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The Great White Social Justice Novel

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 09/07/2020 - 6:00am in


Blog, Literature, race

Over the past month, the United States and most of the globe have been rocked by historic uprisings for racial justice and against police brutality towards Black people, following the brutal murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. The protests have resonated far and wide, including in Australia where there have been 437 Aboriginal deaths in police custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody delivered its report in 1991. The tenor of the protests echoes the #BlackLivesMatter movement that emerged in 2014, when protesters took to the streets of Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere, spurred by the police killings of two Black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. But while the 2014 protests gave a national profile to racial justice demands and led to police reforms, the current uprisings have put much more radical demands on the table – abolition of the police and prisons. As the abolitionist and geographer Ruthie Gilmore has observed, the global pandemic has provided the objective conditions to unsettle the relations between the people who experience abandonment and those who control the effects of that abandonment. This is now leading to much more far reaching change than previously obtained. Landmark legislation and victories in defunding the police have already been won by the ongoing and growing streets protests. The uprisings have also produced a reckoning across a broad range of areas, pointing to systemic racism in the media, publishing, education, academia, sports, theatre and beyond, demanding drastic change. Hashtags like #PublishingPaidMe and #BlackInTheIvory have highlighted the structural inequalities, the pay gap, and struggles faced by Black writers, academics and researchers in white-dominated structures. In many cases, the uprisings have amplified critical movements already underway in those areas, as has been the case with the publishing industry in the US and Australia. This piece, written right before the uprisings about the US novel American Dirt, and a similar Australian novel Act of Grace, ask why, in an era of growing racism spurred by right-wing governments, has the Great White Novel become the publishing industry’s answer to hate?

The US publishing industry has been embroiled in a controversy since the publication of the much hyped novel American Dirt earlier this year. The novel by American writer Jeanine Cummins tracks the escape of a middle class Mexican woman Lydia and her son Luca from violent cartels in Acapulco to refuge across the border in the United States. The book attracted widespread criticism from Latinx and other writers, readers, migrant advocates, booksellers, and librarians for its misrepresentations and caricatures of the migrant experience.

Part of the problem, argue the critics, is that the book was marketed as the great social justice novel, as giving voice to a ‘faceless brown mass’. It was given a rare seven figure advance, and attracted a movie deal. It was blurbed by high profile authors such as Stephen King and compared to The Grapes of Wrath. Oprah Winfrey picked it for her book club. If it had been quietly published as yet another romance narco-thriller instead of a social justice classic for the Trumpian era, there would probably have been little backlash.

To make things worse, the publisher Flatiron books engaged in a series of highly questionable marketing tactics. They played up Cummin’s marriage to an undocumented immigrant as giving her unique insights into the migrant experience, without mentioning that he was an Irish immigrant. Cummins, who had previously self-identified as white, with Puerto Rican ancestry, began identifying as Latinx. At a publishing party for the book in 2019, barbed wire centerpieces were used as decorations, shockingly painful for many Latinx communities to see. The publisher has since apologised for these acts and Cummins’ US book tour was cancelled.

It bears asking why this poorly-written novel got the hype that it did, why it resonated so strongly for a white-dominated US publishing industry, and why global Western audiences are so eager to consume stories about Mexican pain and trauma. It’s worth noting that although the controversy has been mentioned in the Australian press, the mostly white cast of critics who reviewed the book here have been sympathetic to the book and dismissive of what they see as the ‘vitriolic’ attacks of its US Latinx critics such as Myriam Gurba.

Writing in the Good Weekend, Nicole Abadee encourages readers to read the book despite the criticisms by ‘Latin American’ authors, because she doesn’t believe writers should detail only their first hand experiences. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Melanie Kembrey lauds Cummins for her ‘years of research’ and provides a sympathetic portrait of the struggles Cummins went through in writing the book. The failure to engage with the concerns of her critics, or to even acknowledge their own blindspots as white reviewers, is illustrative of a broader absence of critical engagement by Australian literary critics when it comes to issues of race and cultural appropriation.

We can find parallels between American Dirt and an Australian novel published by a smaller press – Black Inc – that has similar pretensions to being a big social justice novel. Anna Krien’s Act of Grace was published with euphoric cover blurbs and greeted with a run of glowing reviews in major Australian newspapers. So far it has been short and long-listed for three major literary awards. The novel, which tells the stories of a white war vet, a young Aboriginal woman, and an Iraqi refugee, among various other non-white characters, tackles issues of Islamophobia, the brutalities of the Iraqi regime, post-traumatic stress disorder, the Stolen Generation, Aboriginal suicide, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, tourism at Uluru, domestic violence, and dementia. The white standpoint of the writer, her appropriation of the stories and voices of non-white characters, have mostly gone unacknowledged in this literary reception.

First Nations writers have been at the forefront of critiques of cultural appropriation in Australia. Jeanine Leane, Alexis Wright, and Larissa Behrendt among others have shown how settler literature has misrepresented Aboriginal people, usurping Aboriginal stories and experiences with injurious effects for First Nations communities. Act of Grace is no exception.

From the publication and marketing of both of these books, it appears that some in the publishing industry have chosen this particularly fraught time to amplify white voices telling the stories of non-white people. In an era of rising bigotry and anti-migrant hysteria spurred by right-wing governments, why has the Great White Novel become the publishing industry’s answer to hate?

The main character of American Dirt is Lydia; in the words of the author she is a ‘sensible, bookstore-owning, devoted mother-and-wife’ in the Mexican town of Acapulco. Lydia’s husband Sebastián is a journalist who writes an exposé about La Lechuza, the leader of the cartel Los Jardineros. La Lechuza is known to Lydia as Javier, a debonair and charming customer who visits the bookstore and shares her love of books. The exposé is published, and at a family party Javier’s men gun down Sebastián, Lydia’s mother, and her entire extended family, leaving only Lydia and her son Luca alive and on the run. The novel follows Lydia and Luca as they are smuggled to Mexico City and then make their way north in a precarious journey on the freight trains known as La Bestia, with Javier hot on their heels.

Cummins has taken great pains to make the main character Lydia accessible, ordinary, and relatable to a Western reader; in fact, she is just like the middle class white woman who is imagined as the main reader for this book. Lydia reads English language novels by Leah Hager Cohen and Sebastian Barry, donates money to ‘good’ causes, and steams milk for her morning coffee. Never mind that this makes her completely unrecognisable to Latin American migrants as someone who would ride La Bestia and cross the border on foot. Most of the migrants forced to travel in this way are poor, working class, and Indigenous migrants from Central American countries, not middle class Mexicans. But Cummins achieves the goal of creating a connection with the Western reader, making them recognise themselves in Lydia and therefore caring about her struggle to escape violence and look for safety.

