Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Obamas on their "racist experiences"

Actually, these are not necessarily "racist experiences." The reason a woman asked Michelle Obama to hand her something from a shelf in a store is that Michelle Obama was much taller than the woman. Michelle Obama is apparently 5'11" — an inch taller than me — and I often get asked by other customers in stores to get things from the high shelves. This is not because of prejudice against me; it's because I happen to be of average height for a man. Relatively tall people like us are advantaged by having an easier time reaching products in stores; how can we complain about occasionally being asked for help by someone who's too short to comfortably reach some of the products?

I've also been mistaken for a store clerk. I've also been closely followed by store clerks, and interrogated while trying to leave a store without buying anything. I've also been refused entry into my own workplace, when I was wearing a suit and tie and had been working there for a long time, because the security guard (a white man) didn't believe I worked there. (I should mention that this was not at my current job.) Yes these things are annoying, but they happen to people of all races.

Many of the Obamas' examples reflect a certain classism: Don't you know who I am?! How could you possibly mistake me for a lowly waiter?!

There's something unseemly about the most famous, powerful couple in America expressing dismay that a random citizen would ever fail to recognize how important they are.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

An idea

If I were Lorne Michaels, I'd offer Dan Aykroyd tons of money to rejoin the cast of Saturday Night Live to play Jeb Bush.

What should "white privilege" mean?

Reihan Salam writes:

I wonder if the racial self-flagellation of ‪#‎CrimingWhileWhite‬ is like buying an indulgence. If you engage in ritualized expressions of white guilt, you are free to enjoy your white privilege, comfortable in the knowledge that you are nothing like those ignorant and presumably terrible white people who refuse to do so. I have little patience for this kind of privilege-checking. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy observed back in May, invocations of white privilege are more often than not a way for one privileged person to “win a sensitivity competition” with another privileged person. What, then, is a useful way to think about what white privilege means and how it works? . . .

It’s also important to understand the social and economic components of white privilege. The basic idea, as described by scholars like Nancy DiTomaso, author of The American Non-Dilemma, and Daria Roithmayr, author of Reproducing Racism, is that all kinds of valuable social goods are transmitted through social networks. If you hear of a job opening at your company, you will likely pass that information along to a close friend or relative. I’ve shared information in this insider-y way, and I’m guessing that you have as well—if you don’t, then the people you value and respect might value and respect you a little bit less.

Why does white privilege come into play here? Because most Americans, like most humans, associate with people much like themselves. Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute has found that the social networks of white Americans are 91 percent white, and three-quarters of whites have entirely white social networks. This shouldn’t be too shocking, as most Americans are non-Hispanic whites and there are many neighborhoods in which making nonwhite friends would take a great deal of effort. Looking at these relationships through an exclusively racial lens can be misleading, as factors like the neighborhood you live in, the high school you attended, and your religious background could be doing more of the work than any preference for associating with other people of your own race. But the neighborhoods we live in and the high schools and churches we attend tend to be segregated by race, so even the mildest same-race preference will get magnified by these other avenues. Since white people hold a disproportionately large share of the most lucrative and the most powerful jobs, the natural tendency to help those you care about most ends up reinforcing racial inequality.

There is nothing intrinsically white about helping your friends and relatives. When it comes to building self-reinforcing social networks, one could even make the case that other groups are beating whites at their own game. Recently, Chris Martin, a graduate student in sociology at Emory University, and John Nezlek, a social psychologist at the College of William and Mary, found that people consistently underestimate the median household income of Asian Americans, and that people who believe that whites are highly privileged were particularly likely to assume that Asian-American households earn less than white households. This is despite the fact that Asian-American households have had higher incomes than white households for more than 30 years.

Does this mean that we ought to talk about Asian-American privilege more and white privilege less? Not without acknowledging what “privilege” means in the context of different groups. If anything, newcomers to American society and their children might find themselves more dependent on friends and relatives than deeply rooted whites, and thus more likely to cultivate and maintain these ties in an environment that seems alien and at times hostile. Those who arrive with high levels of educational attainment are particularly well-positioned to take advantage of job opportunities, and to share inside information with their co-ethnics. Virtually all Taiwanese immigrants benefit from the fact that 74.1 percent of American adults of Taiwanese origin have at least a bachelor’s degree. Similarly, the life chances of college-educated Hmong Americans are affected in all kinds of ways by the fact that 37.9 percent of American adults of Hmong origin have less than a high school diploma.

Imagine if we could rigorously apply a similar subgroup analysis to white Americans. The Census doesn’t capture data on educational and labor market outcomes for religious minorities like Jews and Mormons, yet there is evidence that people have a much greater tendency to associate with narrower ethno-religious groups than with fellow members of larger racial groups. Even so, we don’t generally speak of Jewish privilege or Mormon privilege. The language of white privilege also obscures the ravaging effects of poverty in heavily white regions like Appalachian Kentucky, where drug abuse is rampant and privilege-checking seems almost totally irrelevant.

Why does the white privilege conversation ignore the ways in which Asian Americans have used their social ties to achieve success, or the yawning chasm that separates upper-middle-income Mormon Californians from impoverished Appalachian whites? The simple answer is that we talk about white privilege as a clumsy way of talking about black exclusion.

Even white Americans of modest means are more likely to have inherited something, in the form of housing wealth or useful professional connections, than the descendants of slaves. In his influential 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson recounts in fascinating detail the various ways in which the New Deal and Fair Deal social programs of the 1930s and 1940s expanded economic opportunities for whites while doing so unevenly at best for blacks, particularly in the segregated South. Many rural whites who had known nothing but the direst poverty saw their lives transformed as everything from rural electrification to generous educational benefits for veterans allowed them to build human capital, earn higher incomes, and accumulate savings. This legacy, in ways large and small, continues to enrich the children and grandchildren of the whites of that era. This is the stuff of white privilege.
There's an interesting analogy to be made between Asian Americans and Jewish Americans. Both groups are richer than the average white American. But they reached that point only by doing a lot to compensate for discrimination and historic oppression.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"Warren's present-tense denial adds to speculation she will run in 2016"

A correct headline.

"I am not running for president" is what you say when you want to leave the door wide open to the possibility that you might start running for president any day now.

Someone else who said he was not running for president was a junior Senator named Barack Obama.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lennon or McCartney?



The best answer is by Adam Duritz of Counting Crows (starting just after 4:40). I have to say I agree with him.

Hillary Clinton vs. Elizabeth Warren

Howard Dean and my friend Ben Wikler debate the Democratic primaries, focusing on Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. At one point, the host seems a little disappointed that they're both being too positive, and Howard Dean responds that he's not going to "fight" Ben Wikler — who Dean calls one of the smartest Americans under 35.




(The video might take a few seconds to show up.)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Things that have become less annoying than people complaining about them

• smartphones

• people who don't have a TV

• hipsters

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sam Cooke died 50 years ago.

50 years ago today, on December 11, 1964, Sam Cooke died at the age of 33.

There’s a home video of me at about age 5, where my mom asks if I want to sing a song. I sing a couple verses of “You Send Me." Then I point out that it's really "a grownup song." Sam Cooke had clearly touched me from very early on. He had a light, warm, amiable quality that could appeal to a young child, while having the depth and maturity to appeal to adults. And he has a passion and feeling that’s allowed his music to endure for 50 years.

Wikipedia sums up his career:

Samuel "Sam" Cooke (January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964) was an American recording artist and singer-songwriter, generally considered among the greatest of all time. Influential as both a singer and composer, he is commonly known as the King of Soul for his distinctive vocals and importance within popular music. His pioneering contributions to soul music contributed to the rise of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston and popularized the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown. AllMusic biographer Bruce Eder wrote that Cooke was "the inventor of soul music", and possessed "an incredible natural singing voice and a smooth, effortless delivery that has never been surpassed."

Cooke had 30 U.S. top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, plus three more posthumously. Major hits like "You Send Me", "A Change Is Gonna Come", "Cupid", "Chain Gang", "Wonderful World", and "Twistin' the Night Away" are some of his most popular songs. Cooke was also among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of his musical career. He founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. He also took an active part in the Civil Rights Movement.
Here's "Good News," followed by a short interview of Sam Cooke (by Dick Clark), in which he tells "the secret" to his songwriting:




Cooke wrote "Chain Gang," after meeting some chain-gang prisoners on a highway while Cooke was on tour. (Chain gangs have been almost entirely abolished from the United States.)




("Chain Gang" covered by the Nylons and the Supremes.)

Cooke concisely answers the question: "What is soul?"




That recording shows that Cooke wasn't the most technically perfect singer — his voice breaks a little. And he didn't have the biggest range. I've read that he had the exact same range as Justin Bieber, of all people.

But just listen to this — a scorchingly intense performance of "Bring It on Home to Me," with an extended intro that brilliantly includes some of "You Send Me":




"Bring It on Home to Me" is probably one of Cooke's most covered songs — it's been done by Wilson Pickett (who gave a shout-out to "the late Sam Cooke" in the beginning of that 1968 recording), Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and She & Him.

He clearly brought something extra to his live show that isn't on the studio recordings:




Though he generally wrote his own songs, he was also a gifted interpreter of classics. Here's "Summertime" (by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward):




"Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" (a traditional spiritual):




Before Cooke switched to pop, he sang gospel with the Soul Stirrers. Here's a rousing, 9-minute "Nearer My God to Thee":




But to many people, the most soul-stirring Sam Cooke song is his civil rights anthem, "A Change Is Gonna Come." He recorded it in January 1964, a little less than a year before he died.




When Rolling Stone ranked Cooke the 4th greatest singer of all time, Van Morrison wrote this for the magazine:
If a singer is not singing from the soul, I do not even want to listen to it — it's not for me.

Sam Cooke reached down deep with pure soul. He had the rare ability to do gospel the way it's supposed to be — he made it real, clean, direct. Gospel drove Sam Cooke through his greatest songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, who came first, and Otis Redding.

He had an incomparable voice. Sam Cooke could sing anything and make it work. But when you're talking about his strength as a singer, range is not relevant. It was his power to deliver — it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing.

He did a lot of great songs, but "Bring It on Home to Me" is a favorite. It's just a well-crafted song with a great lyric and melody. It's a song that's written to allow you to go wherever you can with it. "A Change Is Gonna Come" is another song I covered; it's a great arrangement.

Not many people can play this music anymore, not the way Sam Cooke did it, coming directly from the church. What can we learn from a singer like him, from listening to songs like "A Change Is Gonna Come"? It depends on who the singer is and what they are capable of, where their head is and how serious they are. But Sam Cooke was born to sing.
Let's keep his music alive for 50 more years.







(Sam Cooke in Billboard magazine, from Wikipedia.)