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Parents Are Sacrificing Their Social Lives on the Altar of Intensive Parenting
Over the past few decades, American parents have been pressured into making a costly wager: If they sacrifice their hobbies, interests, and friendships to devote as much time and as many resources as possible to parenting, they might be able to launch their children into a stable adulthood. While this gamble sometimes pays off, parents who give themselves over to this intensive form of child-rearing may find themselves at a loss when their children are grown and don’t need them as much.Prior generations didn’t need to be as preoccupied with their children’s well-being or future. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1960s, my brothers and I were as luxuriously removed from our parents’ minds as they were from ours. It was the gilded age of childhood freedom. My brothers and I consumed hours of television and ate staggering amounts of sugar—for breakfast. We vanished each summer morning, biked back for lunch, and then disappeared again ’til dusk. My parents also had a life. My mother played mah-jongg weekly with “the girls” and went out every weekend with my father without calling it “date night.” My dad played squash on weekends at the downtown YMCA and didn’t seem to worry about whether my brothers and I felt neglected.The amount of time they spent on activities and with people outside the family was common for that era. The sociologist Paul Amato has found that couples in my parents’ generation “had 51 percent more friends, were 39 percent more likely to share friends with their spouse, had 168 percent more organizational memberships, and were 133 percent more likely to share those affiliations with their spouse” than those born in 1960 and after.My parents were likely more relaxed than the generations that followed them because they could assume that their kids would do better than they did, just as they were doing better than their own parents. “From 1950 to 1970, the yearly income of the median worker more than doubled, and those at the bottom of the earnings distribution saw their earnings increase even more,” writes the Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper in her book, Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times. In addition, “the number of low-income students attending universities nearly doubled between 1965 and 1971.” There was still poverty in rural areas, and racial discrimination still restricted opportunities for many. However, segregation was slowly decreasing, and income distribution was becoming more equal. Outside agriculture and temporary-work industries, employers typically provided health care, and many jobs guaranteed a pension.But as inflation, economic stagnation, and fears of communism rose in the 1970s, notions of restructuring the economy took hold, including a free market unhindered by government regulation. By the 1980s, businesses and government were well on their way to ending the social contract that benefited Baby Boomers’ parents. The Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker described this transformation as the “great risk shift”—where economic and health risks were “offloaded by government and corporations onto the increasingly fragile balance sheets of workers and their families.”For example, from 1980 to 2004, “the number of workers covered by a traditional … retirement pension decreased from 60 percent to 11 percent,” Cooper writes in Cut Adrift. Job-based health coverage provides far less protection to U.S. workers and their dependents than it once did. Today, the average middle-class married couple with children in the U.S. works an additional 15 weeks of full-time employment each year compared with couples in 1975.“The financial and emotional burden on families has grown in ways that were almost unimaginable just a half-century ago,” writes the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg. Parents’ anxiety about financial security and the world that awaits their kids pushedAmerican households into a frenzy of work and parenting, seemingly causing many to jettison friendships and activities in order to create more time to supervise and advance their kids.[Read: Intensive parenting is now the norm in America]The economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti explain that the turn to intensive parenting was, in part, a reaction to rising economic inequality. In their book, Love, Money and Parenting, they argue that in countries with high social inequality, such as the U.S. and China, parents are required to do far more to support and prepare their children, because business and government do so little. This reality stands in contrast to low-social-inequality countries that have more family-friendly policies, such as Germany and Sweden. Looked at another way: If I don’t have to worry about paying for good-quality preschool, high school, or college; if I know that my child will be okay even without a college degree, because there are plenty of decent jobs when they leave home; if I know I won’t be bankrupted by my child’s illness—let alone my own—then it’s easier for me to relax and hang out with my friends.According to one study, the average number of close relationships that adults had with friends, co-workers, and neighbors decreased by a third from 1985 to 2004. Meanwhile, the number of hours they spent with children skyrocketed. From 1965 to 2011, married fathers nearly tripled their time (from 2.6 hours to 7.2 hours a week) with children, while married mothers increased their time by almost a third (from 10.6 hours to 14.3 hours a week) in the same time period, according to a 2013 report by Pew. In that time, single mothers almost doubled the amount of time spent with their children, from 5.8 hours a week in 1985 to 11.3 hours a week in 2011, while single fathers went from less than one hour a week in 1985 to about eight hours a week in 2011.Spending more time with children has been a trend over the past half century, not just in the U.S. but in other wealthy Western countries. However, many of those societies have social policies that don’t force parents to create this time by giving up their social lives. Instead “many Scandinavian and Western European countries have obtained shorter standard work weeks through legislation or collective bargaining,” according to a 2020 report by the Brookings Institution.[Read: Work-life balance has to include friendship]Friendships matter. Although countless studies report their value in maintaining physical and emotional well-being, it seems that when American parents feel crunched, their friendships tend to get sacrificed. In many ways, today’s parents seem to hope their children will provide the meaning and support prior generations of parents received from adult friends, hobbies, and organizational memberships. According to a survey conducted in 2012 by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, nearly three-quarters of parents of school-age children said they hoped to be best friends with their children when they’re grown. This hope is being fulfilled, to some degree. Studies show that parents and their adult children have far more frequent and affectionate contact than they did only four decades before.In the same way the concept of “soul mate” evolved to capture a romantic ideal, being best friends with your child captures a parental ideal: that all the love and resources a parent pours into a child are paid off by the child’s shared desire for closeness. However, parents’ expectations of extensive intimacy with their children can create problems as well—especially when their kids are just a text away. The desire for parents to respect boundaries is one of the most common complaints I hear from adult children in my therapy practice, where I specialize in intergenerational conflict and estrangement.Parents who have sacrificed their friendships for their child may find themselves lonely and isolated when the child withdraws, wants more space, or rejects the parents—realities with sometimes grave consequences, because loneliness and social isolation are associated with increased risks of premature death, dementia, heart disease, depression, and suicide. According to the CDC, nearly one-fourth of adults ages 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated today, and more than one-third of adults ages 45 and older report feeling lonely. The historian Stephanie Coontz, the author of The Way We Never Were, explained in an email: “The neglect of parents’ own social networks and other adult relationships can make them too reliant on their kids for support and stimulation, leaving them with fewer outside interests when the kids move out or aren’t as attentive as the parents want them to be.”Today's parents have withdrawn from friends and organizational memberships for many reasons—the norm of intensive parenting is just one of them. (And it’s worth noting that not everyone has the resources to parent intensively, though it’s become a highly valued strategy across classes.) Policies and practices around work and family life have failed to keep pace with changes in women’s economic roles. More and more, households depend upon the incomes of two earners, leaving limited time for activities beyond work. American parents are working longer and harder than ever with less and less to show for it. Given these harsh realities, it’s not surprising that in a report by the Council on Contemporary Families, the University of Texas at Austin sociologist Jennifer Glass and colleagues found that American parents were ranked least happy among the 22 OECD countries they studied.Parents are spending more time than ever with their children because our kids matter very much to us and—hopefully—we do to them. “Childhood has become the last bastion of kindness, the last place where we may find more love in the world than there appears to be,” write the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor, in On Kindness. “Indeed, the modern obsession with child-rearing may be no more and no less than an obsession about the possibility of kindness in a society that makes it harder and harder to believe in kindness.” Yet relying too much on relationships with children to meet our emotional and social needs can be unfair to the children and detrimental for the parent.Happiness is a resource best drawn from multiple wells. Many countries keep the reservoirs of their citizens protected with social policies that allow them to relax and spend time not only with children but also with hobbies, communities, and friends.We would be wise to do the same.