In a similar way, Lydia’s husband Sebastián is an outstanding and brave citizen, willing to expose the cartels regardless of personal harm to himself or his family. Eight-year-old Luca is also presented as a remarkable child. He is a geography whizkid who knows the meaning of proprietary and viscous. Lydia and Luca have impeccable moral empathy. During the journey, Luca wants to use their last remaining funds to pay the ransom for two fellow travellers who have been kidnapped. At a migrant safe house, Lydia condemns the bigotry of two Guatemalan women towards an Indigenous woman, with a tone of moral superiority that whiffs of white saviourism. (This is one of the places where the author’s entitlement comes transparently through Lydia.)

The lesson is that Lydia and Luca are worth saving because they are human beings, ‘just like us’. Cummins has stated in interviews and in her author’s note that her altruistic reason for writing the book was to restore humanity to migrants crossing the southern border. She has been strongly criticised for this by migrants themselves who say that they have always been humans and didn’t need her to make them so. In Cummins’ approach, making migrants into humans means making them into people that fit white Western notions of who is considered a deserving and empathetic subject.

The reason why Cummins’ approach had such appeal among major publishing houses (there was a three-day bidding war between nine publishing houses to buy the novel) has partly to do with the resonance of the ‘good immigrant’ stereotype in US society. As I discuss in my book Curated Stories, since the 1990s, immigration reform advocates have tried to present high achieving and exceptional migrants as the face of the immigrant rights movement in order to appeal to mainstream US society. Undocumented students ­– Dreamers – who were valedictorians of their school and who had assimilated into American culture, were presented as the good, deserving immigrant. The writing and promotion of American Dirt follows this same logic, that we can get people to care about the border crisis if we show the victims as good and deserving people, who are ‘just like us’ at heart.

The problem with this strategy is that rather than seeing all migrants as worthy of inclusion and acceptance, there is a hierarchy created between those worthy migrants who are humanised and recognisable due to their exceptional achievements and ability to assimilate, and those who are stigmatised and excluded as anonymous, foreign, and lower-class. Good migrants need to perform continually their exceptionality as model Americans in order to distinguish themselves from other unworthy, bad migrants. What does it mean that most migrants crossing the southern border – who are variously caged, hunted down by border patrol and vigilantes, separated from their children under the Trump administration – are not like Lydia and Luca? It makes them essentially unworthy and hence deportable.

The good and noble characters in the novel are set against the bad guys – mostly the narcos like Javier and his cartel, who are described variously as ‘bad men’, ‘monsters’ and ‘evil’. One of the bad guys is Lorenzo, a former narco who is now also supposedly on the run from Los Jardineros. Cummins traces Lorenzo’s problems back to his bad upbringing. At one point he confronts Lydia: ‘Not everybody has a mami like you, all right? Some mothers don’t give a shit.’ In contrast to the good mother stereotype that Lydia represents, the mother who will go to desperate ends to save her son, there is the bad mother who doesn’t care about her children. The characters in American Dirt operate as stand-ins for simplistic views about morality, gender, and culture.

The central narrative of the novel, about fleeing a violent and brutal country for the safe refuge of the US, resonates strongly with the prevalent bipartisan political discourse about migration. In a recent article, the New York Times editorial board stated that, ‘[b]asket-case governments in several nations south of the Rio Grande have sent a historic flood of migrants to our southern border’. President Donald Trump has referred to Mexicans as ‘rapists,’ ‘robbers’ and ‘bad hombres.’ Cummins’ descriptions of Mexico in the novel draw from this same repertoire. Mexico is described as a ‘brutal, blood-stained place’, the site of carnage, a place run by cartels with their pageants of blood.

By contrast, the United States, ‘el norte,’ is depicted as a haven of peace and harmony. While trying to board La Bestia, Lydia and Luca meet two Honduran sisters, Soledad and Rebeca, who are escaping from gangs, and the sisters join them on their journey. Soledad and Rebeca think they can make a life in the US that is ‘good and golden’. Lydia sees the US as the only place where Javier cannot reach her, where there is no impunity for violent men. While this may in fact be the way some migrants view the United States, Cummins does not complicate this perception or offer the opposing realities of racism, poverty, and state violence, nor does she consider the reach of cartels from one side of the border to the other. Rather, she dramatises the emotion of the characters when they see the USA sign and then ‘the red and white stripes, the blue starfield of the American flag’. The landscape figuratively stretches out its arms in welcome. But this is not America, or how migrants view America. It is the fantasy of how Cummins would like the world to view America.

What this happy fantasy omits is the role of US intervention abroad: sponsored coups and contra wars that depose democratically elected governments, and unequal free trade policies that factor into the poverty of Latin American nations and the rise of cartels. The reader can feel comfortable about the US being a benefactor nation that welcomes migrants from their basket-case governments, without confronting the reality of how their own governments’ policies have destabilised the region in the first place. The real problem with thinking of American Dirt as a social justice novel, one that can change hearts and minds, is that its simplistic conflict between evil cartels and noble victims does nothing to challenge the structures of US imperial power that underlie the migration crisis.

Unlike American Dirt, the protagonists in Krien’s novel Act of Grace are not noble good victims. Most of them are angry, violent, and even deceitful. Krien takes the title from an actual Australian government policy of compensating Iraqi civilians who suffered harm due to the actions of the Australian military in the Iraq war. Unlike Cummins, Krien is highly critical of her own government’s involvement in interventionist wars. The novel explores themes of trauma, war, protest, the scars of conflict, and the effects of toxic masculinity in both white Australian and non-white cultures. Krien’s background is as a journalist, and her previous writing has covered topics such as coal mining, climate change, Indigenous binge-drinking, and rape culture in sports. Act of Grace is her debut novel.

The novel traces the intertwining stories of four central characters. Nasim is an aspiring Iraqi pianist who is persecuted under the regime of Saddam Hussein and must escape to safety in Australia. Toohey is a white Australian war vet who is adjusting back to life with his family after serving in the military in Iraq. The young Aboriginal woman Robbie navigates familial relationships as her father Danny suffers early onset dementia. Over the course of the novel, Nasim and Robbie develop a friendship, though Nasim holds onto a secret. Toohey’s son Gerry must come to terms with his fraught relationship with his father.

Despite important differences, Act of Grace still has much in common with American Dirt. Like the cartels in American Dirt, there are heavily violent portrayals of the patriarchal and brutal regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Iraqi men in the novel, such as Hussein and his son Uday, are depicted as stereotypical oriental despots and Arab patriarchs. One of the Iraqi characters, Salima, runs a brothel known as Nostalgia. The brothel, with its girls dressed in embroidered gowns and veils, feels uncomfortably close to a modern-day harem: that orientalist fantasy conjured by European artists and explorers of the nineteenth century to sate their own sexual fantasies about eroticised veiled women. Stereotypes about Arab culture are carried over to the Australian context, where ‘Aussie Arab girls’ live ‘under the watchful eyes of their fathers and brothers’. When Nasim worries that ‘her kind’ would come to Australia and ‘bring their ancient feuds’, she sounds not like a refugee but a far-right talk show host.

