Friday, December 28, 2007

The Broadband Census of America Act and Addressing Digital Inequality in the U.S.

By Mikyung Baek, Research and Technical Associate at Kirwan Institute

“This country needs a national goal for broadband technology, for the spread of broadband technology. We ought to have a universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007, and then we ought to make sure as soon as possible thereafter, consumers have got plenty of choices when it comes to purchasing the broadband carrier.”

On the last day of year 2007, I am reminiscent of President Bush’s speech in Albuquerque, New Mexico on March 26, 2004 and wondering if we are there yet.

According to OECD Broadband Statistics in June 2007, the U.S. ranked 15th among OECD's 30 member countries in high speed Internet penetration -- the percentage of the population with high speed access. Just 22.1 percent of Americans have high speed connections, compared to more than 34 percent in Denmark, the top-ranked country. When it comes to the speed of Internet connections, the U.S. comes in 19th place with the average advertised broadband speed of 8.86 Mbps in the U.S. as opposed to 93.69 Mbps in Japan.

In the mean time, the U.S. FCC (Federal Communications Commission)’s report issued in October says "Our analysis indicates that more than 99% of the country’s population lives in the more than 99% of Zip Codes where a provider reports having at least one high-speed service subscriber."

Why the difference? That’s because the numbers FCC uses are unrealistic and bogus: FCC’s definition of broadband is any speed over 200 Kbps; if one broadband provider provides 200 Kbps service to a single house in one zip code, the FCC considers broadband to be available to everyone in that zip code. Not only do the FCC figures falsely represent the status of broadband penetration in the U.S., the statistics of zip code level data fails to measure the degree of digital inequality across different areas (urban, suburban or rural) and different groups of people. And without an accurate depiction of the status, we cannot expect proper solutions or policies to address digital inequality.

Fortunately, legislation to create detailed nationwide maps of high speed Internet coverage is moving along in Congress with bi-partisan support. The Broadband Census of America Act, approved by the House on November 13, 2007, will require the FCC to collect better information on the status of broadband connectivity in the U.S. The FCC is now required to report data on the number of Americans who are connected to high speed Internet by the number of residential and business high speed Internet subscribers per postal zip code.

I hope that this legislation will be widely used to help produce an accurate measure of broadband penetration in the U.S. It will then enable further data analyses to uncover where digital opportunity lies or is lacking and to isolate its causes. I am also hopeful that understanding the status of broadband penetration and the degree of digital inequality will motivate efforts to address the issues. After all, we do not want to say “Game Over: U.S. is unlikely to regain its broadband leadership” as Robert X. Cringely did in August 2007, … not just yet.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Racial Lingering in Iowa (U.S.)?

By Hiram José Irizarry Osorio, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

There has been some discussion and media coverage based on a “racially loaded” set of questions John Edwards was asked last Friday December 14th from an “elderly White man” in Iowa (read “The Obama racial subtext surfaces in Iowa”). The focus has been somehow to underscore that that “elderly White man” from Iowa represents the racialized subtext of the U.S. population.

I would prefer to approach the coverage of the incident differently.

How about focusing on an honest (or striving for an honest) conversation on issues of race in the U.S.?

The “elderly White man” from Iowa honestly asked a question about an issue that was (or had been) bothering him and John Edwards answered, while still contesting the man’s implicit racial implications.

The conversation was not perfect, because it cannot be. We cannot have a perfect, ideal conversation surrounding race in the U.S. within an imperfect environment; an environment loaded with racial taboos. These taboos can only be unearthed through honest and continuous conversations (not through accidental conversations alone).

It is the same thing (and it is connected to) when we talk about democracy. A vigorous, vibrant democracy cannot rely SOLELY on voting every now and then. Voting is a democratic act, but it has to be cultivated. Furthermore, a democracy is not SOLELY voting. Voting is an expression of a process based on discussions, conversations, debates, proposals that should expand time and space. These discussion, conversations, debates, proposals could be “interrupted” once in a while for all citizens to vote, but the process needs to (and it will) proceed.

My point is not if that “elderly White man” from Iowa was a racist or not. My point is to focus our energies and attention on promoting this sort of open dialogues regarding issues of race (and beyond) for them to occur more often, for them to become more vibrant, for them to include different “racial” groups into the discussion, while feeling safe and comfortable. Nevertheless, this is not something that we can just wish. We need to make it happen. We need to act upon it. Thus, in the meantime it might not be that comfortable for anyone of us, but it is something that is worth striving for, if we really want a vibrant, healthy, and just democratic society.

What we do know is that talking about the “race”, however unpleasant, is of utmost necessity to unearth troubled feelings and perceptions and to be able to walk the walk toward social (racial) justice. Not publicly discussing these sort of issues would be (and has been) detrimental. Thus, what should we do? What do you think?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Building Alliances

by Yusuf Sarfati, Graduate Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

Immigration to the U.S and the relations between the immigrant communities and other communities of color (particularly African Americans) in the U.S is of crucial importance for the future and quality of the U.S. democracy. Last weekend at the “A Transformative Agenda around Race Conference” that the Kirwan Institute organized, I had the chance to attend several panels that explored this topic. I also had the chance to interview some grassroots activists, who are engaged in alliance-building work between African American and immigrant communities, for a report that the Kirwan Institute is preparing.

Based on the panels and the interviews, I want to point out two common set of challenges that affect collaboration between African Americans and the newly coming immigrant groups. Focusing on common challenges does not imply that either African American or immigrant experiences are homogenous. There is no doubt that there are class-based, cultural, racial, and regional peculiarities to each relationship that needs to be explored in greater detail.

The first set of challenges is structural. Competition for jobs or housing facilities in low opportunity neighborhoods form the thrust of structural factors that characterize the relations between low-income immigrant and low-income African American communities. In many places the newly arriving immigrants, who work in arduous conditions and barely make survival wages, become neighbors with African American communities with already high unemployment rates.

The second set of challenges is cultural barriers to effective collaboration. Many immigrants quickly “learn” that, if they want to succeed, they need to stay away from the underachieving and unsuccessful African American community. On the other hand, many African Americans are troubled by the lack of racial awareness of the newcomers. (Race is not the primary marker of personal identity in different parts of the world)

Black Alliance for Just Immigration in the Bay Area, the Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network in Durham North Carolina, the Center for a New Community in Chicago, and National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights are some of the many grassroots organizations which aim to build bridges between immigrants and African Americans. These organizations try to overcome the aforementioned challenges by creating safe spaces, where members from both communities can share their stories and spell out their presumptions about the “other”. The more these stories are shared, the more people are able to break their presumed cultural understandings.

In addition to sharing stories or empathizing with each other, the activists emphasized that each community need to be educated about the history of the other community. The immigrants need to be familiarized with the history and achievements of the civil rights movement and its effects on immigration policies as well as the structural racism that continues to inflict U.S. society. On the other hand, the African American communities need to understand that international immigration is a consequence of globalization, and it cannot be understood isolated from the structural inequalities that exist between the developing and developed world. It is also crucial to point out that the racial discourse around the immigrant rights will affect the public discourse around race relations in the U.S.

When this dialogue creates some basis for trust, it is possible to form a common socio-political agenda around issues that are of interest to these communities, such as racial profiling in the criminal justice system, quality of public education, workplace safety or wage policies.

We need to take the efforts of these community activists seriously and try to enhance effective alliances between African Americans and immigrant communities, if we want to have an inclusive pluralistic democracy, in which different races and cultures thrive both by recognizing their differences and working for common goals.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Red, White and Blue

By Christy Rogers, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Early in my academic career, I was greatly interested in how race was defined and demarcated among whites, blacks, and Native Americans in the 19th Century. I was giving a paper on this topic at Harvard and staying with my cousin’s family in Boston. My uncle asked me how I became so interested in Native American history. He asked, “Is it because your maternal great-grandmother was Native American?” I almost slipped from my chair. No one had mentioned this to me before, ever. He said this was something my grandmother had confided to him in her ailing years. I didn’t know what to do. I got really excited. I ran up the stairs. I ran down the stairs. I ran up the stairs again. This—blood—made ME Native American. Suddenly, so many things about myself made sense. My attachment to the land. My acuity about people that some friends nervously characterized as clairvoyance. I couldn’t wait to talk to my mom.

“Utter nonsense,” my mother retorted, firmly. Now I wasn’t Native American. My enlarged sense of identity collapsed. Then I realized that I had, running excitedly up and down the stairs, briefly considered that race, identity, and cultural belonging could be transferred by blood alone, despite the fact that I had not been raised with one tiny jot of Native American culture or conscience. I considered doing genealogical research; I knew about DNA testing, but I finally thought: no. I’m white. I was raised white, I have benefited from white privilege for so long that I can’t retroactively “un-do” my whiteness and claim membership with a people violently oppressed for centuries.

