The Post Racial Wasteland

The current state of race relations in America has been boiled down to the recent outrage over police brutality in minority neighborhoods. While many barrels of ink and pixels of screen space have been used to decry the deplorable state of policing in at-risk minority neighborhoods, very little has been used to look at the root of the problem.

Self-selecting communities have been a little mentioned effect of the post civil rights era. As strict institutional barriers regarding mobility among races fell by the wayside, the less rigid barriers erected by the free market took their place. What we now face, is a prototypical South Africa drawn up on the lines of wealth as opposed to institutional racism.

I had the opportunity to see Johannesburg, South Africa through a variety of lenses typically unavailable to an American tourist. After 5 months of traveling through Australia and Southeast Asia, I landed in Johannesburg to take part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders showcase. Alongside the literally towering figures of Dikembe Mutumbo, Andrei Kirilenko and the first African born GM in NBA history, Masai Ujiri, I saw 50 of the most talented young athletes on the continent, while taking in sites from “the other half” or more accurately the other 90% in post-apartheid South Africa.

Our days were spent at the gleaming American school on the outskirts of Jo-Burg proper. A facility that would’ve made many prestigious American schools blush with inadequacy, the school was a shining beacon. It was also surrounded by the ubiquitous razorwire fences that had become as much a part of the South African landscape as the baobao and marula trees. Post-apartheid South Africa dealt with the institutional policies that made racism a part of the land, but in an economic climate that sees white South Africans bring home an annual income nearly on par with Americans, the black population sees on average 1/7th of that.

The first thing that I was told in Johannesburg was to exercise extreme caution. Expensive jewelry, phones and computers were to be kept in a bag, if not locked up away from your person. To be mugged in Jo-Burg is not a matter of “if” but “when.”

That crime was considered such a fact of life was a concept completely foreign to me. Besides a few minor dustups in Vietnam and Thailand, I had encountered no such crime in my travels up to this point in areas far poorer by per capita GDP measures.

As I wandered, Christopher Columbus style for the lack whites that I saw, through the Central Business district, I realized that the crime seen in South Africa was not a case of absolute poverty so much as the corrosive nature of relative poverty, a condition much more likely to yield violent and volatile results. White South Africans (and a growing black plutocrat class) live behind their razorwire fences in compounds more reminiscent a Westchester hamlet than the shantytowns of nearby Soweto, where I visited a primary school where an astounding 39% of students are HIV positive. This problem was defined far more by economics than race.

The America I inhabit looks more and more like that South African scene every day. While the rich suburb of Carmel, Indiana dickers over a new 27 million dollar youth sports facility, the potholes just 6 miles south are large enough to eat a VW Rabbit.

Indianapolis found itself budgetarily unable to plow side streets this winter, but the Monon Running/Biking Trail used primarily from the wealthy “Yuppie” class found itself plowed nearly on the hour. Our self selecting society and parochial local tax structure has combined to essentially create a tale of two cities in nearly all of our major metropolitan areas.

The ties that bind Americans together are more fragile than ever before. Whereas the post-war generation saw managers and laborers living in the same neighborhoods, sending their children to the same schools, and taking in the same entertainment, the Jim Crow of today has replaced the “Coloreds Not Served” sign with one that looks like $. Racism has been replaced by economic elitism; the color of money washing away the color of skin in the new segregation of the haves and have nots.

There’s no need for a sign on the door telling who isn’t welcome when the cocktail is $14.

A quick look around the rural portions of my state will reveal a growing ghetto, made up not of blacks but of a largely white economically disenfranchised population. The HIV outbreak in Southern Indiana caused by intravenous drug use has shown that social issues are also color blind. Their problems are a mirror onto those of the Great Society Generation that saw the lower class inner-city family unit fall victim to drugs, broken homes and a lack of economic opportunity.

Discretionary handouts do not replace economic opportunity on either a moral or results basis. The problems of drug use, teen pregnancy and violence have gotten progressively worse as opportunity has become more distant. These policies served only to excuse the thriving upper classes from economically disenfranchising their lower class brethren.