American Dirt has been criticized as an outsider’s view of Mexico and Act of Grace feels the same way in its exoticisation of Iraqi culture, Aboriginal culture and the various other cultures (African-American, Native American) inhabited by the author. As the literary critic Edward Said has argued, the exotic is a product of representational systems of colonialism and imperialism. Representations of the Orient in art and literature do not correspond to the reality of non-Western cultures. Rather, they produce a spectacle of the exotic Other with European consciousness at its centre, for the consumption of the European observer. This spectacle generates a perverse curiosity in the culturally distant place and subject, while the voyeurism of the Western gaze remains hidden.

This tendency to fetishise the exotic Other appears frequently in the novels. Reviewers have pointed to the excited fascination of American Dirt with gradients of brown skin, from ‘berry-brown’ to ‘tan as childhood’, and hugging the ‘soft brown curve’ of a sister’s skin. Act of Grace goes even further, with lengthy descriptions of brown skin that are rarely used in the same way to describe the skin of white characters. Two Aboriginal girls, glistening with seawater ‘both shone brown’. An Anangu man in Uluru is ‘kelp, brown but seemingly lit orange from within’. Krien tells us that after Danny is struck with dementia, he actually becomes ‘blacker’. He turns ‘molasses brown’, while Robbie too notices the skin around her own eyes ‘becoming even duskier’. The Aboriginal characters in the novel label themselves in terms of blood quantums: Danny says he is ‘Half-Aborigine’, his sister Beverley says he is half, maybe a third Scot.

Towards the end, an African American character Elliott is introduced, which gives rise to peculiar and excessive descriptions of his dreadlocks: ‘wild Medusa hair writhed like a dozen coral-banded snakes, dreadlocks threaded with white and red clay beads’. And later, his ‘dreadlocks like springs’. The Native American characters sound like they are out of a Disney cartoon, all of them with ‘sleek black hair’, and the Navajo character Amos with his ‘new moon eyes’. Elliott and Amos are probably the most flimsy characters in the novel. Amos speaks in Australian slang (‘heaps of workers’), and engages in ‘healing sessions’ and ‘smoking ceremonies’ with his elders and old friends at Standing Rock, though it is never mentioned that the people of the Standing Rock Reservation are Lakota. He speaks to them in ‘dialect’, though the languages of Native American nations are fully fledged languages and not dialects.

The non-white characters in Act of Grace are less fully fleshed characters and more props for the delivery of the author’s viewpoints and for the white characters to be educated and realise their own humanity. Nasim makes such white feminist statements as ‘With the abaya, there is no self, no individual’. Elliott educates Gerry on the history of racism in the American west and Amos schools him on the land stolen from Native American people. Robbie sometimes speaks in documentary sentences, noting that ‘More than 20,000 Aborigines were killed in Australia’s frontier wars’. They read like mouthpieces rather than real people.

Throughout the novel, Krien shows how Gerry has suffered from the toxic masculinity and violence of his father. It is through his encounters with Elliott and Amos, and his participation in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, that Gerry learns to counter his racist upbringing. The degree to which the characters of colour are simply tools in Gerry’s political awakening can be seen when the queer Elliott and the straight Gerry are under public scrunity at a railway station, Elliott with his mascara and powdered eyes and Gerry in cowboy boots. In front of the onlookers, Gerry feels a burst of bravery and pulls Elliott to him and kisses him on the lips. The characters approve. ‘We brought him up good’, says Elliott. Gerry is the hero of the story, countering his homophobic upbringing with the (queer) characters of colour there to enable and cheer him on.

The Islamophobia of Toohey comes in crudely rendered and crass bursts of anti-Muslim diatribes. It feels horrible, partly because it is so predictable and obvious, like the contrived debate between Toohey and his feminist sister-in-law Bron about the veiling of Muslim women. The anger of the other non-white characters is also relentless and feels like the opposite extreme to the good noble victims of American Dirt. Robbie is angry and wild: in one scene, she throws a paperweight at her mother and in another wants to kick her boyfriend’s mother. Danny is described as a big, angry Aboriginal man, ‘towering over the table’. The Aboriginal teenagers at Uluru are ‘full of fuck you’. Amos is a firecracker, who speaks with a ‘poisonous’ tone. But it is the white characters in the novel who help the Indigenous characters to calm down and moderate their volatile emotions. Robbie’s white mother Claire tells her that her anger will eat her up the same way it did to her father. When Gerry sees Amos getting fired up in an encounter with a racist cop at Standing Rock, he puts a hand on Amos’ shoulder and makes him smile.

During the novel the characters put on costumes, literally inhabiting the identities of others. Consider, for example, when visiting the old training base, Toohey’s wife Jean puts on an Arabic headress made of silver, with coins and bells. Or: Nasim takes on the identity of Sabeen, a young mother who was killed with her baby during the war, in order to qualify for refugee status to Australia. Or: as an experiment, Robbie wears Nasim’s abaya to work one day. Robbie is disturbed by the ‘hostility’, the ‘visceral hate’ she encounters while wearing the abaya, which makes her feel even more loathed than a fat person. It seems unbelievable that an Aboriginal woman like Robbie would not know the experience of racism outside of wearing an abaya and going out in public.

The notion of stepping into the costume of another character, taking on their identity, is Krien’s ironic statement on her own inhabiting of these characters. Yet what she is doing here is not so much inhabiting their characters as ventriloquism. She is using these characters as props, while really just projecting her own worldviews and assumptions through them. This is especially problematic when, for instance, Elliott uses the N-word, something highly offensive for a white person to do given the ugly history of that word. It doesn’t make it okay that Elliott is black. We do sense that behind this paper-thin character is a white author.

The first question in the Book Club notes for Act of Grace provided by Black Inc asks the reader what they think about Krien inhabiting characters from other cultures in light of debates about cultural appropriation. Like Flatiron highlighting Cummins’ Puerto Rican grandmother and formerly undocumented husband, Black Inc perhaps anticipated some controversy on this issue. The debate was heightened in the Australian context in 2016 when American writer Lionel Shriver gave a keynote at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, arguing that white people have the right to write fiction from the perspective of people of other cultural backgrounds. In an interview about her novel, Krien concurred with Shriver’s opinion, saying that these things need to be written about, with the caveat that they must be written about well.

Shortly after Shriver made her comments at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival and then went on to argue for fiction as a ‘vital vehicle of empathy’, First Nations writers responded. In her article ‘Other People’s Stories’, Jeanine Leane argued that empathy requires a deep knowledge of those you want to represent. This is not based simply in limited observation or other people’s research, but social and cultural immersion in that community. Like several of the critics of American Dirt did later, Leane turned the questions back to the outsider writer: ‘Why do you want to write Aboriginal characters? Do you know any Aboriginal people? And if so, how? Have you read any of our books?’ Without this knowledge, attempts at representation turn into cultural appropriation. For Alexis Wright, in the backdrop of these debates was the reality of how the public stories told about or on behalf of Aboriginal people have long upheld the historical lies about this country, keeping in place the racism that supports these lies.

