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The United States grapples with a deep digital divide in which those who need broadband access the most—the poor in rural areas—are the least likely to be connected. But it’s been a challenge for advocates to understand the full scope of the problem nationally, and for local and regional governments to suss out where their most underserved constituents live. Part of the problem is what advocates have long argued is an undercount of the unconnected population by the U.S. agency charged with overseeing internet access.
According to a new report by the company Broadband Now, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission may have underestimated the number of Americans without access to high-speed internet by 20 million people. The researchers also found that those undercounts tended to be greater in states with a higher rural population, meaning the rural poor aren’t getting the funding they need to get connected.
While there are local funding initiatives, states depend significantly on federal dollars, the distribution of which is determined by the FCC’s measurement of who does and doesn’t have have access to broadband. Most recently, the FCC approved a $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity fund to narrow America’s digital gap, starting with the census blocks that the agency’s data show are least connected. But if the FCC’s count is off, funding will be, too.
And that has consequences. More reliable connection can translate to better job opportunities for working rural poor, more competition among farmers, and better education for kids. “For rural areas to be vibrant, with good remote working jobs and competitive economies, everybody needs access to broadband internet,” says John Busby, the managing director of Broadband Now, which pushes for better transparency between internet service providers and their consumers.
The FCC’s latest deployment report, released in May, calculates that 93.7 percent of the American population have broadband access in their area, leaving only 21.3 million Americans without high-speed internet. But when researchers at Broadband Now crunched their own numbers, their analysis suggest the actual number of Americans without broadband access is 42 million—double FCC’s figure. (And that doesn’t account for people who can’t live in areas with broadband infrastructure, but can’t afford it.)
“Frankly, I was surprised about how big the gap was when I got the data back. I’d assumed it was smaller,” says Busby. “It really sheds the light on the need to have better reporting.”
To get its estimate, the Broadband Now team manually ran 11,663 randomly selected addresses through the “check availability” tool of nine large internet service providers that claim to serve those areas. All in all, the team analyzed 20,000 provider-address combinations. A fifth of them indicated that no service was available, suggesting to the researchers that companies may be overstating their availability by 20%, Busby says. The results also show that 13% of the addresses served by multiple providers didn’t actually have available service through any of them. They then applied these rates across the country to get their final estimate of 42 million people without broadband.
The disparity between their estimate and the FCC’s largely comes from the agency’s reliance on Form 477 reports, in which internet providers self-report the locations they serve. Providers can claim to serve the population of an entire census block if service is provided to just one household in that block. After the release of FCC’s May report, the agency’s Democratic commissioners dismissed the report, berating their colleagues for “blindly accepting incorrect data” and using the numbers to “clap its hands and pronounce our broadband job done.”
A state-by-state breakdown of the data further uncovers a wide range of gaps between Broadband Now’s estimates and FCC’s, depending how rural or urban each state is. “We found that in states that are inherently more rural, there’s a much bigger gap between FCC estimates and ours than in a densely populated city or in states that are primarily urban,” says Busby, whose team compared the data to the “urban percentage” of each state’s population.
In Mississippi, where less than half of the population live in urban areas, the FCC’s coverage is over-reported by 20%. Similarly, in Arkansas where 56% of the population are urban, the coverage rate is overstated by 23%. Meanwhile, in states like California and Massachusetts, where the urban percentage is above 90%, the gap between FCC and Broadband Now’s coverage estimates hovers under 5 points.
The results point to why Form 477 data is especially detrimental to rural areas, where census blocks are bigger and more sparsely populated. That means houses are spread further apart, so while one house may be able to reach a wired line, the family next door—a few miles over—cannot.
The FCC did not respond to a request for comment, but in August, it announced that it would improve the accuracy of its count by requiring providers to submit geospatial maps of exactly where they provide service. Those maps, according to the new FCC order, would also be checked against crowdsourced information from the public. But the FCC doesn’t plan on implementing that upgrade until after the first distribution phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity fund, which will allocate $16 billion to census blocks that the agency’s data show is “wholly unserved” by internet providers.
That has states concerned over whether they will get their “fair share” of the fund, as Jeff Sural, who heads North Carolina Department of Technology’s broadband infrastructure office, put it to State Scoop. In North Carolina, for example, where the FCC overestimates broadband coverage by more than half a million people according to Broadband Now, state officials have had to turn to other data sources such as resident surveys to figure out who needs broadband funding the most.
