On becoming the working poor or How I robbed Peter to pay Paul

February 9, 2017

There is a Blazak tradition whenever I’m at a big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with my conservative family members in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While the dessert is being passed around my aunt, out of the blue, will just say, “All these people on welfare need to get a job.” All eyes turn to me and then I have give my lecture about how most welfare payments go to children, the elderly, and the disabled and the “able-bodied” adults who receive welfare are, for most part, working at low-wage jobs. (Fully one third of those working at Wal-Mart receive government subsidies.) They nod and go back to their pie and complaining about “aliens.”

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I’ve had a comfortable middle-class life. As a kid, I got pretty much everything I asked for Christmas. Went to a posh private university for college and grad school. Got the first tenure-track job I applied for (with an competing offer from one I applied to second). Paid off my student loans fairly quickly. Bought a house in my mid-thirties. Fattened my retirement fund. Started a family.

And then the shit hit the fan.

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When I was studying the rise of the racist skinhead culture, I developed an explanation called the status frustration theory. It’s certainly frustrating to have nothing in this land of plenty which frames the “American Dream” as one of endless economic upward mobility. I argued it is even more strain inducing to have some economic status and then lose it. My skinheads were the victims of Reaganomics. They witnessed their parents being downsized and laid off as America became a “post-industrial” economy. They saw the American Dream ripped away from them and hate groups gave them convenient scapegoats: minorities, immigrants, and, wait for it, the Jews.

Twenty-five years later, after a bizarre collaboration between a psychotic skinhead inmate and a few union-busting university administrators, I was joining them in the ranks of the downwardly mobile. I resigned my tenured position to focus on raising our daughter and my fantasy of writing full-time, but the loss of the salary (and benefits) had a bigger impact than I expected. Suddenly I was the guy I had been talking about in my lectures on social stratification and poverty. Unemployment benefits (which ran out quickly), Medicare, and WIC were not bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation. They were my social safety net.

Fortunately, I married a Mexican and those folks know how to double down and work their asses off. So while I tried to figure out what our “next steps” were going to be, my new-mom wife worked at whatever job paid the best, while trying to nurture her art and family. Andrea told me not to worry too much about the financial situation. “You’re a white guy with a PhD.,” she said.

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Three years later, the pressure is on to get back to full-time work. The writing, consulting, and part-time teaching has been hugely fulfilling, but this 50-something needs a salary again. The whole experience has given me a window into the world of the working poor. Glimpses came at left angles. The first time I tried to use our WIC vouchers at the grocery store to “buy” my allotment of milk and bread the cashier helped me because she was also on WIC. Sitting in the free-dental clinic so Cozy could have her new teeth looked at and the social worker asking about my home life. There was a good chance he had been one of my students. Watching the debate over Obamacare and wondering if congress members, fully-insured by the taxpayers, we going to take away my own health insurance. Those glimpses became just looking in the mirror. I was them.

There’s a lot to consider here, but the main rude awakening was just the hustle. The hustle to get to the end of the month. Will the bills get paid? How much room is left on the credit card? Will I ever pay them off? Should I get another credit card? Can I make a payment for one credit card with another credit card? Where can I borrow some money? What can I sell? Can I combine errands to save gas? Do I have a coupon for that? Does anybody owe me money? Can I tap into my retirement account (again)? Can I qualify for a home equity loan without a full-time job? (No.) Can I find a gig that will pay enough to cover the cost of daycare while I’m at work?

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That last one is a big one. I could pick up a job while I wait for a real position to land in, but what do I do with my daughter? The average price of daycare in the United States is about $1000 a month. (We pay $510 a month to have Cozy in daycare two days a week, plus the occasional drop-in when I’m working, plus a baby sitter on Wednesdays to cover the period when Andrea is still at work but I have to commute to teach my night class.) It’s not surprising that the number of children living with a grandparent over the last 20 years rose 64 percent. I wish we had a grandmother handy. But that’s America now. Working families have less time with their children. And many, like some of my community college students, add school to their work and family responsibilities. It shouldn’t be surprising that most Americans owe more than they own. I have $13 in my savings account. If we have an emergency, I can buy half of a cheese pizza.

