Recently, a high school student contacted me because she had questions about racism in America. Specifically, she wanted to interview me for a school project on the topic of institutional racism.
Institutional racism is a tricky subject, and I did my best to introduce her to the complexities and nuances of something that often flies under the radar. Many white Americans are unaware of the issue, or have trouble understanding it if they are aware. And so after I answered her questions, I decided to re-print our Q&A.
Here is my conversation with a high schooler about racism in America.
Thank you very much for helping me with my project by taking the time out of your day to answer a few of my questions on the following questions/topics.
How do you define institutional racism? And how prevalent would you say it is in modern North American society?
We normally associate racism and bigotry with the intentional actions of an individual or group of people. But institutional racism is the result of larger social forces that can be difficult to detect. Instead of one person or a few people doing or saying something racist, institutional racism comes about when society at large expresses racism in more subtle and impersonal ways. Continue reading Talking to a High School Student about Racism
Five and a half years after its initial launch, this site is receiving a substantial update for the first time. Some of it is aesthetics, with new colors, imagery, and font. Some of it involves updating content.
The “Pages” at the top of the site (eg. “Me” and “Books I Done Written”) are not only renamed, but also updated. Click inside and see.
In addition, I’ve added two new pages: “Books I Might Write” and “CV.” The former contains brief overviews of book projects I’m working on. Beyond the infamous Communities book that was responsible for launching this site but has yet to see the light of day, there are also working manuscripts on music and misadventures from the road. The “CV” page contains my Curriculum Vitae, which is what professors call their resumé. Is our pretentious Latin name for it better than your pretentious French name for it? Who knows. The bottom line is, we’re all pretentious.
P.S. Yes, I’ll keep blogging here on the front page. If you’d like to sign up for email notifications, or get them via Facebook or Twitter, that’s just to the right near the top of any page. Viva la blog! (That’s pretentious Spanish for, “None of this stuff ends up on my resumé.”
After 9 weeks and 9,000 miles, I made it home yesterday evening. Last night I slept in my own bed for the first time since August.
The research end of the trip was very successful and I hope to return to South Dakota and Nebraska in the spring to spend more time in the archives.
On a more personal level, I must thank all of the friends and family who opened their homes to me during this grand voyage. Continue reading Thank You
This past Monday I hoisted my 500th post to this blog.
Wow, that went fast.
My first post was only three and a half years ago.
But while 500 in 45 months is a testament to what at times has been a dizzying pace, there are also signs that I’m slowing down, at least for now. And so I thought this benchmark might be a good opportunity to take stock of the website.
Back in 2010 I was looking for a way to market a book manuscript about the decline of American communities. My friend/agent at the time (he’s still a dear friend, though no longer my agent) alerted me to the harsh realities of modern publishing. The industry had been ravaged by the internet and that creepy monopolist Jeff Bezos. It was harder than ever for a first time author to get a book deal.
Yes, yes, I had already written an award-winning book, but it was an academic book, based on my doctoral dissertation and geared towards a scholarly audience. That kinda stuff didn’t count. In the commercial world I was still a first time author. And first time authors needed to build their own audience ahead of time, my agent/friend told me. You had to prove to publishers that you had a loyal following that could be counted on to buy your book.
“Get on the internet and make some noise,” my friend/agent suggested.
For the record, my dear friend is arguably even less technologically inclined than I am.
How would I get on the internet? How would I “make some noise?” Neither of us actually had a clue.
Around this time, I’d been talking to another dear friend out in California. Rae had been generous enough to not only read the book manuscript in question, but she had also offered very insightful feedback. And it also just so happened that Rae knew a little bit about making noise. Continue reading State of the Blog Address: My 500th Post
I got Poopster when trading in a cat named Muck Muck. I’d adopted Shango and Muck Muck together. Shango was a bold charmant until the day he died. Muck Muck was nuts, not suitable as a pet. The final straw came when, for no discernable reason, he bit the woman I was living with at the time. It was bad. She was bed ridden for two days as the infection spread north from her ankle. One of those things where if they hadn’t invented anti-biotics yet, she might’ve lost the leg.
In my way of thinking, the best thing would be to turn Muck Muck loose. He probably wouldn’t last long on his own, particularly where I lived in the Bronx at the time, but he’d have a fighter’s chance. Instead, however, I decided to return him to the place I’d gotten him and Shango a couple of weeks earlier: the ASPCA in Harlem near Lexington Avenue.
That was in 1995. The Harlem ASPCA was a hard place. Rows and rows of cages stacked one atop another in room after room. I felt no remorse when I told them he wasn’t worth saving. I figured, as fast as they’re killing animals, why should he get a reprieve? Let some other cat live another day instead.
For the trade-in they suggested a female kitten from a litter they’d just received. Two and a half months old, gray and white. “She’s very sweet,” the woman told me. We put her in the complimentary cardboard cat carrier, and I took the train back to the Bronx. Continue reading In Memoriam: Poopster
I have a buddy who, some time around May starts asking: “Well professor, you about done yet?” He smiles, the twinkle in his eyes suggesting that he is at once jealous of my upcoming summer vacation, and also of the opinion that I am not worthy, that I am a privileged professor, not working as hard as “regular people” with “real jobs,” and am undeserving of this annual respite.
It doesn’t matter how many times I explain it to him. People believe what they want to believe.
There are various stereotypes and misperceptions about college professors, and his is a common one. It stems from the mistaken belief that we are an elite version of K-12 teachers. We are not. And when I say this, I mean it with only the utmost respect for teachers, including my mother, who taught high school English for three decades. In no way do I mean to rank professors above teachers. Rather, I am merely pointing out that, while there is some overlap between the two professions, they are most decidedly not the same job.