One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten was from an African-American roommate, about 15 years ago. Walking down the street with me, she suddenly said, “you know, you’re not really white, you know. I mean, you’re white, obviously, but you’re not really white. Do you know what I mean?” And I’m sticking with that as the best I can do: white, of course—but not really. But the “not really” has to be earned by my work and by my commitments—not given by blood.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Toward a Transformative Agenda Around Race, November 30 - December 2, 2007

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University is proud to announce our upcoming national conference and Film Festival.

WHAT: "Toward a Transformative Agenda Around Race"
WHEN: November 30 - December 2, 2007
WHERE: Hyatt Regency in downtown Columbus, Ohio

PLEASE NOTE: 30% discount on the regular $50 fee for student groups of 10 or more (i.e., $35 each) and 30% off the regular $250 fee for non-student groups of 5 or more (i.e., $175 each).

Plenary sessions:
"A Conversation on the Arts, Activism & Culture" with Danny Glover and Felix Justice
"The New American Story" with Senator Bill Bradley
"Toward a Transformative Agenda around Race" with john powell, Saskia Sassen, and Susan Sturm
"Talking about Race" with Stephanie Fryberg and Drew Westen

The 45 other sessions will include:
Mass Incarceration in the United States: The New 'Jim Crow'?
More Than a Messenger: The Media's Role in Shaping Today's Racial Landscape
"What Makes Me White?" A Film Screening/Discussion with Aimée Sands
African Americans and Immigrants: Breaking Down Barriers, Building Bridges
How Do We Create A Cohesive Campus Community?


"Our conference will provide racial justice advocates, activists and researchers with much of the specialized information, tools and expert networks we need to transform the landscape of racial discourse and practice in this country." -john powell, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute.

November 30: Join Danny Glover as he presents his film Manderlay (2005).

Kirwan Institute film festival November 27-December 1 at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Arena Grand, and Drexel Gateway Theatres. Visit for more information.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Learning from South Africa?

By Lidija Knuth, Research fellow at the Kirwan Institute

In South Africa after the collapse of Apartheid in 1994, race and class still coincide in very complex ways—reproducing, sustaining, and feeding off of each other because of the structural and systematic barriers and constraints placed in the way of genuine redistribution of resources.(footnote 1) South Africa is strongly influenced by the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and apartheid. The social, economic, and cultural life of current South Africa is marked by this legacy. Racial inequality is reflected in a wide range of areas depicting a growing contrast between fulfilment and deprivation. Many whites acquired positions of power and wealth during apartheid and very few of them are poor. Whites dominate virtually all aspects of higher education, and specifically the area of knowledge production. The structure of separate education systems for different apartheid-defined race groups has resulted in manifest inequalities.

South Africa is an example of a society where structural racism is firmly embedded in an all-encompassing, state-directed approach.(footnote #2) One paper argues that racism lives on even though the society is no longer formally organized on racist principles. This reality is recognized by the government, legislation, and the judiciary. The need for the protection, promotion, and monitoring of the right to equality is outlined in various pieces of legislation, inter alia the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (footnote#3) and the Employment Equity Act (footnote #4). However, the Equality Act is by far the most comprehensive and the most important piece of legislation prohibiting unfair discrimination after the Constitution. The preamble to the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000 states, “Although significant progress has been made in restructuring and transforming our society and institutions, systemic inequalities and unfair discrimination remain embedded in our social structures, practices and attitudes.”
The uniqueness of the Equality Act is that it moves beyond the duty to refrain from discriminating to imposing positive duties on government, public and private bodies, the entities, and the South African populace to promote equality. This constitutes an important recognition of the shift from formal to substantive equality. An equally important aim of the equality clause is to redress disadvantage. This means that in addition to merely compensating identified victims, there is a proactive duty to restructure institutions.
In South Africa, much remains to be done to redress the legacy of immense inequalities based on race, but the country is a pioneer regarding the open discussion and attempts to deal with its history.

#1. Fred Henricks, „Racism after Apartheid,“ 2001.
#2. Fred Henricks, „Racism after Apartheid,“ 2001.
#3. Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, 2000 (Act No. 4 of 2000).
#4. Employment Equity Act (No. 55 of 1998).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Words that Wound

By Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute

I know a 15 year-old – let’s call her Karen -- who is the only black player on the field hockey team at her predominantly white public high school in an affluent Connecticut town. She’s the goalie and one of the best players on the team.

Her team just played another team that, as it happened, also included one black player. At some point during the game, an opposing player screamed at a teammate to “get it into the nigger.” Whether either coach or the referee heard the remark is unclear, though one of Karen’s teammates told their coach about it after the game. Two days later, Karen responded to her mother’s question about practice that day by declaring that she no longer wanted to play on the team. Only then did the story emerge, in a flood of tears.

Karen’s mother asked mine to accompany her to a meeting with her daughter’s coach and school principal. My mom agreed and then called me. What should they say at this meeting, she wondered. For many reasons, not least my status as the soon-to-be father of a “black” child, I found the question of more than academic interest.

I recommended, first, that Karen’s principal and coach notify the other team’s principal and coach about their student’s words. It seemed important to officially mark the atrocity -- and if you think that’s an excessive term, consider its impact. I’m reminded of DuBois’ story, at the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk, about the white girl in his class who rejected his “visiting card.” Like DuBois, Karen will likely remember that moment on the field for the rest of her life.

Second, preferably as part of a routine practice at the school, the principal should make it clear to all students, staff, and faculty that such behavior is wholly incompatible with their school’s culture and norms. And by “such behavior” I mean words and actions calculated to diminish and dehumanize on the basis of religion, class, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as race and ethnicity.

Third, the coach might assure Karen that her silence on the incident did not reflect her indifference either to the term or its effect. The “nigger” remark reflects on the speaker and on a long, rough history of race and ethnicity in the U.S., not on its target.

As Faulkner put it, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.

And then, preferably with Karen’s agreement and understanding, I’d ask the coach to address the whole team. Not speaking to such incidents simply grants a free pass to the harmful and corrosive meanings of race in our culture. While Karen’s teenage sensibilities deserve their due, care must be taken to define the offense as the ugliness it is, and to ensure that, in the end, this particular racial brushfire sheds more light than heat.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Decisions, Decisions: Elections and the American Voter

By Angela Stanley, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

As this November brings another set of elections in the midst of a 2008 presidential race that jumped the gun many months too early, I find myself wondering how people are going to decide what candidates should get their votes. Perhaps it’s easier at the local level by voting for familiar names and faces or maybe by not even voting at all since midterm and non-presidential elections tend to see less of a turnout than presidential elections. Regarding the 2008 presidential election, however, there are so many issues and candidates that could excite or frustrate the average voter, depending on where one’s level of interest lies, that it will be fascinating to see what actually does happen next November 2008.

There is no shortage of candidates from either side of the aisle who are all jockeying for as much of our support, and the limelight, as they can get. Descriptively, there is a variety from which to choose and I’m sure many could make the case for there being substantive variation as well. For the first time ever there are viable female and minority candidates that have a real chance of successfully winning their campaigns. If the candidates alone don’t elicit warm, fuzzy feelings perhaps their take on the issues is what will be the deciding factor for individuals—and there is no shortage of those either. From Iraq, to health care, to the environment, to social justice, the political landscape is like our own personal Baskin-Robbins where the selections are bountiful and the samples are free.

Despite the novelty of this election, it’s hard not to worry that people won’t be burned out by this time next year. With candidates entering the race months before they ever had in previous years and states fighting for earlier caucus and primary dates, this is the longest presidential election season we’ve seen in a long time. If we factor in other things like incessant candidate bickering; frustration with the current Administration; Iraq; the economy; the ever changing sexist, racist, or homophobic misdeeds of the week; and anything else that may personally put a damper on one’s day it’s hard to tell whether election fatigue will settle in or if these will be motivating forces that will keep people engaged and ready to participate in the political process.

