The Role of the Past in our Question for Social Change

The past few years have been an extremely confusing and uncomfortable time for me, as a black man in America, more specifically as an African immigrant. It all started with Trayvon, Michael Brown, then Eric Garner, then Sandy and then and then.... The list goes on. I do not want to discuss the facts behind these events and whether or not justice has been served. I am neither qualified nor well-versed enough to go into a deep, detailed, discussion. Still, there is something about writing, even when what one is writing about are half-baked ideas, be they mathematical, philosophical or fictional, that helps/forces one to organize their thoughts and gain insight. That is one of the reasons I write, and this is something I expect of my students and postdocs: write it down, share an ipython notebook, not just for me, but also for yourself. Now that we're past this digression, what I would like to discuss is how I experienced the events of the past few years, and the shift in thinking that these events have engendered in me. The gist is the following:

There is a large part of the physical, psychological, experience of being a minority (a woman, African American, Hispanic, Asian, homosexual, transgender etc...) that cannot be disentangled from the history of a country. The trouble with history is that, revisiting it, can be uncomfortable ask Ben Affleck. I am an applied mathematician, so the Mathematician in me is inclined to abstracting things away. I believe the statement above is true about the minority experience across time and space. What changes across time are the politics and the economics, and across space the who is/are the minority group(s) at the forefront of discussions/current events. Why did I start thinking about this? Well, first, I work in which that is largely male dominated and where there are very few minorities. The events of the past few years woke up feelings that I think had been brewing for a while. There is something about the feeling of being 'the only one'/'one of a few of your kind' that gets amplified when, on the one hand, events mirror the reality of how you are perceived and on the other hand, you do not hear this reality discussed in your day to day (where you work etc...). A recent chronicle of higher ed article was written on this topic. Check it out, it's a great read. Second, I am African, I am black and, whether I like it or not, I have been reaping the benefits of the struggle and victories won by African Americans over the centuries, since reconstruction, the civil rights movement etc. There was this sense of guilt brewing inside of me from not understanding the African American experience well enough, while benefiting from it and, at the same time, carrying the baggage of what it means to be black in America. I would go as far as to say that, if you are an immigrant in this country, you are in some form or another benefiting from the centuries of wealth accumulated on the backs of African Americans. That's why, I think it is crucial for one to educate oneself on the African American/Minority experience wherever one finds oneself. At the time when I started thinking about these ideas, I did not have the language to express them. So I borrowed this language from history and from the writings of American authors (of various geneders/races).

I read. I read, I read, and I read. I have not read as much in my whole life as I have read over the past 3 to 4 years since I obtained my PhD. I read authors such as Isabel Wilkerson, Maya Angelou, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglas, Mark Twain, John Williams, Michelle Alexander. I also read pieces in political magazines on the topic. I closely followed the writings of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Arthur Chu, Jelani Cobb, Tane-hisi Coates, Brittney Cooper and others. Comedy, it turns out, has also been an invaluable source. This reading allowed me to form the beginnings of an image for how the past has come to shape the African American/black experience in America as we see it on TV, as I experience it. I think that, part of living in a diverse society full of compassion is to understand how history has determined any form of privilege one is enjoying. I enjoy a huge privilege by virtue of being a male. I realize this. The ways in which I could contribute to discussions about gender inequality is by (a) being cognizant of this privilege, (b) learning about its origins through history and (c) listening. So much of the anymosity, the defensiveness around issues of race/gender has to do with the lack of (c). The path forward will be hard if we are unable to look at others and see a reflection of ourselves, and look in the mirror and see a reflection of our flaws. This requires a certain amount of vulnerability. It's uncomfortable, it's messy. It's growing pains. But it is possible, perhaps necessary.

I mentioned earlier than one thing that changes across time, when it comes to dealing with these issues, are the politics. The politics have a huge role to play, especially in the age of Obama. There has been an immense polarization in how Obama has handled the race issue, and questions of police brutality. One school of thought says, don't talk about race, change policy etc. The other, is embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement, which says we must tackle it head on and be unapologetic about demanding change. My opinion on the matter is not fully formed. But the following quote from an article by Brandon M. Terry is the closest that comes to explaining my current thinking

"Ordinary politics treats these deadly encounters between citizens and police as causal inevitabilities—high crime begets intensive policing, which brings unfortunate tragedies. But why stop there? What we need is an extraordinary politics informed by ordinary lives, one capable of provoking, and responsibly guiding, a process of civic reflection in a moment of moral crisis."

Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful: "extraordinary politics informed by ordinary lives".

How can "ordinary lives" guide the politics? One way is through the context provided by history and the lived experiences of people. The context of history is necessary to move forward. Case in point, you have probably heard of the BLM activists who crashed the Bernie Sanders event in Seattle. That was not cool. But, you have to go past the act and think about the why of the act? I think it's the frustration among black people, activists, that even well-meaning liberals are only compassionate with their struggle in theory and words. And this, I think, might be because, of the lack of context regarding black history and the struggle of black America. How can the politics/economics change anything, unless they are informed by the context of ordinary lives?

I may be wrong. And an old argument, definitely held by conservatives, and by a segment of black politics, talks about African American responsibility, the degradation of the African American family, and how African Americans must pull themselves from bootstraps. Even Bill Cosby of all people talks about this. But if you read Isabel Wilkerson, if you read some of Coates' writing, and the historical references in both, you cannot help but question this view. To me, the argument about moral reform is weak because it is devoid of historical context. This would be the same thing as saying something which I think is absurd "well, women have been granted equality decades ago, why can't they pull themselves by the bootstraps and make as much money as we men do?", "why can't they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get their voices heard?" These are absurd statements.

History informs the structural and systemic forces that have led us here. The role of "extraordinary politics" is to user "ordinary lives" as the basis for policies that will dismantle these. We might need to wait for Kanye's 2020 presidential bid to see such "extraordinary politics".