This week, Columbia University handed out the Pulitzer Prizes, which are widely considered among the highest honors in journalism. The occasion gives us a good excuse to shout-out some of the finalists and winning entries that touch on issues of race and culture. (Fair warning: these stories are very good journalism done in the service of illuminating some deeply dispiriting realities.)
Speak No Evil
The Chattanooga Times Free Press project "Speak No Evil" — a finalist for the Local Reporting category — delved into the one of the River City's most vexing dilemmas: the way dangerous criminals go unprosecuted and homicide cases go unsolved because witnesses don't come forward. The reporting team found families of victims struggling to find closure for their loved ones' killings who had declined to speak even when the identity of their attackers was an open secret in their neighborhoods. And they found cases of repeat offenders whose violence seemed to escalate as they skirted prison time.
"Police think gangsters are irrational, that the neighbors stopped calling with tips because they lost their moral compass," Joan Garrett McClane wrote. But the reality she and her colleagues found was far more complicated. The city's aggressive policing of black neighborhoods made law-abiding citizens feel that they were being targeted by the police. After a few high-profile, racially charged incidents of apparent police brutality, the community's faith in the police force had completely eroded. And since the city had no resources to protect witnesses, there was a very real threat that cooperating with the police or prosecutors could put witnesses in mortal danger.
"I know who stole my chain. I know who robbed my house. I know who hit my sister. Rather than calling 911, people are resorting to private violence," David Kennedy, the noted Harvard criminologist, told the Times Free Press. "When the young man knows who killed his friend, he doesn't think the police are on his side."
There are lots of fascinating, unsettling things intersecting in the Times Free Press story, which is a great introduction to these issues as they play out across the country. It's worth a read — particularly the first of its three chapters.
The Child Exchange
Megan Twohey's expose for Reuters — a finalist for the Investigative Reporting category — zeroed on a disturbing shadow economy in which parents who've adopted children from overseas go online to offer their children to new caretakers after they decide they can no longer handle raising them. Some of the children have special physical needs or psychological challenges that compound the significant challenges of navigating a new culture. These "rehomings" are done outside of official channels and with no oversight, making the children moved around this way especially vulnerable to exploitation.
Americans have adopted about 243,000 children from other countries since the late 1990s. But unlike parents who take in American-born children through the U.S. foster-care system, many adults adopting from overseas receive little or no training. It isn't unusual for the children they bring home to have undisclosed physical, emotional or behavioral problems.
No authority tracks what happens after a child is brought to America, so no one knows how often international adoptions fail. The U.S. government estimates that domestic adoptions fail at a rate ranging from "about 10 to 25 percent." If international adoptions fail with about the same frequency, then more than 24,000 foreign adoptees are no longer with the parents who brought them to the United States. Some experts say the percentage could be higher given the lack of support for those parents.
Twohey writes that there are no local, state or federal laws overseeing this practice, and the State Department doesn't keep track of the statistics. The state of affairs troubles child welfare advocates and officials in the countries where many children come from.
The investigation highlights the story of Quita Puchalla, a Liberian girl who was first adopted by a Wisconsin couple before being "rehomed" with an Illinois couple: Nicole and Calvin Eason. As this list from Twohey's report indicates, the Easons had quite a history:
- Child welfare authorities had taken away both of Nicole Eason's biological children years earlier. After a sheriff's deputy helped remove the Easons' second child, a newborn baby boy, the deputy wrote in his report that the "parents have severe psychiatric problems as well with violent tendencies."
- The Easons each had been accused by children they were babysitting of sexual abuse, police reports show. They say they did nothing wrong, and neither was charged.
- The only official document attesting to their parenting skills - one purportedly drafted by a social worker who had inspected the Easons' home - was fake, created by the Easons themselves.
The Reuters investigation details six previous incidents in which Nicole Eason had taken in children this way, surfing Internet forums under the screen name "Big Momma." In one incident, Eason picked up a child in a hotel parking lot just off the highway. The man who went with her to get the 10-year-old boy she was picking up would later be sentenced to federal prison. His crime: trading child pornography.
