Most readers of Beowulf understand it as a white, male hero story—tellingly, it’s named for the hero, not the monster—who slays a monster and the monster’s mother. Grendel, the ghastly uninvited guest, kills King Hrothgar’s men at a feast in Heorot. Beowulf, a warrior, lands in Hrothgar’s kingdom and kills Grendel but then must contend with Grendel’s mother who comes to enact revenge for her son’s murder. Years later, Beowulf deals with a dragon who is devastating his kingdom and dies while he and his thane, Wiglaf, are slaying the dragon. Crucially, Grendel is never clearly described, but is named a “grim demon,” “god-cursed brute,” a “prowler through the dark,” a part of “Cain’s clan.”
Indeed, Beowulf is a story about monsters, race, and political violence. Yet critics have always read it through the white gaze and a preserve of white English heritage. The foundational article on Beowulf and monsters is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Yes, before and while writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was an Oxford medieval professor who interpreted Beowulf for a white English audience. He uses Grendel and the dragon to discuss an aesthetic, non-politicized, close reading of monsters, asking critics to read it as a poem, a work of linguistic art:
Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.
Beowulf—which is written in Old English—was produced over a millennium ago and is set in Denmark. Learning Old English is on par with learning a foreign language. Thus Tolkien’s view on which bodies, fluent in this “native” English tongue, can read Beowulf, also offers a window into the politics of who gets to and how to read and write about the medieval past.
Tolkien’s investment in whiteness does not just apply to his ideal readers of medieval literature. It also extends to the ideal medieval literature scholars. At the 2018 Belle da Costa Greene conference, Kathy Lavezzo highlighted Tolkien’s role in shutting the Jamaican-born, Black British academic Stuart Hall out of medieval studies. Hall’s autobiography, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, describes a white South African gatekeeper. Tolkien was the University of Oxford Merton professor of English Language and Literature when Hall was a Rhodes scholar in the 1950s. Hall explains how he almost became a medieval literature scholar: “I loved some of the poetry—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wanderer, The Seafarer—and at one point I planned to do graduate work on Langland’s Piers Plowman.” However, according to Lavezzo, it was Tolkien who intervened in these plans: “But when I tried to apply contemporary literary criticism to these texts, my ascetic South African language professor told me in a pained tone that this was not the point of the exercise.”
This clashes with Tolkien’s friendlier image that has permeated popular culture, thanks to The Lord of the Rings. Through Tolkien’s white critical gaze, Beowulf as an epic for white English people has formed the backbone of the poem’s scholarship. To this day, there has never been a black scholar of Anglo-Saxon studies who has published on Beowulf. Mary Rambaran-Olm has reported on the many instances of black and non-white scholars being shut out of medieval studies. She recently explained at the Race Before Race: Race and Periodization symposium what Tolkien did to Hall in light of her own decision to step down as second vice president of the field’s main academic society, citing incidents of white supremacy and gatekeeping. As a result of these incidents, studying Beowulf has long been a privilege reserved for white scholars.
Ironically, Tolkien’s advocacy for a Northern, “native,” and white ideal readership contrasts with his own personal and familial histories. He was born and raised in South Africa. Though Tolkien’s biographers have claimed that his African upbringing scarcely influenced him, scholarly critics have pointed out the structural racism in his creative work, particularly in The Lord of the Rings. Additionally, he wrote an entire philological series, “Sigelwara Land” and “Sigelwara Land (continued),” on the Old English word for “Ethiopia.” In this series, he explicates the connections between Sigelwara Land and monsters by flattening the categories of black Ethiopians, devils, and dragons. He writes:
The learned placed dragons and marvelous gems in Ethiopia, and credited the people with strange habits, and strange foods, not to mention contiguity with the Anthropophagi. As it has come down to us the word is used in translation (the accuracy of which cannot be determined) of Ethiopia, as a vaguely conceived geographical term, or else in passages descriptive of devils, the details of which may owe something to vulgar tradition, but are not necessarily in any case old. They are of a mediaeval kind, and paralleled elsewhere. Ethiopia was hot and its people black. That Hell was similar in both respect would occur to many.
Tolkien’s work of empirical philology is a form of racialized confirmation bias that strips Ethiopia of any kind of connection to the marvels of the East, gems, or even his own fixation on dragons. He highlights Sigelwara as a term related to black skin and its connections to devils and hell, framing Ethiopians within the same category as “monsters.” He has no qualms about consistently connecting the Ethiopians to the “sons of Ham,” and thus the biblical descendants of Cain, linking medieval Ethiopia with the justification for chattel black slavery. In fact, no part of the etymology (nor any part of medieval discussions of Ethiopia) discusses slavery. Tolkien would have read Beowulf’s Grendel, who is linked to Cain, as a black man:
Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and, unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind’s home; for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain.
Tolkien’s articles on Ethiopia and on Beowulf, all published in the 1930s, reveal that Tolkien likely interpreted Grendel as a black man connected to a biblical justification for transatlantic chattel slavery. Thus, Grendel was raced within the logics of Tolkien’s white racist gazer. However, his philological method is still seen as a non-politicized and non-personal form of “empirical” scholarship. His interest in solidifying white Englishness and English identity—as a chain of links from the premodern medieval past to contemporary racial identities—is a project that extended into multiple scholarly areas.
Over the last several years, Tolkien’s most circulated political stance has been his resistance to fascism as displayed in letters he wrote to a German publisher. He may have abhorred fascism and antisemitism, but he upheld the English empire’s white supremacy. He held racialized beliefs against Africans and other members of the English black diaspora.
Black scholars have been systematically shut out of Old English literature. If there is no critical mass of black intellectuals, writers, and poets who can talk back to the early English literary corpus and the large-looming white supremacist gatekeepers, then Toni Morrison’s Beowulf essay might well be the first piece to do so. Because she writes about Beowulf, race, and how to read beyond the white gaze, her essay speaks back not only to Beowulf but to the English literary scholarship that has left Anglo-Saxon Studies a space of continued white supremacist scholarship.
In Toni Morrison’s 2019 collection, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, we get the first revision of who should read Beowulf and how race matters. In her essay, “Grendel and His Mother,” she explains:
Delving into literature is neither escape nor surefire route to comfort. It has been a constant, sometimes violent, always provocative engagement with the contemporary world, the issues of the society we live in… As I tell it you may be reminded of the events and rhetoric and actions of many current militarized struggles and violent upheavals.
As a black feminist reader, Morrison examines Beowulf as political, current, for any reader. Indeed, she opens by explaining that literary criticism is always performed through the lens of its moment, urging her readers to “discover in the lines of association I am making with a medieval sensibility and a modern one a fertile ground on which we can appraise our contemporary world.” Morrison’s Beowulf interpretation highlights what other critics, following Tolkien’s lead, have deemed marginal. She decenters the white male hero, focusing instead on the racialized, politicized, and gendered figures of Grendel and his mother, who in Tolkien’s read would have been black. In his article “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” his white male gaze concentrates on what these two “monsters” can do for Beowulf’s development as the white male hero of Germanic epic. Morrison, on the other hand, is interested in Grendel and his mother as raced and marginal figures with interiority, psyche, context, and emotion.
