The troubled Sanger legacy: some thoughts on Planned Parenthood

Last week, the topic of Planned Parenthood — and its historically uneasy relationship with women of color — came up again. Feministing covered the story of what happened in Idaho; a caller pretending to be a white racist phoned in to the local Planned Parenthood office, offering a donation “because the less black babies, the better.” Instead of telling him off, the PP employee — who happened to be the VP of Development for Idaho — laughed nervously, but accepted the donation with the reply that the caller’s concern was “understandable.” Of course, the call was a set-up, done by a group of activists eager to expose what they believe to be a pattern of racist practices by the nation’s largest organization dedicated to ensuring access to reproductive care.

There was also a heated exchange, much of it now taken down, between blogger Apostate and Guyanese Terror (BlackAmazon). I’m trying to piece together what happened (having, as usual, come late to the debate) but it seems as if BlackAmazon made a brief reference to the racist legacy of Planned Parenthood, and that earned Apostate’s ire. Reading through the near-100 comments at Feministing, you can get a brief primer, replete with links, about the issue of Planned Parenthood and an-often problematic relationship with women of color.

I teach an introduction to women’s history course, as my readers know. I don’t teach a “great woman” theory of history, preferring instead to emphasize social and cultural developments that impacted women’s lives over the past four centuries. But I know that my students are hungry for heroes, and like many feminists, I offer Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) as one for the class to consider. Sanger, of course, coined the phrase “birth control” nearly a century ago. She founded the Birth Control League, which eventually morphed into Planned Parenthood. She played a key role in advocating for the development of oral contraceptives, and lived long enough to see Second Wave feminism flourish and the Pill hit the market. Arrested and jailed for her advocacy, she spent over half a century fighting for the fundamental right of women everywhere to be autonomous over their own flesh. It’s a stirring story. Continue reading

Ms. on Ward Connerly and affirmative action

The spring issue of Ms. Magazine will soon be available. One highlight of the upcoming issue will be a detailed and searing expose of Ward Connerly, the infamous anti-affirmative action crusader.

I haven’t blogged much about affirmative action here, though I have long supported it in both principle and action. In 1996, when Connerly succeeded in getting Proposition 209 on the California ballot, I was on the steering committee of the college’s campaign against the initiative. 209, which ended up passing by a fairly wide margin, struck a serious blow to outreach efforts across the Golden State. (Famously, the percentage of black and Latino students at UCLA and at Cal plummeted). Connerly repeated his California success in Michigan a decade later, with the “Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.”

The Ms. expose focuses on several aspects of Connerly’s career and mission. For one thing, his anti-affirmative action work has made him a very rich man; Ms. reports that Connerly receives well over $1.6 million per year from the non-profit anti-affirmative action charities he controls. (Most of the funding comes from the construction industry, which profits enormously when Connerly’s propositions ban the “minority set-asides” that level the playing field in bidding for government contracts.) As Connerly (who is, of course, partly of African-American ancestry) continues his fight against affirmative action, he makes a very nice living.

The damage done to women (both white and non-white) by Connerly’s movement is deftly explored in the new Ms. Continue reading

A note on white privilege

Thanks to Barry (Ampersand) the 16th Erase Racism carnival is up. It’s there I found a link to this powerful post from Naima: “It ain’t privilege, it’s injustice”. It begins:

a particular phenomenon in the immensely white Leftist circles at yale is a rhetorical and ideological obssession with the notion of White Privilege.

it is not uncommon to hear a white liberal campus organizer at yale say something along the lines of, “we white students at yale walk around enjoying a great deal of privilege because of the color of our skin – it is because of this privilege that we must work to uplift the citizens of new haven.”

…as a blactivist at yale, i have found it rare to emerge from an organizing conversation or meeting with a white peer without a guilt-stricken or self-righteous allusion to “White Privilege.”

I have a hard time believing that in 2007, any “white liberal campus organizer” would use the verb “uplift”, unless they did so with tongue planted firmly in cheek!

