Monday, May 26, 2008

An Acceptable Stance for a Black Man

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

History is breaking on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Well, almost breaking I should say, if an agreement can be reached between an artist and the commission in charge of art for the National Mall. Some years ago, the US Congress passed legislation to erect a monument of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall. King will become the first non US president to have a memorial erected in his honor at the foot of the Tidal Basin. This has not come about without its share of controversy. The latest is the depiction of King at the memorial site. The US Commission of Fine Arts who is responsible for overseeing projects for the National Mall has demanded that the artist Lei Yixin alter his depiction of Dr. King because the Commission finds the artist’s interpretation of King “too confrontational.” How did we get to a moment in which Dr. King, one who critiqued America’s system of racial apartheid and called on the nation to hold to the values she expressed in the constitution, could be read as anything other than confrontational? King is the iconic figure of a movement that was rooted in speaking truth to power and standing up to the powers that be in the face of great danger and ultimately death. However, today in our memories of Dr. King we conceptualize him as anything but confrontational. Talk about a recasting of history! In an op-ed appearing on, Ibram Rogers captures it best writing, “King was never happy with America, so why are the Feds forcing him to smile now?”

Many bloggers and columnists are commenting on how this takes King out of context, so I won’t belabor that point. However, I am interested in why in the midst of honoring King he must appear more “meditative” and “less rigid”? This requirement builds on other situations in which racial reconciliatory moments have come at a cost. Moving forward and engaging in racial reconciliation seems to require that those who have experienced oppression relinquish the realities of their historic wrongs. Those who have a history of getting the shaft are often expected to bear the cost of racial transformation or reconciliation. Bearing the cost means exhibiting a willingness to pocket the pain, dispersing of any feelings of anger, disappointment, or condemnation. At any moment in which their well-earned anger is expressed they have violated the unspoken rules of reconciliation.

Now, I have always answered affirmatively the question “Can’t we all just get along?” but the question I find myself asking over and over again in powerful moments of racial transformation is on who’s terms and at what costs will this getting along occur? Does our collective “getting along” necessitate that we come to the table ignoring the conditions and histories of those who have experienced oppression at the hands of those in power? This is at the forefront of my thinking with every step of the O’Bama campaign beginning with his attempt at running a deracialized campaign yet running into the “black enough/ too black” debates. This is echoed for me with the controversy over Michelle O’Bama’s comment that she is proud of her country for the first time. And it is at the core of the outrage over Jeremiah Wright’s comments that America has not lived up to its creed. It concerns me that coming together must happen without recognition or note of the suffering that some have endured. Isn’t it possible to allow people who have suffered greatly to acknowledge their past and yet move forward together?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Facing the Re-emergence of Race-as-Biology

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

That race is socially constructed is widely seen as a truism within academia. Racial meanings, we argue, are not inscribed biologically on the bodies to which racial identities attach, but instead owe to particularities of history, geography, and politics.

Today, the scientific consensus about the relationship between race and biology is fraying. It’s true that we have never behaved as if we really believed that race is “socially constructed.” Within and outside the academy we talk and write about Whites, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans as if these were natural, well-defined groups of people that have always existed as such. The 2000 Census was the first that allowed respondents to “mark all that apply” in identifying themselves racially.

Even as we have continued to act as if race were an objective fact, and a specifically biological one, for some time now that conventional wisdom has lacked the imprimatur of Science. This is changing, and we can expect the effects of that change to ripple increasingly into the cultural mainstream.

In 1994, the publication of The Bell Curve marked popular re-engagement with the relationship between race and genetics and its implications for social outcomes and policy. A decade later, the FDA approved its first race-targeted drug, a heart failure medication for African Americans. Recent developments in genetic science lead some to argue that race remains a useful proxy for genetic variations meaningful in the health context.

Last fall, Nobel Laureate James Watson, who helped discover the double-helix structure of DNA in the 1950’s, said that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.”

Remarks like these and a long, grim history of scientific authority in the service of racist ideology have sparked concerns about the destructive ends the re-emerging notion of race-as-biology could be made to serve. We must not run from the work or the rhetoric. Instead, we must engage and understand them, ask our own questions, and shape informed, thoughtful responses.

What is the evidence for the biological basis of race? What do we know and what remains to be learned? What is the relationship between “race-as-biology,” and race, defined sociologically? How can we take advantage of the promise of genetic science without falling prey to the pitfalls of biological reductionism?

To be continued.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Toast for a thing named love…

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

“I toast for the woman, but for one, for the one that offered me her raptures and wrapped me in her kisses; for the woman who lulled me to sleep in the cradle.

“For the woman who taught me as a child the value of exquisite, deep, and real fondness; for the woman who lulled me to sleep in her arms and who gave me in pieces, one by one, the entire heart.”

