Tag Archives: economic sociology

Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North

There’s something alarming about the fact that Traces of the Trade wasn’t made sooner—decades sooner. But, now that it’s available, audiences should watch it. Especially Americans. People living in the US have a largely amnesiac view of their own society; even while people “know” that African slavery and Indian genocide occurred, most do not know details, understand why they happened, or realize what the continued significance of them are today.

Traces of the Trade is directed by a descendant of the DeWolf family (Katrina Browne), who were the largest slave traders in United States history. While many white people are fond of saying: “My family didn’t own slaves” (although most of those people have never actually looked, to find out!), few have asked if their family benefited in any way from slavery. And few have likely benefited as much of the institution of slavery—outside of owning slaves—than wealthy slave-traders and their financiers. Thus, the director gathered together as many sympathetic family members as she could find, to travel their family’s history along the infamous slave-trade triangle: from their base in Rhode Island, to the source of African slaves in Ghana, to where the family’s economic interests in Cuba were. She invites many of her relatives, but the majority never bother contacting her, while some caution her not to take this journey, as it would bring attention and shame to the family name.

Her trip ends up being transformative for her family, but it will also be illuminating for audiences, too. The documentary helps to adjust the common assumption that slavery was exclusively a Southern thing. Of course, slaves had lived in Northern colonies for a very long time, too. But, more pertinent, was that Northern slave-traders and their financial backers were often based in the North (thus the strong economic centers of capital, banks, and the like in the Northeast). In order for the Southern institution of slavery to exist and persist, someone had to help support it economically—and many Northerners did. The message is clear: don’t be so smug, white Northerners, about the South’s history of slavery. The blood and violence the institution wrought has tainted all of America.

In order to reconcile what white DeWolf family members knew of their own family history and what the institution of slavery was really about, their travels provided them with numerous opportunities for reflection. One DeWolf cousin experiences a transformative moment when the family is visiting a slave fortress in Ghana. They spend time in a slave holding cell, then later in the day he reflects with his cousins upon how all sorts of “experts” had been telling them along their journey that they had to understand slavery in the context of its time. Allegedly, slavery must be understood on the terms of those historical figures, not via a modern, reflexive lens. But, he remarks that this is “bullshit”, since “they knew what they were doing was wrong”. Due to these experiences, a small slice of the director’s DeWolf family becomes active to pressure for changes. The director herself pursues efforts to influence the Episcopal Church’s (her religious faith) official statements about slavery. As white parishioners, they work alongside Black parishioners to influence stronger language against slavery, including for reparations.

Unfortunately, the voice features no real prominent Black voices in support reparations, except for the Black woman the director uses to engineer her family’s travels and interviews. This woman sometimes travels in front of the camera to forcefully explain some of the historical realities of slavery and what it means for present-day race relations. The irony of the DeWolf family members’ connection to slavery is that while they can profess to be non-racist today, the benefits of white supremacy have been accumulated within the family already, thus providing a class privilege. Nearly all of the cousins have Ivy League backgrounds, yet often cannot see how their family’s slave-trader history contributed to that upward mobility. One claims that the DeWolfs lost their money at one point, as if to explain away any possibility of them gaining advantage in America.

Traces of the Trade raises an important, but likely scary question—one that needs answering, but that most whites will wish to fervently avoid. How many other white Americans can trace their family genealogy to slavery? How could the process of searching for this history—and possibly finding something that most whites assume their families have no connection to—transform their perceptions of white privilege? Would they think differently about the regular claims of white Americans that to be “color-blind” is the best approach to dealing with racial inequality? Given how incredible the institution of slavery has been—to say nothing of genocide against Native peoples—how can we not afford to come to clearer terms with the legacy of these phenomenon and try to rectify their devastating consequences in a way that transcends simplistic and cop-outs (like declaring discrimination to be illegal and thus irrelevant today)?