Waiting for the 8th
The Washington Post's Eli Saslow won the Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting for his series on the prevalence of America's food stamp economy at a time of deep cuts to the federal antihunger program. One entry zoomed in on the city of Woonsocket, R.I., where one-third of the population received food stamp benefits. Woonsocket's economy stirred to life each month like clockwork around the time when food stamp benefits were disbursed.
The son of a grocer in the Dominican Republic, [Miguel] Pichardo had immigrated to the United States in the 1980s because he expected everyone to have money — "a country of customers," he had thought. He settled in Rhode Island with his brother, and together they opened a series of small supermarkets. He framed his first three $5s, his first three $20s and his first three $100s, the green bills lining a wall behind his register. But now he rarely dealt in cash, and he had built a plexiglass partition in front of the register to discourage his most desperate customers from coming after those framed bills when their EBT cards ran dry. The local unemployment rate was 12 percent. The shuttered textile mills along the river had become Section 8 housing. The median income had dropped by $10,000 in the last decade ...
Pichardo had placed a $10,000 product order to satisfy his diverse customers, half of them white, a quarter Hispanic, 15 percent African-American, plus a dozen immigrant populations drawn to Woonsocket by the promise of cheap housing. He had ordered 150 pounds of the tenderloin steak favored by the newly poor, still clinging to old habits; and 200 cases of chicken gizzards for the inter-generationally poor, savvy enough to spot a deal at less than $2 a pound. He had bought pizza pockets for the working poor and plantains for the immigrant poor. He had stocked up on East African marinades, Spanish rice, Cuban snacks and Mexican fruit juice. The boxes piled up in the aisles and the whir of an electronic butcher's knife reverberated from the back of the store.
Saslow also told the story of Raphael Robinson, a D.C. resident whose family relied on the program, even as Robinson vowed to get off of it. Her family's routine plays like the story of Woonsocket in miniature, a monthly cycle of boom and bust. "The family's refrigerator is usually dark and barren by the time the 8th arrives," he writes. "But then their food stamps come through and they head to the grocery to stock up."
So many of our conversations about poverty —- and government antipoverty programs in particular —- tend to be racially coded. Saslow's explorations are a different spin on the demographics of the welfare economy than we often see, and go a long way toward humanizing that economy's many players.
The Internal Enemy
The way Americans tell our story is as a steady march of expanding liberty, and particularly in the early days of the Republic, as a challenge to the idea of a nation-state ruled by nobles and sovereigns. But to the enslaved Africans in America at the time, the new America was their oppressor and jailer. Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History, tells the little-known story of 3,000 enslaved Africans who escaped from Virginia and fought the War of 1812 alongside the British against the Americans.
"It was an extraordinary set of human dramas, the resourcefulness of people who were seeking freedom, stealing boats in the middle of the night to go out and find British warships and offer their services," said Taylor, a historian at the University of Virginia.
The defection of thousands of slaves led many in Virginia's planter class to worry that they were presiding over an enslaved population that might revolt at any moment.
Taylor tells the stories of families who escaped to freedom by aligning themselves with the British, and argues that the American victory in 1812 laid the groundwork for the sectional divisions that eventually came to a head during the Civil War half a century later.
A Dreadful Deceit
Jacqueline Jones' book on the construction of the concept of race in America was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History. Jones recounts the lives of six people who have lived at different times in American history who have been mostly overlooked but whose lives illustrate the way race has been used as a tool for exploitation.
