On Black Death and LGBTQ Politics

On Friday, December 12, I had the profound pleasure of attending the Kessler Award ceremony hosted by The Center for LGBTQ Studies: CLAGS at The Graduate Center, CUNY in honor of Professor Cathy J. Cohen (University of Chicago). Cohen has a large body of work at the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality, but is perhaps best known for a 1997 GLQ article, referenced this talk, called, “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics” (locked). The title of her talk was, “#Do Black Lives Matter? From Michael Brown to CeCe McDonald: On Black Death and LGBTQ Politics.” What follows is a brief summary of her remarks, and the video and transcript are linked below.

Cohen’s talk began with the screening of a video that included the murders of Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Kaijeme Powell, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice in one devastating 2-minute clip, she said to “re-center us and remind us what the movement is about.”

Cohen then turned to a discussion of the context surrounding the murder of Michael Brown, what she calls the ‘multicultural turn in neoliberalism.’ She uses the traditional definition of neoliberalism, as a “prioritizing of markets and a corresponding commitment to the dismantling or devolution of social welfare.” She argues that with the election of the first African American president in Barack Obama, neoliberalism has taken a “multicultural turn” that requires us to “complicate our understanding of state power and neoliberal agendas.” About this, and as part of her critique of Obama, she said:

Colorblind racial ideology, by both decrying racism and designating anti-racism as probably one of the country’s newly found core values, actually works to obscure the relationship between identity and privilege. Thus, through colorblind ideology one can claim to be in solidarity with black people while at the same time denigrating the condition of poor black people, faulting them for their behaviors or lack of a work ethic and not their race. Moreover, one could declare that ‘black lives matter’ while undermining any state-sponsored programs that would address the special needs of poor black people. One could say, in fact, that I’m heartbroken with the death of Trayvon Martin because if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon, and recognize that that means nothing in terms of justice for black people.

She began here, with neoliberalism and its multicultural turn because “it is a reminder of the sustained attack on the basic humanity of poor black people that provides the context in which we should understand the killing of young black people, in particular young black men, and the less visible assaults on black women and the murder of black trans people.”

The second section of her talk, called “Performing Solidarity: LGBT Complicity = Black Death,” was a thorough recap of the critique made by Urvashi Vaid, Lisa Duggan, Dean Spade and Michael Warner, of the way that mainstream (read: predominantly white) LGBT organizations have prioritized a neoliberal agenda with policies agendas that emphasize, marriage, access to the military and increased criminalization through hate crime legislation. Then, she argued that the kinds of letters issued by mainstream LGBT organizations in support of Michael Brown’s family

The third part of her talk, which she called “This is Not the Civil Rights Movement: The Queering of Black Liberation,” is where she addressed the possibility of transformational politics. She began this section by screening this short video:

This young brother, Tory Russell is from Hands Up United, one of the grassroots groups organizing people in Ferguson, Missouri. In response to a question from Gwen Ifill (PBS Newshour) about what he sees happening now, Russell says:

“I mean it’s younger, it’s fresher. I think we’re more connected than most people think. I don’t, this is not the civil rights movement, you can tell by how I got a hat on, I got my t-shirt, and how I rock my shoes. This is not the civil rights movement. This is an oppressed peoples’ movement. So when you see us, you gonna see some gay folk, you gonna see some queer folk, you gonna see some poor black folk, you gonna see some brown folk, you gonna see some white people and we all out here for the same reasons, we wanna be free.”

In many ways, Russell here articulates Cohen’s vision for transformational politics and what she refers to as substantive, rather than performative, solidarity.

Cohen, along with a growing chorus of voices, sees what is happening now as a movement, rather than simply a momentary response to aggressive policing.

Near the end of her talk, Cohen describes this movement, echoing Russell, as a “movement made up, as Tory Russell described, made up of some gays, some queer folk, some poor black people, some brown folks, some white folks, …all of them united in their position as oppressed people, aka politically queer, and all fighting for freedom, not marriage, not increased criminalization, not access to the military, but for freedom.”

