Lessons from the juicy details of a protracted legal battle

This week in North Philly Notes, Jean Elson, author of Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness—about the notorious divorce between Nina and James Walker in early twentieth-century Rhode Island—provides some keen observations about the issues raised during the sensational trial. 

The events leading up to and taking place throughout the Walker divorce hearings raised issues that were not solely individual matters; they signified social changes evolving in American culture at the time. Acrimonious testimony often focused on incompatible views of gender, family, and class—ideas that characterized broader cultural debates of the Progressive Era. The trials raised many questions including the following:

§  Must a wife obey her husband’s orders?
James Walker viewed his opinion as the only one to be taken into consideration, and his wife, Nina, began to rebel against this.

§  Is a wife required to submit to her husband’s sexual desires?
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sex meant the risk of pregnancy for women, and pregnancy was a dangerous undertaking at the time, with a high mortality and morbidity rate.

§  Are children the property of their father?
During the early 20th century courts were just beginning to award custody to mothers in divorce cases. The judicial philosophy changed from viewing children (and wives) as property of the father and husband to considering a mother’s love and devotion to children as more important. Nina was fortunate that enlightened judges awarded her custody throughout the long divorce proceedings, as well as when the divorce became final.

§  Should fathers provide their children with emotional, as well as financial, support?
The new view of fathers at the time of the divorce was that they could provide love and companionship for children, rather than just moral education. This is currently taken for granted. Nina and James, as well as witnesses for each side disputed whether James was capable of providing emotional support.

§  Is corporal punishment of children to be condoned?
An important issue in the Walker case was Nina’s charge that James physically punished the children, a situation that would not have been as seriously questioned prior to the Progressive period.

Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness_sm§  Must a husband be faithful to his wife?
Nina charged James with adultery, as well as “gross misbehavior and wickedness” (a charge only acceptable in Rhode Island) with the children’s governess. Previous generations of upper class women may have been more likely to accept that their husbands had mistresses. The issue of whether James engaged in extra-marital sex was so important that James’s purported mistress was examined by doctors to determine whether she was a virgin.

§  Must a wife remain with her husband when doing so endangers her physical or mental health?
Nina claimed that her marriage endangered both of these. Whereas endangerment of physical health by a husband had long been an acceptable ground for divorce, it was only in the early 20th century that judges began to accept endangerment of mental health as a valid reason for divorce.

§  Is a wife obliged to be more loyal to her husband and his family than to her own?
James claimed that Nina’s family constantly influenced her in a way that was detrimental to the marriage, and Nina resented James’s family’s interference in their married life.

§  Should a feminist always support the woman when a husband and wife argue?
James’s sister Susan was a well-known feminist and suffragist, but took her brother’s side in the divorce dispute. She did not see the connection between the public rights of women she upheld and her own sister-in-law’s powerlessness in her own home. Nina did not make this connection between public and private rights either, and she was vehemently against giving women the right to vote, although she wanted more power in her marriage.

§  How involved should parents be in a grown child’s marriage?
Both Nina’s and James’s family were very involved in the couple’s married life, to the detriment of the couple’s relationship with each other.

§  Is it proper for a single working-class woman to befriend a married upper- class man?
Nina’s side claimed that it was completely inappropriate for James to be on friendly terms with the family governess and to correspond with her (their letters are a very interesting part of the story).

§  Is divorce the appropriate solution for a troubled marriage?
Divorce was probably the right solution for Nina and James Walker, but the Walker children were cut off forever from their father and his side of the family.

We continue to grapple with most of the above questions in contemporary American society.

Temple University Press’ Fall 2017 Catalog

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase the books from Temple University Press’s Fall 2017 Catalog.

“A Road to Peace and Freedom”

“A Road to Peace and Freedom”
The International Workers Order and the Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930–1954

Zecker, Robert M.

The history of the International Workers Order’s struggle to enact a social-democratic, racially egalitarian vision for America

430 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1516-5
cloth 978-1-4399-1515-8

Against Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Against Capital in the Twenty-First Century
A Reader of Radical Undercurrents
Edited by Asimakopoulos, John and Richard Gilman-Opalsky

A broad, nonsectarian collection of anti-capitalist thinking, featuring landmark contributions both classic and contemporary

390 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1358-1
cloth 978-1-4399-1357-4

Against the Deportation Terror

Against the Deportation Terror
Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century

Buff, Rachel Ida

Reveals the formerly little-known history of multiracial immigrant rights organizing in the United States

382 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1534-9
cloth 978-1-4399-1533-2

Believing in Cleveland

Believing in Cleveland
Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation”

Souther, J. Mark

Do reforms that decentralize the state actually empower women?

