Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Show Me a Hero review + did desegregation improve African-American educational attainment?

HBO mini-series “Show me a hero” meditates on America’s missing black men, housing and desegregation

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

It was only halfway through the 4th episode that I noticed a striking feature of this new miniseries from The Wire creator David Simon – although it had lots of black characters, none of them were men. Time and time again, we were seeing black women holding together black families in the face of rising odds and an unforgiving economic reality. This was just one of the inconspicuous elephants filling up the politically charged narrative of East Yonkers in the late 1980s, when a Federal judge forced Yonkers to build “public housing” and effectively bus in several hundred Black & Hispanic people into a predominantly White neighbourhood.

SMAH tries to make sense of it all, using a tripartite narrative connecting the difficult lives of people in public housing, the white suburbs they were destined for and the ambitions of Yonkers’s local politicians. The show is a worthy effort, well executed and sorely needed in the current socio-economic climate. The story is significantly dulled by Simon & Zorzi’s unwillingness to ensure that most of their characters are nuanced and well-realised, while the writers’ own politics clouds the series’s inherent tensions. However, if you can stand the slow pace, it’s great to see social issues put on screen in a reasonably honest way.

To most folks, this miniseries probably appears quite gritty – the show spends some time in the drug-ridden ‘Projects’, there’s the esoteric discussions of the architecture of public housing, extended scenes of dry political bargaining and, of course, the tragic ending. You get the idea. But if you’re aware of David Simon & William Zorzi’s previous work, The Wire, SMAH is actually a soft-focus version of the subject matter, sort of like a knife with its edges filed away. This becomes apparent in its visuals as well as the narrative and characterisation. For a start, the video is shot in clear high-definition, while The Wire was grainy and looked subdued (one of many reasons for why Wire bombed when it came out). Then there’s SMAH’s cloying instrumental music, telling you what to think, which was missing from Wire. Then there was the almost impenetrable lingo of The Wire, considered by many to be the truest depiction of that subculture before or since.

If Wire sounds extremely pared-down and hyper-authentic, it was. Wire was a hairshirt production, without no instrumental music and utilising almost entirely unknown actors, with even some real-life ‘dealers’ (e.g. Felicia Pearson, aka Snoop). And the subject matter, you ask? It’s hard to say, really - on the surface it was about drug-dealers and Police in post-9/11 Baltimore. But it was so much more than that - it was the closest TV had ever gotten to putting a PhD thesis on screen. It used the cops’n’dealers theme to probe issues around race, wealth, politics, violence and most importantly, how good intentions get mangled by complexity and flawed institutions.

For better and worse, SMAH doesn’t pretend to such ambitions – presumably because Simon & Zorzi actually wanted more than a few thousand people to watch it. It’s an implicit admission of the fact that The Wire may have gone too far in its authenticity and no-quarter-given in terms of plot and dialogue. And yet, on the back of The Wire (and Homicide), Simon & Zorzi had Hollywood stars like veteran Director Paul Haggis, Catherine Keener, Alfred Molina, Jim Belushi, Winona Ryder and Oscar Isaac signing up to help them make their latest political statement. While this clearly serves to make SMAH look mainstream, it leaves SMAH in a dead zone of being too dry to be truly mainstream but not gritty enough to be docu-drama (again, like The Wire). The evidence for this is in the sub-0.5mn viewing figures received in the US. One of the few things that SMAH has over The Wire is that it’s not as sprawling and its plot is tighter and more coherent – it is firmly rooted in housing desegregation and its politics.

Unlike The Wire though, SMAH is marred by the lack of empathy Simon & Zorzi show those deemed to be “on the wrong side”, i.e. the residents of East Yonkers. It never occurs to SMAH that rich (White) people may well have legitimate reasons to oppose public housing plonked in the middle of a middle class neighbourhood. Instead, they’re shown as feral, naysaying, pussy-footing, racist elitists. And not in a nice way, either. Simon & Zorzi stuff their mouths with insipid, petit politesse dog-whistle phrases like “it’s not about race” or “they don’t want the same things as us”; even if these phrases were actually uttered by the residents of East Yonkers, isn’t it the writers’ job to probe further? Watch the first episode of The Wire and you’ll see what I mean: Wire tried very hard to show us the reasons why every character, no matter how good or bad, did what they did.

