The Middle East in the Midwest: Displacing Violence, Managing Space

By Randa Tawil

Aerial photo of Chicago’s South Side. From

I have always hated the phrase, “the Middle East.” People love to talk about it, to solve its problems, to throw their hands in the air over the intractable nature of its conflicts, but if you ask where exactly it is, what distinguishes it as a geographical space and where its borders are drawn, most people can’t really tell you.  Seeking out experts does not help much either. The United Nations, the World Bank, and the US government all define region’s borders differently—stretching and contracting their regional definitions from Morocco all the way to Afghanistan. An investigation into the nomenclature is even more baffling—it can be referred to as the Near East, the Middle East, the Orient, and the Arab World depending on whom you’re asking. If the Middle East is a constructed space, what kind of function does it serve? I propose that the Middle East, as a constructed space, is a foil through which the United States can displace its own violence and present itself as a coherent and self-contained geo-political unit. I suggest that as the United States constructed itself as an ordered and cohesive geo-political and cultural space, the de-colonizing world became its opposite: disordered, vulnerable spaces lacking the modernity of the United States. The Middle East is a spatial narrative that needed to be both evident and ambiguous. Its construction tells us much about how Americans understand and relate to the globe spatially.

I thought a lot about this idea this summer while conducting research at the University of Chicago. The university is a contained, highly securitized space in an otherwise economically depressed area of Chicago. In fact, the university employs a private security force second in size only to the Vatican. This year there have been more than 2000 victims of gun violence in Chicago. This area is controversially known by some as “Beirut by the Lake,” in reference to the racial tension that has structured city politics, or “Chiraq,” a contested term used to describe the violence often associated with the city (more on that controversy later). In the middle of this landscape referenced as the Middle East, exists one of the best museums chronicling and categorizing the region: The Oriental Institute at University of Chicago. And so, walking through “Chiraq” towards some of the best artifacts collected from the region, I wondered how these two ways of ordering space connected to the larger narrative of the Middle East in the United States.

In the first half of the 20th century, both the social space of the United States, as well as its position in the world, changed rapidly. In cities like Chicago, immigration from abroad as well as Black migration from the South created intense anxiety over how the United States could function as a cohesive space. As Edward Said argues in Orientalism, the interwar years also presented a moment of European anxiety, as anti-imperialism threatened European control of the world. Indeed, anxieties about the assimilation of immigrants and political dissidents were overarching fears and contentions, nationalized in the sensational trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. These changing spaces provoked a “civilizational anxiety” which turned to the study of other cultures and peoples. At University of Chicago, Robert Park developed the school of sociology that conducted its research on the “Asian Question” and the “Negro Question.” The same institution established the Institute for Oriental Studies, led by the Egyptologist James Breasted. In this institute “art, archeology, political science, language, literature, and sociology, in short all the categories of civilization, shall be represented and correlated.” The creation of a way to study the region, then, correlated with both development of social science, the idea of scientific knowability of peoples and the world, and intense anxiety about peoples in the United States.  As empires shifted the sovereignty of space and migration shifted the makeup of space, Western scholars reasserted that their expertise could be used to understand discrete spaces and cultures, their own as well as the world’s.

The institutional racism around the University of Chicago persists in our present moment. Racist housing practices, police brutality, and economic deprivation has worked together to split Chicago into two economic extremes: an affluent and mostly-white Northside, and a poor and mostly-Black Southside. From 1983-1986, Chicago’s racial tensions boiled over after Harold Washington, a Black man, was elected as mayor. The white alderman formed a coalition and voted down all his reforms. This political gridlock created on racial lines was termed “Beirut by the Lake” by the Wall Street Journal and the phrase caught on. Through this discourse, the political failures of Chicago, its divided landscape and deep-seeded racial hatred was imagined not as a story of the United States, but rather a story of the Middle East.

In 2015, Spike Lee released a film titled “Chiraq”—a term coined by Chicago rapper King Louie in 2009 in a song entitled Chiraq Drillinois as a way to articulate and imagine the violence of the Southside.  The term  has been contested by many Black Chicago residents as inaccurately depicting life in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods and many of them critiqued the film and its framing of Chicago as “Chiraq” for presenting an inauthentic depiction of life in Chicago’s South and West Sides. In this way, the articulations “Beirut by the Lake” and “Chiraq” (as conceived by Spike Lee) doubly-displace the violence of the US state; they inaccurately depict both the political and racial origins of violence both in the Middle East and in Chicago, conjuring imagined landscapes of both areas that hide the real history and meanings of their respective violence. 

It is difficult to describe the walk between “Chiraq” and the Oriental Institute. Even now, I think of them as different worlds, different planets. I could say it’s like walking from Dwight Street to Calhoun College here in New Haven.  Perhaps confronting the spaces we live in, the segregation and racialized economies that define our cities, will allow us to see ourselves and the rest of the world in more clear ways. Because, in the end, how can we know what Middle East is when we seem to have no language to describe the space here in the United States?

30 Years of Central American Immigration

By Cristina Moreno

Immigrant activists march in front of the White House in Washington on Dec. 30,2015 to protest upcoming raids against Central American children by the Department of Homeland Security. From

2016 dawned with anxious anticipation as neighborhoods across the United States braced for impending immigration raids. The Department of Homeland Security specifically targeted Central American adults and children who arrived in the United States in 2014.1 Yet, the impacts of these raids rippled across citizen and immigrant communities. The raids amplified the national debate regarding the fate of recent arrivals from Central America, however, this is not the first time this nation has faced this question. Nearly 30 years ago, the United States deported recent arrivals from Central America back to countries in the throes of civil war. Looking back at this policy decision and its eventual reversal in 1990, which temporarily stayed the deportation of Central Americans, provides an answer to the moral dilemma of today.

Roughly 30 years ago, the citizens of El Salvador endured a bloody civil war and negotiated a dangerous reality by maximizing their opportunities for survival and success. One of these options included escaping to the United States. In 1980, at the onset of the civil war between the government and guerrilla forces, roughly 20,000 people in El Salvador died in war-related deaths.2 Throughout the 1980s, President Reagan refused to grant Extended Voluntary Departure to nationals from El Salvador in the United States.3 Extended Voluntary Departure or EVD was an executive act of prosecutorial discretion that would temporarily give low priority to deportations to certain countries. President Reagan’s refusal to grant EVD meant nationals from El Salvador could be forcibly removed back to the violent reality they had just attempted to evade. Meanwhile, asylum approval rates lagged. In 1984, 328 people from El Salvador were granted asylum, while over 13,000 applicants were denied.4 This created a precarious situation. Few legal avenues to safety prompted a wave of undocumented migration from El Salvador. These arrivals faced an uncertain fate given the Reagan administration’s choice to send nationals from El Salvador back to war.

