The boarded buildings of Ferguson

My latest for Quartz addresses the economic and racial issues behind the boarding up of storefronts along Ferguson’s West Florissant Ave:

Since August, the media have described Ferguson in apocalyptic terms. The region has been compared to Gaza and Iraq, and today phrases like“riot-scarred” and “riots that engulfed the city” punctuate mainstream press. The reality is that the violence and looting that took place in Ferguson was limited to a small strip in the commercial district of West Florissant Avenue, with one business, QuikTrip, burned to the ground. The few stores that were looted reopened shortly afterward.

It is debatable whether the August violence, limited in damage and scope, could be classified as a riot. The police response, which included tear gassing residents on their property, was more pervasively destructive than the actions of protesters on the ground. For over 90 days, protests continued with minimal property damage. Ferguson remains a suburb of unassuming homes and faltering businesses, much as it was before. Its scars run deep, but they are largely emotional, not physical.

Some have interpreted the boarding of Ferguson as racist, a sign of business owners’ lack of faith in residents and protesters. But the boarding of Ferguson needs to be examined in the context of St. Louis’s racial politics and economic decline.

It is easy to find other parts of St. Louis that resemble the aftermath of riots. Shattered windows, roofless dwellings, boarded buildings, and stately homes whose bricks were stolen by the poor are all part of St. Louis’s landscape. Blighted suburbs like Wellston, Pagedale, Berkeley, and Kinloch bear the burden of decades of white flight, municipal corruption, and resource denial. Drive down the once thriving Page Boulevard, now a thoroughfare between crumbling majority black suburbs, and you will find sites like a forsaken VCR repair shop with shattered windows, a sign affixed to the front advertising a Democratic electoral candidate. The election was in 2010.

This is not the legacy of riots. This is the legacy of apathy and abandonment, which has harmed St. Louis more than looting ever has.

Read the whole thing, The real reason Ferguson is boarding up its storefronts, at Quartz

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The crash of the helicopter parents

I have a viral article in Quartz about the rise and fall of “helicopter parenting”, an elite practice peddled as normal that most parents could never afford:

About 25 years ago, when the era of irrational exuberance allowed enough disposable income for irrational anxiety, the concept of “helicopter parenting” arose. A “helicopter parent” micromanages every aspect of his child’s routine and behavior. From educational products for infants to concerned calls to professors in adulthood, helicopter parents ensure their child is on a path to success by paving it for them.

The rise of the helicopter was the product of two social shifts. The first was the comparatively booming economy of the 1990s, with low unemployment and higher disposable income. The second was the public perception of increased child endangerment—a perception, as “Free Range Kids” guru Lenore Skenazy documented, rooted in paranoia. Despite media campaigns that began in the 1980s and continue today, children are safer from crime than in prior decades. What they are not safe from are the diminishing prospects of their parents.

In America, today’s parents have inherited expectations they can no longer afford.The vigilant standards of the helicopter parents from the baby boomer generation have become defined as mainstream practice, but they require money that the average household earning $53,891 per year— and struggling to survive in an economy in its seventh year of illusory “recovery”— does not have. The result is a fearful society in which poorer parents are cast as threats to their own children. As more families struggle to stay afloat, the number of helicopter parents dwindles—but their shadow looms large.

Read the whole article, which my editor subtly titled How baby boomers ruined parenting forever, at Quartz

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The attention economy and the politics of language

My latest is for The Common Reader, a new journal you should read. Their debut issue is on the politics of language, and my article is on online protest in Uzbekistan. What happens when you tweet a protest and no one hears you?

The attention economy is a quantitative economy. It is measured in hits, clicks, likes and follows. It is an affirmative economy, in which the absence of affirmation is viewed as failure. To be ignored is to be invisible, to be invisible is not to be. What is viral, here, does not infect but is infectious. What can be counted is mistaken for what counts.

The constraints Malohat and Saodat faced were in part constraints of language. But they were mostly constraints of power.

Malohat and Saodat were ignored not only because they spoke Uzbek, but because they are Uzbek. The desire to understand what is happening in Uzbekistan is related to one’s interest in Uzbekistan. One’s interest in Uzbekistan is determined by one’s ability to obtain information about Uzbekistan. The ability to obtain information about Uzbekistan is bound by the ability to understand the Uzbek language and hear from Uzbeks who are able to communicate freely—which, both on the internet and on the ground in Uzbekistan, they are not allowed to do.

