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Week 33: Asian American Hate Crimes

Up until the start of the Coronavirus outbreak, the predominant stereotype surrounding Asian Americans was that of the model minority. This narrative emerged after World War II as the economic success of many Asian Americans led them to be viewed as the “ideal immigrant of color”. This being said, there is a long history in the United States of exclusionary white-only immigration policies as racist stereotypes of Asians as unclean and uncivilized were promulgated. These xenophobic ideas have had both legislative and cultural consequences throughout history and have been exacerbated in the past year due to Coronavirus.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion act became the first and only piece of major legislation to suspend immigration explicitly on the basis of ethnicity, baning both skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers from entering the country. Amendments to the act went further to prevent Chinese immigrants who had left the country from returning. According to U.S. Census data, in 1880 there were 105,465 Chinese people living in the U.S.; by 1920, that number had dropped to 61,649. Following the removal of the Chinese exclusion act, the Angel Island Immigration Station was established in San Francisco Bay, a facility in which Chinese immigrants would be detained for up to several years while the government decided on whether or not to admit them. 

The U.S. government’s history with anti-Asian policies is not just limited to Chinese people. As the Chinese Exclusion Act cut off North American employers’ access to cheap labor, they turned to India. Offering wages of $2 a day for strong men, huge numbers of Indian Men entered the American workforce. Although they are now subjected to the model minority stereotype, this was not always the case. When they first started immigrating into the United States, white nationalists warned of the so-called “tide of turbans.” Indian immigrants were not able to get citizenship, as decided in a Supreme Court case in 1923, when the citizenship of a WWI vet Bhagat Singh Thind was revoked because, as one lawyer argued, he would not be considered white by “the common man.” Attitudes towards Indian Americans began to change during the Second World War when certain discriminatory policies against people from Asian countries were removed to counter Axis propaganda, which was targeted at the United State’s deep history of racism. In 1943, naturalization rights were granted to Chinese immigrants, and in 1946 they were extended to include immigrants from India and the Philippines. Japanese Americans were the exception to these rollbacks; they were treated with suspicion after the attack on Pearl Harbor and were eventually detained in internment camps. 

Racism against Asian Americans is also pervasive in American culture. From yellow faced and stereotyped Asian characters in Hollywood to the appropriation of traditional clothing for fashion trends, xenophobia is rife in the communities we live in. This racism is not often recognized in the same regard as discrimination against other racial groups. This is due in large part to the model minority myth: a stereotype of rigid, two-parented, and educationally driven Asian-American families that were able to overcome racism through their own hard work. First perpetuated widely after the Japanese internment camps in WWII, the model minority myth has been used as a tactic to both shame other racial groups for not attaining that ideal and to minimize the role of systemic racism in these inequities, while also pitting minority groups against each other. This ideal also groups together an estimated 22.6 million people under one assumption of supposed beliefs, family structure, and income. Although Asian Americans are on average more likely to fall above the average income, there are vast disparities between these groups; in 2017, groups such as Hmong, Bhutanese, and Burmese fell far below the average poverty line. It also serves to create generalizations about the beliefs and religious affiliations of Asian Americans, who represent hundreds of different ethnic groups and practice hundreds of religions.

Despite the model minority stereotype, Asian Americans have seen an explosion in hate crimes and targeted attacks since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. Within two weeks of its launch last March, the Stop AAPI Hate Tracker had received over 700 reports. By February of this year, that number had risen to 3,795 reports, with incidents including being spit on at the grocery store, screamed at while jogging, and being called slurs while waiting in line. There were also many attacks which included physical violence. One such attack occurred last February when a 16-year-old in Los Angeles was beaten by a classmate who blamed the boy for the first COVID positive in the city. These sentiments were encouraged by our former president’s remarks about the origins of this virus; repeatedly deeming it the “Kung Flu” or “Chinavirus”, and blaming its spread on the Chinese government.

As a result of this and other racist rhetoric regarding the origins of the pandemic, many Asian-American communities – even those that are not Chinese – have been lumped together in recent xenophobic attacks. An Asian-run preschool in California was smeared with feces on the Lunar New Year. This past July, two men set an 89-year-old woman on fire near her home in New York City. 

Last week, we saw yet another xenophobic attack in Georgia, where 8 people were shot: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ai Yue, Delaina Ashley Yuan, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng (6 of them Asian women). Although the shooter claims he was “not racially motivated” and was  instead driven by a “sexual addiction,” his explanation for firing on 3 Atlanta spas and the Asian woman who worked there was that there was “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” This justification speaks to a larger culture of fetishization and stereotyping of Asian women, particularly those who are Korean. This attack serves to demonstrate the ways in which sexism and xenophobia can intersect.

