Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whose History Will Be Commemorated? New Orleans, Katrina, and the Continuing Struggle for A People’s Reconstruction

The streets of New Orleans are pictured Aug. 30, 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina and the city's levee failures. Ten years later, much commentary has surfaced,
but what of it has effectively addressed the event's social injustices?


Assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island

As we are upon the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina a new flood, this time of commentary, is inundating our airwaves and internet. Most of it is shallow, celebratory reflections that regurgitate the “silver lining” framing of Katrina that David Brooks and other elite opinion makers began to construct in the days and weeks after the levees broke (two recent examples are by Malcolm Gladwell and Walter Isaacson). The only difference is that now, a decade later, they are declaring, rather than predicting, victory.

The “horrible opportunity” that Katrina provided to carry out things “that were unthinkable in the past”—as former New Orleans city planning director and current Columbia University professor Kristina Ford phrased it—have been achieved from the perspective of pundits in the corporate press. The public sector—schools, housing, hospitals, and to a lesser degree, transportation—that served the city’s low-wage working class, and the collective bargaining agreements that provided some labor protections and rights, have been swept away. In its place a new wave of professionals, investors, and “entrepreneurial spirt” has arrived and taken root, making “New Orleans as the Model for the 21st century,” as the Rockefeller Foundation and Tulane University titled a 2010 conference they jointly sponsored. Some, like Chicago Tribune editorial member Kristen McQueary, even pray for a disaster that will allow the same model to be implanted in their cities—or at least more than it already has.

This version of history, what we might term a “Ruling Class History of Hurricane Katrina,” is being presented and celebrated in a whole host of corporate-sponsored events as part of the 10th anniversary commemoration. These range from Mayor Landrieu’s city-wide day of service, co-sponsored with Wal-Mart, which celebrates the wonders of good deeds rather than state resources and power to rebuild neighborhoods; to former mayor and now National Urban League CEO Marc Morial’s "Katrina at 10" gathering sponsored by JP Morgan Chase, a bank that was involved in stripping billions worth of household wealth from black homeowners; to the Atlantic magazine's organized gathering that includes a slew of characters who played chief roles in implementing the touted “New Orleans model.”

In contrast to this celebratory hoopla, there will be another gathering that will commemorate Katrina from a decidedly different perspective. Rather than from a perch atop the class hierarchy, from the vantage point of the proverbial 1%, “A People’s History of Katrina Conference” will view Katrina from the perspective of its working class (especially African American) survivors. This gathering will commemorate Katrina from the perspective of those upon whom the ruling elite implanted their celebrated “New Orleans Model.”

We will hear from family members of those murdered by the New Orleans police and other “security forces” in the days after Katrina. We will remember Katrina from the perspective of the thousands of public school teachers summarily fired by the stroke of Democratic governor Kathleen Blanco’s pen as they were dealing with multiple personal crises in the aftermath of the deluge. We will also view Katrina from the perspective of public housing residents locked out of their apartments not from flood damage, but from the criminal decisions of the Republican Bush administration and its Democratic Party collaborators in New Orleans.

Of course, people did not sit idly by in the face of these attacks. Therefore, another component of the people’s history conference will be to document the struggles that were mounted. Among the most prominent given attention will be the public housing insurgency, including the heroic work of former public housing resident Kawana Jasper, who was railroaded to prison because of her activism but who has recently been freed. In addition, the efforts to challenge the inequities of the privatized “Road Home” program designed, ostensibly, to assist homeowners to rebuild; the struggle to bring cops that murdered Katrina survivors to justice; and the battle to reopen Charity Hospital and to save homes in the Mid-City neighborhood from demolition will all be interrogated.

The final segment of the conference will, in the tradition of Mother Jones, plot how we will not just mourn, but “fight like hell” for a new New Orleans and world. The centerpiece of this people’s reconstruction plan—one that can become a model for not only New Orleans, but the entire U.S. and beyond—is the fight for "Jobs for All, Free Public Services For All" through a mass, democratically controlled, direct-government employment public works program. Panelists will be discussing and debating how this demand can get on the political agenda.


Those who plan to be in New Orleans and want to hear an alternative to the official neoliberal dogma on Katrina are encouraged to attend “A People's History of Hurricane Katrina Conference,” which will be held from 3-8 PM at the Unitarian Church at 5212 South Claiborne Ave in New Orleans. For those that will not be in town, the conference will be videotaped and posted online. For more information, contact the author at jarenanynola@gmail.com.


John (Jay) Arena is author of Driven from New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization. He is assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island, lived and worked in New Orleans for more than twenty years, and was involved in various community and labor organizing initiatives in the city.

"Driven from New Orleans is a devastatingly powerful critique of non-profits and their endorsement of neo-liberalism." Journal of Labor & Society

"This is a book that those familiar with New Orleans should read and then argue about. It is perfect for college courses where students can debate the larger themes Arena brings to the New Orleans tragedy. And while many will disagree with some of Arena’s arguments, one finishes the book even angrier that the mass demolition of low-income housing in New Orleans was allowed to occur." —Beyond Chron

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Defying Borders: Migration in the age of security

Global politics both shape and are shaped by borders and the differences
between those who have access to crossing them, and those who do not.