One of those lives is the story of Eleanor Eldridge, a black woman who amassed a good deal of wealth in the 1800s. Her success might have flown in the face of the prevailing stereotypes of blacks as indigent and lazy. But as Jones told our colleague Rachel Martin last year, Eldridge was instead seen as a threat by whites in her Rhode Island community:
Eleanor Eldridge was a very savvy businesswoman, an investor, and at times she overextended herself in terms of buying real estate. And then she found herself victimized by creditors who went after her and compliant judges and sheriffs who repossessed her property. However, she fought back in a very dramatic way. She had a large number of employers who were her patrons and were willing to vouch for her in court, willing to help her pay for legal defense. And in the process, she managed to continue to thrive. But one of the ironies here is that one of the stereotypes also at the time held that black people were predatory, that they would not rest until they had taken jobs from white people. Well, these are very contradictory notions. But this episode, I think, reminds us that these racial mythologies are contradictory and they can be very malleable to suit the times.
What were some of your favorite stories about race, ethnicity and culture from news outlets over the last year? (Not counting the ones from Code Switch, of course.) Tell us below in the comments.
Families and friends who have wondered since 1971 about what happened to two South Dakota girls now have some closure.
Authorities said Tuesday that they believe Pamela Jackson and Cheryl Miller died when their 1960 Studebaker Lark accidentally went off a gravel road and into a local creek. "All the evidence would appear to indicate an accident," South Dakota Attorney Gen. Marty Jackley said.
Among the clues, according to Sioux Falls' Argus Leader: the car "was in third gear, with the keys in the ignition and the lights on. One tire was damaged. ... Miller's purse was found, Jackley said. Inside it was her license, notes from classmates and photographs."
The girls had been on their way to a party that teens were having at a gravel pit. Their car wasn't discovered until last September, when low waters in the creek revealed the rusted wreck.
"The car did not contain any evidence, such as cans or bottles, that alcohol was involved. Based on witness accounts, the girls, who visited Miller's grandmother in the hospital in Vermillion, then met up with friends and followed them to Alcester, wouldn't have had time to stop along the way, Jackley said. ...
"The bridge was new, which might have confused the girls. One of the Studebaker's tires was damaged, but officials don't know if that happened before or after the crash. ...
"Classmates thought the girls were behind them but lost sight of the Studebaker. 'They had indicated they were being followed by the girls (and) that at one point they had missed the turn and then they looked back and the girls had vanished,' Jackley said.
"An extensive search of the area didn't reveal anything, and their families were left to agonize about what may have befallen them. The case confounded local law enforcement."
At one point in 2007, as we have reported, a man was indicted on murder charges related to the girls' deaths. But the charges were dropped when investigators determined that a recording of the suspect's alleged jail house confession had been faked by another inmate.
Both Jackson and Miller, who has also been referred to in news accounts as Sherri, were 17 years old. They were students at Vermillion High School.
Last September's discovery of the Studebaker, which had apparently been submerged in the creek's waters for more than four decades, came one week after a similar story from Custer County, Okla. There, as we wrote, "sheriffs' deputies who were testing a new sonar device on a lake in western Oklahoma's Custer County [came] across two grim discoveries." They found two cars in Foss Lake — each with three bodies inside. One vehicle and its adult occupants had been missing since 1969. The other vehicle and the three teenagers inside disappeared in 1970.
Authorities are still trying to determine how those vehicles ended up in that lake.
After the grim discoveries in Oklahoma, we looked at the use of side-scan sonar to reveal "what's lurking in your lake."
The video for "The Messenger" was shot at at Rodrigo y Gabriela's home studio in Zihuatanejo, in southern Mexico, shortly after they completed their upcoming album 9 Dead Alive. It's meant to depict what it was like making the album, with Rodrigo and Gabriela, eye-to-eye in a studio and limited production. The intimate performance is the perfect showcase for their phenomenal guitar playing.
9 Dead Alive is out on April 29 on ATO Records.
There's something unsettling — freakish, even — about Lawrie Brown's photos of everyday meals.
In one photo, the California-based photographer has placed a shockingly blue raw chicken atop a bed of rice and peas. In another, pink cereal puffs float in a sea of yellow milk. And Brown slathers three hefty scoops of green ice cream with purple fudge in a third, with blood-red cherries as garnish. Other photos in her "Colored Food Series" feature green corn, blue crackers and green spaghetti.
