Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Message to Black Hollywood

By Charles Patton, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

After the election of Barack Obama, Will Smith responded on The Oprah Winfrey Show by stating that “The history of African-Americans is such that you want to be a part of America, but we've been rejected so much it's hard to take the ownership and take responsibility for ourselves and this country. It was like, at that second, at that moment, all of our excuses were gone.” Cartoonist Kevin Moore depicted this moment of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Moore then shows Smith telling a baby born into poverty, a wrongfully convicted victim of police violence, victims of job, wage, and lending discrimination, as well as students at failing schools and residents of neglected neighborhoods that they have “NO EXCUSES!” According to Moore, Smith’s suggestion for success is to think positively. The comic strip can be viewed using the following link (http://incontemptcomics.com/2008/11/11/no-excuses/).

Smith is not the only entertainer to share these sentiments. Other entertainers have helped shape the collective consciousness and racial attitude of this country by sharing their belief that we have achieved racial equity and minorities simply need to put forth the right amount of effort and act responsibly to be successful. However, by not sufficiently acknowledging the role of structural barriers to racial equity, these entertainers are ignoring a significant portion of the problem and consequently are stifling efforts for possible solutions. Their suggestions to do away with excuses and try harder are inadequate and would not significantly decrease racial disparities even if they were realized. I am not denying the importance of making an effort for success and acting responsibly. However, structural barriers are an equally, if not more, important source of the problem in minority communities. Research has shown that when young people are removed from impoverished communities with poorly performing schools and relocated to safe neighborhoods with strong schools, their chance of success increases tremendously.

Very few, if any, of these entertainers are authorities on race relations in America. However, their opinions are very influential on the American public. So, I have a suggestion for them. Black Hollywood please listen carefully. It is very easy to anticipate what questions you will be asked on January 20th, 2009: What role do you play in your upcoming movie? Did you make any New Years Resolutions? If so, what were they? And what does the election of Barack Obama mean for black America? In anticipation of the latter question I have one assignment for you. Between now and the inauguration, read a couple of articles on racial disparities in educational spending, residential segregation, discrimination in the labor market, etc. I know you’re busy so I won’t even require you to read the whole article. Maybe just read the abstract and the conclusion. After this assignment I guarantee you will have something more insightful and interesting to say than “all our excuses are gone”. And this may encourage our country to actually strive to reach the point where racial disparities, residential segregation and discrimination, or as Will Smith likes to call them “our excuses”, are indeed simply memories of a time before Obama.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Foreclosure Crisis to Expand?

By Jason Reece, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

The news on the foreclosure crisis continues to get worse. Now an estimated 11 million homeowners are “top heavy” and owe more on their homes than they are worth, and an estimated 1 in 10 residential home mortgages are in delinquency or default.

Unfortunately, this concentration of subprime mortgage foreclosures may just be the beginning.

As the volume of subprime loans resetting in the market starts to decline in 2009, a new wave of non-traditional mortgages will begin to reset.

Option adjustable rate loans (or Option ARMS) and Alt A loans (loans with borrowers who were not subprime but did not qualify as prime borrowers) will begin to reset in massive numbers from 2009 to 2011. Given the decline in home values across the nation and the anticipated job losses resulting from the recession, these nontraditional mortgages will be resetting at a very precarious time.

The potential for another wave of foreclosures across the US may sit just beyond our horizon, providing another powerful incentive to create a comprehensive response to the current credit and housing crisis, which will help us avoid the next wave of mortgage defaults. This crisis is particularly concerning because like the first wave, African Americans and people of color are more likely to experience foreclosures and decreasing property values.

For more information on the foreclosure and credit crisis visit the webpage of our recent conference. See particularly our primer on subprime loans, foreclosure and the credit crisis: http://www.kirwaninstitute.org/events/archive/subprime-convening/index.php

And for more information on the recent wave: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/12/12/60minutes/main4666112.shtml

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Sacramentality of our Democracy

By Marguerite Spencer, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute.

I have been working on the idea of applying the theological concept of “sacramentality” to our democracy.

In the Christian tradition, because the world is created by God and is very good, it has the capacity to make God’s invisible goodness visible. Nature, therefore, is sacramental. The Christian story also recounts how humankind is created in God’s image, a being uniquely aware of itself. As a result, Christians are charged in a special way to embody God’s love. Sacramentality is a responsibility, not a privilege. This is complicated by the fact that humankind lives in the history of sin and often fails to reflect God’s love, taking away from the goodness of creation instead.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes a similar sacramental phenomenon partly contained in Tiep Hien, which can be described as “realizing” or making our convictions real in the world. We do not dwell or remain bound to the place of doctrines and ideas, instead we embody them, bringing them into lived experience.

Our democracy is similarly charged with being “sacramental.” It was founded upon certain truths, among them the principles of freedom, equality and opportunity. These principles, however, lack meaning unless they are embodied or made present in the real world. The founding fathers, knowing that the members of our democracy would struggle with realizing its ideals, fashioned structures and prompts that would curb our propensity toward tyranny. Slavery, for example, not only failed to make present our nation’s enlightened principles, it brought about their opposite: oppression. Only when we set out to secure freedom, equality and opportunity for blacks through amendment and legislation, was our nation once again acting sacramentally, making visible our nation’s goodness, however imperfectly.

Unfortunately, we regularly fail to live up to our self-proclaimed democratic responsibility. Our most recent sins include elevating fear and unchecked force to a hallowed status, and disregarding the rights of the “other.”

It would be folly to assume that the administration-elect will magically resuscitate our ability to make present our nation’s ideals. Yet, the world is looking to us in a new and guardedly optimistic way to once again embody, however haltingly, our founding principles of freedom, equality and opportunity. Many Americans are hoping for the same eruption of goodness. At this critical juncture on our history, the extent to which our hope leads to concerted and transformative action, is the extent to which we advance our nation’s sacramentality.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Visitor, Detentions and U.S. National Identity

Yusuf Sarfati, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

The debate on immigration, specifically on the conditions and the future of the undocumented immigrants, is a heated topic in the U.S. “The Visitor”, which I watched on DVD last week, focuses on different aspects of this debate. The movie mainly revolves around a friendship between Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian drummer, and Walter (Richard Jenkins), an economics professor, in New York City. Towards the end, the movie takes a dramatic turn, when Tarek was put in a detention center because of his lack of immigration documentation after he was held by cops over a trivial issue in a subway station.

From then on the movie explores the problems with the U.S. detention system, such as the isolated nature of the facility that transforms Tarek from a cheerful drummer to an anxious individual, the movement of the detainees from one center to the other without any information provided to the families or friends, the targeted criminalization of the immigrants (Tarek in the movie, like many others in the real world is locked up for an innocent incident in the subway), the lack of training of the officials in the centers to provide basic human needs for the detainees, and the difficulties of finding representation for the detainees in the centers. Tarek in the movie was “fortunate” that his new acquired friend Walter provided him an immigration lawyer.

In addition to the issue of detention, there was a larger discussion in the movie on the role of the immigrants in the formation and transformation of the U.S. national identity. Unlike the conservative intellectuals (e.g. Pat Buchanan, Samuel Huntington) who see immigrants as a threat to a core American culture (however defined), the movie presents Tarek as a transformative figure for Walter’s life. Walter feels really alive when he starts to learn how to play the drum with Tarek. This could be seen as symbolic of how different groups transform each others’ culture in the context of an immigrant receiving host country, specifically immigrants’ contribution to and co-construction of the host culture. The positive role the immigrants play in the definition of the national identity of the U.S. is usually lost in the immigration debate, where the legal and economic aspects are overly-emphasized. It is important to conceptualize the U.S. national identity and a common U.S. (American) culture as “a page in the process of being written.”(1) The page is rewritten and transformed by the entrance and contribution of different immigrant groups. It is much more healthy and democratic to analyze the U.S. identity in this manner, rather than see it as an already written page to which immigrant groups need to assimilate. What do you think?

Footnote (1) Maalouf, Amin. 2000. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong

Monday, December 1, 2008

What’s So Funny?

Christy Rogers, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

I’ve been laughing a lot more lately. We all have our ways of coping with a world-wide economic meltdown, and if mine is TIVO’ing 30 Rock so that I can rewind Steve Martin pouring a glass of scotch down his shirt and wailing, “I’m having a severe case of the Mondays,” then no harm, no foul. I find it interesting that 30 Rock, a comedy, is one of the few prime-time shows that takes on race. It’s like when we’re serious about race, we trip ourselves up, but comedy eases us in.

I’ve also been laughing a lot in my dance class. I take Hip-Hop. Maybe I should mention I’m white, 5’ 8”, 40 years old, and losing a battle with the infamous (holiday exacerbated) muffin top. I’m not a bad dancer—I took Hip-Hop for several years in Chicago with a back-up dancer for R. Kelly. I took my first class with Viola and was hooked, and when I came back for my second class, she talked about how much she loved teaching kids. “What I love the best,” she confided, “is that on the second class, they all come back dressed like me.” I think I actually blushed and tried not to look at my new pants. Viola was 90 pounds soaking wet, had a fantastic sense of humor, and was one of the best dancers I’ve ever seen. She even got on reality TV! Trying to match my gangly moves to hers, I nicknamed my dance style “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.”

