Love travels: Queer friendship across class lines

—Lisa Henderson

Hotel giant Marriott International has unveiled its #lovetravels marketing campaign just in time to sponsor Pride events this June in Washington, DC, New York City, and San Francisco. The campaign appeals to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender travellers, featuring celebrity queer and transgender people on multiple media platforms. This would have been hard to imagine back in the 1980s, when many of us in Philadelphia volunteered with the Lesbian and Gay Task Force to protest against routine discrimination, including in public accommodation.

But as anyone who travels (or wants to) knows, love travels best with money, especially if you’re DC-bound this Pride month and plan to stay at the Renaissance and Residence Inn hotels at Dupont Circle, the Renaissance Downtown, the Ritz Carlton, or the Washington JW Marriott—all establishments that will feature #lovetravels banners. This is a high-end campaign, inclusive of those who can pay.

I am employed; I travel; I have stayed in Marriott properties; and I know that appealing to queers on the road beats taking our money while reviling our profile. But the campaign reminds us that wealth is the price of admission, which means that those without it aren’t invited. This is a far cry from an earlier period less enfranchised by the standards of civil rights but perhaps more sustaining of queer world-making across class lines.

In “An Old Queen’s Tale,” downtown performance artist Penny Arcade’s recent love letter to Christopher Street, Arcade writes:

“When I speak to young queers who want to know the differences between today and back then I say quietly, ‘Show me one twenty-seven-year-old queer guy who is going to take in a homeless seventeen-year-old girl. Back then we knew we had to take care of each other…It was humane and inclusive…Everyone recognized their people intuitively.’”

Queer history is full of community friendship and protection across class lines, but that can’t really be the message of a marketing campaign, least of all when pricey forms of access are the measures of queer arrival.

Consider a recent but old-school example of queer friendship across class lines. Last January, English actor Rupert Everett wrote a feature for The Guardian/Observer about the police ouster of sex workers from their shared apartments in London’s Soho neighborhood. The arrests were conducted under the guise of stopping sex trafficking, says Everett, though no traffickers were apprehended. Contrary to the claims of police and morality squads, there is a Soho land grab going on, where police co-operate with property developers and their partners in City Hall, rubbing their hands together over a Soho reconfigured for international tourism and sales, as if London weren’t expensive enough. Everett follows his sex worker friends to trial, to witness the proceedings and to write dryly—and knowingly—about the theater taking place there and the revelation of legal done-deals against Londoners with few resources, save their own social networks now ruined by police “protection.”

Readings Everett’s piece left me wondering about Everett himself—his posh writing style, his come-and-go fortunes as leading man in popular film since openly identifying as gay in 1989, his friendship and solidarity with maids and prostitutes pooling their housing resources in Soho. Everett is not unique among English cultural figures—part social and cultural elite, part artistic bohemian and old school sexual rebel—indeed he reminds us of Oscar Wilde, whose biography, plays, and film adaptations Everett knows well as performer.

Everett’s Guardian piece, however, re-animates the conversation about sexual culture and class solidarity in queerness—the queerness of being a gay actor who, at one time, traded sex for drugs and money, the queerness of being unmoved (if still displaced) by morality squads working at the service of property development, the queerness of sexual libertinism and the sensible distrust of sexual show trials. Anyone who watched the purification of New York’s Times Square and the loss, there, of a mixed culture of rent boys, porn workers, and sexual bohemians (Samuel Delaney’s writing preserves it achingly, as Sarah Schulman’s does for New York’s East Village) will find Everett’s account of Soho familiar.

Everett’s Guardian authorship reminds me of the history of multi-class queer friendship, of solidarity amid survival and sexual trouble-making. It also reminds me of the thick weave of social, cultural, and economic forms—capitals, in Bourdieu’s terms—that make up class and class difference in the present.  In Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production, I unravel the cultural and economic intersection of class in queerness, to expose that intersection in many places, from the history of hyper-acculumulation that marks queer—and all—political development since the mid-1970s, to the cultural representation of queerness as a class project, the taste hierarchies that separate queers once gathered by sexual exclusion, the draw of class recognition in queerness, and the terms of political opening that might favor renewed solidarities across class lines.

