The Old Left and American Exceptionalism

bernie image
(Image from Google)

After this past weekend, it’s clear that even those on the Left love to romanticize the past.

What I mean is: the language we use to push forward our arguments about equality and social justice can feel just as naive and ignorant as policies shared by some bow-tie wearing freak at CPAC (shout-out to the sexually repressed conservative!)

Ex. Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders.

They are the most popular progressives in the country, and for good reason. They speak up for the marginalized, and go after the right-wing with zeal.

However, they still package their beliefs in quaint doses of American exceptionalism.

When Warren attacked Trump over Twitter, she does so by criticizing his race-bating methods but in turn, essentially condemning him as un-American, and that the U.S. has a tradition of being inclusive and unity.

It’s great that she gone after an asshole like Trump. But her statement that the U.S. was built on merit and that Trump is an outlier played into the right-wing patriotic narrative that’s been holding back POC and the working-class (women and men) since its founding.

Similarly, Sanders has been criticizing the economic elites. He’s been an opponent of Big Banks and corrupt capitalism. Yet, time and time again, his solution to a society that works for everyone is reverting to the New Deal or to a period in time when the wealthiest paid more in taxes. Again, I agree that capitalism is a sick enterprise and one that values profit over lives. But the fact that he looks to the past, a past mired in segregation and white terrorism as well as gender oppression, always make me annoyed and frustrated.

Economic inequality has to be tackled effectively. But it seems as if major progressive have given into romanticizing American Old Left politics.

Former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, does the same in his documentary, Inequality for All, where he continues to cite 1950s era as a time of high-growth and low-disparity. I actually do recommend everyone to watch the movie because it is very informative. But no one in their right mind, especially POC, should believe that pre-1970s, that the U.S. worked for everyone equally. Was there perhaps less inequality? Perhaps. But economic equality shouldn’t just be based on capital. Economic equality itself shouldn’t be tied to freedom either. If you were a black intellectual somehow able to build a life for yourself in the deep south, or in places further north, you are still living under the specter of lynching and terror. This will harm your health, your well-being, your state of mind and security.

I am a democratic socialist. I find positives and negatives in both Marxism and capitalism and hope we can one day merge them into a system that works for everyone.

And I do take lessons from the past. I can’t lie and say I am not moved when I read about movements of working-class peoples striving for more rights in a time when risk and sacrifice was the only way. I am also very much aware of how unions in our modern era helped create some of the economic rights and privileges we have today and that we take for granted.

Yet, for some friends (and I am not being sarcastic, I hope we can continue this discussion) to be just as critical of those on the Left who abide by a narrow logic of the American system and history. And to admit that the image of working-class people struggling together against the elites is simplistic.

As sociologist Deborah K. King explains in her seminal work, “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist ideology,” labor movements of the past were quick to represent solely the interests of white men:

“Samuel Gompers, the leading force of trade unionism and president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL, founded in 1886), believed that the best means of improving wages for Anglo males was to restrict the labor supply. His strategy was to advocate the return of women to the home and the banning of blacks and Asians from the unions. Although the AFL never formally adopted these restrictions at the national level, many local chapters did so through both formal rules and informal practices.”

In “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” famed historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, states:

“The metalanguage of race also transcended the voices of class and
ethnic conflict among Northern whites in the great upheavals of labor
during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Amid their opposition, capital and labor agreed sufficiently to exclude blacks from union membership and from more than a marginal place within the emerging industrial work force. Job ceilings and hiring practices limited the overwhelming majority of black men and women to dead-end, low paying employment-employment whites disdained or were in the process of abandoning. The actual class positions of blacks did not matter, nor did the acknowledgment of differential statuses (such as by income, type of employment, morals and manners, education, or color) by blacks themselves. An entire system of cultural preconceptions disregarded these complexities and tensions by grouping all blacks into a normative well of inferiority and subserviency.”

I know many of you probably already know this. Yet, I also think many of you needed a reminder.

http://dartmouth.edu/faculty-directory/deborah-karyn-king

http://history.fas.harvard.edu/p…/evelyn-brooks-higginbotham

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What we know for Whom we know

 

Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s “Communicating the Value and Values of Science” is an important reminder of how experts must do a better job of sharing knowledge with the general public. It’s crucial that what scientists know and the scientific process isn’t overwhelmed by inaccurate information from the media or even rumor. However, for hard science, delivering the facts and framing them accurately can be an easier task, especially when the public is experiencing a heightened sense of fear and are searching for concrete tips and strategies on what to do. But on social issues, such as immigration, it may be more difficult translating the “correct” facts without triggering political and identity-protective enclaves.

Jamieson uses the example of Zika on how science can play a role in effectively telling people what’s fact and what’s not. Her belief is that there are correct methods of framing the facts without it getting misconstrued. For example, she explained how the public doesn’t understand that science is an iterative process. Scientists are still trying to find the causal links between Zika and microcephaly. But nuance is left out of the discussion and the numbers suspected and confirmed cases are lumped together, and interpreted by the media and the public as a “crisis.” Add the imagery the media uses, such as distraught parents and babies with misshapen heads, and people become increasingly misinformed. Or in the case of global warming, where a 2013 report on Artic sea ice can be exploited by science deniers such as Limbaugh, and people are led to believe that global warming is a conspiracy. Again, people don’t understand that there remains an overall decrease in Arctic sea ice through the decades and it’s been trending downwards.

Ultimately, Jamieson feels that science can and should temper ignorance among the public by disseminating key information while the public is engaged, capitalizing on the attention-focusing influence of fear while supplying useful information on how to take action, minimizing misinformation in the media and increasing reporting on preventative measures, and finally, teaching about science. A major strategy in sharing knowledge is correctly defining scientific terms. A person who doesn’t know much about Zika will gain nothing from its current name, or someone who associates global warming with an increase in temperature is more likely to say, “Wow, I guess global warming is a hoax since we had snowfall this year.” Incorporating language that reflects the nuance of what’s happening is crucial. So, instead of global warming, maybe it’s best to call it “climate change” and instead of Zika, scientists should name it “mosquito borne” virus, and use the analogy of Yellow Fever to anchor the public in how best to view this current situation.