Five years after having a baby, I figured it was time to get back to some top rocks, so I signed up for Hip-Hop, Level 2, at Ballet Met. I got a card back saying I’d be in Level 1, thank you. And good thing—my instructor makes us spin on the floor. Viola never made me spin on the floor. She knew it was best for everyone. Now this person, he makes us try to do things with terrifying names, like The Typewriter. I missed one class and a lady leaned over and said, “you’re lucky…you missed something called The Coffee Grinder.” This past Tuesday I was tired—I tried to slide in and stand in the back. However, it turned out I was the only student that night. So I had an hour-long, 1-on-1, hip-hop tutorial with a professional dancer. And the funny thing was, laugh as I did, he never laughed. At the end, we talked about the difference between Hip-Hop instructors and styles. “Viola went on the 1s and 3s,” I said. He looked truly shocked. “But street dance is about hitting the 2s and 4s…when you’re challenged, you move in like this…” We worked a little on meeting street dance challengers. And I thought, maybe if an Asian guy 20 years younger than me who learned an African American art as a street fight is earnestly walking me through how to win, it’s not funny—it’s even better. It’s serious.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Poor Third Country Nationals - A Third Category of EU’s Immigration Policy?

By Lidija Knuth, a research fellow at the Kirwan Institute

Where is European Union (EU) migration policy heading? Currently, the EU’s migration policy is focusing on making it more difficult for immigrants to enter Europe through a Pact on Immigration and Asylum which the European Council adopted in October 2008. The fundamental principles set out in the Pact are reflected in a series of measures which will have to be implemented immediately at both EU and national level. Moreover, these principles will also inform the future work programme of the EU, which will be proposed by the Commission in May 2009. One of the Pact’s objectives is to take joint measures against irregular migration. The proposal for the Pact includes speeding up the expulsion of foreigners who are irregularly on the territory of any member state and promoting new agreements with third countries that ensure they will take back their own citizens and also those persons who crossed their territory on the way to an EU state and were found undocumented in a member state. Furthermore, it contains compulsory integration contracts for immigrants aimed at determining whether they have adopted national and European values in addition to the possibility to undertake language tests. It also foresees the collection, retention and use of increasing amounts of biometric data on foreigners to determine where foreigners are at specific times of control.

It must be noted that there is one main exception to this ever stricter approach to third country nationals which is the category of highly skilled and qualified migrants. For this category, the more severe rules are less likely to apply due to the fact that the EU suffers from demographic ageing and will need larger migration flows in the future to minimize this trend.

This latest actions at EU level are necessary but the overall development is troubling. NGOs and civil society organizations working on immigration issues are already concerned about the fragmentation of EU communities along the lines of nationality. On the one hand, it is necessary that they focus their work on the issues raised by the newly proposed Pact and on the clearly exclusionary approach the EU is demonstrating toward third country nationals living in the EU or seeking to come to the EU.

On the other hand, in the debate about migration the EU, consistent with European values of respect for human dignity, equality and respect for human rights, should include the contribution made to Europe’s economy, society and culture by migrants. The denial of rights to many migrants, including asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, and others, not only has a negative effect on the individuals concerned, but also denies European society the added value of their participation in all spheres of society, including civic, political and cultural life.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Musings of a Proud Black Man

By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Assistant professor in the Department History with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

The day after Barack Obama won the race for the presidency, the New York Times published an article entitled “Near-Flawless Run is Credited in Victory.” In it, the authors attribute Obama’s win to a brilliantly designed and almost perfectly executed campaign strategy. A key tenet of this strategy was to “avoid discussions focused on race.”

Before embarking on his improbable journey, Obama and his closest advisors, including David Axelrod, the campaign’s chief political strategist, and David Plouffe, the campaign manager, determined that Obama’s success depended on White voters not seeing him as being too closely connected to the African American community. “It would be difficult for an African American to be elected president in this country,” said Cornell Belcher, a pollster for the campaign. “However, it is not difficult for an extraordinary individual who happens to be African American to be elected.”

The problem, of course, was white racial prejudice. It was highly unlikely that Whites would vote for a Black candidate who they believed shared the cultural values and political views of the Black community because many Whites see these as antithetical to American cultural and political norms. In truth, however, they are not. There is nothing un-American about Black politics and Black culture. In fact, Black politics has historically pushed America to live up to its democratic claims and Black culture has always been foundational to American culture.

It is impossible not to be excited about the potential for progress in American race relations in the wake of Obama’s victory. My enthusiasm is tempered, however, by the fact that his victory was predicated on white voters not associating him too closely with the African American community. And therein lies my dilemma – I just don’t happen to be Black – I am proud to be Black. I am proud of Black history, Black people, Black political traditions, and Black culture.

Although I look forward to the day that Obama takes office, I also look forward to the day when White voters are not afraid to elect an African American who is unashamedly and unapologetically Black.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Our New Racial Ambassadors: Sasha and Malia Obama

By Wendy Smooth, an assistant professor in the Department of Women’s Studies with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

With the historic election of Barack Obama I find myself overly excited by the thought of two little black girls calling the White House home for the next few years. This is better than any episode of The Cosby Show ever written or imagined. I am convinced that little Sasha and Malia will be our best racial ambassadors. Americans having a bird’s eye view into the life of a real black family will do more for racial understanding and advancement than all the progressive social justice based public policies that we expect from the Obama presidency.

Now I am not placing a burden on little Sasha and Malia to act, behave, or play as “representatives of the race.” I am not expecting them to play Chi-Town style double- dutch on the east lawn—though I would relish hearing the press’ coverage of the long honored tradition of black girlhood. Nor am I angling to see if they are captured carrying Groovy Girl Dolls instead of Barbie. My dream is that they will simply be themselves. In doing so, they will raise the value Americans place on the well-being of little black children everywhere. They will show that little black kids have the same dreams, desires, fears, and needs that all children have. They desire to be safe, secure, and loved. Even more so, my hope is that in Sasha and Malia’s comings and goings, they will help people understand that black children are worth the investment. Americans will see that when you provide children—all children a first rate world class education, they grow and flourish beyond our imagination. Americans will see that all children thrive when they have the best health care, safe playgrounds, and a great place to call home.

The morning after the election I greeted my wide- eyed, gummy grinning little baby boy and between our morning stanzas of “Good Morning to You” I looked into his big beautiful brown eyes and told him that because of what happened last night, he will know a world different from that of his parents. His world would be better. It would certainly be more open, more inclusive, more accepting of difference. I know that my son will have two little black girls to thank for opening the eyes of Americans to the beauty of the black child.

Our little racial ambassadors through their everyday actions of being little girls will prompt Americans to raise the value placed on the lives of all black children. By the end of their eight years of residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I am hopeful that people will develop a new understanding for why black children like all children across this country are worthy of good schools, quality health care, safe neighborhoods, and reliable housing. Sasha and Malia Obama will ignite our political will to act on behalf of all children ensuring the future of this nation.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Unresolved Issues

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

Election Day 2008 is tomorrow and, frankly, it’ll be a relief to get this long campaign over with. However, the end of the Campaign 2008 will do little, if anything, to resolve several troubling issues raised along the way. At least three come to mind.

The Vote: In states from Colorado to Ohio, Wisconsin to Florida, the signs of voter suppression are everywhere. Tomorrow, in all likelihood, many thousands of people will be denied their rightful vote because of voter roll purges, registration challenges, over-use of provisional ballots, dysfunctional voting machines, machines that don’t record the intended vote, and more. Sadly, unless we see a repeat of the Florida controversy of 2000, when a very close vote in a key state made the difference in a very close election, these problems will likely be ignored.

Race: Whatever happens tomorrow, Obama’s success confirms that, as a country, we have come very far on race. However, in itself, an Obama victory won't give urban schools full of black and Latino kids the money, books, and excellent teachers they need and affluent white kids' schools have. It won't change the fact that many employers would prefer to hire white men with prison records over black men without records. With lots of people insisting that the Obama phenomenon proves that we have become a colorblind society (it doesn’t; we’re not), I worry that issues of racial justice will lose more of their already-limited purchase on Americans’ attention.

Hate? Where will the racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and vitriol so manifest over the last year go after the new president is sworn in? By October 2007, the Facebook group, “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich,” boasted some 30,000 members. The “charge” that Obama is Muslim reverberated for months before one pundit publicly asked the critical question: so what if he were Muslim? A Congresswoman from Minnesota recently urged the media to scrutinize her colleagues’ words and records for possible “Anti-American” sentiment. And in Bexley, Ohio, just outside Columbus, students peacefully protesting a partisan rally were vilified and physically threatened by rally participants.

