Flint’s Sorry Legacy of Environmental Racism

—Carl Zimring

“I am sorry, and I will fix it.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder devoted his State of the State speech to the public health catastrophe in Flint that has poisoned its residents with high levels of lead in its water supply.

This failure has many parents, including Snyder. His administration placed an emergency manager in control of Flint’s finances, a manager who who was not elected by its citizens to do the will of the people of the city. Saving money by switching the water supply ignored the well-being of Flint residents, as was the state’s initially dismissive response to health complaints.

Snyder bears responsibility and blame, but he is not alone. The seeds for this catastrophe were sown decades before the 2011 managerial takeover. Deindustrialization and residential segregation shaped a city with low revenue, high unemployment, and the apathy and scorn of white Michiganders. That history allowed the past two years of lead poisoning.

Environmental racism is the systemic placing of toxic burdens upon people of color. It is an example of structural racism – not necessarily the conscious acts of individuals, but ways in which society is structured that creates patterns of unequal burdens.

The health catastrophe in Flint involves reliance on decaying infrastructure due to disinvestment in the region. Why these conditions led to the poisoning of black children involves structural patterns in residential real estate practices, as well as recent political decisions. Environmental Justice movements have fought for safer, healthier communities for decades, including African American residents opposing waste siting in Houston (1978) and Warren County (1982), and Latino residents of Chicago protesting dirty coal-burning power plants in their neighborhoods in this century.

Yet inequalities persist. They are rooted deeply in land-use patterns, employment patterns, and in cultural stereotypes that privilege whites to have clean, safe communities at the expense of people of color. Noxious stereotypes that nonwhite people were somehow less clean than whites emerged in the nineteenth century, stereotypes that have informed who handles waste and where waste is located. Sociologists observed national patterns of inequities by the late twentieth century. Thirty years ago, the report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States concluded exposure to toxic pollution was determined by race above all other variables, including class, region, and urban/rural density. Ten years ago, a followup report revealed more continuities than change. Flint is further continuity.

The eyes of the nation are on Flint in 2016, but they could easily be on lead-contaminated communities in East New York or Gary, Indiana. Flint is the most conspicuous example of environmental racism in the United States. There are so many examples, however, that a bimonthly journal (Environmental Justice) has filled eight volumes of articles chronicling environmental inequalities. Governor Snyder’s promise that he will fix the present crisis flies in the face of his past actions, the history of Flint, and majority-minority communities across the United States. Recognizing this history is crucial to fixing what ails Flint.

Carl A. Zimring is Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute. He is the author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (NYU Press, 2016).

Pushing the Klan Aside in Mississippi: My Memory of Alfred Skip Robinson

—Akinyele Umoja


Alfred “Skip” Robinson is one of the most dynamic and charismatic individuals I have ever met. I first heard of Skip after a national demonstration in Tupelo, Mississippi in November of 1978. Several of my comrades in the Black Liberation Movement attended a demonstration and rally organized by Skip and the United League of Mississippi (UL) to support their boycott of the commercial district in Tupelo to challenge police misconduct and economic inequality in Tupelo. At that time the UL under Skip’s leadership had organized a series of boycotts in Mississippi to challenge white supremacy and institutionalized racism.


The UL was probably the most dynamic movement in the Black freedom struggle during the late 1970s. The Black Panthers, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, Us Organization, and other Black Power organizations had been severely crippled by the U.S. government’s COINTEPRO program and other repressive campaigns, as well as by the movement’s own internal conflicts and challenges. Several key activists of the movement had been incarcerated, exiled, even assassinated due to government repression. The oldest Black Civil Rights group, the NAACP, also suffered a decline after being defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit. The Reagan Administration began to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The late 1970s also witnessed a resurgence of the KKK.

