Sunday, May 13, 2007

Dining in the Public Square

I was all set yesterday to watch the pivotal third game of the NBA playoff series between the rising Cleveland Cavaliers and the veteran New Jersey Nets when the wife calls and says in unusually peremptory fashion, “I’m finished. Come pick me up.” She had been coaching high-level business executives in one of the region’s leading business schools and was ready to grab some personal time.

So I cut short my undisclosed shopping mission and rushed to University Circle to pick up my beloved. The weekend half gone, she was now ready to plan the rest of it. I listened deeply to discern and quickly sort the priorities: she needs to eat immediately, she wants to order flowers for out-of-state delivery on Mother’s Day; and she wants to recreate in some fashion.

My mind simultaneously googled the options seeking locations that combine likely eateries, florists, movie houses, shops, etc., trying to determine whether to head up to the Heights or downtown. In a secondary calculation I conceded the game to connubial requisites and hoped to store up marital chits for use when the playoffs get to crunch time.

We motored through downtown’s eating districts and cruised through Tremont and Ohio City, talking and relaxing before crossing back over the Detroit-Superior Bridge, finally settling on a Public Square eatery we used to patronize several years ago. I dropped her off in front, insisting she go inside and get seated while I sought a nearby free place to park.

[One of the benefits of low-density downtown Cleveland for the street-wise is knowing where you can park for free. In this case, it was less than half a block away.]

When I entered the restaurant, two very young pale women were guarding the hostess station. I indicated that I had come to join my wife. “Oh yes,” said one, more to the other than to me. The second hostess proceeded to lead me towards the booth area.

I found my wife with an affect that only I know indicated she was mildly distraught. She is sophisticated and graceful beyond words and quite self-controlled, so there was no readily discernible sign of her reaction to the way the restaurant's protocol had pigeonholed her.

After usefully informing the hostesses upon entering that “my husband will be joining me”, she was led on a convoluted route around the outskirts of all dining areas, past the kitchen doors, ending finally — voila! — next to the only other black diners in the place.

I had gotten my first glimpse of the diners in the adjacent booth as I was being led to join my wife. I saw a fellow on his hands and knees, his feet sticking out of the booth into the aisle, apparently in the process of retrieving something from under his table. I am a naturally curious fellow so I looked in as I went past, not knowing at that moment that these people were to be our virtual dinner companions.

I say virtual because their conversational volume invaded our intimate space in the next booth, a top-off condition when added to the in-your-face view of the service area that was also gifted us by the hostess.

By the time I was seated, my wife had already inquired if seating was available in other booths in the mostly empty restaurant. “No” had come the instantaneous and unequivocal reply.

I absorbed the substance of all this, first from my sense of my wife’s discomfort and then from our quiet exchange as we deliberated on our response. Midway through that process, our waitress re-appeared to solicit our beverage order. My wife asked for coffee, and I, focused on the issue at hand, tabled my response. The waitress gathered enough from our demeanor to depart with both the coffee order and an understanding that her customers were neither ignorant or accepting of the disdain with which they had been treated to that point.

She soon returned, perhaps after checking with the hostess station, to advise that a reservation had “just been canceled” and began to scoop up our water glasses and escort us to another booth away from the megaphoning diners. The view was much improved as well.

The rest of the dining transpired without incident; the service throughout appetizer, main course, and dessert, was exemplary, and appropriately rewarded.

You cannot be married to a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior through whose blood courses much of the history of the civil rights movement of this nation, and treat this experience without careful dissection.

We — the waitress, my wife, and I — all knew without discussion that the waitress’ transparent white lie was a miniscule fig leaf to cover her institution’s palpably ingrained race and class practices.

You might wonder whether your faithful scribe and his bride are overly sensitive, attuned to see slight and insult where none exist. Fair question. Under what circumstances would you as maitre-d have paraded a guest by the kitchen and then segregated her and her husband in the most unappetizing, out-of-sight, loudest area of your three-fourths empty establishment?

I add that the situation was resolved satisfactorily without any sense of helplessness or victimization on our part, without finger-pointing or blaming, and without ever naming what was undoubtedly taking place. The intelligence of our waitress helped her to recognize a problem and initiate action to ameliorate it.

Although there was neither confrontation nor overt acknowledgment, there was nonetheless a whole series of embedded social exchanges in this dining excursion. The entire experience was a visceral reminder of life in Cleveland, where the most Herculean efforts to rebuild the economy will fail so long as cultural attitudes remain mired in rustbelt thinking and actions. Our community will get ever more coarse and ossified unless and until we find ways to transcend its indignities and create environments of respect and hospitality.

Monday, April 30, 2007

White Researcher Tells Tales Out of School at Cleveland State University*

Noted Scholar Presents Evidence on “Backstage Racism”

Joe Feagin is a traitor to his race.

One would almost have to conclude that is how he would be considered in the Matrix world he describes.

In a career that has seen an unrelenting output of distinguished scholarship that has produced 48 books (six more are in the pipeline) and more than 175 articles, the 69 year old sociologist has thoroughly analyzed the living, thriving organism of racism that others have pronounced dead or dying.

