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Micaela di Leonardo

Micaela di Leonardo teaches anthropology and gender studies at Northwestern University. Her most recent book is Exotics at Home: Anthropologies, Others, American Modernity (Chicago). She is now writing The View From Cavallaro’s, an ethnographic study of political economy and public life in New Haven, Connecticut.


  • Politics August 29, 2002

    Letters

    MORE FUN THAN A BARREL OF...

    Princeton, NJ

    In an accurate review of Jonathan Marks's loosely argued What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee, Micaela di Leonardo passes on to readers the misleading impression that the Great Ape Project uses the genetic similarities between humans and apes to argue for "human rights" for apes, "frequently to the detriment of the impoverished African and Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands" ["Too Much Monkey Business," July 8].

    This is false from start to finish. First, the Great Ape Project is not based on the genetic similarities of humans and great apes but on the rich emotional and mental lives of the great apes, so well documented by supporters of the Great Ape Project like Jane Goodall and many others.

    Second, the Great Ape Project does not seek the full range of human rights for great apes, but only the basic rights to life, liberty and protection from torture, and even the rights to life and liberty that we seek are not absolute, for they allow euthanasia in the interests of the apes, and captivity where that is in the best interests of the apes or is required for the safety of others. Finally, the protection of the remaining, and rapidly dwindling, forests of Africa and Southeast Asia where the great apes live in their natural habitat is, surely, also in the best long-term interests of the human residents of those regions.

    Readers interested in finding out more about the project for themselves may go to www.greatapeproject.org.

    PETER SINGER


    DI LEONARDO REPLIES

    Evanston, Ill.

    You've got to hand it to notorious headline-grabbing philosopher Peter Singer, who has endorsed infanticide for disabled human babies, claimed we can solve global poverty by just consuming a little less and donating as individuals to aid agencies (no need, apparently, to complicate matters by considering capitalist functioning and state and NGO actions) and called for a revision of taboos against bestiality since "sex with animals does not always involve cruelty." Now how exactly can he hold his mouth to call Jon Marks's 98% Chimpanzee loosely argued?

    What is so refreshing about Marks's work is that he is a hard scientist who really understands that we live and act within a shifting political economy. Animal and ecosystem conservation and human rights for the impoverished who live in surviving great ape territories in Africa and Southeast Asia need not be antithetical projects, but Marks quotes numerous Great Ape Project activists who believe they are, including the zoologist who chillingly said to him, "Think percentages, not numbers" in weighing Southeast Asian human vs. ape rights. Others frequently liken apes to human children or mentally retarded adults. And Singer is most disingenuous in claiming that the GAP does not argue on the basis of genetic similarity. The group's official website clearly argues for apes' inclusion with humans in a "community of equals" because they (and Singer co-wrote this statement) "are the closest relatives of our species."

    The issue, as Marks makes crystal clear, is not whether apes are adorable, interesting, endangered and in need of aid--of course they are--but how we use science to make political arguments. "Why should the mentality of apes have any bearing on their humanness (or lack thereof) or their rights (or lack thereof)? If you lose the ability to reason and communicate, do you...forfeit your humanity and rights? This is a scary moral place for apes and people to be.... Human rights should neither be forfeitable nor accessible by nonhumans.... Singling out particular classes of people in order to show how similar they are to apes is a troubling scientific strategy, not least of all when the humans rhetorically invoked are the very ones whose rights are most conspicuously in jeopardy."

    Disability groups and others quite rightly have weighed in en masse against Singer, but nonhuman primates, too, deserve a better, more rational advocate.

    MICAELA DI LEONARDO


    THIS IS A TEST. THIS IS ONLY A TEST...

    Santa Barbara, Calif.

    Eighty years ago, journalist Walter Lippmann took on the standardized testing enterprise in The New Republic, addressing such broad issues as the effects of education, opportunity and heredity on test scores. For example, Lippmann dismissed the claim that IQ tests measure hereditary intelligence as having "no more scientific foundation than a hundred other fads, vitamins and glands and amateur psychoanalysis and correspondence courses in will power." His articles on testing continue to be valued today not merely because he could turn a phrase but because he had a firm grasp of the complex technical and political issues surrounding the use of test scores.

    Alas, Peter Sacks is no Walter Lippmann. To Sacks, who reviewed my book Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education ["Testing Times in Higher Ed," June 24], the issues are simple: Tests are evil; eliminating them is good. Sacks has undoubtedly been aware of my work because I have pointed out errors and omissions in his writings on testing; in fact, I do so in my book. He ignores large portions of the book in order to characterize it as "a defense of the hegemony of gatekeeping exams." A reader of the review might be surprised to find that my book proposes a new consumer agency to monitor admissions testing, discusses the perils of relying too heavily on test scores in admissions decisions and describes research, including some of my own, in which test scores did not do a good job of predicting subsequent grades.

    Rather than attempt to address every inaccuracy, I will focus on a central feature of Sacks's review--his belief that the existence of score disparities among ethnic and economic groups proves that admissions tests are biased. In Fair Game? I point out that determining whether tests are biased is complex and requires a willingness to look beyond patterns of average test scores. In Change (March/April 2001), I commented on Sacks's earlier Change article, "Standardized Testing: Meritocracy's Crooked Yardstick": "[Sacks] cited several studies to prove that SAT scores and socioeconomic status are related, and alluded to [a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics]. What he neglected to mention is that this study showed that socioeconomic status was also related to high school grades... [and to course background, teacher evaluations and extracurricular activities]. In particular, 24 percent of the high-SES group, compared to only 10 percent of the low-SES group, had high school [grade-point averages] of at least 3.5..."

