Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Racial Paranoia vs. Race Cardology...

C-Span just sent me a DVD copy of my segment from BookTV last month on C-Span 2. (The link is on the upper right hand corner of this page.) I’m speaking way too quickly (and don’t even get to a few major themes from the book), but it does lay out the beginnings of my point about “de cardio racism” and its difference from earlier modes of racial reasoning in American history.

Speaking of racism’s newfangled permutations, I finally read through the second Village Voice piece on the Madonna Constantine case. Clearly, if she did hang a noose on her own office door as a tactic to preempt the public exposure of her plagiarism case, she would represent one of the most dramatic and disingenuous versions of playing the race card in academic history. It would be the epitome of “Bluffing About Race,” as the subtitle to Richard Thompson Ford’s new book phrases the issue. (Of course, some people would argue that any invocation of race/racism at all is the verbal equivalent of putting a noose on your own little door.)

In many ways, Ford and I start off with the same premise about how differently race and racism function today, but we use that idea to talk about two very different (though not mutually exclusive) things.

I argue that our politically corrected environment forces public expressions of racism to go underground. They get euphemized, which is a relatively new phenomenon in an American republic where as late as the 1960s politicians could run on explicitly racist/segregationist platforms with impunity. I use this point to say that we shouldn’t imagine sanitizing public discussions about racial differences as the endgame of our racial politics today. We actually need spaces where people can be honest about their investments in racial difference, not to the point where others are endangered or offended, but enough so that we can have “conversation on race” that are useful and productive — not public-relations stunts.

The flipside of this euphemization of racial animus is that people don’t think egalitarian racial language necessarily reflects a speaker’s hidden beliefs about race. In a context where getting labeled a racist is “bad for business,” most people avoid the theme entirely — at least in mixed company. This dynamic breeds a scenario where, for example, African Americans are skeptical about public expressions of racial inclusion and look for hidden signs of racist hearts (“de cardio racism”) beneath race-neutral (even progressive) exteriors.

Richard Thompson Ford’s The Race Card uses a similar starting point to argue that the legal justice system can’t treat these less explicit forms of racism the way it powerfully addressed earlier (more straightforward and self-evident) kinds. He’s right. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have the same luxury in our everyday lives. We’re not off the hook. Either we find a way to deal with these serious race-based skepticisms (the idea that Madonna Constantine put a noose on her own door to quiet critics represents an example of the same skepticism in reverse), or we create some strange Never Never Land of post-racial living by collective repression.

(First posted on the Chronicle's Brainstorm Blog)

Friday, July 4, 2008

What Happens When Ethnography Goes to the Movies?

There isn't much sexual salaciousness in Sudhir Venkatesh's ethnographic treatment of gang culture on Chicago's South Side.

He was a relatively naïve graduate student at the University of Chicago when he first started studying crack-dealing gangs in one of the country's most notorious housing projects. Venkatesh embarked on a sociological journey that would educate him about the counter-intuitive inner workings of gangland economies and the brutal realities of what happens when material inequality gets racially and geographically entrenched.

Now, word is that Craig Brewer, director of critically acclaimed "Hustle & Flow" (2005) and "Black Snake Moan" (2007) is slated to direct a film adaptation of Venkatesh's most recent book, Gang Leader for a Day.

Should we be worried?

As a relatively young ethnographer who has been conducting research in urban communities for the past 15 years, I am anxious to see what Hollywood makes of 'the ethnographic impulse.' Indiana Jones transformed archaeology into an icon of pop-cultural Americana. And I'm sure that many curious high schoolers decided to go into the field after watching Harrison Ford's ruggedly glamorized portrayals. But if Brewer can spend some time getting the fieldwork right, capturing what it actually means for ethnographers to live their research in the world, without all of the hyper-exoticisms that glom onto such depictions, then he might be able to show people just how ethnographers stumble upon social truths that are sometimes sublimely irreducible to statistical analyses.

Brewer is a gifted storyteller, and he definitely has a Tarantino-sized hankering for hard-edged tales that flip the script on Hollywood's conventional interracial buddy movies. "Hustle and Flow" featured a memorable and mesmerizing lead performance by Terrence Howard as Djay, a doo-rag wearing Memphis-based pimp with a half-hardened heart of gold and a knack for hip-hop lyricism. Djay has a complex relationship with all of his prostitutes, including the soft-spoken Shug and the fiery Lexus, both black women, but the kinds of subtle mind-games that he plays with Nola, the white member of his harem, seem to get pride of place in the story. Djay is clearly exploiting Nola, psychologically and physically abusing her (even if the latter happens decidedly off-camera and mostly beyond the narrative's unfolding). But he does it with such sweet-tea infectiousness that the audience is treated to a character-study of what classic social theorist Max Weber meant when he said "charismatic authority" was a traditional method of social control.

"Black Snake Moan" is even more pointedly pitched in the direction of what it means to play along the tracks between black masculinity and white femininity, with Brewer seemingly hell-bent on demonstrating all the many ways in which one might hint at the specter of racial miscegenation in a small Southern town without ever quite going there. Even the title of the film seems to ooze with euphemized racial innuendo.

My guess is that three things probably most excited Brewer (and Paramount Vantage) about Venkatesh's exploits in Chicago. First, this story could easily be framed as the now-classic Hollywood tale of an outsider entering the proverbial Heart of Darkness that is urban America. Dangerous Minds (1995) and Freedom Writers (2007) best frame the last 10 years or so of the genre. Hollywood seems to remake this same movie every few summers, with only a slight tweak here or there to the details. A naïve white do-gooder enters the realities of life on the street and has to throw textbook theories about urban life right out the window.
Venkatesh, who was born in India and raised in California, starts out so green when he embarks on his research that he doesn't even realize just how astonishing his project will seem to students and teachers who find out about it. And what he ends up learning about the everyday workings of gang culture will force social scientists to rethink many long-standing academic assumptions on the topic.