In 1985, Representative John Joseph Moakley introduced H.R. 822 to temporarily stay the deportation of Salvadoran nationals due to the moral imperative demanded by extreme civil strife in El Salvador.5 He laid out the moral imperative clearly by saying, “each of us knows what is going on today in El Salvador… Right now we are sending people back to a war zone. It is wrong”.6 This bill pointed out the failures of the asylum process in El Salvador and the necessity of considering migrants from El Salvador as war refugees. This bill which became known as the Moakley-DeConcini bill never passed.7 Activists and church leaders continued to forge coalitions in recognition not only of the moral imperative to support refugees fighting for their lives, but also in recognition of the benefits of welcoming refugees to the United States. Nationals from El Salvador bravely shared their stories inspiring national action. These coalitions recognized the talents, skills, and hard work brought by refugees from El Salvador and the ways in which refugees fuel the nation with their vigor and determination. In 1990, Representative Moakley issued a report that outlined the atrocities ordered by government forces on their own people arguing once again for the United States to recognize the extreme civil strife that propelled the recent arrivals to journey north.8


Rep. John Moakley holding the 1990 report on the murder of Jesuit priests in El Salvador (AP photo). From

In response to this pressure and after a consensus formed in Congress, President George H.W. Bush signed the 1990 Immigration Act.9 This law temporarily granted Salvadoran nationals relief through Temporary Protected Status. Receiving Temporary Protected Status or TPS was not a path to citizenship, neither was it a path to any kind of legal stay in the United States. It was simply a temporary stay from deportation and a work permit to be renewed every two years.  Since then countries facing natural disasters and war have qualified for TPS, most notably, Honduras, Haiti, Somalia, and Sudan.10 As a result of this program, Salvadorans have become the third-largest Latino group in the United States, shared their talents and labor, and continued to rebuild their country back home.

The conditions in the Northern Triangle today echo the conditions faced in these countries nearly 30 years ago. Representative Moakley’s description of an El Salvador where “death and destruction continue to be a fact of life” is now applicable again not only to El Salvador, but also to Honduras.11 In El Salvador and Honduras, the number of homicides now approximate the number of war-related deaths witnessed at the end of the civil war in El Salvador.12 Organized criminal forces pose a significant disruption to civic life. This threat was clear and dramatically visible in July of 2015 in El Salvador when Mara 18 violently interfered with public transportation and effectively hampering bus routes.13 The extreme civil strife has once again become a daily reality in Central America. These urgent conditions warrant deeper reflection and consideration of our nation’s treatment towards Central Americans who come to the United States seeking safety.

President Obama’s response towards new arrivals from Central America mimics that of President Reagan. By increasing immigration raids, newly arrived Central Americans face deportation and in many cases a high probability of death. The threat to civilians in the Northern Triangle is different than it was 31 years ago, but the result is the same, a daily negotiation with extortion, disappearances, fear, and death. The conditions are no secret, neither were they secret in 1985.

In 1990, the United States eventually acknowledged the threat faced by Central Americans and responded by instituting Temporary Protected Status. This program invested in communities and ultimately reflected the strength of the democratic process in the United States. Our nation’s leaders once recognized the moral, social, and economic imperative to halt the deportations of newly arrived Central Americans whose countries burned from civil violence. Can our leaders do the same now?


1. “Statement by Secretary Jeh C. Johnson on Southwest Border Security | Homeland Security,” accessed February 22, 2016,

2. Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 9.

3. “Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era,”, April 1, 2006,

4. “Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law on the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives Ninety-Ninth Congress First Session on H.R. 822: Temporary Suspension of Deportations for Nationals of Certain Countries,” November 7, 1985,

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7.Austin Sarat and Stuart A. Scheingold, Cause Lawyers and Social Movements (Stanford University Press, 2006), 106.

8. Clark, Fred, “Fred [Clark?]’s notes providing an overview of John Joseph Moakley’s involvement in El Salvador,” Moakley Archive & Institute, accessed February 26, 2016,

9. Ibid.

2. Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 9.

10.“Temporary Protected Status in the United States.”

11.“Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law on the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives Ninety-Ninth Congress First Session on H.R. 822: Temporary Suspension of Deportations for Nationals of Certain Countries.”

12.“Intentional Homicides (per 100,000 People) | Data | Table,” accessed February 22, 2016,; Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador.

13. Elahe Izadi, “Driving a Bus Is a ‘death Sentence’ in El Salvador’s Capital City,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2015,

Hate and Fear: A Brief Overview of America’s “Great” History

By Randa Tawil

“Immigrants on a ship approaching New York City, bound for Ellis Island, with the Statue of Liberty in the background,” 1915. From:

It’s a scary thing, to be an American. At every moment since our country’s founding, some people, somewhere, have been standing in the way of our freedom, and our only choice seems to be exclusion, control, or extermination. Any given day in our nation’s life, since Thomas Jefferson penned a declaration of independence, there was a “them” that threatened an “us,” and a righteous crusade to exclude “them” from “our” nation, and kill “them” in their homelands, just to be sure that our perfect union could and would survive.

As a student of American history, the last few months haven’t just felt like another wave of Islamophobia to sweep through the nation in the wake of 9/11 (although it certainly has been that as well), but it’s revealed itself as yet another cycle in the worn out wheel that defines the dark side of American life; the undying need for an “other” to fear and hate, usually to serve the interests of America’s insatiable appetite for natural resources and cheap labor.

According to a study in Washington’s Blog since 1776, the United States has not been engaged in active warfare for exactly 21 non-contiguous years. Here they are: 1796-1797, 1807-1809, 1826, 1828-1830, 1897, 1935-1940, 1976-1978, 1997, 2000.

This means that every president of the United States has been a wartime president. This means that there has not been more than a 3-year span in which we did not have an enemy to kill and control. In which politicians did not lecture us about the latest–and greatest–enemy currently “threatening” the homeland. In which young men were not convinced to give their lives to protect “us” from “them.” In which peoples in the United States who were both denizens of the nation and “of” the enemy, were not harassed, feared, and made to feel unwanted. In that context, the last few weeks fit well into the long history of hate and fear that has been an intrinsic part of our country.… Every president of the United States has been a wartime president

The vast majority of these wars took place against indigenous peoples in the Americas. As the US expanded, first across the continental United States, and then into the Pacific, as well as the Caribbean, these wars were sold to the American public as an impassioned humanitarian effort to “civilize” savages, and — of course — to secure natural resources for America’s benefit. This included land that was farmed and harvested by another dominated group: enslaved African peoples.

This land expansion and continued use of forced free labor — both here and abroad — aided America’s economic prosperity, which attracted many different sorts of peoples to migrate into the United States. Southern Europeans, Chinese, South Asians, Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans all moved into the United States. Then, the country’s leadership and wealthy class had a problem; it needed workers, but it wanted to remain a white nation. How could these two desires be combined? The answer came in a two-tiered system of citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese people in the United States from ever gaining citizenship. The Bracero Program allowed Mexicans to work migrant and itinerant jobs in the United, but without any benefits of citizenship. Naturalization and Citizenship laws* morphed and evolved over the decades, usually revolving around race, where ethnic groups from specified regions were granted or refused citizenship, mainly based on their proximity to “whiteness.” Prior to the 1940’s, many people actually went to court in order to prove they were white, so they could obtain US citizenship.

