Category: Social Justice

anti-racismBooksSocial Justice

Antiracism, the remix has dropped

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You is an important and engaging un-telling of racism. If you find yourself home with young readers over the coming days, giving it a family read would be time well spent. Here’s why.

A year and a half ago, I was gifted Ibram X. Kendi‘s masterful history of racism in America (it is impossible to separate the two) Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. This masterpiece of history, like any critical work, keeps drawing me back. Like The Roots Things Fall Apart, or Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life there is something eternal about its truths. It hasn’t left our family desk since we got it; it is often read, often sampled (in the sense of those musical works) into the fabric of how we parse the world.

Kendi and Jason Reynolds have resampled Stamped from the Beginning, and have brought forth genius in Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.

History as Remix

Kendi and Reynolds say that this is not a history book

This is NOT a history book.

This is a book about the here and now.

A book to help us better understand why we are where we are.

A book about race.

I didn’t really understand that until now, even after a cursory read. The point is that the musical form remix gives you the context of the old — Killing Me Softly sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, sampled by the Fugees, sampled by… — but folds it into the reality of the here and now. In Stamped, the racist tropes of the past are sampled in and placed into the present. Jonathan Jackson is killed liberating while Black in 1971, like Tamir Rice is killed playing while Black in 2014, like Angela Davis is jailed thinking while Black in 1971…

Angela arrested thinking while Black

But just like the Fugees live on re-sampled, the uncompromising feminism and anti-racism of Angela Davis is still fresh now. She’s still working actively to end a racialized injustice system. And so the strategies, analyses, actions can be re-sampled for generations to come.

Weaving an intricate story from Cotton Mather (racist) to Angela Davis (anti-racist)

History is dead, the remix is life.

Jason’s Voice

There is deep magic at work in the pairing of Reynolds and Kendi. I’ve seen Reynolds speak at book fairs a couple of times and each time witnessed his amazing capacity to engage with youth — 5 year olds, 12 year olds, 20 somethings — in a way that respects their intellect and their capacity take on important and difficult subjects. There is no mystery why he is The U.S.’s National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. That respect and faith shines in award winning books like Ghost, As Brave As You, and The Boy in the Black Suit.

I know there are a lot — A LOT — of young people who hate reading. I know that many of these book haters are boys. I know that many of these book-hating boys, don’t actually hate books, they hate boredom. If you are reading this, and you happen to be one of these boys, first of all, you’re reading this so my master plan is already working (muahahahahahaha) and second of all, know that I feel you. I REALLY do. Because even though I’m a writer, I hate reading boring books too.

Jason Reynolds

The voice of the book is that of a couple of older brothers or friends laying out the shape of how we got here. The voice is authentic, and even as a parent it called me back to the “old school” brothers who would share stories of their days in the movement, offering life advice for the here and now. It conjures up a call just the other day with my aunt who’s in her 80’s, weaving in stories of how her grandmother shielded her from the Klan with what has to be done now. Remix.

This commitment that both authors have to the educate, to make plain and to engage delivers a book that speaks on many levels and across audiences. They say that this is a Young Adult book, but it is probably the most accessible “made plain” text on racism in the United States that I have encountered.

Haters, Cowards, and Antiracists

In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Kendi develops a quick categorization of attitudes or stances on racism that is kind of understandable by non-academics. Segregationists uphold the racial hierarchy, Assimilationists include a lot of us who go along to get along and remain silent and complicit; while Antiracists work to actively put in place a world of equality and justice. Antiracism for Kendi is a process, we all have a lot of baggage to work through. But still even this is deep for a literate, thinking, feeling adult to process.

In something on the order of 200 pages, they make this plain to all ages

Haters, cowards, antiracists

Courage is the power of the mind to overcome fear.

Martin Luther King

Another thing made plain? intersectionality.

Here’s a link to an interview which aired last week.

Start reading.

AlgorithmsSocial Justice

Rediet Abebe: towards an algorithmic justice

The opposite of poverty is justice

Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative founder

On February 27th, Dr. Rediet Abebe gave a prescient talk at Georgia Tech. During her talk, entitled “Designing Algorithms for Social Good”, she gave highlights from a research career that has already produced remarkable results at the intersection of algorithms, optimization, and social computing.