The idea that a privileged sociologist from one of the most prestigious schools in the country would also be allowed to actually run the gang's operations, even for a day, might also lend itself to some provocative moviemaking. Traditionally, ethnographers are taught that they must master the culture of the groups they study so completely that they should almost be able to see the world from that group's point of view, as though they were natives, people born into the community. (Of course, if you're like me, a black man conducting ethnographic research in black America—you have to prove something akin to the exact opposite.)

Anthropologists call this an "emic" perspective, something that can only be acquired with long-term participant-observation—many months, even years, of "deep hanging out" with the people being studied. Venkatesh not only provides us with a detailed rendition of how these Chicago gangbangers see their world, he also can demonstrate the limits of "emic" understanding by showcasing his own short stint at the helm of the gang.

Of course, Venkatesh is conducting all of this research in one of America's harshest neighborhoods. The everyday violence that hovers around his ethnographic work only heightens the drama and sweetens the deal in Hollywood's eyes. Plus, Brewer has a penchant for showcasing the thinkerly side of those folks who engage in the unthinkable. And any ethnographer worth his or her salt wants readers to recognize that this one of the things that connects them to people who follow even the most remote and exotic cultural practices.

But there is a personal side to the Venkatesh story that is equally poignant and potentially cinematic—as Hollywood conceptualizes such things.

A careful ethnographer tries not to cast his or her subjects in easy black-and-white terms, as simplistically good or bad people, the social equivalent of redeemed saints or irredeemable sinners. Human beings are always more contradictory and complex than mere caricature. Gang Leader for a Day tries to humanize the flat-footed stereotypes and knee-jerk clichés that get passed off as actual consideration of the lives and life chances of residents from inner-city America. And Brewer's redemptive treatment of a low-level pimp and a vengeful bluesman are nothing if not complex.

Of course, what Brewer appears most invested in (and what also leaps from the pages of Venkatesh's powerful book) would be the profound subtlety of any fragile interracial relationship—between a pimp and his prostitute, between a cuckolded old musician and a young girl hurling herself down the wrong path. Venkatesh's supple and multifaceted relationship with J.T., the real gang leader of his book, is ripe for Brewerian picking. And as with Brewer's previous cinematic portrayals of interpersonal negotiations of America's color lines, Venkatesh and J.T. share a relationship that is genuine and contrived at the same time, seemingly natural and honest, yet propped up by artificiality: Mutual respect between sociologist and research subject is forged by the researcher's thesis-driven entry into an unknown land. It is also an intimate connection steeped in a larger context of vice and violence, which is just how Brewer paints things in his own Memphis, Tenn.

But should we be worried about what drew Brewer to Venkatesh's work? Maybe, but that's only because the same assumptions might draw even more people to the film—and away from the kinds of questions that often get lost or forgotten, caricatured or elided, when race-relations and urban life go to the movies.

Originally penned for theroot.com

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Graduating While Black...

The graduation season has come and gone, a time of helium-filled balloons, celebratory brunches with extended family, bittersweet stock-taking of one’s student career, and the soupy mixture of fear and excitement about what unknown life chapters have yet to be written. For all students, but especially the ones earning advanced degrees, this yet-to-unfurl future means radically different things depending on whether or not there is a job option waiting on the other side of the ceremony.

One newly minted Ph.D., someone who should have been excited about her upcoming post at a liberal arts college, was busy pondering a colleague’s recent effort to place a purloined asterisk next to her procurement of that lucrative position.

The colleague, who was also a friend of hers, matter-of-factly stated, without any obvious displays of animus or contempt, that that aforementioned Ph.D. had only landed such an amazing job because of race, because she was African-American.

The argument is pretty straightforward. There are so few African-Americans getting doctoral degrees that the ones who do make it through the process have a relatively easy slide into the ranks of the professoriate.

First of all, this wasn’t the first student of color who admitted to such a seemingly dismissive response to her success from colleagues, and usually these responses are laced with a heavy dose of outward hostility. I remember finishing up at Columbia and having one of my peers, another graduate student in the department, finger-wavingly make the same point about my job prospects. I didn’t have a tenure-track job offer yet. I was headed to a postdoc instead. But the point was clear: My road would be paved with rose petals, because there are so few blacks in anthropology. The implication seemed to be that a grave injustice was being committed — and at this other student’s expense. Not quite reverse racism, but close to it.

Is that the end of the story? Really? Is that all the analytical work that need be done to explain how race operates in the academy today? I hardly think so.

On its face, this argument always struck me as peculiar, and decidedly self-serving, even as it also seemed undeniable, at least as one corner of a much larger political canvas. But most of the people who demonstrate recognition or melancholic resignation about the fact that students of color differently negotiate the academic job market always seem to stop just short of spending much time voicing the same amount of concern and righteous indignation about how few students of color are even admitted to prestigious doctoral programs in the first place — or ever end up teaching in tenure-track posts at American universities.

Can one really have it both ways? Flagging what seems to be but one of the many examples of how race informs people’s academic-job prospects while failing to link the job market’s racial dynamics to a larger story (bigger than just “supply and demand”) about the entrenched mechanisms by which past racial imbalances are effortlessly (and even unintentionally) re-animated?

(originally published as part of Brainstorm Blog for the Chronicle Review).