When Child Welfare Cases Police Women in Their Homes

In the fast-gentrifying neighborhood of Harlem, you could sort most families into two categories, according to Joyce McMillan. There are those who have never given a thought to the idea that a government agency might threaten to remove their child. And then there are those who live with the fear that one wrong move could mean a child protective investigator will come knocking. If you’re wealthy and white, you likely fall in the first category. And if you’re poor and of color, chances are that you or someone close to you has experienced the terror of a child welfare investigation launched on dubious grounds.  

Over her years as a family advocate in the New York City neighborhood, McMillan, who founded the Parent Legislative Action Network, has heard many of these stories: teachers reporting families when kids are showing up late to school; emergency room doctors who don’t give poor parents the benefit of the doubt; vengeful ex-boyfriends making false allegations. That’s why when Covid-19 hit, McMillan posted a flier on every floor of a Harlem family shelter with the message to call her if child protective services knocked. She figured that with the city shut down, parents being investigated for child maltreatment would feel more scared and alone than ever.

But what McMillan has instead found is closer to a collective sigh of relief when it comes to child protective services. Parents who were already being investigated were pleased when much of the scrutiny moved out of their homes and online. One parent told her, “They’re not opening my refrigerator. They’re not opening my dresser drawers. They’re not strip-searching my children and they’re not asking me to take their clothes off for the camera, because that would be child pornography.” Other parents who have lived with the fear of future investigation say less contact with teachers means less worry that they’re going to be accused of mistreatment for “frivolous” reasons, says McMillan.

Data suggests parents are not imagining the change. Ever since schools around the country closed and children have sheltered at home, there has been a steep drop in calls to child maltreatment hotlines. One analysis estimates a drop of more than 200,000 allegations of child maltreatment in the U.S. reported in March and April over previous years. In New York City, child abuse reports dipped by 51% compared to the same eight-week period last year, according to the New York Times.

For kids experiencing real abuse, the closures and home confinement during coronavirus can mean danger if their cases aren’t investigated. Some ER doctors have said they are seeing fewer children, but more severe pediatric injuries linked to child abuse. And research has linked child mistreatment to heightened stress and economic hardship — two things rampant during this time of pandemic and protest. With families sheltering out of sight of teachers and other professionals who are legally mandated to report their suspicions, child advocates fear that mistreatment is going undetected and unreported.

“The risk to children increases when contact with mandated reporters, such as teachers and health care providers decreases,” Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark told the BronxTimes.

But there’s another side to this story: Some parents living in neighborhoods with historically high rates of child welfare investigations say the dramatic dip in maltreatment reports feels more like the pollution lifting — a much-needed respite from the intense and relentless surveillance of low-income moms, and especially those who are black and Latinx.

“I’ve been speaking to families and they’re saying they aren’t under the scrutiny of teachers,” says McMillan. “It’s feeling like a relief. We’ve been celebrating and ramping up the campaign around why mandated reporting is not necessary.”

McMillan likens the pre-lockdown tactics to the aggressive policing of young black and Latinx men, only for women, and in the most private of spaces: their own homes. “We’re casting a really wide net and shaking down families, and if we’re lucky, we find something,” she says.

Tips or “reports” to child maltreatment hotlines are how cities identify which children may not be safe at home. Anyone can make a report, but most come from teachers and other professionals who work with children and are required by law to report suspicions of abuse or neglect. For parents who are the subjects of these tips, the ensuing 60-day child welfare investigation can be a blunt, invasive instrument, one that involves unannounced home visits, body checks of kids, and interviews with a family’s teachers and neighbors. But the majority of tips and reports are never substantiated: Fewer than one in five of children investigated are found to be victims of abuse and neglect.

These allegations are not distributed equally by race and class. One study estimates that only 10% of Asian children and 23% of white children will experience a child welfare investigation before age 18. For African-American children, that percentage blows up to more than half, or 53%. In New York City, even among community districts with similar poverty rates, neighborhoods with higher concentrations of black and Latinx residents had, overall, higher rates of investigation, one analysis found. Nor does casting such a wide net come cheap. Philadelphia spends upward of $81 million in investigations alone.