Late-Night Classical Radio Host
The first thing you need is a voice.One someone can fall asleep to.Can sleep through. Wordstwinkling in faint starburstsof static. Your timbre must sottothe way a library book smellslike the mausoleum of Erato.You must bring a thermos—an old metal one, dinged.Fill it with quote-unquotecoffee but drinkslowly. Before 3, you’ll have tosay Saint-Saens without slurring.Oh, and you’ll need to know Italian,of course. Or, at least, how to pronounceit—those hard c’s in concerti.When you arrive, take off winterand hang it on the hookby the door. Your woolsocks on the ancient greencarpet will remind you of a long-agodream in which you were an armyof one marching across Elysia.The studio’s wood panelingwill one day give you a splinteryou’ll suck out duringthe flute menuet of Bizet’s“L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2.”You’ll get used to the scheduleof sleeping through the day,only to wake as the the sun setslike a bald man’s headunder a hat. You’ll prepare for your shiftby stuffing cotton ballsin your mouth and saying catgut lute five times fast.You’ll do this because you knowthere are only a fewwho’ll listen to you.And this, you think,is good practicefor the afterlife.
The Problem With Investigating Each Police Killing in Isolation
Aviation deaths once looked like an intractable problem. Then the federal government began probing every plane crash with an eye toward preventing future loss of life. Our skies got much safer as a result. A similar approach could reduce police killings. A federal agency should investigate every single killing and significant injury caused by American police officers, who have long killed people at higher rates than cops in many other wealthy democracies.Police killings and protests against them have loomed large in United States politics for at least the past seven years. Right now the nation is focused most closely on the trial of Derek Chauvin, who infamously knelt on George Floyd’s neck, even as new protests erupt in Minneapolis over the killing of Daunte Wright, who was shot to death by a police officer who says she intended to discharge her taser. On Thursday, the city of Chicago released footage of the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.[Read: The problem with police-shooting videos]The number of police killings of unarmed people appears to have dropped since The Washington Post began keeping track in 2015. Officers killed 95 that year, then 54 in 2019 and 55 in 2020, according to the newspaper’s database. The drop might represent progress; it might also be a fluke. Regardless, total fatal shootings by on-duty police show no such decline. From 2015 to 2019, the newspaper recorded just under 1,000 such incidents a year nationwide; last year’s total was 1,021.Officialdom’s primary response to police shootings and other uses of deadly force is currently backward-looking and legalistic. Local authorities review a killing to determine whether laws and department policies were followed. The most egregious police killings renew protests that succeed in generating attention, statements of concern from corporations, and gestures of solidarity from progressives, but not in reducing police killings. That cycle fuels anger, fear, polarization, and civic dysfunction, including occasional riots, with cultural effects that most Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, progressives, and libertarians dislike. Most everyone would benefit from more constructive responses all around.A faction within the Black Lives Matter movement is proposing potentially valuable policy changes at the local level. Well-researched initiatives such as Campaign Zero and 8 Can’t Wait would encourage community oversight of cops, more restrictive policies toward the use of force, and other specific reforms that appear likely to save lives. But among fellow activists, they are losing mindshare to another faction that advocates for defunding the police, a nonstarter among the broader public. “The only thing most people can seem to agree on—even at the height of the protests after Floyd’s death—is that they’re against the idea of defunding the police,” FiveThirtyEight reported recently in an assessment of survey data. “And this remains true today, even among Black Americans and Democrats.”The most constructive way that the federal government responds to avoidable loss of life is arguably in its treatment of aviation. Whenever a plane crash occurs, big or small, headline-grabbing or obscure, a team of experts is dispatched to reconstruct exactly what happened. The aim isn’t to advance a legal process or punish wrongdoers, but to figure out which changes, if any, could prevent it from happening again.“Aviation is safe in large part because it learns from its disasters,” my colleague James Fallows, himself a recreational pilot, has argued. The NTSB’s painstaking collection and evaluation of evidence after each accident can take months or even years, but the investigations yield insights that save lives. “From the dawn of commercial aviation through the 1990s,” Fallows writes, “1,000 to 2,000 people would typically die each year in airline crashes. Today, the worldwide total is usually about one-tenth that level.”What if every police killing triggered that sort of response?Focusing “on only the immediate causer” of a police killing “and the narrow time frame that defines his actions” is inadequate, the University of Virginia law professor Barbara E. Armacost argued in the Ohio State Law Journal, because “the killing of unarmed civilians by police results from multiple causes, both human and systemic, that set the stage for the tragic moment when the shot was fired.” A broader, NTSB-style approach would not ignore any factors.[Read: In one year, 57,375 years of life were lost to police violence]Paul Heaton, an economist who analyzes the criminal-justice system, argued in a 2017 essay that an NTSB for police killings would offer many advantages over the status quo. Perhaps the most significant is the ability a federal agency would have to learn from incidents all over America. “Often system-level factors that contribute to unwanted outcomes are only apparent after aggregating across multiple incidents, each of which appear unique and idiosyncratic when viewed in isolation,” he wrote, noting that “each locality has a limited set of incidents from which to draw useful lessons,” while “aggregation of information can likely produce better insights.”Another advantage, he argued, is that a federal agency’s investigative protocols could be consistent from case to case—unlike a local district attorney who, in deciding whether to seek the conviction of a police officer “is making procedural decisions in real time while investigating an incident that differs in important ways from more routine investigative business.”Finally, an NTSB-like approach would be separate from the criminal process. As Heaton wrote: The current investigative paradigm focuses almost exclusively on whether use of police force was legally justified, which is an adversarial approach that discourages open sharing of information. Moreover, it fails to recognize that many incidents that could be perceived as legally defensible—such as situations in which officers mistakenly believe themselves to be in imminent physical danger—are undesirable from a societal perspective, and in some cases can be prevented. An NTSB-style investigation wouldn’t preclude criminal charges for police, any more than it prevents the criminal prosecution of a pilot who drank on the job before a plane crash. But adding a neutral, fact-finding agency separate from the legal process would produce transparent recommendations even when an officer was acquitted or a DA declined to file charges.During her presidential campaign, Vice President Kamala Harris aired an idea much like the one Heaton outlined. She vowed to create “a National Police Systems Review Board, which would collect data and review police shootings and other cases of severe misconduct, and work to issue recommendations and implement safety standards based on evidence revealed in these reviews.”Some skeptics doubt that a proposal of this sort is politically viable. Others question whether it would overextend federal authority. Laurie Robinson, a criminologist at George Mason University and co-chair of the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, told the Marshall Project that “it would be unusual, as opposed to NTSB's power over a regulated interstate business, to provide this kind of power over a very local function.” To work, the proposed federal agency would require power to compel cooperation in its fact-finding. (Reflecting a focus on prevention only, parts of an NTSB investigation are inadmissible in judicial proceedings.) But even if states and localities retained all other control over policing policy, an NTSB-style agency could do good merely by gathering data; improving transparency; distilling insights and best practices; and keeping police brass, lawmakers, and the public informed. Plus, everyone who cares about decreasing the number of people cops kill every year would have something to focus on beyond a process of criminal accountability ill-suited to bringing about progress.Early on, perhaps a mere fraction of jurisdictions would follow federal investigators’ advice. But if those jurisdictions saw sustained declines in police killings, their example would be powerful.Current investigations of police killings are neither independent nor broad enough in scope to determine whether many shootings could have been avoided, nor are they oriented around using findings in individual cases to identify patterns that would save lives nationwide. We must either change our approach or continue to allow preventable police killings, costing lives and undermining faith in the criminal-justice system. An NTSB for police killings could solve those problems.Let’s try it.