Rather than glossing over the racist motives of the shooter by stating he had “a really bad day,” or failing to charge men who lit an 89-year-old woman on fire with a hate crime, our government needs to do a better job of protecting Asian Americans. Government officials need to ensure that perpetrators are being held accountable for their actions, whether in civil life or in the courtroom.

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Week 32: Voting Rights in the Wake of the 2020 Election

The issue of voting rights was easily one of the most important and publicized aspects of the 2020 election, with politicians arguing ardently in support of or against provisions expanding mail-in voting and laws that add additional barriers (voter ID laws, signature check, etc).

There were stories of success, such as that of Stacey Abrams, whose work expanding voter access and engaging communities in Georgia was instrumental in the state’s shift to blue.

Across the country, however, cries of voter fraud and calls for election integrity provided a basis for a systemic push to deny the right to vote. One study found only 27% of Republicans believe the election was legitimate despite an overwhelming lack of evidence both from governmental and independent research agencies. 

Under the guise of addressing electoral fraud, Republicans have focused their efforts on pushing back mail-in voting (which was overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats).

Many republican officials have perpetuated messaging about the insecurity of mail-in ballots, but South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham gets to the heart of the sentiment in a conversation with Fox News: “If we don’t do something about voting by mail, we are going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country.”

This is problematic to the nature of our democracy as a whole. When politicians are working to restrict voting access in order to get elected and stifling the voices of their constituents, it opens the door for further corruption and degradation of our representative system.  

Within Pennsylvania, conservatives in the legislature waged legal battles up to election day to preserve restrictive laws and work against vote-by-mail expansions.

As of February, 43 states “have introduced, prefiled, or carried” over 253 bills restricting voting access (Brennan Center for Justice). These bills aim to tighten restrictions on mail in ballots, implement stricter Voter I.D./signature check policies, make it more difficult to register to vote, and make it easier to purge voter rolls.

In total, there are 8 current bills with restrictive provisions making their way through the Pennsylvania state house, most of which center on mail-in voting (3 attempt to do away with “no-excuse” absentee ballots entirely).

On a national level, the Supreme Court heard arguments last week on the constitutionality of two Arizona laws, one which made it harder for Navajo Nation voters and another which required absentee ballots to be collected only by the voter’s relative or caregiver.

Given the court’s 6-3 conservative majority, it is very possible that the court will rule these laws as constitutional.

While there is a push for more restrictive voting laws in many statehouses, there is also a fight for expansion in others, with a different set of 43 states proposing or implementing 704 bills that will act to expand voting access.

In Pennsylvania, there are 9 bills that act to make voting more accessible by expanding early voting times and locations, allowing election day registration, and automatic voter registration.

On a national level, President Biden has taken action by signing an executive order this past Sunday which directs federal agencies to work on policies that “promote voter registration and participation.” This comes as the House passes H.R. 1 (For the People Act), a bill that builds on the protections of the Voting Rights Act and the work of John Lewis in his proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Among other things, the bill would allow for same-day registration and nationwide expansion of early voting (allows lower-income workers with generally less flexible schedules to vote) and push back against aggressive voter roll purging and gerrymandering (especially in communities of color).

The act would also include provisions to regulate campaign finance by creating “a small donor system of public financing for congressional and presidential elections,” making space for candidates to better represent the views of their constituents rather than their financers (Brennan Center for Justice). 

However, the For the People Act still needs to pass in the Senate, which is unlikely with the filibuster still in place. This bill has mounted increasing pressure on Democrats within the Senate to consider the merits of doing away with the filibuster, and it is possible that it will be abolished in order to pass H.R. 1. 

Regardless, voting rights are still a battleground issue, and it is vital that we continue to stay engaged. Whether through pushing for less restrictive laws, ensuring fair maps, or working outside the governmental confines to empower and educate voters, the work done now is critical to guaranteeing access to the ballot box, regardless of assumed political affiliation.

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Week 31: Farmer Protests in India

On August 9, 2020, one of the largest protests in world history began in New Delhi, India. Tens of thousands of farmers took the streets, forming blockades to five major highways leading into the capital and setting up camps outside the city limits to protest new agricultural regulations. To show their solidarity, over 250 million Indian citizens participated in a 24-hour strike.

