Teachers’ unions strike back

This week in North Philly Notes, Lesley Lavery, author of A Collective Pursuit, writes about teachers’ unions’ response to COVID, arguing that despite decades of legal and political effort, teachers’ collective efforts will save lives.

Teachers in Detroit just authorized the first potential “safety strike.” Three week ago, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, told members that the union’s leadership would support “safety strikes” if health precautions are not met amid calls for schools to reopen as coronavirus cases surge. This declaration of support is striking, not least because it pushes longstanding legal boundaries.

Under current federal statutes, teachers must still report to work even if they believe that local officials have not sufficiently prioritized their health and safety, along with that of their students. The degradation of a teacher’s right to demand such basic and fundamental working conditions is the result of a decades-long effort by education reformers to isolate teachers from their unions—a movement that has praised the individual actions of educators while disparaging their collective calls for higher pay and better working conditions.

An assault on public sector unions began in earnest in 1979 with a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Federation of Teachers. Attempting to strike a delicate balance between government and individual interests, in Abood the court established a nearly 40 year precedent in teachers’ unions’ ability to collectively bargain by noting a distinction between the unions’ economic and political work.

Following the Abood ruling, teachers and other public employees could not be compelled to join unions so long as they paid the documented costs of contract administration and negotiation. Post-Abood, unions could capture a “fair-share” fee from all potential members but must refrain from spending agency fees on political activities. While in theory this appeased both individuals whose political interests ran counter to their unions’ and unions who might otherwise face a “collective action problem of nightmarish proportions,” in practice, the line between bargaining interests and political interests was difficult to discern, enforce or object to.

Collective_PursuitIn April 2013, after nearly four decades of relative labor peace, ten public school teachers in California, backed by the right-leaning Center for Individual Rights, took a straight shot at the Abood precedent. In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, Rebecca Freidrichs and nine California colleagues argued that attempts to separate bargaining from unions’ political actions were moot because bargaining covered so many fundamentally political topics. Like Abood, Freidrichs eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. There, in 2016, the attack on unions stalled following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. But the reprieve was temporary. On June 27, 2018, a final, decisive blow arrived via Janus vs. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.  

By February 2018, eulogies for many local teachers’ unions had already been written. But mere months before Janus transformed all states to right-to-work states and those eulogies could be delivered, West Virginia teachers from every one of the state’s fifty-five counties walked out of their classrooms to demand higher wages and showcase their concern regarding a bill to lower teacher-certification standards. West Virginia educators’ activism inspired similar actions in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Colorado. School bus drivers then walked off the job in Georgia.

By the end of the year, the AFSCME, Janus’ direct adversary, reported seven new dues-paying-members for each additional non-paying free-rider (a total increase of 22,000 newly organized workers). The AFT added 88,500 members. And though they expected dire defection rates, the National Education Association gained 13,935 members.

The Janus ruling meant to cut unions off at the knees, but as we watch the reopening debate play out right now, it is clear that “reformers’” wins weren’t enough to mollify teachers’ desire to be heard or sever the relationships they’ve been building with their communities. By declaring it too difficult to determine the line between teachers’ economic and political interests, the courts have inadvertently emboldened a generation of educators to take a stand in the debate of their life (pun intended).

Over the summer, as part of an ongoing 12-state 100+ district study on teachers’ unions’ response to COVID-19, my colleague Sara Dahill-Brown (Wake Forest University) and I have interviewed nearly 30 teachers’ union representatives from urban, rural and suburban districts about their involvement in COVID decision-making and planning. Though comfort with plans to “reopen” schools appears to vary based on population density, demographics, decision-making processes (or lack thereof), and the status of school infrastructure, across the country the teachers we’ve interviewed are increasingly desperate for local, state and federal officials to heed their calls to reopen safely.

I spoke with a union leader from a right-to-work district a few weeks ago. After years of struggling to recruit new union members, she and others we spoke with described rapid increases in unsolicited membership. Teachers are asking if they can go on strike. In many locales, they can’t. But they can protest. They can picket. They can stand outside six feet apart with a sign and a red t-shirt on. And they’ve been working diligently for the past several years to ensure that their communities understand teachers’ and students’ shared interests.

Now, with their lives on the line and individual social media posts, letters to administrators and elected officials, and op-eds in local newspapers unanswered, we’ve left teachers with little recourse. Despite decades of legal and political effort, COVID shows that “reformers” have failed to separate teachers from their unions. The union is the only voice that can aggregate and elevate educators’ anxieties and fears and force all of us to take stock of our duties and obligation to children and public education. We must get behind the nation’s teachers and face “COVID-19, a sagging economy and calls for social justice” head on, together.

 

Crossing the bridge with John Lewis

This week in North Philly Notes, José E. Velázquez, coeditor of the forthcoming Revolution around the Cornerremembers the late John Lewis. 

On July 17, 2020, we mourned one of America’s greatest heroes, “the conscience of the nation,” civil rights leader and Congressman, John Lewis. His well-deserved six-day memorial services included being the first African-American to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. The entire country relived that fateful Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 where civil rights marchers gathered to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery, in a campaign for the right to vote.

It has been 55 years since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and some may have forgotten how under the mantle of “states rights,” local governments repressed the right to vote of African-American men granted by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (1870), and to African American women by the 19th amendment (1920). After the “Compromise of 1877,” southern Confederates who lost the Civil War ended “Black Reconstruction,” “took back the South,” and regained political power. Under the U.S. federal system, the administration of elections is a power reserved by state governments, who subsequently instituted a system of American apartheid and Jim Crow laws aimed at limiting African American voting rights. These included outlandish literacy tests to register to vote, poll taxes, and outright physical repression. In what became known as “grandfather clauses,” poor and uneducated whites were exempted if their descendants voted before 1867.

