Nation of newcomers

—Peter G. Vellon

A recent letter to the editor published in the New York Daily News expressed its disappointment that television commenters covering the Columbus Day Parade used the words “illegal” and “legal” to differentiate contemporary immigrants from earlier, Italian, arrivals. Why do so many Americans feel compelled to make such a distinction, especially since the term “illegal” is so problematic and inaccurate? Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in political manipulation meant to encourage an association between immigrants and criminality. However, the desire to differentiate “legal” from “illegal” may be deeply rooted within the history of immigration and race in the United States.

Here’s what we know. The majority of immigrants in the United States have permission to be here. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Rights Center, undocumented immigrants comprise a small proportion of contemporary immigration. Of those who are here without documents, a large portion roughly 45% entered country legally, only to have their visas expire.

We also know that many of the same critiques hurled at today’s immigrants, especially those described as “illegal,” are almost identical to those faced by southern Italians 100 years ago. Prone to criminality? Check. Lack of desire in becoming American citizens? Check. Siphoning tax dollars and jobs away from Americans? Check. Sending their earnings money back to their country of origin? Check. Given this historical context, it is ironic that many Americans today think of the Ellis Island era with nostalgia and perceive it as quintessentially American.

Other charges questioning immigrant’s willingness to assimilate are similarly off base. In fact, the insatiable demand for English language classes throughout the country contradict allegations of immigrant nonchalance in learning English. More familiar charges portraying a country overrun by undocumented immigrants, or that undocumented immigrants increase crime, similarly fall flat against closer analysis. Once again, the only accurate aspect of the charges is how strikingly similar they are to ones leveled against Italians in the early 20th century.

During this period, anti-immigration crusaders primarily targeted Italian and Jewish newcomers. Defined as a different, and inferior, race to northern and western European stocks (“old” immigrants), southern Italians and eastern European Jewish immigrants (“new” immigrants) remained consistently dogged by assumptions about their inherent “un-Americanness.” Assisted by a relatively open immigration policy in place since 1792, Italians could enter the country relatively unrestricted, and therefore avoided some of the barriers that immigrants confront today. However, this did not stop some immigrants from forging documents such as health certificates, or stowing away on steamships.

Today long waitlists for visas often create an almost impossible situation for family members and children who seek to reunite with those living in the United States. Who is to say how prospective immigrants a century ago would have responded if these laws had been in place from 1880 through 1920? Would folks have patiently accepted wait times of up to 20 years for “legal” entry?

Much of the need to distinguish between “legal” and “illegal” immigration lies in how people assign meaning to those terms. According to Department of Homeland Security statistics, undocumented Mexican immigrants in 2011 numbered approximately 6.8 million, and comprised 59% of the undocumented population in total.  To many people in the United States, the term “illegal immigrant” has become reflexively interchangeable with “Mexican,” or any immigrant from Latin or Central America. No doubt, the fact that Mexico is the leading source of “unauthorized” immigration, rather than, say, Ireland, has much to do with the tenor of the immigration debate. Indeed, as Matthew Jacobson pointed out in his book, Roots Too, illegality never became a major issue when in the 1980s and 1990s an influx of Irish immigrants, many of whom overstayed their visas, hence becoming “illegal,” entered the country. In fact, quite the opposite occurred, and Irish “illegal” aliens never became a source of nationwide concern. Categories of race and whiteness proved fundamental in constructing the difference between “old” and “new” immigrants 100 years ago, and remain a primary element in the debate over legal versus illegal today.

Given that we are a nation of immigrants and celebrated as such, why is there not more understanding for many of today’s immigrants seeking similar paths as those who came before them? It’s possible that for the descendants of those questionable European immigrants who came through Ellis Island, their own family’s problematic status may be an uncomfortable reminder of a more contentious, less linear path toward assimilation. Now, fully socialized within the American racial system, it is easier to construct an “illegal other” rather than face the uncomfortable questions about how our society constructs Americanness, race, and whiteness. The assignation of criminal status to today’s new immigrants serves as a perfect balm. Unwilling to acknowledge the obvious commonalities between immigrants today and those from 100 years ago, “legal” versus “illegal” becomes a useful, and in the minds of many, justifiable delineation that their forebears did it the right way.