These dishes are familiar, but their natural colors have been swapped for bizarre tones. Instead of roast chicken food porn, Brown gives us an unappetizing, alien-looking chicken. And the pure white we're so used to seeing in the cereal bowl has been replaced with a sort of yellow goop.
Some of these colors, like the blue on the chicken and the green on the corn, are latex paint. But the pink cereal, the green ice cream and the vibrant block of cheddar cheese were sold in those eye-popping colors.
Brown says the project came about as she started hearing about food additives, and the more she learned the more fascinated - and repulsed - she grew. "It got to the point where I didn't think I could make a good purchase at the grocery store," she says.
To help people become more aware of food dyes, Brown got out her camera, bought some paint and looked for food that was conspicuously dyed, along with tableware to create a typical American table setting. "As far as the colors, I wanted something kind of whimsical and colorful and bright, and sort of a contradiction to what was going on in the background," Brown tells The Salt.
While the painted hues in Brown's images are intense, they're not that far off from the colors in the products we see every day in the grocery store. Just think of the blue M&M's and energy drinks and the yellow Skittles.
But making food more "fun" isn't the only reason for the preponderance of artificial dyes in processed food. We actually taste food first with our eyes, says Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist specializing in the perception of food at Oxford University. And that's what food companies hope to appeal to when they coat food in brilliant jewel tones.
"Visual cues kind of have precedence and can set up expectations about what it is we think we're going to taste and what the flavor will be," he says. "And those expectations tend to be a very powerful determinant what we actually experience."
For example, different shades of red can make us perceive food as 11 percent sweeter than it actually is. Green tends to make us think the food will be sour. And blue can make us turn away in disgust, which may explain our reaction to Brown's blue chicken.
There could be an evolutionary reason behind this, Spence says. Fruit turns from green to red as it ripens, so our ancestors associated red with sweet and green with sour. And blue food isn't as common in the nature, unless we're talking about bluish-gray meat, which usually signals spoilage.
In fact, Brown's blue chicken is reminiscent of a well-known experiment from the 1970s, in which steak and fries were served under a special lighting that made the meal look normal. The participants enjoyed it — until researchers revealed under normal lighting that the steak had been dyed blue and the fries green. Just like that, their appetites were gone.
But the response isn't always disgust. Sometimes our brains may enjoy the surprise. Think back to 2000, when food manufacturer Heinz introduced their notorious green and purple, Shrek-inspired ketchup, Spence says. The funky colors may not have been popular with adults, but kids loved it — even if it was only for a short time.
Indeed, Brown says that different people had different reactions to her photos - particularly the one with the green ice cream with the purple toppings. "I had one person say that they just love grape toppings and then I had another person that found it disgusting," she says.
Spence says it's hard to imagine a world without food dyes. We even alter the color of egg yolks by varying the feeds for chicken.
If anything, he says, we might see shift toward natural food coloring. The purple potato might just get its day in the sun.
Every Monday night, TV gives itself over to a mass of preening, posturing men, indulging in petty backbiting. Some are decked out in elaborate costumes, most are presenting idealized versions of the human form, and all are angling for a shot at a singular, prized accessory.
Also, RuPaul's Drag Race is on.
To compare WWE's Monday Night Raw to RuPaul's Drag Race may seem like an easy punch line to those who dismiss both as lowbrow entertainment pitched to niche audiences. But those who indulge in both (almost assuredly a very small sliver of that particular Venn diagram) know better than to reject the notion out of hand. While that opening description focused largely on surface similarities, that's only the beginning of the resemblances. Dig more deeply, and you'll find that not only are the two shows comparable, but they're essentially one and the same.
The sports-entertainment industry and reality-competition-television complex both exist wholly in the realm of massaged reality. While scripted in advance, Raw remains a far more malleable property than your typical scripted series. The WWE churns out five hours of traditional network programming each week, but storylines remain fluid, with emergency rewrites happening at the last minute, if necessary.