Imagine the alternative marketing campaign that invites people to share rides, sleep 8 to a room, eat pot-luck, and welcome strangers and the friends of friends. A lot of people got and get to big-city Pride celebrations that way.  It wouldn’t work for Marriott but it might signify the practice of friendship and solidarity in a mixed life that is both queer but never only queer, and it might enable a little more movement energy, the stuff we still need to make life work for everyone.

Lisa Henderson is Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production (NYU Press, 2013).

Book giveaway: Open Veins of Latin America

Since its publication in 1971, Open Veins of Latin America has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has sold more than a million copies. Written by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, the book chronicles five centuries of exploitation in Latin America—first by European empires, and later the United States. In it, Galeano argues that this “structure of plunder” led to the region’s enduring poverty and underdevelopment.

Now, according to a recent New York Times article, Galeano has disavowed the book. But has he?

In light of the controversy, we’re giving away a FREE copy of Open Veins of Latin America to three lucky winners. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and e-mail address. Winners will be randomly selected on Friday, June 6 at 12:00pm EST.

GOP’s slick Black History ads fall short, miss the point

—Andra Gillespie

[Note: This op-ed originally appeared on CNN.com on February 5, 2014.]

It’s February and Black History Month, and networks and major consumer brands are reprising their annual ad campaigns honoring the contributions of African-Americans to the arts, politics, technology and commerce.

This year, a new player is sponsoring Black History Month ads: the Republican National Committee.

In spots airing on black radio and television stations in select media markets, the RNC praises the contributions of black Republicans such as Louis Sullivan, a former secretary of health and human services under President George H.W. Bush.

This ad campaign is part of a larger Republican strategy to reach out to minority voters. After President Barack Obama won more than 70% of the vote among blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans (93% among blacks alone) in 2012, the Republican National Committee redoubled its efforts to court minority voters. This ad campaign is a part of that effort.

A well-produced, uplifting ad campaign will not be enough to convince black Democrats to switch their party identification, though.

For every ad praising Sen. Tim Scott, the Republican Party has had to put out fires created by state and local officials who make insensitive racial comments. For instance, in the past two weeks, the Iowa Republican Party had to fire the mastermind behind the “Is Someone a Racist?” flow chart on its Facebook page. The flow chart flippantly charged that racists are white people you don’t like.

By this point, some Republicans are probably wondering why blacks don’t seem to punish liberals and Democrats for their racial missteps. Democrat-friendly MSNBC has faced strong and valid criticism for its recent taunts of the Romney family’s transracial adoption and its assumptions that conservative Republicans don’t marry interracially. For his part, Fox host Bill O’Reilly raised eyebrows when he asked Obama why he had not done more to lower the out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks.

The answer is rooted in a long, complicated history of race and partisanship and in psychological frames that the GOP ignores at its peril.

Some Republicans rightfully point out that during the civil rights movement, Southern Democrats tried to block passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. They forget, however, that in the past 50 years, white Southern Democrats (both racists and non-racists) have gradually shifted their party identification to the Republican Party. They don’t account for the fact that GOP has admitted to (and apologized for) purposely using racially coded language to win over racially resentful whites in the wake of the civil rights movement.

And they ignore data that confirm that while black political views have moderated in the past generation, blacks still tend to prefer a stronger federal state and greater governmental intervention, in large part because they perceive the federal government to have done a better job than state and local officials at protecting civil rights.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to the GOP’s outreach efforts among blacks, though, is its misunderstanding of the importance of group dynamics to individual political decision-making.

Republicans value limited government and personal liberty, traits that celebrate rugged individualism and a view of politics that assumes that self-interest informs most policy preferences. Numerous studies have shown that many blacks and Latinos believe that what happens to other blacks and Latinos affects them. This belief that their fates are linked to the fates of their co-ethnics informs liberal policy and political preferences.

It means that an affluent black person might be willing to pay higher taxes if it helps maintain the food stamp program, which helps poor, disproportionately minority people. Or that a Latina born in the United States might wince when Republican congressional candidates voice their opposition to immigration reform because she perceives that tone of the opposition evinces a general antipathy toward Latinos regardless of their nativity.

Don’t get me wrong, Republican outreach to blacks is a good thing, and I hope to see more of it.

Republican candidates who win office need to engage their black and minority constituents, and Democrats should not assume that blacks (or any other group) will always vote Democratic.