Topics: race, inequality, historical sociology, social change, economic sociology

Gaza Strip

A desolate look at a people living occupation. The film is shocking in many ways. First, if there is a main character, it is a young, but “aged”, boy who talks as if any day will be his last and how he is willing to martyr himself if need be. Second, the lack of any identifiable “figureheads”—unlike many documentaries that have famous-y people in them, this one gets closest when characters discuss Israel politician Ariel Sharon. Third, the daily humiliations that Palestinians must put up with—such as the closing of a major road—are responded to moments of dignified resistance and determination: they walk and drive on the sandy coastline instead, they march in protests (in a land where demonstrations are illegal), and, yes, they throw rocks at heavily armored tanks. Gaza Strip is a clarion call aimed at Americans (one that surely affected me), demanding that we recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people and respect their demands for self-determination and an Israeli withdrawal from their lands. Since the US is Israel’s largest political and economic ally, we can all help them in this cause.

Topics: economic sociology, urban sociology, political sociology

Inequality For All

It’s easy to see how people who are Leftists might expect Robert Reich to be anti-capitalist, just as easily as Rightwingers would expect the same. As it turns out, Inequality for All shows the economist to be a Keynesian, social welfare liberal who would like to reform the most extreme cruelties of capitalism, but is not interested in fundamentally ending inequality or capitalism, let alone creating a democratic economy. The film reminds me of Al Gore’s award-winning Inconvenient Truth, and not just because both are focused on similar, self-important white men who think they have figured out something that others haven’t, for which they need to spread The Good Word. The style of the two documentaries are equally similar: they feature fancy PowerPoint graphic presentations (that neither likely assembled themselves) and a self-laudatory biopic-style that focuses on the hard questions they have nobly confronted during their lifetimes.

As an individual, Reich is generally likable. He makes lots of self-deprecating “short person” jokes about himself. For those who are familiar with the free-market propertarian Milton Friedman’s height, the contrasts are ironic. He is personable and manages to insert himself into a variety of situations in which he can speak with “average” people, just as often as he speaks to elites. The film shows part of his privileged background, including his own flattering portrayal of his early friendship with a young Bill Clinton—who later taps Reich to be his Secretary of Labor.

The graphics of his presentations—which he gives in front of a standing-room-only auditorium at the University of California at Berkeley for a course about social inequality—are impressive. They show the long-term changes in inequality, worker productivity, union membership, and many other measures of note; all move in the wrong direct for those concerned with justice. The major trends are telling: the heights of inequality occur in the US in 1928 and 2007, right before the stock markets collapsed.

While he speaks of unions and even speaks to a group of workers considering unionization, the film does not explore labor unions in any philosophical depth. Neither the practical economic benefits of union membership are presented nor the traditional syndicalist demand of worker control.

Discerning viewers may notice some gaps in Reich’s logic and concerns. For example, he ignores key factors that enabled the incredible growth or an American middle-class following WW2. He tells others he does not idealize other country’s economies, but rather thinks the US did it right in the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, Reich is thereby overlooking a wide array of unique qualities of that time period that are unlikely to return. Notably, post-war America was unchallenged economically by all of its prior competitors in Europe (and Japan). That economic dominance (which Wallerstein argues found confluence with dominant American political and military power) allowed the US to buy-off a large part of the American working-class and give them a slightly higher standard of living. Of course, the deeper factors that led to American productive potential are also something worthy of discussion—which Reich avoids: stolen Native land, African slave labor, and the exploitation of materials, labor, and markets abroad. In other words, America’s New Deal and Keynesian was based upon American hegemony and violence. (Of course, the same could be said for Europe’s.)

Related to these oversights, there is little intersectional analysis. Race is almost completely absent and the same is generally true for gender (although Reich does talk about the increase in female employment). The most significant consequence to these omissions and other problems is framed early in the film by Reich himself who notes that some inequality will always exist. While he seems honestly interested in reducing inequality—which is good—he also seems a bit too committed to capitalism (even stating very clearly his advocacy of it and his rejection of critical perspectives, including communism).