You can view Cohen’s lecture online here (beginning about the 25:50 mark). A transcript of Cohen’s remarks is available here.

Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty (Part 1)

Editors’ Note: Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson recently published an article in “The Chronicle Review” (Chronicle of Higher Education) in which he bemoans the fact that sociologists have not been drawn into President Obama’s special race initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” On this flimsy basis he trots out the claim that ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan got pilloried for his 1963 Report on the Black Family, sociologists have shied away from cultural work dealing with black Americans out of fear that they will be accused of “blaming the victim.” This myth, originally advanced by William Julius Wilson, was thoroughly demolished by Stephen Steinberg in a 2011 piece in The Boston Review. Two excerpts from his article, which went viral after it was listed on the “Arts & Letters Daily” of the Chronicle of Higher Education, are republished here.

Part I, “Old Wine in New Bottles” shows how sociologists have repackaged discredited cultural explanations of poverty in recent decades. Steinberg’s claim is not that culture does not matter, but rather that culture is not an independent and self-sustaining cause of poverty. Poverty must be seen within the matrix of structural and institutional factors in which that culture is embedded. Part II, “The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty,” focuses on William Julius Wilson’s descent into cultural explanations of poverty, contradicting his earlier work on structural matters. In terms of social policy, Wilson has been a champion of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Obama’s Race to the Top, which provide erudite justifications for the defunding of public education and have led to the closing of important public schools in black neighborhoods across the nation.

PART I: VERY OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES
The claim that the furor over the Moynihan report stymied research on lower-class culture for four decades is patently false. What was the massive underclass discourse of the 1980s if not old wine in new bottles—Moynihan’s culture arguments repackaged for a new generation of scholars and pundits?

As with the culture of poverty, the conception of the underclass had liberal origins. In his 1962 book Challenge to Affluence, Gunnar Myrdal borrowed a Swedish term for the lower class, underklassen, to refer to people who languished in poverty even during periods of economic growth and prosperity. This term entered popular discourse with the 1982 publication of Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, based on a series in The New Yorker.

Then, between 1986 and 1988, there was an outpouring of articles in U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly, Fortune, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and Time, all providing graphic and frightening portrayals of pathology and disorder in the nation’s ghettos. The image was of poverty feeding on itself, with the implication that cultural pathology was not just a byproduct of poverty but was itself a cause of pathological behavior. This was the explicit claim of a 1987 Fortune article by Myron Magnet:

What primarily defines [the underclass] is not so much their poverty or race as their behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, nonwork, welfare dependency and school failure. ‘Underclass’ describes a state of mind and a way of life. It is at least as much cultural as an economic condition.

Social science lagged behind journalism, but by the late ’80s, with the backing of charitable foundations, a cottage industry of technocratic studies appeared charting the size and social constitution of the underclass. In his 1991 article “The Underclass Myth,” Adolph Reed noted the reinstatement of the culture-of-poverty theory during the Reagan-Bush era. The pendulum had swung so far to culture that Reed was pleading for a restoration of structure:

We should insist on returning the focus of the discussion of the production and reproduction of poverty to examination of its sources in the operations of the American political and economic system. Specifically, the discussion should focus on such phenomena as the logic of deindustrialization, models of urban redevelopment driven by real-estate speculation, the general intensification of polarization of wealth, income, and opportunity in American society, the ways in which race and gender figure into those dynamics, and, not least, the role of public policy in reproducing and legitimating them.

Reed ended on a note of personal exasperation:

I want the record to show that I do not want to hear another word about drugs or crime without hearing in the same breath about decent jobs, adequate housing, and egalitarian education.