The most notable example of late came in the aftermath of the Royal Rumble in January. Fan outcry was so vehement in the wake of the pay-per-view event that no less than Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of the WWE, reportedly demanded an 11th-hour rewrite of the following night's Raw. That the ultimate outcome of the program is predetermined serves as the gist of the argument to those who dismiss professional wrestling as fake. But such a restrictive point of view misses the fact that while the scripted storyline provides a skeletal frame for the performers to work within, the matches themselves provide the true heart of the show. To watch a high caliber match is to watch tremendously skilled athletes move with seamless and acrobatic grace in an elaborate and largely non-choreographed dance. Beneath that garish exterior is a core of quiet elegance, plainly evident to any who care to look.
Balancing elegance and garishness is the hallmark of any good drag queen as well, and the queens featured on Drag Race do it better than any. The show itself operates under the rules of any reality television show, by trading traditional writers for story producers. (Meaning the show crafts the narrative after it films, rather than before.) And while the composition may differ, the song remains the same: Strings get pulled, plot gets finessed, but the true entertainment comes not from the story, but from the element of performance. Drag Race, too, showcases seasoned, dedicated performers at the height of their skills. The queens see drag as a passion and work to elevate it to art.
Both shows contain the shadows of ancient entertainment forms: large groups of men coming together to put on elaborate, out of the ordinary performances, many of them performing as women. From ancient Greek theater to Japanese Kabuki to Shakespeare, it's not hard to see the trickle-down effect that's led to a single night of programming featuring men acting out the most extreme archetypes of masculine and feminine with big, broad strokes. Conflict need addressing on Raw? Resolution most likely comes with a steel chair to the back, if not a choke slam through a table, if not both. Spat brewing on Drag Race? Someone's almost certainly been disparaging someone else's sewing skills. Or makeup. Or wig. One man's steel chair is another queen's sharp tongue.
At times, the shows present almost like a lazy stand-up comedy set: "See, men act like this, but ladies act like this." The men—wrestlers—snort and snarl at each other, so aggressive that it's inevitable all conflict resolves physically. Often, the most winning are the smoothest talkers, who bring finely honed skills to the microphone and cut the best promos. Most of these men are simultaneously oiled up and watered down with images meticulously fashioned, worked and then reworked. Wrestlers are coiffed and costumed and spray-tanned and chiseled within an inch of their lives. Tradition dictates that anything less than a veritable Adonis must be relegated to a bit part. (For some viewers, this isn't such a marked difference from how the world already operates.)
The women, meanwhile—the drag queens in performance mode—are all vivacious, good time girls, pretty and polished and perfect. Bodies are tight; hair impeccable. The interactions are predictably catty, with girls throwing shade and proving beyond a doubt that this is not RuPaul's Best Friend Race. Queens fine-tune their personas through years of trial and error. ("You better work" no doubt echoing through their minds.)The girls that stand tallest are those whose minds work the fastest. Pretty will get you far, but an acid wit will keep your frenemies where you want them.
Such are the surface observations of shows centered on what it is to create, maintain, and make an art out of your own gender facade. Each world, wrestling and drag alike, contains a multitude of characters and character types. In drag, queens often identify within a certain type, be it comedic, camp, pageant, etc., and no single is dominant. Fishy queens (that is, queens that resemble women to the extent that their true gender is confusing or "fishy") don't perform substantially better than more niche queens when it comes to taking home the crown.
Similarly, at least of late, Raw has moved away from the thought that only the manliest of men can dominate the field. The driving story in the WWE for the last nine months has been that of an ascendant wrestler named Daniel Bryan. His storyline represents a struggle between what the WWE has been — a place where wrestlers are bred (no, really) and bigger is better — and what the WWE could be, which is a place where talent and technique count for more and pretty packaging counts for less. Bryan's rise was fueled by an organic and passionate affinity from WWE fans at large, and his story came to a climax at WrestleMania XXX, a night in which he triumphed over two former WWE champions and one current champion to win the belt(s). (There are two. It's a long story.)
