Monday, October 29, 2007

Finding the Next Multinational Neighborhood

by Denis Rhoden, GIS demographic specialist for the Kirwan Institute

Recent posts on the KI blog and articles in cyberspace that I have read devote a considerable amount of attention to the complexity of racial diversity in America. Diversity, in its racial connotation, has a psychological, social and strategic lens, and is used by academics politicians, businesses, institutions and individuals. In a multinational context, we may be missing the point. I believe the efforts to include more perspectives, experiences and education, both formal and informal, is a pillar for future society. With this in mind I ask readers: how well prepared are American citizens to take up a role in a multinational society? Have years of good fortune developed a success bias among all Americans particularly the middle and upper income groups? What implications does this have for our neighborhoods’ competitiveness and quality of life in global terms moving forward?

I will not bore you with many statistics or anecdotes, but I think that these are particularly important in making the case for pursuing multinational neighbourhoods and business. In recent rankings of the world most expensive cities you won’t find New York, London or even Paris at the top–its St. Petersburg, Russia. The New York Times says that the growing flow of money to the London Stock Exchange away from the domestic exchanges is part policy and perception. Business leaders point to Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Patriot Act, and the Department of Homeland Security as evidence that “America does not welcome outsiders.” Another recent Wall Street Journal article shares the globe-changing financial power the “New Power Brokers” possess.

• At $70 a barrel, oil producers have nearly $2 billion of petrodollars to invest every day, and one-fifth and one-quarter of all petrodollars are owned by very wealthy individuals.
• The Chinese central bank, with $1.1 trillion in assets, is the world's fifth-largest asset manager.

So what does this mean to Americans? According to the Wall Street Journal, petrodollars and Chinese Central Bank assets together were sufficient to reduce U.S. long term interest rates by three-quarters of one percent. For many this may not seem like a lot, but I suspect your friends with ARM mortgages and pension funds may disagree. The lower rates of moments past, in part fuelled by foreign capital are also attributed to the “debt binge” which lifted home and stock prices in recent periods.
For the last few months I have been exploring Europe and grappling with the question of how small cities like Manchester, UK could embrace so many cultures. In many respects it has a resemblance to Columbus, OH with a diverse student population, stable economy and rediscovery of its urban core. However, I could point to very few cities in Ohio or any other American city where I felt socially and politically where multinationalism was more than tolerated, but expected.
As the US becomes one of several destinations instead of the destination, in terms of capital flow and in-migration, what are the implications for being ‘behind’ the curve on racial diversity when other nations are learning to be competent in multinational terms? Will America’s need to overcome the structural limitations of race come in enough time to cultivate a generation of leaders in business, politics and society that are multinationally conversant?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sometimes the Pen is Mightier than the Sword: How a Culture of Punishment is Destroying the Futures of Our Youth

By Daniel W. Newhart, Research Associate, and Vincent Willis, Graduate Research Associate

In the coverage following the Jena 6 incident, some have argued that black men’s embracing of violent culture contributed to the events. Despite the prevalence of such interpretations, there is a more pervasive problem than the “dysfunctional culture” of African Americans. The problem is rather the dysfunctional nature of our justice system, coupled with American’s “trigger finger” culture of punishment. This culture has led us down a path where youths are becoming increasingly criminalized, and overt racism is no longer understood as being connected to events that manifest deeply held beliefs about superiority and inferiority.

America has an addiction, one which is coupled with a strong hand that can end lives with the “stroke of a pen.” It is an addiction to punish, one that requires constant nourishment, through media, increased militarization and “protection”. Our addiction causes us to, as Victor Rios puts it, “hypercriminalize” Black and Latino males—so much so, that statistics like 33 percent of African American males have some experience with the criminal justice system before age thirty play repeatedly, rather than the fact that there are still 66 percent of those males that do not have an experience with the justice system. This is not an oversight that should be taken lightly. People’s lives and futures depend on us seeing that they are capable of positive outcomes. By allowing our individual and national consciousnesses to be usurped by these destructive thoughts, possibilities for hope and opportunity are foreclosed.