I know the studies say the average American voter doesn’t know a whole lot about politics and that if there is a turnout around 50% (or over 40% if we’re talking about midterm elections) then we’re doing pretty good, but I tend to be a little more optimistic about voters. I hope that people really aren’t apathetic, unconcerned, uncaring, or uninformed for no good reason. I tend to think people are smarter than what most scholars believe. I also think there are reasons behind the political behavior of most but academics, analysts, and strategists alike are so unconcerned with the individual that they often miss the most valuable pieces of information. My concern is that the superfluous process of political participation and politics in general will overshadow individual political will. If 2000 and 2004 are any indication, people want to be involved. We just have to hope that all of the distracting side games being played don’t divert our attention from what is really important.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Finding the Next Multinational Neighborhood

by Denis Rhoden, GIS demographic specialist for the Kirwan Institute

Recent posts on the KI blog and articles in cyberspace that I have read devote a considerable amount of attention to the complexity of racial diversity in America. Diversity, in its racial connotation, has a psychological, social and strategic lens, and is used by academics politicians, businesses, institutions and individuals. In a multinational context, we may be missing the point. I believe the efforts to include more perspectives, experiences and education, both formal and informal, is a pillar for future society. With this in mind I ask readers: how well prepared are American citizens to take up a role in a multinational society? Have years of good fortune developed a success bias among all Americans particularly the middle and upper income groups? What implications does this have for our neighborhoods’ competitiveness and quality of life in global terms moving forward?

I will not bore you with many statistics or anecdotes, but I think that these are particularly important in making the case for pursuing multinational neighbourhoods and business. In recent rankings of the world most expensive cities you won’t find New York, London or even Paris at the top–its St. Petersburg, Russia. The New York Times says that the growing flow of money to the London Stock Exchange away from the domestic exchanges is part policy and perception. Business leaders point to Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Patriot Act, and the Department of Homeland Security as evidence that “America does not welcome outsiders.” Another recent Wall Street Journal article shares the globe-changing financial power the “New Power Brokers” possess.

• At $70 a barrel, oil producers have nearly $2 billion of petrodollars to invest every day, and one-fifth and one-quarter of all petrodollars are owned by very wealthy individuals.
• The Chinese central bank, with $1.1 trillion in assets, is the world's fifth-largest asset manager.

So what does this mean to Americans? According to the Wall Street Journal, petrodollars and Chinese Central Bank assets together were sufficient to reduce U.S. long term interest rates by three-quarters of one percent. For many this may not seem like a lot, but I suspect your friends with ARM mortgages and pension funds may disagree. The lower rates of moments past, in part fuelled by foreign capital are also attributed to the “debt binge” which lifted home and stock prices in recent periods.
For the last few months I have been exploring Europe and grappling with the question of how small cities like Manchester, UK could embrace so many cultures. In many respects it has a resemblance to Columbus, OH with a diverse student population, stable economy and rediscovery of its urban core. However, I could point to very few cities in Ohio or any other American city where I felt socially and politically where multinationalism was more than tolerated, but expected.
As the US becomes one of several destinations instead of the destination, in terms of capital flow and in-migration, what are the implications for being ‘behind’ the curve on racial diversity when other nations are learning to be competent in multinational terms? Will America’s need to overcome the structural limitations of race come in enough time to cultivate a generation of leaders in business, politics and society that are multinationally conversant?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sometimes the Pen is Mightier than the Sword: How a Culture of Punishment is Destroying the Futures of Our Youth

By Daniel W. Newhart, Research Associate, and Vincent Willis, Graduate Research Associate

In the coverage following the Jena 6 incident, some have argued that black men’s embracing of violent culture contributed to the events. Despite the prevalence of such interpretations, there is a more pervasive problem than the “dysfunctional culture” of African Americans. The problem is rather the dysfunctional nature of our justice system, coupled with American’s “trigger finger” culture of punishment. This culture has led us down a path where youths are becoming increasingly criminalized, and overt racism is no longer understood as being connected to events that manifest deeply held beliefs about superiority and inferiority.

America has an addiction, one which is coupled with a strong hand that can end lives with the “stroke of a pen.” It is an addiction to punish, one that requires constant nourishment, through media, increased militarization and “protection”. Our addiction causes us to, as Victor Rios puts it, “hypercriminalize” Black and Latino males—so much so, that statistics like 33 percent of African American males have some experience with the criminal justice system before age thirty play repeatedly, rather than the fact that there are still 66 percent of those males that do not have an experience with the justice system. This is not an oversight that should be taken lightly. People’s lives and futures depend on us seeing that they are capable of positive outcomes. By allowing our individual and national consciousnesses to be usurped by these destructive thoughts, possibilities for hope and opportunity are foreclosed.

Events like the current one in Jena suggest that it is our culture, rather than a specific group, that is dysfunctional. In a world with increasing uncertainty, citizens are fearful, and the way we process our fear is to lash out harshly against people. This fear, however, is rarely acknowledged, but rather hidden by intensified punishment. Some symptoms arise, however; tennis shoes become deadly weapons, but there is no law barring the noose, a symbol that was historically a scourge on this country. We see victims and perpetrators, but avoid addressing what is causing the conflict initially. The most frightening part is our lack of ability to see the events in Jena as connected to larger issues, intertwined through a history of racism, hate, and fear. As much as we might not want to admit it, this root not only affects African Americans, but all Americans.

As Americans, we are responsible for creating this culture of fear and maintaining it. We vote positively on getting more police in schools, while shifting care of our children from teachers and administrators to those who can give them criminal records. In regard to discipline, education is becoming less about rehabilitation and learning and more about punishment. Terms like “lockdown” and “probation” are being used in our schools today. These terms were once bound to the criminal justice system. When discipline in schools becomes fused with police reports, white students are just as much targets of this punishment as black students. Most of the time white students are punished less harshly, but punished, rather than educated–in a place of education, no less!

There is hope, however. For example, through parent involvement, we can work with the police to create a new environment in the schools and provide a different type of discipline to our children which is more rehabilitative in nature. That which we created, we can also transform into something new. At the end of the day, we are all on trial. Some of us have just not been tried quite yet. In a society with such pervasive dysfunction, we are all just a “penstroke away” from having our lives ended, as Mr. Walters told the students, both white and black, of Jena during the much-discussed school assembly. Our fates are tied up with those of others, whether we would like to admit it or not.

Monday, October 15, 2007

New Terrain for School Desegregation Efforts post-Seattle/Louisville Supreme Court’s Ruling

By Stephen Menendian, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Amidst a national conversation over alarming re-segregation trends in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Seattle and Louisville school districts and reflection over the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, the terms of the debate are shifting in subtle and not-so subtle ways.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported on a school rezoning plan in Tuscaloosa, Alabama ( that would require hundreds of black students attending integrated schools in the northern part of the district to leave them for nearly all black schools in the western end of the district. To illustrate just how segregated the schools in the western zone are; out of 2,330 students, only 19 are white. The high school is 99 percent black. The plan would affect 880 students in a district of 10,000 students, or almost 10% of the entire district.

How can such a plan be justified? The superintendent and school board president claims that the rezoning was a “colorblind effort” to relieve overcrowding by “optimizing the use of the city’s 19 school buildings.”

Nevertheless, the superintendent also admitted that they sought to draw more whites back into Tuscaloosa’s schools by making them attractive to parents of 1,500 children attending private academies founded after court-ordered desegregation began in the late 1950s.

How can those claims both be true? Since when did a clear purpose to lure white students into the school district become “race-neutral”? Since when is the category “white” race-neutral? How can race not be at issue when at least part of the intent is to lure student bodies back into the public schools that left when courts ordered desegregation? Was it merely coincidence that you’d be moving hundreds of black students to virtually all black schools? How else was the school board to conclude that this plan would make Tuscaloosa’s schools more attractive to students who attended private schools to avoid integration? If the school board is purportedly rezoning to alleviate overcrowding, why would they seek to draw more students into the district?

Part of the answer to these questions can be found in the most recent jurisprudential turn in the U.S. Supreme Court. The parameters of race policy are now most clearly confined by what the Court calls “racial classifications”. Government classifications that categorize individuals on the basis of their race are now presumptively unconstitutional, regardless of their purpose. For that reason, policies that are race-conscious, but that do not draw distinctions on the basis of a racial classification (such as a policy of promoting integration) are, in the view of the court, not presumptively unconstitutional and furthermore, probably enjoy a presumption of legality.

On the flip side, where there is no racial classification, proving discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause requires a showing of intent to discriminate. Demonstrating a disparate racial impact is insufficient. A discriminatory zoning decision, for example, made at a city council meeting where residents made explicitly racist comments is presumed to be non-discriminatory unless plaintiffs could prove discriminatory intent on the part of the council members (see Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp). The sole intent of the city council may well have been to stabilize property values, and as such, with the intent of excluding poor residents from the community, they deliberately choose not to rezone the property.

At a meeting in February 2005, parents from Tuscaloosa’s two majority white elementary schools complained of overcrowding and discipline problems in the middle school their children were sent to outside of the northern enclave. These parents “urged” the superintendent to “consider sending some students being bused into northern cluster schools back to their own neighborhood.” The predictable re-segregation of Tuscaloosa’s schools that flow from the re-drawing of attendance zones may not be actionable under the Equal Protection Clause, but, ironically, No Child Left Behind may provide some measure of a remedy.

