Remembering Rodney King

Via CBS News

It was a big surprise yesterday to hear about the death of Rodney King, whose beating by  LAPD officers in 1991 led to a trial, to the acquittal of the police officers involved, and to subsequent race riots. I was young and living far away when all this occurred, but I remember the event as a pivotal moment. As a young, middle-class white girl in a primarily while suburb, I had no awareness of what life in this country was like for so many others. We’d learned about the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King in school, surely life was great for everyone now?

Rodney King’s famous question, “can’t we all get along?” is no less relevant today than it was decades ago. Furthermore, the question is still tied to issues of race and masculinity. To break it down by gender, three-quarters of murder victims in this country are male and men are also far more likely than women to be committing violent crimes. Domestic violence remains a scourge that kills 6-7 people a day in the U.S.—the vast majority of victims being women. In terms of race, in 2005 almost half of all murder victims in the U.S. were African American males, putting young black men at a much higher risk of being victims of violence than their peers of other races. African American men are also more likely to end up in jail. Nearly 40% of male prisoners in this country are African American, a statistic that is far higher than the balance of the population. Does this reflect a “culture of violence,” or does it reflect a system of justice where the young, black, and poor often receive inadequate representation and are often not judged by juries of their “peers?”

As a white woman, it’s still tricky for me to try and walk in another person’s shoes or make judgments about what life is like for others. But I can say this: Every American should see something troubling in these statistics. Race issues are still alive and well in this country. Poverty is still alive and well in this country, and is likely feeding the problems of violence and crime in urban areas. Rodney King himself struggled with substance abuse and was unable to find steady work in the years before his passing. But King did leave a legacy and provoked a change in the justice system. Maybe his death at such a relatively young age can prompt us to again reflect on the question he asked so long ago. And maybe it can prompt us to do more.

Deadbeat Men: Let’s Talk About *That* for a Change

So the lead article in the NY Times today is about the fact that the majority of births in this country to women under 30 are now to unmarried mothers. I can’t say I’m surprised, but the more I thought about this article, and the accompanying story discussing the dynamic at work in an Ohio town, the angrier I became.

Here’s the fact, folks, unmarried mothers didn’t get that way themselves. And yet in the headlines of both of these articles, the men are missing. In the second story referenced above, it is “Young Mothers” for whom marriage has a fading allure and in the first it is “Women under 30” who are described as having children out of wedlock. Where are the men? Where is the responsibility on their part?

The He-Covery in Action

I’ve heard and read a lot about the “mancession” and the “crisis of boys” in education, and I don’t want to be insensitive to that, but I’m sick of the argument that men of a certain generation (let’s call it under 35) are systematically oppressed because a generation of women have been emasculating them. For those unfamiliar with the “War Against Boys” theory, most vocally advocated by Christina Hoff Summers at the turn of this century, the argument goes that males are now more likely than females to fail classes, get punished in school, or drop out, and they are less likely to complete college degrees at all levels except the Ph.D. (where they are roughly at parity with women). The reason for this is purportedly that we have created an educational system that is hostile to men, focused on female achievement. This argument has been surprisingly persistent, despite being largely debunked by studies showing that the difference between the sexes disappears when we control for things like race and income-related factors. (A study by the AAUW reported this finding based on a study of 40 years worth of data on educational achievement.) Likewise, the much-touted “mancession” is now being followed by a “he-covery” (*GAG*), with men making more progress than women in getting new jobs and getting jobs in a range of fields once dominated by women. This article cautions that long-term employment rates for men will continue to suffer if male degree completion rates continue to drop, but I think that’s a fairly obvious statement.

All of this ties into the “unwed mothers” phenomenon. A common theme among women interviewed in the NYT pieces is that they not only view husbands as unnecessary, but they also see them as burdensome and untrustworthy. What we have isn’t a generation of unwed mothers, we have a generation of deadbeat men. In the past, when women failed to obtain higher education it was because they were openly discriminated against, drummed out of school when they got married or pregnant, and they were given a low priority for admission to programs in the first place. Now, when men fail to finish higher education, it’s not for any of those reasons. Some men, because of race or class, start off at a disadvantage, but many men don’t finish or don’t go to college in the first place because they just don’t want to do the work. Even among those men that I see in my classroom and in my graduate program, the males are also overall less likely than females to be involved in extracurricular activities, service projects, to volunteer for committees, or basically to do anything they aren’t forced to do. Then, when these same guys can’t get jobs, I hear them complaining that “it only went to her because she had a vagina.” Right. A vagina, a string of grants and scholarships, multiple publications, and a page full of demonstrated service credentials. Try again, guys.