Culturalists confuse cause and effect, arguing that lack of social mobility among black youth is a product of their culture rather than the other way around. Yet here we are, two decades later, with a special issue of a prestigious journal, the Annals, launched with fanfare and a congressional briefing, bombastically claiming that “culture is back on the policy agenda,” as though it had not been there all along. Even as the editors take up this “long-abandoned topic,” however, they are careful to distance themselves from culture-of-poverty theorists who were accused of “blaming the victim,” and they scoff at the idea that the poor “might cease to be poor if they changed their culture.” Indeed, readers are assured that “none of the three editors of this volume happens to fall on the right of the political spectrum.” Alas, the culture of poverty has not made a comeback after all. The new culturalists have learned from the mistakes of the past, and only want to study culture in the context of poverty—that is, in the selective and limited ways that culture matters in the lives of the poor.

True to form, the rest of the Annals issue is a compendium of studies informed by this “more sophisticated” conception of culture. One study examines “How Black and Latino Service Workers Make Decisions about Making Referrals.” Another explores how poor men define a “good job.” Still another ventures into the perilous waters of the black family, examining the “repertoire of infidelity” among low-income men.

The problem is less with the questions asked than with the ones left unexamined. The editors and authors are careful to bracket their inquiries with appropriate obeisance to the ultimate grounding of culture in social structure. But their research objectives, methodology, data collection, and analysis are all riveted on the role of culture. Is obeisance enough? If the cultural practices under examination are merely links in a chain of causation, and are ultimately rooted in poverty and joblessness, why are these not the object of inquiry? Why aren’t we talking about the calamity of another generation of black youth who, excluded from job markets, are left to languish on the margins, until they cross the line of legality and are swept up by the criminal justice system and consigned to unconscionable years in prison where, at last, they find work, for less than a dollar an hour, if paid at all? Upon release they are “marked men,” frequently unable to find employment or to assume such quotidian roles as those of husband or father.

Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one? Does it matter how they approach procreation, how they juggle “doubt, duty, and destiny” when they are denied the jobs that are the sine qua non of parenthood? Aren’t we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?

Note: Portions of the post appeared in The Boston Review in 2011.

Obama and Immigration Reform

On November 19, after a long delay, President Obama issued an Executive Action on Immigration Reform that contained three stipulations. First, more resources will be given to law enforcement personnel charged with stopping unauthorized border crossings. Second, the President will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay. Third, the President announced steps “to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country.”

The first provision will please opponents of unauthorized immigration and the second will be supported by business interests. They are not likely to give rise to controversy. The third provision, however, has already caused a furor among conservative Republicans.

For example, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz asserted that Obama’s

actions are . . . unconstitutional and in defiance of the American people who said they did not want amnesty in the 2014 elections.

House Speaker Boehner, brimming with vitriol, stated that “President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left.”

Once again, Republican leaders reached in their demagoguery tool kit and grabbed their standard response to all things Obama: Obama is dishonest, the problem is his fault, and the American people are on their side. Of course, they won’t do anything to fix it.

Many individuals sympathetic to the undocumenteds’ difficulties are in a festive mood. But there is a factor to consider before we can truly celebrate: we need to see President Obama follow through. Angelo Falcón, President of the National Institute for Latino Policy, puts it as follows:

We are . . . concerned that the President will not fully exercise his power of executive action to impact on all those who should be eligible for legalization, and expect that they will be shortchanged in terms of what should be basic human rights benefits such as health insurance. President Obama’s record also demonstrates that his public pronouncements do not necessarily result in effective federal action, with agencies such as Homeland Security consistently undermining the President’s rhetoric.

I share Mr. Falcón’s misgivings. I’ll wait and see how things turn out before I celebrate.

Obama and Immigration “Reform”

On November 19, after a long delay, President Obama issued an Executive Action on Immigration Reform that contained three stipulations. First, more resources will be given to law enforcement personnel charged with stopping unauthorized border crossings. Second, the President will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay. Third, the President announced steps “to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country.”

The first provision will please opponents of unauthorized immigration and the second will be supported by business interests. They are not likely to give rise to controversy. The third provision, however, has already caused a furor among conservative Republicans. For example, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz asserted that Obama’s “actions are . . . unconstitutional and in defiance of the American people who said they did not want amnesty in the 2014 elections .” House Speaker Boehner, brimming with vitriol, stated that “President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left .”

