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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Who’s Sorry Now is Like the Corners of My Mind (or, Connie Francis meets Gladys Knight and Mashes-up Public Memory)

A New York Times headline recently trumpeted that Virginia Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, had telephoned law professor Anita Hill at her faculty office and left a message. You can read about it here. Odd behavior, to say the least. And by odd behavior, I don’t mean the fact that Professor Hill reported the call to campus security or that her university reported it to the FBI. Under the circumstances, I consider the call vexing and harassing. The proffer of an “olive branch” is usually used to symbolize peace, not to figuratively re-assault the victim.

I teach the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill matter in my Race & Racism class and in a class called Law in Literature and Film (we do non-fiction as well as fictional depictions of law in film in the latter class. I spend quite a bit of time discussing, though, whether even televised hearings are truly non-fiction, unvarnished “truth”, given issues of editing, staging, camera angles, etc.). I am always astounded to find that so many students are not at all aware of what had occurred during the Thomas confirmation hearings until we study it. (“Oh,” one student said in a recent class after understanding what had occurred, “Is that why Justice Thomas is always so quiet?” I have no answer for that, really.) My eldest children were very young (younger than some of my students) at the time of the hearings, and yet my children have a very clear memory of the events and a good understanding of what went on based on what they learned as they got older. Given the disparities in shared knowledge about this event, such knowledge (and such memories) begin to feel personal and narrowly cultural rather than public and broadly social. They seem to depend on the particular focus of ones home or educational community.

Public memory can be tricky, as I've determined from exploring it in other work. It is often viewed as static and unchanging, and is typically concerned with forging a collective sense of what to remember and how to remember it, and is often a significant component in forging identities both individual and collective. But public memory, as one scholar writes, is subject to the “history, hierarchies, and aspirations” of a particular community, and is therefore often anything but static. At its core it is both contested and contingent, and the contest is frequently between the “official culture”—that which exercises hegemony, and the “vernacular culture”—informal, unofficial, subsidiary cultures.

In my classes we talk about how the Clarence Thomas hearings started off asking questions about fitness to serve, and ended up as a he said-she said assessment of “truth.” There was no resolution of the truth question, unless you count confirmation as vindication, and I’m not sure that you can. Time has passed, and memories fade or are reshaped altogether, especially where somebody (but who?) should be sorry.

I have to agree with the scholar who wrote: "Memory is more likely to be activated by contestation, and amnesia is more likely to be induced by the desire for reconciliation."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Publication of To Kill a Mockingbird

This past July was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird. Recently I participated in a radio show to celebrate the anniversary. You can listen to it here. The show was a wonderful opportunity to reflect not only on the book itself, but also on the ways in which some of the themes addressed in the book, racism, classism, the role of gender in shaping identity, even access to education, have and have not changed over the last half century. When I first read the book in my late childhood, I was focused first on racial issues, especially on the prosecution of Tom Robinson, and next, on how Atticus Finch, the protagonist, represented what was good and right in America, standing firm in his convictions even in the face of adversity.

However, over the years, especially as I have used the book (and the film based on the book) as texts in law teaching, I see the book and the characters differently. I think that the true hero of the book is Scout, the child narrator who delivers the tale. Scout, because of her age and gender, is able to move between the worlds of black and white and of male and female. Her relative social unimportance allows her a veritable cloak of invisibility from which she can see and hear and thereby gain what comes close to an omniscient knowledge of her community and its people. Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a white woman, becomes, with every successive reading, a distant symbol, a cipher, someone who must be convicted and who must die, however unjust such an outcome may be. Tom is, however, no “magic negro” as there is no magic in To Kill a Mockingbird. There is only a finely-wrought and complex sense of truth, but it is a truth that falls well-short of despair. To Kill a Mockingbird troubles the notion of thesis and antithesis often seen in discussions of race, whether fictional or real. Scout and the other children in the book illustrate this, for they are more real than many of the adult characters. They are flawed and imperfect, but joyous, passionate and ultimately just. They are the antidote to our 21st century postmodern, poststructual, and allegedly post racial world.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Welfare Cheese, the Working Class and the Tenure Class (or, the Cheese Stands Alone)

I attended the Third National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference a few weeks ago. It was a wonderful event; it was well-organized and intellectually stimulating and offered a broad array of presentations. The National POC is an event that began in 1999 with the coming together of the several regional People of Color Legal Scholarship Conferences. The focus of the national event, like the regional events, is to provide a forum for law professors of color (and other professors with interest in issues concerning law faculty of color) to present scholarly work in an intellectually rigorous but warmly supportive atmosphere. I have long credited the POC conferences with my success in academia, and by success, I mean the fact that I am still here. M’la; m’ap kenbe toujou, as they say in Haiti.