Who Wants to Watch Black Pain?
In the trailer for Amazon’s new horror series, Them, Diana Ross’s “Home” soundtracks a tender scene: A Black husband and wife in the 1950s survey their new house in wonder and dance in the living room with their two daughters. “When I think of home / I think of a place where there’s love overflowing,” Ross sings. But, as in the song, the tenor of the trailer changes. We learn that the Emory family has moved to a white part of Compton, where residents don’t take kindly to the demographic shift. “They came from someplace worse. We’ll have to make this place worse,” one neighbor says. A montage of racist harassment follows: White classmates make ape noises at one Emory daughter; golliwog dolls hang from the family’s roof; a church is set ablaze.In response to the trailer, many Black viewers lamented what they saw as an industry pattern of exploiting Black pain. “Black trauma is just entertainment for black hollywood filmmakers and white execs,” the writer Berneta L. Haynes tweeted, echoing criticisms aimed at other recent horror works such as the HBO series Lovecraft Country and the film Antebellum. The outcry only grew after Them, created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe, premiered last weekend. In a pan for Vulture, Angelica Bastién called the show “one of the most anti-Black pieces of pop culture” she had seen in recent years. For NPR, Aisha Harris argued that “Them suffers from the same predicament that has arisen in the wake of Black people becoming hashtags in death—the public knows far more about their last moments on Earth than all the moments that made up their life before.”[Read: What ‘Lovecraft Country’ gets wrong about racial horror]Many of the specific scenes that Bastién, Harris, and other critics reference are indeed gratuitous and upsetting. Much of the terror that Them’s Black characters experience—sexual assault, murder, racist slurs—is heavy-handed, without the benefit of clear supernatural elements to blunt some of its force. (More on the show later.) But beyond the particulars of Amazon’s clumsy new offering, these criticisms point to an underlying fatigue with pop culture in which the villain is racism itself. This fatigue has fueled a kind of genre creep, in which works of horror are grouped with productions as formally disparate as historical dramas about slavery and contemporary road-crime films under the impossibly broad banner of “Black trauma porn.” At its most reductive, this framing risks penalizing Black horror for a genre hallmark: graphic depictions of violence.Still, as Harris notes, such depictions can never be fully divorced from the world they exist in. Them debuted during the still-ongoing trial of the former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. The weekend the show premiered, police in the same state killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a routine traffic stop. In addition to the video footage of Floyd’s and Wright’s deaths, the past decade has been filled with nearly inescapable images of anti-Black violence, scenes that have no narrative purpose, no resolution. As the horror scholar Tananarive Due told me, “Living with the reality that someone could arbitrarily kill you in broad daylight with witnesses and there would be no justice … is sort of a living, breathing horror.” Given the relentlessness of those daily threats, it’s no wonder that many Black viewers in America aren’t keen on watching a series they feel turns their daily fears into entertainment.Black horror thus faces a distinct paradox: The genre has long been a valuable tool for creators of different backgrounds to process their traumas, and for audiences to reckon with their own. Some Black writers and producers in America use horror and science fiction as a lens through which to examine the grotesquerie of the country’s racist systems and history (Jordan Peele, for example, made Get Out after the killing of Trayvon Martin). But productions that engage with that real-life terror can, at times, feel more like brutal reenactments of senselessness than purposeful works of art, unintentionally compounding some Black viewers’ traumas. “Horror is one of those genres where you can have a movie where everybody dies at the end,” said Due, the executive producer of the 2019 documentary Horror Noire and a lecturer at UCLA. “But as a Black horror artist, I have to ask myself, Who would that be for?” As more Black creators in Hollywood get the chance to tell horror stories following decades of exclusion, this paradox is going to become only more pronounced.Historically, genre works by white creators tend not to raise questions of intended audience in the same way that works by Black storytellers do. That’s part of the banal reality of white supremacy in Hollywood, which positions white viewers, and white characters, as the default. For instance, a slasher film featuring white protagonists can be viewed on its own terms. But works by Black creators (such as the recent Netflix sci-fi short film Two Distant Strangers) invite more speculation about what social critique their creators are attempting to convey, and on whose behalf, regardless of authorial intent. In the case of Them, the sheer intensity and meaninglessness of the cruelty on display lends credence to arguments that Little Marvin didn’t anticipate how the show might affect Black audiences, many of whom view it as a bloodied funhouse mirror of an already-horrifying reality.[Read: What the ‘Hollywood Jim Crow’ looks like today]Black artists in America have been imbuing stories of quotidian terror with supernatural elements for more than a century. As Due noted, W. E. B. Du Bois published a short science-fiction story, “The Comet,” in 1920 alongside the essays in his Darkwater collection. The story follows a Black man who saves a white woman amid natural disaster—and still ends up having to fear that her family will lynch him afterward. Many films in the first half of the 20th century depicted Black people as monstrous figures haunting white people, but that slowly began to change in the ’60s and ’70s. George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead cast Duane Jones as its lead, frequently identified as the first Black man to play a hero in a horror movie. Following a suite of flashy blaxploitation releases, Rusty Cundieff’s 1995 anthology film, Tales From the Hood, tied together short horror tales through the experience of three drug dealers meeting a funeral director. In quick succession, the movie tackled racist policing, the Ku Klux Klan, and gang violence; it also became a cult classic. But it took the success of Get Out to open the door for Cundieff’s sequel more than 20 years later.The enormous success of Peele’s film, which won the 2018 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and grossed $255 million globally, brought industry-wide attention to horror and science fiction made by Black creators, who were finally seeing institutional support and larger audiences. In recent years, studios have announced a Candyman sequel from Nia DaCosta, the TV adaptation of Lovecraft Country from Misha Green, Peele’s Us and his CBS Twilight Zone reboot, and others.