However, a polished ad campaign alone is not enough to win over black voters. If the GOP hopes to become significantly more competitive among blacks, it will have to acknowledge the importance of group identity to blacks and other minorities and learn how to frame their principles in terms of group interests.

Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).

Reducing children at risk

—Robert Cherry

Today, more than half of the new mothers under 30 years old are unwed, and even enhancing the government support they receive may not substantially alter the risk their children face. A recent study finds that especially young men are less likely to flourish when raised by single mothers. Paid leave, childcare support, and universal pre-K are all policies that help these women balance work and family. However, unless there is a change in family formation, these expansions may have only modest impacts on these risks.

The rise of single motherhood reflects to a substantial degree the economic marginalization of working class men. Employment rates of young men without a four-year college degree have substantially declined and young women correctly judge that many of them are  just not going to be reliable partners. Moving Working Families Forward recommends a number of policies to better their employment prospects, including vocational high school programs that improve not only technical skills but also the soft skills – teamwork, punctuality, and interpersonal discourse – that are important to employability.

Low marriage rates are also exacerbated by the large financial penalties many working single mothers must pay for getting married. The government now provides them with substantial income support. However, virtually all those benefits are lost if a single mother marries a working partner. With the way the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is structured, she could lose $3,200 or more if she qualifies for state EITC.

There have been a number of proposals for eliminating the federal component of the marriage penalty. One of them is my New Mothers Tax Relief proposal, which would virtually eliminate the federal marriage penalty by extending full EITC benefits to families with incomes of $40,000 and then slowly reduce them. About $2,000 in new benefits would then be extended to lower middle class married couples with pre-school aged children. These families often face financial pressures when they have very young children—pressures that can cause marital tensions and disruptions.

These employment and family formation proposals may be perceived as too incremental by the ideological Left and, despite their very modest costs, may be dismissed as too expensive by the Right. For those in the broad middle, however, they should be seen as vital steps in improving family stability.

Robert Cherry is Brueklundian Professor in the Department of Economics at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and author of many books, including Moving Working Families Forward: Third Way Policies That Can Work (NYU Press, 2012).

Have things gotten worse for working women?

—Rachel Dempsey

[This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post on September 18, 2013.]

Earlier this week, I was in a meeting with a professor when the issue of women’s advancement in the professional world came up. I was in the process of making some vague, general statement when she suddenly asked: “Have things gotten worse?”

It turned out that she had recently spoken with a student who was worried she wouldn’t be able to get her career off the ground in time to have children. The professor said the young woman’s concern had taken her aback: the student was an undergraduate, and didn’t yet have either children or a career. In her generation, my professor said, women just assumed it would all work out.

To me, though, the concern made perfect sense. From Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to young women to lean in to this recent New Yorker article about why women should think twice before getting an M.B.A., it’s hard for me not to feel a sense of impending doom when I think about the obstacle course-type maneuvering I’ll have to pull off in order to be a successful professional and a successful mother.

The math is simple, even if the choices it leaves me with are not. I’m 26 and I’m still in school. By the time I graduate, I’ll be 28. If I head straight to law practice and stay there, that would give me about seven years to make partner before I’m 35. At that point I could start to think about getting pregnant without having to worry quite so much about being derailed from the fast track. That’s a tight schedule even if everything goes perfectly in both my personal and professional life. And what if I take a clerkship? What if I decide to do public interest and live off fellowships for a few years until I can get a paid permanent job?

A lot of women my age and in my position who want to have children – or even, like me, think maybe they’ll want to someday – have a similar schedule in the back of their minds. I have more than one friend whose mother has hinted that she should think about freezing her eggs. I know the many people who tell young women to plan the timing of their pregnancies carefully mean well. But I resent it.

Not only is it stressful to feel like I’m in a race for success against my own body, but it also reinforces the very gender dynamics that put professional women in such a tough spot. Telling women – and only women – that they need to start planning for their families 10 years in advance assumes the current structure of the workplace as a given and lets men off the hook. Things really will get worse if we keep telling ambitious women about how hard their future will be at the same time that we leave the underlying gender dynamics and cultural expectations that make things so hard unexamined.

