Rinku Sen

We Must Make Room for Racial Justice in the People Power Exploding Around Us

Over the last few weeks I see a certain poetry in two movements that have emerged: one to save Troy Davis, and end the death penalty. And another to control corporations, especially those of the financial industry, with Occupy Wall Street. The first speaks to social control, the latter to economic control—two sides of the same coin.

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Why Americans Really Need to Pay Attention to Copenhagen

Negotiations have resumed in Copenhagen after a walkout by the African delegation on Monday. African governments were concerned with the lack of commitment by rich country governments to reducing their own emissions. This follows on the heels of last week's leaked "Danish text" controversy; the text contained proposals that have the world's poorest countries carrying the largest share of the environmental burden. How the Obama Administration deals with fairness questions in Copenhagen will also signal what we can expect domestically as we respond to the recession by building a green economy.

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The White Supremacist in Us

Over the past two weeks, Americans struggled to make sense of tragic shootings that seemed disconnected at first glance. Anti-Semite James Von Brunn killed Stephen T. Johns, a black security guard at the Holocaust Museum. George Tiller's murder a few days earlier seemed to be about abortion, yet his shooter, Scott Roeder, also had roots in the racial purity movement. Yesterday, it was reported that the murders of Raul Flores and his daughter in Arizona were charged to three people with white supremacist ambitions.

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The Accidental American Discovers Discrimination

AT 8 A.M. ON SEPTEMBER 11, 40-year-old Fekkak Mamdouh was asleep, having worked the previous night's late shift from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. His wife, Fatima, lay beside him; she had dropped off their daughter at kindergarten four blocks away and then climbed back into bed. For six years, Mamdouh, whom everyone knew by his surname, had been a waiter at Windows on the World, the luxury restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower. He had started working there in 1996 when Windows reopened after the 1993 terrorist bombing in the World Trade Center basement. Mamdouh's wide brown eyes and the round apples of his cheeks gave him a disarming look of innocence. These mellow features hid the scrappiness that had made him a beloved, though sometimes controversial, union leader.

The first call came from Mamdouh's sister Saida, who lived in Italy. She told him to turn on the TV. The second call was from his brother Hassan, who lived down the street. "Listen, brother, there was a plane that just crashed through the Twin Towers," Hassan said. "Guess what? You're not going to have a job for a couple of months while they fix the place."

Mamdouh and Fatima turned on the TV thinking of terrible accidents when the third call came -- their neighbor telling Fatima to get their girl out of school. Fatima hurried to retrieve her daughter Iman. When she got back, Mamdouh was still transfixed by what was flashing across the television screen. He said, "You watch. They're going to say it's Muslims."

Fatima asked him why he thought so.

"Because they did it in '93," he said, referring to the earlier attack.

Without eating, Mamdouh left their house in Astoria, Queens. He went to 8th Avenue and 44th Street, the offices of his union, Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees. He and other union members made two lists: one of all the workers who would have been catering breakfast for Risk Management employees that morning, and another of all the places they might be found. Then teams of shop stewards and union organizers set off to search for the workers and track their families. Mamdouh paired up with a colleague, an Egyptian immigrant and now former captain at Windows. The two started out at hospitals, asking who had been brought in. They met many families of people who had worked at the World Trade Center, but they found no actual casualties of the attacks. They worked their way down Manhattan's west side, where all its hospitals are located. After the fourth one, Mamdouh's companion, who had been crying steadily, said he couldn't take any more. He went home, while Mamdouh headed to the morgue on First Avenue and 30th Street, staying there until 3 a.m.

The next night, Mamdouh gave an interview to a cable news channel. One of his friends, another Moroccan, saw the interview and called him the next day to ask why he hadn't said that Muslims -- meaning regular, real Muslims like them -- hadn't done this thing. Mamdouh said that people already knew.

For the next five days Mamdouh ate and slept very little. He spent hour after hour circling the morgue's lobby carrying a sign: "If you know anyone who worked at Windows or if you worked at Windows, please call the union." Mamdouh was able to cross barback Mario Peña's name off the missing list on September 12, and he found cashier Faheema Nasar a full week later, but in the end, 73 of his co-workers weren't coming back.

A couple of days after the attack, Mamdouh and Fatima went to their neighborhood Pathmark store. She had covered her head in hijab, as she had since her mother died three years before. It was evening and the store was not at all crowded. They were the only people wanting to buy fish, and Mamdouh stood at the counter with her while she tried for several minutes to get the fishmonger's attention. Eventually, Mamdouh's patience gave out.

"Hey, she's trying to talk to you," he said to the clerk, who continued to ignore them. "She's trying to ask you a question."

"Don't you know what you guys did?" was the response.

"What?"

"The World Trade Center." It was a mumble, but Mamdouh heard it clearly enough.

He snapped. His eyes widened, his smallish frame puffed up.

"What are you talking about, what we did? I lost 73 of my friends there. Maybe you didn't lose anybody, and you don't know what you're talking about." The clerk backed up from the counter while Mamdouh yelled, "I want to see the manager!" He yelled some more at the manager, who apologized. Neither Mamdouh nor Fatima would ever return to that store.

Something shifted in Mamdouh that day. The clerk's accusation had wounded him. Two days after the tragedy, he was ever aware that he himself could easily have died there. He suffered for the loss of his colleagues, and the idea that someone would associate him with their deaths because he was Muslim was shocking. Until then, he had been living the life of a lucky immigrant, getting great jobs in high-end restaurants because he spoke fluent French. He had come to the United States to make money and to be near his younger brother, and although he missed Morocco, he had felt American enough to marry here and have two children who were born U.S. citizens. Despite his prediction to Fatima that Muslims would be blamed for 9/11, he had actually managed to get by for 12 years without noticing American discrimination in a daily way, not toward Black people or Asians, and certainly not toward himself. Now he rewound his history, noticing things that he hadn't clearly seen before. But he couldn't yet know how these new insights would reshape his life as an immigrant worker in America.