    What the GPA and the SAT have in common is that they are indexes of previous achievement and therefore reflect past inequalities in educational opportunity. In The Nation (June 5, 2000), Pedro Noguera and Antwi Akom noted that "explaining why poor children of color perform comparatively less well in school is relatively easy: Consistently, such children are educated in schools that are woefully inadequate on most measures of quality and funding."

    Sacks omitted the findings on grades and other achievement measures from his book and from his Change article. Presenting the complete results would have undercut his position that some inherent property of tests causes the scores to be related to economic factors. (Including all the findings might have also required him to abandon his pet phrase, "the Volvo effect," which he uses to refer to the association between family income and standardized test scores.)

    In addition, Sacks is incorrect in implying that class-rank admission plans like the Texas 10 percent plan, which involve consideration of high school grades but not test scores, have uniformly led to greater campus diversity. The Dallas Morning News, for example, reported on June 19, 2002, that at Texas A&M, the percentages of black and Latino students have decreased since the initiation of the Texas plan. As I point out in my book, the plan is structured so that diversity benefits are likely to accrue to the state's flagship institution, UT Austin.

    Finally, in response to Sacks's criticism that my writing is textbookish, I readily concede that I lack his ability to generate catchy phrases like "Volvo effect" and "crooked yardstick." But clever labels are a poor substitute for thoughtful consideration of the controversies that surround the use of standardized tests.

    REBECCA ZWICK


    SACKS REPLIES

    Boise, Idaho

    In response to my criticisms of her new book, Rebecca Zwick takes aim at the reviewer. She says I believe that "tests are evil; eliminating them is good." It's not surprising she'd make up this straw man, since attacking it also sums up the entire marketing strategy behind her book.

    Zwick--a former researcher at the Educational Testing Service, the firm that produces such standardized tests as the SAT--and her publisher have touted Fair Game? as a source of objective information about testing, positioned to clear up all this testing fuss with common sense and straight facts. If one chooses to look at a different or broader set of facts than she does, or to interpret them with a non-ETS spin, Zwick seems to imply that one must then be a simpleton and an ideologue.

    Zwick tries to make hay of the finding that high school or college grades, just like test scores, also correlate strongly to socioeconomic status. Not recognizing this, as Zwick takes pains to do in her book, is to unfairly single out standardized tests as punitive to poor and minority kids, Zwick claims.

    Like so much of her book, Zwick seems to miss the big picture. The thrust of my entire critique of the testing culture--and her book--is that gatekeeping tests give questionable weight to one-time performance on highly abstracted testing exercises, which by definition are mere approximations of genuine work. And mostly poor approximations, at that. Given this, it's no wonder that test scores are such feeble predictors of later success, whether in school or work.

    Just as Bates College and other institutions have done, with great success, in their efforts to reduce the importance of admissions tests, I'll take classroom performance--as measured by grades, portfolios of student work and other documentation of student accomplishments both in and out of school--any day over test performance as an indicator of how a student will perform in real life, not the tested life.

    Regarding the Texas 10-percent plan, Zwick says I'm incorrect in implying that de-emphasizing the SAT has led to greater diversity for all state institutions. In fact, I'm not implying any such claim in the context she quotes. I draw on data only from the University of Texas at Austin. Zwick speculates that the plan has merely reshuffled the deck in terms of statewide enrollments of minorities. If Zwick wants me or another reviewer to take her seriously on this point, she'd better offer up something of substance or do some real analysis. In her book, Zwick could only muster up this: "Data on the statewide effect of the Texas 10 percent plan are hard to come by."

    What can she possibly mean with such a vague statement? That university officials are trying to hide some dirty little secret? Does it mean that there are no campus-specific enrollment data broken out by race and ethnicity? Seems improbable. Or could it mean that Zwick could find no readily available studies by credible researchers that support her claim that enrollments have merely been redistributed from other state campuses to Austin? But even a boatload of data needs a theory, an explanation of what the data mean. Alas, Zwick offers readers no theoretically plausible explanation whatsoever as to why minority enrollments might be expected to decline across the state as a result of reducing the emphasis on SAT scores. In fact, there's every reason to expect just the opposite.

    As for textbookishness, that is certainly no major offense. Sign me up any day for a dry but forthright book about testing in America. Regarding Zwick's curious reference to me and Walter Lippmann, I won't touch that one with a ten-foot number-2 pencil.

    PETER SACKS

    Micaela di Leonardo, Peter Sacks, Peter Singer and Rebecca Zwick

  • Cities August 15, 2002

    ‘Murder by Public Policy’

    I am writing this review in the midst of a Chicago heat wave, almost exactly seven years after the heat disaster that killed nearly 800 people in the city. The Chicago Tribune's multicolored weather page adorns the forecast with a special "excessive heat watch" symbol--an exclamation point lodged in a red circle--newscasters earnestly tell us to stay inside and take it easy, and veteran black radio deejay Herb Kent, the Kool Gent, chats on-air about liquor and caffeinated drinks being dehydrating and the need to drink lots of "good old H2O."

    I remember the 1995 disaster well, but for me personally it was a period of intensive work on my last book, cooped up indoors 24/7, with roaring air-conditioning, punctuated by horrified reading of the Tribune's coverage of rolling city power outages and the growing spectacle of hundreds of heat-related deaths, with the bodies piling up and overwhelming the city morgue's capacity. Suspicious of the Tribune because of its long history of rightist and racist slants, I scrutinized the stories to see if the city was, as usual, shortchanging its black South and West sides on services, but couldn't figure anything out. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, a young Chicago native, was out of the country during the disaster, but has since then more than made up for lost time. His Heat Wave is a trenchant, multilayered and well-written social autopsy of the disaster.

