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Dr. Lester K. Spence

Haven’t posted anything since the beginning of the term. I had a feeling this would be the busiest year of my professional career and I wasn’t that far off. So it’s caused me to neglect a range of non-essential forms of writing. With that said, here’s a few updates:

  • What should the Democrats Do? Thanks to Jelani Cobb, I got a chance to participate in a New York Times debate about what the Democrats should do given last week’s election results. For me it’s pretty simple–use the state’s rights philosophy to push for progressive reform at the state wide level, making Voting Rights as important to Democratic constituencies as the 2nd Amendment is to Republican constituencies, and then stop using shame as a mechanism to guilt people into voting in off-year elections. It’s unlikely the Democratic Party will do any of these three things. They won’t fight for progressive referenda because they don’t quite believe in progressive legislation–they are more of a center-right party than they are a center-left party. The more progressive referenda passes, the more demands it places upon the party. The more demands placed upon the party the more they think they’ll have to actually live UP to those demands and actually govern according to them. Similarly although the Democratic Party is more supportive of voting rights than the GOP, the Democratic Party doesn’t want voting to “become a thing” because the more voters they have the more competitive local elections become. The more competitive local elections become, the less likely local elected representatives will be able to hold on to their seats. And shame works far better as a technique of governance than anger. What’s going to have to happen somehow is that an institution outside of the two-party system is going to have to pursue these ideas.
  • “Transition with a Slow Fade”. Over the past few months Mark Anthony Neal and I have been working on a special issue of SOULS dedicated to the work of Richard Iton, who passed away last year. The issue will be out soon. Thanks to Barbara Ransby, Prudence Browne, Lily Palladino, Alison Swety, and all the contributors. Knowing Richard, he probably would’ve been very upset that we devoted an entire issue to his work, because he was as humble as he was productive! But the essays represent a testimony of sorts to the profound contributions he made in so little time.
  • Knockin’ the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics.  I’ve been working on a book manuscript developing some of the themes I wrestled with in Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics. It’ll be coming out soonish with Punctum Press. I hope to say more about this soon, but the thing I am most excited about is the fact that Punctum has a radical approach to digital rights. When the book comes out you’lll be able to purchase a hard copy if you’d like (and may have some news about this as well), but you’ll be able to get the entire PDF for free. With this project I’m more interested in having the ideas “take” and in supporting the Punctum project as a new model of how publishing can work than I am in collecting royalty checks (as small as they might be). Thanks to my literary agent Shoshana Crichton, to Tamara K Nopper who edited a draft of the work, to Eileen Joy and the kind folk at Punctum, as well as a host of others to be named later.


That’s it for now. I’ll try to be better going forward. Do me a favor if you could? Leave a note in the comments. Some of you I haven’t heard hide nor hair from in a minute.

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          On April 14, 1997 Gregory Bell, a 19 year old, was home alone when his resident’s burglar alarm went off.  Police officers sent to the unit to investigate found Bell.  Because Bell was retarded, he was unable to communicate to the officers—who arrived at his home in jogging pants with a dog by their side and no identification marking themselves as police officers.  The police called for backup, and one of the police officers—Thomas Moran a precinct supervisor entering the scene sprayed Bell with pepper spray, and then assaulted Bell.  The precinct supervisor was brought up on three charges.  Because of the racial dynamics surrounding the case (Bell was black, Thomas Moran was white) the case was moved out of Saint Louis and into Jefferson County.  An all-white jury found Moran not guilty of all charges.  Among the calls of congratulation he received upon hearing the news, was from his cousin—the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney (Bryant 1998).

            The details of the case were troubling.  The prosecuting attorney’s attitude towards the beating—Bell suffered several blows to the head with batons—was remarkably blasé.  Interviewed by Saint Louis columnist Sylvester Brown, she noted that Bell’s injuries “…weren’t that severe.  I mean, they look horrible when that happens, but there was no long term damage”(Brown 1998).  The presiding judge in this case also noted that Bell’s retardation could not be used as an element in the case.  What white jurors heard was a case in which police officers faced a belligerent black male who shouted “you’re making me mad” and “I’m not going to jail!” rather than a case in which a young retarded man was in his own home, and then seemingly accosted by men who only later identified themselves as police officers (Brown 1998).

            This case is not unique in American cities, but in Saint Louis during the nineties and early “oughts” there were a number of incidents in which police were absolved of brutalizing or murdering young black males.   