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On the lucky side, my parents taught me how to be frugal. (Hey kids, Google that word: FRUGAL). I learned to save my pennies. “Don’t throw that away, it might be worth something someday!” my mother would chant. So I’ve been “liquidating” some assets. It was hard to sell my first Spiderman comic book (autographed by Stan Lee). At age 13, I bought it for $200 and sold it 40 years later for $11,000. That could have been a much-needed kitchen remodel or a grand trip to Europe but it kept the roof over our heads, so thanks Spidey. The nest egg was for a rainy day, but it’s been a mild winter so I can’t help to (finally) feel optimistic about adding to it instead of all this subtracting.

Understanding the daily stress of this insanity (How many phone bills can you miss before AT&T disconnects you?) has helped me to understand how most Americans exist in this nation where the rich get (much) richer while the rest of the country counts the days until their (totally inadequate) payday. It justifies buying a few lottery tickets for the fantasy of paying off all the debts in one fell swoop. It justifies the anger at a neighbor putting in a hot tub while you wait another year to fix the roof. And it justifies daydreaming about putting a crew together for a jewelry heist to rip off people who will drop a couple of grand on shoes they will never even wear.

As a criminologist, that’s been one of the more fascinating psychological aspects of this experience. I get it. I get the temptation to commit the “perfect crime,” playing a self-serving Robin Hood. But also, as a criminologist, I know there is no such thing as a perfect crime and arrest only make poor people poorer. It’s a financial black hole. It might make a great book but one I imagine my daughter would rather I don’t have the opportunity to write. I’m just saying, I get it, and I’m guessing a lot of my not-private-school students do as well.

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The only human path that matters is the one that builds empathy for our fellow humans. I am on that path. And when I climb out of this financial hole (and I will), I will remember the daily stresses of the working poor. I will advocate for them. Don’t fall for the “trickle down” lie again. People need living wages that actually meet the cost of living in America. And I will tell my wife to feel free to quit her job. She’s been shouldering the economic weight of our family for three years. She deserves a break. As do most working Americans.

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Watching the Wheels Turns 3: Thanks and Resistance

November 23, 2017

As you get older, measuring years in a life seems more difficult. The difference between my year as a 15-year-old and Randy at 16 seem like distinct chapters of a very logical book. I couldn’t begin to tell you how 46 was different from 45. But having a child puts you back on the clock. We’re not giving Cozy’s age by weeks anymore. (It’s 170 weeks today, if you care to know.) But the transition from 2 1/4 to 3 1/4 has been pretty grounding.

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It seems like a moment ago I was starting this blog, fully employed as a full professor at Portland State University, while the baby slept and my wife returned to work at her job at Planned Parenthood. Now we have a kid who runs the board on Candyland and likes to tell me what things really mean. Her sense of humor is as warped as her father’s. She likes to complain about our car being “stinky.” Yesterday, from the backseat, she said, “Daddy, can I tell you something crazy? If there was a stinky man here he would say, ‘I really like your car!’” I laughed so hard I almost ended up on the sidewalk.

Another year watching this child evolve as I’ve watch my country devolve. A year ago, I still was hoping that the election was just a bad dream. Now were racing towards either a version of The Handmaid’s Tale or Idiocracy. I can’t tell which is coming first. Last November, I was in New Orleans at the annual convention of the American Society of Criminology. One of my esteemed colleagues who also studies hate grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “This election might be bad for the country, but it’s going to be good for us.” Who knew how right he’d be? From the dramatic rise in bias crimes, Muslim bans, the rise of the alt-right fascists, Charlottesville, and Trump cultist who say they trust their pussy-grabbing leader more than they trust Jesus, it’s been one quick death slide of a once great country. But anybody who says the emperor has no clothes on is branded “fake news” by the MAGA police.