[Read: What the ‘Twilight Zone’ reboot is missing]The notion that many viewers are already tired of Black horror about racism is alarming to Due, who has been publishing horror fiction since 1995 and wrote the introduction to Get Out’s annotated screenplay. “We just kicked the door open,” she said. “I always tell my students, it feels like the current renaissance we’re seeing right now with Black horror and also science fiction … started just five minutes ago.” To her, it’s too early to be exhausted by a body of work that’s still finding its groove. “We’re just pulling out of that muck of misrepresentation and invisibility,” she said of Black people’s role in horror more broadly. At the same time, Due recognizes that many stories will understandably drive Black viewers away.Indeed, I was apprehensive about diving into Them, even before the most recent cycle of police-brutality-related news. Quite frankly, I am tired. But the series does have some high points. Them is visually stunning, and its portrait of 1950s Compton is full of rich hues, and the Emory family is lit to bring out the depth of all the actors’ skin tones. Danger creeps in slowly at first, beginning in the pilot when Lucky Emory (played by Deborah Ayorinde) sees a disclaimer on the mortgage for the house that her husband, Henry (Ashley Thomas), has chosen for their family: No one with “Negro blood” is to occupy the home.Unlike horror works that grapple with racism in its myriad forms, Them is animated by a specific manifestation—housing segregation—which gives the story both narrative and spatial focus. Little Marvin’s portrayal of the laws that enforced housing segregation is meticulous. Soon after the Emorys arrive in Compton, terror begins to emanate from and surround their suburban home. When the younger Emory daughter, Gracie (Melody Hurd), sensed a strange figure living in the house, I hoped Them would tie in elements of Black American lore about “haints”—the Southern-tradition ghosts that also appear in fictional works such as Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.But instead of deepening its story with thoughtful references to past works of Black horror, Them’s most unnerving scenes feature everyday 1950s racism or add only small genre tweaks to it. White people gather to discuss their neighborhood’s “Negro problem”; police officers threaten to run the Emorys out by any means necessary; minstrel performers surprise Henry at work. At one point, neighbors pour gasoline on the Emorys’ lawn and set it on fire. When the camera zoomed out, I expected to see the familiar shape of a burning cross etched into the grass, but Them did manage to surprise me. Instead, the flames spelled out a whole phrase: NIGGER HEAVEN.I knew then that Them would be painful to watch not just because of its excessive violence, but also because it lacks any real subtlety or storytelling finesse. The show’s most contentious scene comes later, though, in its fifth episode, when white strangers simultaneously murder a Black infant and rape his mother. Notably, the episode is the only one directed by a Black person, Janicza Bravo, also the director of A24’s upcoming film Zola. Another wave of online reactions was sparked by a Los Angeles Times interview with Little Marvin that described some of the show’s most disturbing sequences, including the blinding and subsequent burning of a Black couple. (Although a lot of criticism on social media has been aimed at Waithe, who directed the much-maligned Queen & Slim, she didn’t write or direct any installments.)It’s hard to imagine any work, even a horror series, that could portray such spectacular anti-Black violence with nuance or grace. Though horror has been used to address the trauma of sexual assault in the past, especially in women-led productions, the specifics of Them’s murder-rape scene don’t cohere into a cathartic rendering simply because someone like Bravo is behind the lens. As Due told me, some of the smartest and most empathetic creators are especially mindful of how they portray physical harm enacted upon Black characters. In other words, it matters how creators deploy violence, not just whether it exists at all. Paraphrasing something that Peele himself once said, Due told me that creators should ask themselves whether anti-Black violence in their works feels “necessary and redemptive to the storytelling.”Unfortunately, too many recent works have failed to live up to that ideal. HBO’s overwrought Lovecraft Country (co–executive produced by Peele) deployed the literal monsters written by its bigoted namesake to both symbolize and enact Jim Crow–era racism, as I wrote last year. With its blend of monsters and magic, the show promised viewers fantastical catharsis, if not outright escapism. And yet, it ended by visiting an onslaught of violence with no real narrative value upon its Black characters. Last fall’s plantation-horror film Antebellum subjected its protagonist, Eden (Janelle Monáe), to even worse cruelty, flinging her from modern-day life to a setting meant to replicate the pre–Civil War South. As my colleague David Sims wrote, “The first 40 or so minutes of Antebellum are a ceaseless torrent of violence and abuse … The terrifying realities of slavery are reduced to horror-movie tropes.” Like Them, Antebellum points out the connections between historical and contemporary racism but has little else to say.[Read: The meaning of eyes and cameras in ‘Get Out’]By contrast, Get Out shows how Black horror can effectively combine gore and visceral commentary on race. The film indulges in genre tropes, to be sure, but it exercises caution in dealing physical trauma to Black characters. Crucially, it offers new visual language for discussing familiar subjects: The phrase the Sunken Place now functions as shorthand for a kind of everyday racist dystopia. Other beloved works, such as Leprechaun in the Hood and Bones, lean so far into their comedic elements that they soften the onscreen violence.While watching the most merciless moments of Them, moments in which pure racist violence is more menacing than any supernatural element, I found myself thinking not just about other Black viewers’ exasperation but also about something the director Nia DaCosta said last year. Speaking with Wired’s Jason Parham about her new adaptation of Candyman, out this summer, she said that adding layers about gentrification, police violence, and lynching was crucial to her process of reimagining the horror film. But she emphasized that the genre also has room for different kinds of Black stories: “I’d love to see Black people in horror films and in horror … that’s not just about this kind of trauma and pain, but can also be about other aspects of our existence.”
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An Ode to the Left Hand
Tim Lahan This article was published online on April 17, 2021.I raised the drumstick, brought it down, and a dreamworld opened beneath me.A dreamworld, to be clear, of incompetence. A dreamworld of crapness and debility. A slump in tempo, an abyss. I was sitting at my practice drum kit, attempting one of the signature moves of the late John “Bonzo” Bonham, of Led Zeppelin: triplets with a left-hand lead. Done properly, with the correct dosage of taste and power in each stroke, left-handed triplets will conjure an extraordinary kind of jazzy thunder. Done improperly, they sound like a wardrobe falling down stairs. When I lead with my right hand, my triplets are okay. Not Bonhamesque, not Bonzoid, but okay. But when I switch to the left …Being human, reader, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Righty or lefty, you know that if you lead with your nondominant hand, whether you’re brushing your teeth or dismantling an unexploded bomb, the clichés of maladroitness will swarm you: the fists of ham, the fingers of butter, the multiplicity of thumbs.Why this built-in asymmetry, this out-of-whack distribution of motor skills? The biology of handedness is complex. But the psychology, it seems to me, is pretty straightforward. It goes like this: Inside your nervous system lives a shadow person, a shadow you, shy and clumsy, dislocated, light-fearing, not nearly as good at things as you are. An underachiever who would very much like to be left alone. And you get in touch with this person, immediately and directly, by using your weaker hand.Work the left, say the sports coaches. Learn how to catch a ball, throw a punch, make a shot with your weaker hand. Shouldn’t the life coaches say it too? By summoning your gauche self, the muzzy and foot-dragging character who rises and sleeps with you, you’re doubling your capacities. Treat this character with a stern kindness, with a reproving warmth. Insist on discipline. Marvel, humbly, at the slowness of the progress.And if you—which is to say, I—can eventually pull off the sweet Bonzoid clatter of a clean left-handed triplet, then maybe, who knows, never say die, I can one day tackle the unfinished novel currently jutting out of my psyche like a lump of the Acropolis. They lurk on the shadow side, these possibilities. In the murk of the as-yet-untrained. In the cunning of the weaker hand.