Events like the current one in Jena suggest that it is our culture, rather than a specific group, that is dysfunctional. In a world with increasing uncertainty, citizens are fearful, and the way we process our fear is to lash out harshly against people. This fear, however, is rarely acknowledged, but rather hidden by intensified punishment. Some symptoms arise, however; tennis shoes become deadly weapons, but there is no law barring the noose, a symbol that was historically a scourge on this country. We see victims and perpetrators, but avoid addressing what is causing the conflict initially. The most frightening part is our lack of ability to see the events in Jena as connected to larger issues, intertwined through a history of racism, hate, and fear. As much as we might not want to admit it, this root not only affects African Americans, but all Americans.

As Americans, we are responsible for creating this culture of fear and maintaining it. We vote positively on getting more police in schools, while shifting care of our children from teachers and administrators to those who can give them criminal records. In regard to discipline, education is becoming less about rehabilitation and learning and more about punishment. Terms like “lockdown” and “probation” are being used in our schools today. These terms were once bound to the criminal justice system. When discipline in schools becomes fused with police reports, white students are just as much targets of this punishment as black students. Most of the time white students are punished less harshly, but punished, rather than educated–in a place of education, no less!

There is hope, however. For example, through parent involvement, we can work with the police to create a new environment in the schools and provide a different type of discipline to our children which is more rehabilitative in nature. That which we created, we can also transform into something new. At the end of the day, we are all on trial. Some of us have just not been tried quite yet. In a society with such pervasive dysfunction, we are all just a “penstroke away” from having our lives ended, as Mr. Walters told the students, both white and black, of Jena during the much-discussed school assembly. Our fates are tied up with those of others, whether we would like to admit it or not.

Monday, October 15, 2007

New Terrain for School Desegregation Efforts post-Seattle/Louisville Supreme Court’s Ruling

By Stephen Menendian, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Amidst a national conversation over alarming re-segregation trends in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Seattle and Louisville school districts and reflection over the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, the terms of the debate are shifting in subtle and not-so subtle ways.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported on a school rezoning plan in Tuscaloosa, Alabama ( that would require hundreds of black students attending integrated schools in the northern part of the district to leave them for nearly all black schools in the western end of the district. To illustrate just how segregated the schools in the western zone are; out of 2,330 students, only 19 are white. The high school is 99 percent black. The plan would affect 880 students in a district of 10,000 students, or almost 10% of the entire district.

How can such a plan be justified? The superintendent and school board president claims that the rezoning was a “colorblind effort” to relieve overcrowding by “optimizing the use of the city’s 19 school buildings.”

Nevertheless, the superintendent also admitted that they sought to draw more whites back into Tuscaloosa’s schools by making them attractive to parents of 1,500 children attending private academies founded after court-ordered desegregation began in the late 1950s.

How can those claims both be true? Since when did a clear purpose to lure white students into the school district become “race-neutral”? Since when is the category “white” race-neutral? How can race not be at issue when at least part of the intent is to lure student bodies back into the public schools that left when courts ordered desegregation? Was it merely coincidence that you’d be moving hundreds of black students to virtually all black schools? How else was the school board to conclude that this plan would make Tuscaloosa’s schools more attractive to students who attended private schools to avoid integration? If the school board is purportedly rezoning to alleviate overcrowding, why would they seek to draw more students into the district?

Part of the answer to these questions can be found in the most recent jurisprudential turn in the U.S. Supreme Court. The parameters of race policy are now most clearly confined by what the Court calls “racial classifications”. Government classifications that categorize individuals on the basis of their race are now presumptively unconstitutional, regardless of their purpose. For that reason, policies that are race-conscious, but that do not draw distinctions on the basis of a racial classification (such as a policy of promoting integration) are, in the view of the court, not presumptively unconstitutional and furthermore, probably enjoy a presumption of legality.

On the flip side, where there is no racial classification, proving discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause requires a showing of intent to discriminate. Demonstrating a disparate racial impact is insufficient. A discriminatory zoning decision, for example, made at a city council meeting where residents made explicitly racist comments is presumed to be non-discriminatory unless plaintiffs could prove discriminatory intent on the part of the council members (see Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp). The sole intent of the city council may well have been to stabilize property values, and as such, with the intent of excluding poor residents from the community, they deliberately choose not to rezone the property.

