Evanston Total Population 18 & over - Black

This weekend is the Independent Media Mobile Hackathon in Chicago, an event sponsored by The Media Consortium and Hacks/Hackers.  A few of the Knight Scholars taking the  Community Media Innovation Project at Medill were brainstorming ideas for the hackathon.  We talked about collecting public feedback using mobile devices to do citizen’s agenda style reporting of the upcoming Chicago Mayoral race and using Ushahidi to report and track neighborhood safety concerns.

But the idea I’m most excited about is one that comes from looking at interviews with Evanston residents for the innovation project class.  One theme that comes up consistently when talking to people about Evanston is that the community is diverse, with the public schools being a frequently-cited reflection of the community’s diversity.  However, a number of people interviewed also said the community is economically and racially segregated.

I want to build a mobile app that forefronts the integration or segregation of different spaces in the community.  Users of the app would “check in” to different spaces along with a quick numeric assessment of the racial, gender and/or age integration of the space where they are.  One of the most difficult problems would be to develop this metric, a sort of folk dissimilarity index, and make a widget that would make providing this assessment easy and fun.  Users could then get a weekly/monthly aggregation of the integration of the places where they spend the most time.  They could also see the most popular, integrated and segregated places in their community and see how the integration of places might change over time or be different at different times of day.

In many ways, this is a racially (or more broadly, demographically) aware Foursquare.  But Andrew Paley pointed out an important distinction: while most social apps help users build and share their own idea of their identity (in Foursquare by aligning themselves with certain businesses that likely reflect their lifestyle), this app would compel users to be introspective about their lives rather than expressive.  It would help users be conscious of the segregation or integration of their lives and challenge how values and belief about race and integration match up with their daily routines.  This app could be one example in a broader problem space of introspective apps.

New address, same concerns

I contributed a bit of reporting to this story written by Ian Fullerton.  It was originally published in Skyline on September 29, 2010.  I covered the closing of the original location of Pie Hole Pizza Joint for the Medill News Service in May 2010.

New address, same concerns
Pie Hole Pizza Joint gets chilly welcome from new neighbors
09/29/2010 10:00 PM
By IAN FULLERTON, Contributing Reporter


Doug Brandt never expected that his pizza shop would become a refuge for the city’s gay black youth. But now that it has, he’d like to keep it that way, despite the protests of some Boystown residents and local businesses.

Brandt is the owner of the Pie Hole Pizza Joint, a popular Lakeview restaurant soon to be reopened at 3477 N. Broadway.

Pie Hole previously had sat for years at the corner of Roscoe and Halsted, in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer mecca known as Boystown. Brandt, a 39-year-old marketing major from Iowa with experience in sales, bought the struggling pizza joint in early 2007, with the hopes of revitalizing the shop through smart, often sexually charged advertising and innovations such as “drag delivery,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

Tired of catering to the late night set, Brandt looked to target the early evening dinner crowd, the not-yet-too-drunk demographic that seemed a better fit for the 15-seat restaurant. And so Pie Hole started running a weekly karaoke night, which caught on. Soon after, the shop started hosting open mic nights, aptly titled “Soul at the Hole.”

The events quickly attracted a younger following — vocalists, spoken-word artists, musicians and a variety of other performers, mostly high school and college-age youth from all parts the city — who flocked to Pie Hole once a week to take to the stage.

“It wasn’t a huge money maker,” said Brandt. “It was just a really cool, chill night with amazing talent.”

And while the open mic and karaoke drew a wide array of participants and spectators, it soon became clear that Pie Hole’s customer-base was rooted in the cluster of LGBTQ African-American youth who came from around the city to Boystown.

Population estimates compiled by the Metro Chicago Information Center, based on data from EASI, Inc., a demographic research company, show that African Americans make up only about 5 percent of the population of Lake View, the community area that includes Boystown.

These same statistics show 12- to 17-year-olds make up the smallest age segment. Together with 18 to 24 year olds, they make up about 17 percent of the community area’s population, which is still less than half of the percentage of 25 to 34 year-olds, the group that dominates the neighborhood.

