As part of the response to the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, my department helped organize a listening session with students to discuss some of the contentious debates that became central to the protests and educate students on what Political Science says about our current moment. As we were preparing for the listening session, I started feeling this dread, this feeling of "here we go again," and felt bummed out all day in preparation for the talk. So I decided to write my thoughts and here. Sadly, this is not the first time I write about this in this (very sporadic) platform. Re-reading my 2016 post, the thoughts and the trauma are the same (if you are here I suggest you go back to my 2016 post too). I write this thinking about my lived experiences and my reflections on the conversations we have about structural racism on college campuses.
George Floyd’s life and murder resonate with me in different ways. In High School he was a two-sport athlete and earned a basketball scholarship to go to college. The only reason I am here today is because I was awarded a basketball scholarship at a small college in Kansas. Big Floyd was, by the account of many of his friends and family members, a gentle giant. I have heard that expression many times from friends and family. But his height and the color of his skin made him a threat to many, something I am keenly aware happens to me when I am around strangers and in my interactions with law enforcement.
I grew up in Brazil, where we have our own structural racism to deal with (#VidasNegrasImportam). There, decades ago, I had a gun pointed at my head by both the police and criminals, and in my experience the criminals were more concerned for my life than the police. But that’s for another moment.
I have lived half of my life in the United States, but when I arrived here I had a very superficial notion of race relations in the country (most of what I knew came from watching Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air). I had a very sheltered and privileged experience in college. A 1,000-student college in a 5,000 people town. Being brown, being an “exotic” international student, and being on the basketball team (which a friend of mine reminded me today was the whitest team on campus) afforded me some privileges navigating the school and the town’s social scene. I hang out mostly with white suburban kids, even spent holidays in their houses. But for two years I lived in the dorm where most POCs and social outcasts chose to live. I learned a lot about perspective and the US experience in these two environments.
After I graduated, got a job, moved to Kansas City and bought a car, it took only two days for the reality outside my college bubble to set in. I worked in a predominantly black neighborhood and started getting stopped by the police within my second day on the job, almost always by white cops. I thought that was strange since I rode around with my white friends all over Kansas City and was never pulled over, even though sometimes my suburban white friends were loose with their interpretation of speed limits and stop signs. As I start complaining to my friends, my white friends would shrug and say “you must be a bad driver” and my black friends would shrug and say “welcome to KC, you are dark enough for Driving While Black.” That was my introduction to the real United States, and since then I have lost count of the times I got stopped by the police for flimsy reasons. At least three of those times I was afraid things could escalate and I could be in danger.
Fast forward to 2009. Oakland Police in California kills Oscar Grant. At the time I was back at my alma-mater as an assistant basketball coach. I heard some discussion among white students and faculty, but I also saw them ignoring the pain of black students (there were no black faculty that I can recall and few black staff members). Then in 2012 Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a wannabe cop. I was back at my alma-mater teaching and there was a more open discussion about what happened, but still a lot of disconnect between the lived experiences of our black students and the lived experiences of most suburban white students. The conversation kinda fizzled out around summertime.
In the summer of 2014 Eric Garner was killed by a Staten Island policeman who put him on a chokehold, even as Mr. Garner pleaded with him and yelled “I Can’t Breathe.” Shortly after, Michael Brown was shot by police officer in Ferguson, MO and his body was left in the middle of the street for hours. I was now in Iowa in another predominantly white college. Once again, the lived experiences of Black Americans were discussed, but only to a point, mainly because it made (white) people uncomfortable. We are now in 2020, “I Can’t Breathe” is once again the rallying cry against police violence, but what a lot of white people want to talk about is property damage and what would happen if their local law enforcement agency doesn’t have the money for that new armored vehicle. I am hopeful for the conversations we are having now, but also very cynical, with a feeling that we will be back to where we were the others times similar protests happened.