    Since finishing Heat Wave, I've been obsessively asking friends, neighbors, students and colleagues if they were in town in July 1995, and if so, what they remember. Most of my middle-class interlocutors were as insulated as I was, in cooled rooms, and only vaguely remember the period because of media coverage. But many younger people, who were then living on student or first-job budgets, told tales of extreme misery and multiple palliative strategies--double bills at air-conditioned theaters, plunging into Lake Michigan every possible nonworking hour, bunking with better-off friends and relatives, long drives in cars with AC and, of course, all the old tricks with cold water, towels and fans. One conservative young woman described her sudden comprehension, lying sweaty and wretched in her sweltering apartment, listening to neighbors' AC compressors turning on, of the ressentiment and violence of some inner-city dwellers.

    In fact, Klinenberg explains, aside from some vigilante actions against city workers sent to reseal the 3,000 open fire hydrants liberated by kids, poor Chicagoans were far too enervated by the hot, wet blanket enveloping the city to commit mayhem. The real criminals of the heat crisis, Klinenberg makes clear, were the federal, state and local officials who, in the words of Robert Scates, the bitter black thirty-year veteran emergency medical services director, committed "murder by public policy."

    But first we need to come to terms with the epidemiological realities of heat crises. Extreme heat, Klinenberg explains, tends not to be taken as seriously as other weather and human disasters--hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, blizzards, plane crashes. But "more people die in heat waves than in all other extreme events combined," and the '95 crisis has "no equal in the record of US heat disasters." Because the body's defenses "can take only about forty-eight hours of uninterrupted exposure to such heat before they break down," Klinenberg observes, area ambulance services and emergency rooms were soon overwhelmed, and at the height of the catastrophe, half of Chicago's hospitals went on bypass status--turned all new patients away. Most Chicagoans saw the grisly televised scenes of emergency workers falling prostrate with heatstroke, of police cars backed up clear around the block, waiting to deliver cadavers to nine forty-eight-foot refrigerated trucks donated by a local meatpacking firm when the morgue ran entirely out of body-storage space, and heard and read about the record-breaking murderousness of the disaster. But Klinenberg notes that only months after the catastrophe, Chicagoans reacted to his queries with "detachment and disavowal." Not only did they, and the press whose interpretations they were reflecting, wish to relegate the disaster to a nonhappening but many, following Mayor Richard Daley's lead, asserted that the death figures weren't "really real," that "the massive mortality figures...had somehow been fabricated, or that the deaths were simply not related to the heat."

    Klinenberg took on the task of explicating what's "really real" with extraordinary energy. He burrowed into public health and press documents, did street-level fieldwork and police ride-alongs in poor neighborhoods, interviewed every possible city, state and private agency official, and many low-level service workers, and thoroughly engaged local journalists on their hour-by-hour decision-making on the framing and coverage of the breaking story. In domain after domain, across institutions, he smashes home his key finding: "The geography of vulnerability during the heat wave was hauntingly similar to the everyday ecology of inequality." Heat disasters in general resonate less with the general public because, unlike other sorts of disasters, they leave property untouched and mostly affect the poor, the frail, the nonwhite--whoever can't afford air-conditioning! The Chicago dead were indeed largely the isolated, elderly and disproportionately black poor, and the city rapidly turned its back on them.

    But the everyday ecology of inequality is not a timeless phenomenon, and Chicago is not Everycity. By the mid-1990s, the US economy had recovered from the Reagan-Bush recession, the market was booming, urban street crime was dropping and American media were hyping an urban renaissance. Mayor Daley capitalized on these national trends with an ambitious program of urban beautification and a massive public relations campaign, suburbanites moved back downtown and tourism revived dramatically. (Klinenberg doesn't mention the role of the 1990s spike in international migration to Chicago, which brought much-needed quality and variety to local restaurant fare, added exotic cuteness to tourist attractions and provided a vast underpaid labor force for booming restaurants, hotels and offices.) During the heat wave, the Daley administration was particularly engaged in "gloss[ing] its image in preparation for the Democratic National Convention of 1996"--felt as a crucial task, given the debacle of the 1968 DNC event, when Daley's father was mayor, with its globally reproduced images of Chicago's finest beating the shit out of middle-class white kids and not a few journalists and Democratic politicians. So it comes as little surprise that Daley viewed the heat wave deaths primarily as "a potential public relations disaster," and Chicago-watchers will not be too surprised to read that the city administration both actively hindered appropriate relief efforts and put most of its energy into an attempt to "spin its way out of the crisis."

    God is in the details, though, and Klinenberg painstakingly lays out for us both the structural and more proximate policies that led to the disastrous Chicago mortality figures of July 1995. Most crucial is the rise of neoliberalism, which Klinenberg rather oddly denominates "reinvented government" and "the entrepreneurial state," in a narrow sociological tradition, rather than connecting to abundant available radical analyses of the phenomenon worldwide. No matter, he names the key shifts: the state's growing divestment of social service responsibilities; the outsourcing and simultaneous downsizing of the remaining functions; the overarching capitalist managerial model of lean, mean efficiency; and the new model of citizens as "active consumers" of public goods, and too damned bad if they lack the knowledge, capacity or energy to do so.

    In the case of the heat wave, the crucial noxious brew involved neoliberal policies with regard to low-cost housing, consumer energy use and social service personnel. Since Reagan, the federal government has been cutting back support for low-cost housing, and the public housing crisis in Chicago was so acute that local activists were unwilling to draw attention to the many code violations in single room occupancy (SRO) hotel units--more than 18,000 rooms had been lost already--for fear that they would "only embolden the political officials and real estate developers who would prefer to convert the units into market-rate family housing." As a result, many frail elderly people literally cooked to death in illegal multiply subdivided "cattle sheds for human beings."

