Category: Social Justice

Black Lives MatterEducationSocial Justice

Injustice at Agnes Scott College

As I walk around Decatur, Georgia where I reside, the spaces close to Agnes Scott College are decorated with Black Lives Matter signs.

Black Lives Matter sign near Agnes Scott College

If Black Lives really mattered to Agnes Scott College, Black and Brown students of the college would have the support and encouragement to fulfill their stellar intrinsic potential. These students would be surrounded by faculty and staff that affirmed them, that welcomed them into their offices without reservation, serving up intellectually challenging but uplifting discussion, encouraging words, a chai if need be, providing courses and learning spaces in which their brilliance was able to shine. If Black Lives Mattered, then the retention and promotion of Black faculty would be a priority. If Black Lives Mattered, then the College would have addressed larger issues of reparations for the enslaved labor used by its founder, (Confederate) Colonel George W. Scott. If Black Lives Mattered, then active participation in the education of Black women in the surrounding community would be a priority, it would be evident in a vibrant Beacon Hill (a Black enclave of Decatur adjacent to campus) community.

From the Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 2. Isn’t it time for reparations?

Gayatri Sethi, my partner, was laid off from Agnes Scott College three years ago today. Dr. Sethi unfailingly and generously served up the affirmation and advocacy so critical to making Black Lives Matter.

The explanation given as to why she was dismissed was “budget cuts”. Then as now it rings hollow, like the punitive actions taken against so many Black and Brown women in academia whose stories are now coming forward in places like #BlackInTheIvory on Twitter.

For going on ten years, I witnessed her put heart, love, and soul into the education of women at Agnes Scott. She taught classes in Feminist Studies and Education as an adjunct and then was hired to help design and roll out a global studies program named Summit. She put all the skill and meticulousness that had earned her a Stanford Ph.D. into crafting the program, going beyond the “drive by” cultural exoticization which so much of global learning — crafting the classes and preparation that would prepare young women for transformative and meaningful experiences abroad. Experiences centered on shared humanity, the ability to understand people for who they are. I watched as she developed partnerships with communities in Trinidad, and challenged her colleagues to decolonize their instruction.

She, and by extension, we, paid a hefty price for that much needed boldness.

After the election of 2016, she was an advocate and trusted advisor for Black, African, Muslim, and South Asian students. Being an advocate, and trusted advisor for young women in crisis was not viewed positively by the administration, but seen as a direct threat to the very core of the college. She was told to end her unapologetic Black Lives Matter work, and cease public support of Muslim student protestors on campus. These activities she was told, reflected poorly on the college administration.

As the travel bans came into effect I could barely contain the rage I felt as they attempted to prevent her from showing basic human compassion to her students, silence her from speaking from her lived experience of traveling through interrogations and harassment for the crime of holding an African passport while Brown. For her to be dismissed as an “agitator” for the offense of showing academic and human integrity.

I witnessed over those days prior to her dismissal what seemed like an endless parade of Black students whose existence, competence had been questioned and attacked by faculty, only to be raised up by her words, by the meditations she would slip in, the way she would center them in classes. The crushing of Black spirits that I witnessed her intercede in was hard for me to watch — I witnessed those tears and heard the fears in the phone conversations.

I think that my anger was made even greater by knowing the depth of the injustice. I knew things didn’t need to be this way. I attended Morehouse as an undergrad, I went to nursery school at Spelman College (a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta) during the late 1960’s, was cared for by Black women student activists who were changing the world, and I had known and been raised by Black and African women who’d attended Spelman and other historically Black colleges. I am living proof that it is possible to educate Black people, Black women without destroying them. That all to say, that I am a witness to the confidence and nurturing of spirt that an all-women’s college could be. Time and again, I witnessed that potential betrayed at Agnes Scott.

I saw Black women on the staff come and then go. The same modality of repression. Tears and frustration. Yet saw my partner offering the same compassion and solidarity and empathy with those colleagues.