In the context of the US, American Dirt critics were concerned about the ways that white voices, even those writing about non-white experiences, are often elevated above writers of colour writing about their own communities. The Mexican-American author Luis Alberto Urrea who Cummins lists as inspiration for American Dirt (some have even noted her use of carefully reworked scenes from his books), took ten years before he could find a publisher interested in his novels. Findings from the second Diversity Baseline Survey, reported earlier this year, show that Latinx authors make up only 6 per cent of the industry in the US, while the first Diversity Baseline Survey, conducted in 2015, showed that 79 per cent of employees identified as white. Of the 82 books in Oprah’s Book Club, only one was by a US-based Latinx author.

This has also been the case in Australia, with the stories of First Nations people being told by white settlers ever since the invasion of the country in the late eighteenth century, although Leane says that in recent years the flourishing of Aboriginal storytelling has powerfully challenged the assumed privilege of whites to represent non-whites. First Nations writers, especially women, have established an important presence within the literary world. The foremost prize for fiction, the Miles Franklin Award, was won by Melissa Lucashenko in 2019. Tara June Winch’s novel The Yield won three prizes at the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, including Book of the Year and is longlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin, alongside Act of Grace. Arguably, the most important contemporary Australian novelist is Alexis Wright.

But in both the US and Australia, the publishing industry apparatus remains predominantly white. First Nations writers and writers of colour make up a small proportion of those who are published and promoted, and they are a small proportion of reviewers and editors, and those who sit on awards committees. In May of this year, writers of colour in Sydney were incensed when a major grant from the Sydney Morning Herald intended to stimulate emerging arts criticism went to five white culture critics. In the historical context of a systemic erasure of non-white communities, stereotypical and poorly imagined portrayals of those communities simply reinforce existing prejudices. And when these poorly imagined books pass through a vetting process that consists of mostly white editors, blurbers, and reviewers, their harmful misrepresentations can slip through the gaps.

Why does the publishing industry elevate white writers over #ownvoices writers when it comes to the experiences of communities of colour? It happens because books like American Dirt and Act of Grace fit comfortably with mainstream stereotypes, they don’t challenge white and Western readers to think and see First Nations people and people of colour in their depth and complexity. It happens because the sensationalist depiction of brutal violence and trauma in the Great White Novel sells. Both American Dirt and Act of Grace have plenty of stomach-turning scenes of gratuitous violence, rapes, and beatings. At a time when there is global concern about the plight facing refugees, migrant children being caged and separated from parents, the horrors of offshore detention and border walls, the publishing industry has peddled us these exploitative and cartoonish depictions that produce an easy empathy rather than forcing readers to reckon with their own positionality in structures of power, and the deeper problems that require action.

Can big social justice issues like the border crisis, war, dispossession, and racism be written about in ways that encourage a more complex reckoning? Several writers, especially #ownvoices writers have done so, although their books have not always received the same amplification as American Dirt and Act of Grace. These writers have not only given us more genuine and fleshed out characters who feel real but they have worked to find other, less sensationalist ways of depicting trauma. Too Much Lip, by the Aboriginal writer Melissa Lucashenko uses dark humour to explore contemporary socio-political issues of everyday racism in Australia. The Iraqi writer Ahmad Saadawi’s novel Frankenstein in Baghdad uses black humour in a tale about Hadi, a junk peddler who picks up body parts from explosions in US occupied Iraq and creates his own corpse – the ‘Frankenstein’ of the novel. Similarly, the Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa, writing in a context of unimaginable atrocities, depicts the current war in his novel Death is Hard Work, through the journey of three siblings who carry their dead father past checkpoints, rebels, and regime soldiers to bury him near his sister. These accounts don’t hit us over the head with horror, but invite us into the quotidian realities of life under occupation and civil war, with the vernacular humour and irony of their quirky characters.

Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, about US-occupied Afghanistan, and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, about refugees, swap social realism for speculative fiction and magical realism. African-American and First Nations writers have also found speculative fiction a useful tool for writing trauma, such as Colson Whitehead and Ellen Van Neerven. Others such as the Mexican-American writer Valeria Luiselli explores the US-Mexico border crisis through an experimental and lyrical novel, Lost Children’s Archive, that takes the reader on a road trip and journey through various kinds of archives. The Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani’s book, No Friend But the Mountains, about his perilous journey to Manus Island and subsequent incarceration blends genres, incorporating poetry, reportage, and memoir. Koori writer Tony Birch has also included semi-autobiographical elements in works such as Shadowboxing. The novel Carpentaria, by Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation of the Gulf of Carpentaria, tackles trauma and loss through a storytelling lens that celebrates Aboriginal languages and spiritual practices.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho novelist Tommy Orange recently weighed in on the debate over cultural appropriation, saying that ‘My personal stance on writing fiction across racial divides is that you better have a pretty damn good reason to do it, and it better not sound even a little bit altruistic’. We don’t need white writers to act as a bridge to mainstream audiences, to translate the traumatic experiences of communities of colour into sensationalised depictions, all with the mission of shining a spotlight on social justice issues. Noongar writer Kim Scott has even suggested ‘a moratorium on non-Aboriginal writers writing on blackfella culture’. Given the woeful history of misrepresentations of First Nations peoples, all writers should heed this call. With these caveats, what we do need now more than ever are carefully nuanced, informed, and responsible works of fiction, especially by #ownvoices writers, to tell diverse stories, and a much more diversified publishing industry ready to publish them.

The crisis generated by the Covid-19 global pandemic brings the question of the structural whiteness of the publishing world into even stronger relief. In this moment, libraries and bookstores have been forced to shut down or move online, writers who depend on money from book tours and speaking engagements have lost important means of livelihood, and many workers in the publishing industry have been laid off. At this time of severe dislocation for the literary world, we cannot simply wish for things to return to the way they were, when the status quo marginalised non-white writers and subjects. Rather, we might begin to think about how to reimagine writing and publishing, based in the connections we are forging from isolation, the growing assertion of minority groups who are speaking up about deadly health disparities or their vulnerability on the frontlines, and the demands to renew funding of public sectors in health, welfare, education and the arts. First Nations and US Latinx writers have spearheaded a debate that now has the potential for far-reaching change.

First published in the Sydney Review of Books

The post The Great White Social Justice Novel appeared first on Progress in Political Economy (PPE).

Harnessing Federal Power for Police Reform in America

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/07/2020 - 9:00pm in

Police kneel alongside a protest in Coral Gables, Florida, on May 30, 2020. Photo credit: That One Photography / Shutterstock.com....

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Black Americans Can’t Breathe: How Environmental Racism Has Intersected with COVID-19

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/07/2020 - 2:36am in

By mid-May, COVID-19 had killed more Americans than the Vietnam War, Gulf War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq War combined. The magnitude of this pandemic—and its disproportionately deadly assault on Black communities—is astounding. In Mississippi, Black Americans account for 38 percent of the population and 66 percent of COVID-19 related deaths. In Michigan, those figures are 12 percent and 47 percent, and in Louisiana, 32 percent and 65 percent. 