According to Mapping Violence, since 2013 Black people have been 28% of those killed by the police, despite being only 13% of the population. Research shows that Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be stopped during the day when officers can see the color of their skin. When I was stopped by a police officer in Kansas, in South Dakota, and in Minnesota (with my child in the car) and felt the tension (maybe even the fear) in them, it did not matter that I have a PhD, that I am the father of two children, that I pay my taxes on time. All it mattered was that I am six foot nine and brown. It was my job to deescalate the situation, hoping not to become the next hashtag or statistic.
So as we talk about race and racism in the United States on our campuses, especially in predominantly white campuses, I want us all to think about our lived experiences and recognize that your lived experience is not universal. If you are white and live in a predominantly white town or neighborhood, you probably don’t even have to think about what to do if you get stopped by the police. I also want to reinforce what has been said many times before in these past months: if you really want to be an ally and make positive change, you will have to get uncomfortable, you will have to realize that the lived experiences of BIPOC people are vastly different from yours. I want to end with one last thought. I say this without sarcasm: Minnesota Nice is a tool for white supremacy. This unique form of "niceness" does not help in fostering difficult conversations. I am sorry to say a hot dish won’t make racism go away.
COVID Article Roundup: March 29-31
Notes from March 29
One thing that is becoming very clear is that supply chains matter. There is a lot of information out there about what it takes to bring supplies in, what states (and corporations) are doing to address shortages and the long term impacts of disruptions in trade. There are two articles that popped up on my feed that I think are worth sharing. First, Axios' Inside the start of the great virus airlift discusses what the US government is doing to bring the medical supplies needed. There is an interesting discussion about the nationalization of the supply chain:
"(Rear Admiral John) Polowczyk (working with FEMA) said many members of Congress "want me to nationalize this supply chain by using the Defense Production Act. They want me to do all the buying, all the distributing, and all the allocation." But he's been resisting that. "This medical supply chain, there's like six, seven big distributors who have like 600–700 nodes that push out product," he said. "I'm not going to re-create that. I'm looking to break down barriers ... to help them feed product where it needs to go." He said the federal government will buy some medical supplies but will try to feed them into existing supply chains. Polowczyk said he doesn't want to use the Defense Production Act, but he leaves the door open to using those powers to move supplies around the country if his current plan doesn't work."
The Texas Monthly article Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic focuses on the importance of preparedness inside the private sector, especially the grocery store sector. This was so far one of the most fascinating articles for me since it showed how private (non-state) actors may have been better prepared for the pandemic than local, state, and federal officials.
Moving to international law, the forum Just Security had an interesting discussion about "punishing" countries for pandemics. The article, COVID-19 and International Law: Must China Compensate Countries for the Damage? lays out the reasons why it is unlikely that China will be required to compensate other countries, arguing that "Claims that China has committed internationally wrongful acts and has an obligation to compensate foreign governments form part of a feature of this pandemic that is not really about international law." Moreover, the author states that "The most important consequences of the geopolitical aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic will appear after countries bring the outbreak under control in their territories." I appreciated this article for bringing some key international treaties to explaining what can and cannot happen based on precedent.
There were other interesting articles, here are a few links:
Notes for March 30
I am going to start this roundup with the first academic article I have seen on COVID 19. Adolph et al. (2020) wrote Pandemic Politics: Timing State-Level Social Distancing Responses to COVID-19 where they analyze state policies in reaction to the virus and the factors influencing such policies. In their analysis, "all else equal, Republican governors and governors from states with more Trump supporters were slower to adopt social distancing policies. These delays are likely to produce significant, on-going harm to public health" (p. 2). This is a provocative quote in the same article:
"We strongly believe that realistic assessments of decision-making by elected officials must take electoral motivations and career ambitions seriously – as impolitic as that may be. Elected officials, regardless of party, must be responsive to the concerns of their voters and party leaders. However, this essential feature of democratic representation does not inevitably produce the best policy outcome" (p. 13).
