Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘race’ Category

Israel Through Its Cab Drivers

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David recently went on a trip to Israel with his father. Here is a brief reflection of his time there. More will follow.

My father and I had arranged for a cab to take us from Rehovot to Tel Aviv. The morning he was scheduled to pick us up, the cab driver called and asked: “Is it ok if I bring my cousin?” Only in Israel.

The cab driver, it turned out, was a Jew of Yemenite origin. His “cousin” was in fact a cousin through marriage, an Ashkenazi Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor from Romania. Yet another example of the blended families that make up the Jewish melting pot that represents the majority of Israeli society.

I’m nor sure what, if anything, cab drivers as a category can tell you about Israeli society. They used to have quite a bit of political clout, and in the 1990s they even had a political party. The drivers themselves, almost universally male, have a weird, somewhat sleazy reputation: years ago I recall a cab driver trying charge me extra for turning on the air conditioning. Whereas in New York it seems the vast majority of cab drivers are foreign born, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Israel, though of course drivers are both Jewish and Arab.

Our first important cab driver, a man we’ll call Shmuel, took us around East Jerusalem and the old city. Though he asked if we wanted to go to the Kotel (Wailing Wall), my father and I had already been on the first eve of our trip, and on every trip before that. Why was this visit to Israel different than every other visit to Israel? This one, we’d be seeing some non-Jewish sites. Still, Shmuel insisted that we at least see something sheh-lanu (of ours). You see, Shmuel was an observant Jew, modern, with a knitted yarmulke on his head. In fact, he pointed out that he was the only Jewish cab driver for his company. The rest were all Arabs. Except the owner of the company. He was Jewish too.

In addition to being a good cab driver, Shmuel was a knowledgeable tour guide, of both Jewish and Arab sites. He spoke Hebrew, English, and some Arabic. He was of Iraqi origin, though his family had come to what was then Palestine over 115 years ago. In another post, I’ll discuss all the places he took us.

A few days later, in Tel Aviv, we took a ride with the most colourful cab driver yet. Let’s call him Yossi. He too was of Iraqi origin, but he was more secular. Some of the first words out of his mouth were criticizing the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have such a big influence in Israeli politics and life. “God doesn’t care about their peyes? God cares what’s in your heart!” He exclaimed. I don’t believe in God but I couldn’t really argue.

Then the topic of conversation became even more political, and Yossi provided evidence that secularism was no indication of sanity in Israeli politics. Perhaps foolishly, we asked him about the potential for the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks being organized by John Kerry. Yossi had no hope for the peace talks. He expected the Palestinians to all be expelled to Jordan, and he seemed to have no problem with that outcome.

He also had some not-so-nice things to say about the non-Jewish African foreign workers in Israel. He called them cushim, a derogatory term in Hebrew for Black, and seemed at least implicitly to distinguish them from the Ethiopian Jewish citizens of Israel, who he presumably liked better. He thought the African foreign workers would soon all be deported as well.

But the most interesting part of the conversation emerged when we asked him what languages he spoke besides Hebrew. English, he said, some Arabic, and Thai. Wait, Thai? “Why do you speak Thai?” We asked. “My wife is Thai,” he replied. Not a Thai foreign worker, mind you. Yossi had gone to Thailand, fallen in love, married a Thai woman, and brought her back to Israel. They had three children together. Those half Iraqi-Jewish half-Thai Hebrew-speaking children are Jewish in the eyes of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, but probably not most Conservative ones and certainly not the Orthodox. They will one day be Jewish enough to serve in the Israeli army, but not Jewish enough to be buried at the Jewish military cemetery on Mount Herzl were they to be killed in action.

We asked Yossi if his wife, who spoke perfect Hebrew, had converted. They’d been trying, he said, but it was very difficult. Conversion to Judaism in Israel is held under Orthodox supervision, and the rules are very strictly enforced. Meanwhile, the local government in Tel Aviv called on her whenever they needed an interpreter for the community of Thai workers there.

After all that information, my father and I were bewildered. By then, the ride was over. As we left the cab, Yossi offered us a parting gift. He had enjoyed the conversation, and so he gave us something we could enjoy: his self-produced CD of Mizrachi (eastern/oriental) Jewish music. Only in Israel.

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Written by David Weinfeld

August 16, 2013 at 17:57

The Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time: Lessons from Chicago

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The Chicago Teachers’ Strike

by Afrah

The teachers’ strike in Chicago in in its fifth day at the time of this posting. The coverage has divided into roughly two parallel narratives. One decries the overreach of the teacher’s union, led by Karen Lewis. According to this viewpoint, it is a public relations disaster at best. In these economic hard times, the unions are pushing back against the elimination of automatic pay raises and other job protections. The teachers look like they are not willing to their part in sharing the sacrifices like other workers. The other story about the strike worries aloud about the state of the roughly 350,000 students in the public school system whose largely working class parents have to scramble to find accommodations for them during the strike. Both storylines are incomplete because they overlook important complexities. There are extraordinarily high stakes embedded in this strike because educational inequality is the civil rights struggle of our time. The Chicago teachers have drawn an important line in the sand in a fight for the future of public education.