Still, I smiled when I read this. I had impeccable liberal credentials during my undergraduate years at Berkeley in the mid-1980s. My freshman year, I participated in anti-ROTC and “divest from South Africa” demonstrations. Later, I worked with groups that sought an ethnic studies requirement for graduation; that mandate was eventually put in place my senior year. In my ethnic studies classes (where I was often one of the only white men), I alternated between being adversarial and apologetic. Both served a purpose. When I was adversarial, I provided a helpful foil; when I was apologetic for my white privilege, I was demonstrating my good intentions, if nothing else.

I grasped quickly that white privilege manifested itself in a variety of ways. It had never occurred to me to question why it was that store managers never followed me around, worried that I would shoplift. It never occurred to me that it was unusual to have the first police officer to pull me over for speeding (when I was 17) address me as “sir” and let me off with a warning. It never occured to me that it was a huge confidence-booster to have most of my classes taught by professors who looked as if they could be my uncles or aunts. Realizing that the color of my skin gave me this unmerited privilege was eye-opening.

Of course, I quickly became adept — as many well-intentioned and earnest young white liberals invariably are — at bringing up my white privilege as often as possible. I said things like “I’m really becoming aware of how privileged I am” or “I never knew how many things I could take for granted because I was born with white skin.” I also began to believe that if I pre-emptively apologized for having this privilege, I could redirect the anger of “people of color” away from me and towards those “other white people”, the ones who weren’t as enlightened as I.

It’s almost axiomatic on college campuses that a significant percentage of white progressives are eager to expiate real or imagined guilt. One rather simple (and to many people of color, exasperating) way for white people to prove their progressive bona fides (and get rid of that pesky guilt) is to throw some acknowledgement of their own white privilege into virtually every sentence. It’s similar to what some young men do when they first start discovering feminism. These anti-racist newbies (of which I surely once was one) imagine that approaching virtually ever situation with an “I’m sorry” on their lips is one road towards the acceptance they crave.

The problem is that many young white liberals value expiating their own guilt over really getting rid of race-based privilege. Naima:

if the world were organized by “White Privilege” rather than “Racism,” a police officer might be especially kind to white people while nonetheless providing people of color with legal protection, aid, fairness under the law.

and so the white Leftists who think they are down because they have got the courage to lamentably declare, “We’ve got White Privilege,” it would be more accurate and truthful to say instead, “We are beneficiaries of racism,” or “We participate in a racialized system of oppression.”

how much more reluctant is the race conscious white activist to admit that his “privilege” has a consequence, that his whiteness is more than merely a personal reality about his own social power but is also an agent of violence.

Bold emphasis mine. That was me for a very long time. Talking about one’s own “white privilege” and, better yet, claiming to “renounce” it (as if that were genuinely possible), is immensely satisfying. It’s also more than a little self-centered. Reading this post, I’m reminded that all too often, the language of “white privilege” serves to re-center the discussion of racism away from its victims and back on to the sensibilities of the privileged and the powerful.

I don’t make apologies for my cultural whiteness any longer (see my “Happy White Boy” and first OKOP post on that subject). But of course, no one was ever asking me to apologize for preppiness or a long-term subscription to Town and Country. What the activists of color I’ve worked with have asked me to do is, first of all, be honest as North Star asks the white Yalies to be honest. It’s not enough to cop to white privilege — we who benefit from that privilege do so at the expense of others. In this case, privilege is a zero-sum game.

And of course, the real problem is that talking endlessly about “white privilege” reinforces its power. Endlessly lamenting something you think you wish you didn’t have simply makes it seem all the more potent.

Black women, white men

I’m tired this Friday afternoon. I was supposed to do my Eaton Canyon to Mt. Wilson summit run this morning (a 19 miler, all hard trail, a mile’s worth of elevation climb) but ended up breaking off the ascent a little before the top. I still logged 16 miles, but it’s been a long time since I didn’t finish what I set out to do. Not how I wanted my first long run since turning 40 to turn out, but on the other hand, it’s evidence of wisdom that I didn’t push through my exhaustion and end up making myself sick.

I’m behind on a variety of projects, and I’m hoping to catch up this weekend. It’s my wife’s birthday tomorrow, however, and we have a variety of happy things planned. I won’t let my various other obligations stop me from honoring my most important commitment.

Speaking of my wife, someone sent me a link to this blog: Black Female Interracial Marriage. Evia hosts the blog, and describes herself and her project:

I’m an African-American woman. My blog explores my interracial marriage to a white American man and offers provocative commentary, discussions, articles, and media regarding intraracial and interracial relationships and marriage options for black women.