In Morrison’s interviews with Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose, and The Paris Review, she explains her literary method when she unpacks nineteenth-century American literature—especially Faulkner, Twain, Hemingway, and Poe—and how white writers and critics hide blackness and race. Similarly, in Morrison’s discussion about Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, she exposes the power dynamics of whiteness in Cather’s novel. The novel describes the complicated relationship between a white and a black woman in which Cather’s white gaze forces not just unspeakable violence onto the black woman but also erases her name, context, and point of view. Similarly, Tolkien is not interested in Grendel or his mother’s racialized contexts, emotions, and reasons. He writes with the white gaze—Grendel and his mother are racialized props that help explain Beowulf’s conflicts, contexts, emotions, and reasons. Morrison’s sentiments about nineteenth-century American literature apply to white supremacist Anglo-Saxon Studies: “The insanity of racism… you are there hunting this [race] thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference.”
Morrison analyzes Beowulf through Grendel’s racialized gaze. She points out Grendel’s lack of back story:
But what seemed never to trouble or worry them was who was Grendel and why had he placed them on his menu? …The question does not surface for a simple reason: evil has no father. It is preternatural and exists without explanation. Grendel’s actions are dictated by his nature; the nature of an alien mind—an inhuman drift… But Grendel escapes these reasons: no one had attacked or offended him; no one had tried to invade his home or displace him from his territory; no one had stolen from him or visited any wrath upon him. Obviously he was neither defending himself nor seeking vengeance. In fact, no one knew who he was.
Morrison asks readers to dwell on Grendel beyond good versus evil binaries. She centers the marginal characters in Beowulf, who have not been given space and life in the poem itself. She forces us to rethink Grendel’s mother and Beowulf’s vengeance, writing:
Beowulf swims through demon-laden waters, is captured, and, entering the mother’s lair, weaponless, is forced to use his bare hands… With her own weapon he cuts off her head, and then the head of Grendel’s corpse. A curious thing happens then: the Victim’s blood melts the sword… The conventional reading is that the fiends’ blood is so foul it melts steel, but the image of Beowulf standing there with a mother’s head in one hand and a useless hilt in the other encourages more layered interpretations. One being that perhaps violence against violence—regardless of good and evil, right and wrong—is itself so foul the sword of vengeance collapses in exhaustion or shame.
Morrison’s discussion of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf is about violence and how it undoes all potential motivations, including vengeance. The final tableau of Beowulf holding both the blood-covered sword of vengeance and Grendel’s mother’s head is about the corrosiveness of violence. For Morrison, the corrosive violence that eats through the sword of vengeance is that of whiteness.
Morrison goes further to unpack Beowulf through the work of contemporary writers. She explains:
One challenge to the necessary but narrow expectations of this heroic narrative comes from a contemporary writer, the late John Gardner, in his novel, titled Grendel… The novel poses the question that the epic does not: Who is Grendel? The author asks us to enter his mind and test the assumption that evil is flagrantly unintelligible, wanton, and undecipherable.
Specifically, she discusses Gardner’s rethinking of Grendel’s interiority. She writes that Gardner tries to “penetrate the interior life—emotional, cognizant—of incarnate evil.” For Morrison, the poem’s most salient interpretation comes from reading it politically, cogently, and rigorously. She writes:
In this country… we are being asked to both recoil from violence and to embrace it; to waver between winning at all costs and caring for our neighbor; between the fear of the strange and the comfort of the familiar; between the blood feud of the Scandinavians and the monster’s yearning for nurture and community.
In Morrison’s analysis, Grendel has developed from being a murderous guest to Hrothgar’s Hall who kills for no reason, to becoming the central focus. This passage asks us to think about why Grendel would do what he did. Morrison understands him as dispossessed; his “dilemma is also ours.” She situates Grendel as kith and kin to her imagined critical reading audience—black women.
Morrison concludes with a meditation on complicity, inaction, and the politics of contemporary late fascism and democracy:
…language—informed, shaped, reasoned—will become the hand that stays crisis and gives creative, constructive conflict air to breathe, startling our lives and rippling our intellect. I know that democracy is worth fighting for. I know that fascism is not. To win the former intelligent struggle is needed. To win the latter nothing is required. You only have to cooperate, be silent, agree, and obey until the blood of Grendel’s mother annihilates her own weapon and the victor’s as well.
In other words, we can reread that scene as a statement about fascist violence and its self-destroying and gendered toxicity. Morrison has made reading Beowulf raced, gendered, political; she has envisioned its interpretation through the centrality of a black feminist reading audience where politics matter and “democracy is worth fighting for.”
As Tolkien’s intellectual grandchild (my advisor was his student), I do not think it is accidental that Morrison’s critical voice reframes Beowulf for the racialized, political now. Tolkien’s deliberate shut out of Stuart Hall means that we can only speculate about Hall as a critic of Beowulf, and we know that Anglo-Saxon scholarship continues to shut out black and minority scholars. With Morrison, finally, I believe we can put Tolkien’s “Monsters and Critics” to bed and read Beowulf anew.
After a week of vacation, I’ve returned to my project creating video chapters for my audiovisual book, “The Character of Chemistry in Breaking Bad.” After letting these videos sit for a couple of weeks, I’ve made some final tweaks and am ready to share drafts of two more chapters:
“Walter’s Whiteness” explores the role of race within Walt’s character arc:
“Focusing on Hank (and Marie)” considers how we access Hank’s emotional state and relationship with Marie in one crucial scene:
Together, I see them as complementary in both topic and approach. The former uses wide-ranging cultural analysis across the entire series, and the latter offers a very close formal reading of a single-scene in the context of the episode “One Minute.” In terms of videographic style, they are fairly similar: voice-over driven with sparing use of other visual techniques. While I hope that the final book will offer a broad range of vidoegraphic styles, I do find that the voiceover approach is best-suited for many of the ideas I wish to explore.
As always, feedback is welcomed!
If the sharp end of critique’s job is to name injury, then it also has a soft lining that is oriented around recovery and repair. Even if a particular critical project stays with injury rather than whatever might come after, what else is there to want, in the wake of naming injury, but to fix it? Both writers and readers of such critiques are thrust into a morality tale, the drama of selves...
Today, many teachers agree that antiracist lessons are an important part of a good education, but most will concede that it can be difficult to craft these lessons well. That was also true during World War II, when American teachers embarked on an ambitious effort to fight racism, as education historian Zoë Burkholder writes.
In the late 1930s, an increased focus on national unity, along with concerns about Nazi propaganda, encouraged teachers to embrace “tolerance education.” Burkholder writes that for many teachers and students, standing up against racism was an obvious part of the fight against the Nazis. In most of the country, when teachers talked about race they were mostly discussing different ethnic groups that we would now lump together as white. One Indiana teacher, for example, focused on teaching her students about the scientific and artistic “gifts” brought to America “even from those countries whose political policies we condemn or whose sons and daughters we call wops and dagoes and hunkies.”
Burkholder writes that this concept of “cultural gifts” leaned heavily on stereotypes. One teacher discussed “color from Italy, stamina and restraint from the Scandinavian countries, artistry from France, steady nerve and purposefulness from Britain.” Few schools included Asian, African, or African-American cultures in these lessons.
That changed over the next few years, particularly in 1943, when riots targeting black and Mexican-American workers in many cities brought racism against these groups to educators’ attention. A new kind of tolerance education took hold, rooted in “scientific” ideas about race. Where teachers’ descriptions of the “races” of Europe had been based on informal, popular understandings, this new strain leaned on anthropology. The Races of Mankind, an illustrated pamphlet published by anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Gene Welfish in October of 1943, became enormously popular among educators.
