Monday, May 4, 2009

The Importance of Mentoring for Youth in Low-Income Communities

Introduction

There is a salient need for mentors in low-income African American neighborhoods. Many young people in these communities are growing up with little exposure to positive role models. This is especially true for African American males given the dearth of fathers who play an active role in their children’s lives. The latest census reports for all income groups indicate that nearly 60% of African American males under the age of 18 reside in households where the father is absent.[1] A significant increase in this rate is expected when examining low-income households exclusively. Though many fathers who do not share a household with their children still manage to fulfill the responsibilities connected with fatherhood, many more contribute little or nothing to their children’s social growth and development, especially in terms of quality interaction.


The absence of positive male figures creates a major gap in a young man’s socialization process. In many cases, young African American males are forced to model themselves after people who cannot invest in them. The most attractive and convenient option for these youngsters are men from the local environment, the popular media, or professional athletics. Frequently, adult males from the local environment are in the same situation as the young men, or even worse, they may be promoters of negative behavior. Furthermore, rappers and athletes cannot possibly reinvest in each of their followers; thus, the relationship remains one sided with the young man admiring the rapper or athlete, but getting nothing in return except entertainment.


Unfortunately, many young men will never have the opportunity to substantially interact with positive male figures. How did society arrive at this point and what can be done about it? This article broadly organizes the origins of the problem. It then calls for efforts to provide organized mentoring for African American males in low-income areas.


Socioeconomic Changes

Major social and economic changes correlate with a significant decline in role models in poor communities. These changes have had a negative direct influence on individuals and they have had such an effect indirectly by devastating the social environments in which poor people live. The decline in manufacturing related employment for unskilled urban males rendered many of them financially impotent. Their inability to meet social expectations led many of them to retreat from the norms and values of society. Subsequently, many of these men began to reject the principles associated with traditional modes of success, such as academic achievement, political involvement, and most notably, the norms associated with stable family organization. It has been known for some time now that men who view themselves as inadequate providers are less likely to be involved with their children.[2]


As a consequence of the economic changes mentioned above, neighborhoods that depended solely on manufacturing became disadvantaged. The situation was exacerbated as many of these areas became disconnected from investment capital and social network resources. In effect, these neighborhoods were now socially isolated.


Socially isolated communities typically do not attract or maintain viable businesses because the people living there are frequently unemployed or underemployed. Politicians are rarely proactive in these areas because the residents tend to be politically inactive and contribute little to political campaigns. Furthermore, socially isolated neighborhoods typically possess little financial capital, makeshift educational opportunities, and virtually no good paying jobs for unskilled laborers. [3] Ultimately, these conditions engender a process of “ghettoization” where poverty exists not only as a financial circumstance, but as a mindset.


Equally disturbing is that these areas typically develop a culture around ghetto behavior. The values connected to this culture often contrasts with those associated with success, such as hard work, education, innovation, and the procurement of assets instead of liabilities. The culture is upheld by many inhabitants of the community, which, in its manifest reality, only supports a cycle of underachievement.[4]


Also of note, it was during this time that vertically mobile African American households containing positive male figures began moving to the suburbs in a process known as black middle class flight.[5] Several socioeconomic factors may have contributed to the outmigration of potential father-like figures. The development of policy outlawing de jure residential segregation, the outmigration of professional jobs to the metropolitan periphery, and the previously mentioned ghettoization of many urban neighborhoods were all “push” factors encouraging educated, economically mobile African American men to migrate to more affluent areas.


Thus, fathers and father-like figures have become rare in low-income African American households. The social implications of this phenomenon are wide ranging. The literature suggests that young men who have substantial interaction with their fathers are more likely to graduate high school and college, exhibit prosocial behavior, and to eschew abusive attitudes toward women.[6] Conversely, boys who do not have such interaction are more likely to display violent behavior, fatalistic attitudes, and negatives views of marriage and family.[7]


Policy can mandate receipt of financial resources from absent fathers, but it cannot make them be proactive in the lives of their children. The practice of fatherhood cannot be legislated. Thus, any attempt to fill the father gap in low-income areas must arise from community-oriented efforts, such as mentoring.



[1] See U.S. Census. 2008. Living Arrangements of Children Under 18 Years/1 and Marital Status of Parents, by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin/2 and Selected Characteristics of the Child for All Children.