210 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1397-0
cloth 978-1-4399-1396-3

Biz Mackey, a Giant behind the Plate

Biz Mackey, a Giant behind the Plate
The Story of the Negro League Star and Hall of Fame Catcher
Westcott, Rich
Forewords by Monte Irvin and Ray Mackey III

The first biography of arguably the greatest catcher in the Negro Leagues

160 pp • 5.375×8.5 • Fall 2017
cloth 978-1-4399-1551-6

Communities and Crime

Communities and Crime
An Enduring American Challenge

Wilcox, Pamela, Francis T. Cullen, and Ben Feldmey

A systematic exploration of how criminology has accounted for the role of community over the past century

282 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-59213-974-3
cloth 978-1-59213-973-6

The Cost of Being a Girl

The Cost of Being a Girl
Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap

Besen-Cassino, Yasemin

Traces the origins of the gender wage gap to part-time teenage work, which sets up a dynamic that persists into adulthood

238 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1349-9
cloth 978-1-4399-1348-2

Exploiting the Wilderness

Exploiting the Wilderness
An Analysis of Wildlife Crime

Warchol, Greg L.

A contemporary criminological analysis of the African and Asian illegal trade in wildlife


208 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1367-3
cloth 978-1-4399-1366-6

From Slave Ship to Supermax

From Slave Ship to Supermax
Mass Incarceration, Prisoner Abuse, and the New Neo-Slave Novel

Alexander, Patrick Elliot

The first interdisciplinary study of mass incarceration to intersect the fields of literary studies, critical prison studies, and human rights

266 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1415-1
cloth 978-1-4399-1414-4

Latino Mayors

Latino Mayors
Political Change in the Postindustrial City
Edited by Orr, Marion and Domingo Morel
With a Foreword by Luis Ricardo Fraga

The first book to examine the rise of Latino mayors in the United States

312 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper paper 978-1-4399-1543-1
cloth 978-1-4399-1542-4

Love

Love
A Philadelphia Affair

Kephart, Beth

From the best-selling author of Flow comes a love letter to the Philadelphia region, its places, and its people

New in Paperback!
176 pp • 5.5×8.5 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1316-1
cloth 978-1-4399-1315-4

On the Stump

On the Stump
Campaign Oratory and Democracy in the United States, Britain, and Australia Scalmer, Sean

The story of how the “stump speech” was created, diffused, and helped to shape the modern democracies of the Anglo-American world

236 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1504-2
cloth 978-1-4399-1503-5

Phil Jasner

Phil Jasner “On the Case”
His Best Writing on the Sixers, the Dream Team, and Beyond

Edited by Jasner, Andy

Three decades of reporting by famed Philadelphia Hall of Fame sportswriter Phil Jasner

264 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
cloth 978-1-4399-1494-6

Philadelphia

Philadelphia
Finding the Hidden City
Elliott, Joseph E. B., Nathaniel Popkin, and Peter Woodall

Revealing the physical and cultural intricacies of Philadelphia, from the intimate to the monumental

200 pp • 7.875×10.5 • Fall 2017
cloth 978-1-4399-1300-0

Rulers and Capital in Historical Perspective

Rulers and Capital in Historical Perspective
State Formation and Financial Development in India and the United States

Chatterjee, Abhishek

Explains the concomitant and interconnected emergence of “public” finance and “private” banking systems in the context of state formation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

188 pp • 5.5×8.25 • Fall 2017
cloth 978-1-4399-1500-4

Selling Transracial Adoption

Selling Transracial Adoption
Families, Markets, and the Color Line

Raleigh, Elizabeth

Examines cross-race adoptions from the perspectives of adoption providers, showing how racial hierarchies and the supply and demand for children shape the process

274 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1478-6
cloth 978-1-4399-1477-9

Suffering and Sunset

Suffering and Sunset
World War I in the Art and Life of Horace Pippin

Bernier, Celeste-Marie

A majestic biography of the pioneering African American artist

New in Paperback!
552 pp • 6.125×9.25 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1274-4
cloth 978-1-4399-1273-7

Tasting Freedom

Tasting Freedom
Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America

Biddle, Daniel R. and Murray Dubin

Celebrating the life and times of the extraordinary Octavius Catto, and the first civil rights movement in America

New in Paperback!
632 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-59213-466-3
cloth 978-1-59213-465-6

Toward a Pragmatist Sociology

Toward a Pragmatist Sociology
John Dewey and the Legacy of C. Wright Mills

Dunn, Robert G.