How could that be? Top medical officials have offered little guidance, blaming preexisting conditions faced by Black people without further inquiry or consideration. What’s being overlooked, or even ignored, is the fact that health outcomes are often influenced by levers of systemic racism. 

These disparate effects don’t just happen; they are tied to policy. Poor air quality, which has been linked to more severe COVID-19 symptoms and is also disproportionately imposed on Black people in the US, offers a compelling example of racist policy leading to racist health outcomes. 

A new study from Harvard public health experts reveals two important findings: First, exposure to toxic air pollution (PM 2.5) increases vulnerability to death and the most severe symptoms of the novel virus. Researchers considered data from 3,000 counties, accounting for 98 percent of the population, and found that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to the most severe COVID-19 outcomes; an increase of 1 microgram per cubic meter of long-term PM2.5 exposure is associated with an 8 to 15 percent increase in the COVID-19 mortality rate.

This is supported by similar analysis of hard-hit European countries that have already turned the corner. In Spain, Italy, France, and Germany, 78 percent of deaths occurred in only five regions, which are also the most polluted, according to German researchers who studied the effects of nitrogen dioxide. 

The second key finding is a 45 percent increase in COVID-19 mortality rate associated with a 1 standard deviation increase in percent Black residents. This trend is supported by research from Johns Hopkins University and the American Community Survey that shows that the infection rate in predominantly Black counties is more than three times that of white counties. The death rate in Black counties is six times that of white counties. 

Harvard researchers do not draw explicit links between these two key findings, but another recent study finds that Black Americans endure 56 percent more toxic air pollution than they create in the US, while white people are exposed to 17 percent less pollution than they create. The compounded lifetime effect of this exposure is elevated levels of asthma, high blood pressure, and cancer—the same conditions that now predict how severely individuals are affected by COVID-19. 

Taken together, this research suggests that Black people’s disproportionate death rates from COVID-19—a virus that attacks the lungs—could be associated with the lifetime exposure to toxic air pollution they disproportionately endure. The potential link deserves further inquiry, especially as we head into a second wave of COVID-19 cases that will endanger even more Black Americans. 

Top health officials should be scrambling for answers. But they’re not. They have largely brushed off the fact that Black people are dying at alarming rates and use sanitizing language like “underlying conditions” and “comorbidities” to explain the drastic disparity Black people are facing. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said this disparity in death rates is due to preexisting conditions that Black people are more likely to have. His solution: “It’s very sad. There’s nothing we can do about it right now, except to try and give them the best possible care to avoid those complications.” 

As Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical lobbyist, said, “Unfortunately the American population is very diverse . . . It is a population with significant unhealthy comorbidities that do make many individuals in our communities, in particular African American, minority communities, particularly at risk here because of significant underlying disease health disparities and disease comorbidities.” 

These careless and callous statements do not address the root of the problem, and they effectively absolve policymakers of the choices they’ve made—and in many cases, their inaction—that led to the racialized effects of COVID-19. In this case, naming and investigating the environmental determinants of COVID-19 death, such as air pollution, underscores the already dire need to implement Black-centered climate policies as we combat the climate crisis. 

Ultimately, enacting environmental justice policies that aim to reduce pollution endured by Black communities would be essential not only to mitigating climate change and improving health overall but also to preventing unequal effects of major public health crises like COVID-19.

The post Black Americans Can’t Breathe: How Environmental Racism Has Intersected with COVID-19 appeared first on Roosevelt Institute.

Book note: Johny Pitts, Afropean

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 7:31pm in

Just finished Johny Pitts’s Afropean: Notes from a Black Europe (Penguin). It is a remarkable and highly readable book which I strongly recommend. Pitts, a journalist and photographer from Sheffield in England, embarks on a journey across Europe to discover the continent’s African communities, from Sheffield itself, through Paris, the Netherlands, Berlin, Sweden, Russia, Rome, Marseille and Lisbon. Pitts, the son of an African-American soul singer and a working-class Englishwoman, is a curious insider-outsider narrator of the book which ambles from meditations on black history and (often American) literary forbears to chance encounters with black and brown Europeans in hostels, trains, stations, cafés and universities.

Is there a unity in all this? Hard to say, since as Pitts observes, these different populations, linked by an experience of marginalisation, come to be where they are via very diverse personal and collective histories. Some have come in their best clothes from former colonies to nations they were taught about as the motherland, only to find they had to make their lives in a place that was disappointing or hostile and where the white population — British, French, or Dutch — remain ill-disposed to see their new compatriots as being part of themselves. Others have fled war, persecution and trauma in Sudan or South Africa, only to find themselves exiled on the periphery of Scandiavian social democracy. And then there are the residual African students in a Russia transformed in thirty years from somewhere professing — occastionally sincerely — the unity and equality of all humankind, into a place where it is dangerous for black people to venture out at night for fear of violent attack or worse.

This is a very personal story and not a work of objective social science. But it is characterised by often acute observation, particularly of the gap between the image that European societies have of themselves as being basically tolerant and inclusive and a reality of systematic disadvantage in which populations of African origin (and others) almost invisibly do the jobs that keep our societies running. We’ve seen this when it has been people of colour who have worked and died through the COVID pandemic. He discusses the difficulty the Dutch have had in acknowledging their colonial past and the sometimes violent reaction that black people in the Netherlands have received when they’ve challenged the role that Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) has in winter festivities. His image of Sweden as a utopia for black professionals take a knock when he encouters both white Swedish racism and the reality of Rinkeby on Stockholm’s outskirts. The Parisian banlieu of Clichy-sous-Bois is a story of police violence and concrete desert. And St Petersburg is, well, just terrifying. In passing, he notices the discomfort of African American tourists with the bustle of Afropean life in Paris and tells us of the weirdness of his encounter with German antifa in Berlin,

The place he comes to love most is Marseille. This won’t surprise anyone who has been there. In some ways it is a hard and edgy city. When I was there a couple of summers ago I met with a student who’d witnessed a gang murder in her first week of living there. But the life in the streets of Marseille is astonishing: the mix of peoples, cultures, races, cuisines, life is unlike any city I’ve visited. It far exceeds New York, for example, in this respect. The charm of the city and Pitts’s romantic engagement with it may explain one of the few false notes in the book, his encounter with a black Egyptian nomad who has travelled the world and values experience over work or wealth. Maybe, but in a world of securitized borders where some passports are worth more than others there must be some further fact about this traveller that explain his ease of passage through the EU and United States: either he’s got money or he’s got a more valuable legal nationality than the Egyptian one he identifies with.