Similar to the debate over “old” and “new” immigrants a century ago, is it possible that much of the “illegal” immigration debate revolves around racially informed perceptions of what America should look like? However, whether fleeing economic, political, or social despair, just as those who came before them, the overwhelming majority of immigrants arriving today want a better life for themselves and their children. When viewed through that lens, what could be more American?

Peter G. Vellon is Associate Professor of History at Queens College, and the author of A Great Conspiracy against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century (NYU Press, 2014).

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.]

­­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).

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).

Not a monster: Society’s creation of men who use violence

—Hillary Potter

The surveillance video footage released this week that depicts professional football player Ray Rice rendering Janay Rice unconscious with a single punch seems to have evoked a fairly unified opinion of Mr. Rice’s actions and how he should be sanctioned. It appears most of the public sentiment about Mr. Rice’s brutal actions is condemnation of the assault. These denunciations came in the form of calls for Mr. Rice’s permanent ousting from the National Football League and for Rice to be criminally prosecuted and incarcerated​—all of which satisfy standards of punishment in U.S. society.

Although already sanctioned months ago by the NFL commissioner with a two-game suspension after the release of a video that captured images after the assault took place, the commissioner and Baltimore Ravens management levied heftier sanctions. The collective public cheer for the swift actions of Ravens management and the NFL to, respectively, release and suspend Mr. Rice is welcomed in the wake of the often racially divided responses to last month’s shooting death of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. As a scholar and activist who critically interrogates the roles and impacts of race, gender, and socioeconomics on crime, criminality, and criminal legal procedures, I am pleased the NFL is no longer maintaining its complicity in Mr. Rice’s violent actions toward a person he presumably loves.

Aside from my personal concern for gendered violence, which overwhelmingly finds girls and women as the targets or victims of this form of transgression, this case seized my attention because of my research that especially focuses on the intersecting role of race, gender, and socioeconomics in the manifestation of and responses to intimate partner abuse and violence. The tactics used by abusers to control and harm their mates (and their children) have little variance across race, culture, and class; what frequently varies are responses by victims, family and friends of the couple, legal system officials, and factions of the general public because of distinct sociocultural views, values, and customs.

I have read and heard recent comments about Mr. Rice referring to him as a monster, an animal, and a “piece of shit.” Whether there is video documentation or not, I wish that assaultive behaviors like Mr. Rice’s​—by men of any race​—would always produce such a visceral reaction by others and I hope the average person is always disturbed by abuse and violence subjected on girls and women by their so-called partners.

There is, however, a minority who essentially supports Mr. Rice’s actions because of a perception that Ms. Rice slapping at or spitting on Mr. Rice was provocation or justification for Mr. Rice’s assault. In my research, victims are placed at the center of the analysis and I view them as the experts in their lived experiences. This must also be the way we consider the present case. The brutality against Ms. Rice must remain central to this case, but only to the extent that she is not blamed for Mr. Rice’s actions. Furthermore, that the couple married after the assault is not to be judged by those who are not privy to Ms. Rice’s experiences and emotions. Many women remain in relationships with abusive mates for a variety of reasons, and it behooves uninformed purveyors of this case to educate themselves on the virtual entrapment of women subjected to abuse by their intimate partners.

Those who victimize others must also be placed at the center of the analysis. However, deeming Mr. Rice a monster, an animal, or a “piece of shit,” serves no one. This labeling is a copout. To simply call Mr. Rice a monster​—just as is done with serial and mass murderers​—is easy, because doing so distances the abuser from the “regular guy,” and explaining abusive and violent behaviors without tenuous biological or supernatural explanations is complex, confusing, and messy. But we must reflect on the social and cultural mechanisms of our society that instill and preserve violent and controlling behaviors in our boys.

