Tuesday, May 12, 2015

suburbia, segregation machine?

suburbs are machines for segregation in two ways: one narrow sense, a racial and class sense which could potentially be overcome with enough political will, and one wider sense, built into the structure of the suburban form itself.


growing up in Madison, CT, i was well aware that the poor and colored were excluded from our grassy, shaded suburban world. a token few urbanites were selected from New York City to attend our high school, a charitable gesture which salved some guilty white consciences, i suppose. but i never linked this obvious residential exclusion with the triumphal narrative we had learned in school, that the civil rights struggle of the 50s and 60s had broken down color lines and brought an end to Jim Crow.


it is only some book-learning of the last few years that has made me conscious of the fact that as society was desegregating its lunch counters, hospitals, and schools, it was re-segregating residentially. and as towns segregated -- suburbs, i should say -- using seemingly race-neutral tools like local zoning authority -- schools followed, resegregating in fact even if legally, whites-only schools had been prohibited.


sometimes it takes a book or two to see one's own experience in a new light of understanding. our segregated lifestyle was so evident in the attitudes of me and my classmates. i will never forget bussing down to NYC to watch Cats (the musical) in 6th grade, driving through Harlem, and the snickering from some boys over the black woman standing on a sidewalk, in mini skirt and high heels. 'hooker,' one said. one word, two snickers, three knowing looks -- not much, maybe, but kids are not dumb. even if i didn't quite know what 'hooker' meant, a kid could tell there was a world of contempt behind that simple word, and a world of history behind that contempt. so what if it took me 30 years to begin to comprehend?


'consumer's republic' but lizabeth cohen, about new jersey's suburbanization, really opened my eyes to how the country was re-segregated in ways even worse than jim crow. for one thing, suburbs found legally safe ways to exclude. they didn't need covenants that said, 'no blacks, no jews.' they just said no apartments, minimum lot size of one acre, and voila, no blacks need intrude. all perfectly legal. older cities had been unequal, with rich and poor, black and white neighborhoods -- but at least they were under the umbrella of one city hall, so negotiation could take place between factions and groups, and rich neighborhoods couldn't utterly segregate themselves off from the rest of the city.


it is clear that from the start, suburbs were meant to keep out black folks, and other undesireables. it wasn't just the william levitts and other developers. it was real estate agents and the federal government itself, whose agencies steered mortgage money and guarantees to white suburbs and steered them away from cities. if the house became ordinary people's most valuable consumer item, and as housing prices appreciated from the 50s all the way to 2008, then clearly for most americans, owning a suburban house was like an escalator riding up floor after floor with each passing decade, making their owners wealthier and wealthier. if one is kept off the escalator on the first floor and trapped in poor neighborhoods as renters, then guess what? 50 years later, one's family and descendants are going to be far poorer than those who were allowed onto the escalator.


or you could ignore this history and simply say that black people are innately lazy and inferior, always looking for a handout -- ignoring the ways white people benefited from government largesse, the largesse that built white-only suburbs back in the 50s and 60s. so blacks gained the right to be served lunch at woolworths. at the same time they were kept out of suburbs. which one matters more? woolworths may be important symbolically, but the suburban house matters more economically.


suburbs don't have to be racially and class-exclusive. they could be more fair. it would be difficult, since the underlying premise of home values is that proximity to poor or colored peoples hurts the value of one's home. this twisted sense of value would have to be overcome for suburbs to be more fair. but it is possible.


but even if we overcome this racial and class segregation, i believe suburbs as an urban form are still deeply segregationist.


suburbs in general put a premium on spatial separation. the further we are from our neighbors and from cities, the higher the value. distance is the highest value.


but most of the world does not work that way. in most of the world various classes, tribes, sects, and races negotiate resources through contact. this contact may be troublesome and even violent, but at least there is contact. suburbs represent a sort of retreat from contact.


