it into the home, and often through life to the second and third generation, smoothing the way of sorrow and hardship with counsel and aid in a hundred ways.” 

The New New Fatherhood

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 2.33.45 PMThe old "New Fatherhood" was about mainstream, middle-class American men redefining masculinity to encompass spending more time talking to, playing with, and caring for children. Today at the Daily Beast, I write about the New New Fatherhood, as depicted by the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson in their important book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner CityThe study is a follow-up to one of the books I recommend most often: Edin's Promises I Can Keep, which pretty much demolished the myth of the "welfare mom."

The new book questions the stereotype of the "deadbeat dad." It describes how low-income fathers love and yearn to spend time with their children. But instead of seeing "quality time" as an add-on to the traditional expectation of the father as provider — as in the New Fatherhood ideal — single dads in economically depressed neighborhoods have argued that quality time and emotional connection are a fair substitute for earning and contributing financially to a child's core needs. This is the New New Fatherhood.

I write:

"The problem with this vision of 'doing the best I can' is that it really isn’t good enough. It leaves all the most difficult responsibilities of parenthood, financial and disciplinary, up to mothers. Edin and Nelson conclude that 'lower-class fathers have tried to bargain for a wholesale reversal of gender roles,' in which dads are the 'soft,' emotional parents and moms are the tough, pragmatic ones. If this were true, however—if poor fathers were becoming traditional “moms”—they would be living with their children and performing all the domestic labor involved with their care and feeding. This, of course, is not the case. In Edin and Nelson’s study, the vast majority of single dads are noncustodial parents and seem to prize buying their children ice cream or watching TV with them—the fun stuff—over helping with homework or taking them to doctor’s appointments.

Make no mistake: this isn’t only a poor-people’s problem."

Read the whole piece.

On Doing Well to Do Good

Dylan Matthews has an interesting report about a group of young American and British professionals with progressive social values and high-paying jobs in finance and tech. The subjects of the piece are unusual because they are giving away between a quarter and a half of their incomes each year, typically to health and anti-poverty charities operating in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, inspired by the philosopher Peter Singer, they say they have chosen handsomely paid jobs, like high-frequency trading, because they aspire to give away as much money as they can. 

I'm a fan of some of the organizations, like GiveDirectly and GiveWell, that are loosely part of this movement toward ethical, high-impact giving, with few or no requirements for the individual recipients of aid. Yet I worry about an ethical stance in which any career choice is socially responsible, as long as one pledges to give generously to charity. The fact is, the number of people who choose to make millions in order to give money away is infinitesimal; the ability to donate generously is usually cited as a guilty liberal's justification for richly rewarded work in fields, like finance, that can be defined by bad social values, such as lobbying for lower corporate tax ratestaking advantage of low-income consumers right here in the United States, and bad labor practices. That's not to say progressives should never work on Wall Street or for Big Food/Pharma/Tech; indeed, we need social justice-committed people within those fields to argue and work for ethical change. But the ethical behavior must go beyond individual philanthropy itself and toward efforts to make corporations better American and global citizens.

Joseph Massad’s Stunningly Ignorant Al-Jazeera Essay on Zionism and Anti-Semitism

I've been excited about Al Jazeera's expansion in the U.S. market, but this poorly-written, rambling essay by Columbia professor Joseph Massad, calling Zionists anti-Semitic, is as bad as its critics allege. Yes: The Israeli government's repeated claim to speak on behalf of all Jews, worldwide, is deeply problematic, especially given Israel's deplorable ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands. But Massad takes this observation and pads it with ignorant misreadings of history and religious belief, as well as a breezy, ahistoric, and anti-Semitic conflation of Zionism with Nazism. I have neither the time nor the inclination to rebut the piece point by point, but here are a few obvious flaws:

1. Massad claims the Jewish longing for Israel dates back only to the 18th century rise of Protestant nationalism in Europe. Hogwash. Much of the Jewish liturgy, dating back two milennia, is built around mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the hope that we will congregate in the Holy Land in a figurative "next year," returning there permanently after the coming of the Messiah.

2. Massad points out that both Zionists and Christian anti-Semites believed Jews did not belong in Europe. Does it follow that Zionists are as anti-Semitic as Nazis were, as Massad shockingly claims? Of course not. Many disempowered people have created separatist movements. In the American context, think of black nationalism and separatism. Were Marus Garvey or Amiri Baraka adherents of the same ideology as 19th century "Back to Africa" whites, like Lyman Beecher? No. Zora Neale Hurston opposed Brown v. Board of Education, not because she felt blacks were inferior to whites and thus should attend separate schools, but because she believed integration would damage "the self-respect of my people" by forcing them to closely associate with racists. 

3. Massad writes that almost all those Jews who opposed or were skeptical of Zionism were killed during the Holocaust, leaving a monolithic group of rabidly Zionist (and also anti-Semitic?) Jews. In fact, a number of prominent Jews and Jewish organizations remained critical of Zionism after the war; Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt obviously come to mind. In his book The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart discusses how organized American Jewry was actually rather slow to embrace Zionism as a central cause. Massad also asserts that "Orthodox and Reform Jews, Socialist and Communist Jews, cosmopolitan and Yiddishkeit cultural Jews" were opponents of Zionism. In fact, members of all the aforementioned groups were sometimes strongly Zionist, whether they lived in Europe, Palestine, or the United States. For example, many of the earliest Zionist Jewish settlers in Palestine came from European cities and were socialists. They created kibbutzim to reconnect Jews to the land in a communiatarian way. 

Al-Jazeera can do better.