Monday, January 28, 2008

Privilege and race

I've heard a couple of speakers recently who offered an unusual degree of honesty in addressing issues of race in our society.

The most recent was a talk by Tim Wise at my university on "white privilege." Tim is the author of several books, including White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. Tim lectures quite a bit on race in America, and he doesn't hold back.

The talk was outstanding, and Tim did a great job of connecting with the audience of students and faculty -- over a hundred students and a handful of faculty. Tim's message is that we need to refocus the way that we talk about racism and racial inequality and we need to recognize racial inequality as the structural fact that it is in America. If a set of social institutions -- education, banking, employment, healthcare -- have the effect of conferring disadvantages on some groups of people, then it is unavoidable that these institutions are conferring advantages or privilege on other groups of people. If African-Americans have substantially lower levels of health, at every level of income, this seems to imply that white Americans are "privileged" with respect to access to health care. This is what he means by "white privilege." And his basic point is that privilege is pervasive in our society -- along with its opposite, cultural, economic, and social disadvantage.

Tim also makes the point that it is crucial that we listen, really listen, to the voices of people who are the recipients of these entrenched disadvantages. Their perspectives are fundamentally different from those of racially privileged, economically advantaged upper-middle class Americans.

I also heard a pair of talks in Detroit recently by Tom Sugrue, a historian from the University of Pennsylvania, and Kurt Metzger, director of research at the United Way of Southeast Michigan. The panel was on the causes and effects of racial segregation in metro Detroit. Tom is the author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and is a leading expert on the history of race in America. Kurt is recognized throughout metro Detroit as the most knowledgeable person around when it comes to the demography of southeast Michigan. The two talks made a powerful case for demonstrating how crucial the social mechanisms of racial separation are in the history of Detroit and the suburbs. And the consequences for all of southeast Michigan are severe -- especially for the population of young African-American men and women whose opportunities are so limited by the existing social institutions supporting employment, education, and health. (Tom addresses some of these issues in a conversation he and I had that is posted on YouTube.)

The third great talk that I have heard in the past six months was by Ted Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (Visit the LDF site for a bio.) Ted is absolutely eloquent and direct in talking about racial inequalities in our country. He is an unapologetic defender of affirmative action, on the ground that it is an entirely appropriate social mechanism for addressing the structural inequalities that the history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination have created in our country. (There is a good piece of video on YouTube featuring some of Ted's ideas and views -- Ted's speech begins at 3:40 in the video.) Ted is an inspiring visionary and our country needs to hear his voice.

All three of these thinkers make the point that we need to find more space for honest, direct talk about the legacy of racism in our country. And that is certainly true.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Martin Luther King's journey

Today we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is easy enough to be discouraged about the current state of racial inequality in this country. We have not made nearly the progress on economic inequalities and inequalities of opportunity that seemed possible in 1966. But Dr. King was an optimistic man and a man who always looked for ways of moving forward. So I want to honor him today by reflecting on some of the difficult but real efforts that are underway today to prepare our society for a more racially just future. And examples can be found in my own city of Detroit.

I think first of a youth opportunity program that is having significant impact in Detroit. The program is called YouthVille. Located in a repurposed warehouse, YouthVille is filled with young people finding some of the resources and support they need to take charge of their lives -- succeed in school, develop the confidence that they can achieve their dreams, and successfully negotiate the challenges of being a kid in a tough city. Young people from over 270 schools in the Detroit area have participated in programs at YouthVille, and the numbers are growing.

Next I think of an African-centered after-school program for middle and high school students, the Alkebu-lan Village. Founded by committed community activists and sustained by the daily efforts of these same dedicated men and women, the Village gives inner city kids a supportive and safe environment where they can develop their own dreams about the futures they want to achieve. The mission statement of the organization describes it as "an African-centered community-based organization committed to developing and nurturing an environment where families work together to build healthy minds, bodies and communities." It is inspiring to spend time at Alkebu-lan Village and to witness the caring concern and commitment that these Detroiters give to their mission. The village provides tutoring and homework help, and it measurably improves the kids' experience in school. It offers sports, dance, and music activities for the kids who attend, and it organizes summer camp experiences for inner-city kids. Throughout it gives all its kids a better chance at success. This is a community-based organization that has successfully harnessed the energies of a community of people in service to the futures of Detroit's youth.

