This Week's Show •

‘The Changing Same’: Race in America

Orlando Patterson has spent his career puzzling over the "immutable force" in American race relations. Is it the ongoing, grassroots cultural revolution we see and hear in the world of jazz and hip-hop? Or the eternal racial gap — in health and wealth, in incomes and outcomes — documented by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander? Patterson is optimistic.

As a scholar and a father, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has spent his career puzzling over the “immutable force” in American race relations. Is it the ongoing, grassroots cultural revolution we see and hear in the worlds of activism and hip-hop? Or the eternal racial gap — in health and wealth, in incomes and outcomes — documented by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander?

Even in the wake of the Justice Department’s grim report on Ferguson, the Jamaican-born Patterson is an optimist.

The result of all that thinking is The Cultural Matrix, an anthology of essays about the complex world of scarcity and violence that black youths bear and bring to light in their unmatched “cultural capital” — rappers, artists, athletes and fashion plates who fill seats in American arenas and export a world-leading look and sound.

Patterson admits that our prisons are much too black considering who commits the crimes. Both inner-city neighborhoods and black suburbs are overpoliced. (The small city of Ferguson, for example, seems to run on a combination of racial bias and extractive economics. Its city manager stepped down on Wednesday.) And this week we were reminded that frat boys still veer into antebellum politics when they think no one is looking.

Patterson has crunched the numbers and says both sides of the racial divide have “20-percent problems.” Twenty percent of whites are hardcore racists. And twenty percent of African-Americans live lives “disconnected” from the values of the society at large — that means more crime and violence, drugs and weak family ties.

So this week we’re asking, in a wide-open way, just what — if anything — is to be done to reconcile and reengage two cultures after the revelations in Ferguson, to reclaim and enrich the gains made at Selma 50 years ago. To Orlando Patterson’s mind, we’re doing better than ever before.

Hip-Hop’s Case for Hip-Hop

The people who produce this culture are both alienated and deeply American. Hip-hop’s embrace of materialism is exactly what you would expect of American materialism. It comes from a people who are steeped in a desire for material things but are denied those things.

Jelani Cobb, historian and journalist

We’re including a Spotify playlist to be thought of as hip-hop’s case for hip-hop. These songs are New York Times-approved: they’re recognizable as psalms, jeremiads, laments, and exaltations present in other kinds of music.

There’s very little of the wanton celebration of violence that Orlando Patterson finds (and maybe plays up) in the hip-hop canon. There’s materialism, set against

o maybe this is “respectable” music, in the bad sense of politics of respectability. But we know that it’s popular music, with mainstream acclaim, and it tells a forty-year story of musicians’ introspection.

Photo of the hip-hop collective Odd Future. Credit: Terry Richardson.

Podcast • June 8, 2010

This "Year of India" (9): Patrick Heller’s Measure of Change

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Heller. (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Patrick Heller was 16 years old, a school boy, when his Swiss parents moved to New Delhi in the late 1970s. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Heller. (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Patrick Heller was 16 years old, a school boy, when his Swiss parents moved to New Delhi in the late 1970s. India became his school — his inescapable “ethnographic experience” of second-class trains; overwhelming heat and color; radical poverty and welcoming, curious people. India made Patrick Heller a social scientist and has presented itself ever since as a measure of the strange, swift ways that social orders change.

Kerala, for example, the far-southern state in India that has become a Heller specialty, had the most brutally exploitive caste rules in India well into the 20th Century. An “untouchable” could be punished for walking closer than 27 feet from a Brahmin. Untouchable women were not allowed to cover their breasts. Yet Kerala today, after a sustained “perfect storm” of reform movements, has the highest literacy (95 percent) and life-expectancy (73) and the most effective healthcare in India. The chief justice of India’s Supreme Court was, until a month ago, a Dalit (formerly untouchable) from Kerala.

In conversation, Patrick Heller is sampling for us the varieties of Indian evidence in 2010. The Indian Premier Cricket League, playing a condensed, TV-friendly version of the British colonial game, is one nutshell of the New India’s skill at marketing both innovation and tradition. Another capsule is the confirmed finding that 47 percent of all India’s children today are malnourished. So here is the under-an-hour sum of the all-questioning “Year of India” on the Brown campus — also of Patrick Heller’s third-of-a-century eye on India.