One measure of a book is the further explorations it excites and provokes, and Afropean succeeds wildly on that front. I’ve been listening to new music, making notes about authors I ought to get to know and films I need to watch. But it would be wrong to see this fine book mainly as a treasure trove of recommendations. Its value for all Europeans is in making visible what is often invisible in our cultures and societies and I hope in chipping away at the barriers that disadvantage our Afropean members, keeping so many of them unseen in grinding jobs at low pay. In the Financial Times only yesterday, the ever-complacent Martin Wolf wrote that

We are not going back to a world of mass industrialisation, where most educated women did not work, where there were clear ethnic and racial hierarchies and where western countries dominated.

Pitts testifes powerfully that those ethnic and racial hierarchies are with us still and that in many ways not much progress has been made.

Who was Angelo Herndon?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 04/07/2020 - 12:35am in



In a previous post I quoted Langston Hughes' 1938 poem "The Kids Who Die", which is very powerful in the context of our current crisis of police use of deadly force against black men. "Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi / Organizing sharecroppers / Kids will die in the streets of Chicago / Organizing workers / Kids will die in the orange groves of California / Telling others to get together / Whites and Filipinos, / Negroes and Mexicans, / All kinds of kids will die / Who don't believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment / And a lousy peace." In the third stanza Hughes writes "To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together". Who was Angelo Herndon?
Herndon was a self-educated advocate and organizer for workers' rights and racial equality in the 1930s. He describes his early life of labor and social activism in Let Me Live, published in 1937 when he was only twenty-four years old. His life and arrest and conviction in Georgia for insurrection are described in Charles Martin's The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice. As a teenager Herndon worked as a laborer and miner under highly exploitative conditions, and eventually became an organizer for workers' rights and racial equality. Introduced to the Communist Party in the early 1930s, he found the party to be the first organization he had encountered that was not racist, and he joined the party and became an organizer for the Unemployment Council in Atlanta. In 1932 he was arrested by Atlanta police and accused of insurrection, and was convicted on the basis of his possession of Communist literature. He was defended by the International Legal Defense, affiliated with the Communist Party. His case went to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case twice in 1935. Finally in 1937 the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and found that Georgia's anti-insurrection law was unconstitutional. Law professor Kendall Thomas refers to the Supreme Court decision of Herndon v. Lowry as "generally acknowledged as one of the great civil liberties decisions of the 1930s" (link).

Herndon was a radical and articulate advocate for workers' rights for both white and black workers, and he was very willing to challenge Jim Crow racism when he saw it. Kendall Thomas refers to Let Me Live as an example of "the popular tradition of Afro-American resistance literature", and an instance of "insurgent political consciousness among African-Americans at one key moment in our national past" (2610). As a young man writing Let Me Live, Herndon was scathing in his descriptions of African-American leaders for racial justice including W.E.B. Du Bois, on the ground that they were not radical enough in their attacks on white racism. Quoting Thomas again, "The Angelo Herndon case powerfully underscores the extent to which the history of the struggle of Afro-American people against an oppressive cultural (social, political, and economic) order has also always been the history of a struggle against an oppressive discursive or symbolic order."
The most powerful political organization that influenced Herndon in his teens and twenties was the Communist Party USA. It appears that the Communist Party's program, leaders, and strategies were quite different in the American South, and were adapted to addressing the injustices of Jim Crow racism. Robin Kelley's Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression is a detailed history of black Communism in Alabama. It is a truly fascinating book to read. Here is how Kelley describes the Alabama Communist Party in the preface:

Built from scratch by working people without a Euro-American left-wing tradition, the Alabama Communist Party was enveloped by the cultures and ideas of its constituency. Composed largely of poor blacks, most of whom were semiliterate and devoutly religious, the Alabama cadre also drew a small circle of white folks—whose ranks swelled or diminished over time—ranging from ex-Klansmen to former Wobblies, unemployed male industrial workers to iconoclastic youth, restless housewives to renegade liberals.

What emerged was a malleable movement rooted in a variety of different pasts, reflecting a variety of different voices, and incorporating countless contradictory tendencies. The movement's very existence validates literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin's observation that a culture is not static but open, “capable of death and renewal, transcending itself, that is exceeding its own boundaries.”

The experiences of Alabama Communists, however, suggest that racial divisions were far more fluid and Southern working-class consciousness far more complex than most historians have realized. The African-Americans who made up the Alabama radical movement experienced and opposed race and class oppression as a totality. The Party and its various auxiliaries served as vehicles for black working-class opposition on a variety of different levels ranging from antiracist activities to intraracial class conflict. Furthermore, the CP attracted some openly bigoted whites despite its militant antiracist slogans. The Party also drew women whose efforts to overcome gender-defined limitations proved more decisive to their radicalization than did either race or class issues.

It is genuinely fascinating to see how the ideas of Marx and Engels were considered, debated, and reshaped in the context of racist capitalism in the American south. Herndon's memoir provides numerous examples of his excitement at finding in Marx the language and ideas that he had been seeking to articulate his own construction of the relationship between white owners and black workers. Here is how Herndon paraphrases the Communist Manifesto in his own words (as a man of about twenty): 

The worker has no power. All he possesses is the power of his hands and his brains. It is his ability to produce things. It is only natural, therefore, that he should try and get as much as he can for his labor. To make his demands more effective he is obliged to band together with other workers into powerful labor organizations, for there is strength in numbers. The capitalists, on the other hand, own all the factories, the mines and the government. Their only interest is to make as much profit as they can. They are not concerned with the well-being of those who work for them. We see, therefore, that the interests of the capitalists and the workers are not the same. In fact, they are opposed to each other. What happens? A desperate fight takes place between the two. This is known as the class struggle. (Let Me Live, 82)

Following his release in 1937 Herndon continued to combine activism with literature where he gained some prominence, and he co-edited a short-lived journal, Negro Quarterly: A Review of Negro Life and Culture, with Ralph Ellison for a short time. Herndon left the Communist Party in the late 1940s and died in 1997. (This entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides a few biographical details; link.)
Looking into the life of Angelo Herndon -- stimulated by reading the poetry of Langston Hughes -- I am struck once again by the fundamental multiplicity and plurality of history. It is sometimes tempting to tell a unified narrative of a large historical process -- the rise of liberalism, the struggle of African-Americans for freedom and equality, or the development of radical populism -- as if there were a single main current that characterizes the process. But in reality, almost any historical epoch is a swirling process of tension, conflict, and competing groups, and many stories must be told. This is certainly true in the case of African-American history, where radically different visions of the future and conceptions of needed strategies were at work at any given time. The distance between an Angelo Herndon and a W.E.B. Du Bois is as great as that between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eldridge Cleaver or Stokely Carmichael. And yet all of their stories are part of the long history of struggle for emancipation, equality, and dignity that America has lived. That is perhaps part of the meaning of Langston Hughes' refrain: "(America never was America to me.)"