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New Italian Prime Minister A Blow To Immigrants

Earlier this week, Italians re-elected Right Wing, plastic-faced media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi as their Prime Minister after the fall of the center-left Prodi government. This is not good news for Italy’s immigrants. Quite often I hear that the European Union with its no-borders political ethic is a good model for U.S. immigration policy. But people forget that Europe’s borders are only open internally and that Europe takes great pains to keep “undesirables” out of the continent altogether. Italy, with its long coastlines and its very short history of receiving immigrants, has clamped down on immigration to ingratiate itself with its European neighbors and to bolster a coherent cultural identity.

Like many countries in Europe with aging and shrinking populations, they’d like to keep immigrant labor but not immigrants themselves. For a while, before and after Berlusconi, the country began to see the inhumanity of that stance and started to create integration programs. In his last term, Berlusconi backed the notorious Bossi-Fini laws which punished immigrants by making legal status almost impossible to sustain– it banned family sponsorship, restricted migrants to 6 month stays if they’re unemployed, and criminalized undocumented people.

The Welfare Nanny Diaries

Sandra had only recently received her license to provide childcare, in 2001, when she first came across Khalid and his mother, Tanisha Watson, at the Jesse Owens Playground in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The park had become an afternoon retreat for the five kids that Sandra was supervising, located two blocks from the house she shares with her mother. After working with youth at various agencies for the previous two decades, Sandra had decided to convert the first-floor apartment into a classroom and play area-naming it Kwame's Place after her 10-year-old grandson-and was thrilled with her new job as neighborhood caregiver.

Tanisha was exhausted, with good reason. She was working from midnight to 8 a.m. as a payments operator at Bank of America's office in the World Trade Center. During the evening Khalid's father stayed with the one-year-old, but when Tanisha got home the next morning, Khalid was rested and ready to play. She'd make breakfast, take a quick shower and head over to the park, struggling to keep her eyes open.

"I watched Sandra for three weeks at the park before I spoke to her," Tanisha remembers. "She had such a rapport with the children that I figured she was their grandmother." Eventually Tanisha approached Sandra and learned that she was a childcare worker; Six months later, with a subsidy provided by the state for childcare, Khalid was the newest member of Sandra's expanding family of little ones.

"I'm already a statistic," says Tanisha, who is 26. "I'm young, Black, not married and with a child. Teenagers that get pregnant, it can feel like the end of the world, that things are never gonna get any better. But I decided that I wasn't going to do that; I wanted to work and study. That's why Sandra was such a godsend." By the time Khalid enrolled, Tanisha had switched jobs and signed up for evening classes at Long Island University, hoping eventually to become a teacher.

"Some mornings I've had to bring him over at 5 a.m. Some nights now I get to her house after class at 10 p.m., and she's already fed Khalid dinner and given him his bath. All I have to do is pick him up and put him to bed." With a new job at Beth Israel Hospital, Tanisha no longer needs the childcare subsidy. Still climbing the economic ladder since having Khalid, she's grateful that someone like Sandra has been holding it steady from below. "I don't know what I would have done without her," says Tanisha.This is the story of the welfare nanny. She is the poor mother's nanny, far more than a nanny in fact. Instead of working for a family in a luxurious Upper East Side apartment, Sandra walks down to three rooms in her mother's Bedford-Stuyvesant home, where she performs the functions of caretaker, teacher, parent educator, advocate and referral service. Few things distinguish her from her clientele-they live in the same neighborhood, they are the same color and they're all occupying the lower shelves of the economy. This army of cheap childcare providers counts almost 10,000 women in its ranks. They make it possible to call welfare reform an achievement in self-sufficiency.

The government funds three kinds of childcare for the poor. Large daycare centers look the most like a traditional workplace, where the wages and benefits sometimes approach those of public school teachers. The next tier is the family daycare provider like Sandra, who sets up for 6 to 14 kids in her own home, is licensed and regulated, but with fewer training and educational standards than center workers. Finally, there is the informal provider, who is limited to two kids. Informals are unlicensed and largely unregulated.

Wages in home daycare range from $1.10 to $6 per hour; annual salaries generally fall between $15,000 and $19,000. Providers are paid by the child, and regulations require keeping a small ratio of adults to children. Unlike the rich mother's nanny, the poor mother's nanny can't go to her client and demand to be paid the minimum wage-it's far more likely that she has to help her clients meet the basic necessities of life.

Virtually all efforts to raise wages over the last 30 years have been tied to professionalizing the workforce. As one advocate says, "Polls show that people are more willing to pay for something called early childhood education than childcare."

But little kids are always going to require that the adults around them do more than teach. Children can't feed, water and clean themselves. They don't know how to comfort themselves. They can't even learn to love themselves unless an adult loves them first. Anyone working with kids is going to have to prepare meals and wipe butts while dispensing hugs and compliments, whether we call them nannies or teachers. These are all elements of mother care, which no one wants to pay for, and which few people want to do other than for their own kids. Most women like Sandra entered the field when welfare reform required the city to pay for childcare for recipients, and the city improved the licensing process. In 2003, there were 8,500 registered family daycares in the city, more than double the 3,400 registered 10 years earlier. These women provide city agencies the cheapest form of labor because they are legally coded as subcontractors who are paid a per-child "stipend" rather than a salary, though New York State's legislature may soon override Gov. Pataki's veto of a bill that would grant such workers collective bargaining rights. This could radically reshape the playing field: 52,000 home childcare providers like Sandra would suddenly have the ability to negotiate with the state over wages and benefits, and could potentially have pensions.