Finally, I think of CityYear Detroit and the wonderful team members and staff who are devoted to providing meaningful service to their community. CityYear exists in over a dozen cities throughout the country and, recently, South Africa. Its team members can be spotted in their red jackets, providing tutoring, establishing urban gardens, and helping to improve the lives of children and adults in the cities they serve. I have met quite a few team members and leaders in Detroit and elsewhere over the years, and their commitment and energy are inspiring. These young people, often inner city kids, are learning about team work, leadership, and service in ways that will affect them throughout their lives. And because CityYear is successful in recruiting a highly diverse group, each kid learns very deeply and personally about other people's experiences in life. This is the kind of learning that universities haven't yet succeeded in creating. But a year of service in CityYear (and other AmeriCorps programs) is transforming for almost every young person who does it. And the CityYear alums have a vison for their futures that we all can learn from.

So there are some compelling examples of people and organizations that are addressing the issues of poverty, race, and inequalities of opportunity that have proven so intractable. One thing that ties all three examples together is the ethic of community service that they reflect, and the determination by so many leaders and activists to live this comitment out. And there is inspiration here at every level -- in the men and women who have dedicated their energies to create these organizations, and the young people who have gained such good values and skills within them. Let's all find ways of joining in this important work. And in doing so, let's notice that we're helping with the work that Martin began.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Inequality based on prior inequality

Many people think that grossly unequal outcomes across a society with respect to the amount and quality of social goods each enjoys are profoundly unjust. (By social goods I am thinking of things like income, wealth, power, healthcare, and education.) Why should some members of society have such a lower level of access to the things that constitute contemporary life? And if, as people like Amartya Sen maintain, some of these goods are necessary components of full human development, how can it be just that some people are less able to develop their capacities as full human beings (Development as Freedom)? So gross inequalities in the current distribution of social goods are bad enough.

But what if it is also true that a low bundle of social goods in one time period is the largest factor in determining a low bundle in the next time period as well? And what if that is true across generations as well as across stages of individuals' lives? What if current poverty of a family is itself a primary cause of the next generation's poverty? Is this not a particularly unacceptable form of inequality?

And yet this cross-generational transmission of poverty and reduced life chances is precisely what we observe. Children born into poverty have less access to crucial resources necessary to their personal and social development. They are exposed to opportunities that are very different from children in other levels of wealth. And, not surprisingly, their probability of winding up as adults in any more affluent segment of the population is markedly lower than that of other children.

So the phrase "the recurring cycle of poverty" is exactly descriptive of the social realities of our society.

What a progressive society promises is that every person will have a reasonable chance of success in life. That means that every person -- and every child -- should have access to the resources that are necessary for full personal and social development, in order to develop the talents and capabilities that will permit him or her to be creative, productive, inventive, and successful. A democracy based on the equality of all men and women promises exactly this -- the idea of unfettered social mobility and real equality of opportunity.

But it is quite evident that American society today falls short of this goal, in large ways and small. The likelihood of graduating from high school if you live in an inner city neighborhood in Chicago, Detroit, or New York is only a fraction of the comparable likelihood in the suburbs; likewise for college attendance and for eventual college graduation. And the likelihood of a high school senior from the lower-quintile of family income is only one-seventh that of a high school senior with the same SAT and high school qualifications from the top quintile of family income -- the same qualifications! (This example is taken from William Bowen, Eugene Tobin, and Martin Kurzweil, Equity And Excellence in American Higher Education.) So it seems fairly evident that opportunities are very differentially offered to young people, irrespective of "merit" or qualifications.

So where does this take us? It seems to convey a pretty deep issue about justice in our society: that we have done a very poor job of ensuring that persons from all levels of income and wealth have a decent chance at fulfilling their human talents and achieving their aspirations. And that is a pretty serious thing! And it also puts the spotlight on public education as a crucial component of a just society. If we were to succeed in providing effective K-12 schools to all children, and made it possible for every young person to pursue a university education at a good public university -- think of the step forward that this would represent in the basic justice of our society.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Voter decision-making

It is the night of the New Hampshire primary, and the pundits are at work.