First, the teachers’ strike  demonstrates that union power is alive and robust in the twenty first century. They have always been–and continue to be–a necessary counterweight to management’s interest. The idea that teachers are the enemy is a fallacy. My first and most enduring professional identity is that of a teacher. I began my career as a history teacher in 1999 at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, a public high school in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. With over ten years experience in the New York school system as a teacher and administrator, I can attest to the necessity of unions to exercise its power to improve the bread and butter issues of working conditions, salaries, and tenure. I found it incredibly useful that I had the freedom to teach U.S. History courses to my students that principally included the voices of people of color, women, poor people, and folks of all sexual orientation in a critically engaging manner. Due to union protection, I taught a curriculum that challenged the great (white) man’s version of American history without fear of reprisal from my supervisors. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

September 14, 2012 at 15:21

All Hail the Mom-in-Chief: Michelle Obama, Feminist Icon

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Michelle Obama waves to the crowd at the Democratic National Convention

by Afrah

The reviews are in. Both liberal and conservative commentators agree: Michelle Obama gave a barnburner of a speech last night at the Democratic National Convention. She was pitch perfect: sincere and persuasive. And she looked great in her custom made Tracy Reese dress and J.Crew pumps. She earned high marks for performance and presentation. As I digest the speech content today and bask in the warm glow of the Obama’s increasingly solid reelection prospects, there is a thought that rests uncomfortably in my mind as I consider in the figure of Michelle Obama. As a good feminist, can I truly applaud a woman who subverts her own personal prowess in favor of a more palatable “aww shucks, I am a mom” public personality?

A partial explanation of Michelle Obama’s careful construction of her role as first lady rests with the public image that emerged during the 2008 presidential election. According to her most strident critics, she was the fist bumping, angry, and radical black woman who did not love America. Remember The New Yorker cover on July 21, 2008?  It was unfunny because it did not critique and merely replicated the extreme right wing caricature of Barack Obama as a secret Muslim and Michelle Obama as gun toting black revolutionary. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

September 5, 2012 at 21:23

Posted in feminism, politics, race

Barack Obama: Jackie Robinson of Black Presidents

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by David

Barack Obama

For the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has penned a superb essay on Barack Obama as Black president. Coates argues that Obama, by not talking about race while sitting as president, has taken an accommodationist stance against white racism. You should read the whole thing, because it really is a spectacular piece of writing. Indeed, it’s an essay that is much better than this blog post in response to it, an essay that so impressed me that I will likely assign it to my “Race and Identity in Judaism” class.

And yet, it’s an essay that I have some problems with, on historical grounds.

As Coates correctly notes, “Obama is not simply America’s first black president–he is the first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class.” In short Barack Obama is an intellectual. America has long been uncomfortable with intellectuals, as can be evidenced by the cult of anti-intellectualism surrounding Sarah Palin and other figures on the far right. I think Black intellectuals make this sector of white America even angrier than than the poor black underclass does, because they want to feel superior to Barack Obama, but they can’t.

Obama’s status as intellectual makes me wary of lumping him in the same accommodationist category as Booker T. Washington, as Coates does. For Washington displayed an anti-intellectualism of his own, as he preached industrial education, economic self-development, and acceptance of segregation for the black community of the South. Washington’s antagonist, W.E.B. Du Bois, argued in favor of integration, in favor of civil rights for African Americans, to be led by a “talented tenth.”

So is Obama an accomodationist in the vein of Booker T. Washington? As president, when he has dealt with race, it has been to engage in the “time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.” Coates is most angry about Obama’s treatment of Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from the US Department of Agriculture after the late Andrew Breitbart aired selective moments of an interview with her to make it appear as if she harbored anti-white sentiments. By failing to stand up for Sherrod, Obama followed in Washington’s footsteps by backing down in the face of white racism.

Booker T. Washington

And yet I think there might be another way to understand Obama here.

First, there are important differences between Obama and Booker T. Washington beyond the purely intellectual. The latter preached a doctrine of group uplift through industry and agriculture. His was a separatist, if not segregationist schema. It’s no wonder that Marcus Garvey, who led an even more radically separatist group in his “Back to Africa” movement, looked to Washington for inspiration.  Washington, Garvey, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, these leaders and movements rejected integration. Obama, whether he discusses race or not, is an apostle of integration.

Obama’s story, then, is not one of accommodation and separation, but of accommodation and integration. In order for this integration to occur, Obama has had to avoid the perception of succumbing to “black rage,” of being an “angry black man.” And in that way, the black leader he most resembles is baseball player Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson

When Jackie Robinson entered the major leagues in 1947, he made a promise to Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, the man most responsable for signing him in the first place. Robinson promised Rickey that no matter how many taunts he received from players and fans and teammates, no matter how many baserunners slid into him spikes high or pitchers who threw at his head, he could not fight back. He had to take it, grit his teeth, and remain silent. Robinson promised to do this for three years. Rickey knew that if Robinson retaliated, he would be labeled an angry black man, other owners would refuse to sign African Americans, and the great experiment at integrating America’s national pastime would be rendered a failure.

Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of the white house. He has effectively integrated the presidency. But in his first term in office he has behaved like Jackie Robinson did in his first three years in the majors. After those first three years, Robinson was free to retaliate, to yell and fight back, and he did so vociferously. The metaphorical gloves came off. He succeeded in integrating baseball, and could then assert himself, as a black man, and as an individual.

Obama has not faced the degree of racism that Robinson did, but he has faced racism, both overt and subtle, in large part coming white resentment in the face of a changing national makeup. He is living in the post-Civil Rights era, indeed, HE IS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. One would think he would have the ability, the power, to speak his mind more forcefully on racial questions.

Or maybe it’s precisely because he is president, because he is blazing a trail, that he needs to keep a low profile on race issues. The question remains: will Obama, if elected for a second term, take the gloves off? Will he be the tough-as-nails player that Jackie Robinson was his whole career, while still putting up Hall of Fame numbers?

This question may be related to the left’s criticism of Obama, that he promised change but then governed from the center. If a re-elected Obama changes course on race, will he change course and veer left on other policy arenas?

Written by David Weinfeld

August 30, 2012 at 15:24

Queer and Hip Hop: Frank Ocean Comes Out, Black Music Opens Up

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Beyonce’s Words of Support to Frank Ocean

by Afrah

It’s hard not to succumb to the temptation to overread the importance of firsts: Frank Ocean, the R&B singer who is best known to a wide audience for singing the hook on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” and member of Odd Future collective, wrote a poignant story on tumblr about falling in love with a man. By virtue of his post, he accomplished a first for mainstream black music in openly discussing his relationship with a man. The actual story is powerful because in many ways because it is universal. Ocean recounts the longing, unrequited feelings, and finding closure from a transformative love. The posting is a pivotal one in his personal journey and feels like a great moment for black music writ large. The expression of Ocean’s group member, Tyler, the Creator sums up the exuberance of this moment by stating on Formspring, “yeah thats my n***a tho, shit is hard for him but he did that.”

The African American community has expanded immeasurably by the figure of Frank Ocean. Black music in general and hip hop in particular is supposed to reflect the vast expanse of human existence and the reality of life in urban America. It has often been summed up by shorthand to keep it real. Authenticity is a preoccupation of hip hop and its marching orders. It is a medium that possesses a youthful swagger that has become a dominant force in popular culture. Like all art, hip hop both transcends and remains frustratingly bound by material limitations of sexism and consumerism. In other words, it encompasses the contradictions, myopias, strivings and beauty of life. At this moment, black music also has the power to become more accepting of the range of human sexuality. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

July 9, 2012 at 16:05

Posted in pop culture, race, sexuality

The Agony & Ecstasy: A Review of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta

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The Ladies of Love and Hip Hop Atlanta

by Afrah

Watching reality tv shows such as Vh1’s Love and Hip Hop Atlanta leads to existential questioning such as: Why do we watch? Do shows like this fuel the poor representation of black people in popular culture writ large? And can 3.6 million people who watched the show’s debut possibly be misguided?

I am of two minds. I am shocked, shocked to see black folks embodying the racial stereotype that predicts loud and uncouth behavior.  As of this posting, over two thousand people have dutifully signed the change.org petition to boycott the show. Yet the conventions of reality tv rewards bad behavior and highlights extreme personalities. Given the platform, their actions are unsurprising.

The clear anti-heroes of the show are Stevie J and Joseline Hernandez. The audience can easily root against them and are riveted by the pure unabashedness of their characters. Stevie J is a former Bad Boy producer of classic 90s  hits with Notorious B.I.G. and Diddy who has won three Grammy awards. He is the resident cad who is juggling a relationship with Joseline and Mimi, who is the mother of his young daughter. Joseline is a stripper turned recording artist for Stevie J who unironically states that her purpose on the show is to inspire young girls to follow in her footsteps.

Their motives are clear: to get paid and get into as much drama as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

June 26, 2012 at 11:57

Posted in gender, pop culture, race

New Book on Race on the Canadian Campus

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by David (shameless self-promotion)

 In line with our series of three posts on affirmative action, I thought I would mention this cool new book that just came out called “Too Asian?” Racism, Privilege and Post-Secondary Education. The title is a response to Canada’s Maclean’s magazine article “Too Asian?” from 2010. It just so happens that I contributed the second chapter, “Asians and Affirmative Action on Campus: An Historical Canada–US Comparison.” That chapter came out of this blog post. Here’s the blurb on the book:

The now notorious Maclean’s article “’Too Asian?’” from the magazine’s 2010 campus issue has sparked a national furor about race in Canadian higher education. Since the founding of the federal policy of multiculturalism, Canadians have prided themselves on their ability to integrate diversity into a broader multicultural environment, but the often heated discussions about race point to fissures in this national project. This collection uses the controversy about the Maclean’s article as a flashpoint to interrogate issues about race and representation on Canadian campuses and what it means for students and learning across the country.

Anyhow, if you’re interested in buying the book, you can do so at this link.

Written by David Weinfeld

May 29, 2012 at 16:52