Americans have a vast, unending need for childcare. Fees on the open market can range up to $1,500 monthly per child, so the search for safe, quality, affordable childcare has become a necessary obsession, complicated by welfare reform and the increase in low-wage jobs. In spite of an almost $1 billion budget, New York City doesn't even come close to meeting the need for government-subsidized childcare. The city pays for 68,000 slots in centers and home-based daycare; another 40,000 kids get unregulated informal care. Experts estimate that 150,000 low-income children still need childcare; 38,000 are on the current waiting lists.

In a debate that revolves around the needs of parents and children, the woman who meets those needs sometimes gets lost. For her 12-hour days, for her compliance with daycare regulations, for the educational resources she pursues, Sandra is rewarded with an unstable salary that forces her to do a "constant juggling act" in order to make ends meet. She doesn't have healthcare-a recent bout of strep throat meant she had to shell out $500. She laughs when asked about retirement savings. "I am now just breaking even," she says. A few of her parents pay out-of-pocket for her service, which helps land Sandra at the upper end of the provider earnings, making slightly more than $20,000 a year. She's also lucky in that she hasn't had any health scares. She recently heard about an uninsured provider who was diagnosed with cancer.

"I would have gone bankrupt long ago if my parents didn't buy this house in 1982," she says. "In this profession, it can be impossible just to earn the minimum wage." As she helps families escape poverty, who will push women like Sandra-and others faring even worse-back from its edge?

It's exhausting work, caring for other people's children. One recent sunny morning, four kids are under Sandra's supervision, and without interrupting a conversation, she heads off potential dangers and conflicts with the effortless grace of a veteran. If the adventurous Anthony, who will celebrate his 1st birthday within the month, decides to wander under the knee-high classroom table, there is Sandra, protecting his head with her hands. When the now 6-year-old Khalid and 5-year-old Ashley-who both just finished the school year-decide to roll a ball back and forth while seated on the floor, Anthony's 2-year-old brother Bryan naturally wants to join in. Naturally, the older kids roll it past him, content to play keep away. Bryan lets out a cry.

"Ashley, why don't you roll the ball three ways?" Sandra gently suggests, hardly needing to glance up to know what the problem is. "Wouldn't that make more sense?" Ashley looks over to Sandra and nods.

At lunch, Khalid has discovered that the combination of fruit juice and spaghetti enables him to let fly with loud belches. "Excuse me," Sandra interrupts, "I know we're not doing that, because that's not cute." Khalid looks at her sheepishly, done burping for the day. And so on: When Khalid breaks a plastic photograph frame, Sandra jumps up from her chair and sweeps away the shards, holding a dozing Anthony in her arms. When Bryan hops around the room singing the ABC's loudly, it is Sandra that shouts loud encouragement: "Sing it, boy! Sing it! That's right Bryan!"

"I love this work," Sandra says. "Kids are so resilient; there is always hope. I don't care what they've done or what they've suffered. They can come back from anything."

One would forgive Sandra for having a less positive outlook. Before becoming a daycare provider, she spent many years working with abused and abandoned children and teenagers in New York and California, including youngsters who were already hardcore addicts and veteran gang-bangers. "I'll never forget the first time I saw an example of such abuse," says Sandra. It was the 1970s, and she had just started a job as a youth counselor at an agency for at-risk boys.

"There was a 7-year-old that the state had taken away, one of the few white kids. A parent had gotten angry and tossed him off the fire escape. You could see that he was actually a very sweet kid inside, but he also had so much anger. If you even took a checker from him, he would do this," and Sandra balls up her fists and her friendly face makes a frightening grimace. Last time she heard, the boy was in a Florida jail on attempted murder. "One of the reasons I decided to go into childcare is that you see how much damage has already been done by the time the kids are 6 or 7. I wanted to start younger."

There's another reason that she has spent most of her life caring for other people's children. "I remember so clearly what it was like to be a kid. So I look at them and try to see how they are feeling about being a child. I'll go back to that age when I'm playing with them," Sandra explains.

She was born in Harlem and moved to the small town of Quincy, Illinois, when she was 5 to live with her great aunt, Mildred. Sandra's mother, Shirley, had grown up in Quincy and decided that a few years of small town living would provide a healthy break from the city for her young daughter. Here, Sandra remembers that she could run free-"after doing my chores, of course"-and her only worry was to make sure to get back home before the streetlights turned on. "We had pigs and chickens in the back yard...it was country living at its best! I didn't have a care in the world, but for so many kids these days, they can't say the same thing. I guess that's my main purpose: I want them to have the same opportunities to enjoy their childhood, to be loved and encouraged. To create a safe space for them to explore."

Not that life in Quincy was perfect. The town had those notorious train tracks running between it, dividing it cleanly between white and Black, which left a lasting impression on the young Sandra. Her great aunt was a maid for one of the wealthiest white families, and so they had a relatively privileged position. Sandra attended a school on the "good" side of the tracks, one of only three Black students (and the only one whose dark skin meant she couldn't pass for white). Still, Sandra remembers the disparities in wealth between the town's segregated sections, and the unspoken Jim Crow code. "It was a lot like the South, with booths that only whites could sit in." She also remembers the racism-it was an epithet directed at her, after all, that eventually forced her to move back to Harlem.