Over half of India’s population works in agriculture, and due to a combination of factors including colonial-induced famines, oppressive government policy, and climate change, they have been struggling for decades.

Unlike in the United States, where huge industrial farms are the norm, India’s farming infrastructure is made up of many small, individually owned plots, so that each farmer works a few acres of land. While this system has some advantages, the competitive nature of the marketplace gives farmers less control over their prices.

In an industry where prices are already volatile, farmers faced additional pressure this year because of the pandemic and a recent locust plague (crop-destroying insects). All of these difficulties were exacerbated with the passing of new legislation this past summer that removed price protections for farmers. 

Previously, the government guaranteed farmers a minimum price for essential crops, ensuring some profits even with fluctuating prices. Although government subsidies have been vital in providing financial stability for farmers, Prime Minister Modi now wants to remove them in order to reduce government involvement in agriculture and create a freer market.

In this new system, private investment is encouraged and farmers can trade directly with customers, which has the potential to be more profitable than the current system. However, farmers, who continue to struggle despite government support are afraid that large corporations will drive down prices and strip them of income stability previously provided by the government.

Farmers, who make up 58% of India’s 1.3 billion residents, are a powerful political force in the world’s most populous democracy, and their support is important if Modi wants to get re-elected.

For this reason, the government has been negotiating with farmer unions since the protests started trying to reach a compromise. Currently, negotiations are at a standstill as the government refuses the demands of farmers to repeal the new laws. While these discussions have been taking place, the government has also taken direct action to suppress the protests.

Modi, who came into power as Prime Minister in 2014, has had a disturbing trend of manipulating the press and influencing the courts. In response to the protests, the government has intermittently blocked access to water, electricity, and internet for people in protest camps. They have also restricted journalists from accessing protesters, thereby obstructing media coverage. In states with leaders that support Modi, individuals could be at risk to face repercussions for social media posts or protesting.

For example, in Uttarakhand, the police chief made a statement saying that social media posts with anti-nationalist sentiments could lead those applying for passports to be denied. 

Like we saw in the 2020 US election, Twitter has been navigating these political conflicts with difficulty. The Indian government has been strongly requesting that Twitter suspend the accounts of individuals and organizations posting anti-government content. While at first they refused, an order by the government that threatened local employees of Twitter to possible imprisonment forced the company to relent and temporarily ban over 500 accounts. However, they refused to ban any accounts that were run by organizations, activists, or politicians as orders to block those accounts were not legal under Indian law. 

Along with increasing control over the free press and monitoring social media, there have also been several violent outbreaks between police and protesters.

As the caravan of protesters approached Delhi last year, police forces used tear gas and violent crackdowns to keep them out of the city. Although the encampments remain largely peaceful, tensions continue to run high. 

The protesters have come ready for a long fight, and they are set on reversing the government policy that is putting them further at risk. Although the realities of climate change are going to make farming difficult no matter what the government does, it is still their responsibility, both in India and elsewhere, to provide as much stability and support for farmers as possible.

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Week 30: The Texas Power Grid

This past week, national attention has shifted to the state of Texas, which has been suffering from a deadly mismanagement of winter storms. The crisis began on February 10th and has continued throughout the month. While the extremely cold temperatures experienced this month are uncommon in Texas, what has been more shocking is the dismal government response and the underlying concerns that have allowed the situation to escalate.

Power outages, burst pipes, and water filtration plants shutting down have resulted in a dangerous and exceedingly dire situation for Texans. So far, 58 people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning (from running car engines or generators inside), house fires, hypothermia, and drowning. Burst pipes have resulted in flooding and many families don’t have running water. Additionally, because water filtration plants have had to close temporarily, families are being instructed to boil their drinking water. Finally, as a result of unsafe road conditions and other storm related complications, grocery stores are low on food supplies and many people are having difficulty finding basic necessities. 

In a letter to the governor of Texas, people were demanding accountability. “In light of energy suppliers’ failure to adequately respond to extreme weather conditions last week, which caused rolling blackouts and widespread power outages all over central and south Texas, we must demand an explanation.” Here is the thing though — this letter was written 10 years ago.

The crisis unfolding in Texas right now is not the first of its kind; similar winter storms hit Texas in 1989 and 2011, and it seems as though the state was equally unprepared in all cases.