Campaign 2008 didn’t create these issues and its end won’t put them to rest. President Obama or McCain will have an important role to play in “healing” our country, and both men have promised to embrace that role. But, mostly, it’s on us.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Living White Privilege

By Eavon Lee Mobley, Managing Editor at the Kirwan Institute

Wow. I hadn’t expected the response from my sister when I emailed Tim Wise’s article “This is Your Nation on White Privilege” to her. I thought the article gave easy-to-understand examples of the concept of white privilege as Tim Wise stated in his opening statement. My sister responded: “This e-mail is bad do I send you Nation on Black privilege.” I haven’t received her answer to my question: “What is Black privilege?”

But the point I want to make is that my sister’s response to being presented with the facts of “White Privilege” is all about blame. When someone feels they are blamed for something it is human nature to try to shift the blame to someone or something else. Come on … we have all at least one time in our life sought to avoid taking the blame for something. Maybe early on a parent or other adult figure taught us the value of taking responsibility for our acts. Or maybe we learned on our own as we wrestled with our conscience. Or maybe we are still learning. Or maybe we aren’t even aware.

The reality is that every day white people are living white privilege. And that privilege spans the whole range of socio-economic status in our society. Yeah that’s right…it’s a privilege whether you are white and rich or white and poor.

Let’s get back to blame. So what are whites blamed for…the inequitable treatment of nonwhites…and what do whites counter with…Black privilege (?)…

It’s a dead end street. What white people need to do is acknowledge the existence of white privilege and stop the blame game. We need to discuss white privilege in a transformative way and get beyond the finger pointing and on to working towards an equitable society for all Americans. Let’s bring the discussion out in the open. Yes… if you are a white American you benefit from privileges and status that are not available to nonwhite Americans… “it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

U.S. Empire Complex Revisited

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

“Since modern globalization and capitalism are inseparable, the globalization that one regards as ‘desirable’ (unipolar, hierarchically multipolar, non-hierarchical multipolar) will depend on whether one’s preferred model of society is liberal capitalism, a more ‘social’ form of capitalism, or one or another form of socialism…I would place a radically anti-imperialistic approach that recognizes the need to correct the huge North-South inequality in the conditions of production created by five centuries of capitalist expansion. Such a correction evidently implies a socialist perspective (one that goes beyond the basic logic of capital accumulation), but it also requires a conception of global socialism not necessarily shared either by earlier historical socialisms (communist and social-democratic) or by all the currents of new social, and even socialist, thinking.” (Samir Amin’s Beyond US Hegemony?: Assessing the Prospects for a Multipolar World, 5)

We are immersed in the U.S. Presidential campaign mode. Quite a bit of discussion (or at least mention) of a plethora of topics has taken place, from the mortgage-housing crisis to race…war. All of these topics and issues affect the livelihood of every U.S. citizen and beyond. This last statement is what I want to briefly delve into, the beyond aspect. In other words, it is necessary to take a look at the world beyond the manufactured confines of the U.S. as a nation-state. This is not done to undermine U.S. domestic issues, but to connect them with “the other” (the racializing aspect of the modern nation-state building).

I write this to be critical of the myopic view and coverage of the current U.S. Presidential election, bringing to the fore perspectives coming from that international “other”. Nonetheless, I am also critical of the “othering” process that tends to take place when the subaltern responds. I do not underscore both “limitations” to promote stasis, advocate for perfection, or truncate conversation. My intention is to promote lively contestation that might get us closer to a more porous, flexible, situated and transparent dual “us vs. them” (or better “us/them”).

This is why I started with a quote from Samir Amin, which I think pushes the envelope of the current Presidential Election coverage and discussion. Again, not making it irrelevant, but underscoring its incompleteness. Having stated this, the challenge remains on what’s to be done. How do U.S. domestic concerns best connect to the outside? How are the processes of marginalization best addressed from within the U.S. Empire and beyond? How do we (as Amin challenges us to do) better coalesce those fragmented marginalized realities, without losing their particularities?

In other words, how do we move along a humane, progressive politics that might take us to a different and better world? Whatever the answers to these and other relevant questions that concern our organizing of our societies, I underscore that they should not emerge from a small fraction of the world’s population. Let the contestation continue, with the hope of it translating into tangible positive changes for common folk.

What do you think?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Comedy of Errors: Race, Gender, and Chris Rock

By Angela Stanley, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

In a summer issue of Vibe Magazine, one of the items in the“20 Questions” feature questioned whether or not Chris Rock had a problem with Black women based on his latest standup routine. Anyone who knows Chris Rock and his brand of humor understands that much of his material is racial, political, and social commentary. To hear that he has some things to say about Black women really comes as no surprise, but the buzz around his new material suggested that something different was afoot.

Because of the controversy, I was interested in seeing the routine for myself and when it finally aired on HBO September 27, I saw what many folks have been discussing. His take on the possibility of having a Black first lady set the tone for his entire routine. Specifically, a Black man with a Black wife can never be president “because a Black woman cannot play the background of a relationship.” His solution? “Get a White girl…because a White girl will play her position.” From there he went on to describe all the ways Black women are domineering, unsupportive, manipulative, materialistic, and every other stereotype imaginable.

So what is the problem many are having with all of this? If you believe, like I do, that there is often truth in jest, then it’s easy to make the assumption that perhaps Chris Rock does have some issues with women, Black women in particular, that seem to have manifested on stage. Regardless of Chris Rock’s comments, the larger issue is that this is yet again an unwarranted attack on Black women. From Slavery to Hip Hop we’re over-sexualized objects; from the household to the workplace we are “angry Black women”; and from the silver screen to the TV screen we are the loud, sassy, neck-rolling, unfeminine sidekicks. If we are successful then we are uppity. If we defend ourselves then we are argumentative. If we have opinions then we are emasculating. Our contributions to history, to social movements, to the workplace, and to society are often quickly forgotten. Our continued, and often belabored, support of our communities, our children, our leaders, and our men often goes unappreciated. Our leadership in the home and in the workforce is often trivialized. Our overall success, educational or otherwise, is often resented. This occurs from the classroom to the boardroom—tainting public perception, lowering self-esteem, devaluing an entire group of individuals, and suppressing opportunity. Not surprisingly, such treatment also extends to the realm of politics.

Unfortunately Michelle Obama, a woman who has the grace, intelligence and ability to be a phenomenal first lady, is suffering the same pigeonholed fate. I for one, hope that if Barack Obama wins the presidency, that Michelle will be allowed to take on her new role with a clean slate and that her presence in the White House will have a positive effect not only on the self-esteem of girls and women of color but also on the perception of Black women as a whole.

As for Chris Rock, his opinions are ultimately irrelevant. However, as someone who claims to be a Barack Obama supporter, it seems that his focus should be on helping Barack become president instead of projecting his own issues onto Michelle and all the women she represents. As one blogger named Tami writes, “Do a fan a favor, Chris, stick to the political and social stuff, and save the rest for a therapist.”

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Not So Simplistic Digital Divide

By Becky Reno, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

At the Kirwan Institute we are embarking on a project regarding the digital divide and I’m afraid the topic is not proving to be as simple or straightforward as I’d hoped it would be. My initial interpretation of the digital divide rested literally on the number of computers available in school, at home, or in the community. The cause of the divide was material, and consequently the solution was simple: to provide more computers. Apparently, I’m not alone in this overly-simplistic analysis, since this was also the initial policy approach to remedy the situation.

Shortly thereafter, investors and educators realized this wasn’t having the intended effect. Computers sat gathering dust in the back of classrooms, while teachers resorted to their more familiar methods of teaching. Even with the computers in the classroom, students weren’t gaining the programmatic knowledge or skills necessary to make academic gains. Lesson learned - it’s not enough to have the equipment, we also need teachers who are trained to use them and can effectively impart this knowledge to students.

In response, technology-centric professional development courses became available and teacher education programs instituted mandatory technology training. Now theoretically all schools have computers, and all teachers are trained to use them. So NOW technology should be fully integrated into the curriculum. But what about students that don’t have computers or internet access at home? How is a teacher supposed to fully integrate technology when he/she can’t assign digital homework? What about the students that grew up having a computer in the house versus those who have never used one prior to coming to school?

The problem became increasingly complex, and as I continued mulling these solutions over in my head a picture started to emerge of students sitting in rows, behind computers, heads down, working in solitude. I had a slightly unsettled feeling about this that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and then it came to me. That scenario is in direct opposition to the one I’ve spent the last five years imagining and working toward- an integrated classroom where children are interacting with others who are different from them, learning from and sharing experiences with each other, and fully reaping the myriad of benefits that come from being educated in a diverse environment. So how do I mesh these two goals? Does closing the digital divide have to mean abandoning the dream of true integration? Certainly not, and certainly technology does not stand in direct opposition to an integrated classroom. It is a powerful reminder however to be mindful of the consequences, intended or otherwise, of our policy recommendations. We have yet to fully identify the best policy solutions to address the digital divide, but I shall continue to work with the reminder that technology should be used as a tool to bring us together, not further isolate or separate us.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Debating and Clarifying Racism

By Stephen Menendian, Legal Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

During a conversation about the role of race in the Presidential election an acquaintance of mine asserted that although race may keep some Democrats from voting for Barack Obama in the fall, race was critical to his success in the primaries. He pointed to the levels of Black support Obama received after the Iowa caucuses. In his view, voting for Obama because of his race was just as racist as not voting for Barack because of his race.

