Understanding the Trump Moment: Reality TV, Birtherism, the Alt Right and the White Women’s Vote

Many of us are waking up to a November 9 that we never could have imagined. Donald J. Trump, real estate developer and reality TV celebrity, is president-elect of the United States. Over the last 18 months of his campaign, he has engaged in explicitly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim language that has both shocked and frightened people. The implications of what a Trump presidency could mean for ginning up racial and ethnic hatred are chilling.

 

 

But first, it’s important to understand the Trump moment, and what led to it. This is an election that will be spawn a thousand hot-takes and reams of academic papers, but here’s a first draft on making sense of this victory.

Reality TV

Donald Trump is not a successful businessman, but he played one on TV.  “The Apprentice,” gave Donald Trump a powerful platform over fourteen seasons (2004-2014).

Since about 2000, and the premiere of “Big Brother,”  the media landscape has been transformed by the proliferation of non-fiction television, so-called “reality TV.” Driven by low production costs and drawing large audiences for advertisers, reality TV shows have proven reliable media products.

Trump’s “Apprentice,” is one of many within the genre of reality TV based around work. From “Project Runway,” to “Top Chef,” viewers tune in to watch people compete to keep their jobs, or get cut. Heidi Klum tells aspiring fashion designers, “auf Wiedersehen,”  Padma Lakshmi, sends hopeful chefs away with, “please pack your knives,” and Donald, of course, told would-be entrepreneurs, “You’re fired!”

The success of “The Apprentice,” and shows like it – where we watch people do a difficult job, typically for little money, under grueling conditions (or, “challenges,”) only to see them voted off or “fired,” speaks to the triumph of neoliberalism. We don’t just work at difficult jobs for little money under grueling conditions with the constant threat of being fired, we can also enjoy that as a form of entertainment.

Trump’s rise to prominence through “The Apprentice,” and the proliferation of shows like it, says something  about the transformation of the media landscape. Scholars such as Laurie Ouellette (and others) argue that reality-based TV has become a mechanism that meets the increasing demand for self-governance in the post-welfare state. Ouellette writes that reality-based TV shows like “Judge Judy” drive home the message that everyone must “take responsibility for yourself.”  In other words, to be good neoliberal citizens — “productive citizens” — requires a lot of work on the self, and a lot of work on work. What better evidence of the way that we’ve thoroughly internalized the lessons of neoliberalism than through our voracious consumption of reality-TV shows of people working (and getting fired)? And, now, we’ve affirmed this once again through the election of a reality TV star as president.

Of course, the imagined neoliberal citizen on these shows is white by default (the contestants of color are often the earliest to go), as is Trump’s vision of America and what will “make it great again.”

Birtherism

Remarkably for someone elected to the presidency, Donald Trump has no previous political experience. His emergence on the political landscape is due to his early, loud, racist denunciation of President Obama as “not born in this country,” and his crackpot call to “show the birth certificate.” Obama eventually relented to this request, and Trump counts this as one of his proudest achievements.

While most of us on the left rolled our eyes at the preposterousness of birtherism and decried the obvious racism of it, it resonated deeply with wide swaths of the populace. They, too, felt that there just wasn’t something right about a Black president with a funny sounding name in the White House.

Meanwhile, those on the right denied the clear racism of Trump’s birtherism. Although Colin Powell said “birtherism is racism” and Michael Steele, former RNC chair did call it “bullshit racism,” few on the right joined them in denouncing Trump or his tirades about Obama’s birth certificate.

Instead of disqualifying him presidential politics, Trump’s birtherism helped him build a base of otherwise disaffected white voters, whites who felt that there was something deeply wrong about a Black president. Pollsters missed these voters in the run-up to the election. And, like Nixon, Trump says that he speaks for this “silent majority.”  These are also the white voters who are listening to Alex Jones’ “Infowars” , a daily talk show that airs on 63 stations nationwide, with a bigger audience online than Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck combined. Jones schtick is to connect unrelated dots into vast conspiracy theories, which often feature the Clintons or other establishment politicians as the villains. There is a short leap, some would say no leap at all, from Jones’ brand of conspiracy theories and the anti-Semitism in Trump’s last campaign ad.

The Alt-RIght

Trump found willing allies for his brand of racism in the alt-right.  In case you’ve missed the dozens or so articles and puff pieces about them, they alt-right is the latest iteration of white nationalism. They are recognized as a hate group by the SPLC, which offers the following definition:

The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.

While some are speculating that “the GOP was primed for a white nationalist takeover,”  this gets the direction of the relationship wrong. It’s not that the alt-right launched a takeover of the Republican party, it’s that Trump found common cause in the alt-right. And, he did it through Twitter.

As J.M. Berger notes in his carefully reported piece, white nationalists were initially hostile to Trump because they thought he was Jewish or was, their terms, “a White man who wishes he were born a Jew.” During Trump’s birther campaign, white supremacists at Stormfront were debating the sincerity of Trump, “some said he was a Jewish plant, intended to deceive gullible white nationalists into supporting him, or just to make them look like idiots by association,” according to Berger.

In June 2015, Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer a popular neo-Nazi site, wrote:

“I urge all readers of this site to do whatever they can to make Donald Trump President. If The Donald gets the nomination, he will almost certainly beat Hillary, as White men such as you and I go out and vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”

As Berger tells it, Anglin was the first white supremacist to voice support for Trump. And, the following month, Trump doubled-down on his anti-Mexican racism. This gained him even more supporters among the far-right.  From Berger, again:

Trump was surging in the polls “because he is not on his knees before Mexico and Mexican immigrants,” said Jared Taylor of the influential white nationalist website American Renaissance, which under the guise of “race realism” attempts to put an intellectual face on white nationalism. “Americans, real Americans, have been dreaming of a candidate who says the obvious, that illegal immigrants from Mexico are a low-rent bunch that includes rapists and murderers.”

Over the summer of 2015, the alt-right began to accept Trump as someone who shared their views on race, as evidenced by discussions online. But this sort of thing is not new, white supremacists have talked about mainstream candidates’ views online (and before that, in printed newsletters) for decades now. What happened next was different.

In July 2015, a tweet appeared from Trump’s account showing a stock photo of Nazi S.S. soldiers where American soldiers should have been. The Trump campaign blamed an intern for the mistake, and the incident faded from the news cycle. But at the white nationalist site Daily Stormer, Anglin wrote,

“Obviously, most people will be like ‘obvious accident, no harm done, Meanwhile, we here at the Daily Stormer will be all like ‘wink wink wink wink wink.’”

