Best of 2014

2014 was a very hard year – for the world, for my city, and for me. I am grateful to everyone who read and shared my work. Here are the articles that seemed to resonate most:

The peril of hipster economics – Al Jazeera English — 5/28/14

The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back –Medium — 4/14/14

College is a promise the economy does not keep – Al Jazeera English — 5/14/14

The telegenically dead Al Jazeera English — 8/14/14

The Princess Effect – Politico — 7/02/14

Water is a human right, but who is considered a human being?  — Al Jazeera English — 7/23/14

The Adjunct Crisis is Everyone’s Problem – The Chronicle of Higher Education — 10/17/14

How baby boomers ruined parenting forever – Quartz — 11/11/14

Can Minor Languages Make Revolution?  — The Common Reader — 10/1/14

I spent a large part of 2014 writing about Ferguson and St. Louis. The best of that coverage:

“Letter From St. Louis”. Three part series for Politico: Ferguson Won’t Heal (12/1/14)
Burning Ferguson (11/26/14) Ferguson’s Trial (11/25/14)

“I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the Geography of Fear – Quartz — 10/21/14

Why Ferguson has been in a state of emergency for years — Quartz — 11/23/14

The real reason Ferguson is boarding up its storefronts — Quartz — 11/17/14

After Ferguson: St. Louis’s Forgotten Suburbs:  — Politico — 8/26/14

St. Louis’s sons, taken too soon – Al Jazeera English — 8/27/14

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A Bosnian Murder, in Black and White

Umar Lee and I investigated the tragic murder of Bosnian immigrant Zemir Begić for Quartz, and analyzed the case in the context of race relations in St. Louis before and after the Ferguson events:

“What about black on black crime?” is the de facto derailment of conversation on Ferguson. A disproportionate number of homicide victims and perpetrators in St. Louis are black. Like much else in St. Louis, violent crime is segregated, with most crime occurring in impoverished black neighborhoods whose everyday problems are rarely covered by the news. When it is not—as in the Begić case—anxieties about race are inflamed.

For the Bosnian community, predominantly Muslim, race is a complicated subject. Bosnians entered the St. Louis area at a time of deep division. The south city area where they moved upon their arrivalwas populated by two groups: lower-class blacks, some of whom considered Bosnian traditions strange, and lower-class whites, some of whom considered Muslims suspicious—and not quite “white enough.” Bosnians struggled with an uncertain racial identity in a racially polarized community. After 9/11, hostility toward Muslims in the region increased.

“For the time being, probably the most honest answer to the question of whether Bosnians perceive themselves as white is ‘We’re not sure,’” says Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnian political scientist who notes that American history is full of immigrants—Poles, Irish, Italians—who became “white” only decades after arrival. “I suspect, ultimately, any definitive shift towards ‘whiteness’ among the Bosnian population in the US—when they will self-identify as ‘white people’—will come if or when there is a political need for it, as has historically been the case with other communities here,” he told Quartz.  “Given the recent events in St. Louis, however, that could (unfortunately) change very quickly to a definitive ‘yes.’”

Read the whole thing at Quartz

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No “healing” in Ferguson

My third in a series for Politico:

In order to “heal”, St. Louis has been asked to have “a conversation on race.” This conversation has already been happening, and it is angry and uncomfortable.

The conversation on race is whispered between panicked mothers on the playground, shouted by racists in the night, chanted by protesters on the street. The conversation on race happens every time white families explain they are moving out of a black neighborhood because “it’s different when it’s your own kids,” every time investors announce a gentrification scheme, every time a black man is pulled over on the highway, every time officials tell a grieving community to “calm down.” Michael Brown and Darren Wilson had a conversation on race. Brown’s last words were allegedly: “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting.”

Or maybe they were something else entirely—this city won’t have a chance to settle these questions in an open courtroom.

St. Louis has been having a conversation on race since its foundation. But there has been an element missing. The “conversation on race” that has not happened is the one in which white people listen to black people discuss their own experiences—and believe them. It is not about respectability. It is about respect.

Read the whole thing, Ferguson Won’t Heal, at Politico Magazine.

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Nothing left to boycott

For Quartz, I wrote about the Black Friday boycott in St. Louis:

In the St. Louis metropolitan region, three malls were temporarily closed. The first, the Galleria, is in the commercial suburb of Richmond Heights and is popular with black middle-class St. Louisans. (On a map of St. Louis that went viral in April, this area was referred to as “where black people go to shop.”) The second, West County Center, is in the wealthy town of Des Peres in St. Louis’s affluent West County, and primarily serves white middle-to-upper class shoppers. The third, Chesterfield Mall, is the largest in the state of Missouri. A thriving commercial megaplex, it is even further out in West County, in an area populated primarily by wealthy white conservatives.

There were no mall boycotts near Ferguson, because there are almost no malls left to boycott.

The Black Friday boycott was called to bring attention to how little black lives are valued in America. One look around majority black North County, the area surrounding Ferguson, and this becomes clear. The malls of North County stand vacant, stores shuttered, weeds sprouting in the parking lot. “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” cried the protesters (referring to an indictment), but in North County, commerce was shut down long ago, leaving an impoverished majority black population without resources or job opportunities. This is the landscape of abandonment, where things crumble quietly and communities scramble to survive.

Read the whole thing, In Ferguson, there are no malls left to boycott, at Quartz.

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Ferguson on fire

My latest for Politico:

Darren Wilson will never be on trial. Black St. Louis always was.

For 108 days, there were protests in St. Louis. The vast majority of the protests were non-violent. Looting and arson, limited to the initial August days, became media memes that bore little resemblance to life on the ground. St. Louis is an insular city, and its agony was internal, felt rather than seen. Comparatively few participated in the protests, but everyone shared the dread of the impending decision. Residents woke every day to new emergency procedures, to strategic leaks, to media rumors and lies. When asked why it was taking over 100 days to deliberate over events that allegedly took 90 seconds, officials replied that the road to justice was long. They gave St. Louis a waiting game and let the protesters pretend they were players.

In November, when rumors circulated that a grand jury decision was nearing, the protesters began to prepare. They were fighting the same fight that had brought them out in the early August day: the killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement, and the sanctioning of those killings by the justice system. The preparation meetings were mostly about how to not get killed while pointing this out. Medics, legal advocates, and peace activists gave tips on how to handle tear gas and go limp when arrested. As the media talked riots, protesters talked survival—not only survival of the people they were fighting for, but theirs.

Read the whole thing, Ferguson’s Trial, at Politico.

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Understanding St. Louis and Ferguson (Updated)

In light of the impending Ferguson grand jury decision, here are a few of my articles on the politics, economy and culture of St. Louis. You cannot understand Ferguson without understanding the broader context of the region.

Why Ferguson has been in a state of emergency for years
The real reason Ferguson is boarding up its storefronts
“I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the Geography of Fear
After Ferguson: St. Louis’s Decaying Suburbs 
St. Louis’s sons, taken too soon
The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back
The view from flyover country
The media came to town
Ferguson is not unique

This is a small list. More here. Prayers to STL.

Update: Here are the articles I wrote after the decision was in.

Ferguson Won’t Heal: It’s too soon to turn the page:  (12/1/14)
In Ferguson, there are no malls left to boycott (11/30/14)
Burning Ferguson (11/26/14)
Ferguson’s Trial (11/25/14)

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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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