These numbers may come as a surprise to anyone strolling on the main drag of Boystown around Halsted and Belmont, where African-American youths gather in droves, not in the bars and clubs, but on the streets.

The city’s young LBGTQ African-American population from elsewhere in the city is attracted to Boystown in part because of the protection that the neighborhood provides, said Ryan Erickson, a community relations and outreach manager at the Center on Halsted.

“It’s one of the most prominent places in the city where you don’t have to really worry about how you’re sexual orientation is going to be received,” he said. “I think that certainly offers a degree of security.”

A few months after opening Pie Hole, Brandt had started to volunteer at the recently opened Center on Halsted, a community center for LGBTQ persons based in Boystown. At the Center, Brandt took a training course and was assigned to the youth program, where he mentored a young man.

“It felt kind of cool,” said Brandt. “It kind of clicked that this could be the cause for Pie Hole; this could be the thing where we could say ‘yes, we give back to the community.’”

The restaurant began donating pizzas to youth organizations such as the Broadway Youth Center and the South Side-based Youth Pride Services, while inviting kids from the programs to hang out at the shop.

“It quickly became apparent that a lot of the kids didn’t have a place to go,” he said.

As the popularity of the performances at Pie Hole grew, so too did the crowds. The atmosphere at times shifted from a sit-down pizza joint to that of a standing-room club, with groups sometimes pouring out on to the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.

What followed was inevitable. Nearby residents, businesses — and sometimes Brandt himself — began calling 911 to complain of noise disturbances, loitering and fights outside the shop and in the neighboring alley.

Brandt hired some of the teens to act as security guards at the events, a service that further drained his pockets, but the performance nights became more financially unfeasible, as most of the audience wasn’t buying anything.

“It got to the point where I was paying $400 or $500 to have karaoke night, but I wasn’t making that back,” he said. Eventually Brandt had to shut down the karaoke, a decision that came down hard on the teens who frequented the event.

In May 2009, Brandt’s lease on the property expired, without an option to renew.

To memorialize the closing of the hangout, teens from the Youth Pride Services program put on a drum-line performance outside of the shop, a final hurrah that drew sneers from a few neighbors who didn’t appreciate the evening procession, Brandt said.

But while he realized he couldn’t keep the shop at Roscoe and Halsted, Brandt knew that he wanted to keep Pie Hole alive somewhere. He started to look for a new location, preferably one with a layout that would allow him to better supervise the audiences and keep out non-paying customers. The location on Broadway fit that need, he said.

Situated between a Save Rite pharmacy and a laundromat, the space, though only a few blocks away from the old shop, is in a markedly different environment.

Brandt learned this the hard way when, two weeks ago, he received an e-mail — not sent to him directly, but on which he was copied — regarding the reopening of his business in the more residential part of Boystown.

The e-mail, sent by the resident group Belmont Harbor Neighbors to Alderman Helen Shiller (46th), described community concerns that the relocation of Pie Hole to its new location might be an unsettling prospect, referencing the 911 calls made at the Roscoe spot.

“Belmont Harbor neighbors believes that behaviors should be confronted or stopped,” the letter read, “not shifted away from the Halsted entertainment strip to a more residential strip within the BHN boundaries.”

The author urged to Shiller to invite Brandt and the building’s landlord to appear before the group’s board of directors to present a business plan for the new Pie Hole, and to discuss how they intended “to prevent a recurrence of problems as experienced at the previous location.”

The following week, Brandt made his presentation to a group of about 20 people, mostly business owners. Among other questions, he said, they asked him what he would do if lines of customers formed outside of his shop.

“I hope I have a line down the block and around the corner 24 hours a day,” Brandt said, recalling the meeting.

A few days later, Brandt received another e-mail — again, not addressing him directly — from the president of a homeowner’s association at a nearby building.

“We don’t need or want bad actors in our residential area,” the letter read. “We are sure that our neighbors, including business owners feel the same.”

Brandt said he understood that people would have concerns about a late-night establishment, but recognized that a few vocal opponents made up a small minority of the neighborhood.

