Culture

Zadie Smith’s ‘Swing Time’ Doesn’t Preach About Inequality. That’s Why It Works.

A popular argument splashed across social media feeds and bars and dinner tables is that “this is not about that.”

After Mike Brown was shot and left for dead in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, half of America tripped over itself to say it was because he was not complying with police orders—not because he was black. When a New York senator proposed a bill that would ban people from using food stamps to buy steak and lobster, supporters insisted it was about avoiding abuse of the welfare system—not about deep-rooted discomfort with social services.

In other words, we do not like the suggestion that things might be about other things, particularly when those other things would force an admission that other people’s stories might be different—and harder—than our own.

So to avoid that argument, and to be quite clear: Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s latest novel, is not about racial or economic inequality.

It is not about anything, per se. It is a novel and a work of art, and those needn’t be about anything other than the book’s narrative plot: Two half-black, half-white girls grow up together in Northwest London and grow apart. One, Tracey, is an innately talented dancer, but she was not born into the sort of existence that makes it easy for her to make a living from those talents. The other, the unnamed narrator, has the chance to go to university and become the personal assistant to a white pop star, a grueling job that nevertheless means she gets to travel the world and see how the one percent of the one percent live. The novel is an exploration of female friendship and black womanhood and personal growth and dance—a number of things that are not inequality, exactly. Because it’s not about that.

Except that inequality informs all of that.

None of that is about racial or economic inequality, exactly—but it is intertwined with it.

Early on in the book, Tracey suggests that things are different—and harder—for her because her father is black, and in and out of jail. Tracey’s story is not about that—her father—but it is shaped by him. Just as it is shaped by the reality that her mother is raising a daughter on her own, and that her body develops differently than other girls’ bodies, and that her school system does not know what to do with her, and that she herself becomes a single mother. None of that is about racial or economic inequality, exactly—but it is intertwined with it.

The narrator’s pop star boss’s story is not about the reverse side of inequality—not exactly. But the pop star is able to pay people to work out every detail of her life and never tire (because she is tiring others). She can assume that because she made it out of Bendigo, Australia, everyone else can escape the confines of their hometowns and backgrounds, too. She can navigate the bureaucracy of an African country without getting to know much of anything about it, and open up a school for girls there without worrying what problems doing so might cause. None of that is about inequality, exactly—but neither is it free of it.

The narrator herself is torn between these two parts of her life. She has to leave her racially-mixed neighborhood—and her black mother, and her mother’s way of looking at the world—when she goes to university and out into the working world. She has to make professional compromises—has to support a white woman while she sets up a school in Africa that might do more harm than good, and has to watch her practice a performance that almost certainly constitutes cultural appropriation—even though, because of who she is, she knows better.

Even as she struggles, the narrator remains painfully aware of the ways that inequality shapes the world. “There is no case I can make,” the narrator confesses toward the end of the novel, “that will change the fact that I was her [Tracey’s] only witness, the only person who knows all that she has in her, all that’s been ignored and wasted, and yet I still left her back there, in the ranks of the unwitnessed, where you have to scream to get heard.”

And what abandoned Tracey in those ranks—and left her screaming and made her friend feel it was her fault—if not inequality?

Swing Time is a book well worth reading. It’s beautifully written, and Smith’s prose dances like her characters. She moves across decades and oceans to create characters who are neither heroes nor villains, but humans.

There are non-fiction books one can read that are explicitly about inequality, but this isn’t one of them. This isn’t about that.

Except that, yes, of course it is.

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Media and Politics

6 Reasons Ben Carson Is Unqualified to Be Housing Secretary

Update: The Trump administration announced on Monday morning that Ben Carson will be nominated for the position of Housing Secretary.

Earlier this month, when rumors of erstwhile presidential candidate Ben Carson’s role in a future Trump administration started flying, Carson made it clear that he wasn’t interested in an agency appointment. In the words of his business manager, “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

A lot can change in a month.

