My alma mater the University of Chicago has managed to get what it’s always wanted: attention from the national press.Â Unfortunately, it did so by sending a completely unnecessary letter to incoming students announcing the school’s opposition to trigger warnings and safe spaces, concepts the letter doesn’t seem to understand at all.Â So let me wade into this muck in the hope of achieving some clarity.Â As the University of Chicago taught me, it’s best to begin by defining one’s terms.
Just as sexual harassment is a form of expression which is nonetheless regulated to make it possible for women to function in the workplace, various kinds of campus behavior are forms of expression which may nonetheless be regulated to make it possible for non-majority students to function in academe. Surely there are ludicrous examples of demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, just as there are egregious examples of on-campus hostility and discrimination (e.g. men parading outside a women’s dorm yelling “No means yes! Yes means anal!”).Â The issue in either case is the boundary between free expression and expression designed to intimidate or silence. No one can deny that a burning cross is an example of expression but as its purpose is to terrorize, it’s considered to be on the wrong side of that boundary. So, in Europe, is Holocaust denial, though it’s tolerated on American college campuses (while assertions that the earth is flat, say, would not be).
Thus people who take seriously the possibility that a person calling black women “water buffaloes” intends to demean and silence them are simply engaging in the type of critical thinking to which universities are supposed to be dedicated as well as the complementary analysis of what is necessary to protect an environment of civil discourse.
I’m a passionate advocate of the educational experience I had at the U of C, and nonetheless I think the letter to incoming students could more succinctly have been rendered as “F**k you if you imagine anything you think will be of interest or concern to us; you must have mistaken us for someplace that cares. And if you don’t like it take your female and black and brown and queer sensibilities elsewhere.” And I am revolted that my alma mater decided its reputation was best spent on that kind of dog-whistle right-wing nonsense.
You don’t want to use trigger warnings? Don’t. But there’s no need to denounce them unless your real purpose is to let people (especially, perhaps, donors) know that you’re indifferent to any concerns about mistreatment based on identity, and that any complaints about such mistreatment will be met with dismissiveness and derision because how dare any of these 21st Century concerns impinge on the 19th Century approach to which we’ve apparently dedicated our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor?
When I spoke up at the law school, I was thanked for expressing “what the women think.” When a classmate objected to the teaching of Plato’s Symposium as though it didn’t refer to gay love, he was told that the University didn’t “cater to special interests.” When students and faculty spoke out for diversifying the curriculum beyond the dead white “mods and greats” beloved of the British university system, the response (from Saul Bellow, no less) was “where is the Proust of the Papuans?” though the whole point of his query was to ridicule the idea of our finding out.
There was nothing “micro” about these aggressions; they were perfectly visible examples of the majority’s desire to humiliate and stifle the minorities.Â And the University’s admissions policies in those days (though not now, happily) were carefully designed to make sure that black and brown and even female people were in the tiniest minorities possible.
So the U of C has a long history of behaving as if modernity were a personal insult, and this letter to first-years is as much in keeping with that tradition as any boob’s expressed desire to make America great (meaning white) again.
I’ve heard there are donors to other schools who’ve withdrawn their support when their alma maters have acknowledged their role in slavery or in any way made a reckoning with the imperfections of the past.Â So just to balance things out, I’m withdrawing my support of an institution which seems to glory in denying there ever were any such imperfections or that any discrimination or hostility continues to exist today. The U of C exercised its privilege of flipping the bird to its incoming students and I’m exercising my privilege to flip the bird to the U of C.
I hope the faculty and administration don’t experience that as traumatic; but just in case I’m providing this trigger warning.
My little corner of Chicago–two wards, with a tiny boost from Evanston–has more than 100 people signed up to go to Wisconsin to knock on doors for Hillary this Saturday.Â With less than 10 days’ notice, we’ve turned out enough people to spill over the boundaries of our original target (Kenosha) and conquer Racine as well.
To put that in perspective, that’s a bigger group of volunteers than we sent to Wisconsin at this time during the Obama campaign.Â Â After Labor Day, we’re going to flood the zone in Iowa.