Once again, white-oriented Republican leaders reached in their demagoguery tool kit and grabbed their standard response to all things Obama: Obama is dishonest, the problem is his fault, and the American people are on their side. Of course, they won’t do anything to fix it.

Many individuals sympathetic to the undocumented‘s difficulties are in a festive mood. But there is a factor to consider before we can truly celebrate: we need to see President Obama follow through. Angelo Falcón, President t of the National Institute for Latino Policy, puts it as follows:

We are . . . concerned that the President will not fully exercise his power of executive action to impact on all those who should be eligible for legalization, and expect that they will be shortchanged in terms of what should be basic human rights benefits such as health insurance. President Obama’s record also demonstrates that his public pronouncements do not necessarily result in effective federal action, with agencies such as Homeland Security consistently undermining the President’s rhetoric.

I share Mr. Falcón’s misgivings. I’ll wait and see how things turn out before I celebrate.

Latinos’ Skin Tone & Republican Partisanship

In a recent article Professor Spencer Piston analyzed the association between Latinos’ skin tone and four forms of Republican partisanship: degree of identification as a Republican (ranging from “Strong Republican” to “Strong Democrat,” that is, “Weak Republican”) as well as voting Republican in the 2012 Presidential, House and Senate elections.

Professor Piston presents evidence that the lighter their skin tone, the more likely is their support of the four forms of Republican partisanship.

The prizing of light skin is an old component of the US White Racial Frame. It was also present in the old Spanish racial frame in the Southwest, where Spanish light skin was valued over “Indian” dark complexion. Thus Latinos have been exposed to two different white racial frames.

Immigration has been a vibrant issue in the last few years. Some light-skinned Latinos, possibly affected by both racial frames as well as cognizant of the white elite’s deprecatory views of “dark illegals,” might want to distance themselves from the latter. But their reaction is not just bigotry: light skinned Latinos enjoy a higher socioeconomic position than their dark counterparts.

And it is to their advantage to support Republicans, who invariably look after the better off.

It would be incorrect to attribute support for the Republican Party among Latinos just to skin color. Latinos who oppose left-leaning politicians in the US and Latin America tend to favor Republican administrations’ hard line against such politicians. Whatever the reason, these Latinos should not forget that they favor a Republican party that would not hesitate to end its support if it benefited white elites.

““Tiempo de acabar el Embargo de Cuba”: It’s Time to End the Cuban Embargo

A recent New York Times editorial denunciated the unproductive 54-year old United States embargo against Cuba and exhorted President Obama to end it. The editorial’s publication is not remarkable because the same argument has been made before in the media. What is unusual is that a second click will take the reader to a Spanish translation.

Shortly afterward Fidel Castro wrote a column in Granma, a Cuban newspaper, analyzing in detail the Times’ editorial [[l]]. The New York Times, in turn, ran an opinion page about Fidel’s column. It also appeared in Spanish translation. In the past few days I’ve been pondering the significance of the New York Times’ bilingual columns. They are a step in the right direction because they seem to recognize the validity of Spanish, which is the language with the second largest number of speakers in the US.

Cuban Embargo Political Cartoon

(Image source)

I should note, however, that all of the bilingual New York Times’ columns I mentioned pertain to just Latin American issues, which some may see as a reflection of the common perception that Spanish is not “American.” Moreover, the publication of Spanish columns in a major newspaper can give the false impression that the racialized status of Spanish in the United States is crumbling. That is not the case.

Spanish is still racialized because its speakers are still racialized and there are no indications that their status is changing.

Democracy & American DREAMers: DACA & Undocumented Latino Youth

Immigration—particularly undocumented immigration—continues to be an unresolved issue in America; however, it is part of the larger unresolved issue of the political and social inclusion of Latinos (as well as other visible racial and ethnic groups) in the U.S. It is an issue that will increasingly affect us all because of our changing demographics with Latinos at 16.9 percent of the population projected to be 30 percent of the population by 2050 at the latest.

