Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Message to Black Hollywood

By Charles Patton, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

After the election of Barack Obama, Will Smith responded on The Oprah Winfrey Show by stating that “The history of African-Americans is such that you want to be a part of America, but we've been rejected so much it's hard to take the ownership and take responsibility for ourselves and this country. It was like, at that second, at that moment, all of our excuses were gone.” Cartoonist Kevin Moore depicted this moment of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Moore then shows Smith telling a baby born into poverty, a wrongfully convicted victim of police violence, victims of job, wage, and lending discrimination, as well as students at failing schools and residents of neglected neighborhoods that they have “NO EXCUSES!” According to Moore, Smith’s suggestion for success is to think positively. The comic strip can be viewed using the following link (http://incontemptcomics.com/2008/11/11/no-excuses/).

Smith is not the only entertainer to share these sentiments. Other entertainers have helped shape the collective consciousness and racial attitude of this country by sharing their belief that we have achieved racial equity and minorities simply need to put forth the right amount of effort and act responsibly to be successful. However, by not sufficiently acknowledging the role of structural barriers to racial equity, these entertainers are ignoring a significant portion of the problem and consequently are stifling efforts for possible solutions. Their suggestions to do away with excuses and try harder are inadequate and would not significantly decrease racial disparities even if they were realized. I am not denying the importance of making an effort for success and acting responsibly. However, structural barriers are an equally, if not more, important source of the problem in minority communities. Research has shown that when young people are removed from impoverished communities with poorly performing schools and relocated to safe neighborhoods with strong schools, their chance of success increases tremendously.

Very few, if any, of these entertainers are authorities on race relations in America. However, their opinions are very influential on the American public. So, I have a suggestion for them. Black Hollywood please listen carefully. It is very easy to anticipate what questions you will be asked on January 20th, 2009: What role do you play in your upcoming movie? Did you make any New Years Resolutions? If so, what were they? And what does the election of Barack Obama mean for black America? In anticipation of the latter question I have one assignment for you. Between now and the inauguration, read a couple of articles on racial disparities in educational spending, residential segregation, discrimination in the labor market, etc. I know you’re busy so I won’t even require you to read the whole article. Maybe just read the abstract and the conclusion. After this assignment I guarantee you will have something more insightful and interesting to say than “all our excuses are gone”. And this may encourage our country to actually strive to reach the point where racial disparities, residential segregation and discrimination, or as Will Smith likes to call them “our excuses”, are indeed simply memories of a time before Obama.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Foreclosure Crisis to Expand?

By Jason Reece, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

The news on the foreclosure crisis continues to get worse. Now an estimated 11 million homeowners are “top heavy” and owe more on their homes than they are worth, and an estimated 1 in 10 residential home mortgages are in delinquency or default.

Unfortunately, this concentration of subprime mortgage foreclosures may just be the beginning.

As the volume of subprime loans resetting in the market starts to decline in 2009, a new wave of non-traditional mortgages will begin to reset.

Option adjustable rate loans (or Option ARMS) and Alt A loans (loans with borrowers who were not subprime but did not qualify as prime borrowers) will begin to reset in massive numbers from 2009 to 2011. Given the decline in home values across the nation and the anticipated job losses resulting from the recession, these nontraditional mortgages will be resetting at a very precarious time.

The potential for another wave of foreclosures across the US may sit just beyond our horizon, providing another powerful incentive to create a comprehensive response to the current credit and housing crisis, which will help us avoid the next wave of mortgage defaults. This crisis is particularly concerning because like the first wave, African Americans and people of color are more likely to experience foreclosures and decreasing property values.

For more information on the foreclosure and credit crisis visit the webpage of our recent conference. See particularly our primer on subprime loans, foreclosure and the credit crisis: http://www.kirwaninstitute.org/events/archive/subprime-convening/index.php

And for more information on the recent wave: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/12/12/60minutes/main4666112.shtml

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Sacramentality of our Democracy

By Marguerite Spencer, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute.

I have been working on the idea of applying the theological concept of “sacramentality” to our democracy.

In the Christian tradition, because the world is created by God and is very good, it has the capacity to make God’s invisible goodness visible. Nature, therefore, is sacramental. The Christian story also recounts how humankind is created in God’s image, a being uniquely aware of itself. As a result, Christians are charged in a special way to embody God’s love. Sacramentality is a responsibility, not a privilege. This is complicated by the fact that humankind lives in the history of sin and often fails to reflect God’s love, taking away from the goodness of creation instead.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes a similar sacramental phenomenon partly contained in Tiep Hien, which can be described as “realizing” or making our convictions real in the world. We do not dwell or remain bound to the place of doctrines and ideas, instead we embody them, bringing them into lived experience.

Our democracy is similarly charged with being “sacramental.” It was founded upon certain truths, among them the principles of freedom, equality and opportunity. These principles, however, lack meaning unless they are embodied or made present in the real world. The founding fathers, knowing that the members of our democracy would struggle with realizing its ideals, fashioned structures and prompts that would curb our propensity toward tyranny. Slavery, for example, not only failed to make present our nation’s enlightened principles, it brought about their opposite: oppression. Only when we set out to secure freedom, equality and opportunity for blacks through amendment and legislation, was our nation once again acting sacramentally, making visible our nation’s goodness, however imperfectly.