Feagin was at Cleveland State University April 19 to talk about "backstage racism". In Feagin’s lexicon, “backstages” are places where whites are comfortable in vetted or presumed social situations where, knowingly or otherwise, their prejudices are more likely to surface.

In a 2002-2003 experiment, Feagin and a colleague collected journals from nearly 1000 college students – two-thirds of them white – enrolled at 28 colleges across the country. Students were instructed to record in personal journals their “observations of everyday events and conversations that deal with racial issues, images and understandings.”

The result was a depressing treasure trove: out of 15,000 accounts, nearly 12,000 depicted clearly racist commentary and actions by white acquaintances, relatives, and strangers. For the most part, the journals covered only five or six weeks.

By my rough calculations, this means that every week, on average, each student experienced 2 or 3 instances where racist commentary or actions were displayed.

As Feagin noted in his talk, the 12th annual Butler A. Jones Lecture, this is a remarkably different picture presented by repeated polls that show racist attitudes are fading from American life. When asked to explain the disparity, Feagin had a simple answer: in the polls, “whites lie.”

For Feagin, the notion that virulent racism is dead in America is “preposterous”. It has basically just taken up residence underground, or backstage, a fact he says is “ignored by the media and those in policy-making circles.”

A professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Feagin provided handouts to an audience of 125 or so that included CSU faculty and students, and numerous community leaders. The handouts illustrated several distinct situations where backstage racism was on display, including scenes taking place in the presence of African Americans and other nonwhite Americans. He said that about 75% of all incidents focused on blacks as the objects of prejudice, but that Jews and Hispanics, especially Mexicans, were also popular targets.

Feagin said he was particularly disturbed because his subjects were often moving among and were themselves, the best and the brightest, America’s future leaders. He noted how easily bias was assumed among groups of whites, even when the groups included strangers.

Feagin attributed this social illness to a variety of factors: the ahistorical nature of the Americans that declines to understand what 15 generations of white privilege has created in our society; the relatively weak enforcement of civil rights laws [“hardly enforced at all in housing”]; the wholesale absence of antiracism education; and a desire to preserve ill-gotten privileges. For Feagin, reparations are not a question of if but how much and why is it taking so long?

In response to a question about what black people can do amidst these circumstances, Feagin suggested amending the old maxim of eternal vigilance. He talked about leadership roles played by blacks in the multi-racial Abolitionist and Civil Rights Movements (“Frederick Douglass, not Abraham Lincoln, was the greatest American of the 19th century”) and said that, “Eternal Organization is the Price of Liberty.”

Feagin’s appearance was in honor of former CSU professor Butler A. Jones, a member of the team that provided essential research for Gunnar Myrdal’s seminal work, An American Dilemma. The work of Jones and other black scholars on the team, said Feagin, led to a complete re-framing of Myrdal’s work. Myrdal had begun investigating the Negro problem in America but concluded that there is a white problem.

Feagin’s lifelong and continuing research demonstrates the continuing scourge.

Feagin has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is a past president of the American Sociologist Association.
* originally published at Cleveland OH in The Eastside News, April 2007.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Imus show was intentional assault on all black women*

America is once again wrestling with the fault lines of race, gender, class and free speech, courtesy of schlock jock Don Imus' stupidity, bigotry, and crassness.

Unless your unit has just returned from its third tour of duty in Iraq, you have surely heard the uproar over Imus' despicable remarks about members of Rutgers University's women's basketball team, which lost the NCAA Championship game here last week at Quicken Loans Arena. Imus made his remarks the next morning in a segment on his radio talk show where he and his producer discussed the Rutgers players.

In their exchange the two men referred to the young Rutgers women as looking "rough", being "hardcore ho's" and "wearing tattoos". It was an escalating conversation of ridicule that culminated in Imus' characterization of the women student athletes as "some nappy headed 'ho's".

Imus has a long track record of racist, sexist and ethnic crudity. His show once labeled tennis star Venus Williams an "animal" and he has routinely ridiculed and degraded people of color, especially women, as unattractive or otherwise "less than".

Imus first made only a brief and perfunctory half-apology on his show, but has shown increasing amounts of contrition in a vain attempt to keep pace with growing calls for his firing. The two-week suspensions imposed by his CBS radio network and its simulcast partner MSNBC have not ended calls for his dismissal.

Imus, who is 66, honed his insult-talk style here in Cleveland in 1970, where he developed both a large following and an assortment of critics who called for a boycott.

Holland Cooke, a news talk industry analyst with Cleveland-based McVay Media, recalls that in 1970, when Imus first left Cleveland, a newspaper headline blared "Garbagemouth Goes to Gotham".

Cooke, who says "there are half a dozen reasons why this guy ought to be fired", thinks the decision will ultimately be based on the money involved. "His employers are hoping that Americans' notoriously short attention spans will fade", he says. The highly profitable show has already taken a hit as several advertisers, including Procter & Gamble and Staples, have canceled.

