Saturday, January 19, 2013

Remembering the civil rights struggle

We celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on January 21. Here is a curated set of film clips that serve to recall the major challenges of inequality, segregation, and violence that faced the African American community in the Jim Crow racial system of the 1940s and 1950s.  These videos capture some of the signal moments in that struggle through the 1960s. Dr. King's contribution to American history is truly pivotal in this "second American revolution".

Dr. King on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955

Little Rock Nine, 1957

 Freedom Riders, 1961 video

The integration of Ole Miss 1962

Voter registration in Mississippi, 1963

The March on Washington 1963

The Birmingham Church Bombing 1963

The murder of Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner 1964 [1:22]

Dr King in Selma, 1965 

Dr King in Montgomery, 1965 

Bloody Sunday, Selma 1965

Martin Luther King, I'm tired of violence, Yazoo, 1966

Martin Luther King, Montgomery to Memphis 1965 documentary

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Improving schools

Finding ways to significantly and sustainably improve the effectiveness of public schools in high poverty areas is one of the most urgent problems facing us -- particularly when we aim to reduce the inequalities that exist around race and poverty in our nation's cities. New thinking about schools and curricula has given rise to some practical strategies for achieving this kind of improvement.

For example, the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University is a particularly creative place for using research and development to find replicable ways of improving school success in high-poverty areas. Here is the mission statement for CSOS:

The Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS) was established in 1966 as an educational research and development center at Johns Hopkins University. The Center maintains a staff of full-time, highly productive sociologists, psychologists, social psychologists, and educators who conduct programmatic research to improve the education system, as well as full-time support staff engaged in developing curricula and providing technical assistance to help schools use the Center’s research. The Center currently includes the federally-supported Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, and the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships. link
The Talent Development Middle Grades Program (link) is one of the promising efforts that have been spearheaded by CSOS. This program attempts to implement school-level programs that substantially change the odds for the middle grade students who are at risk for dropping out. And the alarming fact is that likely high school dropouts can be identified by the sixth grade, based on factors such as attendance, poor academic progress, and behavioral problems. So reversing these factors early is key to improving high school completion rates six to eight years later. Mentorship for students, professional development for teachers, close teamwork within schools among teachers and principals, implementation of a challenging curriculum for all students, and extra-help labs to help students stay on track are the key strategies that work, according to CSOS research. School organization and climate are critical factors, and they can be addressed through district-level reform efforts (link).

What are the interventions that are shown to be effective? The CSOS Talent Development High Schools Program (link) provides quite a bit of useful research and program reform recommendations. Here is the mission statement for this program:
The Talent Development High School Model is a comprehensive reform model for large high schools facing serious problems with student attendance, discipline, achievement scores, and dropout rates. The model includes organizational and management changes to establish a positive school climate; curricular and instructional innovations to prepare all students for high-level courses in math and English; parent and community involvement to encourage college awareness; and professional development to support the recommended reforms.
The program reform model highlights curricula with high expectations, extended class periods, formal extra help programs, professional development and teaming for teachers, and family and community involvement.

Another important current initiative -- also inspired by research at CSOS -- is the Diplomas Now initiative that is underway in partnership with CityYear, Talent Development, and Communities in Schools. This program is a response to the severe high school dropout crisis our nation faces, especially in high-poverty cities. Here is a description of this program:
  • Diplomas Now pairs evidence-based, comprehensive school reform with national service teams to provide tutoring, mentoring, monitoring and engagement activities at the required scale, and integrated student supports for the highest need students.
  • Diplomas Now unites three organizations – Talent Development, City Year and Communities In Schools – each one with years of experience in youth service and third-party evidence of impact on helping students succeed. The Philadelphia Education Fund also serves as a national training and technical assistance partner. The partners complement each other and also collaborate well with local education reform efforts.
  • Diplomas Now works closely with school administrators and teachers to identify off-track youth and develop, implement and sustain comprehensive, targeted and customized strategies to get them back on track. Diplomas Now is deliberately designed to incorporate, complement and accelerate the impact of other promising and innovative efforts that aim to boost post-secondary success.
There are a number of promising initiatives underway across the country that are aimed at achieving significant and sustainable improvement in K-12 learning outcomes. It is important that schools find the partnership they need from government and foundations to implement the ideas that work. The Obama administration has committed quite a bit of energy and funds to this effort; let's hope that it pays off throughout urban America.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Health and mortality inequalities in the US

How unequal are we when it comes to inequalities of health and mortality? Richard Florida (CreativeClass) points to an important new study on this question by public health researchers at Harvard and UCSF. (This is one of many items that Florida references in his Twitter feed -- it's certainly worth following. This bears out the academic value of Twitter!) The study is "Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races, Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States". And the answer the researchers provide to the question above is -- very. The study is worth reading in detail.