In May 2005, the government of Uzbekistan shot to death roughly 800 people gathered at a political protest in the city of Andijon. But most Uzbek citizens did not hear about the massacre until days after it had occurred. The government cordoned off the area, blocked investigators from the scene, and expelled foreign media and local reporters, but not before a few had managed to get the stories online.

Many Uzbeks told me the first time they heard about Andijon was through an article on the internet. Controversial political information travels out of Uzbekistan through word of mouth, is published online by Uzbeks abroad, and is circulated back through word of mouth again.

In a constricted media and political environment, it is not surprising that the struggle of two Uzbek journalists failed to broadly resonate. But it is misleading to think this means they did not matter—for what “matters” is not a matter to be objectively decided by those outside the story. The quantitative evaluation of digital activism obscures the respective limitations, and goals, of participants. “Public interest” is less a measure of what the public is interested in than what the public is able to see—but before that, it is a measure of who gets to be designated “the public.”

Authoritarian states are spaces where public sentiment is kept private while private conversations are monitored. In online spaces, everything is potentially public, and so lack of public attention is construed in evaluative terms: “success,” “failure.” It is a surface reading of the impenetrable—the silent reader, the talk behind the scenes. What seems to be overlooked is often being quietly looked over.

Activists in authoritarian states write the archives of their unheralded actions. Where outsiders hear the sound of silence, their countrymen hear the stifled cry.

Read the full article Can Minor Languages Make Revolution? at The Common Reader

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Ferguson and the Politics of Fear

For my first article at Quartz, my writing partner Umar Lee and I interviewed white supporters of Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. We also wrote about white flight and St. Louis’s politics of fear:

“I am Darren Wilson.”

The slogan is all over the St. Louis metropolitan area: on T-shirts worn by soccer moms, on rubber bracelets worn by police officers, on signs held by their wives. “I am Darren Wilson,” they proclaim, in a show of affinity with the white police officer who  shot black teenager Michael Brown to death in the street in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 9. “I am Darren Wilson,” they affirm, as St. Louis waits for a grand jury to rule whether the most infamous police officer in America will be indicted.

Everyone in St. Louis is afraid. The discrepancy in what they fear is tearing the region apart. Ferguson protesters—and much of black St. Louis—fear the police. They fear officers like Wilson, whom they believe view black men as inherently threatening and deserving of lethal force. Since Aug. 9, protesters have proclaimed “I am Michael Brown” and mimicked the “hands up” gesture he allegedly made before he died. “I am Michael Brown” is the grim corollary to their other rallying cry: “Black lives matter.”

Those who claim “I am Darren Wilson” say they stand in solidarity not just Wilson, but also with law enforcement. To support Darren Wilson, the refrain goes, is to support law, order and due process. But underlying the phrase “I am Darren Wilson” is a different kind of fear. It is fear of disenfranchisement, chaos, and criminality. It is a fear of black youth and black self-determination. This fear structures not only the geography of St. Louis, but also the regions beyond.

Today the base of Wilson support comes not from St. Louis, but rather neighboring St. Charles County, where white St. Louisans began to migrate en masse at the turn of the 21st century following the arrival of blacks in suburban St. Louis. The Wilson case is the culmination of decades of the racial politics of fear, which dictate everything from where people live and how they treat each other to whom they view as the antagonist in the Ferguson events. While the grand jury has until mid-November to rule on an indictment, rumor is that it will happen soon. St. Louis is a region on edge, united only in anticipation that the worst is still to come.

Read the whole thing, “I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the geography of fear, at Quartz

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You are not immune from the adjunct crisis

My latest for the Chronicle of Higher Education is on the broader implications of the adjunct crisis:

There is no escaping the consequences of academia’s reliance on contingent labor. If you do not experience the adjunct crisis directly as an academic, you may well experience it as a citizen: as a student, a parent, or a professional facing a similar contingency crisis in your own field. The adjunct crisis in academe both reflects and advances a broader crisis in labor. Our exploited professors are teaching our future exploited workers.

On February 25, 2015, adjunct professors across the United States are planning to walk out of the classroom to protest their low pay, lack of benefits, and unfair treatment. Their struggle is one we all should support. Here are the reasons why you should care.

Labor exploitation is not the new normal. Adjunct professors are distinct from other low-wage contract workers only by virtue of degree – that is, the Ph.D. Like other exploited workers, adjuncts are told that their low pay and mistreatment are the deserved consequence of poor choices. While low-wage workers without college degrees are told to get an education, adjuncts are asked what they thought all that education would get them. The plight of the adjunct shows one can have all the education in the world and still have no place in it.

