poverty

Having ‘Juice’ and Being ‘Hard’

In Code of the Streets, Elijah Anderson discusses how poverty, racism, fallout from drugs, and a lack of faith in the criminal justice system in inner cities have resulted in alienation.  The code of the street is a set of informal rules governing interpersonal behavior that act as a framework for obtaining and maintaining respect or “juice.”  The code creates an alternative status system whereby respect is hard won and easily lost.  The presentation of self, such as facial expressions, body language, manner of dress, and word use can signal intentions.  Ignorance of the rules are no excuse; everyone is expected to know the code and behave in the prescribed manner.  

In Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Byron Hurt talks to academics and rappers about representations of masculinity and violence in rap music.  Though the documentary is a bit older (2006), the content is still relevant.  In an interview, rapper Fat Joe talks about how even at music industry events and in night clubs, everyone feels the need to present themselves as “hard.”  Later, rapper Mos Def talks about growing up as a black man you “don’t want nobody taking you for short…but when shit got critical, you can’t be no punk…and you will get tested.”  Hurt also includes discussion of the need for poor men who lack financial power to have control over their bodies and be able to present themselves as deserving of respect.

The Risk podcast, episode 510 “Impulsive,” featured a story called “Judgment Day” by J.J. about his experience coming from inner city poverty, going to college, and returning home to visit.  The storyteller gets in an altercation with a man from the neighborhood and comes very close to killing the man as retaliation for hurting his pride.

Summerhill (Hipster Racism & Gentrification)

Summerhill, a bar / sandwich shop in Crown Heights Brooklyn, has been making waves for the last few days.  The restaurant has been open for roughly one month, but recently sent out a press release stating the bar was “Instagramable” because of a “bullet hole-ridden wall” and serving forty ounce rosé in paper bags.

bullet image from Summerhill Instagram

First, it is important to point out that Crown Heights has been undergoing gentrification for the last 15 years.  According to the Census Bureau, from 2000 to 2012 the white population of the neighborhood increased from 3.5% to 12.4% while the black/African American population decreased from 83.6% to 76.8% (based on NTA “North Crown Heights).  In the last five years the trend has continued.

The owner of Summerhill is a white woman named Becca Brennan, which means she is literally a ‘Becky,’ from Toronto.  She has only lived in the neighborhood for two years and identifies as a “reformed corporate tax attorney.”  In an interview with Gothamist she stated “As someone who lives on Nostrand, I was getting tired of walking to Franklin,” Brennan said. “It’s three blocks, but it’s three long blocks. You just deserve something close, and a hang out, especially if you live on New York [Avenue] or Schenectady or something like that.”  Comments like these have lead to signs being placed around Crown Heights quoting the Brennan.

eater ny summerhillimage from Eater NY

The bar’s bullet holes and “rumored backroom illegal gun shop” authenticity has come into question and the use of violence in communities of color as a marketing tool has been roundly condemned.  Serving forty ounce rosé in paper bags is an obvious use of a stereotype of black people.  The juxtaposition of the forty in a bag and rosé is a great example of hipster racism, where supposedly it is not racist because it is supposed to be ironic or funny.

rose.jpg      image from Summerhill Instagram

Brennan’s early response to the backlash was pretty terrible.  As a Facebook comment she made “a joke about her tan in response to being called white in the Eater article.”  In a later interview with Gothamist she also backed out of her plan for serving rosé, stating “I also want to clarify about our bottles of rosé,” Brennan added. “We serve them in ice buckets and we have them on our menu because rosé is delicious, and it’s a great deal for what amounts to more than a standard bottle of wine. We have no intention of serving them in any other way.”

Whatever the argument, a white woman is attempting to capitalize off of aestheticizing the violence and poverty people of color have experienced in Crown Heights. Neighborhood residents are planning a protest and yelp has been inundated with negative reviews.

Paris Burning and/or Burnt

The documentary Paris is Burning is a particularly important record of LGTQ people of color in New York in the 1980s.  More specifically, the film is about the ballroom subculture, made up primarily of young, disenfranchised LGTQ POC gathering to “walk” and dance (where “voguing” comes from) in costume.  The film has had a lasting impact on current vernacular, such as “shade,” “kiki,” and “realness.”

There was controversy after the documentary around compensation and how the project was represented by Jennie Livingston.  The subjects of the documentary lived difficult lives in poverty and the film ended with the murder of Venus Xtravaganza.  The resulting question is for documentary film makers as it is for ethnographers – When your career is based in the lives of your subjects, what do you owe them?  How might you change their lives by making them famous while they still live in poverty?

The discord around the film reoccured around the 2015 Celebrate Brooklyn screening of Paris is Burning, which was to be accompanied by Jennie Livingston and DJ’ed by JD Samson, both of whom are white queer people.  No people of color or representatives from the continuing ballroom scene were invited.  Attention was quickly drawn to the silencing of people of color around their own stories and parallels to ongoing gentrification in Brooklyn.  A change.org petition declaring “#ParisIsBurnt” was started calling for canceling the event.  Ultimately Samson dropped out and ballroom participants who appeared in the documentary were invited to participate.

This year the documentary Kiki was released and has drawn parallels to Paris is Burning, though the director seems to have taken a more collaborative approach and learned from Livingston’s mistakes.  It looks at the contemporary ballroom subculture, the importance of DIY, and activism.

Poverty and Worthiness

Rooted in our ideas of the American dream and meritocracy, we often judge poor people as deserving their fates.  We tend to blame the individuals, stigmatizing them as lazy and gluttonous, instead of looking to structural factors.  The poor are disproportionately young, female, and African American and Hispanic.

On The Daily Show in 2014, Jon Stewart examined Fox News’s coverage of food stamp recipients.  In “What Not to Buy,” “Where Would Jesus Soil,” and “Fox News Welfare Academy” Fox News is critiqued for debating what can and should be covered, as well as who receives food stamps.

More recently on Full Frontal, Samantha Bee similarly examined the expense and subsidizing of diapers.

Hurricane Bureaucracy

We have a lot of negative associations with bureaucracies. They can be alienating, impersonal, and dehumanizing for both workers and those being served by the bureaucracy.  For being ‘rational,’ they can be quite inefficient, with ‘red tape’ and limited effectiveness when flexibility is needed.  Bureaucratic ritualism is when there is such a focus on the rules and regulations to the point of undermining goals and loosing sight of the larger picture.  There can also be a problem of a self perpetuating oligarchy, or the rule of many by few, concentrating power and weakening accountability.      

All of these problems can be seen in the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  From local individuals and the Canadian government responding faster than the United States, to the neighboring parish (Louisiana has instead of counties) refusing admittance from New Orleans, there was a bureaucratic breakdown in government.  When trained people from other areas tried to volunteer to help, FEMA had them hand out pamphlets and fliers.

Though it is worth watching in its entirety (parts I&II, parts III & IV), Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts explores the problems between state and federal government bureaucracies from 1:19:02 to 1:42:18.