Sunday, May 24, 2015

Quality Over Quantity

This past week in American Studies, while discussing the book The Great Gatsby, the topic of American ideals and themes and things that are inherently "American" came up. One was the topic of work. Specifically, how much work Americans do. 

People in America work more hours per week and year than people in other countries. According to the International Labour Organization, each American works on average "137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers." How very American! Why do we as a nation work so much more than people in other countries? 

As it turns out, were doing it wrong. Although Americans have this notion that working longer hours will eventually pay off in some way, working too much has negative effects. A study conducted by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson shows that what your parents say is right: quality trumps quantity. In his study, Dr. Ericsson and his colleagues studied violin players. They wanted to know what the excellent violinists were doing differently. It turns out they were practicing for shorter amounts of time. Ericsson and his team concluded that it is more effective to work harder for shorter amounts of time, rather than work extremely long hours. The successful people are leaving work early! 

So really, why are Americans working such long hours? 

"Abolish Bail"

While I was doing research for my Junior Theme last month, I started following Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow, on Facebook, as a way to get more sources and learn more about my topic. I still follow her, so I saw that just the other day she posted a link to an article on her page: "Too Many People in Jail? Abolish Bail." The article is consistant with much of the research I conducted for my Junior Theme, which attempted to answer the question: Why are there so many African Americans in prison? Unlike my research, however, this article tells of a possible solution to the problem, posed by mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, that I and Michelle Alexander agree would help to begin to solve the problem: "abolish bail."

One major reason why there are so many people in prison (the chart below shows just how alarming the increase has been) is because there is a huge backlog of cases in the courts. That is, thousands of
Prison Population vs. Year
people are in prison simply because they are awaiting trial. "According to a 2011 report by the city's Independent Budget Office, 79 percent of pretrial detainees were sent to Rikers" (where Mayor Bill de Blasio is from) "because they couldn't post bail right away." People are literally being detained in prison because they are poor.

Mayor de Blasio's solution is to abolish monitary bail all together. He argues that the people the jails would be releasing are not a high threat because the people who are threatening and need to be detained are not given bail in the first place. Perhaps this should be considered seriously. There are an overwhelming amount of people in jail, which needs to be fixed. In the words of Michelle Alexander, keeping people detained for being poor is "immoral and unjust and counterproductive."

Kane and Gatsby: Great American Characters

As part of our unit on class in American Studies, we read the book The Great Gatsby and watched the movie Citizen Kane. Fitzgerald's Gatsby is one of the most famous characters in American literature, especially after the 2013 movie version of the novel starring Leonardo Dicaprio came out.  The Great Gatsby is considered by some to be the "Great American Novel." Citizen Kane is a 1941 movie produced by, written by, directed by, and starring Orsen Welles, that contains many of the same themes as The Great Gatsby. In many ways, both Kane and Gatsby represent the "American Dream," or at least very American ideals.

In my opinion, The Great Gatsby and Gatsby's character represent the "American Dream" in many ways, making the novel the "Great American Novel" in many ways. First, Gatsby went from being "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere" (Tom calls him this on page 130 of the book) to being extraordinarily,
Leonardo Dicaprio as Gatsby 
immensely wealthy. This is the American Dream: going from rags to riches, all because of hard work and discipline and a little luck. Gatsby is also a "Great American Character." He spends his entire existence trying to "get the girl." This crazy-romanticness, I would argue, is very American. Additionally, the story is still relevant today, 90 years after the book was written. The themes in the book-new money versus old money, going from rags to riches, class, love, etc.- are still very powerful American literature and American society today.

Citizen Kane and Kane's character in particular are also very American. Kane, after his parents come into a lot of money, essentially goes from "rags to riches" like Gatsby. This in and of itself is a very American theme. Furthermore, the entire premise of the story- Kane's mysterious last word "rosebud" and the other character's attempt to learn more about Kane- is very American. Kane's (apparent) last word was "rosebud," which the viewer knows is the name of the sled he had as a child. "Rosebud" is a symbol of his childhood, and even after living a full life of riches and success, on his death bed, that is what Kane is thinking about. In my opinion, the romanticizing of one's childhood is a very American theme.
Citizen Kane 

Both Kane and Gatsby are very American characters, and Citizen Kane and The Great Gatsby are viewed today as some of the best representations of American society and relay very American themes and ideals. But to what extent can there be a "Great American Story?" 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Income Inequality: Why No Outcry?