That simply couldn’t be true. A Black person ultimately deciding to vote for Obama over Hillary Clinton because of Obama’s race is not the same thing as someone voting against Obama because of his race. Race prejudice, refusing to vote for a candidate because of his race, is morally anathema. Race pride, especially when you are a member of a race whose ancestors were brought to this country in chains and were told they were less than human, is a laudable reason to push a button for Obama, all other things equal. There have been 43 presidents, all white men. Obama’s accomplishment may instill a sense of pride when one considers that in less than 150 years Black Americans have shaken off the yoke of slavery to rise to the cusp of the Presidency. This in a nation founded on racial slavery and the racial suppositions that justified that institution. The first person to hold the office that Obama now seeks, George Washington, owned 316 black Americans when he died.

My acquaintance was quick to retort that whether voting for or against someone on account of race, it’s still racism because it is treating someone differently on account of their race.

The notion that differential treatment on the basis of race by itself is racist, is clearly wrong. According to that definition of racism, it's racist to apply a higher-SPF sunscreen to a white child than to a black child. You would be literally treating them differently based entirely on the color of their skin. But calling this action 'racist' is preposterous. And yet, it is a definition that is becoming increasingly common.

I tried to reason with my acquaintance by showing that applying his definition to sexism, holding a door for a woman is treating a woman differently on the basis of a sex, but it’s not sexist. Rather than revise his definition of racism, he fought the analogy.

My acquaintance was drawing from a well-worn script. It’s a script informed by the public debates over affirmative action. It’s a narrative of colorblindness that suggests that seeing race is the problem. But it’s a dangerous script because it hampers our ability to do anything about racism. Correcting racism becomes part of the problem, since, after all, it’s racist, right?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Commodity vs. Right: Global health and the “pathologies of power”

By Elsadig Elsheikh, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Thirty years ago in Alma Ata - the capital city of the republic of Kazakhstan- the Declaration of Alma Ata (DAA) urged governments, international funding agencies and organizations, and all health and development workers to protect and promote health for all. The DAA strongly reaffirmed that health “is a fundamental human right and that the attainment of the highest possible level of health is a most important world-wide social goal.” Nonetheless, today the health of two-thirds of the planet’s population has deteriorated since then. One might ask, why? The answer lies within the political structure of our global system. The system- guided by the ideology of disempowering the vulnerable and the marginalized- gives way to top-heavy economic growth and looks after the interests of transnational corporations that institute the will of the few global financial institutions.

Thirty years after its publication, the DAA’s principles still possess convincing arguments for the importance of ‘health for all’ through community-based primary health care systems. Its visionary qualities present the potential genesis of ‘health for all’ to fulfill the human rights doctrine, since it incorporates and underscores the relevance of socio-economic and political factors and unequal development. The DAA’s principals also acknowledge the cyclical crisis of health care systems world-wide, particularly in Third World countries. Yet despite the polemical dimension of the DAA, its principles have been ignored by the market-based global economy.

The DAA asserted that the right to health is a fundamental constituent of the human rights’ agenda; therefore, its achievement required a comprehensive approach to societal infirmity. The political practices that put economic growth before human needs to achieve ‘evenhanded’ development were a complete breakdown not only for Third World societies, but for marginalized groups in the economically advanced world as well. As the DAA averred in 1978, the health attainment for all is required to achieve “sustained economic and social development.” The DAA had foreseen that attaining “health for all” not only would sustain development, but would also “contribute to a better quality of life and to world peace.” Nevertheless, today we know that over 83% of the 6.8 billion humans lack basic access to primary health care due to the nature of the global economic system. It’s beyond tragedy to witness the current imposed global system launching wars to uphold “human rights” and defending “democratic values,” while denying the right to health for the majority of our fellow humans. In order for us - as a global human society - to reach humanistic solidarity, the right to health should be treated as a fundamental human rights’ pillar, and not considered as a tradable commodity.

For further discussion on this topic please see my full-length piece on the Kirwan Institute website. (Link)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Globalism and Racism

By S. P. Udayakumar, Research Fellow for the Kirwan Institute

The elusive interplay of globalism and racism manifests in many inscrutable ways. On the one hand, as William Greider points out, “the process of globalization is visibly dismantling enduring stereotypes of race and culture, ancient assumptions of supremacy.” Mastering modern technology, and dispelling the notion that high-caliber work can be done only by well-educated white people in a few chosen countries, people of color who exist in surroundings of comparative scarcity are making complex things of world quality for the global market. Thus one of the major racial constructs of the modern world is being steadily eroded by globalization. On the other hand, emulating the Western science and technology and producing copycat products also creates the impression that the non-Western cultures have little else to offer other than trying to excel in Western technologies.

Focusing on the lopsided global power and opportunity structure that is a system of domination, discrimination and oppression, one can see how the people of color are the ones who are left out. Even when whites are a minority in some national societies, they control much of the national resources. For instance, in Zimbabwe, a predominantly black country, some 4,500 white farmers control the most arable land. Similarly, in South Africa, Afrikaners, who are hardly 7 percent of the national population, dominate the economy.

Despite the fact that Britain invested more total money in the U.S., and although Canada controlled 26 percent of all foreign owned real estate (as opposed to Japan’s 15 percent) in the early 1990s, Japan was often singled out for scare-mongering. There had been a longstanding accusation that the “Japanese investors are buying America wholesale.” Globalization of racism plays out in many more discrete ways such as global environmental racism; consolidation of racial and ethnic hatred through internet; exclusionary measures such as the Proposition 187 of California and so forth. In defining biotechnology research agenda, for example, cosmetic drugs and slow-ripening tomatoes come higher on the list than a vaccine against malaria or drought-resistant crops for marginal land. Even as communications, transportation and technology are driving global economic expansion, headway on poverty is not keeping pace.

Thus the globalized world plays a sort of socioeconomic-political ‘hide-and-seek’ with the racial and ethnic minorities. Their identities are reified for profit but their voices are erased for any political claims. Some of the globalized world’s precepts and practices appear to be rectifying some of the defects of the established order only to turn the same into additional disadvantages. While the white center has emerged as the solid guiding spirit for the globalized world, the periphery stands dispersed, disorganized and disturbed. While racism pervades globalization overtly and covertly, any acknowledgement or problematization is carefully avoided.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Talking About Crime, Thinking About Race

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

Lately I’ve been talking to people from a wide variety of backgrounds about how the criminal justice system actually works. I tell them that it is not, in reality, designed to prevent or control crime, but instead operates primarily to create a permanent, second-class for poor people of color. It’s a new Jim Crow. I am often met with a blank stare, particularly if the person I’m speaking to is white or has never been locked up. So I continue. I tell them that, in cities like Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, more than two-thirds of the young African American men are either under criminal justice control or already labeled criminals. The blank stare remains. I then tell them that, contrary to popular belief, the grim statistics are due to the War on Drugs – not violent crime – and that people of color are no more likely than whites to sell or use illegal drugs. In fact, white youth are more likely to engage in illegal drug activity than black youth. The blank stare then morphs to deep skepticism. I tell them about the many studies that have been done, but often the data is resisted. For many, it’s hard to believe that black people really aren’t more guilty of drug crime than whites. So I move on. I say, to really understand how the criminal justice system works, think about what happens upon release. As people walk out the prison gates, a virtual label is fixed on one’s chest, just above the heart. The label is impossible to remove. A typical label reads: “This is a bad man. You may legally deny him a job, an education, a loan, a place to live, and a welfare check. You may deny him the right to vote. You may even take his children. You may also take his dignity. He is entitled to no respect, no additional chances. He is a pariah, one who may be shunned without consequence. He may be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of his natural life.”

That’s when the light goes on. I’m usually interrupted before I can go any further. There is something about identifying the permanent, shameful, pariah status of criminals that causes a shift. Often people stop me and say, “Okay, I get it, so tell me about the data again.” It seems to me that the racial frame – linking the status of African Americans to prior systems of control – is useful in helping people rethink their prevailing assumptions. But getting to that open place is not easy, and often requires one-on-one dialogue. Like an optical illusion – an image that lurks invisibly until its basic outline is identified – mass incarceration is the invisible caste system of our times.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Europeans and how they talk about Obama, race, and the presidential election

By Konstantin Vössing, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

If Europeans were able to participate in the American presidential election, Barack Obama would be supported by 84 % of the French, 61 out of a 100 Germans, and by five times as many Britons as his opponent. (footnote #1) His European ‘voters’, however, are not necessarily predisposed to support a ‘minority’ candidate in a ‘real’ election at home, when the question about candidate preference is not just hypothetical. Moreover, it is only too evident that Mahgrebin and African immigrants in France, Turks in Germany, as well as Pakistani and Indians in Britain, are grossly underrepresented and excluded from the political arena.