Once we recognize and acknowledge sociocultural explanations for abuse and violence, we are forced to acknowledge our role as a society in creating these “monsters.” Indeed, we know that many regular guys are abusers. The regular guy who abuses girls and women often operates in clandestine locations (such as the home) or his behaviors are known or seen by others who do not or cannot confront the regular guy’s abusive behaviors. But some regular guys who violate others are exposed. Ray Rice, in effect, is a regular guy.

I also believe aiming the mirror on society’s self will push us toward a criminal legal system that rejects ineffective punishment and banishment methods and adopts a system focused on accountability, healing, restoration, rehabilitation, and treating each other with humanity. To be sure, this notion is the basis of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative that seeks to ensure boys and young men of color are provided with the resources necessary to realize socially productive and healthy lives. Although the initiative has been duly criticized for overlooking analogous plights faced by girls and young women of color, it has generally been accepted as “the right thing to do” to provide boys and young men of color with equal opportunities for success as their white counterparts.

Thus, even as a Black feminist criminologist who knows, works with, advocates for, and gathers personal stories from women victims of intimate partner violence, I promote and believe in a restorative and transformative approach that does not desert the abusive and violent men that our society has produced. These abusive men were once harmless young boys, but were ultimately “trained” by the best to become violent and controlling. They were trained by the gendered customs that are permeated throughout our society and have been transmitted through the generations for generations. Today’s abusive men were schooled in social scripts that trained them that girls and women are inferior to males; therefore, it is their right as men to control “their women” in any ways they see fit. This patriarchal training program spans a broad range of abusive and controlling behaviors, some of which involve blatant physical violence and others that result in discriminatory employment, legal, and social policies that suppress girls and women.

As the sports-based saying goes, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Ray Rice is not a rare, unexplainable creature, and Janay Rice is not to blame. Ray Rice must be held accountable for his actions, but we must also place universal blame in the societal norms that social institutions and members of our society continue to espouse, and that too many men (and some women) are too complacent with and too fearful to abandon.

Hillary Potter, a resident of Denver, Colorado, is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of Battle Cries: Black Women and Intimate Partner Abuse (NYU Press, 2008).

Between the world and #Ferguson

—Jelani Cobb

[This article originally appeared in The New Yorker.]

When I was eighteen, I stumbled across Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me.” The poem, a retelling of a lynching, shook me, because while the narrator relays the details in the first person, the actual victim of that brutish ritual is another man, unknown to him and unknown to us. The poem is about the way in which history is an animate force, and how we are witnesses to the past, even to that portion of it that transpired before we were born. He writes,

darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
my flesh.

Nothing save random fortune separated the fate of the man who died from that of the one telling the story. Errin Whack and Isabel Wilkerson have both written compellingly about the long shadow of lynching. It is, too often, a deliberately forgotten element of the American past—one that is nonetheless felt everywhere in Ferguson, Missouri, where protests followed the shooting of Michael Brown, who was eighteen years old, by a police officer. One can’t make sense of how Brown’s community perceived those events without first understanding the way that neglected history has survived among black people—a traumatic memory handed down, a Jim Crow inheritance.

It took sixteen days for Brown’s body to be buried, an extended postscript that included three separate autopsies, the emergence of duelling interpretations of his last moments, and the resolution of precisely nothing about how race, media, and policing operate in the United States. A year ago, people gathered in anticipation of a verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin. During that case, images of people wearing hoodies, as Martin had when he was shot, proliferated on social media. This month, it has been portraits of people with their hands raised, in recognition of a number of witness accounts that Brown tried to surrender before being shot by police officer Darren Wilson. (Wilson, according to press reports, has told people that Brown was running at him.) The idea, in both instances, is that, like Wright’s narrator, any of us could be Martin, Brown, or one of the hundreds of others who have died under questionable circumstances. There is a disturbing sense that this is how we spend our summers now, submerged in outrage, demonstrating, yet again, the hard parameters of public sympathy and the damnable, tiresome burden of racism.