The Races of Mankind argued that human diversity was based more on culture than genetics, and that people of all races had the potential to be equal. But it also gave scientific credence to the idea of race as a static, genetically-based category. The book held that humanity could be divided into three races: “Caucasian,” “Mongoloid,” and “Negroid.”
Sometimes these “anti-racist” lessons were scientific. One class demonstrated that blood samples from black and white students were indistinguishable in an effort to challenge the Red Cross policy of segregated blood banks. In other cases, though, the “anti-racist” lessons replicated the “cultural gifts” concept in disturbing ways. For example, one Ohio class of white students spent weeks studying African-American achievements. Then, the students donned blackface and “mammy dresses” to act out black Americans’ rise from slavery.
Burkholder writes that the racial curricula faded out of use after the end of World War II, to mixed results. Some white students reported a new understanding of equality with black and Asian peers. But the classes also helped reinforce Americans’ understanding of races as immutable “scientific” categories.
From the publication of his 1922 collection, Tales of the Jazz Age, and beyond, F. Scott Fitzgerald has been inextricably linked to jazz. Indeed, Fitzgerald is even widely believed to have coined the term “Jazz Age,” and although the phrase predated Fitzgerald’s book, his usage unquestionably boosted its popularity immensely. The presence of jazz in his other works, perhaps most iconically in his grand novel The Great Gatsby, linked the term even more tightly to his name. Today, the moniker “Jazz Age” has come to signify, as a kind of evocative shorthand, the 1920s in both academic and pop culture. Because jazz’s lineage—difficult as it is to pin down—was tightly bound up with African-American performance, the music often came to signify black American cultural production, and so, whenever Fitzgerald invoked jazz, he was often, simultaneously, invoking blackness. Yet The Great Gatsby’s usage of jazz is complicated, as Fitzgerald was simultaneously a proponent of the then-new, race-crossing music and a writer prone to resorting to racial stereotypes when black characters appeared—a combination that, unfortunately, was far from uncommon in Fitzgerald’s day.
“It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire,” Fitzgerald famously wrote of the 1920s in a 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.” In his mind, the decade defied any rigid definition, but what perhaps characterized it best was the jazz music he so frequently alluded to in his own writing. In Fitzgerald’s most popular novel, The Great Gatsby, jazz appears as constant background music. In the contemporary phenomenon of “Gatsby parties”—festivities intended to capture the air of the titular Jay Gatsby’s famously lavish, bacchanalian parties—jazz is de rigueur to evoke the 1920s.
For all of its ubiquity in American culture in the twentieth century, however, jazz was also deeply divisive from its very beginnings. If jazz was the most visible example of a new musical form in early twentieth century America, it was also one of the most frequently vilified, often in ways that directly or implicitly connected to bigoted assumptions about blackness. And Fitzgerald’s incorporation of jazz both into The Great Gatsby and into his definition of the 1920s was similarly fraught. Despite his decrying of white supremacist ideologies, many of his depictions of African-Americans employ obvious, if casual, racial caricatures, even as he was willing to embrace the musical style that African-Americans invented and were indelibly associated with.
It is difficult to overstate the pre-eminence of jazz in the early twentieth century in America, appearing as a theme in everything from clubs to cartoons to realist fiction. “For the makers, consumers, and arbiters of culture,” the theater and music scholar David Savran wrote in 2006, “jazz was everything. A weltanschauung, a personal identity, a metaphysics, an epistemology, an ethics, an eros, a mode of sociality—an entire way of being.” It was a musical style that, with its improvised orchestration, complexity, and danceable melodies, seemed to represent, through the fusion of seemingly contrary impulses, so much of the world at the time: the dissonance of Modernism, on the one hand, with jazz’s rejection of straightforward classical music, and, on the other hand, its class-transcending popularity, whereby both rich and poor could, in theory, dance to similar music.
The origins of jazz are somewhat hazy. This is partly because, as the music scholar William Kenney notes, jazz did not come from one sole place. Instead, its ancestry can be traced back to musical theatre and black vaudeville performances in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—though the vaudevillian connections are often neglected in conventional histories of jazz. Early white historians of jazz, like Otis Ferguson and Sidney Finkelstein, argued, inaccurately, that jazz was essentially “folk music” played for all-black audiences—a mixing-up of jazz with country blues. Many classically-trained black Americans, like Will Marion Cook (who had studied music at Oberlin College), found themselves unable to work in grand concert halls, due to anti-black discrimination. As a result, they frequently turned to popular music, theatre, and vaudeville, which would lead, in part, to the formation of jazz, as well as to many other African-American theatrical and entertainment productions. Cook, for example, went on to produce the first African-American Broadway musical comedy, Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, in 1898.
Vaudeville was one of the most enduring forms of entertainment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A protean genre, it contained just about everything: skits, song-and-dance routines, comedy performances, minstrel shows, sketches, and more. Many popular acts included unusual sounds on stage, using washboards, saws, and other household items as instruments, usually for comic effect. In the years immediately following World War I, such novel orchestration was conventionally termed “jazz” or “novelty music.” Other acts featured well-known songs, like Ethelbert Nevin’s “The Rosary,” played on unexpected instruments. Nevin’s song, which was often performed on piano or violin, might be done with three clarinets instead, as the ragtime musician Wilbur Sweatman did in vaudeville performances.
These popular, innovative acts, as Kenney notes, led to white Americans and Europeans imitating this sort of improvisational instrumentation, and to African-American artists refining the vaudevillian shows into a more coherent musical form. The African-American musician James Reese Europe popularized jazz in France during WWI, performing “novelty music” with the 369th Infantry Band in 1918; earlier, he had formed the Clef Club, a society and band for black musicians, which would make history by playing the “new” music at Carnegie Hall. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, an all-white group that produced the first jazz record in 1919, incorporated barnyard noises in its hit single, “Livery Stable Blues,” a harkening to the use of bizarre sounds in black vaudeville.
Alongside all this, by the 1920s, black vaudeville had become increasingly popular with interracial audiences, particularly due to the presence of black female vocalists who could draw huge crowds and garner critical acclaim, like Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and many others. Their songs often featured bands playing the “novelty” music, which had by now become firmly known as jazz. Because of this, along with an ever-growing stable of jazz-playing showmen and African-Americans publishing sheet music, jazz began to reach an even wider audience, until it became the most popular music of the 1920s.
As the scholar Maureen Anderson points out, white Americans swiftly condemned this new, ubiquitous music. “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go,” read one headline; another, more overtly racist, argued “Why ‘Jazz’ Sends Us Back to the Jungle.” Critics who wished to demean African-Americans now had a new way to do so, through vitriolic articles about jazz. Indeed, a striking number of anti-jazz articles in mainstream magazines between 1917 and 1930 sought to attack African-Americans more than the music itself. One of the earliest such pieces, “The Appeal of Primitive Jazz” (1917), decried the “colored” groups as seeming to be “infected with a virus” that made them “shake and jump and writhe in ways to suggest a return of the medieval jumping mania.” If such casual dismissiveness was not enough, the writer then argued that jazz was performed by “savages” who showed their “aggressive” and “retarded” nature through music, an image that would likely have brought to some readers’ minds the image of Gus from the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation, in which Gus, an old colonial caricature of black men as dangerous and sexually rapacious, assaults white women. Jazz, in this all-too-common line of reasoning, did not advance us; it brought us backwards, and possibly even endangered white listeners.