Associate professor of sociology, University of Minnesota

Asad, a Somali merchant who runs a corner shop (spaza) in an informal settlement in South Africa, expresses the fear intrinsic in his search for a livelihood here, where the history of apartheid has produced a segregated and stratified society.

One of the main reasons why I want to migrate relates to security, to a place where I can wake up in peace. Even if I am not sleeping at the store, whenever the phone rings, you fear that someone will tell you that your brother was killed or your cousin or someone you know was killed. If you are at the store, you get scared at every crack or sound you hear because you are frightened and thinking, someone will break into the store right now. What can be worse than being afraid of every customer? Whenever someone enters your store, you are asking yourself, “Does he have a gun? Is he the one who will kill you?”

The risks and the audacity required for individuals like Asad to settle in a foreign place where the ethnic composition, language(s), religion, and culture are different from that of the home country is profound. The constant apprehension and insecurity detailed above, which commences from the moment of departure from their country of origin and may never dissipate, counters the portrayal of migrants as criminals wreaking havoc on ‘our security.’

In the United States, we recently heard similar comments from U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, who characterized migrants as rapists and criminals. However, in the U.S. and South Africa, one could argue that many migrants have more to fear from native-born citizens, border security, and law enforcement agencies in contexts where racial, religious, and xenophobic violence and exploitation persist.

Anti-migrant rhetoric is not exclusive to the United States, as it has also been increasing in western Europe, with stricter immigration policies resulting in what some are calling ‘Fortress Europe.’ But migrants and refugees continue to resist the fences erected by the wealthiest nations in the world in their desperate search for physical, economic, and emotional security. International Organization for Migration reported that in the first five months of 2015, 45,000 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea, traveling on rickety boats controlled by ruthless smugglers who charge thousands of dollars while subjecting them to inhumane treatment. This is the inevitable consequence of increasing restrictions to legal migration. In taking such risks, however, thousands of migrants never make it to the other side of the Sea (or the treacherous routes in the Americas, Middle East, and elsewhere), remaining faceless and nameless.

Migrants traveling from North Africa (Libya, mostly) are diverse but are dominated by those originating from the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia), and war-torn Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq. Citizens from these nations continue to confront tremendous physical, economic, and psychological stress as a result of protracted wars or repressive, corrupt, and brutal regimes. Thus, thousands of these migrants risk their lives for a chance to gain a foothold in the Western hemisphere, which is imagined to provide social, economic, and political rights.

Looking at the Global Mobility Index can help us better understand why these migrants are so desperate to accept the high risks that migration entails. Passports from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia have the fewest visa exemptions in the world. This is to say that citizens of these countries are least likely to be given a visa for travel and face the most obstacles to cross borders legally. It is no coincidence that these are three Muslim nations where the politics of the post-9/11 war on terror remain entrenched. Those privileged to live in the most prosperous regions of the world enjoy what the scholar Aihwa Ong has termed flexible citizenship. Those carrying Western passports who can afford to travel live in a borderless world, as their passports rarely require visas. The elite from non-Western nations also access this flexible citizenship through their wealth, where they garner Western citizenship through financial investment in exchange for legal residency papers and eventual citizenship. But for millions of would-be immigrants like Somalis, Iraqis, and Afghanis who lack the financial capital to purchase such flexible citizenship, borders remain concrete and forbidding.

Though migration can never be reduced to simple push-pull factors between origin and destination, it is important to underscore that migrants are agents whose decision-making processes are shaped by and also shape global politics. The expansion and contraction of borders intrinsic in globalization affects their lives. The decision to cross borders by any means necessary represents a response to these political and economic processes. Global processes also shape migrant identities, which can become assets or barriers depending on the policies and dominant patterns in the place of settlement.

The multifaceted experiences and lives of migrants defies their monolithic portrayal as faceless and nameless, yet posing an existential threat to wealthy nations. Fences, whether physical, religious, or racial, damage everyone—natives, migrants, and would-be migrants—and rarely succeed in their intention, though they make migrant lives very difficult.


Cawo Abdi is author of Elusive Jannah: The Somali Diaspora and a Borderless Muslim Identity. Abdi is associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and a research associate in sociology at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

"This is a powerful and beautiful ethnography of members of the Somali Diaspora dealing with the opportunities and disadvantages of life in three points of settlement. Cawo M. Abdi gets very close to the subjects and depicts their outlooks, strategies, and trials in a convincing and rich manner."
— Steven J. Gold, Michigan State University

"Elusive Jannah provides a fascinating window into the identities, strategies, and struggles of Somalis in three very different national contexts. Based on ethnographic research in the United States, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates, this is an engaging, well-written, and welcome addition to the comparative study of international migration.
— Nancy Foner, coauthor of Strangers No More: Immigration and the Challenges of Integration in North America and Western Europe

Monday, August 10, 2015

Did John H. Howe design any Frank Lloyd Wright houses?

John H. Howe created a Usonian design for the Bryant and Marjorie Denniston house
in Newton, Iowa (1958), with a combination of grand and intimate spaces
that pinwheel around a hearth. This house is said to be similar enough to a few
Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses that questions have been asked whether
Howe in fact designed any constructions attributed to Wright.
Image credit: William Byrne Olexy, courtesy of Modern House Productions. 

