Election campaigns inspire hope, but they can also quickly lead to political despair. During the last two elections, America’s polarized citizens experienced significant swings between hope and despair.
As a philosopher who specializes in citizenship education and political theory, I believe that political hope can be taught in schools and colleges. It can lay a pathway to help citizens make good choices at the ballot box and sustain political engagement.
Despair in democracy
A recent study published in the Journal of Democracy found that across the globe citizens have “become more cynical” about the value of a democratic system and “less hopeful” of their ability to influence public policy.
Help students explore real social and political problems to better understand citizens’ struggles and needs. Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, for example, could be used as opportunities to showcase the hopeful endeavors of leaders and everyday citizens who fought for civil rights and against the political despair of the times.
Challenge growing citizens to see that genuine political hope is a call to ongoing collective work. Programs such as the Freechild Institute and the Mikva Challenge provide a model for how to mobilize students to act to improve their communities. In these programs, young people are encouraged to identify problems and are supported in expressing their views about them. Students can learn how to imagine better futures and take steps toward it.
Reaffirm the value of shared political governance. An example of such mentoring comes from a school in Minneapolis where students became concerned that one school had a large playground while another one, next to it, had very little playground facilities. Instead of harboring hostile feelings, students took positive actions. They surveyed students of both schools and gathered evidence on the impact of the inequality. They also worked with the school administrations and the local press to voice their concerns. In the end, students put forward a proposal that was fairer toward everyone. In the process, students learned how to listen, collaborate and build trust – something all citizens should learn.
For example, after a gunman killed 17 students at a high school in Parkland, Florida, students from that school and across the U.S. staged widespread protests demanding safer schools.
Some educators helped students learn how to not only express dissatisfaction, but help others understand it. Some teachers, for example, helped students describe the problems and experience of gun violence by creating press packets. Parents aided children in constructing messages to share with legislators.
Students learned how to put forward solutions to be discussed and tested. Members of the school newspaper were guest editors of a U.S. edition of The Guardian a well-regarded British newspaper, which outlined their vision for change.
Questioning power structures
Educators can cultivate critical thinking. This is not just the deep thinking that most of us expect in all classes. It is thinking that interrogates power structures, identifies injustice and asserts principles of democracy.
Following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, some educators, for example, helped students understand the history of racism in order to better critique policing injustice today and describe an America where black lives matter.
When students learn this history, their critiques of the present and their vision for the future are better informed.
Tell a story
Finally, educators can nurture imagination and support students in constructing stories about improved ways of living. Stories show examples of how to take action and why it’s worthwhile to do so.
For example, in one school, as students discussed current events, a poetry teacher engaged her students in writing and presenting poetry about Haiti’s earthquake and how citizens might recover. As she wrote, instead of just saying, “It’s so sad,” she asked them to bring their learning from the history of Hurricane Katrina to look at the tragedy with empathy and ask, “How do race and class affect the aftermath from a natural disaster?”
Storytelling also includes listening to the needs of others. Learning how to pay attention to the lives of others can improve citizens’ visions for the future.
American schools and universities can help budding citizens shape and respond to the next presidential election. And, I believe, well beyond 2019, they can play a role in reviving hope and democracy in America.
Well, this is awkward. I honestly didn’t see it coming. I am not the kind of guy who will chat you up on a bus. I am also not the kind of guy who likes being chatted up in the bus either. I cherish my privacy. Commuting time usually doubles as my reading time, and this afternoon was no different. So, here I was, seated at the back of the bus. I removed my phone from my pocket to check my e-mail before I got to my reading.
“Is that an Ideos phone?” I assumed he was talking to someone else, but the guy seated next to me was obviously pointing at my phone.
