On Biomedicine and its Limits: An Interview with Joseph E. Davis

—Joseph E. Davis

[This piece originally appeared on Social Trends Institute.]

Q: The title of your book is To Fix or to Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine. What choice is implied by the phrase “fix or heal”?

A: In our book “fix” alludes to a reductionistic medical framework, “heal” to a more holistic one. We use this reductionism/holism distinction to frame a broad continuum of concerns, from patient care to global health disparities. Neither term has a univocal meaning, but “reductionism” means generally those features of the biomedical model against which “holism” aligns itself. These features include a mechanistic and narrowly somatic understanding of disease, a preoccupation with cure to the neglect of prevention, diminishing medical care to a marketplace commodity, and restricting the definition of the human good to naturalistic terms.

Q: The term “holistic” often refers to “alternative” medical approaches, such as homeopathy or ayurveda. Is that what you have in mind by “holism?”

A: Not really. “Holism” in that sense opposes conventional medicine and wants to replace it. We have in mind a different holism: a set of interlinked ideas articulated within the mainstream of medicine and social science. “Holism” as we use it includes a broad range of systemic, integrative concerns: the patient as person, the experiential aspects of suffering, the environmental determinants of health, and more. The shared feature of all these concerns is a contextual understanding of disease causation, intervention, or prac­tice.

Q: The title seems to frame the issue as an either/or choice: to fix or to heal. Is it possible to do both?

A: The or is not meant to indicate an absolute distinction. Reductionistic and holistic approaches are not polar opposites, but ways of thinking that are often negotiated in practice. The elements of the “fix” orientation have their proper place; what we stand against is the belief that they are entirely sufficient. Our argument is that the contemporary practice of medicine is based on both prodigious knowledge and very real limitations. We need a balance between “fix” and “heal” orientations.

Q: What are the “limits of biomedicine” mentioned in the subtitle?

A: The book is divided into three sections, each of which tries to suggest some challenges to the prevailing “fix” orientation. Part 1 focuses on the cultural context of reductionist medicine, and the limitations that context imposes. Biomedicine is powerful, but it is powerful in part because it echoes key features of the broader social order. To some extent, biomedicine depends on this cultural context for its power, and is captive to it. It is increasingly clear that this dependency presents certain challenges to medicine. For instance, biomedicine is deeply individualistic, but the very logic of individualism makes it hard for medicine to resist the encroachments of consumerism, and defend its own goals as an ethical profession.

Part 2 focuses on the practical limits of reductionist medicine in the face of the shifting disease burden. The biomedical model came of age in a era when infectious diseases dominated, and a specific disease/specific cure orientation was well suited to such diseases. But the chronic illnesses which now kill most Westerners resist explanation in deterministic, monocausal terms. Moreover, developments in the larger world cast doubt on biomedicine’s apparent success. From the rising cost of health care to the unexpected resurgence of infectious disease, we are confronted with the need for holistic approaches like never before. In light of a globalized world, one-dimensional and reductionist approaches seem anachronistic.

Part 3 addresses the limits of current ethical discourse about biomedicine. Health and illness are public as well as private matters, and ethical questions are ineradicable from medicine. The great cultural appeal of the reductionist biomedical approach was partly that the messy business of moral questions could largely be avoided—or so it seemed. In fact, the biomedical model smuggled in a great many moral convictions without ever examining them. “Health” language can become a kind of repressive ideology, and health has become nearly synonymous with the good life. An important work of ethics here is to draw out the background assumptions of biomedicine, making them transparent and open to discussion. The naturalistic language of conventional bioethics may not be equal to this task.

Joseph E. Davis is Research Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Research at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is one of the editors of To Fix or To Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine (NYU Press, 2016), the Publisher of The Hedgehog Review, and is the author or editor of three other books, including Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self.

Teaching Environmental Crisis and Justice

—Alexa S. Dietrich

When events that are understood to be tragic happen, like the poisoning of the residents of Flint, Michigan, it is typical for we, as human beings, to ask Why? When these events affect whole communities, it then becomes incumbent upon us, as human beings, to ask “How could this happen? because the cause is far less likely to be a random occurrence. Students tend to sense this connection intrinsically, but struggle to think critically about causal factors in situations like Flint.

In classroom discussions, students will often respond to stories of severe environmental pollution in one of two ways. Sometimes they express bewilderment. They feel the inherent injustice but cannot fathom a reason for the damage to people’s health and well-being. The other common response, such as one of my students stated just this week in talking about the toxic waste in Flint’s drinking water, is to say, “It’s almost as if someone planned it.”