In 2018, Georgia’s community affairs department began making its own county-level broadband coverage map as well. The first phase of the project, in which it mapped three counties, has already proved to be a labor- and time-intensive undertaking that involved working with municipal government to build an extensive database of all residential and business locations, and negotiating with broadband providers to get location data. But it also showed that in those three counties alone, the FCC data vastly overstated coverage.
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North American visitors to the shopping corridors of Tokyo and Osaka may be surprised to find brands they’d written off as dead at home. In between the Uniqlos, Lawsons, Tokyu Hands, and other domestic chains that dominate the streets of Japanese cities, you’ll see American names that you’ll recognize from the nearest dead or dying mall: Toys ‘R’ Us, Tower Records, Barney’s, and Dean & Deluca. They echo U.S. chains that have been gone bankrupt in their homeland and yet survive, even thrive, in Japan and other Asian markets.
What gives, an American tourist—or at least this tourist, who recently traveled to Kyoto and Tokyo—wonders? At least according to four experts on the Japanese retail industry, there are as many explanations as there are chains living out what seem to be second lives.
In Asia, most chains that bear the name of an American company are independent entities with a licensing agreement. So the decisions that made one company go belly-up in the United States wouldn’t necessarily bear on stores in Japan or its neighbors.
For example, Toys ‘R’ Us Inc. filed for bankruptcy in the U.S. in 2017, having incurred billions of dollars in debt that prevented it from making necessary investments and updates to huge brick-and-mortar footprint. The following year, the erstwhile category killer shuttered nearly 800 of its big-box stores, becoming an icon of the American “retail apocalypse.” The brand relaunched in the U.S. this fall after restructuring.
The story has been different across the Pacific. Toys ‘R’ Us Asia severed ties with its American parent company in 2018, allowing it to focus its business strategy on developing the Asian market, including a plan to open 68 new stories in Japan and China. As it is, the brand has long dominated the Japanese toy sector. Toys ‘R’ Us entered the country’s retail market in 1991 as one of the earliest U.S. brands to break through Japan’s complicated distribution and regulatory regime, which traditionally force customers to pay some of the highest prices in the world. Now the toy giant dictates to manufacturers, with few rivals and widespread name recognition.
“The reason they’ve survived is because of how well they’ve marketed themselves, plus very low competition in the sector,” said Roy Larke, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Waikoto in New Zealand, and an expert on retailing and consumer behavior in Japan.
American brands still carry cachet
Japan also holds an appreciation for certain storied American imports. Luxury food retailer Dean & DeLuca may be closing stores in New York City as debts pile up, but its 50 locations across Japan are going strong. Beyond upscale deli cookies, shoppers may be flocking for the Manhattan-tinged universe that Dean & Deluca conjures up. “I think that retail stores in Japan that are American, and identified with American culture and taste, have a cachet in Japan that is apart from the way these same brands are viewed in the U.S.,” said David Flath, a professor of economics with a focus on retail at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
W. David Marx, a Tokyo-based journalist and author, put it this way: “It’s an imported brand that exists in a fantasy world where Sex and the City is still on air.”
Another example in Tokyo shopping malls is Barneys Japan, which licenses its name from the upscale Manhattan department store brand that recently declared bankruptcy. Like Dean & Deluca, its success is helped by having bottled a certain idea of Western luxury. “It lives on as an American fantasy, rather than the real American experience,” Marx said.
Density, density, density
For decades, the California-based chain Tower Records was the ultimate emporium for music lovers, peaking with 200 stores worldwide in the mid-1990s. But years of debt and shifts in how consumers access music forced it into bankruptcy, and all of its U.S. stores shuttered in 2006.
In Japan, however, the music never died. Tower Records still has a major presence in Tokyo and Osaka. The stores are no longer owned by the U.S. company, but the familiar yellow-and-red signage and multi-floor layout can give American shoppers flashbacks to the pre-piracy era.
A few factors explain Tower’s persistence in Japan. First, many Japanese listeners still consider obtaining actual CDs or even vinyl LPs an important sign of their fandom for artists. In 2016, Quartz reported that nearly 80 percent of music sales were on hard copies. That translates to shopping environments: “You have to own the objects, and there has to be a place to buy the objects, and that is part of why physical retail stores last a lot longer,” said Marx.