Evia is interested in discussing black female/white male relationships, and her blog provides an astonishing list of links to famous (and not-so-famous) marriages and relationships that fit that racial model. The discussion in her comments section gets rather heated from time to time, but her posts — and the comments — are worth the read.

My gorgeous soon-to-be-another-year-older wife is of mixed African, Colombian, and Croatian ancestry. She’s got as much claim to the title of “African-American” as, say, Barack Obama. No, folks, you don’t get a picture; I zealously and faithfully guard my wife’s privacy at her request. I briefly blogged about the racial dynamics of our marriage here.

Given that race has been a hot topic in feminist blogging circles lately, I thought linking to Evia’s blog was a good way to finish out the week.

See y’all Tuesday.

The Shirley Chisholm model: some thoughts on feminism and racism

So I’ve been thinking — hasn’t everybody this week? — about the intersection of race and sex and the broader feminist movement. As I mentioned on Monday, a debate over the merits of Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism has metastasized into a painful and often bewildering discussion about the ways in which white feminists unintentionally marginalize the voices of women of color. I’ve linked to some of the posts on the subject; from more recent posts, here’s Brownfemipower’s, and here’s Sylvia’s.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the intersection of race, class, and gender in American history and contemporary society. Though it doesn’t always show, I’ve read a book or three on the subject and sat through, gosh, dozens of seminars and symposia. I’m old enough to have read the first edition of This Bridge Called my Back not long after it initially appeared.

But I’ll admit that for most of my life as a pro-feminist man, I’ve worried that too great a focus on the Great Crime of racial oppression in this country meant a marginalization of what I grew up believing was the Even Greater Crime of the exploitation of women. My mother was a huge Shirley Chisholm fan, and supported the first black congresswoman’s famous 1972 campaign for the Democratic nomination. Chisholm, who died in 2005, was often asked whether she considered her sex or her race to be the greater obstacle to her success. She was unequivocal in her response, quoted from the New York Times obit:

I’ve always met more discrimination being a woman than being black,” she told The Associated Press in December 1982, shortly before she left Washington to teach at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men.”

Bold emphasis mine. I remember reading the original quote from Chisholm in the early 1980s; I think my mother may have brought it to my attention. I can’t tell you how formative Chisholm’s frank discussion of the race/sex dynamic was for me. Though I ought to have known better than to allow one remarkable black woman’s words to form my entire world view on which “ism” constituted the greater oppression, I have to say that for the last quarter century, whenever the discussion of the racism/sexism dynamic comes up, I immediately quote the lines above.

Anecdotally, I will say that most of my female students of color nod their heads vigorously when I share — as I almost always do — the Shirley Chisholm story. Most of my students today were born more than a decade after Shirley ran for president, and yet their experience of both racism and sexism has left many of them convinced that while both have tremendous power to hurt, the latter has served as the far greater impediment to their full acceptance as human beings. Those who think Shirley Chisholm is describing a different era than our own (an era where Stokely Carmichael could say that the “proper position for a woman in the movement is prone”) ought to come and listen to the stories told by the young women of color I have in my classes.

I recognize that to be doubly or even triply-oppressed is difficult. On campus, all of our student groups meet at the same time each week: Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon. An aspiring white feminist will have less trouble choosing how to spend that hour; since her sex is the only source of her marginalization, she’s fairly likely to choose a women’s group. A young woman of color may experience more conflict: what to do when the Black Students Association or MEChA meets at exactly the same time as a feminist forum? The sense I’ve gotten is that many of my young women of color feel at times that they are being forced to choose between two parts of themselves, and that hurts. Their “brown brothers” are oppressed for their brownness, not their maleness; their “white sisters” are held back for their sex, not their whiteness. When you’ve got one single hour per week to spend with one single group, when you’ve got just one dollar to give to your club of choice, choosing between brothers and sisters is hard.

And yes, I know that well-meaning white feminists can be unconsciously racist. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had a young white woman in my classes make disparaging remarks about Latino machismo, for example. My Latina students frequently squirm; they recognize much truth in what their white classmate is saying, but they feel protective and defensive about their brothers, their fathers, their heritage. Too often, white feminists overtly or obliquely ask women of color to turn their backs on what white feminists assume is a culture so steeped in misogyny that it cannot possibly be redeemed.