*These laws were only repealed as WWII heated up, when the US realized it was the only country in the world other than Hitler’s Germany to have racialized naturalization laws.

And so, the pattern continued. In World War II, the Japanese were pronounced the enemy and Japanese Americans who had lived here for generations were put into concentration camps for years. During the Cold War, people lost their jobs and livelihoods over the fear that they were communists. After 9/11, Arabs and Muslims became the targets of this long and enduring war against the “other.”

So, what can we make of this history? Understanding it is an opportunity to reflect on what drives fear in this country: the answer is — this country. As Muslims and Arabs we will not end Islamaphobia through only education about our culture and religion (although we should do that). We will end it by opposing the enduring racism that has been a mainstay in the underbelly of American society since its founding. We will end it by forming coalitions with other groups, by standing up to any oppression, at any time. And in joining these broad coalitions, we will learn another history; a history of resistance, of creativity, bravery and beauty that makes up the real American story. We must force the curtain hiding this darker history open, and we must confront the ways in which the United States has been conceived through domination and expansion since its conception. It is only through this long lens that we will be able to change our country and stomp out oppression, instead of just putting out the latest fire.

Scroll down to see a glimpse of America’s — what seems to be — everlasting fear of “the other”.

Against Native Americans:

“This unfortunate race [Native Americans], whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1813

Against Chinese:

“The Chinaman degrades white Labor…California must be all American or all Chinese. We are resolved that it shall be American, and are prepared to make it so. May we not rely upon your sympathy and assistance?”

Dennis Kearny, “The Chinese Invasion. Workingmen’s Address.” 1878

Against Germans:

I do hereby further proclaim and direct that the conduct to be observed on the part of the United States toward all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of Germany, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized, who for the purpose of this proclamation and under such sections of the Revised Statutes are termed alien enemies.”

Woodrow Wilson, Proclamation of German Enemy Alien, 1917

Against Japanese:

“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched…. So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere… notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…. Thus, while it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies, I cannot escape the conclusion… that such treatment… should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.”

-Editorial in Los Angeles Times. 1942

Against Communists:

“Communism is no longer a creeping threat to America. It is a racing doom that comes closer to our shore each day. To resist it we must be intelligently strong.”

Sen. Joseph McCarthy, 1950

Against Mexicans

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Donald Trump, 2015

Against Muslims:

“Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

Donald Trump, 2015


Originally posted on Muslim Girl

On Race, Inheritance, and Struggle at Yale

March of Resilience at Yale University, November 9th, 2015. Courtesy of Philipp Amdt Photography
March of Resilience at Yale University, November 9th, 2015. Courtesy of Philipp Amdt Photography

Associate Master Erika Christakis,

My mother was one of many thuyền nhân Việt Nam. English-speaking historians might call her a “boat person,” which is as good a translation from the original as any. Among the Vietnamese, stories like hers wield great power, communicate great pain, and symbolize the great burdens of my ethnic heritage. After the Fall of Sài Gòn in 1975, she became one of a million refugees who fled Viet Nam by water. Packed like a sardine onto a tiny boatessentially, a rowboat with no working engineshe escaped from her war-torn homeland with nothing but the clothes on her back, trusting the capricious ocean fates to take her somewhere better. Many other boat people encountered pirates, who raped the women, killed the men, and kidnapped the children; my mother was fortunate enough not to fall victim to these predators. Nevertheless, weeks upon the water proved taxing: a fortnight with no food will drive people to desperate measures, and some on the boat even debated the possibility of cannibalizing the children. In fact, my mother had survived the thirst for that long only because her vessel entered a chain of raging storms, which poured upon them life-sustaining rain even as their rocky waves and turbulent winds threw a number overboard, where they were lost to the open sea. Eventually, her boat took her to Malaysia, where she found some semblance of safety. She would not come home for thirty years.

As I grew up in California, my parents’ troubled journeys were relayed to me in place of bedtime stories. Perhaps you, as a former preschool teacher, can sense what these tales meant to my personal development. People of color bear upon their shoulders the struggles and sacrifices of endless generations. In my family and others, heartbreak is passed down from father to son and mother to daughter—not through our umbilical cords or our genetics, but through the things we share amongst each other, through the lessons we teach our children, through the unfulfilled dreams we have learned to keep to ourselves. Our skin can be an incredible source of pride and power, but it is equally a source of unbearable pain, frustration, and—in our weakest moments—shame; at an institution like Yale, built upon the blood and sweat and tears of enslaved people, the hallowed halls amplify such feelings in ways that you cannot possibly imagine.

As you may have guessed by now, I am writing to you about the mass e-mail by the Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) in October and your incendiary response to it. I know that you and your husband have been besieged by many protests over the past two weeks, and this letter will be one more. From what I have seen and heard, your response (and your husband’s) has involved far more knee-jerk defensiveness than thoughtful listening, so I quite frankly do not expect you to answer. If you choose to do so, though, I hope it is only after very mindfully considering this message.

I have a multitude of points to make throughout this message, and intend to get the smaller ones out of the way before moving on to my central counterargument. For instance, you present the IAC’s message as “censure and prohibition… from above, not from yourselves.Maybe your ears are not particularly close to the ground on such matters; I myself have seen and heard many students of color, and especially native people, protesting racist costumes both in person and online. In this sense, the IAC’s call for racially competent Halloween attire was not some oppressive demand from above. In fact, it reflected very accurately the cries and demands of countless Yale students. This story was not about out-of-touch bureaucrats imposing censorship; it was about Yalies of color being fed up with annual celebrations of blackface and finally being recognized by a small segment of the administration. Thus, when you delegitimized the IAC’s message, you delegitimized a small victory that too many students have worked too hard for. Accordingly, when you address the student body in your e-mails, I must ask whom “yourselves” refers to—surely, it does not reflect the Yalies of color who have clamored against these offensive costumes year after year. I daresay that you have shown your hand: when you claim that this call for racial competence does not come from Yale students, it becomes rather obvious to me whom you perceive as Yale’s student body, and whom you regard as outsiders.

Moreover, when you compare nonwhites’ offense against Halloween racism to religious conservatives’ offense against revealing costumes, you miss both the historical contexts and the power dynamics at play in these distinct situations. After all, blackface has its roots in slavery and Jim Crow oppression, while scantily-clad women are defying notions of female respectability-through-attire—they are challenging problematic ideas that hearken back to elitist Victorian sensibilities and the male desire for control over women’s behavior. It is (and please forgive my bluntness) exceptionally disappointing that one living on a campus full of critical race and gender scholars cannot grasp such rudimentary distinctions; perhaps you should be reading up on your Michel Foucault and your Jane Austen more vigorously. You also try to invoke the admittedly messy line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange, but only in a haphazard way that makes me wonder how much actual effort you have previously put into understanding this topic. You propose “social norming and “free speech as solutions to racist attire in one paragraph, but hyperbolically describe the IAC’s gentle, civilized reminder as “censure and prohibition in another. Under your standards of behavior, how, exactly, are antiracist and antimisogynist change meant to happen?

