Black poverty and white poverty are not the same, and here’s why

Black poverty and white poverty are not the same.  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.  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.  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.  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.  Then they took the houses back on any pretext, or none at all, leaving their “purchasers” with nothing.  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.   Hansberry’s version of the story of housing segregation is more uplifting, but Coates’s is truer.

A must-read.


Cross-posted with

My dinner with Julian

A few weeks ago, I got to have dinner with Julian Bond.  We have a friend in common, who asked me to recommend a play for when “my friend Julian Bond” came to town. “Did you say ‘your friend Julian Bond?’” 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 Bond’s biography on Wikipedia, even as I pretended to ignore him: “Honey, they’re not going to give us a test!”  But after he rolled through the familiar list of credits–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 NAACP–Michael said, “Oh, listen to this.  His father got one of the first PhDs granted to an African-American by the University of Chicago.”

“Really,” I said.  “I wonder if he was a Rosenwald Fellow.”

You’ve probably never heard of the Rosenwald Fellowships, but you’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 in  mid-Twentieth Century America.  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 Rosenwald’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.  It also led him to construct 5,000 schools for black children who were kept out of public classrooms occupied by white students.  The Rosenwald Schools provided primary education to one-third of the South’s African-American schoolchildren between World War I and Brown v. Board of Education.

So why haven’t you learned about any of this?  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.  So his legacy isn’t a foundation with a big building giving out the occasional grant and the frequent press release; it’s the thousands of people educated and housed by his generosity.  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.  I learned the story several years ago when the Spertus Museum in Chicago put on an exhibit of work by Rosenwald  Fellows.  One item in the exhibit was enough to persuade me of the Fellowships’ significance: a kinescope of Katherine Dunham performing new dances influenced by her Rosenwald-funded trip to the Caribbean.  As I watched the motions and the gestures, I recognized the origins of Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations.”  Ailey was Dunham’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 Washington–Bond’s wife Pam said, “Yes, Julian calls our neighborhood Upper Caucasia”–I turned to him and said, “So, your father was a Rosenwald Fellow?”

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.  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.  While the two entrepreneurs were hooking up the tow truck, one of them observed Mr. Bond’s elegant city clothes and the new car he was driving, and asked how a black man came to have such luxuries.  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.  His interlocutor smiled: “You know Cap’n Julius?”  He hoisted the car back onto the road.  “No charge.”

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.  “Do you know who this is?” he asked.  “In 1961 her book outsold the Bible!”  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.  “I’m so excited, I’m stopping people on the street to say, ‘Look at this!  I had coffee with Harper Lee!’”

Which is, of course, just how I feel about my dinner with Julian.

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Political quiz

What famous American backed La Follette in ’24, Smith in ’28, and Landon in ’36?

I can’t compete with Keith on baseball, but I believe that I have a comparably fiendish political quiz, consisting of only one question:

What famous American supported Bob La Follette for President in 1924, Al Smith in 1928, and Alf Landon in 1936?

By “famous” I mean that virtually every reader of this blog would recognize the name. By “fiendish” I mean that I don’t think I would have been able to guess the answer, had I not stumbled across it looking up another fact about the person concerned.

I’ll leave the answer to the comments. No Googling, please.
Continue reading “Political quiz”

Sunday quiz

Who did Lord Acton think was the great hero of the American Civil War?

In a lecture on the American Civil War delivered in 1866 Lord Acton wrote:

Doubtless, in this crisis of its political existence the nation has displayed many noble qualities: patriotism, fortitude in adversity, respect for authority, and in some measure the difficult arts of subordination and discipline. The civil power has never been threatened or weakened by the resistance of a popular commander; differences of social station have not interfered with the organisation of the army; military rank has not disturbed the level surface of ordinary life, the officer and the soldier have been merged in the peaceful citizen. In the number of the leaders there have arisen men of high ability, and at least one who has built himself a name among names that will never die.

Which leader did Acton think had built “a name among names that will never die”?

The whole essay is rather mind-bending.


Mythcarriage of justice?

In one trial by ordeal, people were found innocent if they sank in water. But were they in fact fished out before they died?

I served as a potential juror yesterday (and will do so again today because I wasn’t empaneled for a trial—if that happens again today, I’m off the hook). While cooling our heels we were shown what I thought would be the usual cheesy video about how jury service is our civic duty. While I agree it’s a civic duty, such videos—of which I’ve now seen many versions in three states—usually don’t convey much beyond that one-sentence sentiment.