“We’re in a position to reopen, which is good for the economy and good for the neighborhood,” he said. “We’re employing people, putting out a product and giving options to the neighborhood.”

Brandt said he expected Pie Hole to retain its clientele, and promised that the open mic nights would also return, though not immediately.

The shop’s Facebook page, which boasts 1,763 followers, displays daily comments from friends and residents hailing the shops return.

“I think we’re going to pick up right where we left off,” said Brandt.

The reopening of Pie Hole Pizza Joint at 3477 N. Broadway is slated for Oct. 1.

Memo for the week of August 22: Coffee shop newsrooms and name games with mosques and SEO

Me this week

Last week, I talked with Rhonda Jones-Gillespie, news editor at the Chicago Defender and I feel like I need to follow up with her.  It wasn’t until after our conversation that I realized why there seemed to be a disconnect around some of my questions.  While the Defender does report about African-American communities in Chicago, a big part of what they do, and what I didn’t really get, is ground city and national news stories in the African American experience in Chicago.  While I’ve been most interested in looking at how a story local to one community might connect with a broader audience, I’ve overlooked the opposite, but equally important, trajectory.  It’s one that journalists have been doing for a long time (though perhaps less so as news organizations become more resource bound) – taking a story and picking out the most important aspects for a local audience or looking at a broader policy’s impact on a particular community.

This week, I  was finally able to sit down with Icoi Johnson and Samuel Vega, the recipients of WBEZ’s Prizker Fellowship, which I had written about previously.  I found the fellows’ backgrounds and  outlooks to be pretty different, which was interesting and probably a good thing for WBEZ.  Vega, who is from Humboldt Park and seemed pretty involved in the community offered some interesting insight into WBEZ’s bureau in the neighborhood.  Vega said he  had noticed the storefront bureau, but had never been inside it until he toured it as part of his training for the fellowship.  He said it often appeared closed and that he was more familiar with the reporter who runs the bureau because of his coverage of events in Humboldt Park.  Vega’s anecdote indicates that connecting with different news  communities may be a little more complicated than simply setting up shop.

Coffee shop newsrooms – a cool idea but you have to pick the right shop

Perhaps a better approach might be the coffee shop newsroom experiments that Poynter wrote about extensively at the beginning of this month.  Placing a reporter in an already trafficked space like a coffee shop may make reporters more accessible to the general public than a space exclusive to the news organization.  Some of the benefits of putting reporters or “newsrooms” in coffee shops seem pretty cool: more transparency/accountability, more audience understanding of the reporting process, developing new sources, getting new framings for stories or new dimensions for stories of which the reporter is already aware and recruiting citizen journalists.

This week I had my own experience with reporting and coffee shops.  I often work in coffee shops because I find them more convenient, and often less distracting than heading down to the Medill Newsroom.  While I use them primarily for convenience, they can still be a good way to connect with sources.  However, you have to go to the right coffee shop.  In reporting a story about LGBTQA youth of color in Boystown and a parking policy proposed by some residents designed to deter the youth, I did a lot of writing in Lakeview coffee shops.  I usually went to one close to my house a little east of Boystown or one close to Boystown but seemingly catering to a more particular customer demographic.  I liked the coffee shops I chose because they were locally owned and independent, there was interesting art on the wall and employees sometimes seemed like they were hanging out with friends or family as much as they were serving customers, creating a casual, comfortable atmosphere.

But, because they were somewhat more expensive and closed around 10 p.m., they didn’t really attract customers who were young people of color coming to hang out in the neighborhood.  The night I spent writing at the Starbucks at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Clark Street, a wide range of customers came in, including folks who could have been sources for my story.  While I could have gone out on the streets searching for people who could tell me their experience of coming to the neighborhood, a common thread in what youth I had interviewed told me is that they often feel profiled by police and neighborhood residents.  Both residents and youth described sidewalk confrontations that escalated and didn’t lead to a productive dialog.  As a reporter, I didn’t want to contribute to these dynamics. Spaces like coffee shops are important for reporting across dynamics like the ones in Boystown because they’re more neutral.  People from a variety of backgrounds can be on equal footing in the coffee shop as patrons and engaged in the same activities, like working on a laptop.  Had I spent the entire quarter working at that Starbucks, I might have been able to meet some sources with a good insight into the dynamic in a way that developed out of a more organic conversation, over music or helping someone reach a power outlet) rather than cornering people on the street.  Also, the public nature of the coffee shop could have attracted other people into the conversation, adding multiple perspectives to the reporting and perhaps even bridging the resident/visitor divide.

