Tag Archives: race/ethnicity

Trouble the Water

The dramatic natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina was shown to most Americans via their TV sets. Trouble the Water, however, shows a ground-level view of the catastrophe as it was filmed real-time by a New Orleans married couple. They filmed their pre-Katrina neighborhood, all throughout the hurricane’s landfall, their escape from the city, and the aftermath of the flooding. While sometimes amateurish and shaky-handed, the footage is truly impressive and shocking. Kimberly and Scott Roberts serve as focal characters in the story—two poor African-Americans trying to come to terms with the Katrina and its long-term effect on their family and community.

While not as intellectual or magisterial (or long) as Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, we are given more compelling characters and personal stories to follow. The Roberts’ amateur footage is combined with the director’s as they follow the displaced family in exile and then back to their old neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. We meet an intoxicated older man who she encourages to get indoors; he moves along, but later his body is discovered, trapped in an abandoned house after the waters recede. The family is forced to travel far distances and stay with relatives, while attempting to coax the federal bureaucracy into financially supporting their return to their home.

One comment shows the clear racialized and classed differences in the repair efforts in New Orleans; while walking through his neighborhood Scott remarks “the hood is always the last place” government helps out. This cynical and realist analysis can be contrasted against a city spokesperson and booster: she gushes enthusiastically on camera about all the wonderful things happening in post-Katrina New Orleans—all of which pertain to tourism. Then, she shows the film crew a fairly cheesy promotional video her department made before Katrina, and she dances along to the music. Her segment shows the huge gulf of awareness and conscience between the city’s bureaucrats and coordinator class, and New Orleans’ sizable population of truly disadvantaged residents. Instead of redirecting city resources and using its power to help the Roberts and others transition back into their communities, the French Quarter is cleaned-up.

Ironically, I first saw Trouble the Water in an audience that included a former National Guardsman who was sent to New Orleans after Katrina. He said their assigned missions there were very disorganized and that they lacked resources to do their job—but still said they had far more resources than poor citizens did. He even compared New Orleans’ devastation to being in Somalia, the principal difference he said was that New Orleans “was a cesspool” at the time. Not exactly a stellar endorsement of the federal government’s response.

One of the things that stuck out most clearly was the Roberts’ attitudes about and relations with those in power. While expressing strong and sophisticated criticism throughout, they were usually deferential to authority. They were very polite when face-to-face with National Guardsman who were occupying their city; upon walking away from the Guard, they became very critical. They clearly accepted the respect that American society demands of soldiers, even while they saw the institutional flaws of the military and their ill-equipped mission. Elsewhere, they make comparisons of New Orleans to Iraq (which the US was actively occupying at the time), arguing that the Guard should be in the US not overseas. Then, despite all the incredibly bad and unfortunate things that have befallen them—as one might expect for poor people of color in a racist, capitalist society—Kimberly still has faith that god will make a better life for her. While her optimism first appears inspiring, one can’t help but wonder where the evidence is that her prayers and faith are rewarded? It ends up as a illustrative, although surely unintended, depiction of religious cognitive dissonance. It’s the American Dream mythology, wrapped in Messianic faith.

Trouble the Water ends up as a representative depiction of the many hardships, heartbreak, and Greek-caliber tragedy that people of the Mississippi Delta faced during and after Hurricane Katrina. It also convincingly shows how and why the social tragedy occurred to New Orleans’ poor, Black residents, and presents many examples of the US government’s bureaucratic indifference to that tragedy.

Topics: race/ethnicity, urban sociology, environment, political

Harvest of Empire: The Untold Story of Latinos in America

This film sets-out to answer a rarely-asked question, one that should be the first posed during debates about immigration policy: how did +40 million Latinos end-up within the territorial boundaries of the United States? Of course, most Americans are woefully ignorant of the US’s own colonial legacy and the theft of nearly half of Mexico. Yet, even more recent economic, military, and political policy is often unknown. Perhaps the thing that most Americans know about US policy toward Latin America is the Monroe Doctrine, although that knowledge is likely de-contextualized and lacks an understanding of its driving factors and far-reaching consequences. Harvest of Empire is a film adaptation of the book by the same name, written by progressive journalist Juan Gonzalez (also of Democracy Now! fame). He addresses the social forces—push-pull factors, according to geographers—that bring large numbers of Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Cubans, Dominicans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans to the United States.

Repeatedly, actions led by the US (government and economic elites) involved participation in foreign civil wars, engineering coups, colonial trickery and conscription, and economic pillage. For example, Puerto Ricans—after being promised, but never given independence—had US citizenship thrust upon them just in time for thousands to be drafted into the US Army to fight in World War One (echoing Irish immigrant naturalization in order to conscript them to fight for the Union in the Civil War). The Central Intelligence Agency, led by the Dulles brothers (who also had economic interests in the United Fruit Company) led a coup against a democratically-elected president in Guatemala who was eying land-reform which would repossess fallow land from United Fruit; the coup led to decades of bloody civil war. Elsewhere in Central America, the US’s arming of the brutal “contras” in Nicaragua and the paramilitaries of El Salvador created horrific chaos and massive emigration to the US. These country-based histories revitalize and compile an essential element of the US’s economic successes in the twentieth century. Consequently, Harvest of Empire would make a good accompaniment to a text like Eduardo Galeano’s classic Open Veins of Latin America or William Blum’s Killing Hope, which is more focused on US military and CIA history.