Jamieson’s argument can be tied to framing. In The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, John R. Zaller explains how a question is phrased determines the answer. Opinions aren’t stable ideas in a person’s head. Basically, they are being constructed in the moment. Zaller writes “although a significant simplification of what must occur in reality, has sufficient internal complexity to generate interestingly different expectations in different circumstances […]” (180). On questions about the Cold War, providing context can elicit a different response than when not doing so. Jamieson herself states science must avoid triggering controversy and causing people find shelter in their partisan cocoons by picking the ideal phrase, word, or metaphor.

Jamieson is correct in exploring the power of framing, and referring to how fear can be harnessed by scientists as a way to provide strategies and facts to the public. Also, her beliefs that sound science communicated thoroughly increases the likelihood of good public policy and that the democratic process doesn’t function with a confused public are valid as well. In Page and Shapiro’s “Effects of Public Opinion on Policy,” although they had questions on the direct link in which public opinion affected policy (or the other way around), they felt there was a connection nonetheless, especially in terms of Nixon normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China under Mao. But, as political science has shown, social science is typically a harder nut to crack. Compared to hard science, which can rise above partisan conflict by portraying what it knows as objective reality i.e. gravity, social science and theory is less able to do so.

Institutionalized racism and police brutality is a reality for people of color. Statistics on discriminatory policies are being shared by the media. According to the Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department, African Americans, although 67% of the area’s population, “accounted for 85% of FPD’s traffic stops,” and that they were “2.07 times more likely to be searched during a vehicular stop but are 26% less likely to have contraband found on them during a search” (98-99). Researchers at Northwestern found “abuse of and dependence on cocaine, hallucinogens, amphetamines, and opioids is less common among African Americans than among non-Hispanic whites.”[1] Despite the facts and growing literature on race discrimination, it took social movements such as Black Lives Matter to force politicians into caring. In fact, there are still many Americans who not only dispute the notion that prejudice exists, but that if it does, that white Americans bear the brunt. “Half of white Americans — including 60 percent of the white working class,” reported by The Washington Post, “told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”[2] The War on Drugs has preyed on the fears of everyday people and consequently, against the evidence, targeted communities of color. In the 1980s, due to “panic,” Congress responded by supporting legislation penalizing crack users with a minimum sentence of five years for “just five grams of the drug.” Crack, often associated with black residents in the inner-city, had been racialized. It would take a person to have five hundred grams of cocaine, a drug once considered fashionable within boardrooms and high-end parties, to receive a similar punishment.[3]

As Jamieson said, confusion can lead to bad policy. In Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, where she details how the American criminal justice system has filled its prisons with black faces, explains “Beginning in the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes—not crime rates or likelihood of victimization—are an important determinant of white support for ‘get tough on crime’ and antiwelfare measures” (54). In states like Illinois, 90 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense is African American (189). Similarly, Republican politicians are sowing fear and distrust among the public concerning Syrian refugees and Islam. Muslim-Americans express consistently positive views about the U.S. In a poll done by the Pew Research Center in 2011, one of their conclusions was “opposition to violence is broadly shared by all segments of the Muslim American population, and there is no correlation between support for suicide bombing and measures of religiosity such as strong religious beliefs or mosque attendance.” As if in a separate universe, right-wing pundits and politicos continue to echo conspiratorial claims that refugees are sleeper agents and that Muslims are unable to assimilate. In a Bloomberg Politics poll after the Paris attacks, “fifty-three percent of U.S. adults in the survey, conducted in the days immediately following the attacks, say the nation should not continue a program to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. Just 28 percent would keep the program with the screening process as it now exists, while 11 percent said they would favor a limited program to accept only Syrian Christians […].”

Yes, there are people who still don’t believe in evolution. Yes, there are even those who won’t accept blood transfusions because it conflicts with their faith. But, the ways in which hard science can be depoliticized are different than in social science. This is not to say Jamieson is naïve. Jamieson’s approach simply needs to be specified and more steps added when translating social theory to the public. For instance, when trying to craft an ideal message, it should be noted that racial/ethnic groups respond differently. In the case of the Syrian refugees, the solution could be to appeal to an individual’s sense of religious morality, based on whether that person is black or white. “The African-American understanding of religion differs significantly from the White understanding, because it has been shaped in the context of the Black experience,” Eric L. McDaniel writes in African-American Political Psychology (135). Although religion is important to black Americans, especially the black Church, many interpret their faith differently than white Americans do. In a study done by McDaniel, the effect of orthodoxy is not as important or “systemic” for blacks as it is for whites. Race, for black Americans, mutes levels of religiosity (144).

Another lesson to take from Jamieson is the importance of the expert and valued institutions (or as she describes “custodians of knowledge”). Organizations like NASA, which are appreciated by conservative and liberal alike, are better vehicles in providing scientific knowledge. In social science, we could go one step further. Similar to specific messaging to target different groups, social scientists may need to also incorporate that belief into who they put forward as their representative. For instance, could it be more useful to have an African American social scientist deliver a message to a majority African American public? Would it make the knowledge they have more easily accepted? Further, by diversifying social science, one can expect an increase in research on subjects often ignored. Patricia Hill Collins, sociologist at University of Maryland, realized that there was a gap in literature in academia on black women. Collins, who is African American, took it upon herself to write Black Feminist Thought, stating “So the voice that I now seek is both individual and collective, personal and political, one reflecting the intersection of my unique biography with the larger meaning of my historical times” (viii). She saw meaning in writings by black women and in turn, black women read her work to this day, able to trust in her research and sincerity.

It is the job of social scientists to convey complex subjects and issues to the public. Otherwise, research will only be read by those within the Ivory Tower, and gather dust. There are already political scientists trying, such as Melissa Harris-Perry, who in her book Sister Citizen, includes explanations of regression models in the appendix. She even tells the reader what numbers to pay attention to and which to ignore. This is just an example. But it can be one of many if enough social scientists follow Jamieson’s advice and build connections to the public.

[1] Ali Venosa, “Hard Drug Abuse More Common Among White Kids, Blacks Still Jailed More,” MSN, March 17, 2006, accessed March 24, 2015, http://www.msn.com/en-us/health/wellness/hard-drug-abuse-more-common-among-white-kids-blacks-still-jailed-more/ar-BBqArcm?ocid=spartanntp.