The same attitude, I think, has spread to marriage. Men don’t want to do it unless they feel they absolutely have to. Maybe I’m biased by my history of crappy relationships, but it’s telling to me that none of the men I’ve dated long-term have as-of-yet gone on to marry. Two of them are now in their mid-30s, one is still in his twenties. All of them told me at some point they wanted to have kids, but none of them wanted to start having kids “for a while,” because it would cramp their lifestyle. A few years ago, a male friend who proposed to his girlfriend for her birthday very romantically informed me that it was because, “I’ve given her a lot of gifts over the years, and the only other thing I could think of to give her was a ring.” Hmm. So who’s really the problem here?

I can relate to the women of Ohio. I look around me and I see in my peer group that even among the women I know who are my age and married, none of them fit the traditional marriage mold–almost all of the women are at parity with their spouses or have “married down” either in terms income or educational level. The New York Times also kindly informed me just last week that if I ever want to marry, I should expect to marry down. No shit. You know how many well-traveled, marathon-running, Ph.D.-holding men I’ve met in my life? I could count them on less than one hand. I don’t expect to meet my “equal,” but I do expect to meet a man who can take care of himself, and who has some ambition in life. Those men are few and far between and mostly are already taken. Maybe it’s true that women these days are guilty of thinking they can take charge of life on their own, but I think the men of today are equally guilty of thinking they can take charge of life when they’re 40, and until then they’re willing to skate by on the bare minimum of effort.

Women’s Self Defense: Is it a Solution?

On Wednesday nights, I’ve been taking a Krav Maga class. It was actually billed as Women’s Self Defense, but I only took it because: a) it was free; and b) I was intrigued that the class description stated it would be based entirely on Krav Maga techniques. I don’t know what I was thinking that a women’s self defense class would be, but I had honestly always imagined such classes to be… wussy. Kind of like the way that the women’s kickboxing classes I took back in New York never actually involved hitting or kicking anything. Maybe I’d learn some crotch kicks, get a rape whistle, learn to shout and run away, but not anything that might genuinely overpower someone. Well, if you aren’t familiar with Krav Maga, here is a video you can watch to see just how un-wussy this stuff really is.

In two sessions, I have learned some moves that could actually do damage. Top of the list are how to throw a decent elbow, how to roll a person who is larger and heavier than me, how to fall in a way that prevents injury and allows a quick recovery, and vulnerable areas on which to land punches and kicks. I actually enjoy the class a lot. It is a good workout and a great stress reliever, and it even makes me feel more confident.

I am, however, aware of debates about women’s self defense classes as a response to rape culture. Do a search on “women’s self defense” online and you will find low-cost or free classes in almost every community and on almost every college campus. Now, try and find a class that teaches men not to rape and abuse women. Rehab programs? Maybe. But seminars on what consent is, or on preventing domestic violence or rape? Much harder to come by.

ribbonAs someone in the field of gender studies and someone who has been a victim of rape myself, I always see the subtext of this. Such classes are an admission that violence by men against women is a consistent threat in our society, and by teaching women self-defense we are admitting we can’t eliminate this threat completely. We are placing the burden on the potential victim to defend themselves, not on the potential perpetrators to adhere to a higher standard of behavior. Critics argue that we start from the assumption that women are threatened whenever they are in the public space, and that they do not have the same mobility or access to the public sphere as men. Is this a fact, or is this just how we have constructed our society?

I’m torn between wanting the world to be as it should be—free of violence against women—and how it is—a world where violence against women is a reality. The reality that, in the U.S., one in every five women, and one in four on college campuses, will be the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault. A reality where, when we discuss consent in my classes, students admit that they know what “consent” means but, “you know, when everyone’s been drinking, maybe different rules apply…” And even Krav Maga isn’t enough when you’re already wounded, or when you’ve been drugged (which, incidentally, is what happened to me). So what is the solution for combating rape culture?

I do think self-defense classes like the one I’m taking have value. I think what I’ve learned could be helpful in some situations. There are also the outside benefits of fitness and confidence, which would be of value to women or to anyone at all. But teaching women self defense is not the only answer. For every class teaching us self-defense, there needs to be a corresponding class aimed at preventing violence by men. Teach what consent is. Make it clear to men how their lives will change when they are faced with a rape charge, and what punishments they face for assault in school and in the real world. Offer men a safe space to talk and ask questions. Discuss what they should do if they know a man who has “taken advantage” of someone—because many young men know someone who has sexually assaulted someone else, even if they haven’t done it themselves. I get it, no one likes to be blamed or profiled, but if we women have to accept the reality that we’re constantly under threat, men should have to accept the reality that they constitute the overwhelming majority of perpetrators.

Will such a plan ever be implemented? Highly doubtful, and it’s our society that will suffer for it. But I can dream, can’t I?