These are a few of the last strophes of a long poem entitled in Spanish “El brindis del bohemio”. In this poem, a series of male friends take turns toasting the end of another year in a bar. The translated strophes included here are delivered by the last of these bohemians. In contradistinction to his preceding toasters, he decides to toast for that particular and important women of his life: his Mother.

This poem is recited every December 31st (on TV and radio) in Puerto Rico. It was not written by a Puerto Rican, but I do remember when growing up, our New Year’s Eve family parties came to a complete stop to listen to low-pitched baritone voiced men reciting this poem. As a child, and even until recently, I did not give much thought to it. More than anything else, this poem’s reciting felt like a nuisance to me and an interruption of the good times I was having with my cousins, because of the need to stop playing and listen to a bunch of old men talking around a table, reading -incomprehensible words for me. In other words, I was always looking forward to its end (and it was a long wait because the poem is quite long). I felt no connection whatsoever with the subject matter of this poem: a bunch of bohemians toasting about their female adventures, with the exception of the last one, toasting in remembrance of his dead mother.

Why do I write about this? I do so because yesterday in many countries in the world (although not all of course), Mothers’ Day was celebrated.

A day like today, a mother that needed to suffer the lost of a son one day after Mother’s Day in 1981 was Cedella Marley Booker. Bob Marley passed away on Monday May 11, 1981. Because of this, I would like to close this entry with a quote from him: “Overcome the devils with a thing named love”.

Would we be able to do so? Would we be able to embrace love and transcend those socially constructed divisions that are so real, while imagined? That is for us to decide and do, but in the meantime let us toast for that nature’s “monster” of love and caring (like Lope de Vega was once called, “el monstruo de la naturaleza”, for his creative and prolific literary genius): Mothers.

“Mama,” this is my treat to you from afar (now empathizing a bit more with that last bohemian because of the geographic distance between us while living): I love you. Let the work toward justice continue once we have re-fueled and embraced motherly love…

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

…, but ethnic conflicts are products of colonialism!

By Elsadig Elsheikh, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

There is an old argument, often implied, that ethnic conflicts in Third World countries are consequences of backwardness of these societies. Or even worse, ‘it’s their destiny,’ because they don’t follow ‘our model.’ In post-colonial analysis this argument does not hold. Understanding the general framework of underdevelopment, unequal distribution of wealth, and undemocratic politics that are inherited from colonialism will allow a deeper realization of the origin and motives of ethnic conflicts in Third World countries. Ignoring this framework will make it almost impossible to assess the current state of ethnic conflicts in post-colonial societies in the Third World.

The literature that attempts to identify and explain ‘ethnically motivated’ conflicts in a Third World country often times ignores the very nature of colonialism. Therefore, any effort to understand the origin and motivation of ethnic conflicts that overlooks the colonial legacy of ‘divide and conquer’ *(e.g., Sudan, Kenya, among others) will fall into the trap of the conventional petite-bourgeois ideological framework. This ideological framework negates the colonial effects before and after independence in relation to ethnic conflicts.

Ethnic conflict, by its nature, is not an invention of, but one of the ugly products of European colonialism. When hegemony and coercion are applied to any society – as was the experience of the vast majority of Third World countries- the outcomes will be reactionary acts of violence. The ignorance and brutality of the colonial era will sneak again through the back door of the post-colonial nation-state model. Nevertheless, when the colonial rulers left their colonies the new ‘masters’ -gaining their knowledge and tools from the colonizers- continued the same ‘divide and conquer’ policies. The struggle for power legitimacy in these societies didn’t follow a decolonization framework, which requires a de-linking from the ideology and practices of colonialism. Nonetheless, the new ‘emerging’ elite class used their indigenous stamp to institute a new era of dependency. The product will be, as Eqbal Ahmad puts it, “a world of pain.”

He argued that “the colonial State maintained a sizeable tradition upper class whose legitimacy and power was emasculated through expropriation by and collaboration with colonialism, along with a subordinate state bourgeoisie created and sustained by it”. That is, the elite of the new independent state is incapable of establishing its hegemony over its own people. The only means and methods available to the elite were to apply its hegemony to utilize the benefits of the colonial apparatus of manipulation, control, and normalization. These apparatus are the educational system, the law, and the military. These new independent countries lack any coherent and functioning ideology. Furthermore, their leaders lack any legitimacy of authority. Their scapegoat is to build a sort of fascist state bound by nationalistic sentiments, as had occurred in some parts of Europe prior and after the WWII. This marriage produces an isolated, incapable, and paralyzed nation-state. Ultimately, when the façade leadership falls away and is uncovered, they cry for help from their ethnic groups to substitute the nation-state. It is then that ethnic conflict ensues.
• Fanon, Frantz: The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, New York, NY 1963.