[2] Jones, L.1991. “Unemployed Fathers and their Children: Implication for Policy and Practice.” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 8:101-116

[3] Wilson, William Julius. 1996. When Work Disappears. Chicago: University of Chicago

[4] Ibid. See also: Clark, Kenneth. 1965. Dark Ghetto. New York: Harper & Row.

[5] Wilson, William, Julius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: The University of

Chicago. See also: Massey, Douglas S. 1996. “The Age of Extremes: Concentrated Affluence and

Poverty in the Twenty-First Century” Demography 33:395-412.

[6] Mackey, Wade C. 1996. The American Father: Biocultural and Developmental Aspects. New York:

Plenum.

[7] Mackey, Wade C. and Nancy S. Coney. 2000. The Enigma of Father Presence in Relationship to Sons'

Violence and Daughters' Mating Strategies: Empiricism in Search of a Theory. Journal of Men's Studies

3:349-374.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Problem with Southern Culture


No other region of the United States is as stigmatized as the South. Southerners are frequently viewed as nonintellectual, backwards, and lazy. We are all familiar with the image of house furniture on the porch (the front porch that is), rednecks drinking Bud Light and chewing tobacco at NASCAR races, and of course, the famous southern drawl. While many of these sectionalist stereotypes are sophomoric at best given that every region has its share of shameful images, it is true that the South trails much of the country in health indicators, the arts, and most notably, progress-oriented policy. In this essay I intend to explain how southern culture serves as a barrier to regional growth and development.

Culture not geography defines the south. Although areas like northern Virginia, Maryland, and south Florida are geographically southern, its citizens are not considered purveyors of southern culture. Using this logic, if states like Mississippi or Arkansas revolutionized their cultural practices would they still be considered members of the South? Similarly, would Alabama still be part of the South if its citizens elected Artur Davis (A pro-Obama African American running for governor), eliminated the public display of rebel flags, and ousted its antebellum senators?

The answer to these questions is yes, but only in terms of geography. This is true because implicit in our current concept of the South is a culture that is unwelcoming to progress-oriented change which ultimately works in the favor of its power elite, the Bourbon conservatives. Any change in the balance of culture threatens their power. Thus the South is the South because of its culture which has historically worked to maintain an exclusive social hierarchy that denigrates those who, because of their racial or political identity, exist outside the cultural box.

Preserving the Order

We are all familiar with the story. Before the Civil War, southern Democrats - prodded by southern planters - voted to leave the United States to preserve the cultural and economic institution of slavery. After losing the war, the South was forced to experiment with social and cultural pluralism. During this period of Reconstruction, freed slaves received voting rights and African American officials were elected to several prominent posts. During this time the South made attempts at modernization and industrialization. However, this type of progress did not fare well with the Bourbon conservatives who saw an opportunity to regain power after the election of 1876 between Rutherford B. Hayes who represented northern interests and Samuel Tilden who represented southern interests.

No clear winner emerged after the votes were counted. As a result, a deal was struck between Hayes and Tilden. Hayes would become president only if he agreed to end Reconstruction. Hayes assented and soon afterwards, federal troops were removed meaning that the North no longer had any real method of enforcing its plan for Reconstruction. The Bourbon conservatives quickly seized the moment by rewriting state constitutions in a manner that disenfranchised African Americans, passing stiff segregation laws, and strengthening clandestine terrorist groups that enforced the old ways. As a result, educational, economic, and political opportunities for marginalized groups began to evaporate in the heat of the South’s cultural hegemony. Under such circumstances, those existing outside of the box began searching elsewhere for equality, justice, expression, and prosperity.

The Critical Mass

Accordingly, in 1916 African Americans started leaving the rural South en masse to pursue opportunities not afforded to them in their current locations. This social phenomenon known as the Great Migration occurred in two phases: The first Great Migration which lasted from 1916-1930 and the second Great Migration from 1940-1970. The 1.5 and 5 million respective migrants included many talented and ambitious individuals who would go on to profoundly influence society and culture.

While the South focused on maintaining its social order the rest of the country was growing from the cultural contributions of the Harlem Renaissance. While the South was busy applying poll taxes to African American citizens, Nobel recipient Ralph Bunch was promoting diplomacy in the Middle East. While the southern socioeconomic order was actively suppressing African American males to low-paying menial tasks; Syracuse University, UCLA, and the University of Southern California were busy recruiting Jim Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Charles White.