Of all the issues ignited by Imus, race has been the easiest to discuss. Virtually everyone has denounced Imus for his racial and ethnic crudity but his denunciation of essentially all black women, especially those of richer hue, through his insult of the young Rutgers women, seems relatively glossed over.

This is no small matter, as it is symptomatic of the place accorded black women in American culture. It raises questions again about the effects of mostly male black rappers who routinely denigrate black women with language far worse than that employed by Imus. In fact, Imus himself, along with some of his more vocal supporters, claims that a double standard is being applied to his conduct.

(The extended nature of the rap industry makes it more difficult for civil rights advocates to target, but cable station BET might be a good place to start.)

Barbara Danforth, president and CEO of the Cleveland YWCA, condemns both the rappers and Imus. Her organization has the twin goals of eradicating racism and empowering women. Danforth and her daughter saw the Rutgers young women from courtside, and were enormously impressed with their poise, fortitude, and achievements.

Danforth says that she would have counseled the young women not to meet with Imus. "He does not deserve a meeting with the team." She would further advise the young scholar-athletes that "they have to stand up and be proud of who they are."

"Incredulous" that Imus received a mere two-week suspension, Danforth was also appalled to discover that Imus has the economic strength, built upon his following, to speak as he does. She sees him "standing on the racist, sexist foundation this country is built on".

Danforth agrees that "most folks go immediately to the racist nature" of Imus' remarks. This speaks, she says, "to the invisibility of gender-related issues in America. Most people don’t think there are gender issues in this country, that there is no glass ceiling anymore."

Danforth notes that "the meaning of a message can change depending on the messenger. Words are very hurtful, very powerful." She wishes that Imus had picked on somebody his own size, because black teens struggle against so many hurdles already."

But bullies are astute at picking their targets, and who is less powerful in America than young women of color? Where are their defenders?

When black men are as attuned to systemic attacks upon black women as women as they are to attacks upon themselves, attacks on all black people will diminish.
* originally published at Cleveland OH in The Eastside News, April 2007.

Councilwoman's outburst symptomatic of deeper issues*

It is hard to know what to make of Sabra Pierce Scott's verbal explosion last week at a city council caucus meeting. The Glenville area representative lambasted her white colleagues for not stepping up and sharing the blame she and her fellow black council members are receiving from constituents. Piling on are editorial writers at the Call and Post, the city's oldest black newspaper, now under the direction of George Forbes, editorial boss disguised as chief legal counsel.

The criticism revolves around the city's inability to stem the decay raging in many neighborhoods. The devastation has been wreaked by predatory criminals. Some wear oversized clothing and pack guns; others wear suits and offer easy mortgage money on impossible terms. When you add in a hostile justice system, a population marginalized by inferior educational opportunities, and the earliest and greatest vulnerability to the consequences of globalization, your local councilperson appears to be the closest official to assault in the face of so much indiscriminate and impersonal oppression.

Black city council people are perhaps too busy dodging these verbal brickbats to notice that over in Slavic Village the same systemic events are playing out. There the victims are older, white "ethnics" repeatedly burglarized, brutalized and ultimately exterminated by neighborhood thugs. It was charitable of Scott's white colleagues not to point out that neither she nor other black council people were heard to denounce Slavic Village terror.

But that is how we are organized in this town. Plain Dealer columnist Feagler is the designated mourner for the good old days when black people knew their place and hard working whites could harbor dreams of moving up and out. On alternate days, Plain Dealer columnist Fulwood is charged with deciphering what the black folks are doing and explaining that to the rest of us. And once a week, or whenever he deems it useful, Forbes directs the Call and Post to administer a race-based beat-down on whatever target he designates.

Meanwhile, the suburban puppet masters who still control all the key institutions sit around scratching their heads and contemplating whether regionalism or total abandonment is the answer.

Ladies and gentlemen, as a dear friend of mine likes to say, this is a "stuck fight": everybody is right, everybody wants to win, and nobody is willing to step aside and take a larger and more critical view. We have each become comfortable in our afflictions.

All of these public players -- whether officials, industry leaders, or opinion shapers -- are acting out roles in a disaster epic. Most are being paid handsomely for their roles in deflecting attention from the seriousness of the problems. Their collective pontification and caterwauling mask the giant sucking sound of a city, county and region headed down the drain amid a chorus of irrelevant accusations about who and what got us into this mess.

It is way past time to stop this nonsense. The finger pointing and moaning need to stop.

The city has a mayor in Frank Jackson who appears to understand this. He listens, analyzes, speaks softly and without exaggeration, and then acts. He is leading by example. Will we listen? Will we follow? Will he move fast enough? Are we ready to abandon our roles in this stuck-fight farce?
* originally published at Cleveland OH in The Eastside News, April 3-6, 2007.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


I set this blog space up more than 26 months ago. On the occasion of my first post I can do no better than to cite a favorite Sunday School teacher's favorite quote: "[Now] is the accepted time." (2 Corinthians 6:2)