Category Archives: Race

Book of the Month Discussion: The Blind Side by Michael Lewis. [Sticky Post]

The story of Michael Oher’s intellectual development is also the story of his body type. Michael Oher is rare. Huge. A freak of nature. He’s also an anomaly of nurture and it has taken a village to raise him. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis chronicles Oher’s turbulent childhood, his unlikely ascent into professional football and the importance and evolution, largely monetary, of the left tackle position in the NFL. The position Oher would come to play in college for Old Miss and, currently, the Baltimore Ravens.

Using a mixture of stark language and deftly placed insight, Michael Lewis describes the evolution of the left tackle with the language and rationale of free market capitalism.  In the early nineties, the N.F.L.’s  free agency system meant that teams could “buy the players they needed,” but as would soon become obvious, not all positions were created equal. “The price of protecting quarterbacks was driven by the same forces that drove the price of other kinds of insurance,” Lewis writes. “It rose with the value of the asset insured, with the risk posed to that asset.”

The person charged with protecting that million-dollar golden boy needed strength, speed, agility and bodily bulk— a massive butt and legs as well as long arms—to give the quarterback a few extra seconds in the pocket was unlike the other offensive lineman. It’s rare for someone to have all these specific physical traits, and for the players who had them, the price was high. Very high.

More…

Thoughtless and Racist.

I’m going to be vague on location here to avoid giving away too much, but I had a friend who just had to interview a group of homeowners in a portion of the northeast that’s very wealthy and smugly liberal. The group was concerned about a mixed-income housing unit going through the zoning approval process. These folks were going to get some new neighbors, and they didn’t like it. They actually feared it, and said so on the record.

Officially, the group was upset about increasing traffic, and that the plan called for some units’ backyards to face the street, forcing them to look at backyard things like playsets and grills. Zoning officials addressed those concerns, but residents were still not happy. When a group of a dozen neighbors called my friend over to their swanky townhouse complex, which is on the border between well-off and less well-off sections of the city, some unofficial objections leaked out through the aggressive use of pronouns.

I mean, why do they all have to live in this side of the city. Right?

Last week, this same town filled all three available board of education spots with candidates who came out against “heterogeneous classrooms,” which are experimental classes in some local middle schools that do away with the former method of grouping kids by ability. Ability is assessed at way too tender an age, and in suburban schools the achievement gap by and large splits black and Latino students from their white peers. The idea used to be that kids learned best in similarly abled groups, but it turns out that idea hurts lower-achieving students and does little if anything to help higher-achieving ones. This parental fear that lower-achieving kids are somehow going to infect the higher-scoring ones with their stupidity has no merit. I can’t say for certain that heterogeneous classrooms were the deciding factors in the elections, but it was a big issue during the campaign and those who supported them lost.

I don’t see the harm in calling “ability grouping” what it really is: segregation. And I see no harm in calling the condo-folks’ efforts what they really are: unofficial redlining. They believe lower-income residents, largely black and Latino, will lower their property values, blight their neighborhoods because they don’t make home improvements and use their pools without permission (kids knock on their doors in the summer to ask to use their pools, and are turned away.) But what really worries the residents is that people who don’t look like them will be so woven into their lives that they see their backyard playsets every day, that they can’t tell one yard from the next.

The people in the townhouses trying to guard their suburban idyll will tell you it has nothing to do with race, and I think they actually believe it. They were all white, young professionals who aren’t among the wealthiest in the city. This area went heavily for Obama last year, and in general aggressively pursues affordable housing projects like this one. It’s a city outwardly concerned with equality and opportunity for all but at the same time people gripe about the taxes and policies used to provide services for them.

Both these instances made me think about the controversy after a New Mexican hotel owner asked his workers to Anglicize their names. For some, it was a shock to call this racist. I learned about it when I saw a CNN banner that read “Racist, or Thoughtless?”

As if people can’t be thoughtlessly racist. In fact, people are more often thoughtlessly racist than they are aggressively so.