Recently, online shopping—via mega-purveyors such as Amazon and its Japanese competitor Rakuten—has been eating into Japan’s physical retail sales in nearly every sector. That is especially true for items that don’t need to be closely inspected before buying, such as books and CDs, Flath said.
But a tight-packed population sets Japan apart, said Marx and Larke: The country is about ten times as dense as the United States, and that makes a big difference for retailers with an urban foothold. For example, most of the 40 million people that live in the Tokyo metropolitan area alone can reach the city center in about an hour, Marx pointed said. In shopping hotspots such as Shibuya City—which boasts the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, and the flagship store for Tower Records Japan—the huge volume of foot traffic can keep new and old retailers alive into the e-commerce future. Such city center locations allow retailers to be “part of the customers’ daily file,” Iwao Hosoda, the associate director of marketing and communications for the real estate services firm CBRE Japan, wrote via email.
In contrast, many of the large chains that recently disappeared in the U.S. had vast chains of big-box stores spread out across thinly populated rural and exurban parts of the country. The real estate was cheap, but that space-hungry format was vulnerable to e-commerce, and the empty structures and parking lots that scroll by on cross-country drives are a testament to their inefficiency.
Japan’s population is aging and declining, and wages have stagnated. Suburban-style American shopping formats are becoming more popular there, too. (Costco: literally big in Japan.) And as more shoppers move online, store inventories and layouts are likely to change.
Still, for now, as long as the population is dense, mobile, and large enough, brick-and-mortar stores can survive off the sheer number of shoppers that pass by every day. “The scale is just so big that you can almost always open something new,” said Marx. “People will still line up for it.”
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What We’re Following
Place a wager: Since 1980, America has shifted toward a knowledge-based economy that concentrates more people and jobs into a smaller number of leading “superstar” cities. That’s grown economic inequality between metro areas, but new research shows it has also generated another disparity within those places: the wage gap.
As America’s largest metro areas have grown, so has the gulf in pay, with wage growth for the highest-paid workers at roughly triple that for the lowest paid. In some cities, the disparity is even wider. Back in 1980, not a single one of the 10 largest metros in the country was among the most unequal for wages. By 2015, five of America’s 10 largest metros—New York City, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C.—were ranked among the most unequal. CityLab’s Richard Florida has the details: Wage Inequality Has Surged in American Cities
More on CityLab
Eyes on the Tweets
In response to our story last week about the
Navigation trouble is just one of the potential problems with naming transit stations after companies. Another: They give riders the misimpression that transit doesn’t need public money. Revisit Kriston Capps’ story on “namewashing” with Walker’s imagery in mind.
What We’re Reading
See how the world’s most polluted air compares with your city’s (New York Times)
Small American farmers are nearing extinction (Time)
What happened after Trump officials killed a school integration program (Chalkbeat)
The one-traffic-light town with some of the fastest internet in the U.S. (New Yorker)
New York has an old-timey plan to fix its traffic future (Wired)
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Growing up as a member of the Ojibwe tribe, Melissa Walls knew that that diabetes ran in her maternal family. “I’ve lost two very close family members, my great grandfather and an uncle, to complications related to type 2 diabetes,” she says. But it wasn’t until she began studying American Indian health in graduate school, at the suggestion of another uncle who served as a liaison between academics and local tribal communities, that she understood that her family’s plight was part of a much larger problem.
American Indian adults are more than twice as likely as white adults to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, according to the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Native American youth experience the highest and fastest-growing rate of the disease of any racial or ethnic group. But those statistics only scratch the surface of the kinds of health disparities that indigenous people face.
Nationally, the average life expectancy for a Native American person born today is 73 years—5.5 years below that for all other races. Members of this community, adolescents in particular, also experience much higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide and suicidal behaviors. In fact, while the national suicide rate has gone up 33 percent since 1999, the rates for Native American women and men have jumped by an alarming 139 percent and 71 precent, respectively, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You could take almost any health outcome and find health inequity for tribes,” Walls says. “I mean, take your pick.”