In the days after 9/11, it was common to hear people say that it was the first time Americans had really experienced terrorism on their own soil. Those sentiments were historically wrong, and willfully put aside acts that were organized on a large scale, had a political goal, and were committed with the specific intention of being nightmarishly memorable. The death cult that was lynching furnished this country with such spectacles for a half century. (The tallies vary, but, by some estimates, there were thirty-three hundred lynchings in the decades between the end of Reconstruction and the civil-rights era.) We know intuitively, not abstractly, about terrorism’s theatrical intent. The sight of Michael Brown, sprawled on Canfield Drive for four hours in the August sun, dead at the hands of an officer who was unnamed for a week, recalled that memory. It had the effect of reminding that crowd of spontaneous mourners of their own refuted humanity. A single death can be understood as a collective threat. The media didn’t whip up these concerns among the black population; history did that.

For fifteen days this month, people marched in heat and thunderstorms, amid tear gas, despite the warnings of police styled as a militia, undeterred by the tear gas or the obstinacy of the local bureaucracy. They persisted despite the taint that opportunistic violence and looting imposed upon their efforts.

Linda Chavez wondered on Fox News whether “the ‘unarmed teen’ mantra” really fit Brown, who was six feet four and nearly three hundred pounds and had been caught on video shoplifting—and, it perhaps bears repeating, was a teen, and was unarmed. Chavez was roundly criticized, but she was really only guilty of saying aloud what many others have thought. Whatever happened or did not happen between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson on a winding side street, in the middle of the afternoon, in a non-descript outpost on the edge of a midsized city, whatever we imagine we know of the teen-ager, the salient fact is that he did not live long enough to cultivate his own answers.

I spent eight days in Ferguson, and in that time I developed a kind of between-the-world-and-Ferguson view of the events surrounding Brown’s death. I was once a linebacker-sized eighteen-year-old, too. What I knew then, what black people have been required to know, is that there are few things more dangerous than the perception that one is a danger. I’m embarrassed to recall that my adolescent love of words doubled as a strategy to assuage those fears; it was both a pitiable desire for acceptance and a practical necessity for survival.  I know, to this day, the element of inadvertent intimidation that colors the most innocuous interactions, particularly with white people. There are protocols for this. I sometimes let slip that I’m a professor or that I’m scarcely even familiar with the rules of football, minor biographical facts that stand in for a broader, unspoken statement of reassurance: there is no danger here. And the result is civil small talk and feeble smiles and a sense of having compromised. Other times, in an elevator or crossing a darkened parking lot, when I am six feet away but the world remains between us, I remain silent and simply let whatever miasma of stereotype or fear might be there fill the void.

Fuck you, I think. If I don’t get to feel safe here, why should you?

Jelani Cobb is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, and the author of To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic (NYU Press, 2007). Read more of Cobb’s writing via The New Yorker here.

“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).

Upcoming events with Gerald Horne

Author and historian Gerald Horne will be on a mini book tour this weekend to discuss his two new books, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, released in April 2014 from NYU Press and Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow, ​out now from Monthly Review Press. 

All events below are free and open to the public.

Friday, July 25 at 7:00pm
New Haven People’s Center, 37 Howe Street, New Haven, CT

Gerald Horne will launch his new book, Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crowas part of the People’s World Friday Night Film and Discussion Series. Books will be available for signing at a discounted price. For more information, please contact ct-pww@pobox.com.

Saturday, July 26 at 6:30pm
Sistas’ Place
456 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

Join NYU Press and Gerald Horne for a book signing and discussion on his recently published book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the origins of the United States. This important historical analysis highlights how slavery and ongoing racism are tied into the fabric of US society. Books will be for sale at the event.