The relative indifference of European media and observers to the issue of race in the debate about the presidential election is indicative of a discourse about systematic disadvantage of ‘minorities’ in Europe that tends to revolve around dividing lines defined by religion or immigrant status. This can be a blessing, because voters in Europe, contrary to voters in the United States, don’t seem to perceive Obama’s skin color as an obstacle to support him. In a broader context, this translates into a colorblindness that can be healthy, both in everyday situations and in political discourse. But the ‘European approach’ can also be a curse. How would those European Obama enthusiasts react, if racially or otherwise excluded groups in their own country pushed more forcefully for greater recognition? Would they even be willing to acknowledge that there is such a thing as race-based exclusion?

This is how Léonora Miano put it, an author, originally from Cameroon, and now native to France, in a recent interview with the New York Times:

“There’s total hypocrisy here. For me it was really strange when I arrived 17 years ago to find people here never used the word race. French universalism, the whole French republican ideal, proposes that if you embrace French values, the French language, French culture, then race doesn’t exist and it won’t matter if you’re black. But of course it does. So we need to have a conversation, and slowly it is coming: not a conversation about guilt or history, but about now.”

Colorblindness is deeply engrained and institutionalized in the French constitutional tradition, and to some extent unique to France. A certain lack of attention to the presence of racial discrimination, however, is a more universal feature of political discourses all across Europe. Like in so many other areas, a transatlantic learning process is necessary. This should be a conversation, however, that works interactively in both directions, and that takes into account both the blessing and the curse inherent in the way in which Europeans approach the issue of race.

(footnote #1) The figure for France comes from a survey conducted by the Pew Center, the German figure is from a survey by the weekly magazine Der Stern, and the value for Britain is noted by the daily newspaper The Guardian.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Multiracial Americans and the Future of Race

By Cheryl Staats, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

Recent population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau depicted the changes that statisticians and demographers predict our population will undergo by the year 2050. Most of the trends and projections were relatively unsurprising, such as the expected growth in the Hispanic population or the notion that the aging population of Baby Boomers will put a squeeze on Social Security.

One estimate that stood out to me was the prediction that the number of people who identify as being two or more races is anticipated to triple, thus raising the number from 5.2 million to 16.2 million in 2050. One of the significant hallmarks of the 2000 U.S. Census was the option for people to report more than one race. While approximately only 2% of the U.S. population selected multiple racial categories in 2000, this value is clearly anticipated to rise dramatically.

This projection makes me wonder about the future of race in U.S. society, specifically how our ideas regarding racial categorization may evolve as racial diversity increases. More specifically, will Americans eventually recognize or even embrace the notion of race being a continuum because of the increased number of people identifying as multiracial? Moreover, given the fluidity of how whiteness is conceptualized, what effect will the instability of the “white” category have in the future? (Recall that the Irish were historically not considered ‘white’ but have since received that designation.)

These questions may be best answered with time. As we try to overcome our binary perspective on race (black/white), it will be interesting to see how those that identify as multiracial will influence this transition. Some scholars, such as George Yancey in Who Is White?, assert that a dichotomous perspective on race will prevail, although perhaps in a different form (such as black/non-black) due to the permeability of racial categories. While it is impossible to predict the future, the increase in multiracial Americans will influence the dialogue regarding the evolution of how we conceptualize and categorize race.
Related links:
Press Release by the U.S. Census Bureau. 14 Aug. 2008. http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/population/012496.html
America in 2050: Even Older and More Diverse. MSNBC. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26186087/
Multiracial in America. MSNBC. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24765917

Friday, August 22, 2008

Not That Unlike

By Jillian Olinger, Graduate Research Associate at Kirwan Institute

I recently returned from a trip to Ireland, during which several things struck me…I spent a day and a half in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The city is rebuilding itself, everywhere one looked there were cranes and construction zones, new modern buildings springing up alongside centuries’ old ones—it was an incredible sight to see. As a tourist, it would be easy to miss the troubled history of the place. Indeed, one had only to walk a few blocks to the west of city centre to be confronted with the present day form of the civil tensions, represented by a housing development called The Markets, a testament to the high degree of residential segregation that still exists today.

Prior to my trip I had attended a lecture on being Catholic in Northern Ireland, and the lady, born here in Upper Arlington but living in Northern Ireland for the past 15 years, spoke of the violence, discrimination and segregation—past and present—that were part of the Catholic struggle. Sound familiar? Although these tensions are sectarian in nature, there are clear similarities to our own racial tensions. Even today, though Northern Ireland’s prime minister is a Sinn Fein member, the situation is still a turbulent one, although improved. I was with an English friend of mine who commented that as recent as a few years ago, he would not have felt comfortable doing one of the bus tours of Belfast, as he was sure to be unwelcome in many parts of the city; still today, he would not walk past the Markets at night, as he was sure to encounter trouble. Even with political gains for the nationalists and Sinn Fein, troubles persist. My friend’s comment about the bus tours reminded me of one provided for planners through Carbrini Green as it was beginning the process of demolition—a tour that not so many years ago would have been completely unfeasible. Both tours seem to be trying to say ‘See, it’s all better now.’ But we know it is not.

In the north side of Dublin, we stumbled upon the remains of their own failed housing project, Ballymun, which is now undergoing major renovations as condominiums, hotels, golf courses and shopping areas replace the old projects.

This all called to mind our own troubled history around race here in the US. Indeed, the civil rights movement provided inspiration for the Catholics and nationalists in combating their own segregation and discrimination from the Protestants and unionists. I was struck that despite our very different histories, we have ended up in modern day situations in which similarities can be noted. We even have our own political ‘signal’ of progress in Obama. Yet these gains, just as in Belfast or Dublin, each with their own flavor and history to deal with, cannot signal the end of the troubles, or that race is no longer an issue. Disparities and discrimination are still readily prevalent in all places, even as the noise of new construction, globalism, and economic vitality try to hide these disturbing and disappointing facts.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Reflective Politics in an Election of Firsts

By Micah Dillard, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

We as Americans are natural consumers. We strive to find the best deals or hottest new gadgets that will be outdated in two months, but we are also political consumers. Despite the fact that we have a primarily two party system, we generally tend to have several possible choices for the presidency. This “choice” has not been more evident than in this presidential election where we had more than just conservatives and liberals but also an African American, a woman, a Mormon, and a Latino. It is shallow to pick the next president of United States based on his or her race, gender, or religious affiliation but we must respect the urge that we want someone that reflects an aspect of ourselves to be president or even vice president.

This urge to want a politician to reflect not only your values, but also certain aspects of yourself is not new. This dynamic has been a part of the American political landscape since the inception of the American political landscape. The most recent examples of this are the elections of former President William J. Clinton and current President George W. Bush in 2000. Both were perceived to have the so-called “everyman” quality that reminds a segment of the American population of either themselves or friends that makes them want to vote for them. A common phase during the 2000 election was that current President Bush seemed like a modern-day cowboy who would reform Washington after the Lewinsky scandal. It seems to make us comfortable making a choice that could decide the course of the nation.

In this election of firsts, we have the first person of color seriously vying for the presidency of the United States. This concept of reflective politics comes into play again because Sen. Obama has the support of more than 90% of the African American community, 66% of Latino voters, and has an abundance of support in the female community (data provided by The Politico). He seems to be a candidate that is using the “true everyman” strategy to appeal to a diverse group of people because of his diverse origins. However, his strength is also his greatest weakness because by being this “everyman” he automatically turns off a segment of the population who do not connect with him politically and personally. It is not currently on the scale of Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and the claims of elitism against him. In summation, we as Americans must understand that we seek politicians that not only represent us politically, but also reflect an aspect of ourselves.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

AIDS in the U.S.: A World Standard?

By Melissa Sherry, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

A recent report from Black AIDS Institute proclaims that the AIDS epidemic among African Americans in parts of the U.S. is as severe as the epidemic in parts of Africa. Wait, what? AIDS in the U.S. being compared to Africa? Surely there must be a mistake….

America is a country which idealizes itself as a world standard. We point to our policies, our achievements, our research, and some even cite our healthcare as being superior. Yet when you consider the fact that the U.S. healthcare system ranks 37th out of 191 countries in the WHO rankings, reports like the Black AIDS Institute’s report on AIDS in black America should come as no surprise. In fact, the U.S. spends a greater portion of its GDP on healthcare than any other country yet it ranks the worst in the developed world in preventable deaths due to treatable conditions, second worse in infant mortality, and 42nd in life expectancy. How can we account for these shortcomings in our “superior” society? Consider the plight of African Americans.

The average lifespan of an African American living in the U.S. is 73 years of age, 5 years less than white Americans. In terms of health, African Americans are at a greater risk than their white counterparts of dying from cancer, heart disease, injuries, and countless other ailments that are often survivable with proper treatment. Nearly 20% of African Americans have no health insurance, compared to 11% of white Americans.

While some point to the lower average education and income levels of African Americans as the sole causes of disparities, there is more to the story. Recent studies have linked living in racist societies to higher blood pressure, stress, infant mortality and lower birth-weight babies. In fact, while educational attainment is highly correlated with health outcomes, studies have shown that highly educated African American women still have lower birth-weight babies and higher infant mortality rates than white women who don’t even have a high school diploma.