            During the Labor Day 2001 weekend, a young boy was hanging out on a street corner near his home on the Northside of the city on a warm evening.  A white man pulls up to them in an unmarked vehicle quickly, telling him and his friend to stop where they are.  The boy runs into an alley, and the man follows.  The man yells for him to stop, and announces that he is a police officer.  The man ends up shooting the boy in the back.  In his report he notes that he was under fire from the boy, and he only shot the boy in defending himself.  While a homemade gun (a “zip” gun) was found on the boy’s body, it had never been fired.  The only casings found in the alley were those of the police officer.  There were no charges filed, and the police officer faced no sanction from his department.  In an email listserv devoted to discussions of Saint Louis life, culture, and politics, a fierce debate occurred not just over the incident, but over the language used to depict the boy.  One poster asked why the “thug” was out so late at night anyway…implying that he was literally begging for trouble.  A “zip” gun was found on the boy, but he had no police record, nor did he fire the weapon.  It was a warm Labor Day evening, and when other Saint Louisans were at picnics, or at the yearly festival held downtown, this boy decided to hang outside in his own neighborhood. 

             This is the type of casual labeling that goes on with relative impunity, not just in Saint Louis but in elsewhere.  The way in which this labeling occurs is not necessarily “natural”—though the images of young black thugs have been with us for far longer than the 24 hour news cycle has, these images are routinely constructed and reconstructed by a combination of news and now entertainment media.  Yet and still the effect it has is pernicious.


The Atlantic provides some context in which we can understand what's going on in Ferguson, Missouri right now, where people are still rightly up in arms about the murder of Michael Brown. In the first piece I link Professor Terry Jones rightly notes that what happened in Ferguson isn't a Ferguson problem as much as it is a St Louis County and City problem. In the sceond piece Conor Friedersdorf uses a startling picture to call attention to the increasing militarization of the police. 

I lived in St. Louis for four years, as my first gig was at Washington University in St Louis. While there I conducted a lot of the research that ended up in my first book. One of my then-undergrads (now lawyer) collected three binders full of data about the attempt to create police review boards in both the city and the county, and about police brutality incidents in and around St. Louis.

The paragraphs above are taken from an unpublished paper I wrote about rap and youth attitudes more than ten years ago. 

It could've been written yesterday. 


Tell Me More Silenced

On December 15, 2008 I wrote a post entitled "News and Notes Silenced". For those who don't know, News and Notes represented an attempt to diversify NPRs program offerings by presenting a program dedicated to producing the news from a black perspective. Led by Tavis Smiley, then by Ed Gordon, and finally by Farai Chideya, it gave those of us who listened to NPR but wanted news and commentary more reflective of the country, a different choice. And it gave me the opportunity to do something I never ever thought I'd do as a college freshman–routinely talk to national audiences about issues important to me and by extension people like me.


Above I talk about my fraternity's attempt to deal with decreasing black graduation rates.

And here I talk about Octavia Butler's passing.

Every now and again you'd find Fresh Air or The Diane Rehm show featuring interviews with people of color. And local NPR affiliates in urban areas would have talk shows or music shows that featured African Americans prominently. But for the most part News and Notes created content no one else on NPR would create. 

It was forced to go off the air because executives felt it didn't have the affiliate support and the revenue it needed to continue. 

Taking a subtly different approach from News and Notes, Michel Martin's Tell Me More sought to provide news and commentary that didn't work on the assumption routinely taken by NPR and by America's Sunday morning talkshows. One of its most popular segments was The Barbershop, a roundtable featuring men from different backgrounds irrevently talking about the news led by Jimi Izrael. 

Farai Chideya was responsible for my presence on News and Notes.

Jimi Izrael was responsible for my presence on Tell Me More. I was on the first show, and was a regular for Tell Me More's entire run.

As you can tell above, the Barbershop segment combined humor with insight…sometimes more one than the other. Here's the female counterpart, recorded more recently.

For the last year or so I've been part of a father's roundtable, again featuring dads from a variety of backgrounds. Although the numbers suggest NPRs listening audience and staff is fairly diverse, particularly in comparison to what it once was, I just don't hear much like this, particularly given the stereotypes about black fatherhood:

A few months ago Tell Me More received the same word New and Notes did years ago, that it was being cancelled due to low ratings. I've seen the numbers, but the numbers don't really tell the story. The problem Tell Me More faced was not that it was multicultural. The problem wasn't even its low ratings. The problem is that NPR, while being "public" on paper, still works on a market model that relies on a combination of local affiliates and corporate support. Now it's possible for shows like Tell Me More to perform decently under that model. But it requires two things outside of content: significant buy-in from executives higher up the food chain, and a strong producer voice who can fight for the show.