But this video did something quirkier. To emphasize why jury service was important, it opened by dramatizing alternative, historically popular ways of separating the innocent from the guilty. More specifically, its first scene portrayed a medieval trial by ordeal. The accused was tightly bound and thrown into a lake: if he sank, he would be found innocent; if he floated, guilty.
That particular trial by ordeal is, as we all know, a hoary metaphor for perfect perversity. All trials by ordeal are absurd and arbitrary, but this version seems to guarantee not just that the innocent will be drowned (by the way, is that where Yeats got the line in “The Second Coming”?) but that those adjudged innocent by the trial procedure itself will be drowned. It’s always been hard for me to even imagine that people at the time could have thought this made sense.

Well, if the makers of this video got it right, these Middle Agers were smarter than we thought. As shown here, the judge waited about ten or fifteen seconds after the accused was thrown in. When he failed to float, the judge nodded to the spectators so that the guy’s friends and relatives could fish him out and revive him, sputtering but unharmed, while everyone cheered.

Two questions. First, for those with knowledge of legal history, is this right? Were those judged innocent in these trials quickly rescued? If so, the method was still ridiculous but for the opposite reason from what one would have thought: it guaranteed not that all innocent defendants, as well as the guilty, would die, but that almost all guilty defendants (except those with lots of air pockets in their clothes) would go free. Second, for everyone: am I right that almost everyone assumes the innocent who faced this kind of trial in fact drowned, or was it just me who thought that?


What Detroit means

The first thing I thought about Detroit is that the state’s appointment of a receiver demonstrated the Republican governor’s profound indifference to the democratic process of a Democratic city, not to mention a white governor’s profound indifference to a black city.   This may be true, but it’s also true that Detroit’s finances are such a catastrophe that, like New York in the 1970s, it seems to need an outsider to get its house in order. It helps that the trustee is African-American, though not very much: even temporary government without the consent of the governed should cause us alarm.

The second thing I thought about Detroit is that selling off the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, which the trustee estimates would be sufficient to retire all of the city’s debt, is the best of a number of bad options. Museums nationwide are hyperventilating at the prospect, but they also think it’s sensible to keep on hand huge numbers of items that no one ever sees.  I don’t quarrel with the need to have a deep collection for research purposes, but I also don’t see why it’s considered bad form verging on unethical to sell the parts of the collection you’re not using in public to sustain the parts of the collection you ARE using in public, and at the same time not coincidentally making the sold pieces available to the public, albeit in a different location.

If there had been a Great Fire of Detroit, and the whole city destroyed, no one would argue that recreating the city’s art collection should take priority over food and shelter for the city’s people.  The years of financial mismanagement have incinerated Detroit just as surely as a physical fire; why shouldn’t we pay more attention to basic needs than to cultural institutions?

And isn’t the whole function of assets to provide financial security when income doesn’t suffice? Again, I wonder about the racial composition of those who champion the inviolability of the collection as against the racial composition of those who think it might be necessary to dispose of it. The state’s Attorney General has opined that the city may not sell them because they’re held in trust for the citizens.  But “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” and I don’t notice anyone’s raising a ruckus about the loss of that part of our patrimony.

The third thing I thought about Detroit is that the bondholders’ interests are being given absolute priority over the interests of current and former employees, whose pensions are at stake. This is the case in Illinois as well, where at least some portion of the pension “crisis” could be solved by refinancing the debt and stretching out repayment but where that solution is not even considered because the bondholders don’t like it. I understand the value of the municipal bond market to cities’ ability to expand infrastructure but municipal bond investors are investors and should be prepared to accept some pain when they toss their dollars into what’s obviously a money pit.

And the fourth thing I thought about Detroit is that it’s Americans’ closest analogue to what’s casually referred to as “the European debt crisis,”  throughout which salvaging the Euro has meant satisfying bondholders at the expense of people who’d like to work or collect their pensions.   Very few commentators seem aware that the real crisis is one of self-government (or its destruction), or that the Germans have managed to do through economics what they couldn’t do through war, that is, run Europe.  When externally-imposed austerity hit Greece, all I could remember was the bumper sticker from the era of the junta: “Greece: Democracy born 508 BC, died 1967 AD.”  Or, this time around, “reborn 1974, killed again 2011 or -12 A.D.”  As the saying goes, same s**t, different day.