    As well, the traditional down-on-its-luck SRO population had been swollen since the 1970s with the mentally ill dumped onto urban housing markets with the closure of government-operated asylums. Fragile community connections were severed as SRO residents, afraid of the "crazy folk," retreated from common spaces into their tiny rooms, making it ever more likely that those sinking with heatstroke would fail to be discovered until it was too late. In public housing, the Chicago Housing Authority provided no air-conditioning even in common rooms, and in a perverse interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the CHA dumped youthful drug addicts, without rehab services, into well-established senior housing all over the city. Crime in the projects predictably skyrocketed, the collective caretaking bonds the residents had built atrophied as the elderly retreated in terror into their individual units; many lives were lost as a result.

    Air-conditioning may be part of the overarching environmental crisis, but it is a godsend in extreme heat, and for better or worse, working-class and better-off Americans have organized their lives around it in all parts of the country affected by high summer temperatures. Inability to afford winter heating, much less summer air-conditioning, is part of what Klinenberg labels the "everyday energy crisis" of the poor. A 50 percent cutback in the federal low-income energy-assistance program, combined with soaring utility rates, pinched the city of Chicago so badly that it still closes down aid each year at the beginning of the cold season, and provides no AC subsidies at all. The poor elderly with whom Klinenberg visited were so fearful of excessive energy bills that they even avoided using electric lights during the day. In an extraordinary illustration of neoliberal cruelty, as the heat wave deaths were still being counted, the US Senate initiated a vote to end the energy program but settled on skimming off a mere hundred million dollars. In the same session, Congress vastly expanded federal support to insurance companies and homeowners who suffer property damage due to disasters. The final fillip is the new "market model" utility policy that punishes delinquent customers, even the desperately ill, by cutting off not only electricity but water. Klinenberg notes sardonically that this policy is simply not parallel to the money-making efficiency of the car boot: "Water, unlike a car, is a resource that people need to survive."

    Chicago's specific demographic and spatial history greatly magnified the final domain--social services--of murder by public policy. Klinenberg demonstrates that the city, much to my surprise, has significantly higher percentages than the American average both of single residents in general and of elderly living alone. Of course, as he notes, living alone and being without resources are two distinct states. But Chicago lost 1 million people between 1950 and 1990, and for the elderly poor, "aging in place" in neighborhoods devastated first by capital and then by massive population flight--and then colonized by kids working in the only industry left, drugs--is a recipe for dangerous isolation. Add state cutbacks and outsourcing, and you have private agencies on insanely low budgets sending outrageously overworked service providers out to elderly poor clients no more than once a year--and even then, in fear of the druggies, confining their visits to the early mornings.

    North Lawndale is one such "bombed out" neighborhood, and Klinenberg's star turn is a rigorous ethnographic and historical comparison of that Southwest Side area with the contiguous Little Village. Both neighborhoods were founded by Southeastern European immigrants and then tipped minority in the postwar years, and both have similar poverty levels and percentages of poor elderly--but North Lawndale had ten times more heat wave deaths, proportionately, than its southern neighbor. Scholars, politicians, social service people and even residents themselves offered up "racial" explanations, as North Lawndale is black while Little Village is Mexican: Latinos are used to hot weather, they have close intergenerational families, they form tight communities, etc. Klinenberg demolishes all these folk theories with hard facts and careful logic (and not a little sarcasm--black Chicagoans with roots in the Delta don't have close families and aren't used to hot weather?) and forces us to consider variations in urban spatial ecology and their consequences for city-dwellers' daily lives. After all, three Chicago neighborhoods with the lowest per capita heat-wave death rates were majority-black--but not "bombed out."

    The key difference is human density. Little Village is both an entrepôt for the vast Latino migration to Chicago and a safe haven for Latinos gentrified out of other neighborhoods. As one resident said of the neighborhood, "there is no such thing as an empty lot." High populations maintain abundant local business, which in turn guarantees lively street life and thus a safe and interesting public environment in which the elderly can shop, exercise--and cool down in air-conditioned stores during a heat wave. Even the "aging in place" whites left over from Little Village's earlier incarnation fared well in the crisis. Certainly Little Villagers have strong community bonds, especially through the Catholic Church, but North Lawndale residents are organized to a fare-thee-well too. Their church groups and block clubs, though, simply cannot make up for abandoned buildings, empty lots and few stores.

    Klinenberg deals diligently but less successfully with three other domains key to his story. He nails the Daley administration's culpability in an hour-by-hour account of the unfolding disaster and discusses the highly publicized failed snow removal that doomed the 1970s Bilandic administration, but he neglects to mention African-American Harold Washington's brief but significant interim mayoralty of the 1980s. Washington, after all, gained both national fame and notoriety for trying to equalize city resources across rich and poor neighborhoods, and that profoundly race-inflected inequality is the fulcrum of Heat Wave's criticism of current city government. Some of Klinenberg's heroes of the crisis, public health activist Quentin Young and Sid Bild of Metro Seniors in Action, are actually white veterans of the old Washington coalition. And we never really hear about the Daley/developer deals that have stripped the city of affordable housing, which are well documented in radical scholarship and journalism. Similarly, Klinenberg does wonders with the sordid story of the firefighter/paramedic feud--one reason for the city's belated response to the crisis--but doesn't really clue us in that racism is at the root of that one too. Finally, he gives us terrific reporter's-eye insight into the bureaucratic realities that determined the false coverage of the breaking crisis at the Chicago Tribune, but never informs us of the Trib's history of rightist ownership, the structures above the heads of the city editors.