The health statistics reflect a dire economic reality—1 in 4 Native Americans live in poverty, the highest rate compared to all other races—and the massive gap in medical resources available to this population. The Indian Health Service, which runs clinics and hospitals for Native Americans, spent $3,332 per person in 2017, compared to $9,207 spent on each person in the national health care system, according to a 2018 report on funding shortfalls by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Walls knows from experience: Like the majority of American Indians, she grew up outside a reservation. Her family lived in International Falls, Minnesota, a town of about 6,000 people—mostly white—near the Canadian border. But to access health services, her family had to go to the nearest reservation. “We drove an hour literally to go to the doctor, to go to the dentist, to get our eyes checked,” she says. “But when you grow up in that context, you don’t label it as an inequity or disparity. It’s just sort of your reality.”
More than two-thirds of Native Americans now live in urban areas, not reservations. That reflects 1950s-era federal policy designed to encourage American Indians living on reservations to urbanize, in the name of speeding “assimilation” (and freeing up tribal lands for federal exploitation). The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Urban Relocation Program of 1952 and the federal Indian Relocation Act of 1956 offered promises of job training and housing for the new arrivals; the hope was that moving to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis would allow more Native Americans to participate in the postwar economic boom. But in practice the relocation policy was “essentially a one-way bus ticket from rural to urban poverty,” as former Indian Affairs Commissioner Philleo Nash admitted in the 1960s.
Walls is now the head of the new Great Lakes hub of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for American Indian Health in Duluth, Minnesota, the city of 86,000 located three hours south of where she grew up. Her team currently works with 11 different tribal communities to better understand the health inequities that Native Americans experience, and try to correct them. The hub is just a 15-minute drive from the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe tribe, with whom Walls has been working closely on diabetes prevention. Among her research interests: how stress impacts can affect type 2 diabetes, and how culture and community can help to buffer the negative effects of modern lifestyles among Native Americans.
CityLab recently caught up with Walls to talk about possible solutions to health inequities among American Indians, and why the damage that government policies inflicted on this population has been so far-reaching. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Can you explain how government policy induced historical trauma in the indigenous population?
The historical trauma encompasses a lot of government actions like setting up reservations and marching people across the country. Then in the the 1950s and ’60s, the government started a relocation program to get [Native Americans] into urban areas, and give them job training programs. It failed miserably, like most of these things did, in part because the job training was woefully inadequate, and often [the jobs available] were temp work or summer employment, if anything.
People were taken out of their family support systems or cultural safety nets, thrown into these urban environments, and expected to survive. Certainly in some cities, native people have worked to try build those kinds of networks. But you are very much a minority in the urban context. I think the idea of not having access to not just your friends and your family, which we all need, but those particular aspects of cultural teachings of ceremony that creates a sense of spirituality, purpose, and belonging would be scary to anybody.
[The relocation policy] was rooted in this flawed idea that all people need to look and act like European Americans, and live the way they do. It’s shocking, if you go into some of these government records, just how blatantly plain the language is about how the goal was really to exterminate or assimilate.
That has impact on communities, and we see it play out in terms of mental health, substance abuse, suicide, and other chronic diseases.
You’ve been largely looking at diabetes—how does historical trauma fit into that story?
In the case of diabetes, one really tangible thing is what we call nutrition transition. In the Midwestern U.S., Ojibwe people once had a thing called a seasonal round, where with each season came new sources of food. In the springtime, you tap trees to get maple syrup. In the fall, you gather wild rice off the lake and you hunt deer. Every season had ways of getting [food] that burned a lot of calories.
Moving away from these ways of eating and getting your food, and suddenly relying on government-sponsored commodity programs [that included] flour, sugar, lard, butter, we start to see rates of obesity kind of going off the charts. And we continue to suffer the consequences.
And this trauma has affected multiple generations?
Some of the research we’ve done is really trying to link up negative health outcomes with specific policies. We’ve published a paper that demonstrates how families who’ve gone through those relocation programs have the worst health outcomes that we can track across three generations.
It’s based on survey data from members of eight tribal communities. We were able to track parents’ reports of their parents going through relocation. If they did, we saw a significant pathway where those [first-generation] parents might have had substance abuse issues, which led to substance abuse and depression in the [second-generation] parents. That led to them being not very good parents of their own kids—the third generation—who at the time were in adolescence. They had bad outcomes like delinquency and depression.
The article was published in 2012, but we continue to collect new data every year from that same cohort, so it’s an ongoing study.