Skip, the UL, and their efforts in Mississippi represented a beacon of hope to the Black freedom struggle of the 1970s. Their boycotts in northern Mississippi towns of Byhalia, Holly Springs, Tupelo, and Okolona stood as effective resistance in a time when social justice fights were in survival mode. The UL’s armed presence and the bold oratory of Skip Robinson, and its other spokespersons Dr. Howard Gunn and Attorney Lewis Myers, was a statement that Mississippi Blacks were not defeated and intimidated by the Klan and other white terrorists. The fact that Robinson and Gunn were still standing unscathed after gun battles with Klansmen was not lost on observers of the UL movement.The UL was probably the most dynamic movement in the Black freedom struggle during the late 1970s. The Black Panthers, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, Us Organization, and other Black Power organizations had been severely crippled by the U.S. government’s COINTEPRO program and other repressive campaigns, as well as by the movement’s own internal conflicts and challenges. Several key activists of the movement had been incarcerated, exiled, even assassinated due to government repression. The oldest Black Civil Rights group, the NAACP, also suffered a decline after being defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit. The Reagan Administration began to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The late 1970s also witnessed a resurgence of the KKK.


I decided to visit Northern Mississippi to witness the UL for myself in August of 1979. Skip had been appointed the Chairman of the Democratic Party in Marshall County, Mississippi. Marshall County was a Black majority county, Skip’s birthplace and home, and the headquarters of the UL. There was a primary election going on the day I arrived in Holly Springs, the seat of Marshall County. I was told this would be the first election in the county’s history that Black people participated as officials at the polls. Prior to the late 1970s, the white minority stole elections by white folks voting multiple times and the ballots of dead people being counted. Intimidation was also used to keep the Black majority from the polls. This would be the county’s first, free and fair election. My host was UL organizer Jim Agnew. Brother Agnew and I arrived in Holly Springs early that morning before the polls opened. We approached Skip on the street arguing with a police officer. The officer arrested Skip for disorderly conduct. Everyone figured Skip was arrested to disrupt Black voter mobilization and scare Black people from coming to the polls. I also witnessed groups of white men standing in a belligerent and menacing manner near the polling place to intimidate Blacks.


Skip was released from jail right before the polls closed. I escorted Skip to the UL office, which was near the Northern Mississippi Legal Services located right in the main county square. While I stood next to Skip, his primary security guard, a young man probably in his late 20s, came down the stairs of the Legal Services office. The bodyguard said he needed to go home and check on his family. He wanted Skip to come upstairs, outside of public view, so he could give him back the .357 magnum handgun the bodyguard carried concealed for the UL leader’s protection. It was probably the same gun Skip wore stuck in his pants during California speaking engagements. Standing on the street of the north side of the main square of Holly Springs, Skip boldly said “Give it to me right here (on the street). I want them (the White supremacists) to know I have a gun!” The young man hesitantly passed Skip the handgun right there on the street. I was humbled when Skip later asked me to draft his press statement detailing his arrest. I was honored to be of the assistance of this impressive leader.


I had the pleasure and opportunity to write about Skip and the UL in the book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013). In fact, had I not met Skip Robinson, the book may have not been written. I grew up during the Civil Rights and Black Power movement in Los Angeles, California. Most of my generation in northern urban centers had no idea that armed Black men, women, and youth defended the community and themselves in human rights battles in the South. Our only image of Black resistance in the South was the nonviolent movement, which many of us could not relate to. Other than the nonviolent movement, the major response we saw of southern Black folks was being in fear and intimidation to white terror. Skip Robinson and the UL provided me a living example and played a major role in destroying the stereotype of an exclusively “nonviolent” southern Black freedom movement in my mind. Skip Robinson and the UL provided an inspiration to write and tell our story. More must be done to reconstruct and illuminate the story of Skip Robinson and the United League. More must be done to recognize and remember his contribution to challenge injustice and improve the lives of his people. It is an inspiring, uplifting saga and a story of courage and commitment to social justice that changed Mississippi and inspired others like me to keep on pushing.

Akinyele Omowale Umoja is Professor and Chair of the Department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, where he teaches courses on the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements and other social movements. He has been a community activist for over 40 years. He is the author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).

[This piece originally appeared on wpconvo.com, the website of the play Byhalia, Mississippi.]