The authors analyze mortality statistics by county, and they break the data down by incorporating racial and demographic characteristics. The data groups fairly well around the eight Americas mentioned in the title:

Here is how they describe their findings:

The gap between the highest and lowest life expectancies for race-county combinations in the United States is over 35 y. We divided the race-county combinations of the US population into eight distinct groups, referred to as the “eight Americas,” to explore the causes of the disparities that can inform specific public health intervention policies and programs.
And here is their conclusion:
Disparities in mortality across the eight Americas, each consisting of millions or tens of millions of Americans, are enormous by all international standards. The observed disparities in life expectancy cannot be explained by race, income, or basic health-care access and utilization alone. Because policies aimed at reducing fundamental socioeconomic inequalities are currently practically absent in the US, health disparities will have to be at least partly addressed through public health strategies that reduce risk factors for chronic diseases and injuries.
For example, their data show that "the life expectancy gap between the 3.4 million high-risk urban black males and the 5.6 million Asian females was 20.7 y in 2001." This is an enormous difference in longevity for the two groups; and it is a difference that tags fundamental social structures that influence health and risk across these two populations.

Here is a time-series graph of the behavior of longevity for the eight Americas:
So what are the factors that appear to create these extreme differences in mortality across socioeconomic and racial groups in America? They consider health care access and utilization; homicide; accidents; and HIV as primary potential causes of variations in mortality for a group. Most important of all of these factors for the large populations appear to be the health disparities that derive from access and utilization. And here they offer an important set of recommendations:
Opportunities and interventions to reduce health inequalities include (1) reducing socioeconomic inequalities, which are the distal causes of health inequalities, (2) increasing financial access to health care by decreasing the number of Americans without health plan coverage, (3) removing physical, behavioral, and cultural barriers to health care, (4) reducing disparities in the quality of care, (5) designing public health strategies and interventions to reduce health risks at the level of communities (e.g., changes in urban/neighborhood design to facilitate physical activity and reduce obesity), and (6) designing public health strategies to reduce health risks that target individuals or population subgroups that are not necessarily in the same community (e.g., tobacco taxation or pharmacological interventions for blood pressure and cholesterol).
These findings are squarely relevant to the healthcare debate currently underway in the United States. The country needs to recognize the severity of the "health/mortality justice" issue, and we need to reform our healthcare system so that these disparities begin to lessen.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Obama and the cities

photo: Cabrini Green housing project, Chicago (now demolished)

Is the Obama administration doing enough to address the problems of urban poverty and lack of opportunity for poor people in cities?

The situation of poverty, inequality, and deprivation in most of America's cities is severe. Wherever regional studies of health status have been carried out, inner cities show up as abnormally unhealthy populations. Unemployment rates in large cities are generally significantly higher than state and national averages. High school completion rates are lower -- often shockingly lower. Housing stock and neighborhoods are in poor condition. Fresh fruits and vegetables are difficult to come by -- because large grocery stores have often moved outside city limits. And all of this implies that the overall quality of life for the poorest half of most urban populations in the U.S. is low. (Here is a 1988 publication on estimates of urban quality of life -- the most recent I can find!)

There is no doubt that President Obama is aware of the gravity of the urban crisis. He knows Chicago intimately, a city that reflects many of these life-limiting circumstances for several million poor people. And his speech of July 18, 2007 reflects an acute understanding of the problem and a commitment to help the country address the crisis. But the question still needs asking: in the first six months of the Obama administration, has there been enough attention given to the problems of cities in America? And so far, the answer seems to be "no."

These are problems that demand federal solutions. States are generally fiscally unable to take the steps that would significantly improve the economic prospects for urban people in Cleveland, Oakland, Miami, Detroit, or Hartford. And all too often state legislatures are dominated by an anti-urban bias that makes significant state investment unlikely in any case. But cities represent a national crisis, not simply a regional crisis. As Richard Florida emphasizes (CreativeClass), cities are potentially the source of the greatest resources of creativity and growth that the country possesses. But too many American cities are hobbled by concentrated poverty, failing schools, corrupt city administrations, and zero-sum politics, with predictable results. The new businesses, technology innovations, and high-end service providers that should be the basis of revitalization of America's cities are simply not showing up downtown. There is very, very little progress in quality of life for the poorest 60% of people living in cities across the country.

