Just Like Jim Crow
Strive is a word no one should use but a high school valedictorian. Worthy is another. When the editorial page of the New York Times advised participants in Monday's immigration protests to "strive to avoid damaging their worthy cause," it was conceding it had nothing to say. In the best tradition of the prudent press of jim crow days, when to move at all was to move too fast, the Times urged caution: "punitive boycotts and work stoppages" could prove counterproductive--as if making the country face up to how much it needs its undocumented workers wasn't the point.
This kind of fretting is nothing new. "The risks in massing so many people on an issue so emotional and so explosive need no underscoring," said the Times just before the great march on Washington in 1963. Though planning had been meticulous, "all these precautions may prove unavailing, with results that could prove permanently hurtful to the civil rights movement." The Chicago Sun-Times made it known in '63 that it "of course, approves of the fundamental cause of civil rights. It does not, however, approve of the march as a method to dramatize that cause."
And Then They Took Over the Media
When America looks in the mirror it sees a bighearted, inclusive country, though it often isn't. The press hates to get more than a step ahead of or behind its readers, and its overall sympathy for illegal immigrants is a sign of progress. Earlier groups found themselves in far direr straits with much less support. I mentioned jim crow. In 1939 the S.S. St. Louis carried some 900 Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba--and back to Europe. Cuba wouldn't let the passengers disembark, and the United States offered them nothing more than sympathy. A flurry of angry editorials might have changed Washington's mind, but there was no flurry.
About a month before FDR signed the 1942 order that allowed Japanese-Americans to be corralled, Walter Lippmann alerted America to the danger they posed. The fact that since war had broken out there'd "been no important sabotage on the Pacific Coast" was all the proof the great pundit needed: "This is not, as some have liked to think, a sign that there is nothing to be feared. It is a sign that the blow is well-organized and that it is held back until it can be struck with maximum effect."
Laurel Leff, a journalism professor in Boston, was researching a book on the lackluster coverage of the Holocaust by the New York Times when she discovered that in 1938 a Harvard professor named Carl Friedrich set out to find work for Germany's Jewish professionals in the U.S. Among other institutions he appealed to were newspapers and journalism schools. It can't be said they even listened politely. Friedrich asked to speak at the 1939 meeting of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, and the publishers turned him down.
The bluntest rejection note Leff uncovered was from Lawrence Murphy, director of journalism at the University of Illinois. Murphy warned Friedrich of the danger "of doing more harm than good." He wrote, "We can have complete understanding on this only if we speak frankly. It is my belief that American Jews have a hard time breaking into journalism; they have a hard time in schools of journalism. I do not see this as a problem of prejudice so far as papers or schools are concerned. But the schools look ahead and see that the Jews will not be welcome--at least in large numbers--and the papers look ahead and see that Jews will be objectionable to some of their news sources, advertising clients, etc.
"The only way that we can help the Jews, and I believe that we should help the American Jews first, is to keep the numbers small so that feeling will not be aroused against them. The minute that they show up in numbers they become a threat to the others as they reveal that they could occupy all the jobs there are and that they are quite likely to work together in filling the jobs.
"America will not long welcome the Jews of other lands or provide without discrimination for our own Jews if attention is centered on them and if they take over positions which ordinarily would go to others." Lives were in the balance, but they didn't figure in Murphy's assessment.
Friedrich received a more hopeful response from Kenneth Olson, the dean of Medill. Olson wrote that he'd sounded out other deans on the possibility of accepting refugee journalists for retraining and some were dubious because the economy was weak. Nevertheless, if funds were raised, "Northwestern would be glad to accept four or five such students. Some of the other Class A schools will probably be willing to take two or three. I think we might safely say that we could place approximately thirty such students among the institutions that might be willing to cooperate."
But in the end, says Leff, none were.
A Passing Mention
Who reads newspapers these days? The people mentioned in them do, and no mention is too brief to matter.
The story across the front page of the April 21 Tribune reported on a gloomy new University of Chicago study on the city's public high schools. "Of 100 Chicago Public School Freshmen, Six Will Get a College Degree," said the headline. Back on page eight reporter Tracy Dell'Angela looked inside some Chicago schools to see what was going on there. Her sidebar noted in passing that the city's top five schools sent at least 80 percent of their graduates to college. By contrast, "for the bottom five high schools--Kelvyn Park High School, Tilden Achievement Academy, Wells Community Academy, Orr Community Academy and Farragut Career Academy--a third or fewer of graduates enrolled in college, most of them going to two-year colleges."