Sandra doesn't remember many problems early on in her schooling, which she attributes to the powerful position of her great aunt's employer. That changed, though, in the seventh grade, when a girl called her a "nigger." "I don't believe violence solves anything, but I have to be honest and say that I hit her when she said that," Sandra says. Not only did a Black girl strike a white girl-violence was supposed to flow in the opposite direction-but the daughter of her great aunt's boss, who was the same age as Sandra, saw the altercation. "After that, my auntie said I had to leave. I think, more than anything, she was embarrassed about the situation."

There's a joke in the childcare industry. Q: Why did the childcare worker cross the road? A: To get to her other job. Selling fast food, preparing bodies for burial and cleaning the streets all pay more than childcare does.

In New York City, there are two ways that providers like Sandra get paid by parents who can't afford childcare. The kids whose parents make up to 200 percent of the poverty line are paid for by the Association of Child Development, a division of the Association of Children's Services, which deals with child welfare. Those whose parents are on welfare are paid for by Human Resources Administration, New York's welfare department. In either case, parents go to the agency and apply for a voucher, which they use to "buy" childcare. The city "reimburses" Sandra, at 75 percent of the private market rate, which is roughly $25 per day for a toddler. Every two years, the state is supposed to conduct a market survey, but there are often delays. The reimbursement rates were last raised in 2002, after 10 years of stagnation, only because providers filed a class action lawsuit.

About one-third of all childcare workers nationally leave the field every year, mostly for higher-paying jobs. Kids become destabilized and depressed when the people they've become attached to leave. These arguments have put childcare salaries on the national agenda in a way that wasn't true 20 years ago, but not enough to separate wages from what parents can afford to pay.

It only takes an hour to see that the children, and parents, of Bedford-Stuyvesant are lucky to have a resource like Sandra at their disposal. "If you asked me, she should be making at least $50,000 a year," Tanisha argues. The care is evident within the walls of the center. The front room is overflowing with educational games and books, along with a crib for Anthony. In the second room, the walls are painted a cheery yellow, and a group of cut-out bunnies hops over one doorway, swimming ducks over the next. Multiplication and addition posters are taped to the walls. Above the charts are the names of each child.

The only item on the wall that Sandra isn't thrilled with is her daycare license, which expired in July 2005. New regulations put into place by New York State's Department of Health mandated that all centers must have two means of exit that lead to streets-disqualifying a large number of home centers whose rear exit leads only to a back yard. After months of organizing and press coverage about the oversight, spearheaded by a Brooklyn-based organization called FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality), of which Sandra is a board member, the state eventually made an exception, allowing centers in homes that have backyards at least 50 feet long. Three different representatives from the Department of Health have come out to measure the yard "every which way" according to Sandra, but her application is still pending.

Women of color and immigrants have a tradition of home-based daycare. This system operated almost as an underground economy until the 1980s when state governments began regulating it and providing subsidies for poor families to use it. Unlike most industrialized countries, the United States does not have universal, government-funded childcare available to families at all income levels. In 1971, President Nixon seemed poised to sign the Comprehensive Child Care Act, but he vetoed it as too "socialistic." In 1998, President Clinton unsuccessfully tried to move a $21 billion bill through Congress.

The early childcare center was the charity of choice for rich socialites. They believed that poor mothers had to work, but they also subtly condemned these women for leaving their kids. Long application processes weeded out unmarried mothers and Blacks. Black philanthropists set up separate centers, but there were never enough to meet the need. So working women sent the kids to grandma, to an auntie or to a neighbor who kept several kids in her home.

The government first funded daycare in 1940, when the Works Progress Administration set up Emergency Nursery Schools near industries that relied on a lot of female labor. During World War II, the centers expanded 100 percent, but most were dismantled as women lost their factory jobs to returning soldiers.

Instead of childcare, the government opted to give widows a mother's pension, recognizing motherhood as a patriotic service. Pensions were first introduced in 1934 and became the basis for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, better known as welfare. The motherhood ethic kicked in again in 1954, when Congress focused the new childcare tax credit on the poor because conservatives resisted giving middle-class women an incentive to work.

Blacks and Latinos were cut off from welfare for 40 years, either by exclusions in the original law (for example, barring agricultural workers, which included the vast majority of Blacks and Latinos until the 1960s) or by discrimination at welfare offices. When the National Welfare Rights Movement fought for Black women's right to stay home in the late 1960s, the numbers of women of color receiving welfare started to rise. By the 1990s, when both Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton were eager to end welfare as we had known it, women of color were disproportionately represented on the rolls.

In 1996, Congress crafted welfare reform to put even women with infants and toddlers into training or workfare programs. Since childcare was an obvious barrier, Congress expanded the childcare allocation and allowed states to use welfare surpluses for childcare. By law, no recipient can be forced into a work program or cut off from benefits because she can't find safe, convenient childcare.

Meanwhile, the color and character of the childcare workforce changed rapidly. Marcy Whitebook, a leader of the childcare workers living-wage movement for 30 years, says that the workforce started to change in the 1970s, when white, college-educated women got the chance to escape traditional women's work. Rapid immigration and welfare reform also contributed.

"New immigrants generally get the jobs that are the lowest status and lowest paid, and some women were being urged to come from other countries to do that work," says Whitebook. "Then we needed childcare for women being pushed off welfare, needed to expand that low-wage industry. You couldn't do it with centers, you had to do home-based care to get it up and running fast enough."