But, most importantly, your calls for civilized dialogue on a campus tormented by violent racism reveal a white privilege that I (and others) do not enjoy. You and your husband claim to value rational thought, and seem also to believe that the university is a place for such things. I too believe that schools like Yale are, first and foremost, a space of knowledge and learning, but I would argue that positivist rationality is an imperfect tool for thinking about the world. Individual context matters deeply; true knowledge is tremendously personal, and involves visceral emotionality as much as it does logical thought. Allow me to elaborate: as you may know, for generations, blackface was used to ridicule and degrade black people, all the while barring them from professional roles in entertainment; to this day, it symbolizes a Jim Crow past defined by white terrorism and black suffering. But because I am not black, I can never appreciate in its entirety what blackface means to black people. I did not inherit from my ancestors stories of slave ships, plantation labor, and lynchings; my grandparents and great-grandparents never knew anything of the Jim Crow South. Still, I do know how images like this and this make me feel, and perhaps I have some vague, imperfect frame of reference. You, as a white woman, could never remotely comprehend the anguish that this poisonous racism brings to nonwhite people.

This is not meant as an insult: even the most well-intentioned whites will only ever learn about racism through third-party observation, second-hand stories, and first-person book-reading; you will never learn about it from the barrel of a policeman’s gun, never feel the tears running down your face as drunken fratboys ban you from parties, never detect the sweat upon your own palms as you gradually realize that the world views you as an animal. Likewise, as a man, I could never grasp the sheer terror that must plague so many women whenever they walk home alone on a campus where rapists evidently run rampant. When you suggest that we should “ignore” or “look away [from] racist behavior, which you indeed do in your message, you exercise a remarkable white privilege that illustrates my point more vividly than any contrived hypothetical could. You, Associate Master Christakis, have the luxury of ignorance; I—and other people of color—do not.

No individual is capable of becoming a master of all knowledge. To believe otherwise is to ascribe to a dangerous intellectual hubris. Such logics are the enemy of diversity, the bane of inclusiveness. To argue for some post-racial, gender-blind vision of rationality is to stifle the individuality in our identities, to make obsolete the very peoples most qualified to speak to specific issues. Please do not misunderstand my argument. I am always grateful for my white allies; historically, nonwhite activists have often found white allies fighting by their side. However, the best white allies know that they will never understand black or brown pain firsthand, and seeking to do so represents an exercise in futility. Let me be perfectly clear: your whiteness prevents you from fully comprehending our nonwhite suffering, but it forgives neither your whimsical dismissal of our outrage nor your uniquely egregious ignorance regarding the shadow of racism.

To be fair, cultural sensitivity is something of a misnomer, and I imagine it has led to some confusion among the public. I think that “racial competence” is a far more accurate term. When the IAC and other representatives ask for “cultural sensitivity,” they are asking for white students to display a modicum of common sense in the selection and design of their costumes, to work towards an environment where students of color feel some sense of safety. Even for the most open and rational thinker, there must exist some baseline of mutual respect and personal security. If—God forbidmultiple Yale students fell ill with symptoms of some especially deadly and contagious virus, responsible administrators’ first impulse would not be to calmly sit down and thoughtfully problematize the anti-vaccination movement; it would be to cancel all classes and notify the Center for Disease Control. Just as people cannot be expected to critically analyze an academic monograph or scientific study while they detect immediate danger—I assume this is part of why so many college women have spoken out against the ongoing epidemic of on-campus rapes—communities of color should not be asked to remain composed intellectuals when they are surrounded by symbols and processes that perpetually remind them of how precarious their lives are, of how instantly their worlds can be snatched from them in the blink of an eye. There is little room for civilized debate on a campus where one group is permitted to wear attire that is an affront to other groups very humanity; there is even less room when the latter groups face accusations of “censure and prohibition” whenever they point out that costumes can be offensive and kindly ask the former group to exercise judgment.

Along this line of thinking, I must inquire: where was your avid free-speech rhetoric when policemen pepper-sprayed nonviolent #BlackLivesMatter protestors? Where was it when Brian Encinia threatened and assaulted Sandra Bland for getting too mouthy? Where was it when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fired Steven Salaita for his controversial pro-Palestine comments? Context, as most good linguists would argue, influences meaning. A demand for “freedom of speech” does not signify the same thing here as it does here, here, or, for that matter, here. By unveiling your free-speech defense only after the IAC’s Halloween message, you have made very clear whose speech you aim to protect and whose you do not. Of course, “freedom of speech” does not refer literally to our right to speak; it refers to our right to freely express ideas, to share important logics with the public. Thus, when you imply that the IAC, by discouraging racially incompetent costumes, has violated students’ freedom of speech, one must wonder what valuable and intelligent ideas, precisely, blackface and redface-wearing Halloweeners are trying to share with communities of color.

For many nonwhites, practices like blackface and redface and yellowface constitute an offense for which we cannot and will not stand; they are remnants of a formidable white supremacist past that has persisted into the present, one that has haunted our peoples for as long as we can recall. In a nation where nonwhite lives consist of closed door upon closed door upon closed door upon closed door, daily life is a struggle for our very humanity and dignity. Surely, you must appreciate how this takes precedence over some lofty, ivory-tower standard of rationality and Socratic discussion.

I hope that this message helps you, in some small measure, to understand our grievances, but most of all, I hope it helps you hear our voice. When the most courageous among us share our stories, we are exposing our family secrets, our deepest insecurities, our dreams and our nightmares. We are laying bare a thousand generations of struggle and painvisceral pains that cut deeper than any surgeon’s scalpel or bone saw could, pains that too many of us have carried for too long upon our shoulders.

Viet N. Trinh

Originally posted on Conversation X

Ruin For Profit: The Rise of Kitchenette Apartments in Chicago’s Black Belt, 1940-1960

By Geneva Morris

Figure 1: “In the ‘Kitchenette’ area on South parkway, a formerly well-to-do avenue.” Chicago, Illinois. April 1941. Edwin Rosskam. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“The kitchenette is the funnel through which our pulverized lives flow to ruin and death on the city pavements, at a profit…”

Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices

A small room at the end of the hall with room for a bed, perhaps a dresser, and a chair; this is the typical living space allotted to each “guest” at a boarding house in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In later iterations, the single-room occupancy unit would add a sink, then a full bathroom, and finally a kitchen to become the version of small space living seen today, the micro-apartment. However, in-between the boarding house and the micro-apartment is an often-overlooked housing typology: the kitchenette apartment. The kitchenette, which on the surface appears very similar to the micro-apartment, boomed in Chicago’s Black Belt where over 80,000 of these units were created between 1940-1960.1 More than a simple living space, the kitchenette embodied the continued oppression of a marginalized group seeking new opportunities.

Resembling other small space living typologies like the lodging and boarding house, the kitchenette apartment was a hybrid typology. The “kitchenette” unit initially described a newly constructed small apartment in Chicago, first appearing around 1916, at a time when apartment construction in the city increased dramatically. The designed kitchenette apartment often featured “Pullman kitchens” and a “murphy in-a-door bed” to conserve space. This concept was later co-opted and corrupted as a way for developers and landlords to capitalize on the spatial and economic restrictions imposed by government-sanctioned policies of segregation on black families.