It is easy to see conspiracy behind a series of what were, with the benefit of hindsight, a series of despicable acts leading to the potential devastation of an entire community, particularly a community already so disadvantaged and seemingly disposable as Flint. To our shame, in the United States we have long since become terribly inured to the suffering of communities of color, and poor communities.

But while it is easy to imagine a conspiracy of evilly-inclined individuals, such as politicians, plotting to wipe out a community like Flint, this perspective avoids the hard conversations we need to have with our students and others. Explicitly evil intentions are not required in order for great harm to be perpetrated. I am not suggesting that politicians, such as Rick Snyder, are “innocent” in this situation – far from it. Rather, we need to be having frank discussions, leading to actions, about how our culture rewards greed at the expense of human life-especially the lives of the poor and oppressed minorities.

We must, as educators and students, together answer the question, “How could this happen?” The fact is that people with the power to protect the lives of Flint residents chose not to do so. Not once, but many times, people in the position to make decisions about sourcing the water, about testing the water, about reporting the test results and health impacts, made decisions for financial gain or political expedience. And our cultural system (encompassing, e.g., economics, social relations, and ideologies) reinforced the permissibility, the very social and political acceptability of those decisions. There were undoubtedly both legal and moral crimes committed – but accountability for these crimes should weigh heavily on all of us.

In the aftermath of a public health crisis like that in Flint, there are likely to be emerging narratives of the heroic actions of empowered individuals, those who seem to swoop in as community saviors. However, a culture of community engagement cannot, and will not, wait for such heroes, as significant as their contributions may be. As one Flint resident and activist has been quoted as saying, “I decided, I guess I got to figure the science part of this, because you can’t argue with the science.” In the pursuit of environmental justice, there is no substitute for the actions of “non-experts” with local knowledge, and local commitment. But it is also our responsibility to teach and reward this commitment to collective good on a broad scale, more than we currently reward (or at least accept) harmful self-interest, and the violence of disinterest in the well-being of others.

It is also tempting to rely on the explanation of “bad apples,” or individual actors, as is so often used to describe the causes of violence and social suffering perpetrated by institutions. But these explanations are too simple, and release us of our own obligations to care for our fellow human beings. How could this happen? The answer lies in a larger examination of our culture, and our individual roles in it.

Alexa S. Dietrich teaches anthropology at Wagner College, where she is also the Faculty Director of Wagner’s First Year Learning Communities. Her book, The Drug Company Next Door (NYU Press, 2013), won the 2015 Julian Steward Award for the best monograph in environmental and ecological anthropology from the American Anthropological Association.

Putting the Lead in Structural Violence

—Peter C. Little

As anthropologist and disaster studies expert Gregory Button, author of Disaster Culture, recently put it, the unfolding disaster in Flint, Michigan is more than a case of urban lead contamination. Rather, it is a “morality play about structural violence.” [i] He encourages this way of thinking about this emerging national environmental health conflict because this “structural violence” he refers to is about a system of racial discrimination that is a social, political, economic, and infrastructural fact of life in the US. Thinking about the structural violence of lead contamination requires a focus on how lead politics are exacerbated by deep-historical racial discrimination and ongoing poverty politics. As evidence for these lead-related disasters, Button sites a recent study [ii] published in the American Journal of Public Health that reports that while 41.5% of Flint residents are living below the poverty line—compared to the national average in 2014 of 14.8%—nearly 60% are African American. These are some bare facts of inequity that when meshed with toxic substance exposure risk exacerbates the bitter reality of recent Flint water crisis headlines.

The scale, scope, and depth of this man-made disaster are impressive, no doubt justifying the need for an environmental justice perspective on the matters at hand. Robert Bullard, long regarded a leader in the environmental justice community and a major source of inspiration for social scientists working on environmental and social justice conflicts, was recently interviewed about the Flint conflict. [iii] He speaks of a “reality” that goes beyond lead toxicity, drinking water distribution pipes, and a systemically fraudulent city, state, and federal government: “Unequal protection is a reality. The right to clean air, clean water and safe places for kids to play is something that affluent communities take for granted. But many low-income and minority communities don’t get parks, or street lights, or housing code enforcement, or safe drinking water. The cumulative environmental stresses in these neighborhoods create a toxic stew. And then government agencies don’t respond when people complain. The government’s nonresponse to Flint’s water crisis is on the scale of the federal nonresponse to Hurricane Katrina.”