As multiple generations saw economic disenfranchisement become the only reality that they’d ever known, an economic evolution took place which threatens to separate the socioeconomic classes into entirely different species.

“Us vs. Them” rhetoric of has been used to great effect in politics and it has become a self-fulfilling policy. Simply glancing at a chart of obesity and birth rate by income will show that those making under $25,000 a year are more than twice as likely to be obese, and have a birth rate 80% higher than those making more than $75,000 a year. These differences are magnitudes larger in reproduction, habitat and size than those separating the distinct African and Asian elephants.

While wealthy urban elites wring their hands at the outbreaks of violence in NYC, Baltimore, and St. Louis, it is not of some deep seeded concern but instead because they are afraid that the invisible but present boundaries of privilege will not be sufficient when the feces and fan intermingle.

The only long term solution to the problems cleaving the American dream from an ever increasing portion of the populace is the economic revitalization of these depressed areas. The economists I studied in college maintained that overall economic growth was the only outcome that mattered, but if “on paper” GDP growth only goes to fund further militarization of the police force and additional social handout programs, what did we actually gain?

Urban or rural, the root of the myriad social problems seen today is not drawn along the oft-cited lines of race. To quote our famous Cajun sage:

“It’s the economy stupid.”

Discomfort and Perspective

For the second time on the Conquest, I’m settling in for an extended period of time. Noah and I got back out to Thies, yesterday (pronounced “Chess”) and got down to the business of settling in.

We’re staying with Sara and Laura, two Peace Corp volunteers who are partnering with SEED for the first time this year. Both are “hardened” Peace Corp veterans, with Sara spending several years in West Africa already, and Laura having come from spending a few years in Western Ukraine.

We rolled up to the apartment, and Sara took us to go pick up the essentials for living here in Thies. We went down to the “toubab” market, (toubab being a catch-all West African phrase for white/foreigner) and picked up some food.

The vegetables were bought in a transaction marred by badly broken French, from three austere looking women in brightly colored traditional get-ups. They sit for 10-12 hours a day under a makeshift umbrella fashioned from sticks and doubled up black plastic wrap. The most ambitious vendors whip around the tail of something to keep the omnipresent flies at bay, but most know a losing battle when they see one. The stench from the market was bearable today because it is dry, but it could make a seasoned garbageman retch after a solid rain.

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Having been in SE Asia, where everything is so cheap that it is comical, it is almost painful to pay the prices in the market here. Food is, at a minimum, 200% more expensive here than in Asia, with some things outstripping the prices I would pay back home. The prices of manufactured goods are also very high, although that is less surprising given the lack of manufacturing seen in this part of the world.

As we darted in and out of some of the “boutiques” looking for a frying pan, I came upon 3 men watching the Senegal-Philipines game. They were watching on a 20 inch tube TV, but they were into every shot, and they quickly realized a fellow fan as I swore when Gorgui got hacked in the lane. While we couldn’t really make out much of what the other was saying, the identification of a mutual goal was near immediate, and we shared the smiles of success and the multi-lingual curses of failure for most of the second half of the game.

It put what I’m doing here back into perspective quickly. These guys, standing and sweating in a storefront that might bring in $200 on a good day, had something to be excited about and there we stood, toubab and locals, swearing at a TV which would’ve been thrown out of most US households 10 years ago. It brought me back to the memories of childhood, watching Purdue games on old TVs, never thinking for a second that we needed to see the sweat dripping off of a shooter’s nose more clearly, just glad that we got to see it at all.

The unifying aspect of sports is powerful. In that moment, we transcended a cultural and language gap to care about the same thing, at the same time. For a few minutes in that shop, I forgot how annoyed I was at the heat and the stench. I wasn’t particularly worried about where I’d find fresh meat for dinner or the fact that there would probably be a blanket of flies at the apartment when we returned.

I just cared about a game, and about how my efforts were going to help the next generation of that Senegalese national team. I thought about Ibrahima, and prayed that his visa interview went well so that a kid who grew up in conditions that make American poverty look laughable, will be able to take his full scholarship to a $50,000 a year prep school on the East Coast.