Sam Chafee, a spokesman for New York City’s Administration of Child Services, said his agency is “very aware of and concerned about” racial bias in his own agency, and in other child services agencies across the U.S. He said his own staff members participate in implicit bias training, but that other individuals who are mandated to report suspicions of abuse should also be required to undergo training “so that reports to the SCR [Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse] are objective and result in help for children when truly needed.”

Like McMillan, Chris Gottlieb, co-director of NYU School of Law Family Defense Clinic, suspects that mandated reporting may do more harm than good. With so few reports substantiated, says Gottlieb, cities are “misdirecting resources away from the small percentage of cases where there is serious abuse, and away from what they should be used for, which is much-needed services like housing and health care.”

She’d like to see research comparing whether harm to children actually increased while children sheltered with their parents. “I think this could be a test where the numbers end up showing that we don’t need the mandated reporter system at all.”

Proponents of mandated reporting point to the cases of abuse that go undetected, and say it is preferable to err on the side of caution rather than allow children to suffer. Without mandated reporting, they fear, no one person will feel the responsibility to alert authorities to a child’s potential abuse or neglect. The question for advocates like Gottlieb is: How many of those unreported cases are actually solved by the current system, relative to the harm done by investigations.

“In neighborhoods that are inundated with Children’s Services, you get to the tipping point where it’s generally understood that this is a government authority that comes into a neighborhood and abuses its authority,” says Gottlieb. In these neighborhoods, the acronym of the child welfare organization, ACS, can be so well-known that it is batted around in schoolyard chatter as a threatening force akin to the police, Gottlieb adds. “People see Children’s Services as dangerous threats to their family.”

Before the pandemic, some parents worried constantly about their children getting hurt in the schoolyard only to have a teacher or doctor point the finger at them, says Nancy Fortunato, senior parent leader at Rise, an organization for parents with child welfare involvement. Fortunato knows one mother who, after enduring multiple investigations, began photographing her children each morning before they left for school so she had proof that they left her care unharmed. Another mother she knows lost her job for chronic lateness while trying to comply with the many service referrals by a child welfare investigator.

These parents, like parents everywhere, are now facing a cocktail of pandemic-related struggles: job loss, homeschooling children with disabilities, anxiety, depression, isolation, and loneliness. Many are also struggling with issues related to poverty, such as homelessness. But the stakes of showing their stress are different.

These last few months, as the smartphones of middle- and upper-class parents have flooded with reassuring articles about how it’s important to take it easy when it comes to remote schooling and to be gentle on yourself and your kids, Jessica Marcus has been charting a very different message sent to the low-income parents she works with. In what she fears may be the beginnings of a disturbing trend, Marcus, a supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, says her office has seen a handful of new clients who say when they called their children’s schools asking for help accessing the internet or securing devices for remote learning, the schools reported them to child protective services on suspicions of educational neglect. “Our clients find that when they ask for help, instead of help they get a report,” says Marcus.

The threat of child removal prevents many families from going to child care workers who might help them connect to crucial resources. While many child welfare systems have allocated more of their budgets to providing supports to stabilize vulnerable families, what is known as “foster care prevention,” advocates say the threat of monitoring and family break-up motivates parents to keep their distance.

Like Marcus, New York City parent advocates interviewed for this story all know parents who say teachers have directly or indirectly threatened to notify child welfare services for issues related to remote learning, like if a parent doesn’t turn the camera on during a class meeting. Nonetheless, they say that with school moved online, the monitoring of their parenting now is a whisper of what it once was.

Fortunato, who has herself been investigated, cautions parents not to get too comfortable with the quiet. “You always have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s, because tomorrow, when kids go back to school, child welfare will start knocking on people’s doors. …Those kids that didn’t do remote learning as they should, that’s educational neglect. Those kids that didn’t go see their doctors, that’s medical neglect.”

In an alternate future envisioned by Gottlieb, community members may be more empathetic after months of living through a pandemic —  and then national racial justice protests.

The litmus test, Gottlieb says: “When things reopen, will a teacher who sees a child coming to school in dirty clothes be as quick to pick up the phone, or will they reach out to the parent and say: Are you having trouble with quarters for the laundry machine? Can we help you?”

