Friday, November 20, 2009

Reverse Robin Hood

By Christy Rogers, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

On Wednesday, November 18th, the Kirwan Institute, along with the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the National Fair Housing Alliance, the Center for Responsible Lending, and the National Council of La Raza, co-hosted a policy meeting around fair credit and fair housing in the wake of the subprime lending and foreclosure crisis (with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation). The turnout was so good we had to add a table. The conversation was intense, engaging. Even the food was good. Yet I left incensed. Why?

Because in presentation after presentation, we learned just how badly the American people are getting fleeced. Not by the ‘usual suspects’—we all do love to rail at the IRS—but by the financial institutions that supposedly help us all build wealth and prosperity. I entered the room thinking there were two credit markets—one that offered sustainable, wealth-building asset and credit tools at fair and transparent terms to one group of folks, and one that offered crappier options (high fees, pre-payment penalties, exploding things, tiny print) to another group of folks—poor white people, people in black or Latino neighborhoods, Native Americans, military families, immigrants, rural people…in other words, a good majority of us. That was bad enough, but now I’m convinced that not only are there two credit markets, but one actually functions to extract wealth from the other. The crowbar of extraction, if you will, was the subprime lending and foreclosure fiasco that pulled about a quarter of a trillion dollars of housing wealth out of communities of color, and in some places predominantly from their widowed grandmas, and put it in the pockets of the financial elite. When those elites got into trouble for their poor choices, the government, aided by former Goldman Sachs’ head Henry Paulson’s eye-of-Sauron-like ability to survey the devastated financial landscape, hurriedly borrowed taxpayer dollars to re-line those tailored pockets. Besides kittens in trees and baby prams rolling down courthouse steps, nothing stirs us to action like the thought of a CEO of a flailing company who can’t pay himself a gajillion dollars. It puts all those people who make $6,000 shower curtains and $75,000 toilets out of business. (No offense to the toilet designer, by the way; it’s real pretty.)

But there are other extractive mechanisms as well, including ridiculous debit card overdraft fees (billions of our gram and gramps’ social security dollars goes to those fees every year). La Raza held focus groups with young Latinos and found that their negative experiences with credit cards often resulted in them withdrawing from the credit market altogether. The focus groups also reported that the young adults felt strongly that credit cards should be reserved for emergencies—which they then defined as diapers and utility bills, what many of us would term daily needs. The Appleseed network has been working diligently to bring transparency and fairness to the remittance market after working immigrants were assaulted, and sometimes killed, for the cash they intended to send home to their families. And Chris Peterson and Steven Graves have shown that payday lenders “aggressively target American military personnel, irrespective of most forms of legal regulation.”

Why are the rich stealing from the poor? Because they can; because it’s there; because it’s largely legal; and when it isn’t, the criminal abuses aren’t prosecuted. Let your elected representatives know that the law has to change to prevent deceptive and abusive practices, and that existing laws need to be enforced. Start with the passage of a robust CFPA. And take your banking and loan business to a responsible institution. Tune In, Turn On, and Opt-Out!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The House on Imperial Avenue

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

Over last week, I’ve experienced a flood of emotions vacillating between shock, outrage, anguish, sorrow and mourning as I watched news outlets report day after day the rising toll of bodies pulled from the Anthony Sowell house in Cleveland. The bodies extracted from the Imperial Avenue house had decomposed beyond recognition. Authorities could tell few things about the bodies and in some instances, only skulls remained.

Each time the news reported “bodies found,” I immediately knew, in that way that knowledge accumulates over time through experience, that these were the bodies of black women. I knew it from the report of the first body found. These were the bodies of the forgotten, the surrendered and they represented the bodies of so many black women over time that have gone unacknowledged. I knew these were the bodies of black women, because we look for white women. Their names ran through my mind like a ticker at the bottom of a CNN newscast, the names of all the missing white women that I knew off the top of my head, as if I had a long established relationship with them. We all are on first name basis with missing white women and girls—Laci, Jon Benet, Natalee, Caylee, Elizabeth… We all know them; we’ve been made to know them.

The house on Imperial Avenue reminded me once again that black women go missing everyday from communities across the country and we seldom hear of them on national news. Families are so often faced with the tragic reality that police, community officials, and media outlets have little resources or interest in looking for missing black women. My colleague Rebecca Wanzo’s new book The Suffering Will Not be Televised takes on this issue chronicling the ways black women’s suffering is so often overlooked and how their stories fail to elicit collective sympathies.

As a black woman, these are chilling realizations. Some might say, but the women of Imperial Avenue were lost to the streets, haunted by demons and battling a myriad of addictions. They were not representative of black women, they are not like you. While these women’s life circumstances were different from my own, they were black women and their realities are linked to my own. My heart mourns for the families who lost their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, lovers and friends at the house on Imperial Avenue. My soul also aches for all of black womanhood as we came face to face with the realities of how deeply black women’s lives are undervalued.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When Walls Come Down

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

Some twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall, an impenetrable barrier of concrete that divided Germany for nearly half a century, came crashing down, reduced to rubble by the people it separated. The East and West Berliners who tore it down acted not out of impulse but out of a deeply rooted desire to be free not only of the physical structure that forcibly separated them but of the political and economic systems that reinforced that separation.

Today, we celebrate the destruction of the wall and the reunification of Germany by waxing poetically about the forward march of progress. But there was nothing inevitable about what happened in this Cold War hot spot. The cascade of events leading up to that fateful day in November 1989 frightened world leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In his personal journal, U.S. President George H. W. Bush fretted about the rapid pace of progress and wondered how he could slow things down. Even his predecessor was greatly concerned. When President Ronald Reagan implored Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this wall” he did not mean so soon.

Like so many events that change society for the better, ordinary people were ahead of political leaders. They were the agents of change – the makers of the “inevitable.” Had it been up to the usual suspects, the “inevitable” would have taken considerably longer to materialize and there is no telling what kind of truncated form of freedom would have eventually emerged.

The Berlin Wall no longer stands and Germany is no longer divided. In fact, Germany has emerged from the turmoil of the Cold War and the uncertainty of reunification as a major industrial power. But like all western societies, walls remain and divisions persist. In Germany and elsewhere, modernity has eliminated the need for concrete barriers. (The tragic exceptions are America’s wall along its border with Mexico, and Israel’s wall in the West Bank.) Yet the supposed forward march of progress has failed to get rid of other kinds of walls, the most notable being those based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and citizenship status. In many ways, these socio-economic barriers are harder to tear down than physical structures like the Berlin Wall because they are invisible to so many people. Indeed, it is often the case that the only people who see them are the people negatively affected by them. And like the Berlin Wall, these barriers will not come down on their own. Ordinary people will have to tear them down, led not by political leaders but by the people who see them everyday. If and when these barriers fall, it not be because of the natural progression of things, but because of the hard work and determination of ordinary people to live free and full lives.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rush to Judgment

By Stephen Menendian, Senior Legal Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

In his New York Times op-ed on November 9th, David Brooks criticized the public response and the media coverage of the Fort Hood violence last week, which he called a ‘rush to therapy’, which emphasized the personal breakdown of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the apparent shooter, over the narrative of Islamic extremism that may or may not have inspired or motivated the violence. Brooks claimed that the ‘rush to therapy’ “absolved Hasan—before the real evidence was in—of his responsibility.”

The so-called 'rush to therapy' did not—and could not—absolve Major Hasan of his responsibility. On the contrary, it prevented a rush to judgment, to fit complex facts into a simplistic narrative. Brooks claims that the ‘rush to therapy’ “denied, before the evidence was in, the possibility of evil.” It did not deny the possibility of evil. It denied the presumption of evil. In this country, guilt or innocence is supposed to be determined in a courtroom, not by an angry mob or the media. Yet all too often this is not the case. Our long history of mob justice—on the frontier or under white sheets—belies our standard of justice, of due process, of ‘innocence until proven guilty.’

Brooks claims that it “wasn’t the reaction of a morally or politically serious nation.” On the contrary, it was the mark of a morally and political serious nation.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The global food crisis requests a new food and agriculture governance model

By Lidija Knuth, Research Fellow for the Kirwan Institute

The global food crisis is also a crisis of food governance. With an estimated increase of 105 million hungry people in 2009, there are now 1.02 billion malnourished people in the world, meaning that almost one sixth of all humanity is suffering from hunger (FAO 2009). But the problem is not that we don't produce enough food. There is enough food for everybody but decades of globalization with respective deregulation, speculation on the commodity markets, climate change and inadequate food and agricultural policies and respective models of production have led to massive problems in producing food in a sustainable way and distributing food fairly.

