Commenting on the commentary about “Accidental Racist”

By Lisa R. Pruitt 

I don’t watch TV or follow much pop culture, and most of the country music I occasionally listen to is on old albums by the likes of Sara Evans, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Alison Krauss.  But this was apparently a “big week” in country music thanks to Brad Paisley and his new album Wheelhouse.  I was on the road on Tuesday, but by the time I was catching up on email early Wednesday morning, I had lots of messages from friends giving me a heads up on the furor associated with Paisley’s new song, “Accidental Racist,” which includes a cameo from LL Cool J.  Commentators have varyingly discussed Paisley and his new song thusly:

In short, as one commentator put it, the song has attracted “an unusual amount of … sneering.”

Eric Weisbard did not sneer in his piece for NPR.  His headline references the history of white southern musical identity, and Weisbard touches on biases against the South, as well as white-on-white biases:

As you may have heard, Paisley is sifting through some rubble of his own right now, having been declared a national laughingstock by virtually all commentators coming from outside mainstream country. But then, this condescending dismissal is nothing new. There is a history to “Accidental Racist,” the history of how white Southern musicians — heatedly, implicitly, at times self-servingly and not always successfully — try to talk about who they are in answer to what others dismissively assume they are.

After all, while the Jim Crow South was Anglo supremacist politically, American culture offered a very different dynamic. Ever since white Northerners started putting out their records, Southern whites have represented a backward rural mindset in a national culture of jazzy modernity.  … Variety loved jazz but scorned the hillbilly in 1926 as ” ‘poor white trash’ genera. The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English. Theirs is a community all to themselves. [They are] illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons.” Continue reading

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Imploring the Ivy League to attend to rural strivers

By Lisa R. Pruitt

One of the most e-mailed items in the New York Times for the past day or so has been Claire Vaye Watkins “The Ivy League Was Another Planet.” (The alternative headline is “Elite Colleges Are As Foreign as Mars.”) In her op-ed, Watkins recounts her journey from nonmetropolitan Pahrump, Nevada to college at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her story is that of a kid from a working class family in “rural” Nevada (her description; technically, Pahrump is not rural because, though unincorporated, its 2010 population is more than 35,000) who didn’t know about colleges or how to pick one.  Lucky for her, Watkins went on to get an MFA from Ohio State and is now an assistant professor of English at Bucknell.

Watkins writes of getting her wake-up call about dramatic variations in educational resources when she was a high school senior, vying for a prestigious state-funded scholarship. That’s when she met a peer from a Las Vegas high school who attended a magnet school, took college prep courses, had a tutor, and had spent time abroad.  The variations in resources, she realized, were based on geography:  he was an urban kid and she was a rural one.  But they were also based on class.  She doesn’t specify the background of the Vegas teen, but she mentions that her mother and step-father had not gone to college.  I note that Pahrump’s poverty rate is a fairly steep 21.1%.  Just 10.1% of residents there have a bachelor’s degree or better, compared to about 30% nationwide.

Even after meeting the privileged teen from Vegas, however, Watkins didn’t know what she didn’t know.  She remained ignorant of the world of elite colleges, a sector that represented the “other planet” or “Mars” of the headline.  Instead, Watkins applied to UN Reno, she explains, because she had once taken a Greyhound bus to visit friends there. As Watkins expresses it, when poor rural kids apply to college (which, I might add, is altogether too rare), they typically apply to those institutions to which they have been “incidentally exposed.” Continue reading

Posted in Education, Geography, mobility, Poverty, Race and Ethnicity | 1 Comment

Hunting as classed? classless? classy?

By Lisa R. Pruitt 

This story by Felicity Barringer in the New York Times last week-end was a revelation for me–a revelation about the complex linkages between class and hunting.

Barringer’s story is ostensibly about how the state of Utah doles out hunting licenses and manages wildlife, so I figured I’d write a post for Legal Ruralism about those issues.  As I read the story, however, I was struck by the fact that hunting is not only a working class pursuit–as it has been popularly perceived in recent years.  Remember Bittergate during the 2008 presidential race?  If not, refresh your recollection here and here, and mull the title of Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus:  Dispatches from America’s Class Wars.  Indeed, Barringer’s story pits what one might think of as “regular Joe hunters” against rich hunters, which reminds us that people of all socio-economic strata hunt, albeit with different motivations,  trappings, and prey.  (I don’t think those paying big bucks for premium hunting in Utah are after the squirrels Ree killed in Winter’s Bone to feed her younger siblings).

Barringer writes:

More than any state in the West, Utah has expanded hunting opportunities for the well-to-do and has begun to diminish them for those seeking permits directly from the state.