Moreover, white critics often associated jazz with minstrelsy. The earnest contributions to music history by black vaudeville performers was almost always overshadowed by the contemptuous, caricatured performances of white Americans wearing blackface in minstrel shows. This, along with Jim Crow-era racism, meant that jazz quickly became associated in many Americans’ minds not only with the musical style itself, but with the worst images of anti-black mockery. An iconic example of this was Al Jolson’s blackface performance in the epochal 1927 movie, The Jazz Singer, which heralded the end of the silent film era. Jolson, portraying a white Jewish singer, decides to “become American” by wearing blackface and crooning jazz on stage; as the scholar Michael Rogin observes, because blackface and minstrelsy were amongst the most iconic images at the time of American entertainment, viewers would have understood, immediately, how merging jazz and blackface was equivalent to projecting an identity of “American-ness.”
In much the same vein, an explicit connection between jazz and minstrelsy appeared in a famous Betty Boop cartoon, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” (1932), in which Louis Armstrong and his band perform. In the episode—which, by virtue of Armstrong’s presence, has become part of jazz history—Betty Boop is captured on a safari by dark-skinned cannibals, who attempt to devour her. When her companions, Bimbo and Koko the Clown, attempt to save her, they are chased by a cannibal in an extended scene in which their pursuer morphs into a gigantic black head, which then shifts into Armstrong’s own face, then back into the cannibal, the head’s engorged proportions suggesting the exaggerations of minstrel shows. Armstrong is thus represented as both a skilled singer and a “savage” attempting to eradicate white characters. Such racist iconography was hardly unusual for cartoons of the Jazz Age and beyond, reinforcing the idea that American cultural production, jazz, and minstrelsy all existed together—an idea softly present, too, in The Great Gatsby, as jazz in the book indicates the American-ness of the text, alongside its minstrel-like racial caricatures in the few times it mentions black Americans.
Despite, or perhaps because of, jazz’s prominence, all the way up to the 1950s, the most conservative critics dismissed jazz as the Devil’s music, immoral orchestration that encouraged sex, drugs, and violence. Writers warning against the “Satanic” quality of jazz, however, were not merely giving jazz the same treatment that rock and hip-hop later would get; they were also drawing on a long history of associating black people with evil—“darkness”—by virtue of one’s swarthy skin, a racist tradition extending well into the early days of European colonialism.
Fitzgerald’s embrace of jazz, then, was both an acceptance of popular music and a rejection of these racist critiques. Although the word “jazz” only appears a few times in the Great Gatsby, the music itself is ever-present; when music is playing in the background, Fitzgerald frequently refers to saxophones and horns, iconic instruments of the genre. Because of how organically omnipresent jazz is in Fitzgerald’s novel, virtually all later depictions of the book feature roaring jazzy orchestras as a way of capturing the book’s atmosphere, from film adaptations to the by-now-common phenomenon of the Gatsby party. So indebted is Gatsby to jazz and its origins that the critics Catherine Kunce and Paul M. Levitt have strikingly argued that even the structure of the novel itself can be convincingly read as a kind of extended vaudevillian performance.
At the same time, however, Fitzgerald tended to outline black characters in language straight out of minstrel iconography. In The Great Gatsby and elsewhere, black men are often described as “bucks,” a term linking black males to animals white men might hunt. As Gatsby drives Nick Carraway into New York, the narrator describes passing “three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.” The men are “bucks;” the rolling eyeballs suggest a caricature from a minstrel poster; and the whole group is meant to inspire laughter. That this is one of the few times black characters explicitly appear in the novel is suggestive.
These tendencies of Fitzgerald’s did not go unnoticed. On July 23rd, 1934, Earl W. Wilkins, an avid reader of Fitzgerald’s, sent him a letter. “Must all male Negroes in your books and stories be called ‘bucks?’” he asked. Within a fortnight, the scholar Alan Margolies reveals, Fitzgerald replied, but his response has unfortunately been lost. Still, it seemed Wilkins’s letter had made an impression, as Fitzgerald saved it.
Such racist imagery was not exclusive to Fitzgerald’s fiction. In a letter from May, 1921, to Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald described a trip to Europe by claiming that “[t]he negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race.” The phrasing contains uncomfortable echoes of racialist pseudoscience and white supremacy.
Yet Fitzgerald would later argue stridently against the white-supremacist movement of “Nordicism,” which held that whites in Europe and America were being “replaced” by the “spread” of nonwhites and that white people would soon simply cease to exist (an idea echoed today in memes about “white genocide”). When Gatsby’s narrator describes Tom Buchanan’s infamous white-supremacist rants as “impassioned gibberish,” he is perhaps echoing Fitzgerald’s own views. The ideology of “Nordicism” appears in Gatbsy only as further proof of Buchanan’s irredeemable unpleasantness, as Buchanan—the book’s most overtly racist character—is clearly meant to be unlikeable.
Fitzgerald’s deployment of jazz imagery, then, was as cutting-edge as it was conservative. He embraced the new music; he struggled more to embrace its practitioners and progenitors. He was willing to learn. Yet in the age when jazz was at its arguable peak of public visibility, he was still not able to see black people in the same way he saw white Americans and Europeans.
Empathy is partly what jazz set out to create, unsettling traditions and traditionalists at first, then luring them in with its almost surreal, fey beauty. Jazz attempted to dissolve social lines between race, class, and political affiliation, as in James Baldwin’s famous short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” in which the new music ultimately brings two long-warring brothers together by the sheer emotiveness of the melodies that the titular Sonny plays for his sibling. Jazz was, to a degree, an equalizing force both in Fitzgerald’s oeuvre and the wider world.
The Great Gatsby, then, was a clear product of its time, embracing the new music but also falling prey to the caricatures that had become associated with it. Still, it used jazz as the gentle but powerful backdrop to a story of failed love that endures today, and in this way, along with his usage of the term “Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald helped cement the idea that jazz defined the 1920s. For all his flaws, Fitzgerald, too, was a dancer on that grand stage of an era, saxophones, pianos, and everything else blaring around him.
The post What <em>The Great Gatsby</em> Reveals About The Jazz Age appeared first on JSTOR Daily.
Kathleen Belew is an international authority on the white-power movement ...
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The college admissions scandal exposed criminal and unethical actions that undermine the promise of the American university system. To get to the root of the crisis, this roundtable discussion—curated by Public Books and JSTOR Daily—asks scholars to go back to the drawing board and answer the most basic of questions: What would constitute a fair college admissions process?
Recently news broke that dozens of individuals, including celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, paid thousands of dollars to buy admission to some of the nation’s elite universities. This spectacularly terrible scandal raises questions about how to build a more fair system. On top of the scandal, other troubling practices such as legacy admissions and donor preferences remind us that admissions is biased toward the wealthy. Some might also think that getting rid of any recognition of an applicant’s race/ethnicity, so-called “race-neutral” admissions, is a step in the right direction.
At face value, the concept of race-neutrality may seem fair. What could be more fair than something that is supposedly neutral? However, I can confidently say that any system that does not address the contexts of racial and economic inequality is deeply unfair. Given the state of educational inequality in our country, solely relying on race-neutral policies does not eliminate discrimination; it reinforces it.
Ironically, admissions systems that do not pay attention to the nuances of race and class oftentimes defend themselves under the guise of “fairness” or “meritocracy.” These systems, such as the process used for decades to determine admission to New York City’s most elite public high schools, are based solely on standardized metrics of achievement, in many cases on a single test score cutoff. Supporters of such systems argue that nothing is fairer than a “race-neutral” admissions system based on a single test that everyone has the chance to study for and take. Isn’t a test objective, and even better, easily evaluated, insofar as a higher number is clearly better than even a slightly lower number?
