Posts tagged NPR

Aspirational History and the Color of American Citizenship

There’s a new political book out by E.J. Dionne, Norm Orenstein and Thomas E. Mann, called One Nation After Trump. Dionne and Orenstein went on Fresh Air the other day to talk about their book, their take and their hopes for a better political climate. Terry Gross asked them to speak a bit about one of the themes of their book — that part of what’s notable and different about Donald Trump and the political movement behind him, as opposed to past waves of right-wing politics, is the extent to which they have embraced ideas from the European far right.

That much is certainly true, and it’s worth noting. But what’s harder to go along with is Dionne’s effort to pivot from the influence of the European far right, into a countervailing political appeal to American patriotism. Here’s what Dionne says:

DIONNE: The idea that Bannon and Trump have imported ideas from the European far-right comes from the notion that there’s been a great historical difference between what it meant to be an American and what it meant to be a citizen in many European countries. . . . American citizenship has always been based on a commitment to ideas. It didn’t matter where you were from. It didn’t matter what the color of your skin was . . . .

–E.J. Dionne, interviewed by Terry Gross. Could The Trump Presidency Lead To An Era Of Democratic Renewal?
Fresh Air, NPR, 19 September 2017

This is just wrong. It would have been nice, and better for America and the entire world, if it had been true, but it’s flat-footedly and literally mistaken. In 1790, when Congress passed the first Naturalization Act in the U.S., the language of that act directly stated that it mattered what the color of your skin was: you had to be a free white person to qualify for naturalized American citizenship:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof, on application to any common law court of record, in any one of the states wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such court, that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law, to support the constitution of the United States, which oath or affirmation such court shall administer; . . .

— An Act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization (March 26, 1790)
United States Statutes at Large, First Congress, Second Session, 103ff. (Source: White By Law: Naturalization Act of 1790)

Whiteness was a condition not only for naturalization, but for both the rights and obligations of citizenship more broadly, at the federal level and at the state level. Skin color prerequisites, nearly identical to the federal prerequisite, were written even more pervasively into the state constitutions and legal codes of antebellum Southern states. For example, in Alabama, the same formulas made white skin color was an explicit prerequisite for the franchise and for political office. At the federal level, to take another example, in 1792 Congress said that the color of your skin (as well as your gender and citizenship) mattered to your eligibility, and obligation, to serve in the militia:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective states, resident therein, who is or shall be of the age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia by the captain or commanding officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this act.

— An Act more effectually to provide for the National Defence by establishing an Uniform Militia throughout the United States (May 8, 1792)
United States Statutes at Large, First Congress, Second Session, 271-274. (Source: White By Law: Uniform Militia Act of 1792)

Every amendment to the Naturalization Act passed from 1790 up until 1952 repeated the free white person formula, or a close variation on it. In 1870, in the wake of Emancipation and Reconstruction, there was a debate in the Senate over whether to remove the racial prerequisite from citizenship; but in the end the Reconstruction drive to wipe out the racial-law legacy of slavery ran up against the rising nativist sentiment against Chinese immigration in the West. And in the event, the bill that they passed never struck out the racial prerequisite; it just added aliens of African nativity and … persons of African descent as a second racial category that could be admitted. For the next 80 years, a series of prerequisite cases in the federal courts — beginning with In Re Ah Yup — repeatedly affirmed that skin color absolutely mattered to a person’s eligibility for American citizenship, and then litigated over and over again the sometimes porous legal and social boundaries of just who counted as white. (For example, Chinese and Japanese immigrants did not; Mexican immigrants did. For many immigrant groups, including Arabs and South Asians, different courts made numerous, sometimes inconsistent rulings. A good, standard reference on this series of cases is Ian F. Haney-Lopez’s White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race.) Gradually Congress added more racial groups in addition to white and black, but this basic framework — of a limited number of racial categories allowed to become naturalized citizens, and everyone else ruled ineligible to citizenship — remained the core of American naturalization law until racial bars were finally repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1952.