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The Trumpy Republican Who Won in Biden Country
In 2015, in the Dallas suburb of Irving, the fates of two very different Texans collided.One was 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a precocious kid in a NASA T-shirt who had built a clock out of spare parts and brought it to school in a pencil case. His English teacher decided it might be a bomb, and the school called the police, who arrested Mohamed for bringing in a “hoax bomb.” Because Mohamed’s family was part of Irving’s large Muslim minority, many liberals saw this as a baseless case of Islamophobia.The other Texan was Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, a blond 44-year-old with Disney-princess bone structure. She defended Mohamed’s arrest on Facebook, then went on The Glenn Beck Program to repeat the “hoax bomb” lie and complain that the child hadn’t given police enough information. “We’ve heard more from the media than the child ever released to the police when we were asking him questions,” she said calmly.The controversy dragged obscure Irving into the national conversation. Yet another brown kid in a red state was being overpoliced. Yet another public official backed the police response. Within days, the news had reached the BlackBerry of President Barack Obama, who tweeted, “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House?”In the end, Mohamed was never charged, and he and his family moved to Qatar. As for Van Duyne: This past November, she was elected to the United States Congress.Her victory was a surprise—at least to some. Last year, President Donald Trump’s popularity among Texans was flagging, and Democrats in the state, who hoped to take control of the Texas House and win several congressional seats, thought diverse suburbs such as Irving would be reluctant to elect Trumplike Republicans. Van Duyne’s district—where the Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke beat Republican Senator Ted Cruz in 2018 while losing statewide—looked like one of their best opportunities. Democrats enrolled Van Duyne’s opponent, Candace Valenzuela, in the “Red to Blue” program, which aims to help Democratic candidates win Republican districts.But Republicans, including Van Duyne, won all the Texas seats Democrats had targeted, and the GOP maintained control of the state legislature. Van Duyne outperformed Trump, winning her district even as the then-president lost it to Joe Biden—one of the nine House Republicans to manage that feat. Democrats weren’t just beaten; they were beaten by the exact kind of candidate they thought voters were done with. The contest was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “most bitter loss,” as one Texas Republican strategist told Fox News.The outcome complicates the narrative about Texas that liberals like to tell: that the state is slowly but surely “turning blue”; that one day soon Texans will wake up, come to their senses, and become Democrats. Van Duyne’s victory suggests that her 2015 strategy of stoking fears of foreigners didn’t make her unelectable in a diverse, growing suburb—and may have even aided her. Trump may be gone, but Trumpism is very much alive.Van Duyne is in some ways a quintessential Texan, in that she’s not originally from there. She was born in upstate New York. Like droves of other northerners in recent decades, her family moved to the Dallas area when she was a teenager, for the warmer weather. (It’s a popular destination; my family also moved to a Dallas suburb when I was in middle school.)She paid her own way through Cornell University, in New York, and returned to Texas to work in marketing and communications. Shiek Shah, a former co-worker and longtime friend, calls Van Duyne intelligent and soft-spoken, a devoted mom and a diligent worker. She’s a good listener, he told me, who is willing to change her mind. Eventually, Van Duyne ran a marketing firm with her husband. (They’re now divorced.)Van Duyne’s spokesperson did not respond to interview or comment requests. Neither did Van Duyne’s ex-husband. But he did send me a newsletter published by her subdivision, Hackberry Creek, in which she tells a flattering story about how she got into politics. Van Duyne, who has a visually impaired daughter, wrote that she rallied the neighborhood to build a park so that her daughter and other kids would have a place to play. “Little did I know,” she wrote, “starting that effort would lead to people asking me to run for office.”[ Read: Newtown’s congresswoman takes on Marjorie Taylor Greene ]The less flattering origin story is this: Around 2002, Van Duyne and other homeowners in her subdivision organized to block a big new commercial development from coming to the area. Hackberry Creek is a “master-planned gated community” full of 3,000-square-foot houses with Jacuzzi tubs and plantation shutters, all set among “hillside vistas and winding creeks.” The residents were worried about trash and food odors drifting over from the proposed restaurants and stores, according to Herbert Gears, who was a city-council member at the time and favored the plan. Riled up by the dispute over the development with Gears, Van Duyne ran for city council in 2004 and won his seat. Beating an incumbent is rarely easy, but Van Duyne speaks with an unflappable Texas niceness, and had befriended everyone, including some of the most important Republicans in town. “She’s one of those types that people just like,” says Rick Barnes, the chair of the Republican Party of Tarrant County, which is partly represented by Van Duyne.Irving’s city council is unusually contentious. At one point, a former city-council member called me to complain about Van Duyne, then asked for their name to be taken out of this article because they were worried the congresswoman would seek revenge. Barnes described Van Duyne as “strong-willed,” and throughout her career, she has cast herself as a tough mom who never backs down. In 2005, a year after losing his council seat to Van Duyne, Gears became mayor, and the two proceeded to fight bitterly and constantly. Van Duyne opposed building apartments in Irving because, as she wrote in a 2008 Dallas Morning News op-ed, “in addition to the greater susceptibility to crime and increased traffic created by the high density of people in an apartment complex, many Irving residents are averse to apartments because of their long-term effects on the community … Will the apartments beautify the area or lower its aesthetic value?”In part, these were just the statements of a proud Irvingite convinced that there is nowhere better to be. “You get the people inside of Irving who don’t like it and complain about it,” she said in a 2015 speech. “But you go to New York, and they’re like, Oh you’re from Irving. Oh, that’s a great city. You’ve got DFW Airport, ExxonMobil …” But Van Duyne took her opposition to apartments a step further: She asked the city to hire a consultant to attack members of the Dallas city council who supported building apartments near Irving, according to Gears, who told the story to The Dallas Morning News years ago and repeated it to me recently.In 2011, Van Duyne defeated Gears to become the first female mayor of the 200,000-person city. As mayor, she developed a knack for getting people to believe in her, according to fellow council member John Danish, but also for shutting down projects she didn’t agree with. She refused to sign city ordinances if she’d voted against them, according to a 2015 profile by Avi Selk, a Washington Post journalist who was then at The Dallas Morning News. Selk, who covered Irving for the Morning News, sums up this period of Van Duyne’s term as “ineffectual.” “She didn’t accomplish any of the stuff she wanted to do,” he told me.A few years into her tenure, Van Duyne started to look beyond typical mayoral matters, such as cutting taxes by half a penny, and to the culture wars. Some Texas politicians were already flirting with Islamophobia: Republican Representative Louie Gohmert claimed in 2013 that “radical Islamists” were being “trained to act like Hispanic[s]” so they could sneak across the border. Trump had already spent years implying that President Obama was Muslim, and won widespread press coverage for it.