    Klinenberg documents the local media's chastened post-'95 hyperresponsibility to advise the public on individual tactics to mitigate heat danger, and lists the specific ongoing political structures that will inevitably lead to more murder by public policy. But he never quite adds these elements up to their sum total--the heat disaster as an altogether predictable product of neoliberal capitalist shift. Heat Wave connects the dots to tell us an important new muckraking story but doesn't fully recognize the radical urban and national political economy narrative already on the page.

    Micaela di Leonardo

  • Non-fiction June 20, 2002

    Too Much Monkey Business

    I received the news of paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould's death, at age 60, in the week I was reading Jonathan Marks's new book on genetics, human evolution and the politics of science. My friends and I discussed our shock--Gould had famously "beat" cancer some years back--and shared charming and ridiculous Gould information, like his funny-voice contributions to The Simpsons. Postings on leftist listservs noted that Gould's fulsome New York Times obituary, which rattled on about his "controversial" theory of punctuated equilibrium, his SoHo loft and love of baseball, neglected to mention his extensive antiracist writing and many other radical activities, including working with the Science for the People group. Rhoda and Mark Berenson wrote in to commend his strong support for the release of their daughter Lori, the young American leftist sympathizer long imprisoned as a "terrorist" in Peru.

    With Gould gone, the landscape of progressive English-language popular science writing is much impoverished. In particular, in an era in which silly, and most frequently racist and sexist "it's all in our genes" narratives have become--alas!--purely commonsensical in the mass media, if not in the academy, we have lost a stalwart and articulate evolutionary biologist who wrote prolifically against sociobiology's reductionist framings of human experience. But molecular anthropologist Jonathan Marks, with his broad history-of-science background, his take-no-prisoners stance on scientific stupidity and overreaching, and his hilarious Groucho Marx delivery, can help to fill that void.

    What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee addresses precisely that question--the issue of human/higher primate connections--and all its existential and political entailments. Marks reframes the old C.P. Snow "two cultures" debate, on the gulf between the sciences and the humanities, in a new and interesting way. Rather than blaming the general public for its scientific ignorance--which I must confess is my own knee-jerk tendency--Marks turns the lens around. He indicts scientists, and particularly his own confrères in genetics, for their long history of toadying to elite interests: "Where human lives, welfare, and rights are concerned, genetics has historically provided excuses for those who wish to make other people's lives miserable, to justify their subjugation, or to curry favor with the wealthy and powerful by scapegoating the poor and voiceless." Marks's conclusion is that genetics "is therefore now obliged to endure considerably higher levels of scrutiny than other, more benign and less corruptible, kinds of scientific pronouncements might."

    And scrutinize he does. First, Marks provides us with an accessible history of the linked Western efforts, since the seventeenth century, to comprehend the natures of nonhuman higher primates, and to develop biological taxonomy, both before and since the rise of evolutionary theory. With word-pictures and actual illustrations of explorers' and others' accounts of "Pongoes," "Baboones, Monkies, and Apes," he makes vivid for us the ways in which "the apes, by virtue of straddling a symbolic boundary, are highly subject to the projections of the scientist from the very outset of modern science." Not the least of Marks's virtues are his deft along-the-way explanations, as for instance the key physiological differences between monkeys and apes (the latter are "large-bodied, tailless, flexible-shouldered, slow-maturing"). Only last week, I found myself hectoring a hapless video-store worker about the absurd conjunction, in the store's display case, of an orangutan (ape) stuffed animal with a Monkey Business movie poster. Now I can just hand out 98% Chimpanzee.

    The "projection" problem, according to Marks, is far more inherent to biological taxonomy than heretofore realized. He offers amusing lightning sketches of scientists past and present, from the eighteenth-century catfight between Buffon and Linnaeus over whether intrahuman variation could be categorized biologically--the latter eventually acknowledging Buffon "by naming a foul-smelling plant after him"--to paleobiologist George Gaylord Simpson's two-martini lunches in his 1980s Arizona retirement as he declaimed against contemporary genetic reductionists. These humanized history-of-science narratives allow Marks to make clear the uncertainties and arbitrariness of "hard" science categorizations. While "every biology student knows that humans are mammals," because human females nurse their young, Marks notes that "it is not obviously the case that breast-feeding is the key feature any more than having a single bone in the lower jaw (which all Mammalia, and only Mammalia, have)." He uses historian Londa Schiebinger's work to show us how Linnaeus, who had been operating with Aristotle's four-legged "Quadrupedia" label, switched to Mammalia because he was active in the contemporary movement against upper-class women sending their infants out to wet nurses: "He was saying that women are designed to nurse their own children, that it is right, and that it is what your family should do."

    Political apprehensions, as we know, were woven just as deeply into scientists' evolving modes of categorizing intrahuman--"racial"--variation. Here Marks tells some familiar stories in new ways. Many know, for example, about racist University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Carleton Coon's last-ditch claims, in the early 1960s, that "the length of time a subspecies has been in the sapiens state" determines "the levels of civilization attained by some of its populations." But Marks offers us as well a fascinating sense of the times. We see, for example, Sherwood Washburn, the Harvard Yankee of later Man the Hunter fame, and Ashley Montagu, the debonair English anthropologist redbaited out of the academy and onto What's My Line appearances, ending up "on the same side, working to purge anthropology once and for all of the classificatory fallacy that had blinded it since the time of Linnaeus.... Coon died...an embittered and largely forgotten figure, done in, he supposed, by the forces of political correctness, and more darkly (he allowed in personal correspondence) by a conspiracy of communists and Jews as well."