My experience with diversity and neighborhood coffee shops may be more universal.  Kim Feller, author of “Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino“, wrote about diversity and coffee shop clientèle on the Colorlines website:

While there are still funky independents eking out a living on the retail margins, most coffeehouses and designer roasters are niche markets, like purveyors of artisan cheeses, hand-painted T-shirts and limited-edition sneakers. They appeal to those on the trendy, cutting edge and survive by exclusivity—by pleasing a small, loyal and financially privileged. Starbucks, on the other hand, has been able to risk expansion from urban business cores and upscale suburbs into more modest settings, where it often provides the only meeting place that is neither a noisy fast-food restaurant nor a bar and that is often surprisingly multiracial.

Mosques and SEO

In terms of stories that sit across a cultural divide, nothing’s been bigger, or representative of journalism’s struggles to bridge those gaps, than reporting about the controversy over plans for a Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center towers destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks.  One idea that’s likely inflamed the debate is the use of the phrase “ground zero mosque” in the media, which suggests, incorrectly, that the community center is being constructed at the site of the former towers.  Mark Coddington at Nieman Labs has a good rundown of what a number of media critics have been saying about the use of this term.  While some blame cable news, others point to SEO.  As a term gains traction with the public, online news websites have to choose between using an incorrect term or making their content more difficult to find.  Coddington wrote:

Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride zeroed in on that idea of search-engine optimization, noting that the AP is being punished for their stand against the term “ground zero mosque” by not appearing very highly on the all-important news searches for that phrase. In order to stay relevant to search engines, news organizations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold, she concluded. In response, McBride suggested pre-emptively using factchecking resources to nip misconceptions in the bud. “Now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions — even when we know better — we should be prepared,” she said.

Coddington also pointed out that Online Journalism Review’s Brian McDermott pinpointed our news consumption patterns as the culprit for the proliferation of incorrect terms for things.  As we move more quickly from media to media, terms like “ground zero mosque” have more sticking power than Park51 or the Cordoba Center.

The tough choice of deciding between content discovery and accuracy is the same one I wrote about regarding the phrase “sissy bounce” and New Orleans artists’ distaste for the term.  In a pretty interesting, but unrelated thread, Anthony Neal, a scholar who studies Black popular culture, posted some tracks from New Orleans in the 1960s that refer to a dance called “The Sophisticated Cissy.”  Still, even if the term “sissy” may have some interesting connections to New Orleans musical history, it’s important to remember that contemporary artists don’t use the term to identify their work.

Memo for weeks of August 1 and August 8

The last two weeks haven’t been very productive for my independent study as I’ve had stories or projects due for other classes.  Though I was too late to shadow youth reporters covering teen depression as part of a Community TV Network summer program, I was able to watch the youth film their introduction sequences, get a sense of the group dynamic and talk to some of the youth who produced this summer’s report.

This week, I plan to follow up with the community organizations who nominated people for WBEZ’s Pritzker Fellowship and finish synthesizing and writing stories based on the reporting that I’ve already done.  I still need to connect with news organizations focused on African-American communities such as WVON, the Defender and/or some south-side bloggers writing about community news.

On the topic of African-American news coverage, I took a look at a Pew Research Center report titled Media, Race and Obama’s First Year, which analyzed media coverage of African Americans during the past year.

Events and Individuals Dominate African American News Coverage

This graph shows the way African Americans were covered in the media, “as a group, African Americans attracted relatively little attention in the U.S. mainstream news media during the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency — and what coverage there was tended to focus more on specific episodes than on examining how broader issues and trends affected the lives of blacks generally.”