Stark contrasts existed between the “designed” kitchenettes first seen in 1916 and the haphazardly retrofitted kitchenette units found in ghettos that I focus on here. Presented at the President’s Conference on Home Building and Ownership in 1932, the “Report on Negro Housing” discussed the design differences in kitchenette apartments for white and black residents. Notably, the report states that in kitchenette apartments for white residents each unit had a toilet and running water and were designed “so as to allow natural light and air, and privacy.” Kitchenettes with primarily black residents, on the other hand, had few windows, one bathroom per floor, and often a kitchen with a small gas stove and ice box converted from a clothes closet. The building form varied in size and style, though most were generally multi-unit apartment buildings as seen in Figure 2. These kitchenette units provided 100 square feet or less of living space to residents. In this space entire families — and even extended families — would live in a space better suited for a single person. Severe overcrowding and inadequate access to basic amenities underscore the disparity in the design and the conditions within that led to serious health and safety concerns.

“Kitchenette apartments on South Parkway, Chicago, Illinois. These are rented to Negroes.” April 1941. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.
Figure 2: “Kitchenette apartments on South Parkway, Chicago, Illinois. These are rented to Negroes.” April 1941. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

The Evolution of the Kitchenette Apartment

Between 1940 and 1960, Chicago’s black population grew from 278,000 to 813,000. This established the foundation of Chicago’s African American industrial working class and substantially increased the need for housing in the city. Government officials could no longer overlook the housing shortage, yet the newly constructed public housing could not even begin to house the growing black population in the city, many of whom were constrained in their choices by restrictive covenants and segregation. With waiting lists for public-housing units full, newly arriving migrants to the city had to turn to the private market to secure housing.

Once converted to kitchenette apartments, there was little incentive for landlords/owners to maintain the units.2  Overcrowding, little to no building maintenance, and issues of garbage collection compounded to create a serious rat problem in kitchenette apartments. Other concerns included the threat of fire, as the kitchenette apartment’s partitions were often flammable and made it difficult for residents to escape. One Chicago alderman went so far as to call the Black Belt area a “gigantic fire trap.” Between November 1946 and November 1947 there were at least 751 fires that occurred in the area. Survivors of apartment fires were again confronted with the same housing shortages, and some would return to their previous units. As the Council noted, “they moved their smoke-weighted and water-soaked possessions back into rooms with charred walls, without roofs, and without plumbing.”

(Top) Original floor plan for 600 square floor unit at 6211 N Vernon Ave. (Bottom) Same unit converted to kitchenette units. Once divided, each unit had approximately 100 square feet with a small stove and ice box in each. One shared bathroom per floor.
Figure 3: Designed by author.

Even if charges were brought for conditions and code violations in the building, it was more cost-effective for the owner to go to court and pay the fine imposed by the City than to perform basic repairs. Additionally, building owners would evade the building’s taxes, because they knew the amount of the accumulated taxes would eventually exceed the actual value of the buildings. The owners would acquire as much profit as possible from the converted buildings, then allow the City to assume control of the dilapidated property under the Neighborhood Redevelopment Corporation Law, and condemn the building. This further diminished the available housing stock in the area.

Richard Wright’s depiction of kitchenette apartments in 12 Million Black Voices is a violent rendering of a home that requires inhabitants to consider, is it worth it? As Wright states, “sometimes five or six of us live in a one-room kitchenette… [in this place] a war sets up in our emotions: one part of our feelings tells us that is good to be in the city…another part of our feelings tells us that, the cost of living in kitchenettes is too high, that the city heaps too much responsibility upon us and gives too little security in return.” With this passage, Wright captures the desolation and psychological ruin of the kitchenette apartment paired with images of women, children, and single men crammed into these dismal living spaces. Following this passage, Wright speaks of the physical conditions and health dangers of living in this space, stating that “[t]he kitchenette, with its filth and foul air, with its one toilet for thirty or more tenants, kills our black babies so fast that in many cities twice as many of them die as white babies.” He couples this sentiment with an image of a seat-less toilet, where shards of wood splinters and plaster scraps litter the floor next to the removed seat.

Most disturbing, as Elizabeth Schlabach has pointed out, this passage appears above a photograph of three small children sharing a bed. The mattress is sheet-less, pillow-less, and in a room with a concrete floor and battered walls. Emphasizing the impact of this restricted lifestyle, Wright evokes a sense of hopelessness in the next verse, “…we black folks who dwell in northern cities would die out entirely over the course of a few years…” Paired with this text, the photograph identifies the victims (the inhabitants) of the crimes of a kitchenette apartment.

Figure 4: “Chicago, Illinois” Russell Lee. April 1941. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.
Figure 5: “Toilet in the basement of an apartment house rented to Negroes. Chicago, Illinois” Russell Lee. April 1941. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

Looking Forward

Chicago’s kitchenette apartments were brutal environments that bounded opportunities and contributed to adverse health outcomes and mortality among black families. They were a grim symbol of the social inequalities that American capitalism and racial discrimination wrought. Yet, the history of the kitchenette apartments and the constricting of its black residents can also be traced forward through waves of housing development seen nationwide. For example, the former kitchenette building at 6211 S. Vernon Ave (see Figure 6) was built originally in 1913. Built near South Parkway (now called King Drive), this kitchenette apartment was one of many like it in Chicago’s Black Belt area. The apartment building was the site of a major fire that was accelerated by the fact that the apartment building had no water. Today, it is vacant, but at last time of occupancy in 2007, it had 18 units, substantially less than it had when it was kitchenette apartments (likely closer to 90). According to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, in 2007 the building was converted to condominium units. As the foreclosure crisis hit in 2008, many owners defaulted on their mortgages and their units were lost to foreclosure – leading to the vacant status seen today.

This story is not unique to this building, but is part of a housing and affordability crisis that has resulted from rising rent rates that increasingly exceed the cost of home ownership, stagnating household income, and a shortage of affordable housing units. As Chicago’s Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing found, over 60,000 rental units in Chicago were affected by foreclosure from 2008-2011- resulting in significant displacement and its associated human cost to affected families– persistent housing shortages, increased rental price and disruption of school attendance. As was seen with the former kitchenette building near South Parkway, foreclosures lead to vacant and boarded-up buildings, thus diminishing the desirability (and value) of neighboring properties and triggering additional foreclosures and bank-owned properties. Chicago’s Woodstock institute found that 64 percent of Chicago’s bank-owned (REO) properties are in African-American communities. These buildings take 25 percent longer to return to productive use than properties in predominantly white communities. The disproportionate impact of foreclosure in low-income community areas rapidly transformed the concept of home-ownership while forever impacting residents’ ability to reside in the communities they grew up in – forcing many to move outside of the city.

Figure 6: “18 Saved as Fire Razes Old Kitchenette Building.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Dec 06, 1941. (Right) Google image of 6211 Vernon Ave. in 2007.