Wire wasn’t even an “anti-hero” show like Breaking Bad – it made no judgements at all. Let us not forget, The Wire was the first TV show to adequately humanise drug dealers and treat them as more than just the dregs of society. In SMAH, Councillor Spallone is a self-satisfied, self-styled champion of Yonkers’s middle-classes – played by Alfred Molina in scenery-chewing form as an odious, venal oaf who ousts Isaac’s character by cynically promising something impossible. His characterisation as a smirking, hyper-unreasonable, smug bully with his feet perpetually planted on the Council table is so one-tone and caricatured that it feels like a different world to the entertainingly complex personalities of The Wire. Admittedly, The Wire had 60 episodes in which to probe under the surface, but this doesn’t mean a 6 episode run necessitates the caricaturisation of key characters - it just doesn’t add up. This is not to say that SMAH is not a worthy addition to Simon & Zorzi’s taxonomy of urban America. If it fails, it’s by the Himalayan standards of The Wire & Hill Street Blues.

Simon & Zorzi could have brought the story together neatly by focusing on how people on both sides of the housing debate were primarily motivated by working towards or maintaining a good environment for family, whether they lived in Yonkers or in the housing projects. But David Simon is having none of that – his views are firmly baked into the show’s DNA. The white residents of East Yonkers are shown no sympathy at all, being shown to be singularly vicious, racist and stupid, while the people from the Projects are mostly shown as righteous (if not always bright) women who are just down on their luck [the only exception to this is Billie Rowan’s mixed race partner, who is just no good at all]. Weirdly from the writers of The Wire, the Black & Hispanic characters are also quite one-dimensional, dawdling around until about episode 5.

Ultimately though, SMAH does create an impact - for example, the scene where the Projects’ Housing Association prepares its tenants to live amongst Yonkers’s White people by patronisingly teaching them how to tie a rubbish bag. At one point one of the Black tenants asks “will the White people get lessons in how to act too?” Then there’s the dejected NAACP official who complains bitterly to Jon Bernthal that the petitions, political resistance and willingness to go bankrupt is “just for 200 [housing] units…”. And of course then you’ve got the central character of Nick Wasicscko, who paid a personal price for the failure of Yonkers to accept desegregation. What could’ve been a somewhat procedural political drama became something more personal and curious. Wasicsko was like some of the Black men in the Projects, ‘missing’ from society because he, like them, knew how to do only one thing and when it was gone, so was he. AM


Desegregation has seen something of a rise in visibility due to TV shows like Show Me A Hero and the notable podcast ‘The Problem We All Live With’ ( The latter was particularly interesting because it argued that the only thing shown to have worked in improving failing Black & Hispanic educational achievement was schooling desegregation. This got me thinking about the recent history of African-American education and desegregation. Did desegregation really improve Black kids’ schooling? On the surface it makes perfect sense – schools can’t by themselves correct the massive social problems prevalent in families from lower socio-economic backgrounds, so why not move the kids elsewhere and start from scratch? And anyway, isn’t non-segregation a good thing in itself? Although I don’t doubt this inherent value in desegregation, it feels a lot like simply giving up on Ethnic Minority (EM) neighbourhoods. And in any case, experience seems to have shown that desegregation is often followed by 'White flight', thus leading to resegregation. Instead, wouldn't it be better to focus on making the existing Black-majority schools better? I suppose this brings us back round to the issue of how schools can hope to correct massive socio-economic problems, so it's understandable to hear the cry of desegregation once more. But I'd like to focus on how we got here and whether desegregation really does improve Black educational attainment.

Recent African-American history

The history of the Black peoples in the US has obviously been one of pain, oppression and dignified resistance, and so it was in the 20th century. The triumph of the end of slavery was followed by the pain of the Jim Crow laws, which was itself upended by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This movement culminated in the more pragmatic freeing of Black society to be itself and compete with other Americans on a more level field, but alas this proved to be ephemeral. In a trend debated even today (see this paper from Feb 2015), the arrival of the crack epidemic destroyed Black families anew, leaving in its wake a multitude of broken Black families and with it the support networks that allow people to fail from time to time. 

Then came the era of “mass incarceration” of black men and severe curtailment of the economic opportunities of said men (as we also saw in HBO’s Show Me A Hero). Other side effects, such as re-segregation and large numbers of single Black women with no men to date/marry also followed (e.g. the missing 1.5mn Black men). The graph below shows how educational attainment amongst Black people was catching up to White people from the 1960s onwards, but starts to tick upwards from the late 80s, particularly for Black men. This is unfortunately the impact of the crack epidemic. 