Back in the 1970s when I first went to India, India couldn’t produce much of anything that was competitive in global markets… Today, you go to Bangalore where Infosys and these extraordinary industrial parks are at the cutting edge of the global economy, people are walking around in jeans and drinking Coca-Cola, and listening to rap. They’re more connected to Los Angeles than they are to the rural areas of Karnataka, the state in which Bangalore is located. This is where you see the split. Bangalore is the poster child of the new IT economy, but if you look at the patterns of hiring in Bangalore, most of the hiring is still in the upper caste groups. The groups that are benefiting from these new job opportunities and new consumption patterns are urban, English-speaking upper-caste groups for the most part… The population [of Karnataka] is over 60 million: roughly the size of France. Bangalore is growing and glowing, but the rest of Karnataka is not doing well. Rural Karnataka is still extraordinarily poor, and some people argue that the two are actually connected in that Bangalore is attracting all the resources. A lot of public monies are going into building the new infrastructure for the Infosyses of the world, for this new IT economy — monies that are not building wells or primary schools in rural Karnataka. So there are trade-offs.

Are we entering the Century of India? I am reminded of Rana Dasgupta‘s observation on Open Source last Fall that “at a time when the new major economic growth prospects are in countries that look more like India than they do like America, Indians will be an incredibly mobile and flexible work population.”

Patrick Heller quotes the Indian joke that cricket is an Indian game that just happens to have been invented in England. There are Indians who’ll argue also that democracy is an Indian institution that just happens to have been invented in the West. Patrick Heller suggests that global networks of commerce, too, could turn out to be an Indian enterprise that Americans just thought was their game. “There are three things going on here,” Patrick Heller says:

One is language. Indian elites speak great English, they’re well-versed in literature, and so in terms of ‘cultural capital,’ they’re extremely well-equipped, and much better equipped than say, their Chinese or Brazilian counterparts. That’s a huge advantage, part of the explanation why India’s done so well in this niche of outsourcing services and the knowledge industry…

Second, democracy is in their blood, they’ve practiced it for 60 years as a nation, and they’ve been innovative. So they understand the rule of law, they understand basic liberal ideas of pluralism, of deliberation, of engagement, of respecting certain fundamental rights.

And third, they know capitalism…. To this day, 91 percent of India’s economy is in the so-called informal or unorganized sector… Of course, this is a history that goes back millennia, but in the modern era, India has always been a vibrant market capitalist economy. Yes, a lot of regulation at the top, and it’s true that some sectors were state-dominated. But anyone who has actually traveled to India and seen a real market, be it a labor market or a vegetable market, knows that this is not Communist China or even Europe. It’s totally unregulated. So the practice and culture of free enterprise and capitalism are in the blood of Indian elites. This idea that we could export entrepreneurial knowledge to India to me is just a new kind of Orientalism.

Patrick Heller in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, June 4, 2010.

Podcast • March 13, 2008

Cuba for the Long Run (II): Adrian Lopez Denis

Adrian Lopez Denis finds it laughable that even the best of the Anglo-American media, The Economist and The New Yorker, made iconic covers of cigar smoke (and crushed cigar butts) when Fidel Castro bowed out ...

Adrian Lopez Denis finds it laughable that even the best of the Anglo-American media, The Economist and The New Yorker, made iconic covers of cigar smoke (and crushed cigar butts) when Fidel Castro bowed out of office — a man who quit smoking 40 years ago, in a country that has produced a generation of creative young survivors since the heyday of the 1959 Revolution.

Econ Castro

Adrian is a social historian at Brown (Ph.D from UCLA), and the son of a medical doctor in Cuba. He likes to say that only George W. Bush sees the transition in Cuba these days as a turning point of any kind. He sees nothing spectacular coming out of Cuba soon, “no headlines in the next five years,” much less a civil war.

NYr Castro

Adrian’s emphasis in our conversations is always on the continuity of informal realities in Cuba: the vitality of the informal economy, the power of family networks and the “transnational households” that keep Havana and Miami connected, and the pleasure-seeking “culture of informality” that overwhelmed the commissars from Eastern Europe. An authoritarian tendency is part of the long Cuban tradition. So, too, is a profound problem of racial suspicion and discrimination, a legacy of slavery that the Revolution only chipped at. So in Adrian’s account of Cuba, nothing is quite what it seems or what any of the slogans suggest. And most of the consequences Cuba deals with are the unintended ones.

