(Book Review) The Splintering of the American Mind

2383738C-6E9D-4CEA-A3E4-BEB64B26B743In The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality, and Comunity on Today’s College Campuses, William Eggington examines the shift on college campuses toward identity politics and the relationship that change has to inequality and a growth in divisiveness in American public life.

The book is very dry and relatively indirect in its argument, but it does does take an expansive look at the relathionship between political ideologies from the left and the right and how their pull on the public sphere and on the public university has resulted in greater fracturing and less of a sense of community.

From the book’s dedication, “to America’s youth, that they may receive the education they deserve—not just for their sake, but for ours” to the conclusion, Egginton is clearly concerned with the effects political partisanship have on education and on community. The book is divided into three sections. Part I: Identity gives a history of the shift toward identity politics in universities, what this shift was reacting against (i.e. exclusion of minorities, the Cannon) and how these changes have resulted in greater specialization of academics and a breakdown of communication between those of different points of view. Section II: Inequality tracks how income inequality has caused inequality in access to quality education from K-12 to higher education. Part III: Community focuses on how the breakdown in communication at the university level has led to a breakdown in community within the broader public sphere.

Egginton argues “Through all this, the left failed to see that while winning the battle over identity, it was losing the war over community. Universities had allowed the liberal tradition, civics, and the American idea of democracy to be painted as the antithesis of identity rather than its very condition of possibility” (5). He further asserts that we are in danger of losing our civic culture (12), and watching the news, it is hard to deny that that seems possible.

Although Eggington is often critical of the move toward identity politics, he still maintains that the greater sensitivity toward language of inclusion has resulted in a much more civil society, particularly among the college educated. At the same time, he is also sensitive to the perspective of those who have been shut out of higher education do to growing income inequality and the change in the economy that has put many out of work. This sensitivity makes his perspective balanced, fair, and measured.

I think there is a lot of value in this book and the issues that Eggerton sets out to explain. Still, I did not really enjoy reading this work. I think it might make a great textbook for a higher ed classroom, particularly in the fields of education and Student Affairs.

(Book Review) White People Really Love Salad

51HbR68i59L._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_White People Really Love Salad: What My Childhood Taught Me About Diversity, Equity & Inclusion by Nita Mosby Tyler, Ph.D.

I have had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler of The Equity Project speak at three different trainings for the library system in which I work. She is wonderful and a total hero (literally the 9News Person of the Year this year). She is a compassionate and precise speaker and does a wonderful job of clarifying some of the confusing terms that are used somewhat interchangeably when we talk about diversity and inclusion.

In her book, she calls these terms “the Power Four”: diversity, inclusion, equality, and equity (5). What I personally found most helpful was her differentiating between equality–giving everyone the same thing–and equity–giving each person what they need to thrive.

When I heard that Dr. Nita was publishing a book, I was eager to read it. White People Really Love Salad uses thirty short stories about her experiences growing up that she uses to explore different issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is funny, sad, insightful, and a fast, informative read. I highly recommend this book.

Among many insights into doing equity work is this gem:

“You should plant a part of yourself in what you are fighting for and the other part of yourself must always be anchored in other things you care about (community, family, church, etc.). When you are anchored beyond your work, you will find that you are more balanced (literally) and able to be the catalyst for much more.” (3)

One story I found especially interesting was “Grade ‘A'” (47-49), in which Dr. Nita describes her experiences with playing school with her dolls in such a way that reinforces the findings of the Clark Doll Experiments, which were used as compelling evidence in the Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education, the decision that made segregation in education unconstitutional. As she assigns grades to her dolls, her white dolls got better grades than her black dolls until her mother, noticing the pattern, gradually gave her more black dolls, helping her to change the way she saw them.

In the book, Dr. Nita also includes a story that I heard at one of her trainings. She describes how one night, she got fed up with the inequality she saw in the world and the inability of adults to make things right. She decided to run away from home:

“As my parents were preparing for us to have dinner, I went to the front door. My father asked what I was doing. I told him I was running away from home. I told him grown-ups were too dumb to get the job done. I expected adversity, but instead I got a few moments of uncomfortable silence. Eventually my father spoke as my mother looked on with horror. My father said, ‘Wait right there a second. I need to grab my camera. I want to take a picture of you before you leave so I can always remember what you look like.'” (67-68)

She explains that this moment helped introduce to her the strategy of “the pause.” She describes how there are sentinel moments in life when something big happens, or when something hurtful, stressful, etc. happens and before reacting, a pause can help you orient yourself and find a more productive response than your first impulse. That is solid advice for life changing moments as well as daily life.

