Why Ethnic Studies is important

Arizona has been attracting attention lately because of its now infamous immigration bill that mandates that police officers demand proof of citizenship when “reasonable suspicion” exists that the person they have stopped/pulled over/etc. is an illegal immigrant, but there’s another piece of legislation that just passed the State Legislature that bothers me just as much.   If Governor Brewer signs the bill into law, it will officially be illegal to teach “Ethnic Studies” in the state of Arizona’s public schools on the grounds that it encourages “ethnic chauvinism” and will apparently encourage Latinos to rise up against the US government and seize portions of the Southwest to form their own state.

The second part of that statement is so patently absurd that it doesn’t even merit anything than an eye-roll and a helpless laugh at paranoid, racist insecurity.   But the first part really bothers me, especially as a minority, a person of color, or whatever other term you want to use to describe the fact that I am not a white American.

First, it is offensive and prejudiced in the extreme to assume that ethnic studies teaches “ethnic chauvinism” (a term that I will confess I have NO idea what it’s meant to mean) but that it encourages students of a particular group to self-segregate.  Everyone benefits from learning about the diverse history of this country, the history that was made not just by white men with origins in Western Europe, but the history that was made by African slaves, by Eastern European immigrants, by Chinese railroad workers, by Sikh farmers.

I did not know much of this history until I got to college, and then I found myself partially angry wondering why my extremely good education had seen fit to limit what I learned about non-white cultures and peoples to a one-year class on “non-western world history” (which though informative and still more than I assume many received in high school).  Why had I never been told about the people of color who had helped shape America before the 20th century?  Why did I remain so ignorant of the names, places, events, that had impacted these people?  Why, even in a college widely known for its diversity, did it still take effort to seek out this information?  Why did we have to fight unsuccessfully for the implementation of Asian-American Studies?  Why was it so difficult to make administrators understand why this was important to us, the Asian community, to make them see that having a strong program focusing on the cultures of Japan, China, and to a lesser extent, Korea, was not the same as learning about the experience of Asian Americans in America?

But aside from my anger, I found myself empowered knowing this history, because it made America seem like a richer place.  America is a unique place in many ways, and learning these hidden histories helped give me a fuller idea of what America is, what it offers to people, and what its history has been.  Nothing I learned encouraged feelings of superiority or segregation, it simply made me more educated and proud.   When taught right, ethnic studies is a valuable addition to the curriculum, benefitting not only the students of the minority groups being discussed, but every student in the classroom.   We feel that it is important to continue teaching students of all colors and backgrounds about the Holocaust (and rightly so – I have no objections to the fact that the Arizona bill states that this will remain part of the curriculum), so why isn’t it important that all students learn about Mexican labor leaders or Asian immigrants who built the California railroads?

Between this law and the Texas vote to strip the curriculum of people deemed “unimportant” by a partisan committee, I am angry and saddened for the future of America’s students.   We are a country that is getting ever more diverse, where these histories will become even more important to learn as students of increasingly diverse backgrounds fill classrooms.  Why are the histories that include people who look like them and have the same names as them not important? Laws like this not only display stunning ignorance, they are doing a grave disservice to American students who will grow up, live, and work in multicultural, multiethnic environments.

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Rain?

The heat has abated, somewhat, but Mother Nature continues her capricious tricks.  Today there is a hint of rain.  The sky has gone grey, and outside the light has changed to a peculiar shade of greeny-brown that I’ve never seen anywhere but here.   We had a few merciful drops earlier, but they seemed designed to mock, leaving dust trails in their wake on the car windows instead of streaks of water.  It splattered dusty rain for mere moments and then it stopped.   The other possibility is that it will soon gust hot, dusty wind, as a loo blows in.   The hot and dry strong summer wind that gusts in over the desert plains, bringing heat and dust with it.

When it rains (if it rains, you never can be sure nowadays what the state of the monsoon will be), the world will be transformed.  Flowers will perk up, grass will get green, and everything will be in a state of shiny renewal.  Until then, we sit, and we wait, and we hope as we look at the sky during this dark afternoon that relief will come soon.

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Heat

It is hot in Delhi.  Summer has arrived in spring with a vengeance.  You step outside only to be assaulted by thick, hot air, enveloping you like an oven.  Air conditioners offer some respite, but only a little.  Even sitting expends energy, leaving you coated in a thin sheen of sweat.   Cold water has ceased to flow from the taps, heated to warmth by the sun’s rays penetrating the water tank on the roof, and under my feet, the usually cool tile floors feel gritty with dust brought in by the desert winds.