Despite Carson’s earlier objections, last week it seemed like President-elect Trump was on the verge of nominating the former neurosurgeon as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). And Carson, citing the fact that he once lived in a city, now believes he’s up to the task.

Here’s the problem: HUD is a critically important federal agency with a budget of almost $50 billion, 9,000 employees across the country, and programs that affect the lives of millions of people. The Secretary of HUD isn’t a vanity appointment to be bestowed upon any half-willing volunteer.

Here are six reasons why the agency deserves a qualified leader who is up to the task.

HUD Makes It Possible for Families of Color, Middle-Income Families, and Millennials to Buy Homes

One of HUD’s core missions is to help families buy a home, which is critical for building wealth. That’s why it manages the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which insures private mortgage loans against the risk of default by the borrower. That makes financial institutions more willing to provide credit—particularly to groups who have been historically excluded from homeownership, like families of color.

FHA has insured more than 40 million homes since it was established in 1934, and it’s becoming even more important in the current tight credit environment.  FHA’s market share of single-family purchase loan originations more than doubled between 2004 and 2015, and many of those loans are going to underserved communities of color where conventional credit continues to be limited.

HUD Makes Sure Low-Income Families Have Access to Housing

For many years, the private market has failed to provide enough affordable rental housing for low-income families. HUD helps fill this gap through a variety of rental assistance programs—from public housing to housing vouchers—in order to ensure that more low-income families have a decent, safe, and affordable place to live. More than 5 million low-income households use federal rental assistance, and without it, many of these families would likely experience homelessness.

HUD Promotes Economic Mobility for Whole Communities

HUD is working to break up the concentrated poverty and de facto segregation that put some communities at a major disadvantage. Last year, the department finalized a rule that requires local governments that use HUD funding to examine patterns of poverty and residential segregation—and to put forward a credible plan for addressing these challenges. That’s essential in a country that is becoming increasingly diverse—and where discrimination in housing is still alive and well.

Through programs such as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, HUD also helps many families move out of distressed neighborhoods to higher opportunity areas, where there is better access to jobs and good schools.

HUD Addresses Discrimination in the Housing Market

HUD is able to process significantly more housing discrimination complaints than any other government agency—an average of 9,201 per year from 2010 to 2013. The complaints are typically rooted in someone’s race or disability, and nearly a third result in some form of penalty against an offending lender or landlord.

There are a few other agencies that share some of the responsibility for enforcing fair housing law—specifically the Justice Department’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section—but they are not set up for efficient, large scale enforcement. As a result, the Justice Department’s annual case load is a tiny fraction of what HUD processes each year.

HUD is the Biggest Source of Funding to Prevent Homelessness

HUD provides more funding for homeless assistance than any other federal department. The department has also been responsible for the development of tens of thousands of housing units to house people who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness. HUD also helps to ensure that residents living in these units receive the social support services they need to get back on their feet, and to avoid homelessness in the future. Since hundreds of thousands of Americans still experience homelessness every day, these services are critical.

Too often, the root cause behind homelessness is domestic violence. Through its Office of Special Needs Assistance Program, HUD plays a key role in rapid re-housing and in providing homeless families and survivors of domestic violence with options that let them transition into safe, stable, and affordable housing.

HUD Helps Rebuild Communities After Natural Disasters

HUD serves as an important partner to communities rebuilding after disasters have struck. For example, the department played a major role in the recovery of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 1 million people, through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program.  The department invested $20 billion in affected states, which supported the long-term recovery of the region’s housing stock, economy, and infrastructure.

HUD can deploy CDBG-DR funds in the case of any presidentially-declared natural disasters, as long as funds are available. Just this fall, HUD deployed $500 million to help communities in Louisiana, West Virginia, and Texas recover from historic flooding. As extreme weather events increase in frequency, HUD’s role in rebuilding communities will be even more vital.

Housing is one of the biggest determinants of where and how we live, and it is intimately linked with broader issues of wealth and poverty. HUD’s vital role necessitates engaged, qualified, and experienced leadership.  Ben Carson—by his own admission—is simply not up to the task.

