More Woke in the Era of Trump

April 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The Negro Family — a Case for National Action.” That was the official title of the 1965 Labor Department document that came to be called the Moynihan report after its chief author and researcher Pat Moynihan. It became the center of a tangle of conflict both in social science and in politics. The more liberal strand in the tangle emphasized the role of “structural” factors — things that the poor can do little about: the kinds of schools available, the job market (the number and kinds of jobs available and the wages they pay), and of course racial discrimination.

The conservative strand in the tangle found the causes of poverty in personal failings — e.g., laziness — or in a culture that encourages behavior that leads to poverty or at least discourages behavior that would lead people out of poverty. If only poor people lived by middle-class values and norms; that is, if they waited until they were married to have children, remained with their spouses and provided good role models for those kids, then all would be well.

That was then. It’s also now.

Just last week, Pew published a report (here) about race in the US. Among many other things, it asked respondents about the “major” reasons that Black people “have a harder time getting ahead.” As expected, Whites were more likely to point to cultural/personal factors, Blacks to structural ones. But compared with a similar survey Pew did just three years ago, it looks like everyone is becoming more woke.

Here are the Pew results for the structural factors.

(Click on an image to for a larger view.)

For “racial discrimination,” Black-White difference remains large. But in both groups, the percentage citing it as a major cause increases – by 14 points among Blacks, by nearly 20 points among Whites. The percent identifying access to good schools as an important factor has not changed so much, increasing slightly among both Blacks and Whites.

More curious are the responses about jobs. In 2013, far more Whites than Blacks said that the lack of jobs was a major factor. In the intervening three years, jobs as a reason for not getting ahead became more salient among Blacks, less so among Whites.

At the same time, “culture of poverty” explanations became less popular.


Blacks especially were likely to discard family instability and lack of role models as important factors. And the laziness explanation gets little support – about 22% — from either Blacks or Whites.

The General Social Survey, which has asked similar questions going back to the 1980s, shows a similar convergence in the ideas of Blacks and Whites.


The GSS question asks if “lack of motivation and will power” is a cause of Blacks having “worse jobs, income, and housing.” The Black-White convergence comes earlier than in the Pew surveys, around 2002, and in some years the percent of Blacks agreeing exceeds the percent of whites. Also, the percentages are much higher than in the Pew survey. Instead of 22% for both races, here 36% of Whites and 41% of Blacks point to this personal flaw. Maybe it’s easier to agree that race differences are caused by “lack of motivation and will power” than to say that Black people are lazy.

With external factors — discrimination and not having “the chance for education that it takes to rise out of poverty” — Blacks are still much more likely to say that yes, these are causes. But even the 25-point Black-White gap on racial discrimination is smaller than in the 1980s and 90s.


If both Whites and Blacks are paying more attention to racial discrimination and less to personal-cultural factors, if everyone is more woke, how does this square with the widely held perception that in the era of Trump, racism is on the rise? (In the Pew survey, 56% over all and 49% of Whites said Trump has made race relations worse. In no group, even self-identified conservatives, does anything coming even close to a majority say that Trump has made race relations better.)

The data here points to a more complex view of recent history. The nastiest of the racists may have felt freer to express themselves in word and deed. And when they do, they make the news. Hence the widespread perception that race relations have deteriorated. But surveys can tell us what we don’t see on the news and Twitter. And in this case what they tell us is that  the overall trend among Whites has been towards more liberal views on the causes of race differences in who gets ahead.

Van Doren

April 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the fall of 1961, I took a semester of freshman lit. The instructor was a young man named John Van Doren. He would pace slowly back and forth at the front of the narrow classroom, often pausing mid-sentence and looking up at the wall, apparently searching for just the right word or idea. He held his white handkerchief to his mouth, as though his intense concentration might be causing him to drool slightly. Then he would turn back to the class and continue speaking.

There was something familiar about him, but what? After a few weeks, I finally realized what it was: Charles in the isolation booth.

Hesitating, wincing, biting his lip, adjusting his earphones in a soundproof glass booth, mopping sweat from his brow, Mr. Van Doren, after an apparently excruciating mental struggle, responded: “The Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. The Sea of Marmara. Russia, Turkey, Romania and … Bulgaria.” [from the obit in today’s Times.