The municipal, state, and federal response and mitigation plan unfolding in Flint also turns our attention to how such disasters are treated more as “technical” water management problems rather than human relations problems. Some critiques of the situation have suggested that “Working with communities to plan for better infrastructure, funding those developments, and adequately enforcing environmental laws will help reduce the number of future similar crises from becoming disasters.” [iv] While continuing to expose the contentious role of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his government counterparts in this complex disaster still matters, an underlying politics of uncertainty lingers as impacted residents try to navigate a living amid the circus of accusations and attempts to restore calm. Continuing to deal with what residents themselves are dealing with is of utmost importance and ought to be where local, state, and federal government energy and forms of empathy focus.

[i] See http://foodanthro.com/2016/01/20/the-flint-water-disaster-a-perfect-storm-of-downplaying-denial-and-deceit/

[ii] See http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003

[iii] See http://www.juancole.com/2016/01/flints-water-crisis-is-a-blatant-example-of-environmental-injustice.html

[iv] See http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/01/22/the-real-disasters-in-flints-water-crisis/

Peter C. Little is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rhode Island College. He is the author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press, 2014).

Flint’s Sorry Legacy of Environmental Racism

—Carl Zimring

“I am sorry, and I will fix it.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder devoted his State of the State speech to the public health catastrophe in Flint that has poisoned its residents with high levels of lead in its water supply.

This failure has many parents, including Snyder. His administration placed an emergency manager in control of Flint’s finances, a manager who who was not elected by its citizens to do the will of the people of the city. Saving money by switching the water supply ignored the well-being of Flint residents, as was the state’s initially dismissive response to health complaints.

Snyder bears responsibility and blame, but he is not alone. The seeds for this catastrophe were sown decades before the 2011 managerial takeover. Deindustrialization and residential segregation shaped a city with low revenue, high unemployment, and the apathy and scorn of white Michiganders. That history allowed the past two years of lead poisoning.

Environmental racism is the systemic placing of toxic burdens upon people of color. It is an example of structural racism – not necessarily the conscious acts of individuals, but ways in which society is structured that creates patterns of unequal burdens.

The health catastrophe in Flint involves reliance on decaying infrastructure due to disinvestment in the region. Why these conditions led to the poisoning of black children involves structural patterns in residential real estate practices, as well as recent political decisions. Environmental Justice movements have fought for safer, healthier communities for decades, including African American residents opposing waste siting in Houston (1978) and Warren County (1982), and Latino residents of Chicago protesting dirty coal-burning power plants in their neighborhoods in this century.

Yet inequalities persist. They are rooted deeply in land-use patterns, employment patterns, and in cultural stereotypes that privilege whites to have clean, safe communities at the expense of people of color. Noxious stereotypes that nonwhite people were somehow less clean than whites emerged in the nineteenth century, stereotypes that have informed who handles waste and where waste is located. Sociologists observed national patterns of inequities by the late twentieth century. Thirty years ago, the report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States concluded exposure to toxic pollution was determined by race above all other variables, including class, region, and urban/rural density. Ten years ago, a followup report revealed more continuities than change. Flint is further continuity.

The eyes of the nation are on Flint in 2016, but they could easily be on lead-contaminated communities in East New York or Gary, Indiana. Flint is the most conspicuous example of environmental racism in the United States. There are so many examples, however, that a bimonthly journal (Environmental Justice) has filled eight volumes of articles chronicling environmental inequalities. Governor Snyder’s promise that he will fix the present crisis flies in the face of his past actions, the history of Flint, and majority-minority communities across the United States. Recognizing this history is crucial to fixing what ails Flint.

Carl A. Zimring is Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute. He is the author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (NYU Press, 2016).

Chubby Guy Swag

—Jason Whitesel

There appears to be endless chatter among bloggers about fat women’s fashion, though less so when it comes to fat men. It seems that the fashion industry has continued to overlook big men in this regard. I must say, however, that as a scholar of queer and fat studies in a thin-privileged (white) body, who has written about middle-aged big gay men, I am encouraged to see the emergence of a couple of sites that are attempting to provide fashion inspiration for bigger guys, garnering visibility for them. One of these sites, Chubstr, slates itself as a style destination for men of size. It directs people to resources for them to find clothes they might love. It also alerts users to deals on clothing in extended sizes. I spent some time perusing another blogging community, Chubby Guy Swag (a.k.a. “CGS”), cofounded in 2010 by Zach Eser and Abigail Spooner in response to the lack of body-positive “fatshion” for plus-size males. From my rudimentary content analysis, I gather that this community has international reach providing a safe space for big men who don’t fit the mass media’s image of the “ideal” body type, but aspire toward becoming fashionable, and who therefore appreciate the information and wisdom users share on this site. In fact, several users submit selfies in their favorite outfit. I looked through many posts and photos by men of size who are queer, disabled, people of color, and/or “just plain broke,” most of whom are young adults who are underrepresented in the main.