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What ‘Livability’ Looks Like for Black Women

Last September, the city of Pittsburgh released a report on gender and race disparities that concluded, perhaps to the city’s own shock, that Pittsburgh is the worst city for black women to live in by just about every metric. The aftermath of that bombshell was a bevy of columns and essays from black women either expressing vindication for leaving Pittsburgh or—for those still stuck there—questioning whether they should stay. Listing the many reactions to the report, local columnist Tereneh Idia wrote for Pittsburgh City Paper:

Then there was the “Should I stay or should I go?” battle among Black Pittsburghers. The shame of leaving, the pitying of those who want to stay. The “self-righteous” stay-camp, the “selfish” go-camp. The “self-preserving” go-camp and optimistic “we-built-this-city” stayers. Which also meant Black folks were arguing among ourselves (again) instead of looking at the systems, policies, and people responsible (again).

For the “should I go?” camp, there’s a question that also confronts many other American black women: Where exactly is a livable place for African-American women? To explore answers to this question, CityLab collaborated with one of the lead researchers of the Pittsburgh disparities report to look at a similar analysis across America’s largest cities. The result is a window into some of the best and worst cities for black women.

Of course, no ranking should obscure the fact that there is no city doing complete justice to black women’s lives. According to “The Status of Black Women in the United States” report, produced by The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, black women overall saw their median annual earnings decline by 5 percent between 2004 and 2014 despite the fact that the share of black women with at least a bachelor’s degree increased by 23.9 percent in that same time period. Today, black women earn roughly 61 cents for every dollar made by white men across the nation.

So the question of where black women move is often a matter of which city will fleece them the least. CityLab worked with urban sociologist Junia Howell to analyze where best metros for black women are located based on a ranked livability index. The index looks at inequities for black women in terms of income status, health conditions, and educational accomplishment. We also took the average values across all three of those categories to see how metros ranked for black women’s overall outcomes.

Unlike the initial research on Pittsburgh, this analysis looks at metropolitan areas rather than just the cities proper. We didn’t examine every urban metro in the U.S. given that population sizes could skew results—the effects might appear exaggerated in small metros with large numbers of black women, such as in some southern, rural places; or, where black women have tinier numbers in larger metros. Instead, we look at the 42 largest metropolitan areas with more than 100,000 black women residents for our rankings.

A few patterns emerge: First, as pictured in the chart above, black women’s livability experiences are generally worst in Midwestern cities. (And although Pittsburgh is not technically part of the Midwest, it has many traits common to the region.) Second, livability is generally best for black women in southern metros, from the Deep South, to several cities in North Carolina, to several metros closer to the Mason-Dixon line. And finally, while black women’s economic prospects are strongest in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) area, their health conditions—perhaps the most critical metric for livability—lag significantly there compared to other regions.

Looking across all criteria, the one metro that jumps out is Washington, D.C., which ranks above all metros in educational, economic, and overall outcomes, with its neighbor Baltimore following close behind in each of these categories. However, Baltimore ranks well below the median in health outcomes, a reflection of the city’s extraordinarily high rates of maternal and infant mortality, cancer, domestic violence, police violence, and poverty.

A recent public forum held at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health examined how the unique health problems among Baltimore’s black women can be traced to the city’s long history of racial segregation and slavery—including the complicity of Johns Hopkins Hospital itself.  

The otherwise-high rankings for D.C. and Baltimore makes sense given that both metros are home to numerous universities and hospitals, including John Hopkins, Howard, and George Washington, and have a strong concentration of military posts and public sector institutions. The public sector here is key: Government is the second-largest employer of black women overall (and the largest for black men), and the DMV region has the densest concentration of federal government jobs in the nation. Add in the local government workforce of these metros—D.C.’s mayor is a black woman and up until late last year Baltimore was led by black women dating back to 2007—and you have perhaps the largest community of public-employed black women in the country.

Yet no state is better represented among the top metros for black women’s overall outcomes than North Carolina, where Raleigh, Greensboro-High Point, and Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia come in at number 4, 6, and 11 respectively. While not huge outposts for government sector jobs, these metros are plentiful sources for jobs in the private sector and represent one of the top regions for African-American employment in general. They are also home to a vast number of higher education institutions—North Carolina is home to 12 historically black colleges and universities, tied with Alabama for most HBCUs in one state—spurring tech and innovation markets that have shaped the region for much of the 21st century.