The surreal portion of the talk came at the beginning, where she detailed algorithms for the distribution of social benefits that could be optimized to improve the chances that people on the margins survive and thrive in the face of shocks. Shocks like wars, recessions, or viral pandemics.

How do we design policies of support when we know the crises will come? Dr Abebe has an algorithm for that.

The slide above — “A Model of Welfare” — is taken from her paper Subsidy Allocations in the Presence of Income Shocks and speaks so directly to the plight of the millions of gig economy workers, restaurant staff, undocumented, underemployed and others whose very ability to find adequate food and shelter are endangered as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic compounds. In short, a humane and just welfare system has to account for the events that are likely to drive people on the margins — and millions who may consider themselves to be far from the margins — into poverty. With the increase income inequality and the looming impact of climate change and other threats, the reactive and piecemeal approaches to social welfare are clearly not up to the challenge.

The words of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative resonate: “The opposite of poverty is justice”. It would be an amazing world where the tools of computing were bent toward justice and equity. I hope that you’ll read Dr Abebe’s work, and ask your elected officials for justice. I hope that you contribute whatever you can to ease the burden of those around you.

Here’s a recent talk of Dr Abebe’s for inspiration

human rightsSocial Justice

They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds

On this past Sunday, we marched in Decatur, GA in unity with millions others in India and across the world in opposition to India’s Citizen Amendment Act. To quote the Wikipedia article

The act was the first instance of religion being overtly used as a criterion for citizenship under Indian nationality law.

There are many complexities to the law. In summary, it means that Muslims freeing persecution are not eligible for refugee status. Most immediately, the bill would mean the exclusion of the 40,000 Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing genocide in Myanmar. It also impacts the perhaps tens of millions of Muslims who came to India in the years since the partition of 1947. Families that have lived in India for generations lack the documentation to substantiate their citizenship status (if you had to pack up and leave in an instant with the clothes on your back, documentation might be the least of your worries).

But it to say that combined with other recent legislation, it has the potential to make 100 million Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities stateless. This is an unprecedented human tragedy in the making.

It’s immediate impact has been the increase in violence against Muslims and those of all faiths and castes who support a state based upon tolerance and a respect for all humanity.

The most poignant protests have been the women-led non-violent demonstrations in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighborhood.

Understandably, the bill has been condemned by the international community for example by Human Rights Watch, there is stunning overlap with the Nazi government’s 1935 Reich Citizenship Law.

It was a blessing and gift for us to stand on the right side of history in support of human rights.

During the march there were a few tense moments. Our daughter was concerned about arrest. Thanks to the tremendous service of the de-escalation professionals on hand, our interactions with the police were constructive.

I reminded our daughter that right to assemble, even to drink Boba Tea when and where she chooses was earned by the sacrifices of children like her who had marched in Atlanta, Montgomery, Chicago, and other countless places. The following day was the “official” Martin Luther King holiday. We enjoyed tea and took a moment in John Lewis Plaza in Freedom Park to reflect.

The Bridge is a monument in Freedom Park memorializing the Civil Rights movement

Photograph of an Atlanta Civil Rights activist in Freedom Park
human rightsPhysicsSocial Justice

The stateless quantum mechanics of Abdus Salam

A month back I watched a documentary on Abdus Salam, the first physicist from Pakistan to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. During his lifetime, he made significant contributions to quantum mechanics and was awarded the Nobel for his development of theory of the electroweak interaction.

You can watch it on Netflix, here is a trailer

He was from Punjab, the region of my partner’s ancestors. Lately my partner and I have been talking through this sense of statelessness as a way of being. When the partition of India occurred in 1947, her grandparents had to flee Lahore — her grandmother and perhaps millions of others did not survive. My partner has survived “migration under duress” from Tanzania to Botswana and living in the U.S. as a permanent resident under an “evolving/devolving” immigration regime. Traveling on an African passport has brought me new insights on what exclusion and racism mean.

All that said, I have a deep lived compassion and empathy for the Abdus Salaam’s of the world. Salaam was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Pakistan refuses to recognize it as a legitimate branch of Islam.

According to the just passed Indian Citizenship Act, there are no Muslims in Pakistan who face religious persecution. So the defacement of Abdus Salam’s grave would, according to the act, constitute fake news. You can watch the Netflix documentary if you like and view a photo of the headstone. It is hard to square the fake news proclamation with 150 years of documented persecution.