Principal of Quigley Architects and former president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy

At 19 years old, the architect John H. Howe became a founding member of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Fellowship—a group of 23 apprentices that lived with the famed architect at his estate near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Howe earned a reputation as "the pencil in Wright's hand," and as such it's no surprise that speculation has spread over whether Howe designed any structures traditionally attributed to Wright. This is a provocative question that dogged Jane King Hession and me as we researched Howe's architectural career, first at Wright's side at Taliesin for more than a quarter century and eventually on his own for another quarter of a century. If only it were an easy one for us to answer!

One of our goals in researching our book was to illuminate Howe's role at Taliesin. Certain questions had to be addressed.

How did Howe assist Wright?
How were projects designed, developed, and presented?
Who did what on which projects?
How were these beautiful drawings made?
What was the working method?

Howe was direct in answering the questions in interviews late in his life, insisting he never designed anything during the Taliesin Fellowship, for designs were Wright's exclusive arena. Instead, he maintained, all he did was translate Wright's initial schematic designs into more developed drawings. From these more mature drawings, working drawings (the "blueprints" from which builders build) followed, with Wright fully engaged at all stages. Howe went so far as to correct an interviewer who assumed Wright was a feeble presence in the studio in the final years by insisting that Wright was fully engaged to the end.

We have wondered if Howe was merely continuing to be the "consummate apprentice," as he was known, when he asserts that all the creative work was Wright's. Was Howe overly modest? Was he fearful of the wrath of Wright's widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, with whom he had notoriously difficult relations? Whatever the case, even Howe's widow, Lu Sparks Howe, maintained the "party line" that her husband had no part in designing anything during Wright's lifetime. So, few insights came from either of the Howes.

Addressing the rumors

Nevertheless, rumors have long persisted about who might have really designed any number of houses from the 1950s. The rumors started with assertions by former Taliesin apprentices who worked in the drafting studios at that time. Houses mentioned include the Charles F. Glore House in Lake Forest, Illinois (1951) and the Paul Olfelt House in St. Louis Park, Minnesota (1958), both of which display a similar lightness to an executed Howe design (Bryant and Marjorie Denniston House, Newton, Iowa (1958)) with their vaulted roofs seeming to float above delicate window walls.

Can these rumors be substantiated? We have not found direct evidence, though we have not pored over the drawing files, either (which are now archived at the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University in New York). Examination of these should shed light on how the design came about—and whether those initial sketches are in Wright's hand or not.

Interior shots of the Denniston house with its vaulted ceiling
and delicate floor-to-ceiling glass wall.
Images credit: William Byrne Olexy, courtesy of Modern House Productions

The topic of how Wright's Usonian houses came into being is addressed by former Taliesin apprentice Curtis Bessinger in his book, Working with Mr. Wright. Bessinger indicates one method was for Howe and Wright to confer about which previous project might be adapted as a starting point for the new design. Often Howe or another senior apprentice would take the lead in creating the new design. Specifically, Bessinger mentions the creation of the Howard and Helen Anthony House in Benton Harbor, Michigan (1949), which he adapted from an earlier Wright cottage scheme. These adaptations came naturally to senior apprentices, who were intimately versed in the Wrightian compositional vocabulary and building grammar.

Though architectural designs and completed buildings are often presented in the press as the heroic creation of a single genius, the reality of architectural production is one of diligent work by an integrated team. That was certainly true at Wright's Taliesin studios. By Wright's death in 1959, Howe oversaw a studio of 25 individuals that were working on a similar number of projects. What is undeniable is that architecture is the byproduct of intense collaboration between many contributing entities.

A practicing architect's insight

My own experience as a practicing architect bears this out. On some past projects, I was clearly the lead designer; on others, I delegated the task to another. An additional category exists, too, where it is difficult to pin down who did what, with the fluidity of the design and the collaborative process. Thus, attribution is shared or has to be more nuanced.

It is not difficult to imagine similar occurrences in the drafting studios at Taliesin. I suspect the sharing of design responsibility, if it occurred at Taliesin, was similar to the sharing I've mentioned in my career: a product of the pressure of time to get new projects moving in the midst of the other workload. In short, it was expedient. The 1950s (which Wright entered at the age of 82) were an incredibly busy time for Wright. He was involved with several major projects (among them, Price Tower in Oklahoma, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Marin County Civic Center in California, and Plan for Great Baghdad), travel between three residences and abroad, and writing competed with the Usonian houses.

Sharing some of that load seems plausible. Howe employed a number of strategies to keep the workflow moving expeditiously. He tried to schedule review sessions for finished projects at times when other engagements forced them to be short. He even revealed to a later client that he had mastered Wright's initialing of red square signature blocks, which signified his approval. How often, if ever, he may have bypassed Wright is unknown.

On one occasion, Wright asked the apprentices to design textile block houses for the box projects (design activities demonstrating apprentices' creative abilities), for Wright envisioned them as a promising solution to the housing crisis facing America immediately after World War II. Did any of these apprentice designs become Usonian Automatics, or the seeds of them? Or was Howe's birthday box projects of 1949 (presented to Wright on his 80th birthday), which impressed Wright greatly, a progenitor of these? Further investigation is needed, to be sure. This sort of focus on a common design topic is a frequent feature of many an architecture school studio curriculum, past and present.