Wright’s own conclusion emphasizes the consciousness and memory engrained in the history of the kitchenette apartments and reminds readers that,

We black folk, our history and our present being, are a mirror of all the manifold experiences of America. What we want, what we represent what we endure is what America is. If America has forgotten her past, then let her look into the mirror of our consciousness and she will see the living past living in the present, for our memories go back, through our black folk of today, through the recollection of our black parents, and through the tales of slavery told by our black grandparents, to the time when none of us black or white.

By asking participants to learn how to see the living past living in the present, Wright illuminates the too-often overlooked social issues impacting black Americans and his photobook continues to prompt viewers to remember the realities faced by the people who had no choice but to live in the kitchenette apartments. When families are crowded into the barest minimum space required for sleeping, cooking, and eating, it is a failure that relegates the black family into a placeless existence that becomes, as Wright stated, a “death sentence.”

The architectural design and implementation of the kitchenette apartment maximized profit for white landlords and neglected the human needs of Chicago’s black community. Its spatially-lived realities existed at the apex of larger social movements, including urbanization and racial segregation, and exposed capitalist forces at work in housing. The kitchenette apartment emphasizes inadequacies in building management and maintenance, but also in its design principle to provide the smallest space possible for a person, a family, and a community. Thus, the domestic spaces of the kitchenette apartment from 1940-1960 in Chicago’s Black Belt were less modern and efficient, and were instead rightly-perceived by their largely black residents as the material embodiment of segregation’s oppressive power in the mid-twentieth century American city.


1. [Population influx to this part of Chicago was fueled by the Great Migration of Southern blacks at the end of World War II. Chicago’s Black Belt was originally a narrow corridor extending from 22nd to 31st Streets along State Street. Chicago’s South Side African American community expanded over the century until it stretched from 39th to 95th streets, the Dan Ryan Expressway to Lake Michigan as racial housing restrictions abated after the civil rights era. Source: Edith Abbott. From The Tenements of Chicago, 1908-1935, 1936.]

2. [This makeshift process of conversion to kitchenette apartment was not well documented. The important distinguishing factor of the kitchenette apartment is inherent in its name – the presence of a kitchen – or the ability for a family to cook independently of the other residents. Alternatives like boarding houses and residential hotels were legally defined by the “absence of a private kitchen [as separating] it from hotels and apartments.” Another departure from the boarding house was the lack of an on-site landlord, or landlady as was common with boarding houses. This lack of on-site management contributed to buildings’ overall state of disrepair.]


Gries John, M, et al. “Report of the Committee on Negro Housing.” Presented at the Presidents’ Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership 1932. p. 260-271.

Groth, Paul Earling. Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. Berkley: University of California, 1994.

Hirsch, Arnold. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, “Three Year Impact Assessment: Apartment Building Foreclosures and the Depletion of Rental Housing in Chicago,”  June 2012. Available at:

Left Behind: Troubled Foreclosed Properties and Servicer Accountability in Chicago, Woodstock Institute, January 2011. Available at: research/

Plotkin, Wendy. “Hemmed in: The Struggle against Racial Restrictive Covenants and Deed restrictions in post WWII Chicago.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Chicago: University of Illinois Press 94:1, 2001, pp. 39-69.

Schlabach, Elizabeth. Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Wright, Richard. “Death on the City Pavement,” in 12 Million Black Voices. New York, 1941.

One Year Later: Mike Brown, Ferguson, and Anti-Black Racism

By Philip McHarris and Pedro Regalado

One year ago today, 18-year-old Michael Brown lay dead on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri for over four hours before being moved after being murdered by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. Soon, the nation would take notice.

On the anniversary of Brown’s death, we take a critical look into the world in which he lived and died. From racist housing policies that haunt Ferguson in the form of redlining from past decades, to municipal court practices that impose “hidden taxes” on Ferguson’s black residents in the present, Brown’s murder symbolizes the insidious nature of compounded structural racism in black and brown communities across the United States.

Recent census data reveals that 22 percent of Ferguson residents live below the poverty line; the rate is even higher for African-Americans at 29.7 percent.1 New research has also suggested that once poverty rates in neighborhoods reach 20 percent, the consequences of concentrated poverty begin to emerge and have discernable effects on a variety of life outcomes and overall well-being.2 Still, while researchers have begun to explore how “neighborhood effects” impact individuals and communities in urban areas, there has been little research into how concentrated poverty takes shape in U.S. suburbs.3 This is despite a dramatic growth in suburban areas that have experienced concentrated poverty over the past two decades.4

Brown’s untimely death thus prompts us to focus on contemporary black suburbs in order to reimagine how race might intersect with space and inequality in areas like Ferguson that, similar to many suburbs that have sizable black populations, were once predominantly white. Doing so pushes beyond common narratives of suburban growth as a whites-only escape from the social ills of city life. For the reality that Brown faced in Ferguson parallels the conditions one might typically associate with black and brown life in urban centers. And the racial and economic inequality that he and other African Americans face in places like Chicago or St. Louis City has followed them to what, a half-century ago, was an unlikely place: the suburb.


Mass white flight ravaged St. Louis during the 1950’s as whites migrated to the city’s surrounding suburbs, reaching the edges of the Missouri River north and west of the St. Louis.5 Most of this out-migration was made exclusive to white residents as a result of state-enabled forces in the form of realtor’s agreements, restrictive covenants, and HOLC ratings that sought to maintain the “racial harmony” in these newly populated areas.6 Meanwhile, public housing construction in St. Louis skyrocketed and was mainly intended to address the increasing number of African Americans moving to the city as well as those already living in substandard conditions.7

As the 1970’s and 1980’s rolled through, white flight occurred once more. Not from the city, however, but from the same suburbs that whites had made their sanctuary. In 1970, Ferguson was 99 percent white.8 A decade later that figure dropped to 85 percent with whites migrating further out into metropolitan area to places like Oakville and Ballwin. The geo-racial line continued to shift, and by 2010, Ferguson’s population was 67 percent black and 29 percent white.9 As a result of the legacy of racial inequality in the U.S., and the intertwined nature of wealth and disadvantage, this meant less resources and a lower tax base for poorer, black residents moving into suburbia.

For black urbanites accustomed to strife in St. Louis during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the real possibility of moving to a suburb held enormous potential. And if the lives of those who occupied their suburbs before them were any indication of how their own lives might go, i.e. large green lawns, white-picket fences, and good schools, these migrants indeed had cause to be hopeful. But as evident with Brown’s murder almost a half-century later, forces similar to those that threaten black bodies in St. Louis have undermined the value of that aspiration. This includes police violence, but also the actions of state bodies less associated with producing physical violence.

According to the St. Louis non-profit Better Together, the vast majority of black municipalities in St. Louis County derive at least 20 percent of their general budget from fines and court fees.10 Ferguson itself saw its municipal court revenue jump from $1.4 million in 2011 to $2.5 million in 2013, accounting for 20 percent of its own revenue.11

St. Louis County municipal courts also profit from exploitative policies, bringing in an average of over three times more than they cost to operate.12 The gravity of this statistic is heavily underscored by the uneven percentage of black drivers that are pulled over by police in St. Louis County. In 2013, the state’s Attorney General found that to be 66 percent.13 But police violence only enforces municipal predatory revenue practices. If Brown was arrested on that early August afternoon in Ferguson without fatality, we could assume that he would still have had to pay exorbitant court fees and face imprisonment if he was unable to do so.