After word got out of my partner’s dismissal, many of her students came to rally together. They appealed. They wrote petitions. They used the hashtag #ThankYouDrSethi to call attention to what they had experienced. They were silenced, disciplined and ignored.

In partnership with many of those students, a community of support called Alt College was created. I watched many continue to flower as budding designers, scientists, health professionals, and activists. This in spite of the college. Alt College and the ensuing community provided the kind of safe and uplifting place that they and others like them so desperately need in these times.

I took the photos in this post on a day — June 7, when there was a Black Lives Matter protest in Decatur. I briefly pulled into a side street on campus after taking a photo, my car’s hazard flashers on. All of 20 seconds. Within that amount of time, a campus police officer started running toward me with a grim face. White protestors streamed by, many walking across the campus. If I had stayed until the officer had arrived, would any of the woke protest participants bothered to question things? I didn’t wait to find out.

Today, academia is being unmasked and challenged and held to account for its participation in white supremacy. The ShutDownStem site has resources that will aid you in confronting and ending racism in academia. I thought that it was time to say something, to add my voice to the many who’ve come forth.

In the spirit of offering something concrete for those to come, a few suggestions:

  1. Black parents students who value their education and safety have to be discerning about where they and their loved ones go to school. This attitude has to start long before college. Demand figures on
    graduation rates, the number of Black students that have received meaningful employment after graduation, and acceptance to graduate programs. Do the research on students that have left the institution. Talk to the people that have gone there. Look beyond the numbers and get to the lived experiences.
  2. Students, faculty and staff everywhere can demand accountability in the promotion and retention of faculty and staff of color.
  3. Students, faculty and staff everywhere can demand that the faculty, staff and students harmed by racist and anti-Black policies be recompensed for the damages done.
  4. The Decatur community, Agnes Scott alums, and those who currently work there can demand that Agnes Scott College institute reparations to address the the exploitation of enslaved African Americans by founder George W. Scott and anti-Black gentrification that still persists in Decatur.

Black Lives Matter.

anti-racismPolicingSocial Justice

Be a prison abolitionist

I am a prison abolitionist.

Being a prison abolitionist does not mean that I believe that all prisons should be destroyed.

It does mean that I believe that the fact that United States uses prisons and policing to solve problems in health care, education, and justice is itself criminal and must be abolished. It means that the way prisons are used to enforce white supremacy and anti-Blackness is a crime against humanity and must be abolished. It means that I believe we have the capacity to imagine ways that cities and communities can be rebuilt, supported, and valued in ways that promote safe and healthy lives. It means the terror that is inflicted upon Black and Brown bodies by policing as currently implemented — on graphic display across all major U.S. cities now, but so much a daily part of how Black and Brown life is lived — is a crime against humanity and must be abolished. Being a prison abolitionist means that I refuse to accept that things must be the way they are now.

I am going to share the personal anecdotes and reflections that brought me to this point, but let me first share the eloquent and to-the-point words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore that lay out the case far better than I could. Be a prison abolitionist.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore discusses abolition with Naomi Murakawa

When I was in grade-school, we would spend some Sunday evenings driving my grandmother to a small correctional facility for young women. She worked there a few hours a week as a counselor. She would tell stories about the young women there, most had been placed there due to petty crimes like shoplifting. Most had not completed high school. If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that better schools should be an alternative to prison. If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that punitive discipline in schools, and other practices that force out young Black girls and women from schools into prisons should be abolished. If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that ready access to support systems, to the kind of counseling and encouragement that my grandmother provided should be the alternative to prisons. If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that sex work should not be punitively criminalized. That protections for sex workers should be one alternative to prison.

It turns out that my uncle carried on his mother’s work and spent his career as counselor at a correctional facility in Georgia. Many of the Black men that he would speak to had not finished high school. His clients had deep emotional and psychological problems, addictions some, that had brought them to the prison system. If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that the answer to the alarming incarceration of Black youth is to build better schools, not bigger prisons. You believe that access to health care is a critical step. You believe that restorative justice in the high school and in courts is a start. You believe that people who have resorted to petty crimes like check forgery deserve viable alternatives for earning a living wage, not death at the knees of police. You believe that Black youth deserve to have their souls elevated in schools, not their souls crushed. You don’t believe we need military equipment and predator drones in the hands of our police.