Women in the U.S. who have immigrated from Africa, and who have not grown up with the racism that’s ingrained in the U.S. society also have better birth outcomes than African American women; that is, until they have lived in the U.S. long enough to be affected by racism. The structural racialization of our society is undermining our progress in healthcare, and its manifestation in public health demonstrates that the U.S. is not as progressive as some may think.

If we do not want to continue to have huge disparities dragging the health of all Americans down to levels where the decency and humanity of its members is usurped, we need to openly address this racialization to increase the probability of eradicating it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Moving Back to the City?

By Chauncey Robbs, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Over the past year, skyrocketing energy prices have curbed the spending habits of American families more than ever in suburban communities. Many suburban homeowners that escaped the high taxes, crime, poverty and decay associated with cities for suburban McMansions are beginning to question their suburban lifestyles. Living outside the periphery of an urban center does have its advantages, such as open space, scenic views and a feeling of enhanced security. However, a growing number of families are on the verge of a financial meltdown striving to maintain these large subdivisions and paying higher commuting costs to reach their place of employment. According to the article “Fuel Prices Shift Math for Life in Far Suburbs” by Peter Goodman, in 2003 the average suburban household spent $1,422 dollars a year on gasoline. By April of this year, when gas prices were about $3.60 a gallon, households were spending $3,196 dollars a year, a 124 percent increase in average fuel costs in five years. As prices increase, reducing household consumption appears to be the most rational choice, since on average households spend 20-30% of their monthly budgets on these needs.

Economists and urban planners alike are speculating a return of suburbanites to dense urban communities based upon simple economics of dollars and cents. If this speculation holds true, a large influx of Americans will potentially return to cities to live and work. The surge in urban populations is sure to create staggering obstacles for middle to low income residents in search of quality affordable housing as private developers and land speculators are purchasing underutilized property for future redevelopment, driving up local housing prices. Long overdue improvements to public infrastructure particularly to out-of-date water and sewer systems, will be essential to accommodate the increasing demand for these services. More importantly, our nation’s deteriorating public transportation systems are in dire need of vital improvements prior to any shift in population. According to the American Society of Engineers, to accommodate a potential surge in urban population would require $1.6 trillion dollars and 5 years to bring transportation resources to a fully operating level.

It is hard to say if urban environments will regain the luster of their pastime as residents, businesses and shopping relocate back cities little by little. Yet, failure to properly plan for the needed infrastructure upgrades and affordable housing will surely make city life an unpleasant environment characterized by jammed traffic, expensive housing and social ills.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Divide between Black Americans and Black Africans?

By Kwabena Agyeman, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Over the past decade, the African immigrant population in the United States has grown rapidly. Most African immigrants end up on America’s coasts -- the tri-state region and California being among the top choices, places which are also home to large numbers of African Americans. A common assumption many people make is that the two groups share a natural inclination toward one other. As an immigrant from Africa, I discovered that often that is not the case. My interactions with a number of African immigrants mostly from Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria on the east coast for the past six years put a spotlight on the subtle divide between Black Americans and Black Africans.

First, some Black Americans argue that instead of attempting to fully integrate into the larger black community, many Black Africans have instead distinguished themselves by choosing to identify primarily in terms of ethnicity and nationality instead of race, and by maintaining the cultural norms of their homelands. I advocate for Black Africans embracing Black American culture to fully appreciate the African American experience, however some Black Africans perceive the call for integration as an African American pressure to erase their own cultural and historical distinctiveness. According to them, unlike immigrants from other parts of the world who can integrate into existing communities that share the same cultural perspective and typically speak the same language, Africans speak scores of different languages and have distinct tribal affiliations. In addition, among some African immigrants, stratification along ethnic and kinship lines are more important than race in determining access or lack to access to opportunity.

Second, there are those few African Americans who resent the foreign-born for hindering their opportunities for economic advancement. Speaking on a program produced for KALW a local public radio station based in San Francisco, Dr. Barbara Page, a professor of African American Studies at California State East Bay, stated that programs like affirmative action should be reserved only for Black Americans, whose ancestors were slaves, because it was based on historical patterns of discrimination unique to Black Americans. Black Africans argue that they are far from free-loaders who benefit in America at the expense of African Americans. To them, some Black Americans are not taking advantage of the opportunities in the country. These minority views and attitudes in both communities fuel the tension.

Personally I believe that there are a lot of negative media stereotypes that have influenced the way some Black Americans view Africans. However this dynamic goes both ways, for example, I have African American friends who have lived in South Africa and according to them, most South Africans view African Americans through similar stereotypes. We have come to this divide primarily based on misconceptions and stereotypes, but there is the possibility that we can overcome them through dialogue and breaking down barriers that exist between our communities. That is the power of Barack Obama’s message, that regardless of our actions that keep us divided, we can grow beyond the walls that have defined our experiences to attain the true meaning of unity.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Consumer Print

By Anamita Gall, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Last weekend I was faced with an interesting choice. As a part time employee at a flourishing retail company I could sign up 15 friends for a discount at any of the 4 stores of my company and 5% of their purchase would go to a charity sponsored by my company. I had about 6 choices, among which included providing medication for AIDS victims in Africa. With the 5 minutes I had to complete this, I instantly chose the RED campaign, recognizable due to its heavy media promotions. However that short process stayed in my mind through the week.

Media has helped establish a growing trend of “charitable consumerism”- product promotions which declare that a portion of the sales goes to charitable causes. Very few people will tell you they don’t want to make the world a better place, so this type promotion thrives with those of us in the privileged ranks of society. While these campaigns often do support their claims, it generally oversimplifies the problem, while negating other dilemmas that arise through the manufacturing of the product.

In under 5 mins I had decided that helping AIDS victims in Africa was more important, than the other nameless/faceless causes- because I didn’t recognize them. I also inadvertently decided that it didn’t matter what other human right violations may have occurred in production. I had taken a few courses on marketing and graphics, and used to believe I was above the influence of marketing tactics, yet I found it amazing, how much the choice I made was influenced by marketing campaigns. The irony is that these campaigns are generally part of a company’s social responsibility plans to assuage the negative publicity they receive from the global misdeeds they commit elsewhere.

Thus charitable causes are becoming evermore “consumerable” through media especially for our younger generations. Our consumption has now conveniently been tied to our causes, thus linked to our identity, to leave what I’d like to call a consumer print- a sad reality of our consumption practices. Today we can proclaim our liberal/ conservative identities and claim ties to causes without even having to do more than swipe a credit card. It would seem we are grooming a generation which likes the idea of change, progress, and equality, but really has little clue how to go about it, especially when simpler options are presented in impressively packaged products.

My consumer print-- AIDS victimsupporter/ environmentlover/global warming enabler/childhater, what’s yours?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Reparations Re-Visited

By William Sturkey, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

On July 30th, the United States House of Representatives paved the way for a future discussion of reparations when it passed a resolution apologizing for the enslavement of African Americans and the creation of the Jim Crow system. The resolution included this key statement: “The vestiges of Jim Crow continue to this day.”

Discussions over reparations have always been controversial. The debate is severely limited however, because it focuses solely on the institution of slavery prior to Emancipation. Opponents of reparations are quick to point out that slavery was legal, not all African Americans were slaves, and not all blacks in America today had enslaved ancestors. They also are quick to point out that the expense to the government would be immense and there would not be enough resources to benefit all African Americans. In addition, they ask where the line should be drawn. Should Native Americans receive reparations? What about women whose unpaid labor also helped build this country? These are all legitimate concerns and make general reparations to African Americans based on legal slavery impossible.

Nevertheless, the new resolution passed by the House paves the way for thinking about reparations in a different light. In his new book, Wall Street Journal Atlanta Bureau Chief, Douglas Blackmon, explores Post-Emancipation slavery. Much of this illegal and forced labor took place on tenant farms and in prison labor camps. This form of slavery lasted well into the 20th Century. Unpaid African American labor built much of the South’s infrastructure during the Great Depression and beyond. Some of these prisoners were even “rented” to large companies such as U.S. Steel.

If historians can find labor contracts and imprisonment records that detail unpaid labor, why can we not force states to provide back pay for wrongfully enslaved individuals? If the government is serious about recognizing the atrocities of the Jim Crow system, then it should investigate illegal human trafficking after the Civil War. Many of these individuals are still alive, and have fallen victim to an income gap that was created because of their unpaid labor. Should historians be able to find and prove individual cases of illegal slavery, those individuals who are still alive should receive back pay, adjusted for inflation, and with interest. Their ability to achieve the American dream was, and still is, limited by the illegal systems of human enslavement the government permitted throughout the 20th Century.

Monday, July 28, 2008

What Have You Done Today?

