On the whole Barry thing

By now if you live in the District you’ve surely heard of the latest Marion Barry scandal.  No, I don’t mean the unfortunate police sting which elicited those (in)famous last words “b**** set me up,” I’m talking about the straight-up race-baiting, anti-immigrant antics and commentary about Asian-owned businesses and Filipino nurses.  And now that I’m not writing about this topic for class, dear readers, I’m excited to share my thoughts more casually with you.

The first point is pretty obvious, but worth mentioning:  Hill (1995) found that public figures are treated differently when it comes to being publicly racist/homophobic/bigoted in general.  They are given a certain level of responsibility above ordinary individuals to maintain a certain demeanor which typically precludes them from being openly racist.  [Why? Voters are one easy reason.]  Unless that’s your shtick of course, in which case an entirely different set of rules apply.

Racists can’t/don’t often admit to being racist.  It’s the equivalent of linguistic suicide, an example of what sociolinguists might call a face-threatening act. Combine this with point #1 and increasingly aggressive journalistic practices, linguists are finding that politicians are developing and using an array of linguistic strategies for getting themselves out of messes their mouths have created. Clayman (2001) calls this “managing interactional resistance” and the subfield of CA (conversation analysis) has made significant contributions as a whole.  Check out more of his work here, many articles are available for free download.

But who has a say in determining if someone said something racist anyway?  

Not the courts, at least here: Chiang (2010) points out that the US stands apart from industrialized nations in not protecting individuals (and groups, as the case may be) from hate speech.  In those countries that do, it’s called group defamation, encompassing libel and slander.   Furthermore, Chiang finds that because free speech so commonly trumps hate speech legislatively, public discussions of whether X was racist or not get distracted by ideological debates on Constitutional provisions.

Erickson once referred to conversations as “trees that climb back.”  If that’s true, perhaps this is a large, public conversation then.   The 24 hour news cycle and sensationalizing angle of media plays a role in this, editorializing till the end.  But while the media may surely be the loudest, the level of public outcry/outrage is important as well.  Dedicated advocates do their best to push back, but the current is unbelievably strong.

In Barry’s (and most cases it seems) the white flag comes as an apology.   Then what????  Another incident, with the media drive stories, advocates adding fuel to the fire, and the saga continues.

In Barry’s case, the story continues to develop.  Who would have guessed that an unexpected hospitalization during a taxpayer-funded conference in Vegas would prompt such a change of heart?  Tune in this morning (5/24) for live Twitter coverage of the press conference where Barry addresses the public on his anti-Asian remarks.

And the fojol brothers.?  Don’t even get me started….

[UPDATE (5/25): Barry has semi-public meeting, won’t allow media in for the “apology” itself.  Also, uses the disparaging term Polack to describe Polish, prompting yet another apology request from the Polish American Association.]

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Goodbye to DC’s only race/politics blog

Courtesy of Aaron Ginoza

[Update 7/4: Goodbye DCCentric?  It’s true, WAMU says it’ll be a more extended hiatus for the blog until they get more $$ to fund the position].

If you’re like me and get all of your DC race-conscious commentary from Izade’s column DCentric on WAMU, you’ll be sad to hear that she’s moving on to bigger and better things.  This leaves the station in search of a replacement and I’ll be excited to see who takes her place (ever so secretly hoping to take it myself someday).  Anyway, I thought this might be a good time to plug her work.  The picture above, for example, is from a piece covering the shady practice(s) of the Museum of Crime and Punishment for hiring black males to dress in prison uniforms and walk around downtown attracting tourists.  You can check it out here or read below for a nice recap, especially in the 2nd paragraph of topics where she summarizes topics covered this past year:

Farewell, DCentric!

Today is my last day as the senior reporter for DCentric. It’s been a little over a year since I started writing for this blog, and I’m blown away at just thinking about all of the interesting topics I’ve had the opportunity to explore.

I have my own highlights, among them: producing a series on D.C.’s unemployment divide; asking why the local crime and punishment museum hires black men to wear prison jumpsuits; exploring what’s behind rock bands playing D.C.’s Ethiopian restaurants; and writing about gentrification — a lot. I’m also grateful that I’ve been able to share some personal stories about identity. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my posts at least half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.

This beat has been challenging, too. Race and class can be loaded, emotionally-charged topics, and they typically come with broad declarations of what’s right and wrong. I’ve learned a lot in my time here, but above all, it’s that things aren’t usually cut and dry. I hope meaningful conversations about these issues continue to happen in D.C., and that they grow in number. Such discussions will be important as we figure out how to navigate all of the changes our city is going through.

So, many thanks to my colleagues, both here at WAMU 88.5 and elsewhere. You’ve provided me with support and feedback, and for that, I am grateful.

And finally, of course, I’d like to thank to you, the readers. I strongly believe in DCentric’s mission: to explore race and class and open up a space for elevated discourse. If I’ve had any success here, it’s in large part to the readers. Thank you for following my work, questioning it, offering insightful comments and contributing to this ongoing conversation, whether in person or over Twitter. I’mmoving on, but stay in touchSeriously!

Precious Knowledge: Film Screening

Great event hosted by Georgetown’s own Linguistics Department!  So proud that there is support around this issue:

“The story of a current ethnolinguistic struggle taking place in Arizona. When a highly successful Mexican American Studies program at a high school in Tucson comes under fire for teaching ethnic chauvinism, teachers and students fight back. This modern civil rights struggle is happening at the epicenter of the immigration debate in the age of identity politics” (from the flyer).