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Media and Politics

‘We Have to Be Better at Telling the Truth’: Jamilah Lemieux on the Media’s Responsibility in the Trump Era

Writing while black isn’t an easy thing. Since it’s not the default viewpoint (i.e., white), any nod toward racial identity is likely to get blowback for being “too political.” But after a campaign season that was defined by highly public verbal sparring matches over racism, it’s more important now than ever to create a space for voices that are normally pushed to the margins.

In many ways, the Facing Race conference in Atlanta, Georgia, was exactly this kind of space. For two and a half days in November, some 2,300 racial justice activists gathered to participate in panel discussions and workshops on how to make moves toward achieving long-sought racial equality. One of the conference panelists, Jamilah Lemieux—currently Vice President of News and Men’s Programming for Interactive One and former Senior Editor of Ebony magazine—sat down with us to talk about her work as a writer, and what kind of media we’ll need in the years ahead.

Brandon Tensley: Could you start by telling us more about the importance of being under black thinkers? Roxanne Gay hit on this yesterday—the idea that when you’re working under a white hierarchy, that can affect the voice that actually comes out of the work. Has that figured in your writing, or have you seen that play out over your career?

Jamilah Lemieux: I routinely hear from my friends who are freelance writers about their struggles with non-black editors, who may be very earnest in assigning a story or accepting a pitch about something directly impacting or shaped by black people. It’s not every editor—I’ve had great experiences with white editors, and non-black people of color editors—but if this isn’t your lived experience, if this is not your community, your vernacular, your lens, then you can’t always be trusted to know how those stories should be told.

Unfortunately, so many black journalists have basically been told that they can’t be unbiased. When they’re doing reporting, even when it comes to op-ed writing, we’re told that we can’t be trusted to be the final say. We’re too close to the information, we’re too close to the story, right? And so we end up with the idea of whiteness as default.

In particular, I think of some of the mainstream men’s publications and their interviews with black male athletes and rappers. There have been instances where the subject was offended or bothered by the writer or just not really getting any insight. It’s almost like National Geographic stepping into Compton or Chicago to talk to someone who’s American, as if he’s from some mystical, magical land where there are gangs and basketball. To that example, the conversations between rappers and black male journalists are so much richer. Even if they’re from different class backgrounds or different parts of the country, there is something that kind of unifies them in their black maleness.

So, I think that the best reporting about black people is led by black editors. I think that the best op-ed writing about black people has been touched and shaped by black editors, and I’m looking forward to empowering more black editors to do the work I’ve been able to do in the last five years.

Michael Richardson: We do a lot of work on poverty issues. What do you think the media’s role is in reporting about poverty and illustrating the narrative of people’s stories?

JL: There’s what the role is now, and there’s what it should be. The media, of course, has not been kind to folks living in poverty. It has not been honest. Oftentimes, we just have these very trite, narrow, limited stories about what it means to be impoverished in America, when that entails such a diverse set of experiences.

There are people who are glamorous and popular, who in certain ways enjoy a decent quality of life, perhaps outside of the household, who are living in poverty. There are so many people who have experienced periods of poverty, but who are no longer living in poverty and maybe themselves are trying to escape or erase that experience, so it’s not something they include in their own narratives about themselves. They don’t talk about it often, or it just becomes this anecdote once you’ve made a whole lot of money and you’re wildly successful. Then it’s cool to say, “I grew up poor.”

But the media, much like the government, criminalizes poverty. It shames people for struggling and acquiring benefits we pay a lot of taxes to fund. And we just simply have to do better in telling the truth about what it means to be poor.

Think about a show like Atlanta, where there’s actually a plot twist at the end of the season when you see where the main character lives. He spent the season house-hopping from his woman’s house to his parents’ and other women’s houses, and you just never really thought to ask, “Does he have an apartment? Does he have a home? Does he have somewhere where he can collect mail?” And then you see in the last episode that his home is a storage unit.