Though the migratory destinations of African Americans were far from utopian, it is evident that many found success that otherwise would have been absent. The years between 1916 and 1930 saw significant increases in the number of African American school teachers and business owners. This era also saw a dramatic rise in the African American literacy rate from 39% to 85%.[1]

Back in the South, during the late 1960’s as Democrats became increasingly liberal over the question of segregation, clever Republicans implemented the infamous “Southern Strategy” which hypothesized that segregationist Democrats would leave the party because it was fast becoming the political choice of African Americans. African Americans naturally gravitated toward the Democrats demonstrating their respect for the progressive policies of Kennedy and Johnson and as planned, segregationists started leaving the party in great numbers. This Southern Strategy proved politically successful and propelled the likes of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush I, and George Bush II to the presidency. Indeed, the Southern Strategy represented a new way to preserve the old way.

With the exception of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, the South has historically lacked critical agents of change - individuals who possess the skill, knowledge, and desire to challenge the social order. While I respect the accomplishments and economic wisdom of Booker T. Washington, he was not an agent of change, but a casualty of the status quo. Other southerners who had the potential to be change agents such as Ida B. Wells were forced to leave the South under threat of violence.

Thus the critical mass of African Americans needed to challenge the Bourbon conservatives continuously slipped away to the North and West. Those left did not have the numerical or ideological support to engender major changes. As a result, the good ole’ boy politicians and business leaders in power today are no different than those who maintained power during the antebellum and the Jim Crow eras. With regard to states rights, industry, and economic pluralism there is no significant ideological or cultural difference between Richard Shelby (R AL) and Saxby Chambliss (R GA) of today and William Yancey and John C. Calhoun of the antebellum period.

That’s Just the Way it is…

The southern power structure remains in tact because there is no challenge or resistance to the Bourbon conservatives. While the South still has the highest proportion of African American residents with roughly 37% living in the nine-state region (45% if including Texas),[2] a critical mass of middle class, politically active African Americans live in other areas. Consequently, the region has no African Americans senators or governors and it currently has only 12 African Americans in the House of Representatives.[3] Furthermore, of the nine states in the region, six have Republican governors.[4] Likewise, over half of its representatives in the House are Republican, as well as 13 of its18 senators.

Although a significant number of rural African American migrants moved to southern cities such as Birmingham, Atlanta, and Memphis; these urban areas exist as mere islands of liberal policy and practice surrounded by a sea of cultural single-mindedness. President Obama won most major cities in the South, but lost in every southern state except Florida and North Carolina, which incidentally, are almost not Southern. As the good ole’ boys remain in power, they will continue to mandate limits on progress; it is in their best interest to do so. Consequently, the South should not prepare for any benefits associated with positive change. Indeed the living is easy…and cotton is high on the minds of the Bourbon conservatives.





[1] See www.inmotionaame.org/migrations
[2] American Community Survey Three Year Estimates. 2005-2007 (2007). United States Bureau of the Census: Washington, DC
[3] See http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/index.html and http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm
[4] The nine state region includes North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida (I count Florida, at least until the capital is moved from Tallahassee in the southern sympathizing panhandle to the more cosmopolitan city of Orlando).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The McDonaldized Economy

The harshness of the current recession has left many social scientists asking “what happened?” Individuals are losing money in the market, facing rising energy costs, and struggling to hold on to their employment. Also affected are social structures such as Wall Street, corporations, cities, and states. The stock market is at its lowest point in years, banks have collapsed, and local governments have seen radical declines in revenue. So where did all the money go? Things were going well just a few years ago. It appears that our economy has been a victim of McDonaldization, a theory of social organization, expounded by George Ritzer in the mid 1990’s.

Among other things, McDonaldization suggests that society is becoming obsessed with efficiency, standardization, and control. A closer look at these factors will further our understanding of the current economic problems. This essay attempts to explain how these factors, in their extreme, have consequences detrimental to the socioeconomic health of American society.

Efficiency

It is commonly understood that greater productivity equates to getting more done in less time. Efficiency, therefore, is an essential component of productivity. The influential economist John Kenneth Galbraith lauded the importance of efficient production in The Affluent Society. Organizations that mass produce items must be efficient because time is related to costs and costs directly affect the bottom line. Few would question the importance of efficiency as a key component of a successful organization in terms of its output. However, problems arise when we begin to sacrifice quality for efficiency.