Your research is mostly on communities that live within reservations, but what can you tell us about the current urban Native American population so far?
In our cohort study, the kids who grew up on the reservation, a good chunk of them now have moved on to cities, which is another thing that happens. People tend to migrate between cities and reservations. With our new data that’s being collected from that cohort, we’re going to be able to examine urban-rural differences.
What I do know is that the health issues that hit tribal people on reservations, some reports say they’re actually compounded and worse for people in the cities, for reasons like the lack of access to cultural protective factors and social networks. People are more likely to experience discrimination when they’re in an urban area. And there’s tons of research talking about how that hurts health.
What’s a common misconception about the indigenous community that you hope to dispel?
One of the big stories I’ve helped to push forward is that yes, we have these health inequities, but people on reservations and in urban areas also have really amazing positive stories. Like with positive mental health, when we started measuring it, our communities were off the charts compared to non-native people.
We found this measure created by a sociologist called Corey Keyes [that] assesses emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being across three domains using 14 different indicators. These items assess basically how much you’re flourishing or languishing in those domains. And the outcome was that the percentage of people in our sample who [reported] flourishing was much higher than what we had seen in other studies with non-Native samples.
So you can have these [inequity] issues, but also have vibrant and cultural richness, family centric [communities] with communal, take-care-of-one-another thinking.
And that has implications for all humans: that being embedded in your community is good for you, that being tied culturally to other people is good for you. It’s not just a dismal doom-and-gloom kind of story.
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More women than ever are serving as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, though still far fewer women than men reach this level. American women are being paid more in general, but still less than men. And according to new research, they’re also working more hours—again, however, fewer than men—and they are starting to outnumber men in part-time work. These disparities are even more pronounced when the women are mothers and the men are fathers, and they’re persistent, according to a report released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research last week.
“The role of the father still is to ‘bring in the bacon,’ and make money,” said Ariane Hegewisch, one of the authors of IWPR’s report. “The role of the mother is to work for pay but to [also] have the main care responsibilities.” It sounds like a sexist trope, but after analyzing the U.S. Current Population Survey through 2017 for workers ages 25 to 64, IWPR found that for the average worker, it’s true: Fathers work more hours than other men, and mothers work fewer hours than other women.
That’s not to discount the fact that women across the board have started working a whole lot more than they used to. In the last 40 years, women have picked up five more weeks of full-time work a year, while men are only working one more full-time week than before. For parents, the difference is greater over the same period: Mothers have worked 300 more paid hours a year since 1977, while fathers’ annual paid hours fell by 8 hours. Black mothers work the most paid hours of all mothers—on average, “104 hours more than Hispanic mothers, 89 hours more than White mothers, and 52 hours more than Asian mothers,”according to the report—as did white fathers, out of all fathers.
Marital status matters, too. Labor patterns for single mothers have gotten closer than ever to those of married mothers, but the average single mother still spends 3 percent more time working in a paid job each year. However, this isn’t true for black mothers, who on average work more when married than single. (Notably, the researchers didn’t have a way to take non-married but partnered women into account.)
The more things change for mothers, however, the more they stay the same. In 2000, more mothers than ever were participating in the labor market, and their effort bolstered the economy significantly. But after the early 2000s, that growth stagnated. And the “traditional” gender breakdown within the home persist: Women still do the majority of the home care and childcare work as compared to men.
In other countries, it’s common to see mothers working longer hours than fathers, Hegewisch says, especially when paid and unpaid work hours are combined. In the U.S., “families just cannot do more,” she said, without similar access to affordable childcare, paid family leave, or longer school days. If a family is raising a child in the U.S., “there is a limit of how much time they can put into the labor market,” Hegewisch said. That means even as mothers work more, fathers can’t afford to work less.
When both parents are working full-time and coming up against these limits, Hegewisch says it’s women who typically suffer professionally: “Because of globalization coupled with the internet and the fact you can work anywhere, anytime, the pressure to work long hours”—or to be present in the office for long hours—“has really increased in professional jobs. … It’s very hard to have two people doing those jobs.” The one who gets to do them is typically the man.