I nodded reluctantly, making it clear that I didn’t want to find out where this odd question was leading. He seemed not to notice, or care. A barrage of questions about phones, internet speeds, and Facebook followed. Soon, we were in deep conversation. I had to give him this, the guy was an excellent conversationalist. I grew even more interested when our chat took a turn for the world of literature. We parked there for awhile, talking about books and the declining reading culture in Kenya and the world over. Then a Tupac song began playing on the bus radio and this sparked a new topic of music and how modern day hip hop has nothing on Old School rap. We found common ground on many things. I was beginning to relax. This went on intermittently for about an hour.
I should have been fully relaxed and at ease by now. But I wasn’t. There was something that I was still holding back. Something that I felt would spoil this infant acquaintanceship. Numerous perfect opportunities for bringing it up came and went, but I ignored them all. I deliberately pushed it to the back of my mind and conveniently omitted it from the conversation. The truth of the matter is, I was ashamed of the Gospel. What’s even sadder is that this was not the first time it was happening. This is not to say that I am ashamed of the Gospel every time I choose to discuss politics over sharing it. But the circumstances surrounding today’s encounter were especially unique.
I was on my way to church, to join others for the Wednesday evening prayers and Bible Study. The Gospel was bound to be on my mind.
The e-mail I happened to be checking turned out to be today’s For the Love of God commentary by D. A. Carson, which I’ve been using as a guide through the Bible in the past couple of months. Today’s commentary was on Genesis 9 and this was one of the phrases that I picked from it, “… the problems of rebellion and sin are deep-seated; they constitute part of our nature.” Talk about a perfect cue for evangelism.
I was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words LIVE BY THE C.O.D.E. (Carrying Out Discipleship Everywhere). Talk about a shouting hint.
We stayed in that traffic for slightly over 2 hours.
So, it wasn’t for the lack of time or opportunity. I just didn’t feel like sharing the Gospel with the guy. I have found that there’s always a convenient excuse at the back of my mind every time I fail to share the Gospel with a friendly stranger on the bus. I can think of four excuses that made me shy away from sharing today:
1. WHY SHOULD I BE A KILLJOY? The guy was lively and interesting. There was no point making the conversation awkward. Furthermore, I always find it easier to share the Gospel with people who seem a bit distressed and sad. Somehow, I managed to deceive myself that he didn’t need the Gospel. He seemed happy.
2. I ALREADY COMPROMISED TOO MUCH. When we began talking about the Old School rap, I was tempted to show the guy that I also knew my music, and I took off showing how much of Tupac, Lost Boyz, Naughty by Nature and Dr. Dre’s lyrics I still remembered. I conveniently forgot to mention that I knew all that from my past life, before I met Christ. It seemed too late to bring up the Gospel.
3. TOO MANY EARS AROUND. It’s one thing to talk about Christ one-on-one with a stranger when it’s just the two of you, but it’s quite another thing when the woman seated on the other side of you is obviously eavesdropping.
4. I JUST DIDN’T KNOW HOW. Yes, this is Cornell. I can articulate the Gospel with the precision of a poet and the clarity of a philosopher on paper or on a pulpit. But something just happens when I have to do it in the mess and muddle of everyday business. There’s no time to plan, no timing seems perfect. However, a big part of the reason why this is the case is that I have paid little attention to the numerous guides and guidelines written on street evangelism. I have nothing but my ignorance to blame for this.
So, there you go. After all is said and done, after all the excuses and rationalizations, only one reality remains. I was ashamed of the Gospel. No, I wasn’t afraid of the people who would hear me talking about Jesus on a bus. What can they do to me? The fear I felt has a more appropriate term, shame. I felt shame. Me? Cornell? Talking about Jesus to a stranger on a bus? This may not have been the exact attitude I had at the time, but it may as well be.
So, I got to the church, but the guilt continued to tug at my heart. I ended up being a bit distracted throughout the prayer and study sessions. I knew what I needed to do. I bowed down and repented to God. I had failed. I repented of being ashamed of the Gospel. I know that tomorrow I may face a situation just like today’s. I am not sure if I will handle it any differently. But I am praying and will continue praying for courage, boldness and the discernment to share the Gospel with random strangers at every “opportune” moment. It is my prayer that you, the person reading this, will pray the same prayer too.
