A place for everyone

Laws against prostitution are usually supported by people who want to help women break free of men who are coercing them into that line of work.  When one asks why it is that such laws usually include criminal penalties for the very women they are supposed to help, the answer is often that only when police and prosecutors have such penalties to use as threats can they be sure that women will turn against their exploiters. 

In practice, those laws often seem to have the opposite effect.  Arrested, a woman needs money to make bail.  If she is under the influence of a pimp, she will likely call him or an associate of his.  Labeled a criminal, she will find it no easier than it was before the police picked her up to find other employment.  So, the law which may have been advertised as a way of helping her find a way out of prostitution may in its actual operation push her deeper into it.  The law marks prostitution as her place and acts to keep her in that place.

What reminded me of this was a column by Katha Pollitt in the 14 June 2010 issue of The Nation.  Pollitt does not mention prostitution, but mentions a set of proposed laws that seem to be designed to work the same way: bills pending before the French and Belgian parliaments that would prohibit Muslim women from wearing headscarves, face veils, or other garb traditional to women of their persuasion.  Like laws against prostitution, these bills are marketed as means to pry women loose from men who are coercing them into a demeaning way of life.  Also like those laws, the bills include penalties against the women themselves.  Pollitt expresses the fear that men who are in fact coercing women who live with them into covering up more than they would like would respond to a ban by keeping them from going out at all; surely this fear is well-founded.  Moreover, whether a woman wears the veil freely or under compulsion, the threat that if she does go out the police will arrest and search her, then take the men of her family into custody and threaten her with criminal sanctions unless she gives information against them will hardly convince her that France is her home and the Franks are her ancestors.  Quite the contrary, I should think; with such a threat looming in the background, even a woman who would not have been likely to cover up otherwise might feel herself a traitor to the only community that really wants her unless she does put on traditional Muslim attire. 

In the same issue, a number of experts argue that the direction education policy has been taking in the USA in the last 20 years has been gravely counterproductive.  I only wanted to note one of these, by Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University’s education school.  Darling-Hammond looks at the country-by-country league tables for average student achievement in various subjects, pointing out that American students were not performing especially well in 1989 and that their average performance has been declining ever since.  In some subjects, the decline has been steady, in others catastrophically rapid.  Meanwhile, American schools have become more thoroughly segregated by race, the number of subjects offered has shrunk, and the prison population is booming.  Darling-Hammond not only points out these evils; she also  gives examples of countries where the same years have seen movement in the opposite direction.  While the current system tends to lock students into whatever social position they inherited from their parents, Darling-Hammond argues that it is still possible for public education to open doors for social mobility.

Movement from one social status to another often comes in tandem with physical movement from one place to another.  A review of a couple of books about African American history, under the title “Movement and Rootedness,” discusses ways in which the theme of migration has reshaped thinking about that subject in recent years.  It includes a quote from scholar Ira Berlin: “The history of the United States rests upon movement, and then embrace of place.”  The new scholarship on which the review focuses finds ways in which African Americans managed to embrace some places that would strike most of us as quite unembraceable.  While the integrationist story that has been the academic orthodoxy since the 1960s tends to reduce African American history to the relationship between African Americans and whites, so that relationships among African Americans are pushed into the shadows, the new scholars want to find out what sort of communities African Americans built for themselves even during the grimmest days of slavery and Jim Crow.

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