But what can we learn about American political choices based on what we see during this election season? What do voters care about when they decide which presidential candidate to support? Is it issues and positions; personality of the candidate (likeability); rhetoric and buzzwords; their perceptions of qualities of leadership and effectiveness; party affiliation; or something else? And which of these groups of qualities make sense as a criterion for choosing a president?

Many of the interviews with prospective voters we hear on radio and television refer to personal qualities: "I don't like Hillary," "Obama is exciting," "Thompson is too boring." It is worth wondering whether these sorts of personal responses make any sense at all as a basis for choosing a president. What are we to make of the possibility that many voters base their preferences on features they might notice in a "speed dating" event (looks, style, charm)?

Would it not be better to have a president whose manners and looks we don't like but whose leadership competence is certain and whose agenda for change is one we can enthusiastically support? How can such superficial features as looks, style, and charm make a difference to a choice of this magnitude?

So what about judgments about leadership and effectiveness? This at least appears to be a rational basis for choice. If a president is inept at the challenge of inspiring citizens and other leaders to work together and to get things done, then his or her program doesn't matter very much; the leader will not be effective in implementing it. So favoring a candidate who has the hallmarks of competence and leadership effectiveness is related to the ultimate goal of having a president who can successfully manage the affairs of the nation. So attempting to assess the candidate's qualities of leadership and effectiveness makes sense as a criterion of choice.

But it would seem that the most important question is that of priorities and goals -- the candidate's program. If we assume that each voter has a set of preferences and interests about national and international policies, then it seems logical to suppose that the voter's challenge is to decide which candidate will do the most satisfactory job of implementing those preferences and interests. On this approach, we might model the voter's task as, first, articulating his/her chief priorities for national public policy, and then assessing each candidate in terms of the degree of fit between the candidate's program and the voter's preferences. Essentially, this amounts to the decision rule: measure the candidates by the programs they promise to pursue, and choose that candidate whose program lines up best with the voter's preferences and interests.

Of course the situation is more complicated than this, in that each voter also reaches a judgment about "electability." Why would a voter cast his/her ballot for candidate X whose program lines up perfectly with the voter's preferences, if the voter also judges that X's likelihood of election is 10% compared to the 60% likelihood of election for candidate Y whose program is still pretty well aligned with the voter's preferences? So it seems rational for the voter to weight the judgment of consistency with my agenda by the estimate of the likelihood of the candidate's being successfully elected.

But let's turn the picture a little bit and consider parties and their programs. Policy implementation requires coordinated and disciplined efforts in the executive and legislative branches to enact legislation. So would it not be most rational to begin the choice process by evaluating the priorities and agendas of the parties? Why do American voters make their decisions on the basis of the personality rather than the party? Would we not be better off thinking primarily about the party's program -- as voters in many European democracies do? Here the first question would be: which party presents a program that best corresponds to my preferences and interests? And then, is the party's candidate sufficiently competent to give me confidence that he/she will be able to advance the party's program through legislation and public policy? And can I trust that the party's candidate is genuinely committed to the party's program?

All of these questions are subject to intensive empirical inquiry, and there are legions of political scientists who are devoting their energies to interpreting the thought processes and decision rules of American voters. (One whose work I have admired is Samuel Popkin and especially his book The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns.) But is it possible that we might actually be a more effective democracy if we gave more thought as a society to the ways in which voters join with issues and challenges and shape their preferences, and try to find institutions that make for a more engaged and deliberative electorate?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Labor abuses in China

Today's New York Times has an important article about the conditions of workers in many of the factories in China devoted to manufacturing goods for export to the United States and other countries (In Chinese Factories, 1/5/08). The reportage is eye-opening but not surprising. Times reporters have documented excessive hours of work, pay that is lower than what Chinese law requires, working conditions that are chronically unsafe, and persistent exposure to the very dangerous chemicals that American toy consumers have been so concerned about. One of the authorities quoted in the article is Professor Anita Chan from the Australian National University, and Professor Chan has been documenting these conditions for years. Her book, China's Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy (Asia and the Pacific), is a detailed and factual examination of some of these conditions. She documents the fact that the most vulnerable groups of workers -- in the range of tens of millions! -- are the internal migrants of China, who have left their home regions in search of jobs. Very significantly, Professor Chan bases some of her fact-finding on the slowly emerging field of local investigative journalism in China.