For more on this issue see “Alabama Plan Brings Out Cry of Resegregation”:

Monday, October 8, 2007

Get the Lead Out

by Rebecca Reno, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

The presence of lead in children’s toys has been a recurring news story the past few months following the recall of millions of toys by Mattel. Information has been widely available to parents in order to identify which toys pose a risk, and they are given detailed instructions regarding how to properly dispose of them.

Although the number of news stories reporting the dangers of lead has increased exponentially, they often fail to point out one critical angle of the story: lead is not a new issue nor is it one relegated simply to the arena of children’s toys. Particularly for low income families and children of color, lead is a poisonous substance that has, and continues to pose, a great risk to children’s physical health, mental development, academic potential, and subsequently their lifelong opportunities.

One of the primary contributors to this racialized and class-based issue is older, deteriorating housing stock with peeling paint. Factor in concerns over neighborhood safety and too few public spaces for children, and a situation exists where parents are afraid to let their children play outdoors. Consequently, children are relegated to spending hours inside where they are at greater risk of exposure to environmental hazards such as lead, and are more likely to develop chronic health problems including asthma. The effects of lead are many and severe and may include neurological damage, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, stunted or slowed growth, impaired hearing, and a decrease in IQ points, just to name a few. Even more disturbing is that this damage is irreversible.

When society segregates low income families and people of color into older, run-down, neglected neighborhoods we are not only limiting their access to opportunities spatially, but we are constraining them physically as well. The presence of lead in toys raised red flags and united parents concerned about the safety and wellbeing of our nations’ children. More needs to be done to raise awareness about the presence and danger of lead for marginalized populations so that the publicity this issue has generated, and the associated concern can carry over into the areas where lead has been threatening the next generation for decades.

Photo of toys by Susan Etheridge, The New York Times
Photo of deteriorating paint from the City of St. Louis Department of Health

Monday, October 1, 2007

Beyond Jena

By Michelle Alexander, Associate professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

I have been asked many times what I think about the “Jena 6,” the now infamous case involving six young, African American high school students in Jena, Louisiana who were charged as adults with second-degree murder following a schoolyard beating of a white student days after nooses were hung from a nearby tree. “Isn’t it an outrage?” my friends and acquaintances say. “Aren’t you shocked that these kids could spend the rest of their lives in prison for a schoolyard fight?”

By the tone of their questions, it is clear they expect me to share their shock and awe. But I do not. Reluctantly, I have come to expect racial injustice in the criminal justice system.

I know mothers whose sons are serving life sentences in adult prisons for extremely minor, non-violent drug offenses, such as possession of a small amount of marijuana or cocaine. I am confident they, too, are angered by the treatment of the Jena 6. But I wonder, if they wonder, where the news cameras and protesters were when their sons were sent away for life.

Thousands of young black men are sent to prison every year for minor drug offenses in this country with little protest. Most of these men and boys live in large urban areas, ghettos, in the core of formerly industrial cities of the North where factories have closed and work has largely disappeared. In these cities, more than two-thirds of young African American men are currently in prison or under the control of the criminal justice system. These youth are ushered from their decrepit, under-funded schools to brand new, high tech prisons often for crimes far less severe than those allegedly committed by the Jena 6.

Upon their release, they are stamped with a badge of inferiority, known as a criminal record, and relegated to a second-class status. Former prisoners may be denied the right to vote and legally discriminated against in access to employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. In my view, the second-class status afforded thousands of African Americans in the name of the War on Drugs is a more powerful reminder of Jim Crow than the nooses hanging from the trees in Jena. So let us pray for the Jena 6 and their families, but remember they are not alone.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Revisiting September 23, 1868: Crushing or Sowing-the-Seeds of a Liberation Quest?

By Hiram José Irizarry Osorio, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

In my college student days in the early 1990s I did not miss a Grito de Lares celebration. I understood it as part of my political awakening and education, trying to reconnect with the events that took place on September 23, 1868. While most of my colleagues enjoyed a day without classes, going to beach and mingling (perfectly understandable), I joined one or two friends and drove inland to Lares, to the Revolutionary Square. The day was packed with political discourses and musical events (morning until night). The day was divided into two distinct celebrations: morning and early afternoon vis-à-vis late afternoon and early evening. This partitioning is due to frictions within the Puerto Rican movement for independence. It has been a while since I have been to Lares or Grito de Lares celebration, but what does it mean? What does it represent?

I view it as an important historical event. It was the first time that, as a collective, a section of the inhabitants of the Puerto Rican archipelago mobilized against the imperial power of the time: Spain. The movement was crushed, but it sowed the seeds for future generations to oppose colonialism (Spain and the U.S.). As I underscored, fragmentation and frictions exist within the movement toward independence and among other different political groups in Puerto Rican society. But one thing could be stated definitively; although differences exist of how to best relate with the U.S. and how to best preserve, fulfill, and project Puerto Rican culture and identity into the future, nobody today questions the existence of a people labeled as Puerto Ricans. And that fact is owed to the men and women that courageously took the leap of faith to rebel and shout against an imperial power for its liberation. Furthermore, and constitutive of the movement crushed on September 23, 1868, was a joint effort for independence and slavery’s abolition. Thus, five years later (1873) slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico, partly due to the efforts of these revolutionaries.

Nevertheless, the struggle is not over. The liberation quest is on the march and it should mean something deeper than mere nationalism or independence for independence sake. Therefore, I close this entry with a quote from Franz Fanon:

“A bourgeoisie that has only nationalism to feed the people fails in its mission and inevitably gets tangled up in a series of trials and tribulations. If nationalism is not explained, enriched, and deepened, if it does not very quickly turn into a social and political consciousness, into humanism, then it leads to a dead end. A bourgeois leadership of the underdeveloped countries confines the national consciousness to a sterile formalism. Only the massive commitment by men and women to judicious and productive tasks gives form and substance to this consciousness. It is then that flags and government buildings cease to be the symbols of the nation. The nation deserts the false glitter of the capital and takes refuge in the interior where it receives life and energy. The living expression of the nation is the collective consciousness in motion of the entire people. It is the enlightened and coherent praxis of the men and women. The collective forging of a destiny implies undertaking responsibility on a truly historical scale. Otherwise there is anarchy, repression, the emergence of tribalized parties and federalism, etc. if the national government wants to be national it must govern by the people and for the people, for the disinherited and by the disinherited. No leader, whatever his worth, can replace the will of the people, and the national government, before concerning itself with international prestige, must first restore dignity to all citizens, furnish their minds, fill their eyes with human things and develop a human landscape for the sake of its enlightened and sovereign inhabitants.”

What do you think?

The True Meaning of Racial Integration, Then and Now

By Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute

On Monday, September 23, 1957, more than 1,000 white residents of Little Rock, Arkansas gathered in front of Little Rock Central High School and screamed their rage at the nine children who would soon become its first black students. Police secreted the nine into the building through a side entrance, but the threat of a riot later compelled the students to flee.

What was the meaning of racial integration that provoked these white citizens of Little Rock to such a hateful response?

Much has changed. Today, the Little Rock Nine are widely hailed as heroes of the civil rights movement their courage helped catalyze. Whereas in 1956 only two in ten white Southerners with a high school degree supported school integration in principle, by 1986 nine in ten did. This is good news.

Sadly, the distinction between now and then fades as we move from questions of principle to practice.

Most black and Latino students today attend majority-black and majority-Latino schools, respectively. In many large metropolitan areas like Cleveland, New York, Detroit, and Chicago, large majorities of nonwhites or whites would have to change neighborhoods for the groups to be equally distributed across the region.

What, then, is the meaning of racial integration for us today?

Many of the answers to that question are well-known, even if we hesitate to acknowledge them. Many whites fear that an influx of minorities will precipitate declines in property values; school overcrowding and deterioration; increases in crime, noise, and untidiness; and so on. Such fears have led many whites to avoid, or leave, neighborhoods and schools perceived to be integrated or integrating.

In turn, anticipated and actual hostility from their would-be neighbors can leave racial and ethnic minority group members reluctant to enter neighborhoods and schools in which whites comprise large majorities.

We cannot and should not discount these concerns. But we must recognize that the skepticism expressed by many attaches only to the very thin expression of integration typically found in some neighborhoods, workplaces and schools. There is an alternative vision of what integration might mean. We might call this vision “true integration.”

In the context of our schools, true integration moves beyond desegregation – beyond removing legal barriers and merely facial alterations in the racial make-up of schools – to implementing the founding ideals of this country.