An original study that mines the work of John Dewey and C. Wright Mills to animate a more relevant and critical sociology

198 pp • 5.5×8.25 • Fall 2017
cloth 978-1-4399-1459-5

We Decide!

We Decide!
Theories and Cases in Participatory Democracy

Menser, Michael

Argues that democratic theory and practice needs to shift its focus from elections and representation to sharing power and property in government and the economy

360 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1418-2
cloth 978-1-4399-1417-5

Why Veterans Run

Why Veterans Run
Military Service in American Presidential Elections, 1789–2016

Teigen, Jeremy M.

Why more than half of American presidential candidates have been military veterans—and why it matters

320 pp • 6×9 • Fall 2017
paper 978-1-4399-1436-6
cloth 978-1-4399-1435-9

Click here to download the catalog (pdf).

Books of critical importance in the era of Trump from Temple University Press

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase books of importance in the era of Trump.

Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania
Jamie Longazel
Longazel uses the debate around Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s controversial Illegal Immigration Relief Act as a case study that reveals the mechanics of contemporary divide and conquer politics, making important connection between immigration politics and the perpetuation of racial and economic inequality.

The Gendered Executive: A Comparative Analysis of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Chief Executives
Edited by Janet M. Martin and MaryAnne Borrelli
A critical examination of national executives, focusing on matters of identity, representation, and power. The editors and contributors address the impact of female executives through political mobilization and participation, policy- and decision-making, and institutional change.

The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements
Edited by Andrew T. Lamas, Todd Wolfson, and Peter N. Funke
With a Foreword by Angela Y. Davis
The Great Refusal provides an analysis of contemporary social movements around the world—such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement—with particular reference to Marcuse’s revolutionary concept.

Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto
Eric Tang
Eric Tang tells the harrowing and inspiring stories of Cambodian refugees to make sense of how and why the displaced migrants have been resettled in New York City’s “hyperghetto.”

Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants; Race, Gender, and Immigration Politics in the Age of Security
Anna Sampaio
Winner! American Political Science Association’s Latino Politics Best Book Prize, 2016
Immigration politics has been significantly altered by the advent of America’s war on terror and the proliferation of security measures. Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants examines how these processes are racialized and gendered and how they impose inequitable burdens on Latina/o immigrants.

Vanishing Eden: White Construction of Memory, Meaning, and Identity in a Racially Changing City
Michael T. Maly and Heather M. Dalmage
Examining how racial solidarity and whiteness were created and maintained, the authors provide an intriguing analysis of the experiences and memories of whites who lived in Chicago neighborhoods experiencing racial change during the 1950s through the 1980s.

Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice
Ryan Patrick Murphy
Situating the flight attendant union movement in the history of debates about family and work, Ryan Patrick Murphy offers an economic and a cultural analysis to show how the workplace has been the primary venue to enact feminist and LGBTQ politics.

The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Revised and Expanded Edition
George Lipsitz
In this unflinching look at white supremacy, Lipsitz argues that racism is a matter of interests as well as attitudes. He analyzes the centrality of whiteness to U.S. culture, and identifies the sustained and perceptive critique of white privilege.

Look, a White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
George Yancy
Foreword by Naomi Zack
Look, a White! returns the problem of whiteness to white people. Prompted by Eric Holder’s charge, that as Americans, we are cowards when it comes to discussing the issue of race, Yancy identifies the ways white power and privilege operate.

Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!

TOP


SaleBOTTOM

Books to read in conjunction with the DNC

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of the DNC, we showcase titles that relate to campaigns and elections.

2326_regNavigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns by Kelly Dittmar

From the presidential level down, men and women who run for political office confront different electoral realities. Here Kelly Dittmar investigates not only how gender influences the campaign strategy and behavior of candidates today but also how candidates’ strategic and tactical decisions can influence the gendered nature of campaign institutions. Navigating Gendered Terrain addresses how gender is used to shape the way campaigns are waged by influencing insider perceptions of and decisions about effective campaign messages, images, and tactics within party and political contexts.

2119_regRude Democracy:  Civility and Incivility in American Politics by Susan Herbst

Democracy is, by its very nature, often rude. But there are limits to how uncivil we should be. In this timely and important book, Susan Herbst explores how we discuss public policy, how we treat each other as we do, and how we can create a more civil national culture. Herbst contends that Americans must recognize the bad habits and trends we have developed, use new media for more effective debate, and develop a tougher and more strategic political skin. Rude Democracy outlines a plan for moving forward to create a more civil climate for American politics.