“At that time, trashing on Muslims was very politically popular,” Gears told me.One local Facebook group, in particular, tended to attract posters who were both pro–Van Duyne and anti-Islamic, Selk told me. “It was just wall-to-wall racism,” he said. Several members of the Facebook group “absolutely feared and hated Muslims.” Though Van Duyne did not participate in the racist conversations, she did pop up occasionally to check in with constituents. And the tenor of the discussion meant Islamophobia became a “good issue” for her, Selk said.In 2015, Van Duyne seized on a claim, promoted by the conservative site Breitbart News, suggesting that a Muslim court in Irving was operating under Sharia law. She swiftly posted a condemnation of the idea on Facebook. “Recently, there have been rumors suggesting that the City of Irving has somehow condoned, approved or enacted the implementation of a Sharia Law Court in our City,” she wrote. “Let me be clear, neither the City of Irving, our elected officials or city staff have anything to do with the decision of the mosque that has been identified as starting a Sharia Court.”The “Sharia Law Court” was in fact a mediation panel for resolving disputes among Muslims in Dallas. These types of mediators exist for Christians and Jews too, and the area’s Islamic community said its panel complied with American laws. The fact-checking site Politifact rated “false” the claim that Muslims “attempted to establish the first Islamic Sharia court inside the United States in the town of Irving, Texas.”Nevertheless, Van Duyne went on Glenn Beck’s show to denounce the panel. “Equal treatment under the law doesn’t seem to exist,” Van Duyne told Beck. “I think you need to put your foot down and say, ‘This is America; we have laws here already.’ If you want to consult, if you want to arbitrate, that is well within our law … I’ve got no problem with it. But setting up a separate court—setting up separate law—is not anything.”Beck cut her off. “This is an actual court?”“Correct,” Van Duyne responded, inaccurately.Afterward, Van Duyne pushed the Irving city council to pass a resolution endorsing a Texas House bill that would bar “foreign” laws from superseding American laws. The measure was widely known as an “anti-Sharia” bill, and it thrilled the state’s far-right Republicans. It might strain credulity that a big-city mayor with an Ivy League education would actually believe that Sharia law was about to take over the state of Texas. To some, Van Duyne’s Sharia scaremongering seemed more savvy than sincere. “I think it’s a policy position that she already held, but then she may have pushed it further, such as through a vote in the city council, due to political aspirations,” says Mark Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University.Van Duyne framed her proposal as an issue of women’s rights. “When you have women whose testimony is equal to half that of a man’s, how can you defend that if that is happening in our country?” she asked at a 2017 forum. It’s hard to argue with that—which was, perhaps, exactly the point. The Dallas Observer has called Van Duyne “a Trumpist Republican before Trumpist Republicans existed.” And she did display a preternatural ability to play one of Trump’s favorite tunes: “Our nation cannot be so overly sensitive in defending other cultures that we stop protecting our own,” Van Duyne said at the forum.The “clock boy” incident, as it has come to be known, happened just a few months later. Soon, armed anti-Muslim protesters descended on the Islamic Center of Irving, citing, in part, the “Sharia court” flap as their motivation. They published the names and addresses of Irving Muslims, terrifying the community. Mohamed’s family sued Van Duyne for defamation, though the lawsuit against her would ultimately be dismissed. Van Duyne, as usual, stayed the course. When asked about Obama’s tweet in support of Mohamed, she told Beck, “It seems to be an underlying habit that he is going to second-guess police officers without any kind of information.”As mayor, Van Duyne had been visiting the Islamic Center, a massive white mosque with an emerald dome, once or twice a year. She would read for kids at the school there and attend Ramadan interfaith dinners, according to Raed Sbeit, a former board member of the mosque. Van Duyne’s friend Shah, who is of Indian descent, says that Van Duyne never expressed any xenophobic views toward him or around him. The incident with Mohamed, to him, was an example of a city leader displaying caution in an era of school shootings. Whatever the explanation, in 2015, Van Duyne stopped visiting the mosque. “Beth is not Beth when she first came to office,” Sbeit told me.[Read: The left’s answer to Trump is 6 foot 8 and wears shorts in February]That year, reporters went from writing stories about how Van Duyne was highlighting the “city’s ‘wins’” to writing stories about how she was “a hero for conservatives.” To get even more attention, she took another page out of the Trump playbook: Attack the media. When Selk was reporting his profile about Van Duyne for The Dallas Morning News, she deemed his questions about her home and work life inappropriate and refused to answer them. “She developed this Tea Party talking tour for months afterward, where she had a whole slide about me and my questions and lots of jokes about how I was probably romantically interested in her,” Selk told me. After the “Sharia court” incident, the Morning News columnist Steve Blow also wrote that Van Duyne had lied about him while on the Tea Party speaking circuit. “She was slamming the paper at every opportunity,” Selk said. “That was good politics too.”Van Duyne went after the people her constituency already didn’t like—the media, Muslims—and it paid off with growing exposure, more media attention, and ultimately bigger jobs. In 2017, Trump appointed her as a regional administrator within the Department of Housing and Urban Development, responsible for overseeing issues such as disaster recovery and economic development across Texas and four other states.Van Duyne wasn’t one of those reluctant career bureaucrats who held their nose as they did Trump’s bidding. She had been one of the few mayors of a large city to back his presidential campaign. After leaving HUD, she ran for Congress as a supporter of Trump’s policies, won his endorsement—and, last November, won the seat.A newly elected member of Congress who prevailed in a close race in a swing district like Van Duyne’s might be expected to try to acquire a moderate reputation in D.C. Unlike many freshman members of Congress, though, Van Duyne knows she won’t be facing the same voters next year. Because Democrats failed to win control of the Texas House, Republicans will have unilateral control over drawing district lines in the state, and are nearly certain to make Van Duyne’s district even more Republican ahead of the 2022 election. Her Trumpy, conservative reputation means she probably won’t be vulnerable in the next GOP primary, and with a more Republican-leaning district, she’ll be even less likely to be defeated by a Democrat, says Jones, the political scientist.She has acted accordingly, voting against certifying Pennsylvania’s election results, then criticizing President Biden for undoing Trump’s legacy. She’s even sparred with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter about who used to be the tougher waitress.Van Duyne’s gender makes her especially valuable to the Texas congressional delegation. Texas Republicans have always had trouble recruiting female candidates, and she’s only the third Republican woman from Texas to be elected to the House—and one of only two serving now. “In Texas, it’s difficult for anybody to defeat a sitting U.S. House member,” Jones says. “And Van Duyne, as only one of two women Republicans, is likely to be especially protected, in the sense that the GOP realizes it has a serious image problem.”I asked Barnes, the GOP chair, about the most common criticism of Van Duyne: that the way she made a name for herself, pretending to crack down on Sharia law, was not what a growing, diverse—and partly Muslim—area really wanted from its leader. “It may be that we are finding that it was more in line with what the citizens of the area wanted and desired out of their mayor … than may have become public at the time,” he said. Indeed, among Republicans in Texas, Trumpism’s appeal endures. Trump remains the most popular Republican politician in Texas among GOP voters—more popular than Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Senator Ted Cruz, or Senator John Cornyn. Van Duyne is “just reflecting what the Republican base thinks about Donald Trump, and that is that they’re very supportive of him,” Jones says.Ahead of last year’s election, Democrats had imagined that Trumpist candidates like Van Duyne would seem out of step with a changing Texas. But an ambitious single mother who has become a city-council member, a mayor, a regional housing administrator, and finally a U.S. representative is clearly not out of step. She is walking in precisely the right direction.