‘Developing’ Indigenous Peoples: The racial legacy of colonialism in Mexico

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 30/06/2020 - 10:00am in


Blog, Mexico, race

On April 23, 2020, the Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) announced an austerity plan to confront the health and economic crisis provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures secured, among other things, a series of controversial megaprojects in the South-Southeast of the country. Despite its alleged anti-neoliberal stance, AMLO decided to carry ‘development’ into this historically ‘abandoned’ region since the beginning of his term. The Mayan Train, a cargo and tourist train, and the Trans-Isthmus Corridor, a dry canal project, will be two of the main means. The Mexican State once more assumed what indigenous communities need to produce ‘growth’, ‘richness’, ‘employment’ and ‘wellbeing’. Thus, while the pandemic evidences the crisis of capitalism and pushes forward discussions on degrowth and racial justice, AMLO’s extractivist agenda boosts tourism, industries, clientelism and even militarisation in indigenous regions. Although AMLO rhetorically pronounces himself against racism, are not these megaprojects precisely embodying it?

My article Indigeneity as a transnational battlefield: disputes over meanings, spaces, and peoples explores how ‘development’ influences the creation, representation, experience, and use of indigeneity. It elaborates some of the ideas from my book to expose how the rhetoric of ‘development’ together with that of mestizaje set up ‘an epistemological frame that acts as a catalyst in the minds of peoples to guide aspirations towards the “escalation” in the social structure and promote the looting and exploitation of lives and territories’. Indigenous peoples’ lives, mentalities and desires are like this being shaped to sustain capitalist expansion and hierarchies rooted in colonialism. They are seduced into the dominant society while extending inequalities, dispossession, racism and community fragmentation. This can be done via tourism and migration, as I explore, but it can also be through industrialisation, urbanisation, technologisation and even militarisation. This frame maintains the fantasies not only of a ‘unique’ and ‘inclusive’ Nation but also those of a hierarchical and linear ‘progress’. Furthermore, it restrains our hopes and desires and validates only one way of being in the world.

However, indigenous peoples are not simply recipients of these ideals, many resist and defend their ways of being, thinking, organising and envisioning life and the future. In effect, many communities have defended themselves against capitalist/colonialist plans for centuries. In Latin America, we began to witness this opposition more intensely since the celebration of the 500 Anniversary of the so-called “discovery” of America. Many scholars identified that this upsurge of indigenous movements demanding autonomy and respect was associated with a strategic use of their indigeneity in the context of multicultural policies and rights. Nevertheless, they disregarded the influence and incentive that indigenous struggles represented for other communities that denied, concealed or degraded their ‘indigeneity’. In my contribution, I thus consider how the Zapatista movement became an inspiration and referent to dignify their indigeneity. Inspired by the work of John Holloway, I argue that these communities might strengthen internally to advance political projects that dismantle ‘development’, obstruct capitalist/colonial incursions, and build an alternative society where being indigenous is not a cause of shame and oppression.

My article, therefore, engages in the discussion of who is indigenous and who and what determines indigeneity. The main argument is that indigeneity is a political space where multiple subjects from the local to the global dispute the management of lives and territories. Adding to the work of Marisol De La Cadena and Orin Starn, and Paula Lopez Caballero, I explore how indigeneity is constructed not only in relation to ‘non-indigenous’ but also by ‘other indigenous’. Indigenous peoples navigate the logics of the state and market; so, their indigeneity might be romanticised, folklorised, patronised, commodified, excluded, ignored or suppressed. But their indigeneity is also marked by experiences and practices of their own and other communities; history, struggles, solidarities, rebellions, communality, and dignity also impress what it is to be indigenous nowadays. Thus, indigeneity is a space that amalgamates these opposing perspectives fighting to keep control over ‘development’, and thus, over their lives and territories. Moreover, by linking indigeneity to development, I examine this alterity from a transnational perspective within the workings of neoliberal governance. This requires considering diverse and diasporic contexts as well as blurred distinctions and borders; multiple and complex indigeneities contest in a globalised world.

I develop this argument by taking as a point of departure the Coca community of Mezcala in West-Central Mexico. Mezcala is an example of how communities are dispersed and fragmented via ‘developmentalist’ ideals and dreams. Mezcalenses’ experiences and narratives shed light on how indigeneity is currently lived within a global scenario of acute racism and dispossession perpetuated by neoliberal governance. In order to understand this, it is key to look back to colonialism; in the region, it caused Mezcalenses ‘to forget’ their Coca origin, but still managed to maintain their indigeneity by taking refuge in their territory. Over time, different processes marked by the racial legacy of colonialism led some to reject or conceal their indigeneity. Their indigeneity became even more problematic as economic and political elites attempted to develop residential tourism into their territory. Their indigeneity was denied and folklorised, and some Mezcalenses became accomplices of this manoeuvre. However, others took inspiration from the Zapatistas and engaged in recovering their history as Coca people to reinforce their organisation and sense of community. Like this, they now articulate strategies and alternatives against capitalist/colonialist representations and plans and defy the epistemological frame deployed. Through my analysis, I envision that the transnationalisation of their political project can function as a way to reverse the damage, division, dispersion and dispossession done to the community via ‘development’.

Even if the experiences and understandings around indigeneity in Mezcala might differ from those in the South of the country, it assists us to reflect how ‘development’ and racism work together. We must acknowledge that development projects are racial projects; as Robtel Neajai Pailey claims ‘development is fundamentally raced, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.’ Therefore, the purpose of the article is to incite the reflection on how ‘development’ acts together with ethnic/racial rhetorics to insert an epistemological frame that upholds ‘whiteness’ and ‘Western’ as synonyms of ‘progress’ and ‘superiority’. In Mexico it upholds ‘indigeneity’ in opposition to ‘development’, and in this way subdue indigenous peoples and territories into capitalist and colonialist logics. So, when Mayas and Zapotecs question that megaprojects are acts of social justice, it is because they are aware of how racism traverses them. ‘Development’ marked by the racial legacy of colonialism functions as a manoeuvre of neoliberal governance; it legitimises the incursion into indigenous territories, the subjugation of their peoples and the destruction of nature. Furthermore, a megaproject that appropriates the Maya identity and culture only demonstrates how indigeneity is indeed a transnational battlefield where a dispute over meanings, spaces and peoples takes place.

The post ‘Developing’ Indigenous Peoples: The racial legacy of colonialism in Mexico appeared first on Progress in Political Economy (PPE).

A Tale of Three Protests — in Brooklyn

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 30/06/2020 - 3:28am in

The press has been full of news about protests over the cop-killing of George Floyd. I went to three early...

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Lower-Level Course Materials on Race, Racism, and Protests

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 29/06/2020 - 11:03pm in

Philosophy professors who will be teaching courses like “Contemporary Moral Problems” this fall may be interested in adding a unit on race, racism, protests, and related issues that have been at the forefront of the public’s attention recently. 

What set of readings and other materials would you recommend they assign?

Keep in mind:

  • the materials should be appropriate for a lower level course populated by many students who have never taken philosophy before
  • the unit may be just two to three weeks long
  • the materials may include other things besides readings
  • what we’re looking for is a set of readings or materials assigned in a certain order that work well together pedagogically.

