Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Jeff Chang on the Resegregation of America

A collection of essays by Jeff Chang
Jeff Chang's Who We Be:  The Colorization of America was one of my favorite books of 2014.  When I saw his newest book, We Gon' Be Alright:  Notes on Race and Resegregation at the library a couple of days after the most recent election, I grabbed it as quickly as I could.  Chang excels at showing readers just how politicized race has become.  In Who We Be, he talked about the difficulty of living in both a "multi-cultural" and yet "colorblind" society (basically, you can't have both) and how that leads to erasure and exclusion.  In We Gon' Be Alright, he focuses a lot on violence and segregation.

This book was particularly poignant for me to read after this week's elections for many reasons.  As many, many people have mentioned, a lot of urban "liberal elite" Americans do not know or understand rural America, and this is an issue.  We have left them behind.  They are suffering and they see no great future ahead, and everyone else is "cutting in line."

Chang does not come right out and say it, but one of my main takeaways from this book was that rural Americans isolated themselves.  They were frightened of people who were different than them, so they made it really hard for people who were different than them to move in.  When people did manage to move in, the whites up and moved out again, taking resources with them.  And they kept doing that.  And continued to self-segregate.  Chang quotes Thomas Sugrue in his essay about white flight.  "Fear - not forward-looking optimism - shaped the geography of metropolitan America.  Sprawl is the geography of inequality."  Whites are by far the most segregated group in America, and they are that way because, quite often, they choose to be.

All of the essays in this book are excellent, just as I suspected they would be.  One that I found very interesting was the one on student protest movements on universities.  These movements have made the news a lot in recent months/years, mostly because people seem to think a lot of students are silly and coddled for demanding "safe spaces" and attention.  Chang points out that, after affirmative action was derailed, the percentage of minorities at universities dropped substantially.  There is very little representation at top schools, and even when there is representation, there is very little support.  So these universities decrease the number of diverse students they let in, provide very little support structure for them, ignore their legitimate complaints of racism and discrimination, and then everyone thinks the students are whiny, entitled brats when they make the news, asserting their rights to free speech and to be heard  Media latched onto the story that students were demanding certain speech codes and that trigger words be removed.  But almost always, what students were overwhelmingly demanding was more staff and faculty of color, emphasis on recruiting minority students (and retaining them), increased funding for cultural centers, counseling, etc.  All things that make a whole lot of sense if you feel marginalized, afraid, and lonely.  And if you are the victim of racism, which happens much more often than people realize or admit, and which is often ignored.
...while we are engaged in the culture wars, the most difficult thing to do is to keep the "race conversation" going, because its polarizing modalities are better at teaching us what not to say to each other than what to say, better at closing off conversation than starting it.  In this way those who believe that protesters are dangerous and those who believe they are merely misguided join together to end the necessary discussion the rest of us might want to have, in fact need to have.  If the choice is framed as one of silence versus noise, in the long run most people prefer silence.
One of the most interesting points that I took away from this book was the difference between diversity and equality.  My whole life, I have heard a lot about diversity, to the extent that people make jokes about "the token black/Asian/gay, etc. friend."  I have not heard nearly as much about equality.  I never even considered diversity and equality to be two sides of the same coin, two potential outcomes to one huge problem.  But they are very closely related.  And much of what we do, at the school level, at the government, at work, is a lot about diversity and not much at all about equality.  And so we have student protests because they feel underrepresented and alone, we have a limited pipeline of multicultural talent in government and companies, and we continue to live very segregated lives.

The central essay in this book was called "Hands Up" and focused on police brutality.  In the wake of the presidential election, I feel so many things.  But one of the main ones is fear of police violence and a lack of accountability for that violence.

I don't want to say that one essay spoke to me more than the others, but the last essay in the book, "The In-Betweens" was about the awkward and strange experience of being Asian-American.  It is something I have thought a lot about over recent months and years.  As an Asian-American, I am often shielded from the most virulent and violent racism, mostly because Asian-Americans appear invisible to many.  When Trump talks about deporting people, he is not referring to Asians.  When he talks about how people used to "take care of things" with regard to protestors, he is not referring to Asians.  When people fight affirmative action, they are not fighting Asians in their schools and jobs.