The contingent labor market is marked by two paths: one of low-status, low-paying jobs emblematic of poverty; another of high-status, low-paying jobs emblematic of wealth. Adjuncts fall in the latter category, indicative of how the rhetoric of prestige is used to justify low compensation. Since the recession, academia’s pay-to-play business model has been adopted by other professions, including law, policy, and media – all of which increasingly rely on unpaid or low-wage labor. That should not be accepted as “the new normal” but rejected as a crisis of exploitation.

Read the whole thing, The Adjunct Crisis is Everyone’s Problem, at Chronicle Vitae.

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No recovery in sight

My latest for the Chronicle of Higher Education is on the academic job market recovery that never came:

We are at the point where the academic job market has been dismal for so long that one could have entered a Ph.D. program at the start of the recession and graduated, six years later, into a market still waiting to recover. In contrast, new graduate students today enter more aware of the limited job opportunities in store for Ph.D.’s. Unlike previous cohorts, they cannot claim ignorance of academia’s economic conditions, nor can they reasonably expect full-time, tenure-track employment in a university upon graduation.

This raises the question of why anyone would get a Ph.D. Some students talk of “callings,” some talk of love, but the reality might be that, in a rigged economic system, graduate school is no worse a bet than many others.

“What can you do with a Ph.D.?” people ask. Here are a few things: You can defer undergraduate student loans, which are at record highs. You can get a stipend and health benefits as a teaching or research assistant, versus working in an unpaid internship that you cannot afford. You can drop out with a free M.A. often required in a market defined by credentialism and the diminishing value of a bachelor’s degree.

You can bide your time, waiting for the economy to turn around, because that is the main pastime of the post-recession economy: waiting.

In 2008, Obama was elected on rhetoric of hope and change. But the hope that things would change for the better soon transformed into hope that they would simply not get worse. They are worse — much worse — because in academia, the effect is cumulative. The nonacademic job market – particularly in areas like scientific research or policy that have traditionally hired Ph.D.’s – is in comparable disarray, hurting from the same austerity and greed that decimated the university system.

Six years later, the problems of higher education are on the table, piling up, remarked upon and reread and rarely rebutted. Academics no longer have their heads in the sand but their eyes wide open — surveying the damage, trying to avoid being hit.

Read the whole thing, The Job Market Recovery That Never Came, in Vitae for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Thanks, Riverfront Times!

My thanks to the Riverfront Times for naming me best online reporter of 2014. Their write-up below:

It’s a bit limiting to pin down local writer Sarah Kendzior as simply being a “reporter.” Though she does longform, in-depth work, like her piece “The Fast-Food Worker Strikes Back” for Medium, she also wrote op-ed pieces for Al-Jazeera (before quitting the gig recently) and keeps the world on its toes 140 characters at a time on Twitter. With degrees in anthropology from Wash. U. and in Central Eurasian studies from Indiana University, Kendzior is one of the people to keep on your radar if you want to keep abreast of global politics. And in a rapidly changing city like St. Louis, her particular interests in gentrification, wage gaps and the up-and-coming millennial generation will give you a lot to chew on.

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This is not the 1960s

My latest in Al Jazeera English is on Ferguson, fast food protests, and comparisons between now and the civil rights movement of the past:

In the United States, they say it is like the 1960s: Civil unrest at home, war abroad.

On September 10, protesters in St Louis, Missouri shut down a highway demanding justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager from Ferguson shot dead by a white policeman. The same day, in New Jersey, students chained themselves together during an eight-hour protest over the corporate takeover of public schools. In Pennsylvania, workers at the fast food chain Chipotle quit en masse over “borderline sweatshop conditions”. As night fell, the nation watched US President Barack Obama announce that we are bombing Iraq again, in yet another chapter of a feckless, regenerative war.

They say it is like the 1960s, but that is nostalgia for nostalgia. Baby boomers romanticised those battles, but it is hard to imagine anyone romanticising this era, in part because the era feels like it has no end.

We woke up on September 11, 2001, in a war and a declining economy. We woke up on September 11, 2014, the same way. The only thing that changed is the scale. Thirteen years of waiting for the tide to turn, only to endure an erosion of opportunity – the economic collapse in 2008, the false “recovery” of the years to follow.

They say it is like the 1960s, but in the 1960s there were options. In 1968, the minimum wage hit its peak and unemployment was at a near all-time low. In the 1960s, middle-class youth dropped out of society because they knew they could drop back in. “Cut your hair and get a job” was something people would say, because there were actual jobs to which people could return.