So don’t let anyone tell you there’s no enthusiasm for Hillary.
Suddenly, a moment of clarity:
People aren’t voting for Trump to be President–they’re choosing him as their avatar, who can do all the things they’d like to but can’t. So his qualifications or positions are just not relevant.
I suspect something similar is going on with Sanders and his fans: who wouldn’t want to be the the bold dreamer who can rise above mere politics to demand pure unadulterated justice (insert flaming sword here)?
And the persistent discontent with Hillary is, among other things, because she’s not an avatar: nobody wants to be that careful, nobody wants to be that flawed, nobody wants to be that real.
So the challenge for Hillary supporters (among whom I am proud to count myself) is to remind everyone that we’re selecting someone to do a difficult job, not to reflect back at us every fantasy we’ve ever had about ourselves.Â President Obama was the once-in-a-generation person who could do both; the last one before him was FDR.Â Usually it’s either/or: Kennedy inspired us, but we needed Johnson to get the Voting Rights Act passed. Â
Next time you hear about Hillary’s “negatives,” ask yourself whether she’s being measured on the right scale. She’s not Florence Nightingale or Lady Liberty or Sojourner Truth, but if we want someone who can actually do the work, she’s our man.
Criminal justice reform offers ideas to housing policy; perhaps housing can return the favor.
Lowry’s posting suggested using the criminal justice notion of swift, certain and fair punishment to minimize evictions from public housing.Â Â What about using the homelessness-prevention notion of “Housing First” in the criminal justice context?
It’s been clear for years that requiring homeless people to subdue their mental illness or kick their drug habits or otherwise become model citizens before being sheltered failed utterly to reduce their misbehavior but succeeded splendidly in increasing the duration of their exposure to the elements.Â What a surprise: without a roof under which to sleep or a safe place to store one’s stuff, other life changes become damn near impossible.
The same logic should apply to any program of reentry from prison or jail: before discharging a prisoner, corrections officials should make sure that s/he has a place to live, and provide one (albeit minimal) if not.Â In other words, treat people who are homeless because they’ve been locked up the same as people who are homeless for any other reason.Â This means recognizing that, without a stable place to live, staying out of trouble with the law becomes one of those damn near impossible life changes.Â And that’s without even considering the people incarcerated precisely because they’re homeless—because “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
It’s costly to provide housing.Â But just as scholars and practitioners finally figured out that it was cheaper to house people than to keep shuttling them between the streets and the emergency rooms, I suspect we’ll soon find that it’s cheaper to house those who’ve made it out of the criminal justice system than it is to keep sending them back in.
I once saw a cartoon entitled “What You Say/What Your Dog Hears.”Â In the first panel we see the owner shrieking: “You’re a very bad dog, Ginger!Â Look how you broke my favorite lamp, Ginger!Â Bad, bad Ginger!”Â In the second panel we see the dog wagging its tail with glee as it hears, “Ooooooo, Ginger! Oooooooo, Ginger! Oooo, oooo Ginger!”
This came to mind as I read the latest chin-strokers about the impact of Rahm Emanuel’s personality on the likelihood that he’ll hold onto Chicago’s mayoralty.Â Journalists have emptied their thesauri searching for the closest analogue to the unprintable “asshole;” but most of their accounts suggest that the entire topic is unworthy of discussion.
That’s probably because many journalists have backgrounds like mine.Â When Rahm speaks, I hear the boys I went to high school with, or the guys with whom I practiced law: loud and obnoxious, blunt and profane.Â Plenty of those guys were assholes—but just as many weren’t.Â Their swearing and yelling was pretty much beside the point, just a matter of style.Â And a familiar style, at that: the style of urban Jews from loud-mouthed families where you had to shout to be heard.
So when the mayor is rude, I don’t take it personally.Â But it seems likely that what African-Americans hear is disrespect, and they do take it personally.Â Nor would I claim that they shouldn’t.Â I suspect to many black people Rahm’s profanity and flippancy register as ways of saying, “You’re so unimportant I can’t even bother to be polite to you.”Â It comes across as one of the thousands of variations on addressing adults as “boy.”
