Category Archives: the art of the state

Some thoughts on Goffman’s On the Run

After initially receiving mostly adulatory press (which it continues to receive, including a Malcolm Gladwell essay in the current New Yorker), the sociologist Alice Goffman’s urban ethnography On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City has started also to receive more negative attention. At the New York Times, Alex Kotlowitz raised some tentative ethical concerns in an otherwise positive notice; at Slate, Dwayne Betts sharply critiqued the book’s simplifications, in his view, of urban communities, while also wondering about the evidentiary support for some of its empirical claims; and most recently, at The New Inquiry, Christina Sharpe has called into question the morality of the entire project, positioning it within the history of “a sociological tradition that subjects black life to scholarly scrutiny” and, more specifically, within West Philadelphia’s “long and contentious history” with the University of Pennsylvania. (Goffman began researching the project as a Penn undergrad.)

I read the book earlier this summer and thought it might be useful to round up some of the marginal notes I made into a blog post (some of which I think I also discussed or referenced on Twitter while I was reading, although certainly not comprehensively). I should say that I found the early press around the book off-putting, insofar as the media lavishly praised Goffman for having the audacity to spend a few years in a neighborhood that plenty of people just, well, live in, and insofar as this coverage trafficked in the shock appeal of a young white woman living among black men, which is to say, trafficked in any number of longstanding white supremacist tropes, whether intentionally or otherwise. Still, those were issues with the coverage, not the book itself, and given the attention it’s received, and given that my academic focus encompasses criminal justice and policing, I figured it was something I should read, whatever I ended up making of it.  Continue reading

Some links & quick thoughts on today’s California death penalty ruling

Federal district judge Cormac Carney ruled today that California’s death penalty, as carried out (or more accurately, as not carried out), violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. You can read Judge Carney’s ruling here. (Update: Here’s a thorough overview from the SF Chronicle‘s excellent legal reporter, Bob Egelko.)

Some links, context, and quick thoughts:

Continue reading

Our Invisible, Very Important State Constitutions

[insert here the usual, “this was written quickly” disclaimer]

Today, a California trial court judge issued a tentative opinion declaring that California’s particular K-12 teacher tenure statutes violate particular provisions of the California state constitution. The opinion won’t be final for 30 days and thereafter will be appealed to both an intermediate appellate court and presumably the state supreme court. Also, even were some version of the ruling to stand, the California legislature can always try to amend the tenure statutes to comport with its requirements (as education historian Ethan Hutt noted on Twitter). So, an end to tenure in California? Not necessarily, and certainly not yet! But certainly an interesting case to continue watching.

Meanwhile, here is how CNN reported the opinion. First there’s this just entirely inaccurate teaser on its homepage:

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 10.03.02 PM

Then there’s the actual article, which begins: “A California judge ruled as unconstitutional Tuesday the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws.” Maybe I missed it, but I do not see one place in the entire CNN article where it so much as indicates to the reader, much less clarifies, that the ruling (as almost always with cases involving a right to K-12 education) is rooted in the California state constitution, not the federal Constitution, much less what specific provisions of the California state constitution. Continue reading

Some Quick Thoughts on History, Media, and the War on Poverty

Note: I wrote this quickly so please think of it more as an extended tweet than a polished foray 

Whether and how academics should engage with that vague entity known as “the public” has been a topic of much conversation this winter/spring, from Nick Kristof’s ham-handed call for a renewal of the “public intellectual” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s plea for historians to be more involved in debates about poverty and race. Coates stirred up a lot of back-and-forth in that reality-TV-for-office-workers entertainment known as “the blogosphere” by basically synthesizing some fairly mainstream consensus views of academic historians about white supremacy’s imbrication in American history and political structures, views which apparently (we have now learned) sound scary, radical, and “fatalistic” when translated into the pundit realm but which I can assure you I have encountered from many very far-from-radical, in fact fairly conventional bourgeois university-employed academics, because such views represent the most fitting interpretation of the historical evidence that we currently have uncovered and as we currently understand it (sorry to be a conventional bourgeois empiricist or whatever).

When I read Coates’s plea for historians to be involved in these debates, I had the following reaction: I certainly agree that historians have useful insight to offer (having found historians so insightful that I decided to try and become one), but I also think, as I noted somewhere on Twitter that I can’t find now, that the problem is not that historians are not participating in debates. Historians’ work is out there as much as any academic work is out there (open-access type questions being a separate issue but not one along which I think history meaningfully differs from other disciplines; and if anything, since historians have professional incentives to publish books rather than articles, their work is usually available for purchase or at the library, not locked in secret Elsevier gardens), and moreover, academic history, certainly the literature on twentieth-century American history, tends to be much less jargon- and model-laden than the social sciences, thus should be more accessible. So, I think the problem is not so much access or a lack of participation on historians’  part but more that journalists sometimes have a real resistance to seeing history as a separate domain of expertise, akin to economics or poli sci, rather than just a more esoteric and backwards-looking version of what they do.