Adrian Lopez

Adrian Lopez Denis: a ‘continuities’ man

From below it’s a country that found its own way to get over the Cold War, Cuban style. We have already a whole generation in the post-Cold War period. Young people don’t remember the Cold War, and young people people are what drives Cuba forward, both on the island and in Miami… What’s on their mind is survival, and it’s not survival of the fittest. This is not a Darwinian environment, necessarily…

Don’t minimize the unintended consequences of the Cuban revolution. By equalizing income levels and for the most part erasing the old established divisions of class… one of the unintended consequences of that transformation was that people created networks of solidarity, facing a state that controlled public spaces in a very pervasive way. People developed alternatives to it, or a sense of networks… Building on top of a long tradition of an informal economy in Cuba, those networks are now responsible for the dynamics of daily life… They cross all divisions. These are networks of survival, so when you need to survive you can not look at the ideology or the race or the gender of the person you are interacting with. You can’t be that picky…

Race… is one of the deepest problems that Cuba has, and this is one of most obvious failures of the Cuban Revolution. In areas like gender equality, the Cuban Revolution was much more accomplished than in areas like solving the race differential… The Cuban Revolution was never feminist, but the policy was more comprehensive in transforming attitudes of men toward women than in this very weak attempt to transform the attitudes of white people toward black people… The other thing is that the leadership of the Cuban Revolution was terrified of the possibility of an alternative political mobilization of the Afro-Cuban population. Cuban elites and middle classes have been terrified of that for 200 years, since the Haitian revolution. It’s a fear that runs deep in the culture. It’s another consequence of slavery; you had that fear in every society that goes through slavery. The fear of the barbarian is a myth that runs deep. It’s the saddest part of all this story. That is where I think everything the Cuban Revolution tried to do in the soicial and economic arena failed, because the government decided they could not allow the Afro-Cuban population to organize themselves to improve their conditions. The Afro Cuban population was there to receive what the government gave them, and be grateful. They not to fight for more, not to fight for equality, basically… The consequence is that there’s more people in prison today in Cuba than anywhere else in the world. Cuba has the largest prison population in the world right now… It’s a very tragic situation, and the Afro-Cuban population is over represented in prisons, and that is the most obvious sign that something is really going deeply wrong in your country in terms of racial politics… We’re not talking about 300 political prisoners. That’s a footnote. We’re talking about the more or less 200,000 people that are in prison in Cuba today… It’s the most incarcerated society ever created in history… for “being black,” stealing a chicken, surviving.

All this informality that I was celebrating a few minutes ago is illegal… The people that pay the price are the people that are more active in the informal economy, people that are more creative. It’s the same creativity that goes into playing jazz… It’s talking to other people, getting along, being able to improvise. You get an Afro-Cuban population that has been for centuries at the bottom of society, that has been needing these connections, developing these networks since the time of slavery; and a government that doesn’t understand the vitality of these networks and tries to substitute a top-down system that really doesn’t work. So there you go.

Adrian Lopez Denis of Brown University, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, March 12, 2008.

Adrian Lopez Denis gives us, finally, a moment and a place to dwell on. Late in the fall semester, next December 17, he will sweep his contingent of Brown students in Cuba into the mass pilgrimage to the church and hospital outside Havana of San Lazaro , the patron saint of the poor and the sick in Cuba. It was built in 1917 to treat lepers; today it’s famous for its AIDS sanitarium. It is one of the intricate symbols, as Adrian says, of “the island that was there before the Cold War, and that’s going to be there after.”

As many as 60,000 Cubans will celebrate this complicated feast of San Lazaro . “Its a perfect picture of the Cuban Revolution,” Adrian concluded. “It’s a hospital, a prison and a school. People are there because they want to be, and people are there that don’t want to be there. It’s like a microcosm of Cuba. And now they have one of these in every province, fourteen in all… We have the lowest HIV-posititive rate in the Atlantic — a spectacular, stunning success of the Cuban Revolution. And it’s done basically by forcing isolation on people. You get free drugs because you’re sick, but you get isolated and put in this prison because you’re sick.”