Back to Detroit: if I were trustee, I’d sell off DIA’s assets in a heartbeat and use the proceeds to protect employee pensions. If there was anything left for the bondholders, fine; if not, too bad: it’s the pensioners who paid their share and are entitled to what they were promised. Even after years of trashing public employee unions (brought to you by the Heritage Foundation and other fronts for wealthy people who don’t like to pay taxes or see working people make reasonable money), there must be some court somewhere willing to recognize that the obligation of contracts shall not be impaired.

Of course, I would never be chosen trustee, but that’s not the point. The point is, my solution is what would happen if Detroit were still governed by its people. Detroit: Democracy died 2013 A.D.

The name of the saint is called “Haddocks’ Eyes”

A beautiful and strange diptych by Jan van Eyck.

The second picture that caught my eye in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid recently (I discussed the first here) was this small grisaille diptych by Jan Van Eyck, a portable desktop prop for a rich man’s or woman’s devotions.
What is going on here? This is a real bleg not a rhetorical question. It’s not an image of the Annunciation, but an image of statues of the Annunciation. At the time, SFIK real devotional statues were polychrome; so the statues are not only imaginary but deliberately unrealistic. At the same time, they are gem-quality perfect simulacra. Why the layered distancing, almost as complex as the White Knight’s? Continue reading “The name of the saint is called “Haddocks’ Eyes””

Portrait of a dead lady

A famous portrait that also serves as a memorial to women dying in childbirth.

Ghirlandaio’s 1488 portrait of a young Florentine noblewoman has become the signature piece of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid:

Her name was Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni. Both parts of her surname mattered at the time. The Albizzi were rivals of the Medici, the Tornabuoni the Medicis’ right-hand men. Her marriage two years earlier to Giovanni Tornabuoni was a political one, a burying of the hatchet between powerful clans. The Tornabuonis were clearly proud of the catch and celebrated her beauty and status in this lovely portrait.

The melancholy Grecian-Urn atmosphere created by the rigid pose and sombre background with pious knick-knacks is no accident. Giovanna died in childbirth, aged only eighteen, the year of the portrait. (Was it begun in life? I’ve suggested to the museum an X-ray to see if Ghirlandaio began with a more cheerful background of Tuscan hills or a rich interior. I’ll let you know if they take me up.)

The beautiful Giovanna can therefore represent all the young women who have paid the ultimate price for our dangerously large brain cases. Continue reading “Portrait of a dead lady”

Professor Ferguson, There’s This Thing Called “Google”….

Niall Ferguson, May 4th:

My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation. It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life.

Niall Ferguson, May 7th:

Not for one moment did I mean to suggest that Keynesian economics as a body of thought was simply a function of Keynes’ sexuality. But nor can it be true—as some of my critics apparently believe—that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man. My very first book dealt with the German hyperinflation of 1923, a historical calamity in which Keynes played a minor but important role. In that particular context, Keynes’ sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath.

Against haggling: woolly thoughts on the pre-industrial mode of production

A description of trade among Australian hunter-gatherers from David Graeber:

In the 1940s, an anthropologist, Ronald Berndt, described one dzamalag ritual, where one group in possession of imported cloth swapped their wares with another, noted for the manufacture of serrated spears. Here too it begins as strangers, after initial negotiations, are invited to the hosts’ camp, and the men begin singing and dancing, in this case accompanied by a didjeridu. Women from the hosts’ side then come, pick out one of the men, give him a piece of cloth, and then start punching him and pulling off his clothes, finally dragging him off to the surrounding bush to have sex, while he feigns reluctance, whereon the man gives her a small gift of beads or tobacco. Gradually, all the women select partners, their husbands urging them on, whereupon the women from the other side start the process in reverse, re-obtaining many of the beads and tobacco obtained by their own husbands. The entire ceremony culminates as the visitors’ men-folk perform a coordinated dance, pretending to threaten their hosts with the spears, but finally, instead, handing the spears over to the hosts’ womenfolk, declaring: “We do not need to spear you, since we already have!”

This prompted a comment from Daniel Davies that it seems a lot of work to organize an orgy every time I want to buy a blanket.

souk-fes-moroccoI thought of this in Morocco recently while Lu was haggling for rugs in (orgy-free) Moroccan souks. Continue reading “Against haggling: woolly thoughts on the pre-industrial mode of production”