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On Academic Freedom and Not Being a Jerk

I spent this weekend at the North Central Sociological Association meetings in Cleveland. It was a joy to once again take a group of my sociological theory students and let them see sociologists in action. This is a picture of the Arcade, which is part of the Hyatt Regency.Arcade

This year I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on “Freedom of Expression in the Classroom: Challenges in the Changing Political Climate“. Moderated by Fayyaz Hussain from Michigan State, the panel was made up of Brendan Mullan from MSU (and next year’s NCSA president), Peter Blum from Hillsdale College, and me. Our session was in one of the rooms opening onto the arcade.

The topic was prompted by a situation with an MSU professor a year or so ago where he had made derogatory in-class comments about the Republican Party which were videotaped and became an internet sensation about liberal professors. He wound up being suspended from his teaching duties. We didn’t talk about last fall’s Marquette situation but could have.

We each opened with our own stories. The differences between a state school, a Christian university, and a politically conservative liberal arts college seemed to fade away once we got into the conversation.

As the discussion moved on, the conversation seemed to shift from the right to say whatever one thinks to how one properly interacts with one’s students. In short, there was agreement that just because a professor COULD take a political or theological position based upon one’s scholarship, it doesn’t follow that one MUST.

Toward the end of my remarks, I suggested that we needed a good operational definition of “being a jerk”. There is an important distinction between sharing a viewpoint and being a jerk about it.

There also seemed to be some agreement that pushing too hard would simply result in students closing down intellectually and emotionally. This isn’t effective either pedagogically or interpersonally.

As I reflected on situations I’ve been aware of where someone’s scholarship raised difficulty or challenging questions, especially for administrators, I found that the relationship with the students seemed to be central. If the faculty member puts a priority on  the long-term learning of students, it moderates how hard to push. On the other hand, it’s often the case that a disrespectful comment or a position directly attacking a group of students will trigger responses well beyond simple academic disagreement. Students who perceive that possibility may be far more likely to think about recording the professor in future interactions.

The discussion, while good, was more personal than academic. During the conversation part of my brain was focused on my friend Tom Oord, whose position was eliminated at Northwest Nazarene University under circumstances that are nearly impossible to explain. Tom’s scholarship has raised questions that some quarters of the denomination and conservative factions (and maybe some administrators) have been disagreeing with for some time.

OordBut at the center of Tom’s scholarship is a belief that love is pre-eminent. It is that love that allows hard questions to be asked. It is that love that makes him one of the warmest and most hospitable colleagues I have ever met. There are few people you can meet at a conference who will be more inviting and inclusive. His comment after receiving the news (now the Facebook meme above) was “I plan to live a life of love.

This is why there is such an outcry over Tom’s firing. The way the institution treated Tom seems to be the negation of everything he has been committed to as a scholar and a colleague. It was done in ways that, while defensible in only the most legalistic sense, were clearly damaging to Tom, his colleagues, and his students.

It’s not that everyone agrees with Tom’s positions. His supporters — colleagues, former students, current students, and social media contacts — just know that he would never act in ways that did harm to others.

We can manage a tremendous amount of ambiguity and uncertainty in Christian higher education if we keep love and community at the center of what we do. If we act in ways that cause faculty to be the center of attention, that minimize others in the process, or that accentuate power imbalances, we wind up in much darker places.

Putting priority on operating in love and community affirmation, even in the face of power differences (maybe especially there) is key to the proper exercise of academic freedom within a Christian educational setting. That’s what is missing when faculty members disrespect their students. It’s also what’s missing when administrators look to exercise power in ways that, while legitimate, damage their communities in the process.

Structural Inequality Three: Unequal Outcomes



The day the NCAA brackets were announced, I wrote this post on the nature of structural inequality. I argued that even though we like underdogs and upsets, the odds favored the turnout we expected from the beginning. As it turned out, three of the final four teams had been designated #1 seeds before the tournament (Go State!). This is probably as it should be — the best teams (at least as determined by the seeding committee) get to play in the Big Game.

Wisconsin has been in three final fours and won the whole thing in 1941. Duke has been in fifteen final fours and has four championships, the most recent in 2010.

This echoes one on the basic ideas in stratification: past benefits accrue over time.