In the story that the book gets its title from, Dr. Nita was invited over for dinner by one of her classmates, a neighbor in the all-white neighborhood her family had moved into (123-126). When dinner is served, a bowl of salad is passed around and she takes a comparatively small portion, not understanding that the salad was the meal. She took this dinner as evidence that her classmate was actually poor, despite living in this nice, middle class neighborhood. Hoping to help, her parents prepare a “reverse welcome wagon” by cooking a big meal and delivering it to this poor white family. Dr. Nita uses this story as an example of how not understanding cultural norms can lead us to misunderstand a situation:

“You see, in my Black experience, salad was rarely a part of the meal and in the rare occasions it was, it was served as a small side dish. Seeing it as a main course represented scarcity; the absence of ‘real food.'” (125)

Structurally, White People Really Love Salad is easy to follow. Each of the stories is followed by Dr. Nita’s musings and then space for the reader to jot their own notes and thoughts. I think this book is great for the causal reader but would also make for an outstanding book club book or textbook for classes or organizations invested in talking about equity issues.

(Book Review) Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls

51kHLuiVXCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, Lisa Damour, Ph.D. examines the rising prevalence of anxiety and depression among adolescent girls and offers practical advice for parents trying to help their daughters (and sons) navigate these overwhelming feelings and find coping skills for life.

Whereas many people who write about girls and mental health take a bit of an alarmist tone, what I most appreciated about Damour’s book is that she consistently works to move girls and their parents away from crisis mode, so to speak. Damour begins the book by exploring the role of stress and anxiety in our lives and how to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy stress and anxiety. From there, she guides parents through why their daughters come home and fall apart, or seem so overwhelmed and powerless that nothing they suggest to help is taken seriously. She offers quick, useful models for conversations to help girls and their parents find a calmer center before working through who or what is causing the girl such anxiety.

From there, Damour examines the changing culture around girlhood and various factors that lead girls to feel more and more anxious. Among these topics are: social media, peer group dynamics, sex and changing bodies, academic pressures, and the way beauty is presented in the media. Each section is fairly short, most just a few pages long, so while the book as a whole offers a lot of good advice, parents can also quickly navigate to a particular topic if the need arises and get a quick overview.

Although many parents and teens might feel like running away or suppressing feelings of anxiety in any way they can, Damour provides guidance for how to help girls confront their anxiety and work through what is making them anxious.  She argues:

“Tension and turmoil, we find, are strange creatures. They don’t die down when our daughters avoid them. In fact, when we shrink from pressure and fear, they just take on new, harrowing proportions.

Stress and anxiety can be addressed only when faced head-on. We’re most useful to our girls when we help them confront, and sometimes even embrace, these two fundamental aspects of everyday life. They should ask, ‘What is the source of all this stress?’ and ‘Why am I anxious?’ These are the questions that will help girls master the challenges they face, because the answers put them back in control” (210)

That is sound, empowering advice for humans of all ages and I really appreciate that Damour’s work is fully not in the camp of “Save the Girls!”-type rhetoric. Her book is very helpful and I fully recommend it to anyone who has or is close to an adolescent or pre-pubescent girl. This is good stuff.

Over the weekend, I also watched Brené Brown’s Netflix special, The Call to CourageShe ends her talk in the special with a story about her daughter not wanting to swim a particular event in a competitive swim meet and how she and her husband allowed her to choose whether or not to compete. That story models really well the types of strategies that are discussed in Under Pressure (no surprise, since Brown is a social worker). The talk is worth a watch on its own, but it pairs really well with this book as well.

(Book Review) American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago

51yCSoJDP2L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz takes a look at the large scale culture of violence in Chicago over one summer, 2013, as well as the effect of violence in the lives of specific people and families.

Kotlowitz puts his stories from this summer in the context of ongoing debates about gun violence in the U.S.:

“After the massacre at Newtown and then at Parkland we asked all the right questions. How could this happen? What would bring a young man to commit such an atrocity? How can we limit access to guns? How do the families and the community continue on while carrying the full weight of this tragedy? But in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood and North Lawndale, where in one year they lose twice the number of people killed in Newtown, no one’s asking those questions. I don’t mean to suggest that one is more tragic than the other, but rather to point out that the national grieving and questioning don’t extend to corners of this country where such carnage has become almost routine. It’s in these, the most ravaged of our communities, among the most desperate and forlorn, that we can come to understand the makings of who we are as a nation, a country marked by the paradox of holding such generosity by such neglect” (7)