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What 2020 Taught Me About Deductibles
A little while ago, amid the timeless blur of pandemic lockdown, a calendar ping alerted me that April 15—Tax Day—was nigh. I had completely forgotten to set up an appointment with my accountant. Emailing him in a panic, I was relieved when he responded that he had a slot left the day before Saint Patrick’s Day. He wouldn’t be meeting clients in person this year, because of COVID-19, he explained, but we could go over my 2020 expenses on Zoom. (After our one-on-one, the IRS bumped the filing date to July, but I had no way of knowing that a reprieve was coming.) Opening the Documents folder on my computer, I began hunting for my “2020 Receipts” file, so I could prepare for our meeting.For 15 years, ever since I went freelance, I’ve scrupulously registered my work-related expenses, listing every meal, journey, performance, book, ball game, and pencil I pay for that could conceivably, legally, count as a deduction. My accountant has often praised the thoroughness of my records. Once, he even remarked that I would make a good accountant—which was flattering, but also a little humiliating. If you’re a freelancer, a “creative,” you like to think of yourself as having such a Bohemian sensibility that keeping precise financial records would be beyond you.[Monica Prasad: Filing your taxes is an expensive time sink. That’s not an accident.]I doubted that my accountant would praise my bookkeeping this time around. No matter how many times I scrolled up and down the Documents pane, no matter how many ways I entered Receipts 2020 (2020 Receipts? Finances 2020? 2020 Taxes?) in the search box, nothing turned up. I saw “Receipts 2019,” “Receipts 2018,” and even “Receipts 2010” leering at me from the screen, but no 2020. With a sense of dread, I had to admit that I had failed to create a financial record of the year. The awful truth hit me like a nightmare you have in college—you forgot to attend some class all term long, did none of the homework, and now are doomed to get an F. Waking in a cold sweat, you slowly comprehend that it was only a bad dream. But this was no dream. My hard drive was bare. I had failed 2020. In the past, my daily entry of deductibles had supplied the evidence of each year’s existence, though I hadn’t thought of it that way. Minus that evidence, how could I prove that I had participated in 2020 at all? No highlights glimmered in the retrospective haze. It was as if the year had deducted itself from my life.Leaning back in my desk chair, I took a breath. Maybe I had kept no record, but that did not mean that no record was out there. Nearly everything I pay for is purchased with a credit card, debit card, or automatic EFT payment, so I probably would be able to call up the missing months and reconstruct the year. I hoped.After belatedly creating a “2020 Receipts” document, three months into 2021, I opened my Chase Visa account, clicked on January 2020, and was reassured to see ranks of entries march out on parade, column after column. One by one, I herded them into their categories: public transportation, meals, culture.Why was that one taxi so expensive? I wondered. Oh, right—January 8. That was the ride to Porgy and Bess, at the Metropolitan Opera, four miles from the East Village, where I live. A generous friend had taken me to see it as a late birthday present. The humble, workaday set of Catfish Row had radiated life from the stage, more vital than the velvet-and-crystal precincts that surrounded it. I remembered the beauty of the cast, the power of their singing, the gorgeousness of the George Gershwin score. We went to a restaurant afterward called Cafe Fiorello, a place I’d first gone to in 1986, during a college summer break, after seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in Giselle.I moved along on the Chase screen. What was Le Petit Poulet—“the little chicken”—on the first page of February? Could that count as a deductible? Oh, yes. That was brunch with a friend who had wanted advice on starting a magazine. We’d gone there for French onion soup after strolling through an exhibition at the Morgan Library on the French literary rebel Alfred Jarry, a forerunner of the Dadaists. On the next page, a matinee of a new Tracy Letts show on Broadway, The Minutes, about a town-council meeting that descends into chaos when a member (Armie Hammer) digs up the town’s racist past. A lot of us had gone mostly to ogle Armie, but from the last row of the back balcony, he was just a speck. After, we had hurried across the street into a café, where we took up the play’s political themes. Everyone wanted to talk about the 2020 Democratic race. Who would be the nominee? Mayor Pete, Bernie, Amy Klobuchar? Surely not Joe Biden.[From the April 2021 issue: You won’t remember the pandemic the way you think you will]An unfamiliar charge popped up. “Ode to Babel”? Huh? Should I have disputed it? No—that was a Brooklyn cocktail lounge cum art gallery, where a friend of mine, a prolific podcaster, had shared her expertise over rum drinks—I was about to launch a podcast of my own, and needed advice. Next up … a giant order from my local Thai restaurant. How could I have been that hungry? Then I remembered—that was the week when my publisher sent a vetter, fluent in Italian, to my apartment to go over the galleys of a novel I’d translated. We had worked together for days, five feet apart, me in the study at the desktop computer, she at the kitchen table at a laptop—uninterrupted except by the food-delivery person buzzing up.When I advanced into March, the procession of rides, feasts, shows, exhibitions, and outings thinned. My translation sidekick had contracted COVID-19 that month. She recovered quickly, but by the middle of the month, tens of thousands of New Yorkers had caught the coronavirus, and the city went into lockdown. I had been eagerly awaiting the first New York City FC soccer game, but the season, of course, was canceled. I stopped taking taxis; stopped seeing shows, lectures, friends; stopped leaving my apartment, except to go to the drugstore or the grocery. The only public performances I attended all spring took place in my living room, every night at seven, when I threw open the front window and banged a spoon against a pan, joining the chorus of applause from the neighboring tenements, thanking the health-care workers who were putting themselves at risk to help the people of our city.As I clicked on, through April, May, June, July, August, September, the lists of charges narrowed and grew repetitive. Rite Aid, Key Food, Rite Aid, Key Food; ink, books, paper, Rite Aid; subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, and streaming services; drugstore, grocery store, drugstore. In normal years, despite my rigorous record-keeping, I need a couple of days to comb through the receipts, rack my brain for overlooked expenses, add everything up, double-check the math and the margins, and send the roundup to my accountant. But documenting 2020 took only a couple of hours. I scanned the pages and sent them off, and during our Zoom session, my accountant congratulated me. I had spent so much less than usual, he said, that even though I had fewer expenses, I would come out all right, tax-wise.I didn’t feel like rejoicing. I preferred the suspense of earlier tax seasons, when I would revisit the expenses I’d incurred and agonize over whether they would be enough to offset whatever my 1099s showed I had earned. I’d always been too busy—seeing something, interviewing someone, traveling somewhere—to keep track of my freelance income or gain any real sense of the tax load the IRS might ask me to bear.[Read: The 10-second tax return]In that moment, I realized that the deductions I had charted for so many years, always feeling cloddish for my meticulousness, always worrying that they were excessive, were not boring or extravagant. They were the carrying charges of culture, necessary additions to life, not frivolous subtractions from it. The black ant lines of text I had compiled dutifully for decades did not just mark transactions and amounts; they represented the people, places, events, encounters, and ideas that defined and colored each year, making it distinct. My deductions, I saw, were my memories. Turning to the computer, I opened my old tax roundups—2019, 2018, 2017—and recognized that they were diaries, encrypted as expenses. As the categories and entries flooded forth, page after page, I read in them a chronicle of the ordinary, extraordinary events that defined the thriving, participatory, pre-pandemic world, whose pleasures, and costs, have lately been subtracted from all of our lives.When tax time comes around next year, I hope all of us will have more to deduct, and more to remember.