According to the study, African-American angles to broad national stories were covered as part of reporting on health care reform and the economy, though these topics made up less than 10 percent of coverage focused on African Americans.

The Pew Research Center also did analysis on coverage of Gates’ arrest in the African-American press.  According to Pew’s analysis:

the discussion and columns offered here took a starkly different angle than the commentary in the mainstream press. While the mainstream media largely assessed political implications for President Obama, the commentary in the black press considered the broader question of race relations in the U.S.  It was also evident that these papers saw themselves as a voice of the black community.  Even within the opinion columns, there was a clear sense of providing an African American perspective to the story. The tone, however, in many cases, came across as less “us” versus “them” and more of an assessment of steps needed from all sides.

This report gives me some background context for asking about coverage of Chicago stories, such as the slaying of Derrion Albert and how it was covered in different media.  I would love to see similar media analysis just for Chicago, but I think that’s beyond the scope of what I’m able to do.

On Tavis Smiley’s radio show this week, Smiley and CBS correspondent Byron Pitts discuss the need for more diverse news coverage.  Pitts said he was optimistic that the changing demographics of the U.S. would compel news organizations to have more diverse coverage and reporters that reflect the country’s diversity.  When I talked to a team of Tribune reporters, they offered a very nuanced account of race in the newsroom that I’m excited to write up.  The Tribune reporters said that race sometimes mediated their reporting but that a good reporter should be able to navigate racial boundaries on her beat.  Having a similar experience with race, the reporters said, could help connect with sources, but experiences with class could still be dramatically different, and were sometimes masked by assumptions about experiences tied to race.  One reporter said she still found a lack of economic diversity in the newsroom.

On a final race and reporting note, Colorlines analyzed some data about mentions of race in the news and argue that conservative publications explicitly mention race with greater frequency than other news organizations.  The data suggests that race gets mentioned across the media and Colorlines seems to think that controversy over, rather than experience with race gets the most coverage.  It makes me want to take a second look at how or if race was addressed in the Tribune’s reporting on youth violence.

From “Working” by Studs Turkel

This was on a scrap of paper on my wall for months.  It was part of an attempt at new songwriting processes.  I’m not sure whether it worked or not.  The passage still describes Chicago, even if the characters have changed a bit.

“A commonly observed phenomenon: during the early evening hour, trains, crowded, predominantly by young white men carrying attache cases, pass trains headed in the opposite direction, crowded, predominantly by middle-aged black women carrying brown paper bags.  Neither group, it appears, glances at the other.”


I live in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.  When I tell people where I live, I’m often  asked “why Lakeview?” or given a glum, “oh.  That’s cool.”  My friends in Chicago don’t live in the neighborhood.  People think of it for the college town style bars in Wrigleyville, or going to The Alley when they were teenagers to get punk gear. I find that I’ve started to preempt the “Why Lakeview?” question with a quick explanation that I moved to that neighborhood because it had good neighborhood public schools and I moved to Chicago with 2 school-aged roommates.  This explanation seems to satisfy most people, but it doesn’t resonate.  Before this move, public schools aren’t something I would have factored into my neighborhood choice either.

When I talk to long-time Chicagoans who live in other neighborhoods, it makes me anxious.  In a city so defined by racial and economic segregation, I worry that people will think of me only in terms of perceptions of my neighborhood.  I will become only the privilege or ability or ability derived from privilege that gives me the means to pay the neighborhood’s above average rents.  And that is true, it is a part of my reality and who I am, but it’s not everything, just as the mostly white, mostly young, mostly professional folks living in condos are a part of the reality of lakeview, but not everything.

In terms of income, Lakeview looks like the table:

Income Diversity (by Families) in LAKE VIEW
1970 1980 1990 2000
# % # % # % # %
Low Income 9192 33% 7843 39% 3987 26% 2520 18%
Moderate Income 11553 42% 7480 37% 4962 32% 3305 23%
High Income 6748 25% 4807 24% 6325 41% 8393 59 %
Total 27492 100% 20131 100% 15274 100% 14219 100%
View 2005 Income Diversity Data

View 2005 Estimates and 2010 Projections

Note: Low income = families with annual income < $38,622, moderate income = families with annual income $38,622 – $78,825, families with annual income > $78,825.

