Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Persistence of Racism

Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness explains how the war on drugs has not only targeted young black men, putting more African-Americans in jail today than were enslaved in the 1850s, and demonstrates how going to prison is just the first step in what then becomes a lifelong pattern of absolutely legal discrimination.  Her arguments and evidence are compelling and thorough, and I hope her analysis will contribute to the development of exactly the kind of mass social movement against inequities in the criminal justice system and our obsession with an inaccurate understanding of drug-related crime.

But what I find most compelling about the book is its clear portrait of the persistence of racism despite decades of efforts to educate and persuade Americans to reject their deeply-held prejudices.  As Alexander suggests, we've all learned that we're not supposed to be racist, and few of us would acknowledge that we treat others differently if they look different from us.  She cites studies that show clear patterns of racial bias, even in people who are sure they're colorblind.  (You can try the tests for yourself online.) As Alexander rightly points out, no one is really colorblind, nor should we aim to be.  Difference matters, and overcoming our habit of making assumptions based on race is incredibly difficult.  Doing so on the level of a whole culture is even more challenging. 

As someone who's been teaching college courses on multicultural literature for more than 20 years, and who has long believed that doing so would make some kind of difference, I found this book at once validating (yes, discrimination is real and significant) and depressing (if racism has simply gone into hiding behind seemingly neutral concepts like the war on drugs).  More than anything, I think it's important.  At a time when many Americans are entering discussions about inequality, the ideas Alexander lays out need to be part of the conversation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why Stories Matter

I believe in stories.  That's hardly surprising -- I'm an English professor, after all.  But my faith in stories, and in the act of storytelling, isn't just about Literature with a capital L.  Whether in research, spiritual life, relationships, or simply sorting out my own experiences, stories are rich, complex material.  We use stories to give meaning to what happens to us.  By translating experience into story, we connect individual lives with context and ideas.

So I was interested in the work Lee and Johanna Slivinske have done with stories as a tool in therapy with children.  In a way, the value of stories in therapy (with anyone, not just kids) seems obvious.  What's most interesting about the Slivinske's book, Storytelling and Other Activities for Children in Therapy (Wiley, 2011) is the variety of techniques and examples it offers.  They provide an explanation for why stories are useful and how they can be incorporated into therapy, but then they have pages and pages of examples, geared to a wide range of issues. 

Even for those of us who don't work as therapists, this concept seems useful.  Storytelling happens more or less naturally in most of our lives, but I wonder how often we use it deliberately, as a tool?  I tell stories in the classroom all the time, though I can't say that I've been especially thoughtful or intentional about it.  How does storytelling fit into your work?  Into your life?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Religion: The Ties that Bind?

The argument that David Campbell and his co-author Robert Putnam make in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us seems contradictory.  On the one hand, they tell us, we see a sharp split between those for whom religion is a central and often politicized issue and those who have abandoned organized religion entirely, largely because they see it as too closely tied to conservative politics.  That part of the argument fits what seems to be a broader pattern of strong and in many ways uncrossable divides in American culture today.  We see a similar attitude toward politics, I think, as many younger people reject electoral politics because they see it as dysfunctional. On the other hand, they argue that religion unites us -- not because we agree about it.  Rather, they say, even those who remain committed to organized religion interact regularly, often intimately, with people from other religious backgrounds. 

In this sense, religion may parallel what has happened with race.  Racial divisions remain strong, and racism remains deeply embedded in American law and other social institutions (for more on that, come hear Michelle Alexander speak about "the new Jim Crow" on Tuesday evening).  Yet interracial marriage has become widely accepted, increasing numbers of Americans define themselves as mixed race, and many of us live and work in racially integrated communities.  As with race, the continuing significance and diversity of religion has become -- some would say it has always been -- a defining element of American culture. 

I'm not as optimistic as they are about what our interpersonal relationships will mean for religious tolerance in America.  For too many, the certainty that their beliefs are the only right and true way -- and that their views should determine American law and public policy -- remains far too powerful.