I had watched the show, though not often. I don’t know what relation my teacher was to the Columbia professor who four years earlier had drawn millions of Americans to their televisions each week to watch “Twenty-One.” A cousin perhaps.* Certainly there was a family resemblance.

I remember almost nothing of Henry IV, part i or As I Lay Dying and whatever else was on the syllabus. What I remember is Van Doren’s performance and its similarity to that of his famous relative, right down to the handkerchief held to his mouth, as in the right-hand frame above.


* UPDATE, April 12.  John was the younger brother of Charles. (Thanks to Anonymous for providing the link. In 1961, such information was not a click away.) John died in January of this year.

You’re Cheatin’ President

April 7, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How you do one thing is how you do everything,” says Rick Reilly, author of Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.

Reilly may be right about Trump and golf. But that “How you do one thing” aphorism is wrong, even about Trump.

Reilly was on the podcast “Right, Left, Center,” interviewed by the show’s podcaster-in-chief Josh Barro. 



Here’s a redacted transcript.

Rick Reilly: He kicks the ball so much the caddies call him Pele. He kicks the ball, he throws it out of bunkers, they throw it out of lakes. But he kicks other people’s balls into the bunker so that he wins.

Josh Barro: . . . in his presidency he was surrounded by people all the time who know he’s cheating.

Rick Reilly: . . . His caddies all get paid to cheat for him, and so they’re kind of his Cohens. They’re always out there doing the dirty work, and then he can say he never touched the ball. Well, OK, you pay your caddies to do it. I snuck into the Bedminster caddyshack, and they all said, “Well Trump doesn’t cheat. We cheat for him.”

How you do one thing is how you do everything, and golf gives you a chance to look at that.

I like the image of Trump kicking his ball out of the sand trap, and kicking the ball of his opponent in. (After a shot, Trump has his “supercharged” golf cart speed up the fairway so that he gets to the balls while his opponents are still far away.)

But why kick? He could place the ball more accurately if he picked it up and tossed it. At first, I thought that it was one of those cognitive gimmicks that we use to give ourselves “plausible deniability.” Picking up the ball seems so deliberate, so unmistakably intentional. Kicking it could be accidental. Then it occurred to me that for Trump, bending over to pick up something off the ground might be too much of an effort.

Deniability is certainly the motive for paying caddies to do the actual rule-breaking. (In the interview, Reilly says, “he throws it out of bunkers, they throw it out of lakes.” I assume that the they in that sentence are Trump’s caddies.) The caddy, for Trump, serves basically the same function that the shabbos goy does for orthodox Jews, the chief difference being that Trump doesn’t brag about the arrangement. (An earlier post on the this topic is here.)



Reilly’s final statement — “How you do one thing is how you do everything” — sounds awfully good. It’s a very tempting and persuasive idea, one that we often use in judging “character.”  At the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, women defending him insisted that the honorable and respectful way he acted as a boss, co-worker, or friend must also be the way he acted as a drunken teenager at parties. (See this post for a fuller discussion.) A lawyer who had known Kavanaugh professionally for 20 years, said that the man he saw in the hearings “seemed like a different person altogether.” (More here.)

Trump too can change his “presentation of self,” especially when he’s trying to get something — money from potential donors, for example. Or sex. Remember the “60 Minutes” interview with Stormy Daniels?


Anderson Cooper: How was the conversation? 

Stephanie Clifford: Ummm (laugh) it started off— all about him just talking about himself. And he's like “Have you seen my new magazine? 

Anderson Cooper: He was showing you his own picture on the cover of a magazine. 

Stephanie Clifford: Right, right. And so I was like, “Does this — does this normally work for you?” And he looked very taken— taken back, like, he didn't really understand what I was saying. Like, I was, “Does, just, you know, talking about yourself normally work?” 

 [she describes threatening to spank him playfully with the rolled-up magazine] 

Stephanie Clifford: So he turned around and pulled his pants down a little — you know had underwear on and stuff and I just gave him a couple swats. 

Anderson Cooper: This was done in a joking manner. 

Stephanie Clifford: Yes. and — from that moment on, he was a completely different person. 