For much of their time in the United States, Asian-Americans have been in this weird "almost white" space.  We don't receive the full benefits of whiteness because, well, we're not white.  We don't receive the benefits that under-represented minorities receive because we are usually not under-represented.  And we don't face the racism that Blacks and Latinos face most of the time, either.  Racism against Asian-Americans is usually more subtle (but not always).  But we still face racism.  And we still are not white.  And we try so hard to work the system both ways to our advantage, which just feels very uncomfortable and wrong and horrible.

For example, Trump went out of his way to appeal to Hindu-Americans.  (Note that he did not try to appeal to Indian-Americans, because many Indian-Americans are Muslim.  And he does not want them.)  When I went to the Chicago Cubs victory parade, there was a plane flying overhead with a banner that said, "Chinese-Americans for Trump!"  Asian-American students are suing universities for discrimination, saying that they are being denied seats in schools that they earned through being seriously stellar students.  I understand that.  I get it.  Asian-Americans work so hard at winning by following all the rules, and then it is disheartening not to get ahead when you have followed all the rules.  It feels like discrimination.

But this has very real consequences for everyone.  Asian-Americans' anti-discrimination lawsuits have made it even more difficult for Blacks and Latinos to succeed.  On the west coast, all of these schools with disproportionately high Asian-American numbers - they tout their "diversity," but it's not really diversity if everyone is the same, and if it still results in other people being woefully under-represented. 

Chang speaks passionately and eloquently for integration, for a shared sense of responsibility and kindness to others.  He ends with a quote from James Baldwin, who wrote, "To love all is to fight relentlessly to end exploitation and oppression everywhere, even on behalf of those who think they hate us."

Are you interested in learning more about this topic?

Who We Be:  The Colorization of America, by Jeff Chang - the first book I read by Chang that really challenged a lot of assumptions
Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond - an in-depth look at segregation and housing policies and how those impact cities and people
The Making of Asian America, by Erika Lee (I have not read this yet)

"Racism on Campus:  Stories from New York Times Readers"
"Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults"
"With Diversity Comes Intensity in Amherst Free Speech Debate"

The Uncertain Hour by Marketplace - about welfare and how differently it works vs how you probably think it works
More Perfect:  Object Anyway - an episode about how even the best of intentions can lead to very concerning outcomes


  1. This book sounds amazing. I'm going to look for it.

    BTW, glad to see you back!

  2. I was talking to a friend of mine who grew up in the rural area where I'm living, and she made some good points about how the "white working class" has isolated themselves here, saying that "they've undermined public education by homeschooling or sending their children to charter schools and then on to private Christian universities. They infiltrate public college campuses where they recruit young adults into the ministry instead of helping them pursue excellence in their undergrad programs. They gather in churches where there is no open dialogue. They've even built their own Creation Museum to further validate their worldview! They read one book or books about that book. They take immense pride in being "fools for Christ" and "in this world but not of it." These are the same people who, when I was growing up in the 70s, used to send buses out into the neighborhoods to bring small children in for Sunday school or children's church or Vacation Bible School. Probably still do for VBS. They understand all too well the power of proximity. It's their divine mandate.They make use of it while guarding their own against its use by others. They know the only way to make change is to capture the hearts and minds of the very young."
    So she says the only way she knows to fight back is to work with their children.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Jeanne! I agree - a lot of it is self-segregation, so it is difficult to feel sorry for them. But I am trying...

  3. I was scrolling through twitter a few days ago and saw a call to "read the book that's not for you." It suggested BETWEEN THE WORLD & ME and STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND as the two options. Reading your review here, I thought that this book would likely work for that effort, too (and though I have thoughts about books being for some people and not others, it was attention-catching/effective).

    Also, YES to Jeanne's comment, as someone who lived that self-segregated upbringing down to the exact details. Thank goodness for grad school.

  4. *hug* You are wonderful, Aarti.

    The point about self-segregation by white folks just maddens me. I have seen this in action MY WHOLE LIFE, every single place I've ever lived, but yet somehow after this election people are complaining that the real problem is "identity politics," by which of course they mean "being forced to notice that people who are not like us exist in this world." I absolutely cannot with it.

  5. Both books by Jeff Chang sound really good. Thanks for your review and for the links at the end, which I'll have to check out.


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