However, the highest test scores are often bought at a literal price—the price of enrollment in SAT prep courses. As I explain in my book Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data, East Asian American students are much more likely than other groups to take these courses, and other research indicates that they are actually the only group that demonstrates statistically significant gains from taking such courses. Of course, there are many, many incredibly talented East Asian American students. However, this research highlights how colleges should consider that so-called neutral test scores are anything but neutral. The playing field is far from equal. The same goes for privileges in college preparation enjoyed largely by affluent White families. As I explain in Race on Campus, the solution is not just to throw SAT prep at low-income students. The roots of inequality go much deeper.
While test-based and/or so-called neutral (i.e., “race-neutral” or “class-neutral”) admissions seem fair, they are deeply flawed, because they fail to take into account the student’s context for educational opportunity. I’ll tell you what’s really unfair. Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon identified a gap of over four grade levels in academic performance between America’s most affluent and least affluent students. Further: “On average white students score one and [a] half or more grade levels higher than black and Hispanic students enrolled in socioeconomically similar school districts.” How is this fair?
Now, to some people, race-conscious holistic admissions—the general mode of operation at selective institutions of higher education—smacks of unfairness. In holistic admissions, test scores and GPAs are looked at alongside other relevant pieces of information—not just the number of extracurricular activities, but how students describe what they got out of their experiences. Essays that provide more insight into who a student is beyond the numbers. Teacher and guidance counselor recommendations, the quality of the high school, life hardships that a student may have overcome, the likelihood of them being able to take SAT prep, special talents, career aspirations, and, among many other factors, consideration of race and social class.
In holistic admissions, race cannot be the sole or even primary determinant of admission. It cannot work in a formulaic way that guarantees anyone admission or denial to an institution. As noted in Fisher II v. University of Texas at Austin, race operates as “factor of a factor of a factor.” White plaintiff Abigail Fisher was denied admission from UT Austin, but hundreds of Black and Brown students with stronger academic records than hers were also rejected.
Under holistic admissions, there is no guarantee that the highest-scoring students will gain admission, in part because the number of students with such accomplishments can outnumber the number of spots available in a first-year class. Furthermore, top universities are generally interested in pulling together a class with a greater range of traits and talents than the ability to get the absolute highest test score, which makes sense given the pervasiveness of SAT prep among the upper middle class and some ethnic groups. Being the valedictorian may reflect well on a student, but it is no guarantee of admission. As Karen Arnold shows in her research on the long-term outcomes for such students, valedictorians tend not to garner exceptional achievements later in life. The type of extreme conscientiousness associated with being No. 1 in high school, while undeniably a talent, doesn’t usually translate into the student becoming a risk-taking visionary later in life. Thus, nuance and discernment are needed to examine a student’s achievements—for instance, does a top class rank say more about whether a student is a rule follower than whether they possess passion and innovation?
These are some of the issues at stake in the pending lawsuit Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, and in other affirmative action cases around the country. In SFFA v. Harvard, the complaint is filled with narratives of high-achieving Asian American students who did not gain admission. For example, one was a National Merit Semifinalist with a perfect ACT score and the top possible marks on two SAT II subject tests. But as I discuss here, Harvard’s applicant pool had almost 1,000 students who scored a perfect score on the ACT or SAT, and its freshman class is around 1,600 students. Nineteen percent of students who take the Math II test get a perfect 800. There are over 16,000 National Merit Semifinalists. Top marks do not make someone a standout. Is that unfair?
Let’s remember what’s even more unfair: That low-income students and so many students of color are denied access to high-quality public schools. That many affluent, White, and East Asian American students experience tremendous advantage in college preparation. And of course, that there exist policies and practices that overtly favor the wealthy, from donor preferences to the incredible admissions scandal of recent months. These things are much, much more unfair than someone with a perfect SAT score—one of thousands of similar applicants in the pool—getting turned down by Harvard and then being able to attend some other fantastic college.
Opponents of race-conscious admissions argue that such policies are unsuccessful because the vast majority of students of color at our nation’s elite colleges are wealthy, or “rich minorities.” However, as found in the groundbreaking work of William Bowen and Derek Bok, Black students at elite colleges are much more likely than White students to come from low-income families. Furthermore, White students attending such institutions are far more likely to come from the most affluent families. Research by Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford documents how colleges give considerable preference to low-income students of color, showing how both race and class are addressed in tandem.
Race-conscious holistic admissions is imperfect, because the broader K–12 system remains highly unequal. However, the answer is not to ignore race in the name of so-called fairness, but to take it into consideration. Race- and class-conscious admissions cannot fix everything that is wrong with our education system, but it is a far improvement over the alternatives, making a blatantly unfair world perhaps a little more fair.
When Public Books invited me, back in early February, to contribute thoughts on fair admissions to elite colleges, I wrote the essay that follows from the most theoretical and idealistic perspective possible, questioning the very terms of fairness and college admissions. Today, however, in light of the college scam controversy swirling around William Singer and his celebrity clients, any talk of college admissions must be prefaced by analysis of the fraught nature of the playing field.
That nature is composed of several factors: (1) the high desirability of placement in elite colleges, not necessarily for learning so much as for prestige; (2) the increasingly ultra-competitive undertaking that is securing that placement; (3) the long-standing unevenness of admissions, highlighting the role of class privilege; and (4) the inevitable mix of commerce (e.g., branding) and education, making college admissions subject to the same capitalist imperatives shaping other aspects of college life. Singer’s company represents an industry built on the anxieties of parents who, lacking the personal connections to facilitate admissions for their offspring, must rely on an external business to do so. In short, what in other circumstances may have taken a personal phone call from Daddy or Uncle to someone within the inner sanctum of an elite institution is here replaced by a company that offers a surefire “side door” (Singer’s expression) to success. What family with economic means but without the historic cultural capital of “connections” could resist?
That Singer’s company crossed the line into illegality and got caught is not the morality tale that it might seem. Rather, the real lesson of this criminal episode lies in our own reimagining of the pedestal upon which higher education may impossibly reside. The pedestal includes the human frailties of greed and corruption, along with the ideals of education itself. If we are to uphold the values of critical thinking that higher education espouses, then we must integrate ethical development into instruction. Herein lies the cautionary tale of the Singer fiasco—that higher education and its admissions process should not only identify and prepare “the best and brightest” among the next generation of leaders, but also cultivate its moral foundation.
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Whoever thought that admissions to a university should be fair? The idea seems peculiarly American and builds on 1960s-era social justice movements that assume elite institutions should be made available to a broad spectrum of individuals. It presumes the vitality of its intellectual, social, and political body rests in a diversity of opinions, backgrounds, experiences, and expectations within a particular range of ability. The “best and brightest”—yes. But those deserving the epithet may not be so easy to identify when one broadens what “best and brightest” might look, sound, and feel like. Fairness within this context requires admissions officers to look beyond numbers and conduct the screening process not as science, but as art. This is the art of human assessment, predicting the future from the past. Adding up test scores does not necessarily guarantee success within this ideal of a vibrant, richly diverse educational institution. Nor is GPA a pure predictor, if the successful life of a campus is also measured by unquantifiable elements such as leadership and creativity, both broadly conceived.
What admissions officers must do first, then, is understand their own institution; second, get to know the applicant; and third, assess the fit between campus and applicant. This process requires what I call “flexible fairness,” which involves the moving parts by which an institution may constantly grow and become a better version of itself. Flexible fairness privileges certain aspects—intellectual capacity, willingness to work, maturity, integrity, personal drive—while not predefining or insisting on any of these. Flexible fairness precludes any single vision of equitable admissions.