Rather than erasing racial and ethnic differences, true integration legitimizes the historical, intellectual, and cultural contributions of all groups. It recognizes that identities are constantly evolving and need to be embraced, rather than threatened. Truly integrated schools equip students with the tools they need to participate in our increasingly pluralistic democracy. True integration celebrates the very diversity that segregation tries to contain and assimilation tries to negate.

Something akin to this vision of integration is well worth the struggle.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The 11th Hour, No end in sight, and El cantante

by Hiram José Irizarry Osorio, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Is there any commonality among these three films besides the fact that the author of this blog entry recently watched them? Many people have watched these films and among those, many have written reviews praising or criticizing these films. I think this business of writing reviews is a worthwhile endeavor, but not the one I undertake here. My purpose is to underscore, however limited, salient points that came to my mind when (and after) watching these films.

The first two films (The 11th Hour and No End in Sight) would seem more relevant to U.S. audiences because they deal with world-wide issues that need to be addressed. Although this is true, I would underscore that these are issues that should concern people beyond the U.S. This is somewhat obvious regarding The 11th Hour, which underscores the human causes of change in our environment (or as it is emphasized throughout the film, our home). The topic addressed in No End in Sight is the latest Iraq war and its mismanagement from the get-go until the present. The people interviewed in this film were not “outsiders”, but individuals involved with the current administration that became disenchanted and disillusioned by how the current Bush administration handled (handles) the enterprise of going to war and its aftermath.

In regard to El Cantante, the appeal is more personal being a Puerto Rican and seeing in the big screen homage being paid to one of the great salsa singers: Héctor Lavoe. Many people have criticized this film for focusing too much on Mr. Lavoe’s drug use, others have underscored that there was not enough character development for people to get to know the story of Héctor Lavoe. These are all pertinent criticisms; however, they depend on how we choose to watch or pay attention to in the film.

I am not presuming to know what was in the mind of those that put the film together, but what I can state is how I interpreted this film. I think that although Mr. Lavoe and his wife’s life could be interesting, the most important issue is what they represented-the reality of Puerto Ricans after mid-20th century. They represented that cleavage in Puerto Rican society between “the real” Puerto Ricans (e.g., represented by Héctor Lavoe) and those diasporic Puerto Ricans (e.g., Mr. Lavoe’s wife and Willie Colón). The film also underscored the reality of those Puerto Ricans that migrated to New York City looking for a better life. Mr. Lavoe made it (or did he?), but what about thousands of others (like his brother) that get lost within the marginalizing tentacles of U.S. society? Thus, I think that this film is worthwhile to watch for the statement it makes within U.S. mainstream about those that have been labeled as Puerto Ricans and their history.

Hence, what do these three films have in common? I would venture to state, the fight for survival of the human species at different levels and scenarios: global environment (The 11th Hour), national-global war (No End in Sight), and colonial reality (and its struggle) within the streets of the U.S (El Cantante). What do you think?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Which “team” are you on?

by Annette J. Johnson, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Over the last several months I have been analyzing the speeches, debates and statements of the Presidential Candidates, as well as their political party on how they “Talk about Race”. As I am reading through the speeches, debates and looking at the Republican and Democratic websites, several themes started to stick out. These themes included “unity” and the “inclusion of all Americans”. Listed below are a couple of excerpts from statements made by both political parties.

“The leadership of President George W. Bush provides an opportunity for us to work together and better include everyone of all backgrounds in the Republican Party.”

“The Democratic Party is committed to keeping our nation safe and expanding opportunity for every American. That commitment is reflected in an agenda that emphasizes the security of our nation, strong economic growth, affordable health care for all Americans, retirement security, honest government, and civil rights.”

Across the United States, there are many “naïve” voters like myself who are suddenly thrown into the world of politics due to the upcoming elections. From the surface, both the Democratic and Republican parties look as though they are committed to these themes of “unity” and “inclusion”. To show their commitment, both parties have constructed “teams” based on race, ethnicity, gender and ect. to deal with issues affecting each group. They have the African American team, Catholic team, Entrepreneur team, Faith/Values team, Hispanic team, Senior’s team, Youth team, Women’s team, Asian/Pacific Islander team, Disability team and the Native American team. I started to get a mental picture of the different teams in my head. I became disgusted because to me both parties were starting to resemble our school districts and neighborhoods- SEGREGATED.

I fail to understand why we need different “teams” to “expand opportunity for EVERY AMERICAN” and if we are going to have “teams” why do we not have teams that represent EVERY AMERICAN. On neither website, did I find a Muslim team or Somali team and of course there are many more groups who have not been represented. What team should they join? Lets say that you’re an African American woman, should you choose the African American team or the Women’s team? If the political parties and their candidates are really concerned with EVERY AMERICAN, shouldn’t we have an American team which represents America’s diversity? It is unclear to me how we can “join” together to “expand opportunity for EVERY AMERICAN, when the political parties do not give us an opportunity to “join” together by separating us into “teams”. Furthermore, like many other areas of our life, they have once again found a way to categorize and separate us into groups. It does not surprise me that our state and local institutions can not figure out how to desegregate our schools and neighborhoods when their mentors can not figure out how to desegregate their political parties.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Structural Racism: Killing Black Youth

by Charles Patton, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Baltimore, MD: Anna Ditkoff of reported, “Taavon Mitchell, a 27-year-old African-American man, [was found] lying on the sidewalk … He had been shot several times in the head and chest.” He died at 11:36 p.m. “Two hours later and just two blocks away, Joseph Bryant, a 29-year-old African-American man, was shot in the chest. He died half an hour later.” Around the same time the following night, “Troy Richardson, a 30-year-old African-American man, was shot repeatedly with a high-powered weapon in the middle of the street. He died 30 minutes after police found him. The weekend brought another killing. Police found Davon McCargo, a 20-year-old African-American man, lying on the ground … shot in the head and chest.” He would die later that night. This was just a normal week in Baltimore. The week prior brought twice as many murders, all African American men, and 9 months into 2007 there have been nearly 200 murders. That’s approximately 5 murders per week.

This phenomenon is not unique to Baltimore. According Department of Justice, in 2005 blacks comprised of nearly half of America’s murder victims. However, they only comprise of 13 percent of the nation’s population.

Limiting the statistical break down to males between the ages of 17 and 29, the African American percentage increases to slightly more than half of the murder victims in this country. Ninety-three percent of blacks were killed by someone of their own race and half of them were killed in urban metropolises.

Black youth are being killed on the inner city streets of America. But who is at fault? We cannot discount the fault of the blacks that actually pull the trigger but this begs the question why are they pulling the trigger so often. Is it simply a pathological culture? If so, how did this culture become pathological?

This phenomenon has been occurring for decades. A task force in Illinois will finally be developed to address this issue, along with many others for black males, and construct strategies to improve their lives. It is the first of its kind. However, it is unclear where they will target their energy and resources. One dynamic of this epidemic that must be addressed is segregation. As stated earlier, half of these African American males are being murdered in urban metropolises.

There are 23 hypersegregated cities in the United States. Twenty-one of these cities are predominantly black and serve as homes to a large percentage of the African American community. Many of these cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, etc. have a similar story. For the sake of space constraints, simply stated the Great Migration funneled blacks from the South into the most dilapidated areas of northern metropolises. This was followed by white flight and restrictive covenants that prevented black entry into white neighborhoods. The G.I. bill simultaneously led to mass white suburbanization and inner city disinvestment. The removal of these jobs submerged black urbanites even further into poverty. The impoverished state of black America has been sustained through redlining, racial steering, local zoning laws, and a lack of black wealth that was established and perpetuated through slavery, Jim Crow, institutional employment discrimination, etc. William Julius Wilson argued that those who are “truly disadvantaged” are increasingly left behind when work disappears. Furthermore, Robert Merton stated that those whose access to upward mobility is hindered are more likely to choose deviant paths to achieve mobility. Thus, disinvesting from the urban core not only decreased job opportunities but it increased the motivation to commit crime in these neighborhoods. Some may view this as a pathological culture. While to others it is simply the result of structural racism: a group with limited resources trying to survive and killing each other in the process.

Strategies to reinvest in these communities and give blacks opportunities to relocate to locations with more occupational opportunities should be explored to halt the killing of black youth. An increased tax base would accompany the rejuvenation of black communities, which would improve local schools and give black students the skills necessary to compete for these jobs as well as others, alleviating the need to turn to a life of crime. Relocation programs would accomplish this same goal for black youth, which has been proven with the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program in Chicago. While this is not a cure-all, it would be a step in the right direction.

