Friday, December 23, 2005

James Baldwin's Dungeon 

As I was waiting to see the chiropractor yesterday I opened the copy of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time I had brought and read his essay My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation. An amazingly gifted man with words, James Baldwin was able to convey both deep meaning and deeper emotion in barely seven pages, leaving me with several clear thoughts.

First, I was struck and humbled by the love that so filled this man. Born into a world of open racism, legalized segregation and discrimination and Jim Crow, a world where, in his words, he "faced the future [he] faced because [he was] black and for no other reason," he was, however, able to look at this world with none of the bitterness one might expect. He sees his country and fellow Americans as equal innocents in that world, advising his nephew of the need to accept with love the very same who may hold him as an inferior, recognizing them as "innocent people hav[ing] no other hope … still trapped in a history which they do not understand." Such grace is a rare trait in such a world as this.

The second most glaring thought was how much I see almost the exact same feelings and ideas still expressed by many even today, more than forty years after. As I touched on above, I look at the America about which James wrote these words and look at the America I know today and wonder that some seem to see no difference. James Baldwin's America, the country he still loved, was America before the Civil Rights Act, America before the Voting Rights Act, America before real integration. How can the America he wrote of, that "told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry," possibly be seen as the same America today? Despite the very real and legal barriers that existed in his day, James still saw that, like his nephew and himself, it was possible to defeat these intentions, how, then, does one today look at an America devoid of the legal limitations visited upon James and his contemporaries and yet perceive the exact same deprivations by living in a "white man's world?"

All is not rosy, the capricious demon of racism has not been completely vanquished, but I say America today, if it is a "white man's world" is one more from a demographic basis than a legal one. Singapore can be said to be a "Chinese man's world" based upon the 70%+ presence of that ethnic component in the population without implying a negative or subservient position to the 14% Malay or 8% Indian population. "Oh," but some will cry, "the history of slavery and racism in America makes it completely different." Granted the dynamic is different, but the historic manifestation of that dynamic is no more deterministic of today's condition than the sins of the father are of the son. Yes, the history of slavery and racism in America are always a specter that speaks to the White/Black status in this country, just as the son of a petty criminal in a bad neighborhood must face the personal demons and temptations to follow the easy path his father's footsteps have made. How many generations removed, however, does it take until that previously well-traveled route becomes overgrown and no longer recognized as the natural path? It may always be visible, but as its use declines it no longer serves as the reason and motive it once did.

I look instead to the final thought I had. James repeatedly emphasizes both the ghetto into which he and his nephew were born and the unspoken intention of the "white man's world" that there they should live and die. That "the limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. … You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity." In this light it is clear to me that many of the same dynamics and motivations that disaffected James Baldwin are still present in much of the Black community today. A sense of hopelessness, a sense of inadequacy, a sense of low achievement. Whereas his America codified this in clear legal and societal terms some today see the same effect created by "institutional racism." Unfortunately, though, it seems they are not looking at the right institutions. When I read his words, though, I immediately thought of the low expectations and hopelessness that has been institutionalized and perpetuated by the welfare state and today’s Democrat driven "Civil Rights" industry. America freed the slaves from the plantations only to force them into segregated shantytowns. With the promise of real freedom in the '60s, though, we once again moved them, this time to government-funded plantations, all in the name of helping those who weren’t capable of helping themselves.

The rub, though, is that just like anybody else, blacks are just as capable of helping themselves as anyone. Just as James Baldwin and his nephew and countless others struggled against insurmountable odds to rise up in their time, so, too, do even more people persevere today against the historic and cultural limitations placed upon them by not only society but also by themselves. That America is a "white man's world" is likely to continue to be a truism for some time to come, but that does not necessarily entail that it is endemically hostile to the black man as it once most decidedly was. With a resolute refusal to be confined by either the patterns of the past or the prison on low expectations, perhaps, as James said, we can continue together to "make America what America must become" and find, one day, that "The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

What's the Difference Between a Stereotype and a Statistical Finding? 

Sociology professor Rachel Sullivan has been posting a series of pieces on Interracial Marriage over at BlackProf. She is especially interested in the family objections related to such marriages and frequently looks to common stereotypes as the genesis of some objections. I wonder, though, how much statistical backing does a stereotype require in order to be considered a legitimate concern?

I came to this question specifically in reference to the stereotype of black men as sexually flighty, uncommitted and prone to abandonment. Besides the fact that popular media culture makes millions perpetuating this image, there is no denying that hard statistical evidence on absentee fathers and illegitimacy rates in the black community, across all socio-economic strata, lend much credence to the belief that it is a real concern. In fact, it is often cited as one of the most significant social issues facing the black community as a whole. How then should the family of a woman entering into marriage with a black man view this information? It occurs to me that if that woman's family is black it is far more likely that their concerns will be considered more reasonable and founded, while a white family expressing identical concerns may be seen as responding to the "stereotype."

By analogy, if statistical evidence showed that 20% of all blonde men were HIV positive I would be concerned if my daughter began seriously dating a blonde man. Only if such concern continued in the face of contrary evidence and after coming to know the man in question would I consider the concern to be perpetuated by stereotype. Perhaps it is my hard science analytical nature, but I have always been uneasy with any studies that rely upon discerning motivation from behavior, especially in circumstances where the propriety of the behavior itself is dependent upon the underlying motivation.

Pers-42, XO/CO Screening and Chicken Bones 

My buds Joel and Chap have been venting a bit on the business practices of the Submarine Officer detailers (Pers-42), especially as compared to their counterparts in the Surface and Aviation Officer branches (Pers-41 and 43, respectively). One commenter even manages to drag the Enlisted detailers (Pers-40) in to the mix. Well, having enjoyed a rather lengthy relationship with BUPERS as a Reservist ('98 - '04, including ~ 20 months mobilized), I thought I'd jump into the fray, if not necessarily to defend at least to possibly illuminate some less than appreciated factors.

First I'll address the area I'm probably more familiar with: XO/CO screening. Having worked on two such boards I can say with a great deal of honesty that I've never been so happy to have gone into the Reserves. These events were a unique educational experience, as I never dreamed how seemingly random and capricious these boards can be. There are three basic steps:
  1. board members (senior O-6 and up, most of them squadron Commodores) review the records of each person before the board
  2. the board members brief the records they reviewed to the entire board and everyone votes their "confidence" in the candidate (0%, 25%, 50%, 75% or 100%)
  3. the records being reviewed are ranked by average confidence and cuts are made: screened, not-screened and the "crunch"
This will happen in several sessions (or "tanks"), with the board always pulling a few off the top, cutting a few from the bottom and leaving some in the middle. After all records have been "tanked" the ones left in the crunch are reviewed a second time (by a different member) and the process repeats. Usually after the second review there are very few left in the crunch and these may be sent back for review a third time or just run through the tank again against each other. This is repeated until all XO/CO slots are filled.

What should be apparent if the criticality of both the records available (especially the FITREP (Fitness Report) as well as the individual reviewing and briefing the record. Far too many times the latter is the deciding factor, as I've seen a quiet, reserved member put forward outstanding records only to fall to a mediocre record that is briefed by a strong, dynamic member. Likewise, I've seen seemingly innocent errors or inconsistencies on reports be interpreted like tea leaves by board members.

One thing that was completely consistent between the two boards I worked was the confidentiality and silence required on the results, a feature both Joel and Chap bemoaned. Pers-42 holds tight to the screening results until all non-screened submariners have been personally notified by their Commodore. This is because unlike the Surface and Aviation communities, there is no life in the Submarine community past being non-screened. You may still be an 1120 (Submarine Officer designator), but you will not work in the community again. You will no longer be eligible for Submarine Pay or Nuclear Officer retention bonuses. The act of non-screening an 1120 basically amounts to career death and at least a $30,000 pay cut. In this light I think it is entirely understandable that Pers-42 does what it must to ensure individuals do not find out about this change in their career on the internet or via message. I'm not saying the notification process couldn't be speeded up (I've had nothing to do with the results or how they are communicated after the board completes), but I do thing the personal notification afforded non-screened members is important and should not be compromised just for the benefit of getting good news out faster.

As for the detailing piece, while I've worked with and around the Pers-42 detailers I've never actually done the job, so I hesitate to throw stones. What I do know is that, right or wrong, officer detailing can be the most mind-numbing juggling trick ever created. On the one hand you have a slate of billets opening in a certain window and on the other hand you have a group of potential candidates. Besides all the balancing of technical scores between CO/XO/Eng to which Joel alluded, you also have overall wardroom balancing. For example, if you have a boat with a new Nav it may be worthwhile to slide a former Nav XO in there. Add into this every CO and Commodore calling and making their own personal requests for whom they want for which job, not to mention the various Admirals with their golden boys. Compound that with ever-changing priorities and vital shore billets that must be filled, continually changing the manpower availability and you've got a bit of the idea. As for Skippy's comment about the enlisted job selection system (JASS), I'd love to see a similar visibility for the Officer billets, but the reality is that the higher you go the more that "the needs of the Navy" are invoked for where you need to go. The market forces will basically level the competencies of most ships' sailors and petty officers, but Pers-42 must retain the ability to place a particularly strong officer into a specifically weak Wardroom when it needs to do so. Again, I'm not offering a blanket defense of the system, as I do believe greater transparency and self selection can work and ease the detailer burden, but there is a valid reason for the control exerted.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?