The question of “fairness” must always be addressed to the particularities of its constituencies. Thus the question is not, What practices constitute fairness in an admissions process? It must, rather, be reformulated to emphasize the issue of fairness as it pertains to specific purposes in the context of specific institutional histories. So if the institution sets a vision of itself as a particularly dynamic learning environment, then the “fairness” required to fulfill that vision builds on diversity within the pursuit of critical thinking, creativity, and productivity.
I come to these thoughts having compiled student stories while a visiting professor of anthropology at Harvard University in 2014–2015, which resulted in a coedited book, Straight A’s: Asian American College Students in Their Own Words (2018). My time at Harvard, and in particular my conversations with the Asian American students whom I taught in a class geared to their experiences, brought these issues home. These students were certainly impressive in their lists of accomplishments. But they were equally impressive for their energy, initiative, drive, and industry. They knew what it took to conceptualize and complete a task. Although they may have shared similar numbers (SAT and AP Exam scores, GPAs), their contributions went well beyond those superficial achievements. These contributions surfaced not merely in examinations and term papers, but in extracurricular projects, community commitments, fierce debates, and creative endeavors. Our book, Straight A’s, was one of these—begun as a classroom exercise, it blossomed into a collection of searingly honest stories through the networking energy and follow-through of the students. The experience left me highly hopeful for what the art of admissions might produce.
Let me return to the topic of this essay and strip down my response to the questions the editors of Public Books ask.
Definition of fairness: broad access to human and intellectual resources that supports institutional goals. Note that I have not used the words “equal” or “equitable,” mainly because those words tend to reinforce a one-size-fits-all approach to human potential, worthiness, and success. I strongly believe that this is not the case.
Implementation of fairness in admissions processes: acknowledging the inexact art of assessing student potential, I support qualitative, holistic review of applicants that takes a number of factors into consideration. Colleges must select judiciously, keeping in mind “whole person” concerns that include family background—of which race is undeniably a part. They must also consider the entering class that they are creating, striving for some kind of balance among gendered, regional, racialized, and classed factors. This balance, too, goes beyond strict numbers or quotas, reflecting a composite picture of idealized diversity.
Finally, let us consider the folly of “race-blind” admissions. To ignore race would be to take a foundational chunk of a student’s background life out of the reckoning. How to assess the whole person without regard for an abiding feature of their personal history? How to deny the weight of that history, an individual’s family background, and very real cultural context? The fact is, all of these elements matter in understanding just who the candidate is and how they might fit in with the institution. Holistic admissions understands this well, as it embraces the scope of the educated guess.
I write this as we await the judge’s decision on affirmative action at Harvard. Organizations such as the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance are paying close attention. Indeed, “fairness” in admissions is on the line, but not in the way that the anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum—who created the group misleadingly called “Students for Fair Admissions,” with recruited Asian Americans as their public face—would have us believe. “Fairness” includes race-conscious admissions processes that build on Harvard’s and other institutions’ goal of building strength through diversity itself. This vision conceives of diversity as a fundamental part of excellence, not as a sideshow, and requires the “fairness” of admissions procedures that will assure it.
Especially in the wake of the recent news of a coordinated bribery scheme, many people seem to agree our selective college admissions process is broken. There is far less consensus, however, about why we think it’s broken, and what a better, fairer admissions process would look like. Some think that the process would be fair if it were conducted without special considerations for legacy students, development cases, or athletic recruitment. Others go further, focusing on the myriad mundane ways—aside from bribery and donations—that the system allows privileged people to leverage their resources to secure and perpetuate their advantages. But I contend the process is inherently unfair because it is based on meritocratic principles designed to produce unequal outcomes. A truly fair system would reject meritocratic logics and instead operate on the principle that high-quality education is not a reward for the few, but a right of the many.
Our current process, in which applicants are stratified into a hierarchical higher education landscape, takes a meritocratic ideology as its foundational premise. Meritocracy, the term popularized by British sociologist Michael Young’s 1958 The Rise of the Meritocracy, is typically imagined as a system in which all have equal opportunity to compete on a “level playing field” on the basis of “talent” and “ability,” and all are rewarded equitably based on their “merit.” While this system sounds fair at first blush, a meritocratic ideology poses two problems, either of which should be sufficient cause to critically question it, and perhaps abandon it entirely.
First, upholding meritocracy necessarily entails accepting and upholding inequality. In the case of college admissions, we currently have a system in which some schools have more resources, are more prestigious, and are deemed “better” than others, and those schools have limited seats. We try to allocate those seats “fairly,” on the basis of demonstrated past success and evaluations of future potential. It’s far from a perfect system, but we can rationalize it as ideologically consistent with a meritocratic ideal of equal opportunity and reward for individual talent, effort, and ability. But perhaps, rather than focusing on who “deserves” the “best” schooling, our societal commitment should be to making a high-quality education available to all. Such a commitment would require a rejection of the stratification and inequality presupposed by a meritocratic system and lead us to question whether a stratified society—and assignment to places in an unequal education system—could ever be just.
Second, even if one were inclined to find inequality and stratification acceptable, the reality is that we are so far from the ideals of equal opportunity and a level playing field that the unfairness is glaringly obvious. As sociologist Jonathan Mijs argues, opportunities for demonstrating merit are far from equally distributed. In the United States, where racial residential segregation and local control of schools combine to disproportionately relegate nonwhite (especially black) students to underfunded schools, the claim that anything approaching equal opportunity exists is laughable. Our emphasis on standardized tests, which have roots in racist, ableist, eugenicist science, evinces a narrow understanding of what intelligence is or could be. Holistic admissions evaluations, which provide necessary latitude to consider students’ contexts and lived experiences, also provide privileged applicants another opportunity to show off well-filled extracurricular profiles and essays carefully coached and edited by counselors and consultants. In sum, our current admissions process is—top to bottom—built to misrecognize privilege as “merit,” and thus advantage the already advantaged. To say wealthy white applicants are gaming the system belies the fact that they’re really just playing the game—a game in which only they have full access to the equipment. Perhaps the way to fix this is not to try to change the rules, but to stop playing the meritocratic game entirely.
If that seems a drastic proposal, let me try to convince you it’s a necessary one. We could try to work within the current system, striking the policies that are most obviously and egregiously unfair: legacy, donor admissions, early decision, recruitment of athletes in country club sports. While an improvement, this does nothing to address the fact that even with those components stripped out, the process still falls far short of fairness, because our very metrics of merit are skewed toward privilege. We could try to calibrate for disadvantage, but that’s essentially what holistic evaluation tries to do now—and it’s not enough. Meritocracy is an arms race, one in which the privileged are always better equipped.
We could, as many scholars have proposed, move toward a lottery, which would go a long way toward making explicit the role of luck in college admissions. But I’m concerned by the way some thinkers discuss a potential admissions lottery. Proponents of a lottery often suggest that there should be some baseline level of “merit” in order to enter the lottery. Such a formulation of the lottery doesn’t entail a rejection of our metrics of merit, meaning it would likely reproduce existing inequalities. To avoid that, a lottery would need to not use simple random selection, but instead be carefully calibrated to ensure the resulting class is not just representative of the pool (in which wealthy white students are overrepresented), but of graduating high school students. That could be achieved by assigning different weights to students depending on their background, or by using a form of stratified random selection, in which the applicant pool would be divided into smaller pools based on, for example, demographic factors, and a certain number of students would be accepted at random from each pool.