Sunday, July 27 at 7:30pm
Red Emma’s
, 30 
W. North Avenue, Baltimore, MD

Special double book event! Gerald Horne will present and sign copies of ​The Counter-Revolution of 1776 ​and ​Race to Revolution. RSVP on Facebook (optional).

Our legacy, too: Muslim women and the civil rights movement

—Jamillah Karim

“No one person owns this. This history is a history of thousands of people and we tell hundreds of those stories.”

When I heard former mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin speak these sentiments about the civil rights movement on the occasion of the opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in my hometown of Atlanta, GA, I could not help but think about the courageous women whose stories are told in my new book Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam, co-authored with Dawn Marie-Gibson.

Growing up in a Sunni mosque community in Atlanta, originally a temple in the Nation of Islam, I regularly heard the stories of men and women who converted to Islam to boldly protest racism and advance opportunities for African Americans. Through them, I felt that I had inherited firsthand the legacy of the civil rights movement. Later, however, I learned that the “Black Muslims,” as scholars called them, were not considered part of this movement. While the civil rights movement was marked by aspirations to integrate with whites, the Nation of Islam was labeled separatist because it promoted black pride and independence.

A few scholars, however, have resisted the tendency to write African American Muslims out of the movement. With efforts to see the movement beyond the black church and to include Muslim women among leaders of the civil rights era, womanist religious studies scholar Rosetta Ross devotes a chapter of her book Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights to Clara Muhammad, who contributed significantly to the NOI’s beginnings. Ross writes,

“Although she was not a part of what might be called the ‘mainstream’ Civil Rights Movement, Clara Muhammad’s role as one who helped construct the vehicle that transmitted notions of race pride to the Black masses made her a significant participant in the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement” (142).

It was during an interview with Karen, a former member of the Nation in Queens, New York that I realized that Nation women were not unlike the African American women of the civil rights movement. With a tone of “righteous discontent,” Karen described her dedication to the Nation of Islam but also her protest to some of the Nation practices that confined women. Her simultaneous alliance with and protest to male leaders in the organization immediately reminded me of the position of black Baptist women in the South as portrayed by Evelyn Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent.

Quite literally, Nation women were these women before converting. Before the Nation, they had membership or affiliation with the black church, and some were members of civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). No Nation woman that I met proved this connection to the civil rights movement as remarkably as Ana Karim.

Ana was no ordinary woman in the Nation—or person, for that matter. She was invited by Elijah Muhammad personally to join the organization. A SNCC activist carrying out voter registration work in poor, rural areas near Tuskegee Institute, where she attended college, Ana witnessed grave atrocities against African Americans. “I nearly lost my life,” Ana told me, her words bearing no exaggeration. Some of her peers were shot to death fighting for the rights of others. News of these courageous students made local newspapers that eventually fell into the hands of Elijah Muhammad. Upon his invitation, she sat with Muhammad who tried to convince her to join the Muslims. She initially declined, returned to Tuskegee, and witnessed one of the most horrific acts of inhumanity, perpetrated against a pregnant African American woman.

Elijah Muhammad’s call began to make sense to her: “It’s not that I feared death, but there was so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die not having accomplished anything—just die on a back road in some rural county and my body be buried in a cornfield or drowned somewhere in a stream. I didn’t want to die like that, so I left because I thought there was a higher mission, a better opportunity to help my people with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”

Interviewing Ana was a highlight of my career for I had been chosen to tell the story of this remarkable African American Muslim woman. Ana went on to do extraordinary things in the Nation and in the Sunni community that emerged from the Nation under the leadership of Imam W. D. Mohammed. She rose as a leader of African American Muslims—men and women—because, she says, “I assumed the hardship of the civil rights movement. God prepares you for what’s coming in the future.” Ana proves that no one person or one religion owns this history.

Jamillah Karim is co-author (with Dawn-Marie Gibson) of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam (NYU Press, 2014).