Discriminating between two Definitions of Discrimination

by Craig Ratchford, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

As the summer internship program comes to an end this week, I find it fitting to use my blog entry to discuss my experience this summer as a relative outsider to the Kirwan Institute’s mission. As my educational experience is limited to a degree in geography (though much of my studies focused on socioeconomic/political inequality and the racialization of space), I’ve had significantly less exposure to the plethora of racial academics/philosophy than some of my fellow interns, let alone the permanent staff. Therefore, I think I have a perspective unique in the office as a relative newcomer to the arena. I’d like to use this as an opportunity to discuss my personally surprising reaction to the word ‘discrimination.’

I, as everyone else, have grown up with the word. Its meaning was obvious to me since early youth: discrimination was the differential treatment of someone due to a certain characteristic; racial discrimination was racism. This understanding persisted through a fairly critical college curriculum. However, as I was exposed to different materials throughout this summer, I quickly realized something that had never occurred to me, which was excruciatingly obvious: racial discrimination was different from prejudice. I felt a little silly—in addition to offended—when I came across Justice Roberts’ statement that “the way to end racial discrimination is to stop discriminating by race.”

The contradiction in this statement represented my own inability to discriminate between two meanings given to the word discrimination. To be specific:

Discrimination—the power of making fine distinctions; discriminating judgment
Discrimination—treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit.

It seems to me that the latter is an extrapolation of the former, moving beyond a mere recognition of difference to a value judgment thereof. Justice Roberts (as I’m sure my audience understands) had advised that we stop making fine distinctions of race as the way to end unfair treatment of different races—a wonderful solution in a vacuum. But this snide (and sly) use of rhetoric not only ignores the grounding factors and the reality of structural/unconscious racism, he actually manages to switch the root of the problem away from structural racism and history toward those fighting to acknowledge the racially unequal consequences of these factors.

I think it pertinent to expand upon Justice Roberts, taking advantage of this dual definition of discrimination. To explain, I draw upon the blog entry posted by Samir Gambhir earlier this summer:

"(My friend) had represented the African American population in the map with the color black and the white population with the color white. He was concerned that he might be perceived as a racist...My friend was addressing this issue superficially. I know him well enough to say that he has no racist agenda, overt or covert, but it brings out the sensitivity of the issue. It seems that people are scared of being perceived as a racist, thus portraying oneself as being race-neutral is an absolute must. It makes me wonder if people are only trying to deal with the issue superficially or if the heightened awareness around this issue is transforming their beliefs and attitudes deep within?”

I’m not sure that a majority of people understand and realize the difference between the definitions of discrimination. For many people, it has become almost taboo to mention race for fear of appearing to be a racist—after all, they’d be ‘discriminating,’ right? Ignoring the existence of racial distinction seems like a much safer alternative. If you don’t see a difference, how can you be ‘making preferential treatment based on group status’?

Of course, failing to ‘recognize distinction’ automatically impedes every action taken to remedy the causes and reality of the concrete racial material gap of contemporary times. I believe that reconciling these two definitions (between making distinctions and bringing judgment) will make it easier for us to understand, accept, and discuss these issues with openness rather than self-consciousness.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Understanding the Racial Impacts of the Foreclosure Crisis

by Jason Reece, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

The news has been saturated with coverage of the recent crisis in foreclosures and the housing “slump” that is impacting the nation. Unfortunately little of this coverage has looked at the racial and spatial dimensions of the foreclosure problem. Housing has long been a critical plank of the civil rights platform and will continue to be crucial in promoting equality. Housing is important in many ways outside of merely providing shelter; housing acts as a gateway to opportunity, while homeownership facilitates wealth building and provides financial stability. Many people of color have been denied access to the benefits of fair housing. Although progress has been made in recent decades in improving homeownership for people of color, the foreclosure phenomenon gripping the nation today may work to offset and undermine these gains.

Much of the foreclosure issues are fueled by predatory lending practices and non-traditional mortgages offered to families, with little thought of their ability to maintain the financial burden of the mortgages if the housing market changes. Teaser mortgages, sub prime loans and other adjustable rate mortgages have placed many homeowners on the edge of an economic precipice, with even the slightest change in the market or their financial standing pushing them into foreclosure. An estimated 2 million foreclosures are expected in the next two years due to these factors. If current trends continue a disproportionate share of these foreclosures will occur in urban communities of color. The foreclosure challenge impacts everyone, even those not immediately at risk for foreclosure, bringing additional hardship to all homeowners with lending institutions tightening lending guidelines, interest rates rising and homeowners in neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates experiencing a decline in their property values due to nearby vacant properties.

How can we address this new housing challenge? The answer to this question remains unclear at this stage, but certain steps can help offset this trend. Aggressive land banking and community development policies are needed to help inner city neighborhoods burdened with high foreclosure rates. Some type of direct assistance and counseling must be provided for families on the brink of foreclosure, and policies must be enacted to stem future predatory lending practices in urban communities of color. The housing market is always evolving and housing advocates must adapt to meet new challenges; a rapid and comprehensive response is needed.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Victims of Circumstance

by Keya C. Crenshaw, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

“They were just victims of circumstance.” That seems to be the general opinion of the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team that was called a bunch of ‘Nappy headed tattooed ho’s’ by morning radio-host Don Imus in April of this year. The circumstance here is of course being a Black woman in America. And not only that—being a Black woman in America that plays sports. I remember when Venus and Serena Williams faced similar racist attitudes when they were called ‘animals’ by radio broadcaster Sid Rosenberg (who, oddly enough worked on Imus’ show). Rosenberg also said ‘…they have a better chance of appearing nude in National Geographic as opposed to Playboy.” Rosenberg was promptly fired, but soon rehired by Imus and WFAN-AM radio in New York City because, as Imus stated, “… [Rosenberg] wasn't expressing any deep-held racist views about Black people being an inferior species." So, apparently, those of us in academia and the social justice sector (and otherwise) have been wrong for years; using blatantly offensive racial and gender remarks does not make one sexist OR racist…you’re merely expressing an opinion…

I’m sure some of you are reading this and wondering why I’m still talking about “yesterday’s news”. But, it’s not just yesterday’s news. It’s yesterday, today, and tomorrow if people don’t stand up and take a stance against these kinds of discriminatory remarks and practices; once we stop fighting for change and equal justice, there will be no hope for the co-existence of future generations.

I bring up these most unfortunate tragedies for many reasons, but mostly because it has just been announced that WABC radio is in talks with Mr. Imus about a possible comeback, and Kia Vaughn, one of the Rutgers team members recently filed a lawsuit against Don Imus citing defamation of character and slander. Honestly, I was a bit shocked when I read she had filed a suit, especially this late in the game. It saddened me at first because I was worried about her image; that others would think she was just another “angry Black woman” in search of revenge. The images of Black women have been distorted throughout history. For example, Black women are usually cast as the loving mammies, “welfare queens”, drug addicts, or hypersexual eroticized beings in cultural imagery. This has been shown in films such as Imitation of Life, Losing Isaiah and Monster’s Ball. Black women have not had much help from their Black male counterparts. For example, many rappers call Black women derogatory names in their music lyrics like in Ludacris’s song “Move B*tch” or “Area Codes” in which he refers to the numerous “ho’s” he has around the world. Another example would be the Black men that openly admit that they will not date Black women because they are too feisty, indignant, and angry. Black women have had to fight long and hard against these stereotypes to be treated with respect.

This gives Kia Vaughn all the more reason to file suit against Don Imus; by disrespecting the women, he illustrated some of the ignorance and bigotry still prevalent in today’s society. Not only Kia, but her teammates as well (if they personally deem it necessary) should sue Imus for his comments.

The timing of Kia’s lawsuit is considered unfortunate by some because they feel it is too late for her to claim any damages (for lack of a better phrase). Timing should not be on trial here; the fact that someone could get away with such derogatory comments in the year 2007 is what should be further discussed. If lawsuits as Kia’s are not filed, comments like Imus’s will only continue to happen and people like Imus will still be in control of our media. So, the question is, how do we prevent [her] story from repeating itself.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Racial Underpinnings of the War on Drugs

By Mark Verhoff, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

There is a tendency in America’s public discourse to avoid a detailed treatment of the complications of the War on Drugs. In making a handful of known drugs illegal (cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, in particular), the nation has undergone a whitewashing of history and seen its law enforcement divisions undergo an intense process of militarization. Despite this, the hyper-racialized outcomes of the Drug War (a disproportionate representation of minorities as victims of neighborhood crime and severe drug-crime sentencing) and its effects on the urban complex are plain to see. The consistent historical themes of racism and the militarization of oppression are clearly visible in relation to illegalization of the coca plant, and similar drugs.

