Tag Archives: race

Introducing the Summer issue: Identities—What Are They Good for?

Identity is too much with us late and soon. It figures prominently in clashes over diversity, multiculturalism, political correctness, offensive speech, “deplorable” voters, and arrogant elites. In our overheated politics of recognition, “Check your privilege!” has become the rebuke of choice, aimed at silencing the opinions of those whose obliviousness to their entitlement is itself a giveaway of their advantaged social status. Those so accused—cisgender white males being prime suspects—in turn accuse their critics of playing identity politics to curtail free speech.

Identities are multiform, of course. Some are given or imposed, and some are elected. Some are acquired, while some are discarded. Some have to do with skin color; others, with ethnicity or religion, region or nation, gender or age, class or profession, disability or differing ability. Identities usually come in packages, and no matter how we assemble them, or how they are assembled for us, we are all, to use the current term of art, intersectional. We assume and wear our identities—in sum or part—proudly or shamefully, arrogantly or modestly. For some, identity explains much of who they are; for others, it explains very little and may even obscure who they believe they are.

Given its current importance, the struggle for recognition among our ever-proliferating identity groups might seem to be a peculiarly modern obsession. But even in the old regimes, with their static social hierarchies, the need for recognition was powerful. Recognition was pursued and attained largely on the field of honor, in daily efforts to fulfill the duties and obligations of one’s place in the divinely ordained social order.

As the old regimes were replaced by modern democratic states with growing social mobility, the concern with honor ceded to a new universalist politics that insisted upon dignity for all citizens, including equal rights and entitlements. But if the modern age did not give rise to the politics of recognition, it did give birth, as the philosopher Charles Taylor explains, to the “conditions in which the attempt to be recognized can fail.” It did so because, along with the new universalist politics, there arose a related but sometimes conflicting politics of difference, concerned precisely with winning recognition for one or more particular groups against the neglect, exploitation, or assimilationist pressures of the dominant group. The recurring collisions between these two modes of politics have produced some of the sharpest—and even the most violent—civil struggles within modern democratic states.

But the longevity and occasional ferocity of struggles arising from demands for equal rights, on one hand, and the recognition of difference, on the other, has brought relatively little light to the phenomenon of identity itself. How do we judge the adequacy, efficacy, or value of various forms of identity in our struggle to the find not only equal rights and privileges but also meaning and community?

That is the question that animates the thematic essays of the present issue of The Hedgehog Review, and though the answers range widely, they collectively provide an entry point for a deeper, possibly less fraught discussion of what separates humanity into tribes (defined by what are often extremely fine distinctions) and what may yet bring us together in a more capacious humanism that embraces universalist principles while respecting and protecting differences. As the historian Jackson Lears wrote not long ago wrote in the London Review of Books, “Identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing.”

While Lears writes from the left and is largely concerned with the way our current form of identity politics has displaced a concern with class and economic equality, voices of the right and center have joined him in criticizing this coercive narrowing of political debate. (See, for example, Walter Benn Michael’s The Trouble with Diversity, Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal, Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity, and Francis Fukuyama’s forthcoming Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.) But escaping the grip of identity politics will require an honest reckoning with the historical and contemporary realities that continue to fuel the politics of difference, whether in the emergence of a new racism visible in soaring rates of African American incarceration or in the ever-accumulating incidents of male aggression against women. And, yes, we must also heed the identity-based grievances of those “angry white males” (and quite a few females) who came together in surprisingly wide support of an uncivil anti-politician promising to make America great again.

Of one thing we can be certain: Identity politics begets more identity politics. Any hope of overcoming that politics must begin with a willingness to listen to those who cleave to identity for the very solidarity and confidence that may free them, ironically, from the more limiting, indeed punitive, aspects of an identity. Are there more commodious forms of identity, including a rekindled and truly civic nationalism, that can bring not just tolerance but a sense of mutuality across some of the most politically heated identity divides? It is an irony—perhaps even tragic one—that the only way out of the identity trap is through it. How we negotiate that irony is one of the distinctive challenges of our modern condition.

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We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with these three:

What Makes Me Black? What Makes You White? by W. Ralph Eubanks

In with the Out Crowd: Contrarians, Alone and Together by Steve Lagerfeld

Virtue Signaling by B.D. McClay

The entire issue, already on its way to subscribers, includes thematic contributions from Mary Townsend, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, Phil Christman, S.D. Chrostowska, and James McWilliams along with standalone works by Witold Rybczynski, Becca Rothfeld, and Johann N. Neem as well as six book reviews. Browse the table of contents here and subscribe—if you haven’t yet—here.

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Outlaw or Criminal?