When I was a graduate student, Ambassador Andrew Young, one of the iconic leaders of the U.S. Civil Rights movement paid a visit to the university. He had been the second Black mayor of the city I grew up in, and was one of the people we looked up to growing up. I asked him what I could contribute as a computer scientist. Immediately he responded that educational software in the prisons was essential — there are so many young brothers in prison he said, and they don’t have access to education. I think about that often. Don’t my brothers deserve schools, not prisons? I thought to myself. If you are a prison abolitionist, then you believe that we need to build schools that can educate the Brothers, that we need to build systems that distinguish between the “crimes of desperation” and the criminals that are committing large scale voter suppression, murdering innocent runners, or trying to arrest bird watchers. If you are a prison abolitionist, then the Black and Latinx people imprisoned for attempting to sell or distribute marijuana should be freed and those dealing with addiction should have access to adequate mental and emotional support. Why do we imprison Black folk while former elected officials make millions from their involvement in marijuana growing initiatives?

We know that incarceration rates in the United States are an injustice to all

We know that Black men are “six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men”

Racial disparities in imprisonment — this is how we enforce white supremacy

If you are a prison abolitionist, then you believe that a young Black man’s life is worth more than a trash can

If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that someone shouldn’t be locked up, brutalized, and exposed to COVID-19 because they can’t afford to pay a parking ticket.

Seven of the 10 largest outbreaks in the country have been at correctional facilities

Equal Justice Inititive

Let’s be prison abolitionists.

You can start by supporting the following organizations

You can start by reading

Just start somewhere.

Update 6/14/2020

Last night (6/13), there was violent police repression of a protest following the police murder of Rayshard Brooks.

It underscores the urgency of police and prison abolition.

Please donate to http://atlsolidarity.org if you have the reaources

AtlantaGeorgiaSocial Justice

Why is Atlanta burning?

When they ask you why Atlanta was burning last night, tell them it was an uprising.

If you want a quick answer, you can quote the economist Thomas Piketty

Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse.

Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty

Tell them that a Black life should be worth more than a pane of glass, or a store, but that nearly a thousand Black lives in Atlanta’s surrounding counties have been lost because a governor refused to take action to protect them from deaths of inequality.

There were fires and police beatings taking place down on DeKalb Avenue not far from where I live. If you know Civil War history, this was where General Sherman began his march to the Sea in 1864.

They will tell you that this 1864 march this caused a path of fire and destruction down from Atlanta to Savannah. Maybe they won’t tell you that the army burned down a system of slavery, torture, rape, and a racialized state built upon terror. They won’t tell you that Solomon Luckie was one of the first people to die in the shelling of Atlanta that year. A Black barber, who I’m damn suredied happy knowing that his people were finally free. Is it a wonder that the governor of this state singled out barbershops to begin operation with the pandemic still raging?

Maybe they should tell you that millions like Solomon were freed from dire oppression. They surely won’t tell you how my great grand parents at that moment were freed from bondage by those fires.

They might also not tell you that in 1906, the year my grandmother was born, Black communities were targeted and destroyed by White mobs in the Atlanta race riots. Along this same stretch of street, my mother’s cousin still recounts how they would shudder at home as Klansmen galloped through the street at night. Or how the Atlanta Black community watched as countless cases were fabricated against Black men and women, some resulting in death penalty convictions meted out in vengeful certitude. At least those were spared lynching.

And still today, despite decades of Black mayors, Atlanta suffers among the highest levels of income inequality in the United States — and hence the Western world. You could read The Legend of the Black Mecca to understand the nuances of why these inequalities persist. To understand why the Black laborers — the sanitation workers, the delivery drivers, the gig economy workers, the patient nurses at assisted living facilities — are vulnerable to afflictions like COVID and have few bad options in terms of health, education and food. Their families locked out of access to mobility because of structural inequities that preclude access to healthy food, healthcare, safe and affordable housing and the other factors that contribute to a stable and fulfilled life.