Dissent and the 2016 Election

—Ralph Young

There have been many times of crisis throughout American history when some citizens completely lose faith in the political process. Invariably such times lead to a rise of uncompromising radicals on the fringes of the body politic who eschew compromise in favor of a fundamental overhaul of what they see as a defunct system. One thinks of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s desperately fighting to stem the tide of Irish immigration which they feared would destroy the Protestant fabric of this nation, or the Populist Party of the 1890s who believed neither of the major parties were willing to address their grievances, or the rise of radical demagogues on both right and left during the Great Depression when it seemed to many that capitalism itself had failed, or was at best on the ropes, who denounced everything from the New Deal to Wall Street, from big business to communism. Some hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt; some hated the “economic royalists.”

What we are experiencing in the second decade of the twenty-first century is a replay of this historical phenomenon. As we approach the 2016 election there are those on the right who deplore what they see as creeping European style socialism on the part of a government that has abandoned laissez faire capitalism in favor of regulatory control over business and finance, a government that has abandoned the rugged individualism that they believe (falsely) made this country great. And on the left we see progressives who are highly distraught that the Democratic Party has turned its back on democracy and dances to the tune of business interests just as much as the Republicans. Thus we have outsiders challenging the establishment, on both right and left, who, believing that bipartisanship and compromise is weakness, are tapping into a vein of deep-seated discontent. Many Americans are obsessed by a nagging fear that the United States is in decline and will soon lose its special place in the world. And this helps explain the unexpected popularity in the primary season of Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left.

Registered Republicans want anyone, even candidates as unqualified as Trump and Carson, who will oppose the Washington establishment, they want an outsider, a novitiate in politics, precisely because they are not politicians, in fact are completely ignorant of how politics works. And large numbers of Democrats, fed up with the coziness of Democratic politicians with Wall Street and believing that the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy, are turning to socialist Bernie Sanders as the only hope to return the United States to its democratic roots. “Isn’t it strange,” Sanders’ forerunner and hero Eugene V. Debs said during his trial for sedition in 1918, “that we Socialists stand almost alone today in upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States?” Sanders is taking up Debs’s message and it resonates deeply with his supporters. Whether they are outsiders, or demagogues, or opponents of business as usual, hardnosed individuals from Huey Long to George Wallace, Father Coughlin to Donald Trump, all appeal to the populist impulse. And all are as American as Apple Pie.

Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters, and Dissent: The History of an American Idea (NYU Press, 2015).

The Refugee Dilemma and the Broader Immigration Debate

—Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia

Last week, the New Yorker ran a heartbreaking piece titled The Refugee Dilemma sharing the story of Nelson Kargbo, a former child story from Sierra Leone who upon entering in the United States as a refugee endured a series of joys that included his role as a father and sorrows that included a lengthy term in prison and in solitary confinement, which according to this psychiatrist, worsened a predisposition to psychosis. The story of Kargbo tells a larger story about the complexity of the U.S. immigration system and the real impact of immigration law and enforcement on people who have fled extraordinary conditions before arriving to the United States.

To arrive in the United States as a refugee like Kargbo and his family is no simple task. Refugees include people who have been persecuted or face persecution in their home country because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. While the politics of refugee resettlement are volatile in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis and the anti-Muslim sentiment that has emerged after bloodshed around the world and inside the United States, the reality is that refugees are  the most rigorously screened immigrant populations in the United States.

As Karbo did, refugees apply for permanent residency (a green card) one year after arrival — after five years, refugees may apply for United States citizenship. Importantly, having a green card does not provide total security. The Department of Homeland Security or DHS has the authority to arrest, detain and deport a wide range of noncitizens including those who fail to file a change of address card on time; commit certain crimes; and overstay their visas to name a few.

The method by which Kargbo moved from the criminal system into the immigration system after ICE (one enforcement arm in DHS) placed a “hold” on him is a recurring theme in immigration enforcement. The question about whether local law enforcement should cooperate with ICE has been a controversial as it implicates public safety at the local level and undercuts trust with immigrant communities.