It’s this media circulation that came to define the Trump relationship with the alt-right and part of what helped him win. He would say something, in a speech or on Twitter or calling into one of the television talk shows, then deny or disavow the racism (if called on it), while the white nationalists dutifully perked up and heard in those messages a like-mind.  So, for example, when Trump tweeted a graphic showing false statistics vastly exaggerating black crime, white nationalists responded enthusiastically. The graphic was later traced back to a white nationalist on Twitter. Trump deflected criticism from Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly by arguing, essentially, that retweets are not endorsements. “I retweeted somebody who was supposedly an expert,” Trump said. “Am I going to check every statistic?”

 

In late 2015, the Trump and alt-right Twitter game changed. A white nationalist meme maker named Bob Whitaker, has worked for years to popularize the phrase “white genocide” as a meme online. Whitaker started trying to goad Trump into re-tweeting the something with “white genocide” in it.  In late January 2016, Trump took the bait, retweeting a message that had been directed to him from a user with the handle “@WhiteGenocideTM.” While the content of the tweet was relatively innocuous (a light jab at an opponent), the user’s account was filled with anti-Semitic content and linked to a revisionist biography of Adolf Hitler. More importantly, white nationalists saw this as a much more overt nod from Trump to justify their enthusiasm.

From there, Trump and the alt-right engaged in a nodding and winking relationship that suggested a closeness, even as Trump occasionally and mildly “disavowed” white nationalists like David Duke. (Duke was a relative latecomer to endorsing Trump among white nationalists, but has been an ardent supporter once on board.) The close relationship between Trump and the alt-right has been so widely acknowledged that it even made it into the spoof for SNL.

The relationship was cemented when Trump chose Stephen Bannon, of Breitbart Meida, to run his campaign. Unlike a mainstream GOP operative or campaign strategist who might have suggested a more “presidential tone,” Bannon assured Trump he should stick to his overtly racist messaging. The alt-right rejoiced when Bannon joined the Trump campaign. And, Bannon turned out to be correct about what appealed to voters. Trump’s campaign, from start (Mexicans “are rapists,”) to finish (the anti-Semitic last ad) has used overtly and sometimes not-thinly veiled racist language to appeal to voters. And, white people showed up by the millions to vote for him and his message.

More White Women Voted for Trump than Clinton

Over the next weeks and months, there will be a lot written about the angry white male voter, and deservedly so. But white women voted for Donald Trump, too.

In fact, more white women voted for Donald Trump than for Hillary Clinton. Here’s how white women voted:

(Image source)

That’s 53% of white women who voted for Trump. There is an official “Women for Trump” website. And, drawing on that as evidence, it doesn’t seem that most of the women who support Trump are concerned with what he has said about (or done to) women. One white woman who supports Trump, Jane Biddick, reportedly said: “Groping is a healthy thing to do. When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing,” (New York Magazine).

White women voted for Trump for the same reasons as white men.  As the Washington Post reported in April 2016. Trump’s rhetoric of “taking back the country” and “banning immigrants” appealed to the white women of the Tea Party. And, a poll from January 2016, found that white women are the angriest voters, angrier even than their male counterparts.

For the most part, mainstream journalists (and documentary filmmakers) miss the reality of the angry white woman who votes GOP because of silly, wrong-headed notions about “womanhood.”   In a related mistake, people often make in thinking about “women voters” is that women are going to vote as a block. It’s a mistake the suffragists made in the early 20th century. They thought once women got the vote, they would all vote the same. Because…. women, you know, shared interests.

But research has shown again and again that class and race are more reliable predictors of voting behavior than gender. In other words, women respond to economic and racial issues in much the same ways as men do. And, if you’re surprised that more white women voted for Trump than for Hillary Clinton, then you haven’t been keeping track of the trouble that white women are in (here’s a guide to the trouble, in case you want to catch up).

Shocking, Frightening… but Not Surprising

The election of Donald Trump is shocking. It is a deep jolt to the soul to realize that a man with no qualifications, no human decency, no compassion, no moral center, is going to be the next president of the U.S.

The election results are also frightening. I fear for all my friends, my chosen family, the people I love, the students I teach, who are among those that Donald Trump wants to stop-and-frisk, deport, exile, ban, and keep out with a wall. I feel the need for better, more practical, skills to enlist in the resistance to a Trump regime. I want MacGyver-like skills to be able to bust my friends out of the camps.  But there is no re-tooling my way out of this fear. It is set to run for four years.

As shocked and frightened as I am, I can’t say that I’m surprised.  I’ve written about the overlap between extremist white supremacy and mainstream politicians for over twenty years (White Lies, 1997). As the groups I studied in the early 1990s moved online, I followed their transition there (Cyber Racism, 2009). So for me, the emergence of an alt-right that’s cleverly used the Internet, or a candidate that’s made deft use of Twitter isn’t surprising.

Trump’s victory should remind us that white supremacy is not new and it is not an aberration. It’s a consistent feature of our political landscape. Yet, there’s a kind of naïveté among some (white) writers covering Trump who are shocked at his success. But we should not be surprised. In the U.S., we cling to an illusion about our inevitable progress away from a past of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and overt racism. Some of us even hoped that electing the first African American president would mean a post-racial era, but the fact that Stormfront’s servers crashed the night Obama was elected should have made us more circumspect about how transformative that was for us as a nation, and who felt left out of those celebrations.

This election, white people — including a majority of white women — voted for a candidate endorsed by the KKK.  This is a mirror.

Researchers Register Voters in County Jails

(Image source)

Researchers like Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza have documented the political impact of felony disenfranchisement, the ways in which voting restrictions strip away citizenship, civic engagement, and political participation from Black Americans.  But in our own decade-long research program in Midwestern county jails, we found that even where felony disenfranchisement laws had not stripped the incarcerated of their right to vote, most weren’t aware they still had the right to vote.

So, we decided to get the word out to those who eligible voters who might also be incarcerated. Earlier this year, our research team partnered with a local community organizing agency  to register citizens while they were incarcerated. As a result, we successfully enrolled 14% of minimum and medium security inmates in two county jails in the Kansas City area.

(Image source)

Ahead of registration deadlines for primary elections last June, we spent 5 days registering voters at the two jails. In late September, we returned and spent another 3 days registering voters ahead of the general election. Our process varied. For instance, in June, people signed up beforehand and were brought to us in a room in the jail in small groups. In September we were instead escorted to common areas within individual housing units, where we were announced by a corrections officer and were then allowed to mingle with inmates and complete registration materials. We don’t know how many people in the facilities were already registered or the number of those who were ineligible. However, we were given access to all units at the minimum and medium security levels and were allowed to speak with any interested inmate, except those in medical isolation or those held in solitary confinement.