[2] Janell Ross, “White Americans long for the 1950s, when they didn’t face so much discrimination,” The Washington Post, Nov. 17, 2015, accessed March 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/11/17/white-americans-long-for-the-1950s-when-they-werent-such-victims-of-reverse-discrimination/.

[3] Michael Massing, The Fix (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 184.

 

 

Knowledge is Power series: Books Perfect for the “Woke” Self

Here are some book recommendations for those of you who are already woke or getting there but want more:

Ain’t I A Woman: black women and feminism by bell hooks:

bell hooks is pretty much who I want to be, someday. In the meantime, I’ve made due reading what she’s written. This one is considered to be the one that put her on the map. It chronicles the experiences of black women in the U.S., at the intersection of race, class, and gender. It’s not long and you learn a great deal, especially the fissures that formed during the suffrage movement where southern white women placated to racist whites and ignored women of color.

 

We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future by Deepa Iyer:

Deepa Iyer is a renowned activist and lawyer, and has been a major voice for progressive POC causes and coalition-building. If you are interested to learn more about the experiences of Desi and Arabs in the U.S., this is the perfect introduction. And if you are someone who already has a good sense, still pick up a copy and like me, use it for your research.

Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle For Freedom In The United States And India by Nico Slate:

Nico Slate proves, through his work, that yes, there are white dudes who “get it.” Slate is a historian and has been writing on the ways POC across the world have forged bonds against imperialism and racism. For this, he focuses on the solidarity between black Americans and South Asian Indians. And he doesn’t romanticize it either, by showing how complex it was, given India’s own crisis of caste discrimination.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler:

parable of the sower image
(Image from Google)

So, ever sat and watched a dystopian movie and wondered, “Why are there only white people? Wait, did something happen to us? OH CRAP! WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO US?!” If that thought ever ran through your mind, then this book is perfect for you. Octavia Butler is an icon. She wrote mainly sci-fi but it’s not your average alien meet human crap. Butler, who was African American, incorporated issues of race, class and gender into her work. The Parable of the Sower is an example of how she manages to write a story that’s entertaining and yet, meaningful. The main character is a young woman of color and she, along with survivors, must learn to adapt in a world ruined by humanity’s excesses. It is one of my favorite novels, ever, and Butler is one of Junot Diaz’s favorite authors too. And if you don’t know who Junot Diaz is either, god have mercy on your soul.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin:

I started reading James Baldwin when I was in junior-high, and although I wasn’t at the intellectual level to understand everything he was trying to convey, I still felt an urge to keep exploring, and to try and comprehend each and every word. The Fire Next Time is a non-fiction piece by him and is written as part lesson about American racism and life to his nephew and part meditation on what it means to be a black man, especially someone trying to understand one’s place at the height of the civil rights movement.

 

The Making of Asian American: A History by Erika Lee:

Again, if you’re unfamiliar with Asian-American history, this is the perfect option. Erika Lee is an amazing historian and she somehow manages to convey the complexity of the Asian and Asian-American experience in just under 400 pages. She does this by dedicating separate chapters for different groups, i.e. a chapter on South Asians and another on Southeast Asians. But none of the chapters are disjointed. In fact, while you learn about the partial histories of each group, you begin to see the bigger picture: what it means to be Asian-American is constantly evolving.

The World As Is

 

At the end of this story, you will find two things:
The first will be someone pleading for help.
The second will be of someone having uncontrollable gas.
The order is not so important. Not yet at least. For now, let’s roll back the clock to the beginning scene:
Of me, impressionable Irfan, aged 16, somehow avoiding the devastation that is known as acne, but still trying to grow that awful moustache or whatever you want to call that dead caterpillar fuzz that was festering right above the upper lip.
It’s November in the early 2000s (post 9/11) and I was sitting in class at my school in Queens, and as the teacher did her best to show us the reason for why sine and cosine even exist (which was admittedly something I never thought about), all I really felt like doing was smiling and grinning and making faces with Fareena, who sat right across from me.
Fareena and I met at our parent’s mosque, where I eventually got the courage to ask her if she wanted to hang out. She told me to ask her again when I had a definite idea of where to go, what to do, and how much it would cost, and so, after a week of thinking, I told her we could meet at the movie theater, and a month after that, I had my first kiss, and a year later, I was making faces with her in the middle of class, and she was smiling back, and the world as I knew it was perfect.

. . .

Every day, we would find time to hang out after school, and at least once or twice a month we would go and watch a movie, something that we could laugh at together.
“Oh my god, Bruce Willis looks a giant penis!” she squealed, as others simply turned in their seats and stared at us.
I laughed, and as we left the movie theater, I stuck out my tongue at whoever was still glaring.
We bought hot chocolate at our favorite deli and explored the neighborhood, while also of course making fart noises for people walking ahead of us. It was the Bloomberg years I think. Honestly, I don’t really keep track of which white guy happens to be in power when, but it definitely was a unique time to be growing up in the city, especially in the outer boroughs, when it felt like every day there was another building being left abandoned and another liquor store opening up right across the street from it.
“Did you read this yet?” Fareena asked as we were at the library, in the back corner, rifling through a mix of graphic novels and books that we wouldn’t find on our summer reading lists.
“What is it?” I asked, as I just finished reading some pages of an encyclopedia on nature, which included the infamous Dodo bird. The pictures of it looked funny to me.
Fareena passed me the novel she was talking about, which was titled Giovanni’s Room. “Woah, check this guy out,” she said, holding up another book, this one with the title The Savage Detectives emblazoned across. “Honestly, it’s a little confusing,” she said, but looked down at the page, smiling wide. “But I like how the characters are all writers and poets and trying to find adventure.”
I didn’t say anything right then. But after a few moments, when it became too quiet, I showed her the picture of the bird. She read the paragraph and shook her head and kept smiling.

. . .

Rajeev asked me where Fareena was.