I decided to share this because I realize that this shame is not unique to me. It doesn’t matter how many 1.1.6 T-shirts you have in your closet.
After the prayers and Bible Study, I left church for home. When I entered the cab, I found the driver listening to some preacher on the radio. As I put on my seat belt, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly he reached forward and changed the channel to some country music station. I looked down in sad apprehension.
Father, forgive us for the many times we have been ashamed of your Gospel.
Strengthen our faith, may we live like we believe; grant us the boldness to freely share the message that we have so freely received.
Jesus was trending on Twitter last week, and I’d like to thank Kanye West.
On Wednesday (Oct. 23) in Los Angeles, Kanye debuted his new album, “Jesus is King” — the rapper’s first since he announced a few months ago that he would now be producing only Christian music. According to an inside look at the album and accompanying movie in a Pitchfork article by Jazz Monroe and Matthew Ismael Ruiz, the album’s tracks include lines like, “Sing till the Lord comes/Till the power of the Lord comes down.”
Since he announced his conversion and his intention to produce a gospel album, there has been a reaction from Christian Twitter, most of it mocking his pledge. Who does Kanye West think he is? Doesn’t he know that sinners aren’t allowed to talk like they know Jesus? Better save that to us, the real Christians.
I understand that not everyone might choose Kanye West to be their pastor, but if he wants to talk about his journey with spirituality through the gifts God has given him, who are any of us to tell him no?
Is there a spiritual litmus test that qualifies any of us to tell people what’s happening with our faith? Kanye may very well have holes in his theology, but last I checked, half of my Twitter feed was agreeing that author and speaker Beth Moore should “go home” for daring to speak at times reserved for men, while the other half argued that Jesus told all women “follow me.” One side has to be wrong, and yet on they’ll go, spewing incorrect theology in 280 characters, like it or not.
Honestly, if anything can bridge the gap between progressives and conservatives, it may be their mutual rejection of Kanye West. I’ve seen the liberals laugh and the conservatives clutch their pearls. Apparently, the Christians voted, and Kanye isn’t invited to the platforming of the gospel.
Musician Kanye West, top center, leads clapping in a “Sunday Service” performance on a specially made hilltop stage at Coachella on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, in Indio, Calif. Video screenshot
The fact is that Kanye’s fans are going to buy his next album, whether or not he believes that Jesus is king. If thousands of his supporters listen to his attempt to use his musical talents to bring God glory, is that so bad? Everyone has blind spots. Everyone is just doing their best to walk in the light they believe they’ve been given, no matter how dim or bright.
This isn’t the first time Kanye has talked about his faith. On December 3, 2004, he released the song “Jesus Walks.” At age 17, I hadn’t come far enough in my own religious understanding perhaps to demand to see Kanye’s baptismal record before I could trust him. But the opening words of “Jesus Walks” still burn in my head: “Yo, we at war, we at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves, God show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down.”
I assume I wasn’t the only doctrinally confused 17-year-old listening to that song that day who thought about what it would look like for Jesus to be walking with them.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time God used a broken person to reach the people within their scope. He spoke with pagan wise men, he gave dreams to the tyrant King Nebuchadnezzar, he used a donkey to try and talk some sense into Balaam, who himself was wicked. If God can use Samson, who slept with prostitutes, and Jonah, the only preacher in history to be mad that an entire city came up for his altar call, can’t God use Kanye — even in spite of Kanye?
Christians don’t own Jesus. We don’t get to decide who God connects to. Maybe Kanye has truly had an intimate experience with God, maybe he hasn’t. Either way, I’m not sure that we are any more qualified to make judgments on his authenticity than we are any other celebrity.
If Kanye wants to use his platform to amplify his faith, why can’t he? And if we find that there are holes in his theology, he can join the line.
Last week, Jesus was trending on Twitter, and I’m willing to thank Kanye West for that.