 

PEOPLE IN MOST STATES CAN VOTE AFTER A FELONY

The good news is that in most states people can vote after completion of a felony conviction, though many don’t realize it. For example, Anthony Papa who completed his sentence for a conviction under the Rockefeller drug laws, recalls:

“I remember very clearly when I was released from prison and tried to vote and I was turned away.  I felt like I was second class citizen because I was powerless to help fix my south Bronx neighborhood that was deteriorating around me. I had to wait five years until I was off of parole in order to vote. When I was allowed to vote I felt complete and was fully welcomed back by society as a citizen.”

Aggressive sentencing for drug possession and sales over the past three decades has meant that felony disenfranchisement affects 6.1 million U.S. citizens, like Anthony Papa.

Still, many inmates still perceived their voting rights lost forever, even when that wasn’t true. It’s simply not true in Kansas and Missouri and 16 other states where voting rights are restored automatically following completion of a felony sentence. And the right to vote is not lost at all in Missouri and Kansas for those with convictions at less than felony level.  Unfortunately, misperceptions on this point are widespread, making the disenfranchisement of incarcerated persons in our states real even where it is not true.

Many of the inmates with whom we spoke at the jails believed they were ineligible to vote. Indeed, during the first round of registration in June, at one of the facilities we learned that some had been given wrong information even as they were signing up for our event by corrections officers who themselves misunderstood the laws. Lack of awareness about voter eligibility may run several layers deep. Our registration efforts thus meant signing up voters and educating citizens—inmates and jail staff alike—about the fact that in Kansas and Missouri past felony records do not affect voter eligibility. Most of the people we spoke didn’t realize that only four states in the U.S. bar voting after completion of a felony sentence. People in these states who have been impacted by policies are working to spread the word about what it means to permanently disenfranchise past felons.

 

DISENFRANCHISEMENT HITS COMMUNITIES OF COLOR HARDEST

The burden of disenfranchisement falls particularly heavily on Black and Latino citizens. One out of three Black Americans has lost the right to vote due to these laws, compared to 1 out of 56 non-Black voters. Loss of voting rights, however temporarily, is one of the many collateral consequences of policing and sentencing practices that disproportionately target Blacks in the U.S., acting in some sense as a new approach to racial gerrymandering.

 

(Image source)

In addition to felony disenfranchisement, Blacks face other barriers to full political participation. Missouri voters, for instance, will decide in November on a measure to amend the Missouri constitution to allow the legislature to pass laws requiring state-issued photo identification at polling places. Photo-ID voting laws, which generally require some form of state-issued (e.g., driver’s license, passport, state-issued ID) identification are in place in 32 states. Opponents of photo ID laws point to evidence that state-issued ID requirements to vote would effectively disenfranchise many older and low-income voters, with many arguing that the impacts of new voter restrictions are likely to be felt disproportionately by Black and Latino/a citizens. Courts recently ruling on similar laws in North Carolina and Texas have agreed with this implication, striking down voter ID requirements as racially discriminating in their effect.

Given the de facto disenfranchisement that occurs when citizens are misinformed about their rights, and the equally real threat to voter rights posed by current ballot measures, we were moved to reach out to potential voters in perhaps the most unlikely of settings, local jails. These efforts involved not only registering voters in advance of the primary and general elections, they included coordinating the delivery of absentee ballots for those who knew they’d still be locked up during both elections. We would underscore that our involvement was about registration, engagement, participation—not about specifically whom or what to vote for. However, to the extent that enlarging and enhancing the franchise is itself a partisan act these days, we plead guilty. In this, we were abetted by jail administrators and staff, who also recognized the importance of affirming all citizens in the exercise of their rights. We were further aided by an agency with deep roots in activism around racial justice and voting rights in our community.

 

(Early voters wait in long lines in Clark County, Nevada: Image source)

Racially motivated efforts to suppress the vote in this country are diverse in form and dismayingly frequent. Some efforts, like photo-ID measures, seem obvious; others, like the silence and misinformation around felony disenfranchisement, only slightly less so. For those who believe as we do in the importance of a broad franchise to a racially inclusive, democratic—indeed, a just—system, any efforts to restrict citizen access to the ballot must be met with action. We took an opportunity to use our familiarity with the jails to try to make a difference. We don’t know how many of those we registered will vote, although we requested and were granted contact information from most and will be evaluating outcomes post-election. But our purpose in sharing the experience here is to hopefully prompt others to look at their own networks, look for local openings for organizing and activism—for surely even the smallest, most piecemeal acts of justice-making can be fit to Dr. King’s prophetic arc.

 

 

~ This blog post was co-written by Megha Ramaswamy and Amanda Emerson.  Megha Ramaswamy is an Associate Professor at University of Kansas School of Medicine. She is trained as a sociologist and works as an applied public health researcher in county jails, designing, implementing and evaluating public health programming. Read more about her team’s work here and follow her on Twitter @Vaginographer.

Amanda Emerson is a PhD candidate in the School of Nursing at University of Missouri – Kansas City. Her research interests lie in creative, community-focused public health interventions to reduce health disparity. Amanda also has a PhD in English, her earlier scholarship focusing on the myth of equality in 18th– and 19th-century American literature.

Debunking Myths in Hiring Diverse Faculty

For more than three decades, low rates of representation of African American men and women, Asian American women, and Hispanic or Latino/a men and women have persisted in the full-time faculty ranks of American colleges and universities. In The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (Stylus, 2015), our survey of department chairs from across the nation indicates a number of issues faced by department chairs in hiring diverse faculty including: 1) no new faculty lines; 2) lack of ability to provide competitive compensation; 3) administrative practices such as beginning too late in the hiring cycle; 4) the need for recruiting resources; 5) geographic location; and 6) lack of collegial support and a supportive campus climate.

Despite the validity of these concerns, one of the most frequent issues raised with regard to hiring diverse faculty is the lack of qualified applicants in the pipeline. As a human resource practitioner, I have often been asked by members of search committees as to whether the need for diversity affects quality and whether faculty with “lesser qualifications” should be hired just to increase diversity. Confirming these experiences, a Black chair of Hispanic ethnicity in our study noted the frequent argument about qualifications he has encountered:

[A] Black male chair faces challenges of hiring other non-White faculty: “are they qualified?”