This Independent article is one of the many I saw discussing the role of the February 19 Champion's League game between Atalanta and Valencia (a Spanish team). The game was played in Milan (30 miles away from Atalanta's home Bergamo), and the movement of people and created what many are now referring to as a "biological bomb." According to the article, "At the time, few in Italy were greatly concerned about Covid-19. Two days after the match was played, though, the country saw its first confirmed death from the illness, and within two weeks Bergamo was reporting a sharp increase in its rate of coronavirus cases." I also wonder how many Valencia fans were in the Stadium and eventually made their way back to Spain.
I am also sharing here the link to a Tweet from Dr. Rama Dieng that highlights a number of written pieces about COVID 19 from a feminist (and mostly Global South) perspective.
Finally, two more interesting artifacts that are COVID-adjacent. First, this Planet Money episode about unemployment in the US in March explains why the system is not enough to address the economic depression that has started and will follow COVID 19. Next, this 10 Percent Happier Podcast episode about how to engage "corona-deniers" delves deeper into some of the ethics surrounding this whole situation. This was a very interesting piece, and I also recommend the 10 Percent Happier website (or other mindfulness apps and sites) to help in these stressful times.
Notes from March 31
I want to start this roundup with a great podcast episode from Brene Brown on grieving and finding meaning. Whether you realize it already or not, the world as we knew it is no more. This podcast was very provocative and provided some great insights on how to think about this pandemic and its consequences.
Now a quick tour around the world of COVID around the world.
For my Global Gender Issues course this semester I created a page in our course management site with random thoughts of things that were on the news or things that reminded me of class, either directly or tangentially. I think it is important to make these connections to course work, even if some of these connections are really only happening in my mind. I don't think students really looked at this page much (it was somewhat hidden and the stuff here was not going to influence their grade). But I think for my next classes I want to do this more intentionally (even though it will likely still be occasional). I will dub these occasional posts "Shallow Thoughts," because it is a smorgasbord of things related to class in my mind, most with little thought beyond my first brain sparks that connect a thing to what we learned in class. This one is focused on pop culture, or culture that I end up consuming, not sure how popular it is...
I recently wrote a blog post for Red PROLID, a platform created to connect women in the public sector throughout Latin America. The post is about my research on gender quotas in Brazil, specifically the paper Dr. Kristin Wylie (James Madison University) and I wrote together published in 2016. Since the original post was published in Spanish, I decided to share the English language version of it here. Thanks to Andrea Diaz for inviting me to share my thoughts on an issue that I am deeply passionate about.
As of June 2017, 55 women are members of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, equating to 10.5 percent. This places Brazil at the bottom of the Interparliamentary Union’s Women in Parliament World Classification. The situation is not much better at the state and local level, where 11.3% of women have a seat in a State Assembly, and 13.5% of women hold a seat in one of the thousands City Councils in the country. The low number of women in legislative positions in Brazil is puzzling especially since the country has a 30% gender candidate quota law for these three positions. Why doesn’t the candidate gender quota law work in Brazil? The short answer is limited party support. But the full picture is more complex.
Established in 1995, the Lei de Cotas required every party running for a legislative seat (City Council, State Assembly, and Chamber of Deputies) to allocate 30% of their candidacies to the most underrepresented gender in their party ticket, which have always been women.
Pushed by the Bancada Feminina in the early 1990s, the Lei de Cotas was severely watered down by male party elites. The final law, signed and implemented without much fanfare, was full of loopholes allowing the party to continue to run lists with virtually no women. In a co-authored paper published in 2016, * my co-author Kristin Wylie (James Madison University) and I elaborate on the loopholes present in the law and the institutional structures that rendered the Lei de Cotas practically meaningless. We argue that the nature of the electoral system, the large number of parties, and the male dominance of party leadership made for a quota law that had limited impact on the number of women elected to office.
Brazil’s open-list proportional representation system is the first obstacle. Because voters chose an individual and not a party ticket (like the closed-list system present in Argentina), candidates are competing with both other parties and candidates within their own party, since candidates need individual votes to win a seat. Add that to the extremely high number of parties (35 as of this writing), and you have the recipe for one of the most competitive and expensive legislative elections in the world. So when party leaders are selecting their party list and selecting whom to provide support during the elections, they will likely rely on established politicians (overwhelmingly male) or individuals directly connected to the leadership of the party, who tend to be extremely male-dominated.