Moreover, it needs to be recognized that a central part of this puzzle has to do with race. American cities seem to have become machines for reproducing poverty among African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority populations. Far from being a post-racial society, our cities threaten to become a permanent location of racial disadvantage. Residential segregation, discrimination in employment, and a public education system that is sharply racialized in effect seems to create a set of interlocking institutions that make it all but impossible to narrow the race gap -- in income, quality of life, health status, or education.

So where is the Federal agenda for urban transformation? One of President Obama's priorities is education reform for K-12 schools, and this is certainly relevant and important as a means of addressing poverty and racial inequalities. But it isn't enough. Somehow we need initiatives that will change the game for the tens of millions of disadvantaged children and young people in American cities; that will give them the opportunity to gain the education and skills that will allow them to find their place in a vibrant economy; and to reduce the unacceptable but persistent inequalities of basic life prospects that our cities still create for so many Americans.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Twitter in Thailand

I've been following the twitter feed on #redshirt for a week now (since April 11, the day the red shirt demonstrators invaded the Pattaya resort hosting the ASEAN meeting). (See an earlier post on the civil unrest there.) It's been truly fascinating in many ways.

(It's a big disadvantage, of course, not to be able to read Thai; so there is a segment of the feed that I can't address at all.)

Here are a few things I've gathered in the week of reading. I've become familiar with a couple of voices -- bangkokbill, andrewspooner, anitchang, smartbrain, piriya ... I've learned a bit about the timing of events in Bangkok during the Sunday and Monday showdown with the government. I've probably gotten a bit of the flavor of the issues and emotions that divide the contending protest movements, red and yellow. I got some useful links to valid news and academic sources on the conflict.

And I've viewed the controversy about who is REALLY dominating the twitter feed -- yellow shirts or red shirts. Andrew Spooner is out front in asserting that yellow shirts are spinning the facts in the twitter feed; others characterize him as "pro-red shirt" and biased in that direction. It's gotten a bit personal -- maybe it's a good thing Spooner is off on a travel article assignment. But actually -- I'm not seeing the evidence of bias that Spooner sees.

Another interesting aspect of the feed -- there are only a few eye witness real time comments from the streets -- certainly few compared to the ongoing commentary by the regulars. And there appear to be no real time reports from participants -- red shirts or conceivably cops and soldiers.

The biggest issues of debate that people are clashing about on twitter are important ones. Did the government use more force than necessary? Were there more deaths than the four that were reported? Were more bodies secretly taken away? (This is a persistent theme in Spooner's postings.)

And second, how does the "street" feel about the demonstrations? Is there more support for the yellow shirts and the current government, or is there mass support for the red shirts and Thaksin? Are the red shirt demonstrators mostly concerned about democracy and social progress, or are they dupes of Thaksin's party?

Spooner makes what sounds like a valid point about access -- it makes sense that poor people who might support Thaksin are less likely to have access to twitter and the Internet. But since you can tweet straight from a cell phone, this doesn't seem to be much of a barrier. There are a lot of cell phones in Bangkok!

What never really gets addressed directly is the extent of mob violence exerted by red shirts on several occasions last weekend: the invasion of Battaya, invasion of the ministry of interior, smashing of the vice minister's car and serious beating of the official himself, and the burning of numerous buses. All of this is well documented in the press and on YouTube -- but almost never mentioned in the twitter polemics.

And of course there's the mysterious assassination attempt on the life of a former official, Sondhi, who was a prominent figure in the yellow shirt demonstrations in the fall -- some mention of this shooting on the twitter feed but no real news.

What is truly fascinating about the demonstrations in Bangkok this past week, and the twitter feeds that emanated as a result, is what it suggests about the future. Imagine that 10% of demonstrators contribute comments and feelings every few hours; imagine the freelance commentators and partisans are putting in their interpretations; and imagine the parties and the government make an effort to chime in and provide spin, interpretation, and misinformation. This would be a torrent of as many as four thousand tweets an hour for an extended time -- perhaps 350,000 tweets to make sense of in a week. What a data-rich cacaphony for the journalist, the sociologist, and the intelligence analyst to try to make sense of. Thailand 2009 isn't the twitter revolution -- but maybe the next one will be.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What's next?