Fulton county in which Atlanta exists, has the highest COVID death toll in the state. That the toll is highest among African Americans should come as no mystery given the work that puts us at more risk and the factors that make access to healthcare so precarious,

They might tell you they can just vote. But I’m going to remind that racialized gerrymandering in Georgia is a thing, I’m going to remind that racist voter suppression in Georgia probably impacted the governor’s election (and will probably impact the 2020 election). I’m going to recount how I spent half a day last week tracking down an absentee voter application that I sent in that was “lost”. So tell them that our democracy is in shambles.

They’ll tell you that the oppressed should be non-violent. Perhaps with organization and time. Tell them the origins of the violence are still not clear. Remind them that there were fires in Hong Kong too. Remind them that the fires pale in comparison to the perpetual state sponsored violence ravaging Black, LatinX, Indigenous, and Asian communities throughout the United States.

You ask why is Atlanta burning. I’ll try to tell you how it feels. That it feels like the U. S. has been in a perpetual state of war on the Black and Indigenous populations since its founding. So it should not surprise you that the military is sending forces and predator drones to Minnesota.

What is it called when a country wages war on its most vulnerable civilian population? When it is ok with seeing its marginalized people die preventable deaths? Was it ok with you that there was an uprising in Lodz? Do you want us to get to that point?

When we know from all the data available that our lives are of no value to you, that our votes do not count, that the education of our children is of no importance, then perhaps the right question is why it took so long for the fires to start? This is why we say Black Lives Matter. Is in an affirmation of our existence in the face of your insistence that we just lay down and die.

If you understand the gilets jaunes in Paris, then you don’t need to ask me why Atlanta or Minneapolis is burning. If you understand the Hong Kong protests, then you have the capacity to understand and be in solidarity with Black people in Atlanta.

This is an uprising. This is democracy breaking through.

Update 6/14/2020:

Friday night (6/12), Rayshard Brooks was killed by police at a Wendy’s drive through. Shot in the back. He had fallen asleep while waiting to order, tried to run away, ran after a brief scuffle, and was shot as he ran away.

Protestors gathered immediately. I am told that the protests had been peaceful. Saturday the police showed up with riot gear and US military battlefield equipment. The protesters were gassed, and then burned down the Wendy’s and occupied the interstate.

You can also see updates from @ColonizedLocal on twitter

Please also donate to http://atlsolidarity.org if you have the resources.

Healthcare InequalityInequalitySocial Justice

A review of Capital and Ideology

Thomas Piketty is a French economist famous for documenting the egregious thirty year rise in inequality. When his new book Capital and Ideology came out a few months ago, I started writing up notes — mostly based upon his presentation slides for the book and his course notes for a class based on the book. With each passing day, the inequalities he discussed took on increasingly fatal dimensions. Tens of thousands across the globe, in the U.S., and hundreds in my home state of Georgia have now died thanks to ideologies that uphold inequality.

As the U.S. in particular continues to unravel thanks to its attachment to an “ideology of inequality” I have four takeaways from the book:

  • It’s a decent read if you have the time and patience. You could probably get what you need from the presentation and course slides.
  • Piketty makes the point that if society can’t sell its citizens on going along with a given kind of inequality, then that society is going to collapse. We’re seeing now the early stages of what that collapse looks like.
  • The U.S, Brazil, U.K., and India in particular are trapped in fatal ideologies handed down from the slavery and colonialism.
  • The only bright spot I see for people on the dying end of the inequality is solidarity. We can learn from each other successes — we don’t have to accept this, we have the power to struggle against this. We have the power to say “no more”.

So who is Piketty?

He’s an economist that documents disparity. A succinct example is his famous “elephant graph” of income inequality in the U.S. from his 2014 book Capital in the 21st century.

The top 10% has regained 50% of the wealth.

Since the 1980’s income inequality has exploded in the U.S. and across the world.