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It’s certainly kept me busy. I’ve done more interviews on hate crimes, the alt right, and mass shootings this year than I can count. CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera, flying to New York for CBS News (Yes, I saw Charlie Rose). I think the most surreal moment was doing an interview in a Portland hotel room with a former racist skinhead for a Canadian film crew doing a documentary on Trump-era hate and having to take a break to do an interview on Trump-era hate, via Skype, for live TV in Turkey. The world wants to know what the hell is happening in Trump America. I’ve been researching this issue for 30 years, so I guess it’s my time to join the global conversation. Hopefully, my words will help sound the alarm.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for a few things. I’m thankful that the resistance to this swing to the moronic and hateful is being countered by a growing number of Americans, including traditional Republicans. The opposition to this thing that looks more and more like fascism is sometimes noisy and annoying and might veer off message or attract its own knuckleheads, but it is vital to the salvation of the core American values. Let’s be clear, Trump and his alt-right thugs want to destroy America and remake it in their hateful image. There would be no antifa (anti-fascists) if there weren’t fa (fascists). And there are fascists. I’m thankful that people are standing up to any form of authoritarianism, including those standing up to sexual harassers and abusive police. Maybe we needed the Trump nightmare to finally ignite the red blood cells of this country.

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Most of all I’m thankful that everyone in my family is safe and healthy. We are growing in spite of this assault. My wife has to keep her green card handy and we know that the GOP, under their dear orange leader, is hellbent on taking our daughter’s healthcare away from her. But so far we are holding strong. Cozy is doing great and we are thankful for her Obamacare-funded vitamins. Knock on wood, she seems perfect in every way and doesn’t even need diapers anymore. (Thank you, Frozen undies!) A friend recently had a stroke and I know how quickly all that can change, but we are strong and ready for the winter. Our little family is mighty.

In three years this blog has engaged in discussion in lot of issues, from baby brain development to football violence, and tried to keep the feminist lens in focus. A year ago, I was writing about the children of Aleppo (who are still being bombed, btw) and lord knows what I will be writing about a year from now. (2018, make America smart again?) But I am thankful to be able to share my family’s life and my random thoughts about the state of the world. And I’m thankful that you’re here as well. Unless you’re a troll.

4 Novembers

Fascists Fall for Trump, their Nazi Dream Date

August 4, 2017

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The Metroplex was a beautiful abandoned building turned into a thriving punk rock club and the de facto Island of Misfit Toys in the 1980s. I saw shows there by the Dead Kennedys, the Circle Jerks and a million others (including, oddly, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones). I did my first interview with a racist skinhead there 31 years ago this summer. There had been a skinhead brawl at the competing 688 Club that had sent the doorman to the hospital. You can hear the skinhead version of events in the Anti-Heroes’ song, “Disco Riot.”

I had first encountered skinheads when I was student in London in 1982. I hopped on a train in Victoria Station to my internship in a clinic out in suburban Thamesmead. There were three skinheads in the car and me. They were drawing swastikas and National Front logos on the wall. One looked at me and then scrawled, “Kill a mod.” I got off at the next stop. By 1986, racist skinheads were popping up all over America, including the Old Glory Skins in Atlanta. I was 22 and this kid, in boots and braces, was probably 18. I wanted to know what was going on.

“What do you guys really want?” I asked him as we sat on the curb of Marietta Street, the heat too unbearable inside the Metroplex.

“We just want a strong leader who will kick all the fucking mud races out of the county.”

I wonder where that kid is now. I bet he’s happy. He finally got his “strong leader.”

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Much has been written (including by me) about how Donald Trump has used white supremacist tactics, dog whistles, and code words to generate support from the extreme right and white supremacist counter-culture. Remember when he pretended not to know who David Duke was? When he was elected, white nationalist, oh, excuse me, “alt-right” leaders like Richard Spencer raced to Washington to exalt “Hail Trump!” with a stiff-armed salute.

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His campaign to take America back to 1950 (in an interview with CNN he said that was the “again” in his “Make America Great Again” slogan), has only gained momentum. His fascistic rule by tweet undermines the fabric our democracy, including his recent pronouncement that all transgendered people will be kicked out of the U.S. military. His unquestioning flock believe that accusations of racism are just a liberal (Jewish?) plot, spread by the fake (Jewish?) media.

