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Louisianas many pearls

November 27, 2000

Arthur Nead

Louisiana is Carl L. Bankston IIIs oyster, and for him its an oyster with a lot of pearls. As an eighth- generation Louisianan, Bankston has a keen interest in the many cultures and ethnic groups that make up the state, and as a sociologist, he has a concern for ethnicity and the effect of race on the way people live in Louisiana. His interests have led him to co-author several well-received new studies of Louisiana ethnic groups. Before coming to Tulane two years ago, Bankston was a faculty member in the sociology and anthropology department at the University of LouisianaLafayette, located in the heart of Cajun country. The ongoing national, and even international, craze for aspects of Cajun culture, particularly its music and food, helped set the stage for Bankstons research. Together with researcher Jacques Henry, Bankston investigated the ways the Cajun ethnic group interacts with the larger American culture, and the ways Cajuns express their group membership. Bankston and Henry presented their results in Spectacles of Ethnicity: Festivals and the Commodification of Ethnic Culture among Louisiana Cajuns, in Sociological Spectrum (Vol. 20, Oct.Dec. 2000). The article received the Sociological Spectrum Award as the journals outstanding article for 2000.  Bankston has found that Cajun culture continues to change. Today, its relatively rare to have people who are living in French-speaking households, who live in the kind of tight communities that Cajuns did in the past, says Bankston. So instead of being imbedded in an ethnic community, ethnic identity is expressed in the ways we all express our identities in contemporary American societyby what we buy. Commodification is the term Bankston uses to explain this phenomenon. A new class of self-consciously ethnic products, such as foods and arts and crafts, are sold at modern Cajun festivals. These commodities, says Bankston, are rich in historical and cultural references, enabling the purchasers, whether Cajun or not, to bask in the glow of an idealized past. Bankston is firm, however, in pointing out that Cajuns are not selling off their culture, but rather accommodating it to a postindustrial, postmodern society. In the same way, Bankston says, modern Cajuns become tourists in their own pasts when they visit a reconstructed Cajun village on the outskirts of La-fayette at Christmastime. Old time Christmas activities are staged in the village for visitors. Of course Cajuns dont do things like the folks in the staged productions, says Bankston. They dont go to a small church for a Christmas mass or live in a little shack where people are engaging in modest Christmas activities. Their Christmas is like yours and minea tree and lots of presents!    Another interest of Bankstons, Southeast Asian immigrant communities in Louisiana, was first piqued halfway around the globe. After several years of graduate study in history at the University of CaliforniaBerkeley and before completing his doctorate in sociology at Louisiana State University, Bankston served with the Peace Corps in Thailand and then worked for five years in a Southeast Asian refugee camp in the Philippines. ogether with Min Zhou, a professor of sociology at the University of California Los Angeles, Bankston wrote Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (Russell Sage, 1998). The book received the 2000 Distinguished Book Award from the Mid-South Sociological Association and the 1999 Thomas and Znaniecki Award for Outstanding Book from the International Migration Section of the American Sociological Association. While Bankstons study of Vietnamese children uses data from national surveys and research on Vietnamese immigrant communities in California and elsewhere, it also is strongly based on observations made in the Vietnamese enclave in the Versailles Village suburb of eastern New Orleans. Growing Up American describes the community these immigrants have built, and charts some of the traditional Vietnamese social institutions they have adapted to their new homeland. Part of the work leading up to that book was working as a substitute teacher at a public school in New Orleans East, said Bankston, who adds that in the course of teaching he developed an interest in how things like race and ethnicity play out in Louisiana public education. This interest propelled him to write another book, A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana, which has been accepted for publication by Vanderbilt University Press. Bankston co-authored this book with Stephen J. Caldas, a former psychometrician for the Louisiana Department of Education and a member of ULL education department. A Troubled Dream focuses on school desegregation attempts, particularly in cities such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge. We argue, says Bankston, that given the history of racial inequality in the United States and in Louisiana in particular, desegregation was not only a desirable effort but an absolutely necessary effort. However, many of the aims of school desegregation, we argue, have been frustrated by the fact that massive economic and social inequalities continue to exist outside of our schools, says Bankston. In order to deal with the desegregation of our schools, you first have to deal with the larger questions of racial inequality and injustice in our society. Bankston and Caldas present some specific recommendations for public policy-makers in Baton Rouge, in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. Its a very sensitive subject, and a very controversial one, Bankston says.

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