Although I found his writing cogent, clear, and moving, I had a hard time keeping my interest from chapter to chapter. I did not get really caught up in the overall narrative of the summer. Rather, I found a handful of the chapters particularly effective. “The Tightrope, a story in four parts”  tells the story of, Marcelo a high school student and survivor of a shooting, who is headed for a successful future until he gets caught up with a string of robberies with his best friend and member of his former gang. The four chapters about Marcello follow his journey through the court system as he fights to get his bright future back.  “Father’s Day” focuses on Mike and his adopted son Victor. Mike adopts Victor out of a terrible group home and tries to give him a chance at a future, but the issues Victor has from has past lead him back to trouble. The chapter explores how Mike and Victor each struggle with their own identity issues and secrets, falling apart and then finding each other again. In “The (Annotated) Eulogy,”  Kotlowitz tells the story of the relationship between Erin and Robert through annotations to the eulogy Erin delivers at Robert’s funeral. The formatting creates a quick and moving portrait of a couple pulled apart by violence, gangs, and the allure of quick money. Finally, the very moving chapters that tell the story of “The Witnesses” dramatize the high costs for those who cooperate with the police. After Ramaine is shot, he identifies his shooter and for years afterward, he is harassed and threatened by members of the shooter’s gang. The story also details the emotional effects on Ramaine’s girlfriend, Kaprice, and little brother, Nijujan. The story is tragic and a compelling case study for the hidden costs of trying to do something about this violence.

I had checked out American Summer thinking that it was a true crime title. Although you could technically put this book in that category, it is more serious journalism and sociological work than it is true crime at its heart. Not everyone will find this book terribly interesting, but the stories it contains and the points it makes about gun violence and which victims really matter in our media are important and well-written.

(Book Review) One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy

43A175CF-FB3B-4D76-83AB-8B72CB6A3405In One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy, Carol Anderson lays out the nefarious, and sometimes also mundane, ways that seemingly racially neutral justifications have been used to deny racial minorities their right to vote from the Jim Crow era to the present day. I was wearily angered by the techniques she describes and impressed by the clear, cogent manner in which she argues that what could appear to be accidental side effects of changes in election policy are really expressly designed to suppress minority voters: “They target the socioeconomic characteristics of people (poverty, lack of mobility, illiteracy, etc.) and then soak the new laws in ‘racially neutral justifications–such as administrative efficiency’ or ‘fiscal responsibility’–to cover the discriminatory intent” (2).

Using racially neutral justifications, but targeting characteristics such as socioeconomic status, location, or education that are meant to exclude minority voters. Some of the highlights of her extensive survey of voter suppression include discussing the history of these strategies overlapping with tensions with Russia, an overview of the Voter Rights Act (after its passage, black voter registration in Mississippi went from 10% in 1964 to 60% in 1968 (27)), and a detailed explanation of how Voter ID laws are used as a guise for voter suppression.

Coming to the present day, Anderson lays out how voter suppression worked in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, leading the Supreme Court to basically hand the election to George W. Bush even though Al Gore won the popular vote. She also analyzes the strategies of voter roll purges, gerrymandering (including a Supreme Court case out of Wisconsin) and a false narrative of voter fraud that work together to hide new efforts for voter suppression. “Voting is neither an obstacle nor a privilege. It’s a right,” she argues (148).

In her conclusion, Anderson looks at the resistance to this new-old voter suppression in the 2018 midterm election, particularly the grassroots resistance against Roy Moore in Alabama. First, she examines how social media campaigns in the 2016 general election were aimed at keeping black voters from participating at all (149). “As insidious as all this was, the Russians, frankly, piggypacking on the years of work done by the GOP to stigmatize, disfranchise, and suppress the votes of African Americans and other minorities,” she argues. “The Republicans as we’ve seen, have consistently claimed there is rampant voter fraud, especially in cities and states that have sizable minority communities. Thus, the suspicion thrown by the GOP on St. Louis and Miami-Dade County in the 2000 election is just as dastardly as the Russians conjuring up #VoterFraud in North Carolina and Broward County in 2016” (150-51).

I was especially frustrated with a story coming out of my native Indiana. Anderson explains that after Obama carried Indiana in 2008, the GOP-led state legislature passed laws aimed and undermining the weight of Marion County, home to Indianapolis and a sizable black and Democratic population. “Counties with at least 325,000 residents could not have more than one early voting site unless there was unanimous agreement from the bipartisan county election board. Buried in that sanitized language was pure, uncut racial animus. Only three of the ninety-two counties in the state have populations that exceed that threshold…and not surprisingly, 62 percent of the state’s African American population live in either Marion or Late Counties. Meanwhile, smaller (and whiter) counties are not held tot that same restriction…” (151)

Overall, Anderson makes a compelling and far-reaching argument for the extent that voter suppression continues to damage our democracy. Her research is easy to follow and insightfully presented. I definitely recommend this book for those interested in politics, voting rights, and Civil Rights history.