Certainly the people I have been studying for over thirty years have been watching. I don’t go to Klan rallies anymore or bring beer to skinhead parties to get them to talk, but I still hang out with them in their virtual worlds and eavesdrop on their conversations in neo-Nazi discussion groups and the hang-outs in the darkest corners of the web (i.e., Reddit). And boy howdy, do racists love Trump.

The latests clarion call from their fake blonde führer is his plan to limit legal immigration to English-speaking only applicants. Everyone knows this is not about keeping German-only speaking immigrants out of the country. It’s about brown and black people, especially brown people from Latin America. It’s not even a veiled attempt at racism. It’s clear as a bell, and the radical right (and some of the Trump trolls who post on my Facebook page) are loving it. Just try to keep up with this thread on Stormfront, the leading discussion site for white supremacists: STORMFRONT

WhiteHistoryWrightBrosTrump’s “merit based” plan (you know, because the people who pick our food have no merit) would only offer visas to immigrants who have high-paying job offers and speak English better than our Drunk Uncle president. It would end the diversity that comes from the visa lottery and that was making America great long before Trump’s made in China MAGA dunce caps sat on the empty noggins of Bocephus and Betty Lou. It would also drastically restrict  the number of refugees allowed in the country, because, you know, screw that whole America is a “beacon of freedom” thing. If only we had more Nazi rocket scientists who needed sanctuary. The Statue of Liberty was a French (Jewish?) plot.

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These policies are surely the work of right-wing hate groups, like FAIR (the Federation for American Immigration Reform), that have Steve Bannon’s blotchy Caucasian ear and the soul of “more than kinda” racist Stephen Miller. And they are catnip to white supremacists. You thought they went gaga over Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban and Attorney General Jeff Sessions praise of the 1924 “Whites Only” immigration act. (That’s the one that caused the 1920s KKK to close up shop because they got what they were marching for.) The Little Hitlers are going ape poo over Trump’s latest plan to make America white again. I know. I lurk in their world of stupidity. And we don’t even have to get into his silencing of the First Lady (First Ladies are to be seen and not heard), or the stomping on transgender rights (“No boot camp for you!”). Fascist forums have threads dedicated to both.  The immigration thing alone has them ginned up like frat boys on pledge night.

Yes, America has a president who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. But Trump won’t get his final solution. He’s clueless at how America works. The guy can’t even speak in complete sentences or keep his lies straight. The Republican congress has blocked him and the courts have blocked him and the diverse patchwork of the American populace will continue to block him. But there will be casualties along the way as the 2017 alt-right versions of those 1980s skinheads believe they’ve got their strong leader. That’s why Americans cannot be silent or still.

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Interviewing Neo-Nazis has taught me how to talk to Trump supporters

March 9, 2017

Riding on a Portland bus one time, I was talking to one of my PSU students and said, “I was at a Klan rally once…” and I think all talk on the bus stopped. My student knew I was referring my years of undercover work in the white supremacist world, but the passengers on the Number 8 likely thought I was one of the racist recruiters that pop up in the city looking for fresh cuts for the coming race war.

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It’s impossible to count the number of white supremacists I’ve interviewed over the last 30 years. Over 200, for sure. Some of that was at covert Klan rallies in Georgia, in dark strip bars in Oregon, and in the bright light of the mainstream media. (Somebody please put my appearance on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show on YouTube. It’s a Klanriffic hoot!) I’ve interviewed anti-government militia members in a cabin in Montana and Aryan murderers in a Texas prison where I had to wear a Kevlar vest (to protect my vital organs, the guard said). And I’ve interviewed grandsons of real Nazis in Berlin, standing next to the rubble of the wall.  And I’ve heard it all.

In qualitative research we call it “data saturation.” When you start hearing the same thing over and over again, you’ve probably got enough information to start building a theory. Did you know the world is controlled by a secret Jewish cabal? Did you know that Jews in the music business want white kids to listen to rap music so they won’t listen to their own “white” music? (Yodeling, perhaps.) Did you know that if a white woman has intercourse with a black man, his sperm is so potent, any child she has after that will be part black? (I always thought that one was a pretty good case for black supremacy.) These people were mastering alternative facts before Sean Spicer knew how to chew gum.