During one of the dinner events at the National POC, I was tickled when one of the speakers referenced welfare cheese. There was a brief wave of laughter, ranging from polite titters to hearty guffaws. It struck me all of sudden: some of the people there not only didn’t know what welfare cheese was, they’d probably never eaten any. Welfare cheese (aka government cheese), for the uninitiated, is cheese that is provided to recipients of welfare and/or other means-tested benefits. I first heard of it, and ate it, during the 1970’s and was mighty glad to get it. Welfare cheese makes awesome grilled cheese sandwiches. I know well what welfare cheese is, from personal hard luck life stories. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who looks like me knows what welfare cheese is from personal experience.

In fact, research shows that highly educated people, even of various racial or ethnic backgrounds, are disproportionately from the middle and upper middle classes or the wealthy classes. This is perhaps nowhere more true than among university faculty members. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed the fact that few studies focus on working class or lower class students and faculty members. While there is some data regarding the economic class of students, apparently no comparable data exists for college faculties. I think that all too often, even well-educated people conflate race and ethnicity with social class, assuming that if, for instance, efforts have been made to bring in faculty members of color then by necessity this means that social class diversity has been achieved. This is, of course, not true, and has never, I think, been widely true. While programs offering greater access to education and other social goods over the last forty years have meant greater racial, ethnic and gender diversity in some workplaces, I might argue that some of the people from underrepresented groups who were helped by such programs were already middle class or very comfortably working class, and had been for a few generations.

Of course, such discussions raise the issue of just what it means to be middle class versus working class. For some people, working class means having parents or grandparents who didn’t have a summer home (seriously; someone shared that with me once.) For others, working class means rarely enjoying mainstream cultural events and knowing no one with a college degree, despite having consistent access to necessities such as food and shelter. Never mind what it means to belong to the poverty class. Poverty class means more than lacking some material comforts; it means lacking necessities and having a near absolute deficit of social capital. Social capital is the stuff that dreams (and educational attainment) are made of. Very few people in academia, it would seem, have ever belonged to the poverty class. This is due in no small part to the fact that access to advanced education takes a good deal more than a bright mind and hard work. It takes a startling array of economic and social resources, and these resources are frequently deployed from the time a person is born.

The discussion of social class in academia reminds me of the not unrelated discussion of the future of tenure in the academy. Some people see the tenure system as a hindrance to good institutional governance, since it is sometimes hard to compel tenured faculty members to embrace change. Others see tenure as necessary for insuring an independent minded, intellectually vibrant academy; faculty members who serve at the will of administrators would be little likely to engage in research or teaching that might offend established norms. Both sides have good points. But what often goes unaddressed in discussions of tenure among tenured faculty members themselves (who, not surprisingly, usually favor the tenure system) is the meritocratic assumptions about the nature of the institution. People who have tenure, or are on the tenure track, deserve those statuses, right? Serial adjuncts and faculty members on contracts often don’t have the same privileges, but if that’s true, it’s because people with tenure (or access to tenure) are smarter, work harder, and are just better, right?

Not right. While there are frequently well-articulated, reasonably objective standards for getting tenure (or for getting on the tenure track) what goes unexamined is the practical barriers to meeting the standards and most shamefully, the sometimes differential ways in which the standards are applied. Looking only at legal academia, it is noteworthy that a majority of persons who work as instructors but are not in tenure or tenure track jobs are women. One reason sometimes offered for this is that faculties often recruit nationally for tenure track jobs, and women are sometimes less able to move around easily to accept such jobs. That is true, yes. But all too often what starts out as a national search for tenured or tenure-track positions ends by settling on a local candidate who is, all too often, surprisingly like the majority of people already in place from a gender and racial perspective. There are other barriers as well. Even when women succeed in getting on the tenure track, they are, according to research, likely to have less prestigious jobs and earn less money than men with similar (and often lesser) credentials.

I could go on and on here about class, both inside and outside of academia. There is a lot to say; these are, after all, long-standing problems. Talking about class makes many people uneasy, since in many ways it raises a challenge to ideals of merit. All the more reason we should talk MORE about it, not less.