(Book Review) How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

how long til black future monthPublished this month, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin is a collection of short stories spanning the career of the acclaimed scifi author. The collection emphasizes Jemisin’s success in breaking into the traditionally white and male scifi/fantasy writing market as a woman of color writing about people of color. The collection also shows Jemisin’s growth as a writer through her experiments with shorter fiction as she continued to work on novels. At first, she writes, she balked at the advice that she should master the short story, but taking the advice paid off:

Along the way, I learned that short stories were good for my longer-form fiction. Writing short stories taught me about the quick hook and the deep character. Shorts gave me space to experiment with unusual plots and story forms–future tense, epistolic format, black characters–which otherwise I would’ve considered too risky for the lengthy investment of a novel. (ix)

I am not really the target audience for this collection, because I have not read any of Jemisin’s novels, largely because I am not a big reader of scifi or fantasy. Still, I enjoy good short stories, so I thought I would give it a try.

In the collection, my favorite stories included  “Red Dirt Witch” which focuses on the fading power of an old order of witches and intersects with the Civil Rights Movement; the romantic “Cloud Dragon Skies”; “Valedictorian,” a dystopian story kind of reminiscent of YA fantasy, in which the lowest 10% plus the valedictorian are “culled” from each graduating class; “The Storyteller’s Replacement,” a dark fairytale about some tricky dragons and a king’s desire for a son; and “Cuisine des Memoires,” which features a restaurant that recreates meals that are historically or personally significant.

Although I did not love a lot of the stories as a matter of taste, I did enjoy seeing Jemisin play with some themes over and over. Frequently, she come back to the relationships between parents and children, the difficulty of being different, New York, New Orleans, and various imaginations of dystopian futures. I think that you can really see her growing as a writer throughout the collection and fans of her novels are bound to like this collection.


(Book Review) A History of America in Ten Strikes

a history of america in 10 strikesA History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis uses the history of labor strikes in the United States as a lens to look at broader trends in American history. The ten strikes include the Lowell Mill Girls strike, The Eight-Hour-Day Strikes, The Anthracite Strike, The Bread and Roses Strike, The Flight Sit-Down Strike, The Oakland General Strike, and strikes among air traffic controllers, slaves, janitors, and more. Through tracking these strikes, Loomis follows U.S. history from the Industrial Revolution to contemporary America.

The central thesis of Loomis’s book is that the history of labor strikes in the United States offers important insights into other “critical parts” of our history:

We cannot fight against pro-capitalist mythology in American society if we do not know our shared history of class struggle. This book reconsiders American history from the perspective of class struggle not by erasing the other critical parts of our history–the politics, the social change, and the struggles around race and gender–but rather by demonstrating how the history of worker uprisings shines a light on these other issues. (5)

More specifically, he argues that strikes are important moments for reasserting the struggles Americans share in common:

Strikes are moments of tremendous power precisely because they raise the stakes, bringing private moments of poverty and workplace indignity into the public spotlight. And unless you are a millionaire boss, we are all workers, if we only realize that all of us–farmworkers and teachers, insurance agents and construction workers, graduate students and union staffers–face bad bosses, financial instability, and the desperate need for dignity and respect on the job. (6)

As Loomis wraps his history, he turns to the contemporary moment in U.S. politics, especially the role of the white working class in the 2016 election and the decline of labor unions. He argues for a reassertion of the role of the worker and presents something of a call to action for workers to demand better labor policy:

We need to reorient American history in order to make it pro-worker again. First, workers have to take control over their own destiny in order to give themselves power. No government is going to do anything for workers if workers do not demand it first. (224)

Maybe, like me, you didn’t get any history of labor in your K-12 education, or at least not much.  What I found really useful about this book is the way that Loomis connects the strikes to much broader movements in U.S. history. For example, when discussing slave revolts, Loomis also discusses the role of slavery in the economy, the end of slavery, and more contemporary protests such as Black Lives Matter. He also connects strikes such as The Oakland General Strike to the birth and eventual decline of the middle class in the United States. The result of these far-reaching connections is that while Loomis provides very specific histories of the strikes themselves, he also gives a thorough look at American history that makes a great refresher on various important time periods. This book is a dense read, but I think it is an important look at the role of labor in American history, maybe especially given the economic troubles and shifts in the labor market during our own time.