This past week in American Studies, we watched the film "Inequality For All," a documentary about income inequality in the United States. The statistics this film provided were astounding. (For example, that the top 400 people in the U.S. have more wealth than the bottom 150 million). Income inequality is growing at an alarming rate; the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing rapidly. In 1978, the average male worker made $48,302, while they average male in the top 1% made $393,682. In 2010, however, the average male worker made only $33, 751, while the average male in the top 1% made $1,101,089.   It is clear that income inequality is becoming an increasingly prevalent and pressing issue in today's society. So why isn't the income/wealth gap causing an outcry?

We talked about possible answers to this question in American Studies class. Some answers we came up with as a class are listed below. (From

1. Negative perception of the protesters
2. Aspiration to become upper class as opposed to resent those citizens
3. A disproportionate influence (by the upper class) in the political arena (lobbying) and in the media
4. Ever-increasing amounts of consumer and household debt helping to finance an American consumer lifestyle.

Personally, I think that #2 is a major reason why there is no real outcry against the income/wealth gap in the United States.

People want to fulfill the "American Dream." They want to be successful and rich and happy and comfortable. Sure, people of lower class will resent people of upper class, people who have apparently fulfilled the American Dream, to some extent. However, I believe that people of lower class will never create a full-blown outcry against the upper class because to a large extent, they strive to be them.

Another reason I think there has been no full-blown outcry is because the people that are on the "losing end" of this gap, the lower and lower-middle class, do not have the time, resources, or influence to protest. These are the people who are working long, tiring hours, and have potentially very long commutes home. There is simply not enough time or energy for the lower class to start an outcry.

Why do you think there has been no full-blown outcry against the (increasing) income/wealth gap in the United States?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

What Does Our Stuff Say About Our Class?

This past week in American Studies, we have been studying class and classism. As part of this unit, we looked at various aspects of the Kenilworth train station (pictured below) and how these aspects indicate Kenilworth's class. Some things people noticed were the flower pots, the covered bike rack, the size, and the architecture.

Kenilworth Train Station
I don't even use the train, but my town's train station is an indication of my class. This made me wonder what other aspects of my life indicate my class and the class of people in my area. 

First, I thought that one's house and the houses around theirs could be an indicator of their class. I decided to take a look at my own house and see what aspects others would perceive as an indicator of my class. Below is a picture of my house, which is locate in Kenilworth, Illinois. What aspects of my house could indicate my class? I first noticed the putting green, which my family took out before we moved in. I also noticed the garage, the shrubbery and yard, the upkeep, and more. (I feel really "snooty" as I'm writing this, but I'm just trying to study other aspects of my life that could indicate my class). What else do you notice about my house that could indicate my class?
My house, located in Kenilworth, Illinois

It is clear that tangible aspects of people's lives (their train station, their home, what car they drive, etc.) indicate their class. What other aspects of people's lives indicate their class?

Friday, May 8, 2015

New Trier Township: What Class Are We Really?

In American Studies we are currently studying class and classism. To begin this unit, we were asked to take a survey about class. One of the questions was "To which class/ group to you belong?" (Upper, middle, and lower class were the only options). About 75% of the class reported that they were upper class, and the other 25% reported that they were middle class. But what class do most students at New Trier belong to? (In this post I will focus mostly on Kenilworth for statistics and examples).

One of the major influences on class is income. The "top 5%" of Americans make more than $150,000 annually, and the "top 1%" of Americans make over $250,000 annually. These groups, and even people a little below, are what society considers the upper class of America. And in the New Trier Township, an overwhelming number of people fall into this category. In Winnetka (60093), the median income is $122,100; in Glencoe (60022), it is $145,300, and in Kenilworth (60043), the median household income is $205,300. The average household income in Kenilworth is $346,686. These are just the median incomes; there are clearly a huge number of families that fall into the top 5% and 1%; the rest fall very shortly behind. The New Trier Township's median incomes indicate that the vast majority of families here are upper class.