This lack of inclusion is underscored in a new book my coauthors, Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti and Melissa R. Michelson and I recently published which looks at the experiences of undocumented Latino youth who have been raised in the U.S., but because of the inability of our political leaders to pass immigration reform dealing with even the seemingly straightforward aspects of the issue—namely, how to incorporate and legalize Latino youth who have grown up in the U.S—their lives have been severely limited at every turn. In our book we systematically examine the experiences faced by undocumented Latino youth based on in-depth interviews conducted immediately after President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in the summer of 2012. Through 101 interviews conducted in California, Texas, Washington, and Oregon we learn the effects of living in the U.S without the “nine-digit number” (Social Security number). We learn how living as undocumented youth has impacted their decisions after completing high school, their political socialization and self-identity, and their feelings of trust and confidence in our government, and even their personal and intimate relationships.

Regardless of their geographic location, the sample of DREAMers in our book all experienced life with a greater sense of fear, vulnerability, lack of freedom, and obstacles. It was felt while they were shopping, traveling, driving, or in one case, serving as a university student body president who was “outed” and had his life turned upside down. In some cases, their unauthorized status even affected their willingness to call the police if someone had been in a car accident. Living as an undocumented Latino youth in the United States is, even post-DACA (which provides some measure of protection from deportation) as one of our respondents stated, “not full freedom.” Similar to the experiences of immigrants in the past, our sample of DREAMers is affected by the white racial frame in that they are racialized targets at every turn. This racialization places greater limitations on all aspects of their lives. As one of our respondents states,

[B]eing an illegal immigrant shapes who you are, . . . when you’re growing up, like what you become and . . . how you act and whatnot.

Listening to the stories of our sample of DREAMers, we learn about the lives of hardworking, good kids who have grown up in America seeking to achieve the American dream like everyone else. Some always knew they were undocumented, but not quite what it meant; others first learned as teenagers. Just as they were trying, like other teenagers around them, to assert their independence – to go away to college, to get a first job, to learn to drive – they find themselves stopped in their tracks by a system that relegates them to the margins because they are undocumented.

Based on this research, if we truly hope to have a democracy, then we must have the wisdom and the tenacity to continually seek ways to improve our society by extending the promise of America’s most cherished principles to the DREAMers. Latino youth are our future and there will be no real democracy for any future Americans without the political and social incorporation of Latinos. Similarly to the pre-Civil War South and through the 1960’s where nearly half of the population was legally oppressed by the other, an America where one third of the youth entering their voting age, their legal working age, or college age either are excluded from the body politics or are suspected of not belonging to the body politic, democracy is crippled or false. As Douglas S. Massey states,

[T]he most serious task remaining for immigration reformers is the legalization of the 11 million persons who are currently unauthorized, especially the 3 million or more persons who entered as minors and grew up in the United States. The lack of legal status constitutes an insurmountable barrier to social and economic mobility, not only for the undocumented immigrants themselves, but for their citizen family members. Not since the days of slavery have so many residents in the United States lacked the most basic social, economic, and human rights.

The U.S.’s founding values of “establishing justice” or the “blessing of liberty” currently does not apply to 5 million Latino youth who are just kids trying to be kids in the only country they’ve ever known.

If we make a commitment to DREAMers through humane immigration policy such as passage of the DREAM Act, our entire society will be enriched by not only the economic and cultural benefits that they will bestow upon American society, but because we will stop undermining our democratic values through the continual exclusion of undocumented Latino youth who have so much to contribute to society, if only they are allowed to. As one undocumented young woman
we interviewed states:

We are members of this society whether people acknowledge it or not, but we continue to be discriminated against, marginalized and “othered.” We experience rejection on a daily basis, and although we continue to overcome barrier after barrier, it is not a way of life that any person should have to experience. We are talented individuals who want to be able to give back to our communities. Why does legislation continue to prevent us from doing so? Why let our skills go to waste? Why not use them to improve this nation? This problem is much bigger than people want to acknowledge. . . . [W]e are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

As we document in our book, all of the DREAMers we spoke to recognized that their immigration status had had powerful impacts on their lives.