We've seen several waves of hardship for working families in the past eight months in many parts of the U.S.: mortgage foreclosures, job losses, reduction of hours of work, and pressure by employers on health benefits. And state governments around the country are under huge fiscal pressure, leading them to attempt to cut support for social programs and important social services. And many of those governments are themselves laying off state workers. So there is already an unprecedented level of economic and personal distress in the country.

But no one seems to think that we've seen the worst this recession has to offer. So what's next?

One part of the story seems pretty clear. There will be more layoffs, more plant closures, and more business bankruptcies in the coming six months. So more families will suffer the pain and dislocation of job loss. The national unemployment rate is officially estimated at 8.5%, and economists expect it to rise above 10%. This means another two million job losses in the coming year or so. And each unemployed person affects several around him or her -- dependent children, spouses, college-age children, even aging parents. That amounts to several million more people about to be affected. (Here's a link to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

It also seems likely that many more people will lose their homes through foreclosure. (Here's a recent map of mortgage delinquency rates based on data compiled by the New York Federal Reserve Bank.)

It would take more of an expert than me to try to guess what surprises await us in the financial sector -- how many more failed banks, how long the credit drought will continue, how much resistance distressed home mortgage holders will meet in efforts to renegotiate their loans and try to keep their homes. But it doesn't seem likely that banking and finance have seen the worst yet.

We can pretty well predict that services and support for urban poor people will diminish further, as state budgets contract along with the economy. And public health experts can probably estimate the effects that contraction will have, on the health and nutrition status of poor communities. And what happens to whole communities when unemployment benefits begin to run out? How will food pantries and private services cope with increasing urgent need?

And what about worker militancy? Isn't it somewhat surprising that there hasn't been more of an organized reaction in the United States to all these shocks by the ordinary people who are experiencing them? Is it possible that this passivity and acceptance will begin to change as the months of hardship wear on into years of reduced quality of life?

The photos above are from the 1930s, the period of the Great Depression. The point here isn't that we're approaching a similar time. It is simply that economic hardship is real, and it forces new kinds of social action and private strategies of self-preservation.

I suppose the hope everyone shares is that the economy will reignite. Demand will begin to recover; businesses will start to rehire workers; new investments will be made that result in productive innovations. And public revenues will begin to recover as well, as family incomes, business profits, and property values start to recover. So we'll be able to pay for the social services we want and simple fairness demands.

Somehow, though, that recovery seems a long way off.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anti-NATO protests in Strasbourg

There are organized and escalating protests taking place against the NATO summit in Strasbourg this week (news; news; Aljazeera report). Calls for protest have come from anti-war and leftist organizations throughout Europe, and there is rising concern in the French and German press about the possibility of violence in the streets. These concerns are realistic, since clashes between demonstrators and police have taken place already in the past twenty-four hours.

These protests are separate from those taking place in London at the G20 meetings, and there appears to be an escalating cycle of violent clashes between demonstrators and police and security forces. Various European anti-war organizations have been mobilizing to bring their supporters to Strasbourg -- for example, see this website for Manchester Stop the War Coalition and this call for action from Americans for Peace and Justice (posted in Italy).

What is the composition of the protest movement in Strasbourg today? It would appear to be largely organized by anti-war and pacifist groups; groups who are opposed to European involvement in Afghanistan; some groups protesting the recent war in Gaza; and, presumably, a scattering of anti-globalization and anarchist groups from various parts of Europe. Anti-NATO demonstrations have taken place with some regularity in a variety of locations in Europe in the past year.

President Obama will be visiting Strasbourg and Baden-Baden this week for the NATO conference, and security in the city is very intense. The French public is very tuned into the developments that are taking place in the city. There will be a great deal of American and European attention to his visit. It is very striking, though, that there is virtually no coverage of the protests and clashes that are currently taking place in Strasbourg in the American press. The New York Times appears not to have covered the story, though it has covered the NATO conference itself.

It would be very interesting to use the tools available on the web to do a sociology of the protests taking place today, based on the links it is possible to discover among organizations through websites and calls for mobilization. Sidney Tarrow is one of the contemporary social scientists who has made a substantial effort to provide detailed analysis of the networks and organizations that have converged in anti-globalization protests in the past decade or so (The Global Justice Movement: Cross-national And Transnational Perspectives).