On writing about evil

One of my early, arm’s-length mentors at Virginia Tech, the exceedingly kind Ed Weisband, took me out to lunch and got on my case, a little bit and deservedly, about being too timid in my early writing about justice. I remember him saying, with genuine anguish in his voice, “I don’t like writing about evil, Lisa. It breaks my heart writing about evil. But I have to.” At the time, Ed was writing about genocide, and while it took me a really long time to buck up the courage to write explicitly about justice, I have finally started doing so.

Ed is right; it’s hard to write about evil. I blew things up with my book about a month ago. I did so for several reasons; one was simply that this spring has been one hit to my scholarly confidence after another. After one particular incident sent me into a pretty bad tailspin, I got to questioning the basic premise of the project: Whom was I actually writing this book for? For me? That seems like a narcissistic answer. To get promoted? Like most people, I’d love to attain status and prestige, but not enough to do work I don’t believe in. I did that when I was a consultant, and it broke me a little each time.

The other contributing factor was the extreme difficulty of the data collection, management, and analysis of some of the empirical parts of the book. There are some ambitious analyses in the book, and they have required copious amounts of programming in Python, a language I do not know well.

Yes, I could have produced a book in a year if I’d been less ambitious. If there isn’t any risk of failure, it’s not any fun, not really.

And then there is one chapter that I have been writing about Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter. This chapter has subjected me to what Ed Weisband told me years ago about the emotional pain of writing about evil. It’s breaking my heart. When I walked away from the book, my biggest feeling of relief–one I didn’t disclose to anybody asking me questions about why I’d leave the book after I had invested so heavily in it–was the possibility that I wasn’t going to have to read one more racist comment about Martin or his parents and that I wouldn’t have to read and sort through stories such as this newest, about Zimmerman selling the gun he killed Martin with for $100,000+.

I still hate touching that analysis every time I touch it. I hate that my neighbors have to worry about their children the way black parents have to worry about their children. I hate that my black students might get hurt or killed because of the hate I am reading in the tea leaves. This is looking straight into American evil. And it hurts me every time I do.

It felt good thinking I wouldn’t have to do it anymore.

But not doing it didn’t feel right either. So I am back, working away on that chapter, and hurting every time. But if it hurts me to look at it, living it is a million times worse. There comes a point where your realize that your feelings don’t matter, and that if you have information that might wake people up, you have to use it.

When you have lost the ability to be constructive in race/class/gender discussions

This has never really happened to me before, but I think I may have become so alienated and hurt by the misogyny of the academy that I am no longer constructive.

One wants to work for change, but after getting kicked in the teeth so many time by so many clueless dinosaurs…one just resents every single action or gesture or conversation as either fake, self-serving, or both.

So I sit on the sidelines, rolling my eyeballs all over my head, as people who have no clue what oppression is or how it works talk about how we’re gonna be all diverse now, for sure, that’s the ticket. We’re having conversations. We are making plans.

I’m supposed to clap and support and cheerlead these conversations and plans. This conversation freaking needs me. And I am too tired and too burned out to do it.

How do we fix my heart? How do I cheerlead with a broken heart? Because my heart got broken the last time my male colleagues demeaned me in front of our students. I have no idea why that day was the last straw–Lord knows, I’ve been dismissed and undermined in one meeting after another–but something just broke in me that day, and I can’t get past it.

How does that get fixed?

How do we fix the confidence that I’ve lost because they are always trying to wrest it from me and I just ran out of strength to hold on to it? I just ran out. I should do better; I should ‘lean in’; I should ‘not let anybody hold me back.’ I should be strong.

But I’m empty. I got nothing to give to them or to me, and I am in a free fall. And you’re always telling yourself, when you are focussed on justice, that you have to make the most of those key opportunities, those key windows that occasionally open up to change an institution, however marginally, for the better. And if you don’t have the energy to move when those windows happen, you’ve lost a moment, let the side down.

Justice links from around the web

From Professor Rick Wilson:
The Dale Prize is two-day event that links a scholar and a practitioner for dialogues on a focused planning topic, organized by the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona.
Last month’s Dale Prize Colloquium on planning for community self determination and racial justice generated a lively and stimulating discussion. Scholar Dr. Lisa Bates (Portland State) and Practitioner Mr. Hector Verdugo (Homeboy Industries) discussed practical ways of advancing racial justice. (YouTube Video)

Brilliant Price Student Felix Huang writes How We Talk About Asian American Aggrievement.

Right to the City: From Policing to Planning: Putting the People in Charge

To Work and Pray in Remembrance by Elise M. Edwards on Feminism and Religion

Why Seal Hunting May Come Back and Bite Humans by Charlie Camosy

Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful a social media campaign (#unfairandlovely) that started with dark-skinned Indian women in response to skin-bleaching products marketed to both women and men

Feminist geographer Doreen Massey died this week. Here’s one of her pieces I admire: Neoliberalism has hijacked our vocabulary.