On the whole, my research with Jane King Hession has been inconclusive in regard to Howe or any other apprentices designing outright Frank Lloyd Wright houses, or other structures for that matter. It makes for intriguing speculation, though. In all likelihood, it may have happened. Clearly, more research needs to be done to arrive at a more definitive answer. Knowing how architectural offices work, it would be naive to automatically assume it did not happen, even in a studio environment with a single undisputed master.


Tim Quigley, AIA, and Jane King Hession are co-authors of John H. Howe, Architect: From Taliesin Apprentice to Master of Organic Design. Quigley is principal of Quigley Architects and taught architectural studio and history courses for twenty years at the University of Minnesota and Ball State University. He is a former president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, vice president of the Minnesota chapter of Docomomo, and president of the advisory board of the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota. Hession, an architectural historian and curator specializing in modernism, is a founding partner of Modern House Productions; coauthor of Frank Lloyd Wright in New York: The Plaza Years, 1954-1959 and Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design; and a former president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.

"A first-rate and engaging story. This book not only brings attention to the legacy of organic architecture as embodied in John H. Howe’s work, but also reinvigorates the discussion of creating buildings in harmony with the nature of our planet."
—Louis Wiehle, co-founder of Wiehle-Carr Architects and apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Shared humanity, shared responsibility: The Tribal Law and Order Act at 5

Professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, MN

On July 29, 2010, Native people (myself included) filled the East Room of the White House to see President Obama sign legislation that has become a game-changer for tribal nations in the United States. This legislation, the Tribal Law and Order Act, included changes in the law that many experts did not think were possible even a few years before. The 5th anniversary of the ceremonial signing today provides an opportunity to assess progress made since Obama signed it into law.

At the signing ceremony, Lisa Marie Iyotte, a Native woman from South Dakota, was selected to introduce the President of the United States. Lisa had survived a rape in a time when there were very few resources in place for responding to rape on the reservation. Her story was intended to demonstrate the need for the legislation that the President was about to sign. In a moving moment, Lisa had trouble finding her voice and became overwhelmed. President Obama then came to her side at the podium and provided emotional support for Lisa Marie so that she could tell her story.

Lisa courageously described some of the major barriers to finding justice for rape cases in Indian country. In her story, there was not a coordinated effort to respond to sexual assault. She had to wait all night in a hospital for someone to collect DNA. Her assailant was never brought to justice in her case (although he ultimately was convicted for raping an underage girl). Before she turned the microphone over to President Obama, she said that the Tribal Law and Order Act will help cases like hers from falling through the cracks.

President Obama then made a few remarks, and in doing so, uttered the words that many of us had waited to hear:

“When one in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes, that is an assault on our national conscience; it is an affront to our shared humanity; it is something that we cannot allow to continue.”

It was the first time in history that a sitting President had directly acknowledged the violence that Native women experience – and he committed to ending it through the implementation of the legislation he was about to sign.

In terms of changes, the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) had three main purposes. First, it was designed to make the federal government more accountable for serving the interests of justice on tribal lands. Second, it lifted some restrictions on tribal sentencing authority. And third, it put into place mechanisms to ensure greater collaboration and cooperation between tribal, state, and local officials.

So, five years later, where are we? In terms of accountability, the federal government now issues annual public reports that provide statistical data about the violence crime that comes to their attention. For too long, Native people had reported that federal officials declined to take cases seriously – but we had no definitive proof without the numbers. TLOA requires the federal government to disclose data about its performance responding to violent crime in Indian country. This is an important first step to developing concrete solutions. In this sense, transparency inspires accountability.

As far as the tribal sentencing restrictions go, TLOA made it possible for tribes, under certain circumstances, to sentence a convicted defendant to incarceration for up to nine years. Prior to TLOA, the maximum sentence could not exceed three years. For victims of crime, having some confidence that a perpetrator would be removed from her community will enhance her sense of safety and security. The challenge remaining is that many tribal governments do not have enough resources to put these enhanced sentencing laws into effect. In order to take advantage of the nine-year potential, tribes must provide public defenders and law-trained judges. The tribal laws have to be publicly available and all proceedings must be recorded. While many tribes already provide these important services, there are many tribes that simply cannot afford to implement these expensive changes. For those tribes, this section of TLOA remains out of reach.

Finally, TLOA set up a mechanism to encourage states, tribes, and the federal government to do a better job coordinating and collaborating on violent crimes. Whether it is cross-training – or cross-deputization – the goal is to provide a seamless system where victims feel that their case is taken seriously and that justice will be pursued.

Lisa Marie Iyotte’s words at the signing ceremony are a reminder that when a system fails to find justice, there are long-lasting ramifications for the victim and her family. TLOA’s 5th anniversary provides us with an opportunity to look back and look forward to a time when the high rate of violence against Native women will begin to decline.

For more information, the report A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer is highly recommended. This report was commissioned as part of the TLOA, and details the problems and solutions to improving the lives of Native people.