At a meeting in February 2005, parents from Tuscaloosa’s two majority white elementary schools complained of overcrowding and discipline problems in the middle school their children were sent to outside of the northern enclave. These parents “urged” the superintendent to “consider sending some students being bused into northern cluster schools back to their own neighborhood.” The predictable re-segregation of Tuscaloosa’s schools that flow from the re-drawing of attendance zones may not be actionable under the Equal Protection Clause, but, ironically, No Child Left Behind may provide some measure of a remedy.

For more on this issue see “Alabama Plan Brings Out Cry of Resegregation”:

Monday, October 8, 2007

Get the Lead Out

by Rebecca Reno, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

The presence of lead in children’s toys has been a recurring news story the past few months following the recall of millions of toys by Mattel. Information has been widely available to parents in order to identify which toys pose a risk, and they are given detailed instructions regarding how to properly dispose of them.

Although the number of news stories reporting the dangers of lead has increased exponentially, they often fail to point out one critical angle of the story: lead is not a new issue nor is it one relegated simply to the arena of children’s toys. Particularly for low income families and children of color, lead is a poisonous substance that has, and continues to pose, a great risk to children’s physical health, mental development, academic potential, and subsequently their lifelong opportunities.

One of the primary contributors to this racialized and class-based issue is older, deteriorating housing stock with peeling paint. Factor in concerns over neighborhood safety and too few public spaces for children, and a situation exists where parents are afraid to let their children play outdoors. Consequently, children are relegated to spending hours inside where they are at greater risk of exposure to environmental hazards such as lead, and are more likely to develop chronic health problems including asthma. The effects of lead are many and severe and may include neurological damage, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, stunted or slowed growth, impaired hearing, and a decrease in IQ points, just to name a few. Even more disturbing is that this damage is irreversible.

When society segregates low income families and people of color into older, run-down, neglected neighborhoods we are not only limiting their access to opportunities spatially, but we are constraining them physically as well. The presence of lead in toys raised red flags and united parents concerned about the safety and wellbeing of our nations’ children. More needs to be done to raise awareness about the presence and danger of lead for marginalized populations so that the publicity this issue has generated, and the associated concern can carry over into the areas where lead has been threatening the next generation for decades.

Photo of toys by Susan Etheridge, The New York Times
Photo of deteriorating paint from the City of St. Louis Department of Health

Monday, October 1, 2007

Beyond Jena

By Michelle Alexander, Associate professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

I have been asked many times what I think about the “Jena 6,” the now infamous case involving six young, African American high school students in Jena, Louisiana who were charged as adults with second-degree murder following a schoolyard beating of a white student days after nooses were hung from a nearby tree. “Isn’t it an outrage?” my friends and acquaintances say. “Aren’t you shocked that these kids could spend the rest of their lives in prison for a schoolyard fight?”

By the tone of their questions, it is clear they expect me to share their shock and awe. But I do not. Reluctantly, I have come to expect racial injustice in the criminal justice system.

I know mothers whose sons are serving life sentences in adult prisons for extremely minor, non-violent drug offenses, such as possession of a small amount of marijuana or cocaine. I am confident they, too, are angered by the treatment of the Jena 6. But I wonder, if they wonder, where the news cameras and protesters were when their sons were sent away for life.

Thousands of young black men are sent to prison every year for minor drug offenses in this country with little protest. Most of these men and boys live in large urban areas, ghettos, in the core of formerly industrial cities of the North where factories have closed and work has largely disappeared. In these cities, more than two-thirds of young African American men are currently in prison or under the control of the criminal justice system. These youth are ushered from their decrepit, under-funded schools to brand new, high tech prisons often for crimes far less severe than those allegedly committed by the Jena 6.

Upon their release, they are stamped with a badge of inferiority, known as a criminal record, and relegated to a second-class status. Former prisoners may be denied the right to vote and legally discriminated against in access to employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. In my view, the second-class status afforded thousands of African Americans in the name of the War on Drugs is a more powerful reminder of Jim Crow than the nooses hanging from the trees in Jena. So let us pray for the Jena 6 and their families, but remember they are not alone.