A Timeline of the Chavez Ravine and Dodgers Stadium events for @USCPrice Rawjee Family Student Conversations

Some quick and dirty notes for my Rawjee Family Student Conversations at USC Price with the students on Chavez Ravine, so that I can be useful to them. Please feel free to correct–it’s very sloppy as I am in hurry.

  • up to 1950’s Mexican families, facing discrimination in most of the Los Angeles housing market, create a sustained community–a “Poor Man Shangra-La” as it is called in multiple references. It was self-contained in many ways; residents had their own churches and many grew their own food. (There was also livestock kept). The area consisted of three general districts La Loma, Palo Verde, and Bishop.
  • WWII and post-WWII Los Angeles experience tremendous new population growth, and the City begins to look for places to build. The 300-acre site in the center of Los Angeles was, to outsiders, an obvious choice.
  • 1949 The Federal Housing Act of 1949 granted money to cities from the federal government to build public housing projects.
  • and Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron voted and approved a housing project containing 10,000 new units, with Chavez Ravine being a central part of the new development plans. Much of the housing was shanty construction, and housing authority planners viewed the construction as unsanitary and unsafe. City of Los Angeles housing authority representative Tom Wilkinson was a central actor in the Plan.
  • Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander develop a plan for infill development (Elysian Park Heights) to house 3,300 families in a sprawling complex of 24, 13-story towers and 163 two-story garden apartments, where the families of Chavez Ravine could be housed. The residents were supposed to have first choice among these units.
  • In July 1950, all residents of Chavez Ravine received letters from the city telling them that they would have to sell their homes in order to make the land available for the proposed Elysian Park Heights.
  • The city began buying property and using eminent domain to push families out. An coalition emerged in LA Politics between conservative private development interests and Mexican families furious at their displacement. Mike Davis reported in City of Quartz that the buy-outs were shady.
  • In 1952, Frank Wilkinson, the assistant director of the Los Angeles City Housing Authority was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was sentenced to one year in jail for refusing to cooperate with the committee. Five other Housing Authority employees were fired.
  • By this time, virtually all of the families had been removed and their homes razed, though some hold-outs remained in what would be called “The Battle of Chavez Ravine The property would stay vacant for nearly 10 years.
  • 1953 The City Counsel tried to back out of its contract with the federal government to provide housing; it went to court, and LA lost.
  • Also in 1953 conservative Norris Poulson won the mayor’s office using the Chavez Ravine controversy as a platform; he promised to the vowing to stop the housing project and other examples of “un-American” spending.
  • With Norris’ intervention, the feds would relent and sell the land back to the city for a low price on the condition that the land be used for “public purpose.”
  • 1957 Mayor Norris Paulson, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman put together an offer for the Dodgers on behalf of the City of Los Angeles, including what was a privately owned, 56,000-seat stadium at the confluence of several major freeways surrounded by 16,000 parking spaces. (from O’Malley Was Right) It’s a question to me if whether this sale actually
  • 1958 Taxpayers Committee for Yes on Baseball, which was approved by Los Angeles voters on June 3, 1958 that the Dodgers were able to acquire 352 acres (1.42 km²) of Chavez Ravine from the City of Los Angeles. (This, too, was an ugly political fight, with Poulson getting accused of taking bribes and making money off the deal.)
  • Dodgers Stadium would not open for a few years yet–the Dodgers played in the Coliseum until the field opened.

Additional resources:

KCRW’s Coverage of Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander’s plan for public housing

chavez ravine la historia de un pueblo fantasma en trinchera de palabras

The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism
By Dana Cuff (The MIT Press, 2002)

Chavez Ravine 1949 by Don Nomarck

PBS Independent Lens documentary Chavez Ravine

The Rawjee Family Student Conversations at USC Price
This conversation series provides undergraduate students the opportunity to interact with a variety of community leaders in the Los Angeles area. Students gain new perspectives on important social issues, cultivate new interests and passions, discover potential career opportunities, and create lasting friendships with their peers and mentors. Through these enrichment opportunities, undergraduate students have met with city managers, debated ballot initiatives, addressed health policy issues, and toured the Los Angeles River. Learn more here about what we are up to with undergraduates: here.

Justice links from around the web

Campus protests and whiteness as property We have some Cheryl Harris fans in the class, and some campus organizers–this one is for y’all.

Why Losing a Home Means Losing Everything

This Women’s History Month, I Refuse to Celebrate Your Feminism

Inside Higher Ed and the #NotAllMen defense

Obama bans solitary confinement in federal prisons

Tech bro bro-sprains how his city is infested with homeless people

Visceral Geographies of Whiteness (open access, scholarly journal article)

Yuri Kochiyama’s obituary from the SF Gate

Students shouldn’t have to choose between books and food.

I’ll be so proud when my daughter is president and runs a corrupt oligarchy by Kiese Laymon (You should just always read Kiese Laymon whenever you can).

Bodies on the Line–The LA Review of Books

Decolonizing my Brown Body