Today’s youth have no such options. We have the institutional racism and civil unrest and foreign wars of the 1960s – along with a decimated middle class, record income inequality, a slashed safety net, and skyrocketing debt.

For anyone who came of age after the millennium, war and economic decline are all we have known. Our country stagnates and generations stagnate with it.

They tell you it is cyclical. But that cycle is spin, spin, spin.

Read the full article, The wages of discrimination, at Al Jazeera English.


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St. Louis, race and grief

From my latest for Al Jazeera English:

A shooting in St Louis is never surprising, but it will always be shocking: that the cruelty of the act is complimented by the callousness of the reaction; that when a community cries, someone always finds a way to give it more to grieve….

If you had asked whether the killing of Brown would become an international cause, or be swept silently aside, most would have bet on the latter. It is a testament to black St Louis activists, and their ceaseless documentation and calls to action, that it was not.

No one will forget the killing of Michael Brown. But that killing was preceded by decades of police brutality, of violence, of losses, of teddy bears tied to trees. During the 2013-2014 school year, 17 St Louis public school children died, a record number. The second largest number, in 2010, was eight.

“At some schools, kids don’t come back to school for several days when a young person has died in the kind of violent death that occurred last night because they think there may be repercussions,” a St Louis school superintendent told local media in March, after an eleven-year-old black boy was shot through the window of his home.

By spring, trauma counsellors were working overtime. Now, after the death of Brown and the tear gassing of the local population, including children, they work around the clock.

St Louis was grieving long before the tragedy of Ferguson – or, at least, parts of it were. Like everything else in St Louis, grief is unequally allocated. This is a city where people live their whole lives seeing certain neighbourhoods only on TV.

St Louis is a city where black communities are watched – by police, by spectators – more than they are seen, more than they are heard.

Read the full article – St. Louis’ sons, taken too soon – at Al Jazeera English



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Sarah and Umar go to White Castle

As the media converged on Ferguson, my cowriter Umar Lee and I decided to see what was going on in the rest of North County. We drove around towns near Ferguson  – Berkeley, Kinloch, Jennings, Florissant, Riverview Gardens – and talked to black North County residents at fast food places and laundromats about the events.

Everyone is afraid, but moreover, they are frustrated, because North County has been hurting for much longer than Ferguson has been in the news:

Today, ruins dot the North County landscape too. An abandoned mall, its closed entrance declaring “Cash paid for anything of value.” A meadow, lush and random, in the space where the Wyndhurst and Terwood apartments—bulldozed in the 1980s for an airport extension that never materialized—once stood. A closed-down, castle-shaped playland turned night club turned day care turned abandoned failure. A faded wall of fame in Kinloch, Missouri’s first black incorporated town, proclaiming its historic achievements, before the population dwindled to 600 and it became capital of North County’s drug trade, another airport expansion casualty. Kinloch’s roads lead nowhere but are still blockaded with “Road Closed” signs, in case you mistakenly detected a sense of possibility.

The St. Louis metropolitan area is a city of migration, but that migration is not limited to the historic patterns of successive white and black flight. Migration is an everyday occurrence. Many St. Louisans—especially poor and black St. Louisans—live in a state of permanent transience, moving from one apartment complex to the next, one suburb to the next, multiple times per year, on a futile hunt for safety and affordability. Canfield Green Apartments, where Michael Brown resided, is a typical example.

Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population roughly doubled. But the towns near Ferguson—like Berkeley, Kinloch, and Jennings—have always been, and remain, worse off. In the initial days of the crisis, Ferguson was referred to as “small town” or a “ghetto,” but it is neither. Ferguson is one of North County’s more economically viable locales, in that it houses the region’s baseline businesses—payday loans, title loans, dollar stores, barber shops, beauty shops, chop suey joints—along with a few highbrow rarities: a library, a brewery, a farmer’s market. Ferguson has houses with people in them. Ferguson has roads that lead to destinations.

The rest of NoCo does not share these advantages, but Ferguson is very much part of that continuum. What affects Ferguson affects the rest of North County. If Ferguson burns, it will likely take parts of the county down with it. If Ferguson rebuilds, it could inspire a rebirth of the surrounding region—that is, if anyone bothers to care. And they should: Unless the investment in Ferguson extends to the rest of North County, Ferguson does not have a chance.

Read the full article After Ferguson at Politico Magazine.

I also recommend checking out my earlier piece The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back, which discussed striking fast food workers from North County, and Umar’s The New North County: The 1950s Aren’t Coming Back. We have been writing about NoCo for a long time and plan to continue our coverage.

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