Bryan's tale is that of a classic, recognizable underdog. (Think Rocky, if Rocky looked like a member of the Drive-By Truckers.) Rising through the ranks of the indie wrestling circuit, he was denied serious consideration by WWE powers that be due to the perception that he was too small and couldn't serve as the face of the company. But ultimately what changed Bryan's course in the WWE was something outside of his control: He made a connection with the fans.
What those fans responded to was what fans respond to in any art form: recognition. In Daniel Bryan, fans found something they understood and could relate to. They identified with that sense of being judged and found lacking based on wholly inconsequential criteria. He was the embodiment of what the Haves perpetually denied the Have Nots. He took his inborn good-guy, hard-working, everyman personality and blew it sky high. He took something true and made it larger, until believing in Daniel Bryan became not just a fandom, but a movement. Performers who take something honest and intensify it are the ones that resonate in any field.
So it goes with drag. In 2012, Sharon Needles served as a force of nature on Drag Race, making spooky funny, funny sexy, and sexy campy. Needles even had Lady Gaga gagging with admiration. Sharon Needles was a revelation because she was perceived as a perfect representation of her personality. She brings to her drag the vulnerability of a childhood spent not fitting in and the confidence of the realization that what makes us different, makes us shine. Sharon Needles' drag is her personality turned up to 11, and the act alone represents not just acceptance of one's personality but a celebration of it and all the things that make each and every person perfectly freakish and freakishly perfect. Authentic and aspirational, Needles embodies the recognition of any given person's foibles and that true beauty lies in embracing them, a sentiment that fans recognized and responded to.
Not lost in any of this is the fact that what audiences are responding to, the art being perfected, is that of perceived gender. That Drag Race used to have a spin-off entitled RuPaul's Drag U should come as a surprise to no one. On it, drag queens mentored cisgender women in the art of femininity. Our understanding of how gender represents itself has become muddy in the very best of ways. While there yet exists a pressure to "be a man" or "be ladylike," those ideas are a moving target at best, as increasingly our modern era sees the hoary old gender archetypes as just that: out of date and out of sync.
But the greatest signifier that times have changed is that the place where hard and fast rules about what gender is and is not is in those shows where gender plays not as an informing factor, but rather as full-blown performance art. And in that, there is relief. Drag queens, wrestlers, all are pretending. And so are we. No one wants to fail at being a man or being a woman. So perhaps true victory comes in realizing we're all just approximating.
Then, in light of the myriad similarities, perhaps it's not so surprising that what viewers respond to in a drag queen and what they respond to in a professional wrestler aren't so different. Drag fans and wrestling fans are made of much the same stuff. They come to the activity not necessarily as a specific fan of only one queen or only one star. They come as appreciators of the form at large. Alliances shift, and appreciations vary, but what doesn't change that which gets butts in the seats: the art. Perhaps you're excited for an episode because drag queen Courtney Act is sickening or The Shield wrestles the Wyatt Family, but you're there for the experience, for the eleganza, because you're a mark.
To be a mark, to suspend your disbelief and to believe in what you know to be unreal, remains the crux of so much entertainment. It's entering that movie theater and immersing yourself in another world for two hours. It's investing in the exploits of fictional characters in a made-up land that spans both page and screen. And it's sitting down every Monday night and cheering for the face to triumph over the heel and marveling that some men make the most beautiful women in the world.
It's believing in the fairy tale that gender is simple and clear cut. It's giving in to the artifice. It's embracing the facade. It's becoming a part of the narrative by becoming a willing participant. It's beating the face and beat downs, death drops and near-falls, belts and crowns. It's a chance to regain that childlike wonder, one programming block at a time.
And it's all on Monday nights.