It can’t be stressed enough that these rankings don’t necessarily reflect the lived experiences of black women working, going to school, and just breathing in these cities. Sherrell Dorsey, a black woman who is the founder and president of BLKTECHCLT, a tech hub for innovators of color in Charlotte, has lived and worked in several of the cities on the list. She says these kinds of rankings fail to consider issues such as the lack of access to capital for black women entrepreneurs—and the kind of occupational segregation that pushes black women into less lucrative workforce sectors compared to white men.

“At BLKTECHCLT, we serve a bevy of Black women technologists and entrepreneurs who fight daily for visibility, access, and scalability,” says Dorsey. “Some have entered business ownership as a means to escape harsh discrimination and psychological warfare in the corporate environment.”  

Indeed, the stark inequities between white men and black women are felt everywhere in the U.S., and no region feels that worse than the Midwest, where the metros with the largest black women populations consistently show up as among the worst for those women. Pittsburgh and Cleveland duke it out at the bottom of the rankings for health outcomes, educational outcomes, and overall outcomes. The only exception is the ranking for economic outcomes, for which Cleveland is edged out by Milwaukee, with Pittsburgh rounding out the gutter as third worst.

The other Midwest cities that fill out the bottom of the pile for worst economic outcomes—Detroit, Cincinnati, Columbus, Chicago, and St. Louis—all also rank below the median in education and health. The one exception is Columbus, Ohio, which along with Minneapolis is the sole Midwest representative to rank above the median on the health outcome scales. (See CityLab’s related reporting on a health and transportation initiative in Columbus targeted at black mothers and their babies.)

And yet the prospects for black women’s health and prosperity remain the worst across the Midwest, the region that was also deemed the worst to live in for all African Americans in a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute. While Pittsburgh ranks among the lowest for black women’s life chances in our rankings, it is not considered a Midwest city. Yet it aligns better socioeconomically with the Midwest than it does with its neighbors to the east in Pennsylvania such as Harrisburg and Philadelphia. As the EPI report, released in October, explains:

We trace the origins of racial inequality in the Midwest to the deep imprint of racial segregation, which concentrated the regions’ African American population in relatively few urban counties—and then erected a forbidding architecture of residential segregation within those urban settings. In turn, the historical arc of economic opportunity saw African Americans flock to new opportunities in the industrializing Midwest in the middle years of the last century, and then be disproportionately hit by the de-industrialization that followed.

For the most part, the South is paramount for black women’s chances at upward mobility. There were more black women mayors recently elected than ever before in U.S. history, most of them in southern cities, including Vi Lyles in Charlotte, Muriel Bowser in Washington, D.C., Keisha Lance Bottoms in Atlanta, and Latoya Cantrell for New Orleans. Meanwhile, several black women in metro Atlanta have even been in the business of starting their own cities. An encouraging sign for the Midwest is that Chicago elected its first black woman mayor in the city’s history.   

The number of black-women-owned businesses grew by 164 percent between 2007 and 2018, according to “The 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report.” Businesses led by black women also saw the highest growth rate of any racial group between 2017 and 2018, and constituted the largest segment of women-owned businesses behind those owned by white women, according to the report.

And yet, as Dorsey points out, we don’t know how much better black women could be doing if they had the same access to capital as their white counterparts. Despite the growth in the number of companies owned by black women, the gap between the average revenues for those businesses and the average revenues for all women-owned businesses is $24,700 to $143,400—the largest gap of any race. This is but one part of the unfinished business of race and gender inequity, and no metro can lay claim to a solution, says Dorsey, who tracks black entrepreneur trends in the tech sector in her wildly popular newsletter, The Plug,

“Numbers are a start but they don’t address root challenges in southern societies that prioritize white males above all else and demonize Black women, particularly those who may be single mothers,” says Dorsey. “There are very few safe spaces for Black women to exist in public—anywhere.”

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Why Aren’t More Women Riding Electric Scooters?

Bicycles, scooters, Segways, skateboards, and other foot- and battery-boosted “little vehicles” represent a diverse assortment of contraptions, but they’re united by one thing: They all draw significantly more men than women in major U.S. cities, according to new research published last month in Transport Findings.