Kargbo was placed in a courtroom process known as “removal proceedings” which itself is an adversarial hearing at which an ICE attorney serves as the prosecutor and where the noncitizen acts as the “respondent” or defendant before an immigration judge who is part of the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. At the removal hearing, noncitizens respond to the immigration charges against them and apply for qualifying forms of relief such as asylum, cancellation of removal and adjustment of status. As highlighted by Kargbo’s story, limited relief is available for people who have committed certain crimes in part because Congress has removed much of the discretion judges once held to factor in individual equities.

Importantly, most people are deported (removed) do not have a removal proceeding or opportunity to tell their story to an immigration judge.  The law contains expedited procedures for people who arrive in the United States without papers or false papers; those living in the United States without a green card who have committed certain crimes and those who reentered the United States have a removal order. In fiscal year 2013, more than 75% of removals were executed through one of these “speed deportation” programs.

Kargbo’s journey also highlights the limits of the U.S. immigration system. Many noncitizens are forced to navigate the immigration removal process without an attorney because there is generally no court-appointed counsel. One has to wonder whether Kargbo would have received the protection he was legally eligible for without hours and expertise from his pro bono attorneys and the specialists who were able to document his mental health and prospects for care in Sierra Leone. The restrictions on court appointed counsel are universal which means that young people, individuals with mental health complications, asylum seekers with significant language and cultural barriers and other vulnerable populations have no right to court appointed counsel.

Importantly, DHS has enormous power to decide who to arrest, detain and deport. With 11.3 million people living in the United States without authorization and thousands more individuals like Kargbo charged with removal as a green card holder, DHS must manage its enforcement wisely. Enter in prosecutorial discretion. When prosecutorial discretion is exercised favorably, DHS has made a choice to limit or refrain from enforcing the immigration law against a person. This discretion has functioned in the immigration system for many years and is crucial because the agency has the resources to deport less than 4% of the millions eligible for removal. Beyond the economics are the humanitarian reasons behind prosecutorial discretion- young people, those with serious medical conditions and those with strong family ties in the United States are among the kinds of people who have been granted prosecutorial discretion historically. A prosecutorial discretion grant is a temporary reprieve at best and leaves the person in an immigration purgatory as opposed to a more secure status like lawful permanent residency.  While Kargbo received a semi-secure form of protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, his story leaves the discussion door open for the role of prosecutorial discretion in the scores of cases where formal protection under the law is unavailable. DHS can and should use prosecutorial discretion to protect individuals with compelling equities and imperfect histories.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia is the Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and the Director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights at Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law. Previously, Wadhia was Deputy Director for Legal Affairs at the National Immigration Forum and an associate with Maggio Kattar P.C., both in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Beyond Deportation: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Cases (NYU Press, 2015).

Decades of Xenophobia Shape US Response to Syrian Refugees

[This piece originally appeared in Truthout.]

—Richard Baldoz & Shelley Sang-Hee Lee

Current debates surrounding President Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 have revealed deep political fissures in the United States. Until recently, criticism focused on the Obama administration’s doing too little to aid people fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria, but Republican leaders have now seized on the terror attacks in France, while stoking anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, to oppose refugee resettlement on national security grounds.

While the White House and its allies dismiss their opponents’ position as xenophobic and un-American, this line of argument is also simplistic, as our history with refugees is an ambivalent one. Over the past century, the prospect of settling refugees has tested Americans’ self-avowed benevolence, underscoring our conflicted attitudes about newcomers and raising inconvenient questions about the extension of US power abroad.

As migrants, refugees are distinct. They are a displaced people escaping danger who, unlike conventional immigrants, have not voluntarily left their homes for reasons like family reunification or economic opportunity. While in the abstract, humanitarian concern for refugees is a broadly agreed upon principle, we have been tentative when it comes to admitting living, breathing people. During the late 1930s, for instance, as European Jews were fleeing Nazi aggression, two-thirds of Americans opposed increasing immigration ceilings to admit them, citing fears that Bolsheviks or German agents might slip into the country. This was also a time of international isolation, marked by economic depression and low immigration. It was not until 1944, as Americans learned more about the horrors of the Holocaust, that special provisions were made to admit Jews.