The process of demonizing the drug and marginalizing its users was not instantaneous or accidental, but rather gradual, intentional, and intensely racist. The process of racial discrimination through drug prohibition can be divided into roughly two time periods. In the earlier period, both cocaine and marijuana use had been historically associated with Mexicans and the greater Latino community. While the coca plant has a long history of social and utilitarian use for life high in the Andes Mountains, the 19th century isolation of the Cocaine alkaloid created a highly recreational concentrated preparation. Cocaine and marijuana’s risks to society were, due to the demographics of their use, therefore phrased in terms of risks to white society, and the “lazy” and “loco” Mexican was the frightening mascot of uncontrollable drug use. Similarly, cocaine and marijuana were said to be used by black men shortly before reaching an uncontrollable state and victimizing white women.

In the later period, the final quarter of the 20th century, the racial effects of demonizing and marginalizing some drugs and their users had matured. With the War on Drugs officially declared, America’s urban cores have become veritable war zones where drug profits help determine gang territories, and adjacent police departments are locked in a never ending process of using drug arrests to secure state and federal grants for increasing militarization (increased weaponry, defense, intelligence capabilities, etc.) of their departments. In a vicious cycle, increasingly segregated black “ghettos” and impoverished areas see increasing rates of drug use and increasing rates of poverty and drug related crime. In response, law enforcement vies for ever more oppressive means to fight the drug war. The increasing globalization of the drug trade (itself an international and racial issue, with nearly all cocaine coming from Colombia and nearly all heroin coming from Afghanistan, and both nations under siege by white America) drives the price of drugs down, and organized cartels and their urban counterparts assure a steady supply, and conversely, assures a steady intensification of law enforcement activities.

In a nation where the racial divide is becoming more geographically pronounced, especially in the urban-suburban complex, the unbelievably racist effects of the drug war can no longer be ignored. This is a nation where baking soda, the only difference between powder cocaine and crack (freebase) cocaine, increases punitive measures in some cases by over double. Powder cocaine is a predominately white and suburban drug, while crack cocaine (the exact same chemical, but in an oily, rocky form) is a predominately “black” and “ghetto” drug. The introduction of this type of disparate sentencing and the rapid militarization of urban police forces in the second age of racism and drugs, beginning in and through the 1980s and 1990s, has rapidly accelerated the destruction and oppression of minority urban enclaves and must be reversed and rectified immediately. Please visit to help.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Confronting U.S. Racial Categories: Somalis in Columbus, OH

by Nahla al-Huraibi, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

I am conducting in-depth interviews with Somali immigrants in Columbus, Ohio to examine gender impacts on the Somali Muslim family integration patterns into the Anglo-Judeo-Christian American mainstream. In regard to the Somalis' perception of racism in American society, one of the main themes that reoccur in the participants' narratives is the cultural shock they experience when confronting the new classification systems in the host society. These systems are loaded with hegemonic meanings that situate non-whites and immigrants in a subordinate identity. Being both non-white and immigrants, Somalis are struggling to respond to negative stigmas associated with both identities in the U.S.

Many Somali immigrants have expressed their confusion at finding that on a daily basis their skin color may determine how many white Americans treat them. Back home, Somalis’ system of differentiation is totally different than how race is defined in the U.S. In their homeland, the system of differentiation is a cultural and social one that is based on tribalism, in which some tribes or clans are seen as higher than others due to their occupations or social behavior, as opposed to physical features like skin-color. As one of my female participants stated:

We were brought up in cultures where we are not used to racism; we have never been exposed to racism before we came here, and even now unless it is blatant and vulgar, you don't recognize it, because you have never been exposed to it, you don't know the symptoms of racism; you don't know how to interpret it; you don't know what it has to do with you as a person, or with your color, or with what you are wearing (referring to the hijab; Muslim women's headscarf). Also, because we came from a culture, where Somalis no matter how poor they are…they don't think anybody can look down at them. Somalis are very proud, but it is not false pride; it is you recognize my humanity, I recognize yours. So, now they are shocked when they come to the American shores and they are filling the entrance forms and people are classified along racial lines. They say, what is this? This is the first time in our lives we are asked what race you are. That confuses them, because you know Somalis are a mixture; they are Asians, they are Africans. There are so many intermarriages in the Somali society between Africans, Yemenis, Omanis, and Indians. Race has never been relevant to them.

In light of the notion that identity is "context-dependent", two points need to be discussed:

• Can the Somalis' positive self-definition survive in the American racialized context where the color-based system of classification is a primary source of social stratification?
• Can the Somali immigrants participate in redefining the meaning of racial categories in the U.S. away from the normative black-white dichotomy to a situation of multiple and hybrid identity categories? Will they also contribute in transforming the meaning of blackness from skin-color categories to culturally and nationality-based ones? (Kusow, 2006)

Thanks for your input, your comments will help me in my data analysis!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

‘Barack Obama for President!’ The Representation of Hope and Tragedy in the United States

By Vincent Willis, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

It is November 5, 2008 and news stations, such as Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, report that Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United Sates. Never before in American history has the President been anything but a white male. Most blacks are ecstatic while other ethnic groups are concerned. The truth is nobody can say what this means.

There has been a resounding question of whether Obama is “Black enough.” The real question is assessing with whom a young African American senator is allied with and how he plans to cut across different ethnic and economic groups in order to create an agenda that will be embraced by all Americans. Moreover, what would his victory symbolize? Most importantly, how would his victory impact race relations in the United States?

While Barack Obama’s candidacy may represent hope for a new America, it also has the potential to have a profound impact on race relations. Each racial group has its own agenda and struggles and no group wants to be left out of the political process. It is nearly impossible to improve race relations in America without deconstructing and/or creating a new system. The potential impacts on race relations come about when we consider the available options. Option 1 involves a massive redistribution of access to the national governing system. Traditionally excluded groups will have the opportunity to be included in the decision making process, while the traditional gatekeepers of the decision-making process will incur a loss of power and influence. Option 2 involves an attempt to centralize power and influence by majority decision makers and resistance by minority groups. Here majority whites will attempt to hoard power since they are faced with the possibility that their position of privilege might end. In either a proactive strategy or as a response to the actions of the majority, minority groups will engage in conflict with the majority in an attempt to secure their own power and create a new system of American order. Option 3 would involve a temporary truce where all parties would retain their positions and the status quo of the American governing system remains unscathed.

Time has moved forward. President Obama has occupied the Oval Office. He has put together his Cabinet and begun to work on his agenda for a better America. When he entered office the divide between the haves and have-nots was steadily rising. Poor children, black and brown, were suffering from the failed promises of No Child Left Behind. Blacks and Latinos were steadily being incarcerated at record numbers. Nevertheless, on Obama’s website, these issues are not at the top of his list, but in the middle. How can anyone, Obama, Clinton, or Richardson, symbolize a new America using the same old American system? Politics is no different than anything else meaning if you always do what you have always done, you always get what you have always got. Therefore, brand new ideas are needed to improve race relations in America. The next president must be able to lead the citizens of America into a different pathway of thinking. He or she must illustrate that “leveling the playing field” can only benefit America, as opposed to running the “political rat race” of which we are all victims. Thus the so-called “tragedy” arises when we consider that a sure destruction of racialized American traditions is the only way to assure the emergence of American values.

Friday, August 3, 2007


By Samir Gambhir, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

A friend of mine who is white, works in the field of the social sciences and is a GIS professional, confided in me about a big ‘mistake’ he made while displaying race data in a map. He had represented the African American population in the map with the color black and the white population with the color white. He was concerned that he might be perceived as a racist.

This led me to think of the many ways racism plays out in this country. How hypocritical is it to refer to African Americans as ‘Blacks’, but have reservations on representing data likewise? What is the bigger question here – being a racist or being perceived as one?

For decades, issues of race and racism have dominated the social, judicial, and executive arena in this country. The general public, advocates, scholars, researchers and lawmakers have engaged themselves in these discussions, but serious issues still remain to be resolved; there are simmering prejudices still lingering in the subconscious minds of people. Though overt racism has subsided with increased awareness and legal controls, covert racism exists and manifests itself in different forms.

My friend was addressing this issue superficially. I know him well enough to say that he has no racist agenda, overt or covert, but it brings out the sensitivity of the issue. It seems that people are scared of being perceived as a racist, thus portraying oneself as being race-neutral is an absolute must. It makes me wonder if people are only trying to deal with the issue superficially or if the heightened awareness around this issue is transforming their beliefs and attitudes deep within?

