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.