So the issue isn’t whether Chicagoans are too thin-skinned to handle a tough-talking mayor; it’s whether what they hear is tough talk, or disdain.Â And given Rahm’s determination to do things his own way and his reluctance to listen to other people’s points of view, the ones whose reaction is that the mayor doesn’t care what they think or even believe them qualified to have opinions—those people cannot be held to be wrong.
The Guardian andÂ The Atlantic have now both reported that Chicago police maintain a site at which they interrogate suspects without booking them or letting them talk to their lawyers.Â On the Huffington Post,Â this is what I have to say about that.
As it turns out, this news doesn’t come too late to have an impact on the race for mayor in Chicago.Â Perhaps we can use the six weeks before the runoff election to ask Rahm what he knows about these sites, and when he knew it.
Black poverty and white poverty are not the same.Â As Ta-Nehisi Coates demonstrates in this brilliant article in The Atlantic, African-Americans have been subjected to continuous, intentional and organized theft by a kleptocracy masquerading as a democracy.Â If you’re not angry by the time you’re done reading about how the US government maintained black poverty to benefit white people, you haven’t been paying attention.Â The title, “The Case for Reparations,” is a bit misleading, as Coates is less concerned with a financial reckoning than with a moral one.
The article should be of especial interest to Chicago readers, as it includes an account of the scams and cheats and outright thefts which created today’s hopelessly segregated city.Â The nearly-forgotten “contract sellers” bought houses low because they’d terrified white owners with the prospect of black neighbors, and then sold the self-same houses high to black families barred from moving into unsegregated neighborhoods.Â Then they took the houses back on any pretext, or none at all, leaving their “purchasers” with nothing.Â But these sellers were the only option for African-Americans who wanted to own a home, because the Federal Housing Administration statute and regulations essentially precluded bank lending to black people.
Come to think of it, the article should be of especial interest to anyone who’s ever been moved by A Raisin in the Sun.Â Â Hansberry’s version of the story of housing segregation is more uplifting, but Coates’s is truer.
Cross-posted with ChicagoNow.com/the-nonprofiteer
Over on The Nonprofiteer, I critique the whole Giving Tuesday concept and particularly its latest iteration, in which people don’t have to actually give to participate.
Plus, h/t to our friends at Political Wire, for quoting a Republican legislator who can’t seem to imagine a black man who isn’t incarcerated.
A few weeks ago, I got to have dinner with Julian Bond.Â We have a friend in common, who asked me to recommend a play for when â€œmy friend Julian Bondâ€ came to town. â€œDid you say â€˜your friend Julian Bond?â€™â€ I squeaked into the phone; whereupon she invited my boyfriend and me to join her and her husband and Bond and his wife for dinner.
As I drove our star-struck way downtown, I listened to Michael read from Bondâ€™s biography on Wikipedia, even as I pretended to ignore him: â€œHoney, theyâ€™re not going to give us a test!â€Â But after he rolled through the familiar list of creditsâ€“leader in the American civil rights movement, helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, twenty years in the Georgia legislature, University of Virginia history professor, past chair of the NAACPâ€“Michael said, â€œOh, listen to this.Â His father got one of the first PhDs granted to an African-American by the University of Chicago.â€
â€œReally,â€ I said.Â â€œI wonder if he was a Rosenwald Fellow.â€
Youâ€™ve probably never heard of the Rosenwald Fellowships, but youâ€™ve undoubtedly heard of many of the Fellows: W.E.B. DuBois, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, James Weldon Johnson, Ralph Ellison and nearly every other African-American artist and scholar active inÂ mid-Twentieth Century America.Â The Rosenwald Fellowships, like the MacArthur genius grants which succeeded them, gave no-strings-attached cash to scholars and artists to continue their work; but unlike the MacArthur grants, the Rosenwalds went almost exclusively to African-Americans.