Sarah Deer, a 2014 MacArthur Fellow, has worked to end violence against women for more than twenty years. She began as a volunteer in a rape victim advocacy program and later received her JD with a Tribal Lawyer Certificate from the University of Kansas School of Law. She is a professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is author of The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (forthcoming this fall), coauthor of three textbooks on tribal law, and coeditor of Sharing Our Stories of Survival: Native Women Surviving Violence.

"This is a compelling and compassionate revelation of the eternal violence against Native women. It’s a call to action for all of us."
—The Honorable Ada E. Deer, former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs and enrolled Menominee

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Examining America's rhetoric of postracial progress.

Recent events in America including the #BlackLivesMatter movement are
forcing white Americans to look at race in a way that's uncomfortable—
but also much more realistic.
Image taken in November 2014 of a demonstration in New York City. Credit: Flickr.

Assistant professor of English at University of Nevada, Las Vegas

According to a recent poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans believe race relations are “generally bad.” It’s not hard to see why. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Charleston, racial unrest and violence seem to be getting worse, not better. Pollsters noted that the last time black Americans felt this negatively about race relations was in 1992, when four white police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, setting off riots in Los Angeles and across the country. The massacre of nine church members in Charleston in June reminded many of the massacre of four black girls at a Birmingham church in 1963. And the 2014 shooting death of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice bore troubling similarities to the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955—the boys even bore a striking physical resemblance.

But perhaps we should go back even further, to the early twentieth century, to what historian Rayford Logan called “the nadir of race relations in the United States.” By then, African Americans in the South had been systematically disenfranchised through poll taxes and literacy clauses, terrorized by vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and straitened by legalized segregation. The influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants, along with the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and Midwest, stirred great fears. The nation was becoming less white, less Protestant, more urban. In his 1903 masterwork, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois declared, “The Problem of the Twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”

Against this inauspicious backdrop, the metaphor of the melting pot entered general usage as a way to describe this new America. Here was an optimistic, feel-good way of looking at the nation, one that supposed that disparate groups could successfully be integrated, or melded, into white American society. The reality, of course, was that many people resisted this ideal. By the 1920s, nativists had passed anti-immigration laws limiting the number of “undesirable” immigrants. Between May and October of 1919, a series of race riots swept the country, leading James Weldon Johnson, field secretary for the NAACP, to call it “Red Summer.” The Ku Klux Klan entered a period of renascence, advocating a policy of “one-hundred-percent Americanism,” where “American” meant one-hundred-percent white (of old-immigrant stock) and Protestant.

I’ve been thinking of this as we enter another period of racial turmoil, nearly one hundred years later. The melting pot has been replaced by the fantasy of a postracial America, another optimistic, feel-good way of looking at the nation, one that supposed disparate groups can successfully transcend race altogether and become “colorblind.” Yet the Tea Party is the new voice of nativism, Donald Trump calls Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, and black lives continue to be lost. Americans have lost the idealism they felt seven years ago, in the aftermath of Obama’s election. Back then, 67 percent believed black-white relations would “eventually be worked out” and 70 percent thought race relations would improve.

In some ways, though, I take heart in the loss of feel-good optimism. Only recently has white pessimism about race relations caught up with black pessimism, and that’s a good thing. Earlier this year, 58 percent of black Americans believed race relations were bad, while only 35 percent of white Americans thought the same. By May, however, 65 percent of black Americans and 62 percent of white Americans thought race relations were bad—an astonishing increase, especially among white subjects. To be sure, it took something like the Baltimore uprising following the funeral of Freddie Gray to shake white Americans out of a kind of willful complacency, with the mainstream media guilty of sensationalizing the protests and fanning white anxiety. But the protests starkly demonstrated that something was wrong—that the rhetoric of postracial progress was papering over deep fissures in American society.

The postracial fantasy, like the melting pot, is a white fantasy. It imagines a smoothing away of difference, a whitewashing of history. As Anna Holmes recently wrote in the New York Times, “Sometimes it seems that as if the desire for a ‘postracial’ America is an attempt by white people to liberate themselves from the burden of having to deal with that legacy.” I couldn't help but think of Ben Affleck's misguided desire to conceal his slaveholder ancestry from the public—a "whitewashing" of his family history and the history of this nation. In the aftermath of this scandal, Affleck posted an "apology," writing: "We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery." No kidding, I thought. But it’s easy for people like Affleck to remain naively idealistic when they don’t have to imagine—or live—life from the point-of-view of a black American. Black Americans, on the other hand, have always had to imagine life from the point-of-view of white Americans. They have always possessed what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “second sight” of double-consciousness—an ability to see complexity and perspective in a way that many white Americans don’t have to. White Americans can be “colorblind”—or just plain blind. Black Americans must have colorvision.

The Black Lives Matter movement, the shootings in Charleston, even the widespread dismay that Atticus Finch is a racist—all of these force white Americans to see race in a way that’s uncomfortable and confusing, but also much more realistic. Jim Crow hasn’t been abolished—it’s gone undercover. Its legacy remains in all aspects of American society, covert but no less insidious, painted over but still there. Getting rid of the Confederate flag in South Carolina or forcing police officers to wear body cameras are ultimately superficial solutions to structural problems. The color line still exists, most starkly in black and white attitudes toward policing, with black Americans more than twice as likely to express anxiety regarding the police in their community. Acknowledging that this is the case is a small but necessary first step to improving race relations and insuring that “the Problem of the Twentieth Century” does not become the problem of the twenty-first.