Thank you.

The post Lower-Level Course Materials on Race, Racism, and Protests appeared first on Daily Nous.

When Are Access and Inclusion Also Racist?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 29/06/2020 - 4:14am in

Answer: when students of color get access to and are included in a university that has become inferior to that built for whites.

This can happen across universities, or across campuses in a university system, or across disciplines on a campus, or across time in one university.  Victories for access don't take care of the problem of unequal educational treatment.

This isn't to belittle this month's access victories.

First, the University of California Board of Regents voted to phase out the SAT in admissions.  This will push UC and others towards the holistic, qualitative assessment of candidates that they should have been practicing since the Bakke decision of 1978.  It's true that the Academic Senate's report suggests this isn't a magic bullet for increasing the presence of underrepresented minority (URM) students. It's also true that the decision was not good for faculty governance (see John Douglass's new paper on both points). All I'll note here is that the SAT is not just a test. It's an ideology, one that has consistently and wrongly claimed that racial inclusion lowers academic quality.  Politicians have used SAT scores to make whites think that widening access victimizes them.  It has been a technology of racial resentment that has helped unmake the public university. (See chapters 3-7 in my book of that name for an extended discussion of the structural racism of what I called rank meritocracy, featuring 1990s Gov. Pete Wilson's use of SAT scores to induce the UC Regents to ban affirmative action.)  The SAT's suspension is a real victory for cross-racial access.

The same can be said of the temporary reprieve for the DACA program won by a UC lawsuit.  UC president Janet Napolitano and Board of Regents chair John Pérez noted that UC would continue to fight for full access to UC and to financial aid, legal services, and other support systems for undocumented students brought to the US as children.  

Such actions “expressed the desire of those of us in California to make sure that we expanded opportunity and worked towards broad-based immigration reform as well,” Pérez said.  And so I think it would be no surprise to anybody that this university is going to continue to commit itself to representing the interest of all our students."

This is another access victory, which universities will need to work to sustain.

And yet access raises the question, access to what? What is the university that Napolitano and Pérez, as those most responsible for UC's finances, offer access to?

In brief, they offer today's students access to an underfunded UC.  Today's increased proportion of undocumented, first generation, low-income, immigrant, and URM students have fewer educational and related resources than did the cohorts that came before.

I documented this in a recent post.  Even after today's students pay a multiple of the tuition paid by students twenty years ago, their UC of 2020 has sixty percent of the net per-student funding compared to that earlier UC.  I noted that Pérez, as Assembly Speaker, was a leading enforcer of this austerity.

But is this negative funding pattern a racial pattern? We can check by comparing the share of white students at UC to the share of state income the government allocates to the university. 

The state's politicians have defunded UC in the exact proportion of its decline in white student share.

This is not a coordinated intention, but it has happened anyway. White enrollment and funding go down hand in hand--except when funding goes down faster during major economic downturns. Republican and Democratic leaders give diverse UC less money than they gave a comparatively white UC. This is what racist inclusion looks like.

Higher ed funding expresses systemic racism, even as most members of college communities oppose it.  We've seen the national pattern of "separate but unequal" in which most new white students go to selective colleges while most new students of color go to open access colleges--which have less money and lower graduation rates. We've seen the UC campuses with higher shares of students of color get less funding from UCOP. ("Rebenching" did not fully fix this).  In our UC system case, we see California state leaders--including leaders of racialized, educationally underserved communities--coming up with excuses, year after year, to fund UC in inverse proportion to its diversity. 

One can be consciously anti-racist while supporting systemic racism.  This is a pattern in U.S. political life. The pattern is top-down austerity management for institutions devoted to racial equality and related forms of social justice.  While politicians of both major parties have deregulated and de-taxed the private sector, they have applied austerity to public institutions, which offer reduced quality of service to populations that are often minority-majority.

The historian Elizabeth Hinton recently outlined the longer-term pattern:
President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the role police brutality and socioeconomic inequality played in urban uprisings when he convened the Kerner Commission in 1967. Its report warned that if American political and economic institutions failed to commit resources “sufficient to make a dramatic, visible impact on life in the urban ghetto,” the nation would become increasingly divided along racial lines and plagued by inequality — a “spiral” of segregation, violence and police force. Though the Kerner Commission and much subsequent research created "blueprints" for changing the “socioeconomic conditions that led to [George] Floyd’s premature death,” these research blueprints were never implemented.The tragedy of the war on poverty is that the promise of grass-roots empowerment and representation was not sustained on a wider level, or for entire communities, but only for individuals. While remnants of critical reforms are still with us, like the Head Start program, on the whole policymakers at all levels believed “maximum feasible participation” worked against their self-interest. By 1965, as many promising grass-roots initiatives began to receive the initial [Office of Economic Opportunity] grants, they were required to design programs with public officials and municipal authorities in top-level positions. Soon after, policymakers defunded and dissolved anti-poverty programs.

UC isn't being dissolved.  But it is being steadily defunded.  Napolitano and her OP, Pérez and his regents, aren't openly opposing the most likely scenario for the state portion of UC's 2020-21 budget--a net 7 percent cut from 2019-20's level, or -$260.8 million. This cut to the permanent budget would happen in a year when Covid-19 health and safety could add at least $1 billion to the system's costs.

The long defunding has reduced the power and vitality of UC grassroots--for example, of the academic departments with a fraction of their former funding for speakers and internal research, which now depend on the accident of private donations. Similarly, UC's equivalent of anti-poverty programs--for students facing food insecurity, housing insecurity, and mental health issues--are also funded at a fraction of estimated need.

Replicating the other key post-Kerner retrenchment, UC governance is more top-down than ever.    On the important matter of selecting the new president, the Board excluded the Academic Advisory Committee from basic participation in the search for the new president: even its Chair was not allowed to attend selection committee meetings. UCOP treated the UCSC wildcat COLA strike as a breach of contract discipline rather than as a desperate attempt to communicate basic needs. Participants still face disciplinary charges at Santa Cruz in spite of faculty objections. The Board of Regents remain literally inaccessible to faculty, who may not address the Board except through the president (Standing Order 105.2(e)).

Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom, Janet Napolitano, John Pérez, and their legislative comrades have replicated in higher ed the strategy that 1960s politicians applied  to cities after Black uprisings against police violence and racist underdevelopment.  They have expressed support for their developmentalist institutions while taking money and power out of them.  Of course the social damage done by underfunding public services for Black and other communities has been far greater than that wrought by underfunding of public universities.  But the practices are analogous.

The public university funding model is broken--and racist.  More inclusion as such won't fix that. Funding parity will fix it.  That means the 66 Dollar Fix or some similar Covid-era stimulus funding that gets per-student resources to the benchmark established for white UC.

Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 26/06/2020 - 8:09am in

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

June 25, 2020 Nikhil Pal Singh on race, class, policing, protest • Michael Kinnucan of Brooklyn DSA’s electoral committee on left victories in the NYC primary elections