But in the sluggish stillness, there is one redeeming factor.  The thick, sweet smell of ripening mangoes fills the air.  And I smile, thinking of treats to come, ice cold mangoes fresh from the fridge touching my tongue.

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The violation of violence

For the second time during my year abroad in Taiwan, tragedy has struck painfully close to home.  I’m not talking about a death in the family (though that has happened too), I’m talking about the kind of tragedy that makes international headlines, that captures the front page of the New York Times, that sets Twitter abuzz with Tweets.  

 

First it was the Mumbai attacks.  

 

Woken at three in the morning by a text message from my mother, I came out of my bedroom to the living room, turned on CNN, and watched for the next three hours as heart-breaking images of a city I loved go up in flames and turned into a war zone, and sobbed and shook as I learned that my uncle had been killed in the line of duty.

 

 The agony was prolonged, of course, as each time over the next three days that I sat down in front of the television, the siege was still ongoing, it’s final toll unknown, the gun battles still raging in the corridors of the majestic Taj hotel.   I felt broken and helpless watching this senseless violation of spaces I frequent whenever I visit, felt panicked at the thought of just how lucky fate can be sometimes, that people I loved were not in those places when they so easily could have been. 

 

The experience was a horrible one, and I had hoped that I would never have to go through something like that again.  Except on Thursday morning, I woke up and checked my email before leaving the house as I always do, only to find that a student at Wesleyan, my alma mater, had been murdered in cold blood in the middle of our campus bookstore.  

 

Once again, the feelings of helplessness, fear, and that sick feeling in my stomach returned.  This was another place that I loved, another place so achingly familiar to me as I watched the news footage online that I knew all the surrounding buildings, streets, recognized the cherry trees in bloom, another place shattered by an act of senseless violence.  

 

The attack at Wesleyan sent shockwaves throughout the alumni community in this virtual age, with Facebook status updates, online away messages, Twitter and LiveJournal all affording a virtual venue to express our collective shock.   I can only imagine what the atmosphere on campus is like today, and it breaks my heart.

 

I did not know Johanna, but the horrific nature of her death and the sense of violation is enough to shake me to the core.  Reading that her killer, Stephen Morgan, had potentially planned a shooting spree on campus on a day where hundreds of students would have been easy targets sitting on Foss Hill during Spring Fling made chills run down my spine.   

 

Wesleyan will heal, just as Bombay has begun to heal, but the scars will likely remain, though perhaps Wesleyan will have an advantage.  College populations, unlike the landmarks and residents of a city, are a transient lot.  Their memory is short-term, limited to four-year stretches of time.  Those who are on campus right now will, undoubtedly, remember the events of Thursday for years to come.  Those who come after will not know, and so maybe healing is a possible goal, but for me, as an alum, the memory of a place I love and the knowledge that it was destroyed will never fade. 

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The Bonuses of AIG

I am, admittedly, not the world’s most financially literate person.  I have a basic grasp of how the market is meant to function, I have read Keynes in the original (though I will profess to finding him rather dry), and I do think that government intervention is at least part of the solution in the current economic crisis we find ourselves in.   I do not think government alone can solve the problem, because after all, the market functions on the capricious confidence of the traders, which can swing wildly on the slightest change of events, and humans are not rational creatures, so the idea that the government alone can restore the confidence of market traders is a bit absurd to me.   It’s a fascinating intersection between economics and psychology, a burgeoning field of research, but it’s absurd to expect that the government can change the status quo of the moment by pumping large sums of money into failing companies.  

Still, money is needed, I think, to help shore up these companies, but with that money should have come strict strings.   Obscene quantities of taxpayer money are being handed out left, right and center to companies such as AIG, and it seems as though the Obama administration has done a rather poor job of making sure that money is used for its intended purpose.  I appreciate the fact that it was the previous administration that gave out the original money under the TARP program, and that there is little that could be done to change the language of that handout, but it makes me upset and irks me to see the Obama administration washing their hands of responsibility for not overseeing matters more closely while simultaneously saying that if people are upset, the buck stops with the President.  

There is no logical way I can think of to reconcile those two statements, especially since it was the Obama administration that created the subsequent cash inflows to AIG, not the Bush one.   It especially makes little sense upon learning that the Obama administration pushed for a change in the language of the bill that allowed for taxpayer monies to be used to pay the substantial bonuses of AIG officials who were involved in the riskiest insurance areas that landed the company in this mess in the first place. 