As a result of the dedicated work spearheaded by the family of Michael Brown and activists from Ferguson and St. Louis, a national Movement for Black Lives has emerged to challenge the various forms of systematic violence that targets Black bodies. Earlier this year, lawyers from Equal Justice Under Law, ArchCity Defenders, and the Saint Louis University School of Law filed lawsuits against Ferguson challenging municipal ticketing operations.14 And this past July, governor Jay Nixon signed a municipal court reform bill that caps court revenues and creates new regulations in an attempt to curb municipal predatory practices statewide.15

On the national scale, at least 40 state measures have been passed attempt to address police violence and extractive criminal justice policies.16 Still, these reforms, which have garnered widespread support throughout the country, only begin to scratch the surface of a deeply engrained problem that goes beyond police practices and includes the day-to-day operations of seemingly benign municipal institutions. Furthermore, some of the reforms, such as the use of body cameras, have the ability to exacerbate civil rights violations by increasing surveillance capacity without complete community control and oversight over local law enforcement.17

Darren Wilson pulled the trigger of the gun that murdered Michael Brown, but white supremacy as a system rooted in the devaluation of black lives, part of America’s foundation, is equally responsible.18 The legacy of white supremacy, in the form of police brutality, municipal violence, and concentrated black poverty, continues to leave far too many black and brown communities criminalized in cities and suburbs alike.

At present, the federal government provides state and local police departments with $4.3 billion in military gear transferred through the 1033 Program alone.19 Yet increased policing is not the solution for the problems of impoverished communities. Decarceration and community control of police by those most directly affected by police violence and extractive local governments should take precedent. Initiatives which advocate disinvesting in the criminal justice system and reinvesting in communities with race-based, class inflected policies will begin to dismantle the society which murdered Michael Brown and countless other black bodies.

In the discourse surrounding race and inequality, much work remains as we grapple with how suburbs, as well as rural areas across the United States, continue to shape the evolving landscape of race in America. For the clean, peaceful, working-class image of suburbs that dominated America’s imagination in the Post War period, has never been available to Black Americans even as they increasingly and paradoxically call the suburb home. Anti-blackness transcends spatial boundaries. For many working class blacks, life in the suburbs was, and is, not all that different from life in the city. One year later, Michael Brown’s murder poignantly reminds us of this.

1. [At least 2 census blocks in Ferguson have a poverty rate above 40%. Additionally, 40.8 percent of children living in Ferguson live under the poverty line (American Community Survey 2013).

2. [Geoge C. Galster, Jackie M. Cutsinger, and Ron Malega. 2008. “The Costs of Concentrated Poverty: Neighborhood Property Markets and the Dynamics of Decline.” In Nicolas P. Retsinas and Eric S. Belsky, eds., Revisiting Rental Housing: Policies, Programs, and Priorities. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 116–9.]

3. [Sharkey, Patrick, and Jacob W. Faber. “Where, when, why, and for whom do residential contexts matter? Moving away from the dichotomous understanding of neighborhood effects.” Annual Review of Sociology 40 (2014): 559-579.]

4. [Elizabeth Kneebone, “The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-2012,” The Brookings Institution, July 31, 2014. From -poverty/.]

5. [Colin Gordon. “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City,” The University of Iowa Libraries. From

6. [Ibid.]

7. [Ibid. Among the most famous among these housing projects was Pruitt-Igoe, completed in the 1950’s and demolished in the mid-1970’s.]

8. [U.S. Census Bureau. “Race, 1970.” Social Explorer. Web. Aug 5, 2015.]

9. [“Ferguson (City), Missouri.” U.S. Census Bureau: State and County QuickFacts, 2015. From ]

10. [“Executive Summary: Municipal Courts Report,” Better Together, Public Safety Studies, October 2014. From

11. [Mike Maciag, “Skyrocketing Court Fines Are Major Revenue Generator for Ferguson,” Governing, August 22, 2014. From

12. [“Executive Summary: Municipal Courts Report.”]

13. [Missouri Vehicle Stops: Annual Report,” Missouri Attorney General, 2013. From

14. [ “Ferguson Sued for Municipal Fines & Jailing Those Who Can’t Pay,” Reuters, February 9, 2015. From

15. [Robert Patrick, “Almost a Year After Ferguson, Missouri Passes Court Reforms,” Tribune News Service, July 13, 2015. From

16. [LIEB, DAVID. 2015. ‘Ferguson Spurs 40 New State Measures; Activists Want More’. The Seattle Times. Retrieved August 5, 2015 (]

17. [As has been revealed by instances of police violence caught on tape, simply having footage does not necessary lead to any form of justice. See here for the ways in which video footage is contested: Stuart, Forrest. 2011. “Constructing Police Abuse after Rodney King: How Skid Row Residents and the LAPD Contest Video Evidence.” Law and Social Inquiry 36 (2): 327-353.]

18. [See here for more on using white supremacy as a frame for understanding the contemporary racial order: Strmic-Pawl, Hephzibah V. “More Than a Knapsack The White Supremacy Flower as a New Model for Teaching Racism.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1.1 (2015): 192-197.]

19. [Department of Defense, Law Enforcement Support Office. 2014. “LESO property transferred to participating agencies.” Retrieved December 10, 2014, from

In Baltimore, What Comes Next? Lessons from the Washington Heights Riots of 1992

By Pedro A. Regalado

WashingtonHeightsRiotsKiko (1)
Tribute to Kiko Garcia in Washington Heights. By Ricky Flores, 1992. From:

On the evening of July 3rd, 1992, a man of color died at the hands of white police. That night, plainclothes officer Michael O’Keefe and two other officers patrolled the lower section of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, located just above Harlem beginning at 155th street. O’Keefe claimed to notice 23-year-old Jose “Kiko” Garcia carrying a weapon.1 After an attempt to surround Garcia failed, O’Keefe pursued him.2 Soon, the other officers received radio cries from their distressed fellow officer. When they arrived at 505 West 162nd street, they found O’Keefe standing over a lifeless body.

This story has become a familiar one. Less than a day after Garcia’s death, Washington Heights erupted. Similar to the events that unfolded in Baltimore in recent weeks, outraged residents looted, desecrated storefronts, and set cars and buildings ablaze. They also marched and protested the police abuse that had too frequently affected residents both young and old. Like West Baltimore, Washington Heights symbolized the grim circumstances that urban communities of color faced then and now. Widespread poverty, high unemployment rates, deteriorating housing, underfunded schools, lack of social services, and high crime rates prevailed. For Washington Heights’ Dominican residents, police brutality, which often involved intimidation and personal invasion practices like frisking, only worsened matters. “You would come outside your apartment and they would frisk you[…]You would be dehumanized on a regular basis,” remembered one resident.3 In recent months, Baltimore’s African American residents have expressed similar sentiments.