And we’ve just gotten started with the girls. SEED has the ability to move the needle on female education in this country, and produce some of the best women’s basketball players in the world. Nothing increases human capital faster than increasing the educational outcomes of women, and we’ll be sending these girls to US schools in droves in the next few years. 

Then I thought, “Shit, I’d better work on fundraising to keep this dream alive.”

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We grabbed some sheets and a fan, and went back to the apartment to set up our “beds” which consisted of two cushions on the floor. I took my first cold shower of the trip, which was…quite refreshing. The fact that I won’t be seeing AC or hot water for a month is a little disconcerting, but roughing it is part of the territory here.

After we got our limited creature comforts taken care of, we headed over to the gym to watch the last scrimmages of the night and work one on one with a few of the kids.

The gym was probably 95 degrees at 8PM, but the kids were still clamoring to get on the court. Noah and I worked with Mactar, a 6’9’’ 16 year old who MIGHT weigh 160 lbs. He was one of the kids who was invited to play in the NBA showcase in Jo-burg. For about an hour after he was done with practice, he responded to every pointer Noah and I gave him, smiling the entire time, until we made him do push-ups, which was reminiscent of two strands of cooked spaghetti trying to stand upright.

Little extra chicken and some coaching, and the guys in that shop will be watching him some day.

My temporary discomforts look pretty small by comparison.


For more information or to donate to SEED Project, please visit www.seedproject.org

A Dickensian Quest

I was blessed with an unparalleled literary education as a child. Through happenstance and luck, Mary Barnes, the saintlike mother of one of my classmates, volunteered to take a group out of regular English and expose us to the sort of literature that reveals elements of the human condition, instead of being chopped apart for a 10 year old to be able to identify a protagonist and antagonist.

For years, she would come rescue about 6 of us from the monotony of textbook English and give us first the “Great Books” readers, then moved onto one offs with Gene Stratton Porter, Poe, and other authors of note. She taught us to consume literature as opposed to merely reading it. We’d debate and argue the motives of Poe’s villains, and contemplate in heartbreaking agony the plight of Porter’s immortal Limberlost orphans.

For all the thank yous I’ve meted out in this life, I’ve never properly thanked Mrs. Barnes for a piece of my education which has given me more than the rest put together.

On bended knee Mrs. Barnes, I thank you.

I thought of her on my 27 turned 30 hour train ride from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Most people would think that such a journey was a hellacious horror to be avoided at literally any cost. However, as an American, the novelty of train travel has not yet escaped me. Besides, there is a dining car and I still had a bottle of Pinot Noir from 2004 to keep me company. It couldn’t be that bad.

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Well had there been heat, I would have been correct. The Kalahari desert was getting down to about 15 degrees Farenheit, and that old steel box gets cold in the evening a helluva lot faster than it gets warm in the morning. I felt for a moment that my left asscheek and I were on the verge of ending our incredibly close 27 year attachment, but luckily that terrible fate was narrowly avoided.

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Given that you can’t really stare out the window at the fantastic beauty of the South African countryside for a day and a half, I got into my Kindle and found something to sink my teeth into. I decided to try my luck with that greatest of Victorian bards, Dickens.

Having failed to get interested in Oliver Twist once, I felt that it was my duty as a reader to find out what all the fuss was about.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the main gist is this. An orphan boy named Pip is mysteriously invited to the home of a wealthy recluse, Miss Havisham. Upon arrival, he falls inexorably in love with her coldhearted niece, Estella. One day he is informed by a lawyer that he has been anonymously bequeathed an allowance and estate in trust, which allows him to become the sort of gentleman whom he believes that Estella could love. His transformation and internal conflict from blacksmith apprentice to high society London gentleman causes most of the action in the tome.

Mrs. Barnes, why didn’t you tell me about this Dickens chap?

Having read more than my fair share of bildungsromans (new favorite word meaning book about one’s formative years) I was immediately drawn to the internal moral complexities of an old Pip looking back on this time in his life with both wonder and regret.