So why was Texas so unprepared? The burden falls mostly on the deregulated nature of the state’s energy grid. The U.S. has three grids: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and Texas. In order to avoid federal regulations, Texas has an isolated power grid which is primarily controlled by the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

Although we have the technology to winterize utility related infrastructure (such as natural gas power plants, wind turbines, and coal plants), Texas left the decision up to the power companies on whether they wanted to undertake the costly upgrade. Predictably, most companies did not. When temperatures dropped, many plants were unable to continue running – wind turbines iced over, gas wells froze, and instrumentation became too cold to continue operating safely. 

Additionally, the dwindling power supply was exacerbated by the increased demand for electricity as people tried to keep warm. The isolated power grid made it so they were unable to siphon off power from neighboring states in order to alleviate the demand. 

In order to avoid a catastrophic statewide blackout which would leave 29 million Texans without power, ERCOT made the decision to implement “rolling blackouts” to reduce energy demands. These controlled blackouts are supposed to cycle through different neighborhoods so that no one area is left without power for too long. Unfortunately, for seemingly unclear reasons, those who lost power have not gotten it back. One hypothesis is that companies are afraid that the process required to rotate the blackouts would risk an even bigger failure. 

Predictably, these power outages are disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx communities in east Texas while downtown commercial buildings continue to light up the sky. While this is partially because of the critical infrastructure present in the city including hospitals, COVID-19 response centers, and government buildings, the inequality is stark. Black and Latinx people, who are already twice as likely as white people to live under the poverty line in Texas, have been hit particularly hard by the storm and subsequent blackouts. People living in poverty tend to have homes with insufficient insulation, and some have no shelter at all. 

Furthermore, the freezing temperatures and unsafe road conditions made it difficult for Texas residents to get vaccinated. Many shipments have been delayed and vaccination centers have temporarily shut down. As the government tries to get the situation under control, it is falling behind in vaccine distribution. 

Many government officials, including the Governor, have attempted to blame Texas’ renewable energy infrastructure for the power failures. While the state is leading the U.S. in wind and solar energy production, it only gets 20% of its energy from renewable sources. Additionally, while windmills froze, traditional sources of power were also rendered ineffective by the freezing temperatures. Some conservatives have already begun to use the blackouts as a means to roll back progress towards green energy, yet most evidence supports the conclusion that renewable power is not to blame. 

So, what can Texas learn from this disaster? How can this be prevented from happening again? It is clear that sufficient measures were not taken after the last time this happened, and the escalating consequences of climate change will likely result in similar storms occurring with more frequency and severity in the future in the future. An obvious solution is mandating the winterization of generators so that they can continue to produce electricity in similar conditions. Windmills and power plants have the capacity to work consistently at colder temperatures, but they require an investment. Perhaps it is time to connect Texas to the rest of the country and provide it with the resiliency needed to face future crises.

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Week 29: Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams has been at the forefront of public attention and praise for her work during the 2020 campaign to combat voter suppression, and many argue that her grassroots organizing in Georgia secured Biden’s presidency and the Democratic control of the Senate. However, Abrams’ work extends far beyond this election; she is also a small business owner, celebrated author (even writing romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery), and fighter of voter suppression and systemic inequality in Georgia for decades. 

Abrams was raised in a home centered on public service; her parents brought her along to volunteer in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. At 17, she was promoted from a congressional campaign typist to a speech writer and graduated as valedictorian of her high school. Then, in college, she organized voting registration drives and protests. She was also an outspoken critic of Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson (the first black man to lead a major Southern city), explaining that despite his trailblazing victory, he was not doing enough for the city. Mounting pressure led Maynard to create an Office of Youth Services, in which Abrams served as a research assistant and was the only undergrad hired. 

In 2006, Abrams was elected to the state legislature and became the first Black woman Democratic Party leader in 2011. In her time as a state legislator, she worked across party lines to preserve reproductive rights, improve transportation, reform criminal justice, and protect medicaid and education from recession era budget cuts. She notably partnered with Republican Governor Deal to protect Georgia’s HOPE college scholarship from being cut.

In addition to her roles as a government official, Abrams has achieved major success through her numerous non-profit organizations, with her work resulting in approximately 800,000 voter registrations. In 2014 she founded the New Georgia Project, which works to help register the growing population of POC in Georgia; as of 2019 they had registered nearly half a million voters.

In 2018, she ran for governor against Secretary of State Brian Kemp as the first Black woman ever to represent a major party in a gubernatorial race. Kemp’s position as Georgia Secretary of State (which he refused to step down from, as is the norm) gave him the power to purge almost 700,000 voters and close 200 polling places in predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods. 