What puzzled thinkers for a long time, however, was why AVERAGE Black scholastic attainment collapsed, as opposed to simply for users and dealers of crack. As explained in Freakonomics:

“Crack was so dramatically destructive that if its effect is averaged for all black Americans, not just crack users and their families, you will see that the group’s postwar progress was not only stopped cold but was often knocked as much as ten years backward. Black Americans were hurt more by crack cocaine than by any other single cause since Jim Crow. And then there was the crime. Within a five-year period, the homicide rate among young urban blacks quadrupled. Suddenly it was just as dangerous to live in parts of Chicago or St. Louis or Los Angeles as it was to live in Bogotá”.

The persistence of this socio-economic phenomenon is why it stays in the news (and indeed why HBO greenlit Show Me A Hero). Whether you live in London, Baltimore or Bombay, the issue of housing continues to be a highly political problem that crystallises many of society’s ills, whether it’s racism, inequality or poor quality of life. This stems partly from its nature: housing is a long-lasting and highly illiquid good; its supply is fixed in the short term and buying/selling it is a generally vexatious endeavour. But for Black Americans, it stems from myriad of historical and social reasons, not least of which are antiquated and racist housing policies, the 1980s crack epidemic, and zero-tolerance Policing. Then there was the breakdown of the American family, which took a particularly vicious form within the Black community, as Dunlap, Golub & Johnson explain:

“Since 1960…the prevalence of African American children living with their mother only increased from 20% in 1960 to over 50% in the 1980s and 1990s. The prevalence of white children in mother-only households also increased…but by 2002 still comprised less than 20%.

It was in this context that the crack epidemic hit particularly hard, decimating support structures that were already weakened. These single-mum families bequeathed to society young black men who had not had any father figures at all, thus helping perpetuating a cycle of incarceration of Black men. According to the NYT, the place with the most missing black men as a % of the total is Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson shows up consistently as the most segregated town in the entire US, which puts the protests following Michael Brown’s murder into clear context: this is a town with lots of black men dead or behind bars, and losing yet another one to something so senseless ignited an almost primordial rage among its residents. As usual, it’s hard to understand what is a symptom and what is a cause – are there more single parent families in Black America because of crime or are African-Americans more criminalised BECAUSE of a higher incidence of broken families amongst African Americans?

Why African-Americans often have a precarious place in society

All these factors seem to have left Black America deeply insecure – take for instance the fact that even middle class Black kids are highly likely to end up being poor. If you’re Black and born in the middle class (“middle quintile”), you have a 69% chance of sliding back into a lower socio-economic category, whilst if you’re White, the chance of that happening is only 34%. Now look at this ( from 1992 to 2013, White & Asian University graduates saw their median real net worth rise by about 85%-90%, whilst Black graduates saw theirs FALL by 56%. This comes at the same time as the finding that even White high-school dropouts have more wealth than Black people with degreesThe chart in the latter link is truly astounding – using the ‘median’ chart, we can see that REGARDLESS of education, the average Black person’s wealth doesn’t get close the same level as that of a White high-school drop-out.

With all this in mind, all the recent anger behind shootings of unarmed Black men becomes even more justified – despite having a Black (mixed-race) President, the economic situation of most Black people in America has stayed significantly behind White people and indeed even recent arrivals like Indians & Chinese. Here is a community sandwiched between historically racist policies and weaker family support structures on one side and zero-tolerance policing on the other – no wonder we see occasional paroxysms of rage. Unfortunately, the induction of more African-Americans in senior governmental positions (Susan Rice, Loretta Lynch, Eric Holder, etc.) has not assuaged grievances with policing and government.

Does desegregation improve Black attainment?

And now onto something that piqued my interest: does desegregation improve Black educational attainment? Well, there’s some good news and some bad news: the bad news is that although there’s some conflicting data, the answer seems to be weighed slightly towards “no”. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to affect White attainment. So atleast there's no harm in desegregation. Have a look at the graphs below and note what happens in the late 1980s. This is the crack epidemic we talked about earlier.

 As per Evans, Garthwaite & Moore (2015):

“Black high school completion rates also declined and we estimate that factors associated with crack markets and contemporaneous increases in incarceration rates can account for between 37 and 73 percent of the fall in black male high school completion rates. We argue that the primary mechanism is reduced educational investments in response to decreased returns to schooling.”

Basically, it just didn’t pay to be in school when (a) you could make $200+/week slinging drugs and/or (b) you didn’t have a choice whether to get involved in gang wars and so you had to drop out anyway. If you couple it with the data in the previous section, it’s obvious that a lot of these kids made a brutally simple and short term economic decision. If you’ve seen The Wire season 4, all this should be obvious to you.