I shrugged and made sure not make any eye contact. Another school day had ended, and we were all in the main lot, either ready to go home or like Rajeev and his group of followers, to head toward the main avenue again, probably find people they could tease and easily tear apart. Fareena had run off to the principal’s office seconds before the bell rang, and so I waited and waited, and ignored Rajeev, who was the top student in school, but also knew way too much about how to jumpstart a car without the key. Rajeev said that he learned that trick from his father, but wherever it came from, I didn’t want to know.

“See you later buddy,” he said, as him and his group finally left. “Don’t forget to wear your tampon.”
I rolled my eyes. Soon after, Fareena stepped outside, with her eyebrows narrowed. I asked her what was wrong.
“Nothing really,” she said. “I asked the principal if I could take some of my tests early.”
“What? Why?”
“My family needs me at our restaurant more often now,” she explained. “Plus, I do need to save money for college.”
I didn’t say anything as we kept walking down the sloped streets. We watched a movie and laughed. We went to the deli afterwards, but Fareena told me she needed to go home and start studying. We kissed, and I finished my hot chocolate, and decided to go back too.

. . .

At first, not much was different. We would still hang out. We would still find ways to be ourselves and have fun. But one afternoon, she again met with the principal. I waited like before as Rajeev discussed plans with his group. He again looked over at me and smirked, but I would look away as casually as I could.
Fareena rushed back outside minutes later. I asked her what happened, and tried to keep up.
“I just needed to take more tests again,” she said.
“Wait, where are you going?” I asked.
“I have to go home,” she told me. “I have a shift later tonight.”
“But what about the movies?”
“Babe, I can’t…”
“But – – -”
Before I could finish, she turned to me and smiled and said, “Why don’t you study with me?”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “What?” I said. “Why?”
“Why not? It’s good.”
“But I’m already doing well,” I said. “What’s the reason for doing more? I don’t even like math.”
“That’s not the point though,” she said. “Don’t you want to go to college?”
“Yea, but that’s later,” I said. “You can’t be so serious about this.”
She sighed. “I have to go,” she said.
“Wait, you do realize this is way too much right now,” I told her.
She shook her head and continued walking.
I should’ve said something, but I didn’t.

. . .

I would still talk with Fareena at school and we would continue to eat our lunch together and walk to class side-by-side, but she was always too tired to do much afterwards. I would sometimes try to spark an actual conversation with her but I would quickly give up, and go to the main avenue by myself.
It was a few weeks before winter break when I decided to watch a movie without her. It was another Bruce Willis film and he still looked like a giant penis. But I watched the entire movie, understood the plot, memorized some lines, and once it was over, I made up my mind to just go back home. But as I exited the theater, I heard a voice.
“Hey man, found any tampons in there?” it said to me.
I sighed. Rajeev was by himself next to a payphone. He asked me where Fareena was.
I again ignored him and kept walking, but he followed. “Yo, guess what?” he said. “I have the answers to next week’s test.”
I didn’t reply. He chuckled. “Come on, man, I’m just trying to help a Desi out,” he said. “Don’t you want your girl to have it easy?”
I stopped. I turned to him, and looked him in the eye.

Rajeev was in his final year at high-school, and all of the school’s main officials, from the principal to his assistant’s assistant, would praise Rajeev and offer him chance after chance to speak before the entire student body. He was great at math. He was great at science. He even knew how to dunk. I once played soccer with him but never kept much in touch, never really knew where he lived or what he did once our games were over. When I entered his apartment, it was for the first time, and it was completely quiet, except for the muffled sounds of traffic that would seep in from the window. I asked him where his parents were. He said simply that his mom was working and his dad was out-of-town.
Rajeev took me to his room, where he sat down at his desk and immediately began rummaging through the drawers.
I, on the other hand, stood in one place and looked around, at the walls, at the floor even, at the stack of CDs he had. At first glance, it was like any other room, with posters of movie heroes and sports stars, of empty CD casings left on the carpet. But I soon realized that he not only had movie posters, but actual DVDs, and even a TV. Plus, his stack of CDs was probably the highest I’d ever seen.
“Here you go,” he said, and handed me a sheet of paper. I read it over, and recognized that the answers were different than what I expected.
“Wait a minute,” I said. ‘This is for the wrong test.”
He shrugged. “Dude, whatever, just take them. I don’t need them anymore,” he said, as he continued to look through his drawer.
I clenched my right fist, but I couldn’t stop myself from looking back at the movie posters and at the TV. I didn’t say anything for a while, as I tried to read the titles of each and every DVD.
“It’s from a business venture,” Rajeev said. He explained, with his hands still in the drawer, that he sold alcohol and cigarettes to students. “It costs a lot more for someone to get a fake I.D.” he said. “So I just hire some older guys, desperate ones especially, to buy the items for me.” He paused. “I’m always looking for friends to help out,” he said.
I looked at him.
He was smiling.
I glared, and I left. Fareena called me later that night, so we could work on our extra credit assignments over the phone. I was glad to hear her voice again, although as we went through answer after answer, I would also look through my bedroom window, at our backyard filled with weeds and the one next door and the one after that, as we went through answer, after answer, after answer.

. . .

“Gary Oldman is a walrus trying to be a man!”
I nervously chuckled.
“Gary Oldman looks like a fucking faggot!”
I held my breath, as the rest of the theater shifted in their seats and started murmuring to each other.
But that didn’t matter to Rajeev, who kept yelling at the screen, till we were asked to leave.
“That movie didn’t make any sense,” he said, as I led him to the corner deli where we bought hot chocolate, and sat and drank by the window since he didn’t want to go back outside just yet.
I sipped and sipped as neither of us said a word. I eventually decided to ask about his parents again.
“Mom works and works and works, not much else to say about her,” he said.
“And your dad?” I asked.
“Like I said, he’s out-of-town,” Rajeev answered, and took a sip from his own cup, as he looked out the window.
I wanted to go to the library afterwards although I probably should’ve guessed that wouldn’t be an option.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be quick,” he said, as he waited by the payphone at the corner.
When it rang, he picked up and whispered.
I stood a few steps away from him. I should leave, I thought. I was worried what Rajeev would do if I did however. Before I could make up my mind, he placed the phone back into the booth and smiled at me.
My stomach gurgled.

. . .