There is no question that for the first century and a half of its existence, the United States government was explicitly a racial state, and that race and skin color were explicit conditions on citizenship and political participation. This shouldn’t be surprising: before the Civil War, the United States was a slaveholding nation. After the Civil War, immigration exclusion and Jim Crow increasingly reinscribed systems of racial categorization into the law.

I hope it should go without saying that this is not any kind of argument in favor of race or skin color as a condition of citizenship. The fact that the United States had a long tradition of racially discriminatory citizenship laws isn’t any reason to think kindly of the traditional, white supremacist approach. It’s a reason to think worse of the United States government, and to be much more skeptical of traditional American patriotism. Whatever deeper values Dionne may think were present in the American system, at some other level, and however much he may think that the old racial prerequisite law was an aberration or an inconsistency, there is no way that you can reasonably pretend that It didn’t matter what the color of your skin was without substituting a sort of aspirational self-identity for the much messier historical fact.

Black Bottom

Here’s a story about Black Bottom LLC, in Detroit. If you don’t know this history, it is something that you ought to know. If you don’t know this group, then they are some folks you ought to check out.

Shared Article from

Who Fixes Detroit? Young Black Detroiters Want To Resurrect A Lo…

Black Bottom was once a vibrant black oasis in Detroit, till it was demolished for a freeway. Now, young black visionaries in Detroit are experimentin… (via Lester Spence)


Of course y’all are smarter than CIA agents

Shared Article from

So You Think You're Smarter Than A CIA Agent

When 3,000 average citizens were asked to forecast global events, some consistently made predictions that turned out to be more accurate than those ma…

Alix Spiegel @

For the past three years, Rich and 3,000 other average people have been quietly making probability estimates about everything from Venezuelan gas subsidies to North Korean politics as part of the Good Judgment Project, an experiment put together by three well-known psychologists and some people inside the intelligence community.

. . . For most of his professional career, Tetlock studied the problems associated with expert decision making. His book Expert Political Judgment is considered a classic, and almost everyone in the business of thinking about judgment speaks of it with unqualified awe.

All of his studies brought Tetlock to at least two important conclusions.

First, if you want people to get better at making predictions, you need to keep score of how accurate their predictions turn out to be, so they have concrete feedback.

But also, if you take a large crowd of different people with access to different information and pool their predictions, you will be in much better shape than if you rely on a single very smart person, or even a small group of very smart people.

The wisdom of crowds is a very important part of this project, and it’s an important driver of accuracy, Tetlock said.

According to one report, the predictions made by the Good Judgment Project are often better even than intelligence analysts with access to classified information, and many of the people involved in the project have been astonished by its success at making accurate predictions.

. . . There’s a lot of noise, a lot of statistical random variation, Tetlock said. But it’s random variation around a signal, a true signal, and when you add all of the random variation on each side of the true signal together, you get closer to the true signal.

In other words, there are errors on every side of the mark, but there is a truth at the center that people are responding to, and if you average a large number of predictions together, the errors will end up canceling each other out, and you are left with a more accurate guess.

That is the wisdom of the crowd.

The point of the Good Judgment Project was to figure out if what was true for the dead ox is true for world events as well.

It is.

In fact, Tetlock and his team have even engineered ways to significantly improve the wisdom of the crowd — all of which greatly surprised Jason Matheny, one of the people in the intelligence community who got the experiment started.

They’ve shown that you can significantly improve the accuracy of geopolitical forecasts, compared to methods that had been the state of the art before this project started, he said.

What’s so challenging about all of this is the idea that you can get very accurate predictions about geopolitical events without access to secret information. In addition, access to classified information doesn’t automatically and necessarily give you an edge over a smart group of average citizens doing Google searches from their kitchen tables.