Last year, right around this time, Teshima Walker (Jimi Izrael's wife), passed away. If TMM bore the mark of anyone outside of Michel, it was Teshima. She was a force. Her absence–she'd been gone from the show longer than a year for medical reasons–affected the way the show was marketed, and affected level of care the show was given by executives. Tell Me More was always fighting an uphill battle–NPR still doesn't believe it's future lies in metropolitan market growth. But it became much harder in Walker's absence. 

I've been writing this piece off and on since I heard the news. Could never quite get it right. Can't get it right now. As far as I can tell, for about ten years folks have heard around ten black male voices regularly on NPR. And I've been one of them, because Jimi saw something in me I didn't even see. Now I won't. 

The struggle continues. Michel is going to keep fighting. Her staff, many of whom found work in NPR, will continue to fight. As hard as the last few years have been for Jimi, he's a soldier. He fights because that's what he does. 

And even though I've been busy and will get busIER I still plan to appear regularly on Marc Steiner. 

This is what WE do. Everyday. Bloodied but unbowed. But damn. 



I've got about 20 minutes before a van picks me up and takes me to the Roots and Remedies site (I'm here talking about cities and political change). So that doesn't quite give me enough time to make the changes to my chapter on neoliberalism and the black church…but it might be enough time for me to post something relatively cogent here. Let's see. 

I was on the Takeaway with Mary Frances Berry last week talking about My Brother's Keeper in the wake of a couple of letters sent to the White House protesting the initiative. Berry signed one of the letters. I was asked, but passed. The letter I received–the one that a couple hundred black male activists, intellectuals, and scholars signed–ended up, just like the letter Mary Frances Berry signed, missing the neoliberal core of MBK. 

MBK is basically a self-help initiative backed with foundation dollars. It, like many (though not all) public private initiatives take the concept of the market as a given and work to fit the target subjects INTO the market as it exists. This is why the President focused so much on individual responsibility and on "no excuses". Now we know that the reason black communities are failing has nothing to do with the lack of individual responsibility, and has everything to do with the way the state and the economy currently function. And on top of that, we know that the reason they focus on boys rather than on girls is in part because of the sexist narrative that black communities only function properly when boys can become men and can take their roles as heads of household. And they can only do that when they have self-esteem, when they have the ability to discipline themselves, when they have the wherewithal to get and keep a job, when they have the ability to not only have but raise children, etc. etc. etc.


(Fifteen minutes left.)

The way the problem in this case is articulated–black boys are at the bottom of every important indicator both within black communities and outside of them because they aren't embedded in the right networks, don't have the best level of self-esteem, don't quite understand how to resolve conflict–leads to the types of solutions we get. Black Male Achievement summits. Black male mentorship programs. Black male beer summits. All directed with private resources. All structured by private foundations. The White House may weigh in on "best practices" but there is absolutely NO real public involvement. 

The neoliberal end goal for MBK is to identify black boys and men capable of being sufficiently responsible, from black boys and men incapable of doing so. The end goal is to create a better fit between black boys/men, and the modern economy which needs boys/men capable of (legally) grinding and hustling, capable of doing everything for themselves and their community that in a sane society the state would do. And they use foundations to do it not just becasue the GOP controls the Congress and wouldn't pass any legislation that looked to deal with the issues of black boys and men unless that legislation had PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX written on it. They use foundations to do it because they are not interested in having the type of public participation that could either transform a program like this into something more useful for black communities or take a program like this and expand it to cover other constituencies and to generate support for progressive government in general.

When the brothers and sisters protest this move solely on the terrain of gender–they end up missing the most important component. It bears reiterating–if MBK were actually MB&SK we'd be looking at programs that taught brothers to pull their pants up and sisters to keep their legs closed. 

Who would want that?

When brothers and sisters protest this move solely on the terrain of gender, they almost by definition, narrow the solution set to a beer summit. Which is what they received, without the beer. The White House calls a meeting, which both sides deem to be "productive" and at best they add a couple of people to any oversight committee they create. It leaves the system itself fundamentally in tact and uninterrogated. 

I am SO glad that the brothers and sisters in this case decided to go against Obama's signal initiative. But damn we need a more active black intellectual left. 

(Time. Sending this out raw and unedited. Feedback welcomed and encouraged.)