What I’ve realized from the whole kerfuffle over Jessica’s book is that I continue to let my views on the race/sex/class intersection be formed almost entirely by the “Shirley Chisholm analysis.” I think Chisholm was telling the truth about her own experience, and I think that her experience is still that of the majority of young women of color in contemporary American society. 1972 and 2007 are far less different than some folks would have you believe. But where I’ve gone off track is in my insistence that we keep the focus of our justice work more narrowly focused on gender oppression, assuming that in the end, all women regardless of race or class or sexual identity or physical ability are marginalized and mistreated in more or less the same way. After more than twenty years of reading (and teaching) Anzaldua and Lorde and hooks and Moraga, I ought to know better.

Note: Comments that are either overtly racist or overtly anti-feminist will be deleted.

A note on language, misogyny, and Don Imus

I have very little to add to the discussion of the Don Imus controversy. I’ve been reading what everyone else has to say, and though many wise and good points are being made by many wise and good people, a couple of posts I’ve seen jump out at me.

From last Friday, here’s dNA’s piece at Halfrican Revolution: White Supremacy Outsources its Vocabulary. (H/T Pam at Pandagon).

It is impossible to understand our current ease with sexism in the public sphere, especially towards black women, especially over the issue of hair, without discussing the spread of Hip-hop… Hip-hop has granted black men greater access to white women. It has also granted white men greater access to black women; make no mistake, your teenage son, little brother, or husband is tuning into the “booty channel” (also known as Black Entertainment Television) when you’re not home. The attitude towards women in mainstream Hip-hop is that women are commodities, an attitude that mimics attitudes towards gender in greater American society, a fact made obvious by any beer commercial.

What has happened here is a subtle, unspoken agreement between black and white men that black women and their minds and bodies are owed as little respect as the minds and bodies of white women. This happens even as overt racism towards black men in the public sphere becomes more and more accessible. This happens because on some level, black men know we cannot be seen as men unless we effectively subjigate, commodify, and exploit black women.

A black man like dNa can say that in a way that I can’t.

Listening to right-wing talk radio yesterday, I heard a few folks doing their best to deflect attention from Imus by attacking the degrading portrayal of women in hip-hop culture. I winced as I heard that, largely because the hosts (John and Ken here in Los Angeles) seemed less interested in defending the dignity of black women, and more in absolving a fellow white male talk-show personality. But dNa’s words carry more weight, as do Pam Spaulding’s at Pandagon. This isn’t merely because dNa and Pam are African-American, though of course their heritage does give their words a special and undeniable legitimacy. It’s also because in the end, the most effective critiques of any cultural movement must come from within. When progressive black bloggers are willing to draw a connection between Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” remark and the larger issue of the degradation of black women in both hip-hop and mainstream culture, then we’re arriving at a teachable moment.

Audre Lorde, surely one of the great feminist writers of the last half-century, famously remarked that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Words like “bitch”, “ho”, and yes, “nigger” (in any of its myriad spellings) are words first uttered by the masters; they are words that cannot be redeemed. It is a terrible illusion to imagine that authentic empowerment can ever come by appropriating the language of the oppressor. The attempt by some feminists to use words like “bitch” and “cunt” in a positive light only ends up giving misogynists a sense of entitlement to keep on using them. The ubiquitous use of racial slurs by hip-hop artists gives the Don Imuses of the world cover. It gives them permission. It makes the utterly indefensible seem less egregious, largely because hip-hop has done such a good job of deadening our sense of outrage. (This of course, is antithetical to what hip-hop was supposed to do: I may know more about the history of bluegrass than of rap, but wasn’t hip-hop supposed to arouse righteous indignation? Wasn’t it supposed to be a soundtrack of liberation?)

Unlike most folks weighing in on this controversy, I was a fan of Rutgers basketball long before their wonderful Final Four run. I’ve been a C. Vivian Stringer fan for years. From a basketball standpoint, I consider her one of the five greatest coaches in the history of the women’s game (my other four: Summitt, Auriemma, Barmore, Conradt. Goestenkors needs a few more years). She’s certainly the greatest coach currently working who hasn’t yet won a national title. I loved her team’s improbable run through the tournament; the defensive job they did on LSU in the semi-final was a thing of beauty.