With the onset of the Cold War, anti-communism and diplomacy guided US actions on refugees and revealed the selective application of humanitarian compassion. For much of the second half of the 20th century, policies allowing refugees’ entry were implemented in an ad hoc fashion and usually only applied to people fleeing communist regimes. For example, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 prompted the admission of tens of thousands of Hungarians, and Cuba’s socialist revolution of 1959 led to the United States accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from that country. In these cases federal officials opened the doors by invoking emergency powers, despite most Americans’ opposition due to concerns about potential communist infiltrators and other “undesirables.” By contrast, during the 1980s, Haitians fleeing the dictatorial but US-backed Duvalier regime were repeatedly denied asylum or refugee status on the grounds that they were economic migrants whose human rights had not been violated.

After the Vietnam War, Americans hesitated to admit Southeast Asian refugees, due in part to a legacy of anti-Asian immigration exclusion and a desire for closure from a divisive war. Because people were fleeing Communist governments, politicians acceded that the United States had a duty to admit them, and Americans’ urgency to do so deepened after learning about tragedies like the plight of “boat people” and the “killing fields” of Cambodia.

Ideological commitments and moral compassion aside, the United States’ obligations also stemmed from a history of interventions in Indochina going back to the 1950s. Determined to contain communism, it committed troops to fighting in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 and conducted secret bombings and military operations in Cambodia and Laos. After the communist victories in these countries in 1975, persecution and violent purges of dissidents and minorities prompted massive exoduses, a segment of which the United States admitted.

Four years later, facing pressure to accept more refugees, two-thirds of Americans opposed increases due to worries about their assimilability and the prospect that they would drain public resources. Eventually, about 1 million Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in the United States, and they have inarguably been woven into the fabric of our nation over the past 40 years despite the enormous hardships they have faced.

While the troubles in Syria seem removed by comparison, recent US actions there, as well as a long history of meddling in Middle East affairs, underscore the US role and obligations in the current crisis. Viewed one way, modeling moral leadership on the refugee issue can be an effective anti-terror strategy against ISIS propaganda that portrays the United States as an anti-Muslim nation.

The debate about admitting refugees, moreover, begs a moral and philosophical question about the consequences of US foreign intervention: If we are committed to toppling the Assad regime in Syria and defeating ISIS through proxy fighting and aerial bombings, why would we withhold refuge to those fleeing the turmoil?

We might also keep a longer history in view, because despite decades of diplomatic and military entanglements in the region – in the name of anti-communism, Israel, oil and more recently anti-terrorism – our perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis is strikingly myopic. And yet, as we witness another humanitarian catastrophe, some of our leaders raise the specter of terrorists entering the United States, glossing over the fact that refugee screening entails multiple and lengthy rounds of examination by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the United States, making entry for anyone enormously difficult. It defies reason to think individuals with terrorist aspirations would submit themselves to a multiyear vetting process that probes into every aspect of their past and present associations.

The interrelated propositions framing the debate about Syrian refugees – that we have a moral obligation to provide shelter to those facing imminent danger, and that the US bears a responsibility because of its interventions in the country and region – point to a dilemma we have confronted before. Additionally, how we treat refugees mirrors not just our mixed feelings about newcomers and the world outside, but also ignorance about the world within our borders (thus highlighting an irony of the promise of US safe harbor). In the war on terrorism, our imprecise understandings of its origins and trajectories have given rise to enemies that are creations of our own bigotries, which pervade discussions about Syrian refugees and have made scapegoats of Americans of Arab and South Asian descent.

After President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a comprehensive system for processing refugee and asylum cases, he proclaimed, “[It] is the historical policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.” Although not entirely accurate, this statement echoes a challenge to which we ought to rise.

Richard Baldoz is a professor of sociology at Oberlin College. He specializes in the areas of immigration and citizenship policy and is the author of the award-winning The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America (NYU Press, 2011).