Essentially, “those with means can buy public licenses through private outlets, paying thousands of dollars to move to the head of the line.”  While Utah officials acknowledge this, they say their “increasingly free-market model” results in more revenue they can use for conservation. Continue reading

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Rurality and class as identity, in the context of an elite(ist) institution

By Lisa R. Pruitt

I have been following recent news out of Amherst College about sexual assaults some students have committed against others–and the allegations that Amherst administrators previously tried to hush up these incidents, discouraging victims from pressing charges. Indeed, victims of the sexual assaults have alleged that administrators acted insensitively to their reports, saying things like, “are you SURE it was rape?” and “why don’t you take the semester off and get a job at Starbucks until he graduates.” Read more here, and don’t miss this student website featuring student victims of sexual assault who have “come out” about what happened to them.

In the context of news coverage of these matters, Amherst’s president since summer of 2011, Dr. Biddy Martin, has received mostly positive attention for her handling of the crisis. Richard Perez-Pena, reporting for the New York Times, wrote in his Oct. 26, 2012 story:

Dr. Martin, who is known as Biddy, released a statement that had neither the defensiveness nor the bland wait-and-see that are common to institutional responses, declaring that things “must change, and change immediately.” She made more administrative changes, and said in an interview in her office on Thursday that she is inclined to make more still, like having experts — rather than shifting panels of professors and students — adjudicate complaints.

Now, in a second NYT story published yesterday, Perez-Pena reports further on Dr. Martin’s unusual response to the rapes–unusually confrontational and frank, that is. In doing so, he picks up on aspect of Dr. Martin’s background–one might even say, her identity–and implies that it has relevance to her handling of these sensitive matters. Perez-Pena writes that “no college leader in the country” is as well prepared to face this Amherst controversy, in part because her academic work is about gender and sexuality, in part because she has a “history of tackling … thorny disputes,” and in part because even before this issue came to the fore at Amherst, Martin had begun “overhauling” how the institution deals with sexual assaults.

But Perez-Pena has more to say about why Dr. Martin has responded as she has. What he suggests is that not only Martin’s gender, but also rurality and perhaps class are salient aspects of her identity.

Perez-Pena notes in the story‘s lede that the Amherst controversy “began with a first-person account of an elite college’s callous treatment of a rape victim,” a “woman from the rural South who said she had never felt fully accepted on campus.” Then Perez-Pena writes of Dr. Martin, who grew up in southern Virginia:

And [Martin] is, herself, a woman from the rural South, who attended an elite college where she did not feel fully accepted.

* * *

Her parents, a school secretary and a salesman, “thought girls didn’t need to go to college, and they worried that I would be turned into a liberal lunatic,” she said. “Their greatest fear was that, as they put it, those eggheads would think they were better than we were, and when I went to William and Mary, I did encounter some prejudice.”

As a scholar of German literature, and a lesbian, she did not always fit in back home, either — where, she said, “what mattered was high school football.”

Wow.  Kudos to Perez-Pena for picking up on this part of Dr. Martin’s bio–for seeing the relevance of her class background and the marginalization of the rural in relation to it–especially in the elite(ist) milieu in which Martin now operates. Dr. Martin, it seems, is both insider and outsider; she has experienced being both, along various axes of her identity: gender, sexuality, class–and even geography. And maybe Perez-Pena is right in speculating on the capacity this gives her to empathize with a female student from the rural South, a woman who didn’t feel she accepted at Amherst, even before she was raped there.

It reminds me of this sentence from Perez-Pena’s first report about the Amherst rapes:

Are sex crimes more surprising at a school thought of as elite and supportive of women’s rights, or less surprising at the kind of place often labeled as having a culture entitlement?

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism and Feminist Legal Theory.

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Symposium Issue on Critical Race Theory & Marxism

Kudos to Anthony Farley for organizing this fabulous collection in the JULY 2012 issue of the COLUMBIA JOURNAL OF RACE & LAW, featuring a number of ClassCrits scholars, and developed from the Third National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference (Seton Hall Law 2010).

Forwards: When the Stars Begin to Fall: Introduction to Critical Race Theory and Marxism by Anthony Paul Farley

Essays

Critical Race Theory & Marxism: Temporal Power
by Anthony Paul Farley

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Ambiguous Politics of Liberation: Race, Marxism and Pan Africanism
by Adam Gearey

Beyond Supreme Court Anti-Discrimination: An Essay on Racial Subordinations, Racial Pleasures and Commodified Race
by Neil Gotanda

Race, Rights and Reterritorialization
by Gil Gott

Citizenship as Accumulated Racial Capital
by Peter Halewood

Compassion and Critique
by Angela P. Harris

The Perverse Logic of Immigration Detention: Unraveling the Rationality of Imprisoning Immigrants Based on Markers of Race and Class Otherness
by César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández

Global Class and the Commercial-Sexual Exploitation of Children: Toward A Multidimensional Understanding
by Pantea Javidan

The Legal Politics of Hubert H. Harrison: Excavating a Lost Legacy
by Ravi Malhotra

Putting Theory into Practice: Using a Human Rights Framework and Grassroots Organizing to Build a National Revolutionary Movement
by Bekah Mandell

Contract and Dispossession
by Deborah Waire Post

“Precious”: A Tale of Three Explanations for Childhood Maltreatment
by Reginald Leamon Robinson
Why Obama is Black: Language, Law and Structures of Power
by SpearIT

Signifying on Passing: (Post) Post-Racialism, (Post) Post-Modernism, and (Post) Post-Marxism
by Christian B. Sundquist

Used Up and Misused: The Nation State, the European Union and the Insistent Presence of the Colonial
by Patricia Tuitt

Post Race Posthaste: Towards an Analytical Convergence of Critical Race Theory and Marxism
by Donna E. Young

A Dedication
by Anthony Paul Farley

This symposium of the Columbia Journal of Law & Race, Critical Race Theory & Marxism, is dedicated to Keith Aoki, 1955-2011.