This was the reality during what became one of the most important non-violent civil disobedience battles of the civil rights movement: the Selma to Montgomery march. The strategy of massive, non-violent civil disobedience sought to rally forces against a superior power, by awakening the conscience of the nation, and forcing the Federal Government to intervene against the repressive forces of state governments. It

also aimed at overcoming real fears in the African American communities, produced by decades of subjugation, to confront the system head on. This is exactly what happened on that Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 when Alabama State Police blocked marchers from crossing the Pettus Bridge, attacking them with horses, tear gas, and billy clubs as the protestors knelt in prayer. John Lewis, at the time a leader of the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), at the front of the march had his skull fractured and his life almost extinguished. Despite being severely injured, he returned to lead the other attempts to march.

With the advent of television, the entire world saw this vicious attack on marchers who were only asking for the right to vote, shaking the conscience of the nation. In the process, after a second attempted march on March 9th, halted by a temporary court injunction, a white minister, James Reeb, was killed that night by a Ku Klux Klan mob, adding to the country’s indignation. On March 21, 1965, under pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers in their third attempt. Hundreds of people came from throughout the nation to join the march, this time with National Guard protection. The close to 8,000 marchers crossed the bridge and arrived at the Alabama State Capital on March 25th, their numbers swelling to over 25,000.

Revolution Around the Corner_smOn August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, allowing for federal intervention to protect the constitutional right to vote, and beginning the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, poll taxes, and other regulations which made registering and voting nearly impossible for African-Americans. Just as the 1964 Civil Rights Act began the end of de jure segregation and expanded the rights of women, and other people of color, including Puerto Ricans, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did the same throughout the country. For decades, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, confronted English literacy tests and physical confrontations aimed at limiting their right to vote. The 1965 act was subsequently amended to include protections for non-English speaking voters. In 1970, in Newark, NJ when the Black and Puerto Rican Convention aimed to elect the city’s first African-American mayor, they were met with armed white resistance, necessitating the intervention of federal observers mandated by the Voting Rights Act.

For me the spirit of John Lewis was personal. After the assassination of Malcolm X in February 21, 1965, my first political experience at 13 years old was as a member of the SNCC Black Youth Congress, organized in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem). A

group of young African-Americans and Puerto Ricans met at the East River Projects, in a study group led by SNCC leaders, Fred Meely and Phil Hutchinson. SNCC was considered to be the radical wing of the civil rights movement, and one its leaders, Stokely Carmichael became the voice of a new “Black Power” movement. I must confess that at the time, maybe not being from the South, or because of youth and legitimate anger, our group did not look favorably at the strategy of non-violence. But historical time has demonstrated the power of massive non-violent civil disobedience to bring down even the most powerful governments or empires. I am proud, like Sammy Davis, Jr., Roberto Clemente, José Ferrer Canales, Gilberto Gerena Valentín, and many other Puerto Ricans, to have walked hand-in-hand with this movement.

What is the legacy of John Lewis as the nation today honors those who were considered radicals in the past? John Lewis, the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, who was constantly arrested and beaten as he led protest movements, talked about starting “good trouble” and exercising the right to vote until his last days. Yet today many do not exercise this simple effort, preferring not to vote, while allowing a wealthy minority to run the country.

Today, the Voting Rights Act is endangered, as certain provisions require reauthorization, and some state governments have renewed their attempt to repress voting rights. In Puerto Rico, the process to register to vote is still much more difficult than in many other jurisdictions. Those who took the streets in the summer of 2019 in Puerto Rico, may find their activism betrayed if they don’t register to vote, and vote for real change. The same holds true to those who have joined the massive Black Lives Matter protests in the streets of the United States. In November 2020, we face one of the most important and decisive elections in our lifetime. What would John Lewis say? Make “good trouble,” and vote out those who reject his legacy.

Activism by Parents of Children with Disabilities and the 30th Anniversary of the ADA

This week in North Philly Notes, Allison Carey and Pamela Block, two of the coauthors of Allies and Obstacles, write about the accomplishments of parents in the disability rights movement as well as how disability activists are coping with COVID and Black Lives Matter. 

July 26th 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One of the nation’s most important and innovative civil rights acts, the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability across many spheres of public life, including in education, work, transportation, telecommunication, and the provision of public services. In doing so, it also mandates the provision of accessibility and accommodations to enable full participation in society by people with disabilities. Upon signing the ADA into law, President George H. W. Bush declared, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Allies and Obstacles_smThe anniversary of the ADA calls for reflection on where we were and where we are now. In our book, Allies and Obstacles: Disability Activism and Parents of Children with Disabilities, we detail the struggles of many disabled children and their families prior to the ADA, times when disabled people were systematically excluded from access to transportation, communication, education, and employment. We also document the ways that parent activists worked together with disability activists to bring the ADA into being. Thanks to these efforts, parents raising children in a post-ADA world experience a different landscape—one with far greater attention to access and that is more likely to recognize people with disabilities as full citizens worthy of inclusion.