    The importance of cultural constructions, and their irreducibility to biological functions, have been hoary apothegms in anthropology classrooms for a half-century. Awareness of the susceptibility of scientific practice to the politics of reputation has been with us since the Kuhnian 1960s. Ethnographic, historical and journalistic work on bench science from the 1980s forward has focused on the political framing of, and politicized language use in, hard science research and on the power of corporate and state funding to determine research directions and even findings. But Marks takes the "cultural construction of science" line much further than even most progressive critics of the contemporary idiocies of sociobiologists--although he does get off some lovely lines, like "sociobiology, which studies the biological roots of human behavior, whether or not they exist." He takes the critique home to his specialty, evolutionary molecular genetics, and demonstrates the multifarious ways that recent claims about human nature and evolution, based on DNA evidence, have been misframed, are irrelevant or often simply stupid.

    That we "are" 98 percent chimpanzee, says Marks, is a profound misframing. First, our biological closeness to the great apes "was known to Linnaeus without the aid of molecular genetics." "So what's new? Just the number." Then he points out that the meaning of phylogenetic closeness depends upon the standpoint from which it is viewed: "From the standpoint of a daffodil, humans and chimpanzees aren't even 99.4% identical, they're 100% identical. The only difference between them is that the chimpanzee would probably be the one eating the daffodil." Then, the diagnostic genetic dissimilarities between chimpanzees and humans do not cause the observed differences between them, and are therefore irrelevant to discussions of the "meaning" of our genetic ties:

    When we compare their DNA, we are not comparing their genes for bipedalism, or hairlessness, or braininess, or rapid body growth during adolescence.... We're comparing other genes, other DNA regions, which have either cryptic biochemical functions, or, often, no known function at all. It's the old "bait and switch." The genes we study are not really the genes we are interested in.

    Thus all of the wild claims about our "chimp" nature, which have ranged over the past forty years from male-dominant hunter (early 1960s) to hippie artist and lover (late 1960s through 1970s) to consummate competitor (Gordon Gekko 1980s) are entirely politically constructed. And, Marks adds, in considering the "demonic male" interpretation of chimp competition as like that of Athens and Sparta, they are simply argument by analogy: "Maybe a chimpanzee is sort of like a Greek city-state. Maybe an aphid is like Microsoft. Maybe a kangaroo is like Gone With the Wind. Maybe a gopher is like a microwave oven." Just plain dumb.

    Using this set of insights, Marks eviscerates a wide array of contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom about heredity" claims, from the "successes" of both the Human Genome and Human Genome Diversity Projects to the "Caucasian" Kennewick Man, the "genetic" athletic superiority of black Americans, the genetics of Jewish priesthood and the existence of a "gay gene." He is particularly trenchant against the Great Ape Project's use of human/ape genetic similarities to argue for "human rights" for apes, frequently to the detriment of the impoverished African and Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands: "Apes should be conserved and treated with compassion, but to blur the line between them and us is an unscientific rhetorical device.... our concern for them can't come at the expense of our concern for human misery and make us numb to it."

    There is much more in 98% Chimpanzee, a real treasure trove of thoughtful, progressive scientific thought. But I do have a quibble. While Marks takes an uncompromising equal rights stance when it comes to female versus male biology, he doesn't delve anywhere near as deeply into the insanities of contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom" about sex--like the "rape is genetic" claims of a few years back--as he does about race. And they are legion, and just as politically consequential. Nevertheless, this is an important and refreshing book, the first claimant to replace the magisterial and out-of-print Not in Our Genes, and a fitting monument to Stephen Jay Gould's passing. Now tell me the one again about the duck with lips.

    Micaela di Leonardo

  • Science and Health May 3, 2001

    Margaret Mead vs. Tony Soprano

    Feminist anthropology fights for public voice in a new era.

    Micaela di Leonardo

  • Racism and Discrimination February 1, 2001

    Soul to Seoul

    In our retrograde era, "the personal is political" might better be put "politics sure messes up progressive lives." This past December, just after the Supreme Court completed the electoral coup that imposed the Bush presidency upon us, I spent a miserable snowy afternoon in my Chicago-area university office trying to winnow down a set of readings for a graduate seminar on race, ethnicity and nationalism. Glumly predicting the sorts of Cabinet appointees and White House policies that have indeed come to pass in the weeks since, I found myself unable to pare down the list. Instead, mindful of the racist renaissance we are likely in for in the coming years--not that Clinton's two terms, characterized by the police-state crime bill and the evisceration of AFDC, were exactly models of antiracist governing--I shoveled back in masses of old Bell Curve-era readings on New Right cultural politics.

    The Talmudic reading load imposed by a punctilious and politically depressed lefty professor on hapless grad students is, of course, the least of the burdens of newly enhanced conservative rule. But as we attempt to assess and contest the worsened life conditions, from Colombia to Cairo to Kazakhstan to California, about to be produced by Bush Administration policies, we need new analytic tools to help us envision the meanings of race and ethnicity in shifting national and global political economy. And Claire Kim's fresh study, Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City, offers precisely such tools.

    Bitter Fruit is based on a meticulous account of the 1990-91 black-led "Red Apple" boycott of two Korean-run produce stores--Family Red Apple and Church Fruits--in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, a boycott that arose in response to allegations that Family Red Apple's store manager, Bong Ok Jang, beat an older Haitian woman customer, Ghiselaine Felissaint, during an argument at the cash register. But Kim, a younger politics and ethnic studies professor at the University of California, Irvine, uses that narrative to reframe the ways in which even we progressives, influenced by public culture despite our best efforts, tend to see the history and contemporary realities of race, immigration, representation, politics and poverty in American cities. Most political, ethnographic or other analyses of urban lives--with key exceptions in works like Brett Williams's Upscaling Downtown and Dwight Conquergood's "Life in Big Red"--focus on only one population, whether black street vendors or Latina or Chinese sweatshop workers. One of Kim's strengths, making her the Anna Deavere Smith of the poli-sci set, is her careful consideration, through extensive interviewing, of the voices of all the players in the Red Apple imbroglio--Haitian immigrants and longer-term residents, black American political activists and elected officials, Korean merchants and community politicians of different generations, the various mainstream and alternative media--and her clearheaded recognition of their differential access to power and resources.