I watched the tape of the Rutgers press conference yesterday. I saw and heard the pain in these young women’s voices. And I saw and heard that this multi-racial team was hurt far more by the “ho” word than by “nappy-headed.” Two quotes that stuck out for me:

One player, Kia Vaughn, said that unless a “ho” is defined as someone who has achieved a lot, Imus misspoke.

“I’m not a ho,” the sophomore said. “I’m a woman and someone’s child. It hurts. It hurts a lot.”

..(Essence) Carson, like her teammates, also talked about good that could come from the controversy.

“We can finally speak up for women. Not just African-American women, but all women,” the junior said.

Not just African-American women, but all women. Good on you, Essence Carson. Good on you for your dignity and your athletic prowess, and good on you for seeing that at its core, the real evil in Imus’ words lay in their misogyny.

I don’t much care whether Imus is fired or not. But during his two-week suspension (which certainly seems minimally appropriate), let me suggest we all go through a similar period of self-reflection. Let’s think about the words we use, the music we listen to, the casual insults we allow our friends to slip out unrebuked. Let’s suspend — for the length of the Imus suspension — the use of any media that uses degrading, hostile, soul-crushing language towards women.* Let’s not allow the skin color or the sex of the artist who uses the language to act as a shield from our criticism. What goes into our ears, what we sing along to in the car — it helps define who we are. We cannot compartmentalize; we cannot claim to live lives of justice and kindness while listening to a soundtrack of objectification and exploitation. We are what we eat, we are what we wear, we are what we listen to and watch.

And if you’ve never done it, consider going to support your local college women’s basketball team next year. At most levels, it’s more entertaining than the men’s game (and I’ve watched a hell of a lot of hoops in my day).

*NOTE: I’m making this commitment with my own musical choices. I just took the Guns n’ Roses song One in a Million off my Itunes shuffle. I have no love for hip-hop, but I love me some Axl Rose. Still, if we’re gonna lead by example…

A note about race and manners

A good weekend all around.  We went to see Venus last night; Peter O’Toole was indeed as terrific as advertised.  I enjoyed the film more than my wife did; as hostile as I generally am to older men-younger women romances, I bought the challenging, often squirm-inducing aspects of the story.  And I appreciated that it was surprisingly unsentimental.

I’m thinking this morning about handshakes, perhaps because I dreamt about them last night. 

Actually, I’m thinking less about handshakes and more about manners.  I grew up in a family in which manners were very much part of our civil religion.  “A gentleman always makes other people feel comfortable” was a central maxim of my childhood.  There was a good deal more about making others feel relaxed and welcomed than there was about “standing up for the truth”.  Our kind of people could hold a wide variety of views on religious and political matters, but OKOP always were raised to master the social graces.  (My dear uncle Stanley, a noted Communist and philosopher whose work is still widely read, regularly went to meetings of the radical left dressed impeccably in a Brooks Brothers suit.  He could betray his class,  but not his upbringing — if that makes any sense.)

In my childhood, we were regularly told that “if you have good manners, you can go anywhere.”  My grandmother told us that a gentleman (or a lady) should be able to have tea with the Queen in Buckingham Palace; a gentleman or a lady should feel equally at home on a stool in a dive bar in the Mission District.  “If you have lovely manners”, she told us, “you can go anywhere and fit right in.”  (I’ve sat on a lot of barstools in my nearly forty years.  I still await my invitation from Her Majesty, but my grandmother’s point is well-taken.)

I think manners popped into my head because I was also thinking about race, particularly after reading this article in yesterday’s paper about interracial relationships on television.  It’s an interesting piece about the ways in which the current crop of television depictions of interracial romances tend to minimize or even ignore some of the very real pitfalls that such relationships can present.