By Caitlin Watt, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Viewing the world from a systems perspective can be a daunting task indeed. Systems thinking demands that one see the world holistically. (footnote #1) Cause and effect, in a linear sense, are abandoned in favor of events as a product of indirect and delayed effects as well as the nature and structures of systems. In this sense, creating solutions to problems like racial injustice or economic inequality is to confront a staggering task of not only looking for the multiple, cumulative, and possibly hidden factors on which injustice and inequality depend, but also confronting and imagining the possible consequences any one solution will have. For obvious reasons, the systems approach can leave a person paralyzed by the sheer vastness of social complexity or running for the fabled “simpler times.”

But complexity does not mean intractability. Interconnectedness, while certainly fostering complexity, also inheres simple beauty. Because we are all connected – whether by place, status, or simply by the way one action far from us can affect all of us – because we are all part of the system, our simple actions can have far reaching consequences. Small changes can produce large results. A drop in the pond becomes a ripple that pushes water down a hill and into a stream that, with time, can become a river that creates a canyon. The foreclosed home a few blocks away reduces the property value in our home, which affects property taxes, school funds, and ultimately, the educational futures of neighborhood children. We are not islands; we are all connected. As the system changes and adapts, so do we change and adapt.

As we live and make choices, we need to be aware of this interconnectedness. We cannot afford to pretend that we are solely responsible for our position in life, and others are responsible for theirs. Our positions, made possible by the positions of others before us and contemporary to us, are given importance and meaning because of others. Law professor Robert A. Williams, Jr. tells a story from his youth, when Lumbee elders asked him, "what have you done for your people today?" (footnote #2) He explains that this question is meant to convey that all he does, achieves, and learns should be for the purpose of helping the community. He is essentially asked to use his interconnectedness to create a societal evolution, where his gain is the gain of his people and the gain of his people is the gain of all people. As interconnected beings in this large and complex system we call a city, a country, or a world, we too need to ask what we have done for all people today.

#1. For information on systems thinking, the following references are suggested: Robert Jervis, Complexity and the Analysis of Political and Social Life, Political Science Quarterly, Volume 112, No 4, 1997-1998; Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural System, 1991; Rebecca Blank, Tracing the Economic Impact of Cumulative Discrimination, American Economic Association, December 2004.
#2. Robert A. Williams, Vampires Anonymous and Critical Race Practice, 95 Mich. L. Rev. 741 (1997).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

One year after Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, No. 1

By Treisa Martin, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

June 28, 2008 marked the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that thwarted many school districts’ efforts toward integration, particularly the school districts in Seattle and Jefferson County. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, No. 1, the plurality opinion declared that race as a direct factor in student assignment plans is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the controlling opinion came from Justice Kennedy, who said that avoiding racial isolation is a compelling interest and that school districts may indirectly consider race to achieve integration. Thus, the opinion left school districts with the perplexing task of achieving a pedagogically beneficial mix of students using their own creativity.
The two districts in the case reacted quite disparately. Jefferson County has adopted a new plan that emphasizes integration by geographic areas. Under the plan, the school district is divided into six clusters, each of which was drawn to be economically and racially diverse. The district designates geographic areas as either “Geographic Area A,” in which the residents are below average median income and educational attainment, but above average minority population, or “Geographic Area B,” in which the residents are poor or middle-class white and middle-class minority. All children are assigned based on their neighborhood demographics, rather than individual characteristics.
On the other hand, in Seattle, district leaders have abandoned their efforts toward integration and accepted the resegregation that has occurred. Nearly one-third of Seattle’s schools are racially imbalanced, and twenty schools are comprised of student populations that are over 90% non-white. However, the district would rather focus on high-quality schools rather than desegregation. Although the district considered set-aside seats for children from outside neighborhoods, it is not likely this proposal would achieve significant integration.
Pat Todd, the district’s executive director for school assignment, said that Seattle is reflective of the national attitude toward integration. This trend reinforces the need for public awareness as to the benefits of integration. Additionally, the public awareness may explain the different outcomes in these two districts. Over the past year, Jefferson County’s strategy involved soliciting community feedback in the development of their new student assignment plan. A recent University of Kentucky survey indicates that nearly nine out of ten parents support continued efforts to maintain racially diverse learning environments. Perhaps the community involvement prompted the requisite foundation for the plan’s success. Increasing effective communication may yield community support and encourage school districts to maintain their efforts toward inclusion.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

College Access: A Case for K-12 Encouragement

By Uchechi C. Amadi, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

The look on her face as she flurried around the house was exceptional. She was used to throwing parties, but this one was different; this one was special. As she busied herself in the kitchen, she took a moment to rest her hand on the table marking our accomplishments. There sat two graduation caps, two Kente cloths marking our heritage, and two college diplomas—one adorned with the Wright State University emblem and the other dressed in Scarlet and Gray. In the same month, the football star and the bookworm, two of her babies, had become college graduates. She couldn’t be prouder.

She retained the glow of a mother seeing her kids graduate, but a glint in her eye suggested a greater satisfaction. Perhaps she realized that the odds had been against us. The statistics say nearly one-half of all college-qualified, low- and moderate-income high school graduates prepared to attend a four-year college are unable to do so. This is largely due to the rising cost of higher education and community messages that question the necessity of obtaining degrees. The statistics could have applied to us, but thankfully, we had developed a system over the years wherein we learned to cling to each other for support.

It is not a big secret that many from disadvantaged backgrounds lack the resources, support systems and encouragement necessary to pursue higher education. No single solution exists, but by planting the seed in grades K-6 and intensifying encouragement to attend in grades 7-12, progress can be made. Arguably, there is no greater inequality than the loss of opportunity. University and non-profit led programs that target those from disadvantaged backgrounds and allow them to see that college graduation is achievable should be promoted, for they help students stay connected to their dreams even in the midst of failing schools, jaded guidance counselors and over-worked teachers. OSU’s Economic Access Initiative is already doing its part. In late May, the Columbus Dispatch wrote about Blueprint: College, a program that provides higher education information to Columbus Public School kids and their families years before they have to apply. At the back end, the Kirwan Institute is also helping. The Democratic Merit Initiative and Middle College Multicultural Educational Exchange Program encourage integration in schools and help ensure that there is some place for students to attend after high school graduation.

These both are effective organizational initiatives, but individuals can help as well. Discuss college with a neighbor, mention it to a younger relative, perhaps even serve as mentor; once you plant the seed, the idea will have years to grow.

Economic Access Initiative: http://osu.edu/access/
College Access Statistic: www.luminafoundation.org/publications/Focus03.pdf
Columbus Dispatch Article: http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2008/05/19/college.ART_ART_05-19-08_B1_4HA85RA.html?sid=101

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is Green the New White?

By Sarah Kozel Silverman, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Last week, environment and climate change were second only to the world economy on the G8 Summit agenda. As I considered the implications of this focal attention to the environment, I wondered how the United States' shift from the not-so-distant rejection of the Kyoto Protocol to environmental fanaticism came about. Maybe it was Al Gore. Maybe the will of the people finally influenced democratic leaders. But this wholesale embrace of environmentalism merits some thoughtful reflection. Environmentalism sure seems like an innocuous sort of cause--the kind that makes everyone feel good and induces the otherwise oblivious to contribute $5 toward saving baby polar bears. But it has also taken on an implicit agenda often either overlooked or ignored. The truth is, many people of color are left out of the dialogue on environmentalism. The work of saving the environment is left to those who can afford bamboo floors and hybrid cars--not to mention organic foods and high efficiency heaters. As a result, low-income families in particular are silenced.

It is certainly no secret that issues of environment, race and social class are deeply intertwined. Environmental reports have consistently demonstrated that air and water quality are lower in neighborhoods where residents are predominately poor or people of color than in comparable middle or upper-class, white neighborhoods. But the new movement toward sustainable living and alternative energy sources (known as 'the green movement') widens the gap between social groups in new ways. Consider the implications of high-priced, eco-friendly materials over 'eco-unfriendly' goods. As the prices of fossil fuels continue to rise, those who cannot afford more efficient vehicles, homes and appliances will be forced to find ways to make up the cost differences. The increasing availability of certified organic goods does not decrease the cost of producing and certifying such goods, so healthy foods may be more difficult to access. Even a well-intentioned movement is faced with the challenge of overcoming bias. But there is some promise in environmentalism.

Attention to global warming has grown at an astounding rate over the past few years. It seems people suddenly realized their habits were bringing about an uninhabitable future world of flooding and pollution. Yet I am troubled this sort of energy is not devoted to the equally concerning inequitable existence among social groups. The incredible force of the green movement is one that can provide some insight into how we might go about gathering momentum for a different type of change in habits, processes and structures. Clearly there continue to exist inequalities--even within the green movement itself. But consider the possibilities of pursuing social justice with our tenacity for environmentalism.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Racial Justice as a Moral Value: Rallying the Religious Left and Right

By Marguerite L. Spencer, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

Exit polling from the 2004 presidential election found that “moral values” stood out as the most important consideration for voters. In this election cycle, campaign strategists are focusing more than ever on how to appeal to an array of voters on a myriad of moral issues.

