Monday, January 6, 2014

Race, Class, Travel & Education: Welcome to Sociology

Happy New Year. Two great articles that caught my eye over the break really illustrate the sociological perspective and serve as a great primer to illustrate said perspective.

First, this great article from Saturday's NYT entitled Traveling While Black:

I am part of a sizable fellowship of African-Americans on a mission to see the world. Seventeen percent of African-Americans take one or more international trips a year, and we spend $48 billion on travel in the United States alone, according to the Mandala Research firm. That amount may be smaller than spending by other (not mutually exclusive) niche groups like LGBT travelers ($70 billion). But, according to analysts at MMGY Global, a marketing firm, black travel has rebounded since 2008, which is notable considering that the great recession doubled the gap between black and white wealth. When you look at per capita income, our travel spending is significant.

Yet for all of that buying power, major hospitality companies and tour operators often steer clear of targeting African-Americans. After all, it’s complicated. Hoteliers are promoting women-only floors, but that idea would be anathema to black travelers, who are concerned about getting equal and respectful treatment from staff members. Similarly, tour operators pushing gay-friendly getaways would not be wise to advertise trips as “black-friendly.” 
I am fortunate enough to be teaching a new course (for me) next fall called On The Road: Sociology of Travel, and what is so great about this article is that it applies the sociological perspective to a topic that most people associate with escape...to travel is to escape, to go on vacation, to get away from the daily mundane problems of existence.

Yet "niche traveling" is big business today, which the author argues is actually nothing new.
We are a niche that it seems shouldn’t exist in a country that aspires to be postracial. As a result, minority travelers are mainly paving our own path, guided by ourselves, our social and professional networks and by bloggers. We are a largely untapped market, exploring the world without being aggressively sold an itinerary on how to do it. That means there are few guidebooks or tour operators to prepare me for the moment of surprise that I experienced in the Forbidden City. And it is one of the reasons that travel right now feels more freeing than ever. 

For African-Americans, domestic and international exploration used to be filled with significant roadblocks. From the late 19th century until the civil rights era, the lack of parity in pay left African-Americans with little to spend on leisure (a disparity that continues to this day); segregation meant substandard seats and service on public transportation; and finding lodging on the road if you were black, in particular, was a challenge, especially in the South. “The Negro Traveler’s Green Book” was published from 1936 until 1964 to give black travelers a list of places where it was safe to stay and to stop. Published by a postal worker named Victor H. Green, the book was used by thousands of African-Americans as they crisscrossed the United States by car. Green optimistically wrote in one edition: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”
The other article I read, based on another favorite topic of mine (the debt collection industry) illustrates the struggle of social class and bankruptcy versus Big Government run amok.

Stacy Jorgensen fought her way through pancreatic cancer. But her struggle was just beginning. 

Before she became ill, Ms. Jorgensen took out $43,000 in student loans. As her payments piled up along with medical bills, she took the unusual step of filing for bankruptcy, requiring legal proof of “undue hardship.”
The agency charged with monitoring such bankruptcy declarations, a nonprofit with an exclusive government agreement, argued that Ms. Jorgensen did not qualify and should pay in full, dismissing her concerns about the cancer’s return. 

“The mere possibility of recurrence is not enough,” a lawyer representing the agency said. “Survival rates for younger patients tend to be higher,” another wrote, citing a study presented in court. 
LOL. You know when lawyers suddenly become medical experts, we're into a whole new area of stupid.
There is $1 trillion in federal student debt today, and the possibility of default on those taxpayer-backed loans poses an acute risk to the economy’s recovery. Congress, faced with troubling default rates in the past, has made it especially hard for borrowers to get bankruptcy relief for student loans, and so only some hundreds try every year. And while there has been attention to aggressive student debt collectors hired by the federal government, the organization pursuing Ms. Jorgensen does something else: it brings legal challenges to those few who are desperate enough to seek bankruptcy relief. 

That organization is the Educational Credit Management Corporation, which, since its founding in Minnesota nearly two decades ago, has been the main private entity hired by the Department of Education to fight student debtors who file for bankruptcy on federal loans. 

A panel of bankruptcy appeal judges in 2012 denounced what it called Educational Credit’s “waste of judicial resources,” and said that the agency’s collection activities “constituted an abuse of the bankruptcy process and defiance of the court’s authority.”  
Predictably, there are shills who are willing to defend Educational Credit's "abuses" with pithy elementary dismissals.
Supporters of the agency’s tactics say they are necessary to hold borrowers accountable. “For every dollar that the aggressive debt-collection firm fails to recoup, that’s a dollar that someone else is going to have to pay,” said G. Marcus Cole, a law professor at Stanford University. 
Which is absurd given that it was tax dollars that were given away in the loans to begin with, and the loans are treated as taxable income. We've already recouped the money, Marc.
Professor Cole added that if it were easy to discharge student loans in bankruptcy, lenders would simply not lend money to students without clear assets or prospects. “We need a standard like that to be able to allow students who can’t afford an education to be able to borrow,” he said. 
Er, standards for loaning people money who can't afford an education should not include debt collection agencies determining people's lifestyles, personal habits or where they can eat out.
Educational Credit said Ms. Schaffer was spending too much on food by dining out...a reference to the $12 she spent at McDonald’s...Educational Credit said that Ms. Schaffer “did not meet the legal standard for undue hardship"...The lawyers also suggested she should charge her son for using their car, require him to pay more in rent and rent out the other room in their house.
When the bottom feeding lawyers representing the bottom feeding industry of debt collection are telling people how they should or shouldn't live their lives, we've crossed a rubicon of no return (and don't you love the idea that regularly splitting a value meal at McDonald's is "not a hardship" according to these dopes?). These are not the kind of "standards" people should be subjected to in order to further their education.

The great irony here, of course, is that the way to alleviate people having to take tens of thousands in loans for higher education would be to publicly fund higher education. Critics claim that's "welfare" but what's the difference between tax payer funded education and tax payer funded loans? Other than nothing?

Regardless, both these articles illustrate how things like social class, race and ethnicity and education are inextricably linked in our society. And how these social forces and demographics affect us as individuals.

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