That’s also part of the reason why American women—especially those in their “prime working years” from 25 to 64—are so over-represented in part-time work, which is often more precarious, lower-paid, and includes fewer benefits than full-time work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than three-quarters of men and women working part-time do so voluntarily, but IWPR argues that “their reasons for working part-time work may nevertheless reflect economic constraints,” as a third of women who reported working fewer hours cited child-care issues and personal obligations as reasons for doing so. Of the workers that did report working part-time involuntarily, women make up half; the rate of involuntary part-time work for black and Hispanic women is more than double the rate for white women.
Some of the fixes for these dynamics seem self-evident: More paid family leave, stronger protections for part-time workers, a deemphasis on overwork, fairer scheduling practices, and limits on overtime.
But the nature of work is changing, Hegewisch says. Though the technological advancements introduced by AI threaten to make some kinds of jobs obsolete, especially those that disproportionately employ women, technology could also narrow these gender inequities, if harnessed correctly. “[We could use] the productivity that’s generated through new technology in a way to give people more time off,” she said. “And that for women makes it less penalizing to work, and it allows men to do more care.”
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EUREKA, Calif.—Cheryl A. Seidner sat on a folding chair near the dock, wearing a basket-woven ceremonial cap. She looked out over the sharp stalks of grass and the flurry of long-billed curlews perched in the marsh and said: “This is a blessing, to be able to come out here.”
The mile-long island where Seidner sat basking in the October sun is in the middle of California’s Humboldt Bay, near downtown Eureka. This land has long represented loss to her and the other members of the Wiyot Tribe, the region’s Native American people, who call it their spiritual home. Now as Seidner, a Wiyot elder and a former tribal chair, looks out at the land, she sees possibility.
After more than a century, Duluwat Island—also called Tuluwat Island, or Indian Island by non-Native people and Google Maps—belongs to the Wiyot people again. In October, the city of Eureka signed the island’s deed back over to the tribe, in what the National Congress of American Indians calls the United States’ first known voluntary municipal land return achieved without sale, lawsuit, or trade.
“You don’t see too many government entities giving back traditional ceremonial land to tribes,” Wiyot tribal chair Ted Hernandez .) Other skeptics worried the tribe would build a casino on the plot once the city passed on the deed, Bergel said.
Given the tidal patterns, which can engulf much of the island, the upfront investment needed for such a build, and the sacred value of the land, Bergel says any casino-building seems extremely unlikely. But by signing away the acres—no strings attached, forever, and for free—the city has also signed away the future of Duluwat. The Wiyot Tribe can, and should, do whatever they want there, she said.
Where a vacant building now sits, Seidner hopes the tribe can build a dance center, and changing rooms for men and women. She and the rest of the tribe are already planning a grand world renewal day ceremony for 2020, when they’ll dance for three days.
“We need to bring balance back, to get rid of all the addictions hidden in Humboldt County—children not having homes, being homeless, there’s a lot going on,” tribal chair Hernandez told KQED. “I feel that since we’re in Wiyot country, everybody here needs that healing. That’s why the world renewal ceremony is important to us.”
The city wants to help with fundraising for that event, says Bergel, and she also says the council is working to bring a tribal member “to the table” in City Hall. But she says the bulk of the healing work came this October.
“I’m hopeful now that when people—especially our young people —look at what happened with the island, with the massacre, that they will realize that making amends is the most important piece,” Bergel said. “[It’s] a small thing considering what they went through, but it’s critical.”
Even after the decades of pain, Seidner hasn’t held onto resentment for the white settlers of Eureka. “It all depends how you’re indoctrinated into the ugliness of a society,” Seidner said. “The way my mom put it and my dad put it is: It happened back then. The people of today are not your enemy. With that, you come along and say you’re not my enemy—be my supporter.”
Eddy Koch, the environmental director for the tribe, says he’s only just started exploring the 200 other acres that the Wiyot tribe now has to work with. But the change on this side of the island—where the Wiyots will celebrate world renewal day in March—is palpable, he says. Invasive spartina weeds have been cleared away, letting pickleweed and eelgrass flourish again, and opening up mudflats to shore birds. Egrets, who are said to be the souls of the Wiyot people watching over the island, peek out from the bushes.
“It’s ours!” Seidner yelled from the boat, as it pulled away from Duluwat’s shore. “Yee-ha!”