In his July 6th editorial in the New York Times, Stephen Carter (Yale Law School) argues that from the early years of our nation’s founding through the mid-70s, racial injustice was the fundamental moral concern of American politics. Emancipation, voting rights, school desegregation, and affirmative action made great strides toward increasing life opportunities for nonwhites. But by the late 80s, the nation’s attention had slipped to other “more pressing” moral questions, which today include abortion and same-sex marriage.

There may be some hope, however, of rekindling the nation’s concern for racial justice as a moral issue that moves beyond a celebration of a viable African American presidential candidate. Indeed, there is danger in leaving our discourse there, as if we are now a post-racial nation in which any lingering inequalities represent a lack of personal responsibility.

Rather, we can talk about two movements, one from the religious left and one from the religious right, that are of great significance to those who seek to address common moral concerns. Stephen Mansfield, the pro-life conservative and author of The Faith of George W. Bush, and the forthcoming The Faith of Barack Obama (to be released August 5th), argues that the religious right has been an effective force since Ronald Reagan, but the religious left is in the process of finding its voice, with Obama as one of its heralds.

Of course, there has always been a religious left; we need only look to Martin Luther King Jr. In opposition to many of his critics, King called the faith community to challenge government and transform the unjust laws and moral codes of society, as did the Hebrew prophets of old. Shaun Casey, Obama’s religious advisor, argues that since the religious right praises King as a model of religious involvement in public affairs, it must allow Obama to play a similar, albeit modest, role.

Concurrently, there is a movement from the religious right that shares many of the moral and social justice concerns of the left. Some conservative Christians, under a new generation of leadership, involve themselves with issues of climate change, genocide, AIDS, and global poverty. Last week, pastors from largely White, conservative, evangelical Christian churches were among the 20 signatories to a letter urging Arizona’s top officials to consider immigration laws that preserve human dignity, a position most often shepherded by Latino and left-leaning pastors.

Obama plans to attract these conservatives and bring together voters motivated by their faith to engage in politics. Perhaps he can fashion a unified front against durable racial and economic arrangements that limit life opportunities. This can only benefit our nation’s conscience, as well as our struggle toward becoming a more just, multi-racial democracy.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Our Inter-Connected World: Ethanol, Corn, Sprawl and Urban Inequality

By Jason Reece, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

One of the side effects of the recent oil price increase is a surge in ethanol production in the US. As a biomass based fuel, ethanol is developed with agricultural products, primarily corn, in the US.
So, why would I be talking about ethanol production on the Kirwan Institute blog? What does ethanol have to do with racial and ethnic groups or marginalized populations?
The answers to those questions are powerful illustrations of the complexity of interconnection and systems, and the story begins with corn. Corn is grown on agricultural land and is one of the primary crops produced in the Midwest. The renewed interest in ethanol has elevated the price of corn, thus encouraging more farmers to plant more corn (leading to shortages of other non-staple crops like Barley) and has increased the productive value of farmland.
Cheap agricultural land and cheap gasoline are the two principal elements needed to fuel urban sprawl in areas with little population growth like the Midwest. New subdivisions rely on easy and cheap auto transportation and inexpensive farmland to be profitable and sustainable. The increase in the potential productive value of farmland (for corn to be used in ethanol) paired with an increase in fuel costs has weakened two of the principal pillars supporting our nation’s seemingly inexhaustible thirst for new sprawling development.
As ample research has shown, urban sprawl is one of the primary factors contributing to disinvestment and marginalization in urban communities of color. Racial and economic segregation in schools and neighborhoods, declining infrastructure, concentrated poverty, the spatial mismatch between workers of color and jobs are all attributable to the role urban sprawl plays in draining resources and people out of urban communities.
Thus in this scenario, as the production of ethanol increases in the US, a decline in suburban and exurban development could follow, restricting the flow of resources and people out of urban communities of color and reducing the racial and opportunity isolation inflicted on these communities.
It is hard to predict if this trend will continue (or if all the factors listed above will remain static). But, it is a powerful example of the way all things are interconnected in our world and the complexity of social justice challenges.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Digital Inequality as a Social Issue: Race and Digital Divide

By Mikyung Baek, Research and Technical Associate at Kirwan Institute

The benefits of information and communication technology (ICT) are unquestionable; all it takes is a brief reflection on what you do with ICT on any given day. E-mail is a very common way of communication for both personal and business purposes, for example, and the length of time we spend online involved in various activities is a barometer of how dependent we have become on technology. Now, let’s pause a moment and think about those who do not have such luxury as “access to ICT.” The divide or difference which lies in-between is the so-called “digital divide.”

Where do the dividing lines lie? Where you live could be one factor, as statistics show more (and better) broadband services are available in urban areas than in rural areas. Whether you can afford to own a computer or subscribe to a broadband connection is another question, which is related to your income level and wealth. Another question would be whether you have the technology skill level to effectively use ICT. All these questions bear racial implications on the unequal distribution of access to ICT in our society along housing, wealth and education lines.

Access to ICT means a lot more than issues of access as it opens up social, economic, political, and cultural opportunities. ICT’s potential of opening up various opportunities paints a very different picture for those who do not have access to it. The lack of access to ICT and its deleterious effects feeds into the vicious cycle of limited opportunity for marginalized populations. The connection between housing values and educational budget results in lower levels of technology resources in low-income schools, which leads to a lack of the computing skills and knowledge necessary in this connected age. The cycle continues to cause lower academic achievement, underrepresentation in higher education, and decreased access to employment opportunities later in life.

At the neighborhood level, people living in low income opportunity areas experience increased individual cost for access to ICT due to unequal distribution broadband availability and the high cost of home computers. Low income populations also experience a financial and social cost for accessing ICT in public libraries or community computing centers. As such, digital inequality results in an additional burden for marginalized population in the digital age by limiting the access necessary to develop computer skills as well as forclosing on the opportunities to gather information on employment opportunities, health care, housing, transportation, public safety, or civic participation.

As great as the benefits of technology have become in our lives, the issue of digital inequality calls for more focused investigation as to why it happens and how to work towards lessening it. The internet is today’s infrastructure and the existence of social, political, economical and cultural barriers for those who do not have access to this infrastructure and thus cannot enjoy its benefits imposes social responsibilities on all of us.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Immigration, public discourse and xenophobic frames

By Yusuf Sarfati, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

“You’ve got a wholesale invasion, the greatest invasion in human history, coming across your southern border, changing the composition and character of your country” are the words Pat Buchanan—the author of State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America—uttered on Fox News’ Hannity and Colmes last year. As exemplified in Buchanan’s speech and book, the nativists (see note below) use frames such as “illegal aliens,” “invasion of our country,” or “foreign hoards” to analyze the issue of immigration and view the immigrants in the United States.

These frames—analytical constructs—dehumanize and criminalize the (undocumented) immigrants, and portray them as enemies threatening the national unity of the United States. As shown by numerous tragic examples in the history of human kind, the first step in any hate-crime is to dehumanize a group of people and turn them into scapegoats for the social, economic, and other ills of your country. Once this is achieved, once people start to perceive a particular group as something less than human, and once these kinds of frames are injected into the public discourse, it is much easier to convince lay people to commit hate-crimes against this group.

In fact, recently Barack Obama addressed this issue and claimed that the rhetoric of the anti-Latino talk hosts is directly related to the fact that hate-crimes committed against Hispanics increased last year. Similarly, the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed to the fact that racially motivated crimes committed against Latinos, irrespective of their immigration status, increased by thirty five percent from 2003 to 2006.

The nativists are unfortunately not marginalized and find prolific venues in the mainstream cable media to perpetuate these frames and inject xenophobia to the public discourse. A recent special report by the Media Matters Action Network exposes not only the vitriolic discourse surrounding the immigration debate but also the fear and loathing—creating myths about undocumented immigrants in the mainstream cable media. By analyzing the shows of three cable commentators, namely Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, the report finds that certain urban legends, such as the construction of a NAFTA Superhighway, the “reconquista” of the Southwest or the outspread of leprosy by undocumented immigrants, are frequently discussed in these shows. In addition, the commentators perpetuate the xenophobic frames by inviting the nativists into their programs.

Certainly, the U.S. needs to have a debate around the immigration policy and this should entail different and opposing views, as in every policy debate. Yet it is unacceptable that the vocabulary of this public debate would be hijacked by the xenophobic frames of the nativists. Words to define issues are not innocent simple tools. Words have ideological consequences and shape people’s perception of other people and the reality around us. Institutions, such as the news media, create webs of meaning by transmitting certain frames to the public. It is not the utterance of one word or a single sentence, but the dissemination of dehumanizing frames through a web of institutions that creates racial hierarchies among groups and the committing of hate-crimes against fellow human beings.

Note: Nativism can be broadly defined as an ideology that combines belief in the superiority of one’s country with a fear of outsiders and “foreign” ideas (xenophobia). Nativists believe that immigrants cannot or will not develop a primary allegiance to the United States, making newcomers a threat to national unity. For the definition see “Nativist Bedfellows The Christian Right Embraces Anti-Immigrant Politics” The Public Eye Summer 2008 V. 22, No.2 p.20