The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, a 1981 film version starring Robert Duvall

The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, a 1981 film version starring Robert Duvall

Last week the FBI announced that it was ending its forty-five-year manhunt for D.B. Cooper. In case you are unfamiliar with the case, Cooper (real name unknown) famously hijacked a passenger plane from Oregon to Seattle in 1971 by claiming he had a bomb on board, freeing thirty-six passengers in exchange for $200,000 in cash (equivalent to about $1.2 million today), and taking off again with the pilot and a small crew. What made Cooper a legend in our popular imagination, however, is that Cooper subsequently managed to parachute out of the plane with the ransom money—and was never seen again. Before formally ending the search last week, the FBI interviewed hundreds of people, amassing a file that reportedly measures more than forty feet long (much of it now on-line) including information on more than 1,000 suspects.

Viewed dispassionately, the case against Cooper is straightforward and obvious: Cooper threatened violence, endangered the lives of many people by forcing an emergency landing, and stole a lot of money. These are serious crimes. Yet, he is viewed by many as more of an inspirational outlaw who pulled off an amazing heist than a true villain. His story has inspired movies, books, songs, a pretty funny Far-Side cartoon, an annual festival with a look-alike contest, and Mad Men conspiracy theories. Google “D.B. Cooper,” and if you are like me, you’ll get a little thrill at the fact that he pulled off something that seems so impossible today. Continue reading

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Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: Polarization

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays. The first two essays focused on how the new technologies have changed the forms of social visibility and invisibility and how this has changed youth culture. The third essay looked at the increased academic pressure due to standardized test and SOLs. This essay suggests that these tests may have increased the gap between lower and higher performing students rather than having decreased it.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

In 1986, Signithie Fordham and John U. Ogbu published a paper entitled “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the ‘Burden of “Acting White.”’” It suggested that one of the impediments to higher academic achievement of African-Americans was the tendency of black peers to negatively sanction minority students who were too openly concerned about academic achievement—and accuse them of “acting white.”

This article stimulated much debate and considerable research. Quantitative studies have usually found relatively weak evidence in support of this hypothesis. It should be kept in mind, however, that most of these studies are based upon answers that students give to questions about their expectations and goals. Most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not dramatically different from more privileged (usually white) students in their hopes and aspirations. What people say about their prospects for the future, however, does not always represent their actual feelings. Much less does it measure the level of emotional energy and resources they have to accomplish their expectations. This is perhaps why ethnographic studies continued to find that at least some disadvantaged students seem, if not indifferent about grades and academic matters, less inclined to discuss their academic concerns in the context of peer groups and less committed to academic success. Continue reading

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In Little League, All Racial Politics Are Local

President Barack Obama welcomes the Jackie Robinson West All Stars to the Oval Office, Nov. 6, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama welcomes the Jackie Robinson West All Stars to the Oval Office, Nov. 6, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

Little League International has stripped the Jackie Robinson West team of its national title. The team, made up exclusively of black players from Chicago, won the US Little League title last fall, losing only to South Korea in the Little League World Series final in August. Their triumphs earned them accolades, parades, and even a trip to the White House. Jackie Robinson West’s success was particularly poignant given the well-known decline in baseball participation among black Americans, especially those from urban centers like Chicago.

According to a statement released by Little League, Jackie Robinson West was stripped of its title due to league officials’ apparent falsification of league boundaries. The aim of the team’s managers, the statement suggests, was to include some high caliber players on the team who otherwise would not be eligible to play on it because they live and go to school outside of Jackie Robinson West’s league boundaries. There is, however, another dimension to this story—a racial one, having to do with how Little League local government operates in the first place.

Anybody who has worked with Little League baseball knows that it is a surprisingly unwieldy institution. Although heavy on rules, Little League is a highly decentralized organization. The building blocks of Little League baseball are “leagues” and then “districts,” with the latter made up of several, sometimes many, leagues. Most of the finer points in Little League rules and procedures concern “tournament” play, a form of play different from the regular season. Akin to the playoffs, tournament play features all-star teams made up of the best players in a given “league,” of which there are hundreds in the United States alone. Every summer and fall, all-star teams from a few of these leagues work their way through an elaborate tournament structure and end up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the Little League World Series. Jackie Robinson West not only made it to Williamsport, but also defeated all the other US teams in the tournament to play in the Little League World Series final.

Under Little League rules, districts have clear boundaries. Leagues nominally do, too. But in reality, league boundaries are not infrequently contested, redrawn, debated, or made “flexible” for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons has unquestionably been race.

In Champaign-Urbana (about two hours south of Chicago)—my own Little League community—there are clear boundaries drawn around the four “leagues” that comprise Little League baseball in this area. Their boundaries are far from square (as you can see here). Rather, they wind and weave here and there, barely following the grid layout imposed on a flat, prairie city. A local board made up of the Champaign-Urbana Little League sponsor (the Kiwanis) and the four league presidents meet from time to time to redraw the boundaries according to new developments in town—including, in 2012, contracting from six Champaign-Urbana leagues to four due to a decline in Little League participation. These new boundaries are sent to the District Manager and eventually to a central Little League office to be made official. But pending that approval, it is up to the local league boards to figure out exactly where the league boundaries should be drawn, and when they should be redrawn.