2101_regRace Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns by Charlton D. McIlwain and Stephen M. Caliendo

In our evolving American political culture, whites and blacks continue to respond very differently to race-based messages and the candidates who use them. Race Appeal examines the use and influence such appeals have on voters in elections for federal office in which one candidate is a member of a minority group. Charlton McIlwain and Stephen Caliendo use various analysis methods to examine candidates who play the race card in political advertisements. They offer a compelling analysis of the construction of verbal and visual racial appeals and how the news media covers campaigns involving candidates of color.

1875_regThe Racial Logic of Politics: Asian Americans and Party Competition by Thomas P. Kim

Thomas Kim shows how racism is embedded in America’s two-party political system by examining the institutional barriers that Asian Americans face in the electoral and legislative processes. According to Kim, political party leaders recognize that Asian Americans are tagged with “ethnic markers” that label them as immutably “foreign,” and as such, parties cannot afford to be too closely associated with (racialized) Asian Americans, demonstrating how the political logic of two-party competition actually works against Asian American political interests.

1922_regCampaign Advertising and American Democracy by Michael M. Franz, Paul B. Freedman, Kenneth M. Goldstein and Travis N. Ridout

It has been estimated that more than three million political ads were televised leading up to the elections of 2004. More than $800,000,000 was spent on TV ads in the race for the White House alone and Presidential candidates, along with their party and interest group allies, broadcast over a million ads—more than twice the number aired before the 2000 elections. What were the consequences of this barrage of advertising? Were viewers turned off by political advertising to the extent that it dissuaded them from voting, as some critics suggest? Did they feel more connected to political issues and the political system or were they alienated? These are the questions this book answers, based on a unique, robust, and extensive database dedicated to political advertising.

1921_regChoices and Changes:  Interest Groups in the Electoral Process by Michael M. Franz

Choices and Changes is the most comprehensive examination to date of the impact of interest groups on recent American electoral politics. Richly informed, theoretically and empirically, it is the first book to explain the emergence of aggressive interest group electioneering tactics in the mid-1990s—including “soft money” contributions, issue ads, and “527s” (IRS-classified political organizations). The book substantially advances our understanding of the significance of interest groups in U.S. politics.

2156_reg

Public Financing in American Elections, edited by Costas Panagopoulos

Reformers argue that public financing of campaigns will help rescue American democracy from the corruptive influence of money in elections. Public Financing in American Elections evaluates this claim in an effort to remove the guesswork from the discussion about public finance. Featuring some of the most senior scholars in political science and electoral studies, this book provides an up-to-date treatment of research and thinking about public campaign finance reforms. Exploring proposals at the local, state, and federal levels, the contributors provide a comprehensive overview of public financing initiatives in the United States and an examination of their impact. Also included are focused analyses of various existing public programs.

1891_regMandates, Parties, and Votes: How Elections Shape the Future by James H. Fowler and Oleg Smirnov

Most research on two-party elections has considered the outcome as a single, dichotomous event: either one or the other party wins. In this groundbreaking book, James Fowler and Oleg Smirnov investigate not just who wins, but by how much, and they marshal compelling evidence that mandates—in the form of margin of victory—matter. Using theoretical models, computer simulation, carefully designed experiments, and empirical data, the authors show that after an election the policy positions of both parties move in the direction preferred by the winning party—and they move even more if the victory is large. In addition, Fowler and Smirnov not only show that the divergence between the policy positions of the parties is greatest when the previous election was close, but also that policy positions are further influenced by electoral volatility and ideological polarization.

And forthcoming in September….

2407_regThe Gendered Executive: A Comparative Analysis of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Chief Executives edited by Janet M. Martin and MaryAnne Borrelli

Excluded from the ranks of elite executive decision-makers for generations, women are now exercising power as chiefs of government and chiefs of state. As of April 2016, 112 women in 73 countries have served as presidents or prime ministers.  The Gendered Executive is a critical examination of national executives, focusing on matters of identity, representation, and power. The editors and contributors to this volume address the impact of female executives through political mobilization and participation, policy- and decision-making, and institutional change. Other topics include party nomination processes, the intersectionality of race and gender, and women-centered U.S. foreign policy in southern Africa. In addition, case studies from Chile, India, Portugal, and the United States are presented, as are cross-national comparisons of women leaders in Latin America.

