Weekend Reading

April showers bring more readings every weekend:

Even for someone dimly aware that institutions of higher education have been scaling back on hiring tenured professors in favor of piling on part-time temps, the actual figures are eye-opening. According to theAmerican Federation of Teachers‘ Higher Education Data Center, just over half of all college instructors are now part-timers: adjuncts hired on a course-by-course basis to fill out the teaching roster. Another 15 to 20 percent are “contract” professors, who are full-time but must seek new employment each time their term of service runs out. (In academic lingo, the two are often lumped together as “contingent” faculty.) Add in graduate-student–taught classes, and barely a quarter of today’s college teaching staff is made up of faculty in full-time, tenure-track positions.

In other words, rights are something you get by agreeing to the social contract of two-adult family units that are recognized by the law. Hence, activisms that make marriage central to equality (the euphemistic phrase “marriage equality” has subsumed the phrase “gay marriage” in common parlance just as abortion rights are now “the right to choose”) obscure many other ideas of what equality might look like. They flatten differences that queer people and radicals have cherished over the years: households, kin and economic networks that celebrate many different kinds of connection. Finally, they makes a lack of access to rights into a “bad choice” rather than an effect of unequal access to economic resources.

Queer critics of marriage are correct that mainstream GLBT organizations have staked everything on these cases. Organizations like HRC and Equality Now have seized on the American romance with romance. They have successfully persuaded a broad range of stakeholders that marriage is the gateway to a range of rights and opportunities that “everyone” but gay and lesbian people have. This is not an entirely untrue statement, but it is a radically incomplete one. Rights tend to be distributed along the lines of race, class, gender and nationality; many people, straight and gay, have no access to social, legal or economic justice. Women’s history would also suggest that, until quite recently, marriage itself has been a barrier to legal equality across the lines of race and class.

Credentialism is often rewarded in bureaucracies because it is a simple, relatively unambiguous designation of “qualified” that conforms to bureaucratic desires to remove discretion from decision-making. Ergo, credentialism — literally here just meaning the process of formalizing knowledge or qualifications by attaching it to some kind of certificate or degree — can be disproportionately important to black folks who are disproportionately hired by, employed in, and promoted according to the standards of bureaucracies, which reward having a credential.

That makes graduate school a lot less stupid of a decision.

I see this in my interviews with for-profit students, many of whom are black. They are not crazy when they intuit that they “need some letters behind [their] name”. They are actually pretty accurately assessing the economic and social landscape in which they are embedded.

Plainly put, black folks need credentials because without them our “ghetto” names get our resumes trashed, our clean criminal records lose out to whites with felony convictions, and discretion works against our type of social capital (and weak ties and closure of information) to amount to a social reality that looks and feels a lot like statistical discrimination.

To live in a modern society is to accept moral complicity in many kinds of violence. We pay taxes, and drones kill distant kids; we pay for roads, and thousands are killed in cars; we assent to the murder of farm animals that, we can be confident, feel pain and fear. We justify these moral choices, and our complicity in them, either by reference to a greater good—killing terrorists is so essential that the collateral damage is morally acceptable—or, just as often, by pretending they aren’t happening. All we can do is try to be clear about the kind of violence with which we are complicit.

So to say that people who know the consequences and still do everything they can to ensure that gun laws don’t change are complicit in the murder of children is to state, as unemotionally as possible, an inarguable fact. They have made a moral choice that the deaths of those children, and the deaths of those who will certainly die next, is justified by some other larger good: in this case, apparently, the sense of personal power that possessing guns provides. That’s a moral choice, clearly made. But we shouldn’t pretend for a minute that they—or we—are making any other.


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