Because publicly-funded childcare is seen as exclusively for the poor, Americans don't expect childcare benefits the way they've come to expect other government benefits that are broadly available to everybody, like public education or libraries or parks. "Only if this is redefined as a social good are we going to raise the wages. Right now, people don't expect it," says Whitebook.

A universal system of publicly funded childcare is the only solution with the potential to decouple childcare wages from what parents can afford to pay, mostly because it would send a massive influx of money into the system. Joan Lombardi, who served as Clinton's childcare bureau chief, says that government funding "puts a third party into the system, which we know historically has helped to raise compensation." The third party would ensure care, as there is in public education, Medicaid or even the system of private health insurance.

Sandra is more than a top-notch childcare provider-she presents a different parenting model for many neighborhood residents. "Too often, we think that we need to hit our kids to get them to behave. But I'll never forget what one of my psychology professors told me when I was taking college classes. He said, 'When parents hit the kids, it's not the child that is acting up-it's the parent.'"

Many parents feel that they must always be loud and domineering to gain respect, says Sandra, and this philosophy can often include corporal punishment-a practice that can blur into, and encourage, child abuse. Recently, the issue of child welfare has became a much-discussed topic in the wake of the death of a seven-year-old girl named Nixzmary Brown, allegedly killed in January by her stepfather in her Bedford-Stuyvesant home. Two investigations, spurred by complaints about Nixzmary's home environment to the Administration for Child Services, were launched within the previous year, without effect-which led to several firings and calls for an agency overhaul.

But before Nixzmary's death, Sandra was already maintaining a vigilant watch. When a new child enrolls, she likes to sit down with the parents and explain her simple philosophy: "Children need dialogue, they don't need to be whipped."

When parents see how Sandra is able to command respect without resorting to physical force, they are won over, though it has sometimes been a difficult process. "All I ask is that they meet me halfway," Sandra says. "So far, every parent has been able to do that." One parent in particular felt that corporal punishment was a critical parenting tactic.That has since changed. "Oh yeah, I was able to get her to see different," Sandra laughs. "I don't want to come across as judgmental, but my message is simple: this is not acceptable." The parent had come into the daycare often yelling and threatening to beat her child. "Now her approach is completely different," Sandra says, "All you have to do is show parents that there is another way."

On another sweltering June day, Sandra is back at the park, this time with six children. The fountain is shooting water high in the center of the park, and Bryan is hopping around under its arch, shouting an announcement to Sandra over and over again. "I wet! I Wet! I WET!"

"That's right Bryan, you wet!" Sandra giggles. "Can you believe I get to do this as a job?" she asks. "Hang out all day with kids, playing. And I mean playing with them! Don't even know if I could go back to the real world now. I'm lucky that my mom owns her house, 'cause Lord knows I'm not gonna get rich doing this." She pauses to acknowledge Bryan with another smile as he continues his chant. "But I'm rich in other ways. Be doin' this till I die."

Sandra knows other providers who have had to switch jobs, unable to meet their barest necessities-though they're doing perhaps the most important job one can do for low-income families. Watching her play with the kids as they splash around in the middle of a gritty neighborhood where drugs and gangs are never entirely out of reach, it's clear that even if she were paid $50,000-approximately three times the typical earnings of providers-our country would still owe women like Sandra more than we can pay.




Breathing Life into Public Policy

As the founder and executive director of Breakthrough: Building a Human Rights Culture, Mallika Dutt thinks hard about how to bridge policymaking and popular culture.

Dutt has been working on human rights organizing and policy for 20 years. She was a founding member of Sakhi for South Asian women, and later associate director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership, which was instrumental in the campaign to redefine international human rights law to include violations that affect women, such as rape, as a war crime. She was then the Ford Foundation program officer for human rights in India.

Breakthrough's first effort, which Dutt produced on her spare time from the Ford Foundation, was an album of songs about women's rights. The album’s title track music video became a hit, winning India's MTV Screen Award. The group also participated in a campaign to pass India's first national domestic violence law. The organization continues to work on violence and HIV/AIDS issues there. Breakthrough's major U.S. effort was to host a series of town hall discussions about immigration policy in major cities featuring performances by the writer and actor Sarah Jones. This was followed by Speak UP Act UP for New America, which encouraged young immigrants to get involved in civic affairs. As Dutt prepares to launch a major popular culture campaign on human rights in the U.S. with a focus on immigration and criminal justice issues to rival her work in India, she discusses her transformation from policy wonk to music producer.

How did you get the idea of doing a song and video?

After 20 years, I was frustrated with the rarified world in which human rights work existed. The language of human rights was extremely legalese-oriented. We used words like "state action" and "public and private spheres" and "accountability" -- very important words but when you tried to use them in a context outside of your little group, people looked at you with blurred eyes.

I wanted to find a vocabulary and a language that resonated with the public, particularly young people. So, while I was in India, I started to go and meet people in the entertainment business on my own time. I began with talking about women's rights, violence against women was a critical issue, blah blah, and they all laughed at me. Across the board, whether it was Sony or Virgin or BMG, the idea of trying to do something popular around domestic violence or dowry deaths was a no-flier. But they gave me lots of advice.

They said it can't be didactic, you can't beat people over the head, the music's got to be so kick-ass that people are going to want to play it.

I bought all the indy pop music that had come out lately. I listened to I don't know how much horrible stuff until I heard one album that I loved called Ab Ke Sawan. I said okay, this is my team. Then I had to find these people, they were just names on the back of an album cover -- so I pulled strings to get phone numbers, and I set up meetings and pitched this idea of doing an album on women's rights. The music video was inspired by a true story of a woman I had heard testify at a hearing around violence against women in the Muslim community. This notion of crafting music that spoke of emotion and hopes and desires rather than issues came together magically.

How are you picking your issues?

I believe that we have to find ways to do multi-issue, multi-identity organizing. I haven't found a paradigm other than human rights that enables that kind of coalition. People don't live their lives in these narrow, segmented ways we do our organizing in. Our issues have emerged quite organically. For example, if we are working on women and HIV/AIDS, we locate our work in the broader context of gender relations. If we talk about detentions and deporations, we try to draw parallels to the over-incarceration of African Americans.

People say that politics don't make for good art. At the same time, funders are obsessed with concrete policy outcomes that cultural work can't generally claim. What's your take on that?

Art and music are tools, but they are also the way in which one creates the fabric of values. I think the notion of culture is a much bigger concept than art and politics being said in the same breath. I also believe that we have to talk about values and culture in the context of human rights and social justice. The words that we use on a daily basis -- like justice, compassion, nondiscrimination, equality -- are all about values, so why should we allow the Right to claim that term? That's why at Breakthrough we talk about building a culture of human rights.

It's clear from the way in which the Right organizes that they understand that it's all about everything. It's about religion, it's about culture, it's about media, it's about advocacy, it's about organizing, it's about policy, it's about electoral politics. And it's about a vision and an ideology. Policies cannot be implemented if the enabling environment is not created. I see our work as a way of creating that enabling environment. If people can't find ways to deal with one another on the basis of respect and humanity and compassion and dignity then all the legislation in the world isn't going to transform us.

What's different working in India and the U.S.?

India as a population and as a country is much larger. You're talking about a billion people, all these different languages. With all the challenges of lack of electricity and lack of water and phone lines being down and travel problems and the heat and the size, we are able to work at a scale that is much harder to replicate in the U.S. When you think about the U.S. in terms of the resources, the technologies and the ease of communication, one would imagine that it would be the other way around.

Funders in India get the importance of media and communications. People get that putting a music video on air and reaching X number of millions is a good thing, a useful thing. Whereas progressive funders over here always look at you and say, "You want 50k for a music video?"

There is still an understanding in India that things take time, that behavior change or social change is not a one-year outcome, that it takes years of organizing or education before you can claim anything. Even though history here has shown us that social justice organizations have an extremely short-term memory. There's no historic location of where we sit and where we've come from and everything has become very, you know, what are the outcomes in six months.

When you started doing this work, you must have been one of very few South Asian women. Now the progressive world is overrun by our sort. What's up with that?

South Asians are a very interesting color in this country. We're not black. We're not white. White people are not uncomfortable with you, other people of color are not uncomfortable with you. Because of our histories and our locations many of us have had access to privileged educations, even if we didn't come from privileged backgrounds. We have a cultural fluency that enables us to navigate a lot of different spaces. This is not something that many of us like to articulate in public. By the time I was at the Global Center, if I looked around at mainstream women's organizations, the majority of the women of color who were in leadership positions, not necessarily the executive directors, but those in the second position, were South Asian women.

South Asians have a culture that simultaneously oppresses women and provides them with a lot of educational opportunities. The experience of gender for South Asian women isn't just one of victimhood. It isn't that for anybody, but we have a particularly complicated situation where we've come from cultures where we have loud voices, we get sent to study, but the blend of that with the kind of gender oppression that women still face politicizes them. So a lot of women who could be doing the lawyer, doctor, engineer routine are doing the organizer, advocate, human rights trainer routine instead. I think it's fabulous. I remember a time when the only other South Asian woman I often met at progressive gatherings was you -- and people would call me Rinku because they couldn't tell two small Indian women apart. And today, there are hundreds of us fighting for social change. We rock!

Katrina and the Inequality President

Recent coverage of Hurricane Katrina has shed a harsh light on the Bush administration's indifference to the well-being of African Americans. Now we need to beam that light onto the long-standing pattern of racism in President Bush's five-year record. Using the rainbow cabinet for cover, he has pursued a series of policies that punish and reward people on the basis of race.

It is obvious now that the devastation caused by Katrina was preventable and that New Orleanians lost out to Bush's other priorities--the tax cut for America's upper ranks as well as the Iraq war and subsequent occupation, costing $400 billion total. These decisions frame the dynamics of Bush's disregard for people of color. He has gutted the public programs that help the poor and people of color maintain a basic standard of living, and done away with the civil rights protections that defend our humanity.

Bush opposes the historically successful programs that have provided educational opportunity for people of color, including bilingual education and affirmative action, but he started out with his own plan to reform public education. The controversial No Child Left Behind legislation set rigid test standards and authorized the federal government to defund low-performing schools. While defending himself with sound bites about the "soft bigotry of low expectations," Bush refused to fully fund programs to provide the extra support and teacher quality that low-income children, who are disproportionately of color, need to succeed. In the program's first three years, the administration fell short of fully funding NCLB by a shocking $27 billion. A 2004 study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project found that districts with higher concentrations of people of color continue to have lower graduation rates than majority-white districts in every state.

The president's economic policies have aggravated the racial income gap. He blocked congressional attempts during his first term to raise the federal minimum wage. The average African-American income was 65 percent of white income in 2000, but fell three points in 2003. Bush's current agenda to privatize Social Security, which he vowed to revive just days before Katrina hit, would increase poverty among seniors of color. Without it, fully 60 percent of African-American seniors would be poor, along with 55 percent of Latinos and 26 percent of American Indians. 