I understand why women in the generation before me felt betrayed. They were told they could have everything and then found that they were expected to do everything. But I really hope the best solution to that problem isn’t just to warn young women to gird themselves against the upcoming battle. It’s discouraging, and it risks sidelining women long before they face any concrete challenges. Maybe it’s because I’m young, but I’m still optimistic that we can find an alternative solution in strengthening men’s stake in work-family issues and developing a realistic model of professional commitment. While men may not have the same biological constraints as me, many of them love women who do. It’s not fair to expect young women to deal with the weight of this issue on our own, and it’s frankly unrealistic to expect that we can do so and also compete on equal footing with men.

There’s hope that things are, in fact, getting better. Purely anecdotally, I know a lot of men who are thinking about their career options in terms of work/life balance –perhaps as many as women, although they tend not to frame it strictly as a family issue. We need to actively include these men and others in the conversation, so that we can all aspire not just to triage a deeply embedded conflict between work and family, but rather to live a balanced and coherent life.

Rachel Dempsey is a writer and student at Yale University’s School of Law. With her mother, Professor Joan C. Williams, she is the co-author of the upcoming book What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (NYU Press, 2014).

“What We Demand:” March on Washington, 50 years later

—Hasan Kwame Jeffries

The March on Washington had a very specific purpose – to present President Kennedy and Congress with a list of demands designed to secure basic civil and human rights for African Americans. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, therefore, should not only be a time for sharing snippets of Dr. King’s most famous speech, but also an occasion to look back at the marchers’ demands. Assessing which demands have been met and which have yet to be met will provide a much more accurate picture of how far the nation has come in terms of providing equal opportunity for African Americans than all of the well–meaning recollections and recitations of “I Have A Dream” put together.

Leading the marchers’ list of demands was a call for meaningful civil rights laws. At the time, federal civil rights measures lacked teeth. Prosecutorial power was limited and punishments for racial discrimination were light, if they existed at all. In 1964, major civil rights legislation was passed in the form of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But many complained that it too lacked teeth, and were especially bothered by the absence of provisions to prosecute those who attacked civil rights workers. Today, it remains extremely difficult to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes where racial bias and discrimination were clearly at play. The failure to convict the murderer of young Trayvon Martin underscores the point.

The marchers’ demanded a massive federal work program. The economy was sputtering and hit African Americans especially hard. It was hoped that a New Deal-like jobs program would see the nation—and African Americans—through the downturn. But the federal government never invested in another work program. In fact, during subsequent economic downturns, including the Great Recession of recent years, it established a pattern of propping up large corporations and firing and laying off government employees, rather than expanding employment opportunities to the unemployed and underemployed.

Along with the demand for a massive federal work program, the marchers called for full and fair employment. African Americans were always the last hired and first fired. The only way to break this cycle was to insist on full employment for everyone. Fifty years after the march, America hasn’t come close to full or fair employment. Worse, a large percentage of the nation’s workforce, and disproportionately high numbers of black workers, don’t even earn a livable wage. Meanwhile, debate rages in Congress about nickel and dime increases to the minimum wage.

A major issue for the marchers was decent housing. African Americans across the country were routinely discriminated against when it came to housing, forcing many to live in overpriced, overcrowded dwellings in segregated neighborhoods. Little has changed over the years. In fact, patterns of residential segregation have increased as suburbs have spread and gentrification has reclaimed select urban spaces as exclusive white spaces. And the recent collapse of the housing market has exposed the ongoing vulnerability of black middle class homeowners to discriminatory lending practices.

The right to vote was also a central concern for the marchers. No constitutional right is more fundamental than the vote, yet black southerners continued to be excluded from the ballot box. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, providing new protections for black voters. But in the new millennium, a wave of state voter ID laws, combined with the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of a key element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, have put the vote of tens of thousands of African Americans at severe risk.

The marchers’ final demand was adequate integrated education. Nearly a decade after Brown, segregated schools remained the norm in the South and white southerners remained as determined as ever to keep it that way. And half a century later, a race-based dual education system persists. In much of the South, black children attend public schools and white children attend private white Christian academies. In most metropolitan areas with large black populations, the divide is between urban and suburban school districts.

A lot has changed since the March on Washington, and it is wonderful that so many people are taking the time to recognize this historic event. But the sobering reality is that half a century after the march, the marchers’ demands remain largely unmet.

