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At this writing, the future of the national movement in response to police shootings of unarmed black men is unclear. It could fizzle much like the Occupy movement did (see earlier posts here and here), or it could be more lasting.

Protests here in Berkeley and the greater Bay Area have gotten a lot of attention, not because shootings are common– although Oscar Grant was killed about six years ago – but because a strong cadre of largely non-black anarchists (ironically, one set is called the Black Bloc) repeatedly hijack all sorts of protests and climax them by smashing stores, lighting fires, and blocking highways. Needless to say, terrifying store clerks and keeping people from getting to work on time are not likely to engender sympathy for a cause. Indeed, any left movement that alienates Berkeley citizens is not going to find many allies.

Recently, black community efforts have changed the dynamic some. In Berkeley, for example, a black church and its allies held a brief, peaceful “die-in” on a major street. They succeeded by alerting the police but keeping the planning secret from the anarchists. We are also seeing a few, modest concessions by police departments here and there. Still, the tactical struggle over who represents this protest and who will lead it continues. More broadly, its strategic goals and strategies remain to be defined.

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Reporting from America’s “Slums”

Alice Goffman’s recent book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, her firsthand account of young black men in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia, has garnered rave reviews in high places and by high authorities, from Cornel West to Malcolm Gladwell. Goffman portrays urban fugitives effectively excluded from the job market, who hustle and deal drugs for money, move from apartment to apartment and relationship to relationship, do their best to evade jail, and are picked up by the police even when they try to live clean. Goffman’s depth of research, the vividness of her writing, and the drama and brutal tragedy of the stories she tells—“enough street-level detail to fill a season of The Wire,” the New York Times reviewer writes—have compelled widespread attention.

But alongside the praise has also come significant criticism……  (Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review here.)

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Racism as Mental Illness?

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In the current issue of Contexts, James M. Thomas, a sociologist at the University of Mississippi, discusses efforts to address racism as a psychological illness. He begins by noting that celebrities, such as TV personalities Michael Richards and Paula Deen, exposed making racist remarks have responded by seeking “treatment,” as if they suffered from a mental health condition like alcoholism or PTSD. Thomas goes on to describe unsuccessful pushes over many years, for example by the well-known psychologist Kenneth Clark, to make racism an official diagnosis in the psychiatric profession.

It seems odd, from an historical or a cross-cultural perspective, to diagnose someone with racist – or, more generally, xenophobic – views as exhibiting a psychological abnormality. By that standard, most people in most places are mentally “ill.”

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Which University?

As I start this post, I hear voices on bullhorns in Sproul Plaza (ground zero for the Free Speech demonstrations 50 years ago) calling Berkeley students to walk out of classes today (Monday, Nov. 24) to protest the tuition increases approved last week by the University of California Regents for the entire ten-campus system. Many details are being argued about — promises, costs, efficiencies, subsidies, and much more. I am not going to address the particulars here; I lack the expertise to do so. Instead, I draw upon my 42+ years at Berkeley and what I know about the history of public higher education to make a few general points. They boil down to the simple observation that the citizens of California and the students need to decide what they want.

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The “Shared” Economy

The phrase, “sharing economy,” when referring to services like Airbnb or Uber, is, of course, camouflage language. “Sharing” is what we urge our children to do with their toys at playtime. If, however, our kids rent their toys out, it is the “getting paid” economy, in the words of San Francisco’s super-pol, Willie Brown. Lyft’s slogan is “Your Friend with a Car,” but my friends don’t charge for a lift. (Using “sharing” to describe, say, free recycling or a co-op housing’s common kitchen, is another matter.)

In some ways, these new “peer-to-peer” purchases are a step back to a more “informal” economy, the economy of guys repairing cars in their front yards, women doing hair-dos in their kitchens, laborers waiting on street corners for construction jobs, workers selling their home-made lunches to fellow employees, and the like. This is work that is unrecorded, untaxed, and unregulated. In developing countries, many, if not most, workers are in the informal economy. The 21st-century American, high-tech versions are certainly recorded in multiple online receipt systems; whether and how much those transactions are taxed is a matter of struggle now in many communities, as is the issue of whether and how much they are regulated. We have been there before.

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Of Places Past

We have become more aware that Americans’ chances of upward economic mobility have for decades been a lot lower than Americans imagined, that being poor or rich can last generations. Efforts to explain that lock-in have pointed to several patterns, from the intergenerational inheritance of assets (or debt, as the case may be) to intergenerational continuity in child-rearing styles (say, how much parents read to their children). In such ways, the past is not really past.

Increasingly, researchers have also identified the places – the communities, neighborhoods, blocks – where people live as a factor in slowing economic mobility. In a post earlier this year, I noted a couple of 2008 studies showing that growing up in poor neighborhoods impaired children’s cognitive skills and reduced their chances to advance beyond their parents. In this post, I report on further research by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey (see links below) suggesting that a bad environment can worsen the life chances not only of a child, but that of the child’s child, an unfortunate residential patrimony.

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Long Story of the “Long Tail”

A recent article in Wired reported on the estimated 100,000 workers around the globe who risk their sanity culling the perverse, grotesque, horrific stuff that some people post on social media – child sexual abuse, close-ups of accident victims, self-mutilation, and the like. That there are circles of people who post such content and yet larger circles who presumably enjoy looking at and trading such content reminds us of the down-slide on the Internet’s “long tail.”

The “long tail” notion, argued in the early 2000s by then-Wired’s editor Chris Anderson, is that the internet allows businesses to make money even on products valued by an extremely tiny proportion of consumers. Sellers aggregate enough of those rare customers to make marketing to them profitable. Netflix, Anderson wrote, is a good example: “It doesn’t matter if the several thousand people who rent Doctor Who episodes each month are in one city or spread, one per town, across the country … What matters is not where customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular title, but only that some number of them exist, anywhere.” The same logic applies to producers and audiences of perverse contents.

At the same time, the Internet sustains niches for what most would consider positive activities, such as hobbyists trading tips, seekers of relatively rare sorts of mates finding one another (as in Jdate and FarmersOnly dating), fans of rarely-recorded world music discovering tracks, and sufferers from “orphan” diseases finding support and advice.

This “long tail” phenomenon – the good, the bad, and the very ugly – seems to be creating a new society. Except that we have been there before.

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