Shelley Sang-Hee Lee is a professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin College. Dr. Lee specializes in Asian American history and urban studies. She is the author of A New History of Asian America (Routledge).

Zach Anderson, Statutory Rape Laws, and the History of Age

—Nicholas L. Syrett

In October of this year, thanks in part to a petition that circulated on change.org, stories that went viral on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, and a good deal of media attention, an Indiana man named Zach Anderson was removed from the sex offender registry in two states. He had originally been added after having been convicted of statutory rape.

The story, briefly, is this: last year Anderson met a girl on the app “Hot or Not.” He drove from his home in Elkhart, Indiana to her home in Niles, Michigan, about twenty-two miles away, where they had sex. Anderson was nineteen at the time and the girl said that she was seventeen and had registered in the “adults” section of the app. It turns out she was only fourteen and the age of consent in Michigan is sixteen, meaning that Anderson had unknowingly committed statutory rape.

After being arrested, Anderson pled guilty to a charge of fourth-degree criminal sexual assault and spent seventy-five days in jail. Under the terms of his five-year probation, he was forbidden from using the Internet, owning a smartphone, or having any contact with anyone under the age of seventeen (save immediate family). He was also placed on the sex offender registry in Indiana and Michigan until 2040.

The case attracted as much attention and outrage as it did – aside from the fact that his parents were savvy users of the very Internet from which their son was banned – because the girl admitted to lying about her age, she and her parents opposed the prosecution, and because the judge in the original sentencing was intransigent in handing down the mandated punishment stipulated by the statute. The case provoked broader discussions about teenage sexuality in the age of the Internet and the long-term repercussions of statutory rape laws that brand teenagers as sex offenders.

What received less attention, however much it was lurking just beneath the surface of these conversations, was the function of age itself in what happened to Zach Anderson and his youthful sexual partner. While the minor girl was only fourteen, either she looked like she could be seventeen or Anderson simply willed himself to believe that this was so. Michigan’s penal code stipulates that someone is guilty of “criminal conduct in the fourth degree” if the victim “is at least 13 years of age but less than 16 years of age, and the actor is 5 or more years older than that other person.”

This age-gap exception to statutory rape law is meant to protect the older of two sexually active teenagers from prosecution; it is a result of late twentieth-century revisions to rape laws that came in the wake of the sexual revolution, after which high school students were more likely to have sex than when the original laws were passed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Anderson was not helped by this part of the law, despite still being a teenager, because he was nineteen. Had Anderson only been eighteen years old, one year younger than he was, he could not have been charged under the law, because the two would only have been separated by four years, not five. Had his birthday been perhaps a little later in the year or hers a little sooner, there would not have been a crime.

Age is a blunt and sometimes arbitrary legal instrument. Legal age cannot accommodate those who lie or who do not “look” their age. In a time when all of our ages are precise, fixed, and documented, Anderson had no wiggle room. He was a nineteen-year-old adult and she was a fourteen-year-old child; despite all the ambiguity of their meeting, in his first trial there had simply been no way around this. Age-based laws have also offered little meaningful protection to actual victims of sexual violence like, for instance, the countless children abused by Catholic priests.

This reliance on age has a history. Only about a hundred years ago Americans were completing the process of incorporating age into their criminal and civil law, as well as their collective consciousness. Since that time, they have increasingly used it as if it were a simple, incontrovertible, biological fact. In one way that is undeniable, but as the case of Zach Anderson also demonstrates, age itself does not fully accommodate or contain all aspects of human beings’ development, capabilities, and responsibilities. It is a legal shorthand that all too often—and statutory rape law is only one example—perpetuates limitations and enacts violence when it is meant to protect or enable. Further, at a moment when the age one purports to be online can have little relation to one’s actual age, and when numerous websites (not just Hot or Not) do little to verify age, we have entered a new era in the malleability of age itself.

While Zach Anderson’s story has a (relatively) happy ending—in the form of his revised sentence—many other young men remain in jail and on sex offender registries because their age at the time of their sexual encounters placed them there.