Lots of interesting people appear throughout the film, most notably reporter Geraldo Rivera and American Civil Liberties Union director Anthony Romero. Dissident Catholic priest and director of the School of the America’s Watch, Roy Bourgeois also appears—who spent time in El Salvador in the 1980s; in the film he states he was more scared there than when he was a chaplain in the Vietnam War. Gonzalez himself also appears throughout, leading much of the narration. The film seems a bit too focused on his life, but many films are like this today, as they try to personalize the story (and it’s all excusable since Gonzalez is simply awesome). As a piece of art, it is incredibly compelling, featuring a consistent template and presentation. It looks at the historical impetus for immigration, then ends each country’s description by providing factoids in a nice, graphical style.

At the film’s end, Harvest of Empire makes a plea for multiculturalism, tolerance, and an acceptance of the demographic changes that are occurring in the US. The percentage of white Americans is decreasing, and, in future decades, people who can trace their ancestry to Latin America will become the numerical majority. Regrettably, there seems to be a lack of sophistication with dealing with recent controversies over immigration, especially so-called “illegal” immigration. The multitude of scholarship that shows Right-wing concerns to be unfounded are not presented; instead, Fox News pundits are shown making outlandish accusations, without refutation. It would have been incredible benefit to more deeply address the misunderstandings about Latino immigration, especially concern of the “immigrant criminal” caricature or that Hispanics are “stealing jobs”. Still, the film does challenge the political framing of “illegality”, arguing forcefully that such language is hyperbolic and inaccurate, and that people cannot be “illegal” simply by being undocumented.

Topics: sociology of immigration, demography, race/ethnicity, political economy.

Crips and Bloods: Made in America

Everything that most people “know” about gangs from mass media and from “common sense” is tested by former skateboarder-turned-director Stacy Peralta’s excellent film “Crips and Bloods: Made in America”. Instead of taking the typical, easy routes for treating gangs—either presenting them as vicious, mindless thugs or glamorizing their violence—the film takes a much more challenging, but authentic route, showing the complex social conditions out of which Los Angeles gangs arose, in the midst of impoverishment, racial segregation, police brutality, and government suppression of movements for progressive social change. Crucially, LA streets gangs must be understood in relation to the dramatic events in which they were part, especially the 1965 Watts Uprising and the 1992 LA Uprising. Prior to Watts, black immigrants to LA faced racist housing covenants and residential segregation, and then increasing unemployment as they fell victim to the first waves of deindustrialization in the 1960s. Thus, “Crips and Bloods” employs a serious and critical sociological imagination as it analyzes the structural forces that created the conditions from which gangs emerged.

Modern street gangs are descendants derived from generations worth of politically-repressed black communities. Whenever successful gains seemed imminent, a White supremacist system reimposed itself upon them. For example, gang violence reaches an all-time low during the Black Power era of the late-1960s, as blacks join community-based organizations like the Black Panther Party that aim to achieve neighborhood autonomy and black empowerment through “survival programs”. In response, the LAPD—with decisive assistance and guidance from the FBI—destroyed these organizations and the broader movement. As former Slauson gang member Kumasi puts it, “They hunted them down, they murdered everyone who did good, and made everybody else go into exile or they locked them up in the penitentiary. And when all that was over with, a new element rose up called the Crips. Ya see? Then the shit started again.” Claiming what many criminologists have previously discovered in research, gangs fulfill certain neighborhood-stabilizing functions, providing order in the absence of other structures, narratives, and authority systems. In other words, the Panthers could have provided that social order, but thanks for government suppression, gangs now provide that order (regardless of how chaotic it may seem on the surface).

“Crips and Bloods” should be praised for not doing what many lazier documentaries on gangs do: interview criminologists and law enforcement specialists. Instead, director Peralta sees the best way to understand gangs and member’s motivations is to talk to participants directly. The vast majority of the film’s interviewees are either current gang members or former members, both Bloods and Crips. Interestingly, during the film’s credits it is revealed that that nearly all of these people are now current-day gang-interventionists, who works to reduce gang violence through peace-making and community development efforts. What makes these characters so compelling is that they have gone through various transitions in their lives and can reflect upon their true motivations for joining a gang and what that participation felt like, as well as their reasons for leaving the gang and their informed conclusions about what needs to be done instead. The film makes clear—especially during its final minutes—that the most promising way to successfully reduce gang violence is by local community members (including former gang members) who can articulate better modes of social organization, and not through strategies of further criminalization.

There are numerous moments of sociological note throughout the film, but one sure to attract attention is the subtle attribution of responsibility for gangs placed upon female-headed households and the lack of youth supervision. This comes off a bit as “blaming the victims” and seems to suggest that if only black males (presumably fathers) were in such households that youth would not stray into the orbit of gangs. Surely mothers—who shoulder the burden of raising children regardless of racial group or neighborhood residence—transmit certain values to their children. But, the film veers away from such a conservative and moralizing argument by hinting at a variety of reasons why these mothers were so busy and were not as able to “show love” for their children, such as their long work hours in lowly paid jobs. “Crips and Bloods” also adopts part of the “prison abolitionist” perspective on gangs, by asserting that criminalization and hyper-incarceration has itself destabilized neighborhoods and disrupted potentially-functional families that could include male parents.

Quite a few well-known individuals appear in “Crips and Bloods”, including football-star-turned-activist Jim Brown, New Leftist and state senator Tom Hayden, author of Do or Die Leon Bing, and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member Ron Wilkins (as well as a number of sociologists!). Combined with stellar design and great music throughout, the most important contribution of “Crips and Bloods” is to show individual gang members as sane actors in insane conditions. Instead of appearing as monsters, the film allows them to explain their own violent behaviors—and we learn about the array of social pressures, needs for protection, and masculinity that contributes to such behaviors. This may be the most critical and sociological film treatment of gangs available.

Topics: crime, deviance, race and crime, race/ethnicity, urban sociology.