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Last year, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu published a book, In the Shadows of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, a personal narrative built around his decision to bring down four city monuments dedicated to Confederate and white supremacist causes. He wrote that he grew up with black people in New Orleans, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he realized that those monuments were offensive to black New Orleanians. ( His buddy, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, had to explain it to him.) Former Nola.com columnist Jarvis DeBerry pointed out the difficulty of reconciling this, writing that the book’s “saddest and most significant reminder” was that while “white people can choose not to see or think about race … black people can’t.”
Since his book’s release, Landrieu, currently a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, has embarked on a tour of the South to learn the extent to which white people in this region have been blind to racism. He recently announced the launch of an initiative called E Pluribus Unum that will confront the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and develop strategies that he hopes will break down the barriers that lead to racial inequities. Last week, the initiative released “Divided by Design,” a near-100 page report summarizing what Landrieu learned about how racism continues to function and dominate throughout the South.
What he learned: There is a wide gap between how white Southerners understand the effects of historical racism on black lives today and how African Americans understand it. Most whites surveyed believed that black Southerners are mostly responsible for their own economic and educational shortcomings, and that the vestiges of slavery and segregation have little to do with it. As for reparations or repayment of wealth and capital stolen from African Americans: While black Southerners support it in one form another, for white Southerners, forget it.
Latinos were also included in some of the focus groups, and where they stood on race was often middle of the road, with small pluralities of them believing that historical racism does hold African Americans back. But in some of the cities with larger Latino populations, the Latino population seemed more in alignment with white Southerners—many believed that African Americans are too lazy and irresponsible to get ahead.
Landrieu’s tour was spread across 12 cities, 28 communities, and three regions: Northwest Arkansas, the Mississippi Delta, and Central Appalachia. Working with PolicyLink and GBAO Strategies, they conducted one-on-one interviews and focus groups, speaking with more than 800 people over an 11-month stretch, starting in 2018. The team conducted an additional survey with roughly 1,800 people by phone—600 from each racial group. They spoke with both college-educated people from each race and those without degrees, with the discussions focused mostly on whether African Americans were getting a fair shake in educational and employment opportunities in the United States.
“Most white people don’t have a full understanding of our past or how it shapes our lives today,” said Landrieu on a press call. “The legacies of slavery and Jim Crow are visible everywhere you look, if you really care to look.”
“People will still hate you even if there’s no monument there”
Of all of the places Landrieu visited along his tour, there wasn’t really any place where black and white people were on the same page about America’s racist past, its future, or even its present. Overall, 70 percent of African Americans surveyed said that the heritage of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation made living in America harder for them. But 70 percent of white respondents weren’t trying to hear that. And while nearly 72 percent of black Southerners surveyed said they supported reparations for African Americans, nearly 80 percent of whites said absolutely not.
To understand why white Southerners are so vehemently against even looking at, let alone compensating for the South’s racist heritage, you have to delve into the responses from each of the locales.
In Montgomery, Alabama, white participants said “they saw no value in discussing or dwelling on the legacy of racism”—this in a city saturated with Confederate monuments and memorabilia. One participant said the National Memorial for Peace and Justice— otherwise known as the “lynching memorial”—built last year near downtown Montgomery, is an “affront to white people.”
In Charleston, South Carolina, white respondents said racism was fabricated by the media and politicians, while defending the Confederate markers and monuments around their city. African Americans there overwhelmingly embraced reparations, though not as a direct payment. White Charlestonians were “unwilling to discuss it.”
In New Orleans, reactions were mixed. White participants were highly supportive of the removal of several white supremacist city monuments—a crowning achievement for Landrieu during his term as mayor. This support came mainly from college-educated whites who were also “very receptive” to reparations. In 2016, a University of New Orleans survey found that white New Orleanians generally opposed the monuments’ removal. Any white support for their removal, by and large, came from those who were already in Mayor Landrieu’s camp. ”In other words, among whites, approval of the mayor is largely a function of their opinions on the monument removal,” reads the UNO study.
Meanwhile, some black New Orleanians said that taking down the monuments was useless. One responded that “people will still hate you even if there is no monument there,” a sentiment that perhaps sheds some light on how Landrieu grew up among black people without knowing that the Confederate monuments were offensive: It’s possible the black folk he lived around weren’t paying them any mind.