    This is the key to the issue and the real innovation in Kim's work. She lays out for us the "conventional wisdom" about black/Korean conflict:

    Shut out of the mainstream economy by historical discrimination and hit hard by recent global economic changes, urban-dwelling Blacks are frustrated and angry. Enter Korean immigrants, who open stores in poor black neighborhoods and rapidly achieve economic success by virtue of their hard work and thriftiness.... Blacks lash out at them, irrationally venting their accumulated frustrations on this proximate, vulnerable, and racially distinct target. Korean immigrants...simply get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Kim then disassembles this "racial scapegoating" narrative for us. She notes that "historical discrimination, economic competition, Black rage, immigrant dreams and prosperity" are all genuine phenomena but that this formulation "isolates these features and rips them out of the overall context of how racial power operates in America." Racial power, in Kim's analysis, is linked to racial ordering, the economic and ideological process through which populations are evaluated relative to one another. These constructions rely not on notions of ongoing white conspiracy or intentionality but on the reproduction of political-economic structures and discursive frames, the very ways in which we talk about the subject. Racial power "finds concrete expression in a wide variety of...processes that tend cumulatively to perpetuate White dominance over non-Whites. Putatively impersonal forces such as global restructuring and deindustrialization are in fact mediated by racial power so that Whites systematically accrue greater benefits from and suffer fewer burdens from these developments than do non-Whites." The racial scapegoating story turns out, then, to veil the "'bitter fruit' of deeply entrenched patterns of racial power in contemporary American society."

    Central to contemporary American racial ordering are the empirically false and mutually interdependent constructs depicting a feckless and violent black and brown urban underclass and a hardworking, bootstrapping Asian "model minority." The model-minority myth presents "Asian Americans as culturally superior to Blacks and yet culturally distinct from Whites and detached from politics." As the American economy improved over the 1990s, as crime plummeted because of improved economic prospects, demographic transition, mass imprisonment and rising youth common sense, and as the impoverished were thrown off public assistance without much public outcry, we have heard less and less about the dangerous minority poor who have only themselves to blame for their circumstances. (Given the bear market and other recent indicators, though, watch this space.)

    Representations of Asian model-minority behavior, though, dating from the 1960s, continue strong in mass media. Kim traces the origin of model-minority ideology to the use of Asian-American "success" stories--with mom-and-pop stores in the forefront--"as an explicit rebuke to Blacks involved in collective demand making of one kind or another." "Consider the two myths as mirror images," Kim invites us:

    The underclass is lazy, undisciplined, lacking in family values, criminally inclined, unable to defer gratification, deviant, dependent, and prone to dropping out; the model minority is diligent, disciplined, possessed of strong family values, respectful of authority, thrifty, moral, self-sufficient, and committed to education. Whites--the unspoken overclass to the underclass and majority to the model minority--are factored out of the picture as if they were neutral, colorblind, wholly disinterested observers.

    This triangulated racial ordering helps to rationalize common-sense "colorblind talk" that serves to mask both white power and the innately relational character of all racial systems.

    Providing clear empirical proof of the bankruptcy of this vision, Kim locates both blacks and Koreans in the historical political economy of New York City. She uses other scholars' work to establish the persistent and unique residential segregation of black populations--so extreme, both locally and nationally, that Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton label it "American apartheid"--and reprises the record of brutal and deadly actions by outer-borough whites against "trespassing" blacks throughout the 1980s. She uses sociologist Roger Waldinger's research to demonstrate the ways in which blacks have been excluded from the changing urban occupational "ethnic queue." Even their relative success in public-sector jobs in the 1970s, the result of federal antidiscrimination legislation, tripped them up when the public/private balance shifted and they lacked networks and resources to gain access to burgeoning business opportunities.

    Kim cites abundant evidence that New York employers, like those elsewhere in the United States, operate on the basis of "old-fashioned racism--or discrimination based on the construction of Blacks (especially Black men) as undesirable (lazy, dishonest, unreliable) employees." Even the conservative business newspaper Crain's New York Business lamented in 1989 that "being black reduces the prospects for entrance and advancement in nearly every sector that defines the economic life of the city."

    The cumulative national effects of residential segregation and systematic credit discrimination, in addition to specifically regional oppression (for example, Koch administration refusal to grant city contracts to nonwhites), explain both Afro-Americans' generally low levels of self-employment and the particularly extreme paucity of black small businesses in New York. The per capita rates in Los Angeles, for example, are 2.5 times as high.As a result of combined governmental and private-sector actions, by the late 1980s "increasing rates of overall and extreme poverty, deepening income inequalities, and persistently low labor-force participation rates shaped the lives of most Black New Yorkers."

    Haitian migrants to the United States, and New York specifically, beginning with 1960s waves of anti-Duvalier activists fleeing certain death, were immediately racialized as black and subjected to the same discriminatory treatment, with two additions. In the first place, blackness "is a source of great pride" in the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere, and Haitians had to come to terms with its often degraded American status. Then, as black foreigners began arriving in the 1970s in larger numbers, and with the rise of the AIDS crisis, Haitians were further coded as dirty, diseased and dangerous.

