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.
America in 2050: Even Older and More Diverse. MSNBC.
Multiracial in America. MSNBC.

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.