Nicholas L. Syrett is an associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado, the coeditor (with Corinne T. Field) of Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present (NYU Press, 2015), and author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (2009) and the forthcoming American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States.

A Response to Amber Scorah: Learning from Parents and Child Care Providers to Create Better Policies

Palley_Shdaimah—Elizabeth Palley & Corey Shdaimah

Amber Scorah’s loss of her son Karl is tragic. Leaving a young child in daycare can be hard for any parent. Scorah’s story illustrates why this decision is so much harder in the United States for two reasons. First, unlike in most other countries, many US parents who prefer to care for their own infants do not have the financial and societal support to do so. Second, we do not treat early child care and education or the people who provide it as the valuable service that it is.

Despite hardships, most parents and providers work hard to find and deliver the best care for young children. What happened to Karl is rare. Most children survive and those in high quality care thrive. That does not make the decisions that parents of young children face any easier.

Some criticized Scorah for returning to work and questioned how she could blame larger societal pressures on her own “poor” choice. The factors that shaped Scorah’s decision, however, were not only individual but also societal. The very real pressures that she and her family experienced, including a need for health insurance and salary, compelled her to leave Karl in care. As Scorah noted, we live in a society that values paid employment over caring responsibilities and often leaves little space for parents to stay with their children when they are the most vulnerable. Though parents should have choices to stay with their children until they are less vulnerable, our workplaces and our government have not provided such choices for most Americans. We are anomalous in the economically developed world, where most countries have some policy that protect parents’ employment and even provide some form of salary or insurance that allows parents to care for their own children or assists them in securing affordable, quality care.

While Scorah indicated that she does not necessarily hold the provider responsible, she does implicate child care providers as overburdened, insufficiently trained, and callous to the needs of their charges. In our discussions with child care providers across New York State, we have met many center based directors and family providers who view the children in their care (often for the majority of their waking hours) as a sacred charge. Their interests mirror those of the parents whose children they care for. They want more training, better pay to allow them to hire and retain a stable and sufficient workforce, and the best equipment and curriculums. Karl seemed to be in distress and though a child care worker noticed and expressed concern, no one followed up. Karl was also left on his stomach. These are both issues where better training might have prevented Karl’s death, and they raise the possibility of regulatory policy responses. In our research, however, we have found that regulation in response to rare tragedies often makes for bad policy that burdens providers without always resulting in substantive improvements. In any contemplated policy change, policymakers and advocates must consider the voices of parents and providers, whose input will lead to better policy.

This blog post was contributed by Elizabeth Palley and Corey Shdaimah, the authors of In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy (NYU Press, 2014).

Salvation with a Smile in the Classroom

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, has been a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication. The posts have unveiled certain aspects of the project and provided selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here, the third post about the project’s origins, and a recent post about researching the book. The initial post about Salvation with a Smile, which revealed the book’s cover, is over at Baldblogger. For this final post in the series, the author addresses using Salvation with a Smile in the classroom.

Salvation with a Smile is a scholarly monograph designed to advance historical arguments about the meaning and significance of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church within American religious culture. As I wrote the book, I thought extensively about audience—fellow academics and scholars, the reading public, journalists, Lakewood members, and students—and wrote with these constituencies in mind. Readers will decide the extent to which I succeeded, or not, in reaching a wide audience through scholarly argumentation, historical narrative, and I hope compelling prose.

As I neared the project’s end, I picked up Lerone Martin’s Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of African American Religion, one of the best of NYU Press’s recent religion books I’ve read (and there are many, many good books!). Martin tackles an understudied subject and brings it to life through expert research and innovative argument. As I learned more about the project, I discovered that Professor Martin created an Instructor’s Guide for Preaching on Wax. I was immediately excited and intrigued. Having spent eight years as a high school history instructor before joining the college teaching ranks, I always think about my formative years in light of the continuing quest to offer engaging and interesting instruction through innovative pedagogy. For me, Professor Martin’s teaching manual demonstrated an attempt at innovative pedagogy that I decided to replicate for my own book. So, hat’s off to Lerone Martin and NYU Press for continuing to exemplify innovative scholarly publishing.