Fifty years from now, at the centennial of the march, I hope these demands will have been fulfilled. But given the slow pace of progress, and the determination of reactionaries to roll back the clock, I’m much less hopeful than I was just a few years ago.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries is Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, where he holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (NYU Press, 2010).

Muhammad Yunus, in 22 Ideas to Fix the World

Today, we’re sharing the first chapter of 22 Ideas to Fix the World—featuring an interview with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. In it, the founder of microfinance discusses his views on poverty, unemployment, and the role of social business.

Read the interview below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments section!

22 Ideas to Fix the World – Chapter 1 by NYU Press

Book giveaway! 22 Ideas to Fix the World

This week, we’re putting the spotlight on our book, 22 Ideas to Fix the World: Conversations with the World’s Foremost Thinkers, which releases on September 9.

In this unique volume from the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations and the Social Science Research Council, some of the world’s greatest minds—from Nobel Prize winners to long-time activists—explore what the prolonged instability of the so-called Great Recession means for our traditional understanding of how governments can and should function. Through interviews that are sure to spark lively debate, 22 Ideas to Fix the World presents both analysis of past geopolitical events and possible solutions and predictions for the future.

Featuring interviews with:
Zygmunt Bauman, Shimshon Bichler & Jonathan Nitzan, Craig Calhoun, Ha-Joon Chang, Fred Dallmayr, Mike Davis, Bob Deacon, Kemal Dervis, Jiemian Yang, Peter J. Katzenstein, Ivan Krastev, Will Kymlicka, Manuel F. Montes, José Antonio Ocampo, Vladimir Popov, Jospeh Stiglitz, Olzhas Suleimenov, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Immanuel Wallerstein, Paul Watson, Vladimir Yakunin, Muhammad Yunus

To celebrate the forthcoming publication, we’re giving away 2 *free* copies of the book! Enter today on Goodreads for a chance to win.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

22 Ideas to Fix the World by Piotr Dutkiewicz
22 Ideas to Fix the World
Edited by Piotr Dutkiewicz and Richard Sakwa

Giveaway ends September 09, 2013.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

 

For more on the book, you can also read the introduction to 22 Ideas to Fix the World. And stay tuned to the blog—we’ll be offering a free chapter from the book later this week!

Words do matter in the immigration debate

Ediberto Román and Bobby Joe Bracy

[This post originally appeared on the Latinovations blog. Read it here.]

After decades of inaction, this week’s unveiling of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” immigration proposal suggests that Congress may finally be prepared to reform our immigration system. It is of no surprise that this renewed vigor comes on the heels of a presidential election where an overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters rejected the Republican solution was self-deportation. Yet, despite this crucial and potentially transformative moment, Republican leaders, such as Senator John McCain, one of the Group of Eight, has continued to use of ‘illegal immigrant’ when addressing the subjects of reform. He and many other Republicans who oppose immigration reform continue to use the more provocative yet inaccurate term–“illegal alien”(a term still used by the federal immigration agency, ICE). Conservative Senator Jeff Sessions for his part derided the Gang of Eight’s efforts as “making nearly impossible for ICE officials to distinguish between ‘illegal immigrants’ eligible for legal status and those simply asserting they are amnesty eligible.”

Notwithstanding the insistence to label human beings as “illegal” merely because they have committed what under federal law is a misdemeanor, other important avenues of communication and education are beginning to change the heretofore tone of the debate. Just over a week ago the Associated Press (AP) came to a decision that has gone virtually unnoticed in legal and political circles. Yet the decision was profound. The AP “no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

A week later, USA Today made a similar decision to refrain from using the term, concluding that: “the term illegal immigration is acceptable, but do not label people as illegal immigrants, except in direct quotes. Undocumented immigrant, undocumented worker and unauthorized immigrant are acceptable terms — depending on accuracy, clarity and context… Do not use illegal or illegals as a noun. It is considered pejorative by most immigrants.”

While Fox News subsequently accused the AP of trying to influence immigration debate, the fact is the AP and the USA Today decisions were sound on several fronts, not the least of which is the accurate use of the English language as well as the legal and social impact of a discrediting imprecise term such as “illegal immigrant.”