I’m married to a woman who is of mixed ancestry; she can “pass” for white, black, or Hispanic.  Our children, when they are born, will be a glorious mix: indigenous Colombian,  Jewish, English, Scots-Irish, Croatian, Nigerian, German, Flemish, Welsh, Czech, Spanish.  And I can’t help but wonder whether or not they will they will appear “white”.  My love, of course, is not conditional on race or appearance.  But I know that we live in a world where perceptions about race can still be very powerful. I know that we live in a world where “blackness” is still charged with significance.  And I know that if my children appear to be black, they may face a certain set of obstacles in the world that they will not face if they more closely resemble their European heritage.

What does this have to do with manners? In my family (which was entirely white in my childhood, much less so now), we were told again and again that “if you have good manners, people will welcome you anywhere you go.”  I’ve been to five continents and most corners of this country, and I’m happy to say that my grandmother’s words have proved true.  But I also know that folks around the globe notice my pale blue eyes before they notice my manners.  I have had friends very close to me whose skin is darker than mine and whose easy graciousness surpasses my own.  They have not always had the welcomes I have had. 

I will teach my children many of the lessons I learned.  We will work on chewing with the mouth closed; we will learn to master increasingly complex table settings.  We will learn that the key to good party manners is not being interesting, but being interested.  We will definitely devote several hours to handshake instruction, teaching that firm, polite grip that avoids the twin disasters of the “dead fish” or the “bonecrusher.”  And if they’re like their father was, my children will find the lessons boring and exasperating at the time they are taught; they will come to be immensely grateful for them.  And oh God, how I hope that they will live in a world where whatever their outer appearance, those manners will serve them well and cause them to be welcomed wherever they go.

And just maybe, they’ll get invited to Buckingham Palace.



A very long post about Los Angeles, an Eagles song, nationalism, history, self-reinvention and the “club versus country” debate

A week ago Sunday, my buddy Leo and I ran up the El Prieto trail and the Brown Mountain fire road. Though we’re usually part of a larger group, we were alone that day. Leo was recovering from a marathon, and I was feeling well-rested, so I was actually able to keep up with him for a change. (In his late 50s, Leo still regularly runs marathons just above the three hour mark and has finished his share of 50 and 100-mile races).

We talked about books, history, ideas. When I run with some friends, we talk about love and marriage and family; when I run with others, I argue politics or theology. A few friends, like Leo, are interested in all of these topics and more. In an early morning chill, we began by reflecting together on the burden of the past.

Leo was born just after the Second World War into a Polish refugee family. He was raised in West Germany. Much like my late father, a dozen years his senior, Leo has that sense that many war refugees have — a sense of never quite belonging, a sense that perhaps at any moment, he might have to pack his bags and leave again. My father, born in Vienna, raised in rural Berkshire, spent nearly fifty years of his life in California without ever truly feeling at home here. He didn’t feel fully at home in Austria or England either. Leo and my Dad knew each other, and were fond of each other. When I got married a year and a half ago, they spoke German together at our wedding.

But we didn’t just talk about my Dad or about Leo’s similar sense of not quite belonging. We talked about the San Gabriel Mountains we both love so much. As we neared the Brown Mountain summit, I said to Leo “Isn’t it interesting to think we are the only members of our family ever to be here? None of our ancestors ever stood where we are standing right now.”

“Yes”, Leo replied, “it’s liberating.”

And I’ve been thinking about that for nine days now. I’m a historian by trade, of course; I have devoted my scholarly and professional life to the study of the past. I’m a dual national, holding a UK passport, and am a regular visitor to the land that gave my father’s family shelter and the land my brother calls home. I love to visit what some folks call “old places”, filled with a rich sense of history. When I tramp through the hills of Devon, or run through the streets of Vienna, I feel as if I am surrounded by ghosts. Not evil spirits, mind — just an extraordinary cloud of witnesses of all who have lived and died in these places. And when I am in those places where my ancestors lived, I feel the weight of their fears and their hopes and their expectations all around me. It’s not always unpleasant, but it’s always there.

Even when I go home to Northern California, I feel surrounded by a sense of family history. On my mother’s side, my family came to the Bay Area for the Gold Rush more than a century and a half ago. We’ve had a country place in the hills northeast of San Jose since Rutherford Hayes was president; by the standards of this state, that’s some ancient history. My maternal great-grandfathers both went to Berkeley, and when I was a student at Cal nine decades later, I felt them all around me. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is a wonderful feeling to feel so connected to a place. But at other times, it is exhausting in ways I find difficult to describe.