No Negroes or Dogs Allowed

By Jason Perkins, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

“We don’t have many problems with our blacks.” This quote is taken from a white resident of Jena, Louisiana following the widespread media coverage of the Jena Six. This quote may seem innocuous to some but for others, me included, it stirs up deep feelings of indignation. This quote in part implies white ownership or control of blacks while simultaneously making clear that large segments of white America view any attempt African Americans make to resist white hegemony as a problem. In other words, even in the twentieth-first century, there is a pervasive attitude within a significant portion of the white community that whites are entitled to control every facet of African American life. Perhaps most shameful is that this quote is reminiscent of earlier historical atrocities including chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Over the past year significant media attention has swept through the small, rural, and still mostly segregated central Louisiana city of Jena. The spotlight stems from a fight which occurred on Monday, December 4, 2006 at Jena High School between a group of African American males and a white male schoolmate who allegedly hurled racial taunts including chants of “nigger” at the youths. Following the brawl, the white student believed to have made the racial remarks was taken to a local hospital treated, released, and reportedly attended a party that same night. Conversely, the Jena Police Department arrested and charged the six young black men who range in age from fifteen to eighteen with second degree attempted murder. Shortly thereafter, the LaSalle Parish School Board expelled them. As we speak, the youths await trial with the above listed charge carrying up to twenty years. Last month, an all-white jury convicted Robert Bailey, 17, who has been incarcerated since December, of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. He could face up to twenty-two years in prison. This fight was not an isolated incident, but rather the culmination of a series of racial incidents which began several months earlier in September.

Although this case has garnered local, underground, and international attention, mainstream media coverage pales in comparison to previous cases in which whites are considered the protagonists (e.g., Men’s Duke Lacrosse team). Lest we think no black news story is worthy of national media coverage, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick recently made headlines for his alleged involvement in illegal dog fighting this past summer. Interestingly, many of the same champions of animal rights who are currently protesting Vick are not in protest of the Louisiana (in)justice system’s inhumanely despicable treatment of African Americans. It is a sad commentary on a country in which a significant segment of its populace holds the treatment of animals in higher regards than its citizens. This does not suggest that I condone animal cruelty, but rather I see irony in the outrage over the mistreatment of animals when six young men with promise are not deemed worthy of similar entitlement.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

109th Anniversary of U.S. Puerto Rican Colonialism

By Hiram José Irizarry Osorio, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

On July 25, 1898 the U.S. armed forces landed on the Bay of Guánica at the outbreak of The Spanish-American War; the landing represented a military invasion of Puerto Rico by the U.S. On that day Puerto Rican coloniality started a metropolis transition: from Spain’s Empire to the U.S. young Empire in formation.

Why is it relevant to remember this day? Why should non-Puerto Ricans care about this day? Does it have any relevant repercussions beyond the confines of the Puerto Rican archipelago? Does this have anything to do with race?

The honest answer to the first three queries is that it depends. It depends on your implicit or explicit view of life and reality as hierarchical or not. Nevertheless, I would venture to say that it has everything to do with race (i.e., race perceived and defined as an othering process; in which this othering is hierarchical and containing a valuing system of what and who is worth it). The reason I state that the Puerto Rican situation has everything to do with race (i.e., as an othering process) is because in a colonial situation, by definition, there is a hierarchical relationship between the colonizer and the colonized (as eloquently theorized, among others, by Franz Fanon). With this statement I am not arguing that there is lack of internal racial hierarchies in Puerto Rico.

It also matters because Puerto Rico remains a colony of the U.S. in an era where supposedly colonies are extinct. It matters because Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans by international standards are part of the U.S.; however, people from the U.S. tend to have only a vague idea of what Puerto Rico is and who Puerto Ricans are, and how the U.S. ended up with this territorial possession. Furthermore, there tends to be a lack of knowledge of the different changes that the U.S.-Puerto Rico political relationship has experienced from 1898 to the present. My point is not to blame the U.S. population in general, but both the U.S. and Puerto Rican leadership and elites for the lack of knowledge and understanding they have engendered. This has created a stasis on the decolonization process of Puerto Rico, manufacturing a limbo identity for Puerto Ricans which has power, wealth, and status repercussions (see Jorge Duany’s The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States, among other issues, discussion of the 1940s and 1950s mass migratory deal among U.S. and Puerto Rican elites; these “encouraged” migrants came from the marginalized class).

Hence, my call today is for far more than remembrance for remembrance sake. My call is first to inform ourselves of a plethora of situations that might remain hidden unless those who have been marginalized are not given a voice, a space to become recognized. Because from that recognition, from that interest, we complete (or help complete) our day-to-day truncated humanity and by doing so race (as a hierarchical othering) might start to be transcended unto something else, unto something different. And who knows, we might even achieve a democratic society, we might even envision in practice and reality that beloved community…

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Because You’re Worth It (When You’re White)

By Dhriti Pandhi, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

It was recently revealed that cosmetics giant L’Oreal employed a blatantly racist recruiting strategy as part of its marketing campaign in 2000. The company was promoting Garnier shampoos in France, and, as part of its hiring practices, sought women promoters who were between the ages of 18 to 22, size 10-14, and “BBR” – bleu, blanc, et rouge (blue, white, and red; the colors of the French flag). In France, BBR is a not-so-secret term used by employers to mean white people of French descent, not Africans, Asians, or people of a mixed-race background.

While many groups retaliated against L’Oreal, including France’s SOS Racisme, a long road lies ahead for France and its employers to curb their racist practices. In fact, surveys suggest that 3 out of 4 employers prefer white workers. Although France is not known for being a completely integrated society (to say the least), the L’Oreal episode conjures questions of how pop culture in general is fighting against (or standing idly beside) racism. France is historically known for its avant garde art, fashion, and literature, yet it has one of the worst track records in the world when it comes to being a racially progressive society.

Much like in France, both pop culture in the U.S. and our attempts at racial integration have been regressive. TV shows like Survivor have had teams defined by race, dating shows are racially homogeneous except for the “token” black or white person, and very rarely do we see mixed families or non-white families on prime time television. Watching Nick-at-Nite reruns of television shows from decades ago like “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” where racial and other political topics are the central themes of episodes, ironically doesn’t make me think “can you believe those were actually problems back then” but rather “today’s shows need a similar racial commentary.” Perhaps the ultimate question is whether [pop] culture truly fights against society’s faults or if it simply exists to mirror them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Critical U.S. racial history by a Danish director: “Manderlay”

By Yusuf Sarfati, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Last Friday I watched with some friends “Manderlay”, a movie written and directed by the controversial Danish director Lars von Tier. The movie tries to tackle many intriguing questions around the issue of race, by telling the story of a plantation in Alabama in 1933, where slavery is still practiced despite the fact that the institution had been abolished 70 years ago.
Grace, the naïve, White, idealistic American, who is the daughter of a powerful gangster arrives to the plantation, where “slaves” are ruled by Mam’s Law that uses subtle psychological mechanisms to coerce the black residents of the plantation to be subservient in every aspect of life. Full with idealism and power (thanks to his father’s gangsters), she abolishes slavery and Mam’s Law. Next she tries to liberate the minds and the behavior of the slaves in that plantation by creating a democratically self-governed commune. In the movie there are a plethora of social and racial issues. The imposition of democratic rule from the top; the flaws and possible coercion of conceiving majority rule as democratic practice; sexualization of Black male body in the character of Timothy (played by Isaach De Bankolé); victims’ internalization of the oppressors’ worldview are some of the themes that you encounter in the movie.
Yet to me, the message conveyed in the final moments of “Manderlay” was the most mind-boggling statement. At the end of the story, it appears that the ex-slaves choose (by unanimous vote) to live in slavery (under Grace’s mastership in this case) rather than going out to the “free” U.S (outside the plantation), since the life “out there” is much more discriminatory and restrictive.
On the one hand this statement is positive, since the movie acknowledges (at least in the photo slide show at the end) that the era in U.S. history after the Reconstruction (1876-1950) was full of discriminatory practices like the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, the reemergence of Black codes, the creation of sundown towns, the segregation of all public facilities, and the use of intimidation, coercion and lynching against Blacks. Hence this statement debunks the linear progressive reading of U.S history on racial relations that is usually told in the mainstream books. So, it is possible that the writer/director wants to underscore this fact and therefore made the ex-slaves choose “slavery” over this discriminatory, coercive, humiliating reality. He might want to tell us that life after Reconstruction was so awful for U.S. Blacks that it might be compared to (even might be worst than) slavery.
On the other hand, there is still something very troubling about this pessimistic statement. I think it depicts the Black residents of Manderlay devoid of any individual agency to bring social or political change. Obviously we know that this has been historically not correct, at least not so in the U.S. Even in the most oppressive situations, there has been resistance or efforts for change among the victims of oppression. For instance, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States of America” documents very cogently the resistance that Blacks, indentured servants, Indians, and poor people have showed against acts of oppression since 16th century.
Anyway, no matter what you will think about the movie, I am sure Manderlay will provoke a lot of questions.