how can people ensconced in this sort of retreating mentality be expected to understand people who are different, much less embrace difference? it is not impossible. i don't want to say an urban form totally determines individual thinking. i grew up in the suburbs, and i enjoy contact with different sorts of people and cultures. but i had to break out of the suburbs to do so. the whole form, unfortunately, is premised on separation, control, exclusion. it is an apartheid system that does not announce its apartheid logic. code words like 'small-town character' and 'lot size' are used instead.


actually, small towns used to have people of various classes living in one place. postwar suburbs were not so accepting of different classes.


suburbs indeed became machines for segregation. and they still are.


it was overwhelmingly people living in suburbs who bought into the national security state, who bought into the lie that we could invade iraq, destroy its state, and produce not chaos but freedom and harmony. only suburbanites nurtured by reaganite fantasies could believe removal of goverment could result in utopia. only people totally removed from social reality -- whether at home, in troubled cities locked out of progress, or abroad, in places like south africa and iraq and palestine -- could believe that military or police force could magically solve social conflict.


maybe i am pessemistic. but i am not pessemistic about people. only certain institutions and systems. people can overcome the bad legacy of bad systems. but it takes effort.



Sunday, May 10, 2015

dark morning blooms

it  is something else the way a day born in tense darkness, when one lies awake not wanting to wake, can bloom into something bright and rich. 6 hours of sleep seems to be my destined limit, between me going to bed too late and the kids waking who knows when. i brought them downstairs reluctantly after 9. then a 6-year-old girl just back from England with her parents and little brother, appeared and treating pax like her same-aged brother, took charge of play. she comandeered him, placing him in front of her on the peanut-shaped 'niu-niu che' (wiggle cars, roughly translated), and zoomed about. one of his feet dragged. he was ecstatic. toby, on his own niu-niu che, was quickly drawn in. i egged him on, telling him to chase her, go faster, catch up to her!


i said they were taxis. toby tried taking on pax as passenger. toby and carrie (her english name) raced here and there, colliding, veering, swerving.


no, i remember how it happened. carrie started by bringing out a beanbag, which she gave to pax. who threw it in a puddle. she began putting it on his head, which he quickly threw away. soon he was laughing each time the beanbag appeared from behind, and we were laughing. then she actually spoke some english to me for the first time. i had kept using it with her sometimes, figuring she had to be understanding me, in england for 2 years. then toby began grabbing the beanbag from her, and she threw it at him, and he at her, and oh how perfect it was, toby laughing and running and pretty soon, racing the wiggle bike after carrie. grabbing things from other kids is a skill they have been teaching toby at an an, the school for autistic kids he attends half-day five days a week. he literally did not know that this could be a form of communication or play.


this is the second time in 2 or 3 weeks that toby has really played with another child in the yard. i could put it another way: this is maybe the fourth time in 2 and a half years that toby has played with another child here. at one point during their play, maybe when carrie picked up pax for another ride, toby turned to me and said, 'this is a little game!'


then in the afternoon, when we came back from the park, carrie appeared again, and more racing of the niu niu bikes, which roar their solid plastic wheels on the pavement. he was so happy.


i had wondered this morning whether the wiggle bike makers would export to the US. except for that thunderous noise. then a couple of hours later, at the park, i saw a kid rolling by on a niu niu che with soft-rubber-rimmed wheels. purring by. look at that, i said to sara.


i don't know if it was the wiggle bike racing, but when i brought the boys to the photo shop for residence permit photos (once a year), toby was relatively calm. i had been dreading it. last year was awful. he couldn't stand still. the photos show him nearly in tears. luckily the embassy rejected them (the wrong size), and they didn't end up as his passport photo. today he still fidgeted, constantly scratching his head or ear, but at least he was not losing it. pulling toby's wiggle bike across the street in a break in the traffic while pushing pax's stroller with the other hand, i was in a beautiful mood. 'let's go get a scallion pancake,' i said as we negotiated the awful sidewalk, an obstacle course of parked cars, missing paving stones, and odd inclines. toby had begun saying 'wanna eat something?' while in the studio, and even though it is something he says when he wants to avoid something, it is also true that sometimes he is in fact hungry. he just begins shouting it when there is something else he doesn't like.