Julia Lee, assistant professor of English at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is author of Our Gang: A Racial History of The Little Rascals (forthcoming this fall from University of Minnesota Press) and The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel. She was named a 2014 Emerging Scholar by the magazine Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. More information can be found at www.profjulialee.com. She tweets @profjulialee.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

On 'big data' and the ways we evaluate women's lives on a global scale

No Ceilings uses data sets to tell stories about gender inequality worldwide.
What are the stories behind the data?
Image: Screenshot, noceilings.org.

Assistant professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

On March 9, 2015, one day after International Women’s Day, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gates Foundation co-chair Melinda Gates, and Clinton Foundation vice-chair Chelsea Clinton celebrated the official release of No Ceilings: The Full Participation Report in New York City.

The report and companion website seek to measure the progress women have made since Clinton’s 1995 declaration that “women’s rights are human rights” at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. The reports finds that “there has never been a better time to be born female,” but “major gaps remain.”

The Clinton Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are not the first to use big data to compare and analyze levels of women’s empowerment around the world. In the 1990s, the United Nations Development Program created the Gender-related Development Index (GDI), the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), and more recently, the Gender Inequality Index (GII). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organization composed of wealthy democracies, has its own Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI).

If these measures should appeal to anyone, they should appeal to me, a social scientist who studies women in politics across countries and continues to use large data sets. But I also have questions and reservations about global data sets that compare women’s lives, some of which grew out of the interviews and daily interactions I had while working on my book in the Republic of Niger.

1. Is one approach to marriage necessarily better than another?

The World Bank has, at least since the late 1980s, been interested in improving women’s lives by encouraging governments to change laws concerning the family. When I first visited Niger, I wanted to understand why the country’s leaders had not reformed its collection of family laws per the World Bank’s wishes. Later, I decided to investigate the history of another non-reform, Niger’s non-ratification of a regional African Union treaty on women’s rights. One issue in both controversies was family property; could, for instance, a daughter inherit the same amount as a son?

According to many projects that compare women’s statuses globally, the prevalence of unequal inheritance practices or laws lowers a country’s international ranking. SIGI, mentioned earlier, examines a large basket of items and takes into account the inheritance rights of daughters vis-à-vis sons.

Something I was unconsciously ignorant of at the beginning of my fieldwork was the difference between community-property and separate-property marital regimes. In California, where I spent most of my upbringing, community property is the default law. In what I believe to be a large percentage of households in Niger, the default regime is not community but separate property. That is, a wife maintains her finances separate from her husband, and vice versa. People with whom I spoke said they did not know how much money their spouses made per month or year or how much wealth their spouses possessed.

Under the ideal form of separate-property ownership, a wife uses her finances for her own purposes, whereas the expectation is that a husband uses his finances to provide food, shelter, and other amenities to the entire family. If men are expected to provide for the entire household and women are expected to keep their own property, then it is fair, for many of the men and women I talked with, for sons to inherit twice as much as daughters.

Things become complicated when, in reality, wives use their resources to also provide for the family. School fees, children’s clothes, medicines, small gifts, and money for children to spend on food while at school may become the purview of women or women and men.

It is also possible that separate property regimes better position women (and men) in the option of leaving one’s marriage. I wonder whether the divorce rate among certain communities in Niger, which is comparable to that of the U.S., is linked to this.

What I came to realize is there are alternatives to community-property marriage that are widely practiced, and it is important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of marriages where financials are kept separate.

2. Are global rankings of women’s statuses a modern reincarnation of the distinction between “civilized” and “uncivilized”?

By no means do I believe that those compiling global comparisons of women’s statuses want to portray the Global South as “uncivilized.” What concerns me, however, is the idea that may emerge from these rankings, that “other” countries and peoples need help but not “my” country or people. This problem is akin to the use of #firstworldproblems, which started with good intentions, but ends up denying that there are problems of access to quality education, malnutrition, poverty, and violence in wealthy countries and that people outside the first world can have so-called petty problems.

The discourse of “these women” being better off than “those women,” I find, can unintentionally perpetuate misunderstanding and be used as part of a backlash against women’s movements. More than I had anticipated, and something I learned from scholars such as political scientist Abdourahmane Idrissa, anti-family law reform and anti-African Union treaty activists used nationalist rhetoric to combat proposed changes to family law. Nigérienne women’s activists were painted as “foreign,” even though most Nigériens could be just as well traveled.

3. How do “non-experts” define inequality differently than “experts”?

One of the most unsettling but illuminating moments in my fieldwork was when a female religious leader asked me why so many foreigners were coming to her, asking her about the lack of family law reform in Niger. Isn’t the real problem poverty? she asked, turning the tables on me.

Anthropologist Sally Engle Merry points out that indicators, while they can be used for good or for ill, “tend to consolidate power in the hands of those with expert knowledge” and that “an increasing reliance on indicators tends to locate decision making in the global North, where indicators are typically designed and labeled.”

I wonder what the No Ceilings report or the SIGI index would look like if they were directed by women and men in the Global South, or by women and men of different socioeconomic classes in the Global North and in the Global South.