The lottery is an exciting idea, but one likely to run into legal challenges. And beyond that, it doesn’t do enough to address the unfairness inherent in our unequal education system. I think we need to go a step further than asking what constitutes a fair admissions process, and instead ask what constitutes a fair society. We should recognize that our college admissions process is merely holding a mirror up to our society, reflecting how competitive, individualistic, unequal, and unfair the United States is. A truly radical solution would require the reorganization of our entire class structure and the redistribution of resources, thus obviating the need for such a high-stakes college application process.
It seems that we cling to meritocracy as a way of clinging to some hope of a better life in an increasingly unequal world. But rather than investing our hope in a fairer admissions system, I think we should dream bigger, and invest our hope in a more just society—one in which we live in community rather than competition. That might look like taking up Harvard professor Lani Guinier’s call to emphasize “democratic merit,” or it might look like dispensing with merit—and its attendant acceptance of deserved inequality—entirely.
Everyone deserves access to education. A fair admissions system would have that as a core premise and reject ostensibly just, “meritocratic” inequalities.
The college admissions scandal exposed criminal and unethical actions that undermine the promise of the American university system. To get ... [none-for-homepage]
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As we reconsider the works of Dr. Seuss on what would have been his (well, Theodor Seuss Geisel’s) 115th birthday, I encourage you to take a look at Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens’ “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” just published in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature last month. To give you a sense of the article’s impact, it has been downloaded over 18,000 times (as of this writing) and is mentioned in an NPR story.
I don’t have anything further to add, having written quite a bit on Seuss — including the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat in the Hat. You can find that in the title chapter of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (2017), which will be out in paperback on the 29th of this month. The paperback includes a new Afterword on “Why Adults Refuse to Admit Racist Content in the Children’s Books They Love” — in which I read some of the hate mail that the hardcover inspired, with the goal of educating people who are reluctant to reflect on their “problematic faves” from childhood.
Over at Kansas State University’s English Department blog, I have a post on my three months at the Internationale Jugendbibliothek in Munich. I’ll excerpt a little bit here (the first paragraph, and the conclusion) but go over there to read the whole thing (and to see more photos).
Since the first of September I have been at the Internationale Jugendbibliothek (IJB) in Munich, Germany. Why? As part of a larger cross-cultural study of diversity in children’s literature, I’m exploring how multiculturalism functions in Germany, via German picture books — chosen in part because they pose the smallest barrier to my limited (but improving!) German, and in part because what we read when we are young can have a profound impact on the adults we become. We read these books when we are still figuring out who we are and what we believe.
* * *
Founded in 1949, the Internationale Jugendbibliothek does a version of this work in its advocacy for international cultural education, via promoting good books for young readers. Embodying that international spirit, its staff and the fellows who study here come from around the world. During my three months at the IJB, I’ve met — and befriended — people from France, Iran, Japan, Lichtenstein, the Philippines, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Tunisia, Ukraine, and of course Germany.
Getting to know people from around the world has not only expanded my own perspective, but has developed professional relationships and friendships that will last throughout my life.
I will leave you with a phrase I saw on a shoulder-bag in Pasing train station one morning: “Lesen gefährdet die Dummheit,” which means “Reading endangers stupidity.” While combating ignorance does of course depend upon what we read, I nonetheless endorse the optimism of that statement. Fight stupidity. Keep reading.
As I say, this is but an excerpt. So, for the rest, go over to the English Dept. blog to for the rest (plus more photos).
… my ambition to advance myself
In the sort of project that, if carried out
Successfully, is good for anyone,
Whether rich or poor, and its failure is bound to be
Harmful to anyone, whether he’s young or old.
Asking them to tell you how you can
Get through your life in a peaceable tranquil way.
Will it be greed, that always feels poverty-stricken,
That harasses and torments you all your days?
Will it be hope and fear about trivial things,
In anxious alternation in your mind?
Where is it virtue comes from, is it from books?
Or is it a gift from Nature that can’t be learned?
What is the way to become a friend to yourself?
What brings tranquility? What makes you care less?
Honor? Or money? Or living your life unnoticed?
Whenever I drink from the cold refreshing waters
Of the little brook Digentia, down below
Our local hill town, what do you think I pray for?
“May I continue to have what I have right now,
Or even less, as long as I’m self-sufficient.
If the gods should grant me life, though just for a while,
May I live my life to myself, with books to read,
And food to sustain me for another year,
And not to waver with the wavering hours.”
The United States has always been a diverse but segregated country. This has shaped American politics profoundly. Yet, throughout history, Americans have had to grapple with divergent views and opinions, political ideologies, and experiences in order to function as a country. Many of the institutions that underpin American democracy force people in the United States to encounter difference. This does not inherently produce tolerance or result in healthy resolution. Hell, the history of the United States is fraught with countless examples of people enslaving and oppressing other people on the basis of difference. This isn’t about our past; this is about our present. And today’s battles over laws and culture are nothing new.
Ironically, in a world in which we have countless tools to connect, we are also watching fragmentation, polarization, and de-diversification happen en masse. The American public is self-segregating, and this is tearing at the social fabric of the country.
Many in the tech world imagined that the Internet would connect people in unprecedented ways, allow for divisions to be bridged and wounds to heal.It was the kumbaya dream. Today, those same dreamers find it quite unsettling to watch as the tools that were designed to bring people together are used by people to magnify divisions and undermine social solidarity. These tools were built in a bubble, and that bubble has burst.
Nowhere is this more acute than with Facebook. Naive as hell, Mark Zuckerberg dreamed he could build the tools that would connect people at unprecedented scale, both domestically and internationally. I actually feel bad for him as he clings to that hope while facing increasing attacks from people around the world about the role that Facebook is playing in magnifying social divisions. Although critics love to paint him as only motivated by money, he genuinely wants to make the world a better place and sees Facebook as a tool to connect people, not empower them to self-segregate.
The problem is not simply the “filter bubble,” Eli Pariser’s notion that personalization-driven algorithmic systems help silo people into segregated content streams. Facebook’s claim that content personalization plays a small role in shaping what people see compared to their own choices is accurate.And they have every right to be annoyed. I couldn’t imagine TimeWarner being blamed for who watches Duck Dynasty vs. Modern Family. And yet, what Facebook does do is mirror and magnify a trend that’s been unfolding in the United States for the last twenty years, a trend of self-segregation that is enabled by technology in all sorts of complicated ways.
The United States can only function as a healthy democracy if we find a healthy way to diversify our social connections, if we find a way to weave together a strong social fabric that bridges ties across difference.
Yet, we are moving in the opposite direction with serious consequences. To understand this, let’s talk about two contemporary trend lines and then think about the implications going forward.
The voluntary US military is, in many ways, a social engineering project. The public understands the military as a service organization, dedicated to protecting the country’s interests. Yet, when recruits sign up, they are promised training and job opportunities. Individual motivations vary tremendously, but many are enticed by the opportunity to travel the world, participate in a cause with a purpose, and get the heck out of dodge. Everyone expects basic training to be physically hard, but few recognize that some of the most grueling aspects of signing up have to do with the diversification project that is central to the formation of the American military.