It was also my good fortune to assign Preaching on Wax in a recent summer course on African American religion, and put the Instructor’s Guide to use in the classroom just as I was in the process of contemplating what my own Instructor’s Guide would look like for Salvation with a Smile. It worked very well in my class. The questions and exercises in Professor Martin’s Instructor’s Guide not only helped to steer my students through the book’s content, but it also encouraged them to connect the historical dots between the different eras in African American religious history, and how modern technology has indelibly shaped multiple expressions within black religious culture. Professor Martin’s willingness to Skype with my class after we had read and discussed the book not only exhibited an exemplary professionalism, it further helped to bring the book to life via the Instructor’s Guide.

I thought about all of this as I put the finishing touches on Salvation with a Smile’s Instructor’s Guide in the fall of 2015. Based on nearly 15 years of secondary and post-secondary teaching experience, and in consultation with a number of friends and colleagues (including Professor Martin) I sought to design a user-friendly classroom resource that highlights the book’s major themes and arguments as well as challenge students to connect the book’s content with relevant factors of social, cultural, religious, and historical context. I designed questions mostly for history and religious studies courses, but it is my hope that the questions might also work, or be adapted, for classes in theology, sociology, ethnography, and literature. Using Professor Martin’s work as my guide, I wrote Summary section recaps of each chapter’s contents, and created Discussion Questions to prompt reflection on how the book’s themes tie into the broader history of American religion. For each chapter I also crafted a Classroom Enrichment section that offers videos, audio clips, or digital materials that bring the chapters to life, or allow instructors and students to engage the book’s contents in more visual and auditory ways.

There’s no doubt that the possibility of digital explorations are perhaps more abundant for a book that deals with contemporary history; I earnestly tried to exploit this opportunity fully as I designed my Instructor’s Guide. Let me illustrate what I mean. The fourth chapter of Salvation with a Smile explores the contents of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel. It compares his teaching on positive confession and positive thinking to that of his father John Osteen while it also relates Lakewood’s prosperity message to that of other megachurches. With this in mind, the Discussion Questions try to flesh this out interrogatively while the Classroom Enrichment assignment proposes an exercise that would allow students to compare Joel to John, and assess Lakewood’s megachurch status to those of other large congregations. Here are two questions from the enrichment section on chapter 4 in the Instructor’s Guide:

  1. Using data from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (HIRR), chapter 4 quantitatively compares Lakewood to other megachurches. Encourage students to conduct their own research and analysis from the HIRR’s online database of megachurches. They may wish to compile a list of megachurches in Texas and find the cities in the Lone Star State with the most megachurches, and/or compare megachurch data in Texas to that of other states.
  2. A key example of Joel’s teachings on positive confession come from a 2001 sermon “The Power of Words” (discussed on p. 83). For comparison with John Osteen’s concept of positive confession, see his sermon also titled “The Power of Words” from 1988 (discussed on p. 49). While both sermons are nearly 30 minutes in length, sampling particular sections will be useful in comparing Joel’s teachings on positive confession with that of his father.

These questions, in conjunction with reading chapter 4 of Salvation with a Smile, seek to engage students through comparative thinking, expose them to very basic quantitative data, analysis, and comparison, and invite them to consider the power and performance of religious programming, language, and ideas. This exercise allows students to locate megachurch data on their own, and draw out their own comparisons and conclusions. It also compels learning about the content of sermons as well as the performative aspects of contemporary American religion in connection with the prosperity gospel. An exercise like this is due to the stupendous efforts and excellent work of Scott Thumma and his team of megachurch experts associated with the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and dependent upon the large amount of John and Joel Osteen sermons uploaded to YouTube.

With all of this said, I hope my Instructor’s Guide works well in classrooms to the extent that instructors assign the book. Lerone Martin’s work in this regard paved the way for me. I hope other authors who study the countless dimensions of religion and cultural follow the trail he blazed with his Instructor’s Guide as we collectively ponder religion’s significance and meaning in our contemporary moment through academic argument and pedagogical engagement.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.