    In this overall context of extreme antiblack racism, finally, Kim documents how ordinary patterns of ethnic political succession in New York City have never included Afro-Americans. In the period in which blacks were winning City Council seats and mayoralties, and influencing (if largely in the interests of the better-off) urban policy elsewhere, Ed Koch's and then Rudy Giuliani's long mayoral reigns, through finagling with the Board of Estimate and the City Council, were dedicated to wholesale black exclusion. Kim notes dryly that "this sheds some light on why Black efforts at empowerment eventually migrated outside of traditional political channels, resulting in the new Black Power movement of which the Red Apple Boycott was part." The Afro-American David Dinkins's short-lived stay in Gracie Mansion would be, among other political disasters, haunted by the boycott, begun only seventeen days after his inauguration.

    The experiences of new Korean immigrants run entirely counter to this pattern. In the first place, Kim places post-1965 Korean immigration to the United States in the context of "America's protracted efforts to influence economic development and shore up repressive anticommunist regimes in a non-White nation located on the periphery, resulting in significant migration from periphery to core." That migration, in response to the explicit economic policy embedded in the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, was largely of educated, white-collar Koreans with small but significant savings to invest. Then these migrants were "racialized as Asian Americans and triangulated between Blacks and Whites.... It is in this way that the very economic opportunities that are closed to Blacks become the ticket to upward mobility for Korean Americans."

    Thus, while they were certainly victimized by American racism, these Korean immigrants, unlike blacks, were not subject to its more extreme forms--residential segregation, pervasive violence and abuse on the streets and in the criminal justice system. They were, however, forced into the "status derogation" of small business by both their poor English skills and employer discrimination against them as "foreigners." Extensive Korean exploitation of retailing niches created ethnic business networks allowing them to take over entire urban retail sectors--greengrocers in New York and liquor stores in Los Angeles, for example. Relatively privileged but stressed and squeezed, Koreans in small business tended to subscribe even more extensively than white Americans to victim-blaming underclass mythology. The stage was set for the Red Apple boycott.

    Here Kim really shines as an analyst. She disabuses us of "the conventional notion that the boycotters were venting their frustrations on Koreans instead of on Whites" by placing the event inside the "resurgent Black Power movement in New York City." She identifies the heterogeneous players in and the politics of that movement, characterized in mainstream media as a solid bloc of crazy white-haters, and places them in the context of the public and private antiblack onslaught of the Koch years. Kim demonstrates how always-latent black nationalism became the lowest common denominator "frame repertoire" for organizing the boycott, despite the more developed left politics of the dominant black American December 12th Movement, which took over from the original Haitian agitators. And she notes the ultimate irony that this group, which was vilified as violently anti-Asian, "had presumptively positive feelings toward Koreans," encouraged black patronage of all Korean greengrocers except the two under boycott and had even engaged in pro-Korean unification demonstrations.

    Kim also carefully lays out the roles of mainstream, black, Haitian and Korean media in motivating the boycott and the backlash against it. As a long-term lover of the neglected public media of black and Latino radio, I particularly appreciate her coverage of the key organizing functions of minority radio stations. Kim shows effectively how their very different transnational as well as American placements structured Korean and Haitian interpretations and actions. During the boycott, for example, to offset their losses, the two storeowners received $150,000 from Korean-American and other sources. While this capital infusion was important, the real battle of the boycott occurred in the realm of the political. The "multiple layers of contested meaning" created by activists and their associated media inevitably resolved themselves into the overwhelming mainstream-media narrative, in which "colorblind talk," heavily appropriating civil rights-era references, "garbled and distorted" the boycotters' message and defined them solely as crime-prone anti-Korean racists. Michael Kinsley, for example, "the putative representative of the left on CNN's Crossfire, said simply: 'You don't mediate between out and out racism on the one hand and a hardworking entrepreneur on the other. And that's what's going on.'" Kim justly observes that "the most striking aspect of the regular news coverage of the Red Apple Boycott was its univocality."

    This single voice put David Dinkins "squarely on the hot seat." Already having been accused, before taking office, both of pandering to black extremists and of selling out communities of color, Dinkins could only lose on the boycott issue. His early refusal to send in the NYPD to move the protesters off-site enraged the city's elite, who claimed he was ruining New York City's business climate. But his final capitulation to white pressure, a televised speech opposing "any boycott based on race," stung his black supporters. Al Sharpton accused Dinkins's speech of being like "a James Brown record--talking loud and saying nothing." And attorney Vernon Mason declared that "he ain't got no African left in him." Overwhelmed by bad publicity, the boycott lost steam and collapsed after only eight months of picketing. Kim notes the key role it played in New York electoral politics: "David Dinkins made history again by becoming the first breakthrough Black mayor in American history to lose office after only one term." In 1993 Rudolph Giuliani "won a highly racially polarized election to become only the third Republican mayor of New York City since 1930." And we all know what happened then!

    Kim ends her fine study with a riff on W.E.B. Du Bois's twentieth-century color-line aphorism: "It seems likely that the problem of the twenty-first century will be that of the multiple color lines embedded in the American racial order." She rightly asks, "When is 'voice' really voice?"--querying claims of American democracy in the context of centralized and corporate-controlled mass media (and, we might add, of differentially efficient and functional voting machines). I would have liked her to deal with the gendered dimensions of the Red Apple boycott, write more extensively about non-Korean Asian-American politics around the event and trace out the implications of her work for other faulty analyses of the dilemmas of "middleman minorities" in the American and global past and present. But no one book can accomplish everything, and Kim's Bitter Fruit sets an incisive new pattern for our understanding of class in multiracial politics as we live through the bitter years ahead.

    Micaela di Leonardo

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