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Why grand jurors matter

—Andrew Guthrie Ferguson

On Monday, at 9:00pm, the nation anxiously awaited the decision of twelve ordinary citizens. National and international media prepared to report on the collective efforts of the grand jurors assembled in the Darren Wilson/Michael Brown case. Those ordinary citizen-jurors had worked for three months, digesting the testimony of 60 witnesses, reams of documents, and physical, medical, and forensic evidence.

The striking thing about that moment before the prosecutor announced the “no true bill” was the faith that the crowd had in the institution of the grand jury. The crowd was quiet, peaceful, and hopeful that the legal process would work. It was a moment of faith in a democratic system that trusts citizens to judge citizens. And, what is so tragic about an already tragic police shooting is that this faith was undermined by the grand jury process itself.

To be clear, the grand jurors did exactly what they were supposed to do. They listened to the evidence, they deliberated, and they made a decision based on a legal standard that is quite protective to claims of self-defense by law enforcement officers. But, they did so in a grand jury that was not typical, and was, in many respects, quite unusual compared to the normal grand jury process.

As a general matter, for reasons of efficiency and tactics, most prosecutors do not allow the grand jurors the ability to request evidence or ask for testimony as was done in the Darren Wilson grand jury. If such an open process were done in the normal course, grand jury indictments would be much slower to reach, and trial convictions much more rare because all of the conflicting statements and evidence produced at the grand jury would have to be turned over to the defense. For those reasons, most prosecutors generally have witnesses summarize evidence, testify through hearsay, and seek only to produce evidence sufficient to reach the rather low standard of probable cause.

Last year in Kaley v. United States, Justice Elena Kagan remarked that probable cause at a grand jury was an “undemanding” standard which serves merely a gateway function before trial: “Probable cause, we have often told litigants, is not a high bar: It requires only the ‘kind of “fair probability” on which ‘reasonable and prudent [people,] not legal technicians, act.’” Thus, this expansive, extensive grand jury investigation was not the usual process to find probable cause.

At the same time, at least in theory, grand juries are expected to play the role of protectors of the accused. Grand juries were designed by the Founders as part of our constitutional structure to protect citizens from unfounded prosecutions and political pressure. What the prosecutors did in this case was faithful to that original purpose.

The tension—now a national flashpoint—is that such a fulsome grand jury investigation is not done in the ordinary course, and certainly would not have been conducted if Michael Brown had killed Officer Darren Wilson. Both investigations would go before a grand jury, yes, but the process of an extensive and complete grand jury investigation would likely not have occurred. This two-tiered structure plays into a narrative of unequal treatment of minorities at the hands of police, an inequity that raises real issues of racial justice and police-citizen trust in St. Louis and beyond.

In the coming days, pundits, lawyers, and citizens will debate the merits of the evidence released that night, and the wisdom of the path the prosecutors took in placing all of the evidence before the grand jury. But, no matter the debate, what those grand jurors did was to be commended and respected. Those jurors showed that grand jurors matter, and will continue to matter in society. Hopefully, as a society, we will take this opportunity to educate ourselves about the role of jurors and try to regain a renewed faith in the legal system.

For more thoughts on the subject, please see the recent episode of The Diane Rehm Show on Ferguson.

Andrew Guthrie Ferguson is author of Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press, 2012) and an associate professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.

Q&A with Judith Wellman, author of Brooklyn’s Promised Land

In Brooklyn’s Promised Land, historian Judith Wellman sheds light on the virtually lost history of Weeksville, an independent free black community in nineteenth-century Brooklyn. 

Founded after slavery ended in New York State in 1827, Weeksville provided a space of safety, prosperity, education, and even power. Its residents owned property, set up their own churches, established two newspapers, and even created a baseball team, appropriately named the Weeksville Unknowns. 

In the interview below, Wellman discusses her research for the book, Weeksville’s most remarkable features, and the national significance of this extraordinary place.

Q: Why is Weeksville important?

Judith Wellman: Through the lens of Weeksville as a unique community, we see how real people dealt with national events and movements in African American and American history. Formed at the end of slavery in New York State, Weeksville was a reaction to the attempt to send free people of color to Africa. Its citizens were involved in virtually every movement for African American rights in the nineteenth century, including the black convention movement, voting rights, Underground Railroad, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the emergence of Progressive reform. Weeksville’s success transcends its unique local history and makes it an important model for the world.

When and how did you first come across the space of Weeksville?

In the early 1980s, I was working with a National Park Service Ranger named Stephanie Dyer. Stephanie lived in the Bronx, but she and I were both working at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York. When I visited Stephanie in New York, I thought we were going to visit the Teddy Roosevelt birthplace, but Stephanie took me instead to Weeksville. I’ll be forever grateful for that. And I’ll never forget my first sight of Joan Maynard, founding director, coming down the narrow staircase of one of the old houses on Hunterfly Road, now owned by the Weeksville Heritage Center. I have been hooked ever since! 

Your study relies mostly on public sources instead of private manuscripts. Could you say more about these materials?

So few early Weeksville residents wrote specifically about their own experiences that we began to look for every public record we could find. Census records recorded (or at least attempted to record) the names of all U.S. residents, including those in Weeksville. They gave us vital information about race, age, sex, occupation, literacy, and property ownership of Weeksville residents. They also gave us names, which we used to look up deeds, assessment records, genealogical materials, and newspaper accounts. Newspapers, especially the Brooklyn Eagle, online through the Brooklyn Public Library, provided invaluable details. So did numerous maps. Most unexpectedly, we also found many images relating to Weeksville’s houses, institutions, and people.

This book includes forty-two images and six maps, to give readers a sense of Weeksville as a real place. Wherever possible, it also includes direct quotations from Weeksville’s residents, so readers can hear real voices.   

You described your approach as both chronological and topical. Which period between 1770 and 2010 would you consider to be the most representative or most important in Weeksville’s development?

I most enjoyed learning about Weeksville in the two decades before the Civil War, when it was first founded and grew. By 1855, 521 people lived in Weeksville. Eighty-two percent of them were African Americans. It was a cosmopolitan community, attracting people from the eastern U.S. (including New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., South and North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland) and also from the West Indies and Africa.

Although only the school principal—Junius C. Morel—was nationally known before the Civil War, Weeksville was home to a variety of remarkable people, including Francis P. Graham, “a man of many eccentricities,” as noted by the New York Times, who was accused of participating in the Denmark Vesey rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, went to Liberia, and then returned to New York City. He later became a minister, shoemaker, and the largest resident landowner in Weeksville. His nephew (or perhaps his natural son), James LeGrant, became Weeksville’s only carpenter. James LeGrant married Lydia Ann Elizabeth Simmons LeGrant, one of only four women in Weeksville who owned land. All of these people and more lived on the block just north of the current Weeksville Heritage Center house, where the Kingsborough housing project now stands.

How was this community rediscovered in 1966? Was there any historical reason behind this rediscovering moment?

Weeksville was rediscovered in the context of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s. Major credit for this rediscovery goes to Jim Hurley, formerly an aerial photographer with the U.S. Navy and Vice Consul to Pakistan. In the mid-1960s, Mr. Hurley was giving tours of New York City neighborhood through the Museum of the City of New York. In 1968, he offered a noncredit workshop through the Pratt Institute of Community Development called “Exploring Bedford-Stuyvesant and New York City.” Delores McCullough and Patricia Johnson were students in this course, and they focused on Weeksville. This group identified the old Hunterfly Road. Then Joseph Haynes, an engineer for the Transit Authority and a professional pilot, took Jim Hurley on a flight to take photos of the old landscape.

The following year, in 1969, the Model Cities Redevelopment Program decided to demolish several old houses near the corner of Dean Street and Troy Avenue. Local residents, including William T. Harley, students from P.S. 243, and Boy Scouts from Troop 342 worked with Jim Hurley, who had a small grant to retrieve objects from these houses before they were demolished. Among other items, they found a Revolutionary War-era cannonball (Weeksville was on the pathway of British troops who came to Long Island) and a tintype of woman who came to be known as the Weeksville Lady.

Local supporters organized Project Weeksville to continue this research. Barbara Jackson worked with students in P.S. 243; Robert Swan did detailed research; Loren McMillan and students from P.S. 243 convinced New York City to designate Weeksville as a landmark. Joan Maynard became Director of the new Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant history, bringing this grassroots preservation effort to national attention. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

What are the most remarkable features of Weeksville? 

Weeksville was a success story. So often we hear about the horrors of slavery and the difficulty of African Americans surviving as free people of color. All of this is important. We need to know this. But if we focus not on what people in the dominant culture did to (or for) African Americans and highlight what African Americans did for themselves, we often find a very different, much more positive story.

This book highlights the experience of ordinary people who together created an extraordinary community—a place of physical safety, high levels of property ownership (about thirty percent of adult men owned property), political participation, education and literacy (with a 93 percent literacy rate for young adults in the 1860s), and the development of community institutions (two churches, a school, an orphan asylum, and a home for the aged) that ultimately formed an important grassroots basis of social reform—the Progressive movement—in the early 20th century.

By the 1850s and 1860s, they had attracted the attention of nationally known African American leaders. People such as Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, and Rufus L. Perry made Weeksville the headquarters of the African Civilization Society (designed to set up communities of free people in West Africa). Maritcha Lyons made a career as an assistant principal in the Weeksville school, the first person in the U.S. to mentor both African American and European American student teachers together. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, daughter of one of Weeksville’s early landowners, became an early woman doctor.

One of Weeksville’s most noticeable features is that the whole village was dramatically changed—virtually wiped out—by the expansion Brooklyn’s street grid after completion of the Eastern Parkway and Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s and 1880s. Today, only a very few of Weeksville’s pre-Civil War buildings remain, including the ones on Hunterfly Road, now owned by the Weeksville Heritage Center.

How does remembering Weeksville shed light on the future of African American communities and our society at large?

Weeksville’s citizens wanted to make real in their own lives the American ideal that all people are created equal. Ironically, to fulfill this dream, they had to move to a place outside the control of the dominant culture. As one of about one hundred African American intentional communities before the Civil War, Weeksville fulfilled its goals as a place of safety, property ownership, education, and employment for its residents.

The residents of Weeksville formed a unique community in a unique time and place, but their message transcends that uniqueness to speak to us all, as citizens of this world in the early 21st century. Specifically, Weeksville challenges us as citizens of this world to consider the usefulness of separatism versus integration as a way to create places of respect and empowerment for all people.

As a historian of European American background, how did you become involved in the project?

This project actually started out as a National Register nomination, not a book. In 2003, Pam Green, Director of the Weeksville Heritage Center, invited me to work with them on a National Register nomination for the Weeksville houses. We had a wonderful team of people—Cynthia Copeland, Judith Burgess-Abiodun, Theresa Ventura, Lee French, Victoria Huver, and others—with everyone working on different sources. We were all astounded by how much we found. The project kept growing, until it finally became this book.

Truly, in so many ways, I am an outsider to Weeksville. I did not grow up in Weeksville. I did not grow up in any African American community. So there is much that people who grew up there would instinctively know but about which I am completely unaware.

Yet, by their success, the people of Weeksville transcended their own small unique community. They spoke to Americans—white as well as black—across the country, today as well as in the nineteenth century. We all—as citizens of this world—need to know their stories, so that we can learn something from them.

Asian men on TV: Waiting for the (onscreen) kiss

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

© ABC/Eric McCandlessPopular culture is one important realm where Asian Americans, along with other communities of color, negotiate and manage the representations of their communities. In particular, visibility in the mainstream media is one important way to assert an American identity that is inclusive of a variety of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. It also allows for complex representations of Asian America through desires and pleasure that go beyond the stereotypical renditions.

The premature cancellation of “Selfie,” unfortunately, takes another Asian American main character out of primetime television.  However, the melancholy of losing a staunchly heterosexual character fails to address how racism in the U.S. and Asian American exclusion is not solely governed through emasculation. By bemoaning the loss of John Cho, who could offer a primetime kiss to a white heterosexual heroine (a display of sexuality not often seen in Asian males on television), we underscore masculine contours of an Asian American hero whose acts of masculinity do not liberate all Asian Americans. Rather, as I witnessed in my study of Asian American sporting cultures, trying to live up to standards of masculinity that are recognizable and appreciated in our larger U.S. society does not guarantee membership and full citizenship.

Responding to emasculation alone as a major concern means that one is also taking part in devaluing femininity and gay masculinities. Desiring a traditional masculine hero only further affirms what is seen as “normal,” while remaining silent on the exclusions and violence against women, LGBTQI communities, and communities of color. Let us think and desire otherwise. Why must we shortchange our communities by emphasizing a recognizable masculinity? Is it not this recognizable masculinity also the culprit of sexual assault on college campuses, domestic violence in celebrity households, and everyday acts of sexism and homophobia?

Instead of pushing for an Asian American version of a mainstream masculine hero, there are other possibilities. Emphasizing LGBTQI heroes and celebrating dynamic working-class Asian American characters can create a version of America where the boundaries of inclusion within U.S. society is opened up to all. In the process, there is an affirmation of all the various sexual orientations, identifications, and class politics that constitutes Asian America. Once we forget our LGBTQI and working-class heroes, we will unfortunately long for a kiss that has little impact on creating an inclusive society.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, June 2015).

World Toilet Day: Haiti’s tragic cholera epidemic

In honor of World Toilet Day coming up on November 19, one of our authors, Sara Fanning, and her husband discuss a possible solution to Haiti’s tragic cholera epidemic. 

—Sara Fanning and Rob Curran

Haiti has never fully recovered from the devastating earthquake of 2010. Widespread homelessness, impassable roads, food insecurity, and access to clean drinking water continue to hinder recovery efforts.

But perhaps the biggest problem is created by one of the most basic human functions—defecation.

Cholera, though eliminated before the earthquake, has come roaring back and shows little sign of abating. This deadly disease is spread through contact with infected feces. Despite public awareness campaigns, thousands in cities like Cap Haitien and Port-au-Prince, are still using the “flying toilet” – a plastic bag – and spreading the disease from person to person, house to hous

Lack of sanitation is foreign aid’s dirty little secret.

United Nations Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson recently singled out sanitation as a “staggering” problem for as many as 2.5 billion people. And yet, according to IRFC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies), sanitation receives 27% of global funding far less than that given to clean water availability. In Haiti only 29% of the ­population has access to any sanitation resources.

It’s hard to convince authorities that sanitation must be addressed ahead of more obvious needs like food security. So what is to be done? American ecologist Sasha Kramer is addressing sanitation and food security at the same time.

Kramer has lived and worked in Haiti off and on for over ten years, and she knows the problems facing Haiti well. She and her team at SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihood) have distributed hundreds of composting toilets in areas most affected by cholera. Although building and distributing toilets is SOIL’S primary mission, they also collect human waste. Kramer wanted to figure out a use for the thousands of pounds of waste her toilets were producing. And so “the poopmobile” (as Kramer calls it) was born. It’s a green Subaru truck, with a flat-bed large enough to fit the 60 drums of waste (900 gallons worth) collected from the toilets on a weekly basis. The waste is then stirred with sugar-cane pulp and stored in large wooden silos for nine months. At the end of nine months, the compost is sent to a lab to test for pathogens. Scientific research has shown that treated human compost is no more dangerous than animal manure.

When we visited Haiti recently, Kramer took us on a tour of her experimental farm and shared stats she’s gathered on the impact of SOIL’s fertilizer on crop yields. According to her numbers, $60,000 worth of spinach can be produced from a hectare of land treated with SOIL’s fertilizer versus $3000 worth in the same patch of land if left untreated. Looking over the test fields, the contrast could not be clearer between the lush crops of sorghum, banana trees and amaranth spinach on the plots treated with what Kramer calls “humanure” and neighboring control plots. For example, the banana trees in the untreated soil are stunted to chest-height, while those on the composted soil stand 20 foot high – even though both sets were planted at the same time.

When you see the results of SOIL’s fertilizing system and look over the eroded fields and hills of the rest of Haiti, you can’t but think (and hope) how this fertilizer could transform the landscape of Haiti. Deforestation and over-farming have rendered the top soil into little more than dust in most rural communities. The sight of teams of men breaking up this soil with picks is painful in its futility. In the days of French plantations, Haiti was the biggest agricultural producer in the world; now, it cannot even feed itself. More than 80 per cent of Haiti’s farms fail to produce enough food to feed household members let alone have surpluses. Haiti has one of the world’s lowest rates of chemical fertilizer usage – less than one kilogram per hectare of arable land, compared with more than 100 kilograms per hectare in the U.S., according to World Bank estimates. With more than two-thirds of the Haitian population dependent on farming as the main source of income, investment in low cost fertilizer is essential to the economic improvement of the entire country.

For developing countries like Haiti, which can’t afford the billions of dollars of investment required to establish sewage systems or provide fertilizer subsidies, Kramer’s simple but effective system is a way to kill two birds with one stone. A fleet of “poopmobiles” would be the only major capital investment required for SOIL to transform both sanitation and food supply in Haiti.

Around the world, food and sanitation problems often go hand in hand. As Deputy Secretary General Eliasson makes his push for “toilets for all” ahead of World Toilet Day on November 19, he should look to SOIL’s poopmobiles and Kramer’s low cost solution as an answer to Haiti’s needs.

Sara Fanning is an assistant professor of history at Texas Woman’s University and the author of Caribbean Crossing: African Americans and the Haitian Emigration Movement. Her husband, Rob Curran, is a financial and travel writer whose work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and Fortune.com among others.

[This post originally appeared on GlobalPost.]

UP Week: Announcing the new Keywords

Happy University Press Week! We are thrilled to once again be featured the final run of the university press blog tour—this year, with a post from Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, co-editors of the second edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Designed as a print-digital hybrid publication, Keywords collects more than 90 essays—30 of which are new to this edition—from interdisciplinary scholars, each on a single term such as “America,” “culture,” “law,” and “religion.”

After reading the piece, head on over “from the square” to the other press blogs featured today! [Friday's tour includes blog posts from Columbia University PressUniversity of Illinois Press, Island PressUniversity of Minnesota Press, and University of Nebraska Press. For a complete schedule, click here.]

We’re thrilled that the second edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies is finally here. In our roles as co-editors, we have had a great time working with such an exciting group of scholars across a wide array of interdisciplinary fields, including American studies and cultural studies. We hope that you will find their essays as stimulating and thought-provoking as we do.

As we note in our introduction to the second edition, we’ve been working with NYU Press on this “hybrid print-digital publication” even before any of us knew exactly what that phrase could or would mean. It’s been a learning experience for us as co-editors and for the Press. Now that it has arrived, we hope that it will be a rich and engaging learning opportunity for our readers.

The site is pretty straightforward. It includes the digital essays in full, the opening passages of the print essays, and resources for anyone interested in using the publication in courses. We’re particularly excited about the search and category functions, both of which allow users to map uses of a concept across the print, digital, and post-publication keyword essays. We invite you to play with these tools to see what they can offer!

As we mark and celebrate this launch, we also want to highlight one claim that we’ve made across both editions: a keywords project like this one is never done. It is a necessarily incomplete, participatory, and collaborative mapping of knowledge formations across multiple fields and from diverse positionalities. For this reason, we have built into the publication several ways that you can contribute to Keywords.

·      You can propose to author a “post-publication essay,” a contribution that responds to or deviates from the essays included in or absent from the project. Contact us at keywords@fordham.edu.

·      You can contribute to our archive of assignments that have engaged the publication and/or used the Keywords Collaboratory.

·      We can post to the Keywords blog by describing pedagogical or other deployments of Keywords.

If you are interested in doing any of these things, please contact us. That’s all for now. Enjoy Keywords, in print and online, and please do let us know what use you make of it.

Bruce Burgett is Dean and Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell, graduate faculty in the Department of English at the University of Washington, Seattle, and co-director of the UW graduate Certificate in Public Scholarship. Glenn Hendler is Associate Professor and Chair in the English Department at Fordham University, where he also teaches in the American Studies Program. Together, they are the co-editors of Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Second Edition (NYU Press, 2014).

How Katz’s Delicatessen became a New York icon

—Ted Merwin

When I was growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, school field trips meant being schlepped on a bus to the McGraw-Hill building on Sixth Avenue, to a multimedia film called the “New York Experience,” in which a kaleidoscopic montage of New Yorkers of different stripes celebrated both past and present life in Gotham. Nowadays, all one needs to do to get a sense of the real New York is to pay a visit to Katz’s Deli on Houston Street, where a prickly, pickle-y, briny Yiddish gestalt holds imperious sway in a churning sea of multi-racial, multi-ethnic customers and counter people.

And so “The Ur-Deli,” Jordan Weissman’s recent piece in Slate on how Katz’s stays afloat despite charging $20 for a pastrami sandwich, while it ably limns the economic factors that have raised the price of beef (even beef of the non-kosher variety, which Katz’s retails), only hints at what makes Katz’s emblematic of Jewish life in New York. Katz’s is what the peerless French Jewish scholar Pierre Nora would call a lieu de memoire, a place in which Jewish memory itself is staged and constructed—a place in which every neon sign seems to light up a kind of historic Jewish body electric for the benefit of all New Yorkers. Indeed, there is something Whitmanesque about Katz’s, peopled, often around the clock, by a jostling crowd of cab drivers, tourists, politicians and businesspeople. (Of course, if Whitman had ever been to Katz’s, he would have called his magnum opus “Slices of Pastrami” instead of “Leaves of Grass.”)

We may never know which Jewish delicatessen was the first to open in New York; the deli–from the Latin word delicatus, meaning anything that was alluring, enticing, or voluptuous–morphed in successive stages out of the gourmet take-out stores of Europe, only gradually sprouting tables at the turn of the twentieth century and becoming a particularly relaxed and raucous type of restaurant that brought together Jewish immigrants from different Eastern European nations and enabled them to begin to form a collective American Jewish identity while fressing on smoked and pickled meats, crunchy cucumbers, and spongy, slightly sour, seeded rye bread.

But Katz’s, which opened in 1888 as Iceland Brothers (the brothers were bought out by Willy Katz in 1910, at the peak of Jewish immigration), was certainly one of the pioneers. Its survival is remarkable, given how many similar establishments went in and out of business on the Lower East Side in those years, and how challenging the restaurant business remains to this day. It has profited hugely from the tens of thousands of visitors who descend on the Lower East Side each year seeking to experience, or at the very least to imagine, what life was like in New York more than a century ago.

True, what cemented Katz’s in the popular imagination is its role in the 1989 Rob Reiner comedy film, When Harry Met Sally, in which Meg Ryan’s vociferous “orgasm” articulated the whole “let it all hang out” ethos of Jewish culture (one summed up, perhaps, equally well by the pendulous salamis hanging behind the deli counter). It was—as another non-Jew, Henry James, called it in his (admittedly highly prejudiced) 1905 survey of the Lower East Side—a “Jewry that had burst all bounds.” This is what Katz’s sells: the celebration of excess, the drive to overturn limits, the claiming of one’s irrepressible due.

Katz’s may thus be not just the most “New York” restaurant there is, but the most American and most democratic one. A flash mob last year recreated the notorious scene from the Reiner film in Katz’s with dozens of (seemingly) non-Jewish women simultaneously reaching “climax” in unison, thrusting the deli even more to the pinnacle of American popular culture. As Katz’s has become ever more a destination restaurant, the little carnival ticket that one uses to purchase one’s food gains entry not just to an eatery but to a buoyant, beguiling and boisterous show. For such a bonanza, $20 seems like a true Lower East Side bargain.

Ted Merwin is Associate Professor of Religion & Judaic Studies and Director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). He is the author of Pastrami on Rye: A History of the Jewish Deli (forthcoming in 2015 from NYU Press).

On Veterans Day: Fulfilling an ongoing debt

—Mark Boulton

[This post originally appeared on The Hill's Congress Blog.]

Listen to the words of any politician this Veterans Day, or head down to any local war memorial. Turn on a country radio station, or check out the bumper stickers on the nearest pickup truck. Think of the crowd reaction every time a soldier surprises his or her family by showing up behind home plate during the seventh inning stretch. If there in one thing, it seems, we can all agree upon in our polarized and hyper-partisan political culture, it is that everyone loves a veteran. Americans have quite rightly been bending over backwards to “thank a veteran” and to “support our troops” ever since the gut-wrenching stories of the neglect of the Vietnam generation became part of our collective consciousness. But if the ubiquitous gestures of goodwill and outpourings of appreciation for military service were consistently translated into practical services and benefits for returning servicemen and women, then perhaps their transition back to civilian life might be less of a burden than has often been the case.

When the nation abandoned a military draft and transitioned to an all-volunteer force at the end of the Vietnam era, most Americans turned their backs on what had historically been a civic obligation to defend the nation. In doing so, they uncoupled themselves from the disruption and potential trauma in life often caused by military service. One would think, therefore, that there should be little quarrel when our representatives are tasked with crafting legislation and building systems that properly fulfill the debt owed those men and women sent to fight in our name. But time and again we hear stories of veterans still suffering from high unemployment rates, homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other unattended physical and psychological problems. This past summer saw much outcry over the alarming and sometimes catastrophic shortcomings of the Veterans’ Administration. Just prior to that in February, Senate Republicans shot down a sweeping bill that would have greatly liberalized veterans’ benefits and access to healthcare in large part because of the strain it would put on an already stretched federal budget.

These were just the latest iterations in a long and troubling pattern of a slow and often inadequate federal response to our veterans’ needs. Politicians from both ends of the political spectrum have repeatedly demonstrated willingness to cut benefits for economic or ideological reasons when veterans needed them most. In the White House, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt cut spending for all veterans, including those disabled in service, as he sought to reassess the nation’s finances during the Great Depression. Even though he did sign the generous 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights into law, later versions of the G.I. Bill were far less munificent. During the Vietnam era, Lyndon B. Johnson fought against a generous G.I. Bill for Cold War veterans for fear that it would divert funds from his broader Great Society social programs. Benefits for Vietnam veterans were similarly compromised by Richard Nixon who sought to slash federal spending, and by Gerald Ford who vetoed much-needed G.I. Bill improvements legislation in 1974 in an attempt to curb inflation. In an effort to trim the VA’s budget, Ronald Reagan attempted repeatedly to cut funding for outreach centers that provided vital counseling services for troubled veterans. The list could go on.

Everyone loves a veteran. But let us start showing them that love with more than just bumper stickers and well-intentioned gestures. Let us step up when they need us, not with a blank check or an open-ended commitment to a life living off the federal dollar, but with a more sensitive ear and a greater willingness to respond to their needs. Throwing more money at a problem does not always solve it, but in this case it can provide vitally needed programs and services. Coupled, certainly, with a reasonable expectation of accountability, let this be one area where cherished notions of small government and fiscal prudence are tempered by a greater sense of responsibility to assist those in uniform. This Veterans Day, remember to thank a veteran and to keep showing those the gestures of support—they do mean a lot. But when the next round of debates ring out on Capitol Hill over how much is owed our servicemen and women, let’s make sure that all is done to reasonably fulfill the debt they are owed. They answered our call: We must be better at answering theirs.

Mark Boulton is the author of Failing Our Veterans: The G.I. Bill and the Vietnam Generation (New York University Press, 2014) and an associate professor of History at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri.

Queer Christianities: A new conversation

—Michael F. Pettinger, Kathleen T. Talvacchia, and Mark Larrimore

“Queer Christian lives are wildly, deliciously varied.”

With those words, our co-editor Mark Larrimore captured the most compelling reason for editing a book like Queer Christianities. He also hit on the greatest challenge we faced as editors. We wanted to start a new conversation, one grounded in the lived experience of individuals who consider themselves queer and Christian. The problem was that the delicious variety of their lives resisted any easy organizing principle.

So how do you give structure to a queer Christian discussion without closing out some voices and locking those included too rigidly into place? We thought about dividing it along denominational lines – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox. But would there be space for people to talk across those divisions? We considered arranging it according to different sexual identities. But the number of such identities was indefinable and fraught with potential conflict. Was there room at the table for heterosexuals? If we included gay and lesbian Christians who opt for heterosexual marriage or celibacy, would we alienate those who see these choices as a surrender to oppression? And what about the divergent methodologies that such a discussion would inevitably call upon – could theologians, theorists, philosophers, historians, sociologists have an intelligible conversation? If they are scholars who practice a tradition, how do they integrate their academic and religious commitments?

What we were looking for was a language accessible to both theologians and social scientists of religion. It would have to be a language useful to individuals from a broad range of sexual identities. And last of all, it would have to be a language that the contributors could use to answer the underlying question of the book – how do individuals reflect upon their erotic relationships while living in traditions that are often explicitly hostile to them? How do they put those reflections into practice? And how do those practices shape their lives and the lives of their communities?

The solution came almost as a joke, at the end of a long afternoon spent tossing out ideas and shooting them down. Why not borrow the language of the Christian states of life? We could have three parts – one on matrimony, another on celibacy, and a third on whatever else is left over.

At first, the idea seemed slightly ridiculous. After all, weren’t these “states of life” precisely the sort of tidy, stultifying taxonomy that queerness tries to resist? Weren’t the terms old-fashioned even among Christians? And what exactly is contained in the category, “whatever else is left over?” Does such a thing even have a name? Is it a name that anyone would want to claim?

In order to open these concepts to the many lives we wanted to explore, we had to queer them. As abstract singular nouns, “Celibacy” and “Matrimony” might name suffocating monoliths, but in the plural, “Celibacies” and “Matrimonies” point to the myriad ways in which specific individuals resist, reimagine, and reinvent these forms in their own lives. These plural nouns called for another plural to name the third part. After repeated discussion, we chose “Promiscuities,” a word that evokes the multiple forms of exclusion that have haunted the history of Christianity, while pointing to the many types of erotic relationship that queer Christians are reclaiming.

The states-of-life model proved capacious in ways that we could not have anticipated. Not only did it make it possible for theologians and social scientists of religion to speak with each other about queer Christian lives, it also opened the way for queer Christians to engage the academy on their own terms. Rather than creating three separate conversations around three static topics, the model allowed voices addressing one state of life to echo or respond to what was said in another. Indeed, the tracing of ideas between the three parts of the book mirrors the lives of queer Christians, as individuals transitioned from one state of life to another, and even inhabited multiple states simultaneously.

This surging dynamism is perhaps the single most important thing we have discovered in editing this conversation. As Mark pointed out, the lives of queer Christians “can be expected to keep pushing the limits of normalizing structures of all kinds.” The resulting harmonies and dissonances suggest further possibilities for queering and Christianity. This book is not a conclusion. It is only the beginning of a new and lively conversation.

Michael F. Pettinger is Assistant Professor in the Literary and Religious Studies programs at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. Kathleen T. Talvacchia is Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Mark Larrimore is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. They are co-editors of Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (NYU Press, 2014).

­­Diversity and the wage gap

—Cindy I-Fen Cheng

While much has been written about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley’s tech industries, recent findings by the American Institute for Economic Research sheds light on what may be a more alarming concern: wage disparities based on race and gender.

As data released by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter has shown, the tech industry is dominated by men. Racially, whites made up the largest percentage of tech workers while Latinos, Blacks, mixed-race and groups listed as “other,” the smallest. Unsurprising to those who are familiar with the layout of Silicon Valley, Asian Americans were not only well represented in these companies; they also comprised the largest percentage of tech workers at Yahoo and LinkedIn.

This impressive showing of Asian Americans in tech positions may explain why findings on wage disparities are so appalling. As the tech industry is inching towards “diversity,” isn’t “equality” within the work force the anticipated result?

The wage gap suggests that the answer is “no.” According to the findings of the AIER, Asian Americans made $8,146 less than whites in 2012, $3,656 less than Blacks, and $6,907 less than employees listed as “other.” With this wage gap, “diversity” is reduced to being merely a symbolic measure of equality.

Notably, the Asian American wage gap raises other concerns. With the strong presence of Asians in the tech industry, does this suggest that companies are choosing to hire foreign workers, also known as H-1B workers, over citizens and permanent residents? More importantly, does the wage gap suggest that the hiring of H-1B workers are driving down American wages, given the longstanding practice of hiring foreign workers as “cheap” labor over filling a skills gap in the work force?

Thus far, the debate over H-1B workers has focused on a narrow set of questions that seek to determine whether H-1B workers and more broadly, immigrants, are good or bad for our country. Missing from this debate are questions over what corporations and the federal government are doing to ensure equal pay for equal work. Instead of asking whether or not foreign workers are driving down wages, we should also consider how the belief that it is ok to discriminate against H1-B workers and pay them less is working to sustain wage disparities.

If we want to see equality in work place, we need to recommit ourselves to the struggle against discrimination and engage in open and frank discussions about the effects of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Only then will we see a fair distribution of people from various backgrounds and genders in the work force, and wage parity for all workers.

Cindy I-Fen Cheng is Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race during the Cold War (now available in paperback from NYU Press).

Reducing incarceration rate begins with juvenile justice

—Simon I. Singer

 A large segment of the over 2 million people currently incarcerated in the United States entered the criminal justice system as adolescents. From the 1980s on, too many juveniles faced the harsh penalties of a zero tolerance criminal justice system. We are now paying the price of a justice system that has lost its rehabilitative mission.

But these harsh determinate sentencing policies are not to be applied to all juveniles, particularly those residing in affluent suburbs. The rehabilitative mission of juvenile justice is still alive and well in many middle-class communities. It can be found in desirable suburban cities where there are good public schools, plenty of recreational activities, and youth service professionals that seem to really care.

For those youth who occasionally deviate from the straight and narrow path of law abiding behavior, the youth services available in affluent suburbs offer more opportunities to confront adolescent troubles than those available in impoverished communities.  This is a major finding of my detailed study of delinquency in a large suburban city named by Money Magazine as America’s Safest City. My book, America’s Safest City: Delinquency and Modernity in Suburbia, shows why rates of incarceration are so high among impoverished communities and so low in affluent suburbs.

In these suburbs, treatment at the first sign of adolescent offending is not far removed from the medical model of good health: a cold is treated so it doesn’t become pneumonia and minor surgeries are agreed upon to avoid major ones. Similarly, the residents of affluent suburbs invest in their good schools, youth programs, therapists, and a whole host of youth service professionals so that their low offending youth do not become high offending criminals.

The way to reduce this country’s high incarceration rate is to emulate the prevention-treatment approach that currently exists in many affluent suburbs. This means investing in prevention and treatment so that impoverished adolescents are not so quickly excluded from developing as law abiding adults. It also means responding to the first sign of trouble in a system of juvenile justice that should have the aim of avoiding the labeling of its youth as criminals. That often requires diversion along with programs that actually confront the reasons for delinquency. By making a treatment-oriented juvenile justice system available to all adolescents—no matter where they live, we can effectively reduce this country’s high rate of incarceration.

Simon I. Singer is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. He is the author of America’s Safest City: Delinquency and Modernity in Suburbia (NYU Press, 2014).

Challenging Barbie’s image of beauty

—Amanda M. Czerniawski

Kalliopi Monoyios for Scientific American writes about artist Nickolay Lamm’s Barbie project, where he created a doll based on the measurements of a “real, healthy 19-year-old” and compared it side-by-side with a Barbie. He also hopes to create more dolls, representing a variety of body types, ethnicities, and genders.

His Lammily doll demonstrates how Barbie, along with fashion and media, distorts our sense of normal bodies by constructing an idealized body that is far from a natural one. Barbie, with her impossible physical measurements and proportions, presents an unattainable image of beauty; yet, her body type is depicted throughout the media landscape, including in popular animated films geared towards children. Monoyios laments, “Are we still stuck on the impossibly thin-waisted, big-boobed, bobbleheaded ideal of beauty? When can we let that go?” I would like to add: Can we let go not just a particular image of beauty but the concept of beauty itself?

Our culture places a high premium on the look and shape of women’s bodies. The female body, in particular, is constructed as an object to be watched. Barbie typifies this objectification with her limited mobility, implicit focus on dressing up, and her penchant for high heels. As a consequence of this intense focus on appearance, women experience their bodies as not solely for their pleasure and amusement but as under the constant gaze of others. This focus on the physical may lead to a separation of the mind from the body, i.e., disembodiment. This occurs when we are taught to think of our bodies as passive objects meant to be admired by others.

When women begin to hold themselves accountable for the proper display of their bodies, they risk becoming objects in their own body projects. They invest in and manipulate their bodies and engage in extensive body practices to cultivate their physiques, often towards these unattainable Barbie-like goals of perfection. If women do not feel like they measure up to this ideal, they may disconnect from their bodies in order to shield themselves from the pain associated with living in non-normative bodies that fail to match contemporary standards of beauty. Ultimately, many women often find themselves continually toiling away at their bodies without reaching the goal, for the fashion icons they aspire to emulate do not really exist but are, instead, carefully constructed and manipulated by the brush strokes of master aestheticians and computer technicians. We have forgotten (or simply ignored) that these kinds of bodies are fantastical images.

The Lammily doll aims to expand the notion of beauty to include average bodies, but does it help eliminate the engendered problem of disembodiment? While the website presents a photo slideshow of Lammily’s figure (including close-ups of her bust and rear-end in a teal bikini), it also stresses the doll’s articulated wrists, knees, elbows, and feet. At least Lammily may be able to do something besides pose and look pretty.

While Lammily may be a step in the right direction, ultimately, we need a doll that instills the lesson that we should not judge women and girls on the basis of their looks. We need a doll that does not sexualize or objectify women’s and girl’s bodies. Instead of being judged on their “good looks,” let us value women for their “good works,” in the home, the workplace, and the global beyond.

Amanda M. Czerniawski is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Temple University and the author of Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling (forthcoming from NYU Press in January 2015).

The satiric lesson of ‘Dear White People’

—Pamela Newkirk

[This article originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Rarely is a white audience afforded a lucid and freewheeling response to the deluge of indignities blacks still endure. Instead, reaction to the barrage of stereotypes embodied in many Tyler Perry films, the one-dimensional depiction of blacks in news or reality television, or whites’ insulting appropriation and commodification of a hard-earned black urban culture, is seldom considered.

Now Dear White People, appropriately set on an elite and predominantly white university campus, delivers a timely and barely satiric lesson on why, for many blacks, tensions continue to simmer beneath the nation’s facade of racial harmony and transcendence. The film’s writer-director, Justin Simien, lays out an ambitious lesson plan to reveal how racial stereotypes play out on an elite campus that claims to celebrate diversity.

Inclusion in such settings typically means a small number of blacks fitting into preconceived notions of who and what they are. And for many, the stereotype of black life—of a monolithic, urban slang-wielding group that glorifies criminality and crass consumerism—is more salient than the reality of black individuality.

So many conflate blackness with an underachieving urban underclass that, for some white filmgoers, it’ll come as a surprise that blacks don’t wish to be viewed as products of street culture. Nor do they relish the curiosity of whites who touch their hair or inquire about its texture, manageability, or authenticity. The individuality and dignity readily accorded whites are often denied blacks, so few African-Americans manage to escape some of the slights deftly depicted on screen.

Even at elite colleges, many high-achieving African-Americans are often addressed by their white peers as if aliens from a rap video, rather than as fellow classmates from similar or even more-privileged backgrounds. Why white students feel entitled to use the N-word, or to affect urban slang when greeting their black classmates, is both confounding and yet all too familiar.

One character in Dear White People, a prototypical nerd and gay writer, is assumed to be a member of the Black Student Union and to live in black housing when in reality he feels as alienated by many blacks as he does by the larger culture. A girl from the South Side of Chicago is so determined to fit in that she conforms to a narrowly prescribed, self-deprecating role; while the main character, Sam White, is the agitator whose provocative campus radio show, Dear White People, not only catalogs the daily slights but lashes back. In one show she mockingly counsels: “Dear White People, don’t dance.” But behind the scowl is the pain and frustration of a sensitive aspiring filmmaker who privately favors the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman over Spike Lee.

While Sam speaks for the black students, she is understood best by her perceptive white boyfriend. He alone among the characters sees and fully appreciates the person beneath the skin. It is here where we are granted a close-up look at the intricate dance that is race, the complicated series of endlessly variable calculations that defy neat categories or lazy shorthand. It’s all covered, sometimes tumbling all at once from the screen with such velocity that one may at times miss the subtlety.

What becomes clear is that the central black characters are anything but the interchangeable cartoon cutouts they are in the imaginations of their white—and sometimes their black—peers. The cost of acceptance in predominantly white settings is often great, as is the temptation to insist that America has come so far on the racial front that whites can be considered the new victims of discrimination who can mindlessly evoke black stereotypes for fun.

In the end it’s not their race that unites these highly individual black students at the proverbial cafeteria table, but rather the barrage of indignities that effectively obliterates their differences. It’s the persisting erasure—the inability to see them as unique individuals—that cuts so deeply.

Recognition or even denial may account for some of the uneasy laughter I heard in the Upper West Side theater where I was among an age- and racially-diverse New York audience. Not all will agree that the filmmaker’s incisive critique is justified, but this film is certain to be discussed, on campuses and elsewhere, for many weeks and years to come.

Pamela Newkirk is Professor of Journalism at New York University. She is the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (NYU Press, 2012).