May 2nd, 2012 at 3pm
Poulton 230

New Report Finds “Access Denied” r/ DC’s Immigrant Population

Last week the DC Language Access Coalition released the much-anticipated results of a two-year comprehensive report on the state of language access in the District.  Whether by chance or choice, the timing was such that this one came out right after DC government released its own yearly report.  Comparing the two, it is clear government and language access advocates have different ideas about what compliance and accountability look like.

The event began with what I recognized to be a popular education technique – the Director speaking in a foreign language, gesturing with her hands, and having a conversation that few could understand.  Once she switches to English, it is explained that the experience was meant to get the audience thinking from the perspective of.

Next they played a short documentary featuring the some of the faces behind the Chinese Service Center and Wah Luck House, one of the last footholds of affordable housing in Chinatown and a testament to community organizing.  The last part of the event was a panel discussion of people involved either involved in the production of the report, representing the Coalition (AU Wash. College of Law, Legal Aid Society, Vietnamese Community Service Center), or DC government (DCOHR, HSEMA).

Overall this event was extremely helpful in that it was an opportunity to reengage with my professional network and past colleagues, which is great for the soul!   But perhaps biggest takeaway I had was the realization of a huge gap in the language access program that a linguist with anthropological training could fill.  As the panelists (government and not) discussed the “challenges” in language access compliance, they all addressed the issue of not understanding the client’s perspective.  What do they need?  How do we reach them?  What problems are they having?  Where are they and who are they? Government holds big expensive community forums to fill quotas and can’t fill the seats.  They collect demographic data from Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, you name it.  LEP/NEP individuals do have a minor legal recourse if they’ve been maligned (the “language access complaint”), but since there is no private right to action, clients cannot appeal a negative finding.  Considering the social service / minority affairs budget isn’t blossoming at this point, I don’t think this is an immediate career opportunity, but I left feeling pretty strongly that what language access really needs is a sociolinguist / linguistic anthropologist.  They need someone to do extensive ethnography, perhaps even on a team for a several year project.

On identity construction and (applications to) politics

The idea that identities are constructed is one that has jived so well with me that it’s no wonder it’s followed me since my undergraduate studies at Oberlin.  At Georgetown, considering it’s a linguistics program, we’ve been taught that a lot of what is understood more broadly as “identity construction” really happens through language.  It’s co-constructed, emergent in interaction, expressed through narrative, in what we say as much as what we don’t.  You yourself probably made an identity claim of some kind or another at least once in the past hour!

But thiisn’t just a moment of intellectual a-ha-ness: understanding identity construction is a rather useful skill to have in every day life.  Especially in politics.  Here are some readings I’ve found particularly useful in research on political discourse, minority relations in/with government, and intersections with law in the free vs. hate speech debate, and how I’ve engaged with them:

1) van Langenhove, Luk & Rom Harré.  1999.  Introducing Positioning Theory.  Harré R & van Langenhove (eds), Positioning Theory: Moral Contexts of Intentional Action, pp 14-31, Oxford: Blackwell.

Positioning theory is a useful heuristic for understanding identity construction through the lens of narrative.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it’s really based on 3 interrelated concepts: positions, storylines, and speech acts.  So the idea is that the positions we inhabit as social beings influences/are influenced by the storylines we follow in a conversation or the speech acts associated with them.  An easy example from institutional discourse: You can tell a lot about who “has power” in a conversation by speech acts, i.e.  you’ll find the “agenda setter” has special privileges to ask questions, initiate new topics, where other participants could be censured for talking out of turn.  This is certainly true when the “agenda setter” is in the setting (say City Hall) where his/her position is ratified, but what happens when that person if caught off guard, or in a non-traditional setting?  See here to read more about how a politician negotiates his position as “man of the people” vs. “public enemy #1” in an impromptu encounter with protesters.

2) du Bois, John W. 2007.  The stance triangle. Robert Englebretson (ed), Stancetaking in discourse: Subjectivity, evaluation, interaction. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Stance is a very similar approach to positioning theory, also widely used in sociolinguistics, but has the further advantage of addressing how our evaluation of something affects our positioning and alignment (with respect to) someone/thing.  This is especially helpful in studying any sort of conflict talk, where people are playing a game of verbal chess with each other.  I have found both stance and positioning theory usefully applied to political discourse, like in policy situations where politicians are dealing with underserved, minority populations (i.e. LEP/NEP, immigrants, homeless, social service recipients).  For example, they might take heat from social service advocates for cutting those parts of the budget, but might save face by claiming to represent “all residents” as opposed to “the rich.”

3) Chiang, S.Y.  2010.  ‘Well, I’m a lot of things, but I’m sure not a bigot’: positive self-presentation in confrontational discourse on racism. Discourse & Society, 21(3), 273-294.

It should be clear by now that the relationship between identity work and politics is a consequential one.  One’s image is not the same as one’s public record, so politicians expend a lot of resources crafting their public appearance.  Despite this, some matters still remain in the court of popular opinion, so to speak.  Chiang (2010) is a great resource on the topic of racist discourse as it intersects with the ideological free vs. hate speech debate.  This and other research in linguistics demonstrate how the Other is constructed in public discourse and the media and for what purpose.  See here for my own research on this topic.