The Cost of Courage

The Book of the Week is “The Cost of Courage” by Carl Elliott, Sr., published in 1992.  This autobiography describes an American politician who acted on controversial matters in a morally correct way, making him unpopular with Southerners and Conservatives.  In so doing, he hurt his career.

In 1930, Elliott had an easy time getting accepted to college.   For, there was no admissions paperwork at the University of Alabama. Anyone who had a pulse and could pay the tuition in that early-Great-Depression year, was in. Most of the coed school’s students were upper-crust residents of the Black Belt and Birmingham.  Freshmen were required to wear beanies so that they were easily identifiable.

Elliott became an eight-term Alabama Congressman who fought for the civil rights of African Americans.  Another politician whose career was harmed by doing the right thing, was Alabama governor Jim Folsom.  In 1954, he invited African American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to the governor’s mansion in Montgomery for a drink.  In 1962, Folsom was pushed out of office by people who voted for (racist) George Wallace.

Read the book to learn the details of Elliott’s heroic but unwise career moves.

Catfish and Mandala

The Book of the Week is “Catfish and Mandala” by Andrew X. Pham, published in 1999.

This book is the memoir of An, a Vietnamese native whose family fled to California from Vietnam in the spring of 1975, just before Saigon fell. He alternates chapters describing his family’s history, and his bike trip.

An was born in Vietnam, but has mixed Asian blood, so he looks different from everyone. When he returns to Vietnam in his twenties on his bike trip, having been Westernized, he is called the derogatory term, “Viet-kieu.” He flies to, and then cycles through most of the country, to revisit his childhood memories and motherland.

An writes, “… I grew up fighting blacks, whites, and Chicanos… And everybody beat up the Chinaman whether or not he was really an ethnic Chinese. These new Vietnamese kids were easy pickings, small, bookish, passive, and not fluent in English.” So each Asian group segregates itself by nationality in Chinatowns and Japantowns.

An is still grappling with his racial identity. However, writing this book has made it easier, by making others aware of his plight.

Forest Hills Diary

The Book of the Week is “Forest Hills Diary” by Mario Cuomo, published in 1974.  In 1972, New York City Mayor John Lindsay chose Mario Cuomo to embark on a fact-finding mission to collect public opinion data on a proposed low-income housing project on 108th Street in Forest Hills near Corona, Queens, to consist of African American tenants, three towers of 24 stories each.

There was much emotionally charged public debate due to the very nature of the undertaking (housing projects in general, have a bad reputation– for crime, for bringing down property values, etc.).  Cuomo could have proposed reducing the planned apartment sizes to that of studios or 1 bedrooms– a compromise in order to push the project through. Regardless, he could not please anyone because Forest Hills residents were against the project altogether, while African Americans wanted apartments of at least 2 bedrooms.

Another option was to make one of the three towers a “Mitchell-Lama” which would allow tax breaks, but reduce the number of low-income units, and reserve 40% of the units for the elderly. The reason for favoring the elderly was to minimize the public sentiment that the apartments would be crime-ridden. Cuomo visited projects in the Bronx and had seen this phenomenon himself.

The Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights had gone downhill due to low-income housing. The African Americans with whom Cuomo spoke were against the project.  One black leader admitted to him in confidence that a way to spur upward mobility among African Americans was to have a mix of middle-income and low-income tenants.

The “scatter-site” legislation was passed allowing the project proposed originally, to be built.  However, raucous public hearings prompted the developers to compromise by building three towers of 12 stories each (instead of 24), 40% of which were to house seniors. All sides of the controversy roundly criticized a report released by Cuomo, although few people had actually read the whole thing.  This book provided an engaging analysis of political and urban issues with respect to race, housing and human nature.

Whatever It Takes

The Book of the Week is “Whatever It Takes” by Paul Tough, published in 2008.  This book is about Geoffrey Canada’s efforts to improve his community in Harlem in New York City, through both educating kids and providing social services to parents to improve the kids’ environments.  City agencies funded his programs.

Mr. Canada felt bad that he could not save all the underprivileged children in Harlem.  He did not operate his school the same way the KIPP chain of charter schools did– hand-picking a group of underprivileged kids it would make into high-achievers, whose accomplishments would exceed those of their peers.  He idealistically thought all children could become college material, if his Promise Academy charter school (initially a middle school, and later, also an elementary school) did its job right.

However, many studies have shown that success in life becomes much more likely for an individual when that individual is taught specific skills starting in infancy, such as “patience, persistence, self-confidence, the ability to follow instructions, and the ability to delay gratification for a future reward.”  Middle school is too late.

But Mr. Canada still felt it was worth trying to turn their lives around, although he had far less success with them than with kids who participated in his programs from infancy and were lucky enough to be chosen in the lotteries that determined who was accepted.  Also, he had the most success when kids stayed in the programs from infancy through at least middle school, but this was extremely expensive.

The jury is still out on whether society as a whole is greatly improved by providing a small percentage of underprivileged people with resources superior to those of their peers, so they may succeed in life.  I doubt Mr. Canada, and even all of the other people and entities helping too, will ever be able to bring success to all of Harlem’s children. Some people do not want to be helped.  Others unluckily are not chosen in the lotteries. I don’t know the solution.