The CGS website provides a judgement-free zone, as reflected by the compliments made to people who post pictures. Its message is clear: everyone is entitled to fashion, regardless of size. I am most impressed by the queer-positive, anti-racist, and anti-ableist environment that this fat-positive community has engendered. For example, one trans person wrote, “this blog is such a relief to find, since I am fat and trans [non-binary] and looking for fashion inspiration.” For another fat trans person, the blog is a fantastic resource – “nice to see some people shaped like me (even though I’m much shorter than many of the guys on here).” Yet a third gender-queer person says: “I wear almost exclusively women’s bottoms. (Gendered freedom!)” This comment implies the comfortable inclusion of gender nonconformists on the CGS site. It is also interesting that this loosely male-identified space allows for female inclusion, such as women who admire fat men. One of them says she loves everything about the blog, because “it fuels [her] love for men’s fashion AND [her] damn near obsession with cubby men.” Another woman, who is engaged to a big man, apparently follows the blog to look for ways to impart some body-positivity to her fiancé who “hates looking in the mirror.” Many women visit the site on behalf of their ample male partners who feel defeated by the exclusionary fashion industry and need to get their chubby-guy swag back. In fact, even a mother came to the site on behalf of her self-conscious “chubby boy.” Last, but not least, the CGS site is inclusive of persons with disabilities. For example, one person posts about how people with Down’s are built differently and “often lack access to well-fitting clothes, furthering negative perceptions of [DS] people . . . and increasing the condition’s social stigma.” To this post, one of the co-moderators has responded sensitively saying how it is indeed a “struggle to find clothing that fits in a society with misconstrued body standards. Everyone deserves to be happy and comfortable in their body!”

The CGS site offers its users a great confidence boost. To give just one example among many, one visitor to the site describes the big men as the “hottest, cutest, classiest, and the swaggiest guys.” This writer and others give us a sense of the more positive self-image some users celebrate. They check in to the site to see guys of a similar size to themselves pull off “awesome” styles. One recent urban fashion trend appears to be male jumpsuits. As one user reports, the site gives him confidence to pull off the sexy plumber look. Another user displays the catchphrase of the D-list celebrity, Latrice Royale, the plus-sized African-American drag performer: “Chunky yet Funky,” which resonates with the esprit de corps of this online community. Interestingly, even a big man who works with modeling agencies and designers reports on the site that he is constantly confronted by the reality that he does not “fit in” within his own industry.

Users also give and take advice on where to go for affordable, custom-tailored clothes in extended sizes. Such advice ranges from a biker – who shares contact info of a tailor on eBay who sews leather jackets without charging “an arm and a leg” – to users – who warn others of stores that size down (so that an XL is really L). Occasionally, a fashion industry specialist, who is well versed in the small field of fat men’s fashion, will post an editorial where he styled plus-sized menswear. In addition, one big man reported on having met with a free personal stylist he came across at a particular store, who was fat-friendly, had plus-sizing expertise, and was eager to work with him.

Bigger guys, just like everybody else, certainly deserve to have access to style references if they so choose. Given our society’s hyperconsciousness about appearance (which is another story in itself), when big men are denied the latest clothing trends, they miss out on yet another opportunity to be like their peers and differentiate themselves through fashion. Sites like Chubstr and Chubby Guy Swag allow fat men to resist the belief that others can deny them full citizenship because of their weight and size. As one user exclaims, “For big men right now—it’s truly a case of trial and error – we’re kind of on our own.” Voices like his, however, find reassurance: “It’s out there; we just have to look a little harder!” As one user suggests, the democratization of fashion may mean going retro or DIY: “Men’s fashion is evolving… shifting back to our vintage roots and creating, from our lack of options, our own styles and looks.” Users are further reassured that they can find both low-end and high-end options. One user who is operating on a budget posts about his outfit-of-the-day: “I’m a big guy, and I definitely think I have some sense of fashion. I also am a huge bargain shopper, so I’ll be posting what I’m wearing, where I got it, and how much it costs!” On the flip, some people post ensembles worn by fat male actors with the full breakdown of brands, prices, and where to get the same great styles big guys in the media are wearing. The majority of users sound comfortable with their bodies and fashion sense to declare feeling “glamourous,” “chubby,” and “proud.”