People often ask, “How can you sit down and talk to these Nazis?” Well, beer helps. And growing up in a Klan town, like Stone Mountain, Georgia, doesn’t hurt. Many of these “extremists” are a lot like the people I grew up with, a few who went off and joined the Klan or other racist groups. They are, at their core, human beings who are trying to make sense of the world with the tools they’ve been given. And that’s why there is hope.

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When I started interviewing racist skinheads in the 1980s, people would ask me, “What happens to these people when they grow up?” And I’d say, “I don’t know. Talk to me in 30 years and I’ll tell you.” Now there is a whole world of former racist activists who are actively engaged in the other side, working to undue the hate they once spread. They have written amazing books, like Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, and formed vitally important organizations, Life After Hate. Individually and collectively they talk to young people about the mistakes and thinking errors they made that caused them to burn up valuable time in their lives while undermining the essential peace in our communities. The best person to talk about the problems with living in the extreme right-wing is somebody who used to live in the extreme right-wing.

When Trump launched his political campaign in 2015, it was painfully clear he was borrowing the playbook from white supremacists. My blog post on the parallels of Trump’s rhetoric and what you’re likely to hear at a KKK rally has over 270,000 reads and has been posted across the world. (I was even interviewed by a newspaper in Spain about its assertions.)  In the time since then, I’ve written about how a good number of his followers share many qualities with the rank and file followers of neo-fascist subcultures.

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I’ve been honored to help many people leave the world of hate. They use their experience as both a source of reflection and advocacy. I have to think the same will be true with many Trump followers. That as the true agenda of his administration becomes clear, many of those people who voted for him, including people in my family, will see the thinking errors and reject his dangerous demagoguery. The best people to talk about the dangers of supporting Donald Trump will be people who used to support Donald Trump. Just like inside every white supremacist is a potential committed anti-racist activist, inside every Trump supporter is a potential social justice warrior. The threat of Trump to core American values is just too serious to not try.

I want to briefly outline a few traps that both white supremacists and Trump fans (and plenty of liberals) get caught in. Maybe these issues can be addressed when attempting to appeal to the humanity of either. (By the way, I could write a book on each of these. But here are 3 quickies.)

Low-Effort Thinking

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When we are young we learn in opposites. Up/down, good/bad, hot/cold. It’s been something of a miracle that I’ve convinced my 2-year-old daughter that there is a category called “warm.” But when we’re kids, the Good Guys are always good and the Bad Guys are always bad (and look it). Similarly, we think of gender as “opposite sexes.” As we get older, things become more nuanced and endlessly shaded in grey, depending on context. Are those guys terrorists or freedom fighters? It depends what side you are on. Is that person male or female? Try asking them how they identify.

Many of the people I studied never graduated to shades of grey. Figuring out the context was too much work. They’d say things like, “How come black people can use the N word but I can’t?” Everything associated with white was good, and non-white was bad. Men were men and women were girls. Their leaders were infallible (until they weren’t) and anything outside their tiny subculture was perverted and corrupt. Stereotypes were absolute and they actively looked for anything to confirm them (“Did you hear about that black guy who raped the white girl?”) and ignored anything that invalidated the stereotype (like their own white criminality).

Numerous studies have backed this up. Feminist Patricia Hill Collins has long examined how dichotomous thinking fosters racism and the research supports the idea that people who see the world in black and white have a hard time empathizing with people they don’t see as members of their group. A 2012 study found this type of “low-effort thinking” pushed people towards the conservative end of the political spectrum. It’s just easier. John Wayne never worried about “nuance,” right?

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Of course this is the hallmark of the Trump supporter who hates Obamacare but wants to keep the benefits gained under the Affordable Care Act. (Anything associated with Obama is “bad.”) In Trumpland, you are either with us or against us. America first! There’s no need for diplomacy when your arsenal is bigger than theirs. Trump was the guy who said the show Blackish was racist because you couldn’t have a show called Whiteish (which would be 98% of the shows on TV). And Ben Carson’s goofy comments about immigration and slavery are no different than Obama’s. Don’t ask me to look at the “context.”