Why do these abuses occur? For several related reasons. First, the motive of generating profits in the context of a rapidly growing economy. Since China's industrial economy was reformed in the 1990s, permiting private ownership of factories and enterprises, there have been strong incentives to be successful in business and to become rich. There is tremendous demand for low-cost Chinese-manufactured goods, and great fortunes are being made in consumer electronics, toys, clothing, and dozens of other sectors. But the profit motive leads factory owners and managers to strive hard to keep wages and factory expenses as low as possible; and the vast population of poor rural people in China who are available for unskilled factory work makes the bargaining position of the factory owner very strong. (Chan documents some of the forms of coercion and intimidation that are used in some Chinese factories to keep workers on the job and to prevent them from leaving or resisting.) And, as the Times story points out, the American purchasers are insistent about cost-cutting and price-cutting on the finished goods. So the result is -- a chronic competitive "race to the bottom" in which each factory tries to produce at the require level of quality with the absolutely lowest level of cost; and this means continuous pressure on working conditions, health and safety conditions, and environmental effects.

So part of the story has to do with the economic incentives and advantages that factory owners have relative to a large working population that has few alternatives. But this part of the story is familiar from other economies as they have developed through intensive industrialization. It has been learned elsewhere in the world that the imperatives of profitability by themselves almost mandate the abuse of labor; so government regulation and inspection are a necessary part of a manufacturing system if it is to succeed in treating all the population fairly and humanely. We might have imagined that the Chinese government would have been prepared to provide the regulatory environment that was necessary to protect the best interests of farmers and workers; it is, after all, governed by the party of farmers and workers. However, this is not the case. China has been so concerned to support economic growth that it has been very slow to implement effective regulatory systems to protect labor and the environment. Moreover, the balance of power between factory owners and local officials seems to be tilted towards the owners; other Times reporting has documented the fact that local officials cannot impose their will upon the owners. And, of course, there is ample opportunity for corrupt collusion between owners and officials.

This failure to regulate has been evident in other areas besides labor; the Chinese government has shown itself to be unwilling or unable to enact effective environmental regulations or to establish an effective regime of inspection and regulation for foods, drugs, and other potentially harmful products. It appears that middle-class Chinese consumers themselves are now expressing anxiety about the absence of this kind of regulation within their food and drug system.

So what other avenues exist for improving the conditions of workers in China?

There are three possibilities -- all mutually compatible. First, workers themselves can protect their interests in fair wages, safe working conditions, and limited hours of work -- if they are permitted to organize in unions. Woody Guthrie had it right: as individuals, workers are weak, but together they are strong. It seems inescapable that a major part of the problem is the enormous imbalance that exists between the powers associated with ownership and management, and those assigned to workers and their organizations. So a more just China will need to permit the development of real independent labor unions that work hard for the interests of their members.

Second, labor mobility can improve the conditions of labor everywhere. It is not an accident that some of the worst abuses documented by Professor Chan have to do with the forms of coercion that factory owners use to keep workers in their factories. If workers can vote with their feet, then we would expect that they will migrate to factories and other employers who offer better conditions of work and pay. And this will force employers to bid for qualified labor on the basis of improved working conditions.

And finally, there is obviously a role for consumers and companies in North America and Europe in all of this. North American consumers benefit from the low manufacturing costs currently available in China; but these low costs are unavoidably associated with the labor abuses we see today. We have a model for how international companies can take responsibility for the conditions of labor and environmental behavior, in the form of the Fair Labor struggles of the 1990s on university campuses in the United States. Large apparel manufacturers took on the responsibility of subjecting their suppliers to standards of conduct, and they subscribed to third-party organizations that undertook to "audit" the level of compliance with these standards by the supply chain. (Visit the Fair Labor website for an example of such an organization.) As the Times story observes, this is a tricky business, given the substantial degree of sub-contracting that occurs in the manufacturing process in China. But it can have a measurable effect.