As with any documentary that focuses on the ideas of a single person, it is difficult to tell (without reading all their work) whether or not the film itself omitted the important details of contention, or if the film makers accurately presented the individual and their flaws. Since the film presents Reich favorably, it also seems to present as him as a messiah of sorts (see yet another similarity with An Inconvenient Truth). One gets the feeling that Reich alone has the answers and that he possesses a missionary zeal to inform others to these problems—in doing so, we have yet another case of an intellectual side-lining countless activists who have fought around the same issues Reich is advocating.

Criticisms aside, Inequality for All does an excellent job with making the case that inequality exists, is bad, and should be reduced. It stops short of a holistic critique of the systems that create that inequality, but it comes part way. For those who want to find better ways to critique American capitalism and its negative impacts, this film provides a decent starting point.

Topics: social class, inequality, unions, economic sociology

Requiem for Detroit

As far as historical, urban films goes, Requiem for Detroit is amongst the more unique. Instead of showing a linear development, the film begins by showing Detroit’s earlier days, but then also the long arc of the city’s slow, gradual devolution. For the unaware, Detroit is a major American city that has long been on the decline and is going down hard. Detroit is a wonderful, yet scary metaphor for the US in general and American industrialization in specific. Requiem takes audiences through the city’s history as a private playground for automobile barons, showing the dramatic labor clashes that formed the United Auto Workers, and the pivotal racial rebellions in the 1960s. After that point, however, the city becomes a shell of its former self, leaching its population—especially whites—to the suburbs. The largely Black population that is left behind faced capital flight, diminished social services, political neglect, increased crime and violence, and a spiral into neighborhood chaos and destruction.

As an artsy film, Requiem has many strong points. Detroit’s high point of economic and cultural supremacy in the US—represented by General Motors and Motown, respectively—are contrasted with a cornucopia of landscapes and panoramas featuring decrepit buildings. In fact, the film-makers even feature an “urban explorer” who specializes in industrial trivia and knows his way around the city’s many collapsed factory sites. The “great” apocalypse footage, however, borders on what might best be described as “devastation porn”; incredible eye-candy that stimulates our sense of desperation and awe, but is mainly empty fluff. The real human story of Detroit’s collapse is instead told, partially, by a variety of interviewees. While there are some amazing characters featured—former White Panther John Sinclair and the always-amazing Grace Lee Boggs stand-out—there is something strangely amiss. Most interviewees are whites, mainly those who fled for the suburbs. Thus, we’re left with sad stories about why their families “had to leave” the city, as opposed to sad stories about why Black families “had to stay”, likely for different and crucial reasons. This is a major problem for a film about a city with one of the US’s largest Black populations. Also, far too many of the whites are current or former auto company executives. While this may be appropriate for part of the story, it misses other dimensions. A good stylistic element of the interviews that stands out (which may or may not have been intentional) is how most of the white interviewees are filmed driving their cars around the abandoned city, while the people of color interviewees are filmed in their neighborhoods, in front of their houses.

I was hoping to see more about how Detroit contributed to some of the US’s most radical social movements—especially the 1936 sit-down strikers and the Black power-era Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). Also, we don’t get any indication that Detroit served as the cultural kitchen for some of the US’s most innovative music. Motown is represented, but the proto-punk of the MC5 and Stooges could have been showcased, as well as rap (although the white Eminem is featured), and the 1990s’ radical techno scene.

Thankfully the film ends with a “pro-active” segment, that shows how Detroiters are not only coping, but perhaps evolving (or strategically devolving or smart shrinking) the city. While this segment is a bit too short, it shows a fascinating “into the abyss” perspective, including activists who are turning Detroit into what is likely the US’s largest urban farming experiment. This ending helps to raise important questions about what happens when cities reach certain limits, or urban sprawl empties-out those cities, or (more generalizably) when peak oil hits and society has to become less auto-reliant and more locally focused. Because, of course, it all happened to Detroit first. While there’s a lot to scare audiences in Requiem, there’s also ample provocation for us to learn lessons from Detroit, too.

Topics: urban sociology, community, social change, economic sociology, social movements