What complicates the picture is that this was also the period when a lot of the kids who went to schools under Federal desegregation programs in the 1970s onwards were becoming adults or had just become adults and therefore presented the perfect subjects for research into this topic. But the advent of the crack epidemic made it hard to sort out the various effects. So people like Rucker Johnson use econometric analysis to sniff out one impact from another. In Johnson’s own words (Long run impacts of school desegregation and school quality on adult attainments, NBER Working Paper 16664):

“…estimates indicate that school desegregation and the accompanied increases in school quality resulted in significant improvements in adult attainments for blacks…for blacks, school desegregation significantly increased both educational and occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status; desegregation had no effects on whites across each of these outcomes.”

Given that this is a recent study, it should carry some weight. However it’s interesting to note that the author stresses non-academic results as well, such as reduced probability of incarceration. Looking at page 49 of his paper, this reduction in probability of being incarcerated is 4%, which would be impressive if it wasn’t for the fact that Black men have, on average, a 1 in 3 chance (i.e. 33%) of going to jail at some point in their life. Nonetheless, progress is progress. Now look at the other side of the debate, which is summarised by Armor and Rossell (2008):

“…in spite of the existence of comprehensive and well-funded desegregation plans in many school districts throughout the nation, there is not a single example in the published literature of a comprehensive racial balance plan that has improved black achievement or that has reduced the black-white achievement gap significantly.”

They show the graph below - what this shows is that the gap between Blacks and Whites narrows only in the “Whitest” schools, i.e. highly segregated schools (this time with a White majority). One way to interpret this is that these schools are simply “rich kids’ schools”, and in those schools, everybody does well. Note the source for this – it’s the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most comprehensive dataset of educational attainment in the US. But then again, it’s somewhat dated and only tests the effects of desegregation in the 1970s-1980s (that was the heyday though). A similar graph for mathematics unfortunately shows Black attainment never closing the gap on White attainment, regardless of the concentration of White children.

But can we find a nice, clean example that doesn’t need all this statistical wizardry? Step forward Wilmington-New Castle County in Delaware. Now this is a subject with lots of beautiful writing behind it and if you’re still reading this article, you should seek it out: The Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School Desegregation [read it here].

Delaware was a former slave state, with customs that could be identified as 'Northern' and 'Southern'. This led to strange overlapping rights and denials of rights: Blacks could vote freely and libraries and trains were not segregated, but schools and restaurants were. What makes New Castle County special is that it remained racially balanced for quite a while, thus allowing studies to be carried out on the impact of desegregation. What ‘contaminates’ a lot of studies is that there is ‘White flight’ once desegregation starts, thus leading to re-segregation, just in new areas. In New Castle County, the schools remained about 65% White, attributed to the Whites being much poorer than elsewhere and therefore less able to simply relocate to the suburbs in order to “escape” desegregation. As per 'Bill Frank', one of the state's most famous newspapermen:

"Where desegregation in Delaware has been given a fair chance, it has been successful in that it has not developed into any difficulty nor has it gone beyond any limit set by educators".

Unfortunately, going back to Armor & Rossell (2008), test scores did not show improvement:

Unfortunately there’s a lot of data like this implying little or no improvement in Black attainment, although the sample size of 4 years is quite small. It's worth thinking about WHY desegregation should improve test scores. According to Armor & Rossell (2008), racial isolation is inherently harmful because it "deprives minority students of contact with more middle-class, usual higher-achieving students", who "set the pace of study". So we're back to the fundamental question of class - how can going to a new school wipe away issues at home? Again, won't the socio-economic problems of some communities overwhelm the new school as well? Another reason given is the concentration of good teachers in safer, richer schools, which is also obvious. A major determinant is simply funding, and it is considered that White-majority schools have more funding and that's why desegregation may have a beneficial impact. However, this clearly uncouples the argument from desegregation per se and makes it about funding.

Clearly, higher funding is something that works, but you probably didn't need to see any research papers to learn that. What all this does say, unfortunately, is that anything other than funding has only superficial affects and there's no real substitute for good school funding, strong families with good role models and safety nets in the form of wealth rather than just income.

Finally, one of the things I was struck by in the book Burden of Brown is the little personal vignettes which show how New Castle County dealt its problems:

“Thomas Mulrooney, the Director of child guidance, reported that a growing number of students came to school “unfed and clothed in rags”…”

In this day and age, this may be interpreted as an arrogant, sneering statement. Fortunately, however, humanity served to show its better side, as the school decided to remedy this by innovating and being one of the first schools in the West by providing breakfasts, clothing, psychiatrists and other attempts at improving the lives of these children. If only we could see more of the same today. AM

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