Most of the food globally is produced by small-scale farmers, women, and farm workers. And yet they are steadily losing access to, and control over food producing resources such as land, water, seeds and livestock breeds. Anticipated profits from the agro-export business and the increase in agro-fuels investment and rising food prices have triggered a strong demand for land and water to expand monocultures and industrial agriculture as well as widespread land grabbing. This development, together with other factors such as armed conflicts, extractive industries, tourism, industrial and infrastructure projects, climate change, and accelerated urbanization have led to more uncertainty of land and property rights of rural communities.

To meet those challenges we need a new governance framework. The current norms and regimes governing food issues need to be altered; it is necessary to reflect on the models of production and management that should be promoted, the problems around access to natural resources and the major actors that will need to be involved. It is necessary to seriously involve several additional actors in the new food and agriculture governance systems. Small-scale farmers should no longer be viewed as a problem, but as central actors in boosting food production and preserving the environment. Their and other marginal voices need to be taken more seriously. They should be viewed as key change agents, while agriculture should be seen as an - and perhaps “the”– engine of growth and poverty reduction.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Social Contact and Interactions

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

The binary thinking that permeates most of our cultures across the world often results in simplistic two-pronged classifications. ‘Good vs. Evil’ is the most favored storyline in most cultures. ‘Us vs. Them’ is the most fecund identitarian and political scheme. ‘Profit vs. Loss’ in economics, ‘Victor vs. Vanquished’ in military, ‘Holiness vs. Sinfulness’ in religion, and the cultural sphere has many more: strong-weak, tall-short, fat-thin, black-white and so on. The list is endless.

We often think of social contact and interactions also in terms of social exclusion and inclusion. In the typical ‘before-after’ binary thinking, inclusion is the tool of intervention. The ‘pre-inclusion’ state is deemed to be social exclusion. Then inclusion happens and the ‘after-exclusion’ state is understood to be inclusion.

A medical analogy could help us understand this better. Say you have a nose and feel pretty bad about it. You undergo a plastic surgery and get the nose straightened. The doctor shows the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos, you are thrilled about the new nose and live happily ever after. The ‘during’ phase between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages is a short and swift surgery.

But is ‘social inclusion’ such a quick and easy move? The ‘during’ part that can be termed as social contact and interaction is long, convoluted, complex, intricate and highly political. Unlike the plastic surgery, a lot happens here. If we locate all that happens here on a continuum, this could range from ignorance and indifference to outright animosity and active confrontation. Between these extreme positions, there are all kinds of inclusionary and exclusionary precepts and practices.

Take, for instance, the inclusion of women in many of our societies. For many men and man-made institutions, inclusion of women is rather a forced or legally mandated effort. We could call it ‘sexclusion’ that means overall exclusion with selective sexual inclusion. Some sections of people in some parts of India abort female fetuses because of their preference for male-children. Girl children are considered to be a liability. But they do need women for their boys to marry. Another example would be the ignominy of untouchability in some parts of India. The members of a ‘lower’ caste are kept away by the ‘upper’ caste groups as untouchables. But the ‘lower’ caste women somehow become touchable when sexploitation is possible. The issue of sexclusion is much broader and more complicated and deserves to be studied separately.

Social exclusion also happens at two levels. Pushing ‘the Other’ away from you is often problematized and is a crime in many of our societies. But there is also an equally effective and treacherous way of exclusion, and that is pulling your(self) away from ‘the Other.’ Examples could be White people in the United States running to the suburbs or the ‘upper’ caste Brahmins in India secluding themselves to maintain their purity and ward off pollution from the Dalits. Thus marginalization is a form of structural violence that keeps sections at the margins as you seclude yourself at the center. Furthermore, it also means your refusal to enter the margins and interact with the marginalized in any meaningful manner. This large grey zone between ‘social exclusion’ and ‘social inclusion’ must be studied more deeply and methodically.

New Populism Not About Race? Think Again

By Stephen Menendian, Senior Legal Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

The headlines are now familiar. Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You Lie!” during President Obama’s Health Care speech to the Congress. In response to Rep. Wilson’s outburst, former President Jimmy Carter said “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American.” This comment launched a media firestorm framed around a simple question: is resistance to Obama’s health care plan, or any of his proposals, rooted in racism?

Maureen Dowd, writing for the New York Times, reminded us of Joe Wilson’s association with the Sons of the Confederacy, including his participation in the campaign to keep the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina capital building. The implication was that Joe Wilson’s outburst was motivated by racial antiapthy, or at least latent racial attitudes. On the other side, David Brooks, disclaiming the ability to “peer… into the souls of Obama’s critics,” opined that “race is largely beside the point.” In his view, the debate was one of big government versus small government, federal interventionism versus limited federal government and states rights, urban versus rural, Hamilton versus Jefferson. Brooks claims that it is this frame which illuminates the debate and the reaction by the right-wing populists to Obama's policies, whether it is Health Care, the Stimulus, and so on.

The next 24 hours of the news cycle was consumed by this question, from Fox News to Larry King. In the middle of it all, the President said that opposition to his policies wasn’t motivated by racism. In an interview, asked about the issue, President Obama said: "Are there people out there who don't like me because of race? I'm sure there are. That's not the overriding issue here."

The debate over the issue was disturbingly shallow because it was framed by the wrong question. Either resistance to Obama’s policies are motivated by racism or they aren’t. And if they aren’t, then, as Brooks put it, ‘race is… beside the point.’ But this is a false dichotomy. The frame that David Brooks employs is the perfect counterpoint for why this is so.

On the various issues of federal interventionism (gun control, the federal reserve, etc) and federal programs (health care), limited government and states rights, taxation, immigration and birtherism, urban versus rural, nay, Jackson and Jefferson, race is ‘largely besides the point’? Point by point, issue by issue, these are the tropes of race. These issues may not be motivated by racial animus, but they are most certainly ‘about race.’

Southern opposition to federal intervention and protection of states rights and a limited federal role was always premised on the protection of existing racial arrangements. This was the essence of Jeffersonianism. While he spoke of the ‘ideal of the independent farmer,’ that farmer was, by and large, a slaveholder. The states-rights tradition cannot be understood outside of race. Opposition to taxes is not simply opposition on the philosophical level; it is tied to the issue of “federal programs,” which to many white Southerners meant taxpayer supported programs to benefit Black Americans, whether it was opposition to the Freedman’s Bureau during Reconstruction, the Social Security Act during the New Deal, or the Aid to Families with Dependent Children during the Great Society, which the Gingrich Revolution’s Contract With America brought to an end.
Think this is ancient history?

Rush Limbaugh told his audience to “Think reparations. Think forced reparations here if you want to understand what actually is going on.” A few months later, more directly in connection with the health care debate, Glenn Beck blogged that: “[Obama] attended a Black Liberation Theology church for 20 years. Black Liberation Theology teaches it is the white man that has kept you down. It is the white man that you must take money from, you must take power from to make up for the past.” Against this backdrop, Glenn Beck claims that “Barack Obama is setting up universal healthcare, universal college, green jobs as stealth reparations. That way the victim status is maintained. And he also brings back back‑door reparations.”

Race undergirds messages on taxes, immigration, guns, patriotism, family values, and big government spending, making them attractive, particularly in the South. To say that race is ‘largely besides’ the point is to miss the point, and miss the ways in which these issues are framed in such a way as to foment opposition on the foundation of nearly two hundred years of racialized cultural associations. Opposition to these issues may not be the direct result of racial animus, but these issues cannot be divorced from their racial subtext, and that this subtext plays a critical role in fomenting support or opposition.