 

Black People, Sexuality, and Myths of Homophobia

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post Unbought and Unbossed author Trimiko Melancon’s blog entry for the Good Men’s Project entited, “Black People, Sexuality, and Myths of Homophobia,” which combats stereotypes of African Americans.

In the wake of last year’s Baltimore protests for Freddie Gray, black people challenged their mischaracterizations as “thugs” and “rioters.” These monikers, which came from various segments of the population and media, stigmatized blacks as inherently criminal, violent, and disorderly. While black men and women rightfully contested such labels, another one has circulated generally and goes largely uncontested as if it’s conventional wisdom: that is, the labeling of black people, particularly black men, as the most homophobic racial group—ever. (Or, in other words, the false idea that they are somehow the epitome of excessive fear, prejudice, hatred, or violence against gays and lesbians—or, pretty much the LGBTQ community as a whole).

Much like the racially coded labels “thugs” and “rioters,” exaggerated claims of black homophobia achieve similar false propaganda and dangerous stereotypes. They ascribe a backwardness to blacks, conflate them with excessive homophobia, and cast homophobia as a black phenomenon, while simultaneously minimizing other homophobic attitudes in our society.

We are, to be clear, in an era when the first-known black U.S. President, Barack Obama, endorsed same-sex marriage and is the first to use “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “transgender” in the State of the Union address. Civil rights organizations and leaders—the NAACP and Rep. John Lewis, the late Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond and others—have publicly championed LGBT rights. Young queer black women founded the Black Lives Matter movement to protest state violence against black bodies (cis and trans), celebrate black humanity, and challenge anti-black racism. 

And, black male hip hop artists from Jay-Z to Kanye West (whom Bruce Jenner credited for Kim Kardashian West’s acceptance of Jenner’s gender transition to Caitlyn Jenner) have expressed support and, in the process, challenged black men, black masculinity, and hip hop as viciously hyper (hetero) sexual, hypermasculine, and homophobic. As Jay-Z noted, “What people do in their own homes is their business and you can choose to love whoever you love.”

Why, then, do black men and black folks generally get such a “bad rep” regarding homophobia? And, why is there such historical oversights of their championing sexual liberation or gender fluidity as Jaden Smith has recently done in his modeling debut, in traditional women’s clothing, for Louis Vuitton?

This is not new. In fact, more than four decades ago, during the black power movement, Huey P. Newton—as supreme commander of the Black Panther Party, known for its conspicuously hyper-masculine and revolutionary black nationalist approach to liberation—expressed support for gay liberation. In his 1970, “A Letter from Huey to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” Newton asserted: “We haven’t said much about the homosexual at all and we must relate to the homosexual movement” and “must understand [homosexuality] in its purest form; that is, a person should have the freedom to use his body whatever way he wants to.” “Homosexuals,” he continues, “are not enemies of the people.”

So, surely some folks will suggest that black religiosity or organized religion accounts for excessive black homophobia. But, let’s be clear: these alone are shortsighted and do not quantify the myths. According to the Pew Research Center, 21% of white Evangelical Protestants and 41% of black Protestants supported same-sex marriage in 2014, while 13% of white Evangelical Protestants and 30% of black Protestants did so in 2001. Simply put, black Protestants’ support of same-sex marriage has been consistently higher than their counterparts. And, generational attitudes, religiously unaffiliated blacks, and other variables further debunk myths.

Why, then, we might ask, are there such historical oversights, limited representations (of black men and masculinity—and black women, too), as well as inattention to black people’s nuanced responses to and support of LGBTQ folks and concerns? And what are the underlying consequences?

When we sensationalize black homophobia or stigmatize black people as homophobic collectively, we not only stereotype black men and women; we neglect and do a disservice to black people’s complex history of advocacy for civil and human rights, gay liberation, and equality for all. Second, we condition ourselves to accept, justify, or normalize hatred and deadly violence against black gay, trans, and queer bodies like Michelle Vash Payne, Ty Underwood, Monica Roberts, and others whose names and murders we seldom know.

Equally problematic, we ignore the contours and realities of homophobia in America—the same dynamics and realities that account for NFL players like Odell Beckham Jr. having to contend with derogatory gay slurs or vicious invectives when he dares to dance with men, don honey-blonde-dyed hair, or refuse to deny himself or be encumbered by rather limited constructions of (black) manhood

We cannot afford to be uncritical, blind sighted, or to accept homophobia or heterosexist sentiments in any shape, form, or variation; nor can we succumb to the hype of black homophobia. When black people are called out of their names and labeled the epitome of homophobia, we should be as offended as when called “thugs” or other racially-charged insults. And, we should respond in similar fashion as when black bodies—male or female, young and old—are targets of attack and violence: whether in a crowd in Chicago, on a bicycle in Baltimore, atpool party in McKinney, Texas, or on a playground in Cleveland, Ohio.