“Don’t worry,” he told me. “Nothing will happen.”
I didn’t say a word as he walked block after block, past the abandoned buildings and finally ending up at a street where there were no Stop signs or functioning traffic lights. At an empty staircase of a building were two large paper bags.
Rajeev looked through them, and I glanced, and noticed that there were bottles of beer and alcohol inside.
“No…” I said, and immediately turned around.
But Rajeev was quick to tell me that if I left, he would just tell the school it was all mine.
“Let’s be real here,” he said. “We might have had the same classes. But who has the brighter future. Who would the school want to protect?”
My stomach continued to gurgle and churn, as I took a deep breath and picked up one of the bags.
“I’ll give you 10 percent man,” he said.
“I don’t want it…” I murmured.
He laughed. “You’re crazy,” he said, as we retraced our steps and headed back to his block.
I dropped the bags off at the apartment, and left. Rajeev tried calling my name, but I just walked down the stairs as fast as I could without falling. It was cold that evening, but I walked all the way back home without my hood on, without my gloves. I didn’t even notice that my hands were turning red until I had to quickly crouch down and tie my shoelaces.

. . .

I tried to forget. I would call Fareena and try to find time to hang out. I would also go to the library and read snippets from books that Fareena had recommended, including parts of Giovanni’s Room.
Rajeev called me again, however, while I was supposed to be studying for a final exam but instead was staring through the window.
Our phone was in the kitchen but my mom was working an extra shift and so were my aunts and cousins.
“Hey man, I have a new job,” he said after I picked up. “Quick like last time. But I’ll even give you a free bottle if you’d like.”
“No,” I said.
He laughed, but after I didn’t respond, he stopped. “Are you serious?” he said. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes,” I told him, and hung up, and went back to my room.
For days, I ignored phone calls at night, when no one else was home. Fareena and I would hang out when she could. Once, we skipped a movie and went straight to the deli. She couldn’t keep her eyelids open though.
“How can you do well on a test if you don’t get some sleep?” I told her.
She shrugged and yawned.
I rolled my eyes and finished my hot chocolate.

. . .

I was lying in bed, with my eyes closed, when the phone rang. I grumbled, rolled over to my side, but a few minutes later, the phone rang again. I still didn’t move, but every half-hour, it would ring, until finally, I rushed over, and snatched it up.
“Dude, I’m not hanging out with you anymore,” I yelled.
No one answered.
“I’m hanging up,” I said. “Don’t bother me again.”
Suddenly, a voice responded. It was a man’s voice. It wasn’t Rajeev’s.
“Who do you think you are?” the man said, and judging from his voice, I could tell he was older than me. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” he kept repeating.
“Who-who is this?” I managed to ask.
“You think you can fuck me over like that?” he said. “You think you can fuck me over like that and get away with it.”
I hung up and stared at the phone as if somehow it would explode. My shirt stuck to my skin, and even though I went back to my room, I sat up in bed, shivering.

. . .

The calls and threats continued, but I didn’t tell anyone, not even Fareena. I thought they would stop but then, the man started leaving me voicemails, telling me he would find me. I would delete the messages seconds after he would leave them behind.
“This sandwich tastes weird,” Fareena said, as we sat at the cafeteria.
I nodded, as I took tiny bites and looked out the window.
“Mr. Dyer said we can only use a certain amount of extra credit points for our next test,” she said, and again I nodded.
It was cloudy that day, and everyone was more subdued, even though it was a Friday afternoon and freedom was ticking closer and closer.
I was looking out the window and chewing slowly, not really thinking of much or trying not to. But just as I took another bite of whatever sandwich the school had given us, I saw a figure in the school lot. I squinted. It was a tall man standing right outside the gate.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Fareena said. “I mean, we worked hard for those points. If we have hundred points, shouldn’t we be able to use all of them at one time? The semester is almost over anyway.”
I stopped chewing.
There was a pause.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I snapped back to reality. I looked at her and told her “Nothing” and kept eating the sandwich, even though I wasn’t hungry but honestly, was just trying to keep myself preoccupied.
Fareena left school early, and Rajeev was nowhere in sight. As I walked home by myself, I would keep looking over my shoulder. At one point, I felt as if someone was following me. I decided to not walk home but to head straight to the theater instead, which I did, and still, I felt as if someone was right behind me. I glanced at the rearview mirrors of the parked cars, and again, saw the same tall man I had seen earlier, just a few yards away. I increased my pace but knew that wouldn’t work, so I headed for the shopping mall at the end of the block, and walked behind the crowd. I walked around and around the mall for an hour, as I pretended to look at the new video games on display, at whatever I could focus on. There were also kids I recognized from school, and so I walked in the opposite direction and finally went back outside.
“If you scream, I’m going to rip your fucking head off.” The voice echoed in my head, as hands grabbed me by the collar, and all I could do was look up at the man’s face, with his bangs and his furrowed brow.
He took me to the empty streets about a mile away, where the abandoned buildings looked like they would crumble at any moment.
He grabbed my collar and lifted me off the ground. My legs flailed as he pulled me close and glared.
“Where’s the money?” he said, his breath reeking of smoke.
“I-I-dunno,” I stammered.
“Don’t play dumb with me,” he said.
I was barely able to breathe and all I could manage to say was “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” over and over again, as a rotten stench began to engulf us.
He covered his nose, and I dropped. I coughed and I coughed as I quickly tried to recover.
He looked at me, with his eyebrow raised, as I looked back at him, with my own face full of confusion.
He kept his hand over his nose, but I could tell tears were welling up in his eyes.
“Are you okay…?” I asked him.
“I needed that money,” he said. “My dad…my dad is going to throw me out…I needed that money…”
The tears ran down his cheeks.
I asked him who he was looking for. He told me he was looking for Rajeev.
“I keep buying him the alcohol and he pays me sometimes, but these past few weeks, man, I really need the money,” he said. “Rajeev told me you were the new guy. I didn’t know how that was possible since you looked so young, but what could I do? I just got thrown out of college, you know. I don’t know what to do.”
I did feel sorry for him. I really did. But as I watched him try and wipe the tears from his eyes, an idea had crept inside my head.
“I can help you” I told him.
He dabbed his eyes with his sleeve and looked at me.
“Here,” I handed him the answer sheet that I kept in my backpack. I told him to go to the school, tell them he was related to one of the students, and that his cousin or whomever got the sheet from Rajeev.
The man held it in his hands, and was smiling and beaming with joy. He thanked me over and over again. I told him no problem, and smiled too.