That paints a consistent pattern with what local ridership studies of dockless electric scooter use in Portland and Austin have found. And the danger factor of micromobility appears to be the main barrier to adoption, both in terms of the vehicles themselves and the infrastructure they rely on. 

“Younger males are more willing to give up safety considerations on account of speed or quickness,” said Kevin Krizek, a professor of transportation at the University of Colorado Boulder who co-authored the new research. “That is somewhat of a reflection of the vehicle. But I’d venture to offer that it’s more about safety on the streets.”

To more broadly sketch out who’s using the types of devices that have recently proliferated in electric-powered, shared, dockless form, Krizek and Nancy McGuckin, an expert in travel behavior analysis, studied the most recent National Household Travel Survey, which offers a nationally representative sample of how tens of thousands of U.S. individuals got around on a given day. Although the dataset is small (compared to, say, the census), it’s considered the best indicator of who’s likely to use different transportation modes in the U.S., and what types of trips they’re likely to make with them.

Hence, in 2017, just a tiny number of little-vehicle trips were accounted for in this survey: 8,034 bicycle trips, 826 Segway/golf cart trips, and 503 trips where respondents said they’d used a scooter, skateboard, or similar device. For their purposes, Krizek and McGuckin bundled these mini-modes together, since they operate at roughly similar speeds, exist in the same netherworld of being both banned from sidewalks and out-of-place in vehicle traffic, and are under “heavy policy scrutiny” in the cities where they’re become abundant, they write.

One standout pattern: Men are twice as likely as women to say that they’d used a little vehicle for a trip. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, micromobility is most popular among youths under age 17 and adults in the (rather wide) 18-50 age demographic among adults. Krizek and McGuckin also observed that about 75 percent of these trips were shorter than 2.5 miles, while the median little vehicle trip length was 1.2 miles—creating a potential sweet spot for shifting the 25 percent of personal car trips that are less than 2 miles long to a tiny, zero-emission mode.

The data comes with many caveats, namely its small sample size and the fact that 2017 was at the very beginning of the wave of shared bikes and scooters that has been sweeping U.S. cities of late. It’s possible that rider demographics and use patterns have since shifted. But the trends that Krizek and McGuckin identify are fairly consistent with what more recent ridership studies have found in specific cities.

For example, in 2018 a summer-long dockless scooter pilot in Portland, Oregon, garnered more than 700,000 trips. Through a concurrent survey of riders, officials found a few promising signs about what the devices could do for traffic congestion and emissions. For example, 34 percent of riders said that they had switched over from a car to make their trip—encouraging news for micromobility proponents. But subsequent analysis by researchers at Portland State University discovered that only 34 percent of trips were made by women and gender non-conforming folks. Data from Austin, Texas, shows a similar split.

The reluctance of women and other groups to enter scooter-dom may be a barrier to the broad mode-shifts that little vehicles seem primed to deliver, Krizek said. And the main behavioral explanations are pretty well established, drawing from years of research into why only 24 percent of U.S. bike trips are made by women: It comes down to feeling less comfortable in risky traffic situations, and a matter of convenience.

Vehicle design might be part of the answer for overcoming the gap. In the traditional cycling world, advocates often suggest that public bikeshare systems—which allow riders to avoid the hassle of bicycle locking, maintenance, and storage (plus dealing with male-dominated bike shops)—can make cycling more accessible. And proponents of electric micromobility say that new vehicle formats and designs could help.

The stand-up e-scooters that have caused a stir in recent years, for example, are notoriously wobbly devices that require quick reflexes and a fair amount of physical fitness to maneuver. Horace Dediu, a mobility analyst and the founder of the Micromobility Conference, predicts that the shape and arrangement of electric-powered scooters in particular will evolve to accommodate a broader set of body types and comfort levels. Indeed, that’s already happening, with companies like Revel, Gotcha, and Bird offering mopeds, recumbent bikes, and trikes as shareable options. “The question is, are we going to converge towards a default form factor?” he asked.