As he escapes his humble beginnings, he starts to find more and more shame in that which he came from. While I’m no Victorian orphan, I found a few parallels in my own life, as all good literature will show a determined reader.

I grew up in first wave of Midwestern economic decimation. The halcyon days of the major factory bringing prosperity to small communities across the Rust Belt were just coming to an end. My town had three major employers when I was growing up, a naval weapons base, a Ford factory, and a GM foundry.

These were places where solid middle-class lives could be built. Overtime paid the bills when times were tough, but the wages were quite high. People drove new cars because of the employee discounts, and it wasn’t rare at all to see a union guy on the line with a boat behind his truck on the weekends.

Then the party stopped. Globalization took hold, and the world realized that paying these wages wasn’t competitive against labor in the developing world who would happily do the same work for ¼ of the price.

The Ford plant shuttered its doors when I was about 13, and the GM plant started phasing out the legacy union contracts, hiring back replacements from my generation at half the rate that their fathers made.

So this was the economic reality that I grew up in. When people ask me if I grew up wealthy, I usually reply that I grew up about 2/3s of the way up an incredibly short totem pole.

My parents wanted to augment my education, poor Mrs. Barnes couldn’t be expected to teach me everything that I needed to know in the world, so they sent me during the summers to Northwestern University.

Boy did I feel like Pip then. I walked in having no idea what wealth or talent even looked like. I thought that owning a small town car dealership provided all the fantastic wealth that one could ever in his wildest dreams desire. Then I met a few kids from Lake Forest, on the famed North Shore of Chicago, and the world became a different place. The children of famed authors, doctors and CEOs were sitting next to me, wondering who let in the peasant with his one faded Abercrombie shirt.

I was again blessed with another great name from my educational past, Joan Miller, who taught me that rich kids have no inherent virtues impossible for the lower classes to attain. They are beatable, so long as you aren’t competing in the arena of consumption. It took me a decade or so to finally believe her, but it was one of the more valuable life lessons that I’ve been party to, and I’ll go to my grave thanking her for it.

And so from there I set out on my own Dickensian quest. To become one of those rich kids, while retaining the virtues of my humble beginnings.

In hindsight, I should’ve set off for the Holy Grail o

Much more easily attainable.

So I set forth, first to Purdue where I held my Bedfordian roots proudly for all to see. Perhaps too proudly, as a certain fur draped dame in Switzerland loves to remind me. I retained the twang that was so graciously beaten into me by my high school classmates and tried my best to retain those friends from home as we went down our diverging paths.

I watched as more and more of my friends from home found themselves recipients of all expenses paid trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, while my new friends at school wondered largely “just who in the hell was fighting these stupid wars?”

I got the distinct displeasure of burying a few of those former classmates of mine, as Bedford slipped from a thriving community into the throes of an unemployment/drug use death spiral.

Slowly my pride in being from Bedford was falling away. I knew that I could never go back, never again live in a place that harbored people who wouldn’t even help themselves. My love started to get callous, and my new line about my hometown was, “a great place to be FROM, not in.”

I saw this reflected on many others who got “out.” There was no intention to come back, and only a nostalgic pain that the place was going to hell in a handbasket.

From Purdue, I got into the rarified air of high finance. Now I was with people who really knew what wealth was. The kind who could buy my parents’ house 3 times over with a quarterly bonus check. They weren’t what you’d call “good people” but they seemed to like me and they loved the novelty of having someone from “the farm” around.

I think I inherently knew that I had, in Dickens’ words, “no hope of any personal participation in the treasure” but I felt like I almost owed it to everyone back home to find out what these “Masters of the Universe” were up to in their mansions and clubs.

So I buffed up my “talking points” about home and strapped it to my chest. Literally, I was IND in the oil and gold pits of NYC. I talked of the virtues of a small town life, like I was heading back there as soon as the closing bell rang. I spat with disdain at the nonsensical waste of money around me, at the slavish devotion to appearances, and the complete disconnect with what I considered to be “the real world.”