Those were the extremes. Dell'Angela sensibly focused on two schools in the middle range, George Washington and Bogan. But her story infuriated one principal, who gave me an earful, and I asked Dell'Angela this Monday if she and the principal had talked. Dell'Angela had been out of town, so the complaint was news to her. "Washington or Bogan?" she asked.
"It was so hurtful," Sandra Fontanez-Phelan had told me, "and I'm really mirroring the hurt of my staff, the hurt of my kids, the hurt of my family." She was preparing a packet of letters from teachers and students to send the Tribune, and she'd talked to her alderman, Ray Suarez, about holding a news conference to set the record straight. Fontanez-Phelan, who's finishing her fourth year at Kelvyn Park, told me that after reading Dell'Angela's story people from the West Logan Square community called to ask if she's been lying to them when she says how far the school has come. "It's irresponsible to put out information and not clearly indicate that it's information from the past," she told me. "It's irresponsible not to say what's going on today."
The University of Chicago study covered several high school classes, ending with the class of 2003, so that it could follow all the students into college. That's why, said Fontanez-Phelan, the study doesn't reflect her school today: besides beefing up the curriculum, she's added a college coach and a college counselor to her staff, reasons 52 percent of her 2004 graduates and 67 percent of her 2005 graduates enrolled in four-year colleges. Dell'Angela reported that last year's Bogan graduates received a total of $350,000 in scholarships. Said Fontanez-Phelan, "In 2005 students at this neighborhood school--where all students are welcome--received $1,180,826 in scholarships, based on merit and academic and community leadership."
She told me daily attendance is normally close to 90 percent, though the day of the immigration protest it dropped below 59 percent. She said her school is 98 percent Hispanic and as many as one out of ten students is in the country illegally. "We were probably the only school that had a financial-aid fair for undocumented students," she said.
Dell'Angela reminded me she hadn't even written about Kelvyn Park. "You're damned if you do," she said, "and you're damned if you don't."
Maybe the French Kids Are on to Something
Americans are suckers for news that makes the French look pathetic. When middle-class French students hit the streets to protest a new law making it easy for companies to fire employees under 26, American commentators were in clover. The Tribune ran an editorial, "The frightened European," that accused the French in particular and Europeans in general of an inability to deal with the 21st century. A snickering editorial in the Dallas Morning News bore the headline, "Liberte, egalite, maternite: French youths really need to grow up."
The thinking behind the law was that if companies were free to get rid of young employees who didn't work out they'd be more willing to hire them in the first place. When the law was withdrawn the Deseret Morning News called the students' victory "in reality, another step backward for an already foundering nation." A Boston Globe editorial headlined "France's global retreat" asserted that France "does not have the option of withdrawing from a global economy that becomes more and more competitive every day."
What could French editorialists say with equal chauvinism about us Americans? That we're a nation of children who cut taxes as we fight wars so the wars are painless? That we don't have the option of withdrawing from a global ecology? William Pfaff lives in Paris, and the writing he's done on the feckless French students--in his International Herald Tribune column and in the May 11 New York Review of Books--are of a different order of lucidity.
Pfaff doesn't prostrate himself before that global economy. Global capitalism has been changing, he observes, from "stakeholder capitalism"--in which the corporation takes into account the interests of its employees and its community--to "CEO capitalism," whose goals are to keep the stockholders happy and the executives rich, while turning the workers into an "anonymous commodity." He cites a recent headline that caught the spirit: "AT&T-BellSouth Deal Gets Wall St. Applause. Merger Would Lead to 10,000 Job Cuts."
Pfaff dusts off David Ricardo, dead 180-some years, and his "iron law of wages," which held that when the labor supply is unlimited "wages will fall to just above subsistence level." We've never before seen an unlimited labor supply, says Pfaff, but he sees globalization throwing labor in advanced countries like the U.S. and France "into competition with the poorest countries on earth."
And that brings him to the petulant French students. "In this perspective," he writes, "what in France seems a sterile popular defense of an obsolete social and economic order might instead be understood as a premonitory appeal for a humane successor to an economic model that considers labor a commodity and extends price competition for that commodity to the entire world. The apparently reactionary or even Luddite position inspired by French reactions might prove prophetic."
It's just an idea. But "French youths really need to grow up" isn't an idea.