China is plainly destined to be a major economic and political power in the coming fifty years. But to succeed in creating a society in which everyone has a continuing stake in a good quality of life and a fair deal from society, it will have to solve the problems of regulation of labor, health, and environment. And this will mean a degree of redistribution of China's wealth and power towards its poorest people.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Perspectives on us

My idea of a really gifted social inquirer is Studs Terkel. This isn't because Studs is a methodologist with a research plan and a falsifiable hypothesis, a dependent variable to track and a research strategy on a bunch of independent variables. It is because he is a voracious listener -- he is interested in people, and he is aware that every person's story has the potential for breaking new ground on his own understanding of how our society works. And he uses an active, sympathetic intelligence as his research tool, to draw out of his ordinary people the most amazing insights into how they've experienced their lives -- as service workers, as civil rights activists, as policemen and women. What Studs finds is the great breadth and depth of human experience, human histories, and human coping, embedded in the thoughts and life moments of ordinary people. And he sheds a bright light on how varied human experience is -- even in the same city (Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco). It's a little bit like the way that the early biologist van Leeuwenhoek described his amazement in the 1660s at looking through a microscope at clear water, and seeing thousands of tiny organisms. Terkel discovers nuance, variety, and drama, in the most ordinary and apparently mundane experiences of ordinary people. (Studs has just published a memoir that is well worth reading -- Touch and Go: A Memoir.)

But there is an insight in this for all of us. We can each learn from Studs' ability to connect with the most varied group of people. Most of us live our lives in deliberately familiar circumstances. We talk to the people we know (often about pretty trivial things). We visit the places we're comfortable with. And we recreate a pretty repetitive and stereotyped world of experience for ourselves. When we think about people in other circumstances than ours -- for example, the Egyptian cabdriver who takes us to LaGuardia -- we fall back on stereotypes about the other person rather than extending our own understanding of the complexities of the world around us. (Why is this man, trained as an engineer in Cairo driving a cab in New York? What circumstances in Egypt led to his emigration? How does he experience New York? What does he think of Fifth Avenue? Does he have healthcare? What does he want next in his life?)

There is a connection between this fact about our customary narrowness and "stereotyped social knowing" and the educational importance of diversity. The idea is that when universities succeed in recruiting a diverse student body, there is a greater chance that students will get to know each other better and more deeply, and will come to have more knowledge -- and a more active desire for knowledge -- about the life experiences and perspectives of others. So racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, or age diversity in a university community is a crucial component of the social learning, the cultural cognition, that we want young people to acquire. By living, working, and learning together young people are in a better position to see the world more fully and to understand each other more deeply.

Of course this theory doesn't work as well in practice as in theory. Young people still have the choice of self-segregating and confining themselves to the familiar. So it is important for faculty and university leaders to create the situations on a campus that break down the barriers. (It is often observed that theater programs and geology departments often have the best success in engaging students across racial or ethnic lines. And a plausible theory of why this is so is that both programs involve extensive group work, field trips, and team cooperation.)

But there are other mechanisms for creating a broader social knowledge as well. For example, programs of national service like AmeriCorps and CityYear can give young people a deep and transforming experience of relationships across class and race lines -- and the cross-culture learning that takes place there seems to be more profound. Could a mandatory year of national service be a viable mechanism for breaking down the forms of separation and mutual misunderstanding that we find in our society?

Another avenue that is available to all of us is the national oral history project called "The Story Corps." (Portions are played on National Public Radio and the archives are maintained at the Library of Congress.) This is a different kind of oral history project -- ordinary people talking about a single incident or moment in their lives. By listening to a number of these stories, you can get a much greater appreciation of the richness of experience that the diversity of our society represents -- and the depth of insights that ordinary people bring to interpreting their experiences.

But back to Studs Terkel. What does he have that most of us lack? Mostly it is the curiosity to get a real understanding of the other person's microcosm, and the courage to engage in the conversation. These are things we all can learn -- and our understanding of the multiple social worlds we inhabit will be much the richer for it. So I for one want to go out of my way to connect better with people in ordinary social contact, in a way that lets me get a little bit better idea of how they experience their lives and what singular features of experience their worlds contain.

(Some of Studs' best work is found in Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do and Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. But to really get a feeling for his mind, you need to hear some of his radio work.)