I admire President Obama.  I think he is doing a pretty decent job given everything that is happening right now. But his “anger” at the bonuses paid to AIG and his statements that “We didn’t draft these contracts. We’ve got a lot on our plate. But it is appropriate when you’re in charge to make sure stuff doesn’t happen like this” ring more than a little hollow if his officials pushed for the change in language to allow the pre-existing contracts to be honored. 

I am also disappointed in my senator, Sen. Dodd of Connecticut, who has been made to take the fall for inserting the language (at the administration’s request).  I am disappointed because he has allowed himself to be made the fall guy, it would seem, for doing as he was asked to do, but I am also disappointed that he lacks the integrity to take responsibility for the changes.   Quotes like “”I agreed reluctantly… I was changing the amendment because others were insistent” scream of trying to shamefully distance himself from his own actions, to deny his own agency in authoring the bill.   

I am more disturbed, however, by his claims that he thought this grandfather clause language “”seemed like innocent modifications.” This I definitely cannot wrap my head around.  You insert a provision into a bill that will authorize the payment of bonuses to people who are legally guaranteed them (regardless of the fact that they have done nothing to deserve them), and don’t stop to think that people will be rightly outraged that you are allowing their money to be used to pay people who don’t deserve the money EXTRA money even though their company is sinking ever deeper into the ground?   And then members of Congress and the President have the temerity to come out sounding aggrieved, striking all the right populist notes? 

I’m sorry, it doesn’t work like that.  Someone in the administration had to know that the senators on the banking committee were being pressured to change the language to allow for bonuses to be paid because they were more worried about protecting themselves legally.  It is admirable for President Obama to admit that he should have been keeping a closer eye on things and to say that he is ultimately responsible, but the populist anger comes across like a cheap charade and it’s all just a little too late.  

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You reap what you sow

The federal judge who denied the request of the Proposition 8 donors to have their names withheld for privacy reasons should be applauded for exercising common sense in the face of what can only be described as blatant stupidity. 

I have zero sympathy for those individuals who wished to keep their names private for fear of “harassment” or “boycotts of their businesses.”  Were there a legitimate, credible threat of violence against these individuals, that might be a different story, but what we have here is people who made a choice to support a bigoted, disgusting piece of legislation, one that stripped their fellow citizens, their neighbors, their customers, of the right to marry the person they love, the right to obtain the benefits and the recognition that marriage confers upon a couple in our society.   With their financial support, they actively enabled legislation that could tear beautiful, loving families apart, simply because there happen to be two dads or two moms.

To cry now, belatedly, that they are afraid of retribution for their bigotry, beggars belief.  If they were that afraid of having their names made public,  they should have considered the fact that the law requires the names and addresses of any political donor to be made public.  

There is no good reason why an exception should be made for Proposition 8 supporters simply because they are now realizing the potential economic impact of their political convictions.  Their cowardice in the face of potential economic boycotts of their businesses is embarrassing, and shows the utter shallowness of their convictions.  If they feel so certain that their belief that marriage should be legally restricted to being between a male and a female, they should have the guts to maintain that conviction even when knowing their names will be made public.    To me, their unwillingness to do so only reinforces the idea that they know, deep down, that their views are repulsive.   

They made their decision, now they must live with the consequences.  After all, just as they have the right to contribute money to a political cause that I disagree with, I have the right to know who supported Proposition 8 and act accordingly.  That’s the beauty of a free society.  You reap what you sow.

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The beginning

As President Obama prepares to escort the now former President Bush to his helicopter, which will take him back to Texas, we can only hope that this is genuinely the start of a new moment in America’s history. 

There are inevitably clichés associated with this historic moment, and there is hope.  Tomorrow we see whether that hope and immense promise can begin to be transformed into tangible results, but there have been promising steps thus far.  

Still, with this one helicopter ride, and an anti-climactic inauguration (as Obama officially became President at noon, despite the oath of office not having been administered), there is an immense amount of hope for me that an ugly chapter of America’s history is about to be ended.  

The time has come to repair our nation, to repair the damage we have caused to ourselves and to the rest of the world, whether in domestic policy and issues relating to torture and wiretapping, or whether through our foreign policy, rebuilding alliances, repairing the violence we have unleashed on the world.  The time has come to repair our economy, to hopefully try and make it a more just and equitable economy, so that as the richest nation on earth, we no longer have inadequate schools, high infant mortality, poor health care, and people struggling to get by despite working themselves to the bone just to get by.    

There is much riding on Obama, many expectations, some of which will inevitably be disappointed.  But there is a considerable amount of hope today, that this is genuinely the beginning of something new, something great, and something that will bring powerful change to the world as we know it.

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