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.