Despite the incredible efforts of activists, however, we have a long way to go to actually achieve equity and inclusion. Parents are both allies and obstacles along this path. For example, in Olmstead v. L. C. (1999), the Supreme Court drew on the ADA in its finding that people with disabilities have a right to live and receive services in the community and to avoid unnecessary institutionalization. Many parents have fought for deinstitutionalization and to build community services, and they praised this decision. Other parents, though, fought to preserve institutions. Indeed, the language of Olmstead prohibiting “unnecessary” institutionalizations bows to the pressure placed by parents and professionals to leave intact the idea of necessary institutionalization as determined by professionals and parents/guardians with almost no avenues for disabled people to challenge their confinement. Data from 2011 indicated more than 89,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and more than 178,000 people with psychiatric diagnoses still reside in large-scale, congregate settings (National Association of State Mental Health Directors, 2017; Scott, Lakin, and Larson, 2008).

New challenges also continue to arise, built on long-standing inequalities. The spread of the Coronavirus hit the disability community especially hard, exposing stark and persistent inequities. People with disabilities were infected with and died from COVID-19 at higher rates than the general population (Kennedy, Frieden, Dick-Mosher, & Curtis, 2020; Turk, Landes, Formica, & Goss 2020). In New York City, residents of group homes were more than five times more likely than the general population to develop COVID-19 and almost five times more likely to die from it (Hakim, 2020). Despite the high risk for disabled people, medical ethicists created guidelines for medical triage and technology access that restricted access to lifesaving measures to some categories of disabled people. Disability rights groups had to sue, drawing on the ADA, to defend themselves against medical discrimination. Throughout the pandemic, parents have fought for additional funding and clearer guidelines to ensure the delivery of support services in the community, including adequate testing and protective equipment to protect their loved ones and the support staff. But parents-led organizations are also among those that continue to run congregate care facilities and failed to protect people from the risks of congregate care including the rapid spread of disease.

Attention to police violence by Black Lives Matter activism put a spotlight on the fact that disabled black, indigenous and people of color are especially vulnerable to being hurt and killed by the police. Those who should be protecting  the rights of disabled citizens, instead use “unexpected” and “noncompliant” behavior to justify violence and pre-existing conditions to excuse fatality that occurs in the course of that violence. Here too we find parents on the front lines of these struggles.  Activist and blogger Kerima Çevik, for example, recognized years ago the dangers her son, a mixed race, autistic and nonverbal teenager, might face if he encountered the police. She works with a range of organizations to build community capacity to protect him and others. The work of minority activists, however, for too long was overlooked and de-prioritized by national parent-led disability organizations, which have majority white leadership and membership. These organization tended to sideline issues of concern to minority communities, such as police violence and the disproportionate labeling of minority youth in special education, and instead focus on an agenda seen as most politically palatable.

These examples highlight that, although the ADA opened many doors and created many protections, there is still much more to do both legislatively and in regards to resisting and changing societal prejudices and structural inequalities. Parents play a complex role in this struggle. They often ally with disabled activists to fight for inclusion and empowerment. However, continued support for congregate care and dismissing the intersectionality of race and disability contribute to some of the most pressing problems we face today.

Allison Carey, Pamela Block, and Richard Scotch are having a virtual panel to celebrate the ADA’s 30th anniversary on Aug 6th at  7pm. Visit: https://mi-ada.org/ for more information

Living amidst constant disruptions that keep on taking new forms.

This week in North Philly Notes, Ghassan Moussawi, author of Disruptive Situations asks, What kind of everyday life strategies can we use in these times?

Since March 2020, we have been living in uncertain and troubling times due to COVID-19, where our lives, everyday routines, and sense of safety have been heavily impacted. However, as we have witnessed, the global pandemic has and continues to affect peoples’ lives differently, where the most precarious people have most been affected by the pandemic. For example, there are higher death rate among communities of color, especially Black, Indigenous, undocumented, queer and trans people of color and communities in the U.S.

What came as a shock to many is the sudden interruption of everyday life as we know it. People are lost, confused, and mourning the loss of their routines and the stability in their lives. While some might say, we are living in “a new normal;” the definition of “new” and “normal” keep changing to the extent that the term “new normal” fails to account for the moment we are living in. The majority of people living in the U.S. today have not encountered such sudden shifts and disruptions in their everyday lives. For queer people and communities of color, however, pandemic and government neglect are familiar; the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s wiped out an entire generation while the Reagan and Bush administrations looked the other way.

We think of these as exceptional times, however, how do scholars account for people’s lives in places where everyday life disruptions and uncertainties about the present and future are normal and normalized? What kind of everyday life strategies can we use in these times?

Disruptive Situations_smMy book Disruptive Situations answers the question above, by looking at the everyday life strategies of LGBT people living in post-civil war Beirut. I ask readers to take a step back and think about what it means to live amidst constant everyday life disruptions that keep on taking new forms. Disruptive Situations comes at a time when we are all experiencing a sense of loss and disorientation, and my hope is that the book might shed light on how people survive constant and imminent disruptions, caused by wars, civil unrest, and everyday violence.

The idea for the book started in 2009, when I found many Euro-American media outlets advertising Beirut as a new destination for gay tourism. Though life in Beirut remains highly precarious, such representations downplayed such realities. My book looks at the period 2005-2016, which was marked by a series of assassinations, an Israeli war in 2006, suicide bombings, a shortage of basic services (such as electricity and clean water), and a garbage crisis. Drawing on fieldwork I conducted in Beirut among LGBT people between 2009-15—during the height of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s suicide bombings in Beirut and Lebanon—I ask how we can account for people’s everyday lives amid uncertainty and violence that has no beginning and no end. People in Beirut have devised the term al-wad’ or “the situation” to capture the complexity of these everyday violence and disruptions.