In 1964 a young South African student and photography enthusiast, Norman Owen-Smith, took his Leica camera along to a jazz concert at the then University of Natal Pietermaritzburg’s Great Hall and captured a series of black and white images of the band, the Blue Notes.
Through the intervention of jazz scholars, these photos have been printed, restored and exhibited, years after the band became iconic.
The story of the Blue Notes is inextricable from apartheid’s exiling of the musical – specifically jazz – imagination. Owen-Smith’s photos are a rare and unexpected contribution to a hungry archive for jazz lovers all over the world.
The Blue Notes embody the beauty of South African jazz in the 1960s, and the dynamics of its struggles during and against apartheid. The ensemble began in 1959 after a meeting between two of South Africa’s most revered jazz artists, both of whom died in exile. One was pianist and alto saxophonist Mtutuzeli ‘Dudu’ Pukwana, the other pianist Chris McGregor. By 1964 the other four members were cemented: Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums – the only surviving member – and Nikele ‘Nick’ Moyake on tenor saxophone, Mongezi Feza on trumpet and Johnny Mbizo Dyani on double bass.
Owen-Smith’s joyful, simple photographs allow the ordinary to be extraordinary, showing musical fraternity, passionate performance and a racially mixed band at the height of apartheid, after the clampdown that followed the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. They capture a moment in the band’s history when they were still young – in their teens and twenties – and just before they went into exile.
They are a notable addition to a very thin archive. It includes an excerpt from a documentary on jazz in Britain that shows a snippet of the Blue Notes’ performance at the 1964 Antibes Jazz Festival, posted on YouTube by McGregor’s younger brother. The archival footage is owned by French TV, but even scholars of South African jazz based in France have not been able to find it.
This is the only video excerpt of the Blue Notes I have come across – even though, as I noted in my doctoral dissertation, they are one of the more thoroughly covered jazz ensembles of the apartheid era.
Other elements of the archive consist of an online data base about the band built by British journalist Mike Fowler. Its source text remains Maxine McGregor’s biography Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath: My Life with a South African Jazz Pioneer.
Another component is an album called Township Bop that was released in 2002. The compilation was made up of previously unheard material which the band had recorded at the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Transcription Centre in 1964.
And in 2013, radio station SAfm presented a two-part documentary. In addition, a number of artists have performed and even recorded tributes to the band.
All these contributions – now including Owen-Smith’s photos – mark a change of fortune for a group of musicians who played mostly on the live scene. Their recordings tended to go missing for long stretches, as with their 1964 live recording in Durban, Legacy: Live in South Afrika 1964, which was released in 1995.
Memory and healing
From the late 1950s, many jazz musicians left the country; others were subjected to the alienating practices of the apartheid music industry, which often would book or record them only if they complied with their demands – what to play, who to play with and how to play it; many stopped playing altogether. These are the provocations of hurt that recur, as if on a loop, each time we engage with South African jazz history. Indeed, some of these commercial imperatives remain – not just in South Africa and not just related to jazz. Musicians’ lives remain precarious.
Healing, then, surely entails bringing these musicians back.
But how, and to where? Louis Moholo-Moholo is back home in Langa, in Cape Town, and is still playing. But what of Moyake, who died in South Africa? And Dyani, who is buried in South Africa? And Feza, who left the country at the age of 19? McGregor visited the country shortly before his death, but not Pukwana. Healing the open wound caused by exile’s rupture requires physical and creative return.
Tribute performances, recordings and documentaries are one way, if they do not pander to nostalgia. Teaching and research suggest another way, but only if neither succumb to a process of canonisation that sanitises the complex story of the Blue Notes. After all, exile did not rupture a smooth narrative that, whiggishly, was tending toward some apotheosis of South African jazz. Its effects were far more drastic.
Exile sundered a finely knit network of journalists like Todd Matshikiza, poets like Keorapetse Kgositsile, writers like Es’kia Mphahlele, and artists like Dumile Feni, from the dramatists, broadcasters, audiences and photographers who together made up mid-twentieth century South African jazz cultures. Returning the exiled musical imagination means renewing these connections: not perfectly, but imaginatively.
Pictures from history
In the absence of a rich sonic archive, jazz’s visual history is important.
Owen-Smith’s photographs join a body of documentary photography dating back decades.
In Lars Rasmussen’s Cape Town Jazz 1959-1963, Hardy Stockmann’s photographs predominantly depict a non-racial and convivial atmosphere of backstage fraternising, laughter, eating, drinking and smoking, of jam sessions and performances in Cape Town’s legendary jazz clubs, halls and other locations.
Here, in these stark images of loneliness, anguish, resilience, and despair, are many of the most famous members of that fabulously talented young generation that lived through the deepening gloom of the 1960s. Typically, their eyes are closed, or hidden by shades; when they play, the intensity is palpable, but no one appears to be listening; so in the end (the images seem to suggest) they sit alone, their instruments fallen silent.
Jazz scholar Jonathan Eato counters Breakey’s dark representation and Ballantine’s bleak reading. In Keeping Time, he writes:
the musicians in Ian Bruce Huntley’s photographs offer people a brighter world that is touched by colour … the shades hiding the eyes of musicians do so as a consequence of music sounding under gloriously clear skies.
Owen-Smith’s photographs enter these debates in interesting ways. As an historical musicologist, what strikes me is that whereas the photographers I have mentioned aim to capture the jazz ethos of an era, he captures an event in one place: a once-off concert. In so doing, Owen-Smith invites us to consider how photography can help answer Christopher Small’s ever relevant question about “musicking”: What does it mean when this performance … takes place at this time, in this place, with these participants?
My first day in the classroom is one I’ll never forget. I was given a room of curious sophomore students — 43 of them.
I could feel the lump in my throat and every drop of sweat on my body. I was used to public speaking, and I felt good about what I would be teaching. But in that moment before the first bell rang, I actually thought about walking out.
When the bell rang, I called for the attention of the room. Most of the students didn’t even hear me. I called out again, a little louder. Now more students looked at me, but with some side-eye and a few dismissive smirks. Their conversations continued.
I had little to no control over the classroom and it was only the first two minutes. So, I did what any good teacher does who doesn’t know what they’re doing … I acted like I did.
I stepped out from behind the lectern and walked to the middle of the room. “My name is Mr. Miller, and this is research and study skills. I don’t repeat myself, so if you fail to listen, you will fail. If you don’t work in this class, you will fail. If you give me your butt to kiss, I’ll draw a butt and lips on your report card next to your F.”
Some kids laughed, and others rolled their eyes. They knew they were in for a long semester, and so did I.
But through all of the laughs, head-shaking moments, phone calls home, and “come to Jesus” conversations to come, I grew into my role. It was a combination of teacher, mentor, cheerleader, father figure, critic, guidance counselor, advocate, and even social worker. I found that Dr. Brooks, my grad school teacher who encouraged me to enter teaching, was telling the truth — there was a need that I could help fill.
I soon realized that my school’s administration saw another need I could fill: disciplinarian.
I developed a rapport with my students over time and I showed them respect. I earned their trust and collaboration, and that meant I rarely called down to the main office over a student. I did my best to handle things on my own. Being a Black man from Camden, like my kids, didn’t hurt.
But that, being a Black man from Camden, also qualified me for an invisible tax.
I was the only Black male teacher in my building, the high school. Black males made up only 3% of teachers in the schools where I taught at that time; as of last school year (2018-19), they made up only 1.7%. Currently, Black male teachers only account for 2% of all teachers nationally.
Meanwhile, nearly all of the students where I taught, from kindergarten through 12th grade, were students of color.
I now believe it’s why I, a first-year teacher, was given a class of 43 students, often without an aide to assist. The next semester, I was given freshman classes with some of the more “challenging” students. The principal told me she knew I could handle it.