Dediu predicts that electric mopeds might be the wave of the future, with their chunky tires, wide seats that fit two, and the fact that they require drivers’ licenses to use and operate with vehicle traffic, eliminating the neither-sidewalk-nor-street confusion of their skinnier, upright kin. They also have some built-in cargo space—a big advantage for riders lugging groceries, briefcases, and other carry-ons.

But there may be only so much you can do to make piloting a small, fragile machine feel safe when you are sharing roads with much larger vehicles. The fear factor keeping people away from little vehicles probably has less to do with the devices and more to do with the lack of fully separated and protected lanes to ride them in. Research has shown that the addition of protected bike lanes can add cyclists to the network, and bring in more women specifically.

As long as falling off a scooter or bike means landing beneath crushing vehicle traffic, Meg Merritt, a principal transportation consultant at the planning firm NelsonNygaard, is skeptical that any new designs can add much in the way of real safety.

“It’s a bit like putting your AirPods in a neck holder,” she said. “We need to go back to root of the problem: If you have the right infrastructure, you can try all kinds of cool things, and you will probably make them work.”

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The Baltimore Museum of Art Made a Pledge to Buy Art by Women. Is It Just a Stunt?

To great fanfare, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced earlier in November that the institution will only purchase works made by women in 2020. Just 4 percent of the museum’s 95,000 artworks and objects were made by women, typical of the gross imbalance in art collections across America and around the world.

Christopher Bedford, the museum’s director since 2016, described the initiative as a proactive effort to address a root problem for the art world. “To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical,” he told The Baltimore Sun.  

“Women are about to take over the Baltimore Museum of Art,” reads a story in The Wall Street Journal.

Yet one group is raising questions and concerns about the new push at the Baltimore Museum of Art: women in the arts in Baltimore. In a November 26 feature published by BmoreArt, a magazine devoted to the arts in Charm City, more than two-dozen women registered their impressions of the museum’s pledge. Some used words such as “tokenism” and “contrived.” An editorial from editor-in-chief Cara Ober and managing editor Rebekah Kirkman described the announcement as “headline friendly.”

That much is true: CNN, NPR, and scores of other publications—to say nothing of the art press—have run articles about the museum’s “2020 Vision.” As the reports detail, the museum has planned 22 exhibits for 2020 focusing on woman-identifying artists, including a major commission by Mickalene Thomas and a career survey of Joan Mitchell. Nineteen of the shows will feature only works by women.

This comes a year after the Baltimore Museum of Art made a splash with the sale of seven works by modern masters, among them Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, to generate millions for what Bedford describes as a “war chest” to fund purchases of works by underrepresented artists.

The latest push is a “better platform” but still a “boxed platform,” writes Maura Callahan, a Baltimore arts writer, in one of the 27 letters published by BmoreArt. “By making gender a point of promotion, the museum frames the work of these artists through that non-default category, reinforcing the woman artist as a spectacle,” she writes.

Several of the letters echo shared concerns: about the far greater and disproportionate absence of artworks by African American women, for example, or the lack of women in leadership positions to steer decisions made by the museum.

“Why did a male’s call to action seem to resonate so loudly in this instance when women are the subject and have been calling for the same action forever?” asks Donna Drew Sawyer, chief executive officer of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, the city’s official arts council. “Is this initiative an exceptional act of inclusion or exceptional because of pervasive exclusion?”

Sawyer’s letter adds, “A year in the limelight, just like a month to have your history recognized, is inadequate at best.”

How much difference can a single year’s effort really make in an encyclopedic art collection? Bedford declined a request for an interview to discuss the matter, but the museum sent along some outlines about its collection practices. The reality might fall short of the headline-fetching promise.

In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art participated in a study conducted by two art publications, artnet News and In Other Words. Between 2008 and 2018, just 12 percent of the museum’s acquisitions were made by artists who identified as women—a bleak figure in line with the rest of the art world. Acquisitions break down into two groups: purchases and gifts. Of the 570 acquisitions of artworks by women over a decade, 235 were purchases. These things change from year to year, but that works out to about two dozen purchases per year.

For 2020, the museum plans to spend $2 million on art, using funds from last year’s sale. Such a purse could buy a few works by prominent artists, several pieces by mid-career or emerging artists, or some combination. Curators propose purchases, museum committees review them, and the board of trustees approves them. Gifts to the museum won’t be affected, raising the somewhat dismal prospect that, by the end of next year, the museum may still have acquired more works by men than women.