As we witness Baltimore’s uprising develop, as rioters and protesters alike struggle to communicate their own disgust, part of our focus should attend not only to the underlying origins of the unrest — gracefully articulated by social critics the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates — but to the larger structural effects of the upheaval locally and nationally. We should focus on the long-term political outcomes of the unrest equally as much as we attend to the immediate outcomes of the riots for Charm City’s African American residents. For among Washington Heights’ many lessons, the dual legacies of urban riots help us to see the possible future of urban policing in Baltimore.

Certainly, these two events and communities contain differences that make their respective uprisings unique. New York in 1992 is far different than Baltimore in 2015. However, a look back at the Washington Heights riots can help to reveal how uprisings function as social and political crossroads. It also elucidates the dangers of allowing right-wing political backlash to overtake the increased visibility of racialized urban poverty and violence.

Not long after the dust settled in Washington Heights, the neighborhood began to experience some of the changes that its residents sought when they rebelled on those warm summer days. In the years following the riots, Washington Heights became home to several new schools, increased representation in city government, new social services, and, perhaps most important, city-wide awareness of a working-class community that had previously been painted and treated as criminal by media and politicians alike. Community leader and councilman Guillermo Linares remembered, “We have gained tremendously from the experience of the disturbances…You can never say that something like this can never happen again…But this community is no longer what it was prior to the disturbances.”4

He continued, “The reason this neighborhood did not go down in flames is because the community was able to respond quickly.”5 Indeed, Dominican unity became the shining legacy of the Washington Heights riots for its community members whose common goal focused on the area’s peace as well as respect for its immigrant residents. However, their achievements, while significant, were limited as the visibility that the uprising created was soon manipulated for political ends entangled in New York City’s mayoral politics.

In September of 1992, two months after fires and rage adorned the hills of upper Manhattan, thousands of off-duty police officers had an uprising of their own. Beginning as a rally at City Hall Park organized by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, off-duty police officers chanted “Dinkin’s must go!” and “No justice, No Police!” The officers lambasted then-Mayor David Dinkins for his treatment of police during the riots, including his visit to Garcia’s family days after the shooting, and also for his attempt to create an All Civilian Review Board that would investigate instances of police abuse and misconduct. Not unlike in recent months, city police felt threatened and their backlash was difficult to avoid.

Mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani addressing officers at police rally. By John Sotomayor, 1992. From:

In attendance was Republican mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani, who had lost the mayorship in a close race with Dinkins in 1989 and would run again in 1993. Giuliani stood high above the crowd during the rally and shouted, “The reason the morale of the New York Police Department is so low is one reason and one reason alone, David Dinkins!”6 In a New York Times op-ed published just a month earlier, Giuliani had criticized Dinkins for his handling of not only the Washington Heights riots but also the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn a year prior. He asserted that Dinkins ceded “to the forces of lawlessness,” he called the rioters “urban terrorists.”7

Much of Giuliani’s campaign relied on chastising Dinkins and appealing to the white ethnic working classes of the city. The NYPD, mostly white, served as an ideal group for the former prosecutor to appeal to. And among others standing on stage with him in the midst of an increasingly fervent rally was police hero and Garcia’s slayer, Michael O’Keefe. 8 As the rally’s intensity grew, thousands of off-duty officers swarmed past barricades at City Hall, trampling cars and blocking traffic from the Brooklyn Bridge. 300 on-duty police officers did little to stop them.9 “The 2 ½-hour PBA demonstration was punctuated with chants of ‘Rudy! Rudy!’” noted one news report.

On November 3rd, 1993 — partly riding on the fear that he fostered among the city’s white residents concerning both the Washington Heights and Crown Heights riots — Rudy Giuliani became the mayor of New York City and would serve as such into the 21st century. Despite losing Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, Giuliani swept white ethnic strongholds in Staten Island and Queens, winning the mayorship by less than two percent. Addressing his supporters at the New York Hilton Hotel just moments after his 1993 victory, Giuliani stated, “You know, nobody, no ethnic, religious or racial group will escape my care, my concern, and my attention.” Through policing, the new mayor would make this certain.

Soon after taking office, the Giuliani appointed William Bratton as the city’s 38th Police Commissioner. With the mayor’s backing, Bratton introduced Broken Windows policing in New York City. He also pioneered the use of CompStat, a police management tool rooted in statistics that sought to reduce the city’s severe crime rate. In tandem with Broken Windows, CompStat made police officers more accountable to statistical objectives that served political agendas than to the poor communities that they were intended to serve. Together, they also placed considerable pressure on police officers to make arrests, which helped to increase cases of police abuse, summons, and stop and frisks throughout the city. While crime in New York dropped steadily and rents continued to increase in the years following Washington Heights’ uprising, New York’s poor residents benefited little from reduced crime. Instead, they faced displacement to more impoverished and dangerous areas of the city.

As the 1990’s continued, both Broken Windows and CompStat’s negative implementations circulated throughout other major cities in the U.S. with similar socio-political landscapes and similar politicians facing high crime rates. Baltimore was no exception. In 1999, the city adopted CitiStat, modeled closely after Compstat. And in 2007, current Maryland governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley, who instituted CitiStat as mayor, re-branded it as Maryland StateStat, widening the program’s scale.

As we reflect on Baltimore’s current tense situation, we must be reminded that while the uprising presents new possibilities for organizing and solidarity that may lead to local success, it also provides the opportunity for police and political backlash that threaten to take advantage of increased awareness of African American plight in Baltimore. Recent headlines include “Baltimore Proves the Need for ‘Broken Windows’ policing” in the New York Post and “The Underpolicing of Black America” in the The Wall Street Journal. The dual legacy of the Washington Heights riots of 1992, should remind us of the larger stakes of urban governance for Baltimore and, indeed, the nation. We are at a new crossroads; the future is unclear. And as the dust settles in the streets of West Baltimore, we must turn away from the type of policing and politics that leave underprivileged residents further estranged and our cities in ruins.

From: A member of the Nation of Islam attempting to keep peace between protesters and riot police raises his hands amid clouds of smoke and gas used by riot police to disperse crowds. Baltimore, Maryland April 28, 2015. Reuters/Adrees Latif
Protester surrounded by smoke and gas in Baltimore. By Adrees Latif, 2015. From:

1. [Dennis Hevesi, “Upper Manhattan Block Erupts After a Man is Killed in Struggle with a Policeman,” The New York Times, July 5th, 2014.]

2. [Ibid.]

3. [Interview with Led Black, New York, NY, March 2014.]

4. [Miguel Garcilazo, “A Positive Legacy: Dominican Unity”, The Daily News, Sunday July 4, 1993]

5. [Ibid.]

6. [Ibid.]

7. [Rudolph W. Giuliani, Rumor and Justice in Washington Heights,” The New York Times, August 7, 1992.]

8. [Ibid.]

9. [ James C. McKinley Jr, “Officer’s Rally and Dinkins is Their Target,” The New York Times, September 17, 1992.]