Read full data and analysis.

In terms of race, the neighborhood looks like this:

Note that there’s no Latino group because the way that the 2000 census (and, I guess, subsequent EASI surveys) treat Spanish-speaking people is that they’re counted in the other racial groups. I’m told that most report themselves as white or other. The only breakdown of Latino or Spanish speaking people is relative to white folks who don’t identify as Latino or Hispanic. For Lakeview, this looks like this:

I’ve decided that it is reductive to, by my discomfort in owning up to where I live, define the place where I live only by the 59 percent of families that have high incomes or the nearly 79 percent that are white.  This ignores the 18 percent of low income families who found some way to work themselves into the neighborhood, perhaps in order to send their kids to a functional, vibrant public school.  It ignores the queer youth of color who come to the neighborhood so they can be out; and institutions like the Links Hall dance and performance space; the Chicago Womens Health Center, the LGBTQ community center, Center on Halsted; and  the Lakeview Action Coalition.

I can’t really say what all these parts mean, whether they’re bad or good, just that they’re part of the neighborhood.  When we think of place only by its biggest or loudest components we think of the way that they change in frightening terms, as one thing consuming or threatening another, instead of transformation or evolution.  I want to see the places in my life for everything that they are and might be.

Note: All the data from this post is from the fabulous Metro Chicago Information Center.  The photo is from Google Maps.

Graffiti Panic

This is a letter to the editor that I just submitted in response to an editorial in today’s H-T, Graffiti not art; it is vandalism:

I was disappointed by today’s editorial condemning graffiti.  Rather than fostering a nuanced and frank dialog about complicated issues like the state of public and private spaces in Bloomington, the editorial’s intention seemed only to attempt to induce panic.  Why even mention the specter of gang violence when the police department confirms that graffiti in Bloomington has no relation to such violence?  Furthermore, I am disappointed by the brief mention of the “broken windows theory”  and other studies outside of the context of a broader body of research.  This theory, like many sociological theories, is still being widely debated.  For instance, one study by researchers Robert J. Sampson of Harvard University and Stephen W. Raudenbush of the University of Michigan suggests that rather than being inherently problematic to the well-being of a neighborhood, graffiti (among other things) invokes deep-rooted anxieties and prejudices that people have about changing class and race dynamics of a community.  Ultimately, I am far more concerned about the high costs of renting spaces, barriers to starting businesses, and difficulty finding employment in Bloomington.  If we do not address these factors, graffiti may be the only way that many can participate in Bloomington’s downtown.

Struggling Toward Diversity

The ethnic makeup of my old high school, from greatschools.com.
The ethnic makeup of my old high school, from greatschools.com.

Next week is spring break for IU and public school students in Bloomington.  I have heard that many students’ spring break trips to Mexico have been cancelled because of parental fears related to reports of drug-trade related violence in Mexico.  Bz came over last night for dinner and brought some mole sauce she got on her somewhat-recent trip there.  My own cultural tourism happens across the street from my job at an international market that is run by an ambiguously related group of South Asians and Latino People.  Eating good, exotic food is a wonderful, exciting experience, but it’s a far too cheap and easy (but frequent) way to think of diversity.  Since diversity is something that comes up a lot when I talk about thinking of moving, I feel like I need to have more of a definition for what I want.

This is hard because, as I read Sundown Towns and find so much of the geography of racial segregation (the West Shore of the Susquehanna; Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio; Crossville, Tennessee) is familiar to me, and see school statistics realizing the racial makeup of my high school, it is something that remains unreal, idealized, even mythic to me.  Hopefully this can be a start.