we made our way home, toby munching the greasy thing in one hand and me feeding pax little bits. the crowded, badly planned streets felt comfortable, woven and interwoven complexly with people and vehicles of all sort, and i was happy, far from the predawn tenseness.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

black lives matter. except when they are flawed. in any way.

black lives matter, roars the voice of a movement.


large portions of white america respond: no they don't!


not if they were wearing the wrong article of clothing (trayvon martin's hooded sweatshirt), had a previous rap sheet (freddie gray), a warrant for child support payment delinquency (walter scott), had ever smoked pot, was walking in the street, had been suspended from school, was taller and bigger than average (automatically incriminating evidence to many white people of a generalized guiltiness), was selling loose cigarettes, was running away, was disrespectful, was carrying a toy gun, was the sister of a kid carrying a toy gun (yes, tamir rice's 14 year old sister was tackled by police after her little brother was gunned down). and on and on.


in short, the message is: unless the dead man was a paragon of virtue who never so much as spit bubble gum onto the sidewalk, even in rough neighborhoods where looking like a nice kid is to invite victimization, their life was not worth much.


surely not worth the trouble to figure out a different way to approach the situation than aggressively attacking. not worth thinking about a better way to do things. apparently, if one is black and has ever made any mistakes, small or large, one forfeits one's right to being treated as a human.


the movement hears these responses loud and clear. and rather than shutting down the movement, they only confirm what the movement is saying. which is that to most of america, black lives do not matter. all that digging for dirt to spread over the dead man's name is simply a thin attempt to justify the violence done to them.


but if white americans found that being suspended for school, talking back to a police officer, walking in the street, not paying for child support, wearing suspicious clothing, etc etc, was sufficient to be gunned down (or, as with gray, deliberately given a 'rough ride' while cuffed and without seat belts), i predict everyone would join the movement.


so far, since white people rarely have to face such brutality, it is 'better you than me.' being black means deserving a nasty end, since living in rough neighborhoods, there is always some dirt, some scrape, some skeletons to be dug up to justify the end of murder.


but even pot smokers, jay walkers, ex-cons, cigarette peddlers, men too big and tall and scary, and suspended students are loved. by someone.


i'm white. but i'm part of the movement. because no american should have to live in a police state. i wouldn't want it. so why wish it on anyone else? i don't care if they smoked pot or walked in the street or made me feel nervous because they were big. they are humans, and they should have the right to be treated as such.



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

electric wave

last week i got an email from the school (shandong u, my employer) announcing yet another official 'scholarly conference,' and inviting papers for submission. the topic: 'the legacy and innovation of qilu culture.'  qilu is the province's nickname, taken from the names of two ancient kingdoms. rather than deleting the email right away, as i usually do when confronted with such officialistic hot air, i paused. could i find some way to plug my pet cause, tiny electric cars, at this conference?


i have researched traffic and how people negotiate the streets and sidewalks here. maybe i could find a plausible angle leading from that to my pet cause, and turn this propagandistic 'scholarly conference' into something interesting, even useful. . . my family and i have driven a little 3 wheeler for more than a year, logging almost 7000 kilometers so far. it is of crappy quality. the door hinges rusted to the point that a 3 year old pulled one of them off. but it is so handy, so practical, that i watch people here clog the narrow streets with SUVs with disbelief. they are chasing a 1950s American dream -- big cars, wide highways -- in the ever-more perilous, crowded, 21st century. and it just doesn't work well. sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, any empty space, is jammed with cars parked pell mell. and a minority of households own cars. these tiny cars are 1/3 the size, or less, of regular cars, yet can carry up to 6 people. and some of them -- not ours -- are solid quality.