“Everyone’s suffered; don’t dwell on it”
It actually wasn’t uncommon to hear some black respondents in a handful of cities say they also opposed things like reparations and examining the impact of slavery’s legacy today. This was equally and often more true among Latino participants, who were part of the focus groups in Miami, Houston, and Charleston. Latinos opposed rummaging among such ideas, though, for different reasons than their black counterparts. Black men in Jackson said they “had seen no evidence in their own lives that discussion of the clear evidence of racism produces any promise of change,” according to the report.
But most of the Latinos surveyed didn’t want to deal with historical anti-black racism because they thought the discussion itself was problematic:
- In Miami, Latino respondents said “there are higher levels of poverty and violence in poor black neighborhoods than in poor Latino neighborhoods, because black people lack a sense of responsibility and ‘pride of ownership’ in their communities.”
- Latino groups in Charleston, complained that black people “always complain about everything,” play the “race card,” and mostly “bring on themselves” whatever problems black communities are facing. As for examining the history of slavery and Jim Crow, one Latino participant said, “Everyone’s suffered; don’t dwell on it.”
- In Houston, while black groups felt the city needed to “face our collective history of racial division and abuse head on,” the Latino group’s position was summarized in the report as feeling that “there is a lot of negative emotions tied up in the battles of the past, and that we are better off just focusing on the future.”
In each of the cities, Latinos’ feelings about the economic doldrums of black communities hewed closely to how white people felt about it: That African Americans can’t get ahead because of poor parenting and bad life choices, not racism. Meanwhile, none of the cities where Latinos were surveyed showed Latinos sharing any kind of economic parity with whites, not even in the cities where Latinos were majorities. In Miami, where Latinos make up 70 percent of the population, only 48 percent of Latino residents have the college credentials necessary for Miami’s highest-skilled jobs, compared with 71 percent of the white population.
Two paths through the South
The same week of the E Pluribus Unum report, The New York Times also published a dispatch on race from a tour of the South. As part of its series “The American Road Trip,” four writers and photographers were sent out to cover regions of the U.S. to build narratives around four themes: patriotism, community, tradition, and youth. The poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib was assigned the “community” theme and traveled to eight cities mainly along the eastern coast of the South, from Baltimore through Virginia and North Carolina, to several cities in South Carolina. Except for Charleston, there was no overlap with Landrieu’s tour, which mainly covered the Deep South’s innards.
While both narratives focused on race, the difference in approach was readily apparent: The E Pluribus report frames each location by its deficits—each city and region is introduced based on how low black (and in some cases Latino) wages and education levels are compared to those of whites. Abdurraqib introduces and frames each city he visited by how the black people among them are living, in terms of both beauty and struggle. The problems and disparities are present in Abdurraqib’s narrative—gentrification, economic deprivation, disaster, poor protection of queer and trans black folks. But they are carefully couched in tales that speak more to how black people are engaging with and enjoying each other, despite those problems.
When visiting Charlotte, Abdurraqib spent time with Malcolm Graham, an African American running for city council to represent the district that encompasses the black neighborhoods of the city’s historic west side. Graham speaks of how Amazon has been expanding its footprint into these black communities, bringing an unhealthy dose of rising living costs along with it. He confesses to Abdurraqib that he can’t stop gentrification, which is probably the most un-politician thing to do, but hopes he can “soften its impact” by persuading the city to offer low-interest home improvement loans to black families. Gentrification is far from the only threat, though. Writes Abdurraqib:
Mr. Graham is focused on gun control, too. His sister is Cynthia Graham Hurd, who was killed in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. “We don’t talk about how she died. We talk only about how she lived,” he says. He thinks for a moment, and then summons an old saying: “Sweat and tears are both salty, but they render different results. Tears get you sympathy, but sweat gets you progress.”
It’s a more vivid and fleshed out account of black life than the E Pluribus Unum offers, but both kinda arrive at the same point: that African Americans have been living in the South’s margins, and getting by the best they can regardless. Landrieu’s report offers plenty of tears; Abdurraqib helps you feel their sweat.
The next steps for Landrieu’s E Pluribus Unum organization is to launch a slate of strategies next year across the South based on the data they got from this research. One of those strategies will involve changing the narrative of the region—”empowering storytelling that highlights the impacts of racial injustice in our institutions to provide fuller context.”
Part of that must involve understanding how to approach the subject such that black people aren’t characterized solely by how much they don’t measure up to white people. It’s not just about finally seeing Confederate monuments as racist, but also about seeing black people as fully human.
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