Although David Brooks may be right in his anecdotal observation that the ‘white tea party protestors’ are not racial bigots in the mold of George Wallace or even Archie Bunker, he hit the nail on the head when he said that these folks, and the ‘populist news media’ decry Van Jones and Acorn to “prove that elites are decadant and un-American.” Indeed, it wasn’t just that federal intervention meant disrupting racial arrangements or that federal programs signaled reparations, there was moral lining to these complaints about who is worthy and who is not. The immoral, decadent, or lazy African-American is a very old idea. The ‘welfare queen’ has is not even the most recent iteration. Recall the Associated Press captions that described a black Katrina victim as “looting,” and the white victim as “finding” food in the wake of the Hurricane. Today, Acorn, an organization advocating around low-income housing and other social issues in predominantly minority areas, has been the latest target, in an attempt to associate the group with prostitution.

Consciously or not, David Brooks drew out the exact associations both to federalism and to morality that have such a deep racial subtext, and yet he claims are not about race. Naïve? Perhaps . But Brooks is not alone. Even as we talk about race, too often the conversation devolves into the narrow and unproductive question of whether someone is a racist or not. These issues have deep racial connotations that operate even in the absence of overt racism. They are successfully utilized by the right to garner opposition to policies and programs by mapping them to their implicit associations. Maureen Dowd pointed out that “For two centuries, the South has feared a takeover by blacks or the feds. In Obama, they have both. “ Although the John Calhoun and George Wallace are, by and large, long gone, it is a critical error to assume that race is beside the point. And unless we call out these associations, with their myriad racial meanings, they will never be defused and their racial implications will continue to work against us, to our frustration and confusion alike.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Creativity for the Count

By Cheryl Staats, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

As 2009 speeds to a close, the U.S. Census Bureau is gearing up for its constitutionally-mandated decennial count of everyone living in the United States. Although the Census Bureau takes extraordinary care to ensure that all people are counted (even staging dress rehearsals), this remarkably complex task historically results in an undercount of marginalized populations. Contributing to the undercount are undocumented immigrants who often are reticent to participate, erroneously fearing that personal information disclosed on census forms may lead to deportation or other adverse legal ramifications. Awareness of undercounts has often prompted census officials to statistically modify previous counts, thus offering adjusted data.

With Census Bureau Director Robert Groves recently claiming that “there’ll be no adjustment of this census,” the agency’s 2010 outreach includes some novel tactics to raise awareness of the census and allay respondents’ fears. To reach Latinos, the Census Bureau has teamed up with the producers of Más Sabe el Diablo (“The Devil Knows Best”), a telenovela (soap opera) on the Telemundo network, to create a storyline involving a character who applies to work for the U.S. Census Bureau. Factual information meant to the reassure the largely Spanish-speaking audience (such as census information being estrictamente confidencial – “strictly confidential”) is communicated through the character Perla Beltrán, who otherwise is intertwined in the genre’s typical fictional sagas. Aurelio Valcarel, an executive producer at Telemundo, asserted, “we’re trying to fight the fear” by including the census-focused plot.

With census data used to allocate more than $400 billion in federal and state funds each year, to influence what community services are offered, and to apportion congressional seats to states, innovative tactics that educate using creative mediums and make respondents less leery about being counted should be applauded. Ultimately, attaining an accurate count is vital to maintaining equitable congressional representation, a hallmark of our nation’s democracy. In the words of the national campaign: Ya es hora. ¡Hágase Contar! - “It’s Time. Make Yourself Count!”

Monday, October 5, 2009

Things That Make You Go Hmmm…

By Angela Stanley, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

I’ve recently been thinking about concepts like priorities, standards, representation, and fairness—not in any in-depth kind of way, rather anecdotally and informally. The whole Roman Polanski situation, and all of his supporters, has really left me scratching my head or donning a furrowed brow or whatever the move is that makes you look like you’re deep in thought.

I find it interesting that there seems to be more public outcry and scorn for Michael Vick over animal cruelty and Michael Jackson (RIP) for the acquittal of child molestation charges than for Polanski who admittedly had sex with a minor and R. Kelly who has a documented history of his “relationships” with underage Black girls. (PS: Is anyone really surprised that Woody Allen is on Team Roman Polanski?)

Serena Williams recently got quite upset about a bad call during a tennis match and it was somehow attributed by many to her Black girl Compton upbringing. Meanwhile, John McEnroe was notorious for his routine temper tantrums during tennis matches and rarely had them boiled down to his race, gender, and/or childhood residence.

My oh-so-favorite comedian Chris Rock, all sarcasm intended, can profit comedically at the expense of Black women and making fun of issues that are pretty personal and yet be praised for capitalizing on those very same issues under the guise of wanting his daughter to feel beautiful just as she is through his upcoming documentary Good Hair. From a business standpoint, I suppose playing both ends is the most profitable way to go, but it’s interesting that there have been several documentaries done on this issue, mostly by Black women, yet Chris Rock is the one who gets the credit and attention…and the Oprah couch time.

Tyler Perry who, although successful, has questionable writing and directing skills and regularly portrays Black women in the most stereotypical of ways, has somehow managed to score the rights to Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, and will be bringing it to the big screen in the near future. Really? Tyler Perry is the best person for the job? Really?

Anyway, I’m sure this list could go on and on, but I’ve said all of this to say that there’s something going on with people’s standards, what their priorities are, what they value, and how they are being represented (or misrepresented). Through the murkiness of it all, some people just aren’t emerging with a fair shake and it makes me wonder if I’m the only one who’s seeing it and going “hmmm…”

Monday, September 28, 2009

And a child (a teenager) shall lead them

By Michele Battle-Fisher, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

With the hectic schedules experienced in our home, dinner time in our home is time to talk. Often, we talk about the matters of our days. But one recent evening, our teenage son Brandon began talking about a speech on health care as a natural right that he had to present in his AP Government class. He began by mentioning that in speaking he found strength in his words. He did not feel that his written word was as strong or well understood. I thought that I would give his spoken words another platform. Discourse is power (a la Foucault). I wanted to listen.
In the words of Brandon Battle:

I think that health care is a natural right that needs to be provided by the government. Americans spent $2.2 trillion dollars on health care in 2007 which averages out to be about $7400 per individual. This is two times the amount spent in developed countries. Americans will end up spending more on health care than on housing and food. This will mean that families could have to choose between paying health care and buying food for their families. I don’t know all the details of the health care reform but health care hinders the American people and is a necessary investment for the country. (Reference:
Now Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke states the recession is subsiding. But as long as health statuses continue to “recess”, this isn’t close to being resolved.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Fast Is Your Broadband Connection?

By Mikyung Baek, Research and Technical Associate at The Kirwan Institute

The Federal Communications Commission has until February 17, 2010 to present a National Broadband Plan to Congress. Five months before the deadline, a debate is going on around the definition of broadband. Cable companies are playing with the ‘provisioned’ versus ‘actual’ speed and argue against using the actual speed for the definition of broadband. AT&T wants broadband to be defined by the minimal set of applications and says it is “not the ability to engage in real-time, two-way gaming, but obtaining meaningful access to the Internet’s resources and to reliable email communications and other basic tools” that is at stake. This translates into this: if you have a broadband connection in your neighborhood, however fast or slow it may be or regardless of what you can or can’t do with that connection, you are counted as wired; you already have ‘meaningful access’ and ‘basic tools’ because the ‘provisioned’ speed of your connection is, by definition, broadband.

A satellite television operator, EchoStar, wants the definition to read ‘at least 768 Kbps downstream and 200 Kbps upstream.’ Why? 768 Kbps is enough for satellite operators to handle satellite ‘broadband’ service and by insisting upon holding down the broadband to 768kbs, they want to be counted as ‘broadband’ service providers. Verizon also wants keep the bar low for the broadband at 768/200 Kbps.

A recent reality check: A Chicago Tribune article last month noted where the country stands in Internet speed, 28th among industrialized nations with an average of 5.1Mbps, compared to 20.4 Mbps of South Korea and 15.8 Mbps of Japan. Not only U.S. consumers are stuck with slower connection speed, it comes with a lot higher cost. According to OECD Broadband Statistics, average broadband monthly price per ‘advertised’ Mbps is $10.02 in the U.S., almost 12 times of what South Koreans pay, $0.85.

We obviously have a long way to go. And as far as consumers are concerned, the faster the better, and the cheaper the better, regardless of whether it falls under someone’s definition of broadband at a certain point of time or not. If it was December 2006, when FCC’s definition of broadband was 200 Kbps (up or downstream), my connection of up to 1.5 Mbps would be the ‘broadestband’ of all! The National Broadband Plan needs to set the goal of universal access to broadband, but the quality of broadband needs to be set high enough to ensure digital opportunities in its truest sense. If we identify 768 Kbps as baseline broadband speed, we will be restricting the digital capabilities for those who live in the areas of lower speed when it is coupled with existing digital inequality. One of the things I would like the FCC to do is to focus on enhancing digital opportunities for consumers across the country by ensuring transparency in broadband availability data in terms of the speed (minimum and maximum, upstream and downstream, provisioned and actual) and price. This will increase market competition between broadband providers and eventually improve the quality of broadband connection as well as penetration rates as was the case in many other countries. We will then have choices between high speed internet connections at affordable prices in every neighborhood in the nation.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Criminalizing Poverty

By Jen Washco, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

This August, a Sacramento attorney opened a property he owns to approximately three dozen homeless people.[1] Due to complaints from a neighboring resident, city police evicted the residents for camping more than 24 hours, which violates a Sacramento ordinance.[2] The residents of the encampment were forced to leave, but the question of where they have left to go remains unanswered.
The Sacramento prohibition on camping is just one instance in a general trend, begun in the 1980s, toward the criminalization of poverty. This makes the activities homeless people do to survive illegal, while not addressing the causes of their homelessness. Criminalizing these activities does not address the problem. At worst, it brings homelessness into a self-reinforcing cycle of arrests, since homeless individuals are rarely able to pay fines associated with their arrests and may miss court dates (perhaps because they lack transportation), or encourages behavioral adjustments which prevent homeless persons from getting back on track—for example, some ordinances ban sleeping in public parks between dusk and dawn, so the homeless must sleep during the day, foreclosing opportunities to seek employment.
At best, criminalizing poverty takes it out of sight and out of mind. The responses to articles on the Sacramento homeless camp indicate that many people wish not to see and not to interact with the homeless, as though this validates the thought that homelessness “is not my problem” and that the homeless simply need to get a job—easier said than done in this economy. Though perhaps reassuring to think that the homeless are entirely responsible for their situation, this is often not the case. Nearly 40% of homeless individuals are under age 18, with 42% of this population under the age of five. Families with children are the fastest growing homeless population, and, in some surveys, a quarter of homeless women had left their previous residence due to domestic violence. Veterans are over-represented among the homeless as well.[3]
Rather than continuing to criminalize poverty and homelessness, we need to deal with the reality of poverty. Criminalization is neither socially nor economically efficient.[4] Instead of pretending that increasing disincentives will cause those in poverty to suddenly pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we need to implement programs and practices that provide help to those that need it—a homeless family needs a reliable place to sleep, not fines to somehow chastise them back onto their feet. In order to do so, we as a society need to develop greater compassion and understanding, realizing that the US is not a land of equal opportunity where anyone who tries can get ahead, but instead is a complicated system where some will always need help getting on their feet.

[3] NCH Fact Sheet 3 (2008), National Coalition for the Homeless.
[4] Homes Not Handcuffs, pp.19-22.

De-Biasing Implicit Bias: Start with our Schools

By Marguerite L. Spencer, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

The concept of implicit bias has gone mainstream. Even Oprah had a piece on it recently featuring individuals who had taken the Implicit Bias Test (IAT). Several whites were surprised to find that they harbored negative racial bias towards blacks, even though they believed themselves to be egalitarian. Researchers suggest that more than 70% of the test takers on the Project Implicit website associated whites with good and blacks with bad. What can we do to debias ourselves?

Following up on a 2001 demonstration by Buju Dasgupta and Tony Greenwald, researchers at Project Explicit tested whether racial bias can be reduced by exposing test takers to admired blacks, such as Jackie Robinson, and disliked whites, such as Jeffrey Dahmer. Unlike the results in the earlier test, they found that there were no differences between participants who were exposed to these imagers and those who were not. They concluded that simple exposure to good blacks is not enough. What is needed is repeated exposure, including negative associations with whites.

Since our implicit biases spring largely from our environments and experiences, many suggest that the best place for repeated positive exposure is in meaningfully integrated school settings (no tracking, discrimination in disciplining etc…). A growing number of studies show that a racially integrated school environment promotes cross-racial friendships and increases comfort levels, often reducing biases and stereotypes. An integrated environment is particularly important during a student’s early years, when their attitudes about race are not yet concretely shaped. We also know that students who have been educated in a diverse environment, including whites, place a high value on integration as preparation for public life in multiracial settings.

This all seems obvious, but achieving integrated schools is highly personalized and politicized on both the familial, local and national level, and fraught with implicit biases of its own. We need to figure out a way to think and talk about integration that can allow us to debias ourselves, dismantle any racialized barriers that prevent us from integrating, and move forward in a strategic way. Acknowledging our biases is one thing, but debiasing is where we need to go next. Integrated schools can become the primary front in which we arm ourselves to make racially just structural changes in our society.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What is the Human Price of a Mobile Phone?

By Mark Harris, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

In the eastern Congo, militias are fighting for control of mines that contain the minerals – tantalum, tungsten, and tin – that go into the casings and circuitry of the mobile phones and electronics (including the computer on which I’m typing this) that are the building blocks of our modern, technology-based lifestyles. When these militias fight, villages are devastated, and women and men are raped and killed to instill terror into the countryside. The militias are then able to take advantage of low-paid or unpaid labor to mine ore (in ways that devastate the environment) and use shady or obscure trade relationships in Rwanda and Uganda that enrich their leaders and cut costs for the manufacturers of electronic components.

The Enough Project and Friends of the Congo are two groups that are raising awareness of this humanitarian crisis. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made some important commitments about stemming the epidemic of sexual violence in eastern Congo, the conflict will not come to an end until the economic interests that lay behind it are exposed and changed. Recently, a non-governmental organization called Resolve has committed to mapping the supply chains that link the militias to the global market for these conflict minerals, but government action is needed to compel the consumers of the minerals and their raw ores to expose the point of origin of minerals so that more effective action can be taken. The Congo Conflict Minerals Act, which has bipartisan support, would make this happen, but it has languished in Congress since April.

It’s high time that the U.S. government take effective action to stop our electronics from funding the rape of women and the destruction of villages. For more information on what you can do to help end this crisis, you can visit the Enough Project or Friends of the Congo.

Monday, August 31, 2009


By Philip Kim, Assistant Editor at the Kirwan Institute

Ben entered quiet and reserved in his usual manner, with a giant smile on his face, twirling his keys around his index finger. I knew he had some fantastic story to tell, and most likely it was from his day at work (he works with children at a childcare facility in downtown Columbus). So, I put down the book I just began reading, The Sound and the Fury, the very beginning part where Benjy and Luster are watching the golfers and Benjy thinks of his sister Caddy, when my roommate, in a very serendipitous moment, began to tell this story:

“You know that golf tournament yesterday? Well yeah, Tiger [Woods] was almost guaranteed to win; he was in the lead going into the final round and he’s never lost a major tournament when he’s done that. So yeah, he’s playing with Y.E. Yang, a Korean guy, a relative unknown. Yang is pretty cool, and seems nice, and can’t speak English (but the crowd still loved him anyway).

But yeah, no one expects Yang to display such incredible golf execution under all that pressure, let alone beat Tiger and win the tournament; it’s a big one too, it’s a major, it’s the PGA Championship, and he’s not from America, and he’s an international player – so yeah, it’s a giant deal.

Anyway, there’s this kid in my classroom, Brady. He just started playing golf and he’s only like six years old. So I ask him, did you see the tournament yesterday? And he looks up with incredible puppy eyes, nearly to the brink of tears, exhaling a long and extended, YESSSSS.

Then Brady, upper-class and privileged, tiny little French-American, blonde hair, blue-eyed chubster in denim overalls, with thick black rimmed spectacles simply states: I’m so sad the white guy won.”

That kind of blew my mind into a million tiny bits of brain confetti and left me speechless. I wondered to myself, what does Brady see when he looks out into the world? What colors does he view all these lonely people? I wonder if it is, for him, simple: black or white. I still can’t understand it completely, but I know that this vision of the world, this either/or dual split, will undoubtedly affect us when the day comes for Brady to begin carrying a briefcase and start using Bluetooth technology – when he controls millions of dollars of American money.

Colored Perspectives

By Rachel O’Connor, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

I was firmly opposed to affirmative action in the tenth grade. One of my best friends had scored lower than I did on the PSAT, yet received national recognition and a scholarship for it. We grew up in the same suburban neighborhood, were enrolled in the same AP classes, and our fathers were in the same profession. The only difference was that his father was Black.

I couldn’t understand how a policy of awarding money to privileged children based solely on the color of their skin equated to fairness or how it helped anybody. At the time, the only thing I could focus on was that I was being denied opportunities because I was White and others were being rewarded because they were Black.

Through my studies, I have come to understand the many ways that I have been indirectly rewarded for the color of my skin. I have played fearlessly on the streets of my neighborhood, received a high quality education, had access to any healthcare I’ve ever needed, and have always found a job when I was looking for one. I now know that policies like affirmative action are a needed remedy for the decades African-Americans were denied access to higher education. Some who don’t need it, such as my friend, may benefit; but overall it is aimed at helping the truly disadvantaged.

As I describe my internship studying race to friends and family, I see a lot of my tenth-grade self in them. They quickly go on the defensive, explaining why they hold their prejudices and rejecting the research I have done. All they know is the Black kids in the neighboring town received new computers and their children didn’t. Holiday Masses are now long and tedious because they are bilingual to accommodate a large Hispanic church population. Violent Black criminals appear regularly on their nightly news. They know what they have seen and how race impacts their life and that is all that matters. They fail to recognize all the advantages they have from simply being born White and how many are suffering from the inherent racism in our institutions and societal structure.

It is natural to understand abstract concepts, like race, through concrete experiences. In the homogenous community in which I grew up, not many positive concrete interracial experiences for people to draw on exist. However, if we are to truly make progress toward a post-racial society, we need to take the time and effort to see beyond our immediate perspectives. It is the responsibility of every citizen, and every race, to open their minds to facts that are not readily apparent and place themselves in others’ shoes. We need to learn to dissociate individual experiences from the overall state of racial relations so that we can come to an understanding that recognizes everybody’s perspectives.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Food for Thought

By Rajeev Ravisankar, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

Recently I saw the documentary Food Inc. which depicts the disturbing realities around modern food production. It unmasks the marketing myth used to sell food, the notion that food is produced in an idyllic landscape with “the picket fence and the silo and the 1930s farmhouse and the green grass.”

“The reality is…it’s not a farm, it’s a factory,” according to Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and one of the film’s interviewees. “That meat is being processed by huge multi-national corporations that have very little to do with ranches and farmers.”

The film shows how food is increasingly becoming a flashpoint where labor rights, racism, immigration, ecology, and trade policy intersect. For example, US domestic farm subsidies for corn help make unhealthy corn-based snacks cheaper. Simultaneously, the subsidies negatively impact farmers in developing countries because they cannot compete against artificially cheap US food imports. (See Dumping Without Borders: How US agricultural policies are destroying the livelihoods of Mexican corn farmers)

In addition, Food Inc. humanizes complex sociopolitical issues. It touches upon the exploitation of undocumented migrants who work on farms and in meat processing facilities, and shows footage of an immigration raid against these workers.

Also, the film introduces class dynamics and income levels by following a Latino family who can mostly only afford cheap fast food. This story complicates a simplistic understanding of choice as the father has diabetes and the family knows the food is unhealthy, yet there are real material constraints that shape their consumption.

Perhaps the most critical point, as farmer Joel Salatin points out in the film, is that the way our food is produced says a lot about how we relate to society and the rest of the world. “A culture that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic, inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter will probably view individuals within its community and other cultures within the community of nations with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling-type mentality.”

Quick facts:
· “The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000…”
– Michael Pollan
· The modern supermarket has an average of 47,000 products, the majority of which are produced by only a handful of companies
· 1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes; among minorities, the rate will be 1 in 2
(Source: Food Inc. Press Notes)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

District 9 – An Allegory of Apartheid and Segregation

By Stephen Menendian, Senior Legal Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

The new Peter Jackson film, “District 9,” opened at the top of the US box office this past weekend. The film is a mock documentary covering the events surrounding the arrival of an alien spacecraft to planet earth. A spaceship mysteriously appears above Johannesburg, South Africa. After several months of intrigue, a group of astronauts break into the space ship and discover a colony of starving insectoid aliens, derogatorily referred to as ‘prawns,’ for their appearance. A rescue effort succeeds and the aliens are eventually moved into public housing, and over time, cordoned off. After many years, the colony grows so large, accompanied by crime and public outrage, that a plan emerges to move the now 1.5 million aliens out of Johannesburg’s “District 9” and into the country, a forced relocation.

The filmmakers went out of their way to ensure that the viewers would have few qualms with this idea. After all, the aliens are presented as grotesque, and intended to evoke revulsion at their appearance. The filmmakers don’t have to work hard to dehumanize the aliens; as presented, they bring out the worst in our prejudices.

And, yet, the story that the film tells, of segregation, of apartheid, of the criminality and degradation that follows forced internment and rampant discrimination is a story that is not unfamiliar to Johannesburg or the United States.

District 9 is an allegory of apartheid.

Signs stationed near bathrooms and elevators marked certain facilities for "Humans Only.”

Such a sight was neither uncommon in the Jim Crow South or Apartheid South Africa.

District 9 and the story of District 9 is the story of District 6, and the forced relocation of 60,000 black Africans to make way for a whites only community.

Race is a process of othering, of de-humanizing. The filmmakers don’t have to go far to de-humanize, as the aliens as presented aren’t even human, and worse, are designed to resemble and remind us of creatures of the lowest order on the planet. What that brings out is prejudice of the most common. The criminality, degradation, and poverty of the aliens is then mistaken as inherent. The trivial, common place insults and epithets become part of the fabric of the society.

As an allegory, the film is imperfect. After all, black, whites, latinos, asians… we are all human. The film as a perfect metaphor only works if it essentializes difference. But as a story, as a way of showing people the world from a different perspective using a science fiction hook, it is supremely effective.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What is GIS?

By Kwabena Agyeman, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

The past three decades have seen quite a revolution in the way people view their neighborhoods, towns and cities: a revolution brought about by the computer technology known as GIS, or Geographic Information Systems. GIS helps us analyze spatially-referenced data and make well-informed decisions based on the association between the data and the geography. It refers to both the software and hardware that make up the system of digital databases and layered maps. But it's more than that. At the Kirwan Institute, GIS plays an important part in mapping the geographic distribution of opportunity to help evaluate where opportunity mismatches exist in a community.

The key to an effective GIS is an accurate and up-to-date base framework with an organizational structure that promotes enterprise-wide use and prevents duplication of effort. GIS offers real promise in being able to assist organizations in achieving their respective objectives. Furthermore, the geographic and spatial nature of GIS has been shown to facilitate a more comprehensive and holistic approach to problem solving.

Although GIS provides a great means for digital mapping, it is not simply a computer system for making maps, GIS is an analytical tool. The major advantage of a GIS is that it allows you to identify the spatial relationships between map features. A GIS does not store a map in any conventional sense; nor does it store a particular image or view of a geographic area. Instead, a GIS is a type of database management system from which you can draw a desired view to suit a particular purpose.

I am very optimistic about the future of GIS. When I think of all the major problems that we face throughout the world today - overpopulation, food shortages, reduced agricultural production, adverse climate change, and poverty - these are all quintessentially geographic problems. These problems are all concerned with the human relationship to the land, and this is where GIS can make its biggest contribution. GIS is the technology of our time and the application is limited only by the imagination of those who use it. That is what makes GIS so exciting.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Off the Map – Power on the Street

By Stacey Chan, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

“Ching chong!” A truck barrels past me, the driver settling back into his seat through his open window. Huh?! I’m snatched out of hazy thoughts as I continue my walk to work. Déjà vu.

Every day I walk to and from work, and just about every day I face some form of street harassment. Whether it be receiving ogling looks, lewd comments, or being ching-chonged, I’ve come to expect it. It has become an undeniable part of my experience as a woman of color.

In the opportunity mapping group, we use quantitative data to construct an index of neighborhood opportunity and overlay this with race and income compositions. I started to think about walking the streets of the map, and I realized that many times, in neighborhoods of rich or poor opportunity, I don’t feel safe. It’s not something that is caught in the data, nor is it an indicator of economic opportunity as we study it in our maps, but it is a matter of power disenfranchisement that occurs everywhere.

Street harassment is an exchange of power where one person attempts to dominate over another, sometimes non-verbally, verbally, or physically. Victims and harassers can be of any gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or physical ability/disability. My experience incorporates the facts that I identify and present as a woman, I am young, and I am of Asian descent. My harassers have been of many different races, ethnicities, ages, and class groups.

Street harassment strips a victim of respect and sense of freedom in a public space. First, I got scared. …Then angry. …Then puzzled. What do I do? How do I reclaim my place on the street? How can I feel safe and free in the public space that we share, even in the face of being harassed? What about group campaigns? Who would we choose as an audience? How would we do our work through a critical lens?

Harassment is an issue that incorporates many aspects of social identity, and its solution must reflect its complexity. It’s not in the data, it’s not on the map, but it’s there and violates the opportunity for everyone to enjoy public space equally. I don’t know the solution, but I keep my head up, walk briskly and never slow down. I reply politely to hello’s, and respond “that’s disgusting” when appropriate. In these small ways, I try to take some control of the exchange. While it may not be a systemic solution or the right solution, it’s my way of keeping my place on the street.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Little Mexican Girls

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

I had known that Maria was busy putting the finishing touches on her PhD in Social Policy at a top university in Boston. The degree has been a long time coming but, come September, her graduate school story figures to end on a high note.

What I hadn’t known was that none of her post-graduation plans relates to her doctoral work or even to “social policy.” Why, then, insist on finishing the PhD at considerable cost in time, and perhaps also in money, self-esteem, lost opportunities, relationship and family stresses, and more?

Two big reasons. One, Maria said, was simply that she really enjoyed the study, the learning, the working-things-out. The second reason emerged in a story.

Some years after leaving Harvard as an undergraduate, Maria contacted the registrar’s office about getting a copy of her transcript. What arrived was her entire file, including parts no student is meant to see. These extra bits included notes submitted by the Harvard recruiter who had visited her Arizona high school a decade earlier. The woman had kept meticulous notes, which included the following (paraphrased) observations:

Unlike other top students in her class, Maria has applied only to a few schools, all of them in-state, none highly selective. I asked the guidance counselor, Mr. X, why she hadn’t applied to any Ivy League schools. His answer: “How’s a little Mexican girl going to make it in the Ivy League?”

Maria tears up – 21 years after Mr. X offered that assessment; 20 since becoming the first in her family, headed by her Mexican immigrant dad and “white farmer mom from Idaho” to go to college; 20 since becoming the first from her high school accepted to mighty Harvard; 16 years after graduating magna cum laude; one month shy of completing her PhD.

Every time she had considered quitting, Maria said, she remembered.

Institutions, systems, racialization, implicit bias, colorblindness, racial resentment, frames, opportunity structures, culture, history, targeted universalism, equity– yes, absolutely. These are our crucial tools, the conceptual and practical building blocks of our efforts.

However, Maria’s story reminds me that, ultimately, we work for people – for our families, for our communities, for ourselves, and for a world full of “little Mexican girls.”

Monday, August 10, 2009

Afghanistan: the “Dumb War”

By Elsadig Elsheikh, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

In Chicago, Illinois, on October 2nd, 2002, then Senator Barack Obama criticized the war in Iraq, rightly deeming it as a “dumb war.” Today, the Obama administration – in cahoots with most Western countries under the NATO umbrella – is selling the war in Afghanistan as a “good war” based on reason and principle not on politics, a necessary operation at the frontier of the “war on terror” or simply a matter of “national security” matter. Nevertheless, delivering the war in Afghanistan in an “eloquent” package does not make it a “good war.” It is immoral to propagandize that terrorizing and killing of civilians as anything other than what it is: a military occupation and expansionist war against the people of Afghanistan which most likely will bear unsightly fruits, as was the experience of the “freedom fighters.”

Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed by the U.S. and NATO troops. A United Nations report published last month indicated that at least 1,013 civilians were killed from January to end of June of this year, and around 235,000 currently displaced. Furthermore, historian Tariq Ali observed that “the number of Afghan civilians killed has exceeded many tens of times over the 2,746 who died in Manhattan”. Additionally, the invasion and war instituted – as Ali precisely called it – a “colonial operations in the region” due to its illegitimacy and cruelty against a country and population who have been tormented enormously by foreign invasions and interventions in the name of fighting an “evil”. However, other studies have put the number of civilian causalities even higher (please see Afghan Tragedy).

The “war on terror” has led to increased U.S. involvement in the geopolitics of the region: from Georgia to Kyrgyzstan, and from Tajikistan to Pakistan. However, the latter has been treated as the battleground to conduct that war. Since 9/11, the United States has provided Pakistan with $11 billion military aid to support the Pakistani Army, which has obstructed democracy and the rule of law (it’s worth noticing that prior to 9/11, Pakistan had received only $ 9.1 million). Consequently, U.S. involvement in Pakistan increases the radicalization of diverse Islamist groups and the Talibanization of rural Pakistan.

The war in Afghanistan should not have the support of the American people because of what it really is: a malicious military occupation that – besides bringing immense destruction upon the Afghani people – hinders all possibilities for a real democratization, social change, sustainable development, and eliminating narco-traffic. As was the case in Iraq, the solution to Afghanistan’s troubles is political, and can’t be resolved through military occupation.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?

By Tami Newberry, Summer Intern at Kirwan Institute

Recently French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave an address to Parliament in which he proposed a banning of the burqa. This seemed consistent with governmental policies in France. I wasn’t stirred by this, as France is ‘far away’ after all.

Then, the Columbus Dispatch published an article July 23rd Ohio State University professor chimed in, saying what many Americans are quietly thinking: Women wearing burqas or veils, unsettle them. He went so far as to say, “If I wanted to hold up a convenience store, I would wear a burqa.” This really hit home.

When persons of stature lend their voice, it can strengthen a cause. These current ideas feed into xenophobia (fear/hatred of strangers or foreigners). Identities of religious groups are collapsing into racialized categories. In what many claim to be a ‘post-racial’ world, religion IS the new race. And Islam is the new black.

However, to claim to stand for women’s rights is still vogue. Therefore, in the name of supporting “women’s rights”, persons of different religious backgrounds would like to tell women how they can express their religious values. (What happened to the 1st amendment to the Constitution? Or basic human rights?)

I would encourage anyone willing to learn about the socio-, cultural- and religious reasons for Muslim women choosing to cover to read Lila Abu-Lughod’s insightful article. This may help to dismiss the myths that Muslim women need saving. Many Muslim women feel empowered culturally and religiously by choosing to cover themselves.

The next time you see a covered woman hanging her head, don’t create a victim out of her, and empower yourself. Empathize with her or engage her. She may have had a hard day at work, or may be daydreaming about the love poem her husband emailed her, or may have simply forgotten her sunglasses on a sunny day.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Living While Black?

By Kerra S.Carson, Summer Intern at Kirwan Institute

By now, most of you have heard of Dr. Henry “Skip” Gates being arrested at his Cambridge home. When he arrived home from a trip, he was unable to open the front door. He then proceeded to enter his home through a back entrance. He and his driver attempted to open his door again and managed to do so, but not without damaging the door. He was in his home, on the phone with the management company reporting the damage when police arrived and asked that he step outside. Apparently, a Harvard employee saw Mr. Gates attempting to gain entry and mistook him for a burglar.
Now, this might not sound so alarming if not for a few things:
1) The person who called the police was a Harvard employee. Furthermore, she is employed in their development department. How is it possible she did not recognize one of the most well-known faces in contemporary American scholarship? Dr. Gates has been on hundreds of television programs, including every major news show, media outlet, and two mini-series. He is not your average run-of-the-mill professor. I am hard-pressed to believe she did not know who he is.
2) It appears to be fairly common knowledge where Dr. Gates lives. It is especially notable because he is the only person of color on his street. The Development office the employee is housed in is only a few hundred yards away. Is it reasonable that she would be the only person in her office that did NOT know that was his home?
3) There are two very different stories of what happened once the police arrived. The officer’s report says Dr. Gates was belligerent and refused to show identification. Dr. Gates admits to challenging the officer, but acquiescing to his request to show identification and still got arrested because he wanted the officer’s name and badge number. However, what both agree on is that Dr. Gates was arrested even after showing proper identification verifying his address.
Is there any doubt that this arrest was racially-motivated? If so, what are the implications for those of us who choose to live in areas where we are the overwhelming minority? The rhetoric announcing a post-racial America has been on the rise since we elected our first Black president. If nothing else, this incident shows that we are not quite there.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Jury Duty in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas

By Leslie Birdwell Shortlidge, Managing Editor at the Kirwan Institute

I served my two weeks as a juror in June of this year in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. It was not exciting. For those in the jury pool, it is about endless waiting in a large room with lots of magazines and jigsaw puzzles.

We began with orientation, a videoed dramatization of a European Dark Ages trial by dunking. Miserable looking people in ragged clothes waited anxiously by the shore of a pond to see if their accused relative would float (guilty) or sink (innocent). It was a bit Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I recalled highlights from the film, such as peasants gathering muck in front of Graham Chapman as King Arthur and the infamous “Bring out your dead!” scene.

But seriously, folks, I never sat on a jury. Lots of people don’t, apparently, but we prospective jurors were assured more than once that we were doing our duty by being available, not trying to duck out, being punctual, etc. Managing the jury pool must be like herding cats, and so I do believe that my presence, as one of many, was indeed helpful.

I did make it through one round of voir dire (literally, “speak the truth”) in the courtroom, and was present for another round for a case that was resolved during the lunch break. Our voir dire took place in one of the courtrooms, which are round, not like the ones on TV that more closely resemble a church or a theatre. And since there is no clearly defined front or center stage, the attorneys pace about the room, working from a wheeled podium that they turn this way and that, depending on whom they address. The attorneys ask permission of the judge before they haul the thing around, and there’s a courteous exchange of please-and-thank-you that seems more reminiscent of powdered wigs and m’lords rather than American-style casual. But make no mistake, even though this is “only” voir dire, the attorneys are making their cases and beginning to wage arguments that will influence the outcome. And the arguments were directed at us, the potential jurors.

We were encouraged to tell the truth, and then were grilled on common sense and experience, one by one, right around the room. I thought of Justice Sotomayor, someone who has been raked over the coals for invoking common sense. In my experience, it was a given in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court that everyone came to the courtroom with their own background as a human being and would have some kind of opinion or experience. How could it be otherwise? We are humans, not blank slates pre-loaded with some kind of generic justice program.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Where the Research Meets the Road

By Matthew Martin, GIS/Planning Specialist at the Kirwan Institute

Since I began working as a planning and GIS research analyst with the Kirwan Institute back in January, I have been eager to direct my experience and educational background towards issues of social justice. I enjoy the ability to carry out my personal concerns and convictions with utility in my job, and I continually strive to produce work that means something to the world in which we live. But it wasn’t long after I began my current position that I started recognizing the disconnect between my professional aspirations and my personal experiences. My walks and bus rides to and from work each day often contained encounters with homeless folks asking for money, or with young boys seemingly concerned only with emulating the gangster culture they find in much of modern hip-hop. The stories my wife would bring home from the urban hospital in which she works often seemed to confirm the worst stereotypes of the communities whom I spend my days researching. For a while, this created a frustrating paradox in which I longed to make a difference, but ended up feeling as though such effort was futile.

I started going to a local recreation center in my community, because in addition to its convenient location and affordability, I need to get into better shape. But as I became more familiar with the hard-working folks employed there, as well as some of the kids who hang out there regularly, I have been reminded that the face of laziness and solicitation that we often encounter in the public squares does not accurately represent the reality of much of the urban poor. Building relationships with poor folks through my local church has also allowed me to see some of the extreme circumstances experienced by regular people.

What I’m learning then, is that you can’t just be content to read articles or make maps about poverty and race, nor can you be satisfied with giving a dollar and a warm greeting to whoever asks on the sidewalk. I’m finding that although it takes a lot of initiative and costs some comfort, what I really need to do is go to places where I can forge relationships with real people. This provides the helpful benefit of rounding out my personal knowledge of my ‘research subjects’, but the even greater value of learning about people in a much more intangible and intimate way, and learning from people with different cultural and experiential backgrounds than my own. I may not feel cool enough to play basketball with the other boys at the rec center yet, but as with any group of people, over time, trust and friendship can be gained, and that’s where the research meets the road.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


By Tami Newberry, Summer Intern at Kirwan Institute

How inspiring a sight. A complex mosaic of art. The rainbow split into individual colors masterfully arranged to create a scene. Each color “stained”, not the colorless glass of ordinary windows. And this is what catches our eye, the colors, and the way that the light shines through them. As these works are revered, they are placed high above us in grand buildings. Long beams of color cascade down, they too, being a sign full of awe. A curious hand may even reach up to the falling beams to let the colors weightlessly rest upon it. Children laugh and run with arms open wide through them.

The mosaic is complex in form and structure. It is beautiful because of the array of colors and how they are woven around and amongst each other. Each color is a vital part of the entire. It would no longer be beautiful if it were all a single color. And yet, we call them stained glass. They each are colored by different minerals to give them their own glow. Yet, does any one deny that any given color is less glass-like than another. Less pure, less worthy, less beautiful.

Stained-glass windows are truly beautiful when all of the pieces are radiating with light from above. Each one is a different unique composition in which we seek to see their individuality and uniqueness.

So, I have lofty ambitions. To be able to create an American perspective as grand as the mosaics of stained-glass. To create a composite which is greater than its individual parts. To appreciate each color for how it colors the world. To let each color radiate among the other colors.

Let’s evolve as a nation which has been color-blind only seeing shades of black and white and grey. Our diversity, like that of the colors in a stained-glass window, is an asset.

Let the light shine in.

Image source:

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Slice of Suburbia

By Michelle Alexander, Associate professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

“What are all those colored kids doing in the swimming pool?” I thought to myself as I struggled to juggle my 2-year old toddler in one arm and a giant bag of towels in the other, while my 4 year-old and 6 year-old dashed toward the pool, shedding clothing en route and shrieking in delight. I paused for a moment and surveyed the scene. More than a third of the kids in the pool were African American, playing happily with their white friends and neighbors, as well as a couple of Asian American and Latino kids. Could our neighborhood really be this racially diverse? Apparently, the answer is yes.

I spent most of my childhood in all-white or nearly all-white neighborhoods. When I became old enough to cast judgment on my parents for their child-rearing decisions, I swore I would never inflict a similar fate on my own children. How could they put a black child in an all-white school? What were they thinking? More than once, I ranted at them in self-righteous indignation, insisting I would never do such a thing to my own children.

Once I became a parent, though, I found myself facing the same difficult choices my parents had agonized over decades earlier. I could live in a racially diverse or all-black neighborhood, but I’d have to worry about the quality of the schools. On the other hand, I could live in a white neighborhood and worry about the quality of my children’s social and cultural experiences. Which would I choose? Good schools or racial diversity? As it turns out, I got lucky.

The neighborhood I live in today did not exist a decade ago. As new suburbs have sprouted up around urban centers, and racial and ethnic minorities have begun to venture outside city limits, an interesting phenomenon has begun to unfold. Neighborhoods and schools in formerly white suburbs are beginning to integrate. The Pew Hispanic Center recently reported that the student population of America’s suburban schools has shot up by 3.4 million in the past decade and a half, and virtually all of the increase (99 percent) has been due to the enrollment of black, Latino, and Asian students. In 2006-07, suburban school districts educated a student population that was more than 40 percent non-white, up from 28 percent in 1993-94.

In my neighborhood, it is a joy to look out my kitchen window and see black and white kids playing together, running through each other’s backyards, and going in and out of each other’s houses freely. During the summer, all the neighborhood kids tend to convene around 5:30 p.m. in someone’s backyard and play together until sundown. They seem utterly unaware of how unique and special their racially integrated experience is.

I wish it were that simple. The picture in our backyard obscures a more complicated reality. As the Pew report indicates, although minority enrollment has shot up in suburban school districts, there has been only a modest increase at the level of the individual suburban school. Our immediate neighborhood happens to be well integrated, but my oldest daughter was the only black girl in her kindergarten class last year. The broader community still has a long, long way to go.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stuff Your Sorries in a Sack, Mister!

By Charles Patton, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Recently the U.S. Senate voted unanimously for a resolution acknowledging "the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws."
In response to the resolution, Rep. Stephen I. Cohen (D-Tenn.) said, "there are going to be African Americans who think that [the apology] is not reparations, and it's not action, and there are going to be Caucasians who say, 'Get over it.' . . . I look at it as something that makes people think."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the resolution's sponsor, said "Slavery and Jim Crow, and their continuing consequences, are not the historical baggage of one state, one region or one company. They are an enduring national shame."

So in response to both Cohen and Harkin, I ask why weren’t any thoughts on the continuing consequences of slavery and Jim Crow included in the resolution? Why didn’t they address specific topics relevant to today’s American citizen that would spark conversation? It appears that this apology has failed to spark productive conversations about race and led to nothing more than the following four comments:
“It’s about time.”
“This apology is meaningless.”
“Why can’t we get over this already?”
“They better not even think about giving reparations.”

I don’t think this is what the Senate was hoping for. To avoid these unproductive conversations, the Senate would have been better served to address the mechanisms through which slavery and Jim Crow have led to a society wrought with racial residential segregation, vast racial disparities in wealth, a prison system filled disproportionately with blacks, etc. These problems are not widely recognized or discussed by our “colorblind” nation that at times fears even publicly acknowledging the color of someone’s skin and truly believes everyone who tries hard has an equal opportunity to become successful. The aforementioned problems cannot be addressed if the majority of society doesn’t even know they exist. The Senate missed out on a great opportunity to begin a productive conversation that could have led to some real change in the racial dynamics of this country.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Overdue Overhaul

By Jillian Olinger, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

On June 17, President Obama laid out a plan for financial reform to protect against future financial meltdowns of the kind we have been experiencing for the past two years. The President criticized the lack of oversight and regulation, as well as the “culture of irresponsibility” that took root at both Wall Street and Main Street. In response, the President’s plan balances both demand-focused proposals, in the form of a centralized Consumer Protection Agency, with supply-focused proposals, in the form of systemic regulations. The plan recognizes that today’s global economy calls for a restructured system of oversight that can keep pace with the speed and scope of 21st century financial systems.

For consumers, the plan would not only create a new federal agency specifically to protect consumer interests related to financial products, but also mandates that financial products are transparent and comprehensible to consumers, without hidden costs. This oversight, coupled with the systemic regulations, ideally will align the products offered by the institutions with consumer needs. As Gail Hillebrand of Consumers Union noted, “Strong fair rules will reward competition to serve the customer, instead of ‘gotcha’ banking.” (ref#1)

For systemic regulations, among other things, the plan calls for Federal Reserve oversight of US institutions considered “too big to fail” to protect against future systemic failures. The plan also would create a new council of regulators to monitor risk across the system, including responsibility for increased oversight on the global financial institutions considered “too big to fail”. In addition, the plan requires that institutions retain a greater proportion of assets, thereby forcing institutions to retain some risk. For example, institutions that package mortgage-backed securities would be required to retain at least 5% of mortgages to encourage more responsible lending. (ref #2)

The proposal addresses both the failures of risk management and responsibility exhibited by the financial industry, and the failure of consumer protection. In an interview on News Hour, Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner pointed out that “In the financial sector, the financial markets require well-designed regulation. We did not have well-designed regulation…So our job is to get those better. And it’s not going to require more of them; it’s just going to require better design, more effectively applied, more broadly applied to contain risk, protect consumers.” (ref #3)

That’s what this plan promises: a responsible, comprehensive system of checks and balances that meet the needs of a 21st c. global financial system. Whether this promise is delivered remains to be seen.

[1] Paul Solman. “How Will Regulatory Reforms Affect Consumers?” The Business Desk with Paul Solman. Online Newshour. June 18, 2009. Available at
[2] Carolyn O’Hara. “Five Things to Know About the Financial Regulatory Overhaul.” Online Newshour. June 17, 2009. Available at
[3] Transcript. “Geithner Defends Plan for Regulatory Overhaul.” June 18, 2009. Available at

Monday, June 8, 2009

Teen Culture Takes Cues From Obama

By Kathy Baird, Director of Communications at Kirwan Institute

“No Drama Obama” may be our new President’s popular moniker, but he is a role model for a different type of drama in the social world of young African Americans and other teens.

It seems “Obamaisms” have crept into the popular youth vernacular. The Albany Times Union reports new usages and phrases in teens’ speech, such as “Barack you” (following a sneeze); and “What’s up my Obama?” (a greeting).

While youth culture is known for forging distinctive traditions, teens have elevated our first African American president to the level of pop culture icon, imbuing him with an aura of “cool” teens rarely attribute to the “over 30” crowd.

If imitation equates to admiration, it’s especially telling when a group of teenage friends selects Election Day to forego a long tradition of “casual cool” youth fashion to begin sporting tailored pants, button-down shirts and dress shoes. When is the last time a political figure generated such popular hype among youth?

Of course, our president was elected with a groundswell of support from young people; and it’s also understandable that young African Americans hold a special kind of pride in his leadership.

If President Obama can breach the cultural divide to win over hard-to-please teenagers, he’s also a good bet to win favor for our nation.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Summer Camp Double Whammy

By Becky Reno, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Wendy Smooth’s blog entry last week on funding cuts to summer camps coincided with some research I was doing on the achievement gap. The data I uncovered suggested that the majority of the achievement gap can be accounted for by examining knowledge attrition over the summer. In short, learning gains during the academic year are quite comparable for low-income, urban populations of color and middle and upper-income, suburban white students. In the summer, however, researchers have discovered the emergence of a different pattern. While middle-class populations improve academically during summer break, low-income students actually lose knowledge, and their achievement levels drop.

When trying to parse out the source(s) of the achievement gap, our focus typically turns to the school. We hold a magnifying glass up to teachers and teacher quality, school resources, class size, tracking, discipline policies, etc. Of course all of these things matter, but as the effects of summer attrition accumulate, from early elementary to high school, these losses account for nearly two-thirds of the total achievement gap.

The funding cuts to summer camps and activities are more likely to harm low-income, urban populations of color, particularly as high poverty neighborhoods not only have fewer community resources, but children are also constrained in their outdoor activities because of safety concerns. In contrast, middle class communities have both an abundance of neighborhood resources, and parents who are more likely to have the funds to subsidize their children’s summer activities. These contrasting summer experiences are not only heartbreaking in and of themselves, but taken in conjunction with the achievement data, they are ultimately a huge source of academic and life-long disparities.

For more on the effects of summer break on the achievement gap see: Achievement Gaps: An Examination of Differences in Student achievement and Growth.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Job Networking Goes Virtual

By Christy Rogers , Senior Research Associate at Kirwan Institute

Recently, a friend mentioned that he got a new job through LinkedIn, and then built his entire sales team by posting a job notice on Facebook. No sheets of paper were ever exchanged. No print ads. No phone calls. He’s not alone. As a recent CNN article “I Found My Job on Twitter” notes, social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and MySpace are increasingly used to post and fill job notices. As my friend said happily, “it’s perfect – essentially, everyone is a friend or referred by a friend.”

The old saying used to be, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Today, it’s not just who you know, but how you know them. If this trend continues, it makes job hunting easier for those of us with computer access, gadgets, and the knowledge and time to use them. But for the millions of people who don’t, the “digital divide” may only get wider. People with disabilities are about half as likely to have internet access as those who do not. Rural access is improving, but still lags behind. Two-parent households are twice as likely to have access as single-family households. Nationally, Blacks and Latinos are roughly half as likely to have internet access as the national average, and about as third as likely to have access as Asian Americans. The US Department of Commerce ran estimates of what internet access rates for Black and Hispanic households would have been if they had incomes and education levels as high as the nation as a whole, and found that these two factors account for only one half of the difference. How do we make up that other half of the difference? Well, my guess is it’s about the cultural and social networks that start on the ground – in our neighborhoods, in school, at work – about being friends, or friends of friends. And those arenas are still largely segregated by race and class. Until we do better at making a wide variety of friends in the “real world,” we’re not going to do any better in the virtual one.

Link to CNN article:

Link to 2000 Dept. of Commerce Digital Divide report