“The first thought that occurred to me when I saw the headline was the fact that collecting a piece of art doesn’t automatically guarantee that the artist will find a viewing audience,” writes Priyanka Kumar, a graduate student at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Her letter calls for programming and outreach at the local level to match the purchasing pledge. Other letter writers—among them journalist Jillian Steinhauer, who notes that work by Latinx, Native, and trans artists are all underrepresented in formal art spaces, too—wonder if there’s a plan for after 2020.  

Bedford has undeniably put Baltimore at the center of a conversation about inclusion in the art world. Beyond garnering the attention of the national press, he has championed the work of Mark Bradford, whose appearance at the Venice Biennale he organized (and brought to Baltimore), and Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait (now in the Baltimore collection). Bedford has raised some eyebrows along the way, too.

“You can call it canon correction, but it is a kind of reparations,” Bedford said in his interview with the Journal. At one level, that’s just cringe: Casting the needs of a museum’s art collection in the same urgent moral terms as the fight to correct centuries of slavery and legal injustice could be considered counterproductive. The point about canon correction, however, anticipates a question raised by Nancy Proctor, executive director of the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture.

“My question is, are they also doing the self-critical reflection necessary to interrogate the structures of power that have not only produced the BMA’s collection and exhibitions, but are also produced by it?” Proctor’s letter says. “As Audre Lorde warned us, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’”

In the art world, radical change can be fleeting. In 1992, the Maryland Historical Society teamed up with a group called The Contemporary to bring in an outside curator, conceptual artist Fred Wilson, to re-think the permanent collection. Through the museum’s artifacts, he assembled an exhibition that focused on the stories of enslaved African Americans and brutalized Native Americans. “Mining the Museum” is considered a mile-marker for curatorial studies today, and it was popular with audiences at the time, but a year after the exhibition opened in Baltimore, the society’s director was pushed out. Press reports held that the change was too much for the board.

By no means are women in the arts in Baltimore wholly rejecting the overture from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Leslie King-Hammond, founding director for the Center for Race and Culture at MICA (and graduate dean emeritus), praises the initiative as a “pivotal wake-up call for numerous art and cultural institutions in this nation who find themselves facing similar challenges.” Most of the letters in BmoreArt express a mixture of optimism and skepticism.

“Could the committee decide to collect two works by women for every work collected by a man for the rest of time until the collection is balanced and write that into your bylaws?” Ober asks. While the museum’s pledge for 2020 is welcome, radical change might still be a ways off.

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White Women: It’s Time to Rewrite Our Narrative as Anti-Racists

As a white woman from a conservative Pennsylvania town, I was disappointed but not shocked to learn that 53% of white women voters chose to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. My hope at the time was that those women would pay close attention over the next four years to the ways that Mr. Trump’s decisions impact the lives of other women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups of people. Recent polls suggest that maybe they have been paying attention, and maybe that will impact the outcomes of the 2020 election.

According to the AP News, “many professional, suburban women — a critical voting bloc in the 2020 election — recoil at the [President’s] abrasive, divisive rhetoric.”[1] In response, the Trump administration has launched a nationwide campaign to mobilize and solidify the support of suburban women.

Despite the fact that the suburbs are becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, for most people in the U.S., the phrase “suburban women” brings to mind the image of a white woman. And in fact, that is exactly who the Trump administration is referring to by using this coded term.[2] So rather than using the dog-whistling term “suburban women,” I’ll be using the more accurate term, “white women.”

It may surprise some that the 2020 elections—and the risk of continued attacks on many people’s safety and quality of life by the Trump administration—rests largely on white women. But in the context of U.S. political history, this is not new. Since 1619, when the first slave ship arrived in what is now known as the United States, white women have been silent bystanders to and, sometimes, explicit enactors of racist violence. Whether a slavemaster’s wife was looking on while her slaves were beaten, or a theater-goer laughed at Black people being forced to perform in blackface, or a white mother calls the police when she sees “suspicious” behavior from a Black boy, these acts have enabled racism to become the foundation upon which American society is built.