Unfortunately, we regularly fail to live up to our self-proclaimed democratic responsibility. Our most recent sins include elevating fear and unchecked force to a hallowed status, and disregarding the rights of the “other.”

It would be folly to assume that the administration-elect will magically resuscitate our ability to make present our nation’s ideals. Yet, the world is looking to us in a new and guardedly optimistic way to once again embody, however haltingly, our founding principles of freedom, equality and opportunity. Many Americans are hoping for the same eruption of goodness. At this critical juncture on our history, the extent to which our hope leads to concerted and transformative action, is the extent to which we advance our nation’s sacramentality.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Visitor, Detentions and U.S. National Identity

Yusuf Sarfati, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

The debate on immigration, specifically on the conditions and the future of the undocumented immigrants, is a heated topic in the U.S. “The Visitor”, which I watched on DVD last week, focuses on different aspects of this debate. The movie mainly revolves around a friendship between Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian drummer, and Walter (Richard Jenkins), an economics professor, in New York City. Towards the end, the movie takes a dramatic turn, when Tarek was put in a detention center because of his lack of immigration documentation after he was held by cops over a trivial issue in a subway station.

From then on the movie explores the problems with the U.S. detention system, such as the isolated nature of the facility that transforms Tarek from a cheerful drummer to an anxious individual, the movement of the detainees from one center to the other without any information provided to the families or friends, the targeted criminalization of the immigrants (Tarek in the movie, like many others in the real world is locked up for an innocent incident in the subway), the lack of training of the officials in the centers to provide basic human needs for the detainees, and the difficulties of finding representation for the detainees in the centers. Tarek in the movie was “fortunate” that his new acquired friend Walter provided him an immigration lawyer.

In addition to the issue of detention, there was a larger discussion in the movie on the role of the immigrants in the formation and transformation of the U.S. national identity. Unlike the conservative intellectuals (e.g. Pat Buchanan, Samuel Huntington) who see immigrants as a threat to a core American culture (however defined), the movie presents Tarek as a transformative figure for Walter’s life. Walter feels really alive when he starts to learn how to play the drum with Tarek. This could be seen as symbolic of how different groups transform each others’ culture in the context of an immigrant receiving host country, specifically immigrants’ contribution to and co-construction of the host culture. The positive role the immigrants play in the definition of the national identity of the U.S. is usually lost in the immigration debate, where the legal and economic aspects are overly-emphasized. It is important to conceptualize the U.S. national identity and a common U.S. (American) culture as “a page in the process of being written.”(1) The page is rewritten and transformed by the entrance and contribution of different immigrant groups. It is much more healthy and democratic to analyze the U.S. identity in this manner, rather than see it as an already written page to which immigrant groups need to assimilate. What do you think?

Footnote (1) Maalouf, Amin. 2000. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong

Monday, December 1, 2008

What’s So Funny?

Christy Rogers, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

I’ve been laughing a lot more lately. We all have our ways of coping with a world-wide economic meltdown, and if mine is TIVO’ing 30 Rock so that I can rewind Steve Martin pouring a glass of scotch down his shirt and wailing, “I’m having a severe case of the Mondays,” then no harm, no foul. I find it interesting that 30 Rock, a comedy, is one of the few prime-time shows that takes on race. It’s like when we’re serious about race, we trip ourselves up, but comedy eases us in.

I’ve also been laughing a lot in my dance class. I take Hip-Hop. Maybe I should mention I’m white, 5’ 8”, 40 years old, and losing a battle with the infamous (holiday exacerbated) muffin top. I’m not a bad dancer—I took Hip-Hop for several years in Chicago with a back-up dancer for R. Kelly. I took my first class with Viola and was hooked, and when I came back for my second class, she talked about how much she loved teaching kids. “What I love the best,” she confided, “is that on the second class, they all come back dressed like me.” I think I actually blushed and tried not to look at my new pants. Viola was 90 pounds soaking wet, had a fantastic sense of humor, and was one of the best dancers I’ve ever seen. She even got on reality TV! Trying to match my gangly moves to hers, I nicknamed my dance style “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.”

Five years after having a baby, I figured it was time to get back to some top rocks, so I signed up for Hip-Hop, Level 2, at Ballet Met. I got a card back saying I’d be in Level 1, thank you. And good thing—my instructor makes us spin on the floor. Viola never made me spin on the floor. She knew it was best for everyone. Now this person, he makes us try to do things with terrifying names, like The Typewriter. I missed one class and a lady leaned over and said, “you’re lucky…you missed something called The Coffee Grinder.” This past Tuesday I was tired—I tried to slide in and stand in the back. However, it turned out I was the only student that night. So I had an hour-long, 1-on-1, hip-hop tutorial with a professional dancer. And the funny thing was, laugh as I did, he never laughed. At the end, we talked about the difference between Hip-Hop instructors and styles. “Viola went on the 1s and 3s,” I said. He looked truly shocked. “But street dance is about hitting the 2s and 4s…when you’re challenged, you move in like this…” We worked a little on meeting street dance challengers. And I thought, maybe if an Asian guy 20 years younger than me who learned an African American art as a street fight is earnestly walking me through how to win, it’s not funny—it’s even better. It’s serious.