–Alix Spiegel, So You Think You’re Smarter Than A CIA Agent (2 April 2014), NPR Parallels

It’s nice to see closer attention to this in ongoing research. It ought to be completely unsurprising to hear these results, though. The basics of the wisdom-of-crowds findings are well-established by now, even old hat. So it should not be surprising that when you let a lot of people look at a problem, they often do better than the predictions of official experts. If folks are still agog that jes’ folks might do better at predicting than spies with access to classified information, then it may be because they have too much of a science-fiction picture of how intelligence agencies actually work, and too much of a picture of intelligence agencies as omnicompetent, omniscient secret conspiracies — as if the most significant information for predicting world events were some secret world of deep, dark esoteric truths that are locked away in classified files, which give them some immense and systematic advantage over jes’ folks without access to such files. But that’s not how it works. The overwhelming majority of intel analysis has nothing to do with classified information in the first place; it has to do with the completely unsexy reality of systematically gathering publicly available information from foreign newspapers, television, statistical abstracts, etc. There’s no reason to think that privileged government experts have an advantage in doing that; the image of spy agencies as omniscient forces in control of secret wisdom has much more to do with politics than it does with practical reality.

(Via William Gillis.)

Authentic Mexican cuisine

If yesterday’s post on orange chicken (among other things) made you think that I’ve got whole rants ready to go about the ways that people talk about how people talk about Tex-Mex, taco shacks and authentic Mexican food, you — well, you might be right about that.

Let’s take an example of something that’s both real Mexican food and also real USAmerican food at the same time, no matter how much we may try to border off our cuisines into rigidly separated domains. Tamales are the Mexican food par excellance. They are also straight-up USAmerican food. They spread into the U.S. among agricultural workers in Texas and city street food in Los Angeles, San Antonio and Houston. During the early 20th century, tamales spread through migrant agricultural workers from east Texas into the Mississippi Delta, and went up the river, becoming popular (as red hots) in Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. Red hot tamales are USAmerican food. They’re so USAmerican they showed up in the blues as a metaphor for sex. But when corn-meal tamales, or chili con carne, or tacos, or fajitas, or other food products of northern Aztlan get brought up — especially when they are wrapped up in a cuisine category like Tex-Mex — there are always those who will insist that — because they are Texian, or because they are USAmerican, or because they are part of an immigrant community and a borderland — they somehow aren’t the same thing as Mexican food anymore.

But of course they are. Of course Tex-Mex is the same as real Mexican food. Mexico’s a big country — it’s so big that it even used to encompass Texas — and Mexican cuisine is the food eaten in Mexico and the food eaten by Mexicans as a whole, wherever they may be, not just the stuff that they happen to serve in the Distrito Federal, or in the parts of Mexico far away from the jurisdictional boundary with the U.S. People will insist that it’s important to distinguish Tex-Mex from the many other cuisines that you can find among Mexicans and the many other cuisines you can find within Mexico. And of course that is obviously true; and it’s not snobbish to insist on the point. But the snobbery — where it comes up — doesn’t come up in distinguishing distinctive cuisines. It comes in distinguishing them by putting down the food eaten on the periphery, or in the diaspora — which is what happens when, say, you privilege the food popular in the capital or in favored sub-regions, by calling that Mexican food proper (for example), and claim that the other cuisines are somehow less really or authentically or properly Mexican. This is part of what I was trying to get at a few years back when I wrote Whiteness studies 104: Class, cuisine, and authenticity:

See, the kind of Mexican food you’re used to doesn’t count as incredible cuisine because rustic cooking from border provinces doesn’t even count as a cuisine. Cuisine is what rich people in big cities who use gratuitous French loan-words eat. And the kind of food they make in northern Mexican states like Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California, and in former northern Mexican states like Alta California, New Mexico, and (especially) Tejas,[1] doesn’t count as real Mexican cooking either, because a bunch of farmers and cowboys and immigrants don’t count as real Mexicans. Only rich Mexicans who eat in gourmet restaurants in metropolitan Mexico City do.