After her loss by under 2%, Abrams vowed to continue the work she promised to undertake as governor, whether in office or out. Abrams founded Fair Fight Action, an organization which works to combat voter suppression and promote candidates that support voting rights. It has led a lawsuit that resulted in the reinstatement of 22,000 Georgian voters last year, by challenging exact signature match laws and the purging of voter rolls and by advocating for statewide consistency in counting and processing. Abrams also founded Fair Count in 2019, an organization which worked in Georgia to ensure fair representation on the 2020 census. Additionally, Abrams established the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP), which works within a network of organizations to foster economic growth and power in marginalized Southern communities.

In addition to the concrete effect it had on the lives of Georgians, Abrams’ work helped draw national attention to the state’s shifting demographics. Abrams’ efforts to turn out Black voters (which overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates) highlighted Georgia’s growing importance as a swing state, allowing major candidates like President Biden to campaign and win in a state that has not elected a Democratic president in three decades. The network of grassroots organizations Abrams founded and grew within Georgia were vital in campaigning, educating, and registering voters for both the Senate and Presidential elections.

In a state that has had a strong history of racist voter disenfranchisement, the work Abrams has done is remarkable. Not only did she play a huge role in this last election, but over the past twenty years she has helped secure the rights of countless Georgians. Her approach includes not only politics, but also non-profits and economic programs which are helping to build a more equitable foundation for our country. 

For more on Abrams’ work and the history of voting rights, watch her documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy on Amazon Prime (or stream from one of the non-official sources on Youtube – we won’t judge.)

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Week 28: The Filibuster

In the wake of the election, there has been intense debate around whether or not to do away with the filibuster in the Senate. The filibuster is when a minority (41%) of senators block the vote on legislation. In order for a bill to get passed, it needs to have a simple majority’s support (51% of Senate). However, this approval happens only if a bill gets a vote, which requires a supermajority (60% of senate) to happen. Essentially, a bill can have enough support to get passed, but not enough support for voting to happen in the first place. Many people argue that this is the reason for the Senate’s gridlock and inaction on so much legislation. Here is a brief video that explains how the filibuster works. 

The filibuster is a major obstacle to achieving Biden’s agenda, as the Democratically controlled senate has a majority only with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris. The level of partisanship in the Senate means that it is unlikely that significant legislation will receive the 60% support needed to get a vote, therefore blocking progress. The simplest way to get rid of the filibuster would be to directly amend the text of Senate Rule 22, which requires 60 votes to end debate. The problem with this solution is that a supermajority would have to agree to hold a vote on changing Rule 22, which, with our current Senate configuration, is extremely unlikely. 

There is a more complicated but likely scenario for eliminating the filibuster which has colloquially become known as the “nuclear option.” It would allow the senate to override Rule 22 by changing the way it is interpreted rather than the law itself. This change would only require a simple majority’s support and is therefore within the capabilities of the Senate. 

It was first used in 2013 by Democrats to dictate that only a simple majority was needed to confirm Obama’s judge nominees for the D.C. circuit court (watch Harry Reid call for the nuclear option). In 2014, Democrats were able to confirm 89 nominees (twice the annual average). However, in 2017, GOP Senators used the precedent set by Democrats to help get Trump’s supreme court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh (and later, Amy Coney Barrett), confirmed.

Getting rid of the filibuster would render the minority party practically powerless, discouraging bipartisan cooperation but also allowing more progress to be made. For these reasons, it is extremely controversial, with politicians radically switching their views with each power shift within the Senate. When Democrats were the minority, they nearly unanimously fought for the retention of the filibuster. Today, with the Democrats in slim control, the roles are reversed with conservatives fighting for the status quo. Implementing the nuclear option may be necessary right now if this administration wants to accomplish its goals, but at what cost for the future? 

Therefore, we must analyze whether we truly support getting rid of the filibuster because we believe the current ability of a minority to block progress is undemocratic, or if we only support the removal of the filibuster because it gives a certain party more power. If it is the latter, we must ask ourselves whether it is worth the future consequences should the Senate swing into another party’s control. While the filibuster has created a slow system in which progress is difficult, it also promotes a certain level of bipartisanship and cooperation that may be lost with its removal. 

There are positive and negative aspects to getting rid of the filibuster, and both action and inaction will have significant repercussions. However, with extreme partisanship polarizing our country, perhaps removing the filibuster is the only way to move forward in the short term, and we will, as a nation, need to address the larger ideological divide for a more productive and democratic future.