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

Monday, June 16, 2008

Families and Foreclosure

By Christy Rogers, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Recently I bought a parenting book called Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s a parenting book informed by Buddhist practice. Having little exposure to Buddhism, I expected a lot of advice to meditate on the gifts of the universe in hippie-flowery language (something I was partly up for, given my hippie-flowery background, and partly skeptical of, given same). I was stunned to discover practical advice in plain language. One of my favorite paragraphs is this one:

People who choose to become parents take on this hardest of jobs for no salary, often unexpectedly, at a relatively young and inexperienced age, and often under conditions of economic strain and insecurity. Typically, the journey of parenting is embarked upon without a clear strategy or overarching view of the terrain...We learn on the job, as we go. There is, in fact, no other way (page 15).

This is true for parents in all circumstances. But imagine the harrowing beginning for this expectant parent, noted in an extraordinary series on foreclosures in The Columbus Dispatch:

The woman, eight months pregnant, cowered in the back of the house and sent a friend out to talk with the deputy sheriff. This family wasn’t responsible for the mortgage [they were renters] but was about to lose its home to foreclosure. “The toughest part of this job as far as I’m concerned is the renters,” [Deputy] Capehart said. “They have no idea I’m coming. I always hear: ‘I just paid my rent.’”…The pregnant woman wouldn’t talk to the deputy or a reporter…

Would you talk to the deputy or the reporter?

In October, the Kirwan Institute will be convening an initiative to hammer out long-term, sustainable solutions to the foreclosure crisis. Yes, some folks bought over their heads. But most didn’t. The Dispatch series noted that about 70% of people being evicted in Franklin County were renters. More than half of the high-rate mortgages in Ohio signed from 2004 to 2006 went to homeowners refinancing their loans. And the bulk of central Ohio’s subprime loans were funneled to working-class communities of color, meaning that these communities, long struggling for basic homeownership rights, are taking the hardest hit from the fallout. A foreclosure epidemic that causes the meltdown of a major financial institution and causes stock-market shivers around the world isn’t the result of a handful of folks trying to keep up with the Jones’. We’ll be discussing in detail what it is the result of, and how to intervene successfully into it, on October 2-3, and we hope you’ll join us. Bear Stearns got some help. Now how about those pregnant women?

For more on how the mortgage crisis is affecting children please see

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Applying the Human Rights Perspective to the US?

By Lidija Knuth, a research fellow at the Kirwan Institute

It is not news that the majority of US citizens still consider international human rights to be something redundant. The arguments are well known: one is that 'the United Nations treaties are furthering the U.N.'s leftist agenda' and another states that 'it is up to the American people and their government to determine the best course of action to address the various issues based on America's unique history and traditions'.

The reality is that the US, a country that claims to be a role model for most other countries in the world in terms of democracy and civil rights, has failed to ratify many important international human rights treaties. For example, while to date 90 countries have already ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and 193 States of the world are parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Washington still has not ratified these treasties. The US also has not joined any of the major International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions guaranteeing core labor rights to organize and engage in collective bargaining. This exceptionalism is also manifested in the reservations the US attached to those treaties it has joined. The US ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) rejected that treaty's inclusion of effect as well as intent in determining whether laws and practices are discriminatory.

The latest example of the US government's approach towards international human rights mechanisms is its reaction towards the concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). CERD is an international 18 member Expert Committee that issued its latest observations in February of this year concerning US laws, policies and programs, and their progress in the elimination of racial discrimination. The Committee drew its conclusions after having heard from the US government and representatives of the US Human Rights Network, and after having reviewed the US state report and so called shadow reports submitted by NGOs. Although the US delegation approached its task diplomatically, it pointedly disagreed with the CERD Committee on key issues, suggesting at various points that the disparities observed by the Committee were merely the result of poverty, or related to personal behaviours, and that disparities in criminal justice outcomes are based on differential rates of commission of crimes.

Instead of taking the CERD observations seriously, (such as urging the US government “to intensify its efforts aimed at reducing the phenomenon of residential segregation based on racial, ethnic and national origin, as well as its negative consequences for the affected individuals and groups”), think tanks—whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies—still argue that these observations “address issues and allegations regarding race in the United States very little”.
Unfortunately the majority of the US public takes such arguments (articulated through the mainstream media and proclaimed by various think tanks) seriously instead of holding its government accountable and claiming that it adhere to its human rights obligations which correlatively constitute their human rights.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Barack Obama and Exceptional Black People

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

With Barack Obama on the cusp of securing the Democratic nomination for President of these here United States, it appears that white Americans (at least those who don’t live in Appalachia or think that Ann Coulter is the second coming of Mother Theresa) are in fact ready for a black President. But does this mean that white Americans are ready for black people? Dramatic pause…Jeopardy music….buzzer…..time for the answer….Nope. I hate to burst the bubble of those who believe that “We Americans” (and by “We Americans” I don’t mean everyone, just white Americans, kind of like the framers of the US Constitution when they wrote “We the people”) are on the cusp of a post-racial society, because we aren’t. We aren’t even close. But how can this be if “We Americans” are ready for a black President?

The truth of the matter is that ordinary white Americans over the last few decades have shown a remarkable ability to embrace African American super celebrities. When it comes to Oprah or Tiger or Magic or Michael (Jordan that is, not Jackson, even white people realize that Michael Jackson has lost his mind) race no longer matters. They are considered extraordinary individuals who have mastered their craft. They are admired and idolized for their professional accomplishments. Until now, the colorblindness that African American peak performers have enjoyed has been limited to those in the arts, entertainment, and sports. What we’re seeing in this presidential election is the application of this phenomenon to electoral politics. Barack Obama has become a super celebrity, and if you don’t believe me, ask any of the 75,000 people who came out to hear him speak in Portland recently.

As a super celebrity, Obama benefits from the personal exposure that ordinary African Americans don’t receive. This enables white Americans to get to know him – his character, his views, his values. Even if this exposure is only superficial – sound bites on CNN or youtube – it’s enough to humanize him, and in the process, ordinary white Americans see that the dominant stereotypes about African Americans simply don’t apply, to him at least.

And here is the rub. Most white Americans see African American super celebrities as different from African Americans as a whole. These African Americans are not just exceptional individuals; they are exceptions to the group. They are articulate, well-mannered, hardworking, family oriented, and most importantly, uninterested in speaking about white supremacy. This is why Rev. Jeremiah Wright troubled so many white people, even staunch Obama supporters. Rev. Wright, in their eyes, represented the real black America – he was angry, unpatriotic, unchristian, and secretly hated white people. Those on the far Right pointed to Obama’s pastor and said, “See, we told you Obama was black. And you know what that means – he’s angry, unpatriotic, unchristian, and secretly hates white people. So don’t even think about voting for him. Better yet, you better hide the women and the children!” And many months earlier, Rush Limbaugh warned white Americans not to be fooled by the Jedi mind tricks of this “magic Negro” who has snookered so many people into believing that he is something other than a black man. On the Left, when the Rev. Wright “controversy” surfaced, quite a few asked, “Could this be true? Is Obama really like the rest of them? We thought he was different.” Consequently, they called for Obama to renounce, denounce, reject, forsake, or forswear his pastor. And when he finally did after Rev. Wright’s performance at the National Press Club, they said, “Whew, that was close. For a second, we really thought Obama was like the rest of them. Welcome back to colorblind stardom.”

So, when will we know that America is ready not just for a black president, but for black people? When white Americans realize that the personal characteristics that they admire most about Barack Obama are not his alone, but are shared widely by African Americans. Obama is an exceptional African American, but he is not an African American exception.