In reality, part of the solution to Zwerdling’s puzzle may be that Estadounidenses had trouble with finding this incredible cuisine they supposedly have right across the border, seeing as how those Mexico City restaurants where people eat this kind of food aren’t right across the border; Mexico City is hundreds of miles away from the Rio Grande. If you go right across the border you’ll be somewhere like Juarez or Nuevo Laredo or a little border village, and they’ll be serving those swamps of refried beans … and melted cheese. But NPR-listening white folks in the U.S. of A. are expected to take the very local and peculiar cuisine of Mexico City to represent the real cuisine of the entire United States of Mexico, because NPR-listening white folks in the U.S. of A. have mostly come to believe that world food is arranged not by the messy clustering of ecological, economic, and cultural factors that actually influences how people eat, but rather by the basically military reality of discrete nations separated by fortified political borders. And, having come to believe that, we have mostly come to identify the authentic national cuisine of any given country with the preferences of the rich and powerful people sitting on the political, media, and mercantile centers inside those national borders — that is, the preferences of those who spend a lot of time eating cuisine, and little or no time growing or raising the food that goes into it.

What white people in the U.S.A. generally want, when they have the money to get it, is to eat like rich city people eat all over the world; different countries provide new brands, new spices, and, perhaps most importantly for the sort of white people who listen to NPR, new ways to distinguish yourself from the déclassé white people who don’t know or don’t like or can’t handle the real stuff. Perceived authenticity is the important thing here, and what’s perceived as authentic for any given country — and, therefore, fit for white people in the U.S. to eat — is determined not by culture, but by political economy and the orders of power and wealth.

— GT 2008-10-10: Whiteness studies 104: Class, cuisine, and authenticity

What I’d want to add on to the combo here would be: (1) to underline, again, the cultural twists and turns that Mexican food has made through the U.S. — the rapid spread of tamales from informal-sector street vendors, not only in coastal urban centers but also among (mostly black) workers up and down the Mississippi River valley; the development of mutant strains like the corn-meal tamal, the Sonora dog, and cinnamon-based Cincinnati chili; or, for that matter, the taco-shack fast-food cuisine that Authenticists love so much to hate. And then (2) to note how closely attitudes towards different varieties of Mexican food have been caught up, historically, not only in immigration politics and imperial ideology about nationality and ethnicity, but also in local struggles within U.S. cities over ownership of the cuisine — especially in struggles between informal-sector street vendors and small shop owners, on the one side, and newspaper recipe guides, cook-book authors, entrenched Chamber of Commerce restauranteurs, and other gatekeepers of commercialized culture, especially in northern Aztlan cities like San Antonio and Los Angeles.

And also (3) I’d want to mention some of the weird little ironies that have emerged from those conflicts over ownership when they take the form of local Tex-Mex (say) being deprecated in favor of white Anglophone-curated presentations of self-consciously, self-presentedly authentic Mexican cuisine — the sort of stuff that Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless specialize in.

Of course Kennedy and Bayless are very good cooks, and the culinary movements they’ve promoted have served a valuable role when they have helped introduce a wider variety of foods from central and southern Mexico, and when they have defended the possibility of taking Mexican food seriously as a carefully prepared cuisine. But their way of doing this has typically been systematically to rank down food from the borderlands and food from the diaspora; and to try and present the foods they privilege as authentic in ways that are really pretty elitist and exoticizing. Since part of their rhetorical goal is to distance themselves as much as possible from the over-familiar frontera food, the further you get from the U.S. border, the more authentic the food supposedly gets, and Kennedy and Bayless in particular have developed a fairly strong tendency to disproportionately push distinctively local foods from the far southern states in Mexico — e.g. Yucatecan specialties — as type specimens of authentic Mexican food. Of course there is nothing wrong with getting interested in specialties from southern Mexico, but the irony here, which goes more or less completely unremarked in Authenticist food writing, is that historically a lot of people in the Yucatán and Chiapas do not consider themselves Mexican in the first place, and historically many have not wanted to be part of the Mexican nation-state. There’s a long history of cultural and political conflict between the central Valley and the southern periphery, and since so many view the Mexican political identity as an identity imposed on them by conquest and occupation, the writing often comes off just as if you had a cookbook describing colcannon and bhel puri as prime, typical examples of authentic British cuisine.