The fellowship program was part of Julius Rosenwaldâ€™s one-man campaign for racial justice, a campaign which led him to build the Rosenwald Apartments in Chicago and YMCAs in other Northern cities to provide housing for African-Americans moving up from the South.Â It also led him to construct 5,000 schools for black children who were kept out of public classrooms occupied by white students.Â The Rosenwald Schools provided primary education to one-third of the Southâ€™s African-American schoolchildren between World War I and Brown v. Board of Education.
So why havenâ€™t you learned about any of this?Â Because Julius Rosenwald, who made a fortune as the president of Sears, gave much of that fortune away during his lifetime and directed that the rest be spent within ten years of his death.Â So his legacy isnâ€™t a foundation with a big building giving out the occasional grant and the frequent press release; itâ€™s the thousands of people educated and housed by his generosity.Â But no good deed goes unpunished: for failing to make perpetuity his highest concern, Rosenwald has largely been forgotten.
Not by all of us, though.Â I learned the story several years ago when the Spertus Museum in Chicago put on an exhibit of work by RosenwaldÂ Fellows.Â One item in the exhibit was enough to persuade me of the Fellowshipsâ€™ significance: a kinescope of Katherine Dunham performing new dances influenced by her Rosenwald-funded trip to the Caribbean.Â As I watched the motions and the gestures, I recognized the origins of Alvin Aileyâ€™s classic â€œRevelations.â€Â Ailey was Dunhamâ€™s student; and so, from Rosenwald to Dunham to Ailey, we have perhaps the premier work of American dance.
Thus, after a pleasant dinner in which we talked about theater and travel and the demographic transformation of Washingtonâ€“Bondâ€™s wife Pam said, â€œYes, Julian calls our neighborhood Upper Caucasiaâ€â€“I turned to him and said, â€œSo, your father was a Rosenwald Fellow?â€
He seemed equal parts surprised and gratified to encounter someone who knew about the Rosenwalds, and what an honor it was to receive one, and told the following story:
During a trip South in the mid-1930s to do research as part of his fellowship, Horace Mann Bond drove his car into a ditch.Â Apparently a pair of rural African-Americans made their living digging holes in the road and then charging hapless motorists to tow their cars out of them.Â While the two entrepreneurs were hooking up the tow truck, one of them observed Mr. Bondâ€™s elegant city clothes and the new car he was driving, and asked how a black man came to have such luxuries.Â Mr. Bond explained that he was a Rosenwald Fellow and that the fellowship had paid for the clothes and the car as well as the research he was about to do.Â His interlocutor smiled: “You know Cap’n Julius?”Â He hoisted the car back onto the road.Â “No charge.â€
Later, over coffee, Julian showed me an iPhone photo of himself seated next to an extremely elderly white lady who was holding his hand in both of hers.Â â€œDo you know who this is?â€ he asked.Â â€œIn 1961 her book outsold the Bible!â€Â It was, of course, Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird; and on one of his recent trips South, Bond had gotten to meet her.Â â€œIâ€™m so excited, Iâ€™m stopping people on the street to say, â€˜Look at this!Â I had coffee with Harper Lee!â€™â€
Which is, of course, just how I feel about my dinner with Julian.
# # # #
The cure for what ails the VA:
If you have a sclerotic hospital system on which everyone else has given up, the solution is Dr. Ramanathan Raju, currently the head of the public hospital system in New York but previously chief executive of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System.Â No one in Chicago public life gets an A-plus from everyone, but doctors, politicians and journalists alike agree that Dr. Raju took a failing system and turned it around: re-imagining its role in a changed health care landscape while dealing with its day-to-day personnel and quality issues. The improvement has been dramatic and rapid: though Dr. Raju was only in place for two years (much to our dismay), the improvement in the Cook County public health system is obvious to all.
Hire Dr. Raju to fix the V.A.Â He’s never met a bureaucracy he couldn’t tame.
(I don’t know him personally and certainly have not solicited his permission to recommend him.Â In fact, he was eager to return to his family in New York, which would probably not welcome his leaving again for Washington–but, when duty calls . . . )
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