I think that’s an experience that’s more common than a lot of us know. This character is someone who is cool and popular. He’s got this cousin who’s got a rap career, and he’s managing it, so he’s going to parties. He attended Princeton, so he’s got some very highfalutin friends, and this very pretty on-again, off-again girlfriend, and a child. You wouldn’t think that this person is, in theory, homeless.

BT: Could you put that in the context of this political moment, where, especially over the past few days, there’s been racist, homophobic backlash? Do you see your role—and other people’s, as well, especially people of color—as a writer, as a thinker, needing to shift going forward, even just looking to 2017?

JL: We’ve been doing this work for quite a long time. We’ve always had this work to do. It’s urgent now, more than ever, and it’s daunting.

Your class status won’t protect you.

We have so much work to do. It’s going to get harder. It’s going to get more intense. I think that the closest thing to a silver lining is that I don’t think people will have the luxury of ignoring this work in the way they once did. Your class status won’t protect you. Deciding to be detached from media won’t protect you. People you know will be impacted by what’s going to come.

I think that the level of vitriol, and the outward expressions of hatred by people who are supporting our next president, are going to force a lot of people to wake up and pay attention. That’s an opportunity for media-makers on every side of the business. For those of us who do advocacy journalism and want to change hearts and minds with our work—as opposed to simply driving traffic to a website or people to a newsstand or television network—we have a difficult ride ahead of us. But there are people who are equipped to do this work, and we just have to fight to keep each other sustained, to not just completely fall apart, to make sure that we have funding, to make sure that we have space. I do think that great work will come from what’s going to be a very dark time.

MR: What do you think the role is for progressive media advocates in lifting up these voices? What would you recommend to them as they continue on this journey?

JL: For those of us who work on the editorial side, making sure that we are looking for a diverse pool of content creators and writers. We can’t keep hearing from the same people over and over again.

Understand that people need joy, people need safe spaces, and people need a break. So you know, if a Solange album comes up, or Beyoncé drops a project, people are going to want to celebrate that. Make space for that.

Also, be more lovingly critical when we’re talking about ourselves, whether it’s an album, a politician, a thinker, or somebody who said something problematic. Learning how to critique our stuff with love, as opposed to “Did you really like Solange’s album? Is it really a big moment in music, or just something you all like right now?” or “So-and-so said something kind of offensive, so he’s dismissed, he’s problematic, he’s thrown away.” We need each other, we can’t afford to lose each other. We shouldn’t make energy to hurt people’s feelings.

You’d be very hard pressed to get me to sit down and write a long excoriation of Tyler Perry in 2016 or 2017. I just don’t think that’s the best use of my time and talent. I’m also not going to dismiss the people he reaches. I’m not going to say I don’t have stern critiques of his work and some of the messaging he puts forward. But at the same time, knowing who our enemies are, and who’s a real threat to our lives, is more urgent than it’s ever been.

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Safety Net

Trump’s Latest Cabinet Appointee Spells Doom for Medicare

If you were wondering whether Donald Trump would keep his promise to protect Medicare from cuts, you just got your answer. Trump’s choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services is none other than Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), one of the country’s leading advocates for turning Medicare upside down.

Over the course of his campaign, Donald Trump assured voters that he would not take an ax to Medicare. In May of last year, he made that particularly clear when he told the Daily Signal, “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.” That fits in well with Trump’s allegedly populist campaign message—in fact, it would fit even better if he pledged to expand Medicare and other social safety net programs.

But with the election just three weeks in the rearview mirror, Trump is already wrapping his arms around various proposals to gut the social safety net that conservatives have long advocated for—including schemes to weaken Medicare. Price’s appointment is just the latest signal that the incoming administration is willing to put seniors’ health care on the chopping block.

Price has spent his career attacking Medicare.

Price has spent his career attacking Medicare. In 2009, he marked Medicare’s 44th anniversary by bashing it. “Nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government’s intrusion into medicine through Medicare,” Price wrote. Two years later, Price introduced a bill to shift more Medicare costs onto seniors by partially privatizing the program.

