Tag Archives: immigration

Black Issues Connected: Why Race Is Never Just Race

Even for a country where racial commentary is an amateur sport and racial incidents come in waves, we’ve had a strange run of racial news about black Americans, people who think they’re black Americans, and justice.

Browder; Dolezal; Vesey

Browder; Dolezal; Vesey


There’s Kalief Browder, pushed to suicide by years of abuse in the New York jails for a crime he arguably should never have been arrested for and did not commit, juxtaposed with what is variously described as the trans-racialism or minstrelsy of Rachel Dolezal. (See Ta’Nehisi Coates’ juxtaposition of the two cases…and note which one got more media attention.) Then there’s there’s a white man murdering churchgoers at Emmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, South Carolina. The church had been burnt down in the early 1800s in retaliation for a planned uprising of enslaved people organized by Denmark Vesey. That Emmanuel re-organized, re-built, and played a crucial role in the community and civil rights is its own testament to the human spirit.

Vesey was executed for daring to take action against the system of treating humans as chattel. Browder, nearly two centuries later, was treated like chattel or worse. Dolezal’s story is many things, but in light of the murders at Emmanuel, in particular, it strikes me as a man-bites-dog story that’s easy to consume when we have bigger things to think about.

For example, take the recent court ruling that says (for now) that one single Uber driver must be treated as an employee. That could up-end the company’s model, arguably undermining a financially productive, disruptive, technology-based company; or providing more security to workers displaced by disruption. How does this relate to race? In many cities across America, non-white Americans and immigrants are more likely to be drivers than white native-born Americans, in part because these hard jobs provide an economic point of entry into a society where opportunity is still linked deeply to race, class, and national origin. A ruling that stands up to legal challenges and puts more impetus on the parent company to, say, provide corporate insurance for its drivers could provide more economic leverage not only for Uber drivers but also, as market forces balance, for drivers of traditional cabs and cars.

My problem with the discussions on race we’re having today is that they’re so limited. We’re talking about race as a thing-in-itself when it’s never been just that. Slavery was about commerce and nation-building. Jim Crow was about labor economics. The inequality in the current education and prison systems set up deeper divides tracking people into futures of potential security or insecurity. Race was never just about race, but often our conversations about it are.

In my experience, being black means strangers feel free to tell you what they think about black people. I’ve had strangers in airports and newly-met attendees at business conferences quickly move from pleasantries to a discourse on why black people (sometimes Americans; sometimes globally) are incompetent, lazy, violent, etc etc. My reactions used to be shocked silence or quiet intellectual anger, followed by rebuttals of their points. Now, if I respond at all (and often I don’t), I simply respond with my own historical knowledge of how we got to where we are today — whether that includes current employment statistics on hiring bias and educational inequality, to historical analysis of wealth-building and legal justice from the colonial era through Jim Crow.

I was raised to be an information warrior — to help speak on behalf of black people to the white mainstream I was trained to go to school and work with. And while I have succeeded in some small part I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the mission. I can’t convince anyone (including black people and people who are neither white nor black) that black people are equal to white people, or immigrants to American-born. Your belief in equality is something you chose from your core. What I can do, and often do, is provide information that can inform our understanding of structures that support or deny equality-in-fact. Whether we want to know the lessons history has to share with us is completely our own choice.

A Child of the Windrush: An Interview with Delroy Lindo on One with Farai

Delroy Lindo and Farai Chideya

Delroy Lindo and Farai Chideya

Delroy Lindo speaks of his Jamaican-British ancestry as well as his craft.

Farai Chideya speaks with actor Delroy Lindo, who’s played everything from a gangster in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” to an animated character in the Disney film, “Up.” He just completed a Masters degree thesis on the Windrush generation — post-WWII Jamaican immigrants to England, including his mother.

Spanish for Breakfast.

So I got up to move my car. Beautiful egg-yolk light, freezing cold.

I went into the deli to get a coffee and a bagel. The guy in front of me is asking for a pavo sandwich with tomates, no lechuga.

“I try to speak a little Spanish,” he said. “I think everybody who grows up in Brooklyn should know 25-30 words of Spanish. Try to speak to these guys,” he says, nodding toward the counterman, who I’d guess was Mexican or Central American. There are so many different types of people in New York who speak so many different types of Spanish, and a lot of the Mexicans and Central Americans are among the later additions to the great mix of New York. The guy talking to me at the deli was what I call “off white”… I have no idea which variety, because again, in New York there are so many.

I mention it only because it’s the first time in New York I’ve ever had a conversation with someone I don’t know about practical Spanish… the fact that in New York, as in LA, it is a second lingua franca. There are plenty of places where you can speak other languages almost exclusively, from Chinatown to parts of Jackson Heights — Chinese, Hindi, Russian, etc. — but there is no non-English language that flows and eddies around you as much as Spanish, that is as much the sound of the city as people chatting on their phones to some invisible person as they walk as fast as possible.

In any case, I told the guy I was talking to at the deli that I was going to Guatemala to learn Spanish. His response:

“You have to go that far?”

“No,” I said, “Really what I need to do is what you’re doing. Just practice. But I get embarrassed by saying the wrong thing.”

“How many words of Spanish you got?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“But guess.”

“I don’t know,” I said. I can hack through a VERY basic conversation if you allow me to break grammatical rules of tense and gender, which is kind of a lot, but hey.

“I figure I got about 50 words,” he said. “And I use em.”

It was an interesting conversation to have shortly before I head off on my trip. I’m determined to learn Spanish for both professional and personal reasons. In all my years traveling on the edge of public policy circles, I have met few people who are mono-lingual. Most international businesspeople I meet and more and more domestic ones are bi- or multi-lingual. I see it as a necessary career skill, in reporting and otherwise. I also just have it as a life goal that I’ll speak at least one other language.

I lived a few year in LA, which has a totally different space on the geographic, cultural, and historical map than New York, vis a vis statehood, citizenship, Latino heritage, and just about everything. I found it much more segregated than New York, mainly because of the lack of public transportation. New York is actually quite segregated by race and ethnicity, in terms of neighborhoods, but we all press up against each other geographically, and when we travel by the subway. It doesn’t seem as unsettling to return to your enclave, somehow.

In any case, I have been thinking about the role of language learning in America’s global and economic future, and how it relates to how we educate the kids of New York City and America. I’ll post more on that tomorrow.