Which is why I was the only person on Jimmy Carter’s side when he called out the obvious racism against Obama. I know the argument against his having said it; that it’s not helpful, only puts people on the defensive and shuts down conversation. But I have a certain affinity for a fellow white Southerner who sees racism from a different angle, when it’s spoken in closed company by people who assume you agree with them. That’s what upset my friend the most; the homeowners spoke to her as if she knew what they were trying to say. They call it dog-whistling for a reason: It’s under the surface until you call it up and address it, and white Americans just don’t have these conversations that often, if ever.

Digging In The Crates: Race and I.Q.

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The following post was originally published in December 2007. We’re re-running it as it touches on a major component of our next Book of the Month pick, Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side.

Michael Oher was born in the 1980s on the desperately poor, black side of Memphis. His father was murdered shortly after he was born. His mother was a crackhead. By the time he was an adolescent, he’d been in nearly a dozen different schools. One obese foster parent, who took him in for the money she would get from the state, would sit on him to punish him. A test put his I.Q. in the low 80s, which meant that the little boy was mentally retarded.

But in a strange, sitcom-ish confluence of events, Oher ended up on the other side of Memphis, the adoptive son of a the Tuohys, a wealthy, white Republican family with pull all over town. “Big Mike” —- he was six-foot-six and over 325 lbs. —– went from being undernourished and wearing the same clothes every day to flying around in his adoptive father’s private jet, attending private school, and getting a Mercedes as a birthday present. The Tuohys hired a left-leaning school teacher named Sue Mitchell (“We had a black son before we had a Democrat friend!” Mr. Tuohy said) to drill Mike and make up for the educational deficit he’d accrued during his sad childhood. When his I.Q. was measured again as he got closer to graduating high school, it was in the low 100s — which meant he possessed about average intelligence. (Oh, yeah. Here’s the even more unlikely happy ending: Big Mike is an athletic freak of nature and is a likely first round NFL draft pick, which will make him more wealthy than his parents, and a movie about his life is in the works.)

The psychologists who administered the second test to Big Mike were stunned. How does one kid’s I.Q. jump 20 points in less than a decade? How elastic is I.Q.? And how much of a role does environment play in determining it? More…

A (Ridiculous) Case for Conformity.

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Latoya goes in on the second (yes, second) absurd Allison Samuels piece in Newsweek complaining about Zahara Jolie-Pitt’s “wild and unstyled, uncombed and dry” hair. In her pieces, Samuels argues that the “bonding” experience black girls have with their mothers while getting their scalps greased and hair braided is invaluable, and that having their hair “well-managed” provides girls with “pride, dignity, and self-respect.”

After pointing out that though the Ethiopian-born Zahara is black, she’s not African American, and isn’t living the cultural experience that Samuels is applying to her, Latoya writes:

The styles of childhood do not continue into our preteen years, the age when black girls normally get their first relaxers. Does [Samuels] have fond memories of her mother basing her scalp before she applied the chemicals that would straighten her hair? Or is that a ritual that is just understood as a part of growing up? Are her memories scarred with the taunts of other children? My cousins came home crying after being teased about their “beady-beads” and their “kitchens.” And who did the taunting? Many times, it was other black students. We need to stop encouraging conformity and hair hatred, because there is a logical end to the path we are walking down. Instead of fighting each other when someone’s hair doesn’t conform to our specific ideals, wouldn’t it make more sense to fight against a racist system that penalizes and politicizes certain hair styles?

In addition to co-signing all of the above, I’d like to add: eff outta here. Samuels reminisces fondly of a time when she sat between her mother’s knees, but from what I hear from friends who went through the ritual, it’s not a pleasant experience. When my sister was visiting recently, it was difficult for me to watch her braid her daughter’s hair; as my sister detangled my niece’s hair, Nili would frequently let out exaggerated cries of pain, which merely annoyed my sister. The struggle there didn’t seem enjoyable for either party. More…

Book of the Month: The Blind Side by Michael Lewis.

This month we’ll be reading The Blind Side by Michael Lewis.

In an excerpt called “The Ballad of Big Mike,” Lewis tells the story of Michael Oher, an impoverished kid from Memphis who through a strange confluence of events ends up in the legal custody of a wealthy white family. At the time of his adoption at 16, Oher had an IQ of 80.  With his adoptive parents’ resources and support from the Christian high school he attended, his I.Q. rose by 20 to 30 points. He went from foraging through the garbage for food to traveling on his father’s private jet. It’s also worth mentioning here Oher is also a behemoth —6’5, nearly 300 lbs. and boasting a basketball player’s physical grace — so by the time he graduated high school, he was on the wish list of every top college football recruiter in the country.

Now, the ballad comes to the big screen. The movie based on the book comes out November 20th, and the trailer seems to be focused on the relationship between Oher (Quinton Aaron) and his adoptive mother Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), as well as the kid’s massive size. (Frankly, the trailer is worrisome and strikes me as an “Inner City Teacher Movie.”)

What the trailer and the NYT article barely mention is Lewis’ analysis of the “evolution of the game” — specifically the left tackle, whose job it is to protect right-handed quarterbacks’ blind side from rushing defenders (hence the title). As the N.F.L. has opened up for passing offenses, left tackles have grown in importance, and are now the highest paid players after quarterbacks.  Oher, who was drafted in the first round out of Ole Miss, is an almost prototypical lineman: huge, strong and surprisingly agile.

The movie and book trailers are after the jump.

Happy Reading.

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Defining ‘We.’ Thoughts on Capitalism: A Love Story and Related Rants.

By Black Scientist.

So it’s no secret that there is a default of whiteness in normative culture. That is: unless otherwise noted, people are white. I think this default can be challenged in communities that are predominantly of color on an everyday level (telling stories with an anonymous “she”), but when we engage with the popular sphere (movies, tv characters, in other words “visible people” in narratives created by others and passed down to the masses), people are – generally speaking – expected and assumed to be/imagined as white.

So, knowing this, why was I still disappointed in the white-middle-class-ness that tainted the narrative of Michael Moore’s capitalism: A Love Story? Is it because he’s touted as a progressive filmmaker, and to interrogate capitalism without also challenging the normativity of whiteness is to basically suck at understanding the intersections and complexity of oppressions? A shortcoming that results in merely symbolic and short-falling attempts at being subversive. because he knows about other stuff, is he supposed to also know how to make a film that doesn’t indulge in the usual habit of seeing things through a white historical lens?

The problem i had with Moore’s film was that the “we” he constructed often translated into white middle class people. and this wasn’t something I can pretend was glaringly obvious, because it was mostly subtle. noted in the use of “we” and the implication that follows of who “they” were. More…

I am Shocked – Shocked – To Learn That Black People Aren’t All That Jazzed on America.

Even if Rasmussen’s poll is accurate and only 14 percent of African-Americans say that American society “is generally fair and decent” (down from 55 percent from February), this – from Powerline’s John Hinderaker – is still pretty stupid:

It’s interesting that Latinos and Asians evidently have a higher opinion of the decency of American society than whites. But the main point here, obviously, is the dramatic shift among African-Americans. What could have caused it?

The only possible answer is that many Americans have opposed President Obama’s policies. But why would that cause African-Americans to think that our society is “discriminatory” rather than “decent”? No mystery there: in a well-coordinated campaign, the Democratic Party has relentlessly portrayed all disagreement with the Obama administration’s policies as “racist.” That contemptible and divisive tactic had seemed to produce no results, but we now see that it had one consequence: alienating African-Americans from their country.

I wonder what would cause African-Americans to think that our society is discriminatory rather than decent?  The institutional racism and massive economic inequalities notwithstanding, I’m inclined to think that it has something to do with the indiscriminate killing of black people by police, or the thinly-veiled racist outrage surrounding Sonia Sotomayor, or the GOP’s race-baiting spokesmen, or the fact that Republican congressmen refer to the president as “boy” and ask him to “show some humility.”  And then there’s the whole “tea party” thing.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that has something to do with it.