Legal scholars have long recognized the inappropriateness of the use of the term. University of California, at Davis, Dean Kevin Johnson, for instance, observes: The most damning terminology for noncitizens is “illegal alien…‘Illegal aliens’ is a pejorative term that implies criminality, thereby suggesting that the persons who fall in this category deserve punishment, not legal protection.” Johnson further notes, “The illegal alien label…suffers from inaccuracies and inadequacies at several levels. [In fact,] many nuances of immigration law make it extremely difficult to distinguish between an ‘illegal’ and a ‘legal’ alien.”

Leading linguists agree, and last year a group of 24 scholars criticized the Associated Press’ previous assertion that the term “illegal immigrant” was accurate and neutral. These experts noted: “This misleading construction of illegality is tied to the circulation of troublesome stereotypes about the migration status of different ethnoracial groups. Specifically, assessments of illegality are often associated with unreliable signs of one’s migration status, such as language, religion, and physical appearance. These presumptions lead not only to law enforcers’ regular misidentification of people’s migration status based on wrongful assumptions about ethnolinguistic markers, but also to the broader public stigmatization of those markers.”

As the leading law dictionary, Black’s makes clear, no person, including an alien, is “illegal.” The word “illegal” is an adjective, or “a word … typically serving as a modifier of a noun to denote a quality of the thing named.” Thus, no person, including an alien, is illegal. Accordingly, an alien is “a person resident in one country, but owing allegiance to another.” In other words, our laws regulate the legality of the “conduct” of persons, but do not attempt to classify human beings in such a manner. We do not, for instance, classify a seven year old that steals something as an “illegal child.” Such a label would not only be deemed absurd, but also morally bankrupt. Our laws have never gone as far as to make the persons involved “illegal.” The idea that a person might be “illegal” is thus not only inhumane; it is also grammatically inaccurate, as well as legally incoherent. There are simply no laws adequately governing the issue of “illegal personhood.” As Johnson points out, although “alien” appears repeatedly in the Immigration and Nationality Act, the term “illegal alien” is not once defined.

In sum, substances and other objects can be illegal, and conduct can be illegal—but a person cannot. As Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel aptly noted years ago, “No human being is illegal.”

The AP’s decision is couched in bedrock ethical and professional concerns about accuracy in reporting. As AP’s Kathleen Carroll explains…”Will the new guidance make it harder for writers? Perhaps just a bit at first. But while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.”

Social justice and civil rights advocates have long fought similar battles over truth and accuracy, which is not an easy battle when facility makes ignorance so appealing. As the AP now calls for: Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

In other words: do your homework, and describe the action or conduct that is illegal.

The decision is the only fit response to critics who dismiss this issue as “political correctness” or “censorship.” The aim evidently was not to “censor” ideas or speech, but to be critical of terms that bury a great deal of important information. In almost any context, these questions are not only significant for reporting, but legally significant. People’s rights are in the balance. As a federal court recently observed in U.S. v. Cruz-Padilla, where the court held that the defendant was entitled to a new trial because the prosecution relied on the term “illegal alien” in their closing arguments in front of a jury. Citing the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions (holding that the Constitution’s “due process” clause prohibits the use of “racially biased prosecutorial arguments”), the Cruz-Padilla Court characterized the “improper” use of the term “illegal alien” as a “foul.”

Law and psychology experts likewise have long recognized, markers or labels, especially politically loaded negative labels, have the ability to shape public policy and laws. Such labels help shape what is described as implicit bias, or mental shortcuts that allow us to make negative associations of groups that are undeserving of such negative categorizations. Stereotypes, for instance, allow society to use mental shortcuts, or schema, to associate individuals with a discrediting quality. These discrediting qualities in turn make it easier for policy makers to enact laws that seek to protect us from those with such qualities.

Sadly, history is replete with such efforts. For instance, one of the first and easiest ways for the Third Reich to enact its laws and policies was to stigmatize the Jewish community with similar discrediting qualities. These efforts paved the way to pass laws and enact horrific policies to allegedly protect society from these dangerous contagions. The use of the label illegal alien has a similar social effect. It has labeled a group of persons, who under our criminal and immigration laws have committed typically nothing more than a misdemeanor, as a group of hardened criminals that we should fear and exclude. As more and more Americans are realizing, and opinion polls reflect such realization, this label conflicts with reality.

With the recent announcements by the AP and the USA Today, we hopefully begin a path of engaging in narratives based on accurate depictions, and not stigmatizing labels. No longer is it ethical or responsible to use the discrediting marker “an illegal human being”—if indeed it ever was.

Ediberto Román is a nationally-acclaimed scholar and an award-winning educator with broad teaching interests and an extensive scholarship portfolio. He is the author of several books, including Citizenship and Its Exclusions: Classical, Constitutional, and Critical Race Perspectives (NYU Press, 2010) and Those Damn Immigrants: America’s Hysteria Over Immigration (NYU Press, 2013).

Bobby Joe Bracy is a law student at Florida International University and an immigrant rights advocate. He is currently a research assistant for Ediberto Román, and the President of the National Lawyers Guild at FIU Law.

New Spreadable Media essays: Week 3

We’re at week three since launching the online component of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture!

Here are this week’s round of web exclusive essays written by selected contributors who have shaped the argument put forth in Spreadable Media:

  • The Value of Retrogames“—Bob Rehak, a film and media studies professor at Swarthmore College, examines how grassroots interest in residual media and culture may coalesce online, sparking new kinds of cultural practices and production.
  • Clothing has passed between different kinds of exchanges for centuries, acquiring different meanings and values in the process—and, in “A Global History of Secondhand Clothing,” filmmaker and MIT media historian Hanna Rose Shell traces and examines those shifting sartorial roles.
  • In “Retrobrands and Retromarketing,” York University professor Robert V. Kozinets discusses the strategies through which companies engage in “retrobranding,” reviving or relaunching brands from the past in ways that capitalize on existing fandoms and provide launching points for the creation of new markets.

Check ‘em out, and stay tuned at http://spreadablemedia.org/essays—where each week leading up to the book’s publication (in January 2013!), a new batch of exclusive essays will be released.

(And hey! Feel free to debate/critique/trash each piece in the comments section. Expand the conversation, transform the ideas. That’s how spreadable media works.)

Obama, Romney: But who will tame the megabanks?

—Steven A. Ramirez

While the economy has been a centerpiece issue in the 2012 presidential campaigns, the election rhetoric thus far is silent about controlling concentrated economic power to restore economic growth. If the historic financial meltdown of 2008 has taught us anything, it’s that it takes only a small handful of corporate and financial elites to inflict trillions in costs upon the general economy. Without sound economic regulation, those controlling excess wealth will enrich themselves at the expense of society. And yet, neither candidate forcefully advocates the taming of the megabanks which today control unprecedented resources.

During the recent presidential debates, key issues involving the megabanks weren’t even touched upon by Obama or Romney. Among those not discussed:

  • Not a single Wall Street executive at any of the megabanks at the center of the crisis suffered criminal penalties despite numerous securities fraud settlements. Unprecedented frauds at the megabanks met with unprecedented docility from prosecutors.
  • The Dodd-Frank Act empowers the government to break-up megabanks posing a “grave threat” to financial stability. Yet these banks still enjoy a massive subsidy in their cost of funds (about $16 billion a year for the top five megabanks) and under-perform financially. Thus, the megabanks by definition threaten financial stability, and the government should require the weakest among them to spin-off operating divisions to their shareholders.
  • Given the huge subsidy that megabanks still enjoy in capital markets, why not toughen up Dodd-Frank further to convince capital markets that “too big to fail” is truly over? Toughening Dodd-Frank did not warrant a word of discussion. Yet, according to polls the vast majority of American voters disfavor continued subsidies for megabanks.

The point transcends financial regulation. With all the talk of jobs, neither candidate offered any kind of jobs program. Just restoring the estate tax to Clinton-era levels (only estates over $1 million pay) would free up $50 billion for millions of jobs. Other topics not permitted on the agenda include: reforming the structure of globalization, stiffening corporate governance law, funding the needs of the 25% of American children living in poverty, and so on.

Echoing the thesis of my book, Lawless Capitalism, anything that threatens the current holders of the largest aggregations of wealth in American history is off-limits for any discussion at all. Instead, the debates focused on whether to cut entitlements and which tax cuts to preserve. The candidates spent much time debating whether slashing tax rates a further 20% made sense.