Of course, if you’re Black (like I am), or Brown, or Indigenous and living in the U.S., this is nothing new. You probably have years of lived “receipts” from your life and those of friends and loved ones to validate the enormous disparities in wealth, healthcare, and justice. You want academics to “tell you something you didn’t know”, or at least offer some new thoughts on how to re-envision and bring about a more equitable world. Piketty doesn’t have many answers — for those there are hundreds if not thousands of local organizations like The Black Women’s Health Imperative, The Poor People’s Campaign, The Black Mamas Bail Out, Southerners on New Ground consisting of real people making real progress to address the myriad dimensions of inequality that are literally killing us. What Piketty (in the slides) does offer are nice graphs that can help place the struggle in an international and historical perspective. Maybe it’s supplemental information to your lived experience or the brilliant work of Angela Davis or Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Things probably can’t go on like this for much longer

Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for
them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in
danger of collapse.

Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology

As of today, some would argue that this society has collapsed. In April, the unemployment rate was believed to be 14% for White Americans, 16.7% for Black people, and 19% for LantinX people. That rate is expected to be much higher in May. This system of inequality has left 15% of its children without adequate food.

As of today, racial inequality in health care means that 70% of the COVID-19 deaths in Detroit are in the under-served African American community, who are just 30% of the city’s population. The COVID Tracking Project’s Racial Data Dashboard is showing how the human rights tragedies in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia are unfolding. In the age of coronavirus, the U.S. does not have an answer for the fact that 80% of the African American residents of an assisted living facility in the neighborhood I used to live in are infected with the virus; or why the city of Albany, GA, whose population is 73% Black has had critical medical infrastructure de-funded over the years, suffered the first deaths due to coronavirus in the Georgia, and has been dealing with one of the world’s highest infection rates.

The farcical “reasons for” inequality play out in the rates of infection and death of the undocumented, in Indigenous communities, among the incarcerated, in LatinX communities, unsheltered communities, low income communities, and among Black communities cities like Albany, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New Orleans, and too many other cities. Deaths attributed to racist systems of healthcare access that were too long unquestioned. For this, I think Ibram X. Kendi said it best in an Atlantic article

Why do racial disparities exist?
Why are black people generally being infected and dying at higher rates than other racial groups? This is the question of the hour. And too many Americans are answering this new question in the old, familiar way. They are blaming poverty, but refusing to recognize how racism distinguishes black poverty from white poverty, and makes black poverty more vulnerable to a lethal contagion.

And Americans are blaming black people.
To explain the disparities in the mortality rate, too many politicians
and commentators are noting that black people have more underlying
medical conditions but, crucially, not explaining why. Or they blame the choices made by black people, or poverty, or obesity—but not racism.

Ibram Kendi, from Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus

Of course, if you’re Black (like I am), or Brown, or Indigenous and living in the U.S., this is nothing new, you have a lifetime of receipts that have shown with clarity America’s commitment to inequality.

unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse.

The recent murder of Breonna Taylor tragically brings to mind the assassination of Fred Hampton, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery follows the familiar pattern of state sanctioned lynching.

If you are old enough to remember the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, you know what societal collapse in the U.S. looks like, and this is it — you’re on the edge of dread waiting for the eventual spark that leads to the 2020 version of Watts, or Detroit or Ferguson.

The same patterns of inequality happen across the globe

It won’t come as a surprise that the kinds of ideology that enable these patterns of inequity happen across the globe.

Surprise, Brown and Black people see their interests protected by the Left
White supremacy and inequality cleave society in France
The racial, class, and caste divides are global
The disparities in the U.S. that you knew.
The divides mirrored in Britain

That the same race based inequalities play out in Brazil, France, and the U.K. on the one hand is not encouraging. That Black Britons are also more at risk of COVID death like their U.S. counterparts is tragically believable. That the persistent divides in caste in India mirror the U.S. inequalities is tragic. Piketty’s analysis of caste inequality is probably not nuanced enough to give a complete picture, but maybe Nitin Bharti’s dissertation is one of many starting points You don’t wish these hardships on anyone.