Diversity is:

  • Not celebrated in atomic festivals, media campaigns, concerts, or commemorative months or days.  It is a constant, pervasive, and unforgettable sense of how my life and the lives of those around me is mediated by race, ethnicity, culture, gender, body, and sexual orientation, among other things.
  • An understanding that confusion and conflict between people is often grounded in cultural context and differing experiences.
  • A search for those shared experiences and values that transcend different experiences and histories without the expectations that we can or should share all these things.

Sundown Towns past and present

I’m in the process of reading the book Sundown Towns and I just started the chapter about “triggers”, or events that Whites used to rationalize running all the Black residents out of town.

I was just watching PBS’ Independent Lens when I saw this documentary about Tulia, Texas.  The story sounded all too familiar …

If you say it enough times …

From my pretty removed perspective, I know that there is homophobia in some Black communities.  This dynamic has been getting a lot of attention lately due to reports, which I wrote about earlier, that Black voters in California were instrumental in the state’s electorate passing Proposition 8.  While I believe that homophobia is a complicated problem, one that draws on competing narratives of sexuality, gender, and yes, race; and that all kinds of people suffer from and perpetuate homophobia, I didn’t really question the reports of the role of Black people and the success of proposition 8.

Luckily, some did, including this statistical analysis of voting demographics and proposition 8 which comes to the conclusion that “There Were So Many More White, Latino and Asian Votes in Favor of Proposition 8 That Blaming Black Folks is Both Bad Math and Racist Scapegoating of the Highest Order”.  Ultimately, though, the point isn’t who is responsible for Prop 8’s success, it’s the fact that it passed in the first place.  Reporting that simplifies incredibly nuanced issues and the scapegoating that follows masks the fact that there is so much that we all need to do, whether it’s addressing homophobia in the Black community, or in the culture at large, or racism within mainstream queer political groups or racism in the culture at large.

Today, as I was driving to work, I heard a crazy advertisement for a Burger King chicken sandwich on te radio.  The story in the advertisement was a conversation between two construction workers.  The younger worker whistled or said “hey baby” or something like that.  He was reprimanded by the older worker because he wasn’t hollering at a woman.  The younger worker replied that he was hollering at the chicken sandwich because it was so hot.  The older construction worker corrected him, telling him in the future, that he should only make catcalls at women and not sandwiches because construction workers “have a reputation to uphold”.

So this is one of those jaw droppers where you can’t even begin to pick it apart and you’re just kind of in this “damn, that’s sexist” stupor.   What really bothers me about the commercial is that it makes street harassment something that construction workers do instead of something that happens throughout our culture.

If you look through websites like Holla Back NYC that document street harassment, you’ll find plenty of reports of being harassed by construction workers.  I worry that, even in doing the important work of problematizing street harassment, we end up problematizing it only in the context of something construction workers do.  This is certainly easier, because we can just add sexism to all the other race and class stereotypes that are easy to apply to certain types of workers.  But, does it change anything?  Even if, by some statistical analsysis, we were able to determine that construction workers harass people on the street more than other groups of people, it’s not just something that happens.  Street harassment, as is the case with other assertions of or attacks on gender, is affected by forces that span our culture and history, and that affects us all.   Affirming, “construction workers harass women”, doesn’t do very much to change these cultural forces.

Growing up in a, at least supericially, politicaly conservative, monoculural place, sexism and homphobia weren’t abstract, but imagining the realities for women and queer people, if you weren’t either, was incredibly difficult.  Still, I knew many men and straight people who lived differently from the sexism and homophobia that could have easily been considered the norm, whether they had the benefit of a culture that made them critical thinkers or not.  The danger of the media analysis of Black people and Prop 8 or ads featuring sexist construction workers is that it makes it so much more difficult for people who defy the stereotypes.  If you’ve never really thought about it, it’s just so much easier to go along with the expectation that people of your racial group are homophobic or that people who do your kind of work holler at women, then trying to think about these things criically from multiple directions.  If you already have to confront so many stereotypes, it seems like it would suck to have to prove that you’re not homophobic or not sexist instead of just being an ally to queer folks and women.

Ultimately, I’m disappointed that we find it so easy to find a scapegoat instead of starting to do the work, and having the conversations, that need to happen now, as much as ever.