After Trump’s election, Price said that he hoped to have a Medicare overhaul “within the first six to eight months” of the Trump administration. He’s planning on using a process called budget reconciliation—which would allow conservatives to push through major policy changes without needing to secure a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority in the Senate.

Privatizing Medicare has been on conservatives’ wish list for years—Speaker Ryan advocated for it as a way to cut the program’s costs as early as 2010. In a budget proposal that year, Ryan pushed the idea of “premium support,” which would effectively swap out the current Medicare system—where the government pays hospitals, doctors, and other healthcare providers—for one where every person essentially gets a check to buy their own insurance on a private market. Effectively, the plan takes power away from Medicare enrollees and puts it squarely into the hands of private insurers. Ryan’s most recent version of the plan would not eliminate traditional Medicare right away, but it would undermine the program and raise the eligibility age.

The devil is, as always, in the details, and so far Price and Ryan have declined to specify exactly what their Medicare overhaul would entail. But the consequences are potentially very grave: previous proposals would hollow out the current program and replace it with one that covers fewer people, offers its enrollees fewer benefits, and opens the door to charging much higher premiums to seniors facing the most significant challenges to their health.

It seems Trump is now falling in line.

Despite his campaign promises, it seems Trump is now falling in line . Price’s appointment follows a statement the president-elect put out on his transition website, where he pledges to “modernize Medicare, so that it will be ready for the challenges with the coming retirement of the Baby Boom generation—and beyond.” In the world of political parlance—especially after an election where Trump made a number of explicit attacks against many groups of Americans—this may not sound like much. But in fact, this phrasing strongly suggests that Trump is getting ready to join conservatives’ long-running effort to gut Medicare as we know it.

This is what makes Trump’s pivot on Medicare so disconcerting: It appears to be yet another example of how the populist rejection of establishment politics that defined his campaign’s narrative was just a ruse. Another broken promise originally made in bad faith.

My late grandfather, a New Deal Democrat who proudly cast his first vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third term in 1940, taught me many things: The airy pleasure of crooners Bing Crosby and Perry Como, how to handicap a horse race, the importance of being on time. (Incidentally, I’m still working on that last one.)

One lesson in particular is sticking out as we get more information on President-elect Trump’s plans for office. It went something like, “A person breaks a promise every single minute. If they’re acting in good faith, you give ‘em another chance. But if you know they aren’t, just go ahead and throw the first punch.”

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the American people appear to be ready to throw a punch. They happen to like their Medicare the way it is, and fiercely oppose turning it into a premium support-based system. According to a June 2015 poll, only 26% of respondents support transitioning Medicare to a premium support model. In contrast, an overwhelming 70% of respondents said they preferred keeping Medicare structurally as it is.

There is no doubt Donald Trump was wise to the popularity of Medicare when he promised not to cut it a year and a half ago. Now that he seems likely to join in Speaker Ryan’s barrage of attacks on the social safety net, he may be surprised by how his supporters respond.

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Media and Politics

Trump’s Education Plan Is a Recipe for School Segregation

In September, Donald Trump stood in front of a Cleveland, Ohio charter school and spoke about the troubled schools in the American “inner city”—a term the president-elect famously uses as a catch-all for poor and/or black neighborhoods. The promise Trump made then—which he’s reiterated in his plan for his first 100 days as president, and reinforced with his pick for education secretary—is to greatly expand school choice. The idea is that if a neighborhood school is failing, poor kids should be able to use federal and state funds to attend whichever school they want.

But evidence of the flaw in Trump’s plan was right in front of him. The charter school he was speaking at—the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy—is not doing well. The state of Ohio gives the school a grade of D for its students’ test performance.

School choice is not a new concept. For decades, states have been trying to encourage competition among different school models. That has led to an explosion in the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate outside of the control of local school districts. The trouble is, researchers have found that these schools have mixed effects. In some cases charters improve test scores, while in others students do significantly worse than they would in neighborhood schools. Some districts have also tried giving students vouchers to go to private schools—which Trump has also called for—and have had similarly mixed results.