And yet, as we found time and again in our research, they keep on dreaming as underscored by one of our respondents:

Well, whatever is within my reach I’m going to do it. After I finish my bachelor’s and continue my master’s, and if possible go into the PhD program; if not, I’ll set up a business as I have a business already, so keep going and make it bigger. I won’t stop. If there’s something in my way I’ll just go another way.

Latino Disunity: On Obama’s Delaying Executive Order for Immigrants

In her insightful book, The Trouble With Unity, Cristina Beltrán highlights the intolerance to dissent found in the 1960’s and 70’s Chicano and Puerto Rican Movements, especially with regards to gender issues. This intolerance to debate within the movements weakened the democratic nature of the groups where as Beltrán states, “Disagreement is treated as a pathology” (p. 46). She goes on to say, “In the politics of unity, someone or something must be found and blamed for divisions and disagreements” (p. 46). Are we seeing some of this again in the recent attacks on prominent Latino leaders and activists such as Dolores Huerta who have chosen not to come down hard on President Obama for his Democratic-party-pressured decision to wait until after the November elections to issue any more executive orders on immigration in order to keep the Senate under Democratic control?

In a recent article on the National Institute for Latino Policy a number of authors state:

On the whole, Obama’s Latino defenders all have a financial stake in his regime. They are all recipients of largesse either from the administration directly or through his party or allied private foundations. They belong to the corrupt patronage system and have gladly accepted their proverbial role as house peons who run to save the master’s burning house faster than the master himself. The most immoral observation about their behavior is the lack of transparency about their personal moneyed interests and positions as they implicitly defend massive deportations of historic dimension.

This intolerance to dissent is reminiscent of calls of “traitor” or “sell-out” found in the 1960s and 1970s Latino movements as highlighted by Beltrán.

It is one thing to differ on strategy, approach, and timing of politics. However, not to recognize that there could be differences in approach is short-sighted at best and an excellent strategy for the Republican party at worst.

The Latino community is bigger than ever in U.S. history and our numbers have reached a tipping point whereby Latino issues are prominent issues in the national debate. Latinos have always been from diverse national origins tracing back to many different Latin American countries with different historical experiences in the U.S. as John A. Garcia notes in his book on Latino Politics.

While we also share important common denominators such as the experience of discrimination and lack of inclusion in the U.S. as Feagin and Cobas describe, these subgroup differences are large enough to generate diverse policy interests or at the least differences in strategy. So, it should come as no surprise that there are issues where there is dissent between Latino groups and that is only going to become more frequent.

Intolerance to dissenting views by leaders of Latino organizations seems very out-of-touch, and ultimately very unproductive. Notions of unity in a group (that will soon comprise 20 percent of the electorate) that are intolerant to political dissent will condemn us to a fringe of insignificance. When Latinos are finally having an influence on national elections and therefore eventually on public policy, do we really want to start calling each other “peons” if we disagree with each other? Instead, what we need is to take an adaptable, big-tent approach to building an enduring, influential political coalition in the United States. This is one way to make Latino politics matter in the future.

Racist, Immoral Dehumanization of Immigrant Children

There are two main challenges in addressing the border issue of increased numbers of undocumented children traveling alone from Central America to the US.
The first is that the dehumanization of Latinos in the US has been so tremendously successful that a basic call for decency and humanity is absent from the conversations surrounding this situation. For example, I recently highlighted the issue in an op-ed to a local newspaper and the comments reveal people hiding their racism behind arguments of “legal” and “illegal.”