The loopholes of the law combined with a general unwillingness by local party elites to truly empower and elect women led to very disappointing numbers. Between 1994 and 2008 the percentage of women elected to the Chamber of Deputies rose from 6.6% to 8.8%. Parties were nominating more women as candidates, but very few parties reached the 30% threshold because of loopholes that allowed them to run full male tickets while still being compliant with the law. So in 2009 Congress passed a mini-political reform that, among other things, sought to close at least some of the loopholes present in the Lei de Cotas, namely the “reserved” clause of candidacy allocation (for a detailed discussion see Wylie and dos Santos 2016), * a five percent allocation of party funds to promote women’s participation, and a mandatory ten percent of the party’s allocated TV time to women candidates.
The mini-reform led to more women candidates, but still failed to increase considerably the number of women elected. Parties continued to find ways to undermine the law by nominating candidatas laranja, women candidates who were listed as candidates but did not truly campaign. The overwhelmingly male party leadership across the country continues to ignore the issue of women’s under-representation in order to maintain their status-quo.
Supporters of women’s representation in Brazil continue to fight for a stronger quota law and for increased women’s representation. I believe that, in order to significantly change the number of women elected to legislative positions in Brazil, electoral law needs to go beyond the candidate level, encouraging or forcing parties to include more women in party leadership positions. Until parties move away from the “all male clubs” mentality, women will have to continue to fight from the outside, severely limiting the impact of the Lei de Cotas.
* If you would like a copy of this paper, please email me at email@example.com
Police killings and context
As you are reading this post, please keep the families of the police officers cowardly gunned down in Dallas in your thoughts. As President Obama said in the wake of this tragedy, “When people say Black Lives Matter, it doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter.” Senseless violence is not the response to senseless violence.
On July 6th, as I was driving south of St. Louis at night, a car cut in front of me as I was exiting the interstate. Both the guy who cut me off and I ended up driving on the wrong side of the road, going against traffic. It just happened that a police officer was driving on that same intersection at that time. He stopped his car, turned his lights on, and came see why in the name of all that is holy were these two cars going against traffic. He talked to guy in the other car first, and then came to talk to me. At this point my heart is beating pretty fast. I hope he understands what happened and lets me, my wife, and our 5-month-old daughter go easy. Maybe a ticket, I will be okay with paying a ticket. I just hope I come out of this unscathed. The officer approaches me, I tell him what happened (“officer, the other car cut in front of me and I followed him”). I wait anxiously for his response. He says, “Cool dude!” Then he tells me he will block traffic so we can turn around and drive on the right side of the road. No ticket, just a “cool dude!” and some help. I call that a win.
The day before my “cool” interaction with a police officer, Philando Castille was shot dead in St. Paul, Minnesota by a police office in a routine traffic stop. Two days before that, Alton Sterling was shot point blank and killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. To paraphrase what a friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday, this really makes me wonder if I could be the next hashtag.
I believe that context is important for everything, but especially in issues surrounding race. I grew up in Brazil (where we have our own issues with police brutality against black citizens), but in 2000 I moved to a sleepy town in Kansas to attend a small college. My first four years in the United States were pretty sheltered, much like the lives of many students at Luther College (where I teach Political Science). All my interactions with law enforcement were positive, even when I was, shall I say, bending the law like most college students do. I really didn’t think much about being a person of color in the United States for those four years. I also did not have a car.