After all, the fact of the matter is simple. Stereotypes and labels are not innocuous. They are far from harmless. Not as long as they have the power to color perceptions, invoke slurs, incite brutality and compromise one’s safety, or to cause black and LGBTQ folks their very lives.

Chronicling the unfinished odyssey of Bronx Cambodians

This week, Eric Tang, author of Unsettled likens the Cambodian refugees that are featured in his book to the current exodus of Syrian refugees to show connections of race, gender, and activism.

After they survived the Khmer Rouge genocide of the mid-to-late 1970s, followed by several years of confinement in international refugee camps, as many as 10,000 Southeast Asian refugees arrived to the Bronx during the 1980s and 1990s.

Unsettled chronicles the unfinished odyssey of Bronx Cambodians, closely following one woman and her family for several years as they both survive and resist their literal insertion into the Bronx “hyperghetto.” The term hyperghetto refers to the postwar structural decomposition of U.S. cities resulting from massive and compulsory unemployment, public and private disinvestment, and the hyper-segregation and confinement of the city’s poorest Black and Latino residents. It serves as a prime example of how late-capitalism and racial democracy failed far too many in the post-Civil Rights era.

Unsettled_smI wrote Unsettled  to reveal how Cambodian refugee resettlement to the United States did not mark the closing of the refugee sojourn, followed by the opening of a new era of peace and stability for those who fled their homeland. I wanted to show the ways in which the refugees remained displaced, their sojourn unclosed, owing to the false promises of federal policy makers and the unscrupulous actions of their handlers. Politicians talked boldly about delivering refugees into the arms of the free market, but there was never a meaningful economic plan tethered to U.S. refugee resettlement policy. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) offered only one-year of housing and job training assistance to refugees before they were cut loose, told to make it on their own. Meanwhile local resettlement agencies placed Cambodian refugees into ruinous housing units in some of the most economically marginalized neighborhoods in the Bronx. According to the past three decennial censuses, Southeast Asian refugees have held some of the highest welfare and poverty rates of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Among Cambodian refugees living in New York City, 42.8 percent were living in poverty, 23.9 percent were unemployed, and 62 percent had less than a high school education twenty years after their resettlement. Over the past three decades the vast majority of Bronx Cambodians have subsisted on welfare programs (or what remains of them).

Despite these harsh realities, many Bronx Cambodians engaged in activism. Unsettled explores how Bronx Cambodians resisted conditions of poverty, violence, and housing discrimination. It pays attention to the unique process whereby community members developed an analysis of their conditions, reached consensus on their collective needs, and sought meaningful political redress through community organizing and direct action. Today, such activism continues through the community’s younger generation—the children and grandchildren of refugees—led by organizations such as Mekong NYC. The organization’s work, as told by director and community organizer Chhaya Chhoum is featured in key chapters of the book.

As an urban ethnography, Unsettled offers a new kind of discussion on race and gender in the contemporary city, particularly as it relates to the welfare-dependent and jobless urban poor. In this way, it departs from the core thesis of seminal texts in the sociology of immigration that, in the decade following refugee resettlement, predicted the seamless transition of Cambodian refugees into American labor markets as well as their eventual assimilation into Anglo-American culture. It serves as a rebuttal to research that seeks to ideologically remove the refugee from the grips of a Black and Latino “underclass”—the sociological pejorative used to describe racialized inner city poverty. By examining the ongoing phenomena of refugee poverty—that is, the manner in which Cambodian refugees of the Bronx simultaneously subsist in the welfare state and the sweatshop economy—Unsettled complicates the fixed race and gender identities that structure common-sense notions of the city: the immigrant working-poor on the one hand, the domestic and welfare-dependent underclass on the other.

Finally, Unsettled poses questions that are relevant to the present moment. The current exodus of Syrian refugees represents the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” according the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  Indeed, not since the Southeast Asian refugee crisis of the late-1970s and 1980s, have so many migrants from one region risked their lives, across land and sea, in search of asylum. Yet what happens after they are resettled to their new homelands? Have their struggles come to an end, or have they only just begun?

%d bloggers like this: