Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stuff Your Sorries in a Sack, Mister!

By Charles Patton, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Recently the U.S. Senate voted unanimously for a resolution acknowledging "the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws."
In response to the resolution, Rep. Stephen I. Cohen (D-Tenn.) said, "there are going to be African Americans who think that [the apology] is not reparations, and it's not action, and there are going to be Caucasians who say, 'Get over it.' . . . I look at it as something that makes people think."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the resolution's sponsor, said "Slavery and Jim Crow, and their continuing consequences, are not the historical baggage of one state, one region or one company. They are an enduring national shame."

So in response to both Cohen and Harkin, I ask why weren’t any thoughts on the continuing consequences of slavery and Jim Crow included in the resolution? Why didn’t they address specific topics relevant to today’s American citizen that would spark conversation? It appears that this apology has failed to spark productive conversations about race and led to nothing more than the following four comments:
“It’s about time.”
“This apology is meaningless.”
“Why can’t we get over this already?”
“They better not even think about giving reparations.”

I don’t think this is what the Senate was hoping for. To avoid these unproductive conversations, the Senate would have been better served to address the mechanisms through which slavery and Jim Crow have led to a society wrought with racial residential segregation, vast racial disparities in wealth, a prison system filled disproportionately with blacks, etc. These problems are not widely recognized or discussed by our “colorblind” nation that at times fears even publicly acknowledging the color of someone’s skin and truly believes everyone who tries hard has an equal opportunity to become successful. The aforementioned problems cannot be addressed if the majority of society doesn’t even know they exist. The Senate missed out on a great opportunity to begin a productive conversation that could have led to some real change in the racial dynamics of this country.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Overdue Overhaul

By Jillian Olinger, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

On June 17, President Obama laid out a plan for financial reform to protect against future financial meltdowns of the kind we have been experiencing for the past two years. The President criticized the lack of oversight and regulation, as well as the “culture of irresponsibility” that took root at both Wall Street and Main Street. In response, the President’s plan balances both demand-focused proposals, in the form of a centralized Consumer Protection Agency, with supply-focused proposals, in the form of systemic regulations. The plan recognizes that today’s global economy calls for a restructured system of oversight that can keep pace with the speed and scope of 21st century financial systems.

For consumers, the plan would not only create a new federal agency specifically to protect consumer interests related to financial products, but also mandates that financial products are transparent and comprehensible to consumers, without hidden costs. This oversight, coupled with the systemic regulations, ideally will align the products offered by the institutions with consumer needs. As Gail Hillebrand of Consumers Union noted, “Strong fair rules will reward competition to serve the customer, instead of ‘gotcha’ banking.” (ref#1)

For systemic regulations, among other things, the plan calls for Federal Reserve oversight of US institutions considered “too big to fail” to protect against future systemic failures. The plan also would create a new council of regulators to monitor risk across the system, including responsibility for increased oversight on the global financial institutions considered “too big to fail”. In addition, the plan requires that institutions retain a greater proportion of assets, thereby forcing institutions to retain some risk. For example, institutions that package mortgage-backed securities would be required to retain at least 5% of mortgages to encourage more responsible lending. (ref #2)

The proposal addresses both the failures of risk management and responsibility exhibited by the financial industry, and the failure of consumer protection. In an interview on News Hour, Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner pointed out that “In the financial sector, the financial markets require well-designed regulation. We did not have well-designed regulation…So our job is to get those better. And it’s not going to require more of them; it’s just going to require better design, more effectively applied, more broadly applied to contain risk, protect consumers.” (ref #3)

That’s what this plan promises: a responsible, comprehensive system of checks and balances that meet the needs of a 21st c. global financial system. Whether this promise is delivered remains to be seen.

[1] Paul Solman. “How Will Regulatory Reforms Affect Consumers?” The Business Desk with Paul Solman. Online Newshour. June 18, 2009. Available at
[2] Carolyn O’Hara. “Five Things to Know About the Financial Regulatory Overhaul.” Online Newshour. June 17, 2009. Available at
[3] Transcript. “Geithner Defends Plan for Regulatory Overhaul.” June 18, 2009. Available at

Monday, June 8, 2009

Teen Culture Takes Cues From Obama

By Kathy Baird, Director of Communications at Kirwan Institute

“No Drama Obama” may be our new President’s popular moniker, but he is a role model for a different type of drama in the social world of young African Americans and other teens.

It seems “Obamaisms” have crept into the popular youth vernacular. The Albany Times Union reports new usages and phrases in teens’ speech, such as “Barack you” (following a sneeze); and “What’s up my Obama?” (a greeting).

While youth culture is known for forging distinctive traditions, teens have elevated our first African American president to the level of pop culture icon, imbuing him with an aura of “cool” teens rarely attribute to the “over 30” crowd.

If imitation equates to admiration, it’s especially telling when a group of teenage friends selects Election Day to forego a long tradition of “casual cool” youth fashion to begin sporting tailored pants, button-down shirts and dress shoes. When is the last time a political figure generated such popular hype among youth?

Of course, our president was elected with a groundswell of support from young people; and it’s also understandable that young African Americans hold a special kind of pride in his leadership.

If President Obama can breach the cultural divide to win over hard-to-please teenagers, he’s also a good bet to win favor for our nation.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Summer Camp Double Whammy

By Becky Reno, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Wendy Smooth’s blog entry last week on funding cuts to summer camps coincided with some research I was doing on the achievement gap. The data I uncovered suggested that the majority of the achievement gap can be accounted for by examining knowledge attrition over the summer. In short, learning gains during the academic year are quite comparable for low-income, urban populations of color and middle and upper-income, suburban white students. In the summer, however, researchers have discovered the emergence of a different pattern. While middle-class populations improve academically during summer break, low-income students actually lose knowledge, and their achievement levels drop.

When trying to parse out the source(s) of the achievement gap, our focus typically turns to the school. We hold a magnifying glass up to teachers and teacher quality, school resources, class size, tracking, discipline policies, etc. Of course all of these things matter, but as the effects of summer attrition accumulate, from early elementary to high school, these losses account for nearly two-thirds of the total achievement gap.

The funding cuts to summer camps and activities are more likely to harm low-income, urban populations of color, particularly as high poverty neighborhoods not only have fewer community resources, but children are also constrained in their outdoor activities because of safety concerns. In contrast, middle class communities have both an abundance of neighborhood resources, and parents who are more likely to have the funds to subsidize their children’s summer activities. These contrasting summer experiences are not only heartbreaking in and of themselves, but taken in conjunction with the achievement data, they are ultimately a huge source of academic and life-long disparities.

For more on the effects of summer break on the achievement gap see: Achievement Gaps: An Examination of Differences in Student achievement and Growth.