I laud former Secretary of State and now presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her deep commitment to improving women’s lives around the globe, including in the United States. The No Ceilings report was well-conceived and carefully written, and, in my opinion, better attuned to the issues I raised above than other reports. I just hope that if new “experts” and ordinary people get on board with Clinton’s fight for women’s equality, they will consider who is deciding whom is “better off.”


Alice J. Kang is assistant professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She is author of Bargaining for Women's Rights: Activism in an Aspiring Muslim Democracy.

"Alice J. Kang compellingly argues that governments are more likely to adopt women's rights reforms when local activists mobilize for them, that opposing activists must also be considered, and that political context is essential for understanding outcomes around women's rights."
—Gretchen Bauer, University of Delaware

"Bargaining for Women’s Rights is a refreshing approach to thinking about women's rights in majority Muslim countries that captures how civil society groups mobilize and how multiple components of 'the state' actually debate women's rights legislation."
—Barbara Cooper, Rutgers University

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Grace Lee Boggs on biracialism, social movements, and hope for America

Grace Lee Boggs, pictured here in 2012, was born on June 27, 1915, in Providence,
Rhode Island. She currently lives in Detroit.

On June 27, 2015, Grace Lee Boggs turned 100 years old. Boggs is a Chinese-American writer, philosopher, and social activist, and author of several books. Her autobiography, Living for Change, was published by University of Minnesota Press in 1998. Boggs has been actively involved with historic social movements including the civil rights and the Black Power movements. Her passionate belief in a better society remains unchecked, and the words she published almost 20 years ago have tremendous resonance with race and activism in the United States today.


Excerpts from Living for Change: An Autobiography by Grace Lee Boggs.

[On growing up in New York] We were the only Chinese in our neighborhood, and everyone we met or had anything to do with—our neighbors, classmates, and teachers—was Caucasian, a good many of them immigrants from Europe or their children. During this period it used to infuriate me when not only my peers but teachers and other adults would ask me, "What is your nationality?" I would reply patiently, as if giving them a civics lesson, that my nationality was American because I was born in the United States but that my parents were Chinese. But no matter how often or how carefully I explained, I would be asked the question again and again, as if to say that I could not be Chinese and American at the same time. Often the questioner, having heard my explanation, would go on to say, "But you speak English so well." It was said sweetly, as if I were being paid a compliment. But the message behind the sweetness was that being Chinese and speaking English well were just as incompatible as being Chinese and American.


When I was in the class of 1935 at Barnard the only people of color on campus were Louise Chin and I, and a Japanese woman, Grace Ijima, of the class of 1934. In the spring of 1995 Louise and I attended our alumnae reunion. It was my sixtieth—and also my first. One of the reasons I decided to attend was that a special alumnae of color reception was on the program. At the reception I learned that today more than 25 percent of Barnard students are Asian and that there are similar percentages at many other colleges and universities. Asian students are now the largest ethnic minority on the University of Michigan campus, and the West Lounge in the South Quad Residence Hall has been renamed in honor of Yuri Kochiyama, the Japanese-American human rights activist who cradled Malcolm's head in her lap as he lay dying on the stage at the Audubon Ballroom in February 1965. Equally interesting, an estimated 50 percent of Asian young people now marry non-Asians, mostly Caucasian but sometimes African American or Hispanic. What that means for the future of this country I cannot begin to imagine. But one thing is for sure: whoever still believes that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet is not ready for the twenty-first century.


I had participated in enough movements to know that no one can tell in advance what form a movement will take. Movements are not initiated by revolutionaries. They begin when large numbers of people, having reached the point where they can't take the way things are anymore, see some hope of improving their daily lives and begin to move on their own. I have also learned that if you want to know what a movement is going to be about, you should keep your ears close to the grassroots to hear the "why" questions that people are asking. For example, during and after World War II when black folks had acquired a new self-confidence from working in the plant and fighting overseas, they began asking, "Why do white folks treat us this way?" with a new urgency, and so the civil rights movement was born. In the 1960s, when white flight to the suburbs made blacks the majority or near-majority in cities like Detroit, people began asking, "Why are all the political leaders in our city still white?" giving rise to the Black Power movement.


At the 1992 futuring conference [at the University of Michigan] I created a vision of Detroit Youth in the year 2032. A record-breaking snow storm had occurred on the eve of the celebration of Martin Luther King's 103rd birthday, I wrote, but people had no trouble getting to the celebration because young people, organized in Youth Block Clubs, had assumed the right and responsibility to keep the streets clean and safe for the community, especially elders. The vision goes on to describe how community work had been incorporated into the school curriculum, so that elementary schoolchildren working with elders were growing most of the food for the city while middle and high school students were doing most of the work of preparing and serving food in the community, and so on. Having that vision in my head and heart since the futuring conference has helped me time and again to project youth activities that transform young people at the same time that they improve the community.


Grace Lee Boggs is a first-generation Chinese American who has been a speaker, writer, and movement activist in the African American community for more than 70 years. Her autobiography, Living for Change, was published by University of Minnesota Press in 1998.

Friday, June 26, 2015

In 1971, a wedding heard 'round the world. #LoveWins

It is so ordered.