What makes me a Los Angeleno in my mindset is my fascination with self-reinvention. I love that I am surrounded by hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, who call somewhere else their truest home — but have nonetheless come here, to this basin with its beaches and valleys and hills — in order to start something new. They’ve come here to escape the burdens and obligations of the past, the sort that linger in the old places even after the old people have gone. They’ve come here to escape the “things are the way they are” mindset. They’ve come here to replace the fatalism and superstition of the old places with a relentless optimism about their own potential and the possibility of global transformation. They’ve come here to get away from the ghosts of Holocausts and World Wars and rigid class distinctions. They’ve come here to run on mountain trails upon which their ancestors never set foot.

(I’m listening to the Eagles “The Last Resort” right now on Itunes. Appropriate.)

As I’ve said, I love to visit the old places. My doctorate is in medieval history, for heaven’s sake; I spent many happy hours doing research in the shadow of my favorite building in the western world, Durham Cathedral. But it’s not just the damp and gloom of old Europe that makes me glad I live in this sprawling, metastasizing megalopolis. It’s the sense that I always get in the old places that humans and animals are limited and constrained by the story of the past. (As the Eagles sing in the song to which I’m listening: “where the Old World shadows hang heavy in the air.”) Their sense of themselves is related not only to place, but to the past story of the place. And just below the surface, there often bubbles a raw xenophobic nationalism that I find fascinating but repugnant.

Leo and I talked a lot about nationalism and place and history. We both love soccer, and we both are World Cup fans who go pretty nuts every four years. But especially after this last World Cup, I’ve begun to have some misgivings about “country” based sporting events. In professional football of the world kind, one great conflict that always comes up is the “club” versus “country” debate. When English players are playing for Premiership teams and training for a major international event, it’s hardly feasible for them to be 100% present for both sets of obligations. (Think of how angry folks in Newcastle are over the injury that an overworked and exhausted Michael Owen sustained last summer while playing for England in Germany.) The traditional wisdom is that athletes should put country over club, national pride over transitory professional obligations. I disagree completely.

I watched the England-Portugal World Cup quarterfinal match last summer in a state of grief and rage. My father, whose family had been rescued from Hitler by English generosity, had died days earlier. And England played a piss-poor match that they deserved to lose. But I, a dual national in SoCal, found myself working myself up into a nationalistic frenzy while watching the game. Under my breath, I said several embarrassing things about the entire Portuguese nation; my rage at a certain Cristian Ronaldo turned quickly into a temporary fury at all things Lusitanian. I calmed down within minutes, but from reading the BBC’s message boards after the game, I know that others were not so restrained. The racist bile that flowed last summer was appalling.

I’ve decided I prefer “club” soccer now. Though I am no fan of Manchester United, I love that Wayne Rooney and his nemesis, Ronaldo, play together. I love seeing a Premiership side take the pitch with eleven players with nearly as many passports. In the mercenary act of playing for pay rather than for national pride, these men do more to advance the cause of peace and understanding than they do when they wear their country’s jerseys on a global stage. Even when nation-based matches are played with mutual respect between the players, the fans themselves are often whipped into emotional frenzies in which ancient bigotries suddenly and shockingly reemerge.

I have my allegiances in sports. I “hate” the Dallas Cowboys. I “hate” Arsenal (of the London clubs, I support Spurs). But those aren’t ethnic hatreds. To put it bluntly, there’s a world of difference between cursing “those f-ing Gunners” after another loss in the North London derby, and cursing “those f-ing wogs” after England loses to a nation whose players (for the most part) have much darker skin than those who wear three Lions on their chests. Club rivalries have notoriously led to violence, but not to wars. In a club rivalry, you shout insults at another fan because of what he wears; in national rivalries, you shout insults because of who he is. There’s no question that the latter is more dangerous. (Now, OKOP don’t shout insults. Our disappointment is subdued, masked, drowned behind thin smiles and private tears. NOKOP rage is public, ours is sublimated.)

(Parenthetical aside: One of the things I love about Los Angeles: we don’t have an NFL team. Here’s an American football fan hoping we never get one! How delicious to live in a city where everyone’s allegiances are elsewhere! I get a smug satisfaction from living in a place that doesn’t need a team to call its own, but can rely on quirky whims to select which club to root for. My youth group kids are holding a Super Bowl party; some will root for the Colts and others for the Bears, but their allegiances are based on uniform colors or affection for a particular player rather than a loyalty to place. I like that.)