This weekend I finished the two books I’ve been reading on the nature of inequality in America. As I’ve written, one is Our Kids by Robert Putnam and the other is The Long Shadow by a team of sociologists from Johns Hopkins. Reading them in tandem was enlightening.

Putnam’s book is full of site-specific case studies contrasting successful kids and challenged kids. Whether in Ohio, Oregon, Atlanta, or Orange County, similar patterns emerge. Each chapter fleshes out the case studies with national census-type data.

The Hopkins book also uses a site-specific comparison with some incredible data following the same set of kids from 6 to 28. The authors look at neighborhood characteristics, family dynamics, school conditions, and economic concerns. Where Putnam relies on story, the Hopkins folks end up doing some high level regression to look at how status is transferred (or not) across generations.

One of the curious things about the books is that they don’t work with the normal journalistic 1%-99% comparisons. Half of Putnam’s families are upper-middle class but nobody has a yacht. The Hopkins book focuses on families in the Baltimore Public Schools, so they don’t pick up those who moved to more affluent suburbs.

This is important. The inequality characterized in the books is not the story of rich people. It’s about “normal” people and those who have somehow been left behind (usually through no fault of their own).

Both books wind up telling exactly the same story. There is a significant difference in access to the very things that contribute to intergenerational success. Those who have resources use those to achieve. Those who don’t find themselves falling further behind.

Here’s a chart from The Long Shadow (page 124, picture from my Iphone).

Long Shadow

My stats students will recognize this as a Chi Square table. The rows represent the social class of origin. The columns represent the social class at age 28. The expected values tell us what we’d expect to find if there was no relationship (as one would expect in a meritocracy).

As the table shows, those who start out lower SES half are still lower class at about 1.5 times expected. They are less than half as likely to be upper SES at 28 as expected. At the other end, the upper SES kids who were lower class was only 1/4 of what would be expected but more than twice as likely to be upper SES at 28.

This remarkable stability of structural inequality is shocking, even to us social scientists. Here’s Putnam’s reflection:

Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives. So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids. Before I began this research, I was like that. I’ve worked hard, I thought, to rise from a modest background in Port Clinton— much of the time heedless of how much my good fortune depended on family and community and public institutions in that more communitarian and egalitarian age. If I and my classmates could climb the ladder, I assumed, so could kids from modest backgrounds today. Having finished this research, I know better.

What factors explain these differences? Both books illustrate the patterns of family life beginning prior to the beginning of school. Those who have advantages are able to start strong and have school work for them. Those who don’t begin behind and have family or community disruptions that inhibit the expected school to college to occupation pipeline.

There are differences in school quality and neighborhood safety. But these pale in comparison to family struggles.

It is unreasonable to simply suggest that the disadvantaged should care more about school or have better marriages or take their kids to church. It’s not all economic but it is largely structural. Moving forward in the ways we seem to expect as a society may seem self-evident, but we have to address that fact that some people are starting significantly behind.

Furthermore, the Hopkins book demonstrates that those gaps widen over time. Differences in resources when kids start school play out in differences in resources throughout the elementary grades. Differences in elementary grades expand when kids get to junior high and really take off at high school. (Putnam’s book is full of stories of disadvantaged kids having a caring teacher in early grades who isn’t replaced as they move through their educational journey.)

This is why Putnam’s book ends with some specific recommendations that our policy makers should act upon. Enhanced Earned Income Tax Credits, better child care supports, teacher incentives to poor schools, changes in sentencing and reentry policies. These will all cost money in a time when we seem unwilling to do so. But we will pay much higher costs downstream.

If we can grasp Putnam’s understanding that these are in fact Our Kids we might see that such investments are not only feasible but mandatory in modern society.

Will RFRA laws “lead towards anarchy”?

This is the first time I’ve found one of Antonin Scalia’s arguments particularly persuasive. I’ll explain in a minute.

Like nearly everyone else, I’ve been trying to make sense of Indiana’s RFRA law and its implications. There has been a surprising dispute about even the construction of the law. There are a number of articles claiming, as Governor Pence did, that the Indiana law is “just like the federal law signed by Bill Clinton” or “like scores of other states“. Here’s the central thrust of both the 1993 federal law and the Indiana law:


(a) IN GENERAL. — Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b). (b) EXCEPTION. — Government may burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person –(1) furthers a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.


