Considerable attention has come to the video of Hillary Clinton’s conversation with Black Lives Matter activists. In it, Clinton responds to a spokesman’s plea for her to lead a change of white “hearts” regarding the treatment of blacks. She responds, after acknowledging the historical and contemporary grounds for complaint, by saying, in effect, that one can do all the consciousness-raising possible, even change a lot of hearts and “get lip service from as many white people you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say: ‘We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer,’ [but] that’s not enough….” Without a pragmatic program for systemic change and without practical politics to attain those programs, it’s all for naught. Develop a program, she says, or “we’ll be back here in 10 years having the same conversation.”Hillary Black Lives

Clinton’s position reminds me of a comment that left- and gay-activist, former representative Barney Franks wrote about political activism: “If you care deeply about an issue, and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.” A bit hyperbolic, as Franks is wont to be, the point rings true as a lesson from decades in realpolitik. Expressive politics–feel-good, self-affirming, and heart-addressing demonstrations–usually don’t yield results. Nor do over-the-top demands. “Incrementalism is not the enemy of militancy; it is often the only effective means of expressing it,” Franks writes.

The exchange between the activists and Clinton echos one that emerged around the Occupy movement.

Continue Reading »

Abraham Lincoln cherished and annotated Mary G. Chandler’s popular 1854 book, The Elements of Character, which urged readers to take control of themselves and “build up a worthy Character.”

Self-improvement books of this sort are an American perennial. David Brooks’s The Road to Character is squarely in this tradition of willed self-creation. My commentary on Brooks’s new book appears in the latest issue of the Boston Review here. Chandler

[The column is titled, “The Problem with David Brooks.” This is the editors’ title, not mine. I think Brooks just displays what may be an American problem.]roadtocharacter-web

Killing at the hands of an illegal alien spurs furious debate about closing borders and deporting the undocumented. It is the year before a presidential election and candidates denounce undocumented immigrants as the conveyors of Mexican violence into our country. When Robert J. Sampson, Harvard sociologist and criminologist, wrote about this news, he was not writing about the death of young Kate Steinle in San Francisco in 2015, but about murders in New Jersey in 2007. And he wrote to say that his research and that of others showed that immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit murder and “that immigration—even if illegal—is associated with lower crime rates….” He had previously made similar claims in The New York Times and had gotten vituperation in response.

Popular skepticism toward Sampson might be expected given the media coverage of sensational crimes like the one on Pier 14 and of Mexico’s drug wars. But behind the headlines, the daily reality on the streets of the U.S. seems to be that immigrants bring less crime. Indeed, scholars like Sampson have suggested that the surge of Latino immigration, documented and not, may partly explain the great drop in violent crime in American cities since the 1980s.

Now, two presidential cycles since the Sampson article, we have new studies and more technically sophisticated ones on the topic. What do they say about the effects of immigration on crime and violence?

Continue Reading »

A couple of weeks back, we witnessed two quite different but intriguing cases of people laying claim to an African-American identity without having the lineage that we generally assume provides that identity– biological descent from African slaves in the United States. These two people were, in effect, asserting that they could choose to be African-American.

One was the media-circus case of Rachel Dolezal, who had become a leader in Spokane’s African-American community despite, it was eventually revealed, no apparent African-American ancestors. She, in effect, chose to be black.

The other was the somber and uplifting address by President Obama on the occasion of the murders in Charleston. He delivered a sermon in the style and cadences of the African-American church, from the start–“Giving all praise and honor to God”– to the end–breaking out in “Amazing Grace”– and in the middle–explaining the obligations of receiving undeserved grace. This from a man with no ancestral claims on African-American culture, a man with a white mother and a Kenyan father who was raised by white grandparents. Along the way Barack Obama nonetheless chose to be African-American and act as if he, too, came from a family that endured slavery, sharecropped cotton, and sang gospel.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Choosing who one wants to be is a powerful American cultural theme. It would be amazing if we are glimpsing–though still far from entering–an era when even American blackness is a choice.

Continue Reading »

Recent reports by the Gallup organization (here, here, here) have stressed that Americans’ views on personal morality issues have moved “left,” by which, I assume, they mean toward permissiveness. (Since libertarians would be the most permissive of all and are usually put on the “right,” this kind of geometry confuses.) More Americans polled in 2015 than in 2001 say they accept, for example, premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births, and, most dramatically, gay marriage. There is notable exception to this permissive trend: views on extramarital sex. The percentage of Gallup respondents who said that was “morally acceptable” was 7 in 2001 and 8 in 2015.

Gallup’s non-trend for adultery puzzled some, including the Gallup folks. (Columnist Russ Douthat, for example, wrote a column parsing philosophical issues of human rights to suggest, I think, that the constancy is still part of the national decline of virtue.) I write this post to say: the seeming exception of adultery to increasing permissiveness is not new; its exceptionalism has gotten starker over decades; and there is an explanation.

I covered the topic in a post over two years ago and beg the reader’s indulgence for some repetition.

Continue Reading »

One of the deep, long-term changes in American lives has been what social historians call the “standardization” of the life course. From the 19th into the 20th century, increasingly more young Americans were able to follow a common sequence: get educated, get a job, leave parents’ home, get married, have children, and become financially secure (to be followed by empty nest, retirement, and “golden years”)–the American Dream in one, widely-shared package.*

In recent decades, however, Americans’ life courses have become less standardized, less shared. A new study, by Jeremy Pais and D. Matthew Ray, shows how much this historical reversal is connected to economic fortunes. The less affluent, who were late to standardization in the 20th century, are in the 21st increasingly leading “non-standard” lives.

Continue Reading »

Two new books worry about the unstable lives of the white working class. Both Andrew Cherlin, noted sociologist of the family, and Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone (2000) fame, warn that the economic insecurity blue-collar workers have faced over the last forty years has disordered the lives of white working-class children. That transformation, in turn, has handicapped their cognitive development, personal ties, community involvement, and economic success.

The basic story is well known. Since about 1970, there has been a gross deterioration in the jobs, wages, and employment stability available to men with no more than a high school degree. A few conservative writers have tried to muddle these facts, but facts they are. And it is not just that the economic fortunes of less-educated men have diverged sharply from those of men with bachelor’s degrees . . . .  Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review, here.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 321 other followers