Using the concept of al-wad’, or “the situation,” I raise questions about spaces beyond Beirut, by asking what it has to say about queer life in contexts where precarity and disruptions are the conditions of everyday social and cultural life. Though the book draws on LGBT people’s strategies, these queer strategies are not necessarily enacted only by LGBT people.

Disruptive Situation highlights these and other issues:

  • How and in what ways has Beirut been marketed as a “gay friendly” destination? For whom, is it “gay friendly? It is class and race—and not gay friendliness—that determines who is able to experience Beirut as “gay friendly;” In Beirut—as now amid the COVID pandemic—race and class primarily determine who gets to experience safety and precarity
  • LGBT individuals’ various negotiations or “queer strategies” in navigating everyday disruptions, with a focus on mobilities and access to space. These includes movements within and across the city, to crossing neighborhood borders, and access to “gay-friendly” spaces and communities of organizing
  • Queer strategies that people use, like accepting contradictions, and creating bubbles as both metaphorical and physical spaces of respite to negotiate life
  • What can everyday queer tactics tell us about the local and regional politics, and everyday life violence and uncertainty? This current pandemic also illustrates how it affects LGBT communities differently based on race, class, gender, and documentation status. Similarly, State and interpersonal violence in the U.S. remain heavily determined by marginalization, with Indigenous and Black communities particularly targeted even in the midst of the pandemic
  • What does it mean to conduct ethnographic research at times of violence and disruption? What does it mean when one’s research gets constantly interrupted and one has to leave their research site due to violence and bombings?

I hope Disruptive Situations will help us better understand both how people negotiate constant major life disruptions and how we can come up with creative ways to conduct research when we live in uncertain times, such as the ones we are currently experiencing.

An interview with author Ryan Pettengill about Communists and Community

This week in North Philly Notes, we interview author Ryan Pettengill about his new book, Communists and Community, which enhances our understanding of the central role Communists played in the advancement of social democracy throughout the mid-twentieth century.

You trace community activism in Detroit during the years 1941-1956, which is during the downslide of the American Community Party [CPUSA]. What accounts for this time frame for your book?
Quiet honestly, the CPUSA had always had a knack for community activism. There have been other scholars that have written about this topic, but much of their attention is concentrated on the period from 1935 to 1939. This era, known as the Popular Front period in which communists made important alliances with liberals and progressives in the struggle against international fascism, was thought to have ended by 1940, largely a casualty of the alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. While the CPUSA did, in fact, enter into a new period in its history, the activism it pursued – especially at the local level in centers like Detroit – largely remained the same. The alliances that communists made with religious and civic organizations that were dedicated to social and political equality remained intact. Moreover, the nature of their activism, in which they would flood City Hall with letters, march in demonstrations throughout neighborhoods, boycott bowling alleys that insisted on Jim Crow policies, or establish “labor schools” for the training of the next generation of activists remained the preferred mode of activism long after World War II ended. Taking this community activism into account helps us understand the CP in a different light. It also helps demonstrate that leftists were central in keeping militant activism alive in the postwar period before it would become much more visible in the early 1960s with the coming of the civil rights movement.

Can you discuss why you focused on post-war Detroit? Sure, it was motor city with a huge industry in America at that time, but what made this city a valuable crucible
Detroit is just…fascinating. I developed an interest in the city as a graduate student and it never really stopped. But to the point of this question, Detroit is outside of the local context in which American communism is typically examined – New York City.  Examining communists and the activism that they sponsored demonstrates that at the local level in places like Detroit there was a level of autonomy in which activists were afforded a chance address local challenges in the way they saw fit despite what the “party line” may have dictated.

Communists and Community_smYou write about how the CPUSA helped underrepresented groups, working toward socioeconomic betterment, creating multiracial workforces, and protecting the foreign-born. Can you discuss this little-known history of Communists playing a central role in the advancement of social democracy and civil rights?
I think communists, with their insistence on analyzing the role that class played in American life, were able to see the unmistakable connections to race. Other scholars have noted that the CP was the only predominantly white institution that took up the matter of systemic racism during the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s. To that end, it attracted civil rights activists like Reverend Charles Hill and Coleman Young, the first African American to be elected mayor of Detroit. As Young put it, the communists and Reverend Hill (an African American Baptist minister) were the only ones even talking about racism in the 1940s.  Young never apologized for running around with radicals so long as it meant the socioeconomic betterment of the black community.

There are interesting stories about housing projects, racism and racial segregation, police brutality, as well as issues involving wages and unionism, etc. What challenges, setbacks, and successes did the CP and its members have?
This may sound obvious but it was the Second Red Scare that accounted for the biggest challenges and setbacks for the CPUSA in Detroit and elsewhere. As I point out throughout the book, the Red Scare and McCarthyism compromised the alliances built between the labor-liberal-leftist coalition that had flourished in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Anticommunists like Joseph McCarthy had built careers on red baiting and liberals who had once been allies of leftists were forced to demonstrate their patriotism by ridding them from unions and civic organizations. That said, I think that what the communists achieved – especially throughout the 1950s – was keeping the concept of militant activism alive in the minds of Detroiters. The 1950s is so often portrayed as a politically tame period and it is no coincidence that McCarthyism was raging throughout the country at the time. The activism that communists sponsored in the postwar period helped lay the foundation for future activism in the 1960s and beyond.