On its surface, it seems moronic, but we all engage in some type of low-effort thinking. I still think anyone who plays for the New York Yankees must be care more about money than the game. Could I be wrong?

It’s a conspiracy, I tell ya!

That low-effort thinking paves the way for conspiracy theories. Nazis are the master of this. It all goes back to their hackneyed belief that events across the planet are controlled by a secret gang of Jewish rabbis. Why is circumcision the norm in the United States? Those rabbis want to lob off gentile foreskins to force the goyim into submission. They’ve got a million of these.

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The conspiracy theory orders their world and simplifies it. A white student fails social studies? It’s because he or she is being forced a “multicultural curriculum meant to make whites feel guilty.” A white dude can’t find a girlfriend? It’s because the Zionist Occupation Government gets non-white women to die their hair blonde so you can’t tell who is truly “white.” (A Neo-Nazi once shot up a bunch of beauty parlors for this exact reason.) The theory explains literally EVERYTHING. No context or thinking required.

You have to think Joseph Goebbels would be proud of Donald Trump, the modern master of the alt-right conspiracy theory lifted straight from Alex Jones’ Infowars. From “Obama’s birth certificate” to “Obama tapped my phones!,” it’s an endlessly fact-free world and his supporters love it. The Mexican government is conspiring to send its rapists across the border and the “fake media” is conspiring to make him look bad. The definition of “fake news” has been repurposed to mean anything that’s not favorable coverage of his ego-driven administration, sending his loyal troops to get their information from “real news” sources, like Breitbart and the National Enquirer. Conspiracy theories about Muslims and refugees and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s the dumbing down of America. Where have we seen this kind of cultural thinking before? Hint: You won’t find the answer at Breitbart.

Inside the bubble

All this leads to something we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, life under the dome. (And not the cancelled CBS show I was briefly addicted to.) Hate groups work a lot like cults. The flow of information inside the bubble confirms all biases and anything outside the bubble must be avoided, including that gay uncle and cousin who dated a black guy, as well as the classmate who went off to college and was brainwashed by the liberal Jewish (or Jewish liberal) education system. Under the dome their is complete accord – that everyone outside the dome sucks.

That echo chamber is a powerful force on social media where it’s easy to mute a noisy neighbor who has upsetting viewpoints. I’ll admit I’ve blocked a few Trumpies this past year, mainly because I don’t want to waste time arguing. I’m happy to engage, but anytime I see the word “libtard,” I just close my laptop and make a sandwich. That’s not a person who wants a reasoned conversation.

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While there are echo chambers on both the right and left, research shows conservatives are more likely to seek out news sources that confirm their own political positions while liberals are more likely to seek out opposing views. (I always enjoy a quick dip in the Fox News crazy house.) Conservatives tend to be more distrustful of anything coming from outside their bubble. There’s little chance for an alternative perspective if your Trump-loving dad thinks the New York Times is “fake news” and would rather proclaim, “Ditto, Rush!”

Learning from ex-Nazis

The path out of the white supremacist world is often a very personal one. I’ve published about male racists connecting with females who impressed upon them the value of empathy and their own potential victim status as women. Frank Meeink, former racist skinhead leader, has written about how life routinely put people in his path who shattered all his stereotypes. One of my friends was involved in a notorious racist murder in Portland and her conversion started when she befriended her black cellmate and began listening to stories from outside her bubble.

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Even the most hard-core Trump supporter has potential of moving to a radically different position. We’re already seeing scores of disillusioned Trump voters who see that they’ve been duped. If we can help move others out of the black/white thinking, away from the simplistic conspiracy theories, and out of their echo chamber, the possibilities are endless. They’ll reflect back on the days when they were chanting, “Build a wall!” and “Lock her up!” and shake their heads. Instead of pushing them further into a dark corner, we can walk them out to the light.

This piece is dedicated to my family and friends who voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016. It’s 2017 and the door is open.