. . .

The winter holidays had arrived, and lights were strung up all over the neighborhood, even peeking through apartment windows.
I hadn’t seen Rajeev in weeks, and I didn’t know it then, but I would never see him again. His mother did come to school once. I saw her in the hallway talking with the principal. She was crying and pleading with him.
On the last day of school before winter break, I decided to surprise Fareena at her family’s restaurant. Before I left however, the phone rang, and I picked it up without thinking of who it might be.
It turned out to be the man who once worked for Rajeev.
“I still didn’t get my money…” he said. “You could’ve told me where he lived. Why didn’t you tell me where he lives?”
I waited till he stopped crying and I told him to get some rest and I hung up.
It was getting late and I wanted to see Fareena, with the sun still up. When I reached her at the restaurant, she was outside drinking some coffee.
“What are you doing here?” she said, smiling.
I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, and asked her if she ate anything yet. She replied no, and so, we went to the theater, and I bought a huge bucket of popcorn. We sat down in our usual seats, all the way in the back.
During the trailers, she told me she also had some time to hang out tomorrow. “I need to study and be ready for next semester but I do think I need a break once in a while,” she said.
I smiled. ‘Well, we can study at the library if you want,” I replied.
She laughed, and rested her head on my shoulder.
I put my hand in hers.
The movie started.

Ba noi

by Lizzy Krajan

 

I remember when

you fed me avocados

and rubbed my back when the pain

was too much to bear

I miss the nights when

you would sit up in your bed

and breathe prayers that were quiet

but I could still hear you

through the boards and

paper thin walls of the house

I still think of the evening

when you couldn’t sleep

because upon my pilgrimage to your home

for the first time, your grandchildren

sat together under the same roof

even after years of unknowing

years of the absence of love

and existence of kin

Upon my leaving

we sat together in the living room

you, me, and the entire village

and I wept

for love could not have radiated

any more than when we prayed

on a grey, rainy afternoon

And though you slept

the night that would be your last

not knowing it would be an endless sleep

the stroke may have taken your body

silently, quietly in slumber

yet it never took your soul

Lizzy Krajan is a 2013 graduate of Millersville University where she received her BA in International Studies with a focus on Asia Area Studies. She has traveled to Vietnam, Hong Kong, Cambodia, South Korea and studied abroad in China. She is currently the Cultural Orientation Instructor at Church World Service, a refugee and immigration program in Lancaster, PA. She will be returning to school in the fall in pursuit of a dual Master’s Degree in Public Health and International Peace and Conflict Resolution. She also enjoys singing songs by Drake. 

astro

by Bhumika Mukherjee

One,
Two,
Stars
Or Rabbits?
Growing too swiftly.
More than a dozen of tries and the signal thus dies,
with the liver subject to market risks, I will and won’t meet my demise.
The pink sky and clouds will be under my feet soon,
at early 10:10 of a lonely late afternoon.
The violated were the violators, the free were the caught,
These are the wishes from the Miller’s, planet and not?

 

Bhumika Mukherjee is an Animation Film Designer from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India. Its closest living relatives are the flamingos.

Animation Film Designer | Concept Artist | Illustrator | Creative Writer | Fine Artist | Visual Poet | Astrophysics Enthusiast | Don’t forget to wash your hands before eating 

Check out more of Bhumika’s amazing work: 

http://www.canvs.in/portfolio/bhumika-mukherjee/

https://www.behance.net/BhumikaMukherjee

Not an ‘Other’

 

by Haley Gittleman

 

“What are you?”

It’s the most cringe-worthy question all biracial people are asked throughout their lifetime.  I don’t exactly remember at what age I was first asked this question – it was sometime during my elementary school days – but even as a young child, I knew this question referred to my racial identity.  And as a young girl, I did not find this question to be offensive.  Why would I?  I was born to a white Jewish father and a Chinese Protestant mother in East Brunswick, NJ, a town that, according to Urban Dictionary, is “populated by wealthy Jews, Asians, and Italians”.  So I should have fit right in.  I should have been just like everybody else.  Right?

“What are you?”  I’m an extrovert.

In elementary school, I paid as much attention to race as I did to Social Studies – none.  Although my two best friends in the world were tall, pretty blonde girls, I had friends of all shapes, sizes, and colors.  But something strange happened when I entered middle school.  Maybe it was because all of the elementary schools were suddenly thrown into one and we were all afraid of this huge change, but the students seemed to enter the front doors and funnel themselves into neat little categories, or cliques.  Yes, social cliques are normal and expected, but cliques by race was something I had never expected.  Each morning before the bell rang, I would walk down the hallways and see clusters of color.  So what did this mean for me?  Where was I supposed to go?

“What are you?”  I’m a violinist.

In middle school, I was separated from my two best friends.  I was thrown into advanced math – they weren’t; I joined the orchestra – they joined the band.  In fact, we didn’t share any classes at all.  This is when they first started to see and treat me as an outsider.  I missed them so much.  But, being the outgoing middle schooler I was, I decided to make new friends.  Perhaps it was because I was in advanced math and orchestra, but the students I was meeting were mostly Chinese.  (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but hey, some stereotypes are true.)  One-on-one, the Chinese kids seemed to accept me.  But in a group setting, I often received some not-so-subtle signs that I wasn’t welcome.  For example, I’d go over to talk to them and they’d switch their conversation from English to Mandarin.  (The only words I know how to say in Mandarin are “thank you” and “pork bun”.)  When I started going on kid-dates with one of the Chinese boys, a girl in the clique told me that I couldn’t “take their men” and even went as far as to blackmail him with an embarrassing photo to “break-up” with me.  I think it was when the Chinese girls invited me to an AIM chatroom (remember that?) in seventh grade with the sole purpose of telling me I should probably kill myself that it finally dawned on me to find some new friends.

“What are you?”  I’m a loner.