the inspiration was an article on huffingtonpost last week which laid out the view of some american transportation experts that the future of city-center transportation is tiny electrical cars, someday driverless and not privately owned. apparently people will be able to 'call' one over, and tell it where to go, pay electronically somehow, and that is it. i thought: the city and provincial government are constantly threatening to 'do something' about the menace of these tiny cars, which are blamed for creating all sorts of problems. (a shortage of taxis makes these cars a sort of gypsy cab for the poor unemployed or retired, and they cluster near bus stations and such plaecs). but this nascent industry, which has shown impressive improvements in quality and function, could become a world leader away from the obsolete pomposity of the 1950s American dream.


so today while waiting for toby at his school, i typed away and completed almost 1500 characters. the target is 5000 or so. i will need someone to polish it, of course. my written chinese is 'rough' at best. but when i ranted on the topic in my urban anthropology class on monday (our topic was the development of the american suburbs in the 1950s), they got it! with a laugh. these little cars are ridiculous. and surely face-deflating. but they are fun and practical. you can park underneath a UPS van, practically.


so, while i doubt i will be lucky enough to present my paper to just the right official, or even anyone paying much attention, at the very least i may be able to meet some academics or officials interested in this issue. and know that i have done something to advance the electric wave.


if only i could find some time to research the topic more deeply . . . no. not going to happen. not with two small kids.


so it's settled: a paper presented at a windy, propagandistic conference on the eternal glories of confucian culture will have to do.

Monday, February 23, 2015

some murders are better than others







the sacred right . . . to parking



taking them out

america is a composite structure, at the bottom a nation-state occupying a certain territory; above, an empire stretching across the world. the fact that the two are commonly lumped together tends to confuse these two entities in the minds of citizens. this confusion is very convenient to the pillars of empire -- arms makers, security subcontractors, the 'intelligence community' (sounds so benign!), transnational corporations, and the politicians and government institutions which service the whole network of power. the 'military industrial complex' described by eisenhower.

the empire is in many senses distant from the lives of ordinary americans. without a draft, the empire is freed to fight many long-running wars with little intrusion onto daily routine. the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a direct response to american imperial power, but people since the Cold War were so tuned out of the existence of empire -- in the very decade it expanded by leaps and bounds across previously Soviet-dominated or allied regions -- that the attacks seemed no more explicable than a sudden execrescence of evil itself.

no rhyme or reason. such (supposed) surprise was, again, very convenient to the empire politically: the more unpredictable and mad these foreign opponents of empire can be made to seem, the more likely will americans unquestioningly support the imperial structure, much as Russians foolishly cling to Putin, even though a rational view would hold that he is ruining Russia in the long run. like the empire, Putin also benefits from terrorism -- especially since most people don't care to know the context of this terrorism, particularly the state terrorism of the US or Russia.

as distant as empire is, our culture is colored by it in subtle and blatant ways. our language, for instance. the phrase 'take them out' has gone from being a tough-guy military phrase to one so mundane that even news anchors and house wives use it. let's compare it to how killing is described by arabic-speaking terrorists. they often use the word 'slaughter,' highlighting the brutal character of the killing they are about to undertake. the victim is turned linguistically into an animal awaiting the knife, the fire. 'take them out' is quite different. it downplays the violence of killing. this downplaying, this deadpanning, is in keeping with the modern american culture of cool, or emotional control. we get a sense of detachment, which is also in keeping with how we wage wars -- from a distance, by drone or by professional military (and attached mercenaries). the terrorist language does the opposite, emphasizing the physical, gory closeness of killer and killed. at least the word 'slaughter' is honest.

after all, people blown apart by drone are as slaughtered as are those killed personally by men in masks.

the macho detachment in american culture turns my stomach; it nourished me growing up, but i can't stand it. especially when it refers to killing. if we -- and here i mean the 'we' of people unwittingly upholding an empire operating against our long-term interests -- are going to kill, we might as well be honest about it. those targets we took out? we slaughtered them.

'take them out' is hypocritical at a deeper level: by evading the full impact of what was done, stylistically at least (we simply removed these enemy units from action, clinically, dispassionately and without hatred), on the one hand, and by embracing and celebrating it -- look how calmly i can throw around the thought of killing, weave it into daily conversation! -- in tone on the other hand.