The world seems in the process of canceling the right of refugees to basic claims on humanity. At this point, I don’t know what to do, other than proclaim, affirm and support the right of all humans to a country, to a place to call home, to the right to exist. Please remember Abdus Salam and the millions of people — mothers, aunts, children, scientists, cooks, farmers, hawkers and all — who today struggle to find a home.

Social Justice

Because Peace Requires Bravery

The picture and words are from the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It is a memorial to the 4,400 and some victims of racial terror — mostly African Americans were murdered between the years 1877 and 1950.

Last weekend as I tried to wrap my mind around the tragedy, my mind wandered back 18 years to a peaceful summer Sunday when my partner and I drove to the Gilroy garlic festival. Fresh garlic cloves, garlic fries, garlic bread, garlic ice cream. I remember the tastes and aromas yes, but more than that the sounds of ordinary joy on a sunlit day. Families. Children. Peace. Acceptance.

When we visited the museum in Montgomery last year, it had struck me that in 1898 — the year that my grandmother was born — over 100 Black people had been lynched — many for the crime of being the first Black person seen by the mob. According to FBI records, 2019 is on track to surpass the racial brutality of 1898.

The victims of racial violence in El Paso and Dayton — like those a hundred years ago — had committed no act other than being born Brown or Black, speaking Spanish to a loved one or friend, or being in the same crowd as their Black neighbor.

Tonight I did not have much more to offer than sitting with my children, embracing them, and offering prayers. Remembering. Tonight, quoting a line from the memorial “We will remember, with hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

The quote “Because Peace Requires Bravery” sticks with me. I meditate on Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the brave mothers of the disappeared in Argentina who steadfastly refused to be silent, refused to stop calling their country to account. Persistence. “With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.”

Persistence, action, bravery.

BooksinclusionSocial Justice

Aspiring towards anti-racism

The Atlantic magazine posted an a day ago article “We’re All Tired of Being Called Racists”. The article presented views of some supporters of the current (as of August 1, 2019) U.S. president at a recent rally. Many were perplexed at being labeled “racist”.

One of those interviewed in the piece insisted that they couldn’t be racist because their children were of mixed race. Yet Strom Thurmond — one of the U.S.’s most virulent segregationists of the 20th century — had an African American daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Eduard Bloch was a Jewish Austrian doctor protected from anti-Semitic terror for a number of years during the 1930’s — a lone act of compassion during the anschluss. There are many cruel contradictions in this landscape.

Strict definitions of what racism is and isn’t aren’t fluid enough deal with the capacities that we each have for compassion and prejudice. Showing compassion for a daughter when enacting so many repressive laws doesn’t seem an acceptable bar. Yet, don’t we all deserve a path to redemption.

It seems so much easier and just to think in terms of allow all of us to escape binary traps, to aspire to, and ultimately attain some better version of ourselves and our society.

I think that this quote from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is spot on when he writes:

No one becomes ‘not racist,’ despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be antiracist on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage. We need to read books that force us to confront our self-serving beliefs and make us aware that ‘I’m not racist’ is a slogan of denial.

We can each actively aspire to be the anti-racist. Some first steps could include:

If all else fails, think in terms of how the children of one hundred years from now will judge you, and then work backwards.

AISocial Justice

Which cities use facial recognition?

San Francisco famously banned the use of facial recognition by police and other municipal authorities on May 14th of this year. Citizens in Detroit angered by the use of facial recognition in Project Green Light forced a moratorium on its use. Although Orlando has halted for an immediate deployment, a trial is being conducted involving police officers only. According to the Natalie Bednarz, the Digital Communications Supervisor in the Orlando office of Communications and Neighborhood Relations

if the City of Orlando Police Department decides to ultimately implement official use of the technology, City staff would explore procurement and develop a policy governing the technology

Email communication from the Orlando office of Communications and Neighborhood Relations

This report by Georgetown Law School reports that Chicago uses facial recognition in policing and throughout its mass transit systems.

Beyond surveillance cameras, several cities have been forced by ICE to turn over drivers license photos to ICE’s facial recognition software to identify persons who are not U.S. citizens. Not only is facial recognition software notoriously bad at identifying faces of African Americans, but systems score poorly in identifying people who identify ethnically as Latinx.

The Georgetown Law School in 2016 put together a list of city and state governments across the U.S. that use facial recognition.

Should facial recognition be banned altogether in policing?