I was a first-year teacher, but it didn’t matter. I was the Black teacher.
I was given lunch duty with more passive teachers. Some days, I was the only teacher. Whenever there was a commotion in the hallways and I was near, I was always asked to see about it and break it up. I did what I could, but I cannot say that I wasn’t frustrated.
Teachers often serve as hall monitors and are often called upon to help out. I understood that, but I was no fool. I knew who the strong teachers were and who the weak teachers were, and I was never paired with a strong teacher for any disciplinary purpose. I saw other adults breathe a sigh of relief when they saw me come around the corner. I am not sure what they all thought, but I was not their savior, nor was I trying to be.
However, Black teachers often leave the profession because they are seen and overused as disciplinarians while receiving very little support from administrators, among other reasons.
So if you start this school year with a Black teacher or Black male teacher in your building, and you wish to support that teacher and keep them as part of your school community, keep the following things in mind.
Black teachers are not the school’s de facto disciplinarians. They are not the enforcers of the schoolwide discipline policy. They are not the default representative for all Black people. If they go above and beyond for students, that does not absolve others from doing their jobs.
Black teachers do share a collective experience with other Black students, but don’t assume that we are all the same. Use our cultural knowledge to improve the climate and culture of the school community. But don’t abuse it, whether from the classroom or the main office.
I ended my first year feeling drained but accomplished. I grew as a professional and I grew in my craft. I understood that I brought value to my school community. The school community saw my value.
But I continued to be taxed, and I was my entire teaching career. Today, I miss the classroom, but I don’t miss that.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Dr. Tsedale Melaku, a critical race and gender scholar at the City University of New York.
The United States thrives on being a multicultural and diverse society that guarantees individual freedoms and rights to all its citizens. However, even though the brutal institution of slavery and the era of racial segregation are a thing of the past, there are indications that systemic racism hasn’t gone away and still haunts American society.
In 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which was tasked by President Lyndon B. Johnson to probe the causes of the 1967 race riots and come up with recommendations for the future, concluded that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Almost half a century after those protests and despite the progress made, America is still a land of inequalities. According to Pew Research, 92% of African Americans think that “whites benefit at least a fair amount from advantages that blacks do not have,” and 68% say that whites “benefit a great deal.”
People of color in the United States face serious difficulties in securing education, employment, health care and quality housing. They have long been grappling with discrimination and profiling by law enforcement. It goes without saying that the criminal justice system is also substantially biased against people of color, and African Americans in particular. This is evidenced by figures showing that despite making up only 13% of the general population, African Americans constitute 40% of the prison population in the United States.
Many thought that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would be a turning point for race relations. But talking points about a post-racial America were hushed by a wave of police brutality across the country that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked violent protests in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson reminiscent of the civil rights era. Today, under Obama’s successor President Donald Trump, America is hardly a color-blind, tolerant society. Hate crimes have been on the rise since Trump’s coming to power. White supremacists have been emboldened, and anti-immigrant rhetoric has become more widespread.
Dr. Tsedale Melaku is a sociologist, critical race and gender scholar, and post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean at the City University of New York. Her latest book, You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, was published earlier this year.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Tsedale Melaku about race relations in America today, the Black Lives Matter movement and the stereotypes that still engulf the question of race.
The text has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: Some scholars I’ve talked to are of the opinion that it’s not easy being black in 21st-century America, and that racism is an obstacle to the black Americans’ access to quality education, health care, housing, and job opportunities. Do you agree?
Tsedale Melaku: The pervasiveness of structural racism is clearly evident in the multitude of studies that indicate the wealth gap between white and black households play a critical role in how American families are able to obtain employment, housing, quality health care, education and economic upward mobility. Just looking at the poverty rate in varying neighborhoods demonstrates significant racial disparities between black and white children.
For example, the average middle-income black child resides in a neighborhood with a higher poverty rate as compared to a low-income white child. This significantly affects the life chances of black children. Another example of where hardship can be evidenced is through the recent article by sociologists Melvin E. Thomas, Richard Moye, Loren Henderson and Hayward Derrick Horton. In this study, they examine the combined effects of race, class and residential segregation on housing values for blacks versus whites resulting from the 2008 and 2009 Great Recession.
In addition to these factors and many more, I think the political climate we are in has not made it easy for people of color as a whole, but black people in particular, to live their everyday lives without the constant threat of structural, symbolic or physical violence that may be visited upon them through unfair policies and practices in place that continue to block access to necessary resources. So yes, I do agree that being black in America is still not easy, and will not get any easier until we address systemic issues of racism, sexism and classism.
Ziabari: How is it possible to debunk the myths and stereotypes that generate gendered racism and create barriers to African American women’s employment and professional development? What is the role of the media in perpetuating or downplaying these stereotypes?
Melaku: First, we need to acknowledge that these stereotypes and myths are part of a broader narrative created to keep marginalized groups in subordinate positions. Understanding that a white racial frame — an extensive viewpoint including racial stereotypes, assumptions, narratives and interpretations embedded within the minds of whites that people of color can also adopt — views whites as superior and the racially oppressed as inferior. This frame is used to justify continued white privilege and dominance.
My book, You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, based on extensive interviews with black women lawyers, highlights how race and gender create barriers to their recruitment, professional development and advancement to partnerships in elite corporate law firms. Through in-depth analysis I discuss how their experiences center around systemic gendered racism embedded within institutions. The book covers topics including appearance; white narratives of affirmative action; the differences and similarities with white women and black men; exclusion from social and professional networking opportunities — the “Boys’ Club” — and the lack of mentors, sponsors and substantive training. I work to highlight the often-hidden mechanisms elite law firms utilize to perpetuate and maintain a dominant white male system. Black women’s social identity creates unique daily racial and gendered microaggressions, which also manifest in their professional, social and economic development.
This is key when thinking about the ways in which black women, and other women of color, face significant challenges conforming to and maintaining a dominant Eurocentric aesthetic in the workplace, as well as how this white racial framing impacts the perceived ability, competence and subsequent recruitment, training, development and promotion of this demographic.
The image of a lawyer does not invoke the image of a black woman because media representations of professional people tend to be white, and mostly male. Only recently have we begun to see images of black women in powerful lawyer positions in the media thanks to Shonda Rhimes, like Olivia Pope or Annalise Keating, but there continues to be a disconnect between media representations and actual perceptions of black women’s reality.
Ziabari: In recent years, there were several instances of US police using violence against and mistreating African American men and, in cases like that of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and E. J. Bradford, killing them. Do you think the law enforcement system in the United States is particularly biased against black citizens?
Melaku: The police shooting of any person should concern all people, and we need to ensure that the people who are in a position to protect and serve are doing just that. Countless studies have shown that there is significant bias in law enforcement that makes people of color, and black men in particular, vulnerable. For example, the work of Gaurav Jashnani, Priscilla Bustamante and Brett G. Stoudt examine how order maintenance policing approach — also linked to “broken windows” policing — incorporated by urban law enforcement has a disproportionate impact on the experiences of low-income people of color.
The lived experience of people of color is centered in this research to evidence how stops, ticketing, and arrests by urban law enforcement negatively affect communities of color, leading to unwanted criminal identities that continue to pathologize black and brown people and push them out of public space. I strongly urge that we continue to have a dialogue with law enforcement agencies, lawmakers and government officials about the seemingly unaddressed violence, policies, and practices that are visited upon marginalized groups, and black people in particular.
Ziabari: Has the Black Lives Matter movement been able to fulfill its goals, including bringing anti-black racism to the attention of politicians and combating racial inequality, profiling, and police brutality? What’s your assessment of what this movement has gained in the years since its founding?
Melaku: The Black Lives Matter movement is a broad-based social movement that works toward campaigning against systemic racism that disadvantages black people actively pursuing human rights through a variety of ways, including advocacy, activism, education and consciousness-raising, among others. The movement attempts to publicize often unrecognized challenges black people encounter, ranging from poverty, racial profiling, gender violence, mass incarceration and various other forms of racial inequality in the US.
More research is needed to understand the importance of the movement in highlighting the disparities black men and women face in America. While this is outside my field of expertise, existing academic work is being done to understand the successes and opportunities arising from the Black Lives Matter movement. Scholars such as Dr. Barbara Ransby, Dr. Frederick C. Harris, Dr. David Pate, and Dr. Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., work to engage real conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and the long historical reasoning behind the disparities reflected in the black experience and what could be done to make changes.
Ziabari: Are you concerned about the spillover of anti-black attitudes from the United States to other countries? In October 2016, a United Nations working group issued a warning about systemic anti-black racism in the criminal justice of Canada. What’s your take on that?
Melaku: Without question, there will always be concern about the political response of the United States and what that means for its citizens at home and abroad, as well as people of color in other countries. As a powerful and influential leader in the world, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are always working toward equality and justice for all people. We need to hold true to the principles that we espouse. Black and brown people across the US and beyond protest due to the persistent frustration and anger over pervasive institutional and individual discriminatory practices they face on a daily basis which is fueled by growing anti-black sentiments.
Ziabari: How do you think the artists, media personalities, journalists and academicians can contribute to addressing racism and eradicating different forms of discrimination against people of color?
Melaku: I think all of us need to engage in more critical discussions about the implications of our actions and particularly the ways in which systemic racism penetrates all institutions, creating unjust and unequal outcomes for people of color. In addition, there has to be the recognition that this is work that should not only fall on the shoulders of people of color but all people because this is a human rights issue. Further, people who are in positions of power should use their influence in order to move the needle further toward reaching more substantive changes in the lives of people who are disproportionately affected by systemic racism and its impact on their social, professional, educational and economic life chances.
Ziabari: A recent Government Accountability Office report found that black students in K-12 schools in the United States are far more likely to be disciplined for different types of maltreatment than those of other races. Does this indicate that racial inequality in the United States starts in the schools?
Melaku: This is a great question that many scholars have taken up within their research in various ways. Take the work of Dr. Carla Shedd for example. She published a very important book, Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Justice, that provides an incredibly in-depth analysis of how class stratification, racial residential segregation, and disinvestment in public goods such as education, social support, etc., in Chicago have deleterious effects on the life chances of adolescents. Dr. Shedd particularly highlights how schools either emphasize or improve the varying social inequalities that shape the lives of students from marginalized backgrounds.
In contrast, my research focuses on schools as paths to mobility instead of pipelines to prison. Racial inequality does not begin, nor does it end, in schools. The black women I study earn positions in top law firms because of their academic successes, but racial and gendered inequality persists even in those contexts, which speaks directly to the systemic nature of racist and sexist practices embedded within varying forms of institutions.
Ziabari: According to a NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, two-thirds of Americans believe racism remains a “major problem” in society. Only 3% of respondents said they believe racism doesn’t exist in the United States. To what extent does racism affect social relationships in America today?
Melaku: It is important for us to look at history, and the history of race and ethnicity in particular, when attempting to understand the current cultural, social, political and economic climate in the United States. We are a nation of immigrants, built on indigenous people’s land and stolen people’s labor, with a distinctive history of controlling migration according to racial and ethnic framing and preferences. In recognizing this history, we must come to accept that the optimistic and often rosy image of US equality and freedom glosses over continuing discriminatory practices embedded and widespread in institutions, from housing, employment, education, political and economic structures.
Social relationships are driven by the ways in which race, gender, class and other important identities intersect, combine or overlap to either privilege those in positions of power or oppress those viewed as inferior. As evidenced in my research, the way social identity affects the experiences of women and people of color is indicative of the fact that we still have a long way to go. This dynamic significantly impacts social relationships in America today, as [it has] in the past.
This article was originally published on Fair Observer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.