With this arrangement, Little League has given local communities tremendous discretion in determining the boundaries of its leagues. This tends to lead to boundaries that consistently follow “local prejudices” in the sense that historically black areas are separated from nearby white areas, in the same way that we see, for example, the placement and quality of urban public schools mirroring a pattern of racial and socio-economic demographics. Little League regulations, thus, tolerate, even perpetuate these patterns by putting into place rules and procedures that enable this to happen with little or no resistance. The all-too-common result: all-black leagues.

For example, one of the Champaign-Urbana leagues, known as “First String,” covers a large historically black neighborhood that is also, and has been for some time, the poorest area in the area. The southern, eastern, and western boundaries of this league follow the perimeters of this historically black neighborhood. The league extends north into a box-store district with very little single-family housing. Only one school from which to draw players is found within its boundaries, whereas numerous schools are found within the borders of each of the other local leagues. And First String is the only league on the map that crosses the boundary line dividing the two major municipalities of the area: Champaign and Urbana (and, thus, the two major school districts). It is self-evident to anyone who knows the Champaign-Urbana area that First String’s league boundaries are drawn according to racial and socio-economic demographics. Of the four leagues in my area, First String’s is consistently composed of all-black players.

That Little League boundaries are drawn according to local racial politics should not be all that surprising. Little League is, at bottom, a community-based organization. This is one of its virtues, but that also makes it vulnerable to local prejudice—and this is the more telling aspect of the story of the First String league in Champaign-Urbana. There is, and has been for decades, an “understanding” in the community that if you are black, no matter where you live in the Champaign-Urbana area, you can play for First String. This does not mean—at least not in recent history—that if you are black you must play for First String: The team I coach in Urbana is racially diverse, and it is not in the First String league. Rather, it is understood that if you are black and don’t live within the borders of First String, you may nevertheless play for them.

Properly speaking, this is against the rules. But there’s a shared understanding that such boundary crossing is permitted. This has been the case for years, and officials have long turned a blind eye. The black players who cross the league boundary are often players from wealthier areas, and wealthier families, in town. Their parents justifiably and even nobly see the boundary crossing as a form of support for a historically black league, an act of civic solidarity in a racially divided town. Indeed, some of these parents from other areas coach in First String as a show of further support. And, unlike Jackie Robinson West, First String is only modestly successful. In fact, it has not fielded a playoff team in recent memory because First String’s board is aware that players living outside its borders do not qualify for postseason play. The boundary crossing, in this case, really does seem to be motivated by racial solidarity.

Does racial solidarity factor into the case of Jackie Robinson West, and have there been “understandings” in the Chicago area that have permitted such arrangements? I do not know, and so far have been unable to find out. Since the story broke out, I have not been able to find any details on league boundaries and histories in Chicago (Jackie Robinson West’s website has since been taken down). However, the Little League statement on Jackie Robinson West speaks of “multiple issues with boundary maps and operational process with multiple leagues in Illinois District 4,” and of a variety of “misunderstandings in multiple league boundaries.” “Little League International,” it continues cryptically, “learned of several operational issues within the entire District that have occurred over the course of many years under different leadership at the District level.”

There is no doubt, in the case of Jackie Robinson West, that black players crossed league boundaries to play on the team. If this were simply about “ringers” being brought in to bolster the existing team roster, then we might expect to see white players as well. But that would not happen and, in fact, would not be tolerated. The real point here is not the use of “ringers,” but the existence of the long-sanctioned context for boundary crossing for black players. This, I strongly suspect, is what is behind the vague verbiage in the Little League report about a “history” of boundary issues in the area. This is not simply a case of bending the rules or even outright cheating, but rather a long history of racial segregation, racial segregation that can’t be neatly uncoupled from racial prejudice. In my opinion, the racial history explains the community norms around “flexible” boundary crossing, what some might more accurately label cheating.

There is a great irony, even hypocrisy, in Little League’s coming down on Jackie Robinson West now—and only now—that they have won a national championship. Little League’s action is not about the enforcement of the rules. If it were, Little League, an $80 million organization, would do much more to address the problem of boundary enforcement and might even encourage districts to consider racial and socio-economic factors proactively when constructing boundaries for leagues.

Rather, this is likely about a white suburban league crying foul and taking down Jackie Robinson West, invoking rules that had been implicitly bent for decades. If Jackie Robinson West had been knocked out at the district level, they—and their fellow teams—would have happily continued the practice of boundary crossing. But they weren’t. They won, and won big time. And so they paid. In Little League, it seems that all racial politics are local until you win a national championship.

Ned O’Gorman, associate professor of communication and Conrad Humanities Professorial Scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy and the forthcoming The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America since the Kennedy Assassination.

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