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Left-Behind Suburbs Are a Civil-Rights Battleground
The death of Daunte Wright, a Black motorist killed by police in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, is a window into the future of civil-rights conflict in America. That Black Lives Matter was launched after a police shooting in a similar community outside St. Louis—Ferguson, Missouri—is not a coincidence. Both Brooklyn Center and Ferguson are small, older suburbs. Both have become racially and economically segregated, and much poorer, over time. Both are perfectly tailored to produce inequality, discrimination, and, ultimately, conflict between their citizens and the institutions shaping those citizens’ lives—institutions that include local government and police.Metropolitan regions across the country are producing hundreds of suburbs where similar problems prevail. The Fergusonization of parts of suburbia threatens the well-being of those communities’ residents and damages the fabric of American society.[Read: The white suburbs that fought busing aren’t so white anymore]In some respects, segregation is even more harmful in the suburbs than in major cities, which typically have a larger industrial and commercial tax base that allows them to weather crises and sustain public services. On average, predominantly nonwhite suburbs have the lowest per capita tax base of any community type in a major metropolitan area—about 25 percent less than major cities, and about 40 percent less than predominantly white suburbs. In many segregated suburbs, the quality of public services erodes over time. Some of these communities, including Ferguson, resort to raising revenue through fees and traffic tickets, inevitably leading to many more encounters between residents and police.U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that Brooklyn Center is the most rapidly segregating community in Minnesota. In 1990, the city was 90 percent white; its poverty rate was low, at 5 percent. Three decades later, the city is 38 percent white and its poverty rate has tripled, to 15 percent. It is now the poorest major suburb in the Twin Cities region, and it has a higher percentage of residents of color than any other major municipality in the area. Ferguson underwent nearly identical changes in the years before a police officer shot Michael Brown to death in 2014; the city transitioned from 85 percent white in 1980 to 29 percent white in 2010. Over the same period, its poverty rate almost quadrupled.Social-science researchers describe this process as resegregation: Communities that start out as almost exclusively white go through a brief and unstable period of racial integration, and before long, an overwhelming majority of residents are people of color. These demographic shifts are the product of housing discrimination against people of color—especially Black and Latino people—and of de facto school segregation and white flight. They are not at all unusual in American metropolitan regions, and isolate millions of families of color in economically troubled cities.Like many resegregating suburbs, Brooklyn Center was once a hub of opportunity, where middle- and working-class residents lived side by side. These places have proved attractive to economically successful families of color seeking better schools and an escape from the discrimination and disinvestment that are endemic in segregated central-city neighborhoods. Black Americans especially are migrating to the suburbs in record numbers. Just since 2000, the urban Black population in major metropolitan areas has fallen by about 5 percent, while the suburban Black population has grown by more than 40 percent, according to my calculations.In wealthy new suburbs and exurbs, where McMansions line endless cul-de-sacs, housing that working-class families of color can afford is scarce. Inner-ring suburbs typically have an older housing stock, including small postwar houses, more rental units, and cheap high-density housing. Families migrating from the central cities of a metro area tend to cluster in these more affordable communities; so do immigrants. (Brooklyn Center has the highest share of foreign-born residents in the Twin Cities area.) Other, more nefarious forces also funnel nonwhite families toward the inner suburbs—such as the practice of discriminatory racial “steering,” wherein real-estate agents are more likely to show families of color homes in already-diverse neighborhoods. As a result, the demographics of many older suburbs are shifting fast.Changes typically come even faster to these places’ schools, because in these communities, families of color are more likely to have children than white households are. The Brooklyn Center school district has transitioned from being 77 percent white in 1990 to less than 20 percent white today. The white share of Ferguson school enrollment fell from 58 to 17 percent in the two decades preceding the killing of Michael Brown. In 2012, 78 percent of Ferguson’s student body came from low-income families; similarly, 73 percent of Brooklyn Center students do today. School changes have a major impact on city demographics, because many affluent residents with children will leave if they feel that the percentage of minority students and poor students is too high.[Read: White flight never ended]Suburbs usually remain vibrant and thriving as they become more racially integrated. But eventually a tipping point is reached, and the corrosive effects of racial isolation and segregation begin to be felt. When this happens, middle-class residents—mostly white, but not entirely—begin to leave in large numbers. Since 2000, Brooklyn Center has lost 42 percent of its white population; Ferguson has lost 49 percent. Economic opportunity has vanished too. Adjusted for inflation, the median income in Brooklyn Center has fallen by about $9,000 since 2000, and the city has lost a sixth of its middle- and upper-income residents. In Ferguson, median incomes have dropped by nearly $15,000 during the same period.The suburbs that these dynamics leave behind replicate many of the same conditions that existed in segregated center-city neighborhoods in the 20th century. As in those enclaves, certain aspects of the relationship between residents and the powerful institutions with which they interact—police, elected officials, school systems, landlords, employers—appear colonial in nature. At the time of Brown’s killing, Ferguson’s mayor and almost all of its city council were white. Many police forces in resegregated suburbs are staffed with a large number of nonresidents, who also may be disproportionately white. Even private economic arrangements in segregated places can be extractive in nature. Before the 2008 financial crisis, Brooklyn Center was the largest suburban hub of subprime lending in the Twin Cities area. Tragically, the residents of resegregated suburbs face the same obstacles that many had attempted to escape by leaving major cities: struggling schools, unemployment, poverty, and police violence.The Fergusonization of suburbs is a nationwide problem, uniting many far-flung communities whose residents and leaders may not even realize they have anything in common. Census data show that in 2010, more than 20 percent of the suburban population in major American metros lived in a predominantly nonwhite suburb reminiscent of Brooklyn Center or Ferguson, and that share has grown every year since. Because the forces causing resegregation are larger than any one municipality, individual suburbs are unable to solve this problem by acting alone. But solutions do exist.Resegregation can be slowed by ensuring that affordable housing is available in all communities, not clustered in older suburbs. If schools are stably integrated and given the support they need to thrive, families are less likely to leave their current neighborhood in search of better education. Economic aid can be directed to already-resegregated communities, ameliorating the decline of services and schools. [Read: Revenge of the suburbs]Such measures are best implemented at a regional scale, usually by state or federal government. Ideally, metropolitan governing structures would be created to administer regional policies. This isn’t sufficient in and of itself; the Minneapolis–St. Paul region has a more robust regional government than most metro areas, and it has badly shirked its role in preventing resegregation. Yet individual suburban municipalities elsewhere in the country are even more alone, forced to compete with neighboring cities when what they really need is help protecting their residents’ civil rights and their own future.These left-behind communities—the country’s Fergusons and Brooklyn Centers—do not vanish or dissolve. People still live in them. Their suffering is real, and the injustices their residents face become a flash point for conflict, violence, and protest that spans the nation.
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