In environmental matters, the administration selectively enforces the requirements set out in the National Environmental Policy Act, making it difficult and expensive for landless American Indians to claim reservation land, but quite easy for industry to exploit the earth's resources. When tribes seek land trusts, they are asked to spend upwards of $800,000 on environmental impact studies and assessing alternatives to setting up new reservations, the latter not at all an element of the act itself. But industrial developers have been allowed to use outdated and irrelevant studies to gain permission for natural gas extraction.

Some journalists are calling Katrina survivors "refugees," perhaps hoping that characterization will evoke images of innocent people fleeing hardship. But refugee status won't help them with this administration, which sees refugees not only as foreigners, but also as terrorists and criminals. The Office of Refugee Resettlement has been taken over by the ubiquitous Department of Homeland Security, and has established a policy of automatically imprisoning nationals seeking asylum from 33 countries designated as housing terrorists--all countries of color or Muslim countries. Haiti isn't on that list, but the United States considers Haitian asylum seekers a threat to national security, and summarily repatriates 90 percent of them without asking a single question about why they fled. The recently passed REAL ID Act allows an immigration judge to deny asylum based on utterly subjective factors such as lack of eye contact or displaying little emotion during a hearing.

Bush apparently recognizes his race problem. He has developed several slick coping mechanisms to deflect accusations of racism. First, he trots out black and brown cabinet members. Condoleezza Rice has now stated unequivocally that racism had nothing to do with the Katrina response. It's unclear what the Secretary of State has to do with national disaster preparation, but her presence reinforces the notion that African Americans present a matter of foreign rather than domestic policy.

Second, the administration routinely hides damaging information, as it has done recently by refusing to release a report on bilingual education that the government itself commissioned. The report reveals that bilingual education does indeed help immigrant students learn English, an unpalatable notion among Bush supporters. Third, the administration buys support, as it did in shamefully paying commentator Armstrong Williams $200,000 to "report on" NCLB's supposedly terrific results. Finally, Bush cynically, and untruthfully, claims to protect the interests of people of color; he did, after all, insist that privatizing Social Security would benefit African-American men.

The public should indeed demand an accounting of the Katrina tragedy, and also one of the nation's performance on education, environment and economy, with data broken down by race. While we're making demands, we should also tell the president to keep his hands off Social Security and end the occupation of Iraq.

Two weeks ago, Diane Sawyer asked President Bush if we shouldn't draw a distinction in New Orleans between people taking survival supplies and those taking VCRs. He replied that "it should be zero tolerance," whatever the case. Now is the time to declare zero tolerance for this administration's government-sponsored racism, making no distinction between the president's intentions, whatever they may be, and the road to misery he has paved for millions of people of color. 

Deranged Marriage

When I was a girl, the notion of arranged marriage symbolized the vast difference between India, land of birth, and America, land of the independent. If we could adapt our image and actions to blend in with the pale landscape of suburban life, then we could escape the trap of family obligation and expectations. The idea that such assimilation counteracts true independence doesn't occur to a 10-year-old immigrant smarty-pants.

I channeled my adolescent racial anxiety into fighting with my parents about the backwardness of the arranged marriage and asserting (unsuccessfully) my right to date. Dating was American and modern; parental arrangement was archaic and oppressive. When you're 7, you want to eat hotdogs for dinner to prove you're American. When you're 15, you want to go on a date. But instead of dating, my sister and I watched our cousins' passport-style photos make the rounds of daughter-in-law seeking families, feeling grateful that we were too young to be publicly assessed for color, weight, talent and beauty.

This season, the Fox network turned its greedy reality TV eye toward the enduring practice of arranged marriage through an eight-week series called "Married by America, " which came to a predictable anticlimax last Monday night. Naively, I thought this must be some new form of cultural flattery or appropriation, like Madonna and her bindi, or the image of Krishna on a $20 T-shirt.

During Episode 1, I realized that appropriation would be an improvement. A quick comparison of the show to my own family's arrangements revealed a mountain of insulting simplifications.

While the show reproduces one or two elements of the Indian-style arrangement, such as the family meeting the prospective partner first, the Americanization of the process dumbs it down until all that's left is sex and pop psychology. The consumer audience replaces the family as the central decision-maker, and no one benefits from the shift.

Produced by the same three men who brought you "Joe Millionaire," "Married by America" banks on the nutty premise that exhausted, heartsick daters will try anything -- even letting their families and the viewing public choose their mates. The winners are meant to split $100,000 and a luxury car. If they stay married, though it's not clear for how long, they get a $500,000 house. The usual reality things happen. Aspiring brides, grooms and actors audition. Experts screen them for psychoses, STDs, poverty and existing spouses.

Five people are chosen as eligible brides and grooms, for whom the audience will choose partners. Each eligible bachelor(ette)'s panel of three family members/friends questions and eliminates potential mates, narrowing the field to two with help from the audience, while the eligibles sit in sound-proof booths. After hearing a plea from the bachelor(ette) to look under the surface for a kind heart, big boobs and other such requirements, viewers call in their choices to 1-800-I-WANT.

The couples meet and get engaged in the same 30 seconds. They drive off in SUVs to North Copper Ranch, where they live together for six weeks. We get the porn-lite benefit of watching them make out on the couch and roll around under the covers. They endure interviews with three experts, who eliminate one couple per week.

Every bachelor(ette) and potential mate is white. The only exception is Cortez, a Mexican-American woman from San Jose who provides the show's cultural credentials by claiming to know something about arranged marriage from her grandparents whose union lasted 50 years. The audience buys this and fixes up Cortez with Matt, to whom she says two weeks later, "You shouldn't have to make a relationship work. It either does or it doesn't."