When a soldier is in combat, she must trust her fellow soldiers with her life. And she must be willing to do what it takes to protect the rest of her unit. In order to make that possible, the military must wage war on prejudice. This is not an easy task. Plenty of generals fought hard to fight racial desegregation and to limit the role of women in combat. Yet, the US military was desegregated in 1948, six years before Brown v. Board forced desegregation of schools. And the Supreme Court ruled that LGB individuals could openly serve in the military before they could legally marry.
Morale is often raised as the main reason that soldiers should not be forced to entrust their lives to people who are different than them. Yet, time and again, this justification collapses under broader interests to grow the military. As a result, commanders are forced to find ways to build up morale across difference, to actively and intentionally seek to break down barriers to teamwork, and to find a way to gel a group of people whose demographics, values, politics, and ideologies are as varied as the country’s.
In the process, they build one of the most crucial social infrastructures of the country. They build the diverse social fabric that underpins democracy.
Tons of money was poured into defense after 9/11, but the number of people serving in the US military today is far lower than it was throughout the 1980s. Why? Starting in the 1990s and accelerating after 9/11, the US privatized huge chunks of the military. This means that private contractors and their employees play critical roles in everything from providing food services to equipment maintenance to military housing. The impact of this on the role of the military in society is significant. For example, this undermine recruits’ ability to get training to develop critical skills that will be essential for them in civilian life. Instead, while serving on active duty, they spend a much higher amount of time on the front lines and in high-risk battle, increasing the likelihood that they will be physically or psychologically harmed. The impact on skills development and job opportunities is tremendous, but so is the impact on the diversification of the social fabric.
Private vendors are not engaged in the same social engineering project as the military and, as a result, tend to hire and fire people based on their ability to work effectively as a team. Like many companies, they have little incentive to invest in helping diverse teams learn to work together as effectively as possible. Building diverse teams — especially ones in which members depend on each other for their survival — is extremely hard, time-consuming, and emotionally exhausting. As a result, private companies focus on “culture fit,” emphasize teams that get along, and look for people who already have the necessary skills, all of which helps reinforce existing segregation patterns.
The end result is that, in the last 20 years, we’ve watched one of our major structures for diversification collapse without anyone taking notice. And because of how it’s happened, it’s also connected to job opportunities and economic opportunity for many working- and middle-class individuals, seeding resentment and hatred.
If you ask a college admissions officer at an elite institution to describe how they build a class of incoming freshman, you will quickly realize that the American college system is a diversification project. Unlike colleges in most parts of the world, the vast majority of freshman at top tier universities in the United States live on campus with roommates who are assigned to them. Colleges approach housing assignments as an opportunity to pair diverse strangers with one another to build social ties. This makes sense given how many friendships emerge out of freshman dorms. By pairing middle class kids with students from wealthier families, elite institutions help diversify the elites of the future.
This diversification project produces a tremendous amount of conflict. Although plenty of people adore their college roommates and relish the opportunity to get to know people from different walks of life as part of their college experience, there is an amazing amount of angst about dorm assignments and the troubles that brew once folks try to live together in close quarters. At many universities, residential life is often in the business of student therapy as students complain about their roommates and dormmates. Yet, just like in the military, learning how to negotiate conflict and diversity in close quarters can be tremendously effective in sewing the social fabric.
In the springs of 2006, I was doing fieldwork with teenagers at a time when they had just received acceptances to college. I giggled at how many of them immediately wrote to the college in which they intended to enroll, begging for a campus email address so that they could join that school’s Facebook (before Facebook was broadly available). In the previous year, I had watched the previous class look up roommate assignments on MySpace so I was prepared for the fact that they’d use Facebook to do the same. What I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly they would all get on Facebook, map the incoming freshman class, and use this information to ask for a roommate switch. Before they even arrived on campus in August/September of 2006, they had self-segregated as much as possible.
A few years later, I watched another trend hit: cell phones. While these were touted as tools that allowed students to stay connected to parents (which prompted many faculty to complain about “helicopter parents” arriving on campus), they really ended up serving as a crutch to address homesickness, as incoming students focused on maintaining ties to high school friends rather than building new relationships.
Students go to elite universities to “get an education.” Few realize that the true quality product that elite colleges in the US have historically offered is social network diversification. Even when it comes to job acquisition, sociologists have long known that diverse social networks (“weak ties”) are what increase job prospects. By self-segregating on campus, students undermine their own potential while also helping fragment the diversity of the broader social fabric.
Diversity is often touted as highly desirable. Indeed, in professional contexts, we know that more diverse teams often outperform homogeneous teams. Diversity also increases cognitive development, both intellectually and socially. And yet, actually encountering and working through diverse viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives is hard work. It’s uncomfortable. It’s emotionally exhausting. It can be downright frustrating.
Thus, given the opportunity, people typically revert to situations where they can be in homogeneous environments. They look for “safe spaces” and “culture fit.” And systems that are “personalized” are highly desirable. Most people aren’t looking to self-segregate, but they do it anyway. And, increasingly, the technologies and tools around us allow us to self-segregate with ease. Is your uncle annoying you with his political rants? Mute him. Tired of getting ads for irrelevant products? Reveal your preferences. Want your search engine to remember the things that matter to you? Let it capture data. Want to watch a TV show that appeals to your senses? Here are some recommendations.
Any company whose business model is based on advertising revenue and attention is incentivized to engage you by giving you what you want. And what you want in theory is different than what you want in practice.
Consider, for example, what Netflix encountered when it started its streaming offer. Users didn’t watch the movies that they had placed into their queue. Those movies were the movies they thought they wanted, movies that reflected their ideal self — 12 Years a Slave, for example. What they watched when they could stream whatever they were in the mood for at that moment was the equivalent of junk food — reruns of Friends, for example. (This completely undid Netflix’s recommendation infrastructure, which had been trained on people’s idealistic self-images.)
The divisions are not just happening through commercialism though. School choice has led people to self-segregate from childhood on up. The structures of American work life mean that fewer people work alongside others from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Our contemporary culture of retail and service labor means that there’s a huge cultural gap between workers and customers with little opportunity to truly get to know one another. Even many religious institutions are increasingly fragmented such that people have fewer interactions across diverse lines. (Just think about how there are now “family services” and “traditional services” which age-segregate.) In so many parts of public, civic, and professional life, we are self-segregating and the opportunities for doing so are increasing every day.
By and large, the American public wants to have strong connections across divisions. They see the value politically and socially. But they’re not going to work for it. And given the option, they’re going to renew their license remotely, try to get out of jury duty, and use available data to seek out housing and schools that are filled with people like them. This is the conundrum we now face.
Many pundits remarked that, during the 2016 election season, very few Americans were regularly exposed to people whose political ideology conflicted with their own. This is true. But it cannot be fixed by Facebook or news media. Exposing people to content that challenges their perspective doesn’t actually make them more empathetic to those values and perspectives. To the contrary, it polarizes them. What makes people willing to hear difference is knowing and trusting people whose worldview differs from their own. Exposure to content cannot make up for self-segregation.
If we want to develop a healthy democracy, we need a diverse and highly connected social fabric. This requires creating contexts in which the American public voluntarily struggles with the challenges of diversity to build bonds that will last a lifetime. We have been systematically undoing this, and the public has used new technological advances to make their lives easier by self-segregating. This has increased polarization, and we’re going to pay a heavy price for this going forward. Rather than focusing on what media enterprises can and should do, we need to focus instead on building new infrastructures for connection where people have a purpose for coming together across divisions. We need that social infrastructure just as much as we need bridges and roads.
This piece was originally published as part of a series on media, accountability, and the public sphere. See also: