“Sounds familiar”: The revolution in #Ferguson

—Shana L. Redmond

My first efforts to see the real time, on-the-ground happenings in Ferguson was on that day, the same day that alternative media streams temporarily went black. I visited Activist World News Now online for the live stream of Ferguson but I did not get a visual of that embattled community’s resolve; instead I heard it. From beyond the black screen I heard a voice leading a chant:Seven days after the murder of Black youth Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, state governor Jay Nixon instituted a citywide curfew between the hours of midnight and 5am. This effort to tame and remove from view those who continue to protest and rebel against the injustices suffered there and around the country was a part of a larger blackout designed to conceal the escalation of the militarized police state in Ferguson. This strategy on the part of the city’s police department included disabling streetlights and attacking and arresting journalists covering the story.

Solo voice: “Won’t be no police brutality…”

All: “…when the revolution come.”

Solo voice: “Won’t be mass incarceration…”

All: “…when the revolution come.”

This performance, in the step-worn and gas canister-ridden streets of Ferguson, was the sound of protest and all the evidence I needed to document this war zone. The sound showed me that police antagonized protestors. The sound showed me that there were critical and politically diverse numbers of people there, demanding change. The sound showed me that neither voices nor spirits were broken in that city under siege. And the sound showed me that the peoples’ determination to imagine and claim different futures, free from police brutality and mass incarceration (amongst other violences), is alive even when haunted and pursued by death.

Unfortunately, the sounds emanating from Ferguson also showed me that times haven’t changed as much as some insist they have—at least not for African descended people in the U.S. The demands by protestors for alternatives to the frightening present are not new. Marcus Garvey, the inimitable leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), argued a century ago for these futures that we still march for today. This truth is particularly devastating when one considers that one of his most famous speeches on Black violability was compelled by events that occurred 15 miles southeast of Ferguson.

In 1917, Garvey delivered a speech entitled “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots.” The bloody events of that massacre, which ensued just over the state line in western Illinois, began with a white mob who attacked the Black working class section of the city over perceived competition for employment. Their murderous nativism was so explosive that the Illinois National Guard was deployed. Garvey’s speech on the incident followed a large silent protest staged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York City. Far from condoning this approach, Garvey argued that it was “no time for fine words, but a time to lift one’s voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy.” He continued,

For three hundred years the Negroes of America have given their life blood to make the Republic the first among the nations of the world, and all along this time there has never been even one year of justice but on the contrary a continuous round of oppression. At one time it was slavery, at another time lynching and burning, and up to date it is wholesale butchering. This is a crime against the laws of humanity; it is a crime against the laws of the nation, it is a crime against Nature, and a crime against the God of all mankind.

The litany of brutalities described here provide a genealogy of state-sanctioned violence that continues to its logical end in contemporary Ferguson, New York City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and countless other locations across the country. As in 1917, the National Guard has again been called to greater St. Louis. Black communities continue to be the laboratories for warfare, testing the efficacy of technology (Ferguson police have employed tanks, snipers, tear gas, and rubber bullets, to name but a few weapons) and enemy narratives that turn murder victims into easily disposable criminals. This is the status of our democracy.

I do not know what special meaning the people who slaughtered the Negroes of East. St. Louis have for democracy of which they are the custodians, but I do know that it has no literal meaning for me as used and applied by these same lawless people. America, that has been ringing the bells of the world, proclaiming to the nations and the peoples thereof that she has democracy to give to all … has herself no satisfaction to give 12,000,000 of her own citizens except the satisfaction of a farcical inquiry that will end where it begun, over the brutal murder of men, women and children for no other reason than that they are black people seeking an industrial chance in a country that they have labored for three hundred years to make great.[1] 


Shana L. Redmond
 is Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She is a former musician and labor organizer. Her book, Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora, is available now from NYU Press. Follow her on Twitter: @ShanaRedmond.


[1] Marcus Garvey, “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots” (1917), reprinted on the “American Experience” website, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/garvey/filmmore/ps_riots.html (accessed August 17, 2014).

Book giveaway: Books That Cook

To celebrate the final days of summer, we are giving away two free copies of Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal, the newest title in our Fall 2014 catalog. 

Many of us at NYU Press have been waiting to get our hands on this delightful cookbook anthology since it made an appearance on the ‘forthcoming’ list a year ago—and it’s finally here!

Organized like a cookbook, Books That Cook is a collection of American literature written on the theme of food: from an invocation to a final toast, from starters to desserts.

Including writing from Maya Angelou, Sherman Alexie, and Nora Ephron, among many others, the collection reveals the range of ways authors incorporate recipes—whether the recipe flavors the story or the story serves to add spice to the recipe.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Sunday, September 21st, 2014 at 1:00 pm EST.

Plus, stay tuned to the blog—we’ll be offering a free chapter (recipe included!) from the book next month.

Pride Month and Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx

—Amber Jamilla Musser

Last week I waited for an hour to go inside a warehouse and see Kara Walker’s new art installation, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” The line stretched several blocks to see a woman posed like a sphinx with a headscarf. She is rendered in white sugar, so she is grainy to the touch and fine powder falls around her. She looks regal and impassive, staring past her minions—small brown candy boys carrying baskets, fruit, or other objects, who melt slowly into the ground around them.

While Walker is known for her fierce engagement with history, race, and sexuality, you might be asking what this has to do with pride? Though it may be coincidence that Walker’s installation is up during Pride Month, I want to ask what it would mean to think about these projects as overlapping.

Both Pride Parades and Walker’s installation involve bodies—bodies on display, bodies watching other bodies, waiting bodies, nudity. One might even be tempted to say that both are celebrations. Walker’s installation, always controversial, honors many things including the pain and suffering of plantation slavery and the labor of the Domino workers. Pride parades, begun to mark the Stonewall riots, honor LGBT struggles for inclusion and rights. In theory, pride parades offer a way for LGBT people to live in their identities freely by dancing in the streets as they are cheered on by their brethren.

There are differences, however. In Walker’s installation black female sexuality is at once revered and enclosed, animal and human, and the emotions one sees or feels upon encountering the marvelous sugar baby are amplified by the production of distance. A Subtlety is a spectacle; the black boys are spectacles; we gaze upon them and their eyes do not meet ours. In contrast, Pride parades mobilize bodies and invite participation.

These different spaces and conjured embodiments remind us that the gap between these worlds is not just a matter of adding adjectives, but of seeing how history and bodies meet. Pride parades aim to turn historic shame into pride. Walker’s installation, enclosed in a building whose walls ooze history and sugar, asks us to recall pain and shame by making us confront regality. Though people of color are not necessarily estranged from mainstream pride celebrations, the gulf between these displays helps to articulate what happens when we imagine sexuality as liberatory while forgetting that for some it is still embedded in a difficult and complex history. As my forthcoming book, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, argues this is not a question of merely taking different intersecting identities (black queer female) into account, but asking how celebrating one set of values—pride—threatens to eclipse our ability to understand other experiences, where powerlessness cannot necessarily be overcome with a parade.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (forthcoming in September 2014 from NYU Press).

Election in Newark: Was Ras Baraka’s win a referendum on Cory Booker?

—Andra Gillespie

Three days ago, Newark, New Jersey ushered in a new era of government when voters elected South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka as the permanent replacement for former Mayor (and now Senator) Cory Booker.

As I noted in The New Black Politician, Baraka and Booker are polar opposites. Booker is the Ivy-League and Oxford educated, suburban-bred son of IBM executives who brought a deracialized campaign persona, neoliberal policy proposals and tremendous national and international attention to the city. Baraka is the son of the late poet Amiri Baraka who brought his parents progressive, nationalist and activist sensibilities into formal politics. The only things these two men share are a common racial identification and birth year.

In the days since Baraka’s victory over law professor and former School Advisory Board Chairman Shavar Jeffries, many have asked whether this week’s election was a referendum on Cory Booker. My response is yes, in part. While Tuesday’s results do shed light on the current status of Booker’s legacy, the interpretation is far more nuanced.

Booker and Jeffries are neither close friends nor formal political allies, but they do have a few things in common. They are both Ivy League educated lawyers. Both have been advocates of school reform. Both employed deracialized campaign techniques to appeal to nonblack voters in Newark. And both were avid fundraisers. As a result of this, there are some similarities in Tuesday’s election results and results from the 2002 Newark mayoral race, where Cory Booker lost to then-Mayor Sharpe James. Booker lost by about 6.5 percentage points; Jeffries lost by about 8 percentage points. In 2002, Booker won the mostly Latino and Portuguese North and East Wards of the city; Jeffries did the same on Tuesday. As Marshall Curry suggests in his documentary Street Fight, Sharpe James had a better field operation in 2002; in 2014, Ras Baraka had a stronger field operation. In both cases, better GOTV contributed to the victor’s margin.

So to what extent was Shavar Jeffries’ defeat a reaction to Cory Booker?  Certainly, Ras Baraka’s base included people who were dissatisfied with the Booker administration. But a majority of voters may have been satisfied with Booker’s performance as mayor. Publicly released polls indicate that Booker had a nearly 70% approval rating in October 2012, and in my own polling in Newark in August and October 2013 put Booker’s unweighted disapproval rating at 37% and 24% respectively (Both of my polls have margins of + 7 points). While more recent news developments about alleged corruption and mismanagement at the Newark Watershed or the city’s $93 million budget deficit have likely tarnished Booker’s reputation, anti-Booker backlash is probably only part of the story.

The insider/outsider dimension probably best explains opposition to Shavar Jeffries.  Jeffries is different from Booker in large part because he is a native son. Born in Newark to a single mother, he was raised in the South Ward by his grandmother after his stepfather murdered his mother. Jeffries became active in the Boys and Girls Club of Newark, and when he finished law school and resettled in his hometown, he became active in the Boys and Girls Club leadership and on the board of a local charter school. While Jeffries was civically engaged, he wasn’t well known outside of his circle. And though Jeffries made an impressive showing in his school board victory, that election, with its low turnout and low visibility, did little to raise his citywide profile. As a result, in October 2012, 77% of Newark voters polled had no idea who he was. If there is anything I have learned about Newarkers in the twelve years I have been conducting research in the city, it is that they really want to get to know their political candidates. That Shavar Jeffries performed as well as he did is notable; however, voters would have to become more comfortable with him in order to elect him as mayor, and that takes time.

There are two parts to the insider/outsider dimension. Voters were paying attention not only to their familiarity with the candidates, but also to the candidates’ backers.  While Baraka assembled a grassroots coalition that was backed by labor unions, Jeffries received a strong assist from the Democratic machine. Political bosses Steve Adubato, George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo backed Jeffries, lent volunteers and even raised independent expenditure money to promote Jeffries. This support made this mayoral race competitive, but it raised suspicions among some voters who were concerned about machine influence in Newark politics.

This point demonstrates the biggest difference between Booker and Jeffries. While both candidates attracted support from Wall Street, and while Booker sometimes strategically aligns with the Democratic Party establishment, Booker has largely been viewed as independent of the machine.  While surrogates certainly raise and spend money on his behalf, he is his own fundraising juggernaut. For now, that buys him leverage that Shavar Jeffries does not have. And while Booker is certainly sensitive to the interests of his donors (who can forget the brouhaha when Booker defended his friends in private equity from attacks from the Obama campaign on Meet the Press?), he does not need to rely on independent expenditure support to get elected. No doubt, some of Ras Baraka’s supporters were deeply troubled by Jeffries’ reliance on independent expenditures.

Going forward, Cory Booker’s mayoral legacy will be inextricably tied to Ras Baraka’s legacy.  Each mayor’s performance will reflect on the other. I expect that Baraka will govern differently. As a school principal who has been vocal in his opposition to School Superintendent Cami Anderson, I expect that he will push for a different approach to improving schools. I would also expect him to more heavily scrutinize economic development proposals and be less generous in the tax incentives that his administration offers.

The change in governing style will create conditions for a type of natural experiment where we can determine the effectiveness of neoliberal versus progressive approaches to achieving policy goals like attracting economic development, reducing unemployment and crime and improving housing options for city residents. If Baraka changes the city’s course and Newark thrives, then that will reflect poorly on Booker’s legacy. If Baraka institutes changes and the city falters, though, Booker’s vision will be vindicated.

Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).

No April Fool: Q&A with author Kembrew McLeod

To celebrate April 1 and the release of our new book, Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, today we have a Q&A with the author—and self-proclaimed prankster—Kembrew McLeod. McLeod discusses pranks, hoaxes and cons (and what makes them different), the origins of secret societies, and how pranks and humor have been used throughout history to spark debate and inspire change.

Interviewer: What are the differences between pranks, hoaxes and cons?

Kembrew McLeod: When media outlets report that a person has been “pranked,” they are often discussing what I consider a hoax. A hoax is a kissing cousin of a prank, but its primary purpose is to fool people and attract attention. A prank, for me, is a staged provocation that uses media to enlighten or stir up a debate. I use cons as an all­purpose term for scams that are meant to defraud or gain an advantage—like an email phishing scam. Although it seems like the Internet Age has created a hurricane of pranking, hoaxing and conning, this tricky tradition has thrived for centuries.

You mention that one of America’s “founding fathers” was a merry prankster.

Ben Franklin was an O.P.—Original Prankster. In fact, Franklin’s very first print publication was a pseudonymously penned hoax (he wrote more than 100 satires, pranks and hoaxes under fake names over the course of his lifetime). Just before he died, Franklin penned an op­ed under the name “Historicus,” which trolled the anti­abolitionists by arguing that Muslims should enslave Christians. You won’t find that story in any Fox News­produced documentary on Ben Franklin!

What does media have to do with pranks?

If reduced to a mathematical formula, the art and science of pranking can be expressed as Performance Art + Satire x Media = Pranks. Put simply, pranks are playful critiques performed within the public sphere, and amplified by media. They allow ordinary people to reach large audiences despite constraints (like a lack of wealth or connections) that would normally mute their voices.

What are the prank origins of the urban legend that smoking banana peels can get you high?

Members of the hippie band Country Joe & the Fish started this rumor, which first spread through word of mouth and was quickly picked up by the national news media. Soon, lots of people joined in on the fun. For instance, Rep. Frank Thompson drafted the Banana Labeling Act of 1967 after a “high official in the FDA,” the Congressman claimed, urged him to introduce the bill. “From bananas,” Thompson stated in the halls of Congress, “it is a short but shocking step to other fruits.”

The past year has seen many pranks and hoaxes. Does the wired age lend itself to these events, or are we just more aware of them?

The Internet has changed the ways that pranks, hoaxes and cons can circulate, but trickery has been a pronounced part of the modern age since Jonathan Swift’s time. Pranks went viral much more slowly back then, but the dynamic is still the same.

Your book pays homage to women involved in important pranks. Many readers are probably familiar with Yoko Ono, but fewer know WITCH. What was WITCH?

The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) was an unruly group of ‘60s feminists who pulled many a political prank. For instance, they crashed a large bridal fair and performed an Un­Wedding Ceremony: “We promise to smash the alienated family unit,” they said in unison. “We promise not to obey.”

Some people have heard of the Illuminati from hip­-hop, or they may have encountered the Rosicrucians in a book or movie. What are the prank origins of these so-­called “secret societies”?

The Rosicrucian Brotherhood was invented in the early seventeenth century by Protestant pranksters in 1614. Their anonymously published “Rosicrucian Manifestos” were intended to stir up a public debate about scientific and theological ideas that the Catholic Church opposed. The Rosicrucian myth created the template for virtually every occult conspiracy theory that followed: an elite body of initiates—a satanic secret society within a secret society, sometimes known as the Illuminati—that wants to overthrow the established religious­political authority and create a New World Order.

Why do people put so much credence in ideas that a simple Google search can debunk?

Belief systems are powerful. People fall for pranks, hoaxes, cons and conspiracy theories when they confirm their deep­seated worldviews. Conspiracy theories are inherently non­falsifiable, and any attempt to disprove them is considered suspect.

What sparked your interest in pranks?

When I was a twenty­ year-old college student, I created a fictitious movement to change my school mascot to a three-eyed pig with antlers. It snowballed from the campus newspaper to regional news media, eventually landing on CNN. Reflecting back on the mascot changing prank, it helped me understand how trickery can shape mass media and, to a certain extent, how we perceive the world. It was my first dive into the prankster pond, and I was never the same.

Finally: Is Andy Kaufman still alive?

You’ll have to ask him yourself.

Cycles of gender testing

—Ellen Samuels

A friend who cycles competitively just sent me a link to the new policy on transgender participants in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference. It seems like a progressive and welcoming policy, stating that:

The ECCC particularly recognizes the challenges facing transgender athletes. Such members of the community should compete in the gender category most appropriate to their unique personal situation.”

The release of this policy highlights the growing centrality of issues of non-normative gender and sexuality in athletic competitions as well as in the wider cultural sphere. The prominence of such concerns, as well as the challenges ahead, were highlighted in the weeks leading up to the 2014 Olympic games, as tennis great Billie Jean King called for a LGBTQ “John Carlos moment”—referring to the African American 1968 Olympic medalist who stood on the winners’ podium with lowered head and raised fist, becoming an iconic symbol for social justice.

In Sochi, despite extensive media coverage of Russian anti-gay policies, that moment never came.

Meanwhile, a little-noted story out of Iran highlighted the extent to which international sports must still contend with its own legacy of gendered injustice. In February, on the cusp of Women’s History Month, it was reported that players in Iran’s women’s soccer league were being subjected to “gender testing” and that a number of players were subsequently expelled from the team for failing to qualify as “real women.”

Sex testing in female athletics has a long and tarnished history dating back to the 1940s, and has included requiring female athletes to parade naked before male doctors, performing invasive medical exams, and mandating genetic and hormonal testing. Indeed, from 1968 until the early 1990s, all elite athletes competing as female were required to carry “certificates of femininity,” issued by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Such universal sex testing was abandoned more than a decade ago, but female athletes who are perceived as overly “masculine” are still required to undergo sex testing and even medical treatment in order to remain eligible.

Representations of the Iranian soccer controversy in the Western media have invoked anti-Islamic stereotypes of backwardness, suggesting that gender confusion was caused by the body-masking uniforms worn by the soccer players. These stories ignore the long history of female athletes from all nations and in the skimpiest of running outfits being challenged and subjected to sex testing, their bodies closely analyzed for signs of masculine “hardness,” “strength,” and “power.”

Media reporting on the Iranian women’s soccer team also reflects a common and disturbing tendency to blur together the very different topics of transgender athletes, intersex athletes, and athletes suspected to be cisgendered men deliberately pretending to be women. The International Olympic Committee recently revised its gender policies in part to attempt to disentangle these categories—although the new policies are rife with their own problematic understandings of “sex” and “gender.”

To return to the ECCC policy, after appreciating its initial trans-positive language, I was dismayed to read the next paragraph:

“Competitors may be asked by the Conference Director(s) and/or their designee(s) to furnish two pieces of documentation from relevant legal, medical, or academic authorities documenting personal sex, gender, or gender dysphoria supporting their selected competition gender category.”

Such requirements show how assumptions about the necessity for biocertification can both underpin and undermine even the most well-meaning of policies directed toward people who do not fit neatly into gender binaries.  It is likely that, just as in international female athletics, the cyclists most likely to be asked to provide documentation are those who appear suspiciously “masculine,” yet identify as female.

However, I did notice a peculiar difference in this policy compared to those adopted in the Olympics and other sports settings: The athlete can provide material from “relevant legal, medical, or academic authorities” to support their gender identification.

To my knowledge, no other athletic gender policy allows for “academic” documentation, and I can’t help but wonder what such documentation would look like: Would a note from Judith Butler suffice? Certainly, this unusual addition to a biocertification policy indicates that queer, trans*, and feminist scholars should not discount the relevance of our work to the everyday contestations of gender in sports and other sites of global exchange.

Ellen Samuels is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is the author of Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race (NYU Press, 2014).

A “more Irish” St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition?

—Jennifer Nugent Duffy

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio added another layer of controversy to this year’s St. Patrick’s Day season when he announced his decision to boycott the city’s parade because of its policy that prohibits homosexuals from marching under a separate banner. Undoubtedly many Irish Americans will dismiss de Blasio’s stance and possibly attribute it to his Italian heritage, but it will be more difficult, however, to overlook Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has threatened to boycott his city’s parade if gay groups are excluded. As the son of Irish immigrants, perhaps Walsh’s choice is shaped by St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in Ireland, which are far more tolerant than the ones on this side of the Atlantic. Of course, the parades emerged in dramatically different contexts.

St. Patrick’s Day parades emerged in the mid-nineteenth century United States in a profoundly nativist and hostile climate.  The Irish—who began to arrive in the 1830s— witnessed church attacks and efforts by fraternal organizations like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, or the Know Nothings, to bar the foreign-born from holding office. Anti-Irish sentiment only intensified as 1.5 million Irish people sought refuge in the United States from Ireland’s Great Famine. Here Irish immigrants faced resentment for their Catholicism, but also questions regarding their loyalty to the United States, as many remained committed to nationalist groups that sought to free Ireland of British rule.

As the United States became increasingly urbanized and industrialized, meager wages and industrial accidents made it difficult for Irish men to support their families.  As a result, the Irish had the second highest number of female-headed households in the United States. Yet Irish households were condemned as disorderly because they did not have the economic security to meet America’s middle-class domestic ideal of a wage-earning husband and a family-rearing wife. Furthermore, Irish immigrants transgressed America’s racial order by engaging in intimate relationships with Chinese immigrants and free Blacks in New York neighborhoods like the notorious Five Points in lower Manhattan. In political cartoons, Irish immigrants and African Americans were depicted as similarly repulsive to the American public.

The Irish response to this hostility was a mixed bag. They refused to yield in regards to their Catholicism, but demonstrated their loyalty to the United States by fighting in the Civil War. Unlike Chinese immigrants, the Irish could naturalize and vote, and they leveraged their political power to secure better-paying municipal jobs, which soon allowed Irish immigrants to form more traditional households. But they also learned to adhere to America’s racial order. Within a generation, Irish immigrants went from being attacked to participating in the 1863 Draft Riots, lynching free Blacks on the streets of New York City, and attacking interracial couples.  With these actions they made it clear that Irishness in the United States, meant white.

We see the legacy of this history in St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in cities like New York. Parade leaders fiercely resist any displays that may challenge their religion or traditional definitions of marriage and family.  Adherence to conventional gender roles is also on display, as grand marshals are almost always male but also white. The Irish are so removed from liaisons with nineteenth-century free Blacks that African Americans with Irish surnames, like “Eddie Murphy,” are not considered Irish.  President Obama, who traces some of his ancestry to Moneygall, County Offaly, will probably never be asked to lead the parade in Manhattan (although I am sure that he would be welcomed at the St. Pat’s for All parade in Queens).

In marked contrast, displays of Irishness in the Republic of Ireland are not as firmly anchored in sexuality, gender, race or even ethnicity for that matter. Christine Quinn, New York’s first female and openly gay City Council Speaker, led the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, as did Samantha Mumba, an Afro-Irish singer and actress. Drag queens are a popular presence in the Dublin parade and in local celebrations; it is not unusual for new groups, like Polish immigrants to participate under their own banners. Though St. Patrick’s Day initially was a religious holiday in Ireland, current parade practices indicate how traditions can and do change, often dramatically. Political independence and economic growth has shaped a parade tradition that is confident and encompassing, rather than defensive or exclusionary.

Though St. Patrick’s Day parades in the United States initially were formed by an unreceptive environment in which the Irish defended themselves from hostile nativists, parade leaders are still defensive—even though that hostility and fears about an Irish social, economic and political presence have dissipated.

Do we still need a parade defined by that experience? Though leaders speak as if the parade is under attack, the real threat stems not from the participation of Irish homosexuals but from the leaders themselves. Graying parade leadership suggests that their narrow definition of Irishness, so inflexibly grounded in the nineteenth century, is unappealing not only to Mayor de Blasio and other progressives, but also to young Irish Americans, who are conspicuously absent from the parade committee. Parade leaders take notice: if the St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition does not change, it may be doomed to extinction.

Jennifer Nugent Duffy is Associate Professor of History, Western Connecticut State University. She is the author of Who’s Your Paddy? Racial Expectations and the Struggle for Irish American Identity (NYU Press 2013).

Happy Mardi Gras from NYU Press!

It’s Mardi Gras, y’all! 

In honor of Fat Tuesday, we’re featuring an excerpt from our award-winning book, Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy (NYU Press, 2007). Written by Tulane sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham, the book illuminates how New Orleans became a tourist town known as much for its excesses as for its eccentric Southern charm. The excerpt below is from the book’s second chapter, “Processions and Parades: Carnival Krewes and the Development of Modern Mardi Gras.”

Authentic New Orleans – Chapter 2

Abortion: Race, rape, and the Right

—Gregory S. Parks

I want to tell you a story. I’m going to ask you all to close your eyes while I tell you the story. . . This is a story about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. . . Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood, left to die. Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she’s white.

The above quote reflects powerful imagery employed by defense attorney Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill (1996)—the words spoken in his summation before an all-white, southern jury during the criminal trial of a black father who was being prosecuted for killing the white men who raped, hung, and left his young daughter for dead.

The use of racial imagery like this is nothing new in American culture. Take politics, for example: racial imagery has frequently been used to sway public opinion and win elections. In 1990, when Jesse Helms, a white United States Senator from North Carolina, faced Harvey Gantt, a black challenger, race played a role in Helms’ campaign. Specifically, in an effort to allege that Gantt supported racial quotas that would benefit blacks, Helms ran an advertisement that showed the hands of a white person crumbling an employment rejection letter. “You needed that job,” the announcer said, “and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” The ad was broadcast a few days before the election, and arguably boosted Helms to victory. This should be of no surprise; social scientists have demonstrated for years that emotion is highly predictive of voters’ judgment and decision-making. Let’s have a little thought experiment that contemplates the extent to which racial imagery might effectuate a change in constituent attitudes in other political spheres today.

Ever since the United States Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which expanded women’s access to abortion, Republicans have sought to reverse those gains. More recently, Republican politicians, including Richard Mourdock (state of Indiana Treasurer), have asserted that life is a gift from God, and abortions should only be allowed when the mother’s life is at risk.

As a justification for the all-out ban on abortion, Todd Akin (former U.S. Representative for Missouri) has touted that in cases of “legitimate rape,” pregnancy is rare because a woman’s body is able to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Some Republicans, such as Joe Walsh (former U.S. Representative for Illinois), believe that there should not even be an exception for cases where the mother’s life may be at risk because, according to Walsh, “’with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance’ in which a woman would actually die.”

The challenge for such politicians, and those who subscribe to their mode of thinking, is to not to imagine some amorphous victim. Rather, they should, in the words of Jake Brigance, “[n]ow imagine she’s white” and her rapist is black. Would they then feel the same way about abortion in instances of rape? I believe they would not, given the history of race, anti-miscegenation attitudes, and political ideology in America.

In the early 1900s, the mandatory separation of blacks and whites in social settings, referred to as Jim Crow, applied to all aspects of life in the South, including public schools and marriage statutes. The idea of “white womanhood” was a major part of white supremacy and was an essential part of the Jim Crow system in the South. White womanhood was premised on a belief that a “lady” must be white. While it was feared that interracial marriages would lead to the creation of “a mongrel breed of citizens” that would destroy white identity and threaten white supremacy, this was a fear only evident in cases involving white women who married non-white men. White women who brought race-based annulment cases against their husbands were protected from both colored men, as well any accusation from the woman’s husband that attacked her whiteness. When white men had children with black women, it was simply seen as a remnant of the practices observed during slavery.

In most states, the fear of a mongrel race as a result of interracial marriage was only a concern when it involved blacks. However, in Virginia, it was illegal for whites to marry anyone other than another white person. Southerners were alarmed by the increasing number of light skinned blacks, as it blurred the line between black and white and threatened both with supremacy and racial purity. Laws prohibiting miscegenation continued until 1967 when they were declared unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia. In Loving, the Virginia Supreme Court had relied primarily upon its earlier holding in Naim v. Naim. That case held that the policy behind Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute was to prevent interracial procreation and the creation of a “mongrel breed of citizens.”

Racial segregation of public schools was a tool for reinforcing both white supremacy, as well as in preserving the purity of the white race, because of the vital, socialization role that schools play. Because public schools have the effect of shaping the beliefs and perspectives of young impressionable children, they were seen as “key social institutions for inculcating racial consciousness in whites and blacks.” By preventing socialization among black and white children, segregation of public schools was able to address the issue of the development of romantic feelings among people of different races, and consequently, the chances that interracial marriage would occur was decreased. In fact, the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared segregation of public schools unconstitutional, led to fears that the socializing of black and white children would lead to interracial marriages, and thus, miscegenation. As a result, the ruling in Brown strengthened the fight against interracial marriage.

In the case of rape, the rape of black women was not even recognized in some states as a criminal offense. However, the rape of a white woman by a black man resulted in sentences for rape that were five times that given for convictions of other rapes and sometimes led to a sentence of death. Even the idea of a black man soliciting a white prostitute was viewed as objectionable.

This anxiety surrounding white women being the victim of black men’s libidinal pangs, concupiscent urges, and exertion of power and violence has not only been a historical and cultural-legal fact, it is contemporary and political. In 1991, a Michigan probate judge, discussing the Michigan law under which minors seeking abortions may request a waiver of the parental consent requirement, stated that he was hesitant to grant waivers but would consider doing so “in some cases, such as incest or when a white girl is raped by a black man.” In 2006, a white Maine couple allegedly kidnapped their pregnant nineteen year-old daughter to take her out of the state to have an abortion, because the father of her child was black.

And while many politicians have viewed abortion as breaking up the American family, President Richard Nixon thought that in the case of a pregnancy involving a black man and a white woman,  abortion was a necessary procedure. This is not surprising, given empirical research demonstrating that whites’ political orientation predicts their own romantic partner preferences. White conservatives, more so than white liberals, are less likely to desire black romantic partners and more so prefer white romantic partners. This preference, and its implications, may not even be conscious; researchers have found that political conservativism is predictive of automatic favoring high status over low status groups as well as whites over blacks.

With all this said, the recent tweet from an anonymous writer on MSNBC’s official Twitter account suggesting that conservatives hate interracial marriages may have been more accurate than inflammatory. (“Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family,” the tweet read.) It is this anxiety, or hostility, by some on the political Right against black male/white female interracial love, sex, marriage, and in the worst of scenarios, rape, that should help inform their judgments about abortion.

Gregory S. Parks is Assistant Professor of Law, Wake Forest University School of Law. He is co-author (with Matthew W. Hughey) of The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (NYU Press, 2014).

GOP’s slick Black History ads fall short, miss the point

—Andra Gillespie

[Note: This op-ed originally appeared on CNN.com on February 5, 2014.]

It’s February and Black History Month, and networks and major consumer brands are reprising their annual ad campaigns honoring the contributions of African-Americans to the arts, politics, technology and commerce.

This year, a new player is sponsoring Black History Month ads: the Republican National Committee.

In spots airing on black radio and television stations in select media markets, the RNC praises the contributions of black Republicans such as Louis Sullivan, a former secretary of health and human services under President George H.W. Bush.

This ad campaign is part of a larger Republican strategy to reach out to minority voters. After President Barack Obama won more than 70% of the vote among blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans (93% among blacks alone) in 2012, the Republican National Committee redoubled its efforts to court minority voters. This ad campaign is a part of that effort.

A well-produced, uplifting ad campaign will not be enough to convince black Democrats to switch their party identification, though.

For every ad praising Sen. Tim Scott, the Republican Party has had to put out fires created by state and local officials who make insensitive racial comments. For instance, in the past two weeks, the Iowa Republican Party had to fire the mastermind behind the “Is Someone a Racist?” flow chart on its Facebook page. The flow chart flippantly charged that racists are white people you don’t like.

By this point, some Republicans are probably wondering why blacks don’t seem to punish liberals and Democrats for their racial missteps. Democrat-friendly MSNBC has faced strong and valid criticism for its recent taunts of the Romney family’s transracial adoption and its assumptions that conservative Republicans don’t marry interracially. For his part, Fox host Bill O’Reilly raised eyebrows when he asked Obama why he had not done more to lower the out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks.

The answer is rooted in a long, complicated history of race and partisanship and in psychological frames that the GOP ignores at its peril.

Some Republicans rightfully point out that during the civil rights movement, Southern Democrats tried to block passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. They forget, however, that in the past 50 years, white Southern Democrats (both racists and non-racists) have gradually shifted their party identification to the Republican Party. They don’t account for the fact that GOP has admitted to (and apologized for) purposely using racially coded language to win over racially resentful whites in the wake of the civil rights movement.

And they ignore data that confirm that while black political views have moderated in the past generation, blacks still tend to prefer a stronger federal state and greater governmental intervention, in large part because they perceive the federal government to have done a better job than state and local officials at protecting civil rights.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to the GOP’s outreach efforts among blacks, though, is its misunderstanding of the importance of group dynamics to individual political decision-making.

Republicans value limited government and personal liberty, traits that celebrate rugged individualism and a view of politics that assumes that self-interest informs most policy preferences. Numerous studies have shown that many blacks and Latinos believe that what happens to other blacks and Latinos affects them. This belief that their fates are linked to the fates of their co-ethnics informs liberal policy and political preferences.

It means that an affluent black person might be willing to pay higher taxes if it helps maintain the food stamp program, which helps poor, disproportionately minority people. Or that a Latina born in the United States might wince when Republican congressional candidates voice their opposition to immigration reform because she perceives that tone of the opposition evinces a general antipathy toward Latinos regardless of their nativity.

Don’t get me wrong, Republican outreach to blacks is a good thing, and I hope to see more of it.

Republican candidates who win office need to engage their black and minority constituents, and Democrats should not assume that blacks (or any other group) will always vote Democratic.

However, a polished ad campaign alone is not enough to win over black voters. If the GOP hopes to become significantly more competitive among blacks, it will have to acknowledge the importance of group identity to blacks and other minorities and learn how to frame their principles in terms of group interests.

Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).

The racism that still plagues America

Excerpted from The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America by David Dante Troutt (NYU Press, 2014).

The impatience that characterizes discussions of race and racism in our so-called color-blind society has its roots in the momentous  legislative changes of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968 reached into nearly every aspect of daily life—from segregated facilities to voting to housing—and represented a long overdue re-installation of the equality principle in our social compact. The question was what it would take—and from whom—to get to equality.

Was racial equality something that could be had without sacrifice? If not, then who would be forced to participate and who would be exempt? As implementation of the laws engendered a far-reaching bureaucracy of agencies, rules, and programs for everything from affirmative action hiring goals to federal contracting formula, the commitment was quickly tested. For a great many who already opposed the changes, patience was quickly exhausted. As welfare rolls rapidly increased, crime surged, and the real and perceived burdens of busing took their toll, many voters pointed to the apparent failure of a growing federal government to fix the problems it was essentially paid to cure. Among Democratic voters this made for unsteady alliances and vulnerable anxieties. People don’t live in policy and statistics as much as they do through anecdote and personal burdens. A riot here, a horrific crime there, a job loss or perhaps the fiery oratory of a public personality could tip a liberal-leaning person’s thinking toward more conservative conclusions—or at least fuel her impatience. Impatience would ossify into anger, turning everything into monetary costs, and making these costs the basis for political opposition to a liberal state. As it happened, this process moves the date of our supposed final triumph over racism from the mid-1960s to at least the mid-1980s. In the end, impatience won.

What I call impatience, others have characterized as a simmering voter ambivalence—even antagonism, in the case of working-class whites—to civil rights remedies, one that was susceptible to the peculiar backlash politics that elected both Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush president. Language was central to this strategy, and the language that stuck was colorblindness. As Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall wrote in “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics,” “In facing an electorate with sharply divided commitments on race—theoretically in favor of egalitarian principle but hostile to many forms of implementation—the use of a race-free political language proved crucial to building a broad-based, center-right coalition.” Ronald Reagan managed to communicate a message that embodied all the racial resentments around poverty programs, affirmative action, minority set-asides, busing, crime, and the Supreme Court without mentioning race, something his conservative forebears—Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon—could not quite do. The linchpin was “costs” and “values.” Whenever “racism” was raised, it became an issue of “reverse racism” against whites. The effect was the conversion of millions of once fiscally liberal, middle-class suburban Democrats to the Republican Party. Issues identified with race—the “costs of liberalism”—fractured the very base of the Democratic Party. In the 1980 presidential election, for example, 22 percent of Democrats voted Republican.

By 1984, when Ronald Reagan and George Bush beat Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in the presidential election, many white Democratic voters had come to read their own party’s messages through what Edsall calls a “racial filter.” In their minds, higher taxes were directly attributable to policies of a growing federal government; they were footing the bill for minority preference programs. If the public argument was cast as wasteful spending on people of weak values, the private discussions were explicitly racial. For instance, Edsall quotes polling studies of “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County—the union friendly Detroit suburbs that won the battle to prevent cross-district school desegregation plans in 1973—that presents poignant evidence of voter anger: “These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their [white defectors’] vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live. These sentiments have important implications for Democrats, as virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms.”

By 1988, these same voters had endorsed tax revolts across the country and had become steadfast suburbanites, drawing clearer lines between a suburban good life and the crime and crack-infested city. Still they were angry, as magazine articles chronicled the rising political significance of what would be known as the “Angry White Male” voter. George Bush, down seventeen points in the presidential election polls during midsummer, overcame that deficit with TV ads about murderous black convicts raping white women while on furlough. That and a pledge never to raise taxes seemed to be enough to vanquish Bush’s liberal challenger, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. What’s important to recognize in this transition is how as recently as twenty years ago, Americans’ social lives were very much embroiled in racial controversy—despite the obfuscatory veneer of colorblind language to the contrary. Our politics followed. The election of Bill Clinton represented a distinct centrist turn among Democrats toward Republican language and themes and away from rights, the “liberal” label, and the federal safety net. The question we might ask about our current race relations is, only a couple of decades removed from this political history, what would compel us to assume that we are beyond the legacy of our racial conflicts?

 * * *

The racial polarization that connected these political outcomes was deliberately fed by national Republican candidates in order to do more than roll back civil rights. It also served to install “supply-side economics,” a system of regressive tax-based reforms that contributed mightily to the costs of income inequality we currently face. That era—which arguably ended with the election of President Barack Obama—illustrates two points central to my examination of civic connectivity. The first is that the economic underside of racial polarization proved no more than the old okey doke. The second is that localism contains its own contradictions, which have come due in our time. Let me explain.

Only racism could achieve the ideological union of the Republican rich with the working man (and woman). Nothing else could fuse their naturally opposed interests. The essence of supply-side economics was its belief in the importance of liberating the affluent from tax and regulatory burdens, a faith not typically shared by lower-income households who might at best see benefits “trickle down” to them. In fact, they often paid more under tax-reform schemes of the 1980s.  Edsall provides data on the combined federal tax rate that include all taxes—income, Social Security, and so forth. Between 1980 and 1990, families in the bottom fifth of all earners saw their rates increase by 16.1 percent; it increased by 6 percent for those in the second-lowest fifth (the lower middle class); and it increased by 1.2 percent for those in the middle fifth (the middle middle class). But those in the second-highest fifth of all income earners saw a cut in their tax rate by 2.2 percent during that decade; and those in the top fifth got a 5.5 percent decrease in their rate. Overall, the richest 10 percent of American earners received a 7.3 percent decrease in their combined federal tax rate. The top 1 percent? A 14.4 percent cut during the 1980s. Clearly this hurt the middle class, as the vaunted trickle down never arrived. But it was working-class whites who bought the message that this model of fiscal conservatism, married to social conservatism in the form of a rollback of redistributive programs they perceived to favor blacks, would benefit them. It did not. Yet it established a popular political rhetoric by which lower-income whites can be counted on to take up against “liberal” policies that may actually serve their interests as long as opposition can be wrapped in the trappings of “traditional values,” “law and order,” “special interests,” “reverse racism,” and “smaller government.” This was pure okey doke based on an erroneous notion of zero-sum mutuality—that is, that whatever “the blacks” get hurts me.

Which also demonstrates the contradictions of localism. Remember my earlier argument that localism—or local control expressed formally through home rule grants, as it’s sometimes known—became the spatial successor to Jim Crow segregation. Through racially “neutral” land use and housing policy, it kept white communities white after the fall of legal segregation in the late 1950s and mid-1960s. Yet here’s the contradiction. While voters opposed to civil rights remedies and Great Society programs followed Republican leadership toward fiscal conservatism at the national level, they maintained their fiscal liberalism at the local level. The tax base they created for themselves through property taxes in suburbia could be contained and spent locally. Edsall describes the irony this way: “Suburbanization has permitted whites to satisfy liberal ideals revolving around activist government, while keeping to a minimum the number of blacks and the poor who share in government largess.” Of course, all of this worked best when “suburbs” meant middle-class white people and “cities” (or today’s “urban” areas) always signaled black and brown people. There was no mutuality of interests between the two kinds of places. It also worked when low property taxes—together with generous state aid—could reliably pay for great local public services like schools, libraries, and fire protection. It was a terrific deal. But that was then. Now, neither is true. The line between cities and suburbs has blurred into regions, and minorities and whites are busy crossing back and forth to work, live, and shop. Most of the fragmented municipalities that sprawled across suburbia are no longer able to sustain their own budgets, threatening the quality of their services, despite unimaginably high property taxes. The assumptions have not held.

Perhaps now we should consider the racially polarizing policies that became the norm under Reagan’s failed experiment. We tried them. Some believed fervently in them. But it is clear that they didn’t work and are not in our long-term national or local interest. There remains a legacy of racism, however, that continues to harm some of us disproportionately and all of us eventually. It’s to those three examples that I now turn.

Read the rest of this excerpt at Salon.com.

Dude, what’s that smell? The Sriracha shutdown and immigrant excess

—Anita Mannur and Martin Manalansan

All across America, bottles with a green cap, rooster and fiery chili sauce that were once exclusively the mainstay of fast food style Asian restaurants, have been slowly making their mark on mainstream palates. In 2011, the popular television show The Simpsons featured an episode—described by executive producer Matt Selman as a “love letter to food culture”—in which Bart Simpson’s usually pedestrian palate becomes attuned to the finer possibilities of sriracha.

In 2012, as part of a national campaign to introduce a new flavor, the Lay’s potato chip company announced Sriracha as one of the three finalist flavors, along with Cheesy Garlic Bread and Chicken & Waffles. Cheesy Garlic Bread Lay’s eventually went on to win the contest; some claim it was because the signature piquant taste of sriracha could barely be detected in the chip’s flavor. In 2013 the national bagel sandwich chain restaurant Brueggers introduced the Sriracha Egg Sandwich. Not to be outdone, Subway followed suit with their version of a chicken sriracha melt.

By the end of 2013, sriracha popularity seemed to be at an all time high. From January to December of 2012, some 20 million bottles of sriracha sauce had sold, and on October 27, 2013, the first Sriracha festival was held in downtown Los Angeles. Americans, it seemed, could not get enough of the hot sauce. That is, until it came into their own backyards.

On October 28, Huy Fong Foods, the purveyor of sriracha, was sued by the small town of Irwindale, California for causing “burning eyes, irritated throats, and headaches” to its residents. An initial report published by the Associated Press tellingly described the odors produced by the Huy Fong plant as “a nuisance.”

Huy Fong’s owner and creator David Tran’s mistake was in assuming that the sriracha boom meant that the town of Irwindale would accept the changes that came with the presence of Asianness. In many ways, his story was that of the consummate Asian American model minority who had made his mark through hard work and perseverance in America. From origins in Vietnam to “making it” as an ethnic entrepreneur in the US, the story of sriracha, and in particular that of Huy Fong, can be understood as a quintessentially Asian American story.

David Tran, a Vietnamese refugee of Chinese origin, was among the first wave of refugees to leave Vietnam in 1979. Fleeing Vietnam aboard the Panamanian freighter “Huy Fong,” for which he later named his company, Tran started his fledgling company in the town of Rosemead, California in the mid-1980s with an initial investment of a meager $50,000. Over the next two decades, the company, which exclusively harvests jalapeños grown in Piru, California, grew dramatically, largely by word of mouth, and has become one of the most popular condiments with something of a cult-like following.

Food historian John T. Edge notes that part of sriracha’s success is in its ability to position itself as malleable to many palates: “Multicultural appeal was engineered into the product: the ingredient list on the back of the bottle is written in Vietnamese, Chinese, English, French and Spanish. And serving suggestions include pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers and, for French speakers, pâtés.” Despite sriracha’s obvious connection to Thainess—the sauce, according to a recent documentary, Sriracha (Dir. Griffin Hammond, 2013), has its origins in the town of Si Racha—Tran disavows the necessary connection to one particular national lineage, noting, “I know it’s not a Thai sriracha…It’s my sriracha.”

As the company expanded, it moved from its more modest location in Rosemead to a larger factory in Irwindale. And with the growth of the factory, resentment of the presence of Asianness has been more acutely expressed through a refusal of the visceral and purported offensiveness of Asian odors. Ultimately it is the inability of odors to remain in place, the toxicity and the purported public health danger of Asian coded comestibles that has come to characterize this stage in the sriracha story as a story of racial exclusion in an Asian American context.

As Martin Manalansan has written elsewhere, “smell in America…is a code for class, racial and ethnic differences.” Yet cities are expected to function as odorless zones, both literally and psychically. Traces of immigrant excess must always be kept at bay and where food is concerned, difference must be managed to ensure that the kind of food one finds at the table is synchronous with the mandates of a multiculturalist ethos of eating. It must not appear “too foreign,” “too different”, “too oily” or too aberrant. In other words it must not be too offensive, lest it upset a carefully calibrated balance of acceptable multiculturalism.

Sriracha seemed poised to become America’s next favorite condiment. But condiments have to be manufactured somewhere, and when Asianness comes to roost in the town of Irwindale, population 1,422 (2% Asian American, 47% white), the cultural odor of the town also changes. And taste for difference, as history has suggested, can often only go so far. The winds in the California city of Irwindale not only transport the sharp smell of chilies in the sriracha sauce, they also convey the heavy weight of Western history’s fraught encounters with olfactory experiences.

Throughout the ages, smell has been used to mark things and bodies that are sinister, sinful, dangerous, foreign, diseased, and decaying. Modern cities were planned under the idealized schemes of de-odorized landscapes. Accoutrements to contemporary living include room deodorizers and air fresheners that aim to eliminate unwanted odors and showcase social uplift and class distinction. The Sriracha incident in California reeks of all these historical antecedents and cultural symptoms. The very fact that sriracha has been called a “public nuisance” and a potential health threat is part of a longer tradition that views Asianness as a public health menace. The SARS epidemic of 2002, with its concomitant xenophobic links to the fear of Asian bodies, is not far removed from the panic about Asianness discursively inherent in the charges being levied against Huy Fong Foods.

In the midst of all the accusations and counter-accusations of state overreach, cultural insensitivity and xenophobia, smell should not be seen as merely a potential health hazard but rather as a crucial signpost of where we are as a society and as a nation in the 21st century. Indeed, to consider sriracha’s odors a public nuisance is not far removed from the kinds of radicalizing language that is used to put immigrants in their place. We may like our sriracha bottles on our tables, but we don’t want it too close, lest it contaminate our spaces of living. Like the Asian American bodies with which we associate the bottles of hot sauce, we prefer to limit the spread of Asianness.

On November 29, 2013, three days after the Los Angeles court ruled in favor of a partial shutdown of the company, Huy Fong Foods released a simple statement to the public with a banner reading, “No tear gas made here,” placed outside its Irwindale factory. Those simple words summed up what is perhaps really at stake here. The underlying issues which have led to the fracas about sriracha are very much about toxicity, but the banner is as much about dispelling the notion that the product they are making is toxic as it is about pointing out that underlying racism and charges against Huy Fong are mired in a more dangerous form of toxicity—one that seeks to vigilantly remind immigrants about where they do and do not belong.

Anita Mannur is Associate Professor of English and Asian /Asian American Studies at Miami University. Martin F. Manalansan, IV is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Mannur and Manalansan are co-editors (with Robert Ji-Song Ku) of Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader (NYU Press, 2013).