Anyway, so I was thinking about all this as I was doing some reading on the War on Poverty the other day, and I want to quickly note how I saw this this journalist-historian divide playing out in that context. Continue reading

An Observation

In the past two years, Chief Justice Roberts has authored two opinions for the Supreme Court in important cases concerning congressional regulation of voting and elections. The first, Shelby County v. Holder, struck down as unconstitutional a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the statute empowering the federal government to monitor states with a history of racially discriminatory voting procedures. The second, today’s McCutcheon v. FEC, struck down as unconstitutional certain congressional limits on how much money an individual political donor can contribute in any one campaign cycle.

Here are the first two lines that Chief Justice Roberts wrote in these two opinions; see if you can guess which came from which:

The [congressional statute at issue] employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.

There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.

Which line would you guess had to do with the problem of wealthy campaign donors enjoying privileged access to elected representatives, and which line would you guess had to do with the problem of America’s long and violent history of limiting the franchise by race? Here’s the answer: the first sentence is from Shelby County, and the second is from McCutcheon.

Both cases turned on complex statutory schemes and constitutional doctrines, and I’m not here making any argument about the specific legal issues, holdings, or outcomes. One could agree with the holdings of neither, one, or both cases and still, I think, share my observation that, as a rhetorical matter, the difference in emphasis is striking. “Call me Ishmael,” “Lolita, light of my life,” “Happy families are all alike,” “I am an invisible man”: first sentences matter. The “right [most] basic in our democracy,” the individual “right to participate” — the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the right for which John Lewis had his skull cracked on Alabama’s Pettus Bridge — was not given pride of place in the opening line of Roberts’s Shelby County opinion. It was given pride of place in McCutcheon, a lawsuit brought by an Alabama businessman “who contributed a total of some $33,000 to 16 candidates for federal office in the 2012 election cycle,” and “wanted to give $1,776 each to 12 more” but was legally barred from doing so.

Home of the Braves

Two memories from second or third grade: the fall of ’91, when the Braves swelled our little hearts with their miraculous “worst-to-first” season, and the morning the year before that we’d gathered in the school auditorium before a television rolled in on a cart, to watch the International Olympic Committee make its fateful announcement of the site of the ’96 games: “It’s Atlanta!” Thereafter the Braves and the Olympics hovered over my Atlanta childhood like helicopters, these buzzing presences that were always up there, flying awkwardly but flying nonetheless. They gave me the illusion that I lived in a big-deal city, which is precisely the illusion that Atlanta’s city fathers have been striving to generate in residents and observers alike for over a century, whether through Henry Grady’s paeans to the New South or Mayor Hartsfield’s encomiums to “The City Too Busy to Hate.”

Well, it’s no longer Atlanta for the Atlanta Braves, or so it seems.  Continue reading

Well, This Isn’t Going to Work

The Arizona Legislature is apparently considering a bill that would sanction schoolteachers for “engag[ing] in speech or conduct that would violate [FCC standards] concerning obscenity, indecency, and profanity if that speech or conduct were broadcast on television or radio.” Most commentators have fixated upon the many constitutional and pedagogical problems raised by the law’s end — policing teacher language and conduct — and rightly so.

Still, I must admit that I’m far more befuddled by the law’s means. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there might be some valid reason to regulate teachers’ speech and conduct. Upon a modicum of reflection it’s pretty obvious that importing FCC standards could never be a remotely sensible or even possible way of achieving this regulatory goal. Broadcast standards are literally not applicable without reference to an actual broadcast.  Continue reading

When Illegal Immigration Was European

I don’t usually follow politics closely, but I do have a great fondness for weekly elimination reality TV shows like “American Idol,” “Top Chef,” and “The Voice.” Since the GOP primary has basically turned into one of those shows, whatwith its regularly scheduled on-stage performances and someone voted off by the viewers each week, I’ve started watching.

And I’ve noticed some confusion, among the candidates, about the history of immigration law.

At tonight’s debate, Rick Santorum presented the following account of his family to explain why he opposes “a pathway to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants:  Continue reading

The Right to Risk Your Life

In the 1870s and 1880s, Americans kept dying, or losing limbs, because they were getting hit by trains. Now, you might say, who cares? It’s people’s own fault if they are stupid enough to walk onto a train track. That’s not, it turns out, how Americans and their governments reacted at the time. As the casualties mounted, the state railroad commissions — relatively new agencies set up to monitor and regulate railroad safety — “conclud[ed] that enough was enough; no man had a right to willfully risk his life.”

So writes Barbara Young Welke in her fascinating work of legal and cultural history, Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920. When I heard about the other night’s GOP primary debate, in which Dr. Ron Paul emphasized the need for “personal responsibility” and audience members cheered the notion that a man who decides not to purchase health insurance should be allowed to die, I immediately thought of Recasting American Liberty. Continue reading

Virtual Representation

Representation is an odd thing. As a professor of mine once hinted, it’s as much an aesthetic as a political concept. Why does red represent anger? Why does a triangle atop a square represent a house? Why do lines criss-crossing one way represent Christianity, lines criss-crossing another way represent the Nazi regime? Why does Anna Eshoo, a person whom I have never met, and whose political views I could not tell you, represent me in Washington, D.C.? (I just Googled Anna Eshoo so as to provide a link, and as a result, for the first time, I now know what she looks like. I pass by her local office on the way to the grocery store, though, and I’ve voted for her.)  Continue reading