I was alone a lot in junior high.  I was too distrusting of new people.  But in the ninth grade, I met a nice Jewish boy.  Although he was one of the popular kids and a bit of a jock, he was different.  Smart, sensitive, and sweet (and of course, very handsome).  I crushed on him hard for the entire year, unreciprocated.  But a month before we graduated from junior high, he asked me out on a date, and we were together for the majority of high school.  When I was with him, the only discrimination I faced was from the other popular kids who constantly reminded me that I wasn’t popular enough to be with him.  This was much more easy to swallow than being bullied for not being “Asian enough”.

“What are you?”  I’m a strategist.

He was my gateway to having a social life in high school.  The parties, the volleyball games, trips to the shore, prom, new friendships.  To him and the new friends I acquired, I wasn’t “half-Asian” or “half-white”; I was a whole, complete person.  I didn’t have to think or worry about race.  Well, not until I had to take the SAT and fill out college applications.  “How would identify your race?  Choose 1.”  When you’re a 50/50 mix, how do you choose one?  Of course, these forms always provide the dreaded “other” category, but who would ever identify as an “other”?  Who would choose to feel sub-human?  Well, I’ll tell you what I did – I chose whichever would give me the biggest advantage.  I had heard about colleges having an Asian quota, so on the SAT and my applications, I was white.  I hated being forced to choose.  I hated being forced to deny half of my identity.

“What are you?”  I’m a goofball.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Oberlin College, where I studied biochemistry.  I had chosen that school for many reasons, the first-and-foremost being their liberal ideologies and overall acceptance of those who were different.  Many of the Oberlin students had felt like outsiders in high school.  The four years I spent there were amongst the happiest of my life.  College was just like elementary school!  A bunch of goofy kids running around with Nerf guns who liked to play ping-pong and Rock Band and have fake sumo wrestling matches in the lounge.  There were no cliques.  It didn’t matter if you were queer, trans, poor, nerdy, biracial, bisexual, socially awkward, just so long as you weren’t a Republican (only half-kidding).  And the best part of all, I got to meet biracial and multiracial students just like me, people with whom I’ve shared similar experiences.  In fact, Oberlin College reports that 6.1% of the students identify as multiracial!  Compare this to the 2010 Census, where only 2.3% of people reported being “more than one race.”  Side note, but the Census didn’t even allow people to choose more than one race until 2000, even though interracial marriage was decriminalized in 1967!

“What are you?”  I’m a biostatistician.

Unfortunately, after my four years were up, I had to leave the bubble and enter the real world.  I decided to change gears and get my Master’s degree in biostatistics at Rutgers University.  On the first day of classes, I sat alone.  A Chinese girl sat down next to me and started speaking to me in Mandarin.  I apologized and told her I didn’t speak the language, and she literally got up and moved to another seat.  Things aren’t much different in my current PhD program at Case Western Reserve University.  The majority of my classmates are non-native English speakers and look at me like I’m an alien.  I even mentioned once that my mother is Chinese, which astounded many of the students.  It always baffles me that my silky dark brown hair and almond-shaped light brown eyes aren’t enough to pass considering that’s all non-Asian people see when they look at me.

“What are you?”  I’m an American.

To make matters worse, outside of classes, I have to deal with ignorant Ohioans on a regular basis.  Like last Fall, I went to a comic con in Akron.  An older white man pulled me aside and asked me my least favorite question, “What are you?”  Of course I knew what he meant, but I replied, “What do you mean?”  “What’s your nationality?”  “I’m American.”  “No, what’s your race?”  “I’m biracial.”  Then he started screaming at me, “YOU ARE ASIAN!  WHAT KIND OF ASIAN ARE YOU?!”  Last December, a black nurse at my former health clinic asked me if I was going home for the holidays.  I told her I was and she told me to have a safe flight.  I told her I was driving.  She asked, “But, aren’t you going overseas?”  I said that my family was from New Jersey.  She asked, “But, aren’t you Chinese?”  She couldn’t grasp my situation, all because I didn’t look “white enough” to her.  Last week, I made an appointment at a new healthcare facility and the nurse needed my demographic information.  She asked me for my race.  I told her that I was biracial: half-white, half-Chinese.  She said, “We don’t have a category for that… I’ll just put you down as ‘Other’”.

“What are you?”  I am many things.

I’m a mathematician, a musician, a dancer, a dreamer.  My racial identity has shaped and molded me, but it does not define me.  It will continue to challenge me and make me strong.  It will always allow me see the world differently from those who have never been forced to choose, from those who fit into a neat little category.  But one thing is clear: I will never let my racial identity reduce me to something less than whole.  I am most certainly not and will never be an “other”.

Haley is a biostatistician at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, as well as a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.  In her free time, she enjoys playing the keyboard, tap and swing dance, videogames, and antagonizing her kittens.

Why Race Matters on College Campuses Today

by Zehra Abbas

In the past year we have heard of countless racial incidents, student protests and senior administrators and professors leaving their posts across college campuses. One only needs to glance at the comments sections of articles about race to get an idea of how divided we truly are when it comes to this issue. Many whites don’t understand the minority experiences and when minorities express strong emotions they are labeled as being “too sensitive”.  We as minorities are not empowered in college to speak out and still struggle to find our voices. Yet college itself is a great opportunity to explore these issues and learn to articulate feelings that many minorities have been carrying since their school days.

According to the Pew Research Center, minorities will supposedly account for roughly fifty percent of the population by 2050, which means there will be no clear majority anymore. So are we where we should be, in terms of integration, or are we dangerously unprepared for what lies ahead? It is a hard question we need to ask of ourselves when we complain and fear of what it is to come. How our inaction and silence has made us complicit in social injustices that occur day after day. Collectively, as minorities we haven’t been very successful in supporting each other and in doing so we have provided a breeding ground for people to spew their hateful rhetoric with no fear of any consequences.

Millennials have grown up in a world where they can conceivably go to any college they desire. They can get any job they qualify for and utilize any public space or service without regards to their race, ethnicity or religion. They are coming of age during the presidency of an African American in the White House. So where have we gone wrong? In the past five decades while we may have achieved desegregation, as a society we are far from being truly integrated.