 What observations do you have about the white ethnic backlash and rise of conservatism in the face of the CPUSA’s efforts? (Sounds kind of timely….)
In a perfect world, I would like my book to be read in conjunction with studies that chronicle the postwar economy, the rise of conservatism, and the long descent of the New Deal order. If you read Communists and Community in conjunction with, say, Daniel Clark’s Disruption in Detroit, for example, you can clearly see that the postwar economy was anything but stable and for the bulk of Detroit’s industrial workforce, simply having steady work took absolute precedent over the communist brand of activism that addressed the integration of Detroit’s neighborhoods or reforming policing practices throughout the city. If there is one thing writing this book has taught me is that the working class existed in the abstract and workers did not always want the same things. So, along comes someone like George Wallace who can speak the language of the working class in locales like Detroit and is able to portray himself as the “law and order” candidate and, thus, fracture the working-class coalition that the UAW, leftist activists, and other progressives worked so hard to establish throughout the war years.

How did the radicalism and politicization that gained momentum during that time continue in the decades after? You write that the decline of community activism within organized labor [is] a casualty of the Cold War; that anticommunism played a key role.
I generally think of Carl Winter, Helen Alison-Winter, Nat Ganley, and Billy Allan as placeholders for the future leftists who would come to mainstream protest and dissent in the 1960s and early 70s.  It wasn’t always easy to defend their radicalism but these individuals did so anyway.  When the Michigan Council for Peace led a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to petition the federal government to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union, they opened themselves up to all sorts of criticism from the right.  But Reverend Hill led the pilgrimage anyway.  By the 1960s, with the fading of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, radicalism was once again a permissible form of political expression.  The activists comprising what might loosely be called the “old left” essentially preserved the institution of community activism.

 

Stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past

This week in North Philly Notes, Manan Desai, author of The United States of Indiawrites about a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals.

In 1916, fresh off a tour across the United States, the exiled Indian nationalist Lajpat Rai penned what he described as a “Hindu’s Impressions and a Study” of America from his adopted home in Berkeley, California. After visits with prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Margaret Sanger, and Booker T. Washington, and stops throughout the country, Rai concluded that “the problems of the United States were very similar to those that face us in India.” As unlikely as that comparison seems, Rai was not alone in making it. During his time in the U.S., Rai became a part of a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, who actively imagined themselves as part of a shared project of anticolonialism. For the Americans with whom Rai and other Indian expatriates formed lasting friendships and alliances, the encounter with the Indian cause had shifted their perspective and left a lasting impression. Agnes Smedley, a working-class radical from Missouri who was mentored by Rai, would later write that her acquaintance with the Indian expatriate scene had led her to apprehend world events “through the eyes of men from Asia—eyes that watched and were cynical about the phrases of democracy.” W.E.B. Du Bois himself held onto the promise of Indian decolonization for decades to come, declaring in 1947 that India’s independence was “the greatest historical date of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” By comparing one another’s conditions, this band of writers came to reconsider not only how “the problems” of the U.S. and India were similar, but how such friendships and affinities formed across national and racial lines could foster new visions for a decolonized future.

United_States_of_IndiaThe United States of India reconstructs this network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, and examines vision they shared, during and immediately after the First World War. Organizations like the New York-based India Home Rule League, the radical San Francisco-based Gadar Party, the Friends for Freedom of India, and national student groups, produced periodicals, newsletters, pamphlets, and books, advocating for the rights of Indians under colonial rule as well as Indian migrants in the U.S.

But one of the critical goals in this book is to take seriously the contradictions that such comparisons opened up, how imagining one form of freedom at the expense of another. To return to Rai, for instance, we might ask: How could a white settler nation at the cusp of global dominance actually resemble a British colony in the East? What real comparison could be drawn from the structures of colonial dominance in India and the metropolitan world of the U.S.? What gets left behind in such comparisons?

These contradictions are particularly important when considering the relevance of early histories of South Asian America to our contemporary moment. To name just a few explored in the book: We see how in navigating discriminatory laws, Indian immigrants like Bhagat Singh Thind formally made claims to whiteness, but in doing they espoused a “racist response to racism,” as Sucheta Mazumdar describes it, that reinforced a system of white supremacy. We see how upper-caste Indian writers would acknowledge the violence of the caste system (from which they benefited), but just as quickly disavow it by foregrounding their experiences of racism in the United States and India. Lajpat Rai, who could be so sharp and cutting in his critiques of colonialism, also upheld Islamophobic ideologies and forms of Hindu nationalism that we see horrific repercussions of today.

As important as it is to engage the stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past, it may be an even more critical task to engage its contradictions, because they continue to persist and shape our present.

Books that can start the conversation about race

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase a selection of Temple University Press titles about understanding racism. Get 30% off these and other books about race on our website: tupress.temple.edu/subjects/1092 (Use Promo Code T30P at checkout) 

Silent Gesture
The Autobiography of Tommie Smith
Tommie Smith and David Steele
Sporting series
The story behind an image of protest that will always stand as an iconic representation of the complicated conflations of race, politics, and sports.

The Possessive Investment of Whiteness
How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Twentieth Anniversary Edition
By George Lipsitz
An unflinching but necessary look at white supremacy, updated to address racial privilege in the age of Trump

The Man-Not
Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood
Tommy J. Curry
Black Male Studies Series
“[A] provocative discussion of black masculinity by critiquing both the social and academic treatment of killings of black men and boys in the US….”—Choice  

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party
Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century
Keneshia N. Grant
Frames the Great Migration as an important economic and social event that also changed the way Democratic Party elites interacted with Black communities in northern cities

Invisible People
Stories of Lives at the Margins
Alex Tizon, Edited by Sam Howe Verhovek
Foreword by Jose Antonio Vargas
Epic stories of marginalized people—from lonely immigrants struggling to forge a new American identity to a high school custodian who penned a New Yorker short story. 