Sec. 8. (a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. (b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

So in the primary language, these two laws are fundamentally the same. Except where they aren’t.

The Indianapolis Star compared the Indiana law with the federal law.  The relevant differences aren’t in the central provision of the law but in the definitional and implementation items. First, the Indiana law takes a post-Hobby-Lobby definition of “person”, granting religious freedom rights to private businesses and non-profits. Second, the threshold for the burden on exercise is lowered from recourse after government action to the potential of a burden. In essence, it moves the timeframe from a complaint after the fact to a potential violation that has not yet occurred. Third, the Indiana law suggests that the infringement could happen “regardless of whether the state..is a party to the proceeding”. This opens the possibility of RFRA actions being taken between private parties.

So while the law looks the same on the surface, it isn’t the same. Given the Governor’s arguments, I have to wonder if the parallel wording was designed for exactly the defense that was given. Furthermore, the private arguments of some of the law’s most ardent supporters told a very different story, putting the hypothetical baker as the law’s beneficiary. The Indiana legislature and Governor Pence  today put non-discrimination language as a preamble to the law (which eliminates the baker), but it doesn’t change what I think is the central issue.

Digging into the specifics of the Indiana situation led me to explore the history of Free Exercise cases before the Supreme Court. The first case (Reynolds vs. United States) was about a polygamous Mormon using his religious beliefs as a defense against a bigamy charge. The court ruled that because the bigamy law applied to everyone, the religious belief was irrelevant.

A second major case (Sherbert) dealt with an Adventist woman whose employer fired her for not working on Saturday. Her unemployment claim was denied by the state of South Carolina. The court ruled that the state’s action constituted an undue burden on her religious expression.

A third case is the one that prompted the federal RFRA. Alfred Smith had used peyote as part of Native American religious exercise. As a result, he was fired from his job at a drug rehab clinic. When he applied for unemployment in Oregon he was denied. The court ruled that since the drug prohibition applied to all Oregonians and didn’t single out Native Americans, there was no primary burden on religious expression.

Which brings us back to Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in the Smith decision. Here are two relevantScalia paragraphs that seem to speak volumes about issues in the news in the last week:

“It is a permissible reading of the [free exercise clause]…to say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended….To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is ‘compelling’ – permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself,’ contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.’ To adopt a true ‘compelling interest’ requirement for laws that affect religious practice would lead towards anarchy.”

“… The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind — ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.” [Emphasis mine]

The federal RFRA law was designed in direct response to the Smith decision. But 20 years later, Scalia’s warnings sound remarkably prescient.

Mark Silk of Religion News Service wrote today that if the Smith decision had gone the other way, there might not have been an RFRA in response. I think he’s right. I’ll come back to why that’s the case.

But I want to argue that the problem with Indiana’s RFRA is inherent in the language of the law in the first place. The problem exists in the 1993 law and likely in all of the laws passed since then. The RFRA laws define religious exercise as “any exercise of religion,whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” I’ve written before that a notion of religious belief separate from group practice is hard to understand. If we understood government infringement in terms of constitutional history, it would involve the limitation of a group’s central practice.

This is why the Sherbert decision makes sense. Worshipping on Saturday was a central issue to Adventists. In that regard, the use of peyote by Smith as part of religious ritual could have been defended, as long as this was established group practice. If, on the other hand, Smith and his friend had used the peyote as an individual option, the Oregon laws would hold. Furthermore, to suggest that “any” religious exercise — even if not central — is of equal weight simply defies logic.

A second problem with the RFRA laws is that they have a relatively open definition of religion. Past jurisprudence has extended the right of religious expression not only to minority religions (Holt vs. Hobbs, 2015, on beard length for Muslim Prisoners) but to nonbelievers as well (Torcaso vs. Watkins, Oregon 2014). News reports have already shown up in Indiana regarding the proposed Church of Cannabis and the Wiccan plan to dance naked at the state house on the next full moon.

While the Indiana law was championed by conservative Christians, it opens the door for a host of other unintended challenges as Jonathan Merritt observed last year. Satanic statues in Oklahoma and Florida have demonstrated that protections for conservative Christians can easily be co-opted by other groups. This may seem like an extreme example, but I can imagine an atheist group claiming religious exemption to a personhood amendment based on their “deeply held beliefs” about when life begins. In what way is that not coercion by the state?

The third problem with RFRA laws comes in the need for consistent application. Who decides which particular violation of one’s religion exercise should be pursued in court? Ben Corey wrote this tongue-in-cheek post about all the reasons why one could refuse to bake a wedding cake. If every possible violation of someone’s personal principles becomes an occasion for legal redress against the state, it seems we would rapidly approach the scenario that Justice Scalia described above.

Here’s my overall conclusion. The RFRA laws are hampered precisely because they are negative statements. Rather than attempting to carve out a safe place for religious practice in a pluralistic society where increasing numbers of people claim no religious affiliation, we’ve attempted to protect the status quo against incursion from the changing society.

This is doomed from the start. The sooner we can begin to discuss the legitimate role of religion (which will protect ministers and churches from performing weddings against their church’s discipline), the better we’ll be able to protect the legitimate rights of believers and nonbelievers alike.

“Indiana Doesn’t Discriminate”: Except for this one thing

Indianapolis is my home town.

I was born there in 1954, moved away in 1955, returned in 1965. I went to high school at what was then John Marshall high on the east side (it was downgraded to a junior high in 1986), graduated in 1972, and considered Indianapolis home until we got married in 1976.

During today’s interview of Governor Pence by George Stephanopolous, George asks the Governor five times if same-sex discrimination would be legal in Indiana (as one of the law’s supporters had claimed). In each case, Pence responded that people in Indiana don’t discriminate and that this wasn’t the purpose of RFRA. The purpose was to stop government overreach (I think this opens the state up to major litigation by nonbelievers but I’ll skip that for now).

I think about Pence’s non-discrimination claim in light of my history. Maybe individuals are kind and nice to everybody as the Governor suggests, but the history tells a more complicated story.

AttucksIndianapolis Public Schools was sued by the Department of Justice in 1968 because of the existence of de jure segregation (that’s segregation by law and not just by outcome). They made minimal attempts to adjust (closing the all-black Crispus Attucks high school in 1970). Here is a summary from the Indiana Historical Society:

In May 1968, the United States Justice Department filed suit against the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) to force the desegregation of its schools. In 1970 with the anticipation and threat of a federal court desegregation order, IPS began a minimal busing program within the district. The case was tried in July 1971. IPS was found guilty of de jure segregation. Finding for the plaintiff, the court charged IPS with “operating a segregated school system wherein segregation was imposed and enforced by operation of laws.”

IPS initially tried to address the concerns by playing around with the feeder system to the high school. Changing which junior highs went to which high schools was an baby step toward solving the problem. There was little preparation for the transition that took place.

I was in my senior year at Marshall the first year of the restructuring. While my graduating class had three black students out of a class of 350, the incoming freshman class in 1971 was 35% black. We did have a convocation the previous spring with ministers telling us of the importance of tolerance. There were also posters in the hallway that read “It takes both white keys and black keys to play the Star Spangled Banner”.

Late that fall, there was an unfortunate convergence of elements that put Marshall as the lead story on the evening news. We had what they said was a “race riot”. In reality, it was a group of upset individuals with a lot of yelling and a little bit of shoving (I got off campus right away). My math teacher said “the natives are restless.” The principal got on the PA, said that school was closed, and anyone on the school grounds in 45 minutes (I think) would be arrested for trespassing. IPS used city buses for transportation and nobody was prepared for the student body being dumped on the street.

The following year, Federal Judge Hugh Dillin established a court mandated busing program that moved inner-city black students to predominantly white high schools in the city and some surrounding townships within Marion County. Busing is never a popular solution but was seen as necessary to undo the nearly half-century pattern of segregation (the length of Attucks’ first run).

The DOJ oversight of IPS continued until 1998 — thirty years after the initial lawsuit. Here’s more from the Historical Society report:

In January 1997, IPS requested that the court lift the busing order. Dillin ruled that the order would be “continuing and permanent.” IPS appealed Dillin’s decision and later that year the 7th United States Circuit Court ruled that the busing order was never meant to be permanent and that IPS should be permitted to show why its African American students should return to IPS. In June 1998 a settlement was reached between IPS, suburban township schools, and government agencies when Dillin approved an agreement that would phase out busing of inner city black students to township schools by 2017.

The one-way busing to the townships ended in 2005 — 34 years after it began.

To review, Crispus Attucks was opened in 1927 as an intentionally segregated school. It took 78 years for the last impacts of that de jure segregation to go away. And that conclusion was reached only a decade ago.

Indiana was also a key location for Ku Klux Klan activity, centered around Tipton and Kokomo. According to “Hoosier History Live”:

“At its height in Indiana in the 1920s, one quarter to one third of native-born, white males in Indiana were Klan members,” Professor Safianow noted in an article in the Indiana Magazine of History about the discovery of the Hamilton County membership records and memorabilia.

Hamilton County is the county directly north of Indianapolis.

The Klan disbanded in Indiana and we’ve made great strides in pushing cases of individual racism underground. But those individual behaviors and attitudes opened the door for the segregation through law that followed.

This is why Stephanopolous’ continued questioning about whether discrimination is legal in Indiana was so central to evaluating the RFRA implications. It’s not a matter of individual attitudes but a matter of legal status.

Given Indiana’s difficult history with regard to race, it is virtually impossible to take Governor Pence at his word when it comes to sexual orientation.

Why Kimmy Schmidt is Not a True Believer


This weekend I finished the first season of the wonderful Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If you’ve been completely out of the loop, the series is created by Tina Fey and focuses on the story of a girl from small-town Indiana who was kidnapped and kept in a bunker for 15 years with three other women. They were held by an apocalyptic preacher-type, Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, who had predicted the end of the world on June 6, 2006 (666). He had convinced the girls that the world had, in fact, ended. So part of the shock of their rescue is that they’d been living in the bunker needlessly for years. Kimmy heads for New York upon release and while the show dabbles in “fish out of water” jokes, it mostly shows the resilience that kept Kimmy sane during her captivity.

Many of my friends on social media have raved over Kimmy. There are aspects that align nicely with people who grew up in certain elements of evangelical culture (this piece by Alissa Wilkinson is one of the best).

While watching the show, I found myself thinking of Leon FestinProphecy Failsger’s When Prophecy Fails. Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter had become members of a small UFO cult operating in Evanston, Illinois and Lansing, Michigan in 1954. Given Festinger’s interest in what has become cognitive dissonance theory, it was a wonderful field test. The theory suggests that apocalyptic groups are open to cognitive dissonance because the possibility of disconfirmation is high. When the predicted event doesn’t happen, what does the group do? (Gerardo Marti shared this abstract from a recent article about Harold Camping).

The 1954 UFO group held a press conference on December 17th and predicted that the world would end on December 21st. When I was in college, I got the Chicago Tribune microfilm and read all about the prediction. My favorite thing was the front page on the 22nd: halfway down the page was a small headline that read “World Still Here”.

Festinger and colleagues had predicted that those members most invested in the group would have the highest degree of dissonance. Those on the fringe would simply abandon their beliefs (and try not to talk about them). But those who were true believers would either have to admit they were wrong or find some additional explanation (since the world didn’t end). The true believers argued that God saw their willingness to carry their message and face ridicule. He granted the world a reprieve due to their faithfulness.

Mole WomenWatching Kimmy Schmidt made me wonder how the Mole Women (as the media nicknamed them) responded to their own disconfirmation. The women can be seen in the picture on the right (left to right: Gretchen, Cyndee, Kimmy, and Donna Maria). Here’s what I discovered (there are disclosures coming if you haven’t watched all of it yet).

Gretchen is a true believer. She is always in her blue dress and she believes in Richard Wayne Gary Wayne until nearly the end. She relished her time in the bunker.

Cyndee is a sort-of believer. She was committed while in the bunker, even if somewhat unaware (and protected by Kimmy). Upon rescue, she still identifies as a Mole Woman but milks it for all the benefits she can get.

Donna Maria was never a believer. She was marginalized even while in the bunker, but she got back at people by pretending she didn’t speak English.

Once in New York, Kimmy changes her last name and doesn’t want people to know she was a Mole Woman. In one episode, she explains to another character than she learned that she could put up with anything for ten seconds. She counts to ten and then when she’s done counts again. This act of distancing keeps her on the periphery even though she appears to be the strong one of the group. But we wonder if she really ever believed the world had ended (a stray rat plays a critical role in the story). When Richard Wayne Gary Wayne comes to trial, she finally realizes that she has to go back to Indiana to testify. She doesn’t believe Wayne and sets out to prove that he’s a fraud.

It’s not a perfect test of Festinger’s theory. In part, this is because Richard Wayne Gary Wayne isn’t really believable as a cult leader (at least as told through the flashbacks and his trial performance). Plus, it’s a lighthearted comedy (even if it’s a story of kidnapped women).

Kimmy’s behaviors do align with a lot of what we see in the sociology of religion. People who, on the surface, look like their buying everything being served up. But people who, in their own unique ways, are finding mechanisms to chart their own course and maintain an authentic sense of self.

Who Sinned, the Child or the Parents? Inherited Inequality

This is the second post in my series on structural inequality.

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9: 1-3)

As I’ve been working through my study of the structures of inequality, this passage from John kept ringing through my head. All of the talk of the 47%, of takers, of those who don’t have proper work ethic, seems to be designed to draw a direct cause-effect relationship between individual choices and the impacts of poverty.

It is no surprise that Robert Putnam’s book is titled Our Kids. It’s a very interesting rhetorical move. We look at children with less opportunities and we can ask a question similar to what the disciples asked: who sinned? Was it this child’s fault or her parents?

It is a provocative question the disciples asked because of what it implies about next steps.

If, we would assume, the blindness is the result of this man’s actions and choices, then we could be freed from responsibility to act. If, on the other hand, it is the byproduct of choices made in earlier generations, it’s hard to know how to undo those past actions without a Tardis. Again, we are freed from responsibility.

So it is with the children in Putnam’s book or in the Hopkins study of Baltimore (The Long Shadow). I’m still working through both books, but it is clear to me that we can either look at poor choices made by a young tough in New Orleans or we can see how family disruption and parental drug issues hampered a young woman in Oregon.

What do we do now?

In the Baltimore study, they were looking at the situation of students starting public school in Baltimore in 1982. One of the chapters looks specifically at the family background of those six-year-olds. I took this picture of the Table (even if it is a little crooked):

Baltimore FamiliesThe researchers first broke the data by socioeconomic status and then, within lower SES, by race. This data shows the kinds of statistics that people like to toss around when critiquing inequality: single-parenthood, early pregnancy, lack of educational achievement. There are stark differences present in these columns. Note, for example, that in over a third of the families the mother had never married. The breakdown by class and race shows a 42% gap between the higher SES families (which were only high within Baltimore standards), and the lower-SES African American families.

But these demographics mask deeper, family system issues. Sometimes those relate to lack of job opportunities in the city. Incarceration is a factor as well. So are issues of drug and alcohol addiction.

Consider the story of Bess, one of those kids who started first grade in the early 1980s. Here is her situation as an adult as reported by the interviewers:

Bess, who grew up in what she described as a chaotic family environment, had her first baby at age fourteen in the summer of eighth grade, then a second in tenth grade. She tried to finish high school, indeed worked hard at it, but was unable to trust her mother to watch her first baby and eventually gave up. Bess would call home from school, she told us, and her mother would not be there; she would come home to find her baby soiled and unfed. “If I had somebody to watch who I knew, you know, was a good person to watch and I knew she was gonna’ be alright, then, you know, I woulda’ stayed [in school].” Bess was surrounded by an abundance of family — a cousin who supported a drug habit by prostituting herself and her mother, who, according to Bess, was drunk “morning to night.” Bess is one of the Youth Panel’s permanent dropouts, a victim, she says, of a neglectful mother and extended family disruption (2014, 48).

“Who sinned”, they asked, “this girl or her mother?”

Frankly, Jesus’ response is hard to figure out. He seems to suggest that the man is born blind “for such a moment as this”.

I prefer to take Jesus to be saying, “Your question is irrelevant. What is important is how God’s work can be done.”

Both of the books I’m reading share this common sentiment. Somehow, the children are suffering from the situations in which they grow up. Or at least some of them are. Putnam has a regular series of what he calls scissor graphs, which show advantages accruing to upper class families (because they have time for summer enrichment and organized sports) while disadvantages deepen for lower class families (because life circumstances set them farther and farther behind).

We wrestle with an appropriate response to inequality in the same way the disciples did.

We want to celebrate “good families” and don’t want to legitimize family dysfunction. We can argue that having two parents in the household, in their first marriage, who spent time interacting with their children yields the best outcomes for those children. This is demonstrably true.

But we can’t actually say to Bess’ mother, “you should marry the father, clean up your life, read to your children, and take the family to church.” Or more correctly, the only reason to say so is to ease our conscience about our own families.

Maybe we’d be better able to address issues of inequality if we saw Bess’ situation as a way to see God’s work displayed.

We’d worry less about affixing blame and show compassion on the young girl in a remarkably difficult circumstance.

Another March Madness: Inequality in America

15mens_bracket copy

Over the next three weeks, I’m focusing this blog on issues of inequality. In part, this is prompted by Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which explores the nature of inequality of opportunity across generations. I’m only into the second chapter, but both the changes to Port Clinton, Ohio (Putnam’s hometown and the focus on chapter one) and the changes in Bend, Oregon (chapter two), easily illustrate the connections between structural changes in economics, education, and housing and the cultural dynamics shaping the life choices of families impacted. As I’ve read essays about Putnam’s argument, they seem to serve as a Rorschach test — illumining the favorite theories of the author. It will doubtless be argued that it does the same for me.

I’ve also been reading The Long Shadow, a sociological study of children growing up in Baltimore schools. They have also been impacted by changes in terms of economy, housing, and culture. The students in the study are those left behind after white flight caused many with resources to flee Baltimore for the surrounding counties. The Long Shadow is interesting because it compares the dynamics of lower class whites, lower class blacks, and moderately upper class whites. While the picture is complicated by factors of culture and racism, there are very different patterns when it comes to opportunity.

In addition to these sources, it seems that every day brings news of the realities of inequality. The Ferguson report from the Department of Justice illustrates the dynamics of differential enforcement. I’ve got recent data on school achievement and college persistence that illustrates the way education at all levels plays a gatekeeping function. We have recently begun to approach a national consensus that our drug policy has been devastating to urban communities and prison overpopulation.

And yet we seem unwilling or unable to recognize inequality in our midst. Perhaps, as Matt Taibbi suggested, it’s as simple as the residential segregation that undergirds our interactions. Because we don’t know people outside our circles, we can cherry pick egregious cases and treat them as if they are indicative of entire groups of people.

Or maybe we can’t see it because the possibility of Horatio Alger success is so ingrained in the American psyche. We don’t know how to talk about differential opportunity because that might somehow suggest that people were trapped by their circumstances.

Better to believe that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules could get ahead — the bootstrap mentality. As MLK said in one of his final sermons at the National Cathedral, it’s one thing to say a man should pull himself up by his bootstraps but it’s a cruel joke to say that to a man with no shoes.

But if there’s one time of the year when we should understand the structural nature of inequality, it’s March. Today, the bracketology came to a head and we know who made it to the dance. Beginning Tuesday, teams begin competing in the NCAA men’s national championship. The whole thing centers on the top seeds of Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova, and Duke.

We watch the tournament and root for “Cinderella teams”, small feisty groups of guys who don’t read the brackets and come from small markets. This is their “one shining moment”. But in the vast majority of the cases, the seeding matters. The strong teams seem to prevail. We like the hustle of the Coastal Carolina team, but eventually Wisconsin will wear them down. Remember too that these 68 teams are but a tiny fraction of NCAA Division One schools.

Furthermore, if we look at the top couple of seeds in each bracket we can find teams that are somewhere in that mix every single year. It’s not just that they have a talented team — they have a reputation, a coaching staff, scholarship dollars/boosters, and facilities that help them attract the best players.

It doesn’t mean that the number one seeds will be in the final four. They can have an off night or have a key player injured or in foul trouble. But the odds are that the lower seeds will prevail.

This is a lesson that is far deeper than what we see Thursday to Sunday over the next three weeks. It happens in the same fashion every day across this country. So I’ll be blogging during the tournament to explore how those dynamics play out. I hope you’ll follow along.


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