 Anderson Cooper: How so? Stephanie Clifford: He quit talking about himself and he asked me things and I asked him things and it just became like more appropriate. [emphasis added]


There’s no doubt that Trump does a lot of cheating, also a lot of lying. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why the map of Trump support looks a lot like the map of country music. But in different circumstances, as Stormy Daniels says, Trump can become a different person — just  like Brett Kavanaugh, just like all of us.

That Word Again — More Taboo, Less Taboo

April 5, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The latest issue of the Hasbrouck Heights High School journal, The Pilot’s Log, reports on their student survey.
  • 98% of students polled hear or see the word used on a daily basis
  • 85% of those students say the word was used in a non-derogatory manner
  • 70% of students polled admit to using the word in a friendly manner
The word, of course, is nigger, or in the Pilot’s Log version “the N-word.”

OK, this survey isn’t the GSS. The editors make no claims for their sample (n = 160) as representative even of their school. As for Hasbrouck Heights, it’s an upper middle class suburb eight miles from New York City, median family income greater than $80,000. The high school students are mostly White, with some Hispanics, and fewer Asians. Less that 4% are Black.

Still, the results, whatever they’re worth, suggest contrary motion. At the same time that nigger is becoming less acceptable and more deplorable, it is also changing its meaning and becoming more widely used and accepted in places where it was once largely unspoken.

In the world controlled by grown-ups, the word is basically taboo — powerful and dangerous. It must be treated with special circumspection. Steven Pinker told the Pilot’s Log that their survey results surprised him.

In the public sphere . . . the word is more taboo than ever. . . Writers have been excoriated for simply mentioning the word as a word, commenting on how it is used . . . I notice that not even you spell out the word . . . but use the euphemism”’N-word” — that is an indicator of how taboo it is.

Note the important caveat Pinker starts with: “In the public sphere . . . .” He’s talking only about the world ruled by grown-ups, the world where even when Whites are not in control they are still within earshot. In private, of course, things are different. African Americans speaking among themselves do not accord nigger a sacred/taboo quality; maybe they never did. And now, among White kids as well, the word is apparently losing its strong overtones of denigration and hostility.

I would guess that the main cause of this change in usage among young Whites is hip-hop. The historical arc of rap resembles that of earlier Black music like the blues and R&B. Those too began as Black musicians speaking to Black audiences. Eventually, White folks listened in, especially White folks who wanted to be hip or cool. That’s true of rap as well, But rap, with its wordy and uncensored narratives, gives White listeners (and maybe Black listeners) the impression that this is how Black people really talk among themselves, or when they just don’t care what White people think.

As in the past, White people, especially young White people are adopting the  sounds and rhythms and moves of Black culture. Also its language. Not just new coinages (bro, 24/7). But some words that have been around for a long time are losing their White meaning and coming to be used the way they are used among Blacks. I’m not a linguist, but my guess is that dude and bitch fall into this category. Sixty years ago, a dude was a “city slicker” — a too-nicely dressed urban dandy, the guy who showed up at a “dude ranch.” Only among Blacks was it a generic term for men.*

Now, it seems that White kids are using nigger not with its White meaning — a nasty racist epithet — but with something more like its Black meaning. I noticed this five years ago seeing a bunch of middle-class White and Hispanic girls at a Sweet Sixteen party in the Bronx.

I was impressed watching these kids recite by heart the rapid-fire lyrics, and I realized they could do the same for lots of other rap hits. Those songs too have this same taboo word. Yet there they were, these sweet sixteen and fifteen year old girls, rapping along with Jay-Z about their gang of niggas. (The full blog post is here.)

I expect there may be some conflict during this evolution, some people insisting that it’s wrong to for certain people to use the word this way.**  But from being on the losing side of language battles too often, I expect that political arguments about what’s right will be just as ineffective as my shouting, “It’s ‘for you and me,’ not ‘for you and I,’” at the people on television.

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* In the early 1960s, a Black co-worker — we were shampooing rugs on site, and the boss, for purposes of future sales, wanted information on the homes we went to. My co-worker, filling out the form later, asked me, “How many rooms did that dude have in his crib?”

**See the famous 1975 SNL sketch (here) with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor, where a job interview morphs into a tense battle of racial epithets.