According to Education and Economy, 2015, America has fallen behind in the international standings for education. By 2020, it is predicted that the US will have fallen further behind in the global talent pool. While in 2013, the US was the world leading economy, it is predicted by 2016 China will take over and by 2060 India will surpass the US. There is a direct correlation of an increase in literacy rates with higher levels of labor productivity and GDP per capita. Therefore, there is not only a need to increase the number of students who go to college but to make sure these students graduate.

While nations such as India, China, Japan and Finland are moving ahead in building their educational systems and educating their students, at all levels, America lags behind. America is unique from these other countries in that its’ population is not homogeneous but represents a vast variety of students, cultures, religions and backgrounds that make teaching a challenge. Teachers in the US are not representative of student’s racial demographics and this leads to a multitude of problems.

In 2014, a campus climate study in UCLA, showed that a considerably higher percentage of minority students, reported feelings of marginalization and discomfort on campus compared to their white classmates. A UCLA professor explains this, as a result of minority students facing, racial micro and macro aggressions, from faculty, students and law enforcement. These acts of covert racism usually go unnoticed by those in the majority group and might even be coming from well-intentioned individuals. This lack of awareness leads to further ignorance and ultimately resentment and fear since neither groups want to talk or even acknowledge the issues.

There is also a great divide in the perceptions of senior administration and minorities in diversity and inclusion surveys on campus. In a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed in 2014, it was found that almost 90% of college and university presidents seemed unaware of any racial tension present on their campuses. It seems that when the enrollment numbers of minority students go up, it is assumed we are doing well in that respect. Whether campus presidents choose to look the other way or are truly unaware of the problem; this seems to be an issue itself.  The irony being that, people don’t even realize there is a problem.

This problem goes much deeper than being merely a college campus issue. Unfortunately today, decades after Brown vs Board of Education, schools remain woefully segregated due to socioeconomic and demographic patterns. Many students are growing up in an atmosphere lacking a realistic representation of the society they are expected to work, function and be civically engaged in. Even when parents might not hold racist ideas themselves, children are now absorbing a barrage of information through social media, popular culture and other information outlets. When students have not had close friends, teachers or other meaningful interactions with racial or ethnic minorities it is much harder for them to understand those lived experiences. It is also much easier for them to attach commonly held stereotypes and negative images to certain groups when they don’t know otherwise. It doesn’t help when politicians and the ratings-hungry media utilize various tactics to play on people’s ignorance to create unfounded fears in order to further their own agendas.

While we continue increasing diversity offices, events and cultural clubs to accommodate the growing number of minorities on campuses we do not directly address the problems of polarization and the lack of social contact. Most students today, study and go to class side by side with their minority peers but these groups are akin to parallel roads that never intersect.

Colleges and universities need to take a proactive role of providing opportunities for meaningful connections and supporting their students through the process. By providing an environment conducive to peaceful discussions where students can speak out without fear. Bring a more global and multicultural experience within our classrooms, dorms and student centers. We need culturally competent educators and administrators who can provide support to students in a culturally sensitive manner and be prepared to help them deal with the cognitive dissonance that follows. Instructors need to be comfortable in having those difficult conversation regardless of what race they are. We also need to empower minority students to speak up and challenge others in and outside the classrooms. Trying to educate our students in isolation of each other, is denying them, one of the greatest resources we have, to prepare them for the modern world.

Zehra Abbas is a graduate student at Central Connecticut State University in Student Development in Higher Education. Her research interests are identity development among minority students in higher education and the intersections of race, religion, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation. She has lived around the world spanning four continents, seven countries and traveled to many more. She is currently a graduate intern at Yale‘s Office of International Students and Scholars.

The Adventures of Jenkins: On Gentrification

NEw york city skyline harold jenkins
(Image from Google)

 

By Harold F. Jenkins

Depending on who you ask, New York City is experiencing a crisis.

Homelessness has surged in the last couple of years to levels not seen since the Great Depression, housing courts are overwhelmed with cases, and people are being displaced in record numbers.

Williamsburg, a neighborhood in North Brooklyn was a less than desirable place to live a few decades ago. For a particular slice of New York City, areas like these were the only places they could afford to live and shop. Plagued with crime and high unemployment, areas of Williamsburg became home to many Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and anyone in close proximity to the poverty line.

Things started to change when the real estate market shifted in the early 2000s. Suddenly, developers, builders, and people in the market to buy were looking outside of the island. Brooklyn was optimal since it’s just a bridge away.

For unscrupulous landlords, the time they had waited for had finally arrived. All they had to do was evict their longtime tenants, transform the basic units that were in dire need of repair into modern luxe apartments and charge up to four times as much.

Evicting residents from their rent-stabilized apartments became limited only by their creativity. Fake eviction notices, harassment, and when necessary, using the overwhelmed housing courts as a tool to evict.

Some unwanted tenants received harassing phone calls at three a.m., others were met by goons who questioned tenants about their immigration status or use brawn to intimidate. Other landlords simply didn’t cash rental payments for months and used it as grounds for eviction.

These tactics continue today throughout the city.

From the margins, it’s simple to say that all these individuals need is legal counsel, but for many, that is a luxury. For others, being mired in the court system goes against their cultural background, so they decide to leave without protest.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to fight displacement by adding several mechanisms to the city’s laws. Soon, those in need of legal assistance will be able to receive low-cost assistance. However, some initiatives are contentious. The most polemic being the “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” plan, in which developers would be obligated to make a certain percentage of units in new projects affordable. Still, many of these “affordable” units are out of the reach of people living on a limited income.

For many it’s difficult to see that the crux of the issue goes beyond affordable rent. Gentrified areas are accompanied by new businesses that catered to a different clientele. Just like the residents that are forced out, so are the businesses that catered to them.

Williamsburg continues to see a mass transformation. Many of the community daycare centers, grocery stores, and restaurants that were staples for decades are now gone.

Nonprofit organizations have attempted to quell the issue, but this is a multidimensional problem. One that needs the attention of politicians, developers, nonprofits, community groups and boards.

Harold F. Jenkins is a man and an idea. He is formless and yet, takes shape through words and actions. This is his column, bi-weekly. Keep reading because Jenkins exists because of you.