Look, a White!
Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
George Yancy
Returning the problem of whiteness to white people, Yancy identifies the embedded and opaque ways white power and privilege operate

Resurrecting Slavery
Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France

Crystal Marie Fleming
Bringing a critical race perspective to the study of French racism, Fleming provides a nuanced way of thinking about the global dimensions of slavery, anti-blackness, and white supremacy

FORTHCOMING IN NOVEMBER

Do Right by Me
Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces
Valerie I. Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo
A conversation between two friends—about how best to raise black children in white families and white communities—after one adopts a biracial son 

ALSO OF INTEREST

Tasting Freedom
Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America
Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin
The life and times of Octavius Catto, a civil rights pioneer [felled by a bullet] fighting for social justice issues and voting rights more than a century ago

 

Unveiling Temple University Press’s Fall 2020 Catalog

This week in North Philly Notes, we announce the titles from our Fall 2020 catalog

Are We the 99%?: The Occupy Movement, Feminism, and Intersectionality, by Heather McKee Hurwitz
Intersectionality lessons for contemporary “big-tent” organizing

Becoming Entitled: Relief, Unemployment, and Reform during the Great Depression, by Abigail Trollinger
Chronicles Americans’ shift in thinking about government social insurance programs during the Great Depression

The Defender: The Battle to Protect the Rights of the Accused in Philadelphiaby Edward W. Madeira Jr. and Michael D. Schaffer
A vibrant history of the Defender Association of Philadelphia—dubbed “the best lawyers money can’t buy”

Do Right by Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces, by Valerie I. Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo
Invites readers into a conversation on how best to raise black children in white families and white communities

From Collective Bargaining to Collective Begging: How Public Employees Win and Lose the Right to Bargainby Dominic D. Wells
Analyzes the expansion and restriction of collective bargaining rights for public employees

Giving Back: Filipino America and the Politics of Diaspora Giving by L. Joyce Zapanta Mariano
Explores transnational giving practices as political projects that shape the Filipino diaspora

Globalizing the Caribbean: Political Economy, Social Change, and the Transnational Capitalist Classby Jeb Sprague
Now in Paperback—how global capitalism finds new ways to mutate and grow in the Caribbean

Graphic Migrations: Precarity and Gender in India and the Diaspora, by Kavita Daiya
Examines “what remains” in migration stories surrounding the 1947 Partition of India

The Health of the Commonwealth: A Brief History of Medicine, Public Health, and Disease in Pennsylvania, by James E. Higgins
Showcasing Pennsylvania’s unique contribution to the history of public health and medicine

Immigrant Crossroads: Globalization, Incorporation, and Placemaking in Queens, New York, Edited by Tarry Hum, Ron Hayduk, Francois Pierre-Louis Jr., and Michael Alan Krasner
Highlights immigrant engagement in urban development, policy, and social movements

Implementing City Sustainability: Overcoming Administrative Silos to Achieve Functional Collective Action, by Rachel M. Krause, Christopher V. Hawkins, and Richard C. Feiock
How cities organize to design and implement sustainability

The Misunderstood History of Gentrification: People, Planning, Preservation, and Urban Renewal, 1915-2020, by Dennis E. Gale
Reframing our understanding of the roles of gentrification and urban renewal in the revitalization of Amer
ican cities

Modern Mobility Aloft: Elevated Highways, Architecture, and Urban Change in Pre-Interstate America, by Amy D. Finstein
How American cities used elevated highways as major architectural statements about local growth and modernization before 1956

Motherlands: How States Push Mothers Out of Employment, by Leah Ruppanner
Challenging preconceived notions of the states that support working mothers

Philadelphia Battlefields: Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City, by John Kromer
How upstart political candidates achieved spectacular successes over Philadelphia’s entrenched political establishment

Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life, by Chia Youyee Vang, with Pao Yang, Retired Captain, U.S. Secret War in Laos
The life of Pao Yang, whose experiences defy conventional accounts of the Vietnam War

The Refugee Aesthetic: Reimagining Southeast Asian America, by Timothy K. August
Explores how refugees are represented and represent themselves

Revolution Around the Corner: Voices from the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, Edited by José E. Velázquez, Carmen V. Rivera, and Andrés Torres
The first book-length story of the radical social movement, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party

Salut!: France Meets Philadelphia, by Lynn Miller and Therese Dolan
Chronicling the French presence and impact on Philadelphia through its art and artists, as well as through the city’s political and social culture

Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism, by Barbara Tomlinson
Now in Paperback—a sustained critique of the ways in which scholars have engaged with and deployed intersectionality

Temple University Press authors reflect on making PBS’s Asian Americans

This week in North Philly Notes, Shirley Jennifer Lim, author of Anna May Wong, and Winifred C. Chin, author of Paper Sonrecount their experiences making the 5-part PBS documentary series Asian Americans.

Anna May Wong is having a moment, by Shirley Jennifer Lim

Anna May Wong is having a moment. In 2020 she has been featured in numerous documentaries, television shows (Netflix’s Hollywood), and, as a Google doodle. The landmark PBS documentary series, Asian Americans, tells Wong’s story at the end of Episode 1. Wong epitomizes someone who fought racial stereotypes and sought to improve the lot of Asian Americans.