An absence of decency and humanity can also be seen in the protesters who turned away buses of children or who are protesting detention centers across the country where children are housed because we’re a “nation of laws” or because the children “carry diseases,” “bring crime,” will grow up to “rape women.” This is all to familiar language that uses the same fear tactics, dehumanization, and racism once used towards African Americans during slavery and Jim Crow and towards the Chinese during the late 1800s—language used to justify atrocious acts of oppression of these groups then and language used to justify monstrous cruelty to these children today. One has to wonder if these protesters would have the same response to refugee children coming from Eastern Europe. Perhaps there would still be a backlash against thousands of Eastern European refugee children arriving alone to the US; however, I doubt it would rise to the shameless levels we’ve seen recently, or that it would use the kinds of language being used–language that has roots in removing people of color outside of our human and national family throughout American history. This underscores how effective the racialization of Latinos in the U.S. currently is.

The second hindrance with addressing this issue is the problem of politicians who either do not care or if they do care are acting first and foremost in their self-interests by being in lock step with xenophobic Americans’ preferences. This response by our nations leaders underscores Schneider and Ingram’s research revealing that politicians make laws that benefit certain groups and burden others. This explains why Congress refuses to act in a bipartisan fashion and pass laws addressing this situation. This explains why traumatized children are being put on planes and sent back as a deterrence to others. This is not just, rational, or wise public policy but this is what our political leaders are engaged in.

Instead, there must be another way. There must be collaboration and civility between the nations involved to come up with short-term and long-term policy solutions. For example, Héctor Perla Jr. recently provided examples of both short term and long term solutions in a recent article. Perla gives the example of granting the children refugee status rather than seeing them as undocumented immigrants in the short term, and in the long term he argues we must address economic policies in Central America that are creating the conditions pushing children and their parents to migrate.

Other short term ideas with the goal of preventing further harm to the children immediately by keeping more children from dying or being injured on the train include finding them earlier in the process of migration. This would require creating a coalition between the US and the countries from where the children depart to check the trains and help the kids at that point. Long term of course must address the roots of the problem. This requires taking into consideration why children are fleeing their countries and finding ways to address these issues as Perla suggests. This too, must be done in collaboration with leaders from Mexico and Central America. Of course, civility, compromise, and collaboration across national leaders seems impossible to accomplish when it doesn’t happen across political leaders in this country who follow the desires of many Americans who cannot see Latinos as human beings, not even the children.

To be Effective, Apprenticeship Programs Must Address Systemic Racism

President Obama giving speech

Beginning with his January 2014 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama has repeatedly praised apprenticeships and vocational education when discussing the jobs crisis.  It is curious that the nation’s first black president is advocating for a policy that has been historically exclusive and harmful to African Americans.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recounts telling his middle school English teacher of his aspirations to be a lawyer and the teacher advised him to instead become a carpenter. The astute Malcolm noted the stark contrast between the advice he received and theYoung Malcolm X overwhelmingly affirming advice he gave to less-promising white students. Malcolm X’s story is not an aberration, but rather reflects a general trend of structural and systemic discrimination that operates through vocational education programs, where African Americans were tracked into lower-paying jobs. It’s also true of apprenticeship programs.  The history of vocational education and apprenticeship programs is one that depends upon reifying and reinforcing class divisions along racial lines.  Intended to be ladders out of poverty, apprenticeship programs can, in reality, be problematic. Instead of offering equal opportunity to all who apply, apprenticeships are often awarded to relatives or friends who share the same racial background as the master technician. There is a lot of research that confirms this: white social networks often function to exclude African Americans from potential jobs.

Exclusive policies designed to maintain white male privilege remain a problem in American workplaces some fifty years after legislation barring racial discrimination in employment.  In many ways, typical apprenticeship programs are illustrations of Bonilla-Silva’s theory of colorblind racism.  While it a program may appear to be a colorblind program on the surface, it can also serve to reproduce the existing racial hierarchy by keeping white jobs white and excluding people-of-color from good jobs that pay a living wage. In fact, as this recent study finds the real problem is less overt discrimination and more a kind of hoarding. In other words, whites help other whites (exclusively) and thus hoard resources and opportunities while at the same time expressing colorblind ideology.  This is why apprenticeships must take systemic racism into account or risk reinforcing it.