Today's momentous Unites States Supreme Court decision to strike all bans on same-sex marriage means a lot of things to a lot of people. For Michael McConnell and Jack Baker of Minneapolis, it is another historic landmark in a life full of historic landmarks. In 1971, McConnell and Baker became the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license. Their first attempt, at Minneapolis's Hennepin County Courthouse, did not go through; their second, however, did.

Find a timeline of key events in their lives here; look for their memoir, The Wedding Heard 'Round the World: America's First Gay Marriage, in January 2016.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Catherine Madison: From the front lines of a Korean War prison camp, 65 years ago.

Sixty-five years ago, on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, initiating the Korean War. The U.S. and sixteen other nations joined forces to repel the invaders.

About three weeks later, in July 1950, a young captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps was captured on the front lines and held in brutal prison camps for more than three years. "Doc" Boysen would survive unbelievable hardships, return home, and live for almost fifty more years.

This fall, the University of Minnesota Press is publishing his story as told by his daughter, the writer Catherine Madison. Here is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir.


SEOUL, KOREA—July 1950

More than two hundred men were quartered in a two-story schoolhouse on the northern outskirts of Seoul. North Korean officers visited them to deliver lectures on the evils of capitalism and assure them that they would be treated well. The Koreans also announced that because Gen. Douglas MacArthur had insisted that captured Americans receive their customary three meals a day, the prisoners would be fed three times, which simply meant that their current rations of unseasoned rice balls, watery cabbage soup, and an occasional piece of melon were divided into three portions instead of two.

The men spent several days housed in the crowded school. Occasionally guards would take a prisoner or two away, ostensibly to make political broadcasts; those men were not seen again. Among the troops themselves, no one seemed to be in charge. One soldier informed Doc that, as a captain, he outranked others and was supposed to be the acting CO (commanding officer), but Doc protested, insisting that a medical officer does not command infantry troops.

Physically, he was suffering. His feet were bruised and swollen, and it was all he could do to walk to the latrine. Mentally, the games had set in, his suspicions repeating in an unforgiving loop. Why didn't the army keep its promise to send me home after ninety days? Am I being punished for refusing to give sleeping pills to that surly officer? Did I do something else wrong? Or fail to follow orders? Why didn't I receive any letters from my wife while I was in Japan? Was the army holding them back? Did she even write? Am I paying for my past sins? Back home I hit a chicken with the car. And I passed that extra copy of the med school test to my frat brothers. But didn't I already get punished for those things?

Slowly, as he began to feel better physically, the mental torture eased. His thoughts turned to survival, and he focused on the present moment and whatever he might do to make sure those moments kept coming, for him and for those around him. He asked to assist with sick call, but the Koreans refused. As near as Doc could tell, they had little to work with, shoddy equipment, and meager pharmacy supplies. Once they invited him to join them, but when he showed up at the "clinic," he was asked to pose for a propaganda picture. He refused.

At one point, all the prisoners were escorted into the school auditorium and told to sit. Stiff and stilted, select American officers and GIs read prepared statements asking the men to sign a petition demanding an end to the war. After the prisoners signed, the readers explained, the paper would be sent to the United Nations. The Koreans circulated the petition, a blank piece of paper, and insisted the men sign, which they did, of course, thinking it might help them survive. (Several of the men wrote the same names, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, but no one seemed to notice.)

One afternoon, the guards summoned the men to the courtyard for roll call. "Come with, come with," the Koreans shouted. The men followed orders, not realizing that they would not be allowed to return to the schoolhouse, where they had stowed what few possessions they had left—tattered Bibles, rosary beads, pictures, whatever extra clothing they had managed to hold on to. As they were marched off to a train yard, they vowed they wouldn't make the same mistake again. From now on, they'd keep any and all possessions with them at all times.

Doc had already lost plenty: his thick glasses, his St. Christopher medal, his shoes. But he also gained much of a substance: a new acquaintance named Peppe, who would become a trusted confidant and lifelong friend, and other friends, like Shorty Estabrook, a nineteen-year-old spitfire who made everyone laugh, and Eli Culbertson, to whom he'd been tied with telephone-wire that bloodied their wrists. He also gained a new, or perhaps renewed, belief in the existence of a supreme being, whatever its name.

It's something that makes you believe that your strength is part of a plan devised by someone more powerful than you. It's there like a huge wave just before it crests, powerful and never ending in its beauty as it just keeps rolling along, silent in all its majesty but ever present.

It is the faith and hope that sustains you; something you accept and admit you do not understand. Prayer becomes a constant, not a once-a-night event—and not always in words, perhaps, but surely in thoughts.

How else can you explain the fact that you survive?


Journalist Catherine Madison was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

The University of Minnesota Press is giving away 10 advance reading copies of The War Came Home with Him. To enter, send an e-mail with your preferred mailing address to sattl014@umn.edu, subject line: Catherine Madison giveaway. Deadline to enter is July 10th; winners will be notified within one week. All submitted mailing addresses will be used for the purpose of the contest only.

"I loved this book, not only for the knowledge gained concerning a war I knew so little about, but for Catherine Madison’s skill in relating both sides of this complex and difficult story. She is truly a reliable narrator, and her interweaving of her father’s ordeal as a prisoner of war with her own growing up in a household with a broken and damaged man is honest and generous and truly moving." —Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People