Of course, you could point out that one way or the other, southern dishes have come into Mexican cuisine, and they are as good a thing to explore as any. And you’d be right about that — just as you’d be right to say that northern Mexican dishes, border food and local developments within the Mexican diaspora have become an integral part of USAmerican cuisine. Food cultures naturally diffuse, develop, intermix and produce experiments, fusions, local traditions and local mash-ups. Making food has always been an activity both of care and also of boldness, of repetition and innovation at the same time and within the same dish. Cultures naturally diffuse, naturally grow inward and also reach outward. For all that they resonate with locale and community and language and place and social relationships and shared identities, they always overflow the lines that are drawn around them; culture does not neatly obey borders, or class divisions, and cultures (including food cultures) constantly experiment with, redefine, challenge, borrow, appropriate, re-use, re-make, erase, and rewrite the formations that they themselves are supposed to spring from. Authenticism is necessarily a bogus discipline because it begins by presuming that there is a unitary, hermetic, discoverable and conveniently identity-based food culture to be authentic to. Mexican food is the food of Mexico and of Mexicans wherever they may be, and it is no less complicated, no less multifaceted, no less riven with internal divisions, no less open to external contact and influence and experimentation, and no more confined to a single nation-state than are the people who make it and eat it. Fancy food from D.F. is real Mexican food. Street food from Michoacan is real Mexican food. Banana-leaf tamales from the far south are real Mexican food. Corn-husk tamales from San Antonio, burritos from the Mission District, tortilla soup, menudo, tacos from Roberto’s are all real Mexican food. Some of these are USAmerican food too. And we are all much richer and better for being open to the un-tidy, non-exclusive, profoundly human mess that cultures constantly make as they spread and flop all over the ridiculous lines that we try to draw on maps.

  1. [1]Because southern and central Texas were especially important to the development and spread of this kind of food, it’s often been tagged as Tex-Mex — although a lot of what gets tagged as Tex-Mex is really common to northern Mexico in general, and a lot of it comes in distinctive styles that come out of other old population centers, especially in California and around Santa Fe.

Wednesday Lazy Linking

<li><p><a href="">&quot;That Show By Those Hipster Know-It-Alls Who Talk About How Fascinating  Ordinary People Are&quot; <cite>Jesse Walker: Reason Magazine articles and blog posts.</cite> (2010-10-25)</a>. "Most of those broadcasters enjoy support from the government in one form or another (though not all of them do: WFMU is subsidy-free as well as commercial-free). But they're not a top-down project. They're a decentralized set of shows that seek funds where they can find them, and they could survive if the CPB were fully privatized. They might even do better, if the new CPB decided to spend less of its money on actual stations (which haven't always benefited when the corporation funds them) and more on independent producers." <em style="font-size: smaller">(Linked Monday 2010-10-25.)</em></p></li>
<li><p><a href="">WikiLeaks Removes the Cloak. David D'Amato, <cite>Center for a Stateless Society</cite> (2010-10-25)</a>. <q>Late last week, major media outlets announced, to the bated breath of the world, the latest disclosures of classified materials on the war in Iraq from Wikileaks. The documents — almost 400,000 files comprised mostly of the U.S. military’s daily field reports — detail a staggering civilian death toll and...</q> <em style="font-size: smaller">(Linked Monday 2010-10-25.)</em></p></li>
<li><p><a href="">Mantid of the week. Jill, <cite>I Blame The Patriarchy</cite> (2010-10-26)</a>. <q>Greetings from Spinster HQ, O ye commenters and readers of comments! The “Latest Blamer Invective” sidebar function upon which you have come to dote so warmly has experienced a warp core breach. Two female characters with names are discussing it, and should have it back online before the third act....</q> <em style="font-size: smaller">(Linked Tuesday 2010-10-26.)</em></p></li>
<li><p><a href="">At the bottom of the 178 countries Somalia scored 1.1, just. Captain Capitulation, <cite>eye of the storm</cite> (2010-10-26)</a>. <q>At the bottom of the 178 countries Somalia scored 1.1, just below Afghanistan and Myanmar (1.4) and Iraq (1.5). surely someone somewhere is actually worried about the fact that the countries we invaded and &#39;liberated&#39; are two of the four most corrupt in the world. we said we brought you this...</q> <em style="font-size: smaller">(Linked Tuesday 2010-10-26.)</em></p></li>