If apprenticeship programs could be such a nefarious means of excluding women and minorities from high-skill jobs, why would President Obama pursue such policies?

TCOSTUE Cover Photo

There is substantial political pressure on the president to address the “jobs” situation in the U.S.  These proposed efforts by President Obama seek to address the problem of heightened unemployment rates in recent years, which has led some to speculate that a structural shift in the labor market has occurred.  Often the term “structural unemployment” is treated as synonymous with “skill mismatch”.  I co-authored a new book with Thomas Janoski and Christopher Oliver titled The Causes of Structural Unemployment: Four Factors That Keep People From the Jobs They Deserve.  Our book complicates this structural unemployment story by introducing three additional factors in the discussion of structural unemployment, but skill mismatch continues to be a factor.  The basic problem is not that the labor force is untrained, but that the labor force is trained in areas where there is not substantial economic need; on the other hand, the labor force lacks training in areas of great need.  So the skills possessed by laborers do not match the needs of the economy or the needs of employers.

We explore the responsibility of the employer, the employee, and the state in dealing with skill mismatch.  Solutions to the problem of skill mismatch often surround education reform.  We propose a change in the education system that is highly influenced by the German system, which generates skilled laborers at the age of 18 who are eligible for good jobs and are needed in their economy.  President Obama’s proposals, in some ways, fit with some of the educational reform recommendations we propose in our book.

The education reform we propose will allow students who may be less “college-oriented” at the age of 16 to pursue an alternate career path which involves hard skill training during the final two years of high school.  This training will position a young man or woman to be able to earn a good, living wage upon high school graduation.  While current high school graduates have no discernible skill set, these individuals will have specific marketable skills that meet the needs of the economy.

These policies, we argue, would promote job growth.  Additionally, the nature of manufacturing jobs is changing, and the training provided in the new educational system will empower workers with the skills needed to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.  This, in turn, would have a positive impact on the balance of trade, which has declined dramatically along with the shift from manufacturing to services in the U.S.  Service exports do provide a positive balance of trade, but they are not nearly enough to outweigh the cost of manufactured goods imports as shown in the graph below; the U.S. needs to do some manufacturing to bring that balance to a positive, which will ultimately reduce the national debt as well.

Balance of Trade

On an individual level, for those who may not be oriented toward college, they will graduate with much higher potential earnings than they currently have.  Additionally, these earnings could be used to help fund higher education endeavors in the future and minimize (to the extent possible) the amount of student loan debt required, should they decide to seek a new career path or additional training.  This type of retraining, some have argued, could be part of a “new career contract” in the future.  By providing a higher earnings potential for high school graduates and making higher education more financially feasible, our proposed education reform increases social mobility for many people of lower socioeconomic-statuses, and is intentionally designed in this way to be advantageous for economically disadvantaged African Americans, contrary to prior apprenticeship programs.

Apprenticeship programs could still be a valuable and useful tool, but President Obama must be mindful of the history, understand these past failures, and actively work to prevent similar outcomes.  A recent study has shown whites now believe anti-white bias to be a larger problem than anti-black bias. We also know that the majority of the American public has opposed the most popular race-based social policy (affirmative action).

This puts President Obama in a challenging political situation.  When viewing the outcomes of affirmative action, it is notable that diversity gains generally ceased during the 1980s, while Ronald Reagan’s administration dutifully weakened enforcement provisions of civil rights laws and lessened the funding for agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  For President Obama, these proposed apprenticeship programs are very promising, but in light of the history of these types of programs, significant oversight is necessary to prevent systemic racial bias.

~ This post was written by guest blogger David J. Luke, Department of Sociology, University of Kentucky.  An earlier version of this post originally appeared at the Work in Progress blog.