Jason Whitesel is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University. He is the author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014).

Playing (anti-)blackness: Expanding understandings of racism in sport

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

dengThe National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Atlanta Hawks entered the 2015 playoff run as the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and with one of the best records in franchise history. Even with injuries, to key defender Thabo Sefolosha, role player Demarre Carroll, and bull’s eye shooter Kyle Korver, the Hawks’ efficient offensive attack and stifling defense propelled them to the Eastern Conference finals. Though the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Hawks, there was much to rejoice for the Hawks after a very successful season of winning streaks. With their rewarding season, however, came a type of forgetting, or even worse, a limited understanding of race. As the Hawks did well, the racial violence within sport became an invisible background to their stories of sporting success. In this essay, I will demonstrate how narrow versions of blackness (as seen in the case of Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry and Civil Rights icon Andy Young) marginalize the black migrant, queer, and trans person which further de-politicizes and de-legitimates anti-racism campaigns.

During the recruitment period in the summer of 2014, General Manager of the Hawks, Danny Ferry was on a conference call with other team executives to discuss potential free agents. Ferry, a white male and former NBA and Duke University player, looked through his data on South Sudanese American player Luol Deng, and stated that Deng “has a little African in him.” With regard to the inflammatory comment, Ferry admitted to perusing through various sources of material gathered on Luol Deng and added, “He’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.”

Danny Ferry’s comments remind us how the anti-black racism in larger American society seeps and bleeds into the very fabric of sport. The presence of black athletes in the NBA does not make mainstream American sport “post-racial.” These comments and the events that followed them not only demonstrate the presence of racism but also the containing of blackness as identity and politics. In present-day U.S. society, we must carefully evaluate the immediate history of anti-black violence and interrogate it, if we seek to fully understand the ways in which blackness is contained.

The loaded and vile evaluations of Luol Deng resulted in Danny Ferry taking a leave of absence. Many individuals came to the support of Danny Ferry. The support, as I will argue further, gives us a problematic understanding of blackness that is out of touch with the Black Lives Matter movement and the trans women color organizing. Organizations like the Audre Lorde Project link anti-black racism to xenophobia, anti-immigrant practices, and U.S. imperialism. We do not yet fully see this expansive social justice campaign in sport. Instead, after the leak of Ferry’s comments, Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer (who was named 2015 “coach of the year”) iterated that it was the genius of Danny Ferry that played a part in the Hawks franchise’s success. This affirmation of Ferry as a professional genius and not a racist—unlike former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling who was pushed out by the league for his racist comments about black people sitting in his seats—is part of a new terrain of expressing race that is simplistic in its compilation of blackness and in privileging of whiteness. As Luol Deng was African, he was somehow outside the respectable bounds of care and thus not able or allowed to speak against racism. Certain types of representations of native-born blackness become iconic, while the black migrant Other is seen as duplicitous, dodgy, and untrustworthy.

To both my shock and expectations, former Atlanta mayor and civil rights legend Andy Young, a leader in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, came to the side of Danny Ferry. According to ESPN staff writer Kevin Arnovitz, when asked whether Ferry should lose his job, Young responded, “Hell no.” Young said that had he been the decision-maker in the Hawks executive offices, he would have encouraged Ferry to stay on. He added that he doesn’t believe Ferry is a racist. To make matters even more complicated, he substituted himself into this equation to free Ferry of any blame: “No more than I am,” Young told the Atlanta station. “That’s a word that you cannot define, ‘You are a racist.’ You can’t grow up white in America without having some problems. You can’t grow up black in America without having some subtle feelings.”

Andy Young’s comments, although disheartening in their disregard for the harrowing experiences of racial violence, should not be seen as exceptional. Rather, it is part and parcel of the projection of African American identity through which certain nefarious alliances are made between black and white elites. Accordingly, a version of blackness is created through Young comments; it is a narrow, constricted, and limited understanding of blackness that elides and dismisses entire groups of people. This version of blackness contains threads of xenophobia that justify racist acts against immigrant black individuals like Luol Deng.

I believe Young’s support of Ferry keeping his job is tied to a clearly bounded blackness with specific national contours. Deng’s refugee status and African identity underwhelmed claims to blackness and anti-black racism. In the process of constructing what black is by stating who is not—in this case, Luol Deng, we see the parameters of blackness and ideas of respectability come to the surface. By not condemning Ferry’s statements and supporting his dismissal, Andy Young manufactures and engrains versions of blackness that make the victim of racism the middle-class, native-born, heterosexual, Christian African American man.