But even as I write this this morning, I know better than to claim that I live beyond history. My fascination with “personal growth” and transformation, my longing for new beginnings, my personal narrative of starting over — this is part of my own family’s legacy. What prosperity and success we have had comes from good luck (we got here first and stole more), but also from something that may be coded into our DNA: a longing to go further and further west. Pioneers and survivors are in my blood; I am descended from those who were willing to leave rather than stay. (This brings to mind a snippet from a Caedmon’s Call song: “I come from a long line of leavers.”) I am descended from those whose fascination with the new trumped their loyalty to the old. It would be hubris to suggest that I am the first in a long line to want to start over somewhere new, to liberate myself from old rules and old obligations and old animosities.

Leo and I had a good run that Sunday. And yes, we talked about all of this and more.

Race, class, Halloween, and the old Hyundais on Prospect Avenue

I’m gonna push a button or two with this one:

Tuesday afternoons, I meet with Stephanie,  my Pilates trainer, at 5:30PM.  After she and I finish up, I usually do a short run around the Rose Bowl and through some of the streets that constitute the "rim of the bowl" in the Arroyo Seco.  Last night, of course, was Halloween, and so I found myself running through the streets negotiating my way through hordes of little trick-or-treaters.

The area immediately south and east of the bowl is a wealthy one; some of the most beautiful and historic Craftsman houses lie on Prospect and Grand Avenues.  Normally at 7:45 on a Tuesday night, the streets are quiet.  But last night, there were cars honking and children squealing and flashlights flashing.   Many of the houses on these most expensive of streets were decked out in the most complex and spectacular Halloween finery — ghosts hung from trees, stereos blasted spooky organ music, huge carved pumpkins dotted the manicured lawns and walkways.

The cars gave it all away.  The trick-or-treaters on Prospect Avenue were driven in by their parents.   Though ethnicity was difficult to discern in the dark while doing an up-tempo workout, the predominant voices I heard were all in Spanish. A street normally known for its Benzes and its Land Rovers was now dotted with aging Hyundais and Toyota pickup trucks.  The disparity between the homeowners who were opening their houses to little devils and princesses and the trick-or-treaters themselves was obvious and remarkable.

It’s an oft-discussed phenomenon in Los Angeles, and perhaps elsewhere: poorer folks in "rougher" neighborhoods would rather drive their kids several miles in order to take them trick-or-treating in more affluent, presumably safer residential areas.  Fear of crime is obviously one factor; prosperity another.  Buying loads of candy isn’t cheap; decorating a house really well takes more time, money, and energy than many working-class families may have.  The promise of safer streets and fuller bags stuffed with bite-sized Snickers bars is evidently irresistible. It certainly was last night as I ran along streets where the average recent sales price tops the $2 million mark.

Perhaps some strange, unspoken part of the social contract is at work here.  Pasadena is a race and class-stratified city, with great prosperity and genuine poverty within a stone’s throw of each other.  To put it bluntly, if on any other night huge numbers of people of color descended on the whitest and wealthiest of neighborhoods, banging on doors and making demands, the police department would be out in full riot gear before you could say "boo!" But on October 31, it’s understood that those who have much have a special obligation, an obligation not only to hand out candy but to go to great lengths to create remarkably elaborate spooky spectacles to entice and awe the little ones.  And they have one other obligation: the obligation to feign fear from the little monsters who come knocking, while suspending their very real fear of the dark-skinned, flashlight-toting parents who lurk at the gate.

On this one night, at least, no one asks the hulking teen from West Altadena, clad in his long white t-shirt, tattered blue hoodie, and baggy shorts that hang to the knees, what he’s doing on Prospect Avenue after dark.  It’s obvious what he’s there for: he’s got his little sister (Tinkerbell?) and even littler brother (an enchanting pirate?) by the hand as they toddle down millionaire’s row, each in full expectation of sugary welcome rather than bitter suspicion.

It was a short run last night through streets I know well.  But the memory of what I saw and heard will linger with me.