Anna May Wong_smOne of the pleasures of the Asian Americans Episode 1 is that it contains rare archival footage of Wong’s performances. On screen, her expressive talents shine. When you watch the documentary, compare Luise Rainer’s flat affect as she says “I am with child” (The Good Earth) with Wong’s face when she says “Perhaps the white girl had better be looking out!” (One likes to think this is a not so hidden message to all of the white actresses who won Asian roles instead of her). There is almost no need to hear her words for her face says it all. Or the clip of Wong saying “No love now. No jealousy. Just merciless vengeance.” Her intonation is priceless and makes the viewer almost believe that words can kill. Rainer, as the documentary makes clear, won the leading role in the Good Earth over Wong and an Academy Award for playing the role (in yellowface). Never daunted, after The Good Earth casting rejection, Wong hired her own cinematographer and made her own film about China. Although Asian Americans does not have time to discuss Wong’s self-directed and produced film, but moments from the film are on screen at the end of the segment. (For my discussion of this film read Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern Chapter 5 and Epilogue). You see footage of Wong holding the camera up to her eye as she films Chinese street scenes. It would be wonderful if this interest in Wong translated into more of her films being made widely available.

Paper Son in the filming of Asian Americans, by Winifred C. Chin

When I was first approached by the PBS Asian Americans research team, I did not anticipate the key role that Paper Son, One Man’s Story would have in Episode 3: “Good Americans,” in which Asian Americans are heralded as the “model minority” while simultaneously living as “perpetual foreigners.”

PAPERSON_Certificate of Identity of Tong Pok Chin (Front) (1) (1)

Tung Pok Chin age 19 arrival in US.jpg Paper Son is the story of how my father, Tung Pok Chin, entered the United States in 1934 with false papers that declared him the “son of [a] native.” Due to restrictions of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) this method was the only way he and others could escape dire poverty in China and come to the U.S. But China had turned to communism by 1949, and Tung Pok Chin was writing for a Chinese newspaper that the FBI branded as pro-communist. Our family soon came under federal investigation with the McCarthy Era.

Episode 3 is entitled “Good Americans” for a reason. Living in the United States, Tung Pok Chin gave his best to assimilate into American society; he learned English and served in the U.S. Navy during WWII; after the war he married and raised a family; he became a member in good standing at True Light Lutheran Church; and he wrote poetry to record his sentiments about the Chinese homeland — all while working in a laundry to support his family. In spite of all this, Tung Pok Chin remained the “perpetual foreigner” due to his status as a paper son and his writings in a newspaper that did not sit well with the U.S. Government.

In working with my father on Paper Son our aspiration for the text was simple: that the previously unknown “paper” method of entry into the United States and the effects of McCarthyism on the Chinese American community would be recognized and studied as a part of American history. Yet it was in filming Episode 3 that I started seeing Paper Son on a grander scale.

The questions that filmmaker S. Leo Chiang asked were thought-provoking and prodded me to dig into my own childhood to reflect on growing up Chinese in America. I soon realized that my experiences were not limited to myself, just as Paper Son is not limited to the experiences of Tung Pok Chin alone. Instead, my father’s experiences and those of my own speak for numerous other “paper sons” and for the generations of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans who rest precariously on the edge of a country where we try our best to be “Good Americans” yet can never fit in — because looking like the enemy in a time of crisis, be it during WWII, McCarthyism or the World Trade Center attack, will always arouse suspicion, distrust and hence rejection, no matter how “Good” we are.

Unorthodox Captures Many Truths of Leaving Hasidic Communities

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost Degrees of Separation author Schneur Zalman Newfield’s recent article from The Society Pages that considers the Netflix series, Unorthodox, about exiting ultra-Orthodox communities, the subject of his new book.

Like many who left ultra-Orthodox communities in which they were raised, I eagerly awaited the release of the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox, loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s first memoir by the same title that chronicles her journey out of her Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and her efforts to join the broader secular society. I was curious to see in what ways the narrative of the miniseries would reflect the experiences of the 74 ex-Hasidic men and women I interviewed for my PhD dissertation and forthcoming book, Degrees of SeparationIdentity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Hasidic communities adhere strictly to Orthodox Jewish law, members tend to marry young and have large families, and generally shun non-Jewish culture and outsiders.

Degrees of Separation_smThe miniseries revolves around the attempt of Esty Shapiro—brilliantly portrayed by Shira Haas—to leave her socially and culturally isolated Williamsburg community and start a new life in Berlin, Germany. The miniseries is deeply compelling and captures many truths about the lives of the people I interviewed as well as many others who make the complex journey out of ultra-Orthodoxy.

The miniseries highlights Esty’s traumatic experiences inside her Hasidic marriage. Although Esty rejects the term “escaped” to describe her journey and protests that her community was not “a prison,” she did suffer a lot. As Esty reflects at one point about her life in Brooklyn to her new friends in Berlin, “God expected too much from me.” She is perplexed when informed just before her wedding of the basic mechanics of sex and the complex details of the “family purity” laws that require her to chart when she is menstruating and to abstain from sex during those times and for a week afterwards. Esty cries through the sheering off of all her lush hair the morning after her wedding and is terrified and alienated when she visits the ritual bath (mikvah) and immerses herself in order to make herself “pure” and available to have sex with her husband. She also suffers extreme physical pain when having sex with her husband and after months of trying, they are only able to engage fully in intercourse a single time. The physical pain is only heightened and given an added sting by her nosy and insensitive mother-in-law’s intrusions into her sex life aimed at securing her another grandchild. Ultimately, her mother-in-law encourages her son to divorce Esty because it is believed she will never be able to get pregnant.