I struggle to come to answer the “Now, what is to be done?” question.

The paths forward

As I’ve thought through the book — or rather just the ways in which inequality and ideology intersect — a few things stood out.

Talk to your children.

In long breakfast conversations, my partner, Gayatri Sethi, and I talked to the 15 and 13 year old how Capitalism and it’s ideologies play out in the mess we’re in. My partner gave the unedited version of her sparring with various nobel laureates as a University of Chicago economics undergrad, only now having the words to express the depth of the racism inherit in their view of the world. She explained the meaning of the Tswana saying “a person is a person among people”, that humanity cannot be reduced to a profit motive, that you can only exist fully in a society when you acknowledge the humanity of others. We talked through Piketty’s The Economics of Inequality with the 15 year old — he understood it and wrote a successful book report!

Maybe building a generation that knows that things are wrong, and they don’t have to be this way, and what alternatives are is a good start.

Seek solidarity

My daughter at a solidarity protest

There are so many people around the globe, and down the block making moves to change things. Angela Davis mentioned the amazing work of Brazillian activist and councilwoman Marielle Franco, that continues despite her assassination. The protest movement in Hong Kong was largely responsible for the successful grass-roots response to the coronavirus, thus providing a path for effective action in the face of a pandemic. The same same activists are protesting today. The Indian state of Kerala has demonstrated how to effectively confront coronavirus with limited resources. With inequality so perversely compromising the lives of so many, there is actually a wealth of human ingenuity and experience that can lead us out of this mess.

Organize

In the U.S. an election is also looming. Again, it is worth noting the Hong Kong movement created the infrastructure that zeroed out COVID-19 in spite of an anemic government response. It’s worth remembering that movements like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Sit Ins, and the heroic Voter Registration Efforts of the the 1960s created changes that democratized the United States without the support of and in spite of the U.S. political parties. Freedom Riders did not need Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Libertarians, or Marxists to validate the legitimacy of their collective action. We don’t need politicians to approve our struggle for freedom or to save us from tyranny. The inequality graphs point to significant coalitions of every day people that could be organized around tangible change across divides of race, class, caste, and privilege.

I guess to close, I see room for optimism, hope and justice, because I know that human beings have shown an astounding inventiveness in transcending that which divides them in order to build that which saves them.

Historyhuman rightsSocial Justice

Martin Luther King was assassinated 52 years ago today

The post from Dr Bernice King is a sobering reminder of her father’s assassination 52 years ago in Memphis Tennessee

There are three things that run through my head as I sit with that.

He died in solidarity with sanitation workers

The Memphis sanitation workers were on strike to protest inhumane working conditions — two fellow workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker had been crushed to death inside of a garbage truck.

Sanitation workers in your city are putting themselves at extraordinary risk providing key services while a pandemic is going on. Healthcare workers too. What are the conditions under which they work where you live? Do they have the right to strike for adequate pay and healthcare? Are they afforded the protections that they need to stay alive and well?

He died calling for an end to poverty

During 1967, Dr. King had focused attention on an idea called The Poor People’s Campaign. Among it’s objectives were to provide everyone with the right to a basic guaranteed income. The idea being that in crises, no one should be forced into poverty. No one should have to live in poverty. The idea being that a country in which inequality has become so extreme is simply unjust.

Why can’t the US still come to account for these disparities after 52 years?

He knew that the power really lay with the people

Martin Luther King and the thousands of others who struggled with him marched, took blows, and sometimes died for causes that the mainstream politicians of both US political parties disparaged. He was despised and the subject of contempt and harassment by leaders in both parties. This didn’t stop him.

There is more to the struggle for human dignity that presidential elections. He and others demonstrated the power of collective action, of non-violence, of persistent action in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

It is indeed a dark time. Right now the devastation in a fragile healthcare and social system expose the persistent inequalities that Dr King died fighting. As his daughter remarks, “The evils he opposed then still exist now”.

That he and others like him were able to make incredible strides gives me hope.

What is stopping us?

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.