Finally, by Episode 7, we're down to two couples. Kevin and Jill look the most likely. He's a former minor league baseball player; she's a hostess for the New York Islanders hockey team. But there are problems. She won't promise not to pose for Playboy again and he's unemployed.

Then there's couple number two. Billie Jeanne is a bartender and Tony sells used cars. The audience thinks he's gay, and she's a party girl whose favorite toast is "cheers to beers and queers." These two earn Episode 4 a parental advisory with their sex-in-the bathroom scene. After bachelor(ette) parties in Vegas that featured female strippers (yes, at both parties), the audience has two hours to vote for the best match.

If these are the ins and outs of arranged marriage, the viewer has to think, no wonder the 60 percent of the globe that still practices it can't beat back the almighty, all-knowing American culture.

Fox reality TV executive Mike Darnell told Variety last year that, although arranged marriage is prevalent in most of the world, in America, "most people like to find love and relationships the traditional way." To him, the individualistic dating mode is traditional and an arrangement is innovative. By contrast, but with no less idiocy, the arch conservative Christian group Focus on the Family reviewed the show on its website and quoted Ed Vitagliano of the American Family Foundation saying that the show trivializes the institution: "This is not like arranged marriages 400 years ago when marriage was still considered something worthwhile."

Actually, this is not even like arranged marriage yesterday.

Family Matters

From my own family, I was most fascinated with stories of long marriages with little or no contact before the wedding.

In 1964, my parents married after a two-hour meeting during which Ma didn't even know that Baba was the guy. They were connected by eldest siblings in each family, who were connected by a neighborhood bank manager. They lived happily until my father died in 1993.

In 1972, my aunt Dolly met her husband at their wedding, after my grandfather saw the ad that my uncle's father had placed in a neighborhood paper. Their 28-year-old son will soon marry a woman he met on an Indian marriage website.

In 1991, my cousin Mahua's future mother-in-law discovered her singing at a neighborhood function in Calcutta. After the usual couple of months of inquiries and a few more sightings, Mahua married her artistic husband, who lived in the States, without having met him. Now they live happily in Houston with their 9-year-old. In all three cases, there was plenty of correspondence and discussion between the families; it just didn't involve the bride and groom much. Extensive asking around within the extended family and social networks is meant to surface any problems.

But, by my calculation, only about half of my generation of the family married this way. I have cousins who found their own partners. I have another who made a "love match" and waited seven years for her father to agree to let her marry a non-Bengali. Some of us have made more "scandalous" choices, including sex outside of marriage, and the families have adjusted.

Arrangements are worked out in the context of tight family units, in which parents involve themselves in pre- and post-marriage agreements. The important factors shaping a match include financial and social status, education, looks, family history, geography, chastity, religion and ethnicity. If we're honest, we will admit that these are the same factors that influence Western romance.

The idea behind arrangement is to take care of a bunch of things couples have to negotiate on the front end, so that after the marriage they can concentrate on getting along, producing children and contributing to the larger family. The success or failure of the marriage is considered not just the couples' responsibility, but also that of their families and communities.

Because the camera's main purpose is to titillate the audience, "Married by America" warps the family's role into an unrecognizable mess. The distortion appears clearly in Jill's father's confusion. When Kevin asks him for his daughter's hand in Episode 5, he gives his blessing in spite of his reservations. "She might really like him, and he might really like her," he says. "Who am I to stand in the way?"

The father is no one. The TV audience has usurped his power and responsibility to decide anything.

Caste Call

Marriage in general is designed to keep people in their social class, the proper spot in a religious hierarchy or caste identity. Couples are designed by family in most of Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa, but such arrangements were once endemic to every culture in the world, including upper-class Western societies. If you can stomach the idea of marriage at all, then arranged marriages provide both protections and dangers. Like most traditions, it works well for many and horrifically for others.

Most of the time, the individuals being matched up can turn down an offer from another family. In Islam and Hinduism, for example, the marriage is considered a sham unless both individuals consent freely.

From my modest international survey, what stands out is the sheer complexity of the system. The tradition of arranged marriage reveals the best and worst implications of family unity. The family includes microcosms of all other social relations. There's the parent/child, certainly, but also elements of teacher/student, owner/property, abuser/victim, producer/consumer and boss/worker. Any arranged marriage might involve all of these identities. The practice also changes constantly. It looks different, if only by a degree, with each generation.

America's inability to grasp this complexity matters. In a time of unprecedented global migration and wars on terrorism, marriage takes on racialized political meaning. The arranged marriage, and other attitudes about sex and relationships contribute to the American impression of Africans, Asians and Arabs as exotic, unassimilable and primitive.

"Married by America" will never convince viewers that an arranged marriage might work. It ultimately reinforces the notion that love comes from individualized sexual attraction and romance that's thoroughly tested and developed before the wedding. In the end, neither of the last two couples completed their "I do's." Kevin and Jill, and Tony and Billie Jeanne just couldn't suspend their certainty that they should be in love before, rather than after the wedding. By mocking a practice that has such deep cultural significance, the show dismisses the ideas that your family can help you make an excellent, long-lasting match, or that you might in time grow to love your choice.

When I told my aunt Dolly about "Married by America" I thought she'd be upset with all the pre-marital sexual activity. But she's a tolerant, contemporary woman, able to concede that modern couples might hit the sheets before the wedding, in the event they actually meet first. It was the role of non-family, the expert panels and the audience, that she found crazy. "Who are these experts?" she wanted to know. "It's absurd that a parent would ever let strangers pick their kid's husband or wife. Better to let the kid pick his own."

Rinku Sen is the publisher of ColorLines magazine and the author of "Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy."

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