Less time can be dedicated to the individual attributes of production when volume and speed are valued over attention to detail and careful handiwork. Henry Ford, whose organizational principles are the precursor to McDonaldization, produced thousands of Model T’s, but they possessed very few distinguishable details and they were of dubitable quality. It is said that drivers of the early Model T’s were forced to travel uphill in reverse when low on gas because the positioning of the gas tank prevented fuel from traveling to the carburetor. Similarly, many argue that General Motors refused to reexamine its practice of planned obsolescence until it recently hit rock bottom.

Society’s fascination with efficiency also impacts consumption. We want everything quickly and conveniently. While it is not reasonable to wait an hour for a 35kb document to download, it can be concluded that extreme efficiency as it relates to consumption can have very detrimental effects on an economy. We value the present and seek to maximize its material potential whether we can afford it or not. This is indicative of the overwhelming desire for instant gratification in the American value system which not only involves meeting immediate needs, but also trivial desires; if it so happens that such desires are not present, then Madison Avenue will gladly manufacture them.

It has been established that extreme efficiency affects both consumption and production. Companies want to produce more and individuals want to consume more (with or without the cash to do so). Thus, there must be a mechanism that brings them together - something to support the high volume of production. Enter credit the great negotiator. With credit, consumers can satisfy their immediate desires for material goods which benefits producers and distributers of cheaply made products such as Wal-Mart, Chrysler, and Nike. Yet most of these products (including many homes in this current market) have little growth potential as assets, meaning that we are using debt to purchase liabilities. Indeed, the frightening reality is that our current economy is built on people borrowing money to purchase low-quality products.

This essay is not intended to be an indictment of credit. Credit can be good. However, credit run amuck will have detrimental effects. The problems associated with the current economic crises tend to revolve around the misuse of credit. Predatory lending, the housing collapse, and the failure of banks all involve debt outmuscling profit. Absolute power to produce and consume…. indeed it does; and it is extreme efficiency that sets this process in motion. Before we can rise from the current economic dilemma we must curtail the rate at which we produce and consume.

Standardization and Control

Standardization is a logical outgrowth of increasingly rational, social organization. In other words, the production or distribution of a product will adhere to standardized specifications leading to its mass uniformity (A Big Mac in Milan is exactly the same as a Big Mac in San Francisco). Control is a form of standardization wielded by companies where human ingenuity is replaced by centralized specifications.

Standardization is important because it ensures that a particular product will adhere to expectations. For example, a person may like the atmosphere at Applebee’s. Therefore, when walking into Applebee’s, he/she expects the walls to be filled with memorabilia reprints regardless of which Applebee’s they choose to patronize. Meanwhile, control is important because it allows for the organized mass production of goods through structured mandates.

Standardization and control add organization and a healthy efficiency to the production process. The problem lies not with standardization or control, but with the uniqueness of ideas in the product development stage. Not only are goods standardized and controlled, but so are the people involved in the process. An increase in standardization and control narrows the operating boundaries of indidvidual workers. This forces them to become increasingly specialized. School teachers are reduced to robots of standardized tests, craftsmen reduced to assemblers of prefabricated dinette sets, and what once was considered the general practitioner now only studies some tiny bone in the left arm. In an extremely controlled and standardized environment broad ranging skills, know-how, and intelligence are being replaced with instruction pamphlets, company handbooks, and search engines. This leads to a reduction in creativity which ultimately engenders economic hardships.

America’s current dearth of creativity compromises its ability to be innovative because potential ideas from talented people are suppressed by strict company guidelines. Creative concepts from the arts and social science communities receive little attention because they often lack immediate instrumental value. Such ideas are not appealing to West Coast venture capitalists. Nonetheless, the romance of American production is lost when the freedom to create is lost. America no longer awes consumers with its innovation and design (compare the 1960 Chevrolet Impala with the 2008 model).

Conclusion

Our economy has been McDonaldized to the point where we rely on cheaply made, non-innovative products. To make matters worse, we often pay for these products with credit. While settling for convenience we have sacrificed class and quality. In the process we have lowered our expectations and standards. This reliance on mediocrity has benefitted neither producer nor consumer.

America’s economic problems will not improve until it addresses the problems associated with a McDonaldized economy. Consumers must establish a demand for quality at lower-costs even if that means being patient. Producers must be open to ideas that exist outside of the corporate model and give its employees the freedom to maximize their talents.

America’s current economic slide is a social problem, and such dilemmas should be addressed with social solutions. We as members of society should give careful thought to the issues discussed in this essay. If we continue to allow extreme organizational rationalism to control our destiny, then our current economic problems will no longer exist as a temporary recession, but as a permanent norm.