However, solutions are at hand. Americans must view economic despotism with the same suspicion as political despotism. In terms of this election, that means being mindful of money’s influence on electoral politics, and considering which candidate is most heavily funded by the megabanks (opensecrets.org, for example, tracks contributions). At its founding, America threw off political royalty; it’s time now to do the same with economic royalty.

Steven A. Ramirez is Professor of Law at Loyola University of Chicago, where he also directs the Business and Corporate Governance Law Center. His book, Lawless Capitalism: The Subprime Crisis and the Case for an Economic Rule of Law will publish in December 2012.

Chinese growth and happiness

—Peter N. Stearns

Recent surveys on Chinese life satisfaction provide yet another indication of the fraught relationship between modern development and overall happiness. The New York Times report by Richard Easterlin—always one of our most interesting social scientists—shows pretty clearly that stupendous growth in the overall economy and in consumption standards over the past two decades has not only not generated corresponding increases in reported satisfaction, but has actually accompanied a decline. Results plummeted as growth accelerated in the 1990s, then picked up a bit in the past few years but without recovering 1990 levels.

Happiness is a tricky thing to measure, of course, and it’s interesting that the Easterlin terminology alternates between happiness and life satisfaction, which are not necessarily exactly the same things. Comparative studies suggest that happiness is a tricky concept in East Asian cultures (in contrast to the West and Latin America), but this would not per se distort findings over time within the same culture.

It’s certainly nice to see a discussion of Chinese issues free from our common impulse to bash or gloat. This is a nervous time for mutual U.S. and Chinese perceptions, and we often distort problems in an effort to feel better—happier?—about China’s impressive surge. (Here’s a scary thought: How much has American happiness come to depend on claims we’re better than others, regardless of data?)

But the Easterlin findings do suggest a couple of further thoughts about happiness and modernity:

First, the findings are absolutely unsurprising in any historical perspective. China is still in relatively early phases of industrial maturation. I don’t think there is any record of any society in a similar phase in which happiness does not decline. Of course we lack the polling data for the past that we now enjoy, so my assertion can’t be fully proved. But the major source of outright decline in China rests among the bottom third of the population, faced with massive change including introduction to factory work conditions and encounters with urban life even as attachments to the countryside remain strong. This sounds eerily familiar to historians who have worked on Britain’s—or Germany’s, or Japan’s—industrial surge—or even the United States’s in its period of massive industrial immigration. This doesn’t detract from the Easterlin findings, or prevent us from hoping that the Chinese will more quickly figure out how to do things better. But it does remind us—regardless of our views on the benefits and drawbacks of more fully achieved modern economies—that modernization has always come with a price.

Which means that, in evaluating modernity more generally, the more interesting Easterlin finding may be the only moderate improvement in satisfaction among the upper third of the Chinese population. These folks are not facing the worst strains of the process. They are by definition more prosperous, and often more accustomed to urban conditions. Yet even they are not jumping with joy.

Easterlin concludes that the Chinese data point to the important of beefing up the safety net, to provide fuller protections for the poorer classes: more job security, better health care, more help for children and the elderly. And he uses his findings to warn Americans about tolerating too much further deterioration in our own nets. I don’t disagree, and would only add a plea for attention to environmental safety nets as well.

But there is probably more than safety nets involved, which is where the upper third comes in—and where we can also draw some lessons for ourselves. We know that, reflected in the Chinese case, a first turn to consumerism increases happiness but that the surge is often moderate and that it’s always finite: further improvements don’t help. China may be facing not only safety net issues but also broader concerns about finding value and meaning in modern life. And here, though there may be more specifically Chinese factors involved, they clearly join the modern throng.

For although modernized societies tend to be happier than nonmodern, the gap is variable and not, on the whole, as great as might be expected given standard of living gains. Here is where, along with safety net repair, Chinese and American observers unquestionably find common ground. We all need to be thinking about improving our management of modern success at both social and personal levels. We need to seize opportunities to share insights and learn from mutual experience. More and more of us, obviously, are in the modern boat together, and we can probably figure out how to steer it better.

Peter N. Stearns is Provost and University Professor at George Mason University. He is the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Social History, and author of Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society (NYU Press, 2012).