At first it was just an act; I loved it all. I loved the glitz and the glamour. Beautiful girls from all over the world flocked to NYC, and having Easter dinner with a federal district judge in a 20 million dollar home in Connecticut, drinking $500/bottle wine was a dream come true.

I had arrived.

Unfortunately, as any good actor will tell you, at some point the character will consume you if you play him long enough. It gets even trickier when the character you’re playing is an earlier iteration of the man in the mirror. At some point I was trapped, between putting up a false face of disdain (outwardly failing in my initial quest) and actually embracing the life that I had come to enjoy.

Oh but fate’s means of arranging roadside conversions are unparalleled.

There wasn’t a single “scales from the eyes” moment, but one day I woke up and knew that the character I had been playing was right. This was absurd and it was unhealthy.

My rich friends had drug problems of their own, they were just with the more socially acceptable cocaine instead of homecooked meth. The jobs they held were given to them for one reason or another by some backslap connection, and they felt no real sense of satisfaction from any of it.

Those who had grown up in more humble circumstances were no happier, as they’d let their Pip die years ago, content to drink and womanize instead of thinking about the bigger picture.

The whole “scene” that people were so desperate to integrate themselves into was just a flashy set of distractions from lives neither fulfilled nor examined.

Some of the only people I met in the whole ordeal who were actually happy were the two idealists I found running the SEED Project. They’d both grown up in the rarified air of the NYC elite, but they were running an engine for the betterment of their fellow man. You could see it on their faces.

Graduates of Princeton and NYU, they’d seen all that money and the “scene” had to offer, and they made a conscious decision to work for an amount of money which would be considered poverty by any of their well-heeled contemporaries in exchange for having the creative ability to change the fate of children (and eventually a country) halfway around the world.

I was drawn to this, at first for the basketball (I might be a Purdue fan, but it still fills my heart with pride that Damon and the 1990 Stars hold the record for most people ever at a high school basketball game) but eventually for the stunning opportunity to actually HELP someone.

My own cause from home, my beloved Thornton Memorial Boys Club, was gutted by a group of people slightly higher on that very short totem pole. One by one, the men who had taught me the value of service unto others, men like Jim and Jeff Jackson and Jimmy Gratzer were fired through the petty small town machinations of a cabal of people whose collective ego far outweighed both their talents and abilities.

I needed something towards which to redirect my efforts. Something bigger than myself or work, and something outside of my on-again, off-again love affair with my hometown.

Noah and Romola generously offered to let me come help, so now I’m on my way to Senegal.

The race hasn’t finished yet, but my quest was always two fold. I’ll worry about the money some other day, best to get back to those small town virtues before they’re lost for good.

Another wise woman from Bedford once told me, “what of a man who gains the whole world but loses his soul?”

Mickey, turns out I don’t really want to find out.

From Main Street to Wall Street to no streets, the quest continues.

But Bedford, I miss you more than you’ll ever know.

The 4th in Foreign Lands

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The New Colossus

Happy Birthday America!

238 years old. Quite a respectable age.

You’ve managed to stay intact through a Civil War which nearly ripped you in half.

You fought on behalf of liberty in two World Wars which enveloped you from across the globe, and even in victory, you magnanimously invited the vanquished back into the global community with open arms.

You’ve welcomed, albeit occasionally with gritted teeth, the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” of immigrants unwanted in their native lands and assimilated them into a society which has grown to be the richest in the world.

You faced down the threat of nuclear annihilation and the dehumanizing spectre of Communism largely with soft power instead of the destruction that total war brings.

For nearly two and a half centuries, you’ve held true to those most sacrosanct of ideals espoused by your Founding Fathers, “who brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and in doing so have been a source of hope for freedom loving people everywhere.

This isn’t to say that you’ve been blameless. No institution, no matter how grand its codified ideals can stay blameless forever. The stain of slavery, the dehumanization of those we found on this continent prior to European discovery, and the wars of choice fought over the past 60 years have fallen short of your commitment to those high minded ideals in favor of “realpolitik.”

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I should quit saying “you.” This isn’t a professional sports team I’ll never play for, this is America. This is the institution which has from my first breath, blessed me with the freedom, safety and mobility to be whomever I choose to be.