Teachers are called teachers because that is by far and away most of what they do. They teach. That includes not just time spent in the classroom with students, but also everything that goes into it outside the classroom, from the hard work of preparing lessons to the mundane task of grading papers and exams. All of it constitutes teaching. Continue reading Summer Hours
Q: You are an expert on Native American history and culture, particularly the Lakotas of the Northern Plains. Are there any correlations between the disintegration of Indigenous American communities and community at large?
Reinhardt: Many of the Europeans who came to, conquered, and settled the Americas in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries brought with them some very heavy cultural baggage. They were very accomplished and there were certainly many things to admire about them, but they weren’t perfect. In general, they were intensely ethnocentric, meaning they viewed their beliefs and their ways of doing things as THE way of believing and doing. Of course, they didn’t always agree among themselves, but most of them had just about zero tolerance for foreign belief systems and life ways. To use modern terms, they were about as hostile to ideas like “diversity” and “multi-culturalism” as you could possibly get. I’m not exaggerating when I say that people like the Spanish Conquistadors of the 16th century or the English Puritans of the 17th century make Rush Limbaugh look like a flaming liberal. To them, Indians were literally Devil worshipers, as in they believed Indian religions to be the work of the Devil Himself. And on more secular issues, they simply considered anything that Indians did differently to be a sign of savagery and inferiority. No matter that in certain areas, such as agronomy and astronomy, Native Americans were light years ahead of Europeans. For example, when Europeans were still arguing about whether the Sun circled the Earth or the Earth circled the Sun, Indians of Central America were intricately charting the movements of heavenly bodies, and they had developed a combination lunar/solar calendar that was more accurate than the Gregorian calendar that Europeans developed and the rest of the world now uses. For many Europeans, the ethnocentric bias was so strong that it was blinding.
As Europeans and their descendants competed with Indians for control of the Western hemisphere, that competition reinforced such biases. And so in many cases, and always in what was to become the United States, it wasn’t enough to take Indians’ lands and destroy their governments. Beyond that, cultural genocide had also become a goal by the mid- to late-19th century, and it remained a central part of federal Indian policies until the 1930s. Even after that, it took another couple of generations for the popular, mainstream culture to start accepting Indian cultures as legitimate or even acceptable (That the pendulum swung back the other way to New Age romanticism is another issue entirely I won’t go into here). The upshot is that Americans tried very hard to destroy Indian communities and remake Indian people into individual Americans. One of the ironies, however, is that part of this attack included the creation of reservations and the sequestering of Indian populations on those reservations, which in some ways helped to strengthen Indian communities, giving them something to work with in the face of tremendous persecution. There are several hundred different reservations, each with its own history, and in fact the majority of today’s Indigenous people don’t live on them, so it’s impossible to generalize. But in some cases, strong arguments can be made that certain reservations are still communities, or maintain certain community features.
Q&A with the Public Professor – 1.5
Reinhardt: Social media like Facebook, Twitter, and a number of others are of course “community-oriented,” but that doesn’t make them vessels for actual communities. Think of it like this: a small town newspaper is “community-oriented,” but the newspaper itself isn’t a community, it’s just one very, very thin slice of it. An actual community is a social institution of much, much greater complexity. It’s made up of hundreds, or even a few thousand people who live among each other and engage each other on wide range of levels. Community members interact through family, work, religion, education, politics, leisure, and commercial activities just to name a few.
Here’s another way to think about it. I wrote a book. I’ll be using Facebook to promote that book. And through that, Facebook has a very real connection to the book. But at the end of the day, it’s a very minor connection, and Facebook is not the book. The book is the book. Likewise, an actual community could use Facebook, or another online social media outlet as a tool for communication, and in that way Facebook would have a very real but, all things considered, very minor connection to the community. But that doesn’t mean we should confuse Facebook with the actual community it might be connected to.
My argument is that in America there are no more actual communities, and I end up defining social media like Facebook as surrogate communities: things that people now use to recreate in some ways the connectedness of an actual community, a replacement to fill in for missing communities. But that doesn’t make it an actual community. When used in that way, it’s a pale imitation.
Q&A with the Public Professor – 1.4
Reinhardt: Yes, community is relative to size. Since a community demands a basic level of familiarity and interaction among its members, there are limits to just how big it can grow, though an actual number would be impossible to come up with. And there are certainly many, many small towns all across America that are well within the size range of a community. But size isn’t the only defining element. Membership, proximity, mutual obligations and responsibilities, value systems, and a veritable raft of rules on proper and improper behavior and ideals are also defining elements of thriving, functional community. And by and large, today’s small American town have lost quite a bit of those elements.
A host of historical forces contributed to the disintegration of American communities over the last two-plus centuries. The way people live today is just radically different from the way they did in 1790, when the first U.S. Census came out shortly after the ratification of the Constitution. So changes in everything from economics, to education, to culture, to work, to family life, just to name a few, all put pressure on communities, contributing to their demise over a long stretch of time. Those conditions remain in place today, hindering even a small town’s ability to function as an actual community. Though of course the typical small American town would be much more like a community in many ways than a large city with millions of people or suburb with thousands of disconnected nuclear families. And as I say in the book: far be it from me to tell someone that their small town, that I’ve never been to, isn’t a real community. But I do talk about many of the historic and modern forces that have challenged and continue to challenge even a small American town’s ability to function as a historic community.