Many public school advocates argue that even the best charter schools can cause problems, because they drain money from other schools. That raises a big question about Trump’s plan, which would redirect $20 billion in federal funds to let students choose different schools. If that comes from the Department of Education budget, as some analysts expect, it would likely come from the two big buckets of federal money that go to K-12 schools now: $15.5 billion in Title 1 funds for schools with low-income populations and $12 billion for special education. Using that money for vouchers could mean decimating before- and after-school programs, tutoring in reading and math, and other supports for students facing the most serious academic challenges. The plan would also encourage states to dig money out of their own education spending for school choice.

There’s a huge and growing gap between rich and poor kids.

Though his plan is misguided, the education crisis Trump points to is real—and really serious. There’s a huge and growing gap between the academic achievement levels of rich and poor kids. Today, students from wealthy families outscore their low-income counterparts by nearly 400 points on the SATs and are far more likely to graduate from high school.

One of the most successful ways to help low-income kids do better is to reduce income segregation, which has grown by 40% since 1990. That has a serious impact: One eye-popping study found that students from lower-income, less-educated families who attend school with wealthier peers are 68% more likely to attend a four-year college than those who go to an income-segregated school with peers from similar backgrounds.

The study’s author, Gregory Palardy of the University of California at Riverside, said segregation is the single biggest way that U.S. schools shortchange low-income students. Schools serving poor children tend to get less funding, hire less-skilled teachers, and offer fewer advanced courses than their counterparts in wealthier areas. And, Palardy said, poor kids simply have a harder time succeeding when their peers are all facing similar disadvantages. He said lower-income kids are far more likely to succeed if they go to school with more affluent peers who know a lot about college and expect, as a matter of course, that they’ll continue their education beyond high school.

“They rub off on you and your view of the world,” he said.

One of the arguments behind school choice is that it would reduce segregation by letting parents send their kids to schools that are more diverse than their neighborhoods. But studies have found that the proliferation of charter schools has led to greater economic—as well as racial—segregation. There are essentially two sets of charter schools. One enrolls predominantly privileged white students—often pulling them from more diverse neighborhood schools—while another serves mainly poor black and Latino communities.

The importance of integration hasn’t gone unnoticed in education policy circles. Across the country, some school districts are working to reduce economic segregation, and earlier this year President Obama proposed a $120 million grant program to support these efforts. But all these plans depend on higher-income parents’ voluntarily participation, which isn’t always easy to achieve.

Dr. Catherine Cushinberry, executive director of the national organization Parents for Public Schools (PPS), said that richer, white parents may want to keep their children out of poorer, more heavily minority schools because they mistakenly worry that these schools won’t be good for their kids. But, she said, it’s often possible to convince them that a more diverse school has advantages. That’s part of PPS’s mission.

“The source of our beginning, really, is in Jackson, Mississippi in the early ’90s,” Cushinberry said. “It was around this notion of white flight. We’re still dealing with similar issues as we did in 1991.”

One way to unify communities is around bringing together strong, quality schools.

Today, PPS supports parent activists in school systems from the Deep South to San Francisco, where rapid gentrification is raising new questions about school segregation. In addition to encouraging school integration, the organization works to get parents involved in improving the schools.

One recent, hopeful story comes from Oktibbeha County, Mississippi. Two low-income, mostly African-American high schools were closed, and the students moved to the more affluent Starkville High. Fearing that wealthier white families would pull their kids from the school, members of PPS Starkville worked with the state legislature, Mississippi State University, and other local groups to help smooth the transition. They found ways to get new funding for computers, books, buses and equipment, and to open new programs—including a pre-K. In the end there was no white flight. A number of white students actually left private schools for the new, more integrated district.

As far as Trump’s plan to increase school choice goes, Cushinberry said there just aren’t enough details available yet for her to comment. But, she said, in the wake of the election, she’s been thinking about how Americans can work together across social divisions.

“Certainly one way to unify communities is around bringing together strong, quality schools,” she said.

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