In a recent opinion piece for the Hechinger Report, Mary Beth Gasman relates the view she expressed at a recent higher education forum: “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.” She was greeted with a round of applause for her candor. Gasman challenged participants to think about a number of questions in hiring faculty, most notably including the following:

How often do you use the word ‘quality’ when talking about increased diversity? Why do you use it? How often do you point to the lack of people of color in the faculty pipeline while doing nothing about the problem?

Professor Gasman notes that quality is frequently interpreted to mean that the candidate did not attend an elite institution or was not mentored by a prominent scholar in their field. She observes:

…I have learned that faculty will bend rules, knock down walls, and build bridges to hire those they really want (often white colleagues) but when it comes to hiring faculty of color, they have to ‘play by the rules’ and get angry when exceptions are made. Let me tell you a secret—exceptions are made for white people constantly in the academy; exceptions are the rule in academe.

Responding to Gasman in a Chronicle article, Rafael Walker, an African American faculty member, states that he cannot conclude that most institutions do not want minority faculty members. Instead, he writes, “the benefits of diversity are too familiar to us today to hold such a position.” Walker’s response does not seem to take into account how the social reproduction of inequality occurs within institutions of higher education. As Joe Feagin explains in Systemic Racism (Routledge, 2006), the pervasive residue of exclusionary stereotypes, images, ideas, emotions, and practices form an interconnected whole that perpetuates systems of inequality and privilege within institutional settings. And from interviews with more than 200 whites Nancy DiTomaso further describes how privilege is routinely transmitted through homogenous whites-only social networks and through the economic, social, and cultural capital that reinforces group-based advantage.

Rafael Walker indicates that the problem lies in the lack of diversity in certain subfields based on an examination of the faculty at the nation’s top 20 English and history departments with a particular focus on medieval, early-modern Europe, and 19th century British specialties. He offers a number of explanations about why such subfields are not diverse, including self-selection by minority graduate students and mentoring relationships. He presumes that minority students commonly are mentored by faculty of the same demographic groups, with apprentices following their mentors’ choices of sub-specializations based on interests allied with their identities. This argument is rather implausible, due to the lack of availability of minority scholars to mentor graduate students as well as the fact that mentoring relationships are not always homogeneous demographically. This perspective also downplays the individual agency of minority graduate students. But if choice of sub-specialization hinges to some degree on mentoring, Gasman notes that being mentored by prominent scholars is part of the social capital to which minority graduate students have less access.

Taking a different position, a White male psychology chair in an urban research university interviewed for our study encourages his faculty to exercise flexibility in the field of specialization to allow consideration of underrepresented candidates:

So if we, for example . . . wanted to hire a cognitive psychology professor who studies reading . . . we might find plenty of individuals who study that, but the odds of finding an underrepresented minority who studies that particular topic are going to be less statistically. You might find someone who studies not reading but psychology of language comprehension. So I would argue that’s close enough to what we’re interested in: We need to be flexible about the topics. So maybe we find someone who studies language comprehension but not necessarily in a reading setting.

Even granting some merit to the sub-specialization argument, there is only mixed support for the scarcity of diverse candidates in the major disciplinary streams. An analysis of doctoral graduation data reveals that minority doctoral graduates typically represent a range of approximately 10% to 20% of doctoral recipients in many fields, with larger percentages in certain disciplines. As Daryl Smith points out, diverse candidates for faculty positions typically do not find themselves the subject of bidding wars, leading to a “schizoid” condition in which each side (candidates and hiring authorities) present competing anecdotes. A study she and her colleagues conducted of 299 recipients of prestigious Ford, Mellon, and Spender fellowship in 1996, for example, found that only 11 percent of these exceptionally qualified minority scholars were recruited for a faculty positions and encouraged to apply. More frequently, as numerous researchers indicate, the normative culture and practices involved in faculty hiring may be one of the principal barriers to diversifying the faculty. For this reason, the composition of search committees and search committee training are key factors in faculty hiring.

Whether or not minority faculty are “wanted” or not, their presence is nonetheless essential in the educational process given the need to prepare all students for citizenship and careers in a diverse democracy. Building a more diverse faculty means moving from knowledge of the benefits of diversity to action. As a white male chair of economics in a public southwestern university told us:

The chair has to take the leadership role, has to be proactive, has to get a critical mass of people on his or her side to try to take the proactive measures that are necessary. Obviously a chair or a dean . . . who simply gives lip service to diversity but doesn’t do anything concrete to make it happen is not going to make any progress.

Or as a white female chair of journalism in a western undergraduate university put it:

The chair has to lead and set the tone for what is important. . . . Your department has to decide what its culture is going to be like. If [the department] is not willing to embrace diversity or support recruitment for other [diverse] faculty, it’s going to fail. If you don’t have retention, it doesn’t matter.

We Should Stop Celebrating Columbus

It’s that time of year again.  In midtown Manhattan, people are gearing up for the annual “Columbus Day Parade” which will disrupt traffic along 5th Avenue from 44th Street up to 72nd Street.  I won’t be joining in the celebration.

Like most school children in the U.S., I was taught the lie that Christopher Columbus was “an explorer” who “discovered America.”  It’s a lie that conveniently leaves out much of the truth about Columbus’ crimes against humanity.  And, this lie continues to be used by advertisers to sell products.  The spam from one retailer in my inbox this week featured the subject line, “Columbus Discovered America, and You Can Discover Savings at Barnes & Noble.” Uhm, thanks but no thanks B&N.

While the local news stations here relentlessly refer to the parade as a “celebration of Italian heritage,” I think it’s long past time we reject the myth of Columbus “discovering America,” and instead, recognize the indigenous people who already lived in the U.S. when Columbus stumbled upon it.

Curley, member of the Crow nation

(Curley, member of the Crow nation: image source)

By celebrating Columbus, we replay the legacy of colonialism and genocide. Let’s be clear. Columbus was no hero and doesn’t deserve a celebration. The history of Columbus’ record of genocide is not in dispute. When he traveled to the Caribbean (he never stepped foot on the North American continent), there were something like 75 million indigenous people living here. Within a generation of his landing, perhaps only 5-10% of the entire American Indian population remained. When Columbus and the men who traveled with him under the Spanish flag returned to the area we now call the West Indies, they took the land and launched widespread massacres, including of children, a process they described as “pacification”. (For more on this history, see this, this and this.)