After I graduated from college, I bought a car and moved to Kansas City. That’s where I was made aware that the color of my skin could get me in trouble. In a matter of months I was being pulled over almost every week, sometimes for going five miles over the speed limit (something all my white friends have always told me it was okay to do, that they never get pulled over for doing that), some times for whatever reason the police officer thought fit the situation. Then, in 2006, the scariest situation I have been through happened. I was pulled over because the light on the left side my license plate (a light I didn’t even know existed) was not working. The officer pulled me over, asks for license and registration. I told her that the registration is on the glove compartment and I was going to open it and get it. As I moved to get the registration the officer yelled at me “hands where I can see now!” and reached for her gun. She continued to yell at me for another minute or so, and it is not until she was somehow convinced that I was not going to try to harm her that she allowed me to reach for the glove compartment to get the registration. The situation escalated and de-escalated quickly, but it was enough to make me very weary of any interaction with police officers (I had at least three other stressful interactions with police officers after that, but this one was by far the worst). That is why I was anxious when I was stopped July 6th.
I know this does not sound like much, and I know many friends of mine, mostly also persons of color (male and female) had much scarier interactions with law enforcement.
This is my context when thinking about interactions with law enforcement. I never like to be pulled over because I was pulled over many times for dubious reasons, I try to avoid interactions with law enforcement as much as possible, and when I do have interactions I try to be as cooperative as possible. It works most times, until it doesn’t. Until something like what happened to Philande Castille happens to me, or a friend of mine.
My context reflects what some data has shown us. When tracking police stops in a number of major cities, The DOJ found that black citizens are three times more likely to be pulled over by police officers, even though they are less likely to have any illicit material in their car than their white counterparts (see report here). The pervasiveness of “driving while black” has been detailed in many reports, academic articles, newspapers, and personal accounts, including in the book “Pulled Over” by University of Kansas (my alma mater) professors Charles Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Don Haider-Markel.
The Washington Post reports that Castille is “at least the 506th person shot and killed by police so far in 2016,” one of 123 black Americans killed so far this year. This year has also been an above average violent year for law enforcement officers, as officer deaths involved in shootings has gone up considerably in the first quarter of 2016 (according to another Washington Post article). The Officer Down Memorial Page reports that, so far this year, 21 (26 with the killing of five Dallas officers) police officers have been killed by gunshot, up 31% from (I assume) last year.
I share these numbers to express the fact that law enforcement officers experience violence. I know being a police officer is not easy and I respect anyone who is willing to do a difficult job that does not pay as well as it should. But as a person of color who has had a few tense encounters with police officers, it is difficult to see what happened to Philando Castille and Alton Sterling and not feel frustration and anger.
I know that many times the interactions law enforcement officers have with citizens are complicated. Police officers do not know what is going on inside a person’s head, and there are environmental variables that can lead to the escalation of such interactions. But, when there are 506 civilian deaths (123 of those black Americans) by a police officer in half a year, and 26 shooting-related police officer deaths during that same period, it seems to me that it may be more dangerous to have an encounter with a law than being a police officer.
I also know that not all police officers are racist. However, there is enough conscious and unconscious bias that we must question what needs to be done to change that. Moreover, not all police officers are violent, but when most of the police force sits silent or try to justify bad behavior, it is hard for me, in the context of being a law abiding person of color, to take the side of police officers in the arguments that ensue immediately after events like the killing of Castille and Sterling.
In the age of social media, we are now witnessing what has been happening for decades, if not centuries, in many black communities: the use of excessive force by a white dominated police force. In the context of a white person, I can see how you may have downplayed the protests of black Americans all these years, since you have not seen it for yourself. But since Rodney King (ESPN’s “O.J.: Made In America” does a superb job capturing the racial tension of that period), the white majority has had a number of opportunities to see police abuse (many times led by a racist and violent culture inside police academies and departments). The argument that one does not see how some law enforcement officers oppress black Americans is less credible today. I wonder how many more deaths like the ones we saw this past week will take for police departments to take a hard look at their training and their department culture to help minimize violence against persons of color.
I am not against police officers, but I am against the deafening silence (or worse, racialized rationalization) that follows videos like the ones that surfaced this week.
May the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille (and the many others who had the same fate in the last years) find solace in the fact that the lives taken from their loved ones will not be forgotten by those seeking social justice. And may we live in a world where we do not need hashtags to mourn the violent and untimely death of so many souls.