On Representation


I never thought much  about growing up in a place where black people played tennis. It just happened that my hometown happened to have the best public tennis facility in our area, so much that people from suburban areas would flock to our courts to play and practice with coaches our in town.

I think a lot about this, because I realized when I was in my late 20s that growing up where I did probably shaped much of my worldview in ways that being someplace else might not have. I’m not saying it was all perfect, it was far from that. But just the access to influences who didn’t just look like me, but who were a melange of characters who demanded excellence in different ways, helped shape my perspective because I wasn’t a stranger to black excellence. Not only that, it never occurred to me that there were jobs or things off-limits to me because growing up I saw black people who did everything. My first doctor was black, all of my school principals except one were black — my first elementary school principal was a black woman for 5 of the 6 years I was in that school.

Even the white teachers I had seemed to be hellbent on teaching us in ways that defied conventional expectations. We were reading Orwell in elementary school. We participated in activities like Odyssey of The Mind that took us away from our town and around the state and region to compete — and succeed at high levels.  When I lived  in distant places years later, it occurred to me at different times there were people who simply had never encountered a black person in a leadership position. Or a black dude who was the tech guy and not the basketball coach. I joke about this sometimes, but it really does matter. How people see  you doesn’t just affect how they treat you, it impacts the range of opportunities you’re offered and the ways people perceive your smarts because  they’re not quite sure how you got where you are — since they’ve never seen anyone doing what you’re doing.

That’s not my problem, though. And yet, it becomes my problem more often than now. It doesn’t excuse being less than excellent. Make no mistake, I’ve been afforded some fantastic mentors and people throughout my adult life who have seen things in me I had not yet seen in myself. They’ve supported my goals, encouraged me and tried to connect me to bigger and better things. Almost none of them looked anything like the people I grew up with.

I just felt the need to connect the dots on representation. I know some people look at “firsts” in 2016 and think even the mention of such things is a step backwards. “Why does it matter?” “Why can’t we just celebrate these accomplishments as Americans?” We can, but there’s an added joy to defying expectations, especially when there are structural barriers to many of the things that people still want to do today. Remember that successful might happen globally or nationally, but it starts locally.

Think of bridge trolls as gatekeepers. Every time you want to do something, there might be one person to determine whether you get to do it or not. Sure, you can go to another town but that takes time and money. Or find a private club that’ll accept you. Maybe it’s just finding someone who sees your ability and talent and is willing to nurture it. Success is measured in small distances, not big gaps, especially at the elite level. What separates the people who make it, is often a matter of timing and opportunity.

Whenever there’s some historic achievement where someone is mentioned to be the “first” to do something — specifically here in America — I often vacillate between being annoyed that we have to mention it and grateful that we live in a time where such barriers are falling.

I try to reflect on every moment  as if it’s penance to the people who  were denied access, who fought and broke rules and raised hell to give their forebears access to the opportunities they now enjoy freely.

Every time you hear “so and so is the first _____ to do _____,” it’s a little whisper of apology from every single person who might not have been complicit, but part of the collective debt we all share from a past with fingerprints all over our lives today and how we live them.

Ron Bronson’s American History Reading List

I grew up in a town that majority black in central New Jersey.  At the time that I went to school (in the mid-80s through mid-90s) there was a barrage of information and access to information that gave me a strong sense that the world wasn’t to be taken with whatever narrative I might have picked up from it. People in neighboring towns were  always  talking about how dangerous our schools were, how bad they were compared to other ones and what’s funny about a narrative is if you believe the hype long enough you start to embrace the myths.

The reality is, in those days, things weren’t that bad. For most of my time in school, there was still money to be dredged for all manner of extra curricular things, as well as in-class activities which supplemented the learning experience in class if that’s what you wanted.

Anyway, over the years I learned that not as many people were as fortunate as I was to grow up in a world where I never assumed there were barriers placed on what I could achieve based on race. We were made aware of it and we lived it, but I didn’t spend much of my school life being actively concerned about race because it wasn’t relevant to our existence as a school that was almost entirely Black & Hispanic.

This is solely a book list to backfill the sorts of history schools don’t cover and can help you better understand when you read something from someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates you’re not flying quite as blind. Not everyone needs this, but I assure you that there’s at least one book on here you haven’t read and that’ll better inform you.

With that, here’s some reading worth adding to your list.

Some of the highlights below:

In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990, Quintard Taylor

Education of Blacks in the South 1860-1935, James D. Anderson

Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Leon Litwack

Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class, Mary Patillo

Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, Larry Tye

The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, Tim Tzouliadis

We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, Tommie Shelby

Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Geoffrey C. Ward

“Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, Beverly Tatum

The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality, Thomas Shapiro

Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men from Blue-Collar Jobs, Deidre Royster

Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union: An Autobiography, Robert Robinson

Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation 1968-98, James Cone

Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class, and Status in the New Black Middle Class, Karyn Lacy

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, Paul Tough

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, Tom Burrell

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson

Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, Kenneth T. Jackson

Using social media to create winning moments

The Washington Post’s blog on the Obama transition made a really good point today, explaining why for instance, Team Obama decided to post photos of his daughters’ first day of school in Washington D.C. on Flickr.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the best way for Barack Obama to keep any of his life private in this era of cell phone-snaps, Facebook goofs and long-lensed paparazzi is to do exactly this: reliably and regularly release pictures of newsworthy intimate family moments in a manner that he can control.

That’s because online, the only way to control your own image is to drown outsiders’ takes in media stream of your own creation — and there is no news agency or paparazzo in the world with better access to inner workings of Obamaland and the Obama family than Obama himself.

I think the lessons go well beyond politics and can be applied to a variety of different markets, as we’re all trying to reach people with our information. I think the real difference is, you can use social media tools to create interest in your content. In the vein of “if you build it, they will come.”

Not only will they come, they’ll pay you if it’s something they really want. Even if they can get it for free.

The best selling MP3 album of the year on Amazon.com was alternative rock band Nine Inch Nails (NIN) Grammy nominated Ghosts I-IV LP, which they released for free under a Creative Commons license.

NIN fans could have gone to any file sharing network to download the entire CC-BY-NC-SA album legally. Many did, and thousands will continue to do so. So why would fans bother buying files that were identical to the ones on the file sharing networks? One explanation is the convenience and ease of use of NIN and Amazon’s MP3 stores. But another is that fans understood that purchasing MP3s would directly support the music and career of a musician they liked.

Creative Commons Blog

This isn’t really a business model for people starting out, since NIN has already had a long career and could afford financially to take a risk like this. So while Joe Bootstrapper might not consider trying this, it doesn’t mean a larger institution couldn’t take a bold risk. You have to take opportunities to reach audiences when you can. It can head off your competition and build loyalty among those you want to reach.

President Forever + election fever

With all of the things going on and with baseball season finally over, I’ve finally gotten in President Forever. With all of the scenarios that the game has from users, it makes it a game worth playing over and over. You can create your own candidates too and for me, that’s critical in an election year where I don’t have one to call my own.

Two cute by half

Just as there are sports cliches that get overused (‘he’s gutsy.’ ‘it is what it is’) this election year has revealed many sayings that are common in political lingo that get embraced and overused. One such term this year has been ‘too cute by half.’

MSNBC’s commentators seem really enamored with the phrase, especially Chris Matthews who started using it like he invented it.

Old political commericals

I found this entire video completely astounding. Just the way the things evolved over time and how in some ways, the themes have not changed a bit at all. The site the Living Room Candidate is a pretty astounding site.

For it to be 1956 and for Adlai Stevenson to be so candid was interesting to me.

Hip-Hop’s awkward embrace of capitalism

I heard Rich Boy’s “Let’s Get This Paper” because my brother would be listening to it while it was on television. Then I actually watched the video once and I thought, “well at least the beat is good.” (Of course…) I downloaded it to my Zune and it was in the random rotation just like anything else and one time, it came on.

I listened to the whole thing and wasn’t sure WHAT to think about it. I mean, I appreciated the anti-drug selling message.

And then we can’t get a job, ridin’ we get them pounds
If it ain’t that coke then we get that ‘dro and break it down
See that ice, the dope man paradise
Boy better think twice, that dope have you doin’ life

But then, he started talking about welfare and I got a little uneasy.

They tore down the projects, so where we gonna move next?
They takin’ them food stamps, they stop government checks

But then I thought about it more critically and I began to think about the people out there who don’t have any hope at all. Their days and nights are confined to thinking about basic necessities of life and who feel as if they are completely disconnected from the rest of society, who not only don’t understand their plight or care about why they are where the are.

That’s not what I wanted to write about, though.

Songs like this aren’t all that surprising in hip-hop and in fact, some are far more candid the further away from the mainstream you get. How one separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of the hyperbole and uncomfortable embrace of socialism or redistributive economics, is really an exercise in selective hearing.

With all of the talk about people losing their homes due to the sub-prime mortgage “crisis”, I’d like to focus on a group that have completely fallen off the radar.

Katrina victims were home owners. These weren’t people who necessarily had a lot of money. But over 60% of them owned their homes. I felt that the post-Katrina circumstances would have been a good opportunity to help those people — and those who were just renting — to be part of a pilot program aimed at community building and home ownership. By using tenets of the ownership society as a something other than a discussion piece, but something actually used in practice would have been a marvel. But I suppose that makes too much sense for politicians, as usual.

The GOP had has a unique opportunity for years now to match their rhetoric of entrepreneurship and urban renewal by developing policies that would actually target many of the afflicted in rural and urban areas.

I say rural because I realize that it’s probably not all that sexy for a party that can barely get more than 10% of the black vote to support policies that benefit them in an era of patronage politics. But there rural communities that are on the decline and that are losing their kids. Not because the kids necessarily want to leave, but simply because there aren’t any incentives for businesses to grow and INNOVATE in these very livable communities.

The whole rural v. urban debate is an entire set of posts for another day, though.

Hey, money my motivator, my mouth, my money maker
Now I don’t see them haters, so let’s go get this paper

And then it hit me. This is the ode to entrepreneurship like none other. It’s a miracle they let him put this song on the album for fear it might cause thousands to do something other than scare the living daylights out of entire neighborhoods.

But then, this was Rich Boy’s debut album and it’s not as if they really thought he’d have a bigger market than his region (the South) and so, bigger places like Chicago and New York were safe from being tainted by this clandestine message of DIY scrappyness.

The fact that exasperation that he sees his entire neighborhood in a shambles, folks close to him dying or going to jail and he realizes through their examples, comes to the conclusion that he has to do something else.

I would hardly conclude that there is therefore any demonstrable evidence that Hip-Hop has indeed beaten the welfare state, but I would suggest that tracks like these indicate an entire generation of young folks coming up with a desire to do what others do, but rather than to ‘dare to dream’ towards suburban lives like many of their parents, their goal is to build it right in their own neighborhoods.

There are lots of other tracks that talk about ‘getting that money’ and in far more crass ways indicate how they’re going to make it hand over fist. But the underlying sentiment is exactly the same in each case. It’s to say “we didn’t have it before. We’ve been shut out and we want our chance. And if you’re concerned that I’m who I was then, look at me now with all of this new stuff I have, so clearly I can’t be that same person you thought me to be then.”

I don’t know if you can concoct a more constructive dialogue out of the entire conversation than that. My difficult with the way rappers talk is that more than any other genre of music in the American mainstream, hip-hop comes from the experiences of actual people who are not mincing many words in articulating to you their frustrations directly and candidly.

I could cite a number of tracks from Jay-Z, Pharrell Williams and Lil’ Wayne, among many others who (off the top of my head) have essentially tried to get you to understand that they are operating in a completely different stratosphere from the ordinary bloke and use this not so much to inspire you to do the same thing, as much as they’re trying to set themselves apart from everyone else. (Though the group Clipse on the track Hello New World do precisely this. I came away impressed with them saying “if we can do it, you can do…”)

I doubt these artists are trying to deliberately focus the attention of their listener base towards a wholesale embrace of capitalism by examples of lamenting lost welfare checks and gentrification of neighborhoods that were ignored, but rediscovered by modern prospectors looking for the Missouri of New Urbania.

The fact that the conversation continues to become more savvy and focused more decisively on building an inroads to the larger economic community, as opposed than the “old way” street capitalism ethos of hustling in one’s own community and entrepreneurship as a buzzword rather than a practical way of life is an interesting turn of events buried into the mainstream rap conversation.

Articles & Posts worth noting

The NY Times did a story on a synagogue of Black Jews in Chicago.

Dan McCarthy did a post recently called A Libertarian Syllabus. In short:

a four-year course of study that will take students from the basics of free-market economics and the Constitution into the deeper waters where theory, history, and policy meet.

He’s a smart, informed guy who I appreciated for his willingness to engage people who make well-informed arguments.

In my blog about higher ed new media and web stuff, I wrote a post today detailing the path to becoming a web content geek at a college. It’s not the only way, but it’s at least explained better than anything else out there — as it there wasn’t anything I could find about it back when I got started doing this — so I decided to put something out there.