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It’s all relative

By Lisa R. Pruitt

That cliche was brought to mind by several news stories in recent weeks, all related to class in one way or another, so I use it here to consider these stories and the issues they raise about disparities in education and well-being.

First, the Chicago Teachers strike revived talk about the role that standardized testing should play in evaluating teachers.  In this context I have for the first time heard mention the fact that most proposals to evaluate teachers based on student test scores would reference only relative scores.  That is, most organizations advocating the use of student test scores–organizations like StudentsFirst (and its high profile founder Michelle Rhee)–advocate assessing teachers based on year to year progress, or lack thereof.  They would, for example, compare the same students’ performances at the beginning and end of the year as a way of evaluating those students’ teaching.  These education reformers do not advocate using the test scores as some absolute measure of teacher quality, which would compare teachers within the same district, or even across a state or the nation.  Rather, the scores would be used to mark relative progress among a particular group of students, as a reflection on those student(s)’s teachers.  Read relevant coverage here and here.

Relativity made a few other points about class recently, including in this story which compares a certain highly disadvantaged subset of young people in Britain and the United States.  The story reports an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study (2012) which shows that the British, long considered a class-bound society, are experiencing greater class mobility than those in the United States, at least as measured by access to a university degree.  The study found that, in Britain, a student whose parents did not graduate from high school has a 60% chance of graduating from college, while in the United States, the prospects of a similarly situated young person getting a college degree are just 29%.  The story notes that, among 34 advanced economies that OECD assessed, the United States has one of the lowest class mobility scores by this measure.  Ironic, isn’t it, since the data defy the essence of the oft-touted “American dream”? Continue reading

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NY Times turns squarely to issue of class and the Presidential race

By Lisa R. Pruitt

Richard W. Stevenson reports on the front page of today’s New York Times under the headline, “On the Tricky Terrain of Class, Contrasting Paths.”   Here’s an excerpt that sums us up a lot about Obama and Romney in relation to class:

The contrasting images of the week could hardly have been more evocative.

There was Mr. Obama on Thursday at a carefully scouted location, the Kozy Corners diner in Oak Harbor, Ohio, downing a burger and fries and chatting with a group of working-class voters about pinochle and trips to Disney World. The next day, as he continued a campaign swing, he reminisced about a Greyhound-and-train trip he took around the country with his grandmother when he was 11, staying at Howard Johnson and getting a thrill from leaping into the motel pool and fetching ice from the ice machine.

And there was Mitt Romney on Thursday, roaring across Lake Winnipesaukee on a powerboat large enough to hold two dozen members of his family who had gathered for a weeklong vacation at his estate in New Hampshire. On Sunday, Mr. Romney will raise money among wealthy Republicans in the Hamptons, with his final stop a $75,000-per-couple dinner at the home of David Koch, the billionaire industrialist, who with his brother Charles has been among the leading patrons of the conservative movement.

Stevenson goes on to suggest that these images and the way the respective candidates spent the week are “vivid manifestation[s] of calculations made by both camps.”

Yes, I’m sure both campaigns have thought out the messaging of these appearances, though neither is talking explicitly about class.  Indeed, Stevenson quotes David Alexrod, a senior advisor to Obama’s campaign, who is also seems to be trying to deflect any express discussion of class:

The viability of the middle class is not a class issue.  It’s an American issue.

Stevenson’s story also reminds me of Obama’s ability not only to project “everyman,” but indeed to be “everyman” because of his modest upbringing.  This is in spite of the extraordinarily distinctive–indeed, just plain extraordinary–person he is.  And part of what makes Obama extraordinary is where he came from and what he has achieved out of that background.  The story of Obama’s journey is, to my mind, as much one of class as it is one of race.  I’m glad to see Obama “working” the class part of his personal narrative.

Of course, even though Obama was not a silver spoon baby, he is now a wealthy man, and as Stevenson points out, the Democrats are trying as hard as the Republicans to cultivate donations from the 1%.  But Democratic strategist Bob Shrum focuses on the distinction between being rich on the one hand and being rich and out of touch on the other.

I’m glad Obama is tying hard to look “in touch.”  It could make all the difference in what is shaping up to be a very tight election.

P.S.  A few days after this post, Timothy Egan offered these thoughts on the events described above.

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