I cannot pick those attributes of America with which I agree a la carte, leaving the less desirable remainders for others to choke down. I cannot look at my neighbor and say, “Oh no, this is YOUR President. I didn’t vote for him.”

Men and women who came before me gave their blood, sweat, tears and lives to vouchsafe my ability to make this MY America, one where each voice, no matter its wealth, social status, or color of skin has an equal part to play in maintaining the greatest engine of human freedom and prosperity that the world has ever seen.

But today, another 4th of July abroad, I find myself tired.

I am tired of trying to explaining away the past 14 years of leadership so comically unenlightened that our political system has devolved into a shouting match incapable of legislating.

I’m tired of trying to explain to the Europeans, Vietnamese and everyone else who doesn’t share my passport cover that the policies of my government do not reflect Americans as individuals.

I’m tired of seeing my government encroaching further and further into the lives of its citizenry, of spying on even our allies, and systematically limiting the rights of the individual.

I’m tired of being called “brainwashed” because I believe in the fundamental American right to bear arms, even as another mass shooting occurs.

I’m tired of seeing my fellow Americans try to pass themselves off as Canadians to attempt to shirk a history that while imperfect, is still as proud or prouder than any nation the world has ever seen.

For all the chest beating talk of “American Exceptionalism” I hear at home, I am tired of being in a room of foreigners and seen as the idiot because I am not “properly embarrassed” of my homeland.

I am an American, and God help me if even for a fleeting moment that I deny that enviable truth.

I stand here today embracing the fact that the problems of the nation which has given me so much are inseparable from my own.

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I look to the members of the so called “Greatest Generation,” who sacrificed lives by the millions against a tyrannical force as twisted and corrupt as any seen in the course of human history, for guidance.

They fought with a single mind against an enemy armed with weapons engineered to make the slaughter of innocents magnitudes more efficient than ever before. They had the same right to vote that I do.

They did not shirk from their duty, or try to hide behind their broken political system. They stood and took the mantle of liberty upon their own shoulders and said, “Liberty will prevail, and America will ensure it.”

What happened to that America?

Why is my generation different from that of my grandparents? Has our democratic right to vote been taken away? Has our voice been silenced by statute or dictat? Do we find men with guns at our doors waiting to silence opposition?

No. The answer is much more humiliating.

We’ve merely disengaged. We’ve taken the spoils that our forebears won for us and squandered our inheritance on iPhones and TVs. On houses that would’ve made even the richest in generations past blush with the embarrassment.

We’ve taken “conspicuous consumption,” once a behavior to be avoided at all costs, and made it into a virtue.

We excoriate politicians for the slightest misspoken word, while giving our hours and eyeballs to such enlightened television as “Teen Mom,” “Honey Boo-Boo,” and the brand Kardashian.

We’ve taken capitalism, an engine of growth designed to reward the hardest working and most creative among us, and corrupted it into a rigged game of three card monte through cronyism and financialization.

Americans have inherited a system which requires constant maintenance, and we’ve left it on autopilot. The adverse results were completely predictable.

Our education system, once envied as the best in the world, now languishes along side such countries as Lithuania, the Slovak Republic, and Russian.

Our middle class has been systematically gutted, our rural communities left to wither on the vine both economically and socially, and our political class has partitioned themselves away from the people whom they are elected to represent, happy to bicker from their DC perches rather than associate with the lower classes in anything more meaningful than a photo-op.

The America that we live in and the freedoms we enjoy are not ours by divine right. It is, and will continue to be an ever evolving experiment, the results of which are determined daily by the diligent effort of those citizens who continue to maintain it through their individual efforts.

It is the sacred duty of each of us to ensure that that inheritance is worth receiving.

America I haven’t given up on you. Your struggles have galvanized my belief in that responsibility George Washington entrusted to Americans 227 years ago.

Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair

Generations of great men and women have both raised and maintained that standard, handing it to their sons and daughters in turn. It is the hallowed responsibility of mine to repair it to its former glory.

Happy Birthday America.

We’ve got work to do tomorrow.