Yet, despite the genocide that followed in his wake, some see the embrace of Columbus as a national hero and the Columbus Day holiday as a response to racism and discrimination experienced by Italian immigrants here in the U.S.  Tommi Avicolli-Mecca writes:

I understand why Italian-Americans embraced Columbus. When we arrived in this country, we weren’t exactly greeted with open arms, any more than any other immigrants. There were NINA (No Italian Need Apply) notices in store windows, as well as lynchings in the South, where we were considered nonwhite.

And, like so many other holidays, this one is a bit misguided. In point of fact, Columbus is a man with a tenuous link to contemporary Italy.  As you’ll recall from the grade school rhyme, Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492; contemporary Italy wasn’t a country until 1861.

Still, I don’t think that means we shouldn’t be celebrating Italian Americans’ heritage and contributions to the U.S.  I just think we should be focusing on the radical tradition of some Italian Americans, such as Mario Savio, Vito Marcantonio, and Sacco and Vanzetti.

There is a strong, radical history among Italian Americans that has been largely forgotten.  In their book, The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism (Praeger 2003), Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, help uncover some of this history.  Their edited volume shows that in contrast to their present conservative image (cf. Carl Paladino’s anti-gay remarks), Italian Americans played a central role in the working-class struggle of the early twentieth century.  Italian Americans were leaders in major strikes across the country—notably the Lawrence textile strikes of 1912 and 1919, the Paterson silk strike of 1913, the Mesabi Iron Range strikes of 1907 and 1916, and the New York City Harbor strikes of 1907 and 1919, as well as coal mining strikes. They also made important contributions to American labor unions, especially the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. At the same time, they built vibrant radical Italian immigrant communities that replicated the traditions, cultures, and politics of the old country.  For example, Italian immigrants formed their own political and social clubs, mutual aid societies, alternative libraries and press, as well as their own orchestras and theaters, designed to promote and sustain a radical subculture.

This radical subculture of Italian Americans was oppositional to both the hegemonic culture sustained by prominenti (the powerful men of the Little Italys) and the dominant culture of capitalist America. Yet, for the most part, this radical tradition has been set aside in favor of the hagiography of Columbus and, frankly, the valorizing of settler colonialism.

In recent years, several cities have begun to reject the Columbus Day holiday, replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day.

Protest against Columbus Day in Seattle

(Protest in Seattle, 2014: image source)

Berkeley, California, was the first city to do so in 1992. Seattle and Minneapolis followed its lead in October 2014, generating the movement’s current momentum. Since then, seven more municipalities — including Lawrence, Kansas, Portland, Oregon, and Bexar County, Texas (where San Antonio is located)— have joined their ranks.

Whether to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, or the radical tradition of working class Italian Americans, it’s time to recognize that Columbus was no hero. We should stop celebrating him.

All lives DON’T Matter! As Much Evidence Shows

Dear People Who Dream That We Already Live in A Colorblind Country,

I wish that there was equality among the races. But my dream doesn’t make it real. Recognize your special privilege of living in a make-believe United States in which race does not matter.
Look around you. Carefully. Don’t be fooled by those who will cause you to fear that you’re losing your location of primacy in the United States. Don’t ignore that it’s only by dividing the U.S. into white and ‘others’ that you will become a minority and the country will become a majority-minority nation in 2042 or 2044 or whenever this seismic shift is supposed to take place. The U.S. Census Bureau states that in 2060 whites will be “just” 44 percent of the population! “Just” 44 percent! A cursory examination of the data indicates that white will still be the largest single racial category at that time. And given that the second largest single racial/ethnic category is expected to be 17.4 percent—for Hispanics—I don’t think you need to panic quite yet!

Recognize that you must be living with a siege mentality to think that those kinds of numbers signal your demise. And that it is this kind of us versus them, inability to see the inhumanity of the treatment of black and brown people in the U.S. that leaves you surprised at the pain, anger, and frustration that even a nice, middle-class, highly educated, black woman like me feels.

Pick an arena in which there is not clear evidence that blacks suffer racial discrimination today: Housing? Education? Employment? Criminal justice? Income? Wealth? Healthcare? Politics? Aesthetics? Keep looking. And that’s why videotaped evidence that strongly suggests police brutality has generated such fury. Black America knows that race matters and hopes you would acknowledge that cancer; why is it that this is the only illness that otherwise sane people argue should be ignored?

Of course, all lives matter! Who would find that idea controversial? And yet, you seem to want to brandish those words in opposition to the insistence that Black Lives Matter. Why? It occurs to me that there is some confusion by many (mostly white, I think) Americans about the name of that movement. Here is my disclaimer: Although I am black, I don’t know, nor speak for, the Black Lives Matter organizers. Still, I imagine that despite their yearning to make it their slogan, they just could not get the following to fit on protest signs and T-shirts:

Black lives SHOULD matter as much as white lives. And brown lives should matter as much as white lives. All lives should matter equally! But they don’t. They haven’t historically. And they don’t matter today.
We are hurt and dismayed by the lack of value of our lives. We are gunned down in the streets by those who are paid to serve and protect us, and although there have been some financial settlements to a few families, overall these murders don’t seem to matter to many whites or those in charge of the criminal justice system.

Many police do an excellent job of serving and protecting us. And we’re thankful for that. We also know that we are more likely than whites to be pulled over for any number of offenses—imagined or real. For example, in Tampa, we are—hopefully this is being corrected with media coverage—more likely to be stopped and ticketed by the cops when we ride a bicycle!

The prison boom in the U.S. that has us imprisoning more people—proportionate to our population—than any other country in the world is fed by black and brown bodies, disproportionately. In fact, among the incarcerated, blacks and Hispanics are represented at more than twice their actual proportion of the population. Although it is primarily black and brown men feeding the prison monster, black and brown women are also being incarcerated in record numbers.
Do you think we are inherently dangerous, violent, evil people and that that’s why we are overrepresented among the incarcerated? Do you think that “they” wouldn’t put us in jail if “we” didn’t do “something”?

Exactly what did those five black and brown kids in New York do to Trisha Meili—“the Central Park jogger” who was brutalized in 1989? NOTHING! And yet they were tried as adults, described as wild animals, and served many of their formative years behind bars. James Bain spent 35 years in jail; what did he do? He did not commit the crime for which he was incarcerated.

Why did the following black men and women die? Tyre King, Terence Crutcher, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Levonia Riggins, Alton B. Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Dontre Hamilton.

And then there are these black men and women. Why did they also die?:

John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Tanisha Anderson, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald.

What of countless others?

During this same era, a white man flew a gyrocopter on the lawn of the White House in broad daylight, worrying that the law enforcement would kill him. This was not an authorized landing, and yet no shots were even fired at Doug Hughes. Having admitted to Secret Service long before he pulled the stunt, that he had the gizmo, and planned to do something big, Hughes flew in protected airspace. We are thrilled that Hughes lived to tell us that he feared being blown out of the sky and that he was able to have his day in court. We are enraged that the persons named in the partial, but long list above did not have the same opportunity. The revolting actions of one deranged man against police do not negate any of this injustice. After all, black lives matter.

Janis Prince is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Saint Leo University.

The “Birther” Movement: Whites Defining Black

Hallelujah I say, Hallelujah! Did you hear the news? Did ya? After sending a team of investigators to Hawaii, drawing the attention of the national and international media, and leading an almost six year charge of infesting the mind of those already under the influence of the white racial frame into a catnip type psychological and emotional frenzy; the “benevolent one,” Donald J. Trump, has publically and emphatically acknowledged that our President of the United States of America is—get this, “an American!” Yes it is true. Republican presidential nominee and town jester, Trump on Friday, September 16, 2016 recognized in a public forum for the first time in eight years that President Obama was indeed born in the U.S. After not only leading, but becoming synonymous with what many have described as the “birther movement,” Trump has conceded and given up on furthering the conspiracy theory that our President is not an American citizen.

Listening today in regard to the news coverage of the spectacle orchestrated by Trump, while at the same time attempting to foil my biological reaction to orally evacuate my stomach, I witnessed the all too common deflecting and reflecting of liberal and conservative political pundits on my big screen at home, and upon the satellite radio broadcasting platform. I also heard the babbling and flippant shrilling response by the mostly nearsighted list of news celebrity commentary analysts (i.e., any nut job with an opinion barbarously willing to spin emotions and misdirection to the masses absent of critical thinking). In my analysis, I argue that the heart of the issue was not discussed or investigated with a third eye, so to speak. Beyond the attempts to brush Trump’s statement off by conservatives, liberals spoke of Black anger. Specifically, the anger that they discussed was in relations to the manner in which most Blacks feel in regard to the delegitimizing of President Obama. I have come to the conclusion that their examination of the core regarding the discussion was flawed. Further, what was missed from discussion related to the initial start of the birther movement to Trump’s recent declaration is simple, but at the same time extremely complicated. Donald Trump is simply a contemporary example of a wealthy elite White male, within a long line of wealthy elite White males, exercising their self given authority to define us, determining our place in this society. The ability to hamper our ability to construct our narrative is as old to this country as the U.S. flag. This is what I feel unconsciously angers most Blacks—well, at least me.

Historically and legislatively, beginning with the transaction of Dutch traders selling twenty Africans in Virginia in 1619, Whites have controlled our definition. For example, Whites struggled between categorizing Black slaves as both indentured and lifetime slaves. Before slavery as we know it developed fully into an institution, slaves existed in a state of uncertainty. For example, a number of legislative pieces between 1639 and 1659-60, depicted black servants not as merely property, but instead as members of a shared community alongside Whites of diverse classes, including wealthy Burgesses and indentured servants. In 1659–1660, Virginia colony law fully institutionalized Black slavery for the first time. The law shaped the perspective of categorizing African slaves as commodities. Just like other items imported into the colony from abroad, African slaves were considered “other” or property. The idea of personhood like that of whites was completely absent. This perspective was galvanized in 1776 under the Articles of Confederation enacted by Continental Congress–which officially and explicitly used the term “white” in its statement about counting the population. Moreover, the defining of the slave identity once again appeared within the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Provisions created during the convention thusly gave allowance to whites running southern states to count slaves as 3/5 persons (Three-Fifths Clause) so whites there could have more representation in the new Congress.

One cannot forget the history behind the 1662 Virginia law that in particular focused on the behavior directed toward mixed-race people. The notion of the ‘one drop rule’ was consequently constructed. This legal means for identifying who was Black was judicially upheld as recent as 1985 “when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as ‘white’ on her passport.”

Science has also had a historical significant part in defining Black as well. In essence, Blacks were not only seen as property, but subhuman. The work of individuals such as George Mason, Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus), Louis Agassiz, and Immanuel Kant, to the ghastly experiments performed on unwilling female slaves performed by Dr. J. Marion Sims underscored Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments:

Whether the black of the negro reside [sic] in the reticular membrane between the skin and the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the color of the blood, the color of the bile or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature.

White elites have also defined Blacks through name. In 1960, the U.S. Census Bureau used the term Negro for the first time to define Black Americans. Even though Blacks began to construct their identity by replacing Negro with more empowering categories such as Colored, Black, and African American, the U.S. census continued to use Negro and refused to change the identifiable marker for participants. The decision to drop Negro as an option was not decided until 2013. This is an illustration of the power to not only control the nomenclature, but also one’s identity. All of which is within the hands of Whites.

Finally, there are countless, and too many to state here, historical and contemporary examples within the White controlled media, news industry, literature publications, and even pornography to define what is Black. Together they have identified us as the boogeyman. We are the rapist, foreigner, oversexed, stupid, and violent underbelly of U.S. citizenry. Being Black in America, one is born with an imposed identity as “Other.”

All Donald Trump has been doing for the past eight years with his investigations, statements challenging our President’s allegiance, intelligence, academic credentials, religion, and birthright, is continuing said trend. A trend that is truly “American.”

Colin Kaepernick, Racial Identity and the Power of Protest

NFL player Colin Kaepernick has made headlines recently by refusing to stand for the national anthem before football games in protest. It’s a protest linked to racial identity and politics, as Kaepernick has said that he wants to draw attention to the issue of police brutality, specifically toward people of color in the US. However, a number of political pundits, celebrities and self-identified patriots on social media have taken issue with Kaepernick’s protest. While some of the push back he has received is about the politics of patriotism, a good deal of it is about whether his racial identity gives him the authority and legitimacy to talk about race.

(Image source)

Kaepernick is biracial and was adopted and raised by white parents. His white birthmother is among the critics of his protest, who scolded him on Twitter, saying:

Some, like Fox News anchor Brian Kilmead, thought Kaepernick ungrateful to his white adoptive parents. Kilmead said: “Let’s be honest, he was adopted by two white parents, he was well supported. He is a great athlete, I’m sure he worked hard, I also heard his grades were great.”

Issues of racial identity and colorism are a key part of this story, as Rebecca Carroll writing at The Guardian, observes:

“While being light-skinned black or biracial, as Kaepernick is, affords its own privileges in a society riddled not just by racism but also by colorism, it doesn’t offer full immunity from racism – or anything close to it. Trolls called Kaepernick racial epithets, after all. He is a reminder that being black in America, no matter how light or dark skinned you are, means shielding yourself against the inevitable arbitrary assessment of your worth at the drop of a dime.”

As a self-identified multiracial scholar, the Kaepernick controversy has made think a lot about racial identity. I’m intrigued by the geneaology of race and racial identities—how much our categories for racial identification shift, yet how much they seemingly remain the same. The interest isn’t purely an intellectual one-it’s personal too. My mother is White (Irish) and my father is Brown (Latino). Because race is so salient in the United States—it’s how we organize and categorize much of our society—race is an integral part of our identity.

Personally, I’ve just had a difficult journey figuring out where I fit in. I was never Latina enough. I didn’t speak the language or embody the culture. Whites knew I wasn’t one of them-my nose looked different, my hair much too dark. But in a society that places a premium on race, how do you find consciousness if your existence has been racialized but you don’t fit into the preexisting racial categories? How can you be heard? What is your role in the fight for racial justice?

The public often uses racial identity as a litmus test as to whether people can attest to certain kinds of racial realities and lived experiences. If you’re black, then you can discuss the lived experiences of what your particular life has been like as a veritable person of color. If you’re white, you can try to understand the realities of white privilege and the oppression people of color must contend with in their daily navigation of life. But racial identity in much of the Western world has largely been constructed as dichotomous—you are black or you are white. If you’re racially ambiguous, your own testament to experiences as a member of a marginalized community is often silenced.

(Image source)

Kaepernick, like Jesse Williams an actor with a black father and a white mother who spoke out about racial injustice in a speech at the BET awards, have both faced resistance because of their mixed racial backgrounds, though both self-identify as Black. As the number of biracial and multiracial people in the United States increases, how do we reconfigure racial categories in a way that allows people to define their own realities and speak about issues that affect them as racialized bodies and beings?

Biracial and multiracial communities are not a monolith and they experience varying degrees of racialization. To be black and white is not the same as being white and Japanese. The racial identities of multiracial and biracial people are often constructed and decided for them, not by them, and when they do speak to issues of racism they are often silenced or discredited. In a country that continues to be plagued by the insidiousness of racism, the inclusion and validation of the experiences of marginalization is more important than ever to spark change.

 

In his prescient and seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, sociologist W.E.B DuBois suggested that, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Written in 1903, DuBois couldn’t foresee how relevant and timely his work would be in the 21st century. Dubois explores the black experience in the United States and the construction of race and its implications for power and control. One of Dubois’ more salient concepts, “double consciousness,” articulates the experience of viewing yourself through the eyes of the oppressed and the oppressor simultaneously and asserts a framework for understanding the lived experiences of people of color. Conversely, in The Souls of White Folk (1920), DuBois aims to understand whiteness and its accompanying constructed and ensuing white superiority, imperialism, and colonialization.

 

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), philosopher Frantz Fanon spends much time unpacking the psychological implications of colonization for people of color, articulating a resistance theory that defied the “dependency complex of the colonized” (Chapter 4). Fanon argues that Black people must actualize their critical consciousness toward empowerment. White people have constructed whiteness to be superior, and some Black people, Fanon posits, internalize the notion that white people are superior and develop an inferiority complex. But what happens to people of a multiracial or biracial background? Where do they (we) fit in now? Where did they (we) fit in historically?

 

Historically, there has only been Black or White when it comes to racial identity. There has been little wiggle room in between for emerging/shifting/evolving racial identities. This racially dichtomized categorization has been reinforced through our history. For example, think of the antiquated “one drop rule,” which decreed that anyone with a drop of “black blood” would be considered black. During slavery, children born to a slave mother immediately adopted her social and racial status despite the racial status of the father. Sure, you had the dehumanizing and mathematical sounding fractional configurations of racial identity—octoroon, quadroon, and mulatto. But all of those labels signified varying degrees of blackness. Biraciality and multiracialty weren’t concrete identities; to whites, these were gradations of Blackness. To other blacks, those gradations came with social and material benefits associated with proximity to whiteness.

 

By refusing to stand for the national anthem, Colin Kaepernick has not only made headlines. He’s asserted his right to speak out about racial justice and distanced himself from the benefits of whiteness.

 

 

~ Alyssa Lyons is a graduate student in sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY

 

On Burkini Bans and Institutional Racism

The photos capture a woman lying serenely on a pebble beach in a full-body swimsuit. She is unaware of the four men as they approach. They wear guns and bulletproof vests, and demand the woman remove her shirt. They watch as she complies.

French police approach woman in burkini on beach

(Image source: The Guardian)

This scene was reported in recent weeks by news outlets across the globe. More than twenty coastal towns and cities in France imposed bans on the burkini, the full body swimsuit favored by religious Muslim women. Like many, I have been transfixed by the images of brazen discrimination and shaming. Although the woman in the photographs, identified only as Siam, was not wearing a burkini, her body was targeted by a racist institution, the State.

French politicians have falsely linked the burkini with religious fundamentalism. They have employed both blatant and subtly racist language to express indignation at the sight of a non-white, non-Western female body in a public space designated as “white.”

Olivier Majewicz, the Socialist mayor of Oye-Plage, a town on the northern coast of France, described a Muslim woman on the beach as appearing “a bit wild, close to nature.” Her attire, he said, was not “what one normally expects from a beachgoer…we are in a small town and the beach is a small, family friendly place.” France’s Socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, utilized more direct language, stating that the burkini enslaved women and that the “nation must defend itself.” Similarly blunt, Thierry Migoule, an official with the municipal services in Cannes, said the burkini “conveys an allegiance to the terrorist movements that are waging war against us.”

These quotes reflect the pernicious limitations of the white gaze. When I look at the photos of Siam, I see a woman, a mother, being forced to undress before a crowd of strangers. I can hear her children, terrified, crying nearby. Siam’s encounter was a scene of trauma, and as Henri Rossi, the vice president of the League of Human Rights in Cannes, said “this trauma has not been cured; the convalescence has not yet begun.”

Some sixty years ago, Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, explored the relationships between the white gaze and the black body, specifically in France and its colonies. In the age of the burkini ban, Fanon’s observations ring poignant and true. He writes: “…we were given the occasion to confront the white gaze. An unusual weight descended on us. The real world robbed us of our share. In the white world, the man of color encounters difficulties in elaborating his body schema. The image of one’s body is solely negating. It’s an image in the third person. All around the body reigns an atmosphere of certain uncertainty.” Fanon’s words could serve as the soundtrack to Siam’s encounter with the police. She was robbed of her share, her body negated and deemed a public threat by the white gaze.

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France, politicians have capitalized on the politics of fear in order to renegotiate the boundaries of institutional racism as expressed in the public sphere. In Living with Racism, Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes quote Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard (Sexism, Racism and Oppression) about the ever-changing “terms of oppression.” Brittan and Maynard write:

“the terms of oppression are not only dictated by history, culture, and the sexual and social division of labor. They are also profoundly shaped at the site of the oppression, and by the way in which oppressors and oppressed continuously have to renegotiate, reconstruct, and re-establish their relative positions in respect to benefits and power.”

As the burkini affords Muslim women the benefit to participate in different arenas of public space, the state recalibrates its boundaries to create new or revive previous sites of oppression. In the case of the burkini, the sites of oppression are both public beaches and women’s bodies – common sites of attempted domination, not only in France, but also the U.S.

Fanon, Feagin and Sikes all point to institutional racism as an engine that fuels white supremacy and its policies of discrimination. As Feagin and Sikes observe, these:

“recurring encounters with white racism can be viewed as a series of ‘life crises,’ often similar to other serious life crises, such as the death of a loved one, that disturb an individual’s life trajectory.”

The photos of Siam capture the unfolding of life crisis and illustrate the power of institutional racism to inflict both individual and collective traumas.

 

~ Julia Lipkins is a student in American Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY. 

Research Brief: Collateral Damage to Health from Invasive Police Encounters in New York City

Overpolicing in the form of invasive police encounters like stop-and-frisk affects the health of residents in American neighborhood according to sociologists Abigail Sewell and Kevin A. Jefferson. This infographic illustrates the key findings in their research.

 

ResearchHealthandPoliceEncounters

(Image credit: Melissa Brown)

In a recent Journal of Urban Health article, they use data from two datasets based on the health and policing experiences of New Yorkers. They argue that numerous public health risks are associated with overpolicing including:

  • Poor/fair health
  • Overweight/Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Asthma episodes

In their analysis of the health and policing in New York, the researchers sought to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the health effects of the concentration of police stops within certain neighborhoods?
  2. Is there a relationship between reports of poor health and invasive Terry stops?
  3. If health effects of invasive police encounters in neighborhoods exist, do they vary by race and ethnicity?

The researchers found that neighborhoods with high frisk rates increased the odds of having health issue related to all the risks mentioned above. They also found that police stops generally worsen the health of Blacks and Latinos, but does not have as significant effect for Whites and Asians. In light of these results, the researchers argue that police actions potentially affect communities by exposing residents to invasive practices that generate illness. You can download a pdf of the graphic here.

 

~ Melissa Brown is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Maryland and social media manager for the Critical Race Initiative

Burkini Ban: Racialization of Muslim Women’s Bodies

For most of my life, I’ve traveled between the US and the Middle East. During the school year, my neighbors and friends were devout Christians in Texas. In the summers, I socialized with my extended family and friends who were equally devout Muslims in Egypt. Each society believed the other oppressed its women. Both based these conclusions on the covering or uncovering of women’s bodies.

My Christian friends often lamented how Muslim women must be subjugated under the headscarves and long gowns that they presumed were imposed on them by men. The hijab, in its various forms, corroborated the Orientalist critique that the Middle East had failed to modernize with the rest of the world. Meanwhile, my Muslim friends pitied American women for exposing so much of their bodies due to a presumed need to please men’s sexual desires in a patriarchal society. Bikinis and miniskirts was further proof that hedonism and materialism was subjugating women in Western society.

Thus, the current debate over Burkinis is just the latest iteration of a transnational fixation on women’s bodies in public debates over morality, modernity, and freedom — with a new twist. Women’s bodies are now at the center of national security anxieties. Weeks prior to the Burkini bans passed by over fifteen French cities, a French citizen killed eighty five people when he ploughed through a crowd in Nice. The tragedy understandably engendered debates on how to improve security in France.

But the perpetrator’s Muslim identity also unleashed collective punishment on France’s Muslim population, with a particular focus on women. Indeed, French controversy over Muslim women’s head coverings has surpassed purported claims to preserve laicite. What a woman wears now affects whether citizens feel safe from terrorism. That is, the very sight of a Burkini in France instills fear and anxiety among (non-Muslim) French citizens.

Such irrational fears are privileged over France’s proclaimed commitment to individual liberty, as the Muslim woman is denied her right to choose what to put on her body in a public beach. Instead of being viewed as an individual French citizen with liberty rights, she is a representative of a group held in contempt solely for its religious affiliation.

The Burkini controversy in France, however, is not much different than the culture wars over abortion in America. Nor is it dissimilar to cultural family honor codes in Muslim majority countries. In America, women’s bodies are at the center of moral debates about life, death, and morality. If a woman becomes pregnant, her choice as to whether to carry the fetus to full term is not a matter of private liberty. Rather, it is at the center of a heated public debate about when life begins and murder occurs. As lawsuits and media campaigns contest these issues, American women’s bodies are transformed into passive vessels. The latest chapter in this culture war was recently on full display when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that shut down fifty percent of the state’s abortion clinics.

Similarly, in many Muslim majority countries, women shoulder the burden of preserving the family’s reputation and honor in society. If her clothing or behavior signals a lack of morals or sexual promiscuity, the entire family’s reputation is tarnished. All the while, her male relatives are often given a free pass if they violate religious tenets. Thus, what a woman places on her head, face, and body are a matter of public concern in a patriarchal society. While most Muslim-majority societies enforce these rules through cultural practices, Saudi Arabia and Iran have codified into law women’s dress codes in public—much like the French city laws banning the Burkini.

Women in both Eastern and Western societies face multiple coercive measures—through law, religious precepts or social pressures—to manage their bodies in ways that appease patriarchal norms. Whether the fight is over a woman’s reproductive organs or her hair, the latest Burkini ban controversy shows that the fixation on women’s bodies traverses continents. Until women’s bodies are no longer the political footballs in policy debates that hold little regard for a woman’s individual liberty, gender oppression will remain a transnational problem.

Sahar Aziz is a professor of law at Texas A&M University School of Law and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. She is the author of From the Oppressed to the Terrorist: Muslim American Women Caught in the Crosshairs of Intersectionality

This article first appeared in The New Arab and is reprinted here by permission.