Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Racializing Difference (in the Indian context)

By Rajeev Ravisankar, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

“She is really beautiful and has good skin…she has a nice complexion with fair, healthy skin.” A classmate of mine made this comment about Jayalalithaa, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu state located in South India. She was quick to defend herself by saying she didn’t mean it “that way.” What exactly did she mean then?

Since coming to Chennai, India six months ago, I’ve tried to examine what “that way” is and how it is commonly understood. It encompasses more than just this example where a comment was made based on dominant, racialized notions of beauty and an acidic kind of color consciousness. More broadly, it is about how various identities are negotiated, and how race and color are operationalized.

In this social context, race and racism are considered when trying to explain difference, whether it is community, linguistic, regional, national, religious, etc. The charge of calling somebody ‘racist’ is used if they insult a specific identity. For example, a slur about someone from Gujarat (the westernmost state) by someone from another part of the country could very well take on racial connotations. The regional/linguistic identity of being Gujarati transforms into the Gujarati race. The same is applicable when dealing with nationalities as well. Verbal abuse directed at a visiting student from Afghanistan is perceived by other Indian students and the Afghan student as racism.

Employing the concept of race like this is a way to maintain boundaries on various levels and to easily ‘other’ one’s counterpart. The demarcation of identities occurs simultaneously as efforts are taken to create uniformity. As domestic ‘racial’ difference is negotiated, a unified national identity is asserted, which is again associated with race.

The major problem is that the understanding and application of race as something immutable and static only adds to an existing multi-layered social stratification. This racial conception strengthens already constructed barriers that are continually reproduced at the intersection of caste, gender, class, etc.

The operation of race in the Indian context is not limited to the aforementioned discussion. There continue to be political and social ramifications related to the Aryan/Dravidian divide, which colonial era historians sought as fit their narrative a dominant group subjugating a supposedly weaker people. While this narrative has not held up under historical scrutiny, it still influences the socio-political landscape of Tamil Nadu to some degree.

So while difference may be socially constructed, it continues to have significant social meaning and must therefore be challenged. Considering how much hinges on the coded meaning of words, it is necessary to interrogate language. Otherwise, the durability of race, racism and the notion of “that way” will continue to persist.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Globalization and Racism

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

Several different positions emerge to approach the racial/ethnic discrimination and oppression in the globalization scheme. The moralist, for instance, would highlight the lack of ethics. They claim that the indifference and discriminatory attitudes of the colonial British during the opium trade with the Chinese surfaces today as well. The multiculturalist position does not address the serious allegations of the moralists. Their seemingly noble philosophy of ‘multiculturalism’ allows them “to buy inexpensively the perception that they are fair and socially responsible. And because multiculturalism takes the heat off transnational corporations by implying that a liberatory politics need not attack their power, it is harming the very communities it seeks to help.” The means to counter all this for Anthony Taibi is “transracial political movement for community empowerment.”

Then there are “egalitarians,” the defenders of formal equality, who insist on treating everyone equally “without making any distinctions.” They fail to realize the fact that the constituency they intend to treat equally is profoundly unequal. If we treat all of them equally, we will end up reproducing inequality. In that process we may also make the situation worse for those who already have it bad.

There are human rights advocates who insist on using the human rights instruments to understand and alleviate the plight of the oppressed. The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities under the UN Commission on Human Rights passed the resolution 1999/30 (Trade Liberalization and Its Impact on Human Rights) on August 26, 1999 which, among other things, requests the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights “intensify efforts at dialogue with the World Trade Organization and its member states on the human rights dimensions of trade and investment liberalization, and to take steps to ensure that human rights principles and obligations are fully integrated in future negotiations in the World Trade Organization.”

Racism and racial discrimination haunt society both as institutionalized government policy or as a result of doctrines of racial superiority and exclusivity, and as manifestations of actions taking place in segments of society which are perpetrated by vested interests for socioeconomic-political purposes. It is quite pertinent to study how financial markets and the overall processes of globalization and liberalization contribute to racism and racial discrimination and segregation and who stands to gain from it.

Our argument here is not that race as such causes economic exploitation. Neither do we intend to universalize the race problematic made by and for Americans, or to fall into the trap of ‘globalization’ of American problems and thereby verify the Americanocentric understanding of ‘globalization’ as the Americanization of the entire universe, as Bourdieu and Wacquant fear. All we posit here is that racism continues to be a social reality in many parts of the world, that it is an integral part of the ongoing globalization scheme, and that the oppressed ought to deal with this issue according to the logic of their own society.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Anchor of Hope

By Barbara Carter, Office Manager and Assistant to the Director at the Kirwan Institute

When asked by my co-workers if I would be willing to write a piece for the Kirwan Institute’s blog, I was befuddled. My thought was, “don’t they know that I’m all over the place?” Any issue in America today that affects Black people touches my life in some shape, form, or fashion.

After giving the idea considerable thought, I agreed to put some of my thoughts together and write about my feelings and the conflict I feel in my spirit about a Black man, Barack Obama, running for President of the United States.

I am a baby boomer, born in 1953, and I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I remember well what life was like in Chicago in the 1960s for poor and working-class Black Americans. I remember segregation and living in ethnically defined neighborhoods—you lived where “your kind” lived. If a Black person was going to and from a job in a neighborhood outside of where they lived, their lives were at risk, especially after dark.

I also remember the hope Black Americans felt, including my parents, when in 1961 John F. Kennedy became the President of the United States. I also remember the feelings of overwhelming sadness, despair, and loss of hope Black Americans had when on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was senselessly assassinated. Seemingly, to us as Black Americans, this happened because he wanted to help all Americans have a better life. I was ten years old then, but I remember.

I remember in the late 60s, people began to talk about a man named Martin Luther King, Jr. Once again, Black Americans began to have hope. I remember when the reality began to set in of what Dr. King was fighting for and against. I remember when on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was senselessly assassinated. It became clear to us as Black Americans that Dr. King was murdered only because he wanted to help ensure that all Americans would have a chance to live better lives than they had before. I remember the riots and that we, as Black Americans, were destroying the only things we had—our neighborhoods and each other. I was fifteen years old then, but I remember.

Last but not least, I remember when New York’s junior U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy became a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was another person who, it seemed, only wanted to help ensure that the United States became a better place to live for all Americans. On June 5, 1968 Senator Kennedy was fatally wounded by gunshots at a Los Angeles hotel.

There are reasons why I dread supporting Senator Barack Obama’s quest for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination. I do not want to sign my name to anything that might guarantee that he will lose his life because he only wants to help America become a better place for all to live.

I am almost certain that this is something that he has discussed with his family and close friends. It is a thing that cannot be overlooked.

I am very proud of Senator Barack Obama and his “Audacity of Hope”. I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that Senator Obama is well qualified to run our country better than most. Nonetheless, I would rather prefer him not try to become President at this time, because of what he represents to so many people in this country and the world. Has our society really changed that much to welcome this audacious human being to become the next U.S. President for the benefit of all?

I hope the time will arrive when there will be a different outcome for the men and women who crusade for justice and fairness for all humankind; a state of the world where differences are accepted and embraced; a state of the world that safely embraces those who after considering the risks selflessly and putting aside their safety and well-being and that of their families, step forward for justice and fairness. I hope that that time will arrive for those who tirelessly continue to strive to help create ways to improve the quality of life for all Americans.

Therefore, I would like Senator Obama to continue to be what he is to me and others today, an “Anchor of Hope”.

Senator Obama, please stay around for a while longer with your family and with us. Continue to give your gift of hope to all Americans.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A world without sprawl?

By Jason Reece, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

Studying and working as a city planner, urban sprawl has always been the source of the many challenges in my academic and professional life. Working as a planner is a constant exercise in attempting to influence and deal with the impacts of new development. Even as a child, growing up in an urban area that was continually losing its assets to the suburbs, I could feel the impact of urban sprawl. While my neighborhood declined, large homes and new businesses flourished in the suburbs next door.

Working at the Kirwan Institute, I focus daily on the challenges facing inner city communities and residents whose opportunities are limited as resources spread to inaccessible suburbs and exurbs.

Sprawling growth on the fringe of our cities has always been the “villain” in this narrative. We often forget the cities and our urban form are always changing. I felt that this narrative would always exist, but recent factors in the international and national economy may alter this scenario.

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post questions if “sprawl” as we now it will soon disappear.

“The End of Sprawl” by Professor Eduardo M. Penalver (Cornel Law School) published on December 30th posits that rising gas prices and the recent “crisis” in the housing market will significantly curtail our nation’s unbridled suburban growth. Increased commuting costs, deflated housing markets, and a tightened lending environment makes the new subdivision on the exurban fringe becomes less appealing and more difficult to finance.

At first glance the “end of sprawl” appears to be a great thing for producing more equitable and sustainable neighborhoods or regions. Investments, resources, and people may begin to trickle back into inner city communities. I hope this is the case, but the scenario also raises many questions about what the future of our cities will look like. Instead of fighting exclusionary zoning, will gentrification become the primary challenge for advocates of regional equity? Will today’s suburbs begin to face the isolation from opportunity or deprivation facing our inner city communities? The answers to these questions are unanswered at this time and unexpected consequences always accompany societal change. As always, the future remains uncertain, but advocates need to think about these potential future challenges and be responsive to change when it occurs.