I will focus on three themes of the exit process from religion that are significant in my own research and are all dramatized in Unorthodox: the dire warnings from community members to potential exiters; the maintenance of religious beliefs and practices by exiters even after they exit; and the hybrid technique of integrating aspects of an exiters’ past into their present and future.

While still in Williamsburg, Esty secretly took piano lessons for several years from a non-Jewish woman who rented an apartment from her grandfather. Before Esty leaves Brooklyn, the music teacher gives her student a small compass to help her find her way once she exits her community. Indeed, it is an extremely difficult task for exiters to create a new life for themselves once all the rules, norms, expectations that they grew up with are discarded. These communities tell those contemplating or suspected of contemplating leaving that it is impossible to do so, that all who leave are crazy and end up with ruined and dysfunctional lives. It is clearly a lie, but for those inside the community lacking information about the outside world and those who make it out, this can be a very compelling argument to stay.

One of the most powerful scenes occurs shortly after Esty clandestinely travels from Brooklyn to Berlin and finds herself on a beach, surrounded by scantily clad carefree swimmers splashing around and enjoying their time in the sun. Esty is still wearing her Hasidic garb, including her conservative long skirt, thick opaque brown tights, and wig (sheitel). We feel Esty’s internal struggle, her desire to be “normal” and join in the fun, while being simultaneously horrified that people could expose so much of their bodies to total strangers. She has internalized the teachings of her community that stipulate that the body, especially a woman’s body, must always be covered up in order to protect its sanctity and the purity of those around her. Esty wavers for a moment, but then gathers her courage. She takes off her opaque tights and walks into the lake fully clothed. As she enters the shallow waters, she pulls off her wig and releases it. It floats away. This emersion is a sort of reverse mikvah, a ritual cleansing of her former life and a symbolic rebirth into her new secular identity.

Esty’s internal struggle mirrors what many of my interviewees grapple with once they leave their community but still hold onto numerous religious practices and beliefs from their old community, such as an aversion to eating pork—which is strictly forbidden by Jewish law—and the persistence of belief in God, and conservative views of gender and race. These practices and beliefs can prove difficult, if not impossible, to jettison.

One of the best techniques that Hasidic exiters have found for integrating into the broader secular society is taking a hybrid approach to their life. That is, to find a way to incorporate elements of their past into their present and future. This approach is powerfully exemplified in the final scene of the miniseries when Esty auditions for entrance to a prestigious Berlin music institute. Esty first sings a short piece from Schubert entitled “An die Musik,” and does a competent job. Then she is asked to sing another song and chooses a Hasidic one with Hebrew words that was chanted at her wedding. She sways (shuckles) just as Hasidic Jews typically do when lost in a melody.  Her rendition is soul stirring. The viewer is mesmerized by Esty’s blending of classic European and Hasidic music. In that moment she has decided not to ghettoize her past but to allow it to blend into her present and future. In my book I call this “embracing a hybrid identity.” It’s not a brief transitional phase, but a long term strategy for pursuing a life that is deeply different from the life one was raised and trained in. Examples of hybridity include schuckling, like Esty in Unorthodox, while engaging in secular activities such as studying American law, or occasionally taking the time to study a passage of Talmud while pursuing a doctorate in French literature.

The main weakness of the miniseries is its inclusion of a spy-like theme that distracts from its beauty and authenticity. This theme begins in the opening scene of the miniseries with Esty surreptitiously collecting hidden items from around her bedroom—a wad of cash from inside a foam wig holder—in preparation of her departure. The covert ops continue with a scene where Esty is taken by an aunt to a kosher supermarket so that her prospective mother-in-law can furtively inspect her, like a piece of meat at a butcher shop, to see if she passes muster. This entire scene makes no sense. The mother-in-law doesn’t know her from around the small and close-knit neighborhood?  She can’t ask a friend? The espionage intensifies when the Rebbe, the spiritual leader of the Hasidic community, orders Esty’s sheepish husband Yanky, accompanied by his cousin Moshe, a thuggish character and former renegade himself, to travel to Berlin to track down and bring back Esty. Moshe even receives the obligatory box with a pistol when he checks into his Berlin hotel. Who does he get the gun from and what exactly is he supposed to do with it once he meets up with Esty?

This espionage subplot seems truly absurd. It makes Hasidic Jews and those who leave their community seem entirely foreign to the viewers who are finally coming to know this “exotic” community through shows like this one and to see them for the normal human beings they are, albeit living a wildly different lifestyle.

Sociologically speaking, exiting from strict religious communities is an example of the broader phenomenon of personal transformation and resocialization, similar to the processes people experience after a divorce and when immigrating to a new country. Leaving a religion is traumatic and complex, but not unrelated to other kinds of social experiences. It is helpful to think of religious exiters in relation to other forms of exiting. This helps humanize religious exiters and helps us realize that the process of resocialization is a more common one than we might otherwise imagine. People from all walks of life may need to engage in resocialization at some point or another.

Ironically, the actress who plays Esty, Shira Haas, starred in the international hit show on Netflix Shtisel, which was a huge success because it made the ultra-Orthodox appear normal, or more accurately, as troubled and complex as everyone else. They have distinct religious dress, beliefs, and rituals, but they too have romantic problems, marital disharmony, financial woes, struggles to find a career, and disappointments from their children.

Notwithstanding the distraction from the spy element, Unorthodox is a powerful series that celebrates the human capacity for personal transformation. It affirms that birth is not destiny, and gives voice to a group of survivors that are often marginalized in mainstream culture.

Schneur Zalman Newfield is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences, Human Services, and Criminal Justice at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. Visit him online at zalmannewfield.com.

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