I have seen the silence of white women manifest as racist complicity throughout my life. As Italian-Americans whose ancestors arrived in the U.S. about 100 years ago, it’s easy for my family to see ourselves as removed from American racism. “Our grandparents had nothing when they came here,” one might say. Yet, in the 1960s, my grandparents were able to leave the predominantly Black east side of Youngstown, OH, where they were born, and get a mortgage on a house in the suburbs. This gave my father and his sisters access to education, stability and social networks that helped them begin generating wealth. Their Black counterparts were forced to remain in Youngstown due to restrictions placed on them by brutal Jim Crow segregation laws and redlining.

Today, nearly 37% of people in Youngstown live in poverty, compared to less than 3% in the suburb where my dad grew up. My family may not have owned slaves; our ancestors may have suffered from poverty; but there is no denying that we have benefited from racism. If it were not for Italian-Americans’ ability to claim we are white, I would not be sitting in a comfortable chair in a New York City skyscraper writing this piece.

And so, where one benefits at the expense of others, one has a responsibility to exercise their power to change norms and shape a more humane nation. Living Cities supports its staff to build our anti-racism competencies in a number of ways. I have access to an Employee Resource Group to connect and process with other white women throughout our racial equity journeys. I have a professional development fund I can use to deepen my skills, and I actually have time built into my work plan to read, learn, and hone my analysis about how racism is embedded into American life.

The journey to being an anti-racist white woman is not easy, but it’s necessary. As white nationalists expand their reach and put their energy behind Mr. Trump’s presidency, the opposition to their hate must be even more enthusiastic. That starts with us, white women. We have a responsibility to organize against the white folks in our communities who are enabling hate and violence toward our friends and neighbors of color. There is no playbook for how to best do this work, but I’m offering up some starting points based on my experience.

Start with yourself. Regardless of one’s race, every American has internalized harmful notions of race from messages in our textbooks, pop culture, the way our cities are designed, and more. Start by questioning your assumptions. If you see a family that looks and behaves differently than you, take note of where your brain automatically goes, and ask yourself why you think what you think. If you complement this work with consumption of new knowledge about race, you will slowly begin to see how our political, economic, and social systems were designed to benefit white people while making life incredibly difficult for people of color. I recommend starting with the NY Times’ 1619 Project, but there are hundreds of anti-racism lists that include fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art, and more. Here’s one. (Prioritize sources written by people of color!)

Transform through relationships. The more we understand the plight of people of color in America, the more distressing it can feel. Join or start a discussion group to learn and process in community. When you’re ready, expand your reach by knocking on doors, talking to people at your kid’s school or your church, and engaging your coworkers. Personal transformation happens best when we feel grounded in trusting relationships.

Take action and be patient. The vast racial divides in outcomes (health, education, wealth, etc) are 400 years in the making. We can’t “fix” racism overnight, so remain patient. But find urgency in your patience. Be persistent in talking to other white people about the harm and violence people of color experience due to the actions of the Trump administration; call out racist “jokes” that perpetuate harmful narratives; show up to protests organized by people of color-led groups and follow their lead; encourage your neighbors to vote and demand that our political leaders make commitments to dismantling racist policies and narratives.

It is time for white women to rewrite our narrative in American life and take responsibility for shaping a more just, safe, loving society where anyone–regardless of race–can thrive. Are you ready?

If this post inspired you to act but you need more support, reach out to me at asmaldino@livingcities.org and I might be able to point you in the direction of helpful resources. And if you have stories of how this post or other Living Cities work has inspired you to deepen your anti-racism practice, let us know at racialequity@livingcities.org.


1 AP News


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Why Male-Heavy Cities Spend More on Women

Do men spend more money in communities with fewer women? A new study suggests they do.

recently asked 147 men and women to read a fake article about their
campus. One suggested the sex ratio was skewed toward women. The other
suggested there were far more men. The participants reported how much
they would spend on three romantic gestures: a Valentine’s Day
gift, a dinner, and an engagement ring. The results from the graph above
are explained here:

When test
participants believed men outnumbered women in the population, they
expected men to spend more money on the items.
This was true of both
male and female participants — suggesting that when men have more
competition for mates, women become choosier and men attempt to
out-spend any rivals.

Read the full story at The Atlantic Cities.

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