Not seeing Ferry’s racial statements as problematic, Young defines blackness and subsequent experiences of racism in limiting ways that fails to account for the heterogeneity and contradictions within blackness. The overemphasis on the black Atlantic is prevalent in how we think about race, racism, and activism. Roderick Ferguson, in his chapter in Strange Affinities, asks us to imagine a blackness that complicates our understandings of Africa and accounts for various diasporic African populations on U.S. shores. Instead of centering western Africa, he asks for black studies to include work on east Africans in the United States. For example, there are large Ethiopian, Sudanese, and Somalian communities in Atlanta. In fact, the Lost Boys of Sudan (the young Sudanese who fled across nations and refugee camps at the height of the civil war in 1980s Sudan) have a strong community in Metro Atlanta and there is a large African refugee community in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston (see the fabulous book Outcasts United by Warren St. John).

When Andy Young dismisses the problematic discourse that ostracizes black refugee and immigrant bodies, this might be part of a larger societal discourse of blackness that does not attend to interconnected issues of racism, immigration reform, poor black communities, rising xenophobia, and the entrenchment of Islamophobia (see Junaid Rana’s Terrifying Muslims and Ahmed Afzal’s Lone Star Muslims). In many ways, his encapsulated and static understanding of race is easily worked into the anti-immigrant logic that sees immigrants, especially African immigrants, as non-subjects and not within the discourse of race and racial justice within the United States. As a result, the broken leg sustained by Hawks Afro-French player Thabo Sefolosha is not attended to by persons like Andy Young. Although the details have not surfaced as to how Sefolosha broke his leg in the encounter with police, Young’s conceptualization of blackness already projects Sefolosha outside the logic of racial communities and care.

To go back in time and come back to the present, the blackness that was central to the Civil Rights Movement could not and did not always accommodate blackness in radical ways. The mainstreaming versions of the Civil Rights Movement struggled and failed to attend to LGBTQI and immigration matters in the movement. Andy Young’s version of blackness and respective productions of social justice are therefore not expansive. Luol Deng did not fit enough to the middle-classed, light-skinned, and American-centered version of blackness. Young’s version of blackness was not as expansive as the Pan-African claims by Marcus Garvey, Audre Lorde, and many other scholars and activists. As we have increasing numbers of African players in the NBA and other professional sports, how will blackness account for the far reach and radical possibilities that move beyond our shores?

Andy Young’s support of Danny Ferry plays into the xenophobia that governs how we think about U.S. identity and African American identity. There are many examples of how the histories of Africans, African diaspora communities, and African Americans have not always led to collaborative work. There are instances of tension between these groups, but “blackness” must be an open concept in order to create true change.

As a high school student in Atlanta, I came across the contradictions and entrenchments within blackness. One morning, in 1990, the students and teachers arrived to find anti-black racist graffiti sprayed against the walls at Druid Hills High School in Atlanta. This deeply affected the souls of my African American classmates and a few students of color. We had an African student at our school and he was an exceptional soccer player. Despite the racist happenings at my school, on many occasions, the African student heard racialized comments from African American young men stating that he should go back to the “jungle,” “take care of the goats,” and other such matters. Instead of building a coalition with what the Civil Rights Movement called “Pan-African” connection through an expansive concept of blackness, there continues to be black bleeding, but in isolation and silence. Africans were outside the scope of respectability based on certain bodily comportments, phenotype, name, accent, smell, and desires that defined blackness in Atlanta. This logic, I believe, is evident in Andy Young’s support of Danny Ferry. In the process, the Atlanta Hawks can use the iconicity of Andy Young and his blackness to leverage support and wash away the racist structures within Atlanta Hawks management. Thus, we have to ask: Why is there silence regarding Sefolosha’s broken leg? What does that silence tell us about Black Lives Matter when it took place during an encounter with New York police?

When we continue to figure violence only in terms of those people who we think are embodiments of the best of our community, we fail to see the true reach of racism. We fall into the trap of recognizing only certain persons as respectably human and worthy of attention. What does respectability have to do with that? Why should it be a concern? When respectability becomes the crux of why we care about certain deaths and bodies over others, as evident in Lisa Cacho’s wonderful book Social Death, we account for the horrific murder of the nine people at the historic AME church in Charleston. This tragic event has spaces for empathy as the dead included teachers, professionals, and respectable church-going people.