Another influence on class is one's peer group, the community: a similarity in occupation, education, income and occupational prestige. Out of the 2,522 people in Kenilworth, 44.9 percent have a Bachelor's degree and 40.7 percent have a Graduate degree. In Melrose Park, Illinois, however, only 10.1 percent of people have a Bachelor's degree or higher. As for "occupational prestige," 68.1 percent of (working) people in Kenilworth have a white collar job, and the other 39.1 percent have blue collar jobs. In the New Trier township, the majority of adults are highly educated and work very prestigious jobs with high incomes, which are all great indicators of class.

We also learned in class that marriage is becoming more and more something that the rich do and the lower class tend not to do. If this is truly the case, the marriage statistics for the North Shore tell something about our class. In Kenilworth, 71.7 percent of adults are married. By contrast, only 43 percent of adults in Maywood, another Chicago suburb, are married. If marriage status is truly an indicator of class, the North Shore seems to be upper class.

There are many influences on class, and the overwhelming majority of the New Trier Township seems to be upper class based on these influences. So why didn't more people report that they are from an upper class family? Do they not want to admit it, or did they really think their family is middle class?

Friday, April 24, 2015

The War On Drugs: A Racial War

The War On Drugs began in the early 1970's in an attempt to reduce the use, possession, and sale of illegal drugs in the United States. This war has impacted the nation in unimaginable ways; the prison population, since the war began, has increased from 300,000 to 2 million, giving the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world (Alexander 6). The War On Drugs has not affected everyone equally; it targets and imprisons African Americans for drug crimes at a rate alarmingly disproportionate to the rate of whites. In fact, between 1986 and 1991, at the height of the War On Drugs, "the number of white drug offenders in state prisons increased by 110 percent," while "the number of black offenders grew by 465 percent" (Shaw 1).

How exactly is the War On Drugs able to target and imprison African Americans at a disproportionate rate?

There are many possible answers to this question; some of these answers lie in the legislation that has been created because of the War On Drugs. Crack cocaine, which is "more likely to be used by African-Americans, will trigger felony charges for amounts 100 times less than powdered cocaine, which is more likely to be used by whites" (Shaw 1). The government has deliberately made punishments for crimes related to crack cocaine much harsher than crimes related to powder cocaine, as a way to target African Americans while remaining "colorblind." (The punishment for crack cocaine really is much harsher: "The sentence for possessing five grams of crack is a mandatory five years. By contrast, to get a five-year sentence for possession of power cocaine, one would have to be caught with 500 grams" (Lanier 2)).

This disparity between the punishments for crack cocaine and poweder cocaine stemmed from a "crack crisis" that occurred during the Reagan administration. The United States saw a dramatic increase in the use of crack cocaine in black neighborhoods, and the media was able to "publicize the emergence of crack cocaine in 1985 as part of a strategic effort to build public and legislative support for the war" (Alexander 5). The media was effectively able to target and label African Americans as drug criminals, which is a huge reason why African American neighborhoods are targeted in the War On Drugs today and why legislation, though "colorblind," gives harsher punishments for crack cocaine than powder cocaine.

Another way the War On Drugs has targeted African Americans at an alarmingly disproportionate rate is through racial profiling. According to Charles Shaw, "racial profiling has been shown to target African Americans for police stops and searches." Police first stop drivers for minor traffic violations, and then are able to catch drug criminals. And although whites and African Americans commit traffic violations at almost the same rate, "42 percent of all stops and 73 percent of all arrests were racial minorities" (Alexander 133). Additionally, "African Americans comprised only 17 percent of drivers along a stretch of I-95 outside of Baltimore, yet they were 70 percent of those who were stopped and searched" (Alexander 133). It is clear that police target African Americans during traffic stops and police stops and searches, perhaps because of a racial stereotype that labels African Americans as criminals. Because African Americans are stopped and searched at much higher rates than whites, they are much more likely to be caught and imprisoned for drug crimes.

The War On Drugs has become a racial war; though it allegedly aims to combat illegal drug useage, it targets African Americans at a highly disproportional rate, partly through the use of stops and searches and legislation.