As we mourn the deaths of the nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, we have failed to collaborate to interrogate the haunting and continued silence concerning the killings of trans women of color. So many black trans women have been murdered since the death of Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Yet, the campaign to combat anti-black racism generally does not account for these persons. Trans women of color, especially, are marginalized, feel the wrath of poverty intimately, daily encounter the police state and racial profiling, and have little resources for survival. As organizations like the Audre Lorde Project and various others open up the category of blackness, the same must be true in all aspects of society, including sporting cultures. At the ESPY awards for sporting figures, Caitlyn Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Award for courage and service. There was great applause and a superficial demonstration of unity. Although this moment brought much-needed visibility to the anti-trans violence, it continued to drown out the activism of Kye Allums, a trans man of color who has been a fierce social justice advocate with sporting cultures for the last 5 years.

Furthermore, with the continued violence against poor African American women, will Andrew Young and the misogyny of the civil rights leadership corps account for the everyday struggle of poor black women? Will this blackness accommodate the young black homeless women like the ones described in anthropologist Aimee Cox’s Shapeshifters and Between Good and Ghetto by sociologist Nikki Jones? If not, then what we have is similar to the blackness that South Asian American athletes consume and appropriate in my book, Desi Hoop Dreams. It is a blackness that is sellable in the larger marketplace but devoid of fierce political fires. Yet, some South Asian American men consume cultural blackness as a way to critique U.S. society and the racial stratification of immigrants. There are other possibilities and openings for blackness that Andy Young and the larger Black Lives Matter movement must attend to in order to create a society for all.

We see how the politics of respectability plays out with regard to organizing against anti-black racism. Racism is expansive, fluid, and recruits a wide spectrum of black victims, yet the responses can be shallow, myopic, and limiting. Racism has always been tied to stratification, capitalism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and imperialism. Blackness as a point of identification and as a compass for change must not have gatekeepers but infinite openings that make the category a vision and praxis for a just tomorrow.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015).

How to be a straight man: Reflections on “No homo” and metrosexuality

—James Joseph Dean

The kaleidoscope of straight masculinities may be seen through shifts and changes in everyday language, fashion, and style. In American and British contexts, straight men’s identity practices negotiate a post-closeted culture, which I define as the presence of openly gay and lesbian individuals and representations of LGBTQ people. This post-closeted culture pressures straight men to be more tolerant of gays and to express less vitriolic forms of homophobia, while, at the same time, it conditions and supports gay-friendly straight men’s non-homophobic and anti-homophobic expressions.

straightsIt is in post-closeted cultural contexts where phrases like “no homo” emerge and gain meaning. For me, the phrase “no homo” signals less a homophobic attitude and more a way of flagging one’s straight status and claiming its privilege. “No homo” is an anxiety-driven way of saying, “What I said might come off as gay, but I’m really straight.”

On the website Urban Dictionary, for example, “no homo” is defined as a “phrase used after one inadvertently says something that sounds gay.” The example given to illustrate the definition is: “His ass is mine. No homo.” The phrase aims to indicate that the intended statement was not meant to imply a homosexual sexual desire or a gay identity.

Although the phrase “no homo” emerged out of hip hop music in the early 2000s, as language scholar Joshua Brown and journalist Jonah Weiner have explained, it continues to live on in the everyday talk of American youth. Alongside but qualitatively less homophobic than the epithet “fag,” “no homo” aims to reclaim straight status and privilege but avoid the hatefulness of the fag discourse, which as sociologist C.J. Pascoe shows is about both boys policing other boys’ masculinities and their homophobic prejudice.

At its best, “no homo” signals a non-homophobic stance that aims neither to be prejudicial nor against gay prejudicial attitudes. Rather, it is an interjectory phrase that reflects a way straight masculine culture manages its status in a post-closeted culture, where an anxiety over coming across as gay looms in a seemingly omnipresent way. At its worst, “no homo” is used as a homophobic insult along the lines of “fag,” acting as another weapon to police expressions of masculinity and sexuality.

While “no homo” is a linguistic innovation of everyday language, metrosexuality represents a style and consumption practice, where straight and gay men share and trade on the social status they receive for displaying fashionable styles and having well-groomed appearances. Coined in 1994 by journalist Mark Simpson, the term continues to circulate as an entry point into the style practices of fashionable straight men.

david-beckham-h-and-m-underwear-ad__oPtThe global icon for metrosexuality is David Beckham. No longer a soccer player, bending it like Beckham today probably means buying his underwear line from H&M. Another contender for his metrosexual fashion appeal might be Kanye West, who sports kilts in concert, is an outspoken critic of homophobia, and helped popularize “no homo” in his collaboration on Jay-Z’s song “Run this Town.” Keeping straight men like Beckham and West in mind, the term metrosexual is a loose label that refers to straight men who adopt style, beauty, and consumption practices associated with gay men and women.

In my book Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture, I interviewed a diverse group of straight men about their thoughts on metrosexuality. Did they consider themselves metrosexuals? How so? If not, what did they think of metrosexual men? For some of the straight men I talked to metrosexuality was a label that others applied to them or that they took on in jest. Due to wearing stylish clothes, having a well-groomed appearance, and exhibiting a more relaxed masculinity, the metrosexual men I interviewed enacted a more fluid gender presentation than many of the non-metrosexual men in the study.

Their metrosexual masculinity also conditioned their ease in socializing in mixed gay/straight spaces as well as predominantly gay ones. Not surprisingly, their social circles included straight women and lesbians, straight men and gay men, among others. The audiences for metrosexual men’s performances were largely supportive of their non-homophobic and gay-friendly stances, admired their confidence, and appreciated their beauty.

Sociologically, metrosexuality represents a blurring of straight and gay identity practices and styles, enlarging the way men, straight and gay, may perform their masculinity in everyday life. The potential drawback of metrosexual masculinity is its recuperation into another dominant masculinity of, say, only upper class straight men, or in it becoming a masculinity that anxiously marks itself as strictly straight. As in: “Metrosexual. No homo.”

James Joseph Dean is Associate Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and author of Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture (NYU Press, 2014).

Community organizing to end the school-to-jail track

—Ben Kirshner and Ricardo Martinez

The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized people throughout the US to speak up about systemic racism and the devastating impact of mass incarceration on communities of color. Civil disobedience and mass protest since Ferguson have generated needed media attention to the persistence of American racism. What the national media often overlooks, however, has been the last decade of tireless organizing by students, parents, and community organizers to dismantle the school-to-jail track inside K-12 schools.

PJU-report2015According to the Advancement Project, the school-to-jail track refers to a system in which “out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests are increasingly used to deal with student misbehavior, especially for minor incidents, and huge numbers of children and youth are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” This system became the new normal in the mid-1990s as zero tolerance school policies spread throughout the United States. The impact landed disproportionately on youth of color, mostly African American and Latino. A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, found that African American youth were six times and Latino youth three times more likely than White youth to be incarcerated for the same offenses.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos (PJU), a multigenerational and multiracial community organizing group based in the southwest side of Denver, Colorado, became involved in this issue when they saw their membership facing increased criminalization in schools. Since launching its End the School-to-Jail Track campaign in 2005, PJU has seen several of its goals met, including revisions to the Denver Public Schools disciplinary code, passage of a Colorado state law about school safety, and new agreements between police and school districts reducing police presence. New research carried out by PJU is a resource to hold state policymakers accountable for proper implementation. Young people of color have worked on the front lines of this campaign in various capacities—tackling problem analysis, formulating strategy, recruiting members, collecting data, speaking at public events, and communicating with media. The intergenerational structure of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos creates a space where middle and high school students often work side-by-side with young adults and veteran organizers to prepare for meetings and clarify strategy.

PJU’s impact is not limited to its policy achievements, but also in what it means for civic renewal and grassroots democracy. In a social and political context where the participation of regular people—not specialists or lobbyists—in public policy-making is rare, and youth participation is even rarer, the End the School-to-Jail Track campaign offers a bright exception. Students’ experience of engaging in high-stakes encounters with policy makers, including praising them when called for and voicing criticism when necessary, contributes to a culture shift, even if incremental, in which young people are taken seriously in the public square.

2015 has been a year of increased conversation about racial discrimination in policing and the courts. In a development that would not have been possible five years ago, presidential candidates from both major parties are calling for an end to mass incarceration. As the US tries to make collective progress on this issue, it will be important to also address how schools educate and discipline youth. This means not just doing away with racist practices but creating new systems to take their place, such as restorative justice and other forms of discipline that foster healthy relationships and a sense of community in schools. This slow and steady work of institution-building is most likely to have lasting effects if led by groups such as PJU, which are made up of students and parents